(for Mam, who loved a bargain holiday, and Dad, who loved Yugoslavia)

Thursday, January 21, 2010

A Taste of the Camino de Santiago

Oh my poor feet!
Don’t know what to call this one. Is it a bargain break? (Sure is). Is it a pilgrimage? (Yes, of course. That’s what it’s supposed to be). But couldn't you call it a green trek? A sunshine holiday abroad? A life-changing experience? A sign of the times? Start of an obsession?

When I joined my two friends, they had already clocked up enough miles to get a certificate if ever they made it to Santiago. They had pilgrim passports with colourful stamps, and they had warm, painful and life-enhancing stories to recall. I knew they weren’t going to give up at that point, but  I wasn’t so sure about myself. I had arrived by aeroplane, coach, taxi and bus to a town around 40 km east of Santiago. They had been on the road since just after dawn and were in full stride. I was utterly unfit from a prolonged sedentary job  and immediately set a mileage clock in my head and started an obsessive countdown. A long-legged friend who had gone at the camino multiple ways over the years had told me with derision of seeing a bus dropping awl wans (old ones if you are not Irish) a few miles out of Santiago to stagger the last bit into town. Quelle horreur!, I didn’t say.

I love walking, though I am no longer any good at it. Tommy Tiernan, the thinking man’s comedian, calls it a great cure for madness. Next to my slimbo friends I was Gulliver in Lilliput. I can truly say I passed no one in a poorer condition of fitness than myself (though it's not like I passed anyone anyway). But no matter. I am only saying this to encourage the hesitant.

In less than an hour after meeting we were so deep in the country, green country – in burnt out heat-desiccated SPAIN! - that the bliss of that offset the developing blisters. It was tough going sometimes. Still hot in September, hilly - and of course it was unknown terrain. But just when it seemed like you might want to stab a pilgrim for a shot of coffee, in the middle of nowhere you would round a bend and there, sitting under a canopy of trees, was the thing you had dreamed of on every hike you ever did – an aromatic little café with snacks, bottled water, shade and chairs! Something else was noticeable too. Very reasonable prices, sympathetic mutual wincing between strangers in the queue and at the  tables outside. Camaraderie! And tangible efforts by the woman behind the counter to understand and accommodate. I hadn’t experienced that for a while on my travels.

Left to my own devices I might have sat under one of those trees for the afternoon, but the arrival and departure of pilgrims helps maintain a pace, lends a mild sense of urgency to get to the next milestone, or nearest albergue for the night.

We continued on through forests of eucalyptus, past decorated horreos (grainstores) and fields of corn and cabbage that reminded me of Ireland, but an Ireland that had pole-shifted down to summer holiday land, so that alongside the cabbages were peaches and vines, though not vineyards (this was the French Way). I did 15 kms that day. My companions added 24 to their awesome, mounting tally. We passed a fellow who had walked from northern France in a series of seasons. When someone strode past at a clip or swept by on a bicycle there was always an acknowledgement, or a Poco pocito! if they were Spanish and you looked knackered. 

When we got to the albergue, there was a cheerful masochist from Northern Ireland with a 40 kg rucksack who had prepared for the trek across the Pyrenees by running up hills in Donegal in several coats with the bag on his back. He was planning to do another route as soon as he got to Santiago. I should say the goal of the pilgrimage is to get to the Cathedral of St James in Santiago from wherever you start out, along waymarked routes, at whatever pace is comfortable for you, or uncomfortable enough for you if you want to make a Lough Derg of it. You can cycle, and a great many French and Spaniards flew past us on wheels. Purists can be scornful of the cyclists, but St James probably doesn’t object and neither do the owners of small hostelries and cafes who were saved from emigration and indigence by the Camino de Santiago and the happy mix of pilgrims and hikers and cheapskate holidaymakers who walk the landscape of Galicia from spring to autumn every year.

St James

St James, or St Iago, son of Zebedee and Salome, was one of Jesus’ earliest apostles, along with his brother John. Executed by the sword of King Herod Agrippa I in person, James’ remains are said to be held in Santiago de Compostela in western Galicia, regarded as the third holiest city in Roman Catholicism. He is the patron saint of Spain and his feast day is 25 July. This year, ie 2010, is a Jubilee year, when the feast day falls on a Sunday and record numbers of pilgrims are expected, with up to 200,000 qualifying for a certificate, or Compostela. You get a Compostela (with your name spelt in Latin) if you show that you have completed 100 kms (200 kms for cyclists).

