Archive | Travel RSS feed for this section

Encounters with Portugal.

12 Mar

Portugal– a small country at the western edge of Europe which hardly ever makes the news headlines, except for the tragic disappearance of the British toddler, Madeleine McCann. Yet this is the country whose explorers discovered a large chunk of the world. It’s a country that had a world empire well before the British, French or Dutch. It’s a fiercely Christian nation that used to be Muslim. Just in the 20th century, it murdered its king, became a republic, endured a long dictatorship, avoided both world wars, had a peaceful revolution and joined the European Community. I’ve just been to Portugal, my second visit. On both occasions I didn’t go to Portugal’s popular and picturesque south coast, the Algarve, although I believe it is lovely. Instead I opted  for cultural sightseeing in Lisbon and Porto and all points in between. Typical history and geography teacher’s stuff really. Here are a few of the things I saw and found out about.

THE VOYAGES OF DISCOVERY and the DAY WHEN MY DAD LOCKED MY SCHOOL BOOKS AWAY.

At Belem, a suburb of Portugal’s capital, Lisbon, is the striking Monument to the Discoveries. It is a huge white, waterfront edifice in the shape of a caravel, the ocean-going sailing ship developed by the Portuguese to explore  lands beyond Europe. On it are clustered famous Portuguese explorers, kings, poets and priests. It was built in 1960 to mark the 500th anniversary of the death of Prince Henry the Navigator, who did more than most to make the famous Portuguese, 15th century voyages of discovery possible. He set up a maritime school in the Algarve which developed great advances in navigation, cartography and ship design.

Portuguese explorers in the second half of the 15th century, gradually sailed down the west coast of Africa, dispersing the fog of the unknown and opening up the world that we know today. It was from Belem that Bartholomew Diaz embarked when he became the first European to sail round the tip of South Africa. He changed its name from “Cape of Storms” to “Cape of Good Hope.” Then in 1497, Vasco da Gama sailed all the way round Africa and across the Indian Ocean to India. He thus opened up a cheaper route to the lucrative Spice Trade than the expensive and dangerous overland one, making Portugal extremely rich and turning it into a world power. Even before this, in 1494, the Pope had divided the world between Portugal and Spain. The Spanish had become wealthy and powerful following the discovery of the New World of America by Christopher Columbus in 1492. Yet, even here, there was a strong Portuguese connection. Columbus, an Italian from Genoa, was married to the daughter of a Portuguese sea-captain and learnt all his mariner’s skills and knowledge on the Algarve.

I know all this because as a young teenager, I became fascinated with the age of discovery which I learnt about in my history lessons at secondary school. It was probably this subject that ignited my life-long passion for History. One could argue that Portugal was responsible for my subsequent long career as a History and geography teacher. I got so obsessed that I spent hours and hours producing marathon home-works which ran well beyond 30 pages of writing, drawings and maps. My poor teacher, Mrs Todd, must have hated me as she had all that extra marking to do! My dad got very worried. Surely I should be out in the fresh air, playing football or hide and seek with the other “normal” kids? In fact, my father got so concerned that he locked my books up in a cabinet and ordered me out of the house! It didn’t work though because as soon as he left for work I took my books out again and continued my absorbing studies.

MANUELINE ARCHITECTURE. — an exercise in Royal showing off.

The Portuguese got extremely rich through their discoveries and the establishment of their Empire. The 15th and early 16th centuries are seen as Portugal’s “Golden Age.” They even cashed in on the discovery of the “New World” by colonising Brazil, the largest country in South America. This proved to be a fortuitous move for gold was later discovered in Brazil and brought yet more wealth pouring into the Portuguese coffers. The Royal family, the Catholic church and others spent vast sums of money on lavish palaces, churches and monasteries.( for some reason, monasteries are called convents in Portugal.) I doubt whether many ordinary people enjoyed the benefits of all this wealth. Basically, it was a huge showing- off operation with each king or noble trying to  outshine the others. For instance, Mafra, a small town near Lisbon, is dominated by an enormous monastery-palace built in the early 1700s by the extravagant King Dom Joao V to celebrate the birth of his son and heir. It began as a simple Franciscan monastery, but thanks to the vast mineral wealth pouring in from Brazil, it soon grew into a gargantuan palace with hundreds of monks employed to pray for the Royal souls. Some people regard the spending on Mafra as obscene. Still, all that extravagance has brought great dividends to the modern Portuguese tourist industry. Cultural tourists flock to see these spectacular, over-the-top edifices. I saw similar grandiose buildings at Belem ( the Jeronimos Monastery), Coimbra, Tomar and Batalha, to name just a few.

The most characteristic style of architecture in Portugal’s Golden era is the Manueline style. It gets its name from King Manuel I ( 1495-1521).( no connection with the waiter in Fawlty Towers.) He used much of the riches of the empire to build fantastic monuments of self-glorification. His successor favoured a more restrained, simpler style so the Manueline period was relatively short. As I said, this extravagant style of architecture is a great hit with the tourists of today. Manueline architecture was a late, Portuguese version of the Gothic style. It involves elaborately carved stone-work around doors, windows and arcades. It includes: mock vegetation, twisted ropes, knots and swirls, crosses and globes. Sometimes it seems impossible that such delicate ornamentation can have been carved out of actual stone. A lot of the carvings are symbolic, representing the king, the church or the empire. Coming face to face with it, Manueline architecture makes your jaw drop. Brought up on modern architecture full of clean lines, tourists are taken aback by the forest of fancy ornamentation. It’s all very over-the-top. At the Convento do Cristo at Tomar, we saw the most brilliant examples of the Manueline style. It decorates the chapel and the multiple, arcaded cloisters ( some of them 2 storied). The whole display comes to a head at the hard-to-believe Chapter House Window.( Janela do Capitulo.) The window is swathed in intricate stone carvings representing maritime and Imperial motifs. Our guide talked to us for a full 5 minutes to explain all the symbolism in front of us. We had to pinch ourselves to remember that this was only a mere window! It is a rich, extravagant early 16th century fantasy.

AZULEJOS — beautiful glazed tiles.

Today Portugal is a Christian country but, like its neighbour Spain, it used to be ruled by the Muslim Moors from  north Africa. Much of Portugal’s history is taken up with the Christian re-conquest, led by organisations like the Knights’ Templar.( whose HQ was at Tomar.) However, the Moors did leave a strong legacy especially in the south. The most obvious relics of the Moors are the lovely glazed tiles, that grace both public and private buildings, inside and out. They brought this skilled craft over in the eighth century. The Portuguese name for these beautiful, decorative tiles is “Azulejos.” Some are pictorial, some show repeated patterns. Many of these ceramic tiles are in pale blue and white, but others feature pale yellows, reds and greens. We saw them in medieval palaces, 15th and 16th century churches and cloisters and even in 19th and  20th century Town Halls, shops, houses and railway stations. The entrance hall of Porto’s suburban rail station is particularly spectacular. Tiles are particularly apt for hot countries because they are so cool. Of course  they are ubiquitous in the Arab countries of north Africa and the Middle East. Portugal’s legacy from its Arab past is particularly rich.

We saw lovely early 16th century geometric tiles in the Royal Palace in Sintra.( Palacio Nationale.) We saw a lot of religious imagery in the churches such as the Sao Roque in Lisbon’s upper town. These were usually in restrained pale colours. Later more colourful, extravagent panels were commissioned showing: battles, hunting scenes and fantastical images  influenced by the Voyages of Discovery. Sometimes a large panel would cover a whole wall like a vertical carpet. In the later 17th the blue and white Dutch style became very popular, often showing images of flowers and fruit. Tiles were seen as good insulators on the inside and solid protection from rain and fire on the outside. After the industrial revolution, mass produced tiles were used to decorate shops and factories. We saw numerous independent shops and cafes in Lisbon and Porto, all sporting attractive decoration involving azulejos. Now that I am back in Britain, the beautiful ceramic tiles of Portugal are certainly an abiding memory.

PORT WINE – White, Tawny and Ruby.

As a child I was brought up as a tee-totaller Methodist. However, even my strict, non-drinking parents made an exception for Christmas. We all enjoyed a glass of port wine. OK, it was adulterated with lemonade, but it still counted. I still remember its rich flavour and heavy texture. I think we all thought we were being rather daring and just for once, were letting ourselves go! (Ha! Ha!)

Years later, when I first visited Lisbon, my girlfriend and I made a special point of visiting the Port Wine Institute for a tasting. We were ushered into what looked like the entrance hall of a rather grand, old hotel. It was cool and shady compared to the dazzling, hot sunshine outside. The atmosphere was hushed and still. It was like stepping into another world. We sat at a table in a partitioned booth, and waited. In front of us was a menu. It was a list of different types of Port, some ruby red, some white and some tawny.( a cross between the two.) An old, uniformed waiter approached us for our order. The deal was that we could sample 6 different ports for a special, subsidised price. Not having a lot of spare cash, we carefully chose the cheapest options. However, everytime we selected a cheaper wine, the waiter gravely shook his head, saying it was not available. It was only when we got to the quite expensive ( for us) category that he finally nodded, and after a short wait, brought us our samples. We drank 3 rubies and 3 whites, carefully trying to savour the flavours and look like connoisseurs. I don’t think the waiter was fooled for a second. We soon became talkative and giggly as the wine took effect. In the end, our heads swimming, we parted with a too large sum of money and staggered out into the daylight. As soon as the bright sun hit us we realised how drunk we were. So we retreated to the quiet courtyard of a nearby old convent ( The Carmo) to rest and slowly sober up.

