Exchange- not always Fair

The cross channel ferry, in this last week of summer term is full of excitable teenagers; two groups, seemingly, occupying every part of the ship, circulating round and round, galumphing through the bars and lounges, spreading over seating areas, thronging into the tiny shop, the games area and the restaurant, exclaiming, playing music, shrieking when they see each other. They rush past us in twos and threes. ‘I wanna buy something!’ ‘Let’s go outside!’ ‘What shall we do now?’
After coffee we descend to the salon with its recliner seats to catch up on some sleep, but it is full of adolescents, rucksacks, sweet wrappers. We are rushed at by their beleaguered teachers, whose dubious pleasure it is to shepherd their charges and bring them back unscathed.
Foreign exchanges were available when I was a schoolgirl, too; only as my parents were unwilling to pay for them, I’d be among the handful of girls who stayed behind and attended school. I can’t recall what we did, we leftovers. Revision, perhaps or some extra language study and conversation. I pity the poor teachers who were saddled with us, who had to find us something to do!
I offered my own offspring an exchange each, which was rejected by Offspring One, who harboured fears of being incarcerated with a strange family and having to eat a sensible, healthy diet. He chose to be a leftover. Offspring Two, however waited for the optimum moment to remind me I’d agreed to a French exchange, then when I enquired the destination, coolly told me ‘Canada’.
The exchangee came to us first. Catherine. She was not Canadian, but American, from Texas originally. She was tall, world-weary, unimpressed. She was an ocean away from my daughter. We served meals, attempted chat, remained polite while she chewed and made acerbic remarks.
Husband suggested a weekend trip to Paris. We packed our tiny Peugeot 5 and took a ferry across the English Channel then drove down, stopping on the outskirts of France’s capital in a budget hotel and taking two rooms. We got a double decker train into Paris to take in the sights: The Louvre, The Tuilleries, Notre Dame and The Tour Eiffel-sending the girls up and staying down ourselves to save money. They trudged after us as if dragged on leads. Next day we visited Fontainebleau and Versailles before heading home the way we’d come.
On the return ferry we bought meals from the self-service restaurant, where Catherine [and also Offspring, who followed suit] chose a meal and a desert. At the table our protégé ate one or two mouthfuls of the meal and pushed it away before tucking into the pudding.
‘Are we gonna eat again on the ferry?’ she drawled, chewing.
Husband frowned into his newspaper. ‘No’ he said, without looking up.
At last we arrived at Portsmouth. ‘That was cool!’ she suddenly said as the wheels rumbled down the ramp, showing enthusiasm for the first time. If we’d known she was to enjoy our descent from the gaping mouth of the ferry so much we could have saved ourselves a packet.
We did nothing else with Catherine, leaving entertainment to the school to provide. Offspring confided that Catherine had raved and boasted to her classmates about her French trip.
After she departed, Offspring prepared to make her own visit to the host family-Catherine’s own parents and sister. I sat down with her to share my hopes for her ambassadorial role, expressing my desire that she behave with impeccable manners, a desire that she asserted she understood very well. She went.
Catherine’s parents were charming to my daughter, taking her out and about, to Niagara, amongst other places. Offspring got on very well with Catherine’s younger sister as well as most of the Canadian schoolgirls and had a most enjoyable time.
And that was that; many lessons learned-and not only French!

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Escape to [another] Country

On Monday we are to escape this troubled isle for a couple of weeks. For although the current political squabbles in the UK are akin to observing a satirical comedy there will be some relief to be away from it all for a while.

Underneath the farcical antics of our politicians, however there is a ghastly, seeping horror of gradual decline; while they continue to wrangle, argue, bluster, lie and boast, most of us are powerless to intervene, still less to mitigate.

We know what our closest neighbours think. The Dutch, especially are incredulous at the decision of [some of] us to leave the European family. The French have held up their hands: ‘Zut alors!’ and then washed them of us-and who can blame them?

And then there is the USA. Those who’ve squawked about ‘slavery’ in a ridiculous diatribe about the EU [the increasingly mad witch-like Anne Widecombe] seem to think nothing ironic or wrong about enslaving ourselves to America; accepting their disgusting bleached chicken in exchange for the NHS? Where is the so called ‘freedom’ in all of that?

