I’ll take the high road

This is my last morning in Malaga and I’m pleased to report that the Paradores have stopped using individual shampoo and body wash bottles that we all used to steal but now have refillable dispensers in the shower. They’ve always asked you to hang your towels on a hook if you’re happy to use them again so ecology is making inroads.

As it is again another lovely blue day and I got my sea fix yesterday, I ask TomTom to take me to Cadiz avoiding motorways and toll roads. As I love driving, the Seat Ibiza is quite an easy drive and time is entirely my own today, I accept the cross country route offered. I’ve done the drive from Cadiz back to Malaga via the coast – and will enjoy the views of Gibraltar and Algeciras on Friday on my way back. So I navigate the Malaga suburbs and then find myself on route A366. What is it about Routes with 66? This one soon enters the Sierra de las Nieves – it means snowy mountains so that’s a bit of a giveaway. The first pass is at 890 metres which is quite high. But we then do switchbacks and hairpins up to Puerto del Viento at 1190 which really is a long way up.

Daisy Scott once told me off for taking photos while driving so I parked up safely to show the delights of route 366. The window was open for the wonderful fresh air with occasional scents of pine and jasmine and the sounds of sheep and goats traversing the hillsides. Happy man. The road then brought me up with a jolt. Many years ago I booked a ten day stay in a lovely villa with its own pool in the village of El Gastor. Here it was.

Only problem which I discovered after we’d arrived – nice house, private pool, walk to the bar – was that is was in the Sierra de Grazalema, the wettest part of Spain. The onshore wind brings water in from the Atlantic, hits the first mountain range, these, and it rains. All the time – greener than Galicia! At least it was warm so using the pool in the rain was quite fun, but it has to go down as one of my less good bookings and because Dee was very busy at the time, entirely my fault. So I shudder a little and drive by and then in a very few kilometres find myself on on what must have been the Roman road from Sevilla to Cadiz. The dramatic landscape change to fertile rolling hills is amazing – what a country of variety this is.

I stop off for lunch and a shoulder relax after all that active driving and it’s a straight run into Cadiz where I find myself in the wrong lane opposite the Parking recommended by the hotel. Kind gaditanos let me cross and descend into the car park thanks to some indicating and gesticulating on my part.

The hotel is a converted convent and my fears of being in a cell-sized room were dispelled. I was also pleased that while every room was named for a Saint then at least mine had a connection with wine. She was an abbess who live in Tuscany from 1268 – 1317 and was canonized in 1726 after performing several miracles.

It’s further south than we’ve previously been in Cadiz so there’s a an interesting area to discover but it’s such a compact city that I can quickly get to see the cathedral in wonderful warm light and then head to the seafront to look at the setting sun.


and then walk through the ancient centre to find more excellent Christmas lights and a skating rink in the main square. I ate tonight in one of the city’s most famous restaurants El Faro where we’d been before and have plans for tomorrow.

Buenos noches!

Crumbs and Crikey!

‘That’s a bit more like it’ I thought as I opened my curtains on Sunday morning. That’s why I’m in Spain for Christmas – clear blue skies and already 16 degrees. What a great day to drive to Torrox for the Fiesta de Migas. Because of the weather and for nostalgia’s sake, I decided to take the trusty N340 along the coast rather than the motorway. We stayed once in Velez Malaga in the mid 1970s and driving along to see the caves at Nerja involved large stretches of driving over compacted stone clippings that were the basis for a road later – much later I suspect – to be tarmaced. It weaves along now through waterside developments that weren’t there 40 years ago. It’s still a nice drive with frequent glimpses of sea to the right and brought me in timely fashion to a small bar in Torrox Costa in time for a quick coffee before seeking the bus up to join in the festivities to which I’d been invited by Loz Blume a fellow Watford fan who relocated to Spain four years ago.

I asked the proprietor where buses departed for Torrox Pueblo and was advised to leave my car where it was and walk five minutes up the road. I came to a Lidl where the checkout lady explained that the bus stop was just opposite and a few metres back. I’d walked past it! By the way there are now almost as many Lidl and Aldi stores in Spain as there are Chinese Bazaars. Fortunately a bus arrived within a few minutes and I was soon climbing the narrow streets to the main square. As a WhatsApp from Loz confirmed – just follow the noise. As I entered the square arms shot up in greeting and beckoned me over to the front of the stage where three young ladies, a percussionist and a guitarist were performing very catchily such that all the local ladies of a certain age were dancing enthusiastically. Hugs and kissed all round as Loz and I reintroduced ourselves after first meeting at a Watford City Orns outing to a T20 cricket match at Hove probably about eight years ago. The kisses were for his sister Michelle and other female friends. Beers were nobly produced and Loz seemed genuinely delighted to have the copy of the book I wrote for the club’s charity’s 25th anniversary – it had just been his birthday so it had to double as that and a Christmas gift. The music stopped, beers were finished and we began the further climb up to the car park at the top of the village which is where free wine and migas were on offer.