  Recently, I was lucky enough to visit Porto itself and went with my tour group for a tasting at a wine lodge on the banks of the Duoro. We were given a long but interesting talk about the special grapes, their growing conditions and the processes they go through to finally produce the port wines. The soils, cold winters and long hot summers of the Duoro valley provide ideal conditions for the vines to grow and prosper. It was all very scientific and I’ve forgotten most of the technical details. Apparently the British were very involved in the development of the industry, such that we have ended up with names such as :Sandeman, Graham’s, Cockburn and Taylor’s. Most of the lodges are on the Gaia side of the river Duoro, on the opposite bank to Porto itself. We had an interesting and pleasant tasting involving one ruby and one white. Someone acquired a sample of tawny wine which ended up being our favourite. It was lighter than the others and slipped down more easily. I suppose this preference just confirmed that we are philistines but after 3 ports, we didn’t really care. We had tasted port wine in Porto, the drink that shares its name with its country. When you’re a serious tourist you have to do these things! My Methodist background just faded into the past.

The European Union.

  Portugal voted to join the European Union in 1986, over 10 years after the British. Membership of the EU guaranteed political stability. It’s first attempt at democracy after the fall of the monarchy in the early 20th century, had resulted in massive political instability. There were a staggering 45 changes of government in only 16 years. This led to the dictatorship of Antonio Salazar who, being a skilled finance minister, at least brought some order to the country’s economy. However, ordinary people were denied human rights, no opposition was allowed and the press was heavily censured. It was a one-party dictatorship. The country became backward compared to much of Europe and the ordinary people suffered poverty. The dictatorship was overthrown when Salazar stepped down in 1970 due to illness and dementia. The colonies were given up after damaging wars and a so-called “Carnation-Revolution”in 1974, overthrew the old regime and restored democracy. ( The protesters put flowers in the barrels of the soldiers guns.) I remember visiting Estoril in the mid 1990’s and seeing the atmospheric, decaying, empty mansions of the rich. Their gardens were overgrown with weeds and the gates were secured with rusty pad-locks. It was like a scene from the Adams Family! These supporters and beneficiaries of the dictatorship had all fled to Brazil and abandoned their sumptuous homes, fearing for their safety.

 Joining the EU gave Portugal much needed international support and stability. Its infrastructure was badly neglected and European money was pumped in to build roads, bridges, railways and all the other necessities for a modern nation. We were told that if there was a referendum about EU membership in Portugal today, probably about 90 to 95% would vote to stay, as the benefits for the country had been so great. The Portuguese governments had also used the excuse of EU membership to bring in some important reforms. Some measures would have been initially unpopular and might have led to the fall of a government. However, using Europe as the reason for their introduction, helped to bring in some much needed changes that were to the long- term benefit of the country. Our recent tour guide Tomas ( half Portuguese, half German) told us much of this as we drove around on a cultural tour of his country. I don’t think anyone failed to spot the irony in the fact that he talking to British tourists whose country had just voted narrowly to actually leave the European Union in the Referendum of June, 2016. It highlighted the great difference that now divides the United Kingdom from Portugal. On the face of it these 2 nations have great similarities. Both are in western Europe, both are democracies, both are sea-faring nations, both had “golden eras” and world-wide empires, both lost their empires in the second half of the 20th century and have had to come to terms with their diminished status in the world. However, one nation sees its future firmly in Europe while the other has decided, for better or for worse, to go it alone.

I have enjoyed my visits to Portugal and will certainly go again. There are many things I have not mentioned of course as this blog is not intended as a comprehensive guide, but merely some fleeting impressions. Two last images spring to mind as I near the end of the piece — the wonderful mosaic pavements decorating many of the towns and cities we visited, and the delicious pastries in the numerous bakeries and cafes we visited, especially the Pasties de Belem, wonderful flaky custard tartlets, sprinkled with cinnamon and icing sugar. These were some of the many treats we experienced in Portugal. ( Do you think the Portuguese Tourist Board will give me a free holiday now?)

 

 

Wildlife Encounters– Costa Rican Style.

1 Feb

It was none other than Christopher Columbus who gave Costa Rica its name. Although he “pretended” to be an ambassador for Spain and a missionary, the explorer was primarily a treasure hunter. Thus when he saw some of the locals wearing fine gold and jade adornments, he thought he’s hit the jackpot! Columbus named his latest discovery Costa Rica, or Rich Coast. Unfortunately for him and his greed, the natives he saw were important chiefs and the dazzling jewellery they sported was obtained largely through trade. Columbus never made his fortune here but today Costa Rica is indeed rich, although not in gold or precious stones. It is rich in pristine tropical rain forests and has a huge diversity of wildlife for such a small country. In an age when other countries are recklessly destroying their valuable rain forests to sell the timber or clear the land for cash crop farming, the Costa Ricans have bucked the trend and have succeeded in saving much of their forests and the increasingly precious flora and fauna that inhabits them. This is why I ended up following in Columbus’s footsteps, attracted not by gold but by the chance to see exotic: animals, birds, trees and plants in their natural habitat. A nature loving friend went there a few years ago and came back raving about what he had seen. Once I had saved enough money, I was determined to go and see for myself the rich wildlife of Costa Rica.

A blow by blow account of the entire trip would be too boring, but instead, here are descriptions of just a couple of my Central American wildlife encounters.

Wildlife on the Beach — Manual Antonio, Costa Rica.

Our hotel was set in tropical gardens just off the ocean front of Manual Antonio, on Costa Rica’s Pacific Coast. Vibrantly coloured humming-birds darted around, collecting nectar from the flowers and every now and then a large iguana ambled across the lawn. It was just before the end of the rainy season and we had had a very wet night. Our first rain forest wildlife walk had been delayed until the weather decided to settle. It was just like being on holiday in Britain — sitting in a hotel room waiting for the rain to stop. Except of course, you don’t see humming birds or iguanas in Blackpool or Skegness. ( at least I’ve never spotted any!)

We sat on our little balcony and looked out towards the ocean. Wooded islands punctuated the middle distance and in the foreground, swaying palm trees fringed the sandy beach. Black vultures soared around and then landed in the tree tops, spreading their large wings to dry. Just across from our room, a man quickly shinned up a palm tree, using no ropes or special equipment. He hacked at a clump of coconuts until they dropped down to his waiting mates below. His climbing skill was amazing. Again, I suspect that this is not a regular occurrence in Britain. I remember Keith Richards falling out of a coconut tree but that was while he was on a World tour, not back in his homeland.

When we had arrived the day before we had taken a walk on the beach. It’s one of those magical places where the rain forest sweeps down to the sea. It’s a popular spot. We had just passed someone having a massage, when we noticed people pointing up to the top of a tree that had encroached on to the sand. We looked up and there was our first ever sighting of a sloth! This was one of the main reasons why we had decided to visit Central America — to see exotic wild-life. Once one has got over the excitement of spotting a sloth however, the actual “spectacle” can be something of an anti-climax. This is because the sloth rarely moves. It can spend up to 15 hours a day sleeping and when it does stir, is officially the world’s slowest animal. In fact the sloth is so sedentary that algae grows on its furry coat. Its greenish tint helps to camouflage the animal as it sits high up in the rain forest canopy.  Luckily, “our” sloth, one of the 3-toed variety, was in a small tree so we got to see it more clearly than usual. It was hanging from a branch and its head was half-turned towards us, revealing  big, soulful eyes and a shy smile. It may not be the most thrilling of mammals to watch but it is certainly one of the most endearing. People love animals that seem to have human characteristics. The sloth’s natural mouth position makes it appear to be smiling, so as far as most people are concerned, it’s a winner.

Manual Antonio is a popular spot for picnickers but those that do so, find that having an open-air meal is not the most relaxing of experiences. We watched a lady and her children enjoying a bite to eat at the edge of the forest when they were suddenly surrounded by a family of raccoons which had appeared out of the trees. The lady let out a scream as a racoon snatched one of her sandwiches. She quickly had to pack away all her food and make her escape. This, apparently, is a very common occurrence. Later, as we were nearing the end of our  walk, a whole troop of white-faced capuchin monkeys bounced on to the beach, causing quite a stir. They sped around on all fours , sporting lovely, curling prehensile tails. Some had cute little babies clinging to their backs. They had been attracted by fallen coconuts which afforded an easy feast. However, like the raccoons, these intelligent monkeys are not afraid to grab human food it it’s unguarded or on offer. We were told not to feed the monkeys as this increases dependency and can lead to more aggressive behaviour. Being surrounded by a whole horde of teeth-baring monkeys can be quite intimidating. However, for us, just watching the coconut- eating from a safe distance, proved to be a fascinating spectacle. It made this Costa Rican beach so very unusual and exciting compared to what we were accustomed to back home.

NIGHT WALK IN THE JUNGLE. (MONTEVERDE– The Green Mountain.)

