Monthly Archives: August 2012

Take the rough with the smooth

After a somewhat whirlwind tour of northern Spain we are now back in the UK.
Had hoped to be welcoming the Seattleites tonight but alas their flight out last night was cancelled so we shall see them for breakfast instead. Fly well Cap’ Hill persons.
They did arrive, only twenty hours late, very tired but enthusiastic.
Something went wrong with my blogging abilities, sorry about that. I think I posted the same blog twice, deleted the wrong thing and the Ortuella post vanished.
Here it is again !

Don’t laugh but we are in Ortuella or to be more exact in the industrial estate of Ortuella which is a small town about twenty minutes outside of Bilbao. Our GPS on the phone guided us to another hotel with the same name in the middle of a housing development (council estate) set on a very steep hillside with exceptionally narrow streets, we received some very strange looks. Undaunted we continued into Bilbao driving up and down Bilbao Avenue looking for our booked hotel, for about an hour. Finally resorted to stopping at the Novotel block for advice to be advised that the best solution would be to hire a taxi and follow it to our lodging. Poo Baa said our pilot, we are better than that, so back out of town we cruised. There had been a mention of a fuel station, we saw one, turned in and there was the hotel, the hotel Ortuella. Brand new, restaurant, bar, tables and chairs outside with charming views of……….the industrial estate. Abandoning bags and car we caught a cab to the Guggenheim, what a treat, but more of that in a little bit. We did the tour, pottered in the Old Town and got a cab back to Ortuella.
Oh look, it’s all closed up, shutters over the bar door, shutters over the restaurant, oh deleted expletive. Hmm. Ok, back into town to find the supermarket, great idea except, we had no clue where to find same. Drove about a bit, parked, walked around, found all sorts of unsuitable retailers, bead merchant, dress shops, toy shops, but no food, wine nor beer. Finally found a fruit shop where we splurged on four bottles of wine, two of water and some bananas all for the sum of five pounds (seven fifty US). Knowing we would then find the supermarket we did, fifty yards from where we parked. Sigh.
Returned to hotel where we will enjoy the bread and cheese we bought in Santander earlier.
No major sense of humour failures and we are quite content with our bananas, bread, cheese, wine and the enchanting view of the industrial estate !

Our hotel

Speed Bonny boat

At sea, M/V Pont-Avon, lurching down the Bay of Biscay.
Sunny and calm at the off we sat and enjoyed the warmth with a couple of beers listening to a crew member advising us of conditions to come. Being told of increasing winds to Force seven or eight and that it would be rough in the morning was rather like being told by a airplane Captain to expect some minor turbulence ahead. When my beer started blowing out of the glass we began to believe him.
I remember my friends Barbara and Graham, commenting on their trip to NY on the QE 2 that it was rather like a geriatric Butlins holiday camp (sorry US ers, there really is no equivalent). The Bingo bar was packed out, there was karaoke, a Michael Jackson impersonator, community singing, mountains of beer glasses, large glasses of strong sweet cocktails, kids, mini and otherwise, shrieking in the small pool. Twenty four hours of this ? Hmm, we thought. HELP !
Casting about we found tablecloth land where things were, shall we say, a little, well, quieter. Some dinner then back to the cabin and sleep, early.
I was up at three thirty to see Ushant. Huh, you say, Ushant? whatzat ? It’s a very famous rock on the Northwest tip of France where, during the Napoleonic Wars, our brave seafarers frequently wrecked their ships with the loss of all hands while blockading the French fleet at Brest. You won’t read too many Nautical History Sea Stories without coming across a mention of the fearful tide races, jagged rocks, contrary winds and mountainous seas of that inhospitable coast. Well of course I didn’t actually see it, it was dark, but I saw the lighthouses all around and suitably humbled I went back to bed.
The day dawned and it was rough, quite rough. The open sun deck , high on deck nine, was constantly submerged with spray as the bow ploughed into a wave, the whole ship shuddering from the impact. Attendance at breakfast was sparse, most passengers staying in their cabins as the boat pitched and rolled corkscrew fashion. Carrying food to the table was challenging, kind of launched myself from one hand hold to the next across the open spaces. I tried to catch up on a bit of sleep and it was somewhat like trying to sleep on a plane, nod off and suddenly the bottom drops out as the ship fell into a trough, hang on as we roll steeply, clutch the sides of the bed anxiously. Peer out of the porthole but can’t see anything due to waves crashing up against the side.
Sanity resumed slowly and we judged our appearance on the sun deck perfectly, the rocking lessened, the sun warmed, wine was served and all is right with the world again.
Santander is ninety minutes away, tapas are discussed, Rioja anticipated, I’ll let you know.


