Exploring the Stories of the Islands and the Freedoms of Third Age


Top of My Bucket List

It’s early morning; the water is a mirror, the air is fresh; but underwater it’s murky, nothing but churned up sediment. The only thing in my line of vision is my son’s heels. I want to keep my head down, not keep checking how far we are from the boat, so I follow those. I am vaguely aware, from time to time, of the other people in the water, but never more than a glimpse of a flipper.

More murkiness. It goes on. Part of me wants to give up (I realize later that everyone except us had called it a day), but a much bigger part wants to go on ….. and on. I sense that we are heading back to the boat, and I know that this isn’t our private trip, but we go slow.

Then, without warning, something brushes against my leg, and glancing down I meet the enquiring gaze of a young manatee. I stifle the urge to cry out, and I freeze, spread eagled on the surface. We have been instructed not to make noise, not to startle these docile creatures, and although if approached we might touch them, instinct says not to. He swims under my belly, as if enjoying the contact, and over to my son. He seems to nuzzled up to him, and then retreats to the shadow below which is his mother. Fleetingly, charmingly, I have just lived out a dream.

Picture Guy took of a manatee futher down the river

Picture Guy took of a manatee further down the river

My dearest wish for this road trip to Central and South Florida I’m on is to see manatees close up, in their own environment, possibly to swim with them. And that just happened in a magical kind of way…..they came to us. They seemed to want the contact.

Clambering aboard the boat, I want to cry. The others  had watched the magic; had, actually, been able to spot the mother and baby before we did, and had been trying to signal us. I am overwhelmed. When we stop a little way further down the river, where another manatee has been spotted by another boat, I can’t go in the water. I don’t want to spoil the magic of that very personal encounter by sharing it with 15 or 16 other people. Some of whom are careless of our very strict instructions not to touch, disturb or follow the manatees. I need to breathe … slowly, listen to the birds, watch the mangroves and the ripples on the water.

This is my happy face! It isn't every day you get to cross something off your bucket list.

This is my happy face! It isn’t every day you get to cross something off your bucket list.

This is the best we could do! We were so taken by surprise and in the moment, and of course with poor visibility. There is a short video, which I can't upload, but truly it isn't a whole lot better. Most of the memories are lodged in my brain - and soul!

This is the best we could do! We were so taken by surprise and in the moment, and of course with poor visibility. There is a short video, which I can’t upload, but truly it isn’t a whole lot better. Most of the memories are lodged in my brain – and soul!

We are in Crystal River on Florida’s Gulf Coast, probably the most famous manatee spotting site in the state, and the only place where you are legally able to swim with them, or drift, as the advice says,  under these controlled conditions. The river is fed by 30 natural springs, which feed warm water into the system, which is what brings manatees here in winter. It’s May, so not prime sighting season.

Crystal River sign

cystal river

These are gentle, almost surreal creatures, and seem to be their own worst enemies. Although, we are told, there are times when they can move with some speed, for the most part they seem simply suspended in the water, or slowly moving with stately grace, nosing up to breathe every five minutes or so, making them sitting ducks for boat propellers despite both Federal and State protection. From time to time there are attempts by speed merchant Sunday boaters to have them taken off the Endangered Species Act, so they become a political pawn too.

I fell in love with one 23 years ago in the Living Seas in Disney’s Epcot Resort. I’d never even heard of them, and I realize now that I wasn’t unusual. This hulk with an improbable  figure was hanging around a tank nibbling lettuce, think a kind of benign Jabba the Hutt, with soulful eyes and a whiskery snout instead of the grotesque face, and a swish of a tail – think mermaids. In fact, rumor has it that the mermaid legends rose from those tails, mistaken by sailors from the First World as being some enchanted human, condemned to life in the ocean, whose purpose was to lure others to their death on rocky coastlines.

Since, especially in the winter months, they hug the coastlines, seeking the warmth of estuaries, it’s easy to see how ignorant men could have made that mistake. These are West Indian manatees and their patch is centered around the Florida shoreline, although they range further away during summer along both the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic coast. They are found in Central America and even parts of South America too, but less frequently, and have cousins in the West African manatees around Senegal and Gambia, the Amazon manatees and the dugongs of Asia.

Perhaps it was the languid, laid back posture, but I was hooked at first sight. So before we went to the coast to see them “in the wild” we stopped in the Living Seas for nostalgia’s sake. There are two manatees there now, with shocking. boat propeller injuries, one is missing most of its tail. Obviously, not candidates to return to the wild, so here they float, educating us about their kind, proof of how careless of the natural world man can be.

We’d had a close encounter one evening a few days earlier, leaving Captiva Island further down the coast on a “sunset cruise,” the captain had spotted a “footprint” on the surface of the water as we left the marina, but it hadn’t come up again for air in the time it took us to pass. I’d been surprised there by the speeds of some boats around us, but our crew had told us they weren’t exceeding speed limits, although there had been numerous signs around the marina warning that it was a “manatee zone.”

