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!

Yellow bus

This was my third visit to Lisbon, but I can only now say that I've really seen the city. My previous visits had been brief and, like many tourists on short visits, I stuck mostly to the Baixa and the two neighbouring hills, one on each side.

But this time I decided to stay three full days and nights to give myself time to explore the city properly.  I'm not much of a museum buff, but I love walking around getting the feel of a city.  So the logical extension was to take a guided tour.  Actually, I took three.

Yellow Bus
Several companies offer tours of the city; I chose the Yellow Bus as their package includes several different tours as well as unlimited access to the city's public bus and tram network.  Also included is the Santa Justa lift and two funicular lines.  The deal I took was €25 for 48 hours unlimited access to the various services; this means you can combine the tours as you please, hopping on and off when it suits you.

The option I took was the "Lisbon Premium 4-in-1 Tour" which covers the obligatory "Hills Tour" in an electric tram as well as the open-top tours of the city, historic and modern.

I now have a better impression of what Lisbon is: a beautiful, cosmopolitan, vibrant, varied, warm, welcoming, historic and modern city.

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Baixa to Bairro Alto

So you're in the Baixa and you want to get to the Bairro Alto, high up on the hill?  You have a couple of options: walk and sweat as you climb the hill that puts Montmartre in the shade; fight your way on to a packed tram.

Or you could take the metro station route.  Yes, the station, not the actual train.  The main entrance to Baixa-Chiado station is on the centre-city plain, but the "back door" is way up on Largo do Chiado, reached by a series of escalators.

No sweat.


I'm not sure I'd ever be able to learn Portuguese.

The vocabulary is close to Spanish and a bit further removed from French – the two foreign languages I know, though to differing degrees – so I can work some things out when I read them.  But the sounds are very difficult.

I asked the hotel reception where a particular establishment was and was told "Shta-ou-ra-dor-esh." Could you spell that please? Restauradores.

I give up.

Sunday 18 August 2013

Public hospital in Spain

I recently had the misfortune to be sick during my holiday in Spain. It seemed like a standard gastro infection, but when the symptoms made no sign of clearing after a visit to a doctor and several days of medication, I ended up going to the emergency department of the Hospital del Henares in Coslada, in the suburbs of Madrid.

I was seen by triage nurses very quickly and had blood samples and x-rays taken within about an hour of arrival.  When the doctors examined me they decided to keep me overnight for observation.  They eventually kept me a second night and released me on Friday afternoon.  No need for gory details.

The hospital is bright, clean and modern.  Built in 2007, it has its own metro station on the specially-extended eastern portion of Line 7.  The staff are all very pleasant and efficient and some made a special effort to speak English with me as my medical vocabulary is not very good in Spanish.  And they provide a high quality – free! – wifi service.

As I was leaving I asked "where do I pay?" I was told there was no payment required; this is a public hospital, not a profit-making business.

Long may it last!  But alas it won't.  As in many countries, the very notion of public service is being questioned.  The public health system in Spain is going to be privatised so that some already rich companies can make a profit out of sick people.

It won't change without a fight, however.  All over the hospital there are hand-made signs saying things like "Health is a right"; "Defend our public hospital, don't sell it"; "Profit-making health companies, keep out!"  I wish them the best in the struggle.

Public health systems are for curing people, not for making a profit.  It should stay that way.

Wednesday 14 August 2013

Nothing to report

Why the recent lack of activity?  Well, two reasons:

1. nothing exciting happening (apart from a visit to a very nice spa yesterday);
2. I've been sick for a few days (which mostly explains 1 above).

No details here.

Normal reporting will resume shortly.

Stay tuned!

Saturday 10 August 2013

Christmas in August

Religious Muslims go through a rough time during the month of Ramadan. They do not eat or drink – not even water – between sunrise and sunset. Exceptions are allowed for the elderly, the very young, sick people and pregnant women. As the Islamic calendar is lunar, Ramadan is a moveable feast; it gets earlier by a few days every year. This means it's going to be even more difficult next year as the days will be longer.

When the long month of fasting is over, the celebrations of Eid al-Fitr – the end of the fast – begin. The exact timing depends on the local clerical authorities' observations of the new crescent moon, so it does not necessarily fall on the same day in every country.  This year, for example, it fell on 8 August in France, but the next day in Morocco.