Loz and Michelle with a sample of rather sweet Malaga wine

We walked through the market stalls and looked (Loz’s experience of four Migas tells) for the shortest queue to wait for our dish of migas which are bread crumbs fried in olive oil served with a tomato, orange and onion salad. They are prepared in wok-like pans over a wood fire:

And then dished up on plastic plates with a spoon like this:

It’s a hark back to field labourers’ lunches and the Fiesta in in its 38th iteration so I guess that’s what they used to have back then. They were very tasty and filling – exactly their original purpose. We then move off to Loz’s house to catch the day’s main event Watford v Manchester United which I was missing because they changed the game to Sunday for TV – a blessing as it transpired. As we moved off from the car park the crowds were swelling so I think we had made excellent queuing time – we did notice that our came from the Gluten Free line so that may have accounted for the smaller queue.

And then Crickey! We only went and won! Watford 2-0 Manchester United. First home win of the season! Only the second three points. Total jubilation in the Blume house saluted with beer and tortilla before I then took Michelle back to Malaga Airport as she was due to fly back to Edinburgh that evening. She had arranged a ride with Mark, a neighbour who does occasional taxi runs, but as a Spurs fan he was pleased to be able to stay with Loz and watch the second match after running us down to my car in Torrox Costa. He won’t have been quite as excited about the result and may have preferred to be on the road to Malaga. Tottenham 0-2 Chelsea. We whizzed back along the motorway in the setting sun – why are my sunglasses in the desk by the front door? – getting to know each other and hoping that our paths will cross again. After three fairly hectic days and the prospect of highlights on Match of the Day later on, I went from the airport back to the Parador, wrote the previous blog, had a fine plate of jamon y queso and a glass or two of rioja watching the twinkling lights of Malaga by night. Once again I had confirmation about why I was here.

Malaga Day 2 – art, cars, lights and music

I had a bit of a lie in this morning and decided to take the car since I was going to visit the Automobile Museum which I thought would be interesting after seeing Cars at the V&A earlier this month. By a miracle my worst fears about parking the car on arrival were swept away by the fact that it has free parking in front – well I suppose they are all about cars. But first I went to see the other collection on the same site in a disused tobacco factory – an even more impressive building than Carmen’s in Seville. This was the Russian Museum which had three exhibitions. The first was devoted to the depiction of women in Russian art over the last two centuries and was more interesting for the social observation of costumes and customs than for the intrinsic merit of the canvases displayed – far too many in my humble opinion. Eyes started glazing over by room 5, beautifully displayed and labelled though they were. Given some of the obvious disparities between the have and have not classes it was pretty obvious why the Revolution happened. The next exhibit was the work of Nicholas Roehrich of whom I’d never heard. There were some amazing landscapes and allegorical paintings in alternately sombre and vibrant colours. He travelled a lot and ended his life in India where a wall full of square oils showed the Himalayas in all the variety of lighting stages that mountains pass through. He was a revelation but cars called so I’m afraid I skipped the third show featuring the life and works of the poet Anna Akhmatova.

The Automobile Museum was just fabulous, charting the history of vehicles from earliest steam driven carriages through the vintage cars from the USA and Europe to future concept studies. It’s massive but very engaging as the official title is Museum of Automobiles and Fashion and beside each vehicle was a designer dress or outfit from the era so you could imagine these elegant folk installed behind their chauffeurs or later taking the wheel themselves. One car reminded me of Peter Blake’s painted Mersey Ferry, Everybody Razzle Dazzle, that I’d seen last week only to discover that it was painted by Sonia Delaunay in 1928.

There were a lot of very sleek and beautiful beasts on show but I was left feeling very proud of Jaguar’s contribution to motor car design. And they had some funny ideas at Rolls-Royce too!

I then stopped off at the bus station to get a ticket for tomorrow’s planned trip to Torrox to share the Fiesta de Migas and watch Watford v Man United with an expat Watford friend. Sadly the first bus on a Sunday was at one and takes an hour and a half which would leave no time for fiesta and the last one back was at five which would leave no time after football so after a WhatsApp exchange I concluded that I’d do abstemious fiesta-ing and drive for convenience. Thence to my next port of call which was the outpost of the Paris Centre Pompidou which opened here last March. It’s an underground structure with a glitzy glazed Rubik’s cube on top. I can see it clearly from my balcony and thought it would be worth a visit.

Inside it’s a vast space with equally vast canvases and installations which appealed in varying measure. The highlights for me were a massive Miro and an equally large scale Peter Doig but I was also amused by the sheep installation that filled the first room. Sadly they wouldn’t let us sit on them despite their destiny as stools.

When I got back outside I could see my balcony up on the Gibralfaro Hill, providing a nice symmetry. The Centre is on a newish (2011) development of the waterfront in Malaga called Muelle Uno. It has trendy shops and restaurants – chain and individual and I decided it was time for some seafood and a glass of Verdejo a favourite white from next to La Rioja (will that count Les?).

My room second floor just right of the tree.

