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Fuente la Cibeles Madrid

Madrid, Spain

April 2007
Rainbow over Madrid

Rainbow over Madrid.

“How do I get to the Metro from here, please?” I asked the painfully thin middle-aged woman on the information desk at Madrid airport.
“Where do you want to go?” she asked.
She fixed me with her brown eyes and pushed a lock of greying hair away. From beneath the desk she produced a Metro map and flipped it around to show the network. “I do not know that one,” she said carefully. “Show me.”
I searched for the green line that I had noticed during my researches at home and looked to the right of the map, and a bit north. I found it and pointed to it.
“Suanzes,” she said.
Swantes,” I repeated and added one more Spanish word to the two I knew already.
“Which hotel?”
It was my turn to be careful. “Comfortel,” I pulled out my accommodation voucher.
“Confortel Alcala Norte,” she said as she read the voucher. “I know where that is.” She dropped a single sheet of a much-photocopied city map on the desk and circled a place near the edge. “Take the 200 bus from the terminal and get off at the first stop. Cross the road and go into the Canillejas Metro station. Two stops and you are there. Here is a map of the city.” She unfolded a big map of the city and its surrounds and put that on the desk, too. I folded it as I thanked her. She gave me a smile and turned to the next person in the queue.

The 200 bus was sitting waiting at the end of the terminal and I pointed to a sign that had the stop where we wanted to get off. The driver nodded and Elaine paid him 2 euros. We paid for a one-week Metro pass each at the Canillejas station, got out at Suanzes and walked about 500m to the hotel, following the photocopied city map. Piece of cake. Nice room, too, with breakfast included and the contents of the mini-bar free!

Elaine had bought a Madrid guide at the airport and we looked at that, and then at the map, to decide where to start. “There are lots of interesting places around the royal palace,” she said. “We could start there, nearest Metro station is Opera – and that’s on our green line.”
We have used underground rail systems in London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin and New York. Madrid’s proved to be no different. The lines were numbered (ours was 5) and coloured (ours was green) and named. On ours you went in the direction of Casa de Campo to go to town, and Alameda de Osuna to go home. It was the same for all the other tracks; find on the map the station you are in, find the station you want to go to, then look for the last station on the track in the direction you want to go. Follow that direction until your destination station arrives. Metro stations are always constructed at interesting places.
Palacio Real on Plaza de Oriente

Palacio Real on the Plaza de Oriente.

We arrived at Opera and in the rather weak, watery and uncertain Madrid sunshine that was all we had for the whole week, we found the Palacio Real in the Plaza de Oriente and met our first Madrid accordion player.

Busker on Plaza de Oriente.

Busker on Plaza de Oriente.

There was a large square with formal gardens, a beautiful white palace, a huge fountain, statues of all the monarchs of Spain since about 450AD standing around the edge of the square looking in and King Carlos IV on his horse on a plinth so high that Galileo had to calculate its centre of gravity to ensure the king didn’t fall off.
Carlos IV in the Plaza de Oriente.

Carlos IV in the Plaza de Oriente.

We walked around to the magnificent Cathedral de la Almudena and admired its complex roof structure.
Cathedral de la Almudena.

Cathedral de la Almudena.

Inside, its decorations were quite understated, not like the statues of the hundred gory ways the saints had died, along with their relics and their paintings, as we had seen in Seville Cathedral. Tall, vaulted columns leapt upwards and roofing supports swept in enormous waves across the ceilings.
Interior of La Almudena Cathedral.

Interior of La Almudena Cathedral.

We wanted to light a candle for Jason, but all they had were rows of LEDs flickering on little white stands under glass with a sign exhorting 1 euro. I know they are worried about fire, but if St Albans Cathedral can use candles, then electronic flames are a bit tacky. We put our euro in the box labelled “For the poor of the parish.”
We looked for the river. Madrid has the Rio Manzanares, famous for its lack of water. Elaine wanted to see the Toledo Bridge and to have a river walk in the sunshine. We walked through the palace grounds, across the beautiful formal gardens, statues and fountains of the Jardines del Campo del Moro, past the Principe Pio railway station and then down a narrow walkway to access the riverbank footpath. There was a weir with a river gate and beyond it was the Puente Reina Victoria, the Victoria Bridge. It’s possible it was named after our own Queen Victoria, since the royals of Europe are all related.
Weir and gate across the Rio Manzanares

Weir and gate across the Rio Manzanares.

The river would not have been three inches deep over the weir and it did not fully cover the sandy bottom. It was heavily tamed by thick concrete walls, but, amazingly, there were fishermen trying their luck. A hundred metres upstream a couple of anglers were hopefully tossing in bits of bread on tiny hooks to about a dozen red-finned fish that I took to be carp. None of them would have been under three pounds and each of them carefully dodged the offered bait. Either they were not hungry, or they knew too much. How such big fish were sitting in such a small pool was a complete mystery. “Can you eat them, if you catch one?” Elaine asked one of the men. He shook his head.
Freeing the hook on the Rio Manzanares, Madrid.

Freeing the hook on the Rio Manzanares, Madrid.

We kept walking upstream until we were past the overhead ropeway, noting that there was none of the river views worship that you get in London along the Thames, in Amsterdam along the canals or in Hamilton, along the Waikato. Like Vienna, Madrid simply ignored the river and 4-storeyed worker accommodation sat with its back to the river along most of its length. We turned back to the Victoria Bridge and walked into the Florida Café for a coffee. On the walls were photos of a Goya statue facing a distinctive little church, and I could see the church immediately opposite us. In fact, there were two of them. After our coffee we were followed outside by a short chap in a brown suit, “Goya,” he said and pointed to a hole in the ground surrounded by bricks.

I looked back to the café and this was the view in the photo. They had removed the statue to make way for all the construction work going on around us. He pointed to the church opposite and left. I thanked him for the tip and crossed the road for a better look. A sign on the cream painted wall of the little half-domed church said Glorietta de San Antonio del Florida. There was a bronze plaque saying this was a national monument and then, on a blue sign I had missed earlier, in Spanish and in English was a story that said the church was built in the 1790s and Goya had painted a scene on the ceiling of a miracle performed by St Anthony of Padua. Hence the San Antonio. It was a celebrated Goya masterpiece and to preserve it, the city had built an exact copy of the existing church in 1929, and closed the old one. The new church was the one used for worship and the old church was opened only on special occasions. Pity.

DSCF8658 Glorieta de San Antonio de la Florida

Glorieta de San Antonio de la Florida.

