Iceland in October

CardIt was last Christmas, 2015, when Dee opened an envelope containing her Christmas present which promised the Great Aurora Borealis hunt in February during a five-day trip to Iceland. Unfortunately, she was in the middle of chemotherapy again by the dates we intended to fly so we looked for the next best window to have a chance of catching the northern lights and it appeared that October would be best. We agonised throughout the year about whether we’d make it or not but we left Heathrow at one o’ clock on 12 October after a leisurely brunch in the lounge. At both ends the request for wheelchair assistance proved vital as not only were the distances considerable but when you are guided through the airport many queues are jumped, corners cut and arrival at the plane is so much easier. The flight was straightforward and we picked up our rental car via a shuttle bus with strict warnings about not driving on non-tarmacked road which might cause chips in the paintwork. There was also a brief discussion about football with our clerk being a Liverpool fan who was very pleased that Watford had just beaten Man United. He’d have been ecstatic if he’d known that in two weeks’ time Liverpool were to beat us 6-1! There was enough light for us to take in the volcanic landscapes as we headed towards Reykjavik’s ring road in order to head off east to our first hotel at Hella in the south of the island.

As the roads became less busy and we entered wilder territory we started to spot plumes of steam coming from the ground and while knowing that geysers existed all over Iceland having them erupt yards from the road was a bit of a surprise. There were also frequent waterfalls on our left – the hillier part of the landscape with a flat plain to our right stretching away to the coast. Untitled-1The hotel was well signposted and we checked in and were shown to a very pleasant room in the west wing of the log cabin like structure that was the Hotel Ranga. We unpacked, relaxed and then went to the bar for a beer and a cocktail. I was impressed by the range of craft beers – pale ale, red beer, wheat beers and stouts and Dee by the Icelandic vodka in her martini. Next morning we woke to appreciate the view over lawns with hot tubs and down to a river estuary.

We had little choice being so far from anywhere but to eat at the hotel’s restaurant. Fish, reindeer, lamb and puffin are the specialities but we couldn’t quite bring ourselves to eat a whole puffin so settled for wild mushroom soup and a duck salad as starters and then reindeer and arctic char as our mains. There was a very tempting Muga Reserva on the wine list but also a better value Rioja from Torres which was most acceptable. We were joined during our dinner by Fridrik Palsson, the owner who tries to chat to all guests during their stay in order to keep his customer service up to the mark. During a pleasant exchange of travel and service experiences he insisted that we try the smoked puffin which fortunately came in small slices a bit like smoked duck breast with beetroot sauce. Her stomach somewhat delicate anyway, Dee declined but I sampled this extraordinarily fishy tasting meat – but then puffins do just feed on fish so I guess it was only to be expected. Eating and drinking are not cheap in Iceland – no, nothing is cheap in Iceland – so we were thrilled to discover that our meal had been largely paid for by a mystery phone call from the UK which on investigation turned out to be from my daughter. What a lovely thought! Travel and food are tiring but on our way back to the room we nonetheless signed up for the Wake Me if the Aurora comes service whereby the night manager phones you if the skies clear and there’s a chance of a sighting – some guests clearly got lucky! As we’d driven through quite a lot of heavy rain dumped by the tail end of hurricane Matthew or maybe it was Nicole, we didn’t expect to be disturbed tonight. And so it proved and throughout our stay the skies remained unremittingly grey with not a glimmer of northern lights or even sunlight for that matter until our last day.

So maybe the skies weren’t playing ball but the geysers and waterfalls were not too far away so we spent the next day visiting Gulfoss and Geysir where the eponymous big gusher doesn’t do its stuff much anymore but Strokkur blasts 60 feet of steaming water into the air every six or ten minutes. Both the waterfalls and the geysers were impressive and well worth the rather chilly, damp visit.

The journey back was through some brilliant volcanic and mountain scenery with black lakes, sheer cliffs, waterfalls and lots of fumaroles.

After a very disturbed night our check out and departure saw a pale and delicate Dee climb into the car to make our way to a lunch time appointment at the Blue Lagoon something we had both been very keen to try but which now looked in some doubt. IMG_7674Fortified with paracetamol Dee perked up as the journey progress including overriding SatNav’s instructions and taking us through the Reykjanesfólkvangur Natural Park the splendid scenery and rock formations of which were viewed from a granite chip road so a little trepidation there about the state of the paint work, unfounded thank goodness thanks to my unusually cautious driving.

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Typical lava field in the Rekyanesfolkvangur National Park

We made it to the Blue Lagoon and after a few problems and delays with crowded changing rooms and the insistence on naked showering prior to entry to the lagoon, we finally made it out into the 38° water with 4° in the air around our heads. It’s an amazing feeling and we were both very glad we’d persevered. The water feels like it contains lots of healthy minerals and indeed these are what give it its blue colour. Oh and they throw in these iPad photos as part of the entrance fee.

As always there were very tempting things in the gift shop at the usual eye-watering prices. We regained the car and headed off for Reykjavik where we were to spend three nights. The hotel was right in the centre of town – I suppose Hotel Reykjavik Centrum was a bit of a give-away – and there was a convenient pull-in just in front for us to unload and check in before I took the car back to the rental company before they closed at seven.

IMG_1985Our room was great with windows in the pointed tower that stood at the corner of the building. It also had a shower module into which all you need was packed into a very small space – inspiration for our thoughts about building a downstairs loo and shower room at home. I went back down to find chaos at the car. I was in a bus pull-in preventing a bus with thirty Americans from checking in. Oops! There was a ticket on the windscreen too which the rental company forwarded to me later – it was for a tenner! I drove off sheepishly towards the street name on the rental agreement which proved deep into the eastern suburbs beyond the ring road. There was a large shop and warehouse strip but no signs for Thrifty. There was an automotive parts store so I asked in there and they said there were some bays marked with Thrifty in the car park and I should put it in one of those and put the keys through the letterbox of the Toyota dealership. I duly did this more in hope than conviction and then walked to a nearby filling station to see if they could recommend a number to get a taxi back into town. They called a friendly cabbie who was coming in to fill up anyway and within five minutes we were heading back into the centre. Taxi drivers the world over like to grumble it seems and he was bemoaning the growth of Reykjavik swallowing up surrounding small towns in its sprawl, encouraging foreigners to come and take all the jobs and stag and hens parties who always argued drunkenly about the fare. Might have been in London.

IMG_2010Next day over a coffee in a bar just across from the hotel with some ancient coffee grinding machinery as part of its decor, we decided the to take the Reykjavik City Bus tour to orientate ourselves. It didn’t take long and included as a highlight a visit to the bus depot from where we could obtain bus rides all over Iceland! Most impressive.

The tour delivered us back at Harpa the new concert and exhibition centre in the harbour which we explored for a while admiring its hexagonal glass panel construction which threw interesting light patterns around the structure. We found a good place for a light lunch and explored the centre of the city a little further before going back to the hotel for a rest and a read. Over a drink in the bar we chatted to some other guests and discovered that Iceland is often used as a meeting point for far-flung families. Some Germans were meeting up with cousins from Detroit and lots of Canadians with French and British relatives. It makes sense when you think about it  – except that what you save on travel costs you spend on food and drink.

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A cocktail at Apotek

That evening we went to the excellent Apotek restaurant where the glittering youth of Reykjavik paraded in all their finery and we sat and consumed excellent food watching them all being peacocks and hens – highly diverting.

 

One notable feature was again the popularity of puffin and whale on the menu here at Apotek and all over Iceland it seems.

Saturday was our last full day so we made it to the Culture House where we saw a not entirely inspiring art exhibition, some excellent art nouveau furniture and became engaged in conversation with a lady in the splendid IMG_1979library about Icelandic literature and legends and family names. We retired to the hotel for lunch and to listen to Swansea v Watford on Hornets Player. Having taken all three points at Middlesbrough the previous week we had high hopes but when goalkeeper Gomes was named man of the match you know it wasn’t our day but a point is a point.

