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.

Dia de Natal a Lisboa

I had done a bit of research on places open to eat on Christmas Day – very few. However they included the highly-rated Ribadouro which was in walking distance of the hotel. So I walked off towards it to try to make a booking. Wrong! It doesn’t open until 12 but some chefs were lounging at the back door smoking and said if I came about three o’clock I’d get a table. So I went to the wonderfully named Praça de Alegria (Square of Joy) sat on a bench in the sun and planned a tour. I had explored the Baixa area yesterday so today it was the Barrio Alto, now my Portuguese may be negligible but in any language I knew it meant lots of up.

I made it up to the Mirador of San Antonio which had a convenient Christmas Market so I was able to have a coffee, a custard tart (OK pastel de nata) and find a bench from which to Skype my son and daughter-in-law post lunch in Hong Kong. We had a good catch up and agreed that Lisbon was a fine city, if hilly. As I looked from the mirador across the city to the Castel de Sao Jorge, I started to wonder if my plan to include that was sensible or even sane.

Having made it up to the Barrio Alto there was some up and down but undulating rather than the precipitous gradients I’d conquered earlier – even the tram wheezed a lot. It’s a grid of streets with some residential some commercial and a few of them open today. Relief came when I was able to buy a waiter’s friend (trusty Swiss Army left at home as I had no hold baggage this trip) and had a bottle of wine back at the hotel for later in the day – organic you see, no screw tops!

I gradually made my way back down to the riverside in time for a coffee in the trendy Chiado district.

There was a good display of old newspapers through the ages in front of the city hall which I admired prior along with a novel festive tree. I then had a flat walk across to the square before the ascent to the castle. A fortifying beer was needed to tackle that, rather spoiled by a persistent multilingual beggar – at least he knew Happy Christmas, Bonne Natale, Frohe Weihnachten and Feliz Navidad to address to various passers by. Oh delight! Just past the bar is a beautiful sight – an escalator. It took me two thirds of the climb leaving just the final scramble up to to the gates of the castle to see this notice.

I should have checked but thought maybe a castle would be open but if they can charge you for entrance then they’d have had to pay staff today. So I walked around the area, spotting a few stretches of battlements but missing out on the (supposedly) fabulous view across the city – well I had seen it from the other side.

The escalator was only up and just as I was contemplating hundreds if not thousands of steps down a small bus appeared which was headed down to the square at the start of the Avenida de Libertad where my lunch would soon await. I was a bit early, not a Raggett characteristic, so I had a beer in a padeleria where pastel de nata were just waiting to go into the oven.

So I walked up the opposite side of the avenue to yesterday and then crossed to Ribadouro where they were indeed able to find me a table, right beside a tasty tank full of lobsters.

They were a popular choice and the couple at the next table were battling their way through oysters, large prawns and a whole good sized lobster. They were a young Chinese couple, she severely elegant like the casino villainess in any number of dramas, he in scruffy top, joggers and trainers. Oh and have I mentioned that at least one in three of all people on the streets today is Chinese. Maybe it’s the Macau connection, maybe just that the Chinese are now the world’s greatest tourists. Anyway I decided that a lobster would be too far I accepted the suggestion of the traditional Lisbon Christmas dish of baked cod loin served with caramelised onions and pink peppercorns. I had read somewhere that many restaurants bring some plates to the table which you could be forgiven for thinking were freebie appetisers but which then get added to the bill. I was quite peckish so a plate of pata negre ham went down very well with a glass or several of a Lisbon white wine called Lasso. I managed most of what looked like a half a cod which was very tasty but an unusual Christmas choice for me. After a coffee, I made my way back up through the busy Winter Wonderland to the hotel to Skype the rest of the family, write a blog, read a book and enjoy some wine thanks to my newly acquired friend.

Lisbon Christmas Eve

I’d read about the collection made by a Madeiran Joe Berardo (maybe a friend of Chris Rinaldo) of twentieth century art bought directly from the artists in many cases. I’d also read that the museum closed at 14:00 on Christmas Eve. So I set off with my travel card on the Blue Line and Green Line metros to Cais da Sodre where I needed a suburban train to Belem. I failed to read the signs and flew past Belem Station, the Berardo Collection and the tower of Belem to the first stop at Alges. Fortunately a train in the opposite direction soon arrived with the word TODAS illuminated on its front. This delivered me to Belem where I walked through a pleasant park to the Monasterio de Jeronimos that reminded me a bit of Budapest Houses of Parliament in its gothic splendour. I was struck by the fact that all the circular stone motifs above the windows were different but didn’t have time to visit and discover their story on this trip.