The Toledo Bridge was a mile or so downstream, so we retraced our steps past the Victoria Bridge to the Puente de Segovia. The whole of both sides of the river was a huge construction zone. We called in to see the little brick Ermita Virgen del Puerto church, but it was not open. Elaine’s guide book said it was built in 1780 by the mayor of Madrid to give the washerwomen a place to worship when they went to the river on their daily chores.  
Ermita Virgen Del Puerto

Ermita Virgen Del Puerto

The Segovia Bridge was swathed in protective clothing and the starlings (part of the bridge supports) were fully exposed. Upstream, a culvert had been constructed using very large concrete box-shaped tubes piled on top of each other and surmounted by a new road. If the river does flood badly one year bringing lots of tree debris with it, that will clutter up the square forms and cause a dam. When the buildup finally breaks, as it will, a torrent of water will rush downstream, towards the Segovia and the Toledo Bridges that may well crush them.
Puente de Segovia

Puente de Segovia

Construction near Puente de Segovia

Construction near Puente de Segovia

Toledo Bridge

Toledo Bridge

 Vast construction site around Toledo Bridge

Vast construction site around Toledo Bridge

 The Puerto del Toledo shares a bend of the river with the Calderon, a football stadium formally called the Estadio Vincente Calderon.
Calderon Stadium from Toledo Bridge

Calderon Stadium from Toledo Bridge

One arch of the bridge is for the river, while the rest of the bridge spans the banks. In the centre of the bridge are two highly carved upstanding things called kiosks, in the middle of which is a hole called a niche. One kiosk has the statue of San Isidro in the niche and the other has Santa Maria de la Cabeza walking with a little girl clutching her skirt.
Kiosk on Toledo Bridge containing Santa Maria de la Cabeza in the niche

Kiosk on Toledo Bridge containing Santa Maria de la Cabeza in the niche

We crossed the bridge and inspected the Glorieta Marques de Vadillo standing to one side of a busy roundabout. It’s a tall, multi-pointed needle, looking a little like any of the Eleanor Crosses we are used to seeing. I gather glorieta means a memorial.
As we walked up the hill to the Marques de Vadillo Metro station, some chaps in a bar with an open window overlooking the street started to yell at us and wave vigorously.
“Your hat,” said Elaine. “They think you’re Crocodile Dundee.”
I looked up. “G’day, Mate.” They nearly fell out of the window. They had met Dundee.

We put the river behind us to explore the city itself. “The centre of town is probably the Plaza Mayor,” said Elaine one night, examining the map and consulting the guide book over a cup of coffee in the hotel café. “If we go to Opera again we can walk along Arenal to Sol and then left into Calle Mayor to Plaza Mayor.”
We walked down Arenal (which we nicknamed Arsenal to help us remember it) and admired its lovely atmosphere. There are clean new paving stones, it’s fully pedestrianised, the shop fronts are new and clean and the window displays are sophisticated and minimalist.
Sol was a surprise all by itself. It was extremely busy, with large numbers of people, tourists and locals, walking around; beggars worked the crowd. An old woman hunched under a pile of black rags, only her hand with its begging bowl sticking out. As I took her photo she looked up out of the mound directly at me and then curled up again like a snail retracting. I put 50c into her bowl. “There you go, Love.” The black bundle heaved.
Even if you don’t agree with begging, as I don’t, you owe it to them to pay them if you take a photo of their theatrics. A chap with no arms and a red singlet, to make sure you noticed, rattled coins in a plastic cup gripped in his teeth; sometimes up and down and sometimes side to side like a dog shaking a stick, and yelling loudly all the time. Two cops in a Madrid marked Citroen C3 looked on while they talked with two more cops sitting astride BMW scooters. Not motorcycles, scooters, but quite large and very quiet.
Old begger in Puerta del Sol

Old begger in Puerta del Sol.

There is supposed to be a big fountain in Sol, but it was the victim of the construction boom and while we were there, its site was enclosed by a steel-panelled circular wall, centred on a tall crane. As a backdrop to it all was a 5-storeyed building topped with a 1920s-style advertisement for Pepe Lopez.
Tio Pepe sign Puerto del Sol

Tio Pepe sign overlooking the Puerto del Sol.

The real highlight for me was the bronze statue of the bear and the madrona. I suppose a madrona is an orange bush, or something very similar. This image of the bear eating the fruit from the madrona tree was everywhere, and used most often by the Madrid council, even down to the ironworks on drain and sewer caps. Sol is also kilometre 0 for all the roads radiating from Madrid; there is a plaque on the ground to mark the spot.
The bear and the madrona in Puerta del Sol

The bear and the madrona in Puerta del Sol.

Plaza Mayor is rather like St Mark’s Square in Venice, and built for the same reason. It’s a great place to show off your royal credentials and the power and prestige of your court. It lacks St Mark’s tower and I don’t think it’s as big, but it is still an impressive place. A rock band was tuning up for an Easter concert and the acoustics were good. A statue of a mounted Philip III stood in the middle of the square and the building in the sunshine was called the Casa de la Panaderia.
Casa de la Panaderia in Plaza Mayor with Philip III

Casa de la Panaderia in Plaza Mayor with Philip III

Two tall towers dominated and paintings of mythical people (mostly naked ones) adorned all the flat areas between the grey-bordered windows and the heavily ornamented architectural elements of the building.
Paintings on Casa de la Panaderia in Plaza Mayor

Paintings on Casa de la Panaderia in Plaza Mayor

At ground level around the entire square small shops sold whatever small shops do – coffee, art, antiques and nick-nacks.
“We have to see the square of the Cibeles,” said Elaine that night. “They are the symbol of Madrid.”
“I’ve seen more made of the bear than any Cibeles,” I said.
“They are a woman in a chariot with water gushing all around, so it’s probably easier to draw a bear than the Cibeles. We go to Banco de Espania.” She looked up the metro map. “Swap from our green Line 5 to red Line 2 at Ventas.”
On the Metro, a young chap was smoking from a straw buried in sawdust in a squat bronze vase. He handed it to a girl sitting on his right who tipped water into it from a thermos flask. So they weren’t smoking, and the straw was a copper pipe tipped with brass, like a flute. She took a suck and handed the vase across the chap to a girl who I hadn’t seen, sitting on his left. She took a suck or two and handed it to the first girl who filled the vessel up to the brim. The chap took a drink and as the second girl took the vase I asked her if I could take her photograph, by simply pointing at my camera and then at her. She nodded and I took the shot as she drank. By now the entire carriage was watching. Elaine said, “What is the drink?”
The girl said “Argentine herb tea.”
Argentine drinks her herb tea on the Metro

Argentine drinks her herb tea on the Metro.

“You are from Argentina?” She nodded and sucked again, handing the vessel to Elaine. “It’s hot!” Elaine handed it back quickly, declining the offer of a drink. “What is the cup made of? Is it hollowed wood?”
“Melon,” said the girl and made a sawing motion across the top of the vessel.
“Oh, it’s a gourd, and you cut the top off?”
Banco de Espania arrived and we got up to leave the carriage. “Isn’t it wonderful who you meet.”
The first thing you see when you arrive at street level from Banco de Espania is a magnificent view from Calle Alcala all the way up Grand Via to a tall cream tower building called Edificio Telefonica. The Telephone Building.
Looking up Grand Via to Telefonica building

Looking up Grand Via to Telefonica building.