3 sisters spring sign

heron crystal river

Our trip this day doesn’t include any more manatee sightings, but does include a third stop, down the river inland, to Three Sisters Spring, the most famous of those which feed into the river. It’s another bit of magic, even though we see no more manatees. Swimming from the boat we enter through the neck of an inlet, which opens out into a watery glade. Taking my head out of the water, I see a circle of mangroves around the pool we’ve entered. They filter the sunshine, and reflections of the ripples on the water dance across their foliage. It could be a scene from “Avatar,” and the word enchanted crosses my mind. My world melds to a shimmer of pastel blues and greens.

Guy and me at 3 Sisters Spring

Guy and me at 3 Sisters Spring

Rachael and me approaching 3 Sisters Spring

Rachael and me approaching 3 Sisters Spring

Below, colorful fish weave among those famous mangrove roots. In the center of the pool, a fallen tree rises from a crater, and those shafts of sunlight filter down, sparkling on the white sand bottom. I feel as if I’m drifting through a beautiful dream. It utterly makes up for no more manatees this day.

Rachael 3 Sisters

Rachael 3 Sisters

Rachael 3 Sisters

Rachael 3 Sisters

As I stood at the top of the boat’s steps, clutching my wee Lumix camera I made an unusual decision for me. I slipped it back into my bag. It was a wise decision, as it turned out. I wouldn’t have used it. I wanted to savor any moments I got with a manatee, and I did! Sometimes it is best to leave the camera behind – that said, I am happy that my son, Guy, took his, so I have backups for my memories. This is the first time I’ve ever published a post entirely with pictures which are not mine…..and happy to do so – Thank you, Guy and Rachael!

Whispering a silent goodbye to the manatees

Whispering a silent goodbye to the manatees

We went on this excursion with Crystal Lodge Dive Center. I didn’t ask for any discounts, and didn’t even tell them I was going to write a blog post until the following day, when I went to confirm their website URL, so when I say I highly recommend them, you know I’ve not been coerced into saying this in any way! We were road tripping south and central Florida and stayed at the Best Western, in Crystal River, and they are based just behind the motel. Our guide, and grandson of the owner, Dakota, was very professional, ensuring that we fully understood the rules about swimming with manatees. – He also told me that the best time to eat lobster in the Keys is July/August (which I must remember) so if you ever read this, Dakota – have a great summer down there! 

dive boat

I’ve begun this road trip story almost at the end, because this was the highlight for me, this was at the very top of my bucket list, but there were other, wonderful moments, and more posts to come very soon. Sometimes you need to get off island for a while…..even if it’s to other islands – more next time 🙂


Downtime in Languedoc-Roussillon, France

There are some times travel bloggers don’t want to write about, the personal parts, even in a new and exciting place, we may only post a few photos, or even none at all. We make brief references to family and friends, but want to hold them closer than the written page, which is not criticism of those who write about their family life, it’s just the way we are or they are. Both ways are fine.

This is, however, why, although you may have seen photos scattered over my Facebook page from France a couple of weeks back, there was little detail, same with London, really. This is because these times are very special for me, and I tune out thinking about places in quite the same way as when I am in “writing mode.” However, having now visited Nimes two years running, and loving the region, I feel guilty about saying nothing at all. That said, what I tell you will be very general, the sightseeing was gentle, and accompanied by much talking (the way you do when you have years to catch up on) so loads of details escaped me, and I made no notes, so this is all from memory.

For me this was like the epitome of France : washing co-ordinated to window color!!

For me this was like the epitome of France : washing coordinated to window color!!

As with so many places where I’ve felt good, I left a wee bit of me behind in Languedoc-Roussillon, mainly because dear friends are there, but also because it’s a region with such a fascinating history, for the English as well as for the French. I have a mental list of things to do/places to see in more depth in the future.

On the recommendation of my friends at The Spain Scoop I took the train from Barcelona to Nimes, and it proved a successful decision. Flying from the Canary Islands to Marseille, last year, meant changing in Barcelona, and overnighting on the steely airport benches, which doesn’t especially bother me, but I’d prefer not, if there is a better way, and so I flew to Barcelona and took the train to France. This had the added advantage of being a national flight, and so I had residents’ discount, which made it a cheaper option too. At least, it would have been had I not stayed overnight. It seems that it’s impossible to get to Nimes on the same day one leaves Tenerife.

My accommodation, which I found via is worth a mention. I searched for somewhere reasonably priced close to the station, a little hesitantly it has to be said, aware that areas close to train stations are not always that salubrious, but no worries at Barcelona Sants, at least not on the side I stayed in. Barcelona Station, named for its location is an apartment building, and apartments can be rented by the day. It was only a ten minute walk, even with my suitcase and my bad knee, the next morning. Really, it was everything I needed, immaculately clean, with tv, wi-fi and cooking facilities if I’d wanted. Of course, this was Barcelona, so I went for tapas in one of the many nearby bars. It costs around 69 pounds for one night, so shared that would have been excellent value – the solo traveler, as always pays more. Even so, it wasn’t bad for city accommodation, and I note now – they take pets, yay! That’s worth remembering!

