Thursday, March 29, 2012

A real English day – 25 March 2012

Sunday was spent in a timeless fashion, enjoying a medley of very English pursuits. First up, a walk across the Common in the warm spring sunshine, to Christ Church Chorleywood. It is a beautiful church, with a warm friendly atmosphere.

From church to lunch at the nearby White Horse Pub. The food was fresh and delicious and afterwards, it was time for a Sunday afternoon walk around the Chorleywood House Estate.

The final walk back over the Common took us past the Rose & Crown, so we were practically forced to stop and follow up our earlier meal with desert!

London Parks – 24 March 2012

London Royal parks look wonderful in the spring, with blossom trees and daffodils. This year there was the added bonus of Faberge Easter Eggs to spot.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

End of our pilgrimage – 21 March 2012

After a leisurely start and a delicious hotel breakfast we set off to explore the eastern side of the town, where the markets are situated, then climbed up to a viewpoint where there used to be an old cemetery.

It is in the traditional Spanish style of vertically stacked repositories and was obviously quite old but curiously every identifying feature had been removed and/or plastered over. One was left wondering what had happened to all the "occupants".

After checking out there was time for one last slow amble through town to catch the airport bus.

One last special treat awaited us at Stansted: We were among the first off the plane and found that there was absolutely no one in the immigration queues for either the EU citizens or the “Rest of the World”. This is simply unheard of in our many, many Stansted arrivals over the past 11 years and since it was probably our very last Stansted arrival it was a wonderful way to finish our European odyssey.

Santiago de Compostela - 20 March 2012

We had a couple of hours to further explore this morning, so went to the garden at the peninsula end which contains the tomb of General Moore.

Our accommodation was very near the Plaza de Maria Pita and the gardens were just beyond the plaza. The plaza is famous as the departure point of the Spanish Armada. It is quite attractive as it is surrounded by buildings of similar design with the distinctive glassed in verandas on the top floor.

Finally it was time to take the train on the final leg of our journey to Santiago de Compostela. We had definitely moved up a few generations in rail transport from where we started as our train sped along at up to 150kph, a significant increase over the little Feve train we began with.

Arriving in Santiago de Compostela we wandered up to and through the historic centre to our hotel on the far side, where we discovered that they were offering an upgraded room with a fabulous view to the west. Given a balcony room with floor to ceiling windows a la A Coruna style it was hard to resist the offer. Later, as we sat and watched the sun set, we were pleased with our choice.

Free of our backpacks, we set off to explore Santiago de Compostela. Wandering around the historical centre it is not difficult to imagine the bustle and commerce of a bygone era when the pilgrimage was in its heyday.

The whole pilgrimage thing is an amazing ecclesiastical con based upon some very dubious situations, such as a 7 day sailing from Joppa to Santiago de Compostela with the body of James; some wild oxen that allowed themselves to be harnessed to pull the cart carrying his body; an angelic escape from jail; and the chance discovery by a hermit, many centuries later, of some bones that were, without the benefits of modern DNA tests, pronounced to be those of James. The political expediency of having a Christian reason to rally the faithful and throw out the Moors was completely incidental.

Nevertheless the "pilgrims" continue to arrive on foot, by bicycle, bus, train and plane; ranging from those with genuine devotion to simple tourists keen to add another sight or site to their list.
As befits any area with a high visitor concentration, there is an abundance of eateries to enjoy.

A Coruna – 19 March 2012

A short break in the morning showers gave us time to make a hasty dash up the hill to the Feve station so we were untroubled by the heavy shower that began shortly after our arrival at the station.

A slightly larger train than the one that dropped us off 24 hours ago duly arrived and we set off on the next leg off our adventure. When we arrived in Ribadeo we were all herded off the train to wait a short time for another more modern train to arrive to take us on for the rest of the journey, stepping forward about 50 years in train design.

Just over four hours after leaving Luarca,we arrived in Ferrol where the guide book had helpfully informed us that the Renfe station shared the same building as the Feve station. Even that made it sound grander than it was in reality; through the barrier and one door and we were at the ticket counter ready to purchase seats for the next stage to A Coruna. Because everything was running to schedule we even had enough time to grab a quick snack and drink from the station café.

We arrived at A Coruna late in the afternoon to find that the station was a good 20 minute walk from the historical centre. There was still plenty of to time to wander through the pedestrianised area, down to the old castle/fort on the waterfront and across the peninsula to the Tower of Hercules. This is supposedly one of the oldest lighthouses in the world dating back to Roman time. It is entirely original with only six new walls and eight new lights.

A Coruna is known as the 'City of Glass' due to the wall-to-wall glazed verandas on the buildings facing the harbour. It certainly gives an unusual and stunning effect with the sun shinning on the façades.