Just across the road is the Cultural Centre of Belem which houses the Berardo Collection. It’s a fabulous building dating from 1992 in pink marble with a water garden and wide airy galleries with an permanent collection with an array of surrealist, dada, pop, expressionist and other art of the last century with most of the major names represented – Picasso, Miro, Warhol, Pollock, Rothko, Moore among them. It is so well curated that I was able to spend a couple of hours without getting the gallery glaze that so often comes over me. I was struck by a Henry Moore that had strings attached which seemed to reference the nearby suspension bridge and rigging of the boats in the marina.

On a lower floor was a series of temporary exhibitions including a piece called Purple by John Akomfrah which is a thirty minute video installation using six huge screens. I’m not prone to sit through such artworks but this was captivating, using brilliantly manipulated imagery, archive footage and a surround sound track that kept me there to the credits. It’s based loosely on a quote from Tennyson “Oh Earth, what changes hast thou seen?” and looks at years of pollution filmed across ten countries with recurring haunting images. It was co-commissioned by the Barbican where it played early this year and the Museum of Fine Art in Boston among others. Surprising, shocking, stimulating.

Outside I walked to the river front to view the Tower of Belem, deisappointingly small for such a frequently used icon of the city and then along to the monument to the Discoverers a much more impressive piece of work.

I followed the river bank with detours for marinas and harbours back to the centre of town and the district known as Baixa. The Museum of Beer called from on corner of the Comercio Square and I finally sat down nearly four hours after my bum was on a train seat. I then explored the local area with its chain shops, a few individual boutiques and some restaurants, few of which would be open tomorrow it seemed. As I approached Rossio Station I had to hide my head in shame for protesting yesterday about the paving of the city. Here was a sculpture dedicated to the brave and talented pavers of Lisbon. They do produced some fine mosaic effects but I’m still looking for a new set of suitcase wheels!

This led me to the Avenue of Liberty a long tree-lined rambla with cafes and I imagine very popular area for a stroll in summer. It ends in the square (why don’t we have a different name when they are round?)named for the Marquis of Pombal the minister who redesigned central Lisbon after the earthquake. As I made it to the north side I knew that it was truly Christmas.


A walk uphill past the many kiosks brought me to an exit for Parque station which is five minutes from the hotel. I had used a metro and a train to get to Belem but walked all the way back so decided to eat nearby again in a restaurant that billed itself as Portuguese with a Japanese accent. It was one of the worst meals I’ve ever struggled to eat and I won’t be recommending Tsubaki on Tripadvisor. Not a good end to an otherwise most enjoyable day. The one drawback about my otherwise fine hotel is that it’s WiFi is very poor so creating these blogs is a very painful affair with many “upload failed” messages. Please bear with me – your messages are very important to me.

Boas Festas, Bon Natal

After the quickest taxi journey to Stansted ever, I breezed through security and went to the Escape Lounge for a hearty breakfast and a thorough read of the Observer. After a leisurely hour I made my way to the gate to find that the Priority Boarding queue is twice as long as the non-Priority. That’s because Ryanair make you buy Priority is you want to take a cabin wheelie case on board. I didn’t want to check baggage for just a week away so I joined the end of the line and waited, and waited. The incoming flight was delayed and so boarding for us was delayed. Standing in the airbridge to the stairs that would take us to the plane – how much extra does it cost in airport fees to push the bridge to the door and avoid all that up and down with luggage that could be wheeled not carried? – a fellow traveller spotted my Watford FC lapel badge and offered, pointing at my chest, “Good result for you yesterday!” “Indeed” I replied “and in all honesty I didn’t expect it. West Ham have been on a great run and we’ve been playing well but not getting the results.” It transpired that he is a Man United fan and would have been in Cardiff but for the lack of trains to get him back to ensure catching this flight today. We chatted a little more about the beautiful game, managers and player commitment and then they actually put us on board but rows apart so the conversation ended there. I’ve always said that if someone finds that you are a football fan you’ll never be short of a conversation – sometimes enjoyable, sometimes rather boring. This could have gone on happily for the entire flight I suspect.

So having taken a cab to the airport, gone in a posh lounge, paid for priority boarding, when I get to Lisbon I decide to take the pauper’s option to get to the hotel. This involved walking a very short distance to the Metro station, buying a rechargeable Via Viagem card and taking the Red Line (actually called Linea Vermelha which struck a chord as one of the pieces in my Japan book is about Vermillion) to Saldanha which looked the nearest station on the map. It wasn’t as I learnt after finally making it through a maze of hilly streets to be told I should have gone to the end of the line at Sao Sebastiao which is five minutes closer. Also Lisbon’s streets are paved with annoying small squares of stone which wreak havoc on the wheels of your suitcase.

