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!

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A Dog’s Breakfast of Linguistics

Driving towards the Spanish border and San Sebastian I am attempting to reclaim, renovate and restore my rusty Spanish, a language that’s languished unused for a couple of years. A few words and phrases float in- ‘Si’ ‘No’ ‘por favor’ ‘gracias’ ‘lo siento’ ‘la cuenta’ ‘cervezas’ and ‘banos’. All the essentials. Then I get to wondering what the word for breakfast is and it becomes an irritation. I can find the German word-‘fruhstuck’ but I’m frustrated by Spanish breakfast. This is absurd, mainly because we’ve no need whatsoever to be ordering breakfast in Spain.

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We locate a site with great mountain views and stretch legs by plunging down a steep, bendy road towards the sea. The weather has turned hot and muggy and by the time we’ve returned and got some chairs out the first drops of thunderous storm have arrived. Rain continues until bed time but by morning it has all cleared and it’s bright, sunny and fresh.

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A convenient bus ride takes us into San Sebastian via Monte Igelda [where our site is], stopping at the ancient funicular en route. After locating the tourist office we follow a suggested walking route around the city which takes in major plazas, the waterfront and important landmarks such as the Basilica. We stop for tapas lunch at ‘Tapas Santana’, where a sumptuous display of tapas dishes fills the counter and hordes crowd in. I look at the menu and there it is: desayuno-breakfast. Of course!

Husband waves me to the counter to order, although I’m not ready, not well enough rehearsed in my renaissance Spanish. I muddle through aided by the kindness of the waiter and we are rewarded with a delicious lunch.

We leave next day for San Juan de Gaztelugatxe and get hopelessly muddled when our new SATNAV decides the best route is along unmade mountain cart tracks, but at last we find a sensible coast road, albeit winding and tortuous. The terrain here resembles the Amalfi coast but with fewer tourists even now at Easter time. After a number of glitches, including a near-death experience on the motorway when a bendy bus decides we are a pesky nuisance and attempts to do away with us, we arrive to San Juan de G, a destination better known as a location for filming Game of Thrones than for scenic or religious significance. It is, however spectacular.

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The tiny church of San Juan, dating from AD890,  is perched upon an island rock accessed by a winding path across a stone causeway. The path down [and up!] is steep and arduous. But plenty of people of all ages, sizes and fitness are tackling the walk. Remembering the Tiger Cave Temple climb in Thailand we decide this is a doddle, which it isn’t, but we make it down and up.

It is only a stone’s throw then down to Bakio, where a perfectly nice, free, well-serviced aire awaits. Here is surfing galore so of the many vans parked up a lot are typically bohemian and strewn with the paraphernalia of the sport.

Leaving Bakio we head off towards Comillas, the steady drizzle strengthening into steady rain, which continues throughout the day and is still dropping relentlessly when we arrive to our selected site. On into the evening it rains…and rains. Next morning it is still raining. So the rain in Spain is not restricted to the plain, clearly…

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

There is no quick fix for a garden. At our last house I laboured over the garden for twenty years and waged a constant battle with the difficulties it presented: blustery, coastal breezes, dry, dusty soil with never a sign of a worm, cold winter gales and unforgiving summer sun. I learned to grow things that liked the conditions and gave up on desires for luscious rose bushes, cottage garden displays and tumbling, old English cottage looks in favour of tough, architectural plants like palms and Cordyline, resilient sea-holly and ornamental hops.

After two years of our new [to us], very different garden we continue to wrestle with a challenging set of problems although they are quite different. The dry areas here are caused by large trees and we’ve swapped relentless sun for dominant shade. Dry shade is reputed to be one of the most difficult conditions to address in a garden, this being also exacerbated by slopes. Dry shade slopes.

During our spring expedition three clematis [out of five] turned up their roots and expired due to drought, after which I watered, since we were not subject to a hose pipe ban and fed every last plantlet. In spite of this mildew set in to such traditionally hardy stalwarts as honeysuckle and geraniums.

In our semi-wild garden we are fortunate to see regular wildlife visitors such as foxes, bats and squirrels as well as a large range of wild birds. In late May a speckled juvenile robin became so tame as to perch on my fork as I delved into the compost heap and accompanied me on all evening watering sessions. We christened him ‘Speckle’ and he continues to visit now-although with a handsome red waistcoat and a little less intrepid.

In the dried out lawn bumble bees set up home and have kept us entertained throughout the hot, dry summer with their coming and going. They vary in size from small, agile creatures to gargantuan, furry bombs whose improbable flights are ungainly. They lurch in drunken circles in efforts to land and access the tunnel they’ve constructed.

I hankered after a hedgehog to complete the wildlife in our garden, which should be the perfect habitat-with a miniature copse, piles of leaves, piles of logs, abundant snails, water and all hedgehog mod-cons. We constructed a small hole in the base of the fence to allow access and departure.

I visited the garden late at night with no results, until one morning Husband woke up and spotted one on the grass in broad daylight, just beside the bumble bee nest. He brought me the news: the creature was lying on its back, lifeless. My one and only hedgehog-deceased!