I’m still waiting to hear ONE explanation or ONE benefit that will be gained from leaving the EU. Meanwhile the buffoon who is most likely to become our next prime minister continues to stutter, pretend and joke his way to success amidst an unwavering, simpering, ignorant band of supporters, in true Trumpesque fashion-an echo of US, dogged ignorance.

Now, because of the so-called ‘special relationship’ we are to be drawn in to the row with Iran- having to be allied with the US instead of Europe. Why must we have the ‘special relationship’ with the USA, when our closest neighbours are within shouting distance? Surely those on our doorstep are the best allies? We must tow the line with America because we have to beg for trade deals-where’s the ‘freedom from slavery’ in that, Anne Widecombe?

So despite the plummeting pound [again] we are off  to cycle our way into the relative peace of the French countryside, free of news, interviews and debate. And there is still time for a couple of trips before the [next] supposedly definitive date when the UK ex-communicates itself. After that-who knows what we’ll need to do to leave these beleaguered shores? Our wonderful, efficient E111 health cards may not apply. We may need special driving permits or visas. We may be compelled to join a special queue for outsiders going in or coming out.

Above all I’m hoping that within my lifetime we can return to some kind of rational, measured, cooperative political system that doesn’t pander to rich, white middle-class old Etonians and their fawning, job-hungry cronies. One that favours reason, fairness, empathy and basic humanity.

Will populism become wearisome? Will the drawbridge be cranked back down? Will human rights begin to matter again before I croak? What do you think?

Answers on a digital postcard [below in the comments box]. Au revoir!

 

 

Making it Back

With only three days left before the ferry crossing from Bilbao we arrive back to Spain’s north coast and settle in Islares to spend the time. The tiny village, on the edge of a bay is only just off the motorway [Bilbao/Santander] but hosts a secluded, daisy-strewn camp site laid out in neat rows of pitches. It  also houses overnighters making their pilgrimage on the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, who can stay in the year-round, static tents [green, seen in the background below].

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At last the sky is an unbroken blue and the sun makes a welcome appearance. While the site is never full there is a steady flow of vans in and out, as well as overnighting pilgrims. Some come to stay a night before or after the ferry, some for surfing and a few have chosen to holiday here.

You would have to go around the bay to find an extensive beach, but at Islares there are small pockets of sand that appear when the tide goes out across the rocky shore and the remnants of a miniscule harbour decorated with the ruins of old fishing huts. It is all outrageously picturesque.

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Santander, a half hour’s drive away, is another city we’ve tended to bypass, however we were tipped it was worth a look and decide to visit, only to discover there is nowhere at all to park the van. We drive along the sweeping seafront and back through the town. It does seem very grand, but will have to wait for another time.

Another excursion, to Laredo and further along the lengthy sandspit, takes us to another point on the Camino, where a tiny passenger ferry carries people across the water to Santona.

We make lunch by the almost deserted stretch of beach then continue around the lagoons, nature reserves and beaches. Nowhere is there more than a handful of tourists or day-trippers.

Our last day brings sunshine warm enough to sit outside and read- a rare treat this trip.

Although we rise early next morning for our drive to the ferry the site office is firmly closed, which makes it impossible to settle up, reclaim our ACSI discount card [an essential camper accessory] detach ourselves from the electricity point and exit the barrier. We learn that all this should have been addressed the previous evening. Horrors! But we are fortunate. The security guys help out, taking our cash and lifting the barrier, and I write a note begging for our ACSI card to be sent on.

Then it’s along the motorway to Bilbao’s ferry port, conveniently sited well away from the city’s sprawl. Once loaded we locate our small cabin before finding a comfortable place to sit and munch Brittany Ferries’ pastries and coffee-and I have to conclude that nobody can do breakfast pastries and coffee like the French.

A wander round, a read, lunch on the top deck [to the accompaniment of the noisy dogs in the on-board kennels], a snooze, a read, a wander. The day passes. After a shower in our cabin we find dinner before spending an hour with the ‘entertainment’ in the bar; the music quiz being the only item we can manage, then it’s off to find a quiet spot for another read before retiring to the twin bedded cabin.

