‘Liebchen – sweetness – what watch?’ ‘Ten watch.’ ‘Such watch?’

Casablanca. That sweet German couple sitting in Rick’s. Drinking farewell brandies. Speaking English. Practising for America. Flying via Lisbon, no doubt. Where we’re heading next.

By train.

Trains run to timetables. Hours and minutes are important. Clocks (and watches) are important.

Trains also, sometimes, run late.

Between Vigo and Porto ours sits in a station while the minutes die, never to return.

Eventually a train coming in the opposite direction crosses the one-track bridge.

We resume our journey.

It’s well after ten watch now. Too much after ten watch for comfort.

We’re changing trains at Porto and it looks like we won’t make it. We’re running really, really late.

It’s distracting. Before, we were landscape-watching. Glimpsing rural churches, guessing what small towns were like as we clickety-clacked past.

But now we’re feeling twitchy.

Less of the, ‘oh, look at that,’ more, ‘there must be several trains a day to Lisbon, mustn’t there?’.

This chimney is in Lisbon but typical - they're all over the place

This chimney is in Lisbon but typical – they’re all over the place

But as we whizz through yet another small station, past another red-brick chimney, another defunct ceramics factory with an elaborate façade but a roof falling in, another olive grove, another vineyard, the observant one says,

‘Did you see that station clock?’

I didn’t – but keep alert for the next one.

The landscape changes with Portugal. Small-scale, self-sufficient-sized farms give way to larger, commercial fields of crops – and a few new ceramics factories.

‘Yes!’ I hiss as I catch sight of the next clock-watch.

We’ve stepped back in time.

Over an hour ago we were anticipating ten watch, now – it’s ten watch all over again.

We’ve become younger by one hour.

And so we relax. Change at Porto. Make it to Lisbon.

Lisboa Oriente station is magnificent. There’s an Olympic-sized leap to reach the platform, but then – look up. Wow!

You can just see the glass brick lift

You can just see the glass brick lift

A soaring vaulted roof, a glass brick lift for those prepared to wait. And below the tracks, flying concrete arches, shops, a book fair – yet another, they’ve been everywhere in Galicia – and our taxi.

It was unfair to leave Lisbon till last.

Only one full day.

And we’re approaching a state of tourism stupor. Lovely. Fab. Let’s have a siesta.

Our tour company upgraded us to a 5* hotel – and it’s oh-so-soothing. Right in the heart of things, but with a welcome breezy roof terrace in this overheated city. And such perfect service it makes the world feel good.

Metro station

Metro station

We gawp at the Metro station across the road. At a nearby former theatre, now an apartment block with a swimming pool on top and a forest growing from its middle.

The former theatre

The former theatre

We discover the beautiful tessellated pavements are slippery as ice.

Scorched by the day – and the wait for a tram that never comes – we still notice a few odd things, like the grand lift that rises up amid the shops.

But the heat calls for strong measures. We sit with a cold beer gazing on the castle we never quite visit. The sum of our tourist endeavour for the night.





Dinner isn’t cheap. But it’s beautiful. Not, to be fair, my favourite meal of the trip, good though it is. Was that the hake at the beach? Or the pulpo in A Coruña? The calamari in Vigo? Or just the cheeses and hams in Pontevedra?

Peach soup with floral garnish

Peach soup with floral garnish

Octopus - as if you couldn't guess

Octopus – as if you couldn’t guess

Heaven. The blue stuff is lemon and basil sorbet

Heaven. The blue stuff is lemon and basil sorbet

Whatever. It’s a work of culinary art.

The waiter couldn’t be more sensitive to our needs – with the exception of the regional wine he selects – delicious, yes, but 14.5% alcohol.

We succumb – and sleep a little restlessly for it. Or was it the basil and lemon ice cream with the … never mind, it was all delicious.

The usual enticing buffet breakfast awaits, fruit slices galore – and today’s new treat – muesli Portuguese style, soaked in milk – plus the famous custard tartlets.

P1020799P1020796P1020794The day starts well. A relaxed walk towards our only goal – the museum of natural science. Walking beneath rustling trees which muffle the traffic.




We miss our turn.

Retracing our steps we still can’t find it.

Hot, thirsty, grumpy (that’s me) we finally seek help and a kind man directs us.


Atop the first flight of steps – check out the graffiti ;-)

I knew it would be up that hill. And probably up those steps. But there’s another set of steps beyond that. Terrific.

We’ve just passed a picture of Mother Teresa when, on reaching the first set of steps, a sad sight greets us. A young man tries to rouse a figure lying shrouded in a blanket, a pair of crutches by ‘its’ side (we can’t tell whether it’s male or female). His partner phones for an ambulance.

Modern Portuguese tile art (the 2nd set of steps)

Modern Portuguese tile art on the wall – the house above is tiled too (the 2nd set of steps)

We leave them doing what they can while the painter busy covering-up graffiti returns to his endless labours.

And finally reach the museum.

Was it worth the trouble? Not entirely. It turns out there’s none of the geology someone was seeking. There’s a separate geology museum, down such a steep hill lined with slippery marble that we abandon all geological aspirations.



Lunch makes up for it.

Not where we had lunch

Not where we had lunch

Where we had lunch

Where we had lunch

At the bottom of this staircase

At the bottom of this staircase

Beside this window

Beside this window

Under this chandelier made of ...

Under this chandelier made of …




















In a breezy, north-African style building – a former palace I’ve read – now an arty shopping gallery and haven for meat lovers.

We catch a tram – at last – back to town and buy expensive tickets for the red one that tours the city sights.

We wait. And wait. And wait. Even in the shade the heat is meltingly strong. And of course, the tram comes – full.

Not the right tram :-(

Not the right tram :-(


A cheaper evening meal of cheese and breads behind us, we sleep fitfully – a sense of failure lurking – in my mind at least.

Rising early, I peer out of our window.

Beneath the lift

Beneath the lift

‘Let’s go take the lift’ I say, spur-of-the-moment energetic.

And so before we leave stunning, entrancing Lisbon, we rise above the city. Watch the boats on the Tagus River and the planes landing at the airport, barely skimming the tops of the buildings.P1020851P1020853P1020862P1020863P1020864P1020868





And with another wonderful breakfast in our full holiday tums, we say end our first real holiday since 1997.

I could make a habit of this …

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‘Hey guys – guess what we found? AMERICA!’ (Not us – we find heavenly islands & divine food)

Vigo. Every time I read that I hear, ‘the Carpathian’ – for some reason not unconnected with Ghostbusters 2.

The train chatters through countryside dotted with elevated grain-stores. Verges starry with morning glory. It skirts the broad river to deposit us slap bang in the hustling, bustling commercial port of Vigo.

We can walk to our hotel, the notes say.

Twenty minutes later, after rolling our cases backwards and forwards trying to find the right roads, dragging them up steep hills (what’s new) a local takes pity on us and points us in the right direction.

At the top of the next (huff, puff) cobbled hill is our road. And a multi-storey car park.

What with that and the graffiti, the early morning optimism is fast wearing off.


Room without a view

The hotel’s modern, starkly decorated. Our view of concrete and air-conditioning units.
It’s OK, but has no soul.

When we opted to stay three nights our travel company was surprised. Like the guide book, they seemed to think Vigo was just a useful overnight stop en route somewhere else.


Off the coast of Vigo are the Islas Cíes – the Romans’ islands of the gods.

And down the coast is Baiona.

P1020676We think – we hope – we know what we’re doing.

Vigo turns out to be our kind of town. The architecture is fascinating, the shopping streets lively, the sailing end of the harbour beautiful – and the hospitality generous beyond sense.P1020659P1020670P1020753















Today is our Vigo day. So we do the maddest thing.