The Ave which runs from Barcelona to Paris is the same train I took from Nimes to Paris last year, so now I’ve covered the route, though at different times. The Nimes to Paris bit is much faster, whizzing through the French countryside, panting to be in the City of Lights, but the bit from Barcelona to Nimes is slower, and I was thrilled to catch long glimpses of the Camargue – a place I’ve longed to visit since seeing a documentary about the wildlife years and years ago. It’s an almost surreal landscape, wetlands which are home to flamingos and wild horses, amongst a plethora of other fauna, and my eyes were so glued to the window I forgot to check out the refreshment car, though people were coming back with delicious-smelling coffee from time to time. I had the quickest sighting of flamingos, but lots of egrets and herons (I think – not expert enough to identify so quickly!).

Aigues Mortes

I had a closer look the next day as we drove to the ancient town of Aigues Mortes, which perches on the edge of the Petite Camargue. The amazingly preserved outer walls of this medieval city look forbidding as you approach, but they hide a network of cobbled streets, turned into tourist delights with typical French style. The city-fort has a long and intriguing history; if I mention religious persecution, crusades, economic recession and immigration, you may think plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Add to that soil erosion and reclaiming land and you have today’s world in one, small, walled community. It would be nice to think that the rest of the world, after surviving all of that, might end up as picturesque as Aigues Mortes.

Ginnel in Uzes

Ginnel in Uzes

Former telephone exchange, even this functional building is pretty!

Former telephone exchange, even this functional building is pretty!



It isn’t, of course, the only fascinating and well-preserved community in this region of France. On other days we visited a marvelous market in Sommieres, a real market, with antiques as well as delicious food, textiles and other goodies; my favorite town of Uzes, whose delightful, cobbled streets I’d glimpsed only covered by the sprawling market on my last visit; and  the twin towns of Beaucaire and Tarascon, sitting on opposite sides of River Rhône, a picturesque ruin of a castle on the Beaucaire side and a fearsome fortress on the Tarascon side, under whose stern walls we enjoyed a delightful lunch in a very ordinary-looking café.

Goat's Cheese parcel

Goat’s Cheese parcel

Soupe de poisson Nothing much more French than this!

Soupe de poisson Nothing much more French than this!

I had to get around to food sooner or later, didn’t I? Aside from the fact that I ate like a queen at my friends’ house, the meals we ate out were, every one, exceptional in comparison to anything similar here at “home.” The restaurant in Tarascon was half-empty, and we feared we might be too late for France’s very constructed eating hours, but no, a three course lunch appeared as if by magic. Every course was prepared with imagination and care, and this was typical of everywhere we went, including tourist places, where one might expect a certain amount of the blasé… one case they were closing a few days later as the season ended and winter approached, but still the food and service showed no signs of winding down, except that they had run out of Coca Cola. The French attitude to food remains reverential and respectful.

Simple salad lunch in Nimes, but so beautifully presented

Simple salad lunch in Nimes, but so beautifully presented

Again with the presentation. the menu read something like "Fish of Day with Vegetables", but what arrived was fish in a delightful sauce and a mini tower of veggies .... it's the little things sometimes!

Again with the presentation. the menu read something like “Fish of Day with Vegetables”, but what arrived was fish in a delightful sauce and a mini tower of veggies …. it’s the little things sometimes!

I was based in Nimes for my stay. I’m so lucky to have friends there, but imagine it’s an excellent choice of base for touring this very French countryside, outside of the Camargue, characterized by vineyards and roads lined by arching planes trees. Of course, as in so many places in Europe, the Romans were here, and left much evidence of their 500 year dominance. I remember reading about the amphitheater in Nimes back in French lessons in school, but this was the first time I had the chance to see it up close. It’s impressive to wander along a modern street and come face-to-face with something so, well, old. This was, after all, probably well over a thousand years older than the petroglyphs I’d delighted in touching in La Palma back in June. I take a special delight in places which have such amazing history, and yet are still used today. The amphitheater evolved in the 19th century to become a bullring (although I am assured that the bulls are not killed in France, as in other countries, excepting Spain), and today is also a venue for music concerts and, seemingly oddly, but not when you think about its original use, a setting for rock and heavy metal recordings!  Even older than the famous amphitheater, however, is Maison Carrée, a Roman temple, and one of the best preserved examples of such anywhere in the world.

Roman amphitheater Nimes

Roman amphitheater Nimes

Maison Carrée

Maison Carrée

Me by the Augustine Gate in Nimes

Me by the Augustine Gate in Nimes

Not hard to see why I need to return to Nimes, is it! Friendships aside, this is an utterly fascinating part of Europe, wild wetlands, Roman history, nougat (and at this time of year marrons glacés!), olives, wine, and oodles of history from other epochs, good roads, excellent rail links, of course the River Rhône and canals, and could probably spend the rest of the morning counting off reasons. What I had was a fascinating taster. My friend, Wendy, is passionate about medieval history, so she was the best guide too, so that what I saw meant more to me that it would otherwise have done, but I have no doubt that next time it will be with notebook and camera in hand!

In finally, for anyone who thinks the French are maybe a tad too sophisticated or serious I present: Atelier de Ours ….. The Teddy Bear Workshop 🙂

teddy bear shop


Asturias and Food and Unintentional Lessons: Getting off the Island

I’ve been told that I write too much about food. I don’t think that applies to this blog, but yes, on my Facebook Page, perhaps there are a few too many references to cake and ice cream! I have no intention of specializing in food, but perhaps food as a part of the enjoyment of life? Well that’s another matter! Then again, I’m also whingeing a fair bit about my weight – so perhaps I should shut up.