On the corner is the Metropolis with a gold-embossed black dome and a gently curving road along the side of which run grand buildings glowing in the sun. Elaine saw it first, it’s a breathtaking view. We walked down the road towards a fantastically carved building grandly called the Palacio de Comunicaciones – the Palace of Communications. A Telecom Building. Hard to believe.
Palacio de Comunicaciones on Plaza de Cibeles

Palacio de Comunicaciones on Plaza de Cibeles

In the centre of what used to be the Plaza de Cibeles and is now just a traffic island was the lovely Fuente des Cibeles. A vertical gush of water to the front announced her coming and another behind guarded her leaving. A spray like a moonbeam or a shooting star, or even a meteor, accompanied the chariot as a beautiful woman rather like our own Brittania made her stately way in a chariot pulled by bronze lions while two little cherubs embraced sensually in her wake.
Fuente la Cibeles Madrid

Fuente la Cibeles, Madrid.

“This street is the Calle Alcala,” Elaine explained. “Our hotel is close to this road, and named after it, so that way must be north. This way,” she said turning her back to the Bank of Spain, “up the hill, is the way to the Puerta de Alcala. It’s the gate to the city if you arrive from the south along its most famous road, the Alcala.”

We walked up the hill and she sat down on a streetside bench, in full sight of the gate. “All the round arches are the same height, but the middle one looks bigger because it has an attic. That’s the roof thing on top. The two side arches are square. We have seen photos and souvenirs all around town and now this is your chance to see it up close.” She stopped. “I’m not going any closer because I can see it perfectly well and I know you are going to stand in the middle of the road and ask the traffic to go around you. I’ll come and pick up the pieces if I have to, and I’ll order a cup of coffee in here while I wait.”
Puerta de Alcala

Puerta de Alcala.

She waved at the door of a nearby café and sat down. I made for the gate. She was right, the best shot would be from the middle of the road. I waited for the lights to stop the traffic, walked out into the road and took a few shots while the sun was shining so well. It had been fickle sunshine and quite a sharp, even cold breeze for the whole time we had been in Madrid. The BBC News had been telling us about sunny London and rainy Spain.
I wondered if I could shoot the gate without traffic in front of it. I finished crossing the road and walked up the median strip; slightly to its left where it finished – only a little out onto the road – was the very best place. The gate filled the lens and the lights would stop the traffic. I took my photos of the gate looking as though traffic hadn’t been invented and did the same for a couple who asked me to shoot them with their camera.

That night we trawled the map and the guide book to find the essential Madrid. “I guess there are three things we haven’t seen yet,” said Elaine. “The bullring, the Prado and the leaning towers.” She looked in the guide book, “the Torres Kio.”
“Since the Prado is close to the Cibeles, why don’t we visit the bullring, then the Kio, first?” I suggested.
“In that case, we leave our green line at Ventas in the morning.”
What are we to make of this? A modern European country, a full-time powerful member of the EU with a strong history of diplomacy, how does it endorse such a blood-sport in public, as bullfighting? How has it escaped an edict from Brussels banning the sport? The bull never lives; the odds are heavily stacked against it and we have never heard of a brave bull allowed to live because it defended itself mightily and killed the matador.
Plaza de Toros Monumental de las Ventas

Plaza de Toros Monumental de las Ventas

Monument to the fallen

Monument to the fallen.

The bull is not borne high out of the ring in triumph because it fought a wonderful fight. Even if it beats the matador it is still killed and it is dragged out ignominiously through the red dust. We had walked through the bullring at Ronda and even though it was Christmas and therefore some months since there had been an event, we could still smell the blood and rendered fat such as are familiar around a meat works. A bronze relief on the wall at Ventas told the story of the roundup and herding of the bulls. Another statue was a song in bronze to the fallen fighters. Such poetry, such passion, such drama – to kill a bull? A poster announced the next event in the bullring and advertisements on TV kept up the theme.

Herding the bulls lead cowboy detail Ventas

Herding the bulls. Lead cowboy detail, Ventas.

Invitation to the next bullfight Ventas

Invitation to the next bullfight, Ventas.

“Santiago Bernabeu,” said Elaine. She, too, was a bit shaken by all of this. “Barry will like that, he collects pictures of football stadia, and there are few more famous than the Bernabeu.” She is a die-hard fan of David Beckham. “We could meet Vicky and Dave, you never know your luck.”
From Ventas we rode the Metro to Alonso Martinez and changed to line 10 for the trip to Santiago Bernabeu.
Bernabeu Stadium on Passeo de Castellana

Bernabeu Stadium on Passeo de Castellana

Naturally we took lots of pictures of the Bernabeu, thinking of Barry, and then walked along Passeo de Castellana towards two blue, glass towers that leaned across the road towards each other like schoolgirls sharing a secret. The green symbol of a bear on the left tower is for the Caja Madrid, a bank, while the right hand tower advertises a land agent.
Torres Kio

Torres Kio.

On the ground, in the middle of a traffic island in the Plaza de Castilla, is a fountain with someone breaking chains across his knees while two theatrical choruses in stone relief either side encourage him and laud his bravery. It is quite an inspiring work on a grand scale.
 Calco Sotelo breaking the chains Torres Kio

Calco Sotelo breaking the chains between the Torres Kio.

We thought we’d walk back to the Bernabeu Metro the better to enjoy the view and we saw this little tale in bronze on the wall of a café.
Bronze relief cafe sign near Bernabeu Stadium.

Bronze relief cafe sign near Bernabeu Stadium.

We pushed open the door and a middle-aged man in grey trousers and short-cut hair showed us to a table. We were the only ones there. I ordered Elaine’s favourite, a decaffeinated cappuccino.  “Cappuccino descafinado, por favor,” I ordered hopefully. “And a te.” My Spanish was now up to six words.
“Café descafinado,” said the owner, “espresso or milk?” I looked at him blankly; “Cappuccino,” I said. A cappuccino is a cappuccino, why did he ask me for black or white?
“No,” he said and turned away.
A girl wearing a floral pinafore came over and we had much the same conversation, except that she nodded. She followed me over to Elaine and put a little black espresso coffee on the table in front of Elaine and a cappuccino in the middle, between us. I cocked my finger over Elaine’s coffee as though pouring something and said, “Milk, please?”
“Leche caliente?”
I remembered agua caliente from our trip to Ronda, it means hot water. I actually had eight words of Spanish, but none of them was leche. I looked at Elaine.
“Leche?” She nodded.
“Yes, please.”
The waitress returned with a tiny white jug full of steaming frothed milk which she poured into Elaine’s cup
and left.
I looked at Elaine. “How come I didn’t get a tea? This is a café in a modern European country not a crack-house in some third world hell-hole in South America.” I looked around at the counter, “Why did he say no?” I stopped.
Elaine grinned and pushed my cappuccino towards me. “Live with it.”
The following day was Good Friday and it was raining and miserable, so it was a perfect day to be indoors and looking at paintings and arty things. We headed for the Metro station of Banco de Espania and the Museo del Prado just down the road, one of the most famous and prestigious art galleries in the world. Goya, Valesquez, Picasso. Why not?
Because it’s closed on Good Fridays. We wandered around the Jardin Botanico (the Royal Botanical Gardens) and then the rather grander Parque del Buen Retiro gardens. They are not far from each other and both are tucked in behind the Prado. We took pleasure in photographing the beautiful flowers in the garden. Why pay to see a Goya?
Rhododendran Royal Botanical Gardens