Climb another hill.

Another hill that seems to exist only to torture me with the spiralling path to its summit. The views are stunning.


Looking down on Vigo from Castro Hill



Anchors commemorating the Battle of Rande, 23 October 1702, between Anglo-Dutch & French-Spanish fleets during the War of the Spanish Succession

Anchors commemorating the Battle of Rande, 23 October 1702, between Anglo-Dutch & French-Spanish fleets during the War of the Spanish Succession















But there’s a dark side to the beauty.

Atop the hill was a prison. Here local people were executed during the civil war that secured Franco’s long fascist regime.


Here 136 men were assassinated between 1936-1942


Prison gate at the top of Castro Hill










It’s a place that makes me think, not just see. Despite the selfish couple slobbering in each other’s faces at the best scenic outlook, while families revisit the pain of their past.

Descending, evening brings cooler air.

It was a no archaeology trip and then when some appeared - it was closed! Settlement from 1st-3rd C AD reconstructed and locked for the night!

It was a no archaeology trip and then when some appeared – it was closed! Settlement from 1st-3rd C AD reconstructed and locked for the night!

Cheap wine but still with free olives nad nuts - and sweets ...

Cheap wine but still with free olives nad nuts – and sweets …








By the time we reach town we’re ready for our first wine. Sitting outside in a hipster area – they’re everywhere – sipping at a glass of cheap white, we overlook Don Bosco church.

When we set off again my legs are shaking with the strain.

The trek to a vegetarian restaurant feels a step too far, but I make it and am rewarded with a massive plate of roasted seasonal vegetables.

Next day is the British American’s choice – Baiona.


The fort/Parador is across the water there

The bus zips along the coast on a perfect summer’s Sunday. We disembark to a promenade lined with trees, sailing boats bobbing on their moorings.

In 1585 Baiona’s inhabitants repelled an attempt by Francis Drake to take the town by force. But that’s not why we’re here.

DSCN0591The ‘Pinta’ – a replica of the ship that sailed with Columbus – is our goal. And arguably the resort’s main attraction. That and the fort that’s now a Parador.

And the beach.

And the food.

We confine ourselves to the ‘Pinta’ and the food.



And only the officers could sleep under cover …


The ship is so small. In a space that feels crowded with a handful of other tourists, 26 men endured the Transatlantic voyage – twice.

Two ships returned from Columbus’ America-claiming expedition. The first to arrive was the Pinta, here in Baiona. Columbus arrived later in Lisbon.

So, here the world first heard that a big land lay across a mighty ocean. Here the first seeds of Google and Amazon, Microsoft and Starbucks were sown. Sort of.DSCN0593












Late afternoon and back in Vigo, with a wonderful day (and lunch) behind us, we tootle around the hills some more, take pictures of street art and sort-of-bonsai street-gardening. P1020647P1020665

Rub shoulders with parading evening shoppers. Drink red wine with Francis-Drake-style seagulls on the terrace of a shopping mall.

Across from the mall

Across from the mall

Wine and free eats

Wine and free ‘nibbles’ above the shopping mall


Sunday evening

We eat a tortilla sandwich in an unpretentious café across from our hotel – and its closed restaurant.

Sleep till day-three dawns to take us to the sea.



View from the landing point

View from the Islas towards the mainland


P1020695Atlantic both sides, but one sheltered and calm, the other wind blasted and wave lashed.

Francis Drake hid out around here, too, needling the locals. He got everywhere.

The day is fiercely summer.

Do we run for that clear turquoise water, to swim?

P1020701Of course not.

Hills need climbing.

Views to coo over.

Lunch to eat.

The map gives routes with distances and I’ve chosen the medium-length green one.

A local has other ideas, ‘You will only see boring, low views, you will not see the height’.

That was the general idea. Sigh.

Spot the two chicks?

Spot the two chicks?

I reach all but the final bird hide before vertigo wins. I stand watching gulls circling, realising, eventually, that I’m standing between two nests with chicks.

Many ‘ooh’ and ‘aah’ stops later, we find a restaurant tucked behind a beach. The waiters sprinting to keep up with demand.

There’s no octopus left so we order hake – merluza a la plancha. And a copa of Albariño each.

Believe me, it tasted out of this world - the picture just doesn't do it justice!

Believe me, it tasted out of this world – the picture just doesn’t do it justice!

The fish is unspeakably delicious. The chips are good. The salad is good. And the view…

Lunch and this view - ahhh

Lunch and this view – ahhh

The island’s a nature reserve, tourist numbers are restricted, we have to keep our booking on the boat back. No time, now, for a swim.

But the male of the species pops his toes in the water and pronounces it very cold.

The gentle sail back is a fitting end to the day. Our lovely female captain slides us in gently to Vigo and we slide off gently to a glass of wine and generous ‘nibbles’ that take the place of dinner.

This is the captain of your ship ...

This is the captain of your ship …

Vigo is a paradise for a foodie. A cheapskate foodie. I had the world’s best calamari in a little restaurant called ‘El Timon’ down near the front – after bouncing off the frantic, oyster-stone-slab part of town.

The wine we paid for, this tiny snack came with it for free!

The wine we paid for, this tiny snack came with it for free!


And everyone serves wonderful snacks with every drink. Even our hotel, when we finally make it back.


We’ll return, I hope.

There are some churches we missed – and some hills 

A campsite - we're seriously considering it ... beats midges in Beddgelert!

A campsite – we’re seriously considering it … beats midges in Beddgelert!

Platforms for harvesting mussels in the estuary opposite Vigo

Platforms for harvesting mussels in the estuary opposite Vigo

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Crosses, beggars and disappointments. But also cake

Pontevedra, our guide book says, is ‘compact, charming and very tourist friendly’.

A town of views and bridges, I’m expecting. Well, we see the bridges, and the view, from the train, as it pulls in to a modern, bustling town.

The station’s part of a shopping complex and we wait some time for a taxi.

Portents. Do you believe in them? The taxi’s our first that isn’t a positive experience. And as the high rise buildings, ring-roads and patches of barren city land unfold around us we’re feeling a bit, oh-oh, was this a mistake?

Parador in Pontevedra taken from roof terrace outside our room

Parador in Pontevedra taken from roof terrace outside our room

But pulling into our hotel’s forecourt the sun beats down and the traveller’s weathervane swings round to ‘phew, that’s a relief’.

Another Parador. For one night.

A grand but not enormous building it nestles below the old town, just inside the cordon sanitaire of buildings that separate it from the real world, with its bins and lorries and edginess.

View through our open window

View through our open window

Our room has a grand view but smells a tad damp. We fling open the window. Try to flush out the scent of disappointment that infected us on the way from the station.

P1020497The hotel is lit by motion-sensitive lights. They’re slow to react and I feel like an intruder as we make our way to the imposing stone staircase.



Map in hand we trudge up another hill.

Most of a day. That’s all we’ve got.

Come on legs, you can do it.P1020456

More churches. More crosses. More narrow streets and graffiti.









It’s past the middle of the day when we light upon the first church. A beauty.

The church can only be entered fromt his side, its main entrance is blocked off by iron railings

The 16th century Basílica de Santa María Mayor can normally only be entered from this side, its main entrance is blocked off by a gate and iron railings

Dark inside. The elaborately carved front is bound tight by railings.

Because of the iron railing this is as far back as I can get to see the doorway

Because of the iron railing this is as far back as I can get to see the doorway – in error Christ is depicted as being on the left hand side of God the Father







A stone-carved man in glasses keeps watch on the right, a regal young woman looks down boldly on the left.

Who is this man with glasses and a skull?

Who is this man with glasses and a skull?