Right now, to be honest, I’m a bit preoccupied with the subject of gluten intolerance, not the full-blown celiac problem, but a mild irritation that can last anything from a couple of hours to a week or so. I’m very much experimenting at the moment, because I’ve been to doctors twice over the years with symptoms which I now think may be due to gluten intolerance, and they’ve not been interested. On one occasion I was, literally, doubled over in pain.

I’d intended to include the wonderful foods I sampled in Asturias in their appropriate places in the two posts I wrote, but I came to see how they may be connected to my experiments, so here goes.

* * * * * * * * * *

Dinner the first night in the parador in Gijon was excellent, though my memories are hazy, because the conversation (four writers, two representatives of Paradores and two representatives of Info Asturias) was varied and lively. I remember a good cheese salad and fabada. My only culinary ambitions (except for cheese, which was already on my agenda) for the trip was to try a genuine fabada, and, of course, Asturian cider. I’d only had the tinned fabada previously, and liked even that. Of course it turned out to be light years ahead of what I’d had, and needless to say I won’t be buying the tins again…..


Fabada is a traditional white bean stew, although other ingredients may vary; usually black pudding (morcilla) and chorizo or pieces of pork. It’s warming and not spicy as such. It’s definitely a sturdy, cold-weather food… I was luckythat June was a little cloudy and chill! Like a good stew should, it melds from one flavor to another in your mouth as you chew. You can find it in other parts of Spain, but Asturias is its true home. Living in these winter mountains calls for exactly such filling and warming fare. After cheese for starters, I resisted the temptation to clean up my plate with bread….make note.

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Asturias Day Two: Trying to Find Words: Getting off the island

“If you think what you’ve seen today was beautiful, wait until tomorrow!”

The words race round my brain when I wake on my second morning in Asturias. My second thought is relief that my limbs feel quite normal, not showing any signs of strain from that short but hilly walk the day before.

The weather has been forecast to be better than the previous day, but it isn’t looking that way when Juanjo collects me, and he warns that part of the day’s schedule might not be possible on account of the low cloud. We were slated to visit a spot with a grand view of Naranjo de Bulnes, el Pozo de la Oración. Naranjo de Bulnes is Asturias’s most famous peak, a mecca for climbers wanting to test their nerve, not the highest, but the sheerest. This was the landscape he’d had in mind when he’d spoken those words the evening before.

Naranjo de Bulnes is the sheer peak to the left of this photo, kindly supplied by Juanjo in the absence of it making a personal appearance during my stay.

Naranjo de Bulnes is the sheer peak to the left of this photo, kindly supplied by Juanjo in the absence of it making a personal appearance during my stay.

It isn’t long before it becomes obvious that the low cloud will dictate our day, given that my “mission” is to observe the area’s beauty, and report back my impressions to Paradores de España,  but Juanjo has Plan B. I suppose that an experienced mountain guide (and Juanjo is an accredited international mountain guide) always has Plan B, if not C and even D. The weather doesn’t ruin just picnics – though living in a sub-tropical climate tends to make me forget this!

Glimpsed through the mist and the car window. Asturias, lush and green.

Glimpsed through the mist and the car window. Asturias, lush and green.

Even though the hoped-for views aren’t on the agenda, the promise does come true however, as we drive though ever more picturesque hillsides of Atlantic forest, and come to a halt at the beginning of the Rio Cares Gorge. Perhaps my inclination to view everything with total innocence was a good one, because nothing has prepared me for the scale nor the intensity of this place. Much as I love words, I am running out of adjectives, and, honestly,  I have a lump in my throat when I see the towering sides of the gorge and the incredible blue of the River Cares.

Rio Cares Gorge 1


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Asturias Day One: An Utter Contrast: Getting off the Island

Perhaps the biggest downside of living on an island, any island, is the occasional (or frequent, depending on your personal circumstances) feeling of claustrophobia. However beguiling island life can be, there are times when you get a bit stir crazy. Much as I love it, I’d be in denial if I said it wasn’t so. I think it’s fair to say that all immigrants feel this way, and a fair few native sons too.

You may wonder how I could get tired of almost constant good weather, great wines, dramatic mountain scenery, and beach life? I love all of those things (and more – I’m not entirely stupid!) about Tenerife, but I was born curious, I guess. I fell in love with Tenerife a very long time ago, but I’m not rooted here, just anchored for now.

Cool mists, mountain meadows, delicious cider and waterfalls would provide a contrast, the change I crave, no? That’s exactly what I found in Asturias two weeks ago.

I’ve been wondering why I haven’t explored the north of Spain until now. I can only think that 40 years of living in England had numbed me  to the delights of  rolling, green hillsides, doe-eyed cattle and sloshing along in mud, all of which I rediscovered in Picos de Europa National Park.

picos de europa

Of course that contrast with my local landscape, which already bears the parched aspect of summer, might have a lot to do with it, but it wasn’t just the landscapes, it was the people too, so relaxed and welcoming.