Here is a little more about the beloved saint from Wikipedia:

According to ancient local tradition, on 2 January of the year AD 40, the Virgin Mary appeared to James on the bank of the Ebro River at Caesaraugusta, while he was preaching the Gospel in Iberia. She appeared upon a pillar, Nuestra Señora del Pilar, and that pillar is conserved and venerated within the present Basilica of Our Lady of the Pillar, in Zaragoza, Spain. Following that apparition, St James returned to Judea, where he was beheaded by King Herod Agrippa I in the year 44.[5][6]

“The translation of his relics from Judea to Galicia in the northwest of Iberia was effected, in legend, by a series of miraculous happenings: decapitated in Jerusalem with a sword by Herod Agrippa himself, his body was taken up by angels, and sailed in a rudderless, unattended boat to Iria Flavia in Iberia, where a massive rock closed around his relics, which were later removed to Compostela. An even later tradition states that he miraculously appeared to fight for the Christian army during the battle of Clavijo, and was henceforth called Matamoros (Moor-slayer). Santiago y cierra España ("St James and strike for Spain") has been the traditional battle cry of Spanish armies.”
“St James the Moorslayer, one of the most valiant saints and knights the world ever had ... has been given by God to Spain for its patron and protection.”    Cervantes, Don Quixote

It wouldn’t be religion unless all this was disputed by scholars, sceptics, rivals and barflies, so there is a lot more on the subject here.  

One thing about the Irish – they love a good pilgrimage. They love all the blisters and sprains, the frozen ankles (the Pyrenees) and the hunger. Another thing is they don’t mind having a good laugh and sharing the memory of the pain over a good meal and a few drinks in a warm hostel. We met a disproportionate number of Irish – or that was my recollection anyway on my 2-day sample of the camino, for which I got no Compostela (30 km at a stretch) but lost a small toenail from tight boots. We spent one night in an albergue and the other sharing a triple hotel room. The albergue served up crisp sheets, hot showers, Galician soup and ruby rich wine from the Ribeira Sacra. The next morning we got lost, found our way again and rambled and then trudged (I did anyway) through more fragrant eucalyptus woods, past farms and orchards to a smart looking hotel just 10 kms from Santiago where we fell into another reasonably priced pilgrim meal, followed by the sleep of the dead. My two friends left at dawn. I got the bus at 10.00 am in my flip flops and we reached the Cathedral in Santiago around the same time.

Twelve o’clock Mass is where those who have made it in to the city that morning gather and the Cathedral was packed on a September Friday. Two young lads a couple of seats ahead were carrying a tall gold-fringed banner and one of them had a T-shirt with a cedar and map of Lebanon on the back. Both of them had the profiles of early Christian apostles, so they had probably come a long way. The priest called out the nationalities of the pilgrims who had received Compostelas that morning and the group from St Martin got resounding applause. Could that have been St Martin of Canigou in the Eastern Pyrenees? I don’t know, but if it was, then they had walked almost a thousand kilometres.

Santiago is a lovely compact city with cosmopolitan shops and a prosperous appearance, which must feel quite strange to someone who has just walked several hundred kilometres due west through country landscape and many people spoke of the sense of not wanting to arrive, or striving to get there but not wanting it to be over. 

I stayed in a sparkling little 3rd floor pension where the sweet elderly couple who ran it had looked after my bag while I was away. It was bang in the middle of town and cost €25 a night. We missed the morning bus due south the following day and so took another out to the coast at Noia, where we had a picnic on the grass looking out to sea. Noia looked just as prosperous and cosmopolitan as Santiago and put paid to my images of wild and remote Galicia. But it is altogether lovely, and I can fully understand how this camino can draw you back and back.

Getting there and costs
Well you can walk! Or you can get a taxi like I did. But RyanAir will bring you to Santiago from almost anywhere in Europe, or to Santander or Pau or Porto or any other starting point you might choose. So will the very reasonable Spanish train system. I got a RyanAir family ticket, whatever that is, from Reus airport south of Barcelona to Santiago and it cost €3.98, all in. Yes. I flew back to Girona from Porto for €5. All in. The various buses and taxis all cost around €5 each. The albergue cost €12 for the night and around the same for the three course meal with a large jug of wine. The hotel was €48 for a triple room. We paid €25 for the coach from Santiago to Porto, about €8 to get to Noia on the coast for our picnic. There are luggage lockers in the bus station and railway station where you can leave anything you don’t want to carry with you, but probably not enough to go round in high season, so that is a consideration. But there are services that will collect your bag from the albergue in the morning and deposit it at your projected lodging, if you are organised enough to know where that is going to be.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

La Sanch Procession in Collioure

Good Friday

Collioure is very close to the Spanish border and I travelled up from Roses. The La Sanch procession is at 9.00 pm in Collioure (11.00 am the same morning in Perpignan) so it suited me very well, if I could find a way of not having to drive in France and if I could get back the same night for work the following morning. The trains don’t cross the Spanish-French border after 7.00 or 8.00 pm at night. So I drove the desolate coastal road just over the border to Cerbère and took a 10 minute train ride. I got there a couple of hours early, had a coffee, bought a bottle of Languedoc wine to bring home, wandered the streets and pottered around on the beach, then parked myself under a doorway in possibly the worst viewing spot in town, just to stay out of the rain.