Back inside, Our Lady – like our Lady of Fatima – gazes out beneath a halo of lights. An elderly woman sits at a desk and pulls out postcards for us to buy, patient as we delay her closing time.

P1020454The church feels good, a place where weddings, christenings and funerals happen. Flowers decorate the altar.

Revived, we march on. Vainly trying to find other places marked on the map.

Tired, a little dejected, we return to the hotel for lunch.

A tumult greets us. A froth of babbling bodies clasping glasses of beer and smoking.

It seems the dining room is theirs, but we can sit outside and eat.

This proves to be A Good Thing.

P1020447The garden, with its fountain, is a soothing sight for stone-weary eyes.

The plate of air dried ham and meats, the salad that turns out to be huge, the dish of empanadas – slim slices of flat pastry sandwiching tuna and pimentos – is delicious.


A dragon of an ashtray

A dragon for the smokers

A copa of wine each helps the food go down and after a rest on the stone benches outside our room, basking in the warmth of the terracotta roof tiles as well as the sun, after checking out the orange trees, we set out once more as tourists.

Orange tree in courtyard inside hotel

Orange tree in courtyard inside hotel

Lower part of the old town from the roof terrace

Lower part of the old town from the roof terrace









The town’s bigger than it seems. We wend our way up to the museum. Which is closed.

The scallop-shell-shaped pilgrim church leaves us less cold. We avoid the man selling lottery tickets and rosaries. The doorstep beggar, a woman, receives a coin – how can we leave a church without?

A strong wind arises. The sky turns grey. We hurry past shops and we stop – I stop – outside a pastelleria.


Tarta Rusa.

‘You cannot leave without trying me’ (in Spanish actually) says a label on one cake, the Tarta Rusa.

Too right!

It looks like a huge ‘Jap’ – the meringue and hazelnut cake that’s been a favourite since I was tiny.

I buy a slice from a borderline surly shopkeeper and risk his wrath by asking him to wrap it up when he serves it just in a napkin.

While I’m inside, the other half of the party receives some unwanted attention. Taking pictures in the window he sees a suspicious character approach his bag from behind and moves away.


Jesuits. Honest.

Cake carefully stowed in said duffel bag we vow to return for more cakes, ‘Jesuits’, later and set off, without much enthusiam, for the next sight on the list.

Grudging, now. That’s how I feel.

Because I’m tired.

Because I don’t feel welcome in this commercial part of town with its shops and hurrying people.

Outside the Convento de San Francisco two more beggars are setting up. One puts his leather jacket to one side and the two take up strategic positions.

We’ve already seen a woman being directed to her place by another man. It seems obvious there’s a team at work.

A gloomy day at the monastery

A gloomy day at the monastery

Feeling gloomy and despite the guide book opining that it’s, ‘best admired from the outside’ I step inside.

It’s the darkest interior so far.

And that’s when things change.

Some inanimate places seem to suck in the bad things and some the good. Some seem to exude a very human attitude – pride or shame, pity or joy – even distaste.


I believe this is a St Benedict of African origin and yes, those are electric votive lights in front of him

In the convent church I feel compassion. The walls and saints and pews and floors and even the electric candles (10 cents per glow) are just the background. This church is about acceptance not about glory.

Back at our hotel, the rain settles in. We return to the terrace, sitting under cover. The greenery is grateful – and so are we. Saved from venturing again into a town we’ve left with some relief.

Fountain in the rain

Fountain in the rain



We order a plate of Galician cheeses which comes with artisanal breads and biscuits. A bottle of red wine lasts until the night turns dark. We retire to our damp-scented room.

And eat the cake.

Which is heavenly.

Before breakfast someone suggests he might go and get a couple of ‘Jesuits’ for the journey.

But, after empanadas, ham and fruit, he recants.

We know we haven’t done Pontevedra justice, but we’re not sorry to leave.

And we are rather anxious.

Vigo is the next stop on our train journey. Of which, our guide book says, ‘although it makes a good base for trips … has few attractions of its own’.

We’re there for three nights.

Oh dear.

Let’s hope the guide book’s got us wrong, again.

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Two nights at the museum. A dream fulfilled (not flushed)*

The train station in A Coruña looks like a cathedral. Or seems to as we’re being driven towards it by our nice, helpful taxi driver.

Inside the cavernous building, two men on the track are washing a waiting train – not ours, which seems clean enough when it arrives.

All goes like clockwork and less than an hour later we’re there – Santiago de Compostela.

The guide book suggests we could walk to our hotel but we opt for our third (so far) pleasant, helpful, taxi driver’s assistance and arrive at our destination grateful and gawping.

Is this really our hotel?

Two pilgrims leaving our hotel, Hostal Dos Reis Católicos

Two pilgrims leaving our hotel, Hostal Dos Reis Católicos

Hotel seen from cathedral museum terrace

Hotel seen from cathedral museum terrace

The outside’s impressive – but the inside is almost unbelievable.

The Hostal Dos Reis Católicos, now a Parador hotel, was built in 1499 to give shelter and aid to pilgrims. The way was hard. On the long and arduous camino, pilgrims were often beset by vagabonds or fell prey to sickness.

The hotel’s own guide to its history is told through wall-mounted 79 plaques and – I’ll be honest – we fail to make it around them all, or even most of them – during our two night stay.

P1020300The building itself is arranged around four beautiful courtyards, named after the gospel Saints – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.

Gargoyles squint down at the earth, like dire warnings of the ugliness resulting from sin.

The Hostal had its own medicinal gardens and two of the courtyards now boast lush, green knot-style gardens that guests can wander around or look down on from the corridors above through a plethora of windows.

One of the Hostal’s functions during its long life was as a foundling orphanage. As plaque 35 tells us:

There was a window with a bell and revolving compartment like those in cloistered convents. A person would ring, wait to hear Ave Maria Gratia Plena and then leave the newborn.

How cold it seems to us with our modern sensitivities. But also, somehow, reassuring.
The hotel occupies one side of the square whose focus is the cathedral.

View from window on a grey day in Santiago de Compostela

View from window on a grey day in Santiago de Compostela

Just a doorway in the hotel

Just a doorway in the hotel

Leaning out of our room’s window, turning away from the second largest monastery in Spain which rises opposite us, we can see the towers of the cathedral. One is shrouded in scaffolding – but it fails to mar the experience.

Does it live up to my expectations? No. It exceeds them, but not in the way I expected.

I always hope, when visiting places that have special spiritual significance in the world, for whichever religion – or none, that I’ll feel the essence of that spirituality myself. Share in it.

Sometimes – visiting Lindisfarne, for example – I leave disappointed.

The cathedral in Santiago de Compostela is vibrant with gold, with saints, with carvings, with paintings. It oozes history and fervour and hopes and dreams.

Scaffoldiing to the side - one of the towers of the cathedral taken from the cathedral museum's upper floor quadrangle

Scaffoldiing to the side – one of the towers of the cathedral taken from the cathedral museum’s upper floor quadrangle

A corner of the catherdral taken again from the upper quadrangle

A corner of the cathedral taken again from the upper quadrangle



Amazing what you see when you look up sometimes …

In the foreground a smaller 'botafumeiro' or thurible than the huge one swung on special days

In the foreground a smaller ‘botafumeiro’ or thurible than the huge one swung on special days

Oneof the most orante organs ever surely? Look at all those cherubs!

One of the most ornate organs ever surely? Look at all those cherubs!

Altar, very golden

Altar, very golden

In the cathedral museum

In the cathedral museum

Such carving

Such carving

Trompe l'oeil painting - many of the columns are opainted like maable

Trompe l’oeil painting – many of the columns are painted like marble

So many saints and virgins

So many saints and virgins

Everywhere the scallop shell that is the emblem of the plilgrimage

Everywhere the scallop shell that is the emblem of the plilgrimage









































But, it’s not the building that works its magic on me.