It’s very much a luxury to have your own, personal guide to show you around too. It made me realize how much we miss when we trot from place to place, looking but not fully understanding what we see. I knew little about Asturias, and I was asked pretty last-minute if I wanted to do the trip, so I didn’t have time to check very much out. Perhaps that was a good thing, because perhaps the awe wouldn’t have been the same if I’d seen the magnificent pictures on Naranjo de Bulnes or the Cares Gorge on the internet before I went.

After dinner the first night I was raring to go early-ish next morning. The drive from the airport to Gijon had definitely wound me up on the greenery. When you come from a desert environment, which the south of Tenerife is, green fields as far as the eye can see is like taking a long, cool drink when you’re seriously thirsty. It’s a balm for the eyes.

Gijon, our destination, is the largest city in Asturias, but I saw nothing of the city outside of the hotel, being whisked away to the mountains each day.  The main thing I noted was how quiet the roads were compared to Tenerife. Perhaps it was just where I was, but noticeably more tranquil.

This is my first reason to go back – to see Gijon, which has a long history, Roman Ruins and An International Bagpipe Museum – now that I just have to see!

My second reason is to see Oviedo, because Woody Allen said if he ever left Manhattan, Oviedo is where he would choose to live. Of course he gave it a shout out in “Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona” and it looked pretty cool.

My third reason is to see the coastline! The glimpses I saw of the beaches were quite breathtaking, utterly different from Tenerife (not that there is anything wrong with beaches here, just that I love variety!) , but the beaches fell to someone else, and my “beat” was the mountains.

Tunnel covered with vegetation

Nothing could have been a better starting point for me. This spring on the island had kindled a yearning for greenery that hadn’t surfaced in a while. I even found myself giggling about how the road tunnels through which we passed were covered with grass and even trees. It seemed almost surreal.

Driving through forest and alongside churning rivers was a bit like being on another planet. Listening to my guide, Juanjo, was a revelation. It was hard to keep up with his commentary (I get carsick when I take my eyes off the road!), but I think I remember the important points!

First to Covadonga, the one place I had had time to read up on, but even so I was utterly unprepared for what was to come. Covadonga was the inspiration for, and the kernel of the Picos de Europa National Park in 1918. In 1995 the Park was extended to its present size, encompassing mountains in Castille & Leon and Canatabria as well as Asturias. I wrote about its champion Pedro Pidal y Bernaldo de Quiros, Marques de Villaviciosa here for The Spain Scoop, so I won’t repeat it……..just let me say he sounds like my ideal man!

la basilica de covadonga


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Finding Flamenco in Sevilla

It’s kind of a relief to know that life got in the way of lots of posts in 2011.  I enjoy blogging, but in order to have something about which to write you have to do or witness something, and that I’ve missed some means I was busy :=)  Going back through notes and photos as a year-end exercise but also in the wake of the house move I found some which probably deserve a quick mention, although sadly the memories aren’t as sharp as they might have been. So I’m going to whizz off the rest in the next couple of days, in no, particular order, beginning with:

Sevilla > Flamenco, synonymous, no? So why didn’t I write about it back in October, because we did go to see some. We based our choice on economy.  There was mounds of publicity around in the hostel, the tourist information office, posters everywhere for different shows, some including dinner, but making a choice wasn’t that hard because some were so expensive.  We had no way of knowing which of them might be more authentic and less dressed up for tourism, but the one we chose at Bar Huelva Ocho  gave a good  impression.  We passed by the bar on our way back to the hostel to siesta, and liked what we saw.  We spoke to one of the waiters who advised we go early to get the best seats, and as they had what he described as a limited selection of food on quiet Sunday evenings,  we decided we’d eat there too for convenience.

It proved a good choice.  The food was wonderful, the kind waiter placed our scarves on seats in the best spot, and we only wished we’d gone just a little earlier to linger over the meal a bit longer!  Enough to say that we returned to eat there the following night, even though there was no music! We chose 3 or 4 tapas-sized dishes of very original cuisine to share, and each one was a new taste sensation, this washed down with tinto de verano was a definite bonus!

At the back of the bar there was a slightly raised platform with four chairs facing into the bar, a row of chairs along either side, and several rows facing the stage. A portrait of legendary and innovative Flamenco artist Paco de Lucia had pride of place over the performance area.  We saw our scarves on chairs along the side of the stage area, and took our seats. There was quite an air of expectancy and it was full, although the waiter had told us that Sunday was quiet.  It had that kind of hushed feeling you get in a church, as if we shouldn’t be speaking.  Without fanfare, two men and a woman in what we think of as traditional Andalucian dress entered and took their places on the chairs on the stage.

From the moment that the first guitar chord sounded the room fell into an awed silence, and Maria said afterwards that she had goosebumps. A shiver ran down my spine.  I never hear flamenco without cursing that I don’t speak better Spanish, and yet the passion and the heartbreak often don’t need any translation at all.  None of the performers looked once at the audience. They were in a whole other place, eyes fixed on points far above our heads.  The dancer clapped, her face betraying that she was living the words of the songs in her head. When she rose to dance eventually, I took a sharp intake of breath, the anticipation had been wrought out of us so well. Still eyes fixed on something beyond our vision or comprehension, she told stories with her hands and feet and body, exuding anguish, despair, defiance and love in turn, and then, in the same way they had arrived, they rose and left, almost as one person. It was over, and despite the small crowd the room felt empty.

