Visit to Barcelona

WE (i.e. Retired Bloke, The Current Mrs Feeney and The Daughter Who Left) are just back from a three-night stay in Barcelona.

We wanted to be right in the heart of the city, so we selected a hotel on The Ramblas. It was three-star, and had the usual mixed bag of reviews on sites like TripAdvisor. Customer satisfaction was three and a half stars out of five.

We booked in early Sunday evening. Our rooms were in the back of the hotel, which was disappointing. The curtains were closed in RB and Mrs F’s room. I swept them open to reveal this splendid view.

DSC00161You know that feeling when life creeps up behind you and deposits a large bathful of icy water on the unsuspecting head?

A quick discussion concluded that, for a number of reasons, it would be best to allow the curtains to remain in the firmly-shut position for the duration.

It wasn’t what even the cheeriest optimist could accurately describe as the most promising of beginnings. Fortunately, it proved not to be a harbinger of things to come. While the hotel was undeniably worn, or well-used, it was clean and – given its location (which was every bit as conveniently central as we’d hoped for, if a Flamenco restaurant and a striptease club are the neighbours you long for) – remarkably quiet in the night.

We spent our first full day lapping-up the architectural delights of Barcelona’s pivotal role in the Modernist movement, including, of course, the genius that was Gaudi.

On our second morning we went to one of the city’s fabulous food markets. The lack of natural light (I presumed that the summer sun would make the market unbearably hot under a glass roof), the ranks of spotlights on each stall, and the flair with which the produce was displayed, made walking around the market on almost theatrical experience.

We moved on to the city’s Gothic quarter, where we ended up having a drink in a tiny plaza, sat literally in front of the steps of a church, with centuries-old balconied apartments on the other three sides.

Just as I was thinking you couldn’t make the situation more of a cliche, a bearded man in a black suit and hat arrived on a bike, sat down on the church steps, and started softly playing classical Spanish guitar. There are moments when life feels very good indeed.

A few more, random images from what was – despite the unusual aspects of our chosen hotel – a very enjoyable visit to a vibrant and fascinating city. We will go back. We’ll just do a little more research on our hotel choice.

One Day In Krakow

THE Current Mrs Feeney, The Daughter Who Left (but returned) and your Retired Bloke made the most of their 24 hours in Krakow.

We spent the morning visiting Wawel Royal Castle and Cathedral, followed by a walk around the old Jewish quarter of Kazimierz – with frequent stops to enter some of the small clothes and craft shops that are opening in this until recently neglected part of town.

TCMrsF was tempted by a fox stole with head and feet in one “classic” (i.e. used) clothes shop.  The Daughter gave her a look. The stole went back in the bargain box.

The afternoon was spent souvenir shopping in the magnificent Stare Miasto (market square). The Daughter couldn’t decide which she liked more; the horse-drawn carriages or the tatanka (vodka and apple juice) served in the bars around the square.

Dinner in a typical Polish restaurant (lots of meat, potatoes and stewed vegetables on the menu) was followed by a final bout of shopping in the market square’s arcade.

If it’s Tuesday, it must be Krakow

WE  go to Poland tomorrow. “We” in this context being Retired Bloke, The Current Mrs Feeney, and The Daughter Who Left (But Returned).

It came about quite suddenly at the end of last week. The Daughter has time off work this week from tomorrow. One of her work colleagues had loaned her a DVD of Schindler’s List. That prompted the thought that she really ought to visit Auschwitz.

Having been there several years ago on a Holocaust Educational Trust visit with a party of school pupils, I agreed. It is the sort of experience that people should expose themselves to. I am a firm advocate of the theory that if we forget history, we run the risk of repeating it.

I spent the next morning online, checking airline, airport and hotel websites. Then I did the sensible thing and telephoned a local travel agent to sort it all out for me. A few hours later everything was sorted.

TCMrsF and I popped into the travel agency and paid. That just left exchanging some British sterling for Polish zloty. With the recent large influx of Poles into the UK, that would be easy, right? Wrong. The travel agency and our bank wanted 48 hours’ notice; 48 hours we didn’t have because everything had been done last minute.

Salvation came in the unlikely guise of Marks and Spencer. Mention M&S and I think “knickers” or “food”. I had never thought “bureau du change”, but it turned out that, not only did the Swansea store have zloty, it had 43 other currencies available too.

So, we are all set. Flight tickets from Gatwick to Krakow? Tick. Krakow hotel accommodation voucher? Tick. Passports? Tick. Insurance? Tick. Camera? Tick. How to ask for three large beers in Polish? TICK!

 

Visit To Puglia: Day 6 – Gargano Peninsula

OUR final day in Puglia, and a very busy one as we visit Monte Sant’ Angelo, Foresta Umbra and Peschici.

IMGP5571But first we said goodbye to Vieste. As we left, the streets were busy with local people selling fish and fruit from little flat-back trucks on the roadside.

The cafes and delis were being got ready for another day, and deliveries were being made in some unusual ways.

We arrived in Monte Sant’ Angelo by midmorning. I had very mixed feelings about this town. It is regarded as a place of faith and spirituality, with the Sanctuary of St Michael the Archangel at its heart. A shrine was built 1500 years ago after, we are told, three visits by Michael on Mount Gargano.