A week in England

A week in England, often referred to as “the Auld Country”, watching the Games on tv, going to the occasional pub, tea in the garden and spending an inordinate amount of time at Sainsbury’s (supermarket). The pace of life in the English countryside is well documented as slower than most places and after a week within it I can attest. Breakfast, for instance, can take over an hour, lunch two hours, tea, another hour, with dinner lasting from six until after nine when the pre prandials are included. The spaces in between are taken up with short trips to the newspaper shop, the market for essentials, beer, wine, bread, and the next meal. There are of course events throughout the day that remind one of the almost bucolic ideal, horses and riders clip clop past the cottage, the milk truck passes by to pick up from the nearby dairy farm, a neighbour burns garden waste (illegally) sending clouds of sweet smelling wood smoke all around the village, youths play soccer on the green, ladies wait for the weekly bus, chatting quietly, a local gent’ comes and mows the lawn, oh that smell, and of course it rains and drizzles with the famous sunny intervals. It is incredibly, unbelievably greeeeeen, so different from the Coast where we have maybe four to six weeks of greenness in the Spring, and that’s it, no more green until next year, get over it. They definitely have seasons here, sometimes two or three in a single day. Washed clothes, dried on the washing line outside, are snatched before the next cloudburst, towels come out to dry the garden furniture before you sit down, there are discussions about whether it is sunnier in the front garden or the back one, the songbirds sing in the trees and an almost tame red breasted Robin begs for dried worms.
You can’t beat it really.
I would like to think that the impertinent comments made by that national embarrassment, Mitt Romney, before the Olympics started galvanized the country into a kind of “well, we’ll show him” frame of mind, but, well, something did. It was a miracle. The whole country went into a frenzy of competence, success, good humour, friendliness and winning. You know what ? on a commuter train into London a complete stranger started talking to us ! unheard of. Not only that but while dithering over the tube (subway) map someone came up and offered to help. The stiff upper lip had cracked a big grin. The infamous media went berserk with tales of the national mood. The Opening and Closing Ceremonies seem to have thrown the rest of the world into a state of some bemusement. I actually missed the opener, I was in the air, but the closure was, I think, an example of pure unadulterated kitsch, proof perhaps that in the UK the arts still rule and that the music still rocks on. I watched it all the way through until midnight and still couldn’t go to bed, I wanted more and the brilliant BBC coverage didn’t let me down. Here is a quote from today’s newspaper “Always look on the Bright Side of Life sums up the British weltanschauung, old Eric probably confused a big chunk of the world the other night “, well quite ! I know everyone has seen the events so not much point in going into any detail here, I would like to comment tho on the fact that the Brits did very well in events that involved sitting down, horse riding, rowing, cycling, sailing etc. Not too take credit away from the world’s cutest boxer, Nicola Adams, or any of the other non sitting down competitors.
Jolly good.
Off again now…… unexpected trip to London and a very quick cab ride from the train station to the centre, Piccadilly, then back again. Sorry but I can’t get blasé about seeing those famous sites, Houses of Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St Martins in the Fields, Trafalgar Square, #10, the Cenotaph and Hatchards book store. I mean, really, I used to live there, time to get used to it surely, but no, it’s as exciting as bursting out of the Waldo tunnel to see the Bay, San Francisco, Alcatraz and the G G Bridge. I think it’s ok to be enthusiastic. Talking of which, anyone who knows me at all knows of my penchant for boats and here I am, on deck number nine, in the sunshine, on a boat bound for Santander in Northern Spain, accompanied by my sister.
This could be interesting……..

