Romania: Painted Monasteries

The photographs and full account of some of our Great Train Journey in 2009 from Entre-deux-Eaux to the Turkish-Armenian border were never added here after we returned. All that was ever added were these brief mails summaries:
The Great Train Journey – First week’s travels (which included Romania)
The Great Train Journey – Week 2 Istanbul
and this conclusion
The Great Train Journey – the last week (Erzurum – Istanbul – Vienna – Entre-deux-Eaux) and an answer to all your questions
together with a few photographs, posted each week on Google Photos. However, the Google photos no longer exist. I’ve now finally started to sort out the missing photographs.

Moldavita Monastery

The Romanian painted monastery photographs and panoramas are now at
Romania: Painted Monasteries

I have included nearly all of the painted interior photographs; it was very dark in most of the buildings so some of the photographs are not completely sharp. But altogether they do give a more complete impression.

 

Voronet Monastery interior

Voronet Monastery interior

There are interactive 360° panoramas of the interiors of three monasteries on the individual monastery pages and at Humor, Putna, and Voronet

 

 

 

 

Red berries, white hedgehog and yellow vests: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux and beyond, October-December 2018

 

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2018no5.pdf (six A4 pages)

There are links to our photographs of places and restaurants in the text

December opened in a festive mood for us on December 1st when we decided to drive over the hills to one of our favourite Christmas Markets at Barr in Alsace. This involved studying real-time maps to see where the gilets jaunes protesters in their high visibility yellow safety jackets were blockading roads and roundabouts in protest against increased fuel taxes (and later against other policies as well). But with coaches taking some of the protesters to Paris that day, the usual local trouble spots were quiet, and we had a lovely drive through tastefully decorated villages, past hillside plantations where people were stopping to purchase and load their Christmas tree, to slopes of vineyards, their leaves golden in rare rays of sunshine. And somewhere there must have been rain, as there was a rainbow arch.

In Barr we parked near the Saturday food market which was guarded by two police who seemed to have a cushy job that morning as they joked with stall holders and shoppers. We were mystified by a box of bulbs labelled lampagoni which turned out to be misspelt lampascioni, gastronomic Italian onions from Puglia, which the stallholder had ordered specially for a customer who never collected them.

Tree decoration, Barr

Tree decoration, Barr

More festively, the Christmas market had some tempting craft stalls with wood-turned gifts, candles, chocolates, tree decorations, wreaths of holly and pine cones, embroidered fabrics and food and mulled wine stalls. Outside the previously distant rain arrived and pounded on the roof.

Christmas window, Barr

Christmas window, Barr

When it eased, we strolled down one of the cobbled streets; it had a stream flowing down the side, beautifully decorated trees, and plaques about the tannery-related trades which had once occupied the picturesque timbered houses; in one window with pretty lace curtains someone had hung cream fabric heart decorations with red and green embroidery and cross stitch. Just after John had taken a photo of them a hand emerged from behind the lace and added a less picturesque price list.

Having got into the mood, but not having any red holly berries, on December 2nd we picked colourful crimson spindle flowers from our small orchard to decorate a windowsill. With the rain temporarily at bay, Helen also cleared dead leaves from the drainage channels at the front and John inserted some white hedgehogs to catch the leaves; no, this was not cruelty to hibernating animals, but a roll of spiky, wiry brush gutter leaf guard to trap the leaves, allowing the water to flow into the drain. Of the two jobs, the colourful spindle is the prettier result, along with some yellow jasmine and white everlasting pea flowers.

We have been intrigued by the French veneration of the truffle ever since we processed with other guests at an Alsace restaurant past a large truffle under a glass dome which was lifted for each person to reverentially inhale the truffle aroma. So when the Imprimerie restaurant in the nearby book village of Fontenoy-la-Joute (where we have often enjoyed the chef’s ‘surprise’ menus) announced that they would be doing a five-course truffle menu (with its courses described, for once) over the second weekend in December, we decided to book. Again it was a Saturday of protests in Paris, but the remaining gilets jaunes had blocked one of the usual Saint Dié roundabouts and lit a fire from which black smoke rose; they had also put a tyre chicane on the northbound carriageway of the N59 (a change from the manure dumped on other local roads) and had stopped lorries in the fast lane, but our car with its yellow jacket of support on the dashboard was filtered into the nearside lane and allowed to pass slowly through. As we turned off the N59 at Baccarat, the roundabout there, where there had been delays indicated, was free of protesters, so we got to our lunch in good time.

L'Oignon dans sa peau, truffe, l'Imprimerie

L’Oignon dans sa peau, truffe, l’Imprimerie

L’Oignon,  l’Imprimerie

We were rather disappointed by the aroma-less black truffle here, which appeared as thin slices on top of each course including dessert, and continue to consider it overrated (or poorly stored). It was the two oddest-sounding courses which were unexpectedly tasty. The first course was a raw onion on a plate, with its top sliced through. Lifting this lid, we discovered a creamy onion mix surrounding a sous-vide egg yolk with sliced truffle on top. Helen has always steered clear of mussels, having seen John ill after bad ones, but ate with gusto the second course of shredded celeriac spaghetti in a creamy truffle and mussel sauce. The fish course was rather bland, and the lamb, parsnip and potato course lacked the wow factor, but the pear and meringue dessert was pleasant. The accompanying wines were interesting, the Spanish red rejoicing in the name ‘Old Hands’. At the adjacent long table three quite young boys ate their way happily through the elaborate menu, without any of the “Yuk, what’s this? I don’t like it!” type comments of comparable young British children. We left clutching a little parcel tied with string which contained pain d’epices which brought back happy childhood memories of gingerbread when we ate it later (and not a truffle slice in sight). There were flashing blue lights at the Saint Dié junction, two police motor cyclists and no gilets jaunes or old tyres, though we could see a tyre burning and yellow jackets still at the roundabout beyond.

The following day, Helen took back routes to the small town of Bruyères, passing only three gilets jaunes standing disconsolately outside a shack at a Bruyères roundabout. Many years ago Madame Colnat, our village shopkeeper’s wife, had told us that her father, a former Cossack soldier, had helped escaping Indian POWs during the last war. Helen had used this when writing Footprints, so was keen to see the exhibition in Bruyères on Russian soldiers and forced labourers in the Vosges in the First World War. And sure enough, amid all the interesting details about how the Russian soldiers/ labourers came to be in the area after the overthrow of the Tsar and disbanding of the Imperial Russian Army, there was a whole panel devoted to Alexandre Tarentzeff. It told about his wartime heroism, his Russian St George Cross (for undaunted courage by lower ranks), his work for a farmer in a hamlet near Bruyères after he was demobilised, and his subsequent marriage to the boss’s daughter. He built his own house, and became a woodcutter and sabot maker (with two machines he could produce 120 pairs a day). And during the Second World War he helped Hawaiian soldiers wounded in the grim battles to liberate the area, and took food to escaped Indian POWs hiding in the woods (for which he was denounced and caught).

On the following evening, December 10th, President Macron finally addressed his nation with apparent sincerity, and made some financial concessions, with no indication of how they would be paid for. Gilets jaunes listening on mobile phones at their roundabouts across the nation were unconvinced when interviewed for TV. “He should have spoken four weeks ago.” Interestingly, this was also the day when Theresa May was forced to announce a delay to the Commons vote on her unpopular Brexit deal and prepared to wheedle EU leaders to change their minds on 11th. And over here on 11th came the sad news of the shooting at large Strasbourg Christmas Markets, which we used to enjoy in more peaceful times before the armed police patrols and checks became necessary.

Let’s double back a couple of months to more innocent days (were they really?) with Morris dancers thronging the streets of Tenterden at the start of our October trip to the UK. From Ann and Derek’s in Tenterden we drove on to Putney, then Helen and Jessica joined the rest of the Traingang in Chester for a few days, while John headed to Letchworth to do useful things.

Terracotta Warrior, Liverpool

Terracotta Warrior, Liverpool

The Traingang had a good time catching up on events over the past year, ranting about Brexit, and discovering Chester, Liverpool’s regenerated dockland area and temporary Terracotta Army exhibition, and a National Trust property, Erddig Hall. In fact it was such an interesting area that the Traingang has decided to return in October 2019. Of course it was helped by good weather.

It was a shame that, as Helen joined John at a biker café outside Shrewsbury, the good weather ended and the rain began. It was pelting down by the time we reached the Talyllyn railway in the Snowdonia National Park. It is the world’s first preserved railway, and John had visited it whilst at a Brecon Beacons scout camp back in the early sixties. This time we got soaked hurrying from the car park to the station. Deciding we would see nothing from the train windows in the driving rain, we contented ourselves with waving off the steam train, looking round the excellent railway museum, having a hot drink and driving on to our lovely hotel room at Ynyshir where we wallowed in a hot bath. Dinner that night in the hotel’s Michelin-starred restaurant (chef Gareth Ward) was intended to be the highlight of our trip and a pre-birthday treat for John. We enjoyed neither the nineteen-course dinner nor the pretentious breakfast. But, if you like beef dripping and soy and Hoisin sauces in most courses and your few vegetables pickled, it’s just right.

It was still raining when we set out for Hay-on-Wye next morning for Helen’s treat of second-hand bookshops. We should not have followed our satnav. It took us uphill along increasingly narrow lanes, then over moorland with gates across the narrow road and only sheep for company, until we finally clipped a front tyre on a protruding stone and tore a hole in the side of it. At any other time the location would have been pretty, high up, miles from anywhere, with reservoirs and streams to picnic by. But not with strong winds and torrential rain, no mobile phone signal and no spare tyre (Snowy only has a canister to inflate the tyre with foam). We studied a real (ie paper) map and decided to risk lurching slowly downhill to a village and main road about 5 km ahead, hoping the deflated tyre would stay on the rim and the rim would survive. There was still no mobile signal down in the village, but there was a BP service station on the main road. And the staff there were so, so kind. The boss brought us a phone, and would accept no payment after we rang our insurers in France, and he insisted on giving us a hot coffee as we waited for France to arrange a local breakdown truck. Gratefully, we purchased a Welsh cherry cake (more about that later) and some sandwiches and settled in for a long wait. The breakdown truck was gleaming new, but the driver taciturn. The out-of- town (Aberystwyth) tyre place could not get any tyres of the right size until Monday; Snowy’s tyres are not that common a size. The front tyres had done about 30,000 miles and John had intended to replace them when we got back; the French MoT also requires same tyres with similar wear on the same axle. Eventually they agreed to fit a tyre with slightly different (about 0.7 cm wider and 1% less circumference) dimensions and swapped the back tyres to the front. We finally got to Hay after 6.15, so no bookshops for Helen. We drove on to our pub hotel. We decided to stay another night, and spent a wet day scurrying between the bookshops which have not closed down or become internet-only traders and Helen was content with her haul. We had commented in the morning that some of the fields close to the river Wye looked like paddy fields, and alas, during the day the waters continued to rise. By late afternoon the road to the small toll bridge was flooded, so we retreated to the main bridge. Further on we found that the road to that night’s hotel was impassable too. At that point we decided to just pay the hotel bill over the phone and to drive on in the dark to drier terrain in Letchworth.

Jacob and his wooden dinosaur

Jacob and his wooden dinosaur

Back in Letchworth we saw quite a bit of Jacob over his half term at Toby’s as Toby had just started a new job at Reed Group in Covent Garden and was back to commuting daily to London. We enjoyed treasure hunts (Jacob can read the clues himself now, so dashed around enthusiastically), making a plywood dinosaur skeleton (with no instructions in the kit), playing a lot of games of Rummikub, scooping up dead leaves and netting the garden pond. But would you believe it? John had booked a service for Snowy, and when he came to drive it to the Toyota garage one of the new tyres had a nail through it. So two more matching new tyres (this time of the correct size as the garage refused to fit the incorrect size).

At the end of half-term Helen drove Jacob back to Rearsby as Stella and Ellen were away on their honeymoon. Leila took a couple of days off from the Coroner’s office and she and Helen enjoyed seeing Jacob’s school and then exploring Leicestershire villages until pick-up time.

Helen was also able to see some old Nottingham friends before she returned to Letchworth for John’s birthday, which we celebrated over lunch at Core in Notting Hill along with Jessica and Mark. We were lucky to get in there, as shortly after we booked, it was awarded two Michelin stars having not had any before –but the chef Clare Smyth had had previously had three at the Gordon Ramsey restaurant she ran.

amuse bouches, jellied eels and foie gras

amuse bouches: jellied eels; foie gras

'Core_apple'

‘Core_apple’

Unlike our Ynyshir disaster, this ten-course meal was very good, from the spectacularly presented four amuse-bouches (jellied eels, crispy smoked duck wing, foie gras parfait and cheese and onion goujons) through the perfection of ‘Core apple’ (with its glazed outside and melt-in-the-mouth creamy filling) to a surprise candle in a lemon parfait for John. Highly recommended if you can get in!

Isle of Oxney map

Isle of Oxney map

You might think we’d done enough eating by then, but on our way back to France we met Sue, Ann and Derek at the Ferry Inn on the Isle of Oxney, which does a good choice of pub grub with friendly staff and dog and a roaring fire. We’ve come to think of the large table next to the fire as our table as we’ve had it three times. And someone always asks if they can keep one of the paper table mats with its attractive map of the area before the 14th century when the island was part of the coastline.

musée La Piscine de Roubaix

Musée La Piscine de Roubaix

After a rougher than usual crossing next morning, we took a more northerly route back and stopped in Roubaix, a former industrial town near Ypres and close to the Belgian border, as John had read about the reopening of the Piscine Museum of Art and Industry after renovation. As the name implies, the museum is housed in the former swimming pool and adjoining industrial buildings. It is an amazing setting, with the reflected colours from the huge art deco window rippling across the water of the pool which is casually flanked by seated and standing statues from various epochs, some bewigged, some legless and armless.

musée La Piscine de Roubaix

Musée La Piscine, Roubaix

Behind the statues, and the blue, gold and cream mosaic-covered surround, some of the changing cubicles have been left intact while others contain displays of ceramics, costumes, jewellery and paintings. In the recesses there are fin-de-siècle glazed tile panels and stained glass windows. The websites rather undersell the exciting and imaginative juxtaposition of objects from their extensive collection. And at the end of October, their special exhibitions were around works by Di Rosa (very colourful!), Picasso and Giacometti. It was well worth our half hour of queuing in the heavy rain.