I was chatting in bad French to a Frenchwoman and her grandchild and she told me the procession changed route every year and no one knew until it appeared which way it was going. We were close to the church on the pier and there were two walls of people bordering the obvious seafront route, more at the other side of the church door in case they bolted out the back. They weren’t coming our way anyway. But after a chat with a tradesman up the road she said they were, and they did, and I was so shocked to have an uninterrupted frontline view I pressed all the wrong buttons on the camera. The photos are terrible, one so bad it is almost good. Here it is:

Blood Brothers
The brotherhood of La Sanch (the Blood) dates to the early 15th century, when it was founded in Perpignan by the influential preacher Vincent Ferrer, a friend and supporter of anti-Pope Benedict XIII, who was residing in Perpignan, the new 'Vatican', after being driven out of Avignon. The early purpose of the brotherhood was to assist and accompany condemned prisoners to their execution. Vincent had had an epiphany after an illness in 1398 and saw himself as a messenger of penance, sent to prepare mankind for imminent judgment. He  subsequently travelled around Europe for 20 years, attracting thousands of followers, many from the criminal classes, and the pointed red and black hoods worn by the intinerant sinners were intended to protect them from being recognised and lynched.

The procession today commemorates the Passion and Agony of Christ and marks the start of the Holy Week ceremonies. The lead penitent, le regidor, is dressed in scarlet and rings a bell to warn of the approach of the black-robed penitents on their way to the gallows. Behind him the penitents carry statues, crucifixes and banners representing the scenes of the passion. In Collioure a pious narrative was relayed by low-volume loudspeakers mounted at second-storey level on every street, but the procession itself is silent, except for the bell. Once it has passed, what many people seemed to be doing, and moi aussi, was cutting across town to a new viewing spot to get a second look. Alas, my photos never got any better, most being of the back of the head of the person in front of me. In my frenetic need to come out of it with something I missed much of the spiritual reward and I vowed to go back again with my hands in my pockets.

Having expected something between a Hallowe’en performance and a Ku Klux Klan outing (sorry, but I couldn’t dismiss the images in my head, all the more having read of the infamous and ubiquitous Abbé Saunière’s supposed links with the brotherhood), I was surprised at the simple piety of the commentary overhead and the respectful, intimate and non-threatening atmosphere of the event. There was no background racket, no sniggers from the crowd, no pushing to get a better view. Being from Ireland, I had been surprised to see so many shops open on Good Friday, including craft shops, eateries and cafes. But they all had pretty displays with flowers, candles and statues, and everything closed just before 9.00 pm. For the record, the procession is not organised by the Church, although it includes members of the clergy, but by the “brotherhood of the very precious blood of Our Lord Jesus Christ, La Sanch.”

I was the only person at the station and wondered what I would do if the train didn’t come. There wasn’t a room or a bed to be had anywhere. When it did arrive it showed no signs of stopping and I ran and ran and ran uselessly as it glided by until I ran out of breath and platform. But the platform hadn’t run out of train yet and eventually it stopped. It must have been a mile long. There were about 3 passengers aboard as well as myself but the train was merely going to bed down in Cerbère in preparation for a busy weekend. I was home by midnight. The total cost of this stimulating and should-have-been spiritual outing was around €12, including petrol, return trainfare and coffee (didn’t count the wine).

Camargue Gypsy Festival

Who are the three Marys?
The first thing you have to know here is who the three St Marys are. You may already be confused, as I was, by all the conspiracy theories and tales of the Holy Family in the South of France. This is how Wikipedia puts it:

"The three saints, Mary Magdalene, Mary Salomé and Mary Jacobé, whose relics are the focus of the devotions of pilgrims, are believed to be the women who were the first witnesses to the empty tomb at the resurrection of Jesus. After the Crucifixion of Jesus, Mary Salomé, Mary Jacobé and Mary Magdalene set sail from Alexandria, Egypt with their uncle Joseph of Arimathea. According to a longstanding French legend, they either sailed to or were cast adrift - either way they arrived off the coast of what is now France, at "a sort of fortress named Oppidum-Râ". The location was known as Notre-Dame-de-Ratis (Râ becoming Ratis, or boat) (Droit, 1961, 19); the name was later changed to Notre-Dame-de-la-Mer, and then in 1838 to Les Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer.

"The town is a pilgrimage destination for Roma (Gypsies), who gather yearly in the town for a religious festival in honor of Saint Sarah. The French believed she was Mary Magdalene's daughter, and she was also known as Sara-la-Kali (Sara the black). Dark-skinned Saint Sara is said to have possibly been the Egyptian servant of the three Marys. The famous flamenco guitarist Manitas de Plata first played here."

So there you have it. The bones of the two Marys (Salomé and Jacobé) were ‘found’ in the 15th century and their 500th anniversary was celebrated by Pope John Paul XXIII. When I started this paragraph I thought the above all sounded like heresy, but now you have the Pope endorsing it, so all is well, if you are a God-fearing Catholic anyway.

Or is it? Here is the view of Walter Weyrauch (2001):

"The ceremony in Saintes-Maries closely parallels the annual processions in India, the country in which the Romani originated, when statues of the Indian goddess Durga, also named Kali, are immersed into water. Durga, the consort of Shiva, usually represented with a black face, is the goddess of creation, sickness and death.[7]"

Nothing is ever simple is it?