We had driven north along the Pacific coast on the Pan American Highway of Costa Rica. At one point we stopped on a bridge across a wide river and when we looked down, saw at least 20 huge crocodiles basking on its banks. Then we turned inland and started to climb. We were heading for the Quaker established settlement of Monteverde, up in the spectacular cloud forests. American Quakers had migrated there in the 1960s, in order to escape the dreaded Vietnam draft. Costa Rica is a good place for conscientious objectors as it is a peaceful country and is the only one in its continent to have no standing army. They set up a successful community and were instrumental in preserving large reserves of rain forest and cloud forest in the surrounding area.  After an hour or so of climbing, the road turned into a narrow, twisting, unpaved track. It has been deliberately left unsurfaced to discourage mass tourism which could end up destroying the very things the visitors had come to see — pristine rain forests and exotic, increasingly rare wild-life.

The rain started to lash down relentlessly, and as we slowly ascended into the clouds, it seemed as if we were travelling to the very edge of the known world. At one point the road had almost disappeared following a landslip. Our minibus had to manoeuvre very gingerly around the diggers which were attempting to restore it. Any slight mistake and we would have plunged down a precipitous slope to our right. Mid-November should have been the start of the dry season, but an unseasonal hurricane was hitting the north Caribbean coast and all the weather systems had gone haywire.

So, it felt as if we very lucky when, the next morning, we woke up to a fine, hot ,sunny day in the beautiful cloud forests. Some hurried off to go zip-lining or horse riding, but we, acting our advanced age, chose the more sedate activities of visiting a butterfly garden, a hummingbird feeding station and a tropical frog pond. Later we also visited a fascinating orchid garden.  Many of the orchids were so tiny that they gave us magnifying glasses to view them. However, irrespective of their daytime choices, the whole group came together for what was to be the highlight of the visit: a night walk, deep into the cloud forest.

I’ve always been frightened of going into dark woods at night. We had a large wood near where I grew up. I loved playing in it during the day but avoided it like the plague after dusk. So, when I heard of the Night Walk in the Monteverde  Cloud Forest, I was at first filled with trepidation. What if I got detached from the group and was left, lost in a strange, tropical jungle? I had heard the rain forest at night while down at Manual Antonio. After dark it was a cacophony of sounds — the constant loud chirping of the cicadas, the croaking of the frogs, the growls of the howler monkeys and all the other strange and frightening hooting and screeching. We heard all this from a road that ran alongside the forest, but now we were deliberately going to walk into that pitch black unknown! The prospect was a bit nerve- shredding. The trouble is, I had read too many frightening books about the jungle when I was a child. The rain forest was painted as a place of menace and danger with poisonous spiders, fierce wild cats and huge snakes dangling down to bite you with their venom or squeeze you to death. Then in the rivers and streams were crocodiles and razor toothed piranhas which can strip a man of all his flesh in just a few seconds. Why would anyone voluntarily want to go there?

However, as this was probably a once in a lifetime experience, I conquered my fears and signed up to go. Of course, I was completely safe. We were issued with torches and followed an experienced guide along well trodden paths. So it wasn’t really recreating Tarzan and Jane. The real reason for going at night was because up to 80% of rain forest creatures are nocturnal. In other words they are mostly active at night. For many, this is because they are safer from their predators. But “safer” is a relative term, as many of the predators operate at night too, as we were to see.

Our little group of 7 plus a guide set off into the darkness. We stayed close together. There was no hanging back to take that extra photo on this trip. We trained our torches on the ground as we didn’t want to trip over obstacles such as rocks or low branches. The first creatures we spotted were a couple of tiny tree frogs, one green and one a golden-brown.  They sat totally motionless on large green leaves. Think of the cover of David Attenborough’s original “Life on Earth” and you will get the picture. We would never have seen them without the guide as they were so minute. They didn’t seem to be bothered by our torches. A powerful telescope was trained on them and we were all able to have a close-up look. The guide could even take a picture with his camera phone through the lens of the scope. The same applied to a sinister looking scorpion, sitting completely still on a tree trunk in the middle distance. When the light was shone on it, the scorpion glowed an eerie, luminous blue. We could clearly see its curly, sting-tipped tail. Also completely motionless were yellow and green vipers coiled around branches with their heads in the attack position, ready to pounce on an unsuspecting passing mouse or small bird. We were warned not to go too close so as not to disturb the reptile and not to stray into danger. We heard of one foolish tourist who had touched a poisonous snake to make it move in order to get a better picture. He got bitten for his troubles and had to be rushed to hospital to be given the anti-dote.

The walk had many highlights. A rustling in the tree tops revealed a feeding kinkajou — a sort of ferret w Iith a large prehensile tail acting as a fifth limb. It was as agile and lively as a monkey. A rustling in the undergrowth revealed what for me was the most exciting spot — an armadillo. The silver, linked, armour-like body made it look like a tiny knight returning from the Crusades. Both the armadillo and the kinkajou took me right back to my childhood when I saved the Brooke Bond tea cards. On one side was a coloured picture of the creature and on the other was the description of its appearance, habitat etc. My sister and I bought special albums to stick the cards in. I distinctly remember our albums of: Tropical Birds, Wild Animals of Africa and Wild-life of South America. Maybe the planting of that early seed in my brain was one of the prime reasons that had led me to the jungles of Latin America all those decades later.

The next highlight was seeing a large, female tarantula sitting menacingly at the mouth of her lair, halfway up a bank of earth. When the telescope was trained on her she looked enormous. I was mesmerised by it and must have looked at the frightening, magnified image at least 7 times. The tarantula had orange and brown striped hairy legs. I know it posed no danger to us but a chill still ran down my spine. Maybe I was thinking of the scene in Ian Fleming’s “Dr No” in which James Bond, on a mission in Jamaica, finds a large tarantula crawling up his body as he lay in bed. Fleming, who lived in Jamaica, which is not a million miles from Costa Rica, greatly exaggerated the danger posed by the spider for maximum dramatic effect. The sight of a real tarantula just a metre away from me was still a pretty chilling moment though.

The jungle night walk lasted for 2 hours but the time just flew by. We saw sleeping toucans with their spectacular bills tucked into their feathers. We saw endless columns of leaf cutter ants and when we switched off our torches, we were surrounded by the incandescent lights of glow-worms or fire-flies. We also saw sloths perched high up in the canopy. One was actually moving, painfully slowly, collecting leaves to eat. Apparently they stay up there most of the time and only come down to earth to defecate, about once a week.

It was a memorable and spectacular walk in my opinion. It encapsulated perfectly the reasons that I had so much wanted to visit Costa Rica. I think it’s important to see and appreciate wild animals, birds, reptiles and amphibians while they are still with us. Destruction of habitat is threatening so many species around the world, especially in sensitive areas such as the tropical rain forests. Zoos are fine for getting prolonged close ups of animals and also have praiseworthy breeding programmes for threatened species. However seeing a creature in an enclosure or a cage is nowhere near as satisfying as seeing it in the wild , in its natural habitat. Catching a glimpse of a feeding kinkajou or an ambling armadillo is a priceless, probably  once in a lifetime experience for me. One churlish reviewer on Trip Adviser expressed disappointment that he had only caught brief glimpses of the jungle creatures. He said that he would have been better off staying back at the hotel and getting a superior view on Google images! Just think, if I had read this review earlier, I could have saved a lot of money and watched a DVD or TV wildlife programme back at home. Come to think of it, I missed BBC’s “Life on Earth2” because I was foolish enough to go on holiday to Central America!  I’m just joking of course. I couldn’t disagree with that reviewer more. I think the live experience thrills much more than the canned, on-screen one. My wildlife experiences on Costas Rica’s beaches and in its rain forests have left me with a whole array of wonderful, indelible memories!

 

 

 

 

 

Real Travelling? ( Thoughts on a Mexican bus.)

8 Jan

I’m sitting on a long distance coach in southern Mexico. It’s an 8 hour journey from Palanque to San Cristobel de Las Casas. There are 2 drivers working in shifts. The coach may stop at some point for a leg-stretch and a toilet opportunity( we all have our 5 peso coins at the ready.) On the other hand we may not stop, so we’ll have to cross our legs and stick it out. It seems to depend on the whim of the driver. I am in a small group of travellers and at least half of us have dodgy tummies. In this part of the world they call it “Montezuma’s revenge”! There is a toilet at the back of the coach but we are not encouraged to use it because of the smells.

Every now and then we slow to a near standstill because of major road-works. Sometimes it seems as if the diggers have only scraped the road into being just before we arrived! Periodically, we stop at toll-booths or get stuck in jams as we slowly grind our way through an unknown town or city. Some passengers try to doze or read but are constantly disturbed by the on-board “entertainment” — a second-rate Hollywood blockbuster badly dubbed into Spanish. Why am I telling you all this? Well, my question is: ” Is this real travelling?” Elsewhere in southern Mexico, holiday-makers are sunning themselves on the beaches of Cancun, flopping by their hotel pools or wallowing in jacuzzis. Many have flown huge distances to be there. Are they “real” travellers too?

This debate first started in my head when I heard someone describing a planned overland journey from Italy to Serbia by road and rail. It sounded like a really interesting and exciting thing to do and I was quietly envious. But then I was informed that this wasn’t “real travelling.” When I enquired what was, the answer was: roughing it in the back of a lorry crossing Ethiopia or some other remote area of east Africa. It seems that the journey from Milan to Belgrade was :too comfortable,  too predictable and too safe to be considered as “real travelling.” Maybe to be thought of as “real” by the seasoned traveller, a journey has to have elements of: risk, unpredictability or even danger. These are the ingredients designed to give one a real “buzz”. It’s when the adrenaline really starts to flow. Maybe this is why for some, travel is so addictive. It is a form of tourism but with a real edge to it. Unlike the everyday vacationer, the intrepid traveller does not seek out comfort, safety and relaxation. It is just the opposite that is the name of the game. In his book” The Great Patagonian Express”, Paul Theroux writes: ” Travel is not a vacation, and it is often the opposite of a rest.” He goes on: ” I craved a little risk, some danger, an untoward event, a vivid discomfort.” He even courted loneliness in order to achieve these aims.