Next morning Portsmouth has arrived.-and the sun is shining…

 

The Rain Across the Spanish Plain

Sometimes exploring an area in depth can make you realise how woefully ignorant you are, that there are so many world heritage status places you’ve never heard of-or at least-that I’ve never heard of.

Portugal’s Evora is one of these.

We took a couple of days’ beach break, just down the coast from Lisbon, at Caparica, where Lisbon-dwellers come at weekends for sea and sand but precious little else, Caparica being Lisbon’s equivalent of Southend on Sea. On the camp site you could have been fooled into thinking it was snowing, if the temperature hadn’t been 28 degrees, so much fluffy seed was blowing, blizzard-like across the site and settling, ankle deep on the ground or in heaps of white fluff inside the van.

Next, Evora.

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This walled medieval town is a pristine vision in white and ochre, packed full of whitewashed churches, monasteries, ancient university buildings and a wonderful, 15th century aqueduct which begins low, at the top of the town and lengthens as it descends. Homes have been made between the arches:

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The town is quiet, the gift shops awash with knick-knacks, but few buyers. I take pity and buy a small, red, cockerel embellished wine cork for a gift. There are a few other tourists. Did they, like us, stumble upon Evora? Or did they research it at home and make a special pilgrimage here?

For reasons that can best be described here

we need to turn towards the north and make our journey home. As yet it isn’t urgent but I’m aware that it may become so. We set off towards the Spanish border and Badajoz, which we’ve passed by on occasions but have been told is worth a visit.

The weather, never reliably sunny this trip turns overcast once more, but the journey is beautiful-rolling hills and vast cattle ranches, the road quiet and peaceful and we arrive at lunchtime.

The aire at Badajoz is brilliant; easy to locate, a convenient situation just across the River Douro from the town and services all provided free. Little wonder it fills with vans by the evening. We wander across the attractive footbridge, through the gate of the city wall and across towards the ‘Alcabaz’, the citadel which dominates the town from a high vantage point above the town. By this time it is raining and with an afternoon to spend we fritter some of it in a cavernous bodega.

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A return to Spain means a return to tapas, a variety of tasty snacks offered with every drink. Though we’ve lunched it seems rude not to stay and enjoy the fare-and it is raining outside the bar. Badajoz’s cloistered square is beautiful.

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Zipped into raincoats we brave the rain to stroll around the domineering Alcabaz, then it’s back to the aire, where some local residents whose house adjoins it have decided to share their music with us. Freddie Mercury’s vocals are blasted for an hour or two, but since I’m not averse to a bit of Queen myself I think it could be a lot worse…

Next day it’s on to Valladolid, where we make several circuits of the one way system before locating the motorhome parking bays. It’s a quick stopover and our sincere apologies to the parking authority for our inability to pay the 9.50 euros fee, but having managed to retrieve my bank card from the machine when it was stuck I didn’t feel up to giving it a second go!

Onwards and upwards…

 

 

 

 

Turning Portuguese

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The first time we visited Portugal was with a tent, a giant, swish ‘pyramid’ tent that we’d borrowed from Husband’s colleague. I had to crawl in and hold the central pole, getting hot and sweaty while Husband hammered the pegs in outside. On a site at Ancora [north Portugal] where an interested neighbour ‘advised’ us on where to have our doorway, we pitched under some sap-dropping trees that stained said tent for ever, resulting in our having to buy the colleague a brand new pyramid tent when we returned. [We’d also torn the fabric attempting to dry it out in a French motorway services car park].

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This was also the trip when we visited Porto by train from Viano do Costelo, buying return tickets and discovered on our return to the station to get back, that the train ‘does not return from here’. We had a wonderful, dockside meal and returned on a ‘milk’ train, from a different station at about 2am.

During this and subsequent visits, with various vans we’ve done the major must-sees of Portugal: Porto, Lisbon, Guimares, Coimbra, Sagres, Faro-

Mostly we’ve found the west coast to be more pleasant and less developed than the Algarve, but there are exceptions.