 

Dee needed a lie down after all the excitement and I decided to take my camera and go for a walk around some other parts of the city. Just as I reached the lake that projects into the centre the sun came out for the first time and I had a quick hope that there might just be a clear night and we’d get to see the northern lights at the last gasp. A couple of weeks before they had turned off all the street lights in the capital so that people could see the brilliant light display in the sky.

No luck for us though, the cloud gap was small and short lived and soon the grey blanketed the city again.

IMG_2023The sun taunted us again the next day. As we took off and banked over the Blue Lagoon the sun’s reflection flashed across it. We hadn’t got what we came for but neither of us had any regrets about making the trip. The landscapes were amazing and as an erstwhile geography teacher Dee was glad to have seen them. The people were friendly, the food was good and at last I was able to deliver last year’s Christmas present.

And that brings the retro-blogs up to date. It’s been quite cathartic for me to look through our notes again and select photographs to illustrate each blog. There have been moments when I’ve needed a towel to stop the keyboard getting soaked but mostly there’s been laughter and joy at the fun we’ve had and the experiences we’ve shared. Many of you have been kind enough to tell me that you’ve enjoyed reading them – thank you for that. I’m off to Spain again in a few weeks and the habit may return then – watch this space!

Unfamiliar Spain 29 Aug – 12 Sept 2016

4 Pilgrims, partying and peace in Galicia

Map Day 10The route to our next stop the parador at Baiona took us very close to Santiago de Compostela so we couldn’t not go. We passed a few groups of walking pilgrims on the way but I think the preferred routes keep them off the major roads, fume flagellation not being part of the pilgrimage. As we approached the sprawling city we headed for the first car park we saw signs to and found that miraculously, well it is Santiago, it was right by a major intersection from which a gate led us to the centre in about fifteen minutes. However after the drive we needed to pause for a coffee and chose a place near this big junction where coach after coach disgorged its mixtures of pilgrims and day trippers.

P1020713We made our way into the old part of the city pausing at several haberdasheries to marvel at the lace, religious memorabilia shops to wonder at the gullibility and how many shapes you can make for a scallop shell, and some art and craft shops whose wares were interesting but not compelling. The cathedral is very impressive and the whole monumental area surrounding it gave a feeling of ancient power. We refrained from joining the queues to see the interior of the cathedral. It was hot, the queue was very long and we agreed some time ago that we didn’t like paying to go into churches.

Real pilgrims have express entry and therefore much shorter lines were forming for them to enter the cathedral – quite right after walking miles.

IMG_7559We covered the immediate hinterland gazing at fine buildings with amazing carvings, wandered down narrow streets and found ourselves at the Café Casino a building dating from 1873 which has high vaulted ceilings, glittering chandeliers, loads of stained glass and wood panelling throughout. It is reputed to have been and still be the haunt of artists, musicians and writers so we felt completely at home as we sipped our drinks and enjoyed the brilliant surroundings. A further amble through the other part of the old centre and we were back at coach corner and looking for somewhere to lunch. P1020729
P1020730On the corner of the road back to the car was a restaurant called Markesa which billed itself as an izakaya gallega. What could be better than Japanese pub atmosphere with fresh regional produce? We looked no further and enjoyed an excellent fusion of cuisines and after all there’s a lot in common between the small dishes served in izakayas and tapas. Prawn and asparagus tempura, some delicious yakitori skewers of chicken, beef and vegetables, teriyaki eels, eels are something else both Japanese and Spaniards love, sushi and some miso soup made for a satisfactory if surprising lunch in Santiago.

We drove off southward after getting out of the city fairly easily and bowled along passing more strings of pilgrims taking the southern route – I’d advise the northern as the final approach to Santiago is all uphill on the southern route, but maybe that gets you extra brownie points and into the cathedral quicker. We rolled through green hills and farmland for much of the way and then into an urbanized strip that seemed to connect the northern suburbs of Pontevedra right through to the south of Vigo. There are great harbours all down the coast and of course industry follows. There were some hairy stretches in which all the knowledgeable locals move at breakneck speed round blind bends and emerge from tunnels, cross and re-cross bridges but we survived and emerged to follow a more leisurely path to Baiona. We’d booked the parador here for five days on the basis that it was a long way from anywhere, had a pool, was in a medieval fortress and would enable us to have a rest after nine days of being frequently on the move.

P1020764 Our first impression as we arrived was that we had struck lucky. A beautiful sandy bay with a promenade lined with shops, bars and restaurants, a fishing harbour with a replica of Columbus’s ship Pinta which brought the first news of the New World to Baiona in 1943 – oh dear too used to typing my date of birth – 1493 was when the Pinta sailed in from the Americas. Columbus is starting to play as big a part in these blogs as Murakami – he’s followed us from one end of Spain to the other. At the end of the town was a promontory with the fortress walls surrounding it and the hotel right in the middle at the top. And you had to show your reservation to be allowed to drive through the entrance gateway at the foot – proper posh!

Here we were then for five days of rest and relaxation enjoying spectacular sea views, clean air and bright sunshine. Except our friends Natalie and Graham were returning from England to their house in Antequera via the ferry to Santander which is not that far away so they are coming via Baiona tomorrow and then driving back down to Antequera through Portugal, which will be a new experience for them. As we check into the hotel in its massive stone ceilinged entrance hall we notice a host of others moving in from some vintage Mercedes and VWs, the odd Morgan and Jag. It seems there’s a German rally association that organises an annual 10-day trip staying in paradors and other smart hotels with some fun driving in between. Sounds like me – just need the vintage car now.

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A view from a room

Our room was excellent with a view down the rocky coastline with the sound of the sea through the open window and we set off to explore the massive parador, soon finding a large lounge bar and terrace which was just what was needed. It served good tapas and there was another more formal dining room in an elegant hall and a further less formal restaurant two minutes walk down the battlements.

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Waiting for a beer on the parador terrace

Next morning I set off on a quest for paracetamol as stocks were running low and pain barely under control a lot of the time. I walked a mile along the promenade to find an open pharmacy and duly purchased some tablets. However Dee found these quite hard to swallow and so I really wanted the little plastic torpedoes which they didn’t have. As I got back to near the parador entrance another pharmacy had just opened and in response to my ‘Hay paracetamol en forma de capsulas, no comprimido?’ they produced the very thing I was after. This was thanks to extending my pharmaceutical vocabulary at the last place to learn that ‘comprimido’ in this context means pressed powder -conventional pills. I returned with my triumph and after all this early exertion the full Spanish provided by the excellent buffet went down well. We had a call from Natalie to say they had left Santander and would probably hit Baiona about one. We spent some time exploring the pool area and other rooms in the parador and then walked down into town and found a central café at which to await the arrival of our friends. We soon spotted them strolling along towards us and catching up and sharing news took several cups by which time it was time to go in quest of some lunch. We found a good restaurant on the edge of the old town and spent a happy couple of hours with excellent fish and seafood – and I think I remember some ice cream too. We parted and made for our different hotels as the parador was full when Natalie tried to book – all those rally drivers and their companions – and arranged to meet up there for a drink and then go to a recommended restaurant for dinner – the number one place was way up in the hills behind Baiona but we decided being in town would prove the easier option. The food was fine, the wine and brandy flowed but it was a bit lacking in traditional Spanish atmosphere. We had failed to do a decent recce as there were several good-looking restaurants back in the old town which we discovered later when Natalie and Graham were back home. However we did have a most enjoyable evening.