The robin.

A few days in the sun.

Pisa was better than I imagined, sure, it was bursting at the seams with tourists, but there was a certain underlying levity all around. There is this huge tower dominating the historical center and at the top it is twelve feet off, it’s like a joke passed down from the twelfth century. Many many people taking antic photos, you know, where one pretends to be holding up the tower, yes we indulged also, and I took a very good one of a solo Brazilian woman. Our hotel was immediately outside the Piazza Duomo, so the walk was all of a minute and I enjoyed the early morning walk at dawn.
An early departure from the train station landed us at Monterossa al Mare on the coast, the town being one of the five in the area known as Cinque Terre. Yet another UNESCO World Heritage site. How to do it justice ? It was small, very small, an amble from the sea front to the back of the town took all of five minutes, and from side to side, even less. The main street, Via Roma, lined with tempting restaurants, shady bars and clothes shops for those inclined. Narrow alleys streamed off into the shade from side to side with the usual shutters and washing hung out to dry. Immediately behind the beach the railway line bursts out of a tunnel in the cliff before disappearing again two hundred yards later into another tunnel in the opposite cliff. Funnily enough it wasn’t the least bit disruptive, in fact watching the high speed Eurostar trains streak through for all of fifteen seconds was quite stimulating ! Even sitting outside in a bar, beer in hand, watching a train go by five feet away wasn’t in the least an irritation. The beach was the focal point of the town during the day, packed with holidaying Italians, the water was warm, the beach cafe was more than adequate. Small children splashed, moms and dads looked on proudly, teenagers played ball, grandparents sat and enjoyed the sun, it was all very charming. There was opera on a stage set into the cliffs by the quay, there was techno music outside the backpackers bar on the main street. The food was flavorful and plentiful catering to the tourists who were all, fortunately, Italian. Wine was good too, half a carafe of house red cost less than a bottle of water.
A Limoncella is an excellent night cap.
Unless you pay very very close attention to news events you may not know that in October 2011 the whole region suffered catastrophic floods. In Monterossa the hillside in back of town slid all the way down Via Roma, ripping out the roadway and burying the whole town in ten or more feet of mud and debris. Lives were lost. People were stranded for days with no power and little or no food or water. The first relief teams to arrive, by sea, forgot to bring shovels. Outside every business there is a picture of what that premises looked like on the morning after the overnight flood. A miracle it is to see what has been accomplished since then, the aftermath is barely evident, the road surface of the main thoroughfare is made of wooden planks. We asked a restauranteur how business was looking, ” well its August the Second and we are still here” he replied, looking a bit exhausted. I think that probably goes for the rest of the populace, they must have worked furiously for months to prepare the town for the holiday season. Well done them and if you have a chance, pay them a visit, I’m sure they would appreciate it.
Too soon after two nights it was time to move on again, to Lucca. The train journey had its unexpected events, like an hour detour on a bus through the Tuscan hills, studiously avoiding the direct route on the AutoStrade. Why? Never did find out. Lucca. Another of those medieval Tuscan towns, like Florence and Sienna, it has an intact wall around the old town left over from the eleventh/twelfth centuries and within it is a historical marvel. High clock towers, complete with clock, ancient villas of the merchants, fantastic churches and cathedrals, bell towers, dark alleys, illuminated arches, vast piazzas and best of all the amphitheater, now residential, but still just about circular. Much walking, much aching feet, much putting on of the sun screen, much collapsing in bars for another aqua or lemon soda.
Back to Pisa and the airport I am now rocking and bumping my way back over the Alps to London. I wonder if they have recovered from Andy’s gold in the tennis or Moe in the ten thousand meters, plus Ennis, Hoy and the others who we tried to learn about watching Italian tv coverage of the Olympics. We shall see.
Thanks Italy.


Trains in supermarkets !

