After two marathon walking days I have a lie in on Wednesday as I have my Vatican tour booked for 14:00 and plan to visit some new arts buildings in the north of Rome. This involved my first tram ride which was very efficient except that I had no idea where to get off but, soliciting halting help from a fellow passenger, I disembarked at the right spot quite a way up via Flaminio. Left along Guido Reni and there it is – polished grey concrete of Zaha Hadid’s fine museum for 20th century art and architecture. It’s a great building with sweeping lines, unusual projections and it sits very well in an industrial area of the city. Insider the curvy features continue with a NY Guggenheim-style sweep to higher levels and a wonderfully fluid black staircase to get back down.
There is a mixture of installations, archictects’ drawings and models, which I’ve always loved whether in balsa wood or Perspex, photography including a magic Helmut Newton series of Rome and a special exhibition of art from war torn Beirut. I spent a very stimulating 90 minutes and could have explored other areas but wanted to see the work of another superstar architect Renzo Piano.
The Parco Della Musica is ten minutes’ walk from Maxxi and consists of three auditoria that look a bit like tortoise shells or anteaters. These indoor concert halls surround an open air amphitheatre where I’d love to come back in summer. All set amid tall pines it is the best definition of a culture park. Rain started so I popped in for a coffee until it abated and then got mildly damp walking back to the tram stop to head south for my two o’clock tour.
Very vet Vatican
As some will have read already, I found my tour group at the appointed spot at the foot of some steps opposite the museum entrance. Roll called, badged up and ready to shuffle we head towards the special groups entrances where I resisted umbrella sales in the drizzle to my later soaked cost. Eventually (45 mins eventually) we enter, take 15 minutes for loo breaks, audio guides and multi guide chaos and actually move into the museums. Well you could spend a year here and not see everything and what you do see is mostly at a slow shuffle a bit like trying to get up Occupation Road after a capacity crowd stayed till the end. (For non-Watford fans that’s a very slow shuffle.) The place is a total maze as well so you have little idea where you are.
Highlights for me were the map room in which you can walk from south to north of Italy in five minutes with brilliant relief representations of the various areas of the country either side of you as they were thought to be in 1580. As a geographer, Dee would have taken some persuading to move on but Tatiana was strict and we were ushered on towards the Raphael frescoes. These are quite wonderful except for one which I think was the Expulsion of Heliodorus where most of the wall is in his usual style but the a handful of figures in the lower left side are much more dramatic, muscular and frankly Vincian. Tatiana told us, the probable urban, myth that Raphael stole the key to the Sistine Chapel and had a sneak preview and decided to copy the master. While beautifully done he really should have stripped off the plaster and started over for consistency.
On then finally to what everyone is there for. nine years of Leonardo da Vinci’s life spent on the ceiling and then the end wall with the second coming. Not for the first time this trip did I have severe neck ache but worth every moment as the pain is alleviated by the sheer beauty of the vision above. Another special Dee moment was standing right below the finger of God creating man and hearing the South Bank Show theme in my head. Quite stunning, it was well worth the soaked shuffle.
The tour ends in St Peter’s basilica another awe-inspiring building with my favourite of all the sculptures Michelangelo’s Pieta carved when he was only 24. I managed to skirt round take square under cover and then dash through the torrents to the metro and back to the hotel for a shower, change and some fortification and post my first blog of the new Rome series, humiliated by my earlier gloating about the fine weather in Rome.
As I sit in the hotel bar, coyly named The Office, it’s BB King night on the playlist a pleasant change from the slightly too loud medleys played on other nights. Service is good, staff chatty although leave me in peace when I’m hammering at the keys and I meet another solo traveller who is spending his second Christmas away after divorce ended his 28 year marriage. Maybe I should start the WDCTC – the Widowers and Divorces Christmas Travel Club.