Luarca – 18 March 2012

The fact that it was an early start to catch the only morning train did not matter as we were woken even earlier by the pilgrims setting off on the next leg of their walk to Santiago de Compostela. Presumably they were the same pilgrims that had woken us late at night when they arrived.

Coffee and a pastry to go had us on the platform in good time for the 07:47 which was just as well as the train was half the size of yesterdays and every seat was taken. Our smug satisfaction at acquiring great forward facing seats lasted 20 minutes until Trubia where the train reversed direction.

As yesterday, the train wound up and over the hills, along river gorges. through many tunnels and across a few viaducts; showing why the builders decided on a narrow gauge railway.

Eventually we arrived at Luarca, once again at the same time as the rain. Since the walk to town was about 2km we were pleased that the rain was short lived. This turned out to be the pattern for the day, sunshine punctuated by short sharp showers.

Once we had arranged our accommodation we spent the day exploring in between sheltering from the rain in cafés, bars and churches. Luarca is situated in a cove surrounded by steep hills and bisected by a river. The river is spanned by 7 foot and road bridges, giving multiple opportunities to cross back and forth as you explore.

Climbing from one side of of the river leads to a cemetery at the top of the hill, this cemetery is said to be one of the most distinctive in Asturias. The wall-to-wall white marble gleams in the sun with the blue sky and sea beyond and even provides a stark contrast when the sky is a forbidding black. A little further on is an old chapel right behind and even taller than the lighthouse.

Climbing up from the other side of the river, one finds another much smaller chapel and then you are quickly into rural Spain where every house seemed to be equipped with a rustic old granary balanced on distinctive rat-proof supports.

Riding the rails - 17 March 2012

The longest narrow gauge railway in Europe runs across the top of Spain from Bibao through Santander to Ferrol.

Two services a day leave Santander for Oviedo so we had to be the Feve station by 09:10 in order to catch the morning train. It is a small, two carriage railcar that runs on electricity when there us an overhead power service and diesel at other times. Although it is a through service, a short time after it leaves Santander it begins stopping at every little tin pot station en route so the trip takes quite a while. It pops out to the coast now and then, climbs around the hills and follows along river gorges making it a very relaxing and scenic adventure.

Eventually we arrived in Oviedo, not long after the rain. After acquiring a timetable for tomorrow's trip we headed off to the old part of the city to locate accommodation. After finding the first two full we discovered it was a long weekend in Spain and began to worry as we trudged along in the drizzle.

As all good tourists should, we headed off to find the tourist information centre to seek help finding accommodation. Big mistake. We had the option of Spanish or French and all we managed to achieve was a directory of local hotels, not any assistance to find a spare bed.

We struck it lucky on the third attempt a little further down the street. With our lodging sorted we could relax as we explored the city. Fortunately the rain stopped as well making our random ramblings all the more enjoyable. The Cathedral has a number of interesting items to see including a cloth that supposedly covered the face of Jesus when he was buried and thus is second only to the Shroud of Turin in importance. There are also a couple of very ornate gold crosses; the Cross of Angels from 808AD and the Victory Cross from 908AD. The tableau behind the altar is one of the most ornate we have ever seen and positively drips with gold.

As we left for our evening meal we came across a pre-Easter procession as they carried a small cross through the streets then set it in a gold surround on the steps of a church. A large wooden cross was then solemnly moved around the plaza outside the church stopping at people holding banners representing the 12 stations of the cross.

One of the must-do things in this area of Spain is to drink cider (sidra), not for the taste particularly but for the performance of having it poured. To aerate and create a bit of a frothy head the cider is poured into the glass from the greatest vertical distance the waiter can manage between the bottle in one hand and the glass in the other. This is a slightly wasteful process so it is fortunate that the cider is relatively cheap.

Santander -16 March 2012

For our last European fling we decided to visit a city that we had attempted to visit many years ago but had been thwarted by airline schedules, Santigo de Compostela.

This time instead of the direct approach we planned an indirect assault. We flew first to Santander, arriving quite late in the evening. The hotel was a hidden gem, Jardin Secreto, just a small hotel and the proprietors appeared to have waited up for us as the flight had been delayed. Once they had settled us in,they told us where to find a good restaurant and we set off to walk to the port area of Santander.

Arriving at Casa Lita we were assailed by a wall off noise and activity and felt a little bewildered by our first experience of pinchos.

Fortunately, there was someone with reasonable English available and it was only a short wait until a table came free (we weren't keen on standing to eat at the bar all night) and we settled in to begin the experience. We have very little idea of what we may have consumed all we know is that it was delicious. They were slices of baguette topped with a variety of goodies, most were heated in the microwave after ordering and some served just as they were. The scrummy desert was massive and the whole evening was very good value.