We were lucky to have hit on a night which was free.  We couldn’t quite figure out why, something to do with it being Sunday, but at €14 including a drink it was quite one of the most reasonably priced shows around anyway.  The food is nothing short of divine, if you don’t want to see Flamenco try it for lunch!  As we left we recognized a couple of the guides from Pancho Tours with whom we’d done the walking tour the previous day, so it clearly is on their night-time agenda too.


Maria’s Favorite Nook in Barcelona

This post will probably not be what you expect. It wasn’t what I expected, as we strolled the winding streets of Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, and Maria said, “Come on. I’ll take you to my favorite square in the city.”

I expected, I suppose, perhaps somewhere like La Plaza de las Naranjas in Marbella, a colorful square filled with flora, people and parasols. It wasn’t anything like that.

Fascinated by the narrow streets through which we passed, I was snapping photos and not thinking about much else. As Maria walked through an archway I called out for her to turn around and pose, but she didn’t hear me.

As I passed under the same arch something seemed to flow over me, a sense of peace.  I was aware of a palpable silence, yet we’d only walked a few seconds from Barcelona’s hustle and bustle. It was as if passing under that archway marked a beginning and an ending. There was one of those wild-looking hobo-types ranting and apparently drunk, but he didn’t seem to be threatening, and his chatter was easy to block out in the overwhelming sense of tranquility.

The square wasn’t pretty, though there was an old fountain in its center, and a bar tucked into a corner.  It was a austere, and had a run-down air……. and then Maria explained to me why.

We were in the square of the church of San Felipe Neri, and although I didn’t remember the name, I did remember reading about the place where Franco’s troops had executed untold numbers of folk during the Spanish Civil War.  The run-down look of the walls of the church and the adjoining buildings, which had been a convent and a school, was because those pockmarks were caused by the bullets of the firing squads.

Knowing that, I can’t account for this sense of calm. Perhaps the ghosts are at peace, as some website claimed when I looked it up later.  Civil Wars are always the most destructive, as if some special venom is reserved for our brothers and sisters, and Spain’s began a mere 75 years ago, it’s barely history. For sure there are still open wounds, events which need explaining, disappearances which need to be solved, and it’s hard to imagine that the ghosts would yet be at peace. If you google la Iglesia de San Felipe Neri many sites don’t even mention the executions, not unusual in a country which tried to bury its collective memories, and which, in many ways, still has to come to terms with them. The web sites mention the bomb, which fell there in 1938, which resulted in the the deaths of between 20 and 45 people (depending on which site you read), most of whom were children, sheltering in the basement of the 18th Century church when the ceiling caved in, and they mention that it is the site of an ancient burial ground, so if anywhere is the haunt of the dead, this place would be.

I left my camera around my neck, untouched.   This place seemed too sacred to play tourist. The church doors were firmly shut on the day we were there. I don’t know if it is open to tourists normally, but as Maria’s words sank in, and I stood quietly by the fountain absorbing them, this quirky vehicle drew slowly by.

It seemed incongruous, brightly-colored and commercial against the sombre walls, and yet who was I to judge – isn’t that how wars begin? Perhaps the people were too infirm to walk the city’s streets, and wasn’t this environmentally friendly and quiet, and who am I to think I have any more right to be there than they? And if this tragic place is on the tourist circuit isn’t it right that we should know the truth and remember it? I raised my camera, but without the enthusiasm I usually feel.



My Special Barcelona Places

It’s almost over, 2011, and I was looking back over the things I’d filed away to post “later” and never did get around to doing.  Considering that my only trip this year was a mere three or four weeks I can’t believe how much of it I missed posting about.  Probably because so much of it was very personal time, and I have, even now, a lingering sense of sadness about the trip.

That aside, Barcelona, was, as always, a very vibrant memory, and I deliberately didn’t write about my favorite places because I wanted to take my time and do them justice.  However, it is now time. I always like to at least try to begin the new year with as many ends as possible tidied up, so here are some more memories from one of my favorite cities:

Barcelona might be the richest city in the world architecturally, and many of the inspiring buildings are churches and cathedrals. When you say “Barcelona,” for many people the image which first springs to mind is Gaudi’s still-unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia, others will register the word “Gothic” and think about the Cathedral and its surrounds, but the two images which first flash across my brain are these:

Santa Maria del Mar

The church of Santa Maria del Mar may not be as grand and flashy as La Sagrada Familia or the Gothic Cathedral, but it’s one of the few churches I know which make me feel the way I think I should feel in a church…..peaceful and happy.

The first time I came across it, knowing nothing about it, was by accident.  I had been in the city for a few days, and was recovering from the worst food poisoning of my life, so I was strolling very gently, sin rumbo (without direction – love that phrase in Spanish), when something drew me in.  From the outside it really didn’t look very impressive, but when I entered it was like crossing the threshold to another dimension. To eyes perhaps wearied by Gaudí’s opulence, and a heart jaded by Gothic religious overkill, the church was a haven of light and elegance.