I sense that there is a sort of travelling hierarchy in play here. The term “real” suggests that some forms of travel are not genuine and therefore are less valuable experiences.. These “lesser” travellers are given labels such as “tourists” or “holiday-makers.” Maybe we should not be judging travel experiences as “real” or “not real”, but should just acknowledge that they are “different.”

Travel for some is a kind of religion. They talk of having gap-years or career- breaks in order to go travelling. They congregate in hostels, bars and cafes, and swap travel stories. They ask questions such as “How long have you been on the road?”, “Where have you been?” and “Where are you going next?” For them, it seems as if it’s the journey that is more important than the actual destination. The implication is that this is not just a physical journey across time and space, but a journey of personal development. It is often said that travel broadens the mind. It helps one to escape the confines of everyday life. I agree with that. It’s why I look forward to my trips so much. However is there such a thing as a hierarchy of travel, or putting it less judgementally – can travel and travellers be categorised into distinct types?

Serious travellers live out of back-packs, endlessly journeying for months on end, visiting town after town, country after country. Some of the people we met in Central America were amazed that we were only visiting Mexico, Guatemala and Costa Rica. Why weren’t we going on into Panama and then the countries of South America? These long-term travellers are always restlessly moving on, travelling but never arriving. The journey’s the thing, not the destination.

The next category I suggest is the “ordinary” traveller, for want of a better description. For this person, travel is more of a hobby rather than a full-time occupation ( or obsession!) This person makes a journey, even quite a long one, but once he/she gets to the destination, tends to stay in that vicinity, exploring places of interest within striking distance of their base. The ordinary traveller is more likely to use a suitcase rather than a back-pack and only usually has to unpack it once. This person is often interested in the culture and history of the place being visited and is open to new experiences. He or she may well go to quite an exotic destination and suffer a mild bout of “culture shock.”  However, this type of traveller’s trip has definite parameters in terms of both time and distance. The journey has to be tightly organised and packaged to a certain extent because the traveller has only a limited amount of time and has to return, sooner rather than later to: work, family, the post, bills and all those other things that stabilise and ground many of our lives. I think for this type of “traveller”, it’s the destination that lures them to leave home rather than the journey.

To answer my own question, I think I am more of a “traveller” than a so-called “real traveller” I have only gone on 3 really long journeys in my entire life and all have been embarked upon in the luxury of my retirement years. This central American odyssey is one of them. Before, I was too busy working and raising a family to contemplate anything too ambitious or expensive. I had “staycations” in Britain or ventured on short trips into western Europe. On this trip I told a few stories about my youth-hostelling days in the English Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales. ” Did you go back-packing when you were younger?” asked a young Aussie in our group. The answer had to be “no” because I always had to get back to work on Monday morning. Thus, although I travelled around on these trips, I couldn’t be regarded as a “real” traveller. They wouldn’t have been able to make much of a road movie out of my rambling weekends or music festival trips. I had to make my precious time count and didn’t have the luxury of being perpetually “on the road.” After-all, my name is Stuart Bates, not Jack Kerouac!

Our coach has slowed to negotiate a series of bumps that announce the arrival of a village. Street sellers laden with oranges and bananas move amongst the slow moving traffic trying to sell their wares. An old man sits under the shade of his little, improvised stall, his table stacked with pineapples. People walk around under umbrellas because the sun is so hot and high above. Others have a snack in a tacos restaurant. Another old man trundles slowly by on a sort of cycle-rickshaw. I’m surprised because this is rural Mexico not China or south-east Asia. We are on the coast and just out at sea I watch brown pelicans dive-bombing into the water to catch fish. Yesterday, we saw toucans and howler monkeys in the jungle and visited an ancient Mayan temple complex. Now, we are passing fields of swaying sugar cane. My leg itches and I look down at 3 red insect bites on my right foot and leg. Repellant is as essential as sun-cream on this trip. Is this “real travelling”? Maybe it is — I don’t know.

My final category of traveller is the humble and much derided tourist. In a sense, all people visiting places away from their own homes are tourists. They are on tour. They are so obviously different from the local inhabitants. However, for some tourists, the main attractions of visiting a different place are the hotter, sunnier climate and the chance to have a rest. They simply fly and flop. Their interactions with the locals involve mainly hotel and restaurant staff and the owners of souvenir shops in the resort. They primarily only meet local people who provide them with services and goods that make their holidays smooth and comfortable. In one sense, this can be seen as a sort of “Downton Abbey” scenario with the rich tourists playing the part of the aristocrats and the poorer locals being cast as the servants. It can be an unequal relationship based on the disparities of wealth, especially when people from the so-called “Developed world” visit a “Developing Country”. On the other hand, one could argue it’s a “win- win” situation. The tourists get an enjoyable, relaxing holiday, while the local people earn much appreciated cash and are provided with employment.

The question remains though –Is this type of tourism “real” travel? It depends on what one means by “real.” If one’s definition involves getting to know the country that one has travelled to, then this type of more sedentary traveller might not qualify. Is lying on a beach in Cancun learning about the real Mexico? Is visiting the expensive shopping malls of Dubai, enhancing one’s knowledge of Arab culture or of Bedouin lifestyle? The answer is probably “no”. Mass tourism with universal entertainment and international cuisine does not encourage an appreciation or understanding of local culture. However, hardworking people deserve rest and recreation, and are obviously free to spend their money as they wish. I may not categorise them as real travellers but I don’t suppose they give a fig for what I think. After-all, I myself am not a real traveller. I spend much more  time at home than on the road or up in the air.

We are now driving up into the spectacular mountains near the Mexican-Guatemalan border. My ears have just popped. We have been journeying for 7 hours with just one twenty minute break. The drivers decided to have a quick snack at a roadside café. Most of the passengers are asleep after eating too much pop corn to keep their stomachs happy. A young Liam Neeson is incongruously speaking Spanish on the coach video. It is nearly Christmas but nearly 30 degrees outside in the late afternoon. Is this “real travel”? Who knows and who cares anyway?

 

Now I Know the Way to San Jose.

26 Dec

As Chris and I set off on our recent travels, I could barely contain my excitement! We were journeying by taxis, trains and planes to San Jose! Ever since the classic Dionne Warwick hit; “Do You Know the Way to San Jose?” in 1968, I had dreamed of visiting that magical sounding place. Penned by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, the song tells of someone desperately wanting to escape the Hollywood rat race, where people seek fame and fortune on screen but often fail. They end up as gas pump attendants or in other menial jobs, thinking sadly of what might have been. The singer yearns to get away “to find some peace of mind” in San Jose, apparently her home town. So now, unbelievably, we too were going to San Jose. It would be a dream come true. It would be almost as thrilling as meeting the girl from Ipenema!

Our journey however, didn’t involve slipping on to the L A freeway and gliding off into the Californian sunset. It would involve catching crowded trains from N E England to London, chugging west on the interminable Piccadilly tube line to Heathrow, staying at an airport hotel and then flying across the Atlantic early next morning. We would then change planes in New York, an exciting event in itself, before flying on to our legendary destination. We would at last be following in the famous footsteps of Dionne, Hal and Burt.

That was our dream, but now, sit tight and I’ll tell you about the reality. The journey began on a small branch line with our train grinding its way through industrial Teesside. ( We live in a lovely seaside resort, but the industry is not far inland.) Finally we reached the delights of Darlington, the nearest station on the East Coast mainline. The express train arrived to whisk us down to the capital on this British leg of our exciting journey. To our surprise we were greeted by a large contingent of transport police! They seemed to be guarding the train from some terrible threat. We hadn’t heard of any terrorist alert so were completely bemused as we stored our luggage and sank into our seats. All the other passengers seemed to be quite relaxed so it couldn’t have been anything too scary.

Then we heard it — the loud, raucous singing of a large group of inebriated Scotsmen. They made a mockery of the concept of the “Quiet Coach.” The penny suddenly dropped. It was the weekend of the England vs Scotland World Cup football match at Wembley. The train was travelling from Edinburgh to London. The good humoured singing and chanting continued all the way south. We were quite safe but unable to use the toilet as it was permanently being occupied by an unending queue of kilted revellers. One wag in our coach commented that this was an interesting experiment in recycling, as the Scots fans were draining cans of beer as they waited to relieve themselves! It made for an interesting journey south. At Kings Cross we were treated to a spectacle of: hairy legs, bulging tattoos, swaying kilts and jaunty, tartan hats. Emblazoned on the backs of their dark blue football tops were the names of legendary Scottish footballers — Dalgleish, McLeish, Strachan. The echoing vaults of King Cross station resounded with the songs and chants of the eternally optimistic Scottish fans. Sadly, their beloved team got hammered 3-0 by England at Wembley, the next day.