Next day, we’re standing overlooking the square from the cathedral museum’s terraces when a large group of young people arrives, rucksacks on backs, staffs in hand, their pilgrimage complete . A cheer arises from them – and many of those standing around the square share their celebratory joyfulness.

Pilgrims complete their way in the middle of the Obradoiro square to which all routes in lead. The building here is opposite the cathedral and is the Rajoy palace, parliament building of Galicia

Pilgrims complete their way in the middle of the Obradoiro square to which all routes in lead. The building here is opposite the cathedral and is the Rajoy palace, parliament building of Galicia

This happens again and again in large and small clusters. Some individuals arrive and you can see on their faces just how much it means.

Not for this piglrim the minimum 120 km! He was SO thrilled to be here

800 km! Not for this pilgrim the minimum 120 km

Motivations are no doubt many and varied, but it’s clear that everyone who undertakes el camino seeks something. Some spiritual or personal goal has driven them on. No-one looks disappointed.

Along with the many genuine pilgrims there are plenty of tourists – like us – who haven’t walked the camino. But it feels as if everyone is here for more than just the buildings – or the souvenirs.

Busker playing traditional Galician bagpipes

Busker playing traditional Galician bagpipes

The town seems not to have wearied of its nature as a destination. It doesn’t exude the cynicism so common to major tourist destinations. Local people don’t seem to have that blasé, seen it all indifference.

The cathedral, unlike some of our beautiful British cathedrals (shame on you Ely) doesn’t charge the hordes for admittance.

Prices are not much higher than those we found in A Coruña.

It’s a place with a heart and soul, despite the regular influx of visitors.

Pictures don’t do the place justice. Or at least, mine certainly don’t. I’ve mixed in a few taken by my fellow traveller’s bigger and better contraption to help improve the offering.

And it was a great disappointment to me to discover that my favourite visit, to a monastery, left me with even poorer pictures than usual of a moving and wonderful place.

But that’s also a lesson.

I can still feel its sanctity. And that is, after all, what matters.

Even to a blogger.

Church below our hotel - a fancy facade showing deadly sins fronts the square view while the plain bit is left behind. It's a meeting place now for Alcoholics Anonymous

Church below our hotel – a fancy facade showing deadly sins fronts the square view while the plain bit is left behind. It’s a meeting place now for Alcoholics Anonymous

Second largest monastery in Spain?

Second largest monastery in Spain?










But it’s not all about churches and buildings and pilgrims and shops and history. As you might expect, we also eat while we’re here. The food is wonderful and so is the wine – more local, tasty, red and white, drunk in some amazing settings.

Two glasses of Mencia as night falls in one of the hotel's cloisters

Two glasses of Mencia as night falls in one of the hotel’s cloisters

We find a beautiful, tranquil bar in a leafy garden behind a cobbled street, drink a beer to the sound of a fountain, amid sculptures and magnolia trees.

I buy a tiny silver cross to add to my charm bracelet and am bought a gorgeous silver and jet necklace – this is my official birthday trip, after all. Postponed from last December. And I’m being spoilt, again.

The cathedral taken through a window onto oneof the inner courtyards (our room is over the opposite side)

The cathedral taken through a window onto on eof the inner courtyards (our room is over the opposite side)



I’ll leave Santiago de Compostela, Saint James’ field of stars – and dreams – just there.

My dream has come true. And I would gladly return. In fact, I have a notion to walk the other route, from Portugal. Over many, many days, in manageable chunks. We’ll see.

Meanwhile, after two nights in the museum, with much left unaccomplished, we depart on another train, for one night in another Parador, in Pontevedra.

How can it live up to this?

Well, it can’t – but a monastery there will go straight to both our hearts – and one cake … well, more of that in the next instalment of our own little, touristic, camino.


*As per the announcement in the lavatory in our train from Liverpool to London about what not to flush, see From Sidney to the Tower of Hercules

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El mundo puede esperar? Not today – pulpo and ‘vieira’ beckon …

At seven in the morning the sea looks cold (it is – it’s the Atlantic) but already the pavements below our hotel room bustle with purposeful walkers, exercising before work.

Along the marble-lined corridor a ‘do not disturb’ sign swings from a door handle. ‘El mundo puede esperar’ it reads.

The world can wait?

Love it.

The ‘alternative’ signs and announcements that began on yesterday’s trains continue.

After our wonderful breakfast (we give the cava on offer a miss) it’s time to head uphill.

I‘ve no idea how far it is to the Tower of Hercules – the Roman lighthouse – but we set out at an optimistic pace, having looked at a map, confident it’s within my scope.

The sun seems benign and the early morning tide is swooshing ashore with a welcoming freshness. All bodes well for a walk.

By the time we reach the top of the hill – that leads to another hill – that leads to the lighthouse – the god of sun has settled into his day’s work. It’s warm. Correction – hot.


The Tower of Hercules from the top of the first hill

A sandy cove below us looks enticing. But the Herculean lighthouse towers over us like a disciplinarian teacher.

You will walk all the way.

You will not divert to the beach.

You have come to see me, Farum Brigantium, not to paddle.

March on!

We sit on a bench for a while, casting lascivious glances at the clear water and pale sand. Then shuffle off to our second hill.

It’s pretty steep for one used to a flat beach. We take it slowly, stopping for frequent scenically inspired oohs and ahhs.

The footpath winds around the hill, taking us with it. Signage is minimal – and confusing. Do we go around? Do we go up? Do we go back to the bottom and start again?


The compass rose representing the different Celtic peoples and a view out to – well, you never know, the end of the earth?

Of course we don’t go back. Of course we go around. Of course the path doesn’t actually lead to the Tower. But we reach a viewpoint and make our eyes ache trying to see the end of the earth.

Is that Finisterre – Finis Terrae – out there in the ocean’s haze?

Probably not – but it’s exciting, knowing that one day, long, long ago, the place where we’re standing was not far from the limit of the known terrestrial world.


That stuff on the hillside is sculpture. There’s a lot of it about

The unofficial path up to the tower is steep and slippery, but at last we stand beneath an edifice of stone, 55 metres high, that is the only functioning Roman lighthouse in the world. At least in part.

Built in the first century AD, restoration in the eighteenth century added 21 metres to its height.

We can’t confirm it works. It’s frowningly sunny. And there’s no way I’m repeating this journey after dark.


It’s tall. The top bits were added

It’s an impressive sight. But I’m pretty wiped out by the brisk walk up the first hill and our spiral round the second – so we reject the chance to (pay to) climb the stairs.

But as we set off down, I spot a small building, ignored by visitors. A kind of solid, lighthouse-keeper’s garden shed.


This is where the Roman engraved stone is

Nosy, we peer through a window round the back – and lo! Within lies a real Roman stone with an inscription.


Trust me, this says: MARTI / AUG[USTO] SACR[UM] / C[AIUS] SEVIUS / LUPUS / ARCHITECTUS /AEMINIENSIS / LUSITANUS EX VO[TO] which translates as, ‘Consecrated to Mars Augusto. Caio Sevio Lupo, architect of Aeminium Lusitano in fulfilment of a vow’




The archaeologist is happy. I am happy. I was always (shhh don’t tell) rather a fan of Roman. In fact I even unearthed a bit of mosaic while volunteer-digging one weekend in the city of London, many moons ago.

On the trip back down I do just that – the ground is ball-bearing-slippery with sand and a jolt has me anxious I’ve done some damage. But we sit a while and ogle the sandy cove once more. And all is well.