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Portugal, like Greece is one of those countries that never fails, with luscious countryside, beautiful historic cities, reliable, warm weather, delicious food [including the famous ‘pastel de nata’ custard pies], a gorgeous coast line and friendly people.

We find Lisbon much changed, with the addition of hideous cruise ships blocking views and throngs of tourists everywhere. Our previous visit was quiet and we were able to stroll the narrow lanes without stepping around selfie-takers. To anyone intending to visit Lisbon and considering an open top bus tour I’d say, ‘Don’t!’ You pay 11 euros to inch along for hours in stifling traffic, a woman wailing Fado songs in your ears. You get to see very little and anything of interest is zipped past or around before you’ve got your finger on your camera shutter.

I can get no purchase on the Portuguese language whatsoever. Spoken, it sounds eastern European with lots of sch, z and cz. Written, it looks remarkably like Spanish and meaning can often be deduced. We know we must take care not to speak Spanish to the Portuguese in spite of so many words being similar, nevertheless Husband is inclined to say ‘gracias’ instead of ‘obrigado/a’ for the first few days. My own knowledge of Portuguese is restricted to ‘obrigado/a’, ‘Bom dia’ and ‘ola’ so it is fortunate that almost everyone here speaks English very well indeed.

The Portuguese are fond of tiling the outside of their homes, which can look beautiful or tawdry; railway stations, hotels, churches-no building is safe from this treatment.

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And neither are the bone-shaking, tooth-grating streets, which are tiled in cobbles.

The Portuguese countryside is strewn with cork oak trees, the cork continues to be harvested and goods such as cork handbags can be seen in the shops. Perhaps the backlash against plastic will see a resurgence of the cork industry? It does seem to be a versatile material with useful properties: lightweight, water repellent, attractive.

In recent years, wildfires have decimated much of Portugal’s forests and evidence of this is everywhere.

Orange and lemon trees abound, in gardens, parks and along the streets. They are all hung with tons of fruit which nobody seems bothered to pick, the ground around the trees littered with fruit just as the plums lie fallow in Gloucestershire.

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Before using the [very quiet] motorways you must register your bank card and attempt to forecast how much toll you will be using, which is tricky. Otherwise you can register at the first ‘portagem’ [toll booths] but then you’ll have no clue as to what is being deducted.

We’ll soon be leaving Portugal and crossing back to Spain-but I’ve no doubt at all that we’ll be back!

 

Santiago de Compostela-for Philistines.

Travel along Spain’s north coast and you will be guaranteed stupendous views, beautiful beaches and the sight of a great many ‘pilgrims’ trudging along the Camino de Santiago, following thousand upon thousands of sunburst signs as they make their way towards their Mecca, Santiago de Compostela.

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In true martyr-ish style, wholly in line with Catholic traditions, this Easter’s weather helps them on their way by being utterly appalling. This part of Spain is renowned for wet weather but this year’s exceeds all expectations. The entire country is deluged with torrential downpours while the UK basks in unusual warm sunshine.

Groups of walkers line our route, clad in voluminous, dripping capes that cover them and their rucksacks, giving them the appearance of soggy, deformed camels. Many have walking sticks and a fair number use Nordic walking poles. Is this a true dedication to the cause of suffering, I wonder?

The pilgrims come in all shapes, sizes, nationalities and ages; entire families with children, pairs of young girls, single people. Many meet up along the way and travel together, like the two young American girls with a short Portuguese man we met on one of our [non pilgrim] walks. Some look grimly determined, some chat as they walk, others sport beatific smiles as though already transported by their ordeal.

The nearer you get to Santiago, the more pilgrims there are, waiting at crossings, standing on corners, munching things, looking at phones.

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We’ve waited until Easter is over to visit Santiago and arrive on the Tuesday after, thinking it will be less fraught to negotiate the traffic, but we are still caught out by a parade of some kind and must effect a slow crawl through the narrow streets to find the camper-stop, which is situated up above the city-at least we can’t be flooded out. It is well organised and well used, a manned entrance cabin, tickets, a useful city map, water and emptying supplied.