By then we were up in the air, having survived the soulless automation of Heathrow Terminal 2. Instead of meeting a real person we were confronted by a row of machines. Presumably, many of the real employees have sadly been made redundant. It reminded me of the supermarkets back home where machines are rapidly replacing people. We now had to scan our passports, print our own boarding passes, print our own labels and attach them to our luggage by following the on- screen instructions. I quickly re-entered “grumpy old man” territory. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be getting a part-time job at an airport! We eventually made it through to our United Airlines plane which proceeded to sit on the tarmac for an hour and a half because some paperwork hadn’t been done properly. Finally we launched ourselves up into the sky and damp, grey Britain soon disappeared beneath the clouds. We were on our way to the blue skies and constant sunshine of San Jose. Once again  60’s tune and Dionne’s beautiful, velvety voice played in my head. ( I didn’t need head-phones.)

The journey to New York took 7 hours or so. I lost count. They tell you to sit back, relax and enjoy the flight. This is nothing but a joke because basically we are stuck in a droning metal tube, squashed into seats with little leg-room. Attendants bring drinks and an excuse of a meal. Fellow passengers retreat into their head-phones. Chris tried to nod off, drifting in and out of sleep. I read my book for a while but got distracted by the movies being played on people’s laptops. I only saw the pictures as I wasn’t plugged in to the soundtrack. I was treated to the Ninja Turtles rescuing New York from a ridiculous looking monster. It was a clichéd blur of: fights, car chases, explosions and other daring exploits while hanging off skyscrapers or helicopters. This was mixed in with the adjoining person’s dated rom-com about 2 couples going to a tropical island holiday camp. It was the usual mix of: misunderstandings, flirtations, jealousies, confrontations and reconciliations. The break-ups and the make-ups were all laced with clumsy, slapstick comedy.

I drifted off for a while, then decided to check where we were on my back-of-seat screen. I studied a route map charting the plane’s progress. To my surprise and excitement the map showed we were just skirting the south-east corner of Greenland! The nearest town, hundreds of miles away was Nuuk ( or Godthab.) Now there’s a destination! I’ve never been to and never seen Greenland. So, trembling with anticipation, I leaned toward the window and looked out. And there it was  — Greenland, its rows and rows of snowy mountains glistening in the bright sunlight. Miraculously, the clouds had parted to reveal this magical, other-worldly sight. We were 1855 miles from London, flying over the North Atlantic Ocean and I was looking at Greenland! Suddenly every penny of the airfare was worth it.

I gazed at the myriad of mountain peaks, fjords and islands. The sea surrounding them was dark blue and very still. No breakers washed up on the shore. It was a completely empty, pristine landscape, seemingly untouched by man. There were no buildings, no roads, no people. The sea was devoid of ships. There was no vegetation either belying the island’s name. As far as the eye could see stretched long ranges of jutting, snow-capped mountains, fringed by the dark, still sea. I imagined being down there, alone and isolated. The hairs stood up a little on the back of my neck with the thought of it, a combination of excitement and fear. Wasn’t there a William Golding book about a man stuck on a rock in the middle of the ocean? “Pincher Martin” it’s called. Maybe I should read it. It was difficult to imagine an existence stripped of all the multiple technologies of the modern world. Imagine– no TV, no radio, no phone, no roads, no Internet! In reality, I wouldn’t have lasted more than a few hours in Greenland, what with the cold, the isolation and probably: the polar bears. However, looking down at this empty, beautiful, almost surreal scene far below, made me feel strangely calm and content. Slowly the islands and the mountains receded into the unfathomable distance. As we flew towards Labrador, the curtain of clouds returned. If I was being corny, I would say it was all like a dream!

We were now on our run-into New York City, crossing Canada and then New England. New York is another place I’ve never visited, but always wanted to. As we approached I could see nothing but cloud. By now I had forgotten all about the Ninja Turtles and the antics of the rom-commers. I kept looking out of the airplane window. As we descended towards Newark New York airport, another minor miracle occurred. We passed through the clouds and there were the clustered sky-scrapers of Manhattan, spread out below us. This was the second most thrilling moment of the journey because, as I’ve explained, I’m a New York virgin.

I had expected to be gob-smacked by the sheer, soaring size of the buildings, but to be honest, from up in the air, they looked like toy-town. At first I wasn’t even sure whether this was central Manhattan, until I spotted a small island in the bay with the instantly recognisable statue of a lady in flowing robes thrusting her hand up into the sky. We were too high up to distinguish the Statue of Liberty’s famous flaming torch. The sight of this huge statue was the welcome that millions of  poor migrants got in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After their difficult, dangerous sea passage from Europe, Liberty summarised all the hopes and dreams of a better life in the New World. Like the Eiffel Tower and the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty is something that every serious tourist yearns to see and tick off their “bucket list.” Now we’d seen it and it was definitely one of the highlights on our way to San Jose.

With the terrible threat of terrorism stalking the world, America gives a very suspicious, even paranoid welcome to its visitors. The passport queues are long and tiresome as each arrival is interrogated at length. The security checks are extremely thorough and the officers often brusque and rude as they bark out their orders without a “please” or a “thank-you” in sight. Sniffer dogs check your hand-luggage, presumably looking for drugs or explosives. But New York was not as bad as Houston, Texas on the way back, where we had to endure whole body scans and being shouted at for not carrying out an order immediately. It was all very intimidating, especially as we were merely tired travellers and not terrorists.

After another wait, we finally boarded our early evening flight to San Jose. We flew across the Statue of Liberty and Manhattan’s scrapers once more, and then New York disappeared. At last we were on our way to San Jose!

But now I must come clean. We had known all along that we weren’t travelling to the  idyllic-sounding Californian city made famous by Dionne Warwick’s hit song. That city, north of San Francisco, is now known as the “Capital of Silicon Valley.” Thus thousands of people have made their way to San Jose since the song was written in those far-away, pre-internet days. It doesn’t sound such a lovely or restful place anymore. Would I have really wanted to go there , only to be thoroughly disillusioned? The reality would probably have shattered my long-held, romantic dream.

No– we were actually travelling to the capital of Costa Rica, a tiny country in Central America. It’s chief city is also called San Jose. The Spanish conquistadores must have loved their saints as they murdered their way around the New World — San Francisco, San Diego, San Pedro, San Salvador, San Jose. They were named after favourite saints and Saint Joseph( or Josephine), must have been more popular than most.

We weren’t flying to Dionne’s “Mecca”, but were travelling to the Costa Rican capital to begin an exotic, wildlife spotting tour. We would be visiting rain forests, cloud forests, mountains, lakes and coast. We arrived at the Costa Rican San Jose after dark. We were exhausted and ready for journey’s end. Only one more passport queue and one final security scan and we were in. The hotel had sent a taxi to collect us. There was  just time to change some Dollars into local currency (Colones) and help an old, confused American lady who had lost both her luggage and her tour group. We drove into the city. a mish-mash of old and new dominated by traffic. It wasn’t exactly the kind of place to find “some peace of mind.” When we walked out into it the next morning we found a lively town full of street sellers shouting out their  wares in the local version of Spanish. We saw numerous people selling colourful-looking lottery tickets and street entertainers such as xylophone bands and contortionists. It wasn’t the idyll that Dionne had sung wistfully about 50 years ago. It wasn’t even the right San Jose! But it was the beginning of a fascinating and memorable Central American adventure!

Ditching the Comfy Blanket.

6 Nov

I am just about to leave the safety of my own home, to fly halfway across the world to an unknown, unpredictable destination. OK, I know I’m going to Costa Rica, followed by southern Mexico and Guatemala, but I’ve never been to Central America before, so I truly don’t know what to expect. Am I going to be walking into danger? Is there a robber out there just waiting to relieve a naïve, innocent tourist of his money and valuables? I’m travelling with my wife, Chris, so I won’t be completely alone. But it’s interesting that when we tell people of our forthcoming adventure, for every person who expresses excitement, there will be another who points out potential dangers or problems. “Mexico. isn’t that where you can catch the zika virus?” “Mexico. isn’t that where there are violent drug wars?” I’ve tried to shrug these worries aside and let the excitement of exploring 3 new, exotic countries, take over. However, my initial thrill at being able to visit such far-away destinations, to immerse myself in cultures very different from my own, has often been tempered by fears. It’s funny how the negative often seems to outweigh the positive in our lives.

Maybe its our advanced age. Chris and I are both in the second half of our sixties. It’s the age when travel insurance companies get nervous and charge higher premiums. It’s the age when we are not as strong as we used to be. We don’t have as much energy as we used to and thoughts of rest and sleep are more to the fore than in the past. Our long experience of life has informed us of the potential problems that could arise from any situation. The recklessness and bravado of youth has gone. I normally look forward to a foreign holiday and relish the new experiences I may undergo. However, this holiday build- up has been tinged by worry and by careful perusal of the insurance policy small print. The phrase “What if?” had often been on our lips. What if we fall ill? What if we get bitten by a mosquito or a rabid dog? What if we get lost or get robbed of all our money? Unbelievably, we’ve even discussed death and the repatriation of bodies! It’s been ridiculous at times. We’re supposed to be embarking on a fascinating and stimulating adventure, yet, at times, we have been beset by fears. Yes, maybe it is our age.

We are going on two organised tours. One is to see the wildlife and tropical landscapes of Costa Rica. The other is to explore the legacy of the Mayan civilisation in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and in neighbouring Guatemala. It should be great. But these are not luxury tours, travelling by air-conditioned coaches and staying in 5 star hotels. ( We couldn’t afford that anyway.) We will be lodging in clean but basic hotels and travelling around on public transport and mini-buses. What’s more, horror of horrors, we will be expected to carry our own luggage! In the strong tropical sun, will be able to manage? The tours are not high-octane, adrenaline pumping, outdoor-activity affairs, but are mainly sightseeing with the occasional small nature hike. However, when the company found out our great age, we had to answer a comprehensive health and fitness questionnaire before we were allowed to book. I suddenly realised that I’m getting old. Soon I’ll be getting to the stage where my body can’t keep up with my mind.