I retrieved the car from the parking under Centre Pompidou with some distress. As I descended in the lift I saw no pay station and assumed it would be near the exit. It wasn’t so I had a stream of three needing to reverse so that I could go back to the machine – hidden behind the lift – and then emerge. Much tooting and muttering about Los Ingleses – expect more in future. I returned to the hotel and parked up and then started the walk back down when a convenient bus arrived to save me the trouble. However I very nearly had to arm wrestle a huge French woman to get on board. She was determined to be first despite her lowly rank in the queue and had the bulk to determine the outcome. At the city centre bus stop I walked to the Museo Carmen Thyssen to admire the work of Spain’s eighteenth and nineteenth century painters. I recognised two or three from the recent Sorolla exhibition in London now back home and was struck by how art movements seemed to move across countries with similar preoccupations in Russia and Spain in the same periods. I was warned on entry that there was to be a concert at 19.00 so my visit was enhanced by the sound check for the orchestra and warm up exercises of the choir. I didn’t stay as there were few tickets left.

My friend Graham was in Malaga a few weeks ago and had recommended the restaurant Batik – if I could find it. I wandered through a few streets, stopping for the occasional beer in the odd neighbourhood bar and discovered that Batik was close to the Plaza de la Merced and the Teatro Romano. It was great recommendation with super carpaccio de jurado and tuna tatziki all washed down by a good Marques de Riscal. While I was there a couple of young ladies asked me to take their photo and we then got chatting. One of them worked in PR for Malaga Tourism so I offered my services should they need English copywriting or proofing. While we were conversing (pitching?) the most spectacular light show took place against the backdrop of the Alcazaba which in one sequence appeared to be self-destructing stone by stone. Something similar happens every year it seems. My homeward saunter was enlivened by superb temporary Christmas light displays:

and groups of musicians at seemingly every corner. One of them appeared to me to be the Andaluz equivalent of Morris (pace Pete and Richard) while another was an energetic jazz group none of whom could have been more than twenty five, a promising sign for live music in the south. Then it was a taxi up the hill, a glass of brandy and some light blogging.

Malaga Morris?
Young jazzers giving it some wellie

Malaga Day 1 – culture

After completing my assignment for my agency in the Netherlands – editing video scripts about medicated abortion for Medecins sans Frontieres – I decided to walk into to town (city?). The descent from my lofty Parador perch (del Gibralfaro to be clear as there is a second on in Malaga called Golf) is supposed to take 20 minutes so I set off, However, as I’m going to a concert tonight I’ve scrubbed up a bit and am in shirt, jacket and shiny shoes. The descent is mostly on granite and sandstone slabs which with the drizzle are extremely slippery so my footwear is wrong and knowing the problems of the elderly breaking limbs, I descend slowly and circumspectly,. It’s a pleasant walk in fine weather but as I arrive at the foot of the hill I need sustenance, So, a swift cerveza in a neighbourhood bar and I’m all set. I’m. bound for the Picasso Museum which is amazing and banished any thoughts of him not being a total genius. The temporary exhibition shows 166 paintings, sculptures, objects and ceramics owned by the Picasso-Ruiz family. Excellently curated it follows a chronological line so the development, regressions and recurring themes are evidenced in a truly enlightening way, I never knew he always had a dog or dogs about him and that he could never paint Dora Maar with a smile. As I leave I am diverted into a clean-looking bar which specialises in churros con chocolate, I appall the waiter by ordering coffee (I don’t really like chocolate even if it’s the done thing here). I then make my way via a craft beer pub – well you owe it to them don’t you?

Not bad beer either. Then on to Plaza de la Merced with oranges and fairy lights for a further beer and tapas ahead of my concert at the Teatro Cervantes.

The concert was great – Beethoven’s Piano Concerto 2 followed by Symphony 9. They were both played very well but the Ninth made me cry – it is after all the European anthem and most readers will know where I stood on Brexit. It’s a fine hall with a good acoustic and apart from occupying the wrong seat because I hadn’t climbed enough stairs, it was a fun evening, Seating issues were resolved without blows.

No photos allowed during he concert.
It’s always great to hear that magnificent work but especially poignant given the previous week’s events, The conductor Virginia Martinez, pianist and soloists were all Spanish and the chorus from Malaga Opera were superb. Not the best version I’ve ever heard but a privilege to be out with the Malaga cognescenti suitably clad.

My walk from the. theatre took me past the Teatro Romano one of Malaga’s highlights.

Wait till tomorrow!

It’s now in a bar with a glass of Rioja that I realise I’ve been up for 18 hours and at the age of 76 I should probably be in bed. Taxi up the hill, quick nightcap and bed,

North and South (apologies to Mrs G)

And apologies for random pix – problems transferring from phone to iPad mini that won’t get all my emails! There will be an updated version later (done 03.01.2020)

My word! It’s nearly a year since I last posted on my blog. It’s been a strange year – my first for ages without foreign travel until now, 20 December. Unless of course you count a trip to the Peoples’ Republic of Merseyside as foreign. That’s where this last week began meeting up with friends for a football match, a gig and food, drink and conversation. In fact it was the second trip in just over a month and previously I’d managed to get up to Crosby beach to marvel at the Gormleys following his recent show at the Royal Academy. And on the way back I managed to find a Japanese garden hidden away in Sale.