It was a splendid warm week with a few visits to the pool purely to stimulate the thought processes of course. I sat diligently in writer’s corner in the shade and have achieved what I hoped for – enough written down that it has its own momentum now and writing a chapter now and then among other commitments will be OK. If any of it is any good that is,
Sunday was a dull cloudy, Essex beat Hampshire by an innings and lots and Watford lost 5-0. The only upside was it was my daughter’s birthday. So Monday was time to set off after my stay at Cortijo Alto. It is so peaceful except when the farmers start spraying the olive groves at 6 am. Still it got me on the road in short order. My excitement today was twofold. I would virtually complete a circular tour of Spain being in Valencia only 100 km from Tortosa. Secondly thanks to the kind proprietors I was going to meet ‘The Hornet’ an olive tree my daughter and the family gave me for Christmas. I had a certificate and have already sampled some of its excellent first cold press extra virgin Arbequina oil. Now I was going to hug my tree!
I left the house and set off eastwards along the A92 autovia, pausing for breakfast near Granada with a fine view of the Sierra Nevada, still living up to their name. I came off at a junction signed Huercal-Overa, the town nearest to my tree but SatNav was not happy as we did some N roads with a few trucks making progress a little slower. I soon arrived and found the original San Francisco deep in the heart of Almeria. We had agreed I’d find my way to Olivas Querencia by amazing good luck or not at all so Angela kindly came to find me – the red Audi and a tall bald bloke are a bit of a give-away.
Angela and her husband Willem (yes, he’s Dutch) have owned Querencia since 2010. They bought a lovely house, a big farm and 22,000 olive trees.
They’ve made a brilliant fist of sorting the place out and have achieved coveted status as first cold press virgin olive oil with International Olive Council approval which means a lot of tasting by people in Jaen, the capital of olive oil – one might say the Vatican of olive oil such is the mystery that surrounds it. Oh and it’s pretty tasty too like less fatty butter with added sunshine. And of course you’ll live longer.
We shared stories and I was treated to a fabulous unexpected impromptu lunch before going to visit the trees. Where I’ve been staying the olive trees are probably 100+ years old. At Querencia they are 10. I’m used to multi-trunk gnarled old things, these are beautiful single trunk olives neatly trimmed and already showing good olive production after blooming. But no hugging in case unwanted pruning took place!
Good early olives
Angela and Willem find The Hornet
Come on you Hornet!
It’s going to be a good year. FACT. Isn’t it great when something so serendipitous works out so well. Hey, I even played with their dogs! We will keep in touch and one of Fuzz’s yellow wristbands will be The Hornet’s identifier in the future.
But I had to be in Valencia and olive trees needed pruning and tidying up – sadly yellow leaves are a bad sign and have to be pulled off. So I got back onto the A7 Autovia del Mediterraneo which should take me straight to Valencia in about four hours. I guess it must have been my cheapskate settings at the start that say “Avoid Tolls” but we veered off round Alicante north towards Albacete and Madrid and then picked up the A31 into Valencia from the west. My circle was rapidly becoming a capital G. It was fascinating as I drove through Spain’s granite and marble supply zone – every other building alongside the road proclaimed quality stone. It was a bit filled with mountain passes too – not as big as the 1379 metres in Granada but at Lorca you top a rise a see the polythene plains of Murcia – I hope things have picked up after the disastrous rains earlier in the year. And later you come over another pass as the road turns into the A35 and there is the green plain of Valencia with fruit of every kind, then orange trees and then rice.
It takes me two attempts to find the hotel as SatNav lady has no truck with No Entry signs exhorting me repeatedly to turn left where it’s prohibited. I got here, showered and changed and went walk about in the old part of this fabulous city, remembering that when we were last here the Town Hall Square was an ice rink.
I went to the amazing Mercado de Colon, redolent of Victoria in Cordoba and San Miguel in Madrid and checked out a few bars where we’d been before including some great ham at one near the Hospes de Mar hotel we’d stayed at in 2015, took a light dinner in a nearby tapas bar and retired to post this. Last day tomorrow and fully back into the swing with a meeting about the Watford Community Trust Anniversary book on Wednesday.