Eid al-Fitr is a big family occasion and everyone dresses in their very best.  As I left Tangier on Friday morning, seeing excited children running around in their new clothes, adults embracing each other, everyone smiling, it really did look like Christmas Day.

Except it was 36°C.

A tale of two dinners

Part 1 – Down market

My first ever meal in Africa! Just outside the Medina of Tangier, a small cheap-and-cheerful terrace restaurant with lots of locals and a few tourists including yours truly. I was put at a table with someone I didn't know as there wasn't room for the luxury of a whole table just for me. The service was amateur, even sloppy: I had to ask several times for a glass to go with the bottle of water; then my neighbour dragged one of the waiters over and said something in Arabic, pointing at me, and a moment later the waiter brought me a proper fork to replace the dessert-sized one he had originally given me.

The meal consisted of a huge tomato and onion salad, followed by a plate of mixed grilled fish (I'm not good at fish names), a side dish of fried potatoes and a small dish of peppers. My neighbour understood from my demeanour that something wasn't right with the fries – they were cold – and barked at the waiter who immediately ran over with a plate of fresh, piping hot fries and an apology (I presume). 

The bill came to 60 dirhams (let's call it €6).

Part 2 – Up market

While out and about in the "new" town the next day, I spotted a fairly classy joint where I had a couple of G&Ts – yes, during Ramadan – to take the edge off the thirst. I liked the place so I decided to go back there for dinner that evening.

The service was impeccable! Staff dressed in traditional costume, a wine waiter to advise me on the best option for each dish, live traditional music (very discreet). The food was acceptable, but nothing special, and it cost several times what I had paid for the previous night's fare.


I've decided which one I'll go back to on my next trip to Tangier.

First mistake in Morocco

I arrived in Tangier on the ferry from Tarifa on Wednesday afternoon, managed to get past the hordes of taxi drivers and "guides" and walked to the Medina. I stopped for a cold drink in a café and asked the waiter if he knew the way to my B&B. "Of course, I'll take you there!" Well, if you could just point me in the right direction... "No, I'll take you, it's not far.  That's three €3, please"  Eh, for a Coca-Cola, in Morocco? "Two for the drink, one for taking you to to your destination."

He took me, all right.  To the corner, 10 metres away, then said "go up that hill, past the Intercontinental hotel, turn left and down the alley. It's not far."


Wednesday 7 August 2013

Onwards and upwards

An administrative hitch in Paris has given me a serious headache for the last three days. I had to cancel part of my trip (Tangier and Cadiz) and work out how to get back to Madrid five days earlier than planned.  However, the problem has now been sorted – with the help of a very good friend in Paris – and I'm now able to salvage some of the remainder of the Andalucía-Morocco trip.

I'm going to Tangier this afternoon for two days (instead of the three I'd planned) and Cadiz will have to wait at least another year to welcome me.

Apart from the stress of dealing with problems long distance, and losing part of my holiday, this episode has cost me two lost hotel booking fees, an extended stay in an expensive hotel, and about €40 in penalties for changing train tickets.

Fail not for sorrow, falter not for sin,
But onward, upward, till the goal ye win.

Tuesday 6 August 2013

More British than the British?

In primary school history lessons we were often told that the Viking and Norman invaders of Ireland integrated well with the native population – after the raping and pillaging abated – and became, over time, "more Irish than the Irish themselves."

In a variation on the principle, Gibraltarians are very keen to show you just how British they are, and not Spanish at all.  From "Welcome to Gibraltar" on, all the sign posts are in English only.  Take a walk down the main street and you'll see Marks & Spencer, WH Smith, Mothercare and many other famous British retail establishments.  There are more joints offering "English Fish & Chips" than you can shake a stick at; almost every watering-hole is a "genuine" pub; red phone boxes are all over the place (who uses phone boxes these days?); and the populace is protected by British-style bobbies.

A little bit of England in the Med?  Apparently so.  But listen to them speak and not all Gibraltarians are convincingly true blue.

The first one I encountered was the bus driver on the route from the border crossing.  He didn't seem to understand when I asked in English if he was going to the city centre.  But when I said "al centro?" he replied "".