I checked in to a surprisingly large room and went for a quick orientation ramble around the neighbourhood, finding the Blue Line station for tomorrow’s outing and the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation for Boxing Day. Back at the hotel for a beer (two actually as it was happy hour and they twisted my arm) I caught the end of Everton going down 2-6 to Spurs and then watched as local side Benfica put in 6 again to Braga’s 2. How often do you witness two 6-2 score lines on the same day?

It was Sunday night and the restaurant options were limited but the suggestion of Miguel at reception that I walk to the other end of the street (not very long) to Colina was a great choice. It’s a neighbourhood locale filled with families, some of whom I followed down the road from church, with a buzzing atmosphere and very tasty food.

I had a fish soup with four huge prawns and then a speciality from the area of spiced pork with clams which went down well. Having recently discovered in the UK a Portuguese grape called Alicante Bouschet at my local Laithwaites, I asked if they had one and the best they could do was a blend with Cab Sauv. It slid down very nicely anyway. A brisk walk through a cool evening – down to 8 degrees – and the sleep of the traveller.

A day of high culture – and Gatwick

It’s funny how random acts of kindness often beget others. I took in a package for Maria our neighbour opposite. It was quite heavy so I carried it over the road into her hall. As we were talking I mentioned I was going to Spain and ending up in Madrid and she said she would contact her friend Jose who worked at the Reina Sofia certainly on my visit list. So this morning I walked through the El Retiro Gardens and eventually made it – sorry Jose a few minutes late – to the fabulous Nouvel Building which didn’t exist when we last visited, I think there was scaffolding and cranes.

We chat over a coffee – Jose doing that thing I’ve seen lots of Spanish people do – get a regular coffee and a glass with some ice cubes and then pour the coffee into the glass of ice – cafe con hielo. I guess it’s a DIY iced coffee. We got on very well – he works in the exhibitions department arranging the changing calendar of temporary exhibitions. I think I’d quite enjoy the challenge of deciding who to feature and then finding willing sources to lend works for the exhibition – forensics and persuasion in equal measure. Jose has kindly arranged a free ticket for me and provided me with a guide to one of the two exhibitions in the building Eusebio Sempere where we went first and then Jose went off to do his day’s work. He was most generous with his time and I hope to repay it in London on his next visit. On our way I couldn’t help but admire the magnificent library created as part of the extension.

I had noted in Cuenca on Sunday that one of Sempere’s works was missing from the museum on loan to the Reina Sofia so I did get to see it after all. Sempere is an interesting artist with a love of precise lines, geometrical forms but also innovated with illuminated cutouts and computer generated images. Then he made massive mobiles in chromed steel where the juxtaposition of two or three planes mean that the image ‘moves’ as the viewer walks past the object. Happy bunny – small scale intricate drawing, experimentation and massive sculptures with powerful effects. Equally happy bunny downstairs at the Russian Dada exhibition – who knew? I’ve just read A Gentleman in Moscow on this trip so there were lots of resonances in the works of anti-art produced by the Dadaists of Moscow and St Petersburg. There was a hilarious first film from Eisenstein and lots of other highly graphical works attempting to change the nature of art at the same time that Russia tried to change the nature of government. Eye-opening stuff that exposed another huge level of my ignorance.

While in the Reina Sofia I couldn’t not go to see Picasso’s Guernica again and I also enjoyed a lot of other works from the time of the Spanish Civil War. In another room was a Richard Serra installation called Equal Parallel – Guernica Bengazi inspired by the US bombing of Libya. It’s a room filled with cleverly spaced blocks of rust coloured Corten steel and as you weave your way between them you have time to think above motive, action and consequences – poignant after visiting Hiroshima earlier this year. Art and politics are hard to separate aren’t they?

With imminent eye glaze it was time for a museum break and a trip to the Atocha station which when Dee and I were last in Madrid together had just had its equivalent of the Kew Gardens temperate house installed and I was interested to see how it had gone. This is a sub-tropical forest inside a railway station approach. Some of the trees we saw just planted – already quite sizeable – are now trying to escape through the roof. It’s a green oasis to walk through on your commute into the city but inevitably time, millions of passengers, fag ends and gum have taken their toll. Can we ban chewing in public as well as smoking? Or at least better disposal?

