I have travelled quite extensively around my area of the world but every now and then one finds a gem that has been missed in the past. In our recent trip to South Australia we went to Robe, in the South East corner not far from Mt Gambier. It is situated on an attractive bay. A stone obelisk on Cape Dombey which guided ships to the harbour, is still extant.
In the mid-1800s it was South Australia’s second busiest port. At this time Chinese migrants wishing to avoid Victoria’s arrival tax landed here and walked the 400 kilometres to Ballarat. It is estimated that 16000 travelled this path! The port became redundant with the advent of the railways and the wool and sheepskins which had previously been exported from here found another way of reaching their destinations.
What remains however is an attractive village which, by Australian standards, contains a collection of fine historical buildings – houses, churches and pubs. It is quite a treat to wander around the village with the aid of a pamphlet produced by the local council.
Today it is a holiday retreat with a protected marina for the keen fishermen. The fine old buildings are interspersed with modern units and houses. The town is alive and active but its C21st life is a far cry from the square riggers finding safe harbour here over 150 years ago.
In the future I would like to write more about this city but here are some glimpses to whet the appetite.
One of our favourite painters is Joachim Sorolla whose understanding of light and family infuses his paintings. On this occasion we didn’t enter the gallery but Hetty went to the bookshop and I wandered around the garden of what was originally his home.
Madrid is surrounded by huge parks, in part, because of it monarchist past. One is Retiro park with a lake and its own Crystal Palace.
The Museum of Archeology has an excellent collection that is beautifully presented. Spain is saturated in Roman sites and this part of their history shone.
I said a while back I would write a few things about Lisbon.
Lisbon is an amazing city! It has a population of about 3 million people but it is the old city that grabs the most attention. It’s history, buildings, culture and people meld into an intoxicating mixture.
We went to the Lisbon Story Centre on the main Comércio square. It is an excellent narration of the history of the city: it’s origins, colonial period, the earthquake of 1755 and its emergence from dictatorship in 1974 – with its secret code in the Eurovision Song Contest.
Armed with this background we explored! The famous 28E tram takes you through the old town and gives the tourist an excellent overview of this part of Lisbon. The problem with the 28E tram is that it is popular. It is Tokyo style peak hour all day. Tourists are jammed into these tiny trams, hanging out of windows and squashed cheek and jowl all the way. We did it once but only once. I had no interest in getting to know the other tourists this well. The locals know that you catch the bus or metro – not as exotic but more effective and pleasant.
We did all the touristy things – castles, churches and etc. but one place needs a special mention – The National Tile Museum – Museu Nacional do Azulejo. Its display and presentation of the ceramic tiles so clearly visible throughout Spain and Portugal was amazing. The history, development and variety were displayed professionally in an old convent whose space was used very effectively.
But Lisbon highlights a problem. Tourists overrun the city. I felt guilty being there. It seems that the lives of the local inhabitants needs to make way for the influx of tourists where 3 cruise ship can disgorge over 10000 people into the middle of the old town in one hit. I haven’t felt the same in other places. Even Barcelona, in the past, was not that crazy, however, on this occasion although loving Lisbon I breathed a little easier once I had left.
Being in Spain for a few months has shown me many aspects of this beautiful country. In the north we travelled a bit around the area of Estella and Pamplona, and then to the west around Logrono and Burgos. The people seem friendly enough and there is a strong sense of community, but they’re reluctant to let you into their lives. A returning wave and a smile is the most you can expect.
But they are hardworking, and this is especially evident when you look at the countryside. Every available field is being cultivated. Much of it was with vineyards. As we continued our trip, to the southwest and into Portugal, the landscape opened up to wide expanses of farmlands. But this was different. It was a harsh land, full of rocks and boulders. Every fence, every building, every road, was made from the rocks of the fields. It was dry country, yet it was productive. Cattle grazed between the boulders. And every so often we saw an ‘orchard’ of solar panels set out in neat rows. There were lots of sunflower crops ready for harvest too. This was a harsh environment but it was far from barren.
In the region of Extramadura we saw the best examples of how this country uses every resource to its maximum capacity. I have been told this region is extremely challenging. A rugged terrain, a hot, dry climate, and a people to match. Our first foray into Extramadura was the Valley of Cherries in the north. It was high in the hills, deep ravines, steep hillsides. But every inch was under the cultivation of cherries. The terraced land had rows and rows of cherry trees as far as you could see. Further south we encountered the hundreds of olive groves, the vineyards, the cork trees, and the sheep and cattle. Near Zafra we saw fields of oak trees, and on a day’s excursion to the south of the town we saw so many of these trees we asked someone why. The famous Iberian jamon comes from pigs that feast on the acorns that fall from the trees every October.
As if there weren’t enough resources on the surface to avail themselves of, the Spanish also use the wind and the sun for electricity production. Centuries old windmills sit alongside new wind turbines on the ridges. And then today as we drove through the hills towards Córdoba we saw coal mines and cement production facilities. It seems as if Spaniards have had thousands of years to learn how to get the most from their country, and it is equally true to say they are willing to embrace new technologies to continue doing this into the future.
Extremadura. It sounds like a cooking term but it is actually a region of Spain sandwiched between Andalusia, Portugal, Castile La Mancha and Castile & León. It is the driest, most arid part of Spain but is flooded with history. Imagine north west Victoria/South Australia with Roman ruins. Many people from the area tried to escape the harshness of this place in the past and were part of the expeditionary armies of the C16&17th. Some brought back loot and fame.
This area is also know for the Iberian black pig which is let out when the acorns fall to the ground so they can munch on this fruit. Little do the pigs realise that this makes their pound of flesh all the more desirable. It becomes the most sought after, and therefore most expensive, jamon.