The road to Roma
The gypsies love St Sara with an abiding devotion. In the days leading up to 24 and 25 May each year they come from all over Europe, dressed for celebration, to meet in the little seaside town at the mouth of the Rhone. It is about 24 km from the interesting city of Arles, where Van Gogh and Picasso painted, and where the 20,000-seat Roman amphitheatre today hosts cultural events and bullfights. Bulls are big in the Camargue and bull steaks are served in most of the busy restaurants in Saintes Marie during the festival. If you don’t have transport, there is an infrequent bus from Arles to St Marie, so no reason you can’t get a RyanAir flight to Carcassonne, or Nimes or some nearby airport and get the train to Arles. You can get more information about how to get there and where to stay, as well as photos and videos, at the Gypsy Music website 

Arles is also home to the Gypsy Kings, whose intermediate roots are in Catalan Spain and whose blend of flamenco and Latin rhythms took their music out of the circuit of weddings and traditional festivals to the top of the pop charts and world stages.

The warm-up

Roma are arriving for days from all over Europe. The hotels in town are booked up months in advance and the closer the time gets the further afield you will have to go, thus limiting your experience, unless you are prepared to join traffic queues down the narrow main road from Arles. Remember the Camargue is marshland with few roads. But commuting is not impossible, and we stayed just outside Arles and went to and fro by car. 

There is great camaraderie among the gypsies, who ignore tourists and gawkers with magnificent disdain. They are not being rude, just focused. This is only a tourist event by default. The Roma have business to conduct and people to meet and prayers and celebrations to get on with. There is a fair bit of strutting too. My gypsy-mad friend and I followed a band of about 12 young men dressed in white trousers, turquoise shirts and bright yellow square-cut gold chains through the streets as they scouted for a suitable restaurant for their leader. They were Arlesians, and they were practically levitating with high frequency energy and good health, with strong white teeth and glossy, stand-up black hair. And before anyone starts yelling about stereotypes, that is just a description. Maybe they were all on multivitamins. What is more we had left the leader singing with that same raw energy in the square late the previous night, where a handler passed him a whiskey bottle at intervals to protect the crucial rasp in his throat.

Throughout the day the church, where the statues and relics of the two Marys and St Sara are kept high in the wall above the altar and below in the crypt respectively, is packed with the faithful praying for a precious healing gesture from the saints.

Right outside the door is where much of the celebration is going on. There are flamboyant Romanian musicians in spats and sharp haircuts, young dancing girls in spotted dresses and stout and sexily-clad women. The music and hilarity extends beyond the church surrounds to the little town square nearby and to some of the outdoor eateries. There is plenty of drink going down, and God knows what else, but we didn’t see any fights. It is the music that gets more intense as the night wears on and the best performances are surrounded by solid crowds in a heightened state. One such involved two singers (one of them the turquoise hero) engaged in a passionate a capella musical challenge backed by fast, syncopated hand clapping. I could not fathom the subject matter – it could have been love, war, poetic prowess – but each contribution fell and rose and twirled and then was flung to the ground like a lord’s gauntlet to be taken up by his opponent. We watched for an hour until my infatuated friend, who had worked her way up to the front row, managed to get herself into a standoff with three substantial Spanish gitanas claiming right of place, so we backed off and left quietly to go find a bull steak. That clapping was out of this world.

St Sara is brought to the sea
On the afternoon of the 24th St Sara is brought up from the crypt and a procession of Camargue horsemen and pilgrims lead her down the two hundred yards to the sea, where they enter the waves, carrying her aloft. Half the visiting male population is by this time on the roof of the church, from where they have a fine view of the entire proceedings and probably the entire province. The rest are hurrying behind the fast-moving statue, reaching out to touch the saint’s voluminous seven-layered gown. It is a brisk procession and after hours of advance traffic control, the whole thing is quickly over, to be repeated tomorrow when the two Marys are brought down to re-enact their arrival from the sea. The fiddlers are back in the church square. There are some amazing musicians from Romania, a family led by the father, who has clearly had his hands full rearing sons so bored and brilliantly gifted they can play riveting music on automatic pilot long after their active thoughts have departed to ladyland. One of them is wearing a pair of fierce black winklepickers. A brother on guitar is in spats and a black fedora and is a cool dude. The third and youngest is playing keyboards with consummate ease and hasn’t yet developed the vacant look. The father is watchful, and a task master. In a suit he could be a Mediterranean businessman. The mother, who has trailing infants, is circulating in the crowd trying to sell CDs to the tourists. She isn’t doing too well and when I offer a donation without taking the CD she gives me a hangdog look and takes it without thanks. Clearly she too has the task master to contend with.

Up one end of the promenade, a row of thick-haired French intellectuals and languid young women are dining al fresco at a long table outside some picturesque painted wagons that must equate to the plush yurts at Glastonbury. Many other gypsy families are doing the same, strung out along the prom beside their trailers and inland in a parking area. This is where you might see a lot more Roma lifestyle if you could loiter. But you can’t, because marriages and mergers are being arranged and this not reality TV. We met an American preacher couple who specialised in gypsies and said they had special access through religion. They had met a TV woman who was a world expert on gypsies and she was dressed up like Carmelita but hadn’t been able to get into some of the camps the preachers had, or so they said. There were probably people there who had broken into gypsy folklore and conquered the gypsy language and assaulted its grammar and climbed over the tribal divide. For whatever reason, we would seem to be far more fascinated by them than they are by us.