I fancied a quick beer but there was a football team occupying most of the nearby traditional café and I’m afraid I don’t do Burger King or Macdonald’s, I did find a suitable bar a short distance away and sat and looked at a booklet about Open Madrid I’d been handed by a tourist office lady. This is about places not normally visitable like the Open Gardens and Open Offices in London and I now presume other cities. Might have to come back – it sounds fun. However the booklet also informed me that at the Teatro Pavan this evening was a performance of Yerma to mark 80 years since Lorca’s death. I know the play from reading it, the Juliet Stevenson performance in the Cottesloe in the 1980s and of course the recent Billie Piper vehicle although I’m not sure many of Lorca’s actual words were in that version exciting though it was. So I got the phone out, booked one of the last four tickets – is there a bot that tells you that whatever you’re after there’s only so much or so many left? I find it annoying on hotel sites, slightly less so here – it might even be true.

My trusty sandals have become a bit squelchy and are emitting rude sounds as I walk so I take a cab back to the hotel for a change of feet – I wish! Birkenstocks applied, I pop round to a local bar for a bite, They have, they tell me, an excellent ceviche with cod, sea bass and prawns so I am persuaded and have a beer and then a crisp young Rueda when the food arrives. Then it’s back through the Retiro Gardens to the Prado which is such a fabulous museum that I can’t be here and not enter. I decide against the special exhibition of Lorenzo Lotto and head for the main galleries.

There are brilliant Bosch and Bruegel rooms but I decide to restrict myself to El Greco – they have lots more here than in Toledo and some of even better quality, Velazquez and Goya. What I like about El Greco’s big set pieces is that each portrait in the crowd is of someone you’ve just seen or might meet in a bar. Christ carrying the cross with tears welling up is amazing. Moving on seeing Las Meninas again made me think of Laura Cumming’s excellent book The Vanishing Man which features a whodunnit art world adventure tracing a missing Velazquez – must read it again. He again pushed painting forward in many ways with some of the brushwork almost akin to Van Gogh. The Prado has lots of Velazquez but I recall being told on an Art Fund visit to Apsley House that they have even more as they were given as tribute to Wellington for ridding Spain of the French. I save Goya till last and end up with the two majas and then the awful, awesome 3rd of May which does actually make me cry.

Time now to leave and get those feet moving across the city to the theatre which is not marked on my map but is in Calle Embajadores which leads off from the Plaza Mayor. Appropriately I pass a statue of Lorca on the way – a good omen?

It’s quite a schlepp and my dreams of a pre-performance drink have to be passed up. They scan my ticket on my phone and send me past a main auditorium to a tiny space that was exactly like the old Bush theatre in the early 70s. Four rows of folding chairs in rows of 20 and mind the props as you cross the stage to your seat. No numbered seating meant I should have got there earlier but with a bit of craning and sliding I managed to see most of it. Oh and there was only one empty seat. It was a mixed version with modern dress, a refusing-to-turn-blue pregnancy test taken on the centre stage WC to emphasise Yerma’s longing for a child and some updating of the language. It was well acted with a good ensemble cast and a brilliant Yerma who is of course virtually on stage throughout. This actress is Alba José who looked vaguely familiar and when I got home I realised that she had been in the excellent Spanish TV series shown on BBC 4 last year I know who you are. A very happy couple of hours to round off a day of culture. So I take a post-performance glass of wine and haltingly discuss my impressions with a couple whose English is on a par with my Spanish but we have another round and all enjoyed the play and a chance to chat about it.

On my way back through Sol, there was a demonstration – well it’s Madrid, there will be won’t there? This one was calling for no indemnity for the perpetrators of Franco’s crimes and compensation for the victims. The dictator may have been gone for 40 years but what with plans to move his remains from his dreadful mausoleum and retribution for those who suffered he’s certainly not forgotten. Art and politics, people and politics and still several people I spoke to don’t (or can’t) believe Brexit will happen. I stop for some tapas – prawns in garlic and albondigas meatballs in a tomato sauce on this occasion in a great bar-restaurant called the Cathedral.

Another pit stop for a café y copa well it is my last night in Spain and back to the hotel – so different from my others but fun with its black and white décor and strange wood grain woven carpet in the corridors, Why? Actual wood strips in the rooms.

I spend Friday morning getting a few last minute items around the Salamanca area which was as I said in an earlier piece was new to me and very impressive. Plenty of places to eat and drink well but also little food shops, fruit and veg stalls and lots of antique shops – if I was driving home I might be in trouble. Check out is at noon and flight check in at four so I decide to drive straight on down Calle Alcala in the car. It goes on for ever and ends up in the town of Alcala de Henares of which I made a circuit but failed to find a parking spot. It’s an important musical and university town and has some impressive buildings housing those pursuits. Looked definitely worthy of another visit – maybe by train next time I’m in Madrid (if).