For this latest visit, I drove up uneventfully on Friday and met up with Richard and Alison for a couple of beers and a fine dinner in Bacaro. Our former favourite tapas bar La Vinya has closed and become something trendier and more expensive but Bacaro served Italian-tinged tapas with a great atmosphere and a good wine list so we had a fun evening. Watford v Liverpool was the 12.30 kick off on Saturday so we met up in Dr Duncan’s for a pint at 11.00 (they told me on the phone they would open as usual at 11 but in fact opened at 10 because of the early kick off), Some of us thought there was time for a second pint but this in fact meant that our bus ride to Anfield took ages and we only just got in to see kick off. Others – Fran and Matt – describe the game and although we lost we all left very encouraged by the improvement we had seen under our third manager of the season.

Many of our travelling Watford Hornets are also fans of Ian Prowse the singer-songwriter who leads the bands Pele and Amsterdam and our match coincided with his annual Liverpool Christmas concert – but that didn’t start until nine so what can you do for six hours in Liverpool? Visit the Tate? The Walker is a fine art gallery or there’s the Beatles Story. But hell no! Liverpool also has some of the finest pubs in the country many of which I was already familiar with and with assistance from Mr Prowse himself and artist Tony Brown, I was able to devise a ten venue pub crawl to occupy the waiting hours. I should say that Ian and Tony, and his wife Lorraine, have been friends since 2002 when Dee and I made a series of educational videos for Teaching Scouse as a Second Language for the publishers Macmillan. Tony provided the studio backdrop and was interviewed about his work. Ian was a studio guest who discussed the Merseyside music scene and played us out at the end of the show. We also filmed his gig at the Cavern for the programme. So nearly twenty years on we are all friends still and have met up at intervals during further filming or football trips to the great city.

Armed with their input we embarked on a walking tour of a varied selection of Liverpool’s boozers at the worst time possible. It’s Saturday afternoon, it’s nearly Christmas and all the pubs are full. However we divert to grab some food then take in the Victorian splendour of the Philharmonic, the bustling fun of Ye Crack and quirky layout of The Pilgrim, the mezzanine melee of Mackenzies whisky bar before descending on one of my favourites The Globe. One regular inquired why on earth I’d brought a pub crawling group to Liverpool’s smallest pub. Because it’s quirky, friendly, keeps its beer well, is close to the centre and has the steeply sloping floor that makes you think you’re half cut before you’ve started. Ah well alright, he said, that’s why I’m here. Tony and Lorraine joined us there and I’m afraid the second stage of the itinerary was abandoned for the next visit as we had at last found somewhere to sit, were with Liverpool friends and enjoying a great atmosphere. After a brief aberration on my part in the Phil, we restricted ourselves to halves and so were still able to stand and enjoy what was to follow.

Then it was a swift walk through Lime Street Station to the O2 Academy for Prowsey’s Christmas Party. After a slight hold up while some technical sound and lighting issues were resolved – well it is rock n roll – Ian and his superb fifteen piece band treated us to two hours of Pele and Amsterdam’s greatest hits with a few well aimed political comments and a joint version with Brian Nash of Frankie Goes to Hollywood fame of their smash hit The Power of Love. The talent on display was stunning, Ian’s writing is always pointed and his melodies so strong that I have had Pele/Amsterdam ear worms all week. Some of us were invited to the after party and lovely though it would have been to spend some time with Ian it was too hip and too loud for an oldie like me so we congratulated him and thanked him for a wonderful evening, group hugged and retired graciously.

Amsterdam gig 12.2019Sunday found four of us regulars meeting up for brunch. We met at Castle Street Coffee according to the menu but called something quite different on its main signage. This caused some confusion although I thought my description of corner of Castle Street and Dale Street was clear enough – not so when you’re looking for a sign that barely exists. The food and coffee were fine, the vibe laid-back Sunday morning. What it did have was a phenomenon in the loos’ hand-driers. Now you know how they usually emit a blue light along with the whoosh of warm air – well these had pools of red and blue light thus appealing to both halves of the city (for those not familiar with Liverpool football there are bitter rivals: Liverpool play in red; Everton in blue) Great marketing effort we thought.

Pete and Graham departed for Bradford but since Fran was booked on the 18:45 train she kindly agreed to accompany me to Sefton Park for a nostalgic walk and to admire the Palm House newly restored since I was last there. It also featured a ukulele band playing a mixture of carols and standards in an idiosyncratic setlist.

Since Frances had never seen the famous Liverpool waterfront from the opposite bank of the Mersey we whizzed through the tunnel and climbed to the top of the Birkenhead Priory Tower – just about made it that’s a lot of steps up – and while damp, grey and drizzly by now, the view across the river was well worth the trip. We then repaired to what had been my local when I spent six months in Liverpool on the aforementioned English language video shoot and edit, The Excelsior, which remains a proper good old fashioned pub, much to my delight. Next stop so as to be close to the station was another of my personal favourites The Crown Hotel. I was a bit worried because Lorraine had said last night that it had recently been refurbed, but she also added that they’d done it really well. And she was right. It’s cleaner, the panelling looks brighter and the ornate plaster ceiling is still a great place to hunt for the designer’s signature cigar butt trademarks – six of them apparently but Dee and I only ever found five. Fran departed for London and I walked back down Dale Street to sample a new-to-me tapas bar as a possible replacement for La Vinya. However it closed at seven for some strange reason. An alternative presented itself nearby in Mowgli a chic modern Indian restaurant with an exciting menu and dishes served in snazzy stainless steel round tiffin canisters and which are eaten from a metal plate. All very different, very tasty and from the queues as I left, very popular.