We’ve earned our reward.

Lunch is the big meal of the day here and the town is famous for its dish of pulpo – octopus – and potato. We head for the top recommended place and it’s heaving with locals.

Wait? Or do some more walking? Well, why not. I may be weary but still have enough energy left to appreciate architecture – and graffiti.P1020191




Old building knocked down – these are seen everywhere – old beams to be used in new build presumably


Traditional windowed balconies but … just when we thought there was nothing like this in town :-(














The famous windowed balconies are everywhere – as are the convents and churches and civic buildings.

But A Coruña’s marina gets only a cursory glance of admiration as we turn around and, footsore, retrace our steps.

Lots of Galician Gesticulation going on out there with the food and wine

Lots of Galician Gesticulation going on out there with the food and wine


A short wait secures us a table inside the restaurant.

There’s very welcome chilled Albariño wine, by the copa – and then the famous pulpo.

It’s delicious. Sadly the picture leaves a lot to be desired so instead you can see the pretty scallops – and that vieira.

Scallops with Padron peppers (not spicy hot)

Scallops with Padron peppers (not spicy hot)


Now, ‘Vieira’ has a special resonance for the man I’m with as it’s his mother’s maiden name. Part of her ancestry being Portuguese – a land we’re heading for in a few days’ time.

But nothing has prepared us for the reality of this vieira.



We knew it was a scallop – but what arrives is just one, lonely, chilly creature, sitting on ice in a large scallop shell.


I pass.

He eats.

Would he have it again? No.

Did he enjoy it? Moot point. And irrelevant.

Back in our hotel, a siesta under our tighter belts and evening drawing on, we’re happily exhausted (and a little sun burnt in my case despite the factor 50).

Time for another copa – Mencia this time, a Galician red – and a pudding. No need for dinner after that seafood feast.

It’s an odd combination. Ice cream. Cake fragments. Dried red berries. Plain yogurt. Yes, all together.

And delicious.

We retire to bed healthily tired – but also a tad too excited to sleep. Well, I am. After all, tomorrow’s the day I’ve been anticipating for years.

Tomorrow I can be a pilgrim – and a tourist.

We’re taking the train to Santiago de Compostela.

St James and his field of stars awaits.

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From Sidney to the Tower of Hercules

No. it’s not a typo. I do mean Sidney. We do not live in Australia. We have not even visited Australia. Yet.

Sidney is, if we’re to believe the guard on our commuter train into Liverpool, employee of the month. We don’t see him. But we hear him. He has a distinctive voice.

If I say ‘Chipmunks’ or ‘Pinky and Perky’ some of you will know exactly how he sounds, but for the rest of you – well, he’s plainly been at the laughing gas.

It isn’t the only odd announcement of the day. Fresh from Sid’s squeaky admonition to pay for our ticket before boarding the train (of course we did) comes the disembodied voice on our ‘Pendolino’ (yes, it leans into the bends) train to London.

I drank plenty of water on top of my three cups of tea at breakfast. The lockable room between carriages beckons. As I make to flush the loo, the voice is speaking. Telling me what not to flush.

I’m not really listening – but then …

Was that really ‘unfulfilled dreams and goldfish’?

Our first really, truly, proper holiday since 1997 and it’s beginning to feel a bit – well, surreal.

A mere five or so hours after leaving home (yes that’s sarcasm) we’re at Heathrow. Which does nothing to rebalance the weirdness/normality quotient.

It’s not that I haven’t travelled in-between the proper-holiday-less years – there have been many trips to Zambia and to Texas, one to Ghana, – but we’ve not flown via London.

And I’d forgotten what a shadow world Heathrow is. Time slips out of reality. Life-forces cease to exist.

A soulless, air-conditioned morgue of an express train whisks us into a grim well of greyness. The terminal. Such an apt description.

I’m sure the ‘décor’ is meant to be soothing or chic or minimalist or something (or just easy to maintain?). But it transports me straight into the bad bits of Metropolis.

I imagine tromping, mesmerised hordes with cold eyes. I’m one of them, no longer a being with her own volition. But then I do, arguably, have too much imagination.

At the end of the inanimate moving stairs, the ballet of wheeling suitcases successfully pas-de-deuxed, it’s the turn of the shops.

Empty of customers. Big-eyed, gazing windows. Stocked with prestige (aka ridiculously expensive) products.

Bars selling caviar and champagne.

And Zara. An ordinary shop with a sale on.

I buy a scrunched-up, huge, bright orange wrap of a scarf – for a pittance. It makes me feel like a rebel amid the Burberry, Gucci and Hermes.

And so, at last to our British Airways flight.

Except it’s not.

So far, I haven’t met anyone who’s heard of ‘Vueling’(pronounced voowailing).

Anyway. The Vueling flight is full. Chocker. And we’re on time.

But then the man with the yellow high-vis jacket appears in the front.

And we wait.

And we wait.

And we wait.

Announcements? No. Not a one.

I expect any minute to be told some luggage is missing and we all have to disembark – but then I always expect the worst. Which means I often have pleasant surprises.

In fact the yellow jacket vanishes, the plane revs up and we taxi away to a bumpy take-off.

Such announcements as there are come in Spanish. The safety stuff, for the Brits, comes in a nice, clear, recorded English message.

During the flight there is one announcement by a member of the cabin staff in English. Almost totally incomprehensible it tells us we’ll be arriving at twenty past.

Yes. Twenty past. That’s all we could understand – the hour was indecipherable.

Good job we have a smattering of Spanish between us.

As we near our destination the hilltops of Galicia are verdant in the early evening sun – and almost every one is scattered abundantly with windmills, their pale arms turning to generate renewable electricity.

A spectacularly good landing deposits us at the tiny hilltop airport of A Coruña. There, a grumpy policeman waves us through passport control the instant he sees our British passports.

In the arrival hall/baggage reclaim area, thronged with people, none of the officials seems to speak English.

We realise we should have revised. ‘¡Hola! Buenos dias,’ only gets you so far.

But the rusty Spanish is trundled out and a nice man dredges up some broken English to meet us halfway. Yes, he says, there’s a bus, every half hour.

But it’s not really that far – it won’t break the bank to take a taxi into town. So we do.

The port’s industrial – we knew it would be – but as we spiral the freeways past the high-rises and dive down into the heart of the city the excitement mounts.

What will the hotel be like?

Will we have a sea view?


The bay and beach (and road) outside our hotel in A Coruña, Galicia, northern Spain (taken early in the morning through the window – I was being lazy!)

What’s for dinner?

The hotel is fab. Vast walls, floors and stairs of palest marble.

A sea view (for an extra 16 Euros for two nights).

And the food?

Put it this way – we’d go back just for the food.


Lobster! Yum. There were disconcertingly live crabs and things crawling around in tanks visible through the windows …

After a decent night’s sleep, a meal of arroz con bogavante – rice with lobster and other marine creatures – and a bottle of white Albariño wine we’re ready for new experiences.

El Rey del Jamon - The King of Hams

El Rey del Jamon – The King of Hams






We spend a while gawping at the view – but breakfast awaits. That and the Farum Brigantium – a Roman Lighthouse now known as the Tower of Hercules.

A Coruña was the Roman city of Brigantium. The Roman lighthouse is now a World Heritage site. On top of a hill. A steep hill. My first since the op.

An excuse to eat a large breakfast of small things. Squares of fish and pimento tart (empanadas). Slim finger sandwiches of air-dried ham and tomato paste. Pineapple and watermelon, melon and kiwi fruit.

At the top of the first, long, hill where the trams no longer run

At the top of the first, long, coastal road of a hill where the trams no longer run, with the next hill, topped by the Roman lighthouse, in the background

Each lampost has these embedded pictures - this of the tram

Each lampost has these embedded pictures – this of the tram

All washed down with French lavender tea. Better than it sounds, honest.