While the flat seashore and marshy hinterland wouldn’t be my favourite landscape, the Camargue has a diverse menu to offer the curious, including swimming, horse-riding with cowboys in the saltmarsh, photographing flamingoes and rice paddies and buying souvenir bags of salt. And of course there is Arles and its many attractions.

Definitely worth a look, as the real estate agent said. I have just seen that RyanAir fly also to Beziers, Montpellier, Marseilles.  Any of these is in striking distance of Arles.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

A Stroll in Rennes le Chateau

This little outing came by way of an acquaintance, a book or two, a day off and a mellow lady, Ani Williams who plays the harp and can tell you which missing note in your make-up causes you repeating spirals of trouble. Ani will then show you how to reintroduce the missing note into the symphony of your inner life. At the time (summer 2009) she was renting a house ten paces from the Rev. Saunière’s wicked-wonderful church in Rennes le Chateau. My acquaintance had booked a consultation and I had the afternoon to wander around. If you haven’t heard of Rennes le Chateau by this point, you deserve to have conspiracy theorists make jokes about you.

Two decades before the Da Vinci Code came out I had read Holy Blood, Holy Grail, which provided something of the historical background (and fiction, if that is how you are inclined) for Dan Brown’s novel. But more recently an intriguing book by Patrice Chaplin, Girona – City of Secrets, had tied all of this in with a little-known side of Girona in Spain and her own bohemian and sometimes hair-raising life and love story. Ani, who also conducts an annual ‘pilgrimage in celebration of men and women’ in Cathar country and Provence, knew Patrice, along with a coterie of other iconoclasts in the region – and as we languish jobless in the wreckage brought on by the iconics, why wouldn’t we pass some of our time usefully giving the iconoclasts a hearing? Ani’s pilgrimage, Song of the Goddess, Grail and Gypsy, in search of Isis, Mary Magdalene and St Sarah (admit it - how intriguing is that!), is principally for American recession survivors and she is accompanied for part of it by Henry Lincoln, one of the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail, who made riveting discoveries of his own in the region. I am not going to go into them. That is what his website is for, so use the link above. But for the record, this is what he thinks of Dan Brown and his book.

“Both novel and not-very-successful film were entertaining rubbish, but I found it slightly irritating that Mr Brown seemed to be implying that he has based his story upon accurate facts. I can’t comment on his ideas about Leonardo, or Opus Dei ... but, for Pierre Plantard - the Priory of Sion - Jesus - Mary Magdalene - and so on, I can only say: “Facts?!!? I’d love to see your sources, Honeybunch.”

The Church of St Mary Magdalene is a pretty stone and mortar building with yellow painted eave decorations. The devilish Asmodeus, weighed down by the baptismal font on his back, greets you in the doorway, wearing a new and apparently less terrifying head since the original was lopped by a treasure hunter in 1996. Lest we get carried away here, a statue of Jesus being baptised by St John eyes Asmodeus from the opposite wall across the chessboard tiled floor and to a conspiracy ingénue the place is neither spooky nor remarkable, if we leave Asmodeus out of it. But every detail of the decoration of this church has been parsed and analysed in an intense quest for clues and codes and symbols and there are more than enough hints and allusions to satisfy the cravings of scholars and nitpickers both. The little museum next door, which also gives you access to the controversial Tour Magdala, fills in the dates around the theories and has a collection of curious items, including invoices for Abbe Saunière’s extravagant purchases for the refurbishment of the old church. Anything you could possibly need to know about the layout, history, geography, geometry, speculations, mysteries, spiritual connections, ritual lunacy and heresies associated with this place can be found at Corjan de Raaf's meticulous  website, RLC (Rennes le Chateau) Research: There may be dozens of other similar websites - I don't know - but the above should keep you going for a few months.

In a very brief conversation with Ani after my solo tour, I mentioned the fact that I felt no goose pimples inside the church or tower. (Patrice Chaplin writes of a spine-chilling encounter with the evil character at the door in, I think, the late 1950s that she can summon to the back of her neck still). Ani’s reasonable reply was that a great deal of work had been done since then to clear the spiritual energy of the area through meditation and music and that she herself played the harp with this intent every morning when she was in residence. 

The Tour Magdala is at the heart of the whole Saunière story, and it lines up with an older and since torn down twin in Girona through the peak of Mt Canigou, the sacred mountain of the Catalans. And there lies a whole nother story, incorporating amongst other things the unorthodox priest’s apparent regular, secret and extra-curricular visits to the Spanish city, for details on which you will have to read the Chaplin book (check out this interview on Andrew Gough's Arcadia website).  The Tour was built at the corner of the garden behind the Villa Bethanie, an elaborate guest mansion also built by the priest, which has served lifetimes since as a hotel and now a museum. The Tour was where he housed his vast collection of books, journals and manuscripts. All I can usefully say about it here is that it is an utterly charming structure, rich in carvings, mirrors and coloured  tiles with a view of the plain and mountains beyond that would make your heart sing.