I took a circuitous country route back and found myself in Paracuellos de Jarama I’d read about this place in books on the Spanish Civil War as it was the location for many of the early mass shootings of the war with estimates of between 2000 and 10,000 massacred by Fascist forces. It does have a staggering view across the airport and away to the city of Madrid. Like so many of the places I passed through there are huge swathes of new build dormitory towns to serve the capital. But it still had a pleasant little square with a tall tower and a few bars. Down a zigzag route and into Barajas town where I had a couple of false starts including going into the taxis’ stacking compound before finding the tiny entrance to the rental car return zone. All sorted in good time, checked in by machine again – although a person did print the baggage tag – and then to the lounge to enjoy light refreshments and watch the aircraft manoeuvre. I stayed in the comfort of the lounge too long and had my hand luggage removed at the aircraft steps. Had put iPad in camera bag so able to blog during the flight. As we went for take off I snapped the village where I’d been two hours earlier – you can just make out the tower I think – the brick one not the airport Control Tower. Machines away now as on descent.

Swift flight, straight to an empty passport reader and only ten minutes to wait for my two bags followed by a struggle to meet with my Data Cars driver but eventually home after a very fine two weeks in the sun and it’s shining here although less warmly as I set off for the West Herts Sports Club for a beer with friends before Watford v Manchester United at 17:30.

Much ado – mucho andando

So my last day in Cuenca was meant to be about nothing – a quiet one and then I got a small two hour job to do – my fault I did say I’d pick up emails if urgent. So the morning passed and it wasn’t quite hot enough to go to the pool so given the verbiage was flowing I knocked out a short story for a collection I’ve planned alongside “the novel”. I’d written off the new town of Cuenca down the hill after driving through a few times but thought while I’m here I’d better walk down through the old town and see how it all pans out. It took about half an hour – all down – from the parador to the main shopping/drinking street. I had dinner planned so didn’t want much lunch so a beer and the freeby olives, nuts and crisps sufficed at a couple of bars and it was after four by now. The lower town does not have much to recommend it I’m afraid except for an enthusiastic balcony display commemorating Cuenca’s sunflowers and a little later the lovely strains from the practice rooms of the music academy with its lively (again) Corten steel sculpture.

The northern river Jucar had a bit more water than the Huecar on the parador side and there was a pleasant park and another incredibly modern church the cross of which probably doubles as a cellphone mast, impressive university buildings and a likely looking theatre.

Do I walk back up or get a cab? Seems daft to not walk but it does prove quite steep and there’s more to come later. However the legs make it up beside the Huecar with its little weirs gurgling encouragement to the ancient limbs and I do get a different angle on the hanging houses and the bridge which on my way down I’d heard someone refusing to cross – I guess if you have a height phobia it would be very scary.

Back at the parador I shower and prepare for dinner at Cuenca’s one Michelin starred restaurant Raff San Pedro. Of course it’s up in the old town so the bones creak a bit but the menu makes pain soon forgotten. I explain that with old age I really only need a small amount so the patron suggests the Menu Gastro which has three small starters, a main fish or meat and ice cream. I go for that – and forgive me some have accused earlier blogs of being too full of food but this has to be told. First comes a small golf ball of ajo arriero cod and garlic mixed with potato and with a truffled exterior. Delicate notes of truffle and garlic very well balanced. Next is a wine glass of foamed yogurt with migas the local croutons and jellied extract of artichoke. The third is a wonderfully smooth salmorejo gazpacho’s thicker sister with cucumber and quail’s egg. The main was an old favourite carilleras pig’s cheeks where the meat is so tender because of lying against that great expanse of bone. Accompanied by a local Tempranillo my last day in Cuenca was a huge success and Spain beat Croatia 6-0 so there was happiness in the plaza as I wended my way back down to the parador.

Breakfast, pack and on to Madrid with an easy drive until the last section where the SatNav could not put me outside my hotel despite telling me I’d reached my destination. I had to go into a giant parking garage under Plaza de Independencia and find the hotel on foot with Google maps and then go and retrieve the car and park it in the hotel’s garage. It’s a modern boutique number quite unlike the rest of my trip but very pleasant and in Salamanca an area of the city I didn’t know much before. I do now. It’s very posh (of course) with lots of international and local specialist clothes, shoe and jewellery shops. What I did find was a Galician taberna for lunch which had steamed clams fresh in from A Coruna this morning – and they and the crisp Rias Baixas wine reminded me of our trip two years ago along the north and west coast starting in San Sebastian and ending up in Baiona. Fortified I wandered, keeping to the shady side of the street as it reached 36 degrees today – pleasing the locals as it had been over 40. I walked through areas unfamiliar and familiar, finding another local market on the way and ending up on the far west of the city by the Royal Palace. I sat in front of the Opera thinking one day it would be good to come here during the season and catch a performance. Likewise the Liceu in Barcelona.