Up early in Sorrento to make the appointment at Rome Airport, tea and a croissant at the bar round the corner from the B and B, watching the town come to life. The alleys were wet, washed down in the night, also I suppose to keep the dust down. Checked in with the lovely Giovanni on the reception desk but bad news “Mr Tim, the trains are on strike”. Oh gvfzxssx responded Mr Tim. But not to worry, you can catch the ferry. Ok, fine. Another breakfast and off down the elevator to the beach and the short walk to the port. Hang around in the heat, fainting, waiting, then join the pack and make a rush down the quay, no shade, to the ferry for Naples. The Bay (of Naples) opened magnificently before us as we steamed along, Vesuvius looming mysteriously over the City, but all around the periphery of the Bay there were mountains, shrouded in the heat haze at even ten thirty in the morning.
Get the number one tram from the port to the train station I was told, good idea but a) where do I get a ticket ? and b) where do I get off ? Good questions in the ninety degree heat with my e-vest on and my duffle bag on my back. Got it figured out and arrived, pleased not being ripped off by a taxi driver, at the main railway station in Napoli. Easy ride at great speed up to Rome then the shuttle out to the airport. At the staton I had a few minutes before the flight arrived so took the opportunity to check on the trains to Pisa. All would be well if we got the 2.58 from the airport connecting with the 3.50 to Pisa from the Ostiense train station, not the main Rome station, Termini. J’s flight was on time. Out she came and we flew up the road to the ticket office, to see the train pulling out, sigh. Instant decision making, buy the ticket, get cab to Ostiense, catch train, no problem. Ah, but. No escalator back down to the Arrivals area, spotted an elevator, got in, down it went, then what, right or left ? We chose wisely and found a rather sultry young person who seemed to understand our predicament, loaded the bags and screeched out into the traffic. Seat belts on and tightened. Do we all understand tailgating ? Roaring down the AutoStrade at over 90, inches from the rear bumper of a Mercedes until he pulled over, passing buses on our left, weaving in and out, cutting people off brilliantly, she was taking the whole thing very seriously. Then into the Ostiense neighbourhood it became somewhat obvious that her GPS was not showing the exact position of the train station. We swooped around a large imposing glass and concrete building and she dropped us at the front door. Grabbed bags, paid (don’t ask) dashed through the door with eight minutes to go. Wait. What. We are in a bleeping supermarket and not only that, we can’t get out. Aaagh.
Exhausted yet ? Spotted an info desk, ran over and scusi, train station? The young lady’s expression was priceless ” what are these mad tourists doing looking for a train station in here, this is a supermarket!” go out the door ,turn right, go two hundred yards, there is the train station. Gratsi. Run, dash, gasp, pant, ah, train station, spot elevator, descend, long spooky tunnel, more running, then a choice of fourteen platforms. Clock ticking. Check departure times, it’s gotta be platform four. Raced up stairs, looks right, and promptly fell about in a heap, laughing, we were looking for trains in a Supermarket !!
Now pounding North through pleasant countryside, the train has compartments and ours is very lively, probably talking politics, much invective and gesticulations, of course no idea what they are talking about but that seems likely, it’s Italy.
Talking of which, if you live on the left side of the pond you would think that this country is on the verge of collapse and people are running amok in the streets. Far from it, everyone is having a great time, cheaply. Cheap food, cheap wine, cheap holidays. A family of four could save eight Euros by walking down to the beach in Sorrento and then back up again instead of taking the elevator. Meals of three courses instead of four or five. Lots of pizza eating. Ice cream parlours doing busy trade in one Euro cones instead of five or ten Euro sundaes. Small cars abound. There is a very obvious absence of tablet computers, crappy old laptops, yes, but shiny iPads, no.
Looking forward to Pisa, see the Tower and maybe take foolish photos, find a decent bar, have dinner then off to Cinque Terre in the morning. It’s been a bit of a crazy day.

Beach furniture in Sorrento.

Sorrento Beach

There it is.

Note artist in foreground at 6.30am.