Before driving back down on Monday I had arranged to meet Tony and Lorraine for breakfast in The Quarter on Faulkner Street in the elegant Georgian Quarter of the city which is so full of architectural surprises. I retrieved my car from the car park where it had been overnight at the hotel’s discounted rate and proceeded through the centre and up Mount Pleasant to Hope and Faulkner Streets. Now some of these are cobbled, others are potholed but nonetheless I was a bit perturbed by the volume of road noise I was generating. As I parked I saw that the rear offside tyre was as flat as the proverbial. Like a fool I asked the staff if they knew of a local tyre place – which they did – but also suggested that as I was a member I call the AA – doh! At this point Tony and Lorraine arrived and I explained my predicament which slightly dominated our breakfast conversation

But we did manage to have a good catch up before the friendly patrolman arrived. So with farewell hugs and them insisting on picking up the bill, I went out to the car. The AA man told me he used to live round here and that where I had breakfast used to be McCall’s grocery store in his day and he remembered being sent from home to buy a quarter of spam for tea. I love this kind of verbal history and the fact that everybody in the city seem to be so friendly and chatty, examples of which we had in spades during the pub crawl as I had a Watford badge on my polo shirt which was a frequent conversation starter.

The tyre was inflated sufficiently for me to follow the yellow van to a discount tyre yard in Wavertree where he assured me I would get quality tyres at the best price in the city. That may well have been the case but for the fact that when I produced that box labelled “Locking wheel nut” from the glovebox it was empty. We turfed everything out of the car and couldn’t find it anywhere. So I phoned the nearest Toyota main dealer to check whether they had a master key that would resolve the issue. They did, so my kindly tyre folk gave me a further top up blast of air and I set off for Bootle. It took a while to sort out by very efficient Toyota folk but eventually I was on the road back south with a new tyre and a new key on order. I had hoped to do most of the drive in the small amount of daylight mid-December offers but it was already dark by the time I reached the M6 to head south. The rest of the journey was uneventful I’m pleased to say and I was home in time to do some last minute online Christmas shopping, wrap some presents and then make something to eat as breakfast, delicious though it was, had been eight and a half hours ago with only a few mints to keep up the blood sugar during the drive.

The rest of the week has screamed by rather like most of this mad year. I spent a great day at Tate Modern with my friend Jadwiga on Wednesday with a little exhibition viewing in the form of Dora Marr (better photographer than painter in our view since you ask, but good that this showed her to be her own person not just consigned to history as one of Picasso’s women) and lots of tea and coffee drinking (well a little champagne) and conversation before and after. Thursday saw Grandad Santa deliver to the grandchildren who will be in Manchester for Christmas while I’ll be in Malaga and Cadiz. As the flight is at 07:20 I drove up to the Holiday Inn Express at Stansted for the night and a week’s parking.

Standing in pouring rain waiting to climb the steps into the plane I’m quite pleased to be heading off to the south of Spain where the temperature was 21 degrees yesterday so fingers crossed.

I’ve now arrived and it is 21 degrees but grey and drizzly so while I have a balcony with a great view over Malaga I won’t be sipping cava on it today I fear. Also I’ve just had an email ping in with some work for my Dutch agents so I’d better get on with it – holidays have to be paid for after all.

Raggett makes radio waves for 101 Japan

101-front-cover

So I made it onto the airwaves in the USA this afternoon (16 July 2019). A feature producer Ron Bernthal asked me to do an interview about the book and it aired today on WJFF Radio Catskill.  I hope thousands of listeners are now reaching for their devices to click on Amazon , as you can too if you haven’t got the book already. If you’d like to hear the piece it’s here.

Borders Radio Interview 16 July 2019

With the excitement of England’s Cricket World Cup behind us (blood pressure still way up!) now is the time to start planning for the Rugby World Cup in Japan in September this year for which I did a special feature for CNN’s Sport website. And further ahead there are the Olympics and Paralympic Games in Tokyo next year to look forward to. So happy reading and happy listening and even happier travelling!

Publication Day!

25 January 2019 sees the arrival on Amazon of my book with thoughts about Japanese life and culture:

It consists of short essays about things that have amused or interested me about Japan, ranging from Anime to Zen all illustrated with, largely, my own photographs. The book is available as a Kindle ebook (best with a colour screen Kindle) and as a paperback. You can buy them here:

I’ve chosen to self-publish this after a couple of travel publishers expressed interest but then sat on their hands for months. So with the possibility of interest from new visitors to Japan for the Rugby World Cup this year and the Olympics and Paralympics in 2020, I got fed up waiting and decided to investigate Kindle Direct Publishing which proved pretty straightforward. The only downside is that it has to be an Amazon exclusive and they have minimum price scales for paperbacks which they print to order.