Rhododendran Royal Botanical Gardens

On the way back to the hotel, we came across a most remarkable sight. I cannot for a minute hope to explain it or any of its symbolism, but a procession was forming, centred on the Iglesia San Gines. Older women dressed in black, with lace scarves held off their hair by tall tortoise-shell combs, were making their way slowly towards a side street while they put the finishing touches to each other. Young girls in white cassocks and holding brass-topped canes flipped amongst street dancers and other processioners dressed in white, red or black with their face masks back off their faces until the procession started.
Easter procession near Church of San Gines

Organising the Easter procession near the Church of San Gines.

Two very small children, perhaps brother and sister, peeped out between the legs of their elders and a gorgeous little girl of about two years old, dressed in deep blue, sat on her father’s shoulder, the better to see what was going on. Two bands of drummers stood waiting, holding up their heavy drums with aching backs. Eventually the whole procession moved off and we, not wishing to disturb their devotions, did not follow them.
Members of Easter procession

Members of Easter procession.

That night in the hotel cafe I again asked for Elaine’s decaf cappuccino. The waiter gave me a cappuccino and asked if I wanted the coffee black or white. I took them back to Elaine. “I know the secret of the decaf cappuccino.” Elaine raised her eyebrows.  “There are two bean grinders; one with proper coffee beans in it and one with decaf beans. You do not use the decaf beans to make cappuccino. It’s not done here. That’s why you get two cups of coffee and no tea. Here’s your cappuccino,” I put it down in front of me, “and here is your descaffinado.” I put it down in front of her.

The following day, Saturday, and our last in Madrid, we went to Banco de Espania Metro again and walked to the Prado. The queue to the front door started at the Cibeles, and the queue to the back door had no end at all. Was it actually possible to visit the Prado? We certainly didn’t manage it.
Estacion de Atocha interior

Estacion de Atocha interior.

We visited the Atocha railway station. It’s not exactly compensation for a Goya, but you don’t very often see hundred-foot palm trees growing in a garden inside a railway station that looked like Kew. Opposite, is the Ministry of Agriculture in an ornamented building that is a symphony to European subsidies.

Ministry of Agriculture building

Ministry of Agriculture building.

“Welcome to the tropical island of Luton,” said the Easyjet pilot as we approached our landing. “It is a very pleasant 20 degrees Celsius outside and as you can see, quite sunny. It has been, all week.”


I took 10 days off work in the middle of Elaine’s summer holidays so we could have a tour of Scotland. Summer was the only time that seemed at all logical. Just 3 weeks before we had seen on TV all the golfers heavily wrapped in coats and jerseys for a tournament up there. If it’s that cold at the beginning of summer, it must be awfully cold the rest of the time and completely miserable in winter.

When you see the weather conditions in Scotland on the News and compare them every night to our own in St Albans, it gives you this resolute conviction not to go there, but Elaine was dead keen because that’s where the Campbells, Waughs and Maxwells of her family come from and she very much wanted to see her cousins in the Scottish Borders area. We had only just finished moving in to our new flat on the Saturday and we simply left all the mess behind and hit the road on Monday morning.

Moving in. Our new flat

Moving in. Our new flat

We took lots of warm clothes and weather-proof gear, our AA Road Atlas of Great Britain that Thelma and Sheila gave me on my 50th birthday, Genevieve’s Lonely Planet Britain, and my nice new Fuji Finepix S602z digital camera. I had purchased a 128MB memory card for it so I was hoping the card would store all the pictures from the whole holiday. It did, easily.
We thought we’d go up the east coast and come home down the west coast, so that meant dropping onto the M1 just north of Redbourn, about 10 miles out of St Albans, and heading for Leeds. The nominal speed limit on the motorways is 70mph, but if you stay on that speed, all the faster drivers – and that means almost everyone – flash their lights at you in your mirrors to get you out of their lane. The truck drivers are professional and very polite; they let you into their lane and they always signal in plenty of time before changing lanes. Driving on the motorway means covering distance quickly, but you don’t get much of a view. Long stretches of road are lined with big trees or artificial windbreaks to stop the trucks getting blown over, so you only see the changing landscapes of different counties in brief flashes.
I’d had a most amusing discussion on the Friday “Oh, where’s your depot located?” I had asked a chap while I was resetting his printer.
“‘ull,” he said.
“And what’s the weather like up in Hull?”
“Grey. Overcust.”
“It’s lovely here in London, you know. There’s sunshine and clear skies.”
“We’ve got grey. Lots of northern grim. We don’t go in for sunshoine oop ‘ere you know.”
“I’ll look out for it when I’m driving past.”
A taste of Northern Grim

A taste of Northern Grim

We didn’t have to; when Nottingham came up on our right, it started to rain and heavy black clouds rimmed the horizon to the east. The water from the trucks ahead showered over us and heavy winds buffeted our little Rover. “Looks like we’re getting into your friend’s Northern Grim,” said Elaine and all the way past Sheffield and almost to Leeds we fought the rain and the wind on the motorway. When you get to Leeds, the M1 simply disappears and it becomes the plain old A1. Sometimes it’s dual carriageway and sometimes it’s 4 lanes, but there’s been a bit of work done on some stretches and parts of it are quite classy with new grass banks and clear hard shoulders. I realised I could see clearly; there was even some weak sunshine.

“Is that it for northern grim?” said Elaine.
“It could be for the ‘ull version of it, but there’s plenty of North to go.”  There were large signs appearing with warnings about long delays ahead, but so far the A1 was clear. We stuck with it until we were almost at the A1(M), a stretch of the A1 improved to motorway standard and under motorway driving rules. There we stopped, along with thousands of other cars in two undulating rows ahead of us and a long tail beginning to grow behind us.
“Oh, nice. Anywhere to pull off?” Elaine groaned.
I looked down at the map on my knee and then up into the gentle glow of early evening sunshine on low, rolling English countryside.
“Harrogate sound ok?”
I looked up the Lonely Planet. “19th Century spa town. Fashionable, affluent, elegant. Stately Victorian terraces.”
“Lovely. And it’s late enough for us to stay there overnight. Where do we turn off?” Harrogate was absolutely beautiful.
These are the Royal Baths, now part of the Information Centre. We called in to see what there was that drew people to Harrogate and found out it was a spa town in the manner of Cheltenham.
Beautiful domed buildings in delicately crafted stone lined many of the streets and small colourful gardens dotted the public lawns.  We found a very centrally located B&B right opposite the conference centre and then wandered around the middle of town looking for somewhere to eat.

