Sunday, 30 November 2008

Vila Nova de Gaia: Graham Lodge

Returning to Porto, we found ourselves rather overwhelmed by hospitality. We had been recommended a hotel, offered dinner, given two introductions to the Graham Lodge, and lent a book about the Douro Quintas! This last was inscribed (to our friend Jane Blunden) by Fr. José Cabral de Ferreira, a member of one of the oldest port families and a Jesuit priest, retired from teaching anthropology at Porto University.

Because of the timing of our Graham's visit we thought that, before checking in at our hotel, we should walk up to the Cathedral from São Bento: later it would be closed. More wonderful tiles, in the cloister! Then, on arrival at the hotel reception when we were already running late, there was Fr. José, maps and guide books to hand, waiting to show us round his home city. Oh dear! Would he by any chance mind accompanying us to a rival family's port lodge? Of course not, he said graciously; and so it was that the three of us made our way over the high bridge to Vila Nova de Gaia.

The Douro Valley: Chanceleiros

From Pinhão the road winds giddily up the hillside for five km, eventually reaching the hamlet of Chanceleiros. There - upon Paul Hall's kind recommendation - we had booked in to stay the night, at the Casa do Visconde de Chanceleiros. Definitely, our best billet!

We were the only guests, but nothing was too much trouble for the redoubtable Adelaide Lopes and her colleague. Before dinner, Ursula Böcking, the Casa's saviour a decade or more ago, came to chat. We sipped white port with her in the drawing-room after a peaceful walk round the village: lost, we were guided gracefully back onto the road by the couple into whose garden we had strayed.

In the morning after a delicious breakfast, we walked further afield. Mist lay below us; we could hear those working to prune the vines across the valley, smoke curling up from bonfires of the clippings. A fabulous place.

The Douro Valley: speak your weight

The two-and-a-half hour journey from Porto up to Pinhão was hardly the most comfortable of our holiday, but the views - after we joined the Douro - were completely absorbing. Steeply-banked vineyards - a couple of rows of vines on each terraced "shelf" - rise up to a great height above the river. Goodness knows with what effort the grapes eventually arrive at the quintas!

Until half a century ago, the river ran fast, and flat-bottomed rabelos took the full barrels on a perilous journey 100km or more down-stream to Vila Nova de Gaia, across the river from Porto. Now, more prosaically, they travel in tanker trucks; and the river's power is harnessed for hydroelectricity.

It's not just the views that made this excursion worthwhile. Pinhão station is as beautiful as São Bento in its own way, with blue-tiled scenes both front and back. And during the long breather the train takes at Régua, we watched whilst the platform's weighing machine was opened up and given a thorough dusting by a smartly-dressed lady. Then there arrived the expert, whom we took to be her father, with his tools to make the necessary adjustments. Good team work.

Porto: São Bento

From Lisbon, we travelled Northwards, changing trains in Porto before a much-anticipated trip inland, alongside the Douro river. At the main Porto station, we first caught a train to the more central station, São Bento - St. Benedict: appropriate, as our mentors over the next couple of days would - with a single exception - be connections via Ampleforth.

São Bento station took first prize of any we passed through on our 36-train journey: it is lined with around 20,000 tiles, portraying episodes in Portuguese history including the 12th Century battle against the Spanish at Arcos de Valdevez. Worth the detour!

Lisbon: Alfama

Not far from Thomas's flat in the Largo da Graça lies the oldest, and still one of the poorest, districts of Lisbon. This scene in the Rua da Regueira exemplifies tha Alfama: a family lives above its small shop, the washing dries outside the window from which the caged bird's song melds into the noise of traffic - cars in the narrow street always threatening to knock over the produce. Worse still must it be to live on the Number 28 tram route: this climbs precipitously from below the Cathedral, the driver having to get out every now and then to help his colleague in an oncoming tram push a car out of the way.

What a contrast to the sweeping modernity of the Vasco da Gama Bridge, the Centro Cultural de Belém and the fabulous Gulbenkian Museum!

Saturday, 29 November 2008

Portugal: Sines

From Toledo, we travelled back to Madrid, and thence overnight to Lisbon. Coming off the train (still swaying to the motion) Thomas met us - after a somewhat anxious wait - with a hire car; and we were soon on our way Southwards across the Vasco da Gama Bridge (the longest in Europe) in the warm Portuguese sunshine.

He had selected Sines for our out of town experience - a couple of hours away from Lisbon. The road was empty, as was the coastline when we arrived nearby. We walked along the deserted beach: I resisted Thomas's urging to me to swim, even when he pointed out an area of specially warm water - just by a power station outlet.

Sines boasts a world music festival - in the Summer - and a magnificent Centro Cultural Emmerico Nunes: Caroline disliked this building intensely, while I was rather impressed. It did look odd, though, stuck in between the closely-packed, small-scale white houses and shops of the little town centre. Just further South along the coast is the rather more charming Porto Covo: we visited it the next day (in even warmer sunshine).