Did it stumble into the environs of the bumble bee nest? Did a fox attack it? Or an owl? We will never know. And I have yet to see a real, live hedgehog availing itself of the garden facilities. Ho hum…

 

 

Playing Host to the Beast

In what is clearly a gift to 24-hour news broadcasters, newspapers and weather people, ‘The Beast from the East’ has chosen to visit the UK. I’m sceptical. I’m inclined to think that this blanket of snow, ice and bitter winds has been engendered by the Russians [or to be clearer, Putin] in order to further de-stabilise poor, beleaguered Europe; to undermine the infra-structures, to disrupt our transport systems, to bring manufacturing to a halt.
Once all this has happened, Russia can flood our [and for the purposes of this post I’m considering we are part of Europe-mere wishful thinking on my part] markets with their own products. So along with the eventual thaw we can expect a deluge of potatoes, petrol, samovars, beetroot and nesting Russian dolls. This is fortunate for me, since I’m partial to beetroot and potatoes and have two small granddaughters, although there is a limit to the quantity of petrol our lawn mower can consume in one season.
Conspiracy theories apart, this late spell of winter sparks the usual flurry of journalistic activity, producing every kind of article from ‘how to care for the homeless’ to ‘what to wear in cold conditions’ to ‘what to carry in the boot of your car in the event of becoming stuck in snow’. This is all very useful and informative-to someone who has recently moved here from Death Valley, California or the Australian Outback. The rest of us are only too aware of what to put on [layers of woolly clothes], how to provide for the homeless [inviting them in to your spare bedroom, lobbying your local council/contributing to homeless charities/adding blankets and scarves to their belongings] and what we should put in our vehicles [hot drinks/blankets/spades].
I know I’m risking eye-rolling as I mention it, but anyone who was born before the 1960s and especially in a rural location will have experienced winter weather in a home without central heating and perhaps without a bathroom. Ice on the insides of windows and across the surface of the cess pit outside in the garden latrine was the norm. We did, of course have lovely, sooty coal fires to sit around and even to bath in front of.
As a child I loved snowy, icy days; loved splintering up the ice on a frozen puddle and making footprints in virgin snow. School playtimes were a riot of fun without any health and safety guidelines or gritting procedures as we worked together to manufacture the longest, smoothest, glassiest, most slippery ice slide imaginable in a diagonal strip that we queued up for whenever we were released from the classroom. We’d return to find our beautiful little, third-of-a-pint milk bottles were filled with lumps of ice so large they had pushed the foil lids up.
This morning we woke in our centrally heated house to find glassy ice had frosted all the windows, creating an interesting, bathroom-type effect; not the fancy, curly patterns I used to find on my bedroom windows as a child but at least this ice is on the outside, which is progress.

Cheering Myself Up-

You have only to take a glancing interest in the news on a regular basis to begin to feel that the world is a gloomy place-and becoming gloomier by the day.

  • In various parts of the world there are the usual, horrific subjugations of parts of society by other parts [such as in Myanmar]. [It is difficult to understand, in this case how a woman with a history of persecution cannot bring herself to support and alleviate the suffering of her fellow countrymen].
  • Ill-conceived and pointless terrorist attempts continue to be made-the latest a horrific explosion on an underground train in London, in which a number of innocent people were injured for merely going about their business.
  • In the UK a debt mountain is growing and threatening to eclipse all previous peaks.
  • The USA and North Korea between them seem to have decided to blow the planet to smithereens.
  • Our beleaguered health service is [yet again] facing a crisis winter without sufficient resources, staff or funding, although if the previous story goes the full chapter the health service will not be necessary…

But overall, all of these grim stories almost pale into irritations compared to the ghastly weather incidents that have been occurring on an increasing scale this year. The Caribbean and the Eastern part of North America has seen devastating events as has Asia, with hurricanes, unrelenting rain, flooding and ravaging winds destroying the lives, homes and livelihoods of thousands.

Can there be anyone left other than Donald Trump who still refuses to believe that the Earth’s climate is changing?

I can’t help feeling we have an obligation at least to know about terrible news events, rather than ignoring it all. But knowing can induce a sensation of helplessness-even despair. In order to mitigate these reactions I determined to trawl through the news and attempt to find some uplifting, heartening or entertaining snippets:

  • The Handmaid’s Tale, a book I read some years ago and recently watched on TV has won the prestigious Emmy award. And quite right, too! Margaret Atwood is one of my favourite writers with her thought-provoking tales of dystopian futures.
  • Some wonderful movie posters dating from the 1930s and 1940s have been discovered under a carpet near Cardiff in Wales, UK. They were sold at auction for £72,000. I like to hear that discoveries such as this are still possible!
  • A Polish lemonade company wanted to market a new product and call it ‘John Lemon’. What a relief they were stopped! Yoko Ono massed some big legal guns; now it’s to be called ‘On Lemon’ which would be unlikely to offend anyone.
  • A Welsh [yes, Wales again] teenager walked up Mount Snowdon [for the uninitiated this is the highest peak in England and Wales] wearing only his underwear, in order to raise money for a dementia charity. He gained the top but became very ill with hypothermia, having not realised that the temperature would be considerably colder than at the base of the mountain. Fortunately the lad was transported down on the train and treated by paramedics. That he recovered goes without saying-or I would not have included the story in the ‘uplifting’ section.