The route to our next stop the parador at Baiona took us very close to Santiago de Compostela so we couldn’t not go. We passed a few groups of walking pilgrims on the way but I think the preferred routes keep them off the major roads, fume flagellation not being part of the pilgrimage. As we approached the sprawling city we headed for the first car park we saw signs to and found that miraculously, well it is Santiago, it was right by a major intersection from which a gate led us to the centre in about fifteen minutes. However after the drive we needed to pause for a coffee and chose a place near this big junction where coach after coach disgorged its mixtures of pilgrims and day trippers.
We made our way into the old part of the city pausing at several haberdasheries to marvel at the lace, religious memorabilia shops to wonder at the gullibility and how many shapes you can make for a scallop shell, and some art and craft shops whose wares were interesting but not compelling. The cathedral is very impressive and the whole monumental area surrounding it gave a feeling of ancient power. We refrained from joining the queues to see the interior of the cathedral. It was hot, the queue was very long and we agreed some time ago that we didn’t like paying to go into churches.
The short straw – baggage monitors
We didn’t join the queue – this is just a tenth of it.
Real pilgrims have express entry and therefore much shorter lines were forming for them to enter the cathedral – quite right after walking miles.
We covered the immediate hinterland gazing at fine buildings with amazing carvings, wandered down narrow streets and found ourselves at the Café Casino a building dating from 1873 which has high vaulted ceilings, glittering chandeliers, loads of stained glass and wood panelling throughout. It is reputed to have been and still be the haunt of artists, musicians and writers so we felt completely at home as we sipped our drinks and enjoyed the brilliant surroundings. A further amble through the other part of the old centre and we were back at coach corner and looking for somewhere to lunch.
On the corner of the road back to the car was a restaurant called Markesa which billed itself as an izakaya gallega. What could be better than Japanese pub atmosphere with fresh regional produce? We looked no further and enjoyed an excellent fusion of cuisines and after all there’s a lot in common between the small dishes served in izakayas and tapas. Prawn and asparagus tempura, some delicious yakitori skewers of chicken, beef and vegetables, teriyaki eels, eels are something else both Japanese and Spaniards love, sushi and some miso soup made for a satisfactory if surprising lunch in Santiago.
We drove off southward after getting out of the city fairly easily and bowled along passing more strings of pilgrims taking the southern route – I’d advise the northern as the final approach to Santiago is all uphill on the southern route, but maybe that gets you extra brownie points and into the cathedral quicker. We rolled through green hills and farmland for much of the way and then into an urbanized strip that seemed to connect the northern suburbs of Pontevedra right through to the south of Vigo. There are great harbours all down the coast and of course industry follows. There were some hairy stretches in which all the knowledgeable locals move at breakneck speed round blind bends and emerge from tunnels, cross and re-cross bridges but we survived and emerged to follow a more leisurely path to Baiona. We’d booked the parador here for five days on the basis that it was a long way from anywhere, had a pool, was in a medieval fortress and would enable us to have a rest after nine days of being frequently on the move.
Our first impression as we arrived was that we had struck lucky. A beautiful sandy bay with a promenade lined with shops, bars and restaurants, a fishing harbour with a replica of Columbus’s ship Pinta which brought the first news of the New World to Baiona in 1943 – oh dear too used to typing my date of birth – 1493 was when the Pinta sailed in from the Americas. Columbus is starting to play as big a part in these blogs as Murakami – he’s followed us from one end of Spain to the other. At the end of the town was a promontory with the fortress walls surrounding it and the hotel right in the middle at the top. And you had to show your reservation to be allowed to drive through the entrance gateway at the foot – proper posh!
