Sunday, 15 September 2013


Paris to Spain-Morocco-Portugal
July-September 2013
According to Google Maps, the overall point-to-point distance I covered in my eight-week trip from Paris to Spain, Morocco and Portugal is 5 175 kilometres.

All of that was by train except Algeciras-Tarifa (by bus), Tarifa-Tangier-Tarifa (by boat) and Tarifa-Cadiz (by bus).

That's as the crow flies, so the actual distance covered must be considerably more.

No wonder I'm exhausted!

Monday, 9 September 2013

In Barcelona, 1 = 3 (or 2, depending)

The last leg of my trip is to Barcelona for three days, whence to Paris by TGV.

The instructions for finding my hostal – which is not a hostel, but a small hotel occupying one or two floors in a larger building – gave the address and said "first floor".  Good news, as I have two suitcases.

The first problem was that there is no sign on the street to show the name of the establishment.  A helpful person leaving the building confirmed I was in the right place.  Next I hauled my two cases up the stairs to the first floor, dripping sweat all the way.  Except the first floor up is called entresol not "first floor".  So I huffed and puffed up to the next level, which is called principal.  The next one up – that's street level plus three – is the primera planta or "first floor".

Of course, this is not consistent; the next place I went to had no principal, so the first floor was only on the second floor, not the third floor.  Are you following?

Monday, 2 September 2013

"White elephant"

It seems some of my readers who are not native English speakers are not familiar with the expression I used in the post about the Cidade da Cultura in Santiago de Compostela.

A "white elephant" is a prestigious, but unsuccessful, building project whose cost – of construction and maintenance – is out of proportion to its usefulness and which ends up being a burden on public finances.

What colour are the elephants in Spain?


And there's a huge one just outside Santiago de Compostela: the Cidade da Cultura, city of culture.

I had noticed this strange construction on my way from the train station to my hotel when I arrived in Santiago. It's hard to miss it as it is on top of a hill, visible for quite a distance around.

Cidade da Cultura,
Santiago de Compostela
The cidade is a complex of buildings dedicated to culture: a museum, an exhibition centre, a library and archive, and a centre for "cultural innovation". And it's not specifically Galician art or culture; the exhibition I saw was about the peoples of the Orinoco.

Four other people saw it with me. That's how many other visitors I counted during the two hours I was there.  Four.  Cuatro.  Quatre.  Vier.  Ceathrar...

The staff must be bored out of their minds!  (I wondered why the receptionist accompanied me to the door of the toilets rather than just pointing the way.)

And what do the locals think of all this?  In the absence of contact with taxi drivers, I turned  to the next best source of local knowledge, a barman.  And boy, did I find one with strong opinions on the subject! "Demolish it!"  But what about the money already spent on construction?  "That’s already wasted! My taxes are now paying to maintain a useless, empty shell!"

And he has a point.  So why is it such a flop?  No one knows about it; and it's difficult to get to if you don't have a car. 

There is a public bus that goes there, Line 9 if you're interested.  The information at the bus stop says it runs every 60 minutes on average, but doesn't tell you when the next one is due.  So you don't know if you’re going to be waiting a minute or an hour!  I waited 15 minutes, then started to walk, constantly looking behind just in case.  I ended up walking the whole way, about 40 minutes.  And it's not a pleasant walk as you have to go through suburban residential/industrial areas and cross several busy roads.

So how could they make it a success?  I have a couple of modest suggestions:
  • give out tons of freebies – everyone arriving by train or bus should get one, every hotel, restaurant and bar should give them out;
  • provide a free shuttle from the town every 15 minutes.
It is a beautiful place and it would be a terrible shame to abandon it

Thursday, 29 August 2013

Not just for Pilgrims

Cathedral, Santiago de Compostela,
seen from Hotel Bonaval
Santiago de Compostela is one of the most important Christian holy sites in Europe, the burial place, according to legend, of St James the Apostle, and the destination for countless hardy pilgrims who purify their souls by walking great distances to get here.

And they really want you to know they've done it!  Apart from the ubiquitous scallop shells – the symbol of St James – dangling from backpacks, about half tourists in the town are wearing tee-shirts emblazoned with "I made it!" or some such.

But there is more to Santiago than pilgrims.  The old city is a wonder with the cathedral as its centrepiece.  Surrounding it are a maze of winding cobbled streets of stone buildings.  Those that aren't churches or convents are a nice mix of shops, hotels, restaurants, bars.  The atmosphere is lively with many outdoor music acts going on into the mild, late-summer night.

I chose a hotel just outside the old town centre.  It's another cheap-and-cheerful joint with pleasant staff who were happy to point out some restaurants that are good value for money.  They also gave me a free ticket to the Cidade da Cultura, which is an impressive new construction up on a hill, just outside the town.  I plan to visit that tomorrow.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Sunday in Vigo

The only reason Vigo is on my schedule at all is that it is on the other end of the only train line from Porto to Spain.  Incredibly, this is the only daytime train connection between the two countries, and there are only two trains per day.  The only other rail connections are two night trains to Lisbon, one from Madrid, the other from San Sebastian.

I arrived in Vigo on Sunday morning and checked in to my hotel at noon.  I spent the next hour exploring the old town.  An hour was enough.  Though it's pretty enough with its stone houses and windy, hilly streets, there is not much to get excited about.  The highlight of Sunday was the view of the bay from Burger King on the top floor of the shopping centre.  Monday wasn't much better.

Next time, I'll get a connecting train to Santiago, which is my destination today.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Afternoon tea in Belo Porto [sic]

Afternoon tea at the Majestic Café, Porto
The Majestic Café in Rua de Santa Catarina in Porto is a charming art nouveau establishment opened in the 1920s. The leather upholstery, varnished wood tables, glass, marble and brass fittings were inspired by the classic Parisian cafés of the Belle Époque.

But they borrowed the tradition of afternoon tea from their English friends.  I tried it this afternoon: mini sandwiches of smoked salmon, cucumber and cream cheese; scones with butter, cream, honey and jam; a selection of mini pastries; and tea, of course (though you can have coffee if you prefer).

Terribly civilised!