Another exciting but also worrying aspect of the trip is that we have to make our own way out there, changing planes in big, busy American airports, and will also make out own way back. This is very different to some tours that I know of, where a taxi picks you up from your own doorstep and drops you back there at the end. Such companies pride themselves on organising absolutely everything for their clients so that they don’t have to worry about a thing. The holiday makers are completely spoon-fed. The reasoning is that a holiday’s purpose is primarily to relax and enjoy. All anxiety must be taken away. Tour reps guide you through the complexities of air-travel and meet you when you arrive. The transfer from airport to hotel is taken care of as is everything else. The whole experience is, in theory, free from worry. Chris and I are not going to have this comfort. But, despite the anxiety, I am also very excited about organising my own journey and will get a great sense of satisfaction that “I did it my way.” The other way is reassuring and comforting, but is also a bit like being treated as a school child. I still like to think for myself, instead of letting other people, or technical appliances, do my thinking for me. Thinking, I believe, is becoming an endangered activity. How else can one explain the inexorable rise of the sat-nav and the smart-phone, contraptions that do our thinking for us. In the middle of our double holiday, we have to transfer ourselves from Costa Rica to Mexico. An early flight from an airport I’ve never departed from, where everyone speaks Spanish. ( which I don’t.) There’s plenty of scope for worry and confusion there. What if the bus or taxi doesn’t turn up? What if we cannot find our check-in desk? What if we lose out tickets or passports. What if we cannot find our way to the departure gate? Airports are busy places — what about pick-pockets? Oh, shut up Stuart! It’s going to be great! It’s not everyday you fly from Costa Rica to southern Mexico with a stop-over in El Salvador! It beats catching the local bus into Middlesbrough. Yes, despite the nagging worries. and despite my age, I’m actually really looking forward to it!

I visited my 90 year old mother yesterday, in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. At her age my mum loves and thrives on the predictability of routine. Church on Sunday, hairdresser on Friday, coffee morning on Saturday, cleaner on Monday and Thursday, carers 4 times a day. Her short=term memory is slipping away, but mum’s regular routine helps her to cope and make sense of her existence. Routine is her comfy blanket. Can you remember what a panic it was when, if you were a parent, you mislaid your 2 year old’s comfy blanket? How will he or she get to sleep without that comforting, familiar object to cling on to? It’s funny how the beginning and end stages of one’s life can be so similar. Both the very old and the very young like the comforts of routine and familiar surroundings. In between these two age extremes however, many people, including myself, crave and seek out the excitement of adventure which inevitably involves leaving the familiarities of home and striking off into the unknown. This is why I find travel so intoxicating. I may experience confusion and culture shock, I may be beset by niggling worries, but the sheer adrenaline-producing excitement of visiting new, strange places and discovering new things often makes for an unforgettable experience. Foreign travel, I have had to remind myself, is stepping out of one’s comfort-zone and entering the unpredictable unknown. I still experience the spine-tingling thrill of expectation. I’m not going to be completely in control of my own destiny. ( Sometimes I think we are too hung-up about “control.”) Surprises lay in wait to ambush me on my journey and not all of them may be pleasant. However, I still want to go. The potential thrill of the new still outweighs  the comfort and predictability of the old.

I’m going to abandon my comfy blanket and set out into the unknown. In a way, I know how Tolkein’s “Hobbit” felt at the beginning of his great quest,  except I hope my adventure will not be quite so exciting as his!

No Peace at the Piece Hall!

2 Aug

1. HOPES IN PIECES.

Halifax was going to be the highlight of our summer 2016 bus pass tour of West Yorkshire.  We descended into it on the 503 double-decker from Huddersfield, talking to an old lady about her little dog, Doris. When I saw the town’s sign, the excitement started to mount inside me. Yes, I know you must think I’m daft as Halifax is not noted as a hot tourist destination, but I was genuinely thrilled at the prospect of ticking off a long-time resident of my British “bucket list”: the Grade 1 listed Piece Hall, built in 1779. It’s not everyday that one gets to see a major 18th century building. When the hall was built, the French Revolution was still ten years in the future.

The Piece Hall has been described as magnificent and unique, a huge building where thousands of pieces of woollen cloth were bought and sold over many years. It consists of 4 colonnaded sides, 2 stories high at one end and 3 stories high at the other.( it is built on a hillside, as most buildings are in Halifax.) The columns enclose a very large central space where the wool markets were regularly held. It’s like a Greek or Roman temple except it was devoted to industry rather than to ancient gods. Here, in 315 rooms, hand-loom weavers from the surrounding towns and villages would display and sell their pieces of worsted cloth. The Piece Hall transformed Halifax into the commercial capital of the whole region. It’s a miracle that such a historically and architecturally important building has survived the ravages of time for nearly two and a half centuries. And now, I was going to see it! I had given it the big build up to Chris and now it was only minutes away.

However, as we approached, there was obviously something wrong! The entrance was covered in scaffolding and was blocked by barriers. Inside, we glimpsed piles of rubble and dumper trucks were moving around in clouds of dust. A workman in a yellow hard-hat was turning some other disappointed visitors away.  Yes — the Piece Hall was closed. A major 2 year refurbishment which should have finished in the spring of 2016, was still very much ongoing. Our hopes were in pieces. There was no peace at the Piece Hall!

So what were we to do? We were tourists in a non-tourist town and the main place we had come to see was a no-go area. The man in the hard-hat explained that he wasn’t allowed to give us even a brief, sly peek, because of the dreaded “health and safety” rules. He had let some other visitors have a quick look but had been “bollocked” by his boss. Apparently, in the previous week, he had had to turn away a whole coachload of German tourists who had travelled to Halifax specifically to see the historical Hall. The work was running seriously behind schedule because of financial cut-backs of the Tory government’s “Austerity Britain.” Now, the “Leave” vote in the recent European Union referendum was going to pose another serious threat, because much of the money for this prestigious project comes from the EU’s Regional Development Fund.

Back at the Premier Inn, the chirpy young lad at reception told us another big reason for the Piece Hall delay. While restoring the main courtyard, the workers had unearthed around 200 medieval bodies. So work had to stop while the archaeologists carried out their excavation. They found that the Hall had been partly built on top of an ancient churchyard!

The closed Piece Hall doubly snookered our plans as the Tourist Information Office was supposed to be in there, according to our Rough Guide of Yorkshire. We found out it was temporarily located in the central library, except that when we got there, we found out that Halifax library closes on Wednesdays. Guess which day we arrived on? Our hopes for Halifax were fading fast.

2. HANDSOME VICTORIANA.

But all was not lost. First of all, Halifax is, in my opinion, quite a handsome stone-built Victorian town. It has some fine public buildings. It is surrounded by a dramatic girdle of hills and moors.( the south Pennines.) We admired the stately, twin-turreted Victoria Theatre, named after a Queen who never visited it as it opened a month after she sadly died.( the opening was in February, 1901.)  The town has a spectacular Lloyds Bank HQ, yet another neo-Classical temple. Then we discovered the wonderfully atmospheric Borough Market ( 1896), a great place for people- spotting and sampling everyday Halifax life. Chris was very confused by the warren-like, old fashioned Ladies toilets. She entered through one door but somehow re-emerged through another. She still doesn’t know how she did it! The market has a decorative cast iron and glass roof, culminating in an eye-catching central dome.  Beneath this is an elaborate old clock guarded by 4 blue dragons. Around its base was a colourful, circular fruit and veg stall.

Halifax is not a tourist town. We didn’t see any postcards to send home to our mums. We struggled to find a decent café although I’m sure it has some secreted away. It is a busy, everyday town, which for me is part of the attraction. All the honey-coloured stone buildings contrasted with the sharp, shiny angles of the modern Halifax Building Society headquarters. ( now part of HBOS). It was once the country’s largest supplier of mortgages. Both Chris and I got our first home loans there. It is still one of the biggest employers in Halifax. In its large tinted windows I saw the reflections of its grand Victorian cousins.

3. SURVIVOR OF PURITANS AND VANDALS.

Leaving out the Piece Hall, the undoubted stars of Halifax town centre are the Minster and the Town Hall. We enjoyed visiting both. The Minster, first established 900 years ago, has many 16th and 17th century features. Outside it is smoke blackened, a legacy of its proximity to all those smoking mill chimneys of the recent industrial past. Being made of relatively soft sandstone, it has not been possible to clean it without causing irreparable damage. The Church of St John the Baptist, as it’s officially called, has a fine tower and dramatic, dark gargoyles sticking out from just below the roof line. A church member pointed out a deep dint in the wall near the entrance, caused by a parliamentary cannon-ball in the English Civil War of the 1640’s. Inside is a fancy Tudor font cover and delicately carved 17th-century boxed pews, a fairly rare occurrence. There were some Victorian and modern stained glass, but the most memorable windows were the plain ones. Puritan church rules in Cromwell’s time ( 1650’s) meant that the colourful glass had to be taken out. Nothing was supposed to distract the worshipper from the contemplation of God. However, this planned back-fired somewhat in Halifax because the delicate  lead-tracery that holds the glass in place was(is) exquisitely beautiful. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. Unfortunately, these lovely old windows have been damaged by vandals and would-be burglars 3 times in the past month, at great expense to the poor congregation. It seems that the iconoclasts did not exclusively live in the mid 17th century!