I ordered my fish and chips and pint of San Miguel in English.  The two people behind the counter – one seemed to be the boss – were talking Spanish to each other and to other clients, and when she served me, the waitress said "enjoy them."  Odd!

Sunday 4 August 2013

Faded glory

Algeciras port,
through the palms of Hotel Reina Cristina
Lonely Planet describes Algeciras thus:

... an industrial town, a big fishing port and drug-smuggling centre ... unattractive and polluted.

Then, with faint praise, they damn the place altogether: "it's not without interest."

How could you resist that?

The description is a tad harsh.  While the area around the port is manky and filled with tacky ticket offices for the ferries to Morocco, the town itself is worth a stroll up the hill.  Almost no tourists venture that far away from the port, so it's great for tourists who like to avoid other tourists – like me.

Plaza Alta
I had insider info from a Paris-based Anglo-Spanish friend.  During our many discussions about our various trips to Spain he had often mentioned that Algeciras was worth a stop-over, so I decided I'd give it a try this time.  When I told him I was planning to book the Hotel Reina Cristina he told me that he always stays there.  Another inspired choice!  He also gave me a detailed review of the tried-and-trusted cafés and bars in the town.  Unfortunately, I visited on a Sunday afternoon when most were closed.  I found an open café just off the rather pleasant Plaza Alta and had a caña and some boquerones en vinagre there.  Rather disturbingly, however, it's on a street named after the founder of the Spanish fascist party, the Falange – either him or his father who was a military dictator in the 1920s.  It's hard to choose which is more distasteful.

I'd be more charitable than Lonely Planet in my description of the town.  For me, it's not so much dirty – excluding the port area – as worn.  The old town reminded me a little of a place I visited last year near Porto, Matosinhos.  It's a working class suburb of the city, close to the industrial port, with small houses in narrow streets, and where many restaurants cook their fish on barbecues on the pavement outside the front door.  Very much down to earth, as is Algeciras, though the latter is many times bigger.

My hotel is really nice.  It's on a hill slightly removed from the town and the views of the industrial port are discreetly broken by tall palm trees in hotel's expansive gardens.  There is a large terrace divided in two; one part for drinks and snacks, the other for more formal lunch or dinner.  There is a separate terrace by the outdoor pool where you can also take drinks.

Hotel Reina Cristina,
The whole place has an air of faded glory, a reflection of the town, perhaps.  The rooms remind me a little of the Gresham in Dublin before the modernisation a few years ago (I suppose not many Dubliners have stayed in the Gresham, but I did while on a business trip around 2000/1).  It's very big – but only three storeys tall – with the rooms spread out in several legs extending from the core of the building.  When I had a problem with the air conditioning in my room, they changed me to a bigger and better room with a private balcony.

Conclusion on Algeciras: pretty it ain't, but it is worth a visit.


overlooking the gorge of the Guadalevín river
Ronda certainly lives up to its reputation as a beautiful town.  It is spectacularly situated – the name means something like "surrounded" – on a plateau between two mountain ranges, the Sierra de las Nieves and the Sierra de Grazalema. The town in split in two by a 100-metre gorge, at the bottom of which flows the Guadalevín river

Iglesia del Socorro
To be honest, Ronda was an after-thought for me.  When I was planning the Málaga-Algeciras leg by train I discovered you have to change at Ronda.  So I decided to do it in two steps: breakfast in Málaga before a morning train to Ronda.  There, lunch and lazy afternoon before taking an evening train to Algeciras. Good decision!

So the next time you're thinking of a holiday on the Costa del Sol, consider skipping the likes of Torremolinos or Marbella and go to Málaga. From there, Ronda is well worth a day trip (about 1 hour 45 by train).

You won't regret it!

Friday 2 August 2013

My first impressions of Malaga...

... were wrong!

I arrived, hot and bothered, in the late afternoon, expecting to drop my stuff and pop down to the beach for a quick dip.  Then I discovered my hotel is a bit on the shabby side, with the bathroom down the hall, and a 25-minute walk from the nearest beach. And not a pleasant walk at that, considering you have to cross several busy roads to get there.