This is it, on the right – behind the baskets of hanging flowers –  Betty’s Kitchen. What a treat! We actually felt out of place in our travelling clothes so we went back to the B&B and changed for dinner. It was worth it. There was a quiet elegance about Betty’s Kitchen, a piano player drifted his fingers through semi-jazz tunes and he played Waltzing Matilda for us because he had guessed we were Antipodean and probably thought Australian was a good bet.
The Royal Bath House, Harrogate

The Royal Bath House, Harrogate

We had leek soup and succulent lamb chops and a long chat with the waitress, a pretty, local girl who had a charming accent and said she was going to Sheffield University in the new term.
Betty’s Kitchen, Harrogate

Betty’s Kitchen, Harrogate

Tue 20th  In the morning we walked through the middle of this beautiful town until we found the Royal Pump House Museum. The Royal Pump House was where the very princes of society came. In late Victorian times and in the early 19th Century you came here to Take the Waters and the medicine was a shot glass of the foulest tasting sulphur water reputed to be the strongest in Europe. We had a glass, of course, but it took most of the rest of the day to get the furry feeling off our tongues and the sulphur out of our noses. The Victorian dose was eight of those glasses per day for three weeks and they bathed in the mineral waters, too, much as we do in Rotorua today. How they suffered drinking it eight times a day I cannot fathom.

The Royal Pump House, Harrogate

Our aim for today was Berwick-upon-Tweed. We discussed the road deep into the east along the coast through Scarborough, Whitby and Hartlepool. I would have loved to have gone to see Hartlepool because Chris Wheeler, a friend and workmate from London who’d helped us shift, was from there and a die-hard Hartlepool United supporter. It would have been nice to tell him we had been there. I reckoned if we took the detour, we’d be lucky to make Berwick at all today and this was a trip to Scotland. We’d have to put off exploring The North until we could come up for a week or so and do it justice. We stayed on the A1.
This is The Angel of the North. It’s a huge unpainted  steel structure whose size you can gauge by the looking at the people standing at its base. It’s a fair way off the road and yet it’s still an impressive size. This is the modern marker for Gateshead, on the road to Newcastle; you simply cannot miss it. The A1 hugs the coast nicely and gave us big bites of sea views through the deep valleys and a spectacular but distant view of Alnwick Castle.
Angel of the North, Gateshead

Angel of the North, Gateshead

We stopped at a pub for lunch and noticed there a sign for The Holy Island of Lindisfarne, just a few miles out of Berwick. After lunch we followed the road down to the sea and there we came across a most peculiar situation. As we came down a mild slope towards the sea, our road just kept on going and disappeared under water. A mile or so off shore the road came up again onto an island which had a castle perched on a high promontory. In the middle of the sea was a structure that looked like a bridge with thick wooden handrails. In the middle of the bridge, with one door open, was a bright red car, about the size of our Metro. There were cars parked along both sides of the road between us and the shore, with their occupants peering through binoculars at the red car on the bridge. A policeman walked back and forth from his 4×4 to the shore while his radio chortled and gargled in his vehicle.
On the causeway to Holy Island

On the causeway to Holy Island

“Does this happen every day?” I was standing in a sharp breeze close to the shore as he walked up. He looked at me speculatively, drawing his head back a little the better to see me. I guessed he was checking his mental database for the source of my accent.
“About once a week, anyway.”
“And do you always come down to check them out?”
“He could have made it if he’d got that far because the water between the bridge and here is not as deep as the water between the bridge and the island. But they see the water in front of them and they stop on the bridge. The water is very fast, you know. He can get washed off that bridge; he’s not necessarily as safe as he thinks he is.”

“Why did he get caught?” The policeman looked me over again.
“If I knew that, I’d answer some of the riddles of the universe.” He grinned. “You see the tide times? That white board over there?”
“You mean next clear causeway time is 1730 today?”
“Yup. The times on there give you a full hour of grace. If it says be off the island by 6:00pm tonight, you’re actually reasonably safe till 7:00pm. This idiot has missed even that.”

I put my camera on full zoom and peered intently at the little red car. “The water is up to the middle of his wheels. Does it get any higher than that?”
“You see the rails on the bridge? I’ve seen them disappear. With the water that high, it would wash away a big 4×4 like mine.” He looked at the car on the bridge, “He’s lucky it’s an exceptionally low tide.”
He looked steadily at me one last time. “Yeah, I come and check them out every single time.”
Tweed rail viaduct

Tweed rail viaduct

There was no point hanging around until 1730 so we drove into Berwick-upon-Tweed, crossing the river on a spectacularly high bridge next to an equally spectacular rail viaduct over the famous River Tweed.  We found a B&B in the middle of town called the Cobbled Yard.  It was a bit run-down with an odd musty smell and not enough yard for our car. The maid was a dumpy, middle-aged woman in a cotton floral frock with a blue smock. Her greying, curly hair was tousled from a full morning’s cleaning.  She took us up two flights of a tiny, steep, winding staircase.  “Is this ok?” she asked, wheezing slightly from the exertion of the stairs. “It’s very nice,” said Elaine and we dumped our gear, paid for our room in advance and went out to explore Berwick.

It’s a town that’s typical of the Borders area. It isn’t in Scotland now, but it has been many times. Berwickshire is in Scotland and Berwick is just outside its modern borders, but the Berwick football team

plays in the Scottish League. We were only able to get a brief look at the Elizabethan ramparts that surround the town but it seems they are the main reason the town stayed English after all those adventures while being Scottish.

Berwick Town Hall

Berwick Town Hall

Berwick stocks

Berwick stocks

Elizabethan ramparts, Berwick

Elizabethan ramparts, Berwick

They were built by Elizabeth 1st in the 1550’s and were a very effective town defensive system. In the very middle of the main street was the Town Hall. It was built and paid for by the mayor of Berwick in the late 1700’s. It’s a remarkable building, all the more so because a later mayor in the 1840s completely renovated it. The Victorians had a deep sense of civic duty.

The stocks above aren’t used any more, of course, and the original stocks taken from here are in the town museum but this is where they were sited. What an awful thought to be in there. It was a cold, wet, windy little hole – look at the vertigris on the blockwork – and the locals were allowed to taunt you and throw things at you as they went past. However there wasn’t a lot of Berwick to see; besides it was close to 5:30pm so it was time to go to Lindisfarne.