As we looked round the Minster, we were entertained by a musician practising for a recital on the very old organ later that morning. It had an impressive array of shining pipes. The music added to the spiritual atmosphere. We had trouble making our donations because the 2 volunteers were furiously making teas and buttering scones for the expected influx of visitors.

4. STAR TOWN HALL AND CELEBRITY ARCHITECT.

The other star of Halifax town centre is the Town Hall. built in 1863. It was designed by Sir Charles Barry, the famous architect of the Houses of Parliament in London. It was actually completed by his son, Edward Middleton Barry, following his father’s death in 1860. In 2008, it was voted as one of the top 10 Town halls in Britain by “Architect Today” magazine. It certainly is impressive. It is a masterpiece of the “high Victorian style” and was opened by the Prince of Wales( the future King Edward VII). No less than 85,000 people turned up for the Royal occasion. It must  have been one of the busiest days in the town’s entire history.

So why had a celebrity architect and the heir to the throne both been attracted to a small Yorkshire town which even today is not a tourist attraction? The answer is carpets! John Crossley, who commissioned the Town Hall, owned the biggest carpet mill in the world. It was in Dean Clough, a deep ravine just outside the town centre. His massive mill complex  ( in the end around 13 mills in all), is still there, in its restored form. They’ve done a great job, as it’s a spectacular sight, looking at it from the old iron bridge that still crosses the ravine.( along with modern concrete flyovers.) The mills are now used by modern businesses, shops, restaurants and galleries. We visited it during our stay. Crossley became very wealthy and influential through his development of steam-powered looms, clever use of patents and political activities. At its peak, in 1900, the business he created employed around 5000 workers. Crossley used his wealth and status to win a contest to build the town’s new Town Hall. He was able to attract a famous London architect to design Halifax’s most imposing public building. The road it is on is, not surprisingly, called Crossley Street. Crossley had managed to put his little home town on the map and secure his own lasting legacy.

The Town Hall has an impressive steeple with a clock and a carved figure on each of its 4 sides. The stone carvings represent :Europe, Africa, Asia and America, reminding everyone that at the time, Britain ruled the greatest Empire the World had ever seen. Inside is a grand staircase, a lovely blue and gold glass dome and ornamental plaster work with a repeated “H” motif. After we got past the rather gruff male receptionist at the top of the stairs, we stepped into the magnificent Victoria Hall. It has a stained glass ceiling featuring 12 little domes, marble columns and arch ways and a tiled floor featuring the town’s coat of arms in the centre. Here we met John the Baptist again.( remember him from the Minster?) He is the patron saint of wool weavers, a reminder of where all this wealth and splendour came from. On the fancy, wrought iron balcony of the upper floor, John’s severed head is frequently repeated. Beneath it are 3 vivid red drops of blood, a grisly reference to the saint’s fate at the hands of the spurned Salome.

Even the Gents’ toilets were magnificent. They had decorative tiles, marble sinks and urinals and shiny brass taps and pipes. I thought about taking a photo but didn’t want to get arrested! At opposite ends of Victoria Hall are large busts of Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, looking over to their son Albert Edward and his wife, Princess Alexandria. Crossley was obviously very keen to ingratiated himself with his Royal patrons.

5. CELEBRITY FACE-OFF.

However, John Crossley wasn’t the only wealthy industrialist keen to make his mark and put Halifax on the map. In the mid-19th century, the textile town experienced a bit of a celebrity face-off! From our 5th floor hotel window, as I looked out on to the nearby hillside, I couldn’t help noticing a Victorian church with a very tall, soaring spire.  It’s the biggest church spire in Halifax. This is All Souls Church, designed by another celebrity architect from London: Sir George Gilbert Scott and paid for by another fabulously wealthy mill owner: Edward Ackroyd. Gilbert Scott had also designed the famous and still very impressive St Pancras Station and Midland Grand Hotel in London. He always claimed that All Souls’ was his finest church. Like Charles Barry, he had been lured to this Yorkshire Pennine town by the money of a rich industrialist, desperate to make a name for himself and secure his legacy. Ego-tripping and celebrity culture are not confined just to the 21st century. The only difference is that in the 19th century, the “celebs” didn’t take to Twitter or pose in gossip magazines; instead they built town halls and churches and put up statues of themselves.

Edward Ackroyd owned textile mills in Halifax and nearby Copley. His mills produced worsted cloth, commonly known as “stuff.” The Ackroyds were the largest worsted manufacturers in the country. Worsted woollen cloth has parallel fibres which don’t trap air so it has a smoother, harder surface and was ( is) cooler to wear than other types of cloth. It’s surprising what you can learn when visiting museums! We visited the charming and quirky Bankfield Museum which used to be Edward Ackroyd’s Italianate -style mansion, built from the profits of his lucrative business. It’s grounds and gardens are now a pleasant and peaceful public park. Ackroyd’s statue stands in front of the church he commissioned in the High-Gothic style. Sadly, the church seems to be closed, a relic of a bygone era, when everyone wanted to ( or were expected to) attend Christian worship. Despite its magnificence, All Souls today looks slightly forlorn.

6. BENEVOLENT PATERNALISM.

On the slopes below the museum and church are the neat houses, shops and squares of Ackroydon, the model village that the mill owner had built for his workers. It’s like a smaller version of Saltaire which fellow industrialist Titus Salt had built in nearby Shipley. Akroyd wanted to look after his employees by giving them decent houses and facilities. However, this no doubt came at the price of individual freedom, as they would have had to follow all their employer’s rules and regulations. It’s another example of Victorian benevolent paternalism that can be found at Saltaire, at the Cadbury family’s Bournville, Robert Owen’s New Lanark near Glasgow , the Fry family in York and various others. It was another era. Sadly the man at the tourist office warned us not to visit Ackroydon after dark as it can be a distinctly dodgy area nowadays. Ackroyd’s vision has faded, his statue is largely ignored and his church lies empty. Still, Ackroyd, like Crossley, had his day and both helped to put Halifax into the national spotlight, at least for a while.

7. A REAL TOWN.

So Halifax has lots of interesting stories to tell and I haven’t even mentioned the infamous guillotine-style gibbet that stands on the edge of the town centre.( its a modern replica of the gruesome original which efficiently despatched many a thief and highwayman.) In spite of its lack of postcards and touristy tea-shops, it is a fascinating place to visit. It’s not on the regular coach tour itinerary or regularly featured in glossy  brochures, but that worked in our favour. We didn’t have to queue to get into places or run the gauntlet of souvenir shops. Halifax is still a real place, not an artificial tourist creation — and all the better for it. And, when the Piece Hall finally reopens, we shall visit it again.

 

 

 

 

Pennine Bus-Hopping — Huddersfield.

24 Jul

It all began when I read the unforgettable opening pages of J B Priestley’s great novel: “The Good Companions.” The reader hovers dizzyingly above the Pennine hills, which form the dark, “knobbly backbone” of northern England. Slowly, as if on some aerial computer image, we zoom in to focus on the central area of uplands, “where the high moorland thrusts itself between the woollen mills of Yorkshire and the cotton mills of Lancashire.” We hear the lonely cry of the curlew, sweep over brooding, dark peat-bogs and catch glittering glimpses of the moorland tarns. Finally, we home in on a town, a large mill town, with its “host of tall chimneys” and “rows and rows of little houses “climbing up the steep valley-side. This we find is “Bruddersfield”, a thinly disguised amalgam of real-life Huddersfield and nearby Bradford. Priestly was born in Bradford in 1894. Chris and I decided to visit Huddersfield to discover the modern reality behind Priestley’s classic creation, since he wrote those evocative lines back in 1929.

It was the second of our “Hills and Mills” bus-pass trips, pottering around the old textile towns of the south Pennines, using our free travel-passes.( one of the few perks of being over 60!) In our first odyssey, in 2012, we had explored the hills, moors and mill towns of east Lancashire. This time we were to visit their West Yorkshire cousins. I rather like the idea of holidaying in places that are not recognised resorts. They are not full of people taking selfies in front of famous landmarks but just consist of ordinary people going about their everyday lives. I sneakily enjoy the look of incredulity on some peoples’ faces when we tell then where we’re going. I think it’s good to do something unpredictable and to test out my theory that every place is interesting if one is willing to be interested in it. So Huddersfield it was, followed by Halifax, Hebden bridge and Heptonstall ( all the H’s!)

Thus, on a fine Monday morning in July, 2016 we found ourselves standing at the bus stop at the end of our street waiting for the service 5A to Middlesbrough ( we live in Cleveland on the north-east coast.) Inevitably it was a tense 9 minutes late. We worried about making our first connection. A friend in her car stopped to offer us a lift ( We daren’t tell her we were going to Huddersfield!) We declined her kind offer as we were determined that this was going to be a proper, eco-friendly public transport trip with no cheating. We would see local life, perhaps have impromptu conversations with complete strangers and feel part of a place instead of isolating ourselves in our private metal box. Luckily the 5A appeared at that very moment and we were off. At Middlesbrough we swapped our bus passes for our senior rail cards to take the Trans-Pennine train to Huddersfield via York and Leeds. True to form, it was a half hour late.( signalling problems in the York area.)