Here we were then for five days of rest and relaxation enjoying spectacular sea views, clean air and bright sunshine. Except our friends Natalie and Graham were returning from England to their house in Antequera via the ferry to Santander which is not that far away so they are coming via Baiona tomorrow and then driving back down to Antequera through Portugal, which will be a new experience for them. As we check into the hotel in its massive stone ceilinged entrance hall we notice a host of others moving in from some vintage Mercedes and VWs, the odd Morgan and Jag. It seems there’s a German rally association that organises an annual 10-day trip staying in paradors and other smart hotels with some fun driving in between. Sounds like me – just need the vintage car now.
Our room was excellent with a view down the rocky coastline with the sound of the sea through the open window and we set off to explore the massive parador, soon finding a large lounge bar and terrace which was just what was needed. It served good tapas and there was another more formal dining room in an elegant hall and a further less formal restaurant two minutes walk down the battlements.
Next morning I set off on a quest for paracetamol as stocks were running low and pain barely under control a lot of the time. I walked a mile along the promenade to find an open pharmacy and duly purchased some tablets. However Dee found these quite hard to swallow and so I really wanted the little plastic torpedoes which they didn’t have. As I got back to near the parador entrance another pharmacy had just opened and in response to my ‘Hay paracetamol en forma de capsulas, no comprimido?’ they produced the very thing I was after. This was thanks to extending my pharmaceutical vocabulary at the last place to learn that ‘comprimido’ in this context means pressed powder -conventional pills. I returned with my triumph and after all this early exertion the full Spanish provided by the excellent buffet went down well. We had a call from Natalie to say they had left Santander and would probably hit Baiona about one. We spent some time exploring the pool area and other rooms in the parador and then walked down into town and found a central café at which to await the arrival of our friends. We soon spotted them strolling along towards us and catching up and sharing news took several cups by which time it was time to go in quest of some lunch. We found a good restaurant on the edge of the old town and spent a happy couple of hours with excellent fish and seafood – and I think I remember some ice cream too. We parted and made for our different hotels as the parador was full when Natalie tried to book – all those rally drivers and their companions – and arranged to meet up there for a drink and then go to a recommended restaurant for dinner – the number one place was way up in the hills behind Baiona but we decided being in town would prove the easier option. The food was fine, the wine and brandy flowed but it was a bit lacking in traditional Spanish atmosphere. We had failed to do a decent recce as there were several good-looking restaurants back in the old town which we discovered later when Natalie and Graham were back home. However we did have a most enjoyable evening.
The next day was as intended – a quiet day around the parador, sunbathing by the pool in which we declined to swim despite the heat since it was a magnet for seagulls and you know what they do in water. We suggested that some kind of bird repellent might be worth investigating as the confines of the hotel pool were clearly much more attractive than the vastness of the ocean. A peaceful pleasant day at the parador. But having seen the source of the Miño river in Meira we decided that on Saturday we would do the recommended driving trip around the river valley where it forms the border with Portugal and then flows out into the Atlantic.
It was a very fine trip with steep wooded slopes, small villages almost Alpine in appearance and a couple of towns at one of which Mondariz we stopped for lunch eventually. It’s a famous spa town and although the spa complex does two-hour sessions we had come unprepared so we headed for the main square where there were several restaurants but none serving food – one told us his chef hadn’t turned up today, another that the kitchen closed at two – unheard of in most of Spain.