Next morning we woke in our 3rd floor fin-de-siècle guest house in the wealthy industrialists’ quarter, to find the rain gone and the sun streaming through the window.

Villa Cavrois, Roubaix

Villa Cavrois, Roubaix

Children's dining room, Villa Cavrois

Children’s dining room, Villa Cavrois

Our hostess (a ceramicist who had also been a nurse) suggested that we shouldn’t leave Roubaix without also seeing the Villa Cavrois designed in 1929 by Robert Mallet-Stevens. It was a stunning modern yellow brick building. There has been another amazing programme to rescue it from dereliction (initially caused by German and then French army occupants and after 1988 by a property developer who wanted to pull it down and build more houses so left it to rot and be looted and squatted in for years). A good film in the basement garage showed the research that went into re-creating the gardens and mirror pool and restoring the spirit of De Stijl within the gutted shell, including repurchasing some of the furniture (seen in photos from the thirties) which had been sold at auction. Perhaps the most amazing room was the enormous bathroom off the master bedroom, with all its complicated shower nozzles and curved screen door, bidet, scales, sinks.

After our adventures in Wales and northern France, life back in Entre-deux-Eaux settled back into uneventful normality, punctuated by Armistice Day celebrations and Brexit and gilets jaunes frustrations. But what about that cherry cake, purchased from the helpful BP station in Wales? Helen’s brain-keep-fit group is a more sociable gathering than it might sound. It’s now all female, and starts with at least half an hour of noisy gossip, followed by a round of humorous stories (nearly all full of sexual innuendo), and then an hour and a half of exhausting, silent concentration of word, logic and number puzzles. At the end of that, everyone stretches and breaks into more gossip, and that week’s hostess hands out the cake and hot or cold drinks. Helen had previously found that her contribution of mince pies and Bakewell tarts were not over-enthusiastically received. However this time the cherry cake had a good reception, and a walnut and cream cake a slightly less warm one. Phew! And then they asked about the famous English Christmas cake (pronounced “kek” here). Amazed after rum, spices and brandy were mentioned they began checking recipes on the internet and discussing loudly. They were impressed that a perishable thing like a cake could be cooked so well in advance of festivities, Which reminds me, we must remember to pack the Christmas cake that John started to make a few days later, when we load the car up and set out for Christmas and New Year the UK in a few days time.

With that thought in mind, we send you all our very best wishes for Christmas and the year ahead. As ever, if you find yourselves near Letchworth, it would be good to see you again.

Bog bodies, Beans and Bojagi: a wet summer in Entre-deux-Eaux with a Danish diversion, July – September 2017

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2017no3.pdf (seven A4 pages)
 A link to all the photographs of our Denmark August 2017 trip
A link to the photographs of Carrefour Européen du Patchwork 2017

It all began in July on top of one of the Anglo Saxon burial mounds at Sutton Hoo as we listened to the account of the 1939 excavation of the perfect imprint of the ship and then looked at the site photos taken by a curious holidaymaker and her friend. We have long harboured the idea of revisiting Sweden in quest of runestones, Viking burials and ships. At Sutton Hoo on the mounds above the river, and next morning seeing the huge container ships at Felixstowe and exploring Ipswich, the Viking as well as Anglo Saxon past seemed within our grasp. This year we would set out, – and at least get as far as Denmark.

After that July trip to Letchworth to see the family and tidy the garden and lawn there, we returned to Entre-deux-Eaux to tame the vegetable patch and grass expanses here, pausing en route for lunch with Sue, Ann and Derek in another place redolent of a past age – the Isle of Oxney, once cut off from the mainland of Kent. Alas we no longer needed the services of a ferryman to get us to the Ferry Inn and its car park. Pub grub like lobster and crab linguine and profiteroles may have changed a bit over the centuries, but the Romney Marsh sheep continued to graze, as unmoved by our presence as by that of smugglers in the past.

Back in Entre-deux-Eaux we had five days to hack our way into the potager to gather the first courgettes (which during our absence had turned into eight large marrows worthy of any produce show) and the young broad beans (which are so delicious eaten in their pods) and to pick and freeze the dill, parsley, basil and coriander; and five days in which to clean the farmhouse thoroughly (over winter it tends to turn into an extension of John’s workshop, a greenhouse substitute, and an overflow food store), replace the empty gas canister, eliminate a wasp nest on the inside of a shutter, and make up the beds before Toby, Rachel, Jacob, Farrah and Olivia came to stay for a few days on their way south. John also made a concrete base with embedded tie loops for the swing seat as it had tipped over last time the children played vigorously on it and he suspended the swing from piggy’s apple tree (so called as it’s apples were the favourites of Madame Laine’s pig). But, alas, it seemed pointless to reinflate the swimming pool for them as rain and cool weather were forecast for their stay.

The carload (which included their dog, Teddy) arrived in Toby’s new Discovery Sport around 2.30 in the night and they crept in to their usual beds. The older visitors endeavoured to sleep in next morning after their long drive.

Jacob and Grumpy

Jacob and Grumpy

Given the unpleasant change of weather, it was a day for indoor games for Jacob, Farrah and the grandparents and for buying some Wellington boots for Jacob so he could play outside. Jacob soon remembered the blackcurrants and the jelly that can be made with them, so we had a wet foray into the fruit cage (the bushes are taller than Jacob) then he and Grumpy made a blackcurrant jelly. He also admired the height of the broad beans which he and Helen had sown in loo rolls (to protect them when transplanting to the garden) back in Letchworth in April, and we picked more of those and the dwarf beans which had flourished in our absence. A popular indoor visit is always the Confiserie des Hautes Vosges, which gives demonstrations of their sweet making and then leads visitors, overcome by aromatic sugary fumes, up to the sales room with its bags of colourful goodies. An energetic walk along the ridge above Mandray was a good prelude to the sweets. The other must-do local activity is the luge track down to the Col de la Schlucht. This year, given the uncertain weather, we decided to try a metal track for wheeled luges near La Bresse, which was a great success, especially as it had a good play area next to the café which suited adults and children alike. Refreshed we drove along the Route des Cretes to Lac Blanc and scrambled up the steep hills around the lake, led by one enthusiastic small dog and two grubby children. The views were magnificent. The next morning they left at 5 am to drive south to their rented villa near Avignon. Despite all the blocked motorways predicted for this busiest day of the year, by using Waze and following back road detours they reached their villa only a few hours late but in time to collect the key. They had a very hot week there, with plenty of swimming in their villa’s pool, which compensated for the deficiencies of the Entre-deux-Eaux climate, and then they returned to us for a few days. We were able to go to a couple of flea markets on the Sunday and dinner featured John’s new sous-vide machine (for delicious duck fillet), the garden’s marrows, beans (spiced up) then blackberries (in a clafoutis). Toby and Rachel capped this the following night with a meal at the Auberge Frankenbourg, which has remained Toby’s favourite restaurant over the years.

After their departure, our thoughts returned to Denmark, so we drafted a zig-zag car route up Jutland and across to Funen (having realised that Copenhagen and the rest of Zealand and also other islands would have to wait for another journey -perhaps by air) and booked a few hotels. Five days later we discovered how thorough an overhaul the north German motorways are undergoing as we dawdled and queued through road works. But our pleasant overnight stop hotel on the edge of Hamburg made up for all the delays. In the days that followed we were to wish that hotels in Jutland were as tasteful and comfortable with equally magnificent breakfast spreads.

As we edged up the next stretch of German motorway under repair through Holstein towards Schleswig, trying to remember what the Schleswig-Holstein question had been in long ago history lessons, John suggested that once over the border we should detour west to Dybbøl Bank. He had remembered details of the excellent BBC4 Danish drama 1864 (which Helen had completely forgotten) about the Second Schleswig War between Denmark and Prussia which ended in defeat for Denmark at Dybbøl Bank and the loss of a quarter of its territory to Prussia.

Dybbøl Banke

Dybbøl Banke

It was a glorious day as the sun unexpectedly came out and we found ourselves at the top of a hill with an old windmill and new museum. We walked up to some stones which from a distance could have been runestones, but in fact were the remains of gun emplacements, from which we had an unexpected view over the battle ground to the brilliant blue fjord beyond, which seems less blue in the photos than in memory. The short film at the museum restored Helen’s memory of key events and the political situation.

Our hotel that evening in Tønder was the first of a series of disappointments. In the fifties and sixties Danish design and furniture was so admired, that the garish black and gold bedspread, carpet and chairs in a room opening off a balcony walkway (a bit like a motel) was rather a shock. And the food on offer in town was mainly kebabs or a Chinese buffet (where we ended up).

Møgeltønder church font

Møgeltønder church font

But next morning the old church in nearby Møgeltønder, approached along a street of lime trees and quaint houses, made up for Tønder’s deficiencies, with its painted walls, ceilings, pews, balconies and even a painted font above which painted mermaids disported provocatively.

Then on to Ribe for its cathedral begun in 1060 and for our first encounter with the Vikings. The Ribe Vikings did not fit the British image of warriors raiding, pillaging and burning monasteries like Lindisfarne. According to the archaeology and reconstructions in the museum they seem to have come up the river to Ribe (from where we never discovered), settled and traded peacefully.

Which chairs infringe Triptrap copyright?

Which chairs infringe Tripp Trapp copyright?

After a wet night in our Kolding hotel under the fourth floor eaves of a once glorious hotel opposite the railway station, we set out to repair our image of Danish design at the Trapholt Museum, where we enjoyed the chair designs, and an exhibition raising the question of whether designs such as the iconic Tripp Trapp high chairs for young children and “ant” chairs of Arne Jacobsen could be copied or imitated by others or whether a T-shirt design showing an emaciated African child carrying a chihuahua and Louis Vuitton bag was permitted to use the bag image. Our original, not imitation, Triptrap chairs have had a useful life well beyond the babyhood of Toby and Leila, who insisted on using them throughout their teenage years (they must be sturdy designs) and visiting children have used them ever since in both Entre-deux-Eaux and Letchworth. Then we drove up the motorway and branched off through gently rolling fields of grain and stubble to the tiny village of Jelling with its little white church dating from 1100, its runestones and its imposing burial mounds.

Jelling runestone

Jelling runestone

The two famous runestones stand by the church doorway, one commemorating King Gorm, and the other celebrating Harald Bluetooth’s unification of Denmark and introduction of Christianity. There were some attractive twelfth century frescoes at the east end of the simple church and an organist playing a jumpy little tune and trills at the west end. Outside, the church and mounds were enclosed by traces of the enormous ship shape once marked out by stones and surrounded by an even bigger palisade whose course is now indicated by white pillars. The museum had a very imaginative display to entice children to learn about the small objects found, the life and death of Vikings and the growth of Christianity after Harald Bluetooth’s adoption of it.

Next morning we drove from Ry through Jutland’s Lake District, failing to spot their famous Himmelbjerget, which, at 147 metres, is considerably lower than Entre-deux-Eaux (about 420m above sea level), to Silkeborg.

Tollund Man

Tollund Man

Silkeborg Museum’s iron age display is fairly basic, and it was sad to discover that when the famous Tollund Man was discovered in a bog in 1950, they did not know how to preserve whole bodies, so after investigations only the head was preserved and what we could see was reconstructed from fragments which had survived the lack of treatment. The bottom part of their other bog body, Elling Woman, had not been kept either as she had been assumed to be an animal before her belt was discovered. However, at the magnificent modern Moesgaard Museum outside Aarhus the next day we gazed with awe at the body of Grauballe Man and watched a fascinating film about its discovery, publicity and exhibition before its conservation by a method which no one else had tried.

Gundestrup bowl in Moesgaard Museum

Gundestrup bowl in Moesgaard Museum

In fact we spent a whole day in the museum, enjoying a special exhibition on the Life of the Dead and the sections on barrows, bog offerings and the beautiful silver Gundestrup bowl with its mythological figures (how did it get from Thrace into a Danish bog?) The Viking section was very popular with children and young adults with lots of dramatic reconstructions, sound effects, buttons to push and headphones to don, but less interesting for those who like traditional printed information.

 Aarhus Cathedral

Aarhus Cathedral

Another good discovery was Aarhus Street Food in a converted bus station garage, where we ate at the Thai Tuk Tuk stall two nights running. When we explored the town (between the two Tuk Tuk meals) we particularly enjoyed the Cathedral; we slipped in between Saturday’s wedding ceremonies, and to the soaring sounds of a singer testing the acoustics before the next wedding and the scampering of excited bridesmaids we gazed at the varied and beautiful uncovered frescoes. We walked around the AroS art museum with its much heralded rainbow glass circular skywalk, but were too footsore after our city wanderings and enjoyment of the street sculptures (especially the pigs suckling outside Arne Jacobsen’s Town Hall and the wind-blown “Snake” in a park) to contemplate the contemporary art works within the museum.