And so, replete, off into the sun – and up the hill.

The first hill …

A seahorse in this one

A seahorse in this one




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The president and the slave trader

This morning, Sunday morning, for the first time in my life, I sat in bed with my laptop and watched a 40 minute video. It was emotional watching.

There were tears. (I know, the tears thing – it’s becoming a habit. But, you know what? The world could do with more tears – and fewer guns.)

Anyway. This was no feature film, no soap opera, no documentary. This was President Obama talking. At a pace we’ve forgotten to respect. At a pace we need to rediscover. At a human pace.

Talking to the patient, bereaved community of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

The President wove his eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinckney around the words of Amazing Grace.

We do not earn grace, he said, time and again. We are given grace, by God.

This was an extraordinary eulogy in so many ways.

To a person used to the evasions of the British, the mere mention of God as if he – yes, he – does exist was exceptional.

But I soon forgot to notice it.

After all, I think I believe. I think.

At first President Obama looked as if he had been presented with a poisoned chalice, but one he accepted almost with relief.

His God did not let it pass away from him. It was a chalice of experience, not poison.

He spoke quietly, no rabble rousing, no tear jerking, no crashing crescendoes.

It was about Obama, but it was about all black Americans.

I felt a surge of almost joy that, at last, this black – yes, black – president had been able, with such tragic good cause, to speak of his own membership of an oppressed group of people.

I will not call it a race. We are all humans, no matter what our skin colour or gender or sexual orientation or disabilities.

It was a long eulogy, for those used to soundbites, to politicians with carefully rehearsed emotions and ambiguity of meanings.

As he spoke, members of his audience agreed, muttered, repeated what he said.

And then it happened.

He stopped.

Not for a moment, for dramatic effect, but because. His because.

There was as much silence as there can be in a big crowd of people. And then two words he had repeated many times came out differently .

He sang, two words.

Amazing Grace.

And that man can sing.

That man – that black man who is the President of the USA – can sing.

I felt as if a caged bird – oh yes, a caged bird – had sung.

Listening to him speak, then sing, it was as if a tap had been turned on, that was normally soldered shut. He was speaking as one of a crowd that felt something different from me, from white Americans, from white people the world over.

Free at last, to talk about it. Because of a tragedy. Yet another gun-enabled tragedy. And yes, he was able to talk about that, too.

The video of the President singing is here, 36 minutes in, but if you can find the time I recommend watching the whole thing. The experience becomes the more wonderful for it, trust me.


Are you still there?

Are you wondering about the slave trader yet?

Well, a short while ago I wrote one of those ranty pieces I try to keep bottled up but that fizz and fuss till they have to burst out.

About refugees.

In it I mentioned British singer songwriter Rebecca Ferguson’s moving rendition of the Obama (forever, now) hymn in a church as I watched Sunday television, teary-eyed (again) in a post-operative, pain-killer haze.

What I failed to describe in my post was the introduction which tells us about the origins of the hymn.

Amazing Grace was written by a man called John Newton in 1764. He was then a curate of Olney parish church in Buckinghamshire, England.

During a colourful career at sea he had been deeply involved in the transport of slaves.

A terrible storm, in which his ship nearly sank, resulted in his conversion to Christianity and his eventual induction as a clergyman into the Church of England.

It was not until 1788, though, some 34 years after retiring from slaving, that he published, ‘Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade’, describing the dreadful conditions of the slave ships on which he had served.

It would, he wrote, “always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” He became an abolitionist and lived to see the passage of the British Slave Trade Act of 1807.

More than 200 years later, in the church where he served his parishioners, the lovely Rebecca Ferguson learns about this story:

and here she is singing his hymn, Amazing Grace http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p02lf1z4

And now I sign off on another Sunday with a bit more joy and hope in my heart. Because one day everyone, surely, will be free, at last. Everyone will be treated as equal. Everyone will be able to pursue his or her life in liberty – and endeavour to find happiness without being oppressed.

Whether we believe in the President’s God, or Pastor Clementa Pinckney’s God, or not, surely this is something we humans can achieve if we try hard enough.

The forgiveness that the relatives of those who died showed so readily to the young man accused of murdering their loved ones is a lesson to us all.

Yes, we can hope, And yes, we shall, one day, overcome the prejudice that is so slow to die.

A black president in a white world has sung. It is up to us all to listen – and learn.






























































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































































Whether we believe in the President’s God, or Pastor Clementa Pinckney’s God, or not, surely this is something we humans can achieve if we try hard enough.
The forgiveness that the relatives of those who died showed so readily to the young man accused of murdering their loved ones is a lesson to us all.
Yes, we can hope, And yes, we shall, one day, all of us – overcome the prejudice that is so slow to die. A black president in a white world has, at last, spoken – sung – like a black man. It is up to us all to listen – and learn.

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Baby, you’re out of time*

One minute I’m thinking, gosh, what a good and faithful reconstruction of the fashions and language and décor of 1963. The next, there’s a slip in the fabric of time.

A man speaks. A twenty-first century expression in a 1960s mouth.

My admiration deflates as quickly as an ice cream melting in hot sun. (I know, terrible mix, sorry.)

It’s an all too common phenomenon of dramas set in the recent past. And once the first anachronism jumps out at me I’m alert – annoyingly – to more nits for picking.

It’s one (just one) of the reasons I haven’t been able to watch ‘Mad Men’ and didn’t enjoy ‘The Hour’. The clothes were swish and the hairstyles pretty good (speaking of nits), but somehow, it all looked too clean, too new, too straight off the page of the latest glossy magazine.

I’m not old enough to have been part of the ‘Mad Men’ scene, nor that of ‘The Hour’, but even when I was a little girl we didn’t live in a new, clean-clothed, hair-washed bubble.

The original Sindy was a bit older than mine. She was launched in 1963 and like miine had very shiny, possibly unwashed (forever) hair.

The original Sindy was a bit older than mine. She was launched in 1963 and like mine had very shiny, possibly unwashed (forever) hair.

Most people washed their hair once a week. My father, who had a phobia about water, washed his very, very rarely. I don’t think he was the only one.

Barbers even now, I’m told, sometimes run the comb through their own hair before tackling that of the customer. In lieu of washing.

Hair had a slickness to it then – especially men’s hair – because it was oily. Because people didn’t wash it every day.

Powder shampoo promised much for the appearance-obsessed teen’s interim de-oiling.

Those of us who had scarcely any pocket money as teens used talcum powder instead. It made little difference, both did the job – and delivered fake dandruff.

Every house had talcum powder in those days. Tins of several different scents would nestle in the family bathroom cabinet. It was standard Christmas or birthday present fare, along with bath cubes and soap.

Very few British bathrooms had showers. We washed our hair in the bath or over the washbasin, had a plastic hose attachment for the taps, which often shot off as we rinsed in the primrose yellow, pink or avocado tub.

(I’m not saying we had three tubs, by the way. We had one and, actually, it was white. Sorry.)

But back to the small screen. (Ours is. Just nineteen inches.)

1963. What  do you reckon, did Ringo wash his hair every day?

1963 – what do you reckon – did Ringo wash his hair every day?

In period dramas set in the fifties and sixties the clothes – even if authentic – all look as if they’ve come straight out of a (posh) shop. Blemish free, crease free, perfect in every way. Never worn. Or darned, or mended.

At my school in the late sixties/early seventies we were obliged to wear grey stockings. We all carried a needle and thread, because ladders were an everyday occurrence. Between lessons we’d dash into the loo and apply soap to stop them spreading further.