I had of course to go through Sol the very heart of Madrid and our favourite plaza Santa Ana before heading through the Retiro Gardens and back to the hotel on Alcala. My feet said enough and there’s a Mexican-Spanish fusion group playing live on the roof terrace tonight so it would be rude not to attend. Besides as I entered my room after an urgent beer in the bar I found this. Salud!

I’ve never been into to the FitBit step thing but today I did think it would be nice to know just how many steps – all as they say andando a pie.

Lunes cerrado – fiesta abierta

As experienced in Toledo – Mondays things are closed – so I decided to travel out into the mountains of Cuenca (La Serrania de Cuenca National Park) and visit a place mentioned in the tourist footage but which we couldn’t use – the enchanted city – much too metaphorical for beginners in English. Fortunately it isn’t closed on Mondays. It’s a bit twee as a name but they also apply this epithet to the old town in Cuenca – La Ciudad Encantada. I suppose this one could have dumbed down and become Rock City because it is an area of the national park in which there are amazing rock formations in the limestone and sandstone topology that have evolved through water and wind erosion. There’s a three kilometre trail, very clearly marked, that takes you past these weird forms which have been categorised on a series of informative plaques in Spanish and English as The Dog, The Bears, the Face, The Roman Bridge, The Lovers of Teruel etc. My favourite was the Elephant and the Crocodile who really do seem to be having a fight.

The first stack you come to

Lover of Teruel x 2

Elephant (right) with trunk in crocodile’s mouth

As I entered a large guided tour was setting off so despite the marked route heading right, I decided to do it in reverse – feasible as it was circular. This proved a much more peaceful alternative as I discovered when I met the group half way. As I exited several more groups were starting out so I think I chose my moment well. The plaques apart from conveying the popular names for the rocks also provided useful notes on the flora and fauna including the fact that holly is an endangered species in Spain – I’ll bring some cuttings next time. After a while I crested a small ridge to confront The Sea of Stone – a limestone pavement that would have had my erstwhile head of geography and geology expert (Dee for those unfamiliar with her past) jumping with joy. I’ve seldom known anyone so excited by memories of a school field trip to the pavement above Malham Cove in Yorkshire! It is quite a sight and this one was impressive too. My visit included my first exposure to a little light rain on this trip – there were plenty of overhangs in the rocks when it got heavier for a minute or two but it didn’t really come to anything until a bit later on in the day.

The sea of stone

Cathedral arch

After a pleasant stroll through an interesting area I decide to explore the mountains a little more and make a semi-circular return to Cuenca. This is real mountain scenery with hairpin bends, low gear sections and spectacular views. It’s the kind of terrain where you often see this sign and think – Oh yeah.

Well on this stretch there had been a rock fall within the last couple of days given the freshness of the markings on the road. There were still yellow road works signs for the guys clearing the rocks off the road.

I drove through the gorge of the river Jucar passing literally gorgeous scenery (sorry) and an extensive reservoir.

Finally after a section marked as ‘Mountain road – no markings’ – great fun and only one vehicle to negotiate in 20 km – the road emerged in the village of Cañete which had some staggering Moorish walls, a market and a bar/restaurant that looked good for lunch. I sat with a beer and some local very strong manchego cheese and homemade chorizo when the heavens opened and the town came rushing in.

It was clear that I was occupying a difficult spot for la padrona to accommodate everyone so I moved to great thanks from the incoming group. As you do, I became involved in conversation thereafter and enquired as to what their tee shirts signified. The women were wearing tops with the slogan ‘La peña de pantocha’. I knew that peña meant an association, society or interest group but I had to enquire what the word pantocha meant – should have learnt more slang in my youth. The ladies burst into laughter and indicated that it was a part of the feminine anatomy where as they put it ‘Entran las pollas, salen los niños’. My conclusion that in English they’d be called the C*** Club had them in complete hysterics with gleeful delight in the matched alliteration. The menfolk were all bearing tee shirts with the legend WILLYS with which I was familiar from a souvenir/craft shop in Palamos a while ago where as a winter gift they had a series of beautifully knitted ‘willy warmers’ ranging from thimble size to truncheon – you decide which to take home. I tried to explain that grammatically their slogans were wrong in that they should either be WILLY’S if they were celebrating one particular member or WILLIES if they were all involved. I spared them the Wilis in Giselle. We were deep into dangerous territory here as I couldn’t accept the free-flowing booze with my car parked opposite under the walls. It transpired that while the fiesta always had a religious element, a few years ago some of them had decided to sex it up a bit with some gender related fun and games so they had a number of contests between the sexes. I hate to think how the evening would have finished – it was quite rowdy when I left at 4.30. But my new friends did pose for a photo as I left. Spike in June babies in Cañete?