There are probably as many truths as there are myths about this little mountain-top village. Saunière’s life was nothing if not interesting and his parties were legendary, with Hapsburgs, opera singers, French widows and cult figures dropping in to be lavishly entertained. Then there were the nightly diggings, the anti-Republican diatribes, squabbles with the Catholic Church, rumoured affairs.  One theme runs through all narratives and that is the long-running and deep-rooted contests between the Catholic Church, Judaism, Gnosticism and material cultish forces that were focused in this area of France and northern Spain.

We left Rennes after a forage in the little bookshop, where I bought a slim Lulu-published volume on the secret elite who rule the world by knowing the cycle of astronomical events and hiding them from us. My newly tuned companion bought one on Jesus’ life in France after the Crucifixion.  I am not going to find fault with either. The latter is a thoroughly readable history of the area from early times and the former is more believable than anything Dan Brown ever dug up. Both authors spent considerable time living in the area. Can you imagine the dinner party conversations they must have around here?

I have to add this, a propos of the ‘evolution’ of religions, stolen from Henry Lincoln’s site. He quotes Kipling.


He that hath a Gospel
To loose upon mankind,
Though he serve it utterly -
Body, soul and mind -
Though he go to Calvary
Daily for its gain –
It is his Disciple
Shall make his labour vain.

It is his disciple
(Ere those bones are dust)
Who shall change the charter,
Who shall split the trust -
Amplify distinctions, Rationalise the Claim,
Preaching that the Master
Would have done the same.

He that hath a Gospel,
For all earth to own
Though he etch it on the steel,
Or carve it on the stone -
Not to be misdoubted
Through the after-days -
It is his disciple
Shall read it many ways.

It is his disciple
Who shall tell us how
Much the Master would have scrapped
Had he lived to now -
What he would have modified
Of what he said before -
It is his disciple
Shall do this and more.

He that hath a Gospel
Whereby Heaven is won -
(Carpenter or Cameleer,
Or Maya’s dreaming son) -
Many swords shall pierce him,
   Mingling blood with gall;
   But His Own Disciple
   Shall wound him worst of all.

Getting there

Obviously you can drive, to Quillan, then Couiza and up the mountain from there. But if you have the time and legs for it you can take a little train journey out from, say, Carcassonne and walk up the mountain road, an easy enough stroll of less than 2 hours. The surrounding land is rather flat, so this will be a nice change. At any rate here is the train timetable There are buses too, from Carcassonne and Perpignan. There is no reason the green and carbon free should be excluded from the treasure hunt. There is a small entrance fee for the museum and grounds but it is well worth it. I think it was about 4 Euro.  RyanAir will get you to Carcassonne and if RyanAir will get you to even a nearby country, I never look up another airline.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Oh Porto!

Porto is straight out of a Shakespearean play. In strictly visual terms the Merchant of Venice comes to mind, because of the gondolas and barges and the colourful trafficking on and in and around the banks of the River Douro. Especially if the bard’s mobile character, Falstaff, were to drop in on the drama. The city is piled steep on both sides, rickety buildings on the Ribeira side - with lines of washing on the front balconies – sitting above and just behind one another so that everyone has a view, like a well designed theatre. Excuse me, I have to take that right back, because Porto and the Ribeira are just one side of the river, the north side. The opposite bank, hardly more than an arm’s reach across the waterway, is not Porto but rather Gaia, another city altogether and the home of the great port lodges. Linking the two are a couple of very dramatic rail and road bridges.  

Getting there
Michael (RyanAir) will get you there for as little as a fiver if you have your prepaid Mastercard and cabin luggage. I came in by coach from Santiago de Compostella in Spain with a couple of friends, after walking the walk of the demented through some lovely countryside in a pilgrimage of shared pain.  We went out the first night looking for something to eat. We weren’t fussy, just starving, but we were prepared to dine in elegance. Nothing stood out. Nothing much seemed open, or bright, so we ended up in a sloping alley off the main square where a cheerful Brazilian band was playing outdoors to three adjacent eateries, as well as an assortment of uninhibited passersby who just put down their handbags and briefcases and plunged into the samba. One or two of the men were dressed like accountants and a very large lady had some powerful moves. It was more intense than jolly, a little strange, like the reception we got on arrival, when the bus dumped us on a corner with no sign of a bus station, taxi rank or tourist booth lighting up the melancholic urban landscape. In the alley, we asked for burgers and they came with fried eggs and easy singles and lettuce and a scatter of other niblet items and the glass of red wine was sweet port. So we had another and then went down the steep hill to what turned out to be the penny stalls in the theatre of the Ribeira Douro.  

My oh my. What a place! I could not imagine any demi-monde deal that might not be going on down there. True, it was the eve of the Red Bull Air Race, or of the finals of the Air Race, so the dishevelled appearance of the place could have been because of that. But it was colourful in a Moll Flanders kind of way and you could sit there all day and half the night without seeing the same thing happen twice.