The next day was as intended – a quiet day around the parador, sunbathing by the pool in which we declined to swim despite the heat since it was a magnet for seagulls and you know what they do in water. We suggested that some kind of bird repellent might be worth investigating as the confines of the hotel pool were clearly much more attractive than the vastness of the ocean. A peaceful pleasant day at the parador. But having seen the source of the Miño river in Meira we decided that on Saturday we would do the recommended driving trip around the river valley where it forms the border with Portugal and then flows out into the Atlantic.

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Forgot the camera so river Mino photo is by lmbuga (Luis Manuel Bugallo Sanchez) from Wikimedia Commons

It was a very fine trip with steep wooded slopes, small villages almost Alpine in appearance and a couple of towns at one of which Mondariz we stopped for lunch eventually. It’s a famous spa town and although the spa complex does two-hour sessions we had come unprepared so we headed for the main square where there were several restaurants but none serving food – one told us his chef hadn’t turned up today, another that the kitchen closed at two – unheard of in most of Spain.

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Looking down on Mondariz photo by HombreDHojalataWikimedia Commons

There were however lots of signs advertising Mondariz water which had just been voted ‘best water in the world’ at the Diamond Taste Awards. Tempting but they probably use it in the local beer too don’t they? A friendly barman directed us to a rival whose chef had turned up and made us some very acceptable dishes a seafood salad and a caldo gallego – the Galician stew with cabbage, beans, peppers, ham and chorizo. As we ate it became time for kick off back home as Watford made their first visit to West Ham’s new London Stadium. So phones were consulted frequently and then less so as we went 2-0 down in the first half hour. Then miraculously it was 2-2 at half time. The guide book had said that Ribadevia although not on the circular tour was well worth a visit so after a coffee we set off in the car to explore further inland. Dee nearly jumped out of the car when her phone said we were 3-2 up as we headed through the narrow lanes high above the banks of the Miño and with frequent glimpses of the river below. We made it to Ribadevia as 20 minutes into the second half we were beating West Ham 4-2 – amazing! Also amazing was the scene that confronted us in Ribadevia. It was choc-a-bloc with vehicles and people, the streets were packed and it looked like fiesta time. It was actually market day and a rehearsal for thee History Festival in a week’s time when everybody dresses in medieval costume, something we seen in Tortosa back in 2001 on our honeymoon. We managed to creep through the town, abandoning all hopes of parking, and then made our way back to Baiona through another scenic route.

Sunday was another quiet day at the hotel with an excursion into the old town to buy a few gifts for those back home. There are lots of bars, craft shops, delicatessen and restaurants in an ancient area of the town that is very compact but has some wonderful buildings and unexpected sights around corners. And we bought what we needed.

In the afternoon, we made the three kilometre walk round the battlements which gave us wonderful changing perspectives of the coast to the north and south the huge ocean bay stippled with islands to the west and the pretty town and beach to the east. There were convenient places to pause and admire the view and it was a very happy excursion. IMG_7588We dined that evening in the less formal  restaurant just down from the main parador building called the Enxebre A Pinta as it overlooks the port with the replica ship. Less formal than the main dining room the food was well up to standard and made for a very relaxing last night in Spain – and we got another lovely sunset.

 

 

 

Our flight on Monday from Santiago airport was not until 19:20 so we packed and decided to try to visit Ribadevia which we had failed to explore on Saturday. The contrast couldn’t be greater with the town on a sleepy Monday. Cats and kittens dozed in doorways – real not graffitti – gegants the huge figures that parade at fiesta time sat lonely in a doorway and the Jewish quarter told a story of flourishing trade followed by persecution on a series of plaques.

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We were glad to have made it here where the river Avia joins the Miño, a castle dominates and the main square housed a microbrewery and an irresistible leather goods and craft shop. We set off towards Santiago and the route took us through Ourense a name I’d heard as a Spanish province but had no concept of. It’s split by the river Miño which is quite broad at this point and has dramatic sloping bridges, roads and parks along the river banks and a medieval centre with massive churches and municipal buildings. We had a light lunch and set off for the airport which looked very straightforward on the map but the SatNav had different ideas. The first part was fine – along the autovia to Lalin and then the N525 when the motorway changed from A53 to AP53 designation and we didn’t feel like paying tolls as we were not in that much of a hurry, we thought. The SatNav clearly didn’t think this was a good idea and we set off across country along single track roads – there were no problems with passing as we didn’t see another vehicle except for tractors in the fields. With high hedges, sudden changes of direction and right angle bends it was quite disorienting but also quite a laugh – possibly slightly nervous laughter at times. Then our narrow track emerged onto a major road with a sign to the airport at 1km and a convenient filling station so we could avoid the exorbitant rates charged by rental companies by returning the car full.

Parking and return were easy in the very modern airport which had been rebuilt in 2011 to increase facilities for tourists which include a lot of pilgrims who can’t make the penitential journey on foot. As it happens they needn’t even leave the airport as there’s a great model of the cathedral and old city complex so you could take your selfies there and save the trip to the centre.

The flight back was our first with Spain’s cheap flight operator Vueling and it was perfectly fine. We reflected on a holiday which balanced a little rest with some essential sightseeing in areas of Spain neither of us knew before but came to love during these last two weeks. The three-day, three-day, three-day, five-day bookings proved very satisfactory with some real rest towards the end. As always there were places we regretted not visiting – Ferrol in particular, when we saw Almodovar’s Julieta in the cinema a couple of weeks later as lots of it was set there. The holiday confirmed our love for Spain with its continual ability to surprise and delight.

Unfamiliar Spain 29 Aug – 12 Sept 2016

 3 Astonishing Asturias and west to Galicia

Map 2We packed and departed Cangas de Onis heading for Ribadesella at the mouth of the river Sella and which looked from the guidebook to be an interesting town with suitable locations for breakfast. The town divides neatly in two with the old town and fishing port on the right bank of the estuary and the modern resort with hotels and summer villas on the left. We headed for the port area and among the nets, lobster pots and boats we found the start of a Sunday market and a cute bakery that did great coffee and pastries. We’d missed by a month the famous International Descent of the Sella in which thousands of people in canoes race down the last 20 kilometres of the river. There were pictures of the event that looked great fun.

Then we went to explore the newer part of the town where a fine promenade with oar and lifebelt decorated railings looks over a long curving beach of golden sand. There are some elegant mansions built in the early part of the 20th century by wealthy merchants. There are hints of the modernisme of Gaudi and Domenech I Muntaner familiar from Barcelona and earlier this trip in Comillas but here it’s known as indiano style because the people commissioning them to be built had made their fortunes in the West Indies. They are colourful, well-proportioned and hint at truly elegant living. After a most enjoyable morning in Ribadesella which we’d love to come back to for a longer visit staying in the fabulous Hotel Villa Rosario with its walled garden, glassed-in terrace overlooking the beach and just a really attractive sense of style.

We set off in the car for the drive to Vilalba our next parador for three days from which we intended to visit more Asturian coast especially the famous Praia ais Catedrales (Beach of the Cathedrals) with its amazing stacks, arches and rock formations. We avoided the faster motorway with its tolls in favour of the N634 which took us through varied scenery – still quite hilly fringes of the Picos de Europa, forest, farmland – and bypassed the two main cities of Asturias, Gijon and Oviedo. They both looked worth a visit but when you’re not in peak condition there’s only so much urban sightseeing one can stand. Another day maybe as this new area of Spain was revealing many delightful places to us. Not so Vilalba itself which had a great parador but not much else of note or distinction. We arrived just in time to catch the last day of the fiesta of San Ramon and Santa Maria where a band was entertaining children in the main Constitution Square. So we checked in and caught the end of the gig and found a local bar for an early evening libation following which we made a quick recce and concluded that it was the parador for dinner tonight and one other good looking place Os Pios for another evening and one that looked promising, Meson del Campo, but appeared not to be open which on a fiesta day struck us as odd. Parador food is usually regional and local dishes, well presented but on a limited menu. Last year when we stayed in the same parador for nine nights we did find that the really attractive menu options ran out after day four but most people don’t stay that long so it’s fine for the majority.