The drive back to Cuenca was less spectacular and after frequent checks on progress at the Oval – most satisfactory – I stayed at the parador for dinner and was introduced to a speciality of the area morteruelo which is a paté served warm made from hare, rabbit, partridge and a variety of spices which had a rillette-type texture and was very tasty. I followed it with another local speciality oxtail in red wine sauce and tried a wine denomination I’d never encountered before Uclès. A most acceptable tempranillo.

Adelante – Belmonte y Cuenca

After a leisurely breakfast and checkout, I head off to the east towards Belmonte where I plan to stay the night as the parador deal doesn’t work on Saturdays and Belmonte has a good looking hotel. As I bowl along I’m caught by a sign to Campo de Criptana – another amazing hill of windmills where Dee and I had also gone at the New Year some while back. When the Don calls … So I am soon, after a coffee and churro in town – yes I know it’s supposed to be chocolate y churros – parking at the top of the hill and walking down to the fabulous array of molinos. Being right on the edge of town makes it quite a different experience from Consuegra. They are fine structures and well maintained – glad I followed the call.

Back now on to the N420 that crosses the east centre of Spain from Cordoba to Tarragona, Because of the extensive network of motorways (autovia non-toll as opposed to the autopista where you do have to pay) the road is empty and a delightful drive. Behind me the centre of Castilla La Mancha had been as flat as a pancake. Now as I enter the province of Cuenca it starts to ruffle up around the edges like an omelette undulating in the pan. After several miles it’s more like a soufflé or a meringue with some serious peaks arriving. I reach Belmonte and, my goodness, it’s got a castle rather splendid with a six point star shape and some windmills behind the town. These haven’t been painted glistening white and probably are nearer to historical accuracy. There are also impressive medieval walls around the town.

The hotel is welcoming and has rooms named after famous folk so I am placed in Pedro 1 who I discovered was the last king of Castille-La-Mancha and was called both the Cruel and the Just – well there is the old saying about being kind. The hotel occupies a great building, is a popular meeting place for the town and serves a good local craft beer. It also had a clothes horse of the kind I haven’t seen for years. Had to hang clothes on that.

What I hadn’t checked was that Belmonte was celebrating its fiesta patronal which involved a lots of singing, dancing and drinking on Saturday and on Sunday a procession for the Virgin of Grace. So I watched England beaten by Spain to the delight of the locals – I had to admit Spain were the better team although ‘we was robbed’ at the end. I then joined the revellers at the local brass band’s recital and then at a series of sets by a band I can only describe as Latino heavy rock. They were fun, people dressed up and danced but they did go on until 04:30.

I had retired by then but not to much sleep! On the way east the weather had changed and once the music stopped I was woken by thunder. It rumbled around but produced no rain which is good as two days ago in a town near Toledo I saw on the news cars being swept down the street in flash floods. It was called Cebolla = Onion Town.

I decided to make straight for Cuenca knowing I’d be too early to check in but did manage to park and store my cases before setting off to explore the town. On the way I was surprised to drive through field after field of sunflowers. Google later helpfully informed me that round about a third of all Spain’s sunflowers grow in the province. But oh what would Vincent say? In 1997 Dee and I drove her mum through south west France where she loved the field after field of shoulder high sunflowers. In Cuenca they are still very striking bout only about two feet (less than a metre) high. Just not the same but much more efficient I’m sure.

I’ve bored some people already with the story of why I wanted to come to Cuenca. About 25 years ago I made an English language teaching video about two students on exchange between Brighton and Cuenca which seem to both be favourite places in the ELT universe. Thing is we shot several scenes purporting to be in Cuenca without me ever going there. It was all done by the wonders of blue screen (not green in those days) and Ultimatte a clever keying device that allowed library footage from the Tourist Office in Cuenca to play behind action in the studio. So having seen only the bits they wanted me to see I was intrigued to visit the place myself. It’s defined by a massive gorge – not a high frequency occurrence word of much value to learners, but it did have lots of steps which helped with counting – well beyond the required 100!

It didn’t disappoint – the gorge reminded me of Ronda which also has a parador perched on its edge (the converted convent on the left is Cuenca’s) but there was a rather flimsy-looking iron and wood bridge to cross into the old city. Most of the tourist footage was of this bit rather than the undistinguished modern city far below. There are some famous medieval hanging houses which I’d seen on film but are stunning to the eye and by a miracle are now the Museum of Modern Spanish Abstract Art.

It has some very impressive examples: Chillida, Tapies, Miro among them and some fine works by artists I didn’t know. Being inside the building was great too as some of the original features remain and the view from the balconies is vertiginous.