Lindholm Høje

Lindholm Høje

We spent our next day in the rain at the delightful Lindholm Høje Museum and Viking burial ground north of Aalborg. The modern concrete building (donated by the Aalborg Portland cement factory) had an intimate feel, as we sipped warming coffees and watched people coming in from the rain to its little restaurant for a celebratory family Sunday lunch. There was an excellent display of Viking finds in the upper part of the museum and of iron age finds and bogs in the lower part. By the time we had seen it all and found the gift shop irresistible, the rolling rain clouds were clearing and in bursts of sunshine we headed outside and up through the trees to the crest of the south facing burial site. Below us spread the graves, at the top mainly triangles and ovals of stones with a larger stone in the centre and lower down stones forming the ship shapes around cremations. Apart from us and the sheep, the site was almost deserted and very atmospheric as we wandered freely between the throng of almost 700 stone shapes, which had been preserved from subsequent clearing and ploughing by a cover of shifting sand.

Rubjerg Knude lighthouse

Rubjerg Knude lighthouse

It must have been the mention of sand, but the next day we decided to include the west coast sands and sea in our itinerary and made for the once hippy resort of Løkken. We got distracted en route by a cloister and a black wooden windmill from which we spotted a distant lighthouse. Was this the Rubjerg Knude lighthouse we’d read about that was disappearing into the drifting sand and would probably be claimed by the sea coastal erosion in a decade or so? A track led for a kilometre from a busy car park towards the lighthouse, above which colourful paragliders were looping and soaring. Children were sliding down the dunes while adults built cairns and formed words with the rectangular yellowish bricks from the demolished coastguard cottages around the lighthouse. How typical of the Lego-creating Danes! (Anywhere else the bricks would have been cleared away from such a popular tourist place on health and safety grounds). All thoughts of going down to the sea vanished as we saw the jagged cliff face and sheer drops and heard the waves crashing below. Instead we went on to Løkken, where, after coffee, Helen paddled on the sandy beach while John examined the fishing boats and jetty. From there it seemed a long drive south and east across the bridge to the island of Funen and the outskirts of Odense.

A twenty-four hour museum pass enabled us to see plenty of Odense besides Hans Christian Andersen. So we saw the Holy King Canute’s cathedral, the tiny childhood home of HCA, the Brandts Art Gallery with its exhibition of Wilhelm Lundstrøm’s cubist/expressionist works, and the HCA museum. At the latter it was interesting to learn about his great unreciprocated loves, his travels and friendships. It sounded as if he might have been a very tiresome friend and long-staying guest despite his stories and paper cuts (Charles Dickens clearly found him a burden and his “best” friend would never let him use the friendly “du” form of address, which hurt HCA). The Møntergården history museum had artefacts from the times of the Vikings and Canute and the monks right up to the German occupation in WW2.

HCA in Odense Train Museum

HCA in Odense Train Museum

But we had not escaped from Hans Christian Andersen, as outside a performance group capered round the statue of the Steadfast Tin Soldier and even the excellent Railway Museum started with a section on HCA and trains. HCA was an enthusiastic rail traveller, preferring second class where smoking was not allowed, unlike third class, but he lamented the fact that there were no toilets in the first trains; once in desperation he got out when the train was stationary only to have an express train hurtle past as he flattened himself against his carriage. We had our best meal of the trip in Odense at Kok & Vin (John having finally recovered his taste after a heavy cold).

Ladby ship burial

Ladby ship burial

Our last Vikings were at Ladby where (given the Sutton Hoo inspiration) the excavated Viking ship burial should have been the high point of our visit. But there was so little information about the excavation, finds and theories that we both found it disappointing compared with Lindholm Hoje. The volunteers who built the replica ship which was moored below the burial mound had probably had more fun than the archaeologists.

Back in Entre-deux-Eaux more wet weather awaited our next visitors, Ann and Derek. The annual International Patchwork meeting in Sainte Marie-aux-Mines and surrounding villages in mid-September is always worth visiting. The four of us dashed under hoods and umbrellas between churches, mansions and community centres to see the flamboyant displays. This year there were Barbar elephants in one village church, interesting English patchworkers in a community room, Vietnamese fabrics and Egyptian Tentmakers’ quilts in an exhibition hall, delicate Swiss and Australian contemporary creations in the library/former tobacco manufacturer’s mansion, traditional American quilts in the theatre, Ian Berry’s denim pictures in another exhibition hall and Amish quilts in the Lutheran Eglise en Chaines. We shook our umbrellas outside the “Rest of the World” (which seemed to be just Georgia) exhibition in the Saint Nicolas Presbytery where we warmed up with the Presbytery ladies’ hot chocolate and sampled their home-made fruit tarts.

Korean quilts or Bojagis

Korean quilts or Bojagis

We each had our favourite display, and Helen’s was the traditional Korean quilts or Bojagis which shared a hall with Belgian and German patchworkers and Polynesian Tifaifai. The Bojagis’ crisp colours and clean lines were eye-catching, as were their exquisitely dressed guardians.

As well as rain there were strong winds to contend with when we drove through the hills for lunch at Chez Guth in Steig (Alsace) after a stormy night. The sky was clear enough to see the superb views on the way, but we had to wait for the last branches of a tree to be removed after it had blown down across the narrow road which snakes down to the village. The hills had vanished under rain clouds several hours later when we left, replete. Our journey to lunch at L’Imprimerie in the book village was less menaced, but we arrived at the restaurant bearing large piles of books. At the Lotus Bleu, a second-hand bookshop a few doors away from the restaurant, John had spotted a selection of English books, among them some of the Folio Society’s handsome bindings. At five euros for three books, we couldn’t resist scooping up a few well-illustrated Shakespeare plays including a 1953 As You Like It illustrated by Salvador Dali, as well as the Iliad and Odyssey illustrated by Elisabeth Frink and Ann and Derek were happy to find a Royal Horticultural Society gardening tome (which they fitted in their luggage despite its considerable weight).

The other annual event we went to with Ann and Derek was Saint Die’s Braderie which takes over many of the streets in the centre with stalls selling everything you can think of from fashion to hardware and food. Most popular was the fast talking vendor of chocolates: you pay 10 euros for a yellow plastic bag and he and his assistant dash round talking and stuffing it with what might seem at the time to be a bargain selection of confectionery. From there we went on to a village flea market in Biffontaine, where, a few minutes after Ann and Derek had invested a euro in a children’s game with English instructions, the heavens opened and everyone packed up their stalls. We retreated into the village hall and sat over portions of French fries and ketchup or mayonnaise till the rain cleared.

You will gather how wet their stay was from the fact that we completed a thousand piece jigsaw of London pubs while they were here, though one day was clear enough for them to walk round the lake at Gerardmer, and we rounded off in style on their last day, strolling through the quaint streets and shops of Kaysersberg and lunching at Aux Armes de France in the wine growing village of Ammerschwihr before driving down to Basel Airport.

Of course, the sun came out a few days after they left, marking the official start of Autumn after the wet summer. The local villagers embarked on autumn activities. In Entre-deux-Eaux the oldies held their beginning-of-term lunch which we both joined. Some local musicians with traditional plucked instruments entertained diners (though were largely ignored by our long table) and were rewarded with birthday cake. And in Sainte Marguerite the Active Brains group of pensioners met and argued their way through brain teasers (Helen did badly on words describing animal noises and sayings involving dogs – we didn’t learn those at school).

Yesterday, on the last day of International Geography Festival in Saint Die, the sun was disguised by an autumnal morning mist in Entre-deux-Eaux, from which the muffled cries of huntsmen could be heard. Perhaps it was appropriate, as this year the Geographers’ theme was the relationship between man and animals. With South Africa as the invited country, there were giraffes in sunglasses on the posters and statues of rhinos and a stuffed crocodile round the base of Tower of Liberty. But as the sun emerged, and the pavement cafes of Saint Die filled up, the Entre-deux-Eaux huntsmen probably didn’t catch anything quite as exotic.

Budapest Hungary 2017 photographs

An unedited set of the 450+ photographs I took 30 May-2 June
Click on this image to go to the photographs:

Pagans, Christians and Moors: meandering in the Vosges, the Fens and Andalusia, January – March 2017

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2017no1.pdf (eight A4 pages)
The links in the text will take you to photographs of the location
There is a link at the end to all photographs

At the beginning of January we folded up our pagan Letchworth Christmas tree, wrapped the baubles in tissue, and regretfully discarded the holly, ivy and yellow jasmine (why didn’t that jasmine didn’t get into the carol?) in the conservatory and set sail for Entre-deux-Eaux. With snow forecast we stopped for a night en route in Reims; it was bitterly cold as we walked towards the dimly-lit cathedral. A few nights later temperatures were down to -18°C at night and continued to be very cold for a couple of weeks.

During January we usually relish the epiphany feasting in and around Entre-deux-Eaux. Sadly this year Helen had her gall bladder extracted on 13th, which restricted her eating over Christmas and New Year. John nobly went alone to Mayor Duhaut’s Voeux (inaudible speech, champagne and nibbles) after visiting hours, and we did both go down to the oldies’ gathering on 17th after they had finished eating a very fatty (and satisfying, we gather) protracted lunch of pork, sausages, cheese and plentiful booze, and we were plied with galette des rois and champagne. In fact we did more short walks than feasts, as the snow which started during the night of Helen’s operation, was enticing in the sunny afternoons.

So, at the beginning of February we felt it was high time we ventured out to a restaurant (and no newsletter would be complete without a restaurant trip!) It is a long time since we have been to our nearby Book Village in Fontenay-la-Joute, so when John read about a restaurant, L’Imprimerie, in the former printer’s we decided to go there. Only one table was occupied when we arrived, which didn’t augur well, but we chose a table close to the blazing fire and settled down to await the menu. The waiter seemed half asleep, but produced two torn up children’s books (shock, horror for Helen) with inserts giving the prices of three menus, but no details of the food on each. We managed to extract information about the menu of the day, but he kept insisting that the other menus were a surprise, as were the accompanying wines. Eventually he checked with the chef, and on hearing that chef was proposing to include coquilles St Jacques and then pigeon and pork, Helen hastily settled for the safer menu of the day, but John chose a more adventurous one. To our surprise, John’s surprises all turned out to be beautifully and imaginatively presented, with lots of little pre, inter and post delicacies. We’d happily return with anyone who doesn’t mind gambling on what they eat!

By mid February we were back in Letchworth for half-term. We returned to the Higgins Museum in Bedford, taking Jacob as it is such a child friendly museum, and spent quite a bit of time talking about fossils with him. Another day we discovered that Stevenage is not all new town, but has an attractive old town with a wide high street similar to many old market towns. On a gloomy day we had an unsatisfactory attempt to reach Ely through the grey fens; the obstacle was nothing to do with resistance from Hereward the Wake, but due to a serious road accident which caused jams blocking all roads in.

Mildenhall treasure

Mildenhall treasure

The fenland theme continued when we were in London and went to see the Mildenhall Trove at the British Museum (we had previously driven through Mildenhall, but not explored); the Roman silver tableware was stunning, and we were interested to see on their map of finds how well the fens had preserved many other treasures. After that we couldn’t resist mingling with the eager school children and their clip boards to see the Sutton Hoo burial display. In the afternoon we saw the revival of Stoppard’s Travesties (we’d seen the 1974 original), which was good, and ate at Moro in Exmouth Market, which was disappointing. Another trip to London saw us at an unexpected venue, the London Corinthian Sailing Club, to celebrate in style John’s school-friend Alan’s 70th birthday. John’s sister Ann and brother-in-law Derek had just moved from Essex across the Thames to Tenterden in Kent and we spent our last two days with them, enjoying lunch in a good country restaurant (The Curlew outside Bodiam) and a walled garden centre in Hawkhurst (the hellebore which we bought there is flourishing back in E2E, a reminder of the time that Helen’s mother spent as Headmistress of Lillesden School in Hawkhurst, which is now apparently converted into smart apartments after closing and featuring in Doctor Who episodes). The channel crossing was rolling next day and we crossed northern France through lashing rain, blinding spray and high winds.

Back in E2E the dull wet weather of early March soon felt oppressive, with few diversions other than the free audition tests offered by the hospital (expected results: Helen OK for her age, John not). This time last year we had been happily meandering round south-east Portugal, intending to cross into Spain and explore Andalusia, but found so much to see we did not cross the border. Almost as soon as we thought of our uncompleted trip, John had booked flights from Basel to Seville and back and a hired car. We don’t usually plan our hotels far ahead, but in the miserable weather we enjoyed reading guidebooks and hotel reviews, and ended up booking hotels for every night, some of which were to add greatly to our appreciation of the region. As we drove to Basel on Saturday 11th, we realised that the permitted season for certain Vosgian river fish must have opened, as there were damp fishermen on every bridge.

Seville airport was hot when we arrived, and we were glad not to be heading towards the narrow streets of the city in our hired car whose air-conditioning didn’t seem to be working efficiently. Instead we sped along the A4 in the opposite direction across the plain towards Cordoba until we could see on our right that night’s destination, the small fortified hill town of Carmona. Turning off towards it, the small road got steeper, goats scattered in front of us, we passed a ruined chapel and suddenly a huge old gateway, the Puerta de Cordoba, engulfed us and our sat nav was directing us through narrow streets past joyous family meals in a street bar, emerging onto the escarpment with breathtaking views and our hotel, the Alcazar de la Reina. Helen is easily impressed and the two sinks in the spacious cool cream bathroom, added to the friendly welcome, the carpeted entrance, traditional heavy furniture and shady courtyard and pool appealed to her. Given how every street space in Spain seemed to be taken up with parked cars, we were glad we’d opted to book hotels with their own parking.