Since there is no sign-from any source-that the rain is going to abate we don raincoats, grab umbrellas and run for the city centre bus, which takes us down into the heart of what is a beautiful, elegant place, wet or not.

Santiago seems designed for rain, cloistered walkways abound and there is no shortage of drains, into which rainwater gushes or tips from rooftop spouts. Crowds accumulate in the worst showers, huddling in doorways or squeezing into tiny shops selling religious icons and souvenirs.

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We are spoilt for choice for our naff shelf collection [read here].

At last we seek refuge from the showers in the cathedral museum, where I am clucked at for photographing. The art works are fascinating and also slightly bonkers, as religious art can be. The topmost floor is open to the elements with rooms off, containing cases of bejewelled, silver or gold crosses and paraphernalia in abundance-a demonstration of the wealth of the Catholic church.

Another set of rooms has wonderful, wall-sized Belgian tapestries depicting country scenes of people carousing at Inns. The detail is worth studying-drinkers at tables, dogs stealing food, babies being fed, a man peeing up against a wall-all most un-ecclesiastical.

When we tire of the relentless deluge we get the bus back to our warm and cosy van.

Next day there is a lull in the rain, long enough for servicing the van, then we’re off to brighter skies, drier roads and a quieter time-and Portugal!

It’s not so far. We stop for lunch on a small quay by the River Minho, choppy waves in the stiff breeze.

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Onwards to Vila Cha, the latter stages of the journey corrugated by cobbled roads. After a series of winding lanes we reach our chosen site, but as we approach we realise-of course! We’ve stayed here before. This is not bad news-the excellent restaurant opposite the entrance is still thriving!

The Rain in Spain

Comillas is a small, pretty town, a stone’s throw from the Northern Spanish coast and home to architect Antonio Gaudi’s ‘El Capricho’, a typically wacky house commissioned by a wealthy lawyer. It is one of Gaudi’s first works and one of only three buildings of his outside Catalonia.

On Good Friday of Semana Santa, Comillas is seething with day trippers and we are glad to have caught the bus here from our site. We join the queue for El Capricho and once we’ve bought tickets we have to run the gauntlet of hordes of visitors and guided tours throughout the rooms and on the balconies. But it is worth it. The villa is a joyous, colourful creation bedecked in sunflower glazed and vibrant green tiles, odd terraces and tiny windows giving on to views of the town’s terracotta roofs or of the surrounding parkland.

The rooms are beautiful, restful spaces with examples of quirky furniture and clever technology like slatted blinds that roll up sideways to open. This would be a wonderful home-and I hope it was enjoyed by the inhabitants!

Comillas is choc-a-bloc with market stalls, the cafes and restaurants full to bursting. We content ourselves with an ice cream in the square while we watch the stallholders pack up-then head to our bus stop for the ride back.

Next day we set off to Cudillero, an authentic fishing village akin to a Cornish coastal settlement. There is enough time for a walk down into the town, although it is a steep and treacherous one, the pavement horribly narrow and winding. En route the street is lined with buildings in various stages of decline and later exploration reveals a town of quaint charm but shocking decadence. Here and there are pockets of redevelopment-tricky given that the sides of the ravine are impossibly steep and homes are accessed by a tracery of stone steps, slopes and pathways in a higgledy-piggledy web.

Down at sea level the street is lined with bars and fish restaurants, everyone drinking until about 8.00pm, [by which time we are famished] and at last there are a few diners and we can sit down to peruse the menu. We choose a prawn salad and a seared octopus dish to share and a hake dish each. It is all delicious.

After lunch the next day we find an off-road footpath leading down to the town. We walk down-and up-and down-and up, by which time my knees are wobbly as jelly from steps and slopes.

Time to leave Cudillero. We make for Louro, just beyond Muras and rain sets in with a vengeance. The small town is nondescript but has a good beach along an attractive bay. It rains in a relentless deluge so that by next morning we feel it necessary to hunker down and ride it out.

Then we head off to Santiago de Compostelo, renowned for its rainfall, justified on this occasion as it rains en route, rains when we arrive, rains throughout the visit and continues to rain as we leave. But that, reader is another story…