HOLY SITE: the octagonal bell tower of the sanctuary
HOLY SITE: the octagonal bell tower of the sanctuary

The sanctuary is built on two levels. A tower juts into the sky above the old town, while beyond the entrance, 86 steps lead down to the Sacred Cave of St Michael, where mass is celebrated on an almost constant basis in a huge variety of languages, reflecting the draw that the site exerts on pilgrims worldwide.

Yet it was probably the most crassly commercialised town or city we had visited. There were trinket stalls everywhere we turned.

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The spiritual and commercial worlds may have found a way to exist side by side here, but the signs of poverty and deprivation are all around them both.

For me, it was captured by the sight of a little boy sat on the roadside, with a plastic bowl at his feet. Every time a tourist or pilgrim passed, he would spring into action, furiously playing his squeezebox.

Once the visitor had passed, he would lower his instrument and sit with his head quietly bowed, waiting for another opportunity to earn some loose change.

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The main square of the old town revealed just how desperate the town’s economic plight is. Dozens of men sat on the stone benches around the square, or stood in groups in the entrances to the bars and trattoria that encircle the space.

I was told that there is 40% unemployment in the town, and that the figure for youth unemployment is a staggering 60%. I asked if there was civil unrest and political agitation as a result. The answer I received was that people were putting their efforts into organised crime instead.

It was a depressing thought on which to leave the town, with its holy shrine, the crowded streets of its old town, and its ubiquitous Swabian castle.

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Our next – our final – destination was the small seaside resort of Peschici. To reach it, we travelled through Foresta Umbra, in the heart of the Gargano National Park.

And then we were descending back to the coast. In Peschici there was just enough time for a final paddle in the warm Adriatic – and an ice cream, of course. Our memorable visit to Puglia had come to a close.

Visit To Puglia: Day 4 – Castel Del Monte and Trani

TODAY was a distinct change of pace after the bustling cities of Lecce, Bari and Matera on our first three days.

COUNTRY ROADS: the journey from Matera to Castel Del Monte took us into a different landscape
COUNTRY ROADS: the journey from Matera to Castel Del Monte took us into a different landscape

The journey from Matera to Castel Del Monte took us through a different landscape. We had become used to driving past row upon row upon row of olive trees. Apparently, there are more than 30 million of them in Puglia. I wouldn’t like to have the job of counting them. Imagine losing count and having to start again.

Now we drove along quiet country roads that climbed up into rough hill country. After an hour we spied Castel Del Monte on the horizon. It glowed warmly in the morning sun.

CASTEL DEL MONTE: a 13th Century designer's dream.
CASTEL DEL MONTE: a 13th Century designer’s dream.

We are used to the sight of castles in Wales; they’re almost as plentiful as Puglian olive groves. But Welsh castles look menacing and formidable war machines; battleships of the crag and cliff.

By contrast, Castel Del Monte looked like a 1930s Hollywood set designer’s idea of a castle. I could imagine any self-respecting invader having a quiet chuckle before firing off his first siege engine. I mean, it doesn’t even have a moat or drawbridge. They may as well have put out the Welcome mat and had done with it.

Another of Emperor Frederick II’s efforts, Castel Del Monte has a unique octagonal lay-out, with an octagonal tower at each corner. Despite my reservations about its effectiveness as a citadel, it was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1996.

ON THE WATERFRONT: looking back towards the cathedral and the old fort at Trani
ON THE WATERFRONT: looking back towards the cathedral and the old fort at Trani

We moved on to the seaport of Trani, which is about 40 kilometres north-west of Bari.

The main focal point is the cathedral, which is dedicated to St Nicholas, but not in this case the St Nick of Santa Claus fame, but another Nicholas, the Pilgrim. The cathedral has a commanding position on a raised, open site near the sea.

WASHING UP: cleaning the quayside after landing this morning's catch
WASHING UP: cleaning the quayside after landing the morning’s catch
PRODUCTION LINE: mending the nets before setting out in search of the next catch.
PRODUCTION LINE: mending the nets before setting out in search of the next catch.

But we found the life of the sea port the most interesting part of our visit. While tourism is obviously important, this was clearly still a working port which provided a living for many of the men of the town.

FEEDING TIME: seagulls wait for the return of the fishing boats
FEEDING TIME: seagulls wait for the return of the fishing boats

Visit To Puglia: Day 3 -Matera

IMGP5407WE had read about the Sassi of Matera. We knew what to expect. But still nothing prepares you for the moment when you step out from the narrow streets and courtyards and get your first panoramic view of this extraordinary town.

You look out on human history unbroken since the Neolithic Age. People have been hewing cave dwellings out of the soft livestock rock for thousands of years.The cave dwellings offered the population a place of refuge through successive invasions.

IMGP5436During the Medieval Age, eastern monks added to the process of urbanisation by carving out grottoes and creating beautiful rock-hewn churches decorated with Byzantine frescoes.

After World War II, the population of the Sassi had grown to around 16,000. An extraordinary number of people were living in what were stone age dwellings.

This situation prompted a national scandal after the Italian prime minister Alcide De Gasperi visited the town in 1950. The Gazzetta del Mezzogiomo declared Matera “Shame of the Nation”.

The people were moved – generally against their will – out of their stone caves into new suburbs. The sassi were vacated and abandoned, until in 1986 the Italian parliament started the process of re-developing them as houses, business premises and cultural centres.

The Sassi of Matera were declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1993. The irony is that what were once primitive dwellings for the very poorest are now almost exclusively owned by the super-rich.

Despite this, visiting Matera remains a deeply moving experience. If you have the opportunity, go and see it.

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