We explored Vilalba a little further next morning – it was Monday and the museum was closed – and decided that we’d either stay in and read, paint or sew or go elsewhere in the locality. We knew we wanted to go to the Praia as Catedrais (Cathedrals Beach) so we asked the very helpful receptionist who advised us that you need a permit to go on the beach as, like Altamira, a Heritage Site was in danger from too many tourists so numbers are limited – to 4812 a day – still a lot of feet – and you have to apply for a permit between April to October to go onto the beach. Otherwise you can look and marvel from above but we wanted to paddle!

Parador Vilalba towerThe receptionist said that we should apply online and when the permits came back we should email them to the parador and they would print them for us. The website advises obtaining permits 30 days in advance so I make another trip to reception to see whether there’s any point and am advised that there’s an Urgent button on the site that should get us our permits today but that we should aim for tomorrow morning because of the tides – you can’t get onto the sand at high tide. Back to our room we get onto the site, make our application but have to send scans of our passports so it’s off to the business centre and a scanner. But wait cries Dee, we had scans on your laptop in Japan for occasions like this. Indeed we did and I haven’t deleted them so we attach the passport pics and hit send. A while later email permits pinged back but my emails didn’t reach reception for some reason the camera’s SD card was called into play and finally reception managed to print them.

Parador vilalba stairsI think in all I went up and down the stairs to reception about eight times. Thank goodness we were on the first floor and not up in the tower! During my many conversations at the front desk, the young lady suggested that the town of Meira would be worth a visit as the source of the Miño, Galicia’s longest river, which flows south and forms the border between Spain and Portugal which we would meet again later in the trip. It’s by now mid-morning and Meira’s about half an hour away so perfect timing for coffee and churros.

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The road from Vilalba must have been built by Romans it is absolutely straight with not a hint of a kink for the first 20 kilometres when there’s a slight bend to the right and more straight until a roundabout on the outskirts of Meira. Which is a typically pleasant Spanish town with a central square with banks, bars and cafés, a splendid church with amazing door furniture – photographs of door knobs are something of an obsession with Dee over many years in Spain. There was also a leafy park with the nascent Miño some 5 kilometres from its source trickling through it with a couple of bridges, seats and a children’s playground. But coffee called and we were soon ensconced in a bar in the square watching the illegal, inconsiderate and random parking of the locals who came and went to the panaderia next door for their daily bread. Not a horn was hooted, not a shout raised so people obviously accept it as a daily occurrence and patiently wait until they can move their vehicle from its legitimate spot. After a further stroll around the town we decided to follow the signs to the actual source but he initially helpful brown indicators soon petered out and we found ourselves the other side of a hill and concluded that even Galicia’s greatest river couldn’t flow up and over that and that we had passed the watershed. The road ahead looked straight and flat across a fertile plain so we stayed on it until we reached a more major road heading for the provincial capital Lugo.

The suburbs soon brought us to a massive stone barrier which proved to be the old Roman wall which still completely surrounds the town. We had seen the town of Avila some years before and because of it siting on a slope you get a better idea of the wall surrounding the town. Looking for somewhere to park we did the full circumvalation (good Spanish word circunvalacion for travelling all the way round but it appears not to exist in English) so we did get to appreciate the completeness of the structure with curved towers and a walkway along the top. We eventually parked and managed to grab a much-needed ice-cream as it was extremely hot inland.

IMG_7421So hot I photographed the clock/temperature sign outside the town hall. Lugo is a very clean and pleasant town with a black eagle statue commemorating the capture of the city by the Romans in the first century BC, a great market hall, the huge baroque town hall and many other marvellous buildings. A shady lunch spot was discovered on our travels and we sat to indulge in pulpo gallego, baked clams and a few other tasty tapas all helped down with very crisp Albariño wine from nearby. We hadn’t intended to do city sightseeing this trip – more mountains and beaches was the agenda – but Lugo was a delightful detour. Exhausted by the heat, lunch and walking we drove back to the hotel for a shower and a lie down. Later a drink and a few tapas and an early night ahead of tomorrow’s trip to the beach.

Tuesday morning dawned and we set of towards Ribadeo the nearest town to the Cathedrals Beach thinking we’d grab a light breakfast on the way – the parador in Vilalba was room only and paid for entirely by their Amigo scheme’s bonus points so effectively three nights for nothing. We drove through and around Ribadeo twice but found not the hint of a space we could squeeze into to park and look for a café. Rumbling a little and grumbling a little more, we headed for the beach where to our relief at the top of the cliffs was an acceptable cafeteria with good coffee and yoghurt, fruit and croissants.

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First sighting of the Cathedrals Beach.

Sustained, we descended the steep pathway to the beach which already looked awesome from the top but once down on the fine, golden sand the sandstone stacks, cliffs and arches interspersed with rocky outcrops were just breathtaking.

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Cameras well to the fore, we walked along the beach first to the west and then back further east before paddling, sitting a while in the sun and just absorbing the atmosphere of this special place. Neither of us was up for a very long walk so after a couple of hours we went back to the car and drove off to explore the coast further west.

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Lunch on the beach at Burela

We drove past Foz, another Cangas and stopped for lunch in Burela a small town with a working fishing port at one end and pretty, curved sandy beaches at the other. We sat for lunch overlooking the beaches to see two swim-suited people quite independently walking from one end of the beach to the other and back again ten times before putting on office clothes and presumably going back to work. Well the say regular exercise is the best and it did strike as being a bit like doing lengths but out of the water. A lovely windy coast road brought us to another pleasant town on the sea San Cibrao where we actually parked up, got out our towels and sat on the beach and read our books for an hour or more – real holiday stuff! I can’t really think why we didn’t have a swim, the sea looked calm and warm in a sheltered bay.

 

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We drove back to Vilalba along quiet departmental roads through rolling wooden hills interspersed with farms and hamlets. We’d noticed the lovely slate roofs on a lot of the older stone buildings and in the village of Muras just had to stop and grab some shots of these fabulous roofs with the rounded roof slates and wrought iron balconies or galerias which are such a part of the architecture of the area. A little further along the road in the middle of nowhere we had to stop again as we came across this amazingly decorated house. Deep in a wooded grove it looked like something out of a fantasy movie set. We saw no people around it so who knows? The gate lintel is a tree-trunk, the carvings are amazing and a tower – well we were at El Capricho earlier.

Back in Vilalba we prepared for our visit to Os Pios (#1 of 14 on Tripadvisor) where we’d had a drink the other evening in its lively bar. There were tables there but we were ushered through to the empty comedor at the back with proper red linen tablecloths and white napkins, ceramics hanging on the walls and a deafening silence. The food deserved its Tripadvisor status, the wine list was good with the Rias Baixas and Ribeiro familiar albariño-based whites well represented but also some unfamiliar reds using the mencia grape which despite years of drinking Spanish wine I’d somehow missed. Not tonight though and I note that Laithwaites has a mencia red from Bierzo so that may be worth a try on our return. Eventually another lone diner joined us in the dining room. He looked as if he might be there on a business trip rather than a local. He ordered swiftly, ate and departed while we were still savouring our meal – bizarre. Our last night in Vilalba was very satisfactory after a great day exploring the coast.