Although it was under construction during the same period as the city’s cathedral in the 14th century, and the style is Gothic, there is a simplicity to the interior which makes me feel as though, if  “God”  had to choose somewhere to live, this would be it. The lack of clutter, an open space without transepts, and columns which really seem to be reaching to heaven give it a graceful majesty, but the stained glass windows give it warmth. It’s accepted that this church is the church of the people, (whereas the much more showy Cathedral was for the nobility) and, of course, of the sailors and fishermen who made up so much of the population of that time.

Santa Maria del Mar is on the tourist beat (where inBarcelonaisn’t these days?) but it’s less crowded than perhaps better-known places.  My second favorite place is a haven for both tourists and locals, and it’s Port Vell.

Port Vell

Having stuffed ourselves on tapas yet again in wonderful bars which look so uninviting from the outside, but which open out into quirky or cosy or chic interiors, Maria and I thought we might take in an IMAX movie in Port Vell on the city’s stylish waterfront to finish the day. There were certain distractions, though, a street market and a quirky fountain to photograph! In the end we were too late for the movie, so we bought waffles from a kiosk and perched on a bench to scoff them.

Port Vell as it is today was created for the 1992 Olympics, held in Barcelona, but surely must have paid for itself in the tourism it’s attracted since. I adore IMAX movies, so it’s somewhere I always want to go just for that alone, but over the years I’ve eaten some great seafood there, visited the excellent aquarium, done some serious shopping and, on this occasion, had my breath taken away by a stunning sunset.

For a short visit we packed in a lot of on that trip, and there is yet one more place, but I’m saving that for another post… it may yet be 2012 before I am finished with all my notes and snaps from this year!


The One in Which I Find My Fotos from Barcelona!

There are times when I despair of my efficiency, and there are others when I surprise myself! Despite deleting the photos of Barcelona from my laptop I find that I actually did back them up!  Now, go on, ask me why I didn’t check to see if I’d done that before I began gnashing teeth and wailing!  Answer: I have no memory of doing it at all!  I have this probably-stupid habit of not backing them up until I’ve used them for my immediate purposes i.e. this blog etc.  Anyhoo, Woot! I am happy to say I seem to have backed up Barca when I backed up Sevilla… here are the fotos which should have been in the last post :=)

La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s as-yet-unfinished masterpiece.  Even down there, admiring it, I didn’t get the sense of just how huge it is that I got from this vantage point atop Parc Güell.

If I could time travel Gaudi is one of the people I would love to meet! Even today his ideas seem quirky and surreal, so how must they have appeared to be back then? Or was it that the world was being shaken then by new ideas in art which have, in fact, never really become “the norm”. I love the way that Gaudi confounds our perspective of how things “ought” to be, and shows us the possibilities of how things “could” be. Seeing his creations is like being in Disney World, a fantasy universe where the roof of a house might just turn out to be made of gingerbread, and a bench is made up of all the colors of the rainbow.

The protected frontage of the Palau de Musíca – see previous post. Of course it wasn’t only Gaudi who epitomized this era of fantasy and over-the-top gorgeousness! Lluís Domènech i Montaner was the creator of this intricate and stunning auditorium, which I couldn’t afford to experience inside :=(  However, if you want an idea of  just how beautiful it is simply Google Palau de Musica and look at the images there.  I’m just hoping that next time I visit Barcelona there will be pix here too….maybe even a report of a concert I saw there, because the agenda for the coming weeks looked marvelous.

The box office is now sited in that shiny, new part, but don’t you feel an urge to time travel back to when the box office looked like this? Wasn’t that a time of style and fun which got lost somewhere along the way? Ah, this must be one of the reasons I love Barcelona so much!

This sculpture on the corner of the building, by Miguel Blay, is called “Catalan Song”. The building was, in every sense, a celebration of Catalan talent, vision and creativity, drawing on both history and on modern design.

And, finally – I’ve never been much a fan of Gothic, but I realized in Barcelona’s cathedral that even Gothic style, which, in my mind is a bit overwhelming and threatening, has its humorous side.

I don’t know nearly enough about architecture to know if these come under the heading of gargoyles, and the cathedral being one stop on a busy day of sightseeing I haven’t yet found the history of these quirky adornments, but they definitely amused me!

And to finish at the same point as the last post, Maria, as always knowing just the right pose to strike, alongside the modern portrayal of the word Barcino, the Latin name for Barcelona.


Reasons to Return

Although I think of myself, essentially, as a country-girl, I love cities. I love their quirks, and their ability to change, and to mix modern with traditional, and how there is always something new to discover, and above all their energy. I need to feed off that energy just as much as I need to feed off the peace of the countryside or the seashore.

I especially adore Spanish cities. I have yet to find one I don’t like, and want to return to – Sevilla, Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Malaga, not forgetting Santa Cruz de Tenerife – all have their special charms, and lots of soul.