Nearly 2 hours later we arrived at a rather grand Huddersfield station and, after grabbing a street map from the info centre, stepped out into a spacious square, surrounded by large, stately Victorian buildings, including the Grade I listed station itself, built in 1846-50. John Betjeman described it as “the most splendid station façade on England.” To picture it, think– classical, Greek temple. At the top of St George’s Square are fountains and a statue of Harold Wilson, Prime Minister in the 1960’s and 70’s, striding purposely forward ( but without his pipe!) He was one of Huddersfield’s most famous sons. To the left is the impressive George Hotel where Rugby League was born in 1895. The northern Rugby Union clubs decided to leave the Union because the largely more prosperous, public-school educated players, mainly from the south, had refused to allow payment of compensation for lost wages when playing. The split was acrimonious — an early example of the North-South divide.

On our first evening, we ate at one of the other grand buildings on the square: a former bank  which has now been converted into a very popular Kashmiri restaurant. it served one of the biggest nan breads I have seen!  So our first impressions were favourable. Maybe we had stumbled across a West Yorkshire version of Bath or Oxford full of historical, harmonious architecture? Second impressions quickly dispelled this however. We discovered the unattractive post-war buildings that took up whole swathes of the town centre. We saw, heard and smelt the road-works as a resurfacing operation was taking place. We experienced the heavy traffic grinding through parts of the centre near the bus station, and found the busy, noisy ring-road which encircled the centre like a tight, tarmac collar. We plunged down into a long, graffitied, concrete underpass! OK — I think you’ll have got the picture by now. The highlights of Huddersfield would have to be sought out — the “gems” amongst the “dross.” It was going to be fun! But first came the short trek to our guest house up the Halifax Road.

We couldn’t help noticing that most of the buildings on our road were substantial, fairly grand, stone mansions, sitting in their own grounds. Many had been converted to offices or hotels. One large, castle-like building was now a college, another a dancing school. Our guest house was in one of them, sharing it with a dental practice. Sadly, some of these mansions or villas are empty and in a state of neglect. It transpired that this area was once the comfortable, middle class district of Edgerton. It was a leafy suburb about a mile from the town centre on the Huddersfield-Halifax turnpike. The mill owners, merchants and other prosperous professionals would commute into town in their horses and carriages, before the age of the motor car. Sometimes there was a jarring clash of taste and style. One writer to the editor of the Huddersfield Courier in 1858 described Halifax Road as “too bewildering an affair to cope with; for you have Grecian temples, Swiss cottages, Gothic castles and Italian villas, all jumbled so closely together as scarcely to allow elbow room.” Many of these Georgian and Victorian residences were demolished to make way for a modern housing estate. ( I suppose they could squash a lot more people into the same area of land.) The survivors though, many in the neo-Classical style, are still impressive, bravely defying the relentless march of time, even though this once exclusive suburb has now been swallowed up by the town where all their owners made their money.

The wealthiest and most famous Huddersfield family was the Ramsdens.( nothing to do with the fish and chip shop chain, I don’t think.) They developed their huge estates agriculturally and then industrially, throwing up the textile mills that created so much of their wealth. They were responsible for many of the impressive civic buildings and also for the linking of Huddersfield to the burgeoning rail system as early as 1850. Later, in 1920, the Ramsdens sold their estate to the Cooperation for £1.3million, earning Huddersfield its nickname: “the town that bought itself.” Despite its large 160,00 to 170,00 population, Huddersfield is still only a town. It has never bothered to apply for city status, although it could easily do so. I read somewhere that it claims to be the largest “town” in Europe.

We started our heritage trail at the impressive, Art Deco, 1930’s Library and Art gallery. The art collection there is very good, including pieces by: Henry Moore, Francis Bacon and L S Lowry. ( Huddersfield matchstick people scurrying around in the shadows of the giant mills instead of Salford/Manchester ones.) Outside, by the steps are two  symbolic statues of a boy and a girl, representing the spirits of literature and art.(“Youth Awaiting Inspiration by James Woodford, 1939.) Near the Library is the richly decorated stone Town hall (1881) which doubles up as a concert venue. However, just opposite the lovely library is the controversial, modern Queensgate Market ( 1968-70) which is pretty ugly. Local people either love it or hate it. Surprisingly it is a listed building . Inside are 21 unique, concrete roof-umbrellas, looking like giant curving shells. I was all ready to be impressed and entered the market with camera poised. Unfortunately the concrete shells were mostly obscured by the mundane market stalls, crowded around them. So it was an anti-climax. I’m sure most of the people buying cauliflowers, potatoes or second-hand jewellery don’t even notice them anymore. On the outside of the Queensgate Market however is another surprise. Who would have thought we would come across the world’s largest ceramic sculpture? It consists of 9, brown-toned, large panels, covered in abstract swirls, entitled:” Articulation in Motion”, whatever that means. ( Fitz Steller, 1969.) Once again, these were largely ignored by the locals as far as I could see, especially as they face on to the southern section of the busy ring road.

I think it was brave of Huddersfield to try to embrace the “shock of the new”, instead of just falling back on to its Victorian heritage. The roof-shells and ceramic panels are not really my cup of tea but are certainly more stimulating than the bland diet of uniform shopping malls and chain stores that many town centres, including parts of Huddersfield itself, offer up. Huddersfield, in my opinion is a mish-mash of the old and new, the original and the mundane. It’s just like most towns really. Maybe one has to have the one, in order to appreciate the other.

We explored a couple of old arcades with interesting, independent shops and had a quick look at the Parish Church, even though its pretty gardens were frequented by quite a few unfortunate down and outs. This is a side of a town not highlighted in the tourist brochures. We enjoyed visiting the late Victorian Wholesale Market, like a vast car boot sale under a splendid wrought iron and glass, curving roof. The actual open -air market- place was interesting too, with its market cross featuring the Ramsden Coat of Arms. It’s surrounded by fancy, old Victorian and Edwardian banks. Their ornate stonework and statues contrast with the flickering screens of their modern cash points.

Another gem we found nestling amongst the everyday, was the Lawrence Batley Theatre on Queen Street, built in 1819. One side of Queen Street is stately Victorian buildings, whilst the other is unbelievable taken up by a multi-storey car-park! Going back to the theatre, it had originally been constructed as one of the biggest Wesleyan Chapels in the country, following a visit from John Wesley himself. Like Mary Queen of Scots, Wesley seems to have passed through almost every town in England, judging from the number of plaques I have read over the years. Lawrence Batley was a local businessman who helped pay for the theatre conversion and thus immortalised himself, at least in Huddersfield. Our jaws dropped as we entered the foyer because we were met by a wonderful display of colourful fantasy costumes created  by the graduates of the adjoining University for their Leavers’ show.

Contrary to the traditional image of the gruff, brusque Yorkshireman ( and woman), we found Huddersfield to be an open and very friendly place. In fact at times it was a bit too friendly, as when we had to make an excuse and flee from the Oxfam book shop because a man was regaling us with all the gory details of an argument he had had with his wife because he had spent £250 of the housekeeping money on 3 military medals in a display box! We also found Huddersfield to be quite multi-cultural. We found Persian and Lebanese restaurants as well as the usual array of Indian, Thai, Chinese and Italian outfits. In the art gallery we saw an exhibition of photographs of refugees from all over the world being welcomed to Huddersfield, something that was very heartening in post-“Brexit” Britain, with its sharp increase in racial and anti-immigrant incidents.

Priestley’s dark mill town, with its cloth-capped working men trudging en masse to the football ground, has now changed beyond all recognition. For a start the football matches now take place in a modern, all- seater, out- of- town stadium, constructed for the convenience of the car. The woollen mills have closed, their chimneys demolished. The trams have bitten the dust and many of the hill-side terraces have gone. The motor car has taken over. For many travellers, Huddersfield is now merely a convenient short stop-over, just south of the M62. Most of the hotels and guest houses are situated near to the motorway. I imagine the town is less self-contained than in Priestley’s day, with many residents  commuting to Manchester or Leeds for their work and their bigger items of shopping. However, the town’s glorious past as a wealthy centre of the woollen textile industry has not been totally extinguished. All those fine Victorian civic buildings remain, as do the mansions and villas on the Halifax Road. Then there are the atmospheric, early 19th century alleys and courtyards off King Street, restored during the construction of a modern shopping mall on the opposite side of the road. This juxtaposition of old and new, existing cheek by jowl, perhaps best sums up the contradictions of the place.

One thing that will never change is the town’s setting, nestling between the brooding Pennine hills and moors. As we walked back to our guest house on our final evening, I looked beyond the rooves of the immediate town, to two, prominent wooded hills beyond. On one hill was a dark church tower, probably blackened by the belching mill chimneys of the past. On the higher hill we saw the stone Victoria (lookout) Tower, built in 1899 to mark the Queen’s Jubilee. It’s a landmark for miles around. Back in 2012, we had trecked up to a similar tower in the Lancashire mill town of Darwin. However, the Huddersfield tower is much further away and we are 4 years older, so we just admired it from afar. All in all, it was an enjoyable and interesting visit and it whetted our appetites for Halifax, the next “H” on our bus- pass trip. Moreover, as soon as I got home, I searched the book shelves for my copy of “The Good Companions”, to re-read  that wonderfully evocative introduction to Priestley’s beloved “Bruddersfield.”