Come break time we’d sew them up, huddling on the cloakroom benches under our grey gabardine macs, sitting on top of the cubby holes of outdoor black shoes. Yes, we had outdoor shoes – and indoor shoes.

That was also the time when we’d fix any straps that had broken – petticoat straps, with safety pins. Does a teenage girl of 2015 know what a petticoat is? Does she have small safety pins for holding broken straps together? I doubt it.

But to go back to slips (ha ha – petticoats, get it?) in time.

We watched ‘The Theory of Everything’ the other night.

I was prepared not to enjoy it – it seemed a bit – I don’t know – odd, to me. Focused on two people who are still alive. One very famous, one a classic fame-by-association wife. Who wrote the book on which it was based. Well, good on her.

But as I say, I approached it in a dubious frame of mind.

As it notched up the minutes I was pretty impressed – yes the clothes were especially clean for scientific male students of any era, but the fashions were pretty good. The females looked right for the class being portrayed. I began to settle in. And then it happened.

We were in a pub. Beer was being drunk. Dimpled glass mugs were in evidence where now there would only be smooth handle-less glasses. But then.

‘Can I get two more of those?’


We turned to look at each other, the spell broken.

‘No, don’t you worry, that’s my job, I’ll get them for you.’

That’s how my in-house Professor reacts when he hears that.

[And, digressing a bit, his reaction to, ‘I’m good,’ is, ‘I was asking after your health, not your moral welfare.’ Snigger. *Sucks teeth*.]

It doesn’t matter for most people – certainly not for the generation brought up to say ‘I’m good,’ and ‘Can I get,’ but it bugs me, I’ll be honest. Along with excessive and anachronistic use of the ‘f’ word.

Eventually, though, equanimity restored, the film worked its sentimental magic and tears were shed before bedtime.

But I still found it odd. Those people, still alive.

Not my book, but by a rather more successful novelist. This appeared in 1963

I can’t even promote my own book. Shriek! No! Don’t look at me!

How can they cope with themselves up there on big screens the world over? With people oohing and ahhing over them, dissecting the ifs and buts and whys of their lives.

I just don’t get it.

Get it?

Baby. I’m out of time.

*[Rolling Stones song, No 1 hit for Chris Farlowe in 1966, when I was at school in grey stockings.]

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Amazing Grace – the flip side

I’d been back from hospital just twenty-four hours when a programme on television reduced me to tears.

I suspect if it had been longer since my sawbones’s attentions I would still have been touched. But probably not enough to end up puffy faced and red eyed.

It was Sunday, the day after I came home. I was tired. Drained. I couldn’t face reading and needed some diversion.

A programme of readings and hymns was not what I had in mind. But when I saw that a guest was the singer songwriter Rebecca Ferguson, runner-up in the X Factor in 2010, Liverpudlian, mum – oh, and daughter of two Jamaican immigrants – I stopped to watch.

The presenter was also black and as I watched the two beautiful black women treating the church they were in with palpable reverence, I felt humbled as well as moved.

But it took Rebecca singing ‘Amazing Grace’ for the tears to roll.

I felt so proud of our great country, for the first time in ages. Proud that these two young, lovely people were here, on our television screens, treating us all with the respect and tolerance that I suspect at least one of them had not known as she grew up.

Because Rebecca grew up in some difficult places in a poor city.

As she grew into motherhood she put herself through training to become a legal secretary for the children’s sake. She was ready to give up her ambitions for them too.

But fame came to the rescue – and deservedly so.

Listening to her that Sunday I remembered a record – a vinyl single – my mother bought, decades ago. She used to rummage through the 45s on sale after Christmas in our local department store and bought some great ones – as well as some dogs.

One of her purchases was ‘Amazing Grace’ sung by Judy Collins. On the flip side of that single is a haunting song, written by Bob Dylan, called  ‘I Pity the Poor Immigrant’.

The immigrant, as I keep hearing in my head,

‘whose visions in the final end
Must shatter like the glass’

That memory’s been festering in my brain for weeks now.

But I’ve been avoiding touching it, yet another sore spot in my conscience, a tender place where the recent government stance on refugees has started to hurt.

Then, last week, I was chatting with a friend and I felt a big, ‘Ouch’.  He’d hit me right on that sore spot.

Picture from UNHCR website

Picture from UNHCR website

Here in Europe (of which we in Britain are geographically a part, whether some people like it or not) the name ‘Mediterranean’ has recently ceased to conjure up images of sun-drenched beaches lapped by gentle waves. Instead we’re seeing men, women and children dead, drowned or pulled from the sea barely alive.

People in white overalls and face masks saving lives only to dump them on the shore to await a desperately uncertain fate.

Our British government has sent the Navy to help rescue some of the wretched people who risk their lives trying to reach the ‘sanctuary’ of civilised Europe when their boats sink or are abandoned by their traffickers.

More and more people are washing up – literally – on the shores of Greece and Italy. Nowhere to go, nothing to live on.

Despite pleas for a Europe-wide solution to the housing of the wretched homeless, Britain has said a resounding, shameful no.

I thought, when I was talking about this with my (Catholic) friend, that I was speaking to someone of like mind. But as I watched his purposely impassive face it dawned on me. He agreed with the government on this one.

I asked him, outright, if it was true.

Yes. His view was that the cause needed fixing and, by implication, that if we kept on helping people by saving lives and giving those who have nothing a chance to make a life in a better place, it would only exacerbate the problem.

I agreed with him. Because I agree the cause needs fixing.

Syrian refugees. UNHCR picture

Syrian refugees. UNHCR picture

But while we in the rich countries (we’re in the world’s top 10) take our time, failing to help sort out the problems of places like Syria, Eritrea and Democratic Republic of Congo, do we really expect those who are terrified, harassed, in fear of their lives, to sit and wait for a diplomatic solution?

To submit to another rape, or another horrific beating, while we decide how best to work towards an end of the strife?

Refugee in abandoned brick factory in Serbia waits for his smuggler to get him to Europe. UNHCR picture

Refugee in abandoned brick factory in Serbia waits for his smuggler to get him to Europe. UNHCR picture

Most of the people who make it to Europe, who survive the ordeal by water, the ordeal by ostracism, the ordeal by discrimination, have struggled, worked hard and somehow accumulated enough money to pay shameful exploitative boat owners to get them across the water.

Yet some Europeans – some Brits – think they want to come and live off benefits.

If only the scandal-mongering press would read some of the facts.

Most people don’t even know they could get benefits.

They simply want to live in safety, to learn, to work, to be healthy.

I am ashamed of my country for denying a home to some of the most desperate people in the world. And I wonder, really, why this is.

There is room.

Yes, there is a shortage of social housing – and the government is planning to sell off cheap what little there is.

But when impoverished, borderline bankrupt Greece can find the poor immigrants a home, when Italy extends a welcoming, tolerant hand, when German Christians do their bit, why are we turning a cold British shoulder?

This week is refugee week and below, if you choose to read them, are some facts.

If anyone reading this has any influence with the powers that be –  if you are that person – perhaps you could pass them on.

The fact is these desperate migrants mostly don’t want to come here, to Britain – they want to go to Germany. But at least we’d be better than a watery grave. And you never know, like the Ugandan Asians of the 1970s, a few unwanted immigrants might just end up employing 30,000 people.

Yes, I’m sad to say, the money argument has far more chance of working than the moral one.

The 1951 Refugee Convention guarantees everybody the right to apply for asylum. It has saved millions of lives.

No country has ever withdrawn from it.

The UK is home to less than 1% of the world’s refugees out of more than 50 million forcibly displaced people worldwide.

About 86% of the world’s refugees are living in developing countries often in camps.