On the main San Fernando square with its huge palm trees with tiny thatched tops, children were playing, the little girls all in beautiful frocks, with big bows in their hair and satin pumps on their feet. Were they dressed up for a special Saint’s day? The bar and café tables round the edge of the square were full of families and friends drinking and eating, but a space was found outside the Bar Goya and we ordered cold drinks, a squid salad and pigs kidneys in sherry and enjoyed the feeling of having arrived. Revived, we wandered downhill through the narrow streets and spectacular double-entranced Puerta de Sevilla into the “new” (or later) town, ending up at the Roman necropolis. Only part of it was open (half an hour before closing time), but it was interesting to peer into the large holes and linked cave system with its statue of an elephant. In the bar/restaurant where we ate later, braided boys with drums joined their friends (what had we missed?), and outside a soutaned cleric fretted over his loose wing mirror.

Ecija mosaic

Ecija: Bacchus Gift of Wine

Next day, further along the A4 to Cordoba, we stopped in Ecija and followed our noses and the glimpses of elaborate church towers into the old town. The highlight was coming across the Palacio Benameji and sticking our noses through the gateway. In an inner courtyard children, in silent concentration, were learning to make Roman amphora and oil lamps which were put to dry in the sun, and up the sweeping staircase we found a surprising array of fine Roman mosaics is displayed on the walls. Downstairs were interestingly carved prehistoric stones. An unsung provincial museum! And we’d nearly ignored it in favour of coffee (which we subsequently enjoyed just outside the palace walls).

Mezquita, Cordoba

Mezquita, Cordoba

Cordoba’s Archaeological Museum’s mosaics were disappointing in comparison, as they are still in the unsafe older part where they can’t be seen; but the excavated Roman amphitheatre in the basement of the new building was fascinating and well explained. It was probably the return of rain and the bog-standard 4* but quite pricey hotel (which couldn’t change a dead light bulb for 18 hours) which coloured our impressions of Cordoba. All the pictures of the Mezquita which you see emphasize the rows and rows of columns and the light, spacious feel of the huge old place of worship. They don’t prepare you for the fact that your view as you walk in is blocked by the elaborate cathedral which was later constructed in the centre of the mosque to reclaim the space, while the Mezquita walls have ornate chapels on three sides which prevent light from entering.

Mihrab, Mezquita, Cordoba

Mihrab, Mezquita, Cordoba

It is only when you close your eyes to the obstacles and walk round the cathedral towards the austerely decorated mihrab that you get more of a feel of the constantly extended forest of columns. Another jarring image of Cordoba was the rain-swept Roman bridge with coach loads of Chinese and Japanese tourists leaning into the wind, some with sinister-looking scarlet face masks like modern invaders.

Granada was such a contrast to wet Cordoba. The sun was shining to welcome us as we drove towards the top of the hill facing the Alhambra, following complicated instructions to the hotel avoiding the narrowest and steepest one-way streets of the old Moorish quarter. Our hotel (Santa Isabel la Real) was a delightful restoration of an old building, and we were graciously seated in the beautifully traditionally furnished sitting room with coffee and fresh lemonade while the paperwork was done (always surprisingly time-consuming) and our room was prepared (we were early), then the easiest way of accessing the Alhambra and the useful local buses were explained, and the housekeeper took us up to our room on the first floor, following the balcony round the inner courtyard. It was cool and shady with old beams, and a cool white bathroom.

Alhambra, Granada

Alhambra, Granada

A couple of hours later, we had walked round some of the grounds of the Alhambra, admired the views of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada, detoured into an exhibition of Mariano Fortuny’s 19C Andalusian sketches and paintings which felt just right for the occasion, and also the archaeological museum, both in the palace of Carlos V, and were waiting for our 16.30 timed entry slot (pre-booked, as recommended) to the Nasrid Palaces. Despite all forebodings that we would be herded round, with milling and squealing crowds continuously posing for selfies just in front of us, it was all so much more beautiful than I had imagined; just as you think you have seen all the most delicate tracery in the Mexnar Palace, then the Comares Palace drips with more and the Palace of Lions stuns. And there were interesting notes on the restoration techniques.

Alhambra, Granada

Alhambra, Granada

As we lingered, the crowds surged ahead, so that by the time we reached the smaller, now bare, rooms of Carlos I (1520s), later occupied by Washington Irving there were very few other people. As the palaces closed it was getting cold in the gardens, but we hugged good memories of the exquisite rooms with their white/cream perforated detail, glassy tiled surrounds, Moorish arches, fountains, pools and shady colonnades. Sneering accounts of the over extensive restoration work have not subsequently dimmed the memories. In the evening we threaded down steps and along narrow streets to a lovely (but cold) contemporary restaurant for flavour-filled peppers stuffed with squid and crunchy celery (starter) and main courses of sea bass with fruit and cod, beetroot purée, broad beans and dried bacon.

Casa de Horno de Oro, Granada

Casa de Horno de Oro, Granada

The next day, having “done” the highlight, we wandered around the narrow winding hillside streets of the medieval Moorish Albaicin area of our hotel. Of course, the sunshine helped, but it was another memorable day. Just along our road was the house of the 20C Belgian painter Max Moreau; it felt satisfying seeing inside the courtyard with its unusual pots and plates, the building with his portraits, the sitting room with its Java shadow puppets and other exotic treasures and the small garden with two black cats stalking and squabbling. Next we, rather on the spur of the moment, joined a small tour of a water museum; it was all in Spanish but from the information panels and enthusiasm of the guide we picked up a bit about the building, the recreated garden, the city’s water supply in Moorish times and the deep cistern in its basement which supplied fresh water (kept pure by turtles, it seemed) to the old palace of Dar-al-Horra.

Corral de Carbon Grenada

After that we went in search of the palace. What pleasanter occupation after artists, water and palaces than to relax in a small square with a coffee or beer and survey the world. We also found a bakery with good savoury pastries which we munched as we walked on downhill in search of visitable Moorish houses and courtyards, then the Arab baths and finally the huge balconied fourteenth century hostel and warehouse for Moorish merchants and traders (later used by charcoal merchants and currently by the City Orchestra). After the day’s walking, in the evening we went to Maria’s small bar in the nearby small square for Maria’s delicious freshly cooked “specials”, chicken and raisin pastry, veal in a prune and spicy sauce, and moist pistachio cake.

We’d stopped for a night at Dona Mencia (cold and windy) in the hills between Cordoba and Granada, and had promised ourselves another night in a hilltop village, this time further west in Olvera, half way to Cadiz. But on our way there from Granada we turned off to Antequera. After very uninspiring outskirts and a broad street lined with old churches and shops, we zig-zagged up between the picturesque white houses of the old town till we arrived right in front of the Gateway of Hercules of the Alcazaba. We hadn’t really planned on spending much time there, but having accepted headphones, we both got engrossed in the drama of Fernando I laying siege to the massive Moorish fort, gaining victory and sleeping in the comfort of the keep/white tower (occasional pieces of furniture brought the rooms to life, especially the one Fernando described as lavishly, almost decadently furnished). As a result it became much more interesting than the bare Alcazaba at Granada’s Alhambra.

Dolmen Menga, Antequera

Dolmen Menga, Antequera

Refreshed by beers and tapas just outside the walls, we drove back through the outskirts to find the dolmens mentioned by our guidebook, as we had enjoyed seeing dolmens last year in south-east Portugal. Antequerra’s three sites were breath-taking in their state of preservation, especially the five thousand year old Menga dolmen with its corridor of huge slabs leading to an oval chamber, columns and five huge roof stones, the whole protected by a tumulus. The entrance apparently did not face sunrise, as usual, but the mountain (Lover’s Rock) which had neolithic cave with wall paintings and probably a religious significance. The tholos of El Romeral, by contrast, had corridor walls of thin stones like bricks and a beehive chamber roof of decreasing circles of stones. Stunning.

In Olvera in our B&B town house on the steep hill, we got a warm welcome from our Canadian hosts and were soon discussing the problems of renovating old rural houses and appreciating our spacious bedroom with its comfortable IKEA chairs, shuttered long windows and narrow balconies, and interesting posters of art exhibitions. Later we walked round the small town, which came to life in the evening, and ate tapas in a packed and noisy bar. On our way back in the dark we saw men rehearsing for a procession, carrying a heavy platform on poles (which would presumably have a heavy silver or gold image on it) and rhythmically edging it back into its store. Is it for a Saint’s day or Holy Week procession we wondered.

Next day on our drive to Cadiz, we detoured to see the cave houses of Setenil de las Bodegas and the dramatic gorge of Ronda and passed further spectacular rock faces on our cross country drive to Arcos de la Frontera, our last hilltop town. There we wound through siesta-abandoned lower streets and emerged, thanks to our sat nav, on an elegant old street of Mudejar (Christian Islamic fusion) houses. A street café with scarlet tables and chairs revived us after the hot drive and we enjoyed walking round the top of the hill, saddened only that the church with the beautiful but eroded Gothic doorway was closed.

Arcos de la Frontera

But what really grabbed our attention was the young men near our parked car who were lowering their trousers and wrapping long lengths of tightly pulled material round their waists to form corsets, usually with the help of a friend holding one end taut. Near them were two structures, one a heavy wooden platform and the other a lighter metal frame. Despite the lack of carrying poles this was obviously going to be another procession rehearsal. After a lot of standing around, the men suddenly divided into two groups old hands and novices. The younger men threw their rucksacks onto the metal framed “float”, put on neck protectors like sleeping airline passengers, and crouched under their structure; their different heights were compensated for by slats of wood tied to the bars above their shoulders. The front bar was banged three times, the crouching figures raised the platform slowly on their shoulders and moved in a swaying rhythm towards the centre of the road then slowly headed uphill towards the church. After a while the brawnier old hands crawled under their heavier, larger wooden structure and adjusted their wooden slats. At the front right was the beefy, confident giant who had helped wind corsets and check fixings. After quiet encouragement they all murmured a prayer, and at three taps on the front bar they shouldered their very heavy burden, swayed into action and were off.

We drove on through a rolling but much barer landscape till we could see signs of docks, then soared across the water on a new motorway bridge to the thin strip of land Cadiz is built on. We reached our large hotel in the ugly new sprawl of hotels and offices outside the old walls in time to walk down to the sea as the sun was setting. Sunday in Cadiz was leisurely and enjoyable, with the café tables in squares packed with people enjoying the sunshine. In one café an elderly red-haired lady at the next table was dressed for the occasion in a leopard patterned wrap with a fur collar, dark glasses and a silver and black patterned cane, while her friend wore a tweed suit, and another elderly lady, this time blonde, with a pouched face and wearing a scarlet coat, waddled past on her husband’s arm. Behind them the bells of the white St Francis church tolled and a black and purple clad procession appeared from a doorway, bearing aloft silver candlesticks and the cross, and entered the church amid obscuring incense or dust.

Market mural Cadiz

Market mural Cadiz

Wandering on, we were sorry that the fish market wasn’t active then or after breakfast on Monday morning, but a restaurant owner facing the market collared us to show us photographs of his parents at their market stall and to assure us that he is constantly popping across to obtain fresh fish for his diners. There were some good murals of market scenes on one of the market’s outside walls and a flea market beyond which included a large pile of boots and shoes. In the shady Plaza de Mina, where children were playing and adults chatting on benches, we enjoyed seeing the museum’s Phoenician sarcophagi and other finds (neolithic, Phoenician and Roman), some early twentieth century paintings and an exhibition of fish preservation, ancient and modern.

Cigar Makers Cadiz

Cigar Makers Cadiz

Unusually, we ate at the same restaurant both nights as it was so tasty and well-prepared. The first night we dined at a table in the restaurant at the back on salad followed by grilled tuna fish or pork stuffed with dry fruit in a cream and onion sauce followed (are you reading this, Dorinda?) by a good three-chocolate tart; the second night we perched on bar stools near the busy preparation counter for tapas of prawns, potato salad, artichokes stuffed with black sausage on apple sauce, meatballs in tomato sauce and barbecued pork and chips; we couldn’t resist finishing off with more three-chocolate tart. We walked back past the tall frontage of the Cadiz tobacco factory and the statue of two women cigar makers and along the peaceful sea front.

In Seville the next afternoon we were hot and panting when we reached the Alcazar after we took the wrong bus and had a 40-minute walk to meet the entry deadline; our dishevelled state, the noisy crowds and the indifferent garden refreshments may have accounted for our finding it less captivating than Granada’s Alhambra, despite the headphone commentary. But when we headed northwards to the Mudejar Interpretation Museum in the Palacio de los Marqueses de la Algaba, we found an almost deserted but recently restored building with interesting displays. Back in our boutique hotel (so boutique that the rooms have names not numbers, the courtyard fountain falls soothingly, a slight smell of sewage pervades and the dim bathroom is a dark crimson with beaten silver washbasins), we could hear a band across the road playing the same funereal phrase over and over. It was still playing later in the evening as we crossed the busy main road to the Bar Plata for tapas. It paused when the church bells of the Basilica de la Macarena rang, then resumed its slow funeral march, while inside the bar we had skating music. As we crossed back to the hotel a large number of people emerged from the Basilica. According to the receptionist the band was practising for Holy Week when the image will process from the Basilica to the distant Cathedral, a twelve-hour epic for bearers, band and followers. At 10.45pm the band sounded particularly loud and we wondered if it would practice throughout the night, but when we opened the shutters, the end of the procession was in the street immediately below and disappearing into the Basilica. The dirge then ceased for the night.

Our last day was varied and cooler. We started with a fascinating tour of the Royal Tobacco Factory which is now part of the University buildings. Our guide was scholarly, fluent and enthusiastic, showing us first the portraits of recent rectors in the Rectors’ Rooms, the stable area of the Tobacco Factory and the courtyard clock which chimed twice an hour, once for the male workers and then for the female workers (who were the first female factory workers in Spain and initially resented by the men) so they could emerge at different times. We next saw the long, dark room, lit by a single window and oil lamps, where the women rolled the cigars on their bared legs, often while feeding babies, a romantic scene to nineteenth century observers, which inspired paintings, novels and the opera “Carmen”. On to the small prison where tobacco theft workers were punished, and finally the tobacco workers’ church where the theme of the Holy Week processions was picked up: the university had decided to form its own religious brotherhood (one of the 62 or 64 Seville brotherhoods which would hold their own procession during Holy Week) and they would process behind their old huge Christ on the cross and more recent Virgin in glory.

Hotel Alfonso XIII Seville

Hotel Alfonso XIII Seville

After all this interesting information, we relaxed over coffee in the neo-Mudejar Hotel Alfonso XIII with its decadent banks of white orchids, then headed for the vast Cathedral which exuded a sense of immense wealth from its silver and gold encrusted altars, chapels and treasury enough to feed the poor for quite some time.

Seville Cathedral

Seville Cathedral

In front of the intricate golden cedar altarpiece an American mother picked out carved Bible scenes for her nine-year-old daughter and, starting with Palm Sunday and the donkey, discussed with great lucidity the events of Holy week. Outside it had got colder and was looking overcast as we followed the tramlines back to the sixteenth century Archivo de Indias, where the short video told us how, before its construction, the merchants used to annoy the Cathedral authorities by gathering below the Cathedral gate to discuss the price of goods from the Indies; trade declined when the river silted up and the merchants moved to Cadiz, the building fell into disuse, declined into tenements and was finally restored in the late eighteenth century for the Archives of the Indies’ documents on the discovery and colonization of America and the Philippines. Currently it had an interesting exhibition of illustrations from Poma’s account of the conquest and conversion of Peru. Half way back to our hotel we warmed up with coffee/beer and a shared chocolate brownie. In the evening our holiday finished perfectly when we met up on the Alameda de Hercules with John and Wendy, who had just returned to Seville from Cordoba, and we enjoyed exchanging travel impressions and family news over congenial tapas at the Arte y Sabor restaurant. The band was not rehearsing outside our hotel that night.

We returned next day to Entre-deux-Eaux to the sad news that Madame Laine’s sister Giselle had died after another nasty fall while we were away. On a happier note the cowslips were pretty in the orchard, and wood anemones starry under the hazel. Since then it has been warm and sunny for gardening, and the lady’s smock are also out in the meadows and the damson trees are white in the orchard. And now we need to pack for our next Letchworth visit.

We visited more than is mentioned above
If you wish to see more photographs, click on the image below for the full set

Andalusia, Spain 2017 photographs

Andalusia, Spain 2017 photographs

Mince pies, parsley cakes and cream gateaux: everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, September – December 2016

To download a printable PDF version click on this link E2E2016no4.pdf (six A4 pages)

There are links to fuller sets of photographs in the text and on some photographs
together with a full set of the Sicily visit photographs

The swimming pool was on the E2E patio and the damsons dropping from the orchard trees in the last episode. Now, at the start of December, the pool has long been deflated and the pot plants, swing seat, garden benches, garden ornaments and trickle watering pipes are stowed away in a barn, protected from the heavy frosts sparkling on the fields. The winter tyres are on the cars, the summer mud and autumn leaves cleared out of the drainage channels, the oil storage tank re-filled and the underfloor heating comforting indoors. So we could withstand being snowed in. But as yet there is no snow.

On the radio up in the attic there is discussion of pantomimes – Aladdin, Jack in the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Mother Goose – and the mince pies have been opened (though not the sherry, which is rarely sold in France). Tonight Saint Nicholas, resplendent in his purple bishop’s robes, will follow a long and colourful procession of floats and dancers through the streets of Saint Dié, before disappearing with a flourish, door bang and fireworks into the Cathedral till next year. We shall probably give the procession a miss, as there’s a lot of standing around waiting and evening temperatures have been sub-zero. However next weekend, having been unaccountably delayed for a week, a less dignified Saint Nicholas will manifest in Entre-deux-Eaux, together with the sinister Père Fouettard, to check if the village children have been good all year, before distributing sweets and being serenaded by the children. This is a warmer, homely event in the village hall, so there may well be English observers.

As for the mince pies: this year Helen, sad that the Sainte Marguerite pensioners’ Friday Scrabble has diminished to a fortnightly event, has joined the group which meets on the alternate Fridays to do number and word puzzles to keep the ageing brains active. Their sessions are more sociable, starting with funny anecdotes round the table, moving on to exercises and finishing up with cakes and drinks. Helen volunteered cakes for the first December meeting and the group gamely agreed to try out something foreign. But what? After some thought when we were recently in the UK, we stocked up on mince pies and Bakewell tarts. Most people started, gingerly, with a mince pie, with one of the more elegant, sophisticated ladies voicing everyone’s uncertainty about the filling. “Dried fruits” puzzled them until someone pronounced it more like marmalade than anything else they knew. The icing on top of the Bakewell tarts was a mistake though, as it was far too sweet for French tastes and overwhelmed the almond flavour which would have been familiar to them from galette des rois. Helen’s opening anecdote was probably better received than the tarts: the one most of you will already have heard about incomprehensible English accents and our neighbour being horrified when asked if he’d killed a sanglier (boar), but hearing it as anglais (English man). The ensuing discussion of accents produced another story involving a Breton in a Saint Dié bakery trying to order a bougelov having earlier tasted the Alsace kougelhof cake delicacy.

Kaysersberg

Kaysersberg

Kaysersberg is a calendar-picturesque Alsace walled village and even in the damp mist a couple of weeks ago the hills above were golden with autumn leaves. John dislikes going there as he considers it is always crowded with visitors and its quaintness is artificial (having chosen, after the war, to rebuild houses to look just as they used to, with fake beams, timber and carvings concealing the concrete). However after a very good meal in l’Alchemille, a recently opened restaurant on the outskirts, he agreed to a short stroll around the old town. For once the streets were almost deserted and the structurally unnecessary timbered facades and overhanging eves were being decked with green branches and red berries in readiness for the forthcoming Christmas Market and its crowded car parks, mulled wine, traffic wardens, spice bread, wooden stalls, shuffling throngs and, maybe, armed police this year, like Strasbourg. Even the shops were looking sleepy, though the bakery window was full of anticipatory kougelhof and berawecka. Berawecka is a very expensive Alsace Christmas treat made of dried fruit, spice and a dash of kirsch cherry liqueur. It is sold in small slices and, as you would guess, tastes very like the filling of mince pies.

l’Alchemille amuse bouche (link to photographs)

l’Alchemille amuse bouche (link to photographs)

We were glad, however, that the restaurant menu at l’Alchemille had still been very autumnal. Autumn being the time when the pigs are killed, the menu-of-the-day had pièce de cochon gras d’Alsace as its main course. However, another menu with its equally autumnal ingredients caught our eyes with mushrooms “from our mountains”, chestnut and celery in the starter. The surprise pre-starters were served first and looked so artistic. On a bed of straw nestled two green conkers, edged with beige mushrooms and dark brown rounds on a fir twig. We were formally introduced to this creativity as parsley crunchy cakes, terrine on a stick and cinder biscuits with pate filling. Wow! And delicious! The creamy mushroom soup starter tasted wonderful and the chicken main course a worthy successor. And then an autumnal dessert of caramelised apple. With the coffee came colourful discs of beetroot, carrot and apple and little blackberry tarts. No wonder John could affably face even the quaintness of the main shopping street afterwards. Perhaps the wine also helped.

Having have been in the UK more frequently this year, we have missed quite a few of the regular autumn events here, like the International Festival of Geography and some of our favourite flea markets. However we were here in September for the Patchwork Festival in Sainte-Marie-aux Mines and surrounding villages. Each year’s competition quilts are artistic creations, but the quilts hanging in the church in Sainte-Croix-aux-Mines were very basic designs and looked more hastily stitched. But they had a fascinating story.

Mennonite quilt

Mennonite quilt

During the war a Dutch woman, An, and her pastor husband were in the Resistance and sheltered many refugees. At the end of the war all the bedding was burned as it was vermin infested. But then, in 1945, came Ukrainian refugees fleeing Russian persecution. The American and Canadian Mennonites had been canning food and sewing quilts to aid the people of Holland post-war and immediately supplied quilts, which were unfamiliar to the Dutch (but part of the Ukrainians’ heritage so they piled them up happily for warmth). When the Ukrainians departed on a ship to Patagonia, where farmers were required, An folded up the quilts and kept them. Years later in 1980 a young American, Lynn, living with her Palestinian husband and child in Holland, spent a weekend in An’s farmhouse and was amazed and nostalgic seeing the Mennonite quilts on all the beds. An said they weren’t hers to sell but offered to give her one. Lyn, knowing their value, felt she couldn’t accept such an expensive gift from a stranger. However, 10 years later, when patchwork and its history were becoming popular in Holland, she asked An if she could exhibit them in their American bookshops in Amsterdam and The Hague at Thanksgiving and their story started to emerge. Eventually Lynn wrote an interesting book called “Passing on the Comfort: The War, the Quilts and the Women Who Made a Difference”. Helen is happy to lend her copy to anyone interested.

Around the same time, the oldies of E2E had their September cake and champagne social get-together. Helen took her walking boots as the former mayor often leads a walk for the more active members, usually about six or seven. This time he led us up the track near our house, which we know rather well, then on and ever on. It was a longer walk than many people wanted; one had to turn back, a lift had to be flagged down for another, and the rest of us got back an hour after the cake and champagne were served. There was considerable grumbling. The ex-Mayor was not present at the November meeting and everyone seemed relieved to relax and to play Scrabble and Rummikub instead – and be at the front of the cream cake queue.

We seem to watch a lot of crime series on TV these days, especially during the long winter nights. But the one with the best scenery is definitely Montalbano, which has for a long time been enticing us to visit Sicily, as has the lavishly illustrated book we picked up in an Amnesty Book sale in Saint Dié. And there are flights from Basel to Catania. So we flew to Catania at the end of September and picked up a hire car at the airport. But instead of heading down the coast to Montalbano-land we drove inland. We spent the first night in a B&B outside Piazza Amerina which did a wonderful breakfast spread at which all the guests sat sociably round the laden table exchanging information and tips.

Piazza_Armerina_Roman mosaics

Piazza Armerina Roman mosaics (link to more photographs)

We were well placed to arrive at the nearby palatial Roman villa before all the coach tours, so could gaze for as long as we liked on the amazing mosaic floors from the walkways at first floor level. Each room was decorated very differently, our favourite being a woodland hunting scene to which we returned. There was a more spectacular long floor showing exotic mosaic animals being captured and loaded onto ships, and the one shown on all the posters of “dancing girls”, but the rural scene was so delicate and flowing.

By mid-day it was hot, so we drove to Aidone and looked round the cool little museum in a former Capuchin monastery which displayed objects from the excavations of the Greek city of Morgantina. Montalbano was not forgotten, however, as we revived ourselves afterwards with cold drinks and our first (and best) taste of the detective’s favourite arancini risotto balls, before exploring the almost deserted Morgantina excavations. This hilltop site was less spectacular than temple sites we were to see later, but its ruins so extensive, with its houses, roads, agora, workshops, amphitheatre, bath-house, granary and sanctuaries, that the sun was going down when we left.

The next day we took a country route towards the south coast and the temples of Agrigento. We did wonder about the meaning of a temporary road sign but were many kilometres further on when its meaning became apparent: boulders deliberately blocked the junction with the road we wanted to be on next. It was a weary return and diversion (un-signposted after the first turn off, then blocked by goats). We were so grateful for our satnav but at least we saw plenty of the wild flowers and changing land use before reaching the more arid coastal landscape where our B&B, the Garden Cactus, rejoiced in an enthusiast’s collection of thousands of cacti. That evening it rained, so our next day exploring the famous and popular Greek temples of Agrigento was unpleasantly humid on the exposed temple ridge.

Odd memories of the next day’s drive westwards along the coast, with John’s hacking cough and cold troubling him, are of a disappointingly scraggy beach, a lonely old man accosting us verbosely in good English in front of one of the gateways to Sciacca old town, and an elegant country hotel where a dish of grapes and a peach was offered as Helen reclined on a chaise longue reading.

Doric temple at Segesta (link to photographs)

Doric temple at Segesta (link to photographs)

In the late afternoon light the following day the Doric temple at Segesta looked magnificent and we caught the last shuttle bus up to the amphitheatre at the top of the hill with its spectacular view.

We spent our most memorable two days, despite John’s painful chest and fatigue, in Monreale with its Norman cathedral and pleasant town.

Monreale cathedral (link to photographs)

Monreale cathedral (link to photographs)

The cathedral glittered with mosaic Bible stories running in strip cartoon bands on a gold background right round the inside walls of the cathedral, with the magnificent golden Christ Pantocrator of the apse dominating all. More Bible stories as well as intricate plants, mythological beasts, acrobats and archers embellished the capitals of the marble columns supporting the Arab arches of the cloisters. Outside, seen from the narrow streets of the Jewish quarter, the flamboyant Arabic external decoration of the apse was striking.

Christ Pantocrator, Cefalu (link to photographs)

Christ Pantocrator, Cefalu (link to photographs)

After Cefalu on the coast, whose even earlier cathedral mosaics, apart from the Christ Pantocrator, were disappointing after Monreale, we headed inland again to the hilltop villages and towns. In Castelbuono we enjoyed the museum in the castle and the rather crude frescoes in the damp church crypt, and a cheap cafe in Nicosia. The wooded scenery was attractive but then the narrow road began to disintegrate and John had to navigate craters for many kilometres. To add to the atmosphere, Etna smoked dark but subdued ahead of us; and as we got nearer, the fertile orchards were blackened by lava flow, the winding country lanes were edged with black walls and the houses looked sinister with their black stones. Back in Catania the buildings and shabby streets were also a depressing black, but the vibrant street fish market and vegetable market added plenty of colour.

Despite not doing everything we’d planned in Sicily, we had a memorable twelve days there. We then had three days back in E2E, before setting out for the UK, which gave time to get the washing done and the car loaded with extra chairs, cooking equipment and crockery, as we planned to celebrate John’s 70th birthday in our considerably smaller (and relatively less well-equipped) house in Letchworth.

It was Jacob’s half term, and he helped us prepare the house and garden and food for the party, in between playing some of his favourite games. It was a shame he wasn’t with us on the Saturday as he would have enjoyed helping Alistair put up his two gazebos in the garden to form a spacious food tent. But he was back on the Sunday with Farrah, Rachel and Toby to join all the guests sampling the spread (thank-you Ann and Jessica for all the delicious extras!) laid out in the gazebos. And the day was even warm enough (just about) for some people to sit outside and others to undertake the Letchworth quiz. It was a good celebration and catch up with family and old friends. Ann and Derek came back for dinner on Wednesday, John’s actual birthday. And on the Friday we met up with Jessica and Mark for an amazing nine course lunch at The Clove Club in Shoreditch. So it was a lovely week.

The following week we had an enjoyable day in Cambridge (some good book purchases!) and on the Thursday drove up to Nottingham (another convivial meal, this time Indian, with Leila, John and Wendy). From there we drove up to the Lake District to meet up with the Train Gang. We all gathered at Sue and Hugh’s Old Schoolhouse for honey-chicken on the Friday evening, and it was good to include most of the husbands for the first time; even the neurotic and fearful (abused) dog coped with the gang by dint of watching the clock timer ticking loudly. The autumn colours were glorious as the gang drove to Patterdale church to see the plaque to the fifth member who died a couple of years ago. And in the evening we went back to a pub the gang had enjoyed a few years back.

On the way up Cat Bells

On the way up Cat Bells

The weather was not so good the next day when Jessica, John and Helen climbed up Cat Bells and Shelagh and Melvyn returned to Patterdale, but the hills were purple with heather and, when the rain clouds lifted, snow could be seen on the top of Skiddaw and Helvelyn.

On the way back from seeing the Traingang, we stopped to have lunch with Ann and Michael at the Old Hall in Sandbach (wonderful building but standard pub food). They had rented our farmhouse in the early days, and returned several times to dog-sit for our American friend Nicola. So it was good to catch up with them. And there was another link to that era when we returned to E2E a few days later; an e-mail from Nicola announced the death of Godiva, the last of the cats that Nicola had adopted in 1997 after other farmhouse tenants had told her about the four kittens abandoned by a wild cat in a woodpile below our vegetable patch. Two of those peasant kittens had later moved to a Paris flat and two had gone to the south coast with Nicola and her dogs, far from their humble origins.

Since those busy weeks in Sicily and in the UK, everyday life has seemed calmer back in E2E. The most frequent vehicles on our road are tractors bringing bales of hay down to the cowshed. So it was a surprise the other day to hear a gaggle of girls running after a car, waving something in their hands. They turned out to be some of the Saulcy baton-twirlers selling their calendar – probably more colourful than that of the firemen or rubbish collectors, and a definite indication of the fast-approaching end of the year. No doubt the postman will knock soon with his calendars. He will have to hurry, as only next week we hope to be re-packing the car and setting off for Christmas in Letchworth.

In the meantime, we hope you are enjoying all your December activities and preparations. Joyeuses fetes de fin d’année!

Feasting, fèves, fortifications and frescoes – everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux – January-March 2016

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2016no1.pdf (six A4 pages)

Click here for the full set of Portugal photos

A week ago today we were in Strasbourg for the first time in six months, and not for routine medical appointments but for pleasure – lunch with friends. They had chosen one of their favourite venues, the Fink’Stuebel, a typical Alsace small restaurant alongside a canal, in the area of Marie Laure’s student days. Wherever we meet up, we seem to attract noisy diners at neighbouring tables – or is it just a sign of increasing age? After a congenial lunch with typically generous portions of choucroute for John and black sausage, apple and onions for Helen (Marie-Laure and Christian having chosen their favourite calf’s head in sauce), followed by an ice cream kougelhof, we were happy to walk off the excess and enjoy the relative silence in the streets of Petite France and the Grande Île. It was a lovely sunny day, despite the wind, and the atmosphere felt very relaxed, with people strolling by the river, browsing the second had bookstalls on Place Gutenberg, riding bikes and sitting with dogs in the sunshine of Place Kleber. We had forgotten how attractive the narrow, colourful pedestrian streets round the cathedral are, with their bakeries, restaurants and charcuteries. We lingered in a recently renovated boutique arcade, an excellent foreign language bookshop, and even an Oxfam shop. We saw only two armed soldiers during the whole afternoon. It was so good to feel that the security atmosphere was less tense than it had sounded over Christmas, and in February when Marie-Laure had written about a demonstration of 15,000 Kurds, the armed soldiers patrolling in groups of six, and of feeling dispossessed of their city. But now with the terrible news from Brussels and plots in Paris, that relaxed atmosphere we were lucky to experience will no doubt have evaporated again.

In our last newsletter, perhaps we underestimated the shock of villagers to the far-off events in Paris. After an enjoyable Christmas and New Year in Letchworth with family and friends, and having avoided catching nasty colds or ‘flu there this year, we returned to Entre-deux-Eaux on 7th January, in time to continue festivities here. The following evening Mayor Duhaut offered his voeux, or seasonal greetings, and those of the municipal council to the villagers in our spacious village hall. This is always well attended, with its tasty nibbles and crémant d’Alsace/kir (few people turn down good food and drink here, even if it means listening to the mayor’s speech first). We dutifully got round at least half the room kissing cheeks and shaking hands and muttering “Meilleurs voeux”, which is a record for us (especially as they only tell you after exchanging kisses that they’ve got a terrible cold). The mayor started his speech by remembering the events of Charlie Hebdo a year and a day ago, and the shootings in and around the Bataclan in November, and all who had died there. Usually it is only those who have died during the year in the village who are remembered, and in comparison the passing away of the oldest inhabitant, gentle Lena, in her nineties, seemed such a natural event. On a lighter note, the nibbles were so good and copious that afterwards we saved most of our planned dinner for another day.

Saturday was equally festive in Sainte Marguerite for the crémant d’Alsace and galette des rois. The dancing was in full swing by the time I got there, and there was much hilarity over a game involving a king, his queen, their coachman, their four-wheeled carriage and two horses participating in a story in which the nine “actors” have to get up and run round their chairs whenever their “character” (including each wheel) is mentioned.

And just in case the weekend felt quiet, there was a very convivial lunch the next day back in E2E for all the over 65 year-olds offered by the village council. There were about seventy eight participants at two long tables. The food was all cooked by a young man from the village and the music and entertainment was provided by two elderly villagers in tight jeans, joined occasionally by a man who’d annoyingly brought his castanets with him. The food was excellent, with the meal lasting from mid-day till nearly six when the coffee and chocolates were served. Each course was filling, but with all the wine and dancing between courses, everyone managed to eat their way through the menu without too much of a struggle. The highlight was a game involving a king, a queen, a coachman… it must be this year’s “in” French party entertainment. After so much wine we all had tears in our eyes as we watched the left rear wheel forgetting her part and the coachman falling off his chair. And then there was the stand up/sit down action song. Oh, such hours of innocent fun.

There was then a slight lull in January festivities, during which we were able to enjoy some snowy, but slippery walks, a local history talk on the military postcards of Adolphe Weick of Saint Dié during the first world war, and, with Scrabble in Sainte Marguerite starting to meet fortnightly rather than weekly, I bravely joined the Remue Meninges group which meets on alternate weeks. John translates it as Helen’s gaga group but it is usually translated as brainstorming, though it’s really word and number exercises like Countdown, word-search, crosswords etc. to keep the brain active. The group turned out to be very lively and welcoming and most solicitous that I should understand everything – I struggle more with the numbers than the words, oddly enough! At the end of that first session there was more galette des rois and cider or crémant!

galette des rois fève

galette des rois fève

Then on 20th we reached the final seasonal lunch, prepared by the ex-fireman’s wife and her helpers for the E2E Oldies club. John nobly agreed to join in, and by the time the wine had flowed freely, thanks to the presence on our table of both present and former mayors, John even wore the cardboard crown presented to those who found the fève (once a bean but now a ceramic figure) in their galette, and agreed to submit to the challenge of three-sided dominoes. At the same time we heard animated discussions from the mayors former and present of current village plans, like that to build a smaller meeting room for groups like ours and some single-storey pavillons or detached houses, providing disabled access for elderly villagers. This sounds a very progressive scheme for the village, but with Mayor Duhaut’s mother Giselle (the elder sister of Madame Laine) having suffered many falls in her draughty old farmhouse, he is fully aware of the problems of the elderly (a polite translation of John’s comment, “guess who’ll get the first house”).

Nearly home after a snowy walk

Nearly home after a snowy walk

With the feasting over, it was back to snowy walks and the occasional cultural highlight, like a talk by author Philippe Claudel, organised by the Saint Dié bookshop and held in a room at the top of the interestingly sculptural Tour de Liberté. I hadn’t realised that one was expected to reserve a place, but was graciously allowed to join other improvident people perched on tables round the edge of the room. It was perfectly comfortable, but I must have looked decrepit as I was singled out just before the start for a vacant chair in the front row alongside the dignitaries. But from there the view through the long glass windows (which curl round in a huge semi-circle) to the high snow-covered hills round Saint Dié was lovely, and especially apt when the author described writing about mountains. His main theme, however, was death and who one writes for after the people for whom one has been writing die. It wasn’t a book which I felt the urge to buy, but the talk was stimulating, so when we found the Oxfam shop in Strasbourg (there are two in Lille and Paris and one in Strasbourg), I bought an earlier novel of Claudel’s. The following weekend, however, at the Philomatique’s AGM, I invested in a fascinating and surprisingly weighty book about civilian life in the Vosges during World War 1. As a result of the tables in it I can now tell you how many rabbits and chickens there were in E2E, and the level of war damage, but it will need some close scrutiny (the print is too small for comfortable reading) to tell you the effect locally of wartime textile strikes. Unsurprisingly, it started life as a thesis and is very thoroughly researched.

No newsletter is complete without a detailed food description. Once into February, and feeling the effects of the end of the feasting, we decided to cross the Vosges to try out a new restaurant in Ammerschwihr which had been opened by chef Julian Binz (who had one Michelin star at a Colmar restaurant). His décor of voluptuous Rubens-like ladies and the head waiter simpering “you’re welcome” at the end of every sentence were negatives, but the nibbles were good, the crab amuse-bouche exquisite, and the sea bream tartare in parsnip soup with lemon grass beautifully and delicately flavoured. After that the veal in a rather strongly-smoked bacon wrapping and artichoke was good though not as exciting and the pineapple dessert was pleasant but not memorable. Afterwards we wandered round the small walled town of Kientzheim before driving back. There were illuminated warning signs as the road started the climb to the Col de Bonhomme, and we passed a snow plough spreading salt or grit on the Alsace side, but our side had not been done and the van in front was going extremely slowly as the compacted new snow was slippery near the top.

Other February diversions included an antiques fair then the big Amnesty book sale in Saint Dié and the annual trip to the “theatre” in Saulxures. This year’s farce had just 3 local actors (including the baker) in a ménage à trois, and before performing they also waited at table, carved the giant smoked ham, poured the drinks and chatted to guests at the long tables, all of which get the audience in a very receptive mood for the comedy. They do a Saturday and a Sunday performance and meal right through winter from October. Such a hard slog on top of a working week!

Almendres cromlech near Evora

Almendres cromlech near Evora – click on image for a full 360º panorama

After that February began to seem a bit drab, and John searched the internet for a good combination of cheap flights and maximum winter sunshine and on 24th we flew from Basel to Lisbon, hired a car and meandered south and east. Many years ago (probably over thirty-five) we’d taken the train from Lisbon to Lagos in the south west for a few days at the end of a conference John was attending. The small fishing town had charmed us, as had our ride across the Tagus on the ferry and the train through the cork estates. This time, not wanting to see all the high rise hotels and flats that have since blighted that coastline, we decided to head south east, the car enabling us to visit more remote places and see ancient rural megaliths, as well as the rich layers of Iron age, Palaeo-Christian, Roman, Moorish and Christian sites in fortified hill towns. Evora was our first stop. We stayed just outside the town walls, but from the top floor bar we could see the town spread out above us, dominated by the stolid Romanesque/Gothic cathedral. Beyond, in the countryside we walked up earth tracks between cork and olive trees and grazing cattle to find early history’s atmospheric menhirs and dolmens. On a wet day we dashed with dripping umbrellas between the museum’s Iron age and Roman finds, the Roman temple and baths, and churches with blue and white tiled interiors, and then were intrigued by a small metallic notice on Vasco da Gama street about the ancient palace of the Silveira-Henriques with remains of a sixteenth century cloister with “frescos where the bizarre, the grotesque, the profane and the religious thematic enters in symbiosis in a marvellous allegorical set, enhancing an artistic manifestation unique in the country”.

Fresco in ancient palace of the Silveira-Henriques

Fresco in ancient palace of the Silveira-Henriques

There was nothing in the various guide books about this unique allegorical symbiosis. Who could resist the challenge? But there were no likely-looking palace doors. We walked uphill and into a square and enquired tentatively in the gallery of modern art. They said they could access the “garden”, but were more interested in showing us the current artists’ exhibitions. Eventually, escorted by a guard with keys and a silent custodian, we were ushered along a corridor, down stairs, through a crypt, up some more stairs and the gate into a small garden was unlocked for us. And there along one recessed wall of the garden were the most delicately painted enchanting creatures from a mediaeval bestiary, including a many headed dragon or hydra, a mermaid and a musician. We felt as excited as if we had discovered them ourselves, and on the way out smiled politely at the torn splattered bed-sheet modern artworks we were shown, whilst feeling, like old fogies, that art isn’t what used to be.