Meanwhile, in Sines we ate our best-yet fresh fish, grilled, sitting outside the little restaurant A Castello, near to the birthplace of the said Vasco da Gama whose statue towers over the harbour.

Friday, 28 November 2008

Toledo: Spouting friar

Caroline pointed out to me the cloister of the 15th Century Monasterio de San Juan de los Reyes in Toledo's Jewish quarter's extraordinary array of water spouts. Alongside this praying friar are a pair of protruding legs (booted); a boy with bow and arrow; a frog mounted on a fish; a cat, ears pricked and ready to pounce on its prey; a monkey; a young man carrying water; what looks like a dragon; an eagle with captive owl; a man playing the pipes - and others difficult to describe, but equally intricate. All, a tribute to the ingenuity and sense of fun of those intensely skilled craftsmen of 600 years ago.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Salamanca: two-cathedral city

On 31st October, after saying goodbye to the Russells at Madrid Chamartin - they were off to Bilbao and home - we caught a Pendolino for the next leg of our trip. We glimpsed the huge Escorial (mausoleum/palace/monastery), and - with the sun setting behind it - the walled city of Avila, both World Heritage Sites, en route to a third, Salamanca. My expectations for this city were not that high. Knowing Oxford and (a little of) Cambridge, I couldn't believe that Salamanca would be comparable. It isn't. It's far better!

We were fortunate to have chosen a hotel well-placed for its view over the city: the Parador must be the ugliest building in Salamanca, but at least looking out from it you are spared looking at it. On our arrival there, all the main buildings were floodlit (er, yes, energy-wasteful, but magical all the same).

Before dinner - we were still getting used to Spanish hours - my young cousin Martin Williams and his charming fiancée Victoria led us through car-free (and, cf Oxford, bus-free) streets to the 12th Century, circular church of San Marcos for mass to celebrate the vigil of All Saints; and - the following day - they guided us again round the two great cathedrals, the church of San Esteban and the Pontifical University (with its Mudejar ceilings and library of 60,000 pre-19th Century books). In warm sunshine, we marvelled inside the Casa Lis, temple to Art Nouveau, and more still at Plaza Mayor: the world's grandest open-air drawing-room.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Madrid: pictures, pictures and more pictures

Our train whizzed along at great speed from Valencia to Madrid: we could watch the onboard video, listen to a choice of music (headphones provided by Renfe), or - as I did - gaze out of the window at the passing sierras, noting the wind farms en route: we saw them everywhere on our journey through Europe, but none more than in Spain - a sign of hope.

Madrid was one of two pivots for our trip: Thomas's move to Lisbon was the other. Majestic Wine came up with an amazing offer in August: buy a case of Marqués de la Concordia wine through them and you could stay for two nights free in the Marqués de la Concordia private Wine Club in the Barrio de Salamanca, the so-called Mayfair of Madrid. As Caroline and I had always wanted to visit the Prado, it was a no brainer. The bad news was that Caroline missed seeing anything of the Prado, either its permanent collection or the great Rembrandt exhibition, because of an enforced day in bed. The good news was that there was no more comfortable bed in which to spend a day during our entire trip. The Quinta turned out to be more luxy than any hotel we could have afforded.

Happily, we had persuaded our good friends Colin and Jessica to buy a case of Marqués de la Concordia too, so it was all four of us who had travelled together from Paris to end up here in Madrid. And we did all four together manage to visit and enjoy the two other big Madrid galleries, the elegant Thyssen and the excellent Reina Sofia: Guernica hangs there, a worthy setting.

After my day at the Prado in the presence of masterpieces by Velazquez and Rembrandt, I felt more comfortable with Velazquez, especially after seeing Las Menenias. Picasso's series based on that great work (dating from 1957: we had seen it in the Barcelona Picasso Museum) seems trivial beside the real thing.

Just being in Madrid is inspiring, even when you don't do any conventional sightseeing.

Valencia: L'Oceanogràfic

Aquariums are not normally my scene. I did however enjoy the one I went to in 1998 with Leo, when we were in Sydney. And Valencia's was certainly good for a once-in-a-decade visit. You can't fail to be staggered by the variety of underwater species here, this sea horse being one of my favourites, second only to the amazing sea dragon (but that was even harder to photograph).

We didn't have too long to look round, having arrived rather late in the day after taking too long over our lunchtime paella: for this, we took up Nick Rawlinson's suggestion and booked into a place on the Malvarrosa beach - Restaurante la Carmela: memorable. But just as well we hadn't visited L'Oceanogràfic before lunch: it might have put us off what we were eating.

L'Oceanogràfic is in buildings designed by Felix Candela, which lie alongside the extraordinary City of Arts and Sciences, developed by Santiago Calatrava. This is still work in progress, but what is already there - planetarium, science museum, bridges etc. - makes a huge impact on the city of Valencia (which is footing the bill). Personally, I prefer the Frank Gehry architecture of the Bilbao Guggenheim to the new work in Valencia, but perhaps I should return when it's all completed.

