THIS Retired Bloke and The Current Mrs Feeney spent two ridiculously hot days in the Costa Del Sol city of Malaga this week.
The historic quarter of the city contains some beautiful buildings. I wondered why British cities rarely have examples like these two. “The Luftwaffe couldn’t have blitzed every town in the UK,” I said.
TCMrsF pointed out, sagely, that there is little need (or sense) in having balconies when it rains as often as it does in Britain.
Pablo Picasso was born in Malaga. It is no exaggeration to say the city seems quite proud of the fact.
Our mini break coincided with a heatwave, even by Spanish summer standards. The mercury remained stubbornly above 40Centigrade. Fortunately, Malaga is well blessed with pavement cafe bars. In the circumstances, it would have been remiss of us not to participate in a tincture or two under a sun umbrella.
The city’s botanical gardens are quirkily situated between two very busy highways that run parallel to the waterfront. Stocked with dozens of varieties of trees and plants, they also house several statues of water nymphs. Pleasantly cooling on an evening stroll.
THE Current Mrs Feeney and I are back home in Swansea after five days in Italy with The Daughter Who Left.
We stayed in a small privately-owned hotel in Rome’s city centre, just around the corner from Roma Termini rail station. The Anxious Owner was a constant presence, always wearing the same suit, dusty moustache, and the look of somebody who knows his staff are doing something they oughtn’t to be but can’t work out what it is. We never saw him smile.
On Tuesday we did all the tourist things in Rome: Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Pantheon, Victor Emmanuel II Monument, Colosseum; you know the drill. This involved a great deal of walking; slightly more than 20kilometres – I know because The Daughter, who was wearing her Fitbit bracelet thingy, informed me with something approaching awe in her voice.
Also, because TCMrsF complained of blisters.
We went to see Pompeii the next day. We caught the 9.25am high-speed express from Termini to Napoli Centrale. It only cost 45Euros for all three tickets, and only took one hour to cover the 160-plus miles between the two cities. Our tickets guaranteed our seats. I was deeply impressed, and wondered why British trains weren’t like this.
Then we needed to catch a commuter train from Naples along the coast to Pompeii. We went to the ticket office to buy tickets.
“Pompeii? The archaeological site?” said the charming young woman behind the desk.
“Different company. Downstairs.”
It was our first lesson in Italian bureaucracy. It wasn’t to be our last.
Our tickets reserved about a square foot of floor space, from which you could grasp an overhead rail in an attempt to stop yourself from falling into the person jammed next to you as the train juddered to a halt at every suburban station. This felt more like British rail travel.
Pompeii was far bigger than we had expected; impossible to do it justice in a few hours. I recall especially the Forum and the Basilica, with their fallen monumental statues, including one of Icarus (left). For some reason, young women seemed very keen to have their photos taken standing just below his waist. I can’t imagine why.
Back in Naples we went upstairs (different company) to buy tickets back to Rome on the 6pm express. “I have no tickets left,” said the charming man behind the desk. “I can get you on the 6.40.”
“Yes please. Three tickets please.”
“Yes, that’s what we paid this morning,” said TCMrsF, handing over a 50Euro note.
“Forty five Euros each.”
I know inflation in Italy is higher than in the UK. But, still.
Compensation of sorts while we are waiting for the train. There is a piano on the platform forecourt. A man sits down at the piano stool and begins playing. Other men, middle-aged, obviously locals, gather around and start singing what sound like popular drinking songs. I think how extraordinary that a piano has been provided, or at least tolerated, by the station authorities – and that it hasn’t been vandalised.
I turn around to see The Daughter sat on a bench with a small dog on her knees. The dog’s owner, a tiny man, stands next to her, grinning with delight.
At the end of a long day, back in our hotel room, TCMrsF and I agree that more Continental rail travel would be a good idea.
On Friday, we queue for two hours in the morning to get into St Peter’s. A guide explains that there is always a long wait because entry to the church is free. He says the queues are shorter in the late afternoon, from around four o’clock. That’s the time we leave after several hours looking at the extraordinary religious and artistic treasures on display. The queue is even longer than in the morning; stretching out of the square and out of sight down the side streets.
We pay a last visit to the Trevi Fountain, which looks less impressive on this cloudy day, and buy ice creams. Another bureaucratic experience; we decide what size and flavours we want at the display counter, pay at the cash desk at the other end of the parlour (the bored cashier finishes her text message before agreeing to notice us), take our receipt back to the display counter, and give it to the assistant who joyfully accepts it and gives us our ice creams.
And this is still less protracted than buying a takeaway sandwich at another shop; there, we made our choice, received a ticket, took it to the cash desk, paid and received another ticket, took that ticket back to the man who had received our original order, who read the cash desk ticket carefully before giving us the sandwiches we’d asked him for five minutes earlier.
As fast food goes, it’s pretty slow. But the sandwiches and the ice creams were all delicious.
A crowded evening Metro train back to Termini, where TCMrsF discovers her bag is open and her money purse has disappeared. We try to report the theft to two men in uniforms in the station. They are not policemen. We try two more men, in uniforms and impressive berets. But they’re not policemen either. Eventually we are directed to a police station hidden away at the furthermost corner of the station.
The Carabinieri officer (cautious eyes, long grey beard) who takes the details says: “You are safe in Rome. But your things are not.”
The Daughter wonders if we’d like to know how many kilometres we covered looking for a policeman. We decide that we don’t.
At the end of a long day, back in our hotel, TCMrsF and I agree that more Continental rail travel would not be a good idea.
Waiting for our flight home on Saturday. A young man lays down his travel bags and sits at a baby grand piano standing in the concourse for departure Gate E. He begins to play. Some classical, some Adele. Italy; surprising and full of contrasts. Old and new. The luxury and the Naples slums. Maimed beggars on streets of beautiful young men and women.
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.
You 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.
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.
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!
OUR final day in Puglia, and a very busy one as we visit Monte Sant’ Angelo, Foresta Umbra and Peschici.
But 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.