Unfamiliar Spain 29 Aug – 12 Sept 2016

2 A peek at the Picos

Wednesday morning, still glowing from our lunch at Martin’s gaff and the warm reception for Wellington’s compatriots the night before, we rose, finished packing and went to our convenient café just round the corner from the hotel for coffee and croissants to start the day. A call to our trusty cabbie resulted in us soon being whisked through the ring road and motorway suburbs to where our hire car awaited. If ever there was a misnomer Hertz San Sebastian City Centre was it. Twenty thoroughly confusing minutes later we find ourselves in a massive Centro Comercial with the car hire offices as far from the entrance as possible. However, the car was ready, there weren’t too many blemishes to note and photograph – essential as we were doing a one-way rental – and we were soon retracing our route onto the motorway and this time passing right by San Sebastian and heading for Bilbao. As we’d been there relatively recently we decided to stay on the motorway and bypass the city this time, while noting that it would be good to go back there again on another occasion.

MapWe also decided to carry on past Santander although people have said it’s a great city but we were drawn to the touristy attractions of Santillana del Mar once described by Jean Paul Sartre as the prettiest village in Spain.

And it did have a certain charm with ancient well-maintained buildings dating back to the 15th century, narrow cobbled streets contrasting with a massive church and many imposing palaces. We wandered happily in the sun with lots of photo opportunities, bars to sample cider and eventually a good place for lunch. Apparently there are strict building regulations and no access to cars unless they have a garage within the town which did make it a very pleasant place to while away a couple of hours. We decided against going to nearby Altamira since all you can see are replicas of the 35,000-year-old cave paintings since the originals have become too fragile to withstand the breath and sweat of visitors except a very few people each day. We later read that the waiting list is three years – almost as bad as booking at El Bulli in its prime.

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Instead as big Gaudi fans we decided to head off north to Comillas where one of his first ever buildings, and one of the few outside Catalunya, still stands in its decorative glory. El Capricho was built as a summer palace for a merchant who had found wealth in the Indies – like so many nineteenth century Spaniards – and was completed in 1883 the same year as Casa Vicens in Barcelona so they are of historical interest in demonstrating how the ideas that were later to find their way into the Sagrada Familia were already present in embryonic form in his first commissioned works. IMG_7301  IMG_7299 Capricho ironIMG_7289

It’s a fascinating small villa with an interesting combination of materials, stone, red brick, glazed tiles and lots of wrought iron. It has a tower like a minaret and reflects Gaudi oriental interests. There are repeating motifs of sunflowers and leaves and the use of the rooms follows the path of the sun. Seeing close up the designs Gaudi chose for door furniture, the windows that play tunes when they are opened, vermillion roof trusses, beautiful wood finishes and tiles and carvings of flora and fauna was an eye-opener which helped throw his later and more famous works into context. El Capricho had a chequered history being abandoned in the civil war, then becoming a restaurant and then thanks to a Japanese corporation which presumably included a Gaudi fan it was restored and opened as a museum in 2010. We had a brief rest in the tranquil garden and then back to the car for our hotel for the next three days – the Parador at Cangas de Onis, the gateway to the Picos de Europa.

I routinely make booking requests in most places for a room with a walk-in as opposed to an over-bath shower but didn’t bother here as we’ve never been in a parador that didn’t have both bath and separate shower. However we’ve never been up north before and they only have one in the disabled room. We can use that for the first night but a guest in a wheelchair is arriving tomorrow so we’ll have to move. So we made full use of it with a shower to wash off the effects of travelling all day and enjoyed an evening cocktail in the spacious room before going for dinner. The staff kindly agreed to move our bags during the day while we went to explore the Picos de Europa. We are both fans of a good blue cheese and one of Spain more famous one cabrales is made just down the road and there’s a cave-museum that shows the process and has a tasting tour so that’s where we headed first. The cave is quite small so groups are limited to twenty people and tours set off at quarter past every hour. So we had time for a coffee before joining the 12:15 group for a fascinating visit with video clips of the cows, sheep and goats high in the Picos with herdsmen still living up with them for weeks at a time, then a look at the equipment used to make the milk into cheese and then the actual shelves where the cheeses sit to age for between four and six months.

cheese cellarpack shotWe were surprised to learn that they make two types of cabrales – one just with cows’ milk and the other with a blend of cows’, goats’ and ewes’ milk. They are all controlled by strict Denominacion Cabrales regulations and are quite powerful blue cheeses. I marginally preferred the three-milk blend but both were highly acceptable.

The cave is on the outskirts of Las Arenas and after this little appetiser we decided it was time for lunch flowed by a drive higher into the mountains. It’s a small town but still too many restaurants to choose from but after the usual dithering we decided on La Panera which was a friendly family run place with good local food and of course a plate of cheese to finish off with. Our drive was exhilarating as we wound our way up through the breath-taking peaks often on single track roads and lots of reversing – the protocol seems to be give way to those coming down or maybe I’m just too polite. Eventually we arrived in the village of Sotres hoping to descend back to the main road via another valley but only belatedly consulted the map to find there were no other roads to Sotres than the one we had just driven.

The view does look quite different going the other way so no real complaints. They are very impressive mountains and we really enjoyed being able to get out and grab some warm, fresh mountain air. We stopped off in the town of Cangas de Onis – the parador is about three kilometres north in Villanueva de Cangas – to have an aperitif after a hard day’s tourism. Parking was a nightmare even with our blue badge translation but eventually we found a spot and headed off for a bar.

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But there’s a steep Roman bridge over the river Sella so we had to walk up that and take a selfie first. We settled down in front of El Campanu with a much needed – it’s very steep that bridge – beer and a glass of rosado when our pleasant stay was disturbed by a mother with an uncontrollably sick child which vomited freely in

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At the top of the very steep bridge.

the street making all around most uncomfortable. The staff quickly arrived with mops and buckets but we had by then retired inside to avoid feeling nauseous ourselves. The restaurant looked very good, so despite our setback, we agreed that we’d come back tomorrow night for dinner.

 

After travel and tourism for two days we agreed to suspend normal Raggett holiday mode and have a quiet day around the parador and Villanueva. This started with a sunny stroll beside the river to another hostelry for breakfast and Dee was moved to sketch a prominent sandstone outcrop across the river. We returned via the colourful little village which had a number of typical Asturian granaries or hórreos.
IMG_7359 (2)Originally raised grain stores to prevent rats and other rodents getting at the grain, some are still used for this purpose, others as garages but they are interesting structures found all across Asturias and Galicia. The village also had one shop-cum-bar and even with gentle strolling a thirst had developed so a beer was called for. We went back to the parador for a light lunch and found elaborate preparations for a wedding in full swing. We were later able to observe the guests from the balcony of our new, perfectly adequate room. A taxi took us back into Cangas for dinner and there beside our table in El Campanu was a photo of the owner with none other than Martin Berasategui who clearly approved our choice of local restaurant. Apparently he still spends quite a lot of time travelling to sample authentic local cuisine all over the country.Martin Campanu

The restaurant didn’t disappoint. The platter of simply grilled local fish was delicious and they had a good wine list as well as their speciality ciders which we did have to sample first or cause offence to the very attentive staff. I never fail to be impressed by how much Spaniards regard waiting as a real profession and do it with such enthusiasm and concern for their customers’ tastes and comfort. It wasn’t the bag pouffe and white gloves of Martin’s but it made our evening really pleasant and memorable. It seems that back home corporations with restaurant chains still haven’t learned that people by people not things. But then brands wouldn’t rule would they? As we are driven back to the parador through bright moonlight and with the mountains silhouetted around us, we are really glad we chose to explore a part of Spain we didn’t know.