In 2011, worldwide, 17,700 children applied for asylum having arrived in the country of refuge alone, with no parent or guardian. 1,277 of these applications were made in the UK. Many of them come from Afghanistan, which was described by UNICEF in 2010 as “the world’s most dangerous place to be a child”.

About 1,200 medically qualified refugees are recorded on the British Medical Association’s database

Immigrants, including refugees, pay more into the public purse compared to their UK born counterparts.

An estimated 30,000 jobs have been created in Leicester by Ugandan Asian refugees since 1972.

Asylum seekers do not come to the UK to claim benefits. In fact, most know nothing about welfare benefits before they arrive and had no expectation that they would receive financial support.

Almost all asylum seekers are not allowed to work and are forced to rely on state support – this can be as little as £5 a day to live on.

Asylum seekers do not jump the queue for council housing and they cannot choose where they live. The accommodation allocated to them is not paid for by the local council. It is nearly always ‘hard to let’ properties, where other people do not want to live.

There is no such thing as an ‘illegal’ or ‘bogus’ asylum seeker. Under international law, anyone has the right to apply for asylum in any country that has signed the 1951 Convention and to remain there until the authorities have assessed their claim.

It is recognised in the 1951 Convention that people fleeing persecution may have to use irregular means in order to escape and claim asylum in another country – there is no legal way to travel to the UK for the specific purpose of seeking asylum. There is nothing in international law to say that refugees must claim asylum in the first country they reach.

The top ten refugee producing countries all have poor human rights records or ongoing conflict. Asylum seekers are fleeing from these conflicts and abuses, looking for safety.

Many refugees and asylum seekers hope to return home at some point in the future, if the situation in their country has improved.

For sources of these statements see this web page on the UK Refugee Council’s site.

The UK Refugee Council was founded in 1951 in response to the UN Convention for Refugees, which was created after World War II to ensure refugees were able to find safety in other countries. Since then, the Refugee Council, a charity, has provided practical and emotional support to refugees from across the world to help them rebuild their lives and play a full part in society.

Posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Alternative. Routes, lifestyles & mammoths. Plus, a fine Dusky Maiden

‘Recalculating route,’ she says.

I’ve only heard that voice a handful of times but I’m beginning to bristle every time she speaks.

It’s the inbuilt navigation system in our car.

She’s been more vocal than usual just lately because we’ve had a few days away. Visiting friends.

It was an ambitious five days. Lots of driving. Lots of catching up to fit into respectable time slots. Three nights on hard b&b beds. Why do people insist hard mattresses are good?


Day one was the worst. We had to abandon the south-west-bound motorway early. What should have been a three or four hour journey took six. But the slow-roaded Welsh borders were pretty.

The first hard-b&b-bed-night didn’t help our mood as we set out for Devon next day.

P1020001By mid-afternoon prissy Miss Satnav would’ve been thrown out of the car if she weren’t built-in. But thanks to written instructions from our host – and a map book bought at a petrol station – we reached our beautiful, isolated destination.

Next day, well fed on food, wine and art (our hostess is an artist), much conversation and a little dog-walking to our credit, we set off back to Bristol without ‘her’ help.

In Bristol the sun shone and the company of old friends was convivial, but after two more hard-b&b-bed-nights it was time to strike out for home.

It took about forty five minutes of the manic motorway before we resorted to lesser roads and ‘her’. Sleep was sneaking up. The hard beds had taken their toll.

We stopped for a wake-up cuppa – and the world stood still. That’s how it felt. The pace of life had shifted underneath our wheels.

An odd man in the car park yelled, ‘Are you all right?’ the moment we opened the car doors.

Round of tum, middle of age, he carried a large brown envelope as Don Quixote carried his lance.

‘Park here,’ he commanded, in vain. Then he chose another spot – and another.

He was plainly obsessive – and not a little strange. Which prepared us, somewhat, for the café we chose.

Outside, the blackboard boasted a hand-drawn picture of a dog. Dogs and their owners, it said, were welcome.

I hesitated.

I’m not a doggy person, not often around dogs. But I was wearing a shirt that had been tugged by a happy dog, jeans licked by her, pawed by her. A nice dog.

And it did look quirky, the café.

We stepped in.

Quirky was an understatement.

‘No mobile phones, please,’ a handwritten sign requested. Polite, but firm. You could tell by the writing.

P1020007The place mats were reproductions of paintings on the walls. Not exclusively pictures of brightly coloured caravans, but that was the overriding theme.

Many with feature-cats. (Was everyone in this town obsessive?)

The inner blackboard listed the usual drinks, but also that quaint old hot beverage – Milky Nescafé.

Neither of us has sipped so much as a drop of coffee for many, many years. Yet we both opted for the milky instant version. (I know. Some people dispute whether Nescafé is coffee.)P1020006

A slice of ginger cake came warm, with two forks.

Revived, an amble down the road took us to a cornucopian wholefood shop. We bought bread, grains, teas, condiments. Cheap olive-oil soap.

It was hard leaving. Everywhere I turned was an, ‘ooh, look,’ enticement.

But leave we did. Despite a notice telling us that if we stayed till June 21st, we could join in solstice dancing, round a tree.

Back in the street, in the warmth of a fine mid-morning, everyone was walking slowly.

Not a single person gazed upon a smartphone.  One or two wheelchairs, a mobility scooter, prams, wheeled baskets, dogs on leads. But no mobile phones.

As if the café were ruling the world for the day.

It seemed we were in a county of witches, warlocks and deep, old magic. This we discovered further along our route, when we turned right (contrary to ‘her’ instructions) to find a mammoth.


Not the real thing. Suspicious look it’s giving me, don’t you think?

A cast of the massive mastodon was the high point of a rather good exhibition devoted to hill forts and landscapes, castles and history, mystery and superstition

Yes, Shropshire had begun to beguile us with its magic.

En route again, an hour or more later, eyes drooping once more, my chauffeur saw a sign for a garden centre with café – and turned left.

‘She’ was busy recalculating route when I switched her off. Oh, that felt good!

But it began to look as if we’d made an error of the human kind.

The road wound deeper and deeper into the enchanting Shropshire countryside. Was a mischievous spirit leading us astray? Would we end up spell-bound, deep within a dark, dank cave?


It was serendipity.

For we found ourselves in a paradise of roses.


The building originated in the 12th Century

Row upon row. Climbers and shrubs. Standards and ramblers. Red, yellow, white, pink, purple and orange. Nine hundred varieties.

P1020022Humming with insect life. Wafting with fragrance. Blessed by a scorching sun, offsetting the gentle breeze.

A secret garden. Well, except for the other people.

A former monastic pond

A former monastic pond

As chance would have it, we were in search of a rambling rose.

‘We mustn’t buy much,’ I said, in vain. ‘We don’t have room in the car.’

Half an hour later we’d fallen for a pert-flowered rambler with bright red stems. A subtle Rosa glauca with delicate pink blooms.

And a sensuous Dusky Maiden.

Dusky Maiden undressing

Dusky Maiden undressing

‘You can’t leave without me,’ her message oozed from every dark bloom.

I surveyed the three beauties.

‘Recalculating room in car,’ I thought, with that inner warm feeling that simple pleasure brings.

Poor little Miss Satnav.

No wonder she sounds so flat. She has no roses in her life. No sunshine, no scents, no gentle breezes.

Just a box, in car. And always travelling, to other people’s destinations.


Dusky Maiden planted in front of a pear tree


Our chic rambling rose, Francois Juranville


Shy Rosa Glauca not quite at home yet

Shy Rosa Rubrifolia Glauca, not quite at home yet

Posted in Going out - and having fun?, In Britain now - and then | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments