From mud to Madrid: escaping from everyday life in Entre-deux-Eaux, January – March 2018

To download a printable PDF version (no pictures)
click on this link 
E2E2018no1.pdf (seven A4 pages)

There is a comprehensive set of photographs:
Spain Feb-Mar 2018 Madrid, Toledo and Malaga
as well as links in the text

Ours is a loo with a view. Most houses have textured glass obscuring the view from their bathroom windows, but not ours. When we began converting the hayloft here, the layout allowed for a spacious bathroom which was at the time lit by a small square hole under the eaves. As the hole was surrounded by traditional pink sandstone slabs, Helen was initially reluctant to change the facade. But as the project took shape, the bathroom felt cell-like, so a window to match the others was added. It is one of only two which look north across the road to a field that climbs up to the woods. Pedestrians and motorists pass too low to see into the bathroom, so it is clear-glazed. In the early days the occasional cow grazing on the field would lift its head and gaze blankly across, and we would pull down the blind during the annual grass cutting, turning and baling. But this January we gazed with growing horror from our bathroom window.

On the very morning we were leaving for Christmas in the UK, we woke early to complete darkness. High winds throughout the night had caused a power cut. It is surprising how much light our metal shutters keep out and how much the various electrical equipment LED lights usually provide. We went back to bed until daylight. Power returned at 8.30. But downstairs we found that the first barn was flooded with muddy water. John cleared as much as he could while I left messages at the Mairie and with our neighbour. We eventually set out for family and friends around 10.00. Teaming rain caught up with us at St Quentin, and the ferries were delayed by at least two hours.

We should have been prepared for trouble on our return nearly four weeks later, as the day had started at the Dover Premier Inn with the fire alarm forcing us outside into the bitter wind during breakfast. Although only a grill fire, it was a warning. The petrol pumps in Calais were not working, the fields of northern France were water-logged or flooded, and we later discovered that high winds had brought trees in the forests round Entre-deux-Eaux over New Year, but Helen’s diary records tersely, “First barn very wet and muddy. Nothing done.” The car tyres had a high-water mud mark at 8cm.

What did we hope would have been done? In our early days here, farmer Duhaut grazed his cows on the field opposite for part of the year, and the thick grass roots knotted the soil and held it securely. There was a firm bank down to the road and a ditch that was regularly cleared by the commune employee and digger and a drainage pipe under the road into the lower field. In recent years, the new farmer has ploughed the field right up to the edge of the bank and sown maize as a summer crop and different winter crops. At the beginning of this winter the field had been freshly ploughed and sown with what might be winter wheat, but it has struggled so much in the heavy rains and with black crows pecking busily that it is difficult to be certain what crop is poking tentatively and patchily through. And this was the fine earth that was being washed down by heavy rains, silting up the ditch, continuing across the road, filling up our own small drainage channel along the front of the house and coming to a halt in our barn. The least that now-mayor Duhaut could do was to order ditch and drain clearing to be re-instated.

Mayor Duhaut would be busy, we knew, preparing his New Year Voeux to his community and the council’s festive lunch for its elderly. Nevertheless Helen went and harangued him. His wife was sympathetic when Helen mentioned the washing machine standing in mud, while he regretted the wine store, but… Well, it needed higher Road Authorities who he would contact for a permanent solution… and the commune employee had been on holiday over Christmas… Well, it was too wet at present… But of course Something Would Be Done.

On Friday evening we all trooped down to the Salle Polyvalente for the Voeux (champagne, speeches and not such good nibbles as previous years). Our neighbour had also complained that day. The commune employee (the mayor’s cousin) promised to bring his tractor and trailer when the snow and rains were over.

On Sunday we sat down promptly at 12.00 for the Mayor and council’s lunch, which started with a plum or peach aperitif, proceeded to a plate of delicious fish and meat nibbles and considerably later to a large plate of Terre et Mer, tasty and well presented. It was all prepared by Stephane, a young man in the village, and the band which struck up between courses is also local. With serious dancing between courses, there was plenty of time for Helen to slip home (between the filet de biche en croute and the large plate of cheese and salad) and bring in our washing. After the cheese, the music and dancing become more frivolous, recalling Spanish coach holidays of yesteryear, and Castanet Man unfortunately could not resist getting out his castanets and showing off annoyingly close to us just as a neighbour was trying to educate us in champagne appreciation. Castanet Man is small and unsmiling and danced with a cold precision; his wife slipped out frequently – presumably for a smoke, but possibly just for a few moments peace; alone, he danced the Madison (no cowboy hat, but fists clenched) with the focussed intensity of a heartless killer. The trou a la poire, a sorbet with locally distilled firewater poured over it, was a worthy dessert and we could later relax over coffee.

By Tuesday it was time for the next feasting – the AGM cunningly followed by lunch of the Vie du Bon Cote, as the club of the anciens is officially called. This came after a windy night and a forecast of heavier rain, and just before we left, the barn started to flood again, despite John having cleared our drainage channel and laid a barricade of bricks in front of the barn door. As the mayor and the commune employee were both on the doorstep of the Polyvalente, John showed photos from a few minutes earlier, and while we sat down to eat, two men and a digger finally set to work to clear the ditch and drain. It has to be said that they made a very good job of scooping lorry-loads of mud from both ditch and pipe, and even hosing down our house walls after.

All these days, we had been watching from the bathroom window as the water pools on the field began to make channels and tunnels through the loose soil towards the bank, and now it began to pour into the ditch like mini-waterfalls. Our neighbours commented on the sound of the cascades when they walked up to see us one wet evening. They also commented on walking the plank like pirates across our barn where the mud hadn’t dried out!. But at least the water was flowing rapidly along the cleared ditch and through the drainage pipe. So the question is… will the commune keep the ditch clear? It is filling up rapidly as dreary weather continues to wash down soil.

We probably lost your sympathy some time ago, as the UK has been undergoing its own harsh weather and transport chaos. But if you have read so far, you may understand our mid-February desire to escape from the rain and mud for a few days, and our decision to fly to Madrid for a bit of mid-winter culture.

Successful holidays depend considerably on good weather, good accommodation and good food and we were fortunate with two out of three. Although temperatures were cold, the Madrid sun shone on us. And our room at 60 Balconies was spacious, tasteful and well equipped, and enjoyed two of the sixty balconies (too small to use but the French windows had a view of the traffic racing round Emperador Carlos V and of the old railway station). With a coffee maker, cooker and fridge we could retreat “home” and put our feet up for an hour or two whenever they got too tired. We could also enjoy breakfast in bed while planning our days.

Calle Buenavista

Calle Buenavista

Sadly the restaurants were all very geared up to tourists, as we were almost in the shadow of the Reina Sofia museum and close to the Prado. But how can you complain about tourists when you are one yourself? The first afternoon we allowed our street wanderings to be guided by the Lonely Planet initially, so saw the Opera, Palace, Arab Wall fragment, picturesque plazas and buildings and a trendy market before launching off down more quirky back streets.

Taberna Meson los Chanquetes

The first morning was freezing as we stepped out on our balconies to wind up the slatted shutters, but by the time we were walking up to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum it was pleasantly sunny. We spent most of the day there enjoying the Dutch interiors and landscapes, American painters we knew nothing about, less-frequently reproduced Impressionists, coffee, sandwiches post Impressionists, beer, crisps, Canaletto and Cubists. In the evening it was red check table cloths, posters of bull fighters and an eleven euro menu (asparagus, swordfish, garlic, chips, rice pudding) off the tourist trail.

The second day’s tourism started at the Prado, where oiks like us can rapidly become glazed by fleshy Rubens, full-skirted Velasquez, agonised El-Grecos and black Goyas. But we did enjoy the Bosch Earthly Delights, the Durers and some unexpected reconstructed Romanesque chapels and frescoes and a small room of golden 14th century church art.

Napier's calculator

Napier’s calculator

And later when we eventually located the unsignposted Archaeological Museum (clue: behind, but inaccessible from, the National Library) we enjoyed its bringing together of things we had learned at different times in Spain and Portugal.

Palacio de Cristal

Palacio de Cristal

By the time our concentration (and John’s knees) were failing, we still managed to walk back across the huge Retiro Park and admire its fountains, lake, Velasquez Palace and Crystal Palace.

The Cubists at the Reina Sofia kept us occupied the next morning – all those Juan Gris and lots of artists who were new to us. Helen was reading C. J. Sansome’s Winter in Madrid, part of which is set during the Civil War, so found the Civil War section of the gallery leading to Picasso’s Guernica of particular interest.

Eduardo Viana – Three Pumpkins

The modern section on the top floor was less to our taste, so we rounded off our visit in the Dalis, bought some sandwiches, and rested our feet and sipped coffee in our pleasant room. We started our afternoon wanderings from the Puerto del Sol (I wonder if all those FC Copenhagen supporters watchfully corralled in one corner of the Plaza Mayor had a good result that evening), and headed south and east, just following our noses down interesting looking streets, which was how we came across a ruined church building which looked as if it had been renovated inside and lined with books, so of course Helen had to go in and find out more. It turned out to be a “Pious School” of UNED (National University of Distance Learning) Madrid, founded in 1729, looted and burnt down in the Civil War and rehabilitated in 1999. Such a shame that we couldn’t see inside the library as it was closed “for a long time” whatever that meant.

You might have noticed that another of our enthusiasms is trains. So the next day we added a short Spanish train journey and two special stations to our experiences. We walked through the old arched Atocha railway station opposite our room. No trace of rails or platforms. But dense with dusty palms and falling branches (they were being pruned though not dusted) and a green pond crawling with black turtles. Our modern train took us to the less modern Toledo station. Imagine Pugin let loose on a provincial station, with clock tower, turreted gables, Gothic windows, stained glass, coloured tiles, polished dark woodwork ticket office and Moorish archways in brick and stone.

Mezquita Cristo de la Luz

Mezquita Cristo de la Luz

And it was the intricate Moorish brickwork of an old mosque dating from 999 that took our breath away (having re-gained it after lugging our cases up the extremely long but broken escalator to the hill-top town centre).Even the Arabic inscription was in brickwork. Inside,the mosque was small and delicate(nothing like Cordoba’s grand forest of columns). The Christians who later reconquered the city used it as the nave of a small church, adding an apse with matching Moorish arches. It still has fragments of paintings, – the usual Christ in Majesty on the dome, the four evangelists and some saints; but have you ever seen painted angels bearing a soul to heaven in a hammock? Although it was at the bottom of a street leading down to one of the old gateways, the view from the gardens was panoramic.

Our room on the top floor of Antidoto, an old converted corner house with modern art decor, seemed very compact after our spacious Madrid room, but once we had borrowed some larger cups it had everything we needed for relaxing, and was close to the main Zocodover Square and for exploring the old town.

Iglesia san Roman

After a rest, we walked down narrow cobbled streets with overhanging balconies, old churches, intricate Moorish arches and windows and studded wooden doors with interesting knockers to San Roman Church, which now houses the Visigoth Museum. It contains artefacts from the 6th to 8th centuries and is covered in beautiful Romanesque frescoes from the 13th century. There seemed to have been a Visigoth 7th century church originally, which was subsequently used as a mosque, and there were still both Arabic and Latin inscriptions. The frescoes included a splendid dragon, wonderful angels and the dead tentatively lifting their tomb lids at the end of time.

The next day we spent longer than expected in the Cathedral, partly due to the good commentary on the headphones. The nave was blocked off for an exhibition and the chapter house was closed.

Toledo Cathedral choir carving

But we spent a long time looking at the misericords and carvings in the choir and the frescoes in the chapel of St Blaise. The Moor who is said to have stopped his fellows from attacking the Christians as they reclaimed the mosque is commemorated in a gold statue surprisingly close to the huge Gothic golden altarpiece. After the Christians had reclaimed the great mosque site, the building we visited next became the Great Mosque and later the Iglesia del Salvador. It is now a serene and attractive mixture of Islamic and Christian architecture (including a Visigoth pillar) and outside can be seen the floor of the 9th century mosque, an arcade of three columns with Roman and Visigoth capitals and some old Christian graves.

In a the window of a cafe opposite were dolls dressed as Dominican nuns demonstrating all the stages of marzipan making. It seemed a good place to sample the famous Toledo marzipan in tart form. In fact every convent we passed, whatever its denomination, seemed to offer marzipan for sale. Our tart was rich and delicious. Fortified we walked up to the Alcazar (a disappointing building), admired the view, and decided to go into the Santa Cruz Museum on the way back. It was housed in a beautiful building, with a permanent collection in the main part, a quirky exhibition of flea-market objects of yesteryear in a darkened room at the end of a lot of corridors on the first floor, a more classical room of Joaquim Sorolla landscapes, and a self-image-obsessed exhibition of the Mexican Alfredo Castaneda. That evening we ate in the basement of a busy bar near our room, and chose the menu of the mountains. The starters of Mantega cheese, pheasant pate and fish croquettes were followed by a partridge risotto and by venison in mushroom sauce. And the dessert was marzipan sponge. Could we really manage more rich marzipan? We could. As we emerged, a group of young men in black doublets and hose with yellow slashed jerkins or sashes were drinking in the bar and more were harmonizing and playing tunefully outside. One sash said Medicine. Were they medical students?

Toledo Synagoga El Transito

On Sunday, our last day in Toledo, we headed for the former Jewish quarter and the El Transito Synagogue, an austere and beautiful mid 14th century lofty rectangular hall with an intricate wooden ceiling, decorative moulded plaster friezes and screens and more Moorish arches. From the museum and headphones we slowly built up a picture of a respected, integrated community of Sephardic Jews who were abruptly expelled under Ferdinand and Isabella (a decree that was not revoked until the 1860s, when those who could prove their origins were granted citizenship once more). Interestingly, there was a sumptuously illustrated Bible there which a Christian had asked a Jew to write as the Jews had a less corrupt text.

Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca

From there we walked down to the even more beautiful restored Sinagoga de Santa Maria la Blanca with its five naves divided by horseshoe Moorish arches, its walls and columns a gleaming white and with intricate plaster decorations including huge pine cones. We also walked down to the river and old San Martin bridge.

We were sad to leave the rich mix of Jewish, Muslim and Christian cultures of old Toledo the next day. And even sorrier once we reached Malaga, where we had hoped to round off with a few days of sunshine and lazing around on a balcony close to the sea. It has to be said that the high speed train journey between Madrid and Malaga was agreeable, with a lunch box and drinks included in the ticket price. And there was a convenient bus from the station almost to the end of our road. But on the street outside the given number, we hesitated. It seemed to be an office block, with business plates for solicitors and no mention of accommodation. A phone call resulted in broken English instructions to number 3 on the seventh floor where her partner would be waiting. The unlabelled door was opened by a tall man of North African appearance who had a rucksack on the sofa, which all looked a bit casual. He spoke no English and we spoke no Spanish. In its favour the flat was spacious, with a large sitting room containing a sofa, wooden chair, TV and palm plant but no rug or carpet, and it had a dining room, three bedrooms, kitchen, bathroom and loo, but its furnishings and flimsy curtains did seem sparse. Then he mimed the question of whether we were paying cash or by machine. But we have already paid, we protested, producing printed proof. A long phone conversation with the woman-on-the-end-of-the-phone ensued, and although it was never conceded that we had paid, with promises of phoning back the next day, the young man gave up and went away. All a bit unsettling. We went for a stroll round and a drink until the rain started. Back at the flat, we watched the sky darken over the rooftops. We ate at the nearby small North African restaurant.

Stephan Balkenhol

By next morning, Helen’s cold has worsened, like the weather. Umbrellas were up as we set out for the Picasso Museum, whose permanent collection was disappointing, though a temporary exhibition about Fellini’s dreams of meeting Picasso was interesting. The weather was a bit wet for imagining performances in the Roman amphitheatre’s puddles, and the Alcazaba above looked windswept. But we did later enjoy the temporary exhibition at the Centre of Contemporary Art of Malaga of carved figures of men and women by Stephan Balkenhol, Professor of Sculpture at Karlsruhe,.

The next day was also wet and we caught a bus to the renovated tobacco factory which houses the Collection of Saint Petersburg Russian Museum. Its huge white walls make for brilliant hanging spaces for the large propaganda paintings of the Radiant Future Socialist Realism in Art.

Malaga Russian Museum

Both Stalin and Lenin looked imposing alone in front of the sea, and there were powerful paintings of industries and collective agriculture. Then we moved back a century to the Traveller’s Gaze exhibition of Russian artists’ impressions of Egypt, Morocco, Italy, Spain, America, Tibet and China. Sitting in the museum’s cafe, Helen was intrigued by three cartoon-like men; two stereotype Russian heavies approached by what in Tintin would be the obvious Russian spy or scientist working on a top-secret project (small, thin, straight up and down, brown gaberdine, glasses and a wooden expression – but no rolled newspaper or umbrella).

It poured with rain all night. We debated between the Carmen Thyssen-Bornemisza and the Pompidou as shelters, but the Thyssen was closer. It too was disappointing after Madrid’s. So we headed for the Museum of Malaga, stopping off to enjoy the Malaga portrait painter Revello de Toro in an attractive old house. Suddenly the sun came out, so we detoured up to the remains of the Alcazaba. The views from it across the port-marina were our first sight of blue sea and well worth the climb, though the rooms had none of the splendour of Granada’s heavily restored Alhambra. As the labels were all in Spanish, it was helpful to descend as the rain clouds gathered again to the archaeology floor of the Museum of Malaga, which was excellent and well labelled.

The next morning we left the apartment key on the table and caught an early bus to the airport. We had really enjoyed Madrid and Toledo, but not Malaga. We had read reports of snow closing airports in the south of France, but our flight was on time, and although we emerged at Basel airport into snowflakes and decided to take the tunnel under the Vosges, there was no snow on our side of the Vosges.

You will be relieved to know that there was also no further mud and water in our barns. The main interest as we look out of the bathroom window now is whether boars have been digging in the field each night this week, as each morning it looks more ravaged. Yesterday, after Helen had mentioned the possibility to the mayor’s secretary, a large pile of cow-shed dung was deposited at the top of the field while we were out at the Amnesty Book Sale. Is it the odour of that or the overnight snowfall which led to the field remaining undisturbed last night? (Perhaps boars do not like getting cold paws). And what will happen while we are away in the UK over Easter?

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

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

Andalusia, Spain 2017 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.

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)
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(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.



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)

Castel de Vide
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
Cathedral Vieja (Old Cathedral), Salamanca (panorama)
Ciudad Rodrigo (Spain)
St Philibert Romanesque Church, Tournus, France (panorama)