Maria and I went to Sevilla this time largely because Cirque de Soleil was there. Temperatures were in the high thirties and locals all said it was a freak heat wave, even by standards of a city known for its summer heat. It was a magical few days, as I’ve already noted, but leaving Sevilla wasn’t that hard. It was time. You don’t always get that feeling, but I had it, despite that I was standing on a street corner at 5am waiting for a taxi, I knew it. I was happy to be on the move again. I’d had a wonderful time, and I loved her to bits, I really hoped to return but I wasn’t in love.

Speeding to the airport you could see that there were wide, modern thoroughfares and smart office blocks outside of the historic and touristy heart of the city. Avenida Kansas City for goodness sake, there must be an interesting story behind that name, surely.

It doesn’t take long to get to Barcelona, you’re still in Spain, but the difference is palpable in the first whiff of air, even at the airport. There is that vibe of a city on the move, an energy which, I’m sorry, I missed in Sevilla. I’m very aware it’s possibly because we stuck to an area which radiated roughly from the cathedral. We only crossed the river once, and I know I still have much to learn and discover. = Reason to return!

Barcelona is more familiar – this was my fourth visit, and, not only that, but it’s Maria’s hometown, and you can’t do better than to be with someone in their hometown if you want to really “get” a place. That said, I had a couple of requests; places I’d missed on previous visits. On my last visit I’d kind of “done” Gaudi, but got distracted by Roman ruins and a chocolate museum (no surprise there, then, for those who know me!), and I missed Parque Güell. Since then I’d watched “Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona” a few times, so I really needed to experience it.

Seeing the famous architecture and sculptures I couldn’t, actually, believe that I hadn’t been there before. I had the same reaction when I went to New York. It was all so familiar (but no less impressive for that), because I’d seen it so often on the screen.

The vista from atop the park is stunning. The city meanders over the foreground like a miniature village, and landmarks like La Sagrada Familia (still encircled by cranes) tower above the mass of other structures with authority. We couldn’t resist the corny photo ops – afterall, it’s the fact that something is so good that makes it popular!

As for Gaudi? His vision, his surreal take on the world is beyond words.  So many public spaces, worldwide, copy his style these days, it’s easy to forget just how avant-garde he must have been.  Happily for us he and his imitators have brought much color and humor into our modern lives!

Alas the photos here are all that remain. It’s looking very much as if I’ve deleted the rest by mistake, and I could cry! If I find them hidden somewhere on this p*ta computer I’ll post them as a photo essay, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely :=( Most of these have been recovered from Flickr and Twitpic, so if the quality is lacking, that’s why. = Reason to Return!

I also made my best-ever Bookcrossing release in Parque Güell. I left the book about Gaudi which I’d bought on my last visit, lying on a park bench for the next reader. I figure you can’t get much more apt than that!

What I hadn’t realized from movies or books (I read Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s “The Angel’s Game” as my preparation for this visit, perhaps I should have stuck to guides?!) was just how extensive the park is, and that there is more to it than just a pilgrimage to Gaudi. I love to have reasons to revisit places, and since we’d hightailed it straight down there after arriving in the morning, and a lovely lunch prepared by Maria’s sister, we didn’t have enough time to explore it all = Reason to Return :=)

My other requests were the Palau de la Musíca and La Boqueria Market. The latter was to elude me yet again. The last time I attempted to visit was a bank holiday (January 6th, the Day of the Kings) and, as luck would have it, so was the day we chose this year! It was October 12th, Spain’s National Day, and the market was all closed up, save for a few bars around the periphery, which, of course, were chock-a-block. BUT another Reason to Return!

As for the Palau de la Musíca, well, it kind of half-eluded me. From the pictures I’d seen of the Music Palace I imagined it to dominate the surrounding neighborhood, but I’d forgotten about how narrow the streets of the old city are, and we rounded a corner, and there it was, before us. Very impressive, nevertheless, and now protected by a glass façade, which does detract from its beauty, but with which you can’t argue. History has to be preserved and protected, and this is probably the best way. The entry price was just too much for the current state of my bank account, so we had to content ourselves with a stroll just inside the ground floor bar area, and then we trotted around the corner to snap the lavish exterior. The building, designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and inaugurated in 1908, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it so epitomizes an era which fascinated me for many years that I could almost have cried. One day I WILL be back to see the elaborate interior and the famous stained glass! =Reason to Return!

Barcelona is one of the best cities I know for just strolling around. I’ve been in all sorts of weather, and even at its coldest or wettest I haven’t been deterred.

Outside the cathedral there is a new photo-op. I have to say again how much I love this blend of ancient and modern that you find in great cities. It’s a sense of life continuing and evolving, appreciating the beauty of the past, but loving the present and looking forward to a bright future. The times I’ve hated cities have been when I’ve visited ones which seemed to be stuck in their past, however fascinating that might be!

We were intrigued, as were dozens of others, as we snapped away, by the red water, looking like blood, oozing from this fountain. It was pretty gruesome, and a couple of weeks to go to Halloween, so not for that. We couldn’t find out if it was intentional, it was Spain’s National Day, a day when the sacrifices of its military are honored, so perhaps, but Maria’s sister thinks it was probably a prank.

There was so much more to this day, but I was relying on the photos as memory prompts… I guess I’ll just have to go back to relive it all….maybe it’s one of the joys of travel always having a Reason to Return?