Moving on, the Plaza Mayor and Catedral were familiar from the footage although the signage and slogans are a bit more modern, Right at the top the castle had featured with a scene in front of it which had proved a vehicle for the past tense. For me it proved the turning point for me to stop exploring – all up so far – and seek some lunch.

I might not have fetched up where I did in a previous visit (!) but found a bar in the main square near the cathedral with some local craft beer I thought I’d try – the bottle came and it was 7%, serious beer, but as so often with high alcohol content too sweet for my tooth so I stuck at the one there and had a more refreshing Alhambra on the way back to check in.

Manzanares – exploring the ologies

This is one of the paradors I haven’t stayed at before and on arrival I know why. It’s address is Km 175 A4 and it really is right beside the very noisy motorway from Madrid to Cordoba and beyond. The double glazing’s good behind the typical galleried facade so in the rooms it’s fine but by the excellent pool there’s a hum of traffic all the time.

However this wasn’t going to be a stay in the hotel all day stay so no real problem. On arrival after my Don Quixote day I walked the twenty minutes into the centre. To be fair it’s a fairly dull town with a few good buildings – theatre very deco, church one very modern and some very ancient as well as a good plaza.

However this part of the trip was for swimming (tick), writing (tick) chilling (semi-tick) and exploring the local ecology, archeology and oenology (two and a half ticks).

Not far away are the Tablas de Daimiel a national park wetlands area on the Guadiana River. It had a good visitor centre with lots of dioramas of flora and fauna at different times of the year and some well maintained footpaths and being around lagoons and marshes not too much up except to an observatory from which I was able to spot very little. Coots and heron don’t really count but there were some small birds whizzing about that I could’n’t identify. A very pleasant circular walk of three kilometres in the morning before it got too hot.

My next stop was the provincial capital Ciudad Real again new to me. It had a couple of really nice squares, some deco buildings, or as they call it here modernisme, and felt quite buzzy. There were some great posting boxes too. It provided a good lunch stop in the shade as the temperature reached 41 Celsius.

Friday’s outing was to the Motilla del Azuer a Bronze Age settlement with the Iberian peninsula’s deepest well or so I’d read in Wikipedia or Tripadvisor. It seemed quite close by. Once again I decide to make my archaeology trip in the morning before it hots up. The SatNav directed me after 5 km onto a dirt road. Now I’m quite familiar with the fact that in large parts of the country roads don’t have tarmac but are perfectly serviceable. This was not really the best I’ve come across and when I found myself behind two ghost tractors it was second gear for ages and then a complete stop to snap a group of melon pickers. I couldn’t help thinking about our picking problems in agriculture back home as this gang of Moroccans – I did ask if they’d mind – made a pick, pass and stack line onto a trailer.

On then to the Motilla to find it closed and with a notice saying you could only visit by appointment in guided tours – if only I’d checked their website first. There are some good photos, one of which I’ve borrowed, but I had to make do with this one as the next available tour is on 15 September when I’ll be at Vicarage Road for Watford v Manchester United – full of confidence. So a half tick for that one but a fun, slightly scary journey into the vast interior. The Motilla is exactly in the middle of nowhere, an accord I’d erroneously bestowed on Tembleque which is much closer to somewhere.

I am familiar with the product of Valdepenas – most excellent wines and as luck would have it I chose to visit the city during the Fiesta del Vendemmia y Vino (harvest and wine). Oenology – tick. The main square was heaving with extra cafe counters, a band was doing its sound check and a red London bus was an attractive tapas outlet. The great thing was that the atmosphere was suffused with the aroma of grilled sardines and as I ordered a beer I was presented with a whole sardine and a piece of bread as my freebie. So lunch consisted of a stroll round the square: pork skewers at one, chicken wings, tortilla and that’s enough beer as I have to drive. But before all that I’d been to the Cultural Centre that had a fine art and sculpture exhibition. Another spectacle that caught my attention was the excellent stencilled iron street names and the umbrellas that hung over the main shopping streets. These are a unique feature of the city – 4000 of them are strung up in early summer to alleviate the heat, provide shade for shoppers and act as a tourist attraction. I loved them with their Spanish flag reds and yellows and colours of provincial and local emblems. My final visit had to be to the big statue of the Don at the end of the main street. It’s a large bronze and there was its maquette in the exhibition I went to earlier.

I came back to Manzanares via La Solana which is on the Ruta de Don Quijote and I wondered how he would have coped with these modern contraptions.

The town has a fine plaza and church, a ducal palace now the town hall, a cinema themed bar and is famous for growing saffron without which no paella would be complete.