Unfamiliar Spain 29 Aug – 12 Sept 2016

1 San Sebastian

We’d explored a lot of Spain together over the years and I suppose with some inkling of the future Dee suggested we should go somewhere we hadn’t been before and so I started planning a visit along the north coast with a couple of injunctions: not the usual one night here and move on Raggett itinerary; not two weeks in the same place; explore new areas at a leisurely pace. The compromise reached, and fully endorsed, was three three-night stays in San Sebastian, Cangas de Onis, Vilalba and a final five-nighter in Baiona to chill. And so on August Bank Holiday Monday we set off for Biarritz. Yes it’s in France, but it was the most convenient destination for flight times and it’s under an hour to San Sebastian by coach from the airport for just seven euros each. As we approached the toll booths and border control Rafael the coach driver did the most amazing set of manoeuvres and lane changes to speed us through well ahead of where we had any right to be. Respect Rafa! He also had to deploy the windscreen wipers briefly as we approached the border but we never needed them again for the next two sun-filled weeks. Soon we’re in the middle of San Sebastian disappearing into an underground bus station from which we were able to take a lift to the taxi rank and were swept up by Jon Andoni Uson who spoke a little English and with my Spanish – no Basque I’m afraid – we got on fine and he offered to be our private taxi service for the time we were in San Sebastian. He came up trumps within twenty minutes of being called on both occasions we needed him.

IMG_7252 IMG_7234Dee with film tin billHe delivered us swiftly to the Astoria 7 Hotel where we were shown to the Charlton Heston room – I might have preferred the Sophia Loren next door – which was very comfortable and funky with quotes and posters from his films. The lobby has a sofa where you can sit next to Alfred Hitchcock and the whole place is filled with film iconography – even your bill comes in a film can.

The hotel is a bit out of the centre but the number 28 (and several other buses) whisk you up to the main shopping area and the beach in five minutes – sorry Jon taxista, we like buses. We found a good place for lunch and sat outside, but the interior of Bideluze was fantastic with wood panelling and glass display shelves behind a great bar. It’s well known for its pintxos – the tapas equivalent in the Basque country – something we discovered a bit later from a guide book or online, must be that PM nose. We then walked across Guipuzcoa Square and found stop number 3 of the City Tour sightseeing bus and decided to get ourselves oriented with the town. The narration was a bit awry in places and repeated in others but gave us good snippets of history and culture. It also told us of the festival held on 31 August to celebrate Wellington leading Anglo-Portuguese forces to liberate San Sebastian from the French – hey there’s somewhere Brits are still welcome – and we’ll be here.

We got off the bus on the main beachfront the Playa de la Concha and during our evening stroll came across La Perla a thalassotherapy spa originally opened in 1912. We enquired about times and prices and determined to visit next day. We then walked north into the old city centre where a number of pintxo bars had been noted from Tripadvisor or the guide book.

P1020489There’s a whole street named for the 31 August which is lined with excellent bars and restaurants. It was the only street that survived when the Brits and Portuguese sacked the city and drove out the French. The bars didn’t disappoint with hams hanging from the rafters, cider being poured from a great height into tiny glasses, P1020488glass cabinets displaying mouth-watering delicacies and crowds of people having fun. It had been a while since lunch so we just had to try a few. A stroll along to the harbour and then the bus back to the hotel for a break before deciding what to do for dinner. With an early start, travel and a new city to absorb we decided on a snack at the hotel which was perfectly fine – the restaurant and bar were both very pleasant places to sit and plan.

The upshot of the deliberations that we would spend a couple of hours at La Perla and then go up Monte Igueldo which is at the west end of the bay – Jon and the guide books said the fun fair was indeed fun and the view of San Sebastian fantastic. But first thalassotherapy. What a delight – warm sea water with jacuzzi like jets toning your body at different positions all indicated on signs above – feet and ankles; knees and calves; thighs; waist; back or chest and shoulders often in combinations. It was great. And then we found the underwater gym – exercise bikes, cross-trainers, treadmills all for use while half submerged in slightly less warm but very pleasant salt water. After all the energetic stuff, we were also able to laze in a warm pool looking out onto the bay. Our two-hour session ended all too soon but we dried off, changed and then had a coffee at La Perla’s café up on the promenade. But not before booking a repeat for tomorrow.

Energized by our watery workout we walked the length of the promenade passing Queen Cristina’s Miramar Palace – La Perla was also built for her benefit when she decided the court would spend its summers in San Sebastian. They even built a tunnel for traffic so the palace lawns to extend right down to the beach without the inconvenience of crossing a road. Isn’t royal prerogative a wonderful thing? The Miramar marks the point at which Playa de la Concha stops and the next bay – Playa de Ondaretta begins. There a fewer hotels and restaurants on this stretch but more beach volleyball pitches, sailing and surfing outlets and a pleasant park. By the time we reach the elegantly tiled façade of the Igueldo funicular, we were thinking about lunch.

funicularAs we rise up the views become more spectacular with the island and sweeping bays and the mountains beyond all with bright sun, blue skies and golden sand – the temptation to cancel the trip westward and stay in San Sebastian was growing stronger.

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Spoiling the view?

The top of the mountain is a giant fun fair which we had been expecting – tacky, touristy but hey we’re by the seaside. We looked around and then spied a cafeteria which we thought would be good for lunch but no it was 3:30 and they were closing. Are we still in Spain? Now quite peckish we turn tail, descend in the funicular – we decided against the walk down – and along the promenade again looking for a suitable late lunch location. I think I mentioned this area was less populated with hotels and restaurants – devoid might be a better term. Leaving the main drag we entered a warren of side streets and hit upon Bar Pepe a good old-fashioned family neighbourhood bar with no pretensions or tourists. All the staff seemed to be engaged in a twenty-strong table enjoying a family lunch to which people came and went at random with at least four generations involved. A lovely spectacle to observe. They did however find time to take our order and serve us a selection of tasty tapas. It was after seven when we left so we took the bus back to the hotel for a quiet evening in preparation for the big day tomorrow.

San Sebastian is renowned for having more Michelin stars (14) per square kilometre than any other place on earth – it’s just been supplanted by Kyoto where we’ve also eaten very well. It would be foolish not to sample the delights of one of them wouldn’t it? But which one? Not realising the festive nature of 31 August we had tried to book Arzak, Akelarre and Martin Berasategui, all of which have three stars, from the UK several weeks before. Polite refusals from all except Martin Berasategui who regretted dinner was fully booked but that we might enjoy lunch even more given the location of his restaurant out in the hills behind the city. So we jumped at it, fixed on 14:00 and come Tuesday 31 August headed off for a work out at La Perla prior to our faithful taxi driver coming to sweep us out through confusing suburbs to the imposing entrance stairway of the restaurant. It may have his name in wrought iron beside us but for Dee it would always be ‘Martin’s gaff’ well his surname is a bit of a mouthful but what delightful mouthfuls would await us inside? Well plenty. Service was amazing from the moment we entered the door. We were offered a choice indoors or out and of three unoccupied terrace tables and chose one that would furnish a full view of the whole restaurant so we could see what was going on. Attentive wait staff provided a pouffe for Dee’s handbag and a sommelier offered a glass of cava as an aperitif. Our waiter and waitress donned white gloves to turn our glasses upright ready for pouring a divine glass of Juvé y Camps Reserva de la Familia, not a cava we’d ever had before, but which made a great start to the afternoon, quite citrussy and light. Dee’s appetite has been greatly diminished of late so she decided not to join me in the 15- course tasting menu but was guided to a number of selections which would interlace with mine quite nicely. As it was the service was seamless but unhurried, the food magnificent and the only blot on the landscape was when I exclaimed ‘Oh this is real caviar’ and then didn’t give Dee any to taste. So different from the lumpfish roe served in our own sweet home! I just got carried away honest!

A couple of hours later the chef himself appeared to greet most of the diners and posed for a treasured photo with Dee and myself after a chat about the menu, the area and his continued presence in the kitchen. He can’t be there all the time as he has also other restaurants to attend to – another three Michelin stars at Lasarte in Barcelona, the two-starred MB in Tenerife and six others in the Dominican Republic, Mexico and Costa Rica – and his reputation as the chef with the most Michelin stars to maintain.