It has been great fun to write and the readers of first drafts have said some complimentary things about it. It’s brought back lots of very happy memories of my visits to Japan which started way back in 1979. I hope if you’ve enjoyed following my blogs over the years you’ll enjoy this slim volume which has obviously used the blogs and my travels as a source but with lots of added research to present a more helpful and insightful guide.

Please spread the word to anyone you think might be interested in going to or just reading about Japan. I’d welcome feedback from anyone who does read it and, of course, if you happen to like it reviews on Amazon, Good Reads and Tripadvisor can work wonders. Thanks for all your support in the past – and I hope – the future.

Departure Day

Why is it that the weather on your last day is always the best? I guess you could call it ‘Sol’s Law’. I got up quite early, used the hotel lobby WiFi to add pictures to yesterday’s blog, checked out, leaving my bags with the concierge and set off under the brightest of cloudless blue skies to where I should have made my way last night. The trusty Blue Line from Parque took me to the river near the ferry terminal and the one major area of the city centre I hadn’t yet explored – Alfama.

Breakfast in a sunny square was good but maybe I should have waited to feast at one of the more traditional establishments that line the narrow streets of Alfama. I didn’t get to check out why there was a big poster for Jose Saramago, an author I like a lot. However, refreshed, I make my way up to the cathedral a fine edifice with imposing twin towers and more tuk-tuk operators than you could shake the proverbial stick at. They could probably have taken me up to the nearby castle but I preferred to saunter in the sun through the narrow streets and plunging stairways of the district.

I felt doubly bad about missing fado last night as I though all the shows would start around 22:00 (a friend told me the best ones do) but many of the bars advertised shows starting at 19:30 so I might just have stayed awake,

Alfama is a fascinating district with many souvenir shops aimed at the tourist market but also dry cleaners, bag wash shops, hairdressers (no – barbers) and minimercados with those dim interiors that reveal so many product lines to the intrepid. Also there’s a full complement of churches as befits one of the earliest settled parts of the city. My foot funicular took me along part of the route of the famous Tram 28. The queue to board was already long so I just snapped it and thought of San Francisco.

After an hour or so of exploring I found a view of the river through a break in the street and made my way down steps and steep and slippery cobbles to Santa Apolonia which is the eastern terminal of the Blue Line. I thought I’d have another look around Chiado so rode the two stops to the Baixa-Chiado station. This must be one of the deepest stations on the metro (Google confirms it as the deepest at 45 metres) as I had steps and then four long escalators before reaching the surface. It was much livelier today than on my previous Christmas Day visit and after a bit of sightseeing and window shopping my eye was caught by a barber shop with beer. It’s a really funky venue where you have a trim with a Lagunitas IPA (if trendy, Sagres if not) while your friends enjoy a drink and/or a snack.

Time to head back, pick up bags and make for the Red Line to the airport. That was the easy bit. The metro delivers you to Terminal 1 and you follow signs to Terminal 2 as that’s what it said on my boarding pass. In a large concrete desert is a little bus stand with a shuttle bus to T2 – you have to be sharp to spot it! This takes you to the distant, isolated terminal which is exclusively for Ryanair, EasyJet, Whizz and Norwegian. It’s not connected to any other part of the airport – no lounge! – and is very sparse and functional. I do recall a lengthy bus transfer when we arrived but nowhere else have I ever had rubbed in so firmly “Hey guys you opted for low cost air travel – this is what it feels like”. Once again the Priority Queue was longer than the Other Q as they call it and since we all had to go to the plane by bus it didn’t really matter. The flight was thirty minutes late leaving and struggled with a head wind but my faithful Data Cars driver was there to meet me at Stansted. He’s a Pakistani with an MBA from London Metropolitan University and the best job he can get is driving. We had a lengthy political discussion all the way down the M11 fortunately with shared views about most of the ills of the modern world.

Lisbon provided an extremely pleasant break over Christmas. There is much more to see and do and it would feel very different at other times of the year. Worth another visit? Definitely.

Countryside and coast

A rather delicate start to the day and a decision to delay breakfast until arrival in Sintra, trains permitting. So it was off to Parque station on the Blue Line and then through the wonderful arches of Rossio station to catch a train to Sintra.

There was one scheduled for 09:41 but a huge queue at the ticket office and machines where I was sure I’d need to top up my rover card. At 09:40 I decided to give it a try, was amazed when the barrier opened and I jumped onto the crowded train. It meant standing all 40 minutes of the journey and the windows have a tedious dot screen over them but in fact I don’t think I missed a great deal. My previous estimate of one in every three people currently in Lisbon coming from China was borne out on this train. From what I could see, we passed not very pretty apartment blocks, swathes of disused factories, small suburban hubs with the same pharmacies and supermarkets – and still loads of banks, they haven’t started closing down here. Finally a little countryside before pulling in to Sintra terminal. Laying siege to the station entrance were wannabe guides: walking tours, coach tours, tuk-tuk tours, Segway tours and bicycle tours and probably others I didn’t spot. I made my way past them all and found a little local bar that had juice, coffee and croissants so my day was properly under way.