There are plenty of temptations to go back: we didn't allow ourselves time for more than a quick look at the graceful Lonja (or Silk Exchange), said to be the jewel of European Gothic civil architecture, or the splendid Cathedral with its translucent (alabaster) lantern windows. But (as I've already mentioned) we did manage to get to hear Gustavo Dudamel conducting the Göteborgs Symfoniker in Nielsen's 4th Symphony, preceded by a performance of the Sibelius concerto by violinist Sergey Khachatryan: a wonderful concert (only spoilt by various people in front of us apparently wanting to record it on their cameras and phones).

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Barcelona: La Sagrada Família

We came away from our two days in Barcelona with so many contrasting impressions that it is hard to choose just one. Having had my rucksack (with cash, credit cards etc.) snatched from beside my seat in a bar, my first thought is of the number of needy people Barcelona must contain, living off unwary tourists the year round. What makes me feel stupid is that several friends had specifically warned me of the risk. But we moved on to Valencia in the same train as members of the Göteborgs Symfoniker, some of whom suffered a worse fate - being personally attacked on the beach after their Palau de la Musica concert the night before.

The good memories far outweigh the bad though: mass in Catalan in Sta María del Mar; drinking cava outside afterwards; discovering - rather against my will - the intimate delights of the Picasso Museum, such a contrast to the Louvre and Musée d'Orsay the day before; walking in Parc Guëll; exploring the Boqueria Market and Las Ramblas - all in sunny, warm October weather.

But the highspot for me was Gaudi's La Sagrada Família, not so much a place of worship as a crowded building site, with workmen smoking, listening to their iPods and chatting on mobile phones as we snailed round the perimeter of the interior. The exterior is another matter altogether: the South transept entrance adorned with quite conventional carvings depicting the Nativity, whilst the other side, the Façade of the Passion, is covered with the most striking Holy Week scenes, culminating in this extraordinary Christ Crucified, and Veronica's veil transformed into a death mask. An indelible impression!

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Paris: Musée d'Orsay

It was our first visit to Paris for many years: the last time I saw Cézanne's Achille Emperaire, it was hanging in the Jeu de Paume. That means we can't have been there for at least 22 years: the old station building on Quai d'Orsay was opened as the great museum it is by François Mitterrand in December 1986.

The obvious comparison is with Tate Modern, also built round a cavernous main hallway. You can't compare the pictures, but as a gallery it seems to me that Musée d'Orsay wins hands down.

After a relatively cursory look round the collection either side of lunch - there are 80 separate galleries: we shall have to go back! - we walked in the sunshine across the Pont Royal to the Louvre, to see their great Mantegna exhibition. One of my very favourite artists: what a day! All we missed out was hiring a Vélib'.

1st stop, London

As we had more than an hour in hand before our Eurostar check in, we donned our backpacks and walked round from King's Cross to the just-opened Kings Place (sic - no apostrophe!), designed by Dixon-Jones. (This is the view looking upwards from our lunch table.)

Kings Place forms the new headquarters for the Guardian and the Observer, and also of the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The basement concert hall wasn't open to view, but we saw and enjoyed the contemporary art: it's the (London) home too of Pangolin Editions as well as the Gallery providing a large exhibition space. The whole set-up looks pretty amazing to me, opening out as it does onto the canal and Battlebridge Basin.

Out of training

Four weeks ago today we were in Paris on the first leg of our InterRail holiday, from which we have just returned. Having embarked at Cheltenham Station, this - our first train - was late, our carriage door was stuck and the loo was blocked. I won't say every continental conveyance - we also had goes on metros, trams, buses and even a funicular - was perfect by contrast. They did all however run to time and were mostly more comfortable than our dear First Great Western.

We are still digesting it all (assisted by 900 photographs). Apart from our 36 trains, we clocked up six capital cities, 11 art galleries, 13 cathedrals, 17 World Heritage Sites - well yes, this does include a couple we saw from the train - and slept in 22 different beds. No opera and only one concert - but what a concert (Dudamel conducting the Göteborgs Symfoniker in Nielsen). Good food (and drink). Meetings with old and new friends, and much kindness of strangers. Hardly any rain, and really warm at times.

Low point: my bag was snatched in Barcelona, complete with credit cards and €100 - boring to say the least, and chastening in view of the specific warnings friends had given us.

More later perhaps, but must now get on with the thank you letters!

Friday, 21 November 2008

The house opposite

We returned from our travels last evening to find the house opposite had been sold. Which is rather galling, when you consider how hard we tried to sell our house throughout the first nine months of this year!

The comfort is that we continue to have this nice view across the road looking out upon an evidently attractive property. With its characterful bargeboarding, it was indeed picked out as a "key unlisted building" in Cheltenham Borough Council's Park Character Area Appraisal and Management Plan (part of their recently-published local development framework). Meanwhile, its new owners look back on our Cinderella semi, stubbornly unsold.

But no longer am I going to be able to put, for the return address on the back of envelopes that I commit to the post, my name "Davis M" with just our postcode; because the house over the road, which is in the same postcode area, evidently has for its new owner a "Mr M Davies" - judging by mail already delivered here while we were away, and opened by me in error late last night!