There were however lots of signs advertising Mondariz water which had just been voted ‘best water in the world’ at the Diamond Taste Awards. Tempting but they probably use it in the local beer too don’t they? A friendly barman directed us to a rival whose chef had turned up and made us some very acceptable dishes a seafood salad and a caldo gallego – the Galician stew with cabbage, beans, peppers, ham and chorizo. As we ate it became time for kick off back home as Watford made their first visit to West Ham’s new London Stadium. So phones were consulted frequently and then less so as we went 2-0 down in the first half hour. Then miraculously it was 2-2 at half time. The guide book had said that Ribadevia although not on the circular tour was well worth a visit so after a coffee we set off in the car to explore further inland. Dee nearly jumped out of the car when her phone said we were 3-2 up as we headed through the narrow lanes high above the banks of the Miño and with frequent glimpses of the river below. We made it to Ribadevia as 20 minutes into the second half we were beating West Ham 4-2 – amazing! Also amazing was the scene that confronted us in Ribadevia. It was choc-a-bloc with vehicles and people, the streets were packed and it looked like fiesta time. It was actually market day and a rehearsal for thee History Festival in a week’s time when everybody dresses in medieval costume, something we seen in Tortosa back in 2001 on our honeymoon. We managed to creep through the town, abandoning all hopes of parking, and then made our way back to Baiona through another scenic route.
Sunday was another quiet day at the hotel with an excursion into the old town to buy a few gifts for those back home. There are lots of bars, craft shops, delicatessen and restaurants in an ancient area of the town that is very compact but has some wonderful buildings and unexpected sights around corners. And we bought what we needed.
The view to the north
The Atlantic to the west
A rest on the ramparts
In the afternoon, we made the three kilometre walk round the battlements which gave us wonderful changing perspectives of the coast to the north and south the huge ocean bay stippled with islands to the west and the pretty town and beach to the east. There were convenient places to pause and admire the view and it was a very happy excursion. We dined that evening in the less formal restaurant just down from the main parador building called the Enxebre A Pinta as it overlooks the port with the replica ship. Less formal than the main dining room the food was well up to standard and made for a very relaxing last night in Spain – and we got another lovely sunset.
Our flight on Monday from Santiago airport was not until 19:20 so we packed and decided to try to visit Ribadevia which we had failed to explore on Saturday. The contrast couldn’t be greater with the town on a sleepy Monday. Cats and kittens dozed in doorways – real not graffitti – gegants the huge figures that parade at fiesta time sat lonely in a doorway and the Jewish quarter told a story of flourishing trade followed by persecution on a series of plaques.
We were glad to have made it here where the river Avia joins the Miño, a castle dominates and the main square housed a microbrewery and an irresistible leather goods and craft shop. We set off towards Santiago and the route took us through Ourense a name I’d heard as a Spanish province but had no concept of. It’s split by the river Miño which is quite broad at this point and has dramatic sloping bridges, roads and parks along the river banks and a medieval centre with massive churches and municipal buildings. We had a light lunch and set off for the airport which looked very straightforward on the map but the SatNav had different ideas. The first part was fine – along the autovia to Lalin and then the N525 when the motorway changed from A53 to AP53 designation and we didn’t feel like paying tolls as we were not in that much of a hurry, we thought. The SatNav clearly didn’t think this was a good idea and we set off across country along single track roads – there were no problems with passing as we didn’t see another vehicle except for tractors in the fields. With high hedges, sudden changes of direction and right angle bends it was quite disorienting but also quite a laugh – possibly slightly nervous laughter at times. Then our narrow track emerged onto a major road with a sign to the airport at 1km and a convenient filling station so we could avoid the exorbitant rates charged by rental companies by returning the car full.
Parking and return were easy in the very modern airport which had been rebuilt in 2011 to increase facilities for tourists which include a lot of pilgrims who can’t make the penitential journey on foot. As it happens they needn’t even leave the airport as there’s a great model of the cathedral and old city complex so you could take your selfies there and save the trip to the centre.
The flight back was our first with Spain’s cheap flight operator Vueling and it was perfectly fine. We reflected on a holiday which balanced a little rest with some essential sightseeing in areas of Spain neither of us knew before but came to love during these last two weeks. The three-day, three-day, three-day, five-day bookings proved very satisfactory with some real rest towards the end. As always there were places we regretted not visiting – Ferrol in particular, when we saw Almodovar’s Julieta in the cinema a couple of weeks later as lots of it was set there. The holiday confirmed our love for Spain with its continual ability to surprise and delight.