I walked from the station area into the centre of the old town passing a series of sculptures kindly displayed by the council, but unfortunately only about a third of them were labelled so while I could admire some and pass quickly by others it would have been nice to know where they originated.

I arrive in the main square where the National Palace has two tall towers shaped a bit like the pottery bottle chimneys you find in Stoke, but more elegant. I decided to give it a try and having made my way up (160+ steps) through a variety of eras, styles and rooms with multiple purposes, I decided it had been worth while. There’s a blend of Islamic, Christian and some pagan imagery in the palace and the hits for me were the ceiling of swans each posed differently, the magpie room with the motto “For the Good” when magpies are usually written off as thieves and a mermaid room that stirred memories of a wild correspondence a few readers will recall.

The other great discovery was that the chimneys were in fact the outlet from the kitchens which were magnificent in their scale to cope with all those royal banquets.

As I stood at the top of the palace I looked up at a mist-swirled castle and said to myself, “No”. Instead I walked through the old part of the town, thanking my lucky stars I was here at his time of the year. I can just imagine how rammed it would be at peak holiday seasons. There are a few signs of a real town but it has largely been taken over as a tourist destination and small buses whizz you from one palace to the next.

After a big palace I fancied something on a smaller scale and took the bus to Monserrate which has several British connections. It has a large park complete with artificial waterfall designed by a Brit William Beckford, thought to be the richest non-titled gent of his era, he was at Monserrate from 1793 to 1799. The guide book says he was forced to flee Britain after being found in a “compromising position” with a sixteen year old boy. I visited his falls and shortly afterwards on the way down to the palace at the heart of the estate, a cromlech folly. Now one of my friends who may read this, Gwyn Headley, (Google him) is the world’s expert on follies so I guess he knows all about this but I have pictures just in case.

The palace itself is something after the style of the Brighton Pavilion with Indian, Islamic and Italianate features. It was built by another Brit Francis Cook who was a textile millionaire in the mid nineteenth century and was perhaps inspired by a reference to the estate by Byron in Childe Harold after his visit in 1809. Anyway it was a fascinating house and garden to visit and provided the country escape I had planned after four days of urban tourism. I rejoined the shuttle bus at the top of the drive and as we made our way back into Sintra I was glad my driving ambition had been foiled. On many of the roads we used the constructors had been less that generous with the spread of tarmac and with very steep runoffs at either side I spotted the potential for disaster when encountering other vehicles. Our bus had to stop and reverse a few times. It was a fine little tour through Colares passing fields of trees weighed down by oranges – yum it’ll soon be marmalade making time!

I could have spent more time in Sintra which is a super town on any number of steep hills and with endless tourist attractions but Cascais and Estoril called and a late lunch by the seaside beckoned. And very late it was as the bus from Sintra to Cascais via Cabo de Roca through the Sintra-Cascais National Park took the best part of an hour. I resisted the temptation to get off the bus and stand by the lighthouse at the most westerly point of Europe – ticking those boxes is for younger travellers and it was windy and cloudy so not a lot to be gained. The bus decamped us in Cascais and after a few false starts – extensive car park, closed up Market – I did find the way to the beach.

The famous street pavers had overdone it here with a wavy patterns than made me quite dizzy as it looks like the paving is in peaks and troughs but is all flat. However grilled sardines with butter, sea salt and parsley were a grand recompense for holding off lunch till nearly four o’clock, Facing me was a wheel, at 32 metres the biggest in Portugal according to the display on the screen beside it. After lunch I walked along the seafront passing another cove before coming to the station. Again the evidence of crowded summer visits was everywhere as only about half of the souvenir and ‘craft’ shops were open and I could feel the potential of the August crush.

A train was leaving a few minutes after I arrived and it hugs the coast all the way back into Lisbon with occasional great views interspersed with the backs of apartment blocks. Not as dramatic as Dawlish to Teignmouth in Devon but a fun ride. As it was nearly dark and beginning to rain I decide not to get off at Estoril which I’ve herd from many is a fine town – well it’s something to look forward to.

Having mentioned earlier the frequency of banks, I’ve been struck by how many bookshops there are in Lisbon and as I descended the stairs at Cais do Sodre terminal there was a book fair actually in the station concourse with avid customers.

As it’s my last night in Lisbon I should be going to enjoy the nightlife, find some jazz (I did look and there’s none till Saturday) or a Fado club to hear blues singing, but I had had a bad night, a very active day with lots of up, a late lunch and so I’m staying in to write this, listen to music and read a book (a real one courtesy of Richard S). Sorry!

Lisbon is famous for its graffiti, some very fine, some less so. I was struck by this piece to which a neighbour had obviously added some extra sheets to improve the wind power.