During our time dining our attention was drawn to a woman in red sitting across the other side of the restaurant from us. Dee was convinced it was Laura Mvula, featured in a recent South Bank Show and speculated as to where she might be performing next – Paris in two days’ time (thanks Google) so it could be. We never approached her or asked the staff – celebs deserve their space too. But she did attract a lot of attention from the staff and had a long chat with Martin. After a wonderful and peaceful afternoon with outstanding food and well-matched wine, we called for Jon and were soon heading back to the hotel in his taxi. Dee took a sensible siesta while I, overexcited I suspect, went walkabout round the neighbourhood with my camera. We later got the bus back into the centre and witnessed the great parade and musical festivities of the 31 August Festival, packed streets in the old town, choirs and bands, poets declaiming and everybody having a good time.

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Walking about and standing watching were tiring but finding bars with somewhere to sit down was quite tricksy but eventually we managed a couple and rounded off a fabulous visit to San Sebastian with a bus ride back to the hotel which neatly exhausted our three-day travel cards. A quick pack and so to bed, dreaming of warm oysters with iced cucumber; red mullet with fennel, saffron and squid and drifting off with Martin’s selection of ‘The local cheeses that I like’.

Art hounds on the loose 22-28 July

We have a much-appreciated gift subscription to the magazine Art and Antiques which presented two free tickets for the Antiques for Everyone fair at the NEC in Birmingham. We decided to go up for a weekend, browse works we couldn’t afford and visit a couple of National Trust properties on the way back. There was a good deal at the nearby Arden Marriott so we set off on Friday afternoon, checked in had dinner and gathered our strength for walking slow miles through the NEC next day. Entry was easy and there were plenty of opportunities for coffee stops to break up the time on our feet. A few pieces really caught our eye. I must say that none of the dealers were excessively pushy and responded informatively to our questions. They were all very friendly and helpful – a pleasantly different attitude from the usual approach of people trying to sell you something.

By the time we sat down for lunch a shortlist was drawn up and ranked by each of us into priorities. Then there was the discussion about how much we could spend, where would it go on our already crowded walls? Would it prove an investment? Would we ever find anything comparable in an antiques market or even better a junk shop? Further visits were made to a number of booths to review options until an hour or so before the 18:00 close we thought we’d better sit down with a cuppa and decide. We finished up buying two large water colours, an etching and a signed Emile Gallé art nouveau side table with fabulous inlay designs – oh and a posh walking stick for occasions when Dee’s rather battered folding one bought in Japan in 2013 wasn’t quite right. It felt rather good driving right up to the exhibition hall back door to load them all up, less good carrying them all up to our room as I didn’t want to leave them in the car all night. But it gave us a chance to have another look at them all. Buyer’s remorse? No, not a bit – investment or not they were all things we were glad to have and display.

Purchases concealed in the boot, suitcases on the back seat for anyone to steal, we drove home on Sunday after deciding that another day in the NEC was not required. We dug out the NT and EH handbooks from the car and decided that the nearest places of interest were Baddesley Clinton and Packwood House both National Trust houses and gardens. Baddesley was closest, just, so we started there. Some time ago we discovered that those useful folding stools you can get to help you manage to sit and contemplate pictures in crowded galleries can be purchased online. They’re a cross between a stool and a shooting stick and perfect for a day like this. Baddesley Clinton is a small moated manor house that was in the same Ferrers family’s hands for 500 years. It’s a pretty building with some wonderful features like a huge stone fireplace in the hall and a carved and inlaid four poster bed.

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IMG_7125The staunch Catholic nature of the Ferrers family is evidenced by three priest’s holes but there’s no precise figure for the number of papists they saved. There’s lots of stained glass and memories of the ‘Quartet’ a sort of mini-Bloomsbury set who lived here from 1860 to 1920 painting each other, building a chapel and generally being artistic.

There were some hungry house martins waiting in a series of nests in the entrance arch but fortunately help was at hand.

IMG_7182The orchard and garden beyond the house had an exhibition of scarecrows and some interesting vegetable beds which we discussed with the volunteer gardeners – a bad year for carrots up here too it seems.

After a coffee we decide we can face Packwood House too as it’s only a mile and a half away. It’s a complete contrast – much bigger with extensive grounds with yew topiary everywhere – 100 of them representing the sermon on the mount with a big yew for JC, smaller ones for the twelve disciples and slightly smaller ones for the multitude. It’s a staggering conceit but I’m not very fond of yew trees. A lot of children enjoyed playing hide and seek though.

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The Tudor house was restored to an imagined earlier state in the 1920s and 30s by a man, Baron Ash (that’s a name not a title – wishful thinking by parents?), who loved to party. He was also a great salvager of features from other decaying stately homes so the panelling at Packwood comes from several different sites, tapestries were rescued from all over the place a table was purchased from Baddesley Clinton, so it’s an eclectic mix which somehow works really well. Culturally replete we set off for home to decide where to hang and place our new acquisitions.

Two days later however we’re back on the art trail. A good friend is unit manager on the Sky Arts programmes Portrait and Landscape Artist of the Year and we’d been to see Portrait being recorded at the Wallace Collection in May which was a very interesting day observing a type of production neither of us had been involved in. This year’s Landscape semi-finals were taking place at Margate in June on the harbour arm. A trip to observe this being filmed, a quick visit to Turner Contemporary and a wander round Margate were too good to miss and it was also a sunny day. We asked our friend Linda if she’d like an outing too so the three of us had a good old-fashioned day by the seaside – including damned fine fish and chips on the front.

IMG_1783 IMG_1804The filming of the series is fascinating to those of us who have been in the business and with so many cameras it was hard to keep out of shot – Dee and I can just be glimpsed in the episode transmitted later in the year. The art on display was incredibly varied in approach and technique, oils, watercolour, stencils and spray paint, ink drawing and one of the competitors added texture with his feet. It’s interesting to see how different people see the same scene in so many different ways. As it happened there was only one we wanted to bring home but we weren’t allowed to, so this trip left us without needing to make more decisions about the walls back home.

Gradually last summer 13-18 June

Bostridge, Britten and the beach are all favourites and we decided to combine all three with a first ever trip to the Aldeburgh Festival in June. Festival-going had never been a big part of our lives but Aldeburgh and the Hay Literature and Arts Festival were ones we’d always wanted to attend but somehow never got around to. We set off from London on a drizzly Monday morning for a planned two-night stay at Seckford Hall at Woodbridge in Suffolk before travelling on into Suffolk for our first concert on Wednesday. We stopped off in Colchester, found a blue badge parking spot on the High Street and set off for a coffee and a look around. We found a fine coffee shop, Loofer’s that must have a special Monday mummy and buggy offer – they were both everywhere and babies too. Getting to the loo was quite a mission. The organic coffee was excellent and we scanned our map of Colchester and left for a damp explore. The curving High Street is attractive and the Castle looked interesting but we decided against that as the rain was getting harder. Maybe sightseeing could happen on the way back. Finding refuge in Debenhams, like you do, I acquired some polo and tee shirts thanks in part to some vouchers that Dee had thoughtfully put in that pink bag.

20160613_143503We took those back to the car, ambled about a bit more and then stumbled across a splendid looking microbrewery pub so it had to be time for lunch. The Three Wise Monkeys didn’t disappoint. There was a wide range of beers and a good menu. Service was delivered in a most friendly manner by the young staff and we left refreshed and ready to move on towards Seckford Hall.