There you have it! Bad news/good news-a game we played as children. The second list was harder to find. Make of it what you will…

Think Yourself Lucky!

It is generally agreed by those of us who live here in the UK that 2017’s summer has been, at best, disappointing. Other than one or two early heat waves, when you had to take to the shade or expire, the traditional July and August holiday’s weather has been unpredictable, heavy showers alternating with wind and cloud, occasional bright patches but never a sustained period of warm sunshine.

This has been good for some; UK tourism is booming [see last week’s post] with ancient monuments, museums, attractions and theme parks all doing well. Other customary, outdoor summer events such as festivals have fared less well, with many having been cancelled altogether.

As a teenager and a young adult I adored hot weather. There was never a hint that exposure to hot sun could be in any way detrimental to health. On a [somewhat abortive, though that is a different story told in an older post] trip with fellow students to southern Europe I equipped myself with some dubious tablets that purported to allow tanning without burning, thus imbuing me with the confidence to strip off and fry myself to a crisp. Later, with the advent of sunblock creams I became more circumspect but nevertheless continued to sunbathe in the interests of maintaining a glowing, tanned skin.

For many retirees a home in the sun is a longed for goal with the result that areas like the Spanish Med are crowded with ageing ex-pats, [many of whom were further encouraged by the ability to draw their pension and enjoy free healthcare whilst living in Europe-benefits that may not, now sustain].

Despite the few remaining climate change deniers, such as Trump, our weather patterns are altering. We bemoaning Brits may grumble about our ropey summers, but southern Europe has begun to experience heat waves with unprecedented frequency and to extremes. Will those who abandoned Great Britain for warmer climes be able to manage life in the dangerously high temperatures we have begun to see?

Myself, while I love the sunshine as much as anyone else I am no longer able to tolerate the punishing heat that I used to enjoy when young and this is a feature of older age. Extreme heat is dangerous for older people as it is for the very young. We travel widely in Europe, Husband and I-but outside of high summer, in late spring or early autumn, when the edge of heat is no longer there, nor are the crowds.

I am as guilty as anyone of moaning about the British weather, but perhaps we Brits should consider ourselves lucky that we are not yet too drought-ridden and baked to live our lives here. We are starting to see the impact of too much rain on our country’s crops and we are prey to floods but other, less lucky parts of the world are seeing far worse conditions. Perhaps a cloudy, breezy, showery summer is not so bad after all!

 

Good News, Bad News

January is a bleak month in the northern hemisphere, even in the most optimistic of times. But add in the various crises and daily, grim news bulletins and it becomes a cold drizzle of misery. The good news is that, like all time, it passes. ‘Tomorrow is another day’ and similar clichés are reminders.

Remember that old game, ‘The Good News, The Bad News’? Well here it is:

The Bad News

Inflation is rising faster than we in the UK imagined, everyone is going to have to work until they’re eighty six and the pound is floundering against just about every currency except Malawi. This is due to a misguided belief by tabloid readers and fans of the ghastly Michael Gove and Boris Johnson that we have somehow ‘reclaimed’ our sceptred isle.

The Good News

                Holidays in the UK might be better value than exotic climes. If you enjoy British cuisine, wet, windswept seaside resorts, austere B&Bs and gift shops selling red telephone box fridge magnets you’ll be laughing.

The Bad News

                A corrupt, racist, misogynistic sex abuser has been chosen to be the most powerful leader in the world.

The Good News

                The possibilities for the arts are endless. Satirical comedy, music, cartoon and parody can know no bounds. The only drawback is that now, before January has ended and the ‘president elect’ has barely been sworn in most of us are sick to the back teeth of hearing about him.

The Bad News

                Here in the UK our treasured National Health Service is beginning to cave in under the pressure of lack of funds and personnel and weight of sick people. The NHS could function SO much better without all the sick people. Most of them are elderly. The population of elderly is growing, further compounding the NHS difficulties.

The Good News

                Most sick, old people turning up at hospitals right now are lining the corridors on trolleys. There are many benefits to this. For one thing, there are enough of them to form little communities, thus solving the problem of old-age loneliness. They’ll no doubt be enjoying a rousing sing-song even as I write and forming lasting [albeit short-lived] friendships. Another benefit is that some of them, whilst either waiting for attention or having heart attacks from all the community singing will croak, conveniently freeing up a trolley space for another old bid.

The Bad News

                Owing to unseasonable, inclement weather in the southerly parts of Europe courgettes are in short supply. Spain, which is a major supplier of these vegetables is experiencing freezing temperatures and snow, affecting their development. It’s terrible news for the ‘clean eating’ brigade and those who seek to replace pasta with courgette ribbons. What on earth will they do?

The Good News

                Courgettes are useless, tasteless, pointless little objects and only palatable when sautéed in butter as an accompaniment to fish. I recommend replacing them with lovely, creamy pasta or incorporating them into something in which the other components have some flavour. Save yourself the trouble of searching for them!

Roll on February!