São Cucufate

São Cucufate

None of the frescoes we saw afterwards, amid the fortifications, would match the delicacy of what the hotel barman called “the painted garden”. On our way to the lakeside walled hill town of Mertola close to the Spanish border, we made a detour to a Roman villa marked on our map. São Cucufate (a Spanish saint said to have survived being roasted alive, covered with vinegar and pepper) in fact exhibits the remains of three very large Roman villas (the massive walls of the latest dating from the fourth century) and a ninth century convent. Sadly the Augustine canons, or the Benedictine monks or the solitary hermit who later occupied it were not as skilled at chapel wall-paintings as the “garden” painter.

 Santa Clara de Louredo fresco

Santa Clara de Louredo fresco

But nothing as sad as the frescoes at the tiny sixteenth century village church of Santa Clara de Louredo, where we stopped on our way between the walled town of Beja and the fortified hill village of Mertola, having read a passing reference to a legendary princess repelling the Moors. It is possible that the paintings on the walls round the altar were very crude to start with, but their “restoration”, apparently in the nineteen eighties, looks balder than a comic strip with black outlines and crude daubs of colour depicting Saint Clare, holding up the sacrament and saving her convent and the walled city behind from the Moors. We were cheered only by the sight of a troupe of the famous Iberian black pigs a bit further along the road rushing eagerly through the olive trees in the hope that we would feed them titbits through the roadside fence.

By the time we reached Mertola it was the hottest day so far as we climbed up the steps to the old walled town and sank into café chairs and waited for everything to open after lunch. This was probably our richest day as with an old river trading port through the ages there were all the afore-mentioned layers of history, with Phoenician and Greek artefacts thrown in. Below the castle walls were some fascinating recent excavations of Moorish houses built on the Roman forum, with an episcopal palace alongside. The simple adjacent church had been a mosque, the castle of the Swabians and Visigiths and Moors was taken by the Spanish Knights of the Order of Santiago, and there were fascinating little Islamic, Roman and Palaeo-Christian museums to visit. The impressive Roman house remains were to be found under the town hall, approached through a typically boring municipal waiting room. Even our modern hotel had a viewing shaft in reception down to the walls of the fishermen’s houses excavated during its construction.

Silves castle

Silves castle

And when we reached the coast near Castro Marim and the Spanish border the next day, it was still hot enough to enjoy a paddle along the windy golden sands of the deserted beach. More energetic were the cyclists racing in over the Roman bridge in Tavira at the end of the Algarve bike race. Set back further from the coast we enjoyed the castle and cathedral at Silves, deciding that this was the Moorish fortification (formerly Roman and Visigothic) for us, with its ample water supply (a ten metre high vaulted and pillared cistern and sixty metre deep well) and its attractive modern sculpture garden.

Carrasqueira

Carrasqueira

Outside the castle gate there was live open-air music from a café and the cobbled streets leading up to the cathedral (built over the former mosque) were strewn with lavender for the pre-Easter procession later. When we reached the west coast we were enchanted by the small fishing hamlet of Carrasqueira in the evening sunlight with its simple spiky wooden jetties.

We stayed in a mix of rural guest-houses, modern urban hotels and posh historic Pousadas (including our last night in the old castle/convent at Alcacer do Sol, which of course had its own excellent subterranean museum of Iron age, Roman, and Moorish old walls and pottery fragments). And we ate a lot of good hearty pork (including those black pigs), cod, wild boar, and steak dishes (John had his best ever beef fillet in Evora, and on our last night near the west coast the riverside restaurant combined land and sea in a large plate of steak, prawns and chips). It was a great break.

Back in E2E, an agreeable spell of sunny weather has enable us to get on with weeding and pruning and fertilising the garden. Rejoicing in the improvement to his back, John has been heavily pruning trees, sawing and shredding all the orchard saplings branches he has cut down, only to discover he is very allergic to some – probably the flying golden pollen of the hazel catkins. The hellebore and snowdrops have been very pretty this year, and the cowslips, which I always associate with Easter, are stippling the orchard grass.

After Easter we shall be packing up again and heading for Letchworth, where we hope to see as many family and friends as possible before we return around 19th or 20th April. When we reached Calais on our last trip in December we saw a very large number of police in and around the makeshift migrants’ camp behind the grim wire fences shielding the approach road to the port. Then armed French police inspected our car boot as we checked in. Asked whether there had been an incident overnight, they shrugged and said it was routine now. All was quieter on the return journey, but police were still patrolling the gap between the two wire fences, which were uncomfortable reminders of prison camps. A report sixteen days later of fifty migrants breaking the barriers and boarding the P&O Ferry “Spirit of Britain” did not come as a surprise.

With that sombre thought, we wish you all a very happy Easter and hope to see you soon.

We visited many more towns, archaeological sites, castles, museums and galleries
in southern Portugal than are mentioned above
If you wish to see more photographs, click on the image below for the full set

Portugal photo index

Time out from Entre-deux-Eaux: Portugal, volcanoes, piri-piri and football

To download a printable Adobe Acrobat version click on this link E2EYr8Weeks41-5.pdf (seven A4 pages)
Clicking on a photo will take you to a larger single image.
Clicking on one of the underlined links
(e.g. food) will take you to a selection of photos.

Everyone has their own tale of volcanic ash and the disruption of travel plans. Ours began with a cookery book, Piri piri starfish: Portugal found, which Leila had given John. His bedtime reading of these recipes led to the idea of travelling to Portugal to sample authentic dishes for ourselves. Combine this with our love of train-travel and you can imagine the sequence: book a cheap Ryanair flight in April/early May from Baden-Baden to Porto, then a leisurely train journey round northern Portugal, sampling the wines and food. We would start by travelling up the Douro valley, with its spectacular scenery and branch off on the dramatic narrow-gauge railways up the Douro tributaries…

The plan was doomed from the start. First of all, research into train timetables showed that the narrow-gauge railways had got too dramatic, with fatal accidents, and were currently closed for essential work. And then of course, Iceland suffered a volcano crisis and flights began to be cancelled. We wondered whether we should postpone the trip (but then we’d miss the spring flowers) or drive down (a long journey, but the car would enable us to see more remote areas).

Late that Saturday afternoon, with planes still grounded, John returned with Bluto and a clean bill of health from the car’s obligatory controle technique (MOT equivalent), and we decided to cancel our Porto hotels, forget the train timetables, throw a few clothes in the back of the car, and start driving the following morning. Of course, although we included John’s computer and recent guide books to Portugal, we hadn’t updated our road maps for this trip, so we had a 2004 Michelin road atlas of France, a 2000 road atlas of Europe and our faithful (but already with out-of-date maps) satnav, Gladys. (At a service station we hastily purchased a Michelin map of Portugal). So we were soon struck by how new motorways have opened up swathes of rural France for rapid travel, in a way that the railways must once have done. Once out of Lorraine, we found ourselves careering through boar and deer forests towards Orleans on a motorway that wasn’t even a dotted line on our map book. The other shock was that the days of comfortable family hotels in every small French town seem to have vanished without us noticing, and we were reduced to finding a cheap hotel chain on some industrial estate near the airport on the outskirts of Poitiers (but at least there were no planes overhead).

The road through the Pyrenees, Spain

The road through the Pyrenees, Spain

The following day saw us crossing the border into Spain, between Bayonne and Bilbao, feeling as if the days of the highwaymen demanding every last coin had not vanished, as tolls were exacted every few kilometres. And then we lunged off down another splendid new motorway to Vitoria, with tunnels, soaring bridges, fantastic rock striations and stunning views.

On our third day, we decided it was time to slow down and appreciate a little of north-west Spain before crossing into Portugal, so we spent a morning in Salamanca, enjoying the old cathedral, elegant churches the huge Plaza Major with its outdoor cafés and young musicians in black doublets and hose. Then we drove on to the small hill-top walled town of Ciudad Rodrigo, on the Spanish side of the border. Our room in the Palacio Maldonado (lavishly refurbished downstairs and pleasant upstairs) overlooked the ramparts, a favoured route of dog-walkers, it seemed. But in place of cannons and attacking soldiers, sheep grazed peacefully between the defensive walls, and small black donkeys by the river. The fourteenth century castle, accustomed to withstanding the Moors, the Portuguese and Napoleon, had also lapsed into a more peaceful role as a Parador, and we decided to experience their “taste of the region” menu. By 10 o’clock, when we were ready for bed, the Spanish were just settling down to their food.

We crossed the border into Portugal the next morning. On the original plan, we’d have been in Porto, on the coast. This route felt like the back door into Portugal, – the scruffy route. The well-tended land on the Spanish side changed abruptly to wilderness. Once there had been fields with walls, and there must have been homes. But now it was abandoned. And then we reached the first hill-top fortifications on the Portuguese side – Almeida in its familiar Vauban star-shaped glory. Two vans with hunting horns painted on their sides hurtled through the gates to deliver the post to outlying areas.

Almeida

Almeida

It was a surprise, once we had walked through the impressive tunnelled gateways, to find that the village inside had the air of a Cornish fishing village, with its whitewashed walls and narrow streets. It had undergone a face-lift since the military finally left in 1928. I was particularly touched, as you can imagine, when I paused in front of the library, and was pushed enthusiastically inside by a passing inhabitant, who clearly thought it was one of the marvels of the town. It had been attractively renovated. It didn’t seem to have many books (though an old one was open in a showcase at an illustration of the fort at Agra) but the computers were all in use and chairs were being organised for a meeting or lecture. Down by the old barracks, the fire station was making its own preparations, with firemen busily washing their engines. The subterranean barracks had been turned into a museum with displays of different military periods. The pictures illustrating the Peninsular War all looked like stills from “Sharpe’s Gold”. However, listening to the commentary, it soon became obvious that Wellington’s victories against the French were due not to the fictional Sharpe and his small band, but to the outstanding Portuguese soldiers who Wellington always placed in the front of any attack. At lunch time, the small bar where we were still having coffee (after our leisurely breakfast discussing volcanic ash and alternative land and sea routes with an enterprising English couple) was popular with workmen who were served earthenware bowls of steaming food.

From Almeida we drove towards Foz Coa, enjoying the whites, purples and lavenders of the wild flowers as well as the vines, almonds, olives and freshly ploughed fields. We stopped in Castelo Melhor, and joined four congenial English people (who’d also had to make alternative travel plans) and a guide bouncing down a rutted track in an Archaeological Park landrover to some of the prehistoric rock carvings by the river. These are not in caves (like Lascaux) or under dramatic overhangs (as in the Drakensberg Mountains) but on separate bits of schist rock face, shorn off in places.

Rock carving at Castelo Melhor near Foz Coa

Rock carving at Castelo Melhor near Foz Coa

And, if they had been painted, there is no trace of paint now, just layers of overlaid scraped or chiselled lines. The guide was very good, tracing in the air all the lines we could so easily have overlooked. We examined six rocks out of the hundreds that have been found. They were noticed when a dam was being built, and all work on the dam has come to a halt since. We spent the night in a grumpy hotel in Foz Coa, dashing out in the torrential rain to the nearest restaurant. No sign of chicken piri-piri or hearty casseroles there, so John had good cod and fried potato and I had veal escalopes and chips, both accompanied by a rice and bean mix and a very heady wine.

With rain still threatening next morning we visited more prehistoric rock carvings by the river Coa at Canada Inferno, then headed towards the Douro. We were seduced by mention of ruins to detour along a cobbled narrow track between stone walls, which followed a contour and vineyards round the hillsides for several kilometres. Again the wild flowers were so pretty in the afternoon sunshine, and everything was fresh after last night’s rain. There were no houses and no people apart from some French walkers along this ancient-feeling route.

Roman ruins near Freixo de Numão

Roman ruins near Freixo de Numão

And then, below us we spotted ruined columns and walls. It was a spectacular site, in need of some explanatory panels, but appeared to be Roman, built on Neolithic remains.

As we dropped down from the mountains towards the River Douro, we were engulfed by more vine terraces, and could have drunk our way westwards at any of the great port names, (including Sandeman in his black cape). John had found on the internet a remote agrotourism hotel up in the hills for the night. It was so remote that it was hard to find (Gladys was a star here), and it was great to be welcomed on our arrival with a glass of port and the news that, as it was quiet, we’d been upgraded from a double room to our own stone cottage, with sitting room and small garden. As you can imagine, we can thoroughly recommend this new venture, with its enthusiastic young manager. Apparently his mother does all the cooking, but we never saw her enter or emerge from the kitchen. After a walk through orchards and vineyards and a bath, Mama’s locally-sourced food was served: starters of either succulent black sausage or bread sausage, followed by cod in corn bread or pork in a sweet and sour sauce, and a white wine from the days when it had been a farm. On the TV in the main sitting room Fulham was playing Hamburg, and we sank into the sofas to watch.

Next morning Mamma’s home-made pumpkin jam was delicious on the freshly delivered rolls, not to mention her chocolate cake. We headed off to Lamego for the day, but it was another diversion that proved the most enjoyable – to the Visigothic / Romanesque chapel of São Pedro de Balsemão (the oldest church in Portugal, we discovered later). We weren’t even sure that we’d found it at first, as from the side it looked a bit like a run-down factory with four-square stone walls. Rounding a corner we could see stone steps and a doorway with coats of arms. We were still uncertain, but once up the steps we were stunned to find ourselves in a small basilica with three naves, columns with Corinthian capitals, a coffered, painted, wooden seventeenth century ceiling, and a beautiful fourteenth century bishop’s tomb resting on recumbent lions.

Pregnant Virgin Mary at São Pedro de Balsemão

Pregnant Virgin Mary at São Pedro de Balsemão

A cheerful lady came bustling in from the courtyard on the other side, wiping her hands on an apron and pointing out all the “primitive” features and the fourteenth century Virgin of the O, the pregnant Virgin Mary. There were also fragments of Roman epigraphs incorporated into the walls, to add to the timeless feels of the little church. But then, alas, time intervened, for she was clearly anxious to serve the lunch she’d been preparing. So we drove on to Lamego and its castle, museum, churches and drab ladies’ and gents’ outfitters. But it was Balsamão that had captivated us. That evening Mama offered a choice between baked octopus and veal followed by strawberries or “pudding” (like a slice of thick crème caramel)

Having really enjoyed two nights of agrotourism, we decided to book another rural hotel, on the other side of the Douro, handy for Braga, the mediaeval town of Guimaraes and the fortified Celtic hill settlement of Breiteros. This hotel was even harder to find with just a name and place, but it seemed to be well known for miles around, as burly workmen in cafés drew us diagrams of how to get back on course and find it (road, town and street signs in rural Portugal are nearly non-existent and both Google maps and Gladys had identified only one place of the same name in the area, which turned out to be the wrong one). From the moment we reached its high walls and gate, we felt there was some mystery about it, which was perhaps well known to the locals. The man who greeted us had the air of a pirate, as he escorted us down the steps from the gate into a well-tended garden of fountains, box hedged paths, vine-covered terrace, red roses, azaleas, rhododendrons, pure white lilies, stone tables and white chairs.

Quinta de Santo Antonio do Pombal

Quinta de Santo Antonio do Pombal

Then his father appeared, and our pirate started to shuffle deferentially. Father struck John as a fallen aristo (and me as a wily lawyer). The odd duo showed us our cottage, which initially felt a bit damp, and then the main house with the sombre dining room for breakfast next morning. Clearly, promoting local foods is not part of their role, for no dinner was provided, and the nearest town of Fafe on a Sunday night was uninspiring. Over breakfast the next morning, father and son hovered in a menacing fashion, watching our every mouthful. It transpired that mother lives in Porto (in two houses), but father acquired this quinta twenty years ago, in some dodgy sounding deal where a friend first purchased but couldn’t afford it.

Father was determined that we should see a pilgrim church on a hill with a baroque staircase with fountains, but we were more keen to see the Celtic Citania de Briteiros. This is an amazing archaeological site. We’ve never seen such a vast hill settlement before, nor walls which rise two to three feet high. John suspected the nineteenth century archaeologists of rebuilding many of the walls, when we saw other areas which looked like undifferentiated rubble. We spent a long time there in the heat of the mid-day sun, and also enjoyed the small museum in the village, then drove on to Braga behind a car whose hobbit-sized owner had imbibed excessively. We strolled round Braga, rather overwhelmed by the exuberant jungle of carvings on the cathedral’s organ and the gilded balcony choir stalls. Appropriately, we dined at the Churrasqueira da Se (Cathedral Grill) on nibbles of fishcakes, olives and sausage slices, followed by salad, grilled meat and mounds of rice and chips (chicken piri piri is still proving elusive). The patron on his barstool was transfixed by the match between Braga and Naval (so we added to our scant knowledge of the Portuguese football league), but he leapt off his stool, yelling as Braga scored the first goal.

Art deco in Aveiro

Art deco in Aveiro

Next morning, Father was anxious to be handed cash for the two nights’ “hospitality” before he left for Porto, and we were escorted from the gated premises by the pirate. We decided against trying to drive and park in Porto, but crossed back over the Douro outside Porto, stopped for coffee in the coastal town of Aveiro, with its art deco houses and colourful high-prowed boats, then headed south-east towards a night of extravagant pleasures at the Buçaco Palace Hotel (I’d pleaded an imminent birthday when John had expressed doubts). Like so many beautiful things, the walled forest in which the palace is situated, was created by monks. They planted hundreds of species of trees round their convent, as a reminder of Mount Carmel and a symbol of earthly paradise.

Palace Hotel do Bussaco (Buçaco), Coimbra, Portugal

Palace Hotel do Bussaco (Buçaco), Coimbra, Portugal

The flat, dull countryside vanished as we plunged into this lush, hilly forest, with its follies, towers and neglected chapels (along a mossy Via Crucis). We were enclosed in another world – magical, contemplative, inviting. Beneath the soaring trees were streams with decadent white lilies, winding paths, steps, cascades, formal box-edged gardens, and a wisteria walk dripping mauve flowers. And then, plonked in the middle, next to the monks old chapel, was the neo-Manueline, icing-sugar, fantasy palace created at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. It had the air of a maharaja’s palace, and indeed, some of the blue and white tile pictures inside depicted the Portuguese ruler of India, along with scenes from the battle of Buçaco in 1810 (in which Wellington’s army defeated the French after the Siege of Ciudad Rodrigo, the Battle of Coa, and the Siege of Almeida – had we unwittingly been following the French attack route?). The forest outside was romanticised inside in huge wall paintings of minstrels, ladies, and hunters in the smoking room-cum-bar, whilst the hallway was a riot of carved white Edinburgh rock.

That evening, after a forest walk and a lingering bath, we descended to a dining room which combined features of a large railway station buffet with those of a French château. Amid the array of starched linen, wine glasses and painted walls (sailing ships in misty seas), we ordered a splendid-sounding dinner. But with the wine list starting at 1,000 euro for a bottle red and 800 euro for white (as well as 3,600 euro for vintage port) and stopping at 40 euro, John pointedly ordered beer while I splashed out on an eight euro glass of indifferent white wine. With no chicken on the menu, my companion, as they say in reviews, chose a starter of suckling pig ravioli, giblets sauce and orange zest confit, followed it with a very fiddly-to-eat steamed ray wing with raspberry emulsion, bread pudding with tomato and green asparagus, and still had an appetite for grilled wild boar with garlic and rosemary sautéed potato with cider and rapini purée tartlet (though found the boar dry). I really enjoyed my more delicate suckling pig salad with pistachios, pine nuts and marinated figs in Douro Moscatel followed by gratinated scallop and sautéed tiger prawn with pennyroyal leek confit. When the dessert trolley rattled up, we both chose the tropical fruit tart and a slab of ice-cream with walnut, vanilla and red fruit.

Not surprisingly we slept heartily and woke to an equally sumptuous breakfast laid out on the central oval table. I couldn’t bring myself to start the day with chilled “champagne” or with a cooked breakfast, but loved the three-tiered fruit bowl in the centre and the candelabra of bowls of cereals, apricots and fruit salad and the ceramic hen on its boiled eggs. After we’d explored more of the dappled forest, we drove out of the enchanted forest and back onto the scrubby plain, and the Roman marvels at Conimbriga. It was a hot day, and the noisy school groups were as bothersome as flies. But we really enjoyed the ruins, with their spectacular mosaic floors.

Conimbriga Roman ruins, near Cimbra, Portugal

Conimbriga Roman ruins, near Coimbra, Portugal

But it wasn’t until one of the school groups put some money in a slot we had overlooked, that we got the full benefit of Roman engineering, as reconstructed fountains (or jets of water) all round the central garden of irises, began to spray water. Such a cooling sound. The underground heating of the baths was also impressive, though we weren’t so keen on the partial reconstruction of the forum. Behind the house of the fountains rose a later, enormous, defensive wall which cut right through the rows of Roman houses, but, alas, it had failed to keep out the barbarians. The museum was good and informative and its café was great for plum juice, peach juice and the most delicious sweet pastries.

From Roman Conimbriga we moved on to Portugal’s former Moorish stronghold and mediaeval capital Coimbra (and the incongruously named Hotel Oslo). As the day began to cool, we climbed up a great many steps from the Moorish gateway, past linen and ceramic shops, towards the old cathedral and the university at the top (and not until we reached the top did we spot the yellow trams on their alternative route). However the cool blue-and-white café part way up served some of the best (and cheapest) coffee and (on the way down) beer. The old Romanesque cathedral was lovely (we never made it to the new cathedral) and we lingered there before continuing up to the glories of the university’s 18th century Joanina Library (I had to get another library in).

Biblioteca Joanina (Dom João V Library) Coimbra

Biblioteca Joanina (Dom João V Library) Coimbra

This reminded me of academic libraries I had worked in, with its galleries and step ladders. But nothing in my past matched the splendours (and gilding) of this Baroque library. And I had certainly never worked in a library where the bats were encouraged at night (after the tables had been covered over) to feed on any papyrophagus insects which might threaten the ancient volumes.

Back at the foot of the hill, we dined in a small family-run restaurant in a narrow street. The old man cooked, his wife kept popping out and returning with plastic bags, and a daughter waited cheerfully and briskly on a mix of students, locals and tourists. We were glad of the bread and salty sheep’s cheese as we waited for our goat in red wine to cook. Here a carafe of good house red wine cost four euro (a bit of a contrast with the previous night’s prices).

If you’ve read so far, you’ll have shared some of our impressions of Portugal’s Palaeolithic, Roman, Celtic, Visigothic, Moorish, Romanesque, Manueline, Napoleonic and neo-Manueline cultures. As our journey neared its end we wanted to spend the next day seeing something of the Knights Templar and the Jewish community at Tomar. Tomar’s small restored mediaeval synagogue was in an small house at the foot of the hill which had been used as a prison, a barn and a warehouse after the Jews were forced in 1496 to convert or flee Portugal. Now there are not enough Jewish men for a Torah service to be held (the quorum being ten), and it has become a museum. Round the wall are moving letters and cultural gifts from Jewish visitors from around the world.

Castle and Convent of the Order of Christ-Knights Templar, Tomar

Castle and Convent of the Order of Christ-Knights Templar, Tomar

By contrast, the Knights Templar Convento de Cristo up on the hill is an enormous, rambling statement of power. This monastic fortress with its crenellated walls to repel the Moors, dominates the town. The vows of poverty of the Knights Templar were not much in evidence as we wandered from one magnificent cloister to another and into the opulently decorated round church and ambulatory (did the KTs really ride their horses there?), the choir (its stalls missing after the Napoleonic troops woz ‘ere), and out again to look at facades dripping with sculpted symbols of maritime power. The T-shaped dormitory corridors at the far end were long, dark and sinister-feeling, with the arching aqueduct outside. After that I began to lose all sense of direction as we followed lower corridors, through the refectory, kitchens (which smelt of recent smoke), stables, a store-room for olive oil and firewood and another containing unlabelled mosaics and a sundial. Children’s screams and laughter could be heard at one point and people emerged from private doorways and disappeared up corridors. An ideally mysterious setting for the occasional five hour performances (with five meal breaks) of Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose.” We spent that night in Constancia, and ate in a blue-tiled tapas bar (veal for me and cod for John, so little change there) watching Inter Milan versus Barcelona. The bar customers seem happy that the Italian team, no doubt due to the leadership of their José Mourinho, beat the Spanish.

Next day we saw more castles, including Almourol on its island, complete with ferryman, before reaching the border town of Castelo de Vide. There we wandered through the attractive old town, with its fountain, flowers and cats. Both the synagogue and castle were closed, by then, but maybe we’d seen enough castles for the day. So we sloped off for a beer in the late afternoon sunshine. To our surprise chicken was on the bar’s menu of the day. What better place for our last dinner in Portugal? When we returned later for soup, chicken in beer (it came, as usual, with chips and rice) and chocolate mousse, a baby was the focus of the tiny room, being passed noisily round the staff so that its harassed parents could tackle their splendid-looking skewers of prawns and chicken. Above, on the small screen, Liverpool were losing in extra time to Atletico Madrid. Our hotel that night was a former girls’ school, fully-booked by cyclists and their supporters for the following night (the next town was hosting a big cycle race). Internet comments had mentioned cramped bathrooms, so we shouldn’t have been surprised that it proved impossible to sit on the loo other than side-saddle (to avoid the sides of the small bath and large bidet-thing).

We visited the Friday market (clothes, hardware and cowbells outside, local produce inside) before leaving next day, then set out for home. We stayed in Ciudad Rodrigo again (same room even), looked round Zamora’s cathedral and castle, had a night in the Holiday Inn outside Vitoria, then decided to take a different route back through France. We had both been thinking nostalgically of our honeymoon camping trip round central France. It was a mistake to think we could recapture the old magic. The Puy de Dome looked great from a distance (and at least there was no volcanic ash), but somebody had moved all the streets of our favourite village from how we remembered them and its magical Café du Centre was closed. Tournus cathedral was somehow less atmospheric and we couldn’t find a decent coffee. And the little hilltop village of Brancion, with a Romanesque church, had been “restored” into a medieval theme park whilst the church’s amazing frescoes had been allowed to deteriorate. Then Bluto got a puncture and we couldn’t get the wheel off to put on the spare and I ended up with diarrhoea. So much for nostalgia. However, we had thoroughly enjoyed our first impressions of northern Portugal. We just need to remember – we’ll never be able to return to Portugal and have the same experiences again (although we might find chicken piri-piri).

(And, in case you hadn’t realised, the food link at the top takes you to the photos of our meals)

Photographs
Zamora
Castel de Vide
Tomar
JoaninaLibrary, Coimbra
Conimbriga Roman ruins
Buçaco Palace Hotel (neo-Manueline)
Bussaco Forest near Coimbra (panorama)
Citania de Briteiros (iron age)
São Pedro de Balsemão Visigothic chapel
Rock carvings of the Foz Coa valley
Almeida
Salamanca
Cathedral Vieja (Old Cathedral), Salamanca (panorama)
Ciudad Rodrigo (Spain)
St Philibert Romanesque Church, Tournus, France (panorama)