Boxing Day Walk

Well it’s a tradition to go for a walk on Boxing Day but as I had totted up about thirty miles over the last two days, I had planned a visit today to the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation which is less than ten minutes from the hotel. I set off around nine in time to take breakfast on the way and arrive at opening time at 10 when I hoped it would be less busy than later in the day. The streets were totally different today – still plenty of Chinese tourists – but lots of Portuguese people grabbing a bite before going to the office, workers in hard hats everywhere, cranes swinging overhead – like most major cities, Lisbon will be lovely when it’s finished. With a fresh orange juice, a cinnamon croissant and the obligatory pastel de nata inside me I arrived at the foundation and followed signs through a large, very dark and leafy park to the main entrance.

I knew from earlier emails that I’d get in for half price as an senior and happily parted with my 7 euros. As I walked out just over four hours later it felt like good value.

Gulbenkian made most of his money from oil in Iran and the Gulf and as well as being an avid collector of ancient and modern art and artefacts also instituted a series of cultural and educational programmes. There are two main areas: The Founder’s Collection and The Modern Collection at opposite sides of the park. I started in the antiquities building with a sense that I was back in the Getty Mansion in LA, surrounded by a similar array of amazing pieces from ancient Egypt – how does glass survive 24 centuries? – encompassing pottery and jewellery as well. I was struck by the nautical theme of the last few days with this bronze from 500 BCE and also by the clarity and spaciousness of the galleries. I also fell for the Egyptian cat and her kittens.

I suspect that even on busy days you would be able to move around and read the captions without too much of a struggle. It was also a pleasing feature to catch glimpses of the garden through the large windows. The exterior is a bit brutalist for my taste but you forget all that concrete once you are in these intriguing galleries.

There’s a progression though Greek, Roman and a lot of Islamic art given the Gulf connection – lovely tiles and carpets and illustrated manuscripts. I ambled happily through the rooms until arriving at the French collection – all that overgilded, overblown Versailles furniture – not for me! But then the big surprise which proved I did a bit of reading but not enough, but then of course it wouldn’t have been a surprise. Gulbenkian also had an eye, or good advisers, for French, Italian, Dutch and English painters and OK Singer Sargent was American and his lovely Ladies Sleeping in a Punt under Willows is here. I positively wallowed in some excellent Corot landscapes, Guardi’s views of Venice which I have always slightly preferred to Canaletto, a brooding Rembrandt Old Man, a wonderful ahead-of-its-time Durer duck.

I was also taken by the Edo period Bento box with its flowery lacquer. Gainsborough and Lawrence portraits and two magnificent Turners, Monet, Manet and Degas completed the feast. Happy morning!

In the temporary exhibition space was a display of sculpture from Rodin’s time in Paris including one of the Burghers Of Calais. It was nicely arranged with section on standing poses, non-posed naturalistic work, group sculpture and nursing mothers. I then took myself across the park to the Modern building passing on the way a splendid amphitheatre at which concerts take place with a lake in the background. Should I ever be here for a performance I’ll bring a cushion as the concrete seats looked rather hard. Kenwood music by the Lake without the stately home.

The modern collection is mostly of Portuguese sculpture, painting and installations one of which really caught my eye and ear. There are 34 boom boxes forming the word NO while playing the spoken word YES in as many different tones.

Otherwise there were some interesting pieces and it’s odd isn’t it how you get drawn to particular items. I approached one thinking that’s good to find it was by Jim Dine and to another that proved a Rachel Whiteread, Maybe the old adage is true ‘Class will out’.

In suddenly realised it was after two o’clock and I needed to find somewhere to watch Watford v Chelsea so rushed back to the hotel only to look at my calendar and realise that it’s a 19:30 kick off. On my way I did pass a sports bar so I should be OK. My other afternoon disaster was to attempt to rent a car. I had always thought it would be a good idea to get out to Sintra and back via the coast at Cascais and Estoril. There was a conveniently close Europcar who could rent me a VW Polo or equivalent. The clerk then said: “I’d better tell you the price before we do the paperwork.” Doesn’t augur well. 210 euros for a one-day hire. The Raggett pauper reared again – I had a car in Spain for ten days in the summer for less than that. So if the rail strike permits (60-odd % running according to the news) I’ll go by train tomorrow. Then back to the hotel to blog and be amazed by the day’s Premier League earlier results – How many goals? – and prepare to pop off to the sports bar for 19:30.

The sports bar was part of a hotel and had a few scarves and shirts (Benfica, Sporting, Real Madrid, Barcelona and Man United) I didn’t bring mine with me or they’d have had a Watford one to add. What they did have was the game on TV and an IPA which truly sprung (or Springed) off the shelf:and at 6.5% it might well have had even me doing karaoke. As it was the few others in the bar were amused but not disturbed but my oohs and aahs and scream of delight at the equaliser. Their penalty was never in much doubt but the Portuguese commentators were adamant ours was a nailed on penalty on Deleofeu. They showed it in close up and from five angles about five times and were most agitated on our behalf. The bar had wings, nachos, burgers and other suitable sports bar fare so I consumed a modest supper during the second half. I’m not sure whether it was anger at the ref or the food but I had a very disturbed night and was actually quite glad I wasn’t going to be driving first thing in the morning.