However, once I got the chance to wander around in the evening, I discovered a charming city of narrow streets and small squares, humming with a lively atmosphere.  After a seafood dinner – I treated myself to compensate for the down-market hotel – I went for my usual coffee-and-brandy and found myself in a small music bar.  Although flamenco is not my favourite style of music I could appreciate the fine performances of the guitarist and two singers.  I stayed for a second round.

Most visitors to the Costa del Sol seem to ignore Malaga.  Their loss!


On my last day in Córdoba I had two new experiences: I entered a synagogue and a mosque, both for the first time in my life. However, neither serves its original function today; the synagogue is a historical vestige of the once-thriving Jewish community in Andalusia; and the mosque is now part of the Catholic cathedral.

I remember another double-first a long time ago, also related to Judaism.  On my first day in my first job – at Irish Life Assurance – I was introduced for the first time in my life to a Jew, and also to my first Protestant. I was 19 years old.  Imagine, throughout my childhood I had never even met a Protestant.  That's how mono-cultural my environment was.  I probably didn't meet a Muslim until I moved to France 10 years later.

That I should have this latest double-first in Córdoba is fitting; in the golden era of Islamic Andalusia,  the city was a centre of scientific and cultural excellence where Muslims, Jews and Christians associated freely.  It wasn't until the Reconquista that the Jews were expelled from Spain along with the Muslims.

You've seen one cathedral, you've seen them all?

Not until you've seen the Mezquita in Córdoba, you haven't!

Guide books try to describe the beauty of this mosque-turned-cathedral, but even with high-quality photos they can't do justice to the place. And I'm not going to try. It's truly a spectacle that you have to see to appreciate.

Mezquita, Córdoba
I almost didn't bother going inside as I'm all churched out after the other fabulous examples I've seen, though I had admired the bell tower – built around the minaret – and extensive perimeter wall and visited the gardens.

But on my last morning in the city I had three hours to kill before my train, so I popped in as it was just a few minutes' walk from my hotel.  Boy, am I glad I did!  It's simply breath-taking!

Originally the site of a Visigoth Christian church, the Islamic invaders preserved elements from the original and constructed a beautiful mosque in what became the biggest and most sophisticated city in Europe. When the Catholic Monarchs recaptured Andalusia they converted the mosque into a church.

Go there!

Buddy, can you spare a café solo?

The café – called El Clandestino – next door to my hotel in Córdoba provides a very interesting social service called "café pendiente" (pending, or unpaid, coffee) where you can pay for a coffee that some unknown person who can't afford one will drink at some time in the future. In other words, you pay for a coffee that you don't take, they chalk it up on a board, and the next needy person who asks for one doesn't have to pay, and the café strikes one off the "pending" list.

I like the idea!  Could we "rich" Parisians, Dubliners or whatever envisage a similar system?

But then again, I can't shake off this niggling doubt: is my modest contribution really passed on to the person who needs it? The people in the café seemed genuine, but I only met them over two evenings.

What do you think?

Thursday 1 August 2013

There are tapas, and then there are tapas!

Every café and bar in Spain has a selection of tapas, in varying styles and sometimes doubtful quality. In San Sebastian, Zaragoza and Madrid I found some very nice tapas (or pinchos/pintxos), but at prices higher than I'd remembered from previous visits.

In Córdoba, on the other hand, I found several places where tapas were free with every drink. It won't come as a surprise that these free tapas were pretty small and not exactly top notch, but they were tasty all the same.

My prize for best tapas in town goes to Bodegas Mezquita. Although it's right beside the Mezquita – the biggest tourist attraction in town – it's not just a tourist trap. The food is very good and the prices quite reasonable. I actually went there twice; the first time by chance, the second by choice.

On my second visit, I had:
  • croquetas caseras de rabo de toro (home-made oxtail croquettes) with a glass of fino (dry white sherry);
  • ensalada de naranja con ventresca de atún y vinagreta de frutos secos (orange salad with tuna, and a nut vinaigrette) with a glass of Algarabia (young, fruity white);
  • cordero sefardí a la miel con frutos secos y pasas (Sephardic honey lamb with nuts and couscous) with a glass (well, two, actually) of Omeyas Roble (deep, fruity red).
All delicious!