The following day, a Sunday, planes were swooping up and down the river and crowds converged on the banks and hung over the bridge railings, high pavements and roof perches to get a look. It reminded me of the air shows and spring shows and horse fairs that would sometimes come to town when we were kids and all the townspeople would turn up out of gratitude that someone had put something on for us. It didn’t matter what. Could have been the mayor’s funeral. Grown up and abroad I was even less interested in this event, but the crowds were impressive. They had hats and sunglasses and little folding chairs and things to hawk and they were buying and selling and sharing and eating for Portugal.  You could see the tide coming in and going out on the river. The Atlantic was just a couple of miles out west and the Portuguese used to think this was the end of the world, before brave men set out to test that old conviction. The riverside in Porto has the look of the last hurray, like Vasco de Gama was leaving again tomorrow.

The Port Houses
Someone said that someone said that Taylor’s was the place to go to, where the port-tasting was free. Unfortunately Taylor’s was closed on Sunday and I would have to come back (my foot-weary friends were gone on to Lisbon and home), but the Taylor’s people were nice enough to tell me Croft’s was open and the port-tasting was free there too and probably is everywhere else as well. After you have exhausted their generosity you can buy another shot for something less than a Euro and sit outside and look down at the river from your sunny perch. They had just launched a novelty in the form of port on ice, which they were very excited about, and that innocent claim reminded me of the stories about explorers who discovered the Amazon or the Gobi Desert. I got to Taylor’s the next day and by then I had tried the sweet and the tawny and the ice version and knew everything about the English families who took over the industry here and the shale and the terraces and the mixing and blending. There is a big frisson about drink-tasting in a holiday or recreational setting. The staff of the port lodges were gracious and pleasant and did not seem at all put upon by the crowds who trailed in hour after hour to test their port and their patience.

All my photos disappeared into the internal memory of the camera, which didn’t seem to have much on it but would accept no more (wrong size setting I found out later). That was an awful pity, because the place is massively photogenic. Gondolas, painted balconies, narrow alleys, splendid blue and white tile clad churches, the sumptuous tiled interior of the Sao Bento railway station. When I fixed the problem later I thought they would re-emerge, but they were gone from memory, just like the name of the hotel I stayed in had gone from mine, of the square it was in, of the fantastic internet café, of the bridges, the number of the bus I took out to the Atlantic. No matter. I can google them, and I have to come back here anyway, maybe with company for a boat trip up the Douro.  

The bus goes west along the northern river bank out to the Atlantic shore, but when I went, a heavy mist was rolling in, giving the place a silently spooky appearance. These wouldn’t be the finest beaches of Portugal by any means, but a short train ride on the opposite bank accesses fine sandy beaches in less than half an hour.

I don’t mind emailing or googling or skyping from internet cafes, but I don’t like doing my day’s work in the full public glare. The internet café almost directly across the public square from the downtown Residencial Chique  where I stayed,  was absolutely terrific. It was huge and every station had an executive desk, comfortable chair and a whole private corner of the room to settle in to. It was cheap, and they served coffee and didn’t mind you having it at the desk.

Two nights in the Residencial Chique, which is bookable via Hostelbookers, a 2nd floor pension overlooking the av. dos Aliados, the city’s dominant central square, cost €70 and that included breakfast. I think I had a double bed, which is always a plus if you are paying a bit more for single accommodation anyway, and the reception staff greeted me like the prodigal guest, even though the place appeared to be full. Breakfast was unremarkably fine. I can’t remember what I ate exactly but I don’t recall complaining. The receptionists/ management looked worried and asked me to tell people about the place and so there you go. I should probably send them a link.

Bratislava and the Hotel Kijev

Enjoy the Value

I'm going to do this back to front. Accommodation isn’t the heart of a holiday, but the Hotel Kijev is a special case. A bit of an architectural bastard, a blighted teenager in the old master’s town belying denials that he ever touched the Soviet housemaid. Like most such intrusions, it has many benign and striking features of the kind that shock and ultimately perk up the family. The Kijev was built 36 years ago and must have housed a few vodka-soaked trysts in its day. It is phenomenally huge, especially given the handy size of Bratislava. If you laid the rooms end to end, you could probably put the whole of the old town inside.

From the 14th floor you can eyeball Bratislava Castle on the hill that dominates the town. And if you venture up to the castle (closed like a lot else for renovations that look like they are going to take time), what you see winking back at you is the scarlet 'Hotel Kijev - Enjoy the Value' banner wrapped around the penthouse level of your citybreak accommodation. I can’t think of any reason you wouldn’t be staying at the Kijev, unless you had more money than was good for you. There are over a thousand reviews of the place on Tripadvisor, half of them wailing about the thin walls/ racket/ unstylishness/ grubbiness of it and nearly as many salivating over its ‘retro style.’ Part of its retro style is the yellow Trabant with a blue police light on the roof parked in the lobby. At Christmas this was wrapped, parcel-style, in red ribbon with a bow on the roof.

Smartalecry aside, I found the Kijev to be clean (a few elderly stains on the yellow lino-ish bathroom tiles do not equate to dirt). It was toasty warm in minus 7 to minus 12C daytime temperatures. I paid for a single but got a twin bedded room, which was genuinely retro, with comfortable, low-lying beds, carpet crawling 8 inches up the wall, plain wood panelling and roundy bevelled mirrors. I was able to wash socks at night and toast them dry on a big old-fashioned metal radiator in the bathroom.