However as we made our way out of town a further diversion beckoned as we saw signs to the Beth Chatto garden. As keen gardeners this was not to be missed so off we went. A very worthwhile detour – even with umbrellas aloft the variety of planting in the different styles of garden was inspiring. We knew plants wouldn’t survive in the car for the next five days so there was lots of noting of labels and mental additions to lists of plant to be purchased elsewhere. Especially impressive is the gravel garden established on the old car park which has never been watered but in which euphorbias, poppies, thistles and favourites like agapanthus, agastache, rudbeckia and verbena flourish. Determined to get our planting sorted out this coming summer we finally left for the hotel. We vowed that another time we’d explore the evocative places that were just names as we passed through Constable Country – Dedham, Flatford, East Bergholt – they’d look better with some sun.

Seckford Hall Hotel and driveThe driveway approaching Seckford Hall is impressive as is the Tudor manor house itself. It dates from around 1530 and alleges that Queen Elizabeth stayed there. Well we didn’t get the four-poster that she is supposed to have slept in but did have a very pleasant room in the old building – there is a new build/conversion courtyard near the spa which is where we headed next for a pre-prandial swim. We also booked a massage each for the next afternoon. A pleasant evening passed in the bar and restaurant and we decided that we’d go to Sutton Hoo next morning.

Tuesday dawned still grey but no longer raining so we breakfasted and went to the site of the famous Anglo-Saxon ship burial some 4 miles away. The burial mounds – 18 of them – vary in size and impressiveness. They are thought to be the cemetery of Anglian royals named the Wuffingas which all sounds a bit Roald Dahl to me but was confirmed by the plaques in the excellent National Trust visitor centre as kings from about 600-750 AD. The replica helmet is truly stunning and the recreation of the burial interior extremely well done. We walked out to and around the burial grounds with a few stops along the way including a double take at this rather ominous sign.

IMG_6907We came back via Tranmer House from which a guest in the 1930s saw the ghostly vision that inspired the dig that found the ship burial. It has an apartment that you can rent through the National Trust which we thought might be fun one day. The house is full of stuff you can actually touch and included a typewriter that became the main background image for our new enterprise Verbalists.

The next great discovery was The Unruly Pig a great gastropub not far away. Lunch was so good we even booked for dinner later that night. After snacking our way through the cold cuts and cheese board we drove around the Suffolk Heath Area of Natural Beauty, well named, into Woodbridge to visit a couple of antique shops and then back for a 5pm massage. Having seen the Pig’s wine list we took a cab from the hotel and were not disappointed by dinner where food, wine, service and hospitality were all outstanding. A very good discovery – definitely not a pig in a poke.

Next morning as we checked out arrangements were being made for the start of what seemed to be a massive three-day Indian wedding, later confirmed by the reception staff. We decided to travel via the coast and visit Orford a place we’d heard of but never been to. More countryside of natural beauty surrounded us on the way and at Orford we made for the Quay and took a short stroll along the bank of the river Alde looking out across the estuary to Orford Ness, a long shingle bank with numerous birdwatching hides, the black clapboard radio beacon and the red and white striped lighthouse – proper coastline this. IMG_6942Back into Orford we ogled and couldn’t resist Pinney’s Smokehouse but having failed to bring the cool box and ice we reluctantly left the oysters and smoked mackerel in the shop. Lesson for the future – if you are going somewhere famous for fish take the cool box, the shop will provide the ice. Back in the centre of Orford it was time for a coffee admirably served by the Pump Street Bakery which had a tempting range of cakes and pastries on offer. Another antique shop beckoned but offered nothing we had to buy. On to Aldeburgh via Tunstall and Snape at whose famous Maltings Britten built the concert hall we were to visit that evening.

In Aldeburgh we were able to park opposite the White Lion Hotel right on the beach at the north end of the town. It’s a pleasant hotel, like so many others especially near a coast it seems to have evolved over time and have a baffling number of different levels with small flights of connecting stairs which no refurb will ever even out without flattening the whole edifice. Friendly staff, OK room – should have paid extra for a sea view – two restaurants and a bar it had all one could ask for. We checked in and took a stroll to the nearest pub for a light lunch and then walked down the delightful main street. Aldeburgh is a very pretty town with some fine old buildings and a few not so fine, but has a welcoming atmosphere. As townies up for the festival we felt neither regarded as weird nor ripped off as easy targets. We had a fun time. The one thing this pre-referendum trip did for us was instil a sense of impending doom. Driving through Essex and Suffolk on the way we saw only one Remain flag after passing by hundreds of Leave posters and banners. Clearly the London bubble sees things a bit differently from those out in the country and this despite the fact that half our farmers would be broke without EU subsidies. Ah well!

P1020134The Snape Maltings complex is a great place to explore and we arrived early enough for the concert to do so. The grounds have interesting sculptures and pathways beside the river. We’d booked a pre-concert dinner for the first night prior to being able to suss out other options. We sat at a window overlooking the river Alde as it winds through the marshes and felt totally at ease the with blue sky, green and yellow grasses in distinct layers and the odd splash of colour from walkers. It was like being in a painting.

20160615_185622I won’t go into detail about the concerts we attended over three nights but they were performed by musicians of the highest calibre, included two world premieres. some familiar and some unfamiliar pieces. The highlight was favourite tenor Ian Bostridge performing two of Britten’s song cycles and one of Tippett’s interspersed with a brilliant version of Britten’s first string quartet by the Arcadia Quartet. The concert hall and its environs are excellent and at the intervals there was an excited buzz of conversation between friends and in our case total strangers moved to discuss the music they’d just heard. Glasto for the Golden Agers you could call it I suppose. Three nights of concerts on the trot was just right and with lots of time to explore the area on the days in between we were very glad we’d finally made it to the Aldeburgh Festival.

During her enforced retirement Dee had become mildly addicted to late afternoon TV antique shows like Flog it!, Great Antiques Road Trip and the like. So we visited a couple of the places nearby which had been hunting grounds for participants to see if we could find those bargains that later at auction would pay for our trip. Heaven forfend that the production teams ever plant items, but we found very little of any interest in any of the places we visited and even fewer that we thought might make us a profit. But pootling around the Suffolk countryside was enjoyable – the strange purpose-built 1910 holiday resort at Thorpeness, traditional seaside with pier and beach huts at Southwold (and Adnams fine brewery) and towns inland like Leiston and Saxmundham.

The weather failed us at Southwold but one plaque on the pier made us laugh. Back in Aldeburgh itself one of our favourite things apart from huts with strange signs. was Maggie Hambling’s beautiful shell sculpture The Scallop on the north beach.

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P1020137At the other end of the town is the famous Aldeburgh Fish and Chips shop where you can buy your meal – great scoff – and take it to eat with a pint of Adnams – excellently kept – in the White Hart next door. We were there during the Rio World Cup and took in a couple of depressing matches among other England fans fortified with Adnams’ ales and wines.

Apart from the music, cultural highlights were a visit to the Red House which keeps the Britten-Pears archive and preserves the house as it was when they lived there together until Britten’s death in 1976 which gave fascinating insights into how mundane some of the pursuits of geniuses can be. In the Cinema Gallery back in Aldeburgh Dee spent a good time in painterly conversation with established local artist Delia Tournay-Godfrey who was fascinating in telling us how she was almost a smash and grab painter, going out with her oils in her car and often sitting in the car to grab scenes as they presented themselves. These were sometimes worked up into larger paintings in the studio but often left as they were – spontaneous art capturing a moment. For Dee, having just embarked on her watercolour classes at Blackheath Conservatoire and showing a real talent for it, the insights were very valuable and she later made several works from life very quickly.

We left Aldeburgh after a good top up of culture after spending too much of the year  in hospital clinics and with Dee too frail from treatment to walk far or go to theatre or concerts. For this and a later trip to Spain by managing our days sensibly and reining in my enthusiasm for fitting in just one more sight we managed to get by without exhaustion. This was a superb Suffolk break.