It was a short drive out of town along the A1 and then down the narrow road to the Lindisfarne causeway, this time fully exposed all the way to the island and completely dry from having been quietly toasted in the late afternoon sun. The most striking thing about the island on first glance is the steep crag with a small castle on top so built into its fabric as to appear to have grown there out of the living rock. We parked the car, paid the toll and walked a sealed road into the village. A sign announced Lindisfarne Village, population 160. There were two pubs and two stores. This is one of the wonders of the English way of life; the tide brings people to this island in a circular kind of pattern. When there’s water over the causeway no-one can come or go, so visitors arrive here in large clumps at regularly rotating times of day according to the tide tables. The shops, however, are open 9:00am to 5:30pm. It was 6:00pm so they were closed even though the tide had just brought in 300 or so people to explore.
Lindisfarne Priory

Lindisfarne Priory

St Cuthbert near Lindisfarne Priory

St Cuthbert near Lindisfarne Priory

We found one man had who a small place open and he was doing a roaring trade. We called in there briefly. Tradition has it that Lindisfarne Mead used to be made by the monks of the priory, and this chap was selling it but I noticed the label on the bottle said 14.5% alcohol by volume. Now that would put you on your ear in a hurry.  The afternoon had turned bright sunny and quite warm. We walked on through the village and explored the dramatic ruins of the Benedictine priory, in front of which stood a stone statue of St Cuthbert holding a torch and a shepherd’s crook, his head framed as with a halo by a Celtic cross.

Lindisfarne was one of the cradles of British Christianity. This priory wrote the Lindisfarne Gospels, so beautifully decorated and embellished as to be almost magical. Some of the detail on some of the pages is so intense you need a magnifying glass to appreciate its intricacies. St Mary’s Church right on the priory doorstep was

another of those beautiful little Norman churches not altogether enhanced by repairs and modernisation carried out by the Victorians. There is a wall that has a Saxon arch – this little church has deep roots. In front of the altar is a wonderful piece of carpetmaking by the local women wherein they have reproduced a page from the Lindisfarne Gospels, with large doses of brilliant red and shining gold.

I walked through the priory ruins, and watched the golden evening sunshine washing over the little harbour at the very door of the church and walked out onto a sealed road towards Lindisfarne Castle.

When Henry V111 dissolved the monastries in the 1550’s, he took the treasures from the inside of the priory and built this castle on the crag from its stones as one of his northern defences against the Scots.

It’s now owned by the National Trust after having been a coastguard station for a while and was a private residence from the 1880’s. When I got to the castle it was closed but I had caught up with Elaine and we stood on the highest step with a small group of people who had all missed the opening time of the castle and admired the commanding view we had of a very long stretch of coast.

Across the inlet to the harbour was a small stone building and more or less in front and behind it were two tall, tapering towers. “What are the obelisks for?”
The lady behind me had said exactly what I was thinking. “And I wonder how old they are?” I asked. As we walked back down the road I walked past a Coast Ranger in a bright yellow safety jacket. “Do you know what the obelisks are all about?” I asked him.
“When you are out at sea and you’re preparing to enter the harbour, you line those two towers up and head straight along that line. Now, about here somewhere,” and he pointed into the estuary directly in front us, “you’ll see the trig marker.”  He waved to his right at a land point we couldn’t see, “and the moment you can see it you change direction and head for it until you are in the sheltered harbour next to the priory. That way, you stay in the channel.”
“When did they go up?” I asked
“In the 1840’s, I think. They have been there quite a while.”
“What a beautiful afternoon,” I said. “And it’s nice and warm. I was expecting cold, rain and plenty of clouds.” I told him my story about Northern Grim in my rather poor best Northern accent. He grinned knowingly.

“We say up here,” he said, “that the Geordie celebrates only two days in the year: one’s his birthday and the other’s summer.”
He waited until I finished laughing and he said, “Are you going on to Scotland?” I nodded. “No traffic jams up there, you know. Not like here. As soon as you stop, someone’s on your tail beeping at you. Once you get up into the real rural Scotland you’ll hardly see any cars at all.” The last picture I took was this intriguing view. These are upside down fishing boats. They are pretty big, too. In the transom the villager has cut a door, inside is his workshop and thus he has made the Lindisfarne shed.
Lindisfarne boat-shed

Lindisfarne boat-shed

Back at the Cobbled Yard the menu was far too expensive, and not very exotic to command such prices, so we had fish’n’chips at a nearby pub.

Wed 21st We rang Edith Scott, Elaine’s grandmother’s cousin. “She is Grandma Maxwell’s first cousin,” Elaine said authoritatively, “and she lives in East Fishwick.” Edith was delighted to hear from us when we rang her from the car. We thought we’d be there about 10:30am. “I shall be able to take you to some of the places your family knew well in the Borders,” she said.  Then she told us how to get to her place – next road on your right after the maize maze. “The maze maze?” I asked Elaine.

“No, the maize maze. Someone out there has cut a maze into his maize crop. People are going there and paying a couple of quid each to walk through it. He’ll probably make more money out of the maze than out of the maize.” She grinned broadly and we drove through a beautiful sunny morning towards the Scottish Borders.
This is our first view of Scotland. I thought it was pretty evocative; the highland cattle in the foreground and the heather blooming on the hill in the background. What struck us really strongly, though, and never went away, was how similar this country was to New Zealand. Almost everywhere we went, we could see a piece of the North Island in the landscape. Look at this picture – except for the heather, this could be anywhere in the Waikato. There are few places in England where you say, “Here’s a piece of home in this view,” but in Scotland you hear yourself saying it all the time. It was one of the enduring themes of our visit, how a particular view looked like a stretch of the Desert Rd, or driving alongside the Waikato River, or the Western Access Rd, it was almost uncanny.
Highland cattle and heather-covered hills

Highland cattle and heather-covered hills

We called in at a stone cottage and asked the way. “Edith Scott? Keep on this road and she’s in the next house on your right.”
Of course we took several wrong turnings getting to Edith’s and when we got to the sign for the Maize Maze, we turned down the next road and ended up alongside the Tweed, with cars in front and cars behind, queueing up for the maze. It didn’t look possible to get to Edith’s from there so we carefully crawled back up the narrow dirt road, dodging the 4×4’s that now seem to be obligatory transport if you have a rural turn of mind.

Edith was welcoming and absolutely delighted to see us. We had been warned that she might be frail or easily tired and to be careful not to overtax her. She made us a cup of tea and wheeled it in on a little trolley. She was recently out of hospital from having her knee operated on so she moved slowly and with great care.  She sat with Elaine for an hour or more while she told family stories.
Edith Scott and Elaine

Edith Scott and Elaine

“This was all our farm,” she said. The man who told you how to get here lives in one of the farm cottages. We lived in that cottage when we’d sold the farm and we were building this house.”
I looked out the kitchen window. “Is that huge hay stack part of it?”
“It’s not hay,” she said. “It’s straw. It’s used for nesting and horse beds and cow barns during the winter. And yes, that field was part of our farm.”