Roman ruins are widely spread throughout this area. Merida and Badajoz are well known for their ruins but further south a few kilometres outside the small town of Casas de Reina there is a vast Roman site that includes a theatre. For generations the locals knew it as the place of the ‘thick wall’ but were unaware what archeology lay underneath. Houses, shops, temple and other buildings have all been discovered at this spot.
The white towns with their squares are full of life – particularly after five pm when families come out. Children play and parents and grandparents natter over a drink and tapas.
After leaving Caceres we headed towards Portugal. The first surprise was the range of landscapes from dry paddocks filled with granite boulders, reminiscent of places in Australia, through to lush valleys covered in crops and orchards. Closer to Portugal there were tree plantations and even gum trees that were at home in their element.
The biggest surprise was the Roman bridge on the on the Tagus River at Alcantara – quite a magnificent structure despite having been damaged in wars over the centuries.
We then moved to the coast of Portugal staying a night Figuiera da Foz. The camping ground wasn’t much to write home about but the sunset was beautiful and surfers enjoyed their time in the water. In the morning we drove to Sao Martinho do Porto, a beautiful harbour and clearly a popular seaside resort. Here we bought a Portuguese version of a churro which was large, hollow and filled with chocolate. The eyes of my child bride glowed with delight. They also had paddle boats with their own water slide which I thought was an interesting innovation. Then we moved onto Perniche, a fascinating town, although another seaside resort, built in and around an old fortress. In the past this was clearly and important harbour. The geology was also amazing. A trip around the peninsula gives the Great Ocean Road a run for its money. It was covered in rock outcrops, tessellated rock platforms and craggy moonscapes.
Finally we drove to Lisboa but that is a story for another day.
Today was going to be the first day of our drive around Spain and Portugal. I had booked a hire car near the pension where we were staying. A short walk and we would be on our way. With confidence and masculine authority I led my trusting wife to the Avis office only to find it had changed hands and was no longer Avis. Made some calls with International Roaming flying through my credit. It is a couple of kms further down the road. I left trusting bride in a hotel lobby that was willing for her to sit there, and marched up the road. I felt as though I was walking clear of Burgos and the numbers on the buildings had disappeared. I looked down an alleyway and there at the end, 20 businesses away, was the Avis Budget office. Beautifully hidden and camouflaged in a way to keep customers on their toes.
They offered me an upgrade – ‘a cheebrid’. A what? ‘A cheebrid- electricity and gas.’ Oh, a hybrid I muttered to myself.
Papers signed, Keys handed over, and I started the car like any normal car and I drove off. Picked up patient bride with car starting normally and headed out of town. We then stopped in a picnic area to have lunch. It was time to go. Car wouldn’t start. Tried and tried again. Translated instrument panel Spanish into English. Nothing! Called RACE, the Royal Automobile Club of España. My mechanic friend turned up and informed me that once the battery is charged it doesn’t make broom, broom noises. Very sheepishly and exceptionally quietly, I drove away.
I am now in Segovia licking my wounds but my bride is very understanding.
I learned two things today. 1. God’s house needs cleaning. We were in an old church in Burgos enjoying the peace and serenity. I had spent some time in prayer and was about to walk about and look at the art and statues when the cleaning ladies arrived. Dressed in white, armed with mops, buckets and cleaning cloths they swept into the building. Bang! Bang! Bang! As the kneeling rails were raised. Screech as doors hundreds of years old yielded to their unbending resolve. Cleaning materials were scattered over the floor, as the ladies chattered and rushed with purpose as they went to work. The lady at the altar unconcerned over its reverence and holiness scrubbed with gusto and without any genuflection. They had clearly done this many times before and were going to ensure it was done right. I snuck out of one of the huge doors now open to the world with one thought; I suppose God’s houses need cleaning too.
The second thing I learned: I then went to the Burgos Cathedral where I had been before but I wanted to see the museum and historical artefacts again. I was caught behind a group of nuns as they were being shown through. Every time they came to a significant artefact they whipped out their mobile smart phones and took pictures. Now, nuns with mobile phones was not a concept I had ever thought about or considered. These ethereal, other worldly creatures wielding smartphones with dexterity and aplomb was not a thought I had ever consciously considered. The brides of Christ with smartphones – my second lesson for the day.
Last night we had the first night of a two day festival in Villamayor. The towns in the valley take it in turn to host this event. Although next weekend it is followed by the town festival as well. The evening started with lots of Spanish sausages, bacon and sardines all squashed into pieces of pan rustica, a long loaf like a French stick, washed down with local wines. This was followed at 10:30pm by a bull made out of a drum, bike wheels and other metal bits and pieces chasing children down the street with fireworks coming out of its tail. The kids screamed with delight as it chased them up and down the street. I suppose this is all in preparation for the real thing in Pamplona or another major city when they get older. And then, to finish off the evening a punk band with a rude name played strange music until after midnight. Some of the locals who were well lubricated by this time caroused into the night, or should I say, early morning and took one of our clothes line for a walk.
In yesterday’s blog (Discomforting Conversations)there was one person I didn’t mention. Accompanying the ex solder was a young lady. She was quiet, calm and occasionally acted as his translator when his words weren’t forthcoming. From where I was sitting she was everything he needed – support, encouragement and most of all, a comforting presence.
It made me think that we all need people like that in our lives with their words of comfort, support, challenge and even those words that cause self reflection.
For those with a Christian faith this can have an even greater dimension as the words and encouragement don’t need come from ourselves but can come from the very presence of God Himself.