The staff were polite, the wifi in the lobby worked a dream and was free, and they had three or four computer terminals as well. There was a dedicated luggage room with an official guarding it, 24-hour reception, slow but working lifts, maps of the town on the wall. There were twin posters advertising stag party deals and the programme at the State Opera Theatre but there were no stag parties in sight and the receptionist was at the opera the same night I was. I told a staff member in a red and gold usher’s uniform that I thought the hotel was terrific and his eyes popped in disbelief. I don’t think he was flattered, but he should have been.

One thing all reviewers agreed on - the Hotel Kijev breakfast is spectacular, and spectacular would be one word for it. Here's what I had for breakfast every day: hardboiled, scrambled and fried eggs, spicy rashers, bacon fat bits, ham slices, spicy sausages, pork slabs, beef goulash, chicken legs in gravy, pasta, pickled and green salad, crumbles, cringles, crispies and chocolate balls, apples and oranges, orange, blackcurrant and multivitamin juice, yoghourt, cake, strudel, cream cheese wrapped in easy singles, brown, white, loaf, rye bread, rolls and baps, 10 kinds of black, green and herbal tea, coffee with hot and cold milk, chocolate sprinkler, butter, jam, blueberry, peach, honey, tinned fruit. Well no, but I could have had. William and the Outlaws would have been climbing the walls to get in.

Mulled wine at the bar or restaurant, open all day until 9.00 pm, was 59 cents, fresh grilled trout 6.50, Greek salad 2.99, Slovakian cabbage soup 1.59, beer 1 euro.

If you needed any more reason to stay here, the Kijev is a couple of hundred yards from the edge of the old town. They have instructions on their website on how to get there from the airport/ train station and they worked seamlessly for me.

My four nights, including breakfast, cost €98. God knows what kind of a multiple special offer deal it was – I booked through a Czech online company One Big Europe just a couple of days before the trip. Normal rates are rather higher, but Bratislava accommodation tends to be expensive for what you get, so this was formidable value, and I sure enjoyed it.

Bratislava Old Town

This is lovely. Not always as impeccably gorgeous as its big sister, Prague, more of a Scarlett Johanssen with tattoos, especially around the edges inhabited by the Hotel Kijev and the Tesco block. But the very heart of it is intimate and beautiful. The little town square had a Christmas Market that, unlike the ones I have seen in Prague, Vienna and Budapest, was more focused on food and drink than on selling ornaments. Around teatime, in 4 inches of snow and with the temperature at around minus 10, a band of half-shepherd/ half-sheep fiddle players in skin waistcoats with the fur outside and embroidered leggings were battering away at a tuneful drinking song and a solid crowd was tapping and singing enthusiastically. There was plenty of drinking and eating going on. All of the huts facing the centre of the square sold food and drink only. Strudel and sausages and roasted peppers and big baps with pork chops and big tangles of fried onion in them. 

You could get ornaments too, round the back. And I managed to get the Sunday singing mass for children in the little old church on the square and that was mellow.
There were things about Bratislava that reminded me of Dublin, remarkably the chewing gum on the pavements, a pride in modern urban trivia such as Rubberneck (a bronze street sculpture of a man emerging from a manhole featured in all the official tourist brochures), but also something of the happy underdog good cheer and the sociability.

I was steeped. I hadn’t ever seen La Boheme on stage, and I wanted to see it, and guess what was on in the opera house when I was there! What is more, the opera-loving receptionist at the Kijev told me that I didn’t in fact know how lucky I was if I didn’t know that the cast on the night I had booked were a rare and special assembly of the best voices in Bratislava. And they were. I spent some time dressing up for this event – found a shiny green scarf for a knock-down price – and I tanked up with gluwein (watching the shepherd-sheep men) for the slide across town on the ice down to the new opera house on the river (Danube). It was a bit further than I thought so I queued for another mug of gluwein at a booth near the riverbank. What I got was some kind of herbal tea funded by a politician as a public service and they refused my donation and had a good laugh at me, so I moved along quickly.

The performance was in the new opera house on the river bank and it was yet another memorable night in an East European opera house listening to voices trained and music revered by the same system that built the Hotel Kijev. It was utterly wonderful. The ticket cost €16 online (printed out on a sheet of paper) and I was in the centre seat of the front row of the stalls. I could have patted the bald head of the conductor in the orchestra pit if I had reached out. I had a coffee before I went in and it cost about a Euro. The posh lady next to me was in trainers, but I was still glad I had dressed up for the occasion.

The Castle was closed for renovations. The town hall was closed for renovations. I visited the Primate’s Palace, which had Gobelin tapestries and a hall of mirrors and two ladies checking one ticket who were friendly and proud of the house, which they said, apologetically, was small but lovely. I told them the house was gorgeous and Bratislava was gorgeous, and it is. I’d love to go back with company in the summer and go hiking in the Carpathians and drink Slovakian wine.

I think it cost around €80 to get to Bratislava from Girona and €50 to get from there to Dublin the day before Christmas Eve. That was travelling last minute, so there’s room to do a good bit better than that but I never begrudge RyanAir a few extra bob. I ate evening meals most days at the hotel and picked up some souvenirs. Bratislava is one cheap and cheerful destination.