“Do you mean oat straw or barley?”

“Oat straw.”

“What do they do with the oats?”

There was a pause. “Rolled oats. Porridge, Dear.”

I have put on this page a collection of the photos I took to show what Edith was like and her lovely house that she called Strathmore, set deep in the Scottish countryside. Who else would have curling stones at their front door?

Edith Scott in her living room



Front door with curling stones

Front door with curling stones


Prague, Czech Republic

Prague was mentioned twice within a couple of months. The Metro newspaper travel section told me it was one of the rising destinations in the old Eastern Bloc and then Jill Adams came back from the Continent delighted with her visit to Prague. “You’ve got to go!” she said, “It’s beautiful, and so unspoiled.”

Genevieve said “Try the Continental trains, so that you can use your plane ticket more efficiently. They’re really cheap, but go first class, and visit a couple of other cities as well.” I spent a frustrating week trying to put together three Continental cities for the three weeks of Elaine’s summer break. The plan was to fly to Prague and then take the train to…. I couldn’t get any train tickets on the internet.

We went to the Marshalswick travel agent again. He could get the train tickets all right, so how would we like to fly Prague, take the train to Vienna, then the train again to Budapest and then the plane home? Lovely cities. We’d get our tickets in a week, and leave from Heathrow Terminal One. Yes? Excellent.

The plane for Prague left Heathrow at 07:00, that meant we had to be at the airport at 05:00, which meant we had to catch the Picadilly Line from Kings Cross at 03:30. That was not good news; the Tube is closed from 01:00 to 05:00. We elected to stay at the airport overnight, so on the day, once I had arrived home, we finished packing and took the Thameslink train to Kings Cross, the Picadilly Line to Heathrow, being careful to get off at Terminal One, and looked around to see what we could do from midnight until 05:00. There was depressingly little. A walk around the terminal, poking into every corner, took five minutes, and twice round took ten minutes. It was clear there was no point in trying to while away the time by walking around the terminal. We went upstairs to Costa and glumly looked at each other while we slowly sucked on cardboard mugs of frothy cappuccino.
“This is going to be a long night,” said Elaine.
It’s true to say the night ended, but rest assured that when we looked out of the plane and saw Prague lying in the sunshine and we were wheeling down to land, we felt a lot better.
“Prague is not in Eastern Europe, and neither is the Czech Republic,” said the chaperone in the big grey 4×4 that picked us up from the airport, “it’s at the very heart of Central Europe. People often think that because we were a Soviet buffer state we must be Eastern, but we are not. Geographically and historically we are truly European. Our famous sons are Franz Kafka, Jan Hus, King Wenceslas and Alexander Dubcek. Johannes Keppler came here to study and to teach. We are civilised in the European traditions and we have a complex history of Catholicism and Protestantism, much like any other European country.

Across Staromestske Square to Tynsky's Cathedral

Across Staromestske Square to Tynsky’s Cathedral

Soon we will be part of the European Union. Last year, Prague was hit with a devastating flood from its own river, the Vltava, and you will see much work to fix the damage and much more work to add to the city’s charm while those repairs are going on.” The 4×4 left us at the Quality Hotel on the edge of town so we dropped off our bags and went back onto the street.
Below us was a deep blue river with a weir off to our left and all around us were building repairs. In the middle of the road alongside the hotel, workmen and small front-end loaders were laying tram tracks in a deep concrete-lined ditch. We turned right and followed the road a couple of blocks until we came to a T-section with a wide road. If we went left, it looked like the road disappeared into a slum, but since all the road signs – none of which we could read – pointed to our right we went that way.
Building repairs

Building repairs

The scene outside our hotel was replicated here; they were laying more tram tracks in another concrete ditch in the middle of this road, too. We picked our way through the rubble of the repairs to the footpath and watched a workman with a pneumatic chisel noisily peeling plaster off a brick wall. The flood line was clearly above his head, yet we were quite a way above the river. We called into a mini-market to check shop prices for essential items like soft drinks and bottled water. They are almost always a quarter of the price of buying water or lemonade at the hotel or in a café. We selected a 1L bottle of water and some delicious-looking pasties for a late lunch and walked over to the counter.

High water mark, Prague flood

The shopkeeper was a sunburned, greying, middle-aged woman with a green shop pinafore over a cotton floral dress and she couldn’t speak English, but she gave us a shy smile as we placed our purchases on the counter and offered her a note of local currency. She took our money and carefully counted back to us some more notes and some coins. We were charmed.
Outside, we checked the notes and coins and she was absolutely correct. We had taken a note of the prices and tried to fix in our minds where the shop was so we could get back to it from the hotel. While we ate the pasties and drank the water, we followed the road into the outskirts of town and watched the trams running on their old tracks, poked around a nice little outside market where I got some walk shorts and sunglasses, and admired a statue of construction men at work, left over from Communist days.

Construction men at work

The following morning, the 8th of August, after a delicious breakfast of fruit, cornflakes and bacon and eggs – no cheapie Continental breakfasts here – we asked the young lady at the hotel reception if she had a map of Prague. She did and it was free. We stood outside and examined the map. If we followed the river, it might be the long way round, but it would lead us past some bridges, an island and eventually into the middle of town. It was a perfectly beautiful morning and a walk would be good.

We followed the wide sweep of the river past the weir, past the island with a green domed building on it, past the stolid, glowering Education Department building with its guard sitting in an elderly red and white caravan just inside the barrier arm, past a water trike driven by two girls, past a quite magnificent blue and white river excursion steamer and we were in turn passed by all kinds of river craft – a replica Viking longboat, a little blue and white river boat with about thirty people lounging in deck chairs on its upper deck, and I said to Elaine,
“What’s he going to do when he gets to the weir? Jump it?”
And then we stopped alongside a bridge. “This is the Vltava River,” I said, checking the map. “What is that?”

Replica Viking longboat

In the background of the photo on the left is a tall black building, probably a church. What’s it all about? The map was silent. The girls in the river trike pedalled past. They were pedalling up river and they were hot.

I could smell coffee and I thought I could hear water cascading.
Behind us was a hedge and beyond that were a couple of little stalls, one with paintings and the other with a coffee urn boiling away. While we examined the paintings and drank our coffee, a fountain gurgled and two men sat in its edge with their feet cooling in the pool. There were several paintings of the scene I had just photographed. “What’s that?” I asked the chap with the paintings. I pointed at the painting of the bridge and the big black church and he just shrugged at me. I pulled out the map and tried again. “Up on the hill there, can you tell me what it’s called?” He shook his head, “catidralsanvita,” I think he said. “Thank you,” I replied.
Manesuv Bridge with Prague Castle behind.

Manesuv Bridge with Prague Castle behind.

I looked at the map again. The bridge was either off the map or it was the Manesuv. If the latter were true, then the very fine building to the left of the square immediately in front of us must be the Rudolfinum. Tall flags on the building confirmed my guess. I looked up our Lonely Planet “Prague” guide but I couldn’t find out what the Rudolfinum did. It didn’t help us to name the black church, either, but we would worry about that later. Another look at the map told us that the nearest sight was the Old New Synagogue in an area called Josefov. The Lonely Planet advised us not to miss it, this used to be the Jewish quarter and a wander around Josefov would be very instructive.
Manesuv Bridge and Rudolfinum

Manesuv Bridge and Rudolfinum

This little fellow caught our attention. We saw several of him, although none more of this size or this colour. At the Old Synagogue, we called into the gift shop and museum and Elaine asked who this chap is.

“Golem, his name is Golem,” said the young lady behind the glass counter.
Elaine picked up a stone miniature and examined the squat figure held together with straps and bolts.
“What does he do?”
“Originally, he was a character developed by Rabbi Loew to try to stop the locals from persecuting the Jews.”
“Why is he held together with straps?”
“Because he is made of clay, which cracks as it dries. The good rabbi broke up his creation in the loft of the Old New Synagogue when he decided Golem had accomplished his mission.
He’s now a Jewish children’s story character, not always very well behaved, but we use him to illustrate how good children should act. Sometimes he’s very funny.”


Elaine bought the miniature and a book of Golem stories to read to her class. “That’s lovely,” she said, “a little piece of real Prague to take back to my kids. They’ll find out about different cultures.”
We went up through the doorway of the old surgery building and past the Old Cemetery with its big trees casting a solemn gloom onto moss-covered headstones. The Old New Synagogue cost too much to go into so we gave it a miss.
“If we go back towards the river and then down a bit, we can cross the Charles Bridge,” I said to Elaine.
“What Charles Bridge?”

Old Jewish surgery, Josefov

 “The next one along from the one we didn’t cross to get here.” I looked up the Lonely Planet. “The Judith Bridge was washed away in a storm and Charles IV built this one in the 1300s. Looks like the flood last year wasn’t the first. We didn’t see the bridge earlier today because of the bend in the river – or because we didn’t look.
The picture on the map showed an outline bridge of towers and bumps and it looked pretty impressive. The Lonely Planet said not to miss the buskers.
It was worth the walk. The bridge was crowded with people and there was no traffic. A large, dark brownstone church (St Francisl) covered the approach to the bridge on our right and dozens of people sat around the statue of King Charles IV taking in the last of the late afternoon sun. Grimly utilitarian five storey buildings glared down at us from our left, but the gothic tower that stood astride the bridge itself was a wonder in stone and lead. It was magnificent. Look how there’s more of the tower on one side of the bridge than the other, look at the arch; it’s like a cathedral window. Look at the roofline.
Tower, Charles Bridge

Tower, Charles Bridge

We couldn’t miss the buskers. There was someone every twenty feet or so, if not a busker then an artist, or a stall selling some kind of old rubbish. One group of buskers was particularly interesting because of the type of instruments they were playing.

Buskers, Charles Bridge

Opposite us was an arcaded walkway with lots of little cafes and shops selling toys and arty knick-knacks. “Dinner,” said Elaine with some conviction. “There will be something to eat here.” We wanted genuine Prague food so we looked for the locals. A little café had lots of dishes with dumplings – a Prague favourite – and the waiters were definitely locals. We sat at a green and white checked tablecloth and Elaine ordered a beef dumpling stew while I ordered the pork knuckle.
I got a shock when it turned up. It was about the size of my head and it was covered in golden crackling with a pickled gherkin and some tomato slices, served on a thick wooden plate. Someone had thoughtfully stuck a serrated knife into the joint. Elaine laughed “You are going to have fun finishing that!” I took a photo of it. It was unbelievable. The whole thing cost about four euros. I did finish it but not without people who were walking past stopping and staring at this skinny chap and his huge pork knuckle. About four couples stopped and ordered their own. Elaine had a ball laughing and gesturing. No-one understood a word anyone said but that’s the whole point of being in a foreign country. The language of food is universal, what need we for words?
On the way home, we stopped on Charles Bridge to admire a talented busker and his wonderful array of Central European instruments.
Musician, Charles Bridge

Musician, Charles Bridge

The following morning we had the usual delicious breakfast of cornflakes, fruit and bacon & eggs with toast while we chatted to a pretty young girl and her husband about Prague. They had spent all yesterday in town and were going back again today.
They had also been up to Prague Castle. “Is that it up on the hill?” I asked them.
The husband leaned forward in his khaki shirt and Cargo slacks. “Yes. Across Charles Bridge and up the hill; St Vita’s Cathedral is in the middle of the parade ground inside the castle. You get a wonderful view of Prague from up there.” When they had gone, we took a look at the map. It wasn’t too far, we’d walk there and drop into town on the way back.
Prague trams on the way to town

Prague trams on the way to town

The morning was absolutely beautiful and it was a pleasure walking the couple of miles or so past the newly laid tram lines and the little outdoor market, crossing the Charles Bridge and walking up the hill to Prague Castle.

There wasn’t much of the castle to see, most of it was a maze of thick walls with battlements and a military centre tucked into a corner. Three self-conscious soldiers in blue parade uniforms with rifles at ease strutted from somewhere near the military centre across the parade ground to the castle gate and relieved the watch, who strutted just as self-consciously back. We joined a tour of the cathedral and admired its 12th century tomb with the effigy carved beautifully in marble on the top, and looked closely at the intricate work in the tall stained-glass windows. The cathedral was started by Charles 1V in the 1300’s so the tomb must have been brought there from somewhere else. There doesn’t seem to have been a terminal date applied by the builder because the cathedral wasn’t finished until 1929, when the last pieces of coloured glass were inserted into the windows we had been admiring.

I tried to take a picture of them while Elaine bought their CD, but people just kept walking into the frame. I must have tried six or seven times. Eventually, I noticed that if I went down on one knee to take the photograph, people would realise just in time what I was doing and they would hesitate for a moment and I could take the picture. You can see I’ve still got someone’s shadow in there, but I suppose that’s ok on a crowded bridge.

We continued walking across the bridge, dodging the stall-holders bawling at us and admiring the stone and bronze statues. There was even one of St Francis, patron saint of travellers.

On the other side of the bridge, after ducking under the arch, was St Nicholas church, but it wasn’t open. Here, when we checked the map again, we discovered that the road lead up to Prague Castle and we could clearly see that inside the walls of the castle was St Vita’s Cathedral. We now had a name for the big black church we had seen across the river earlier that morning. 

Changing the guard, Prague Castle

Changing the guard, Prague Castle

Still, the most impressive thing about the entire cathedral are its magnificently vaulted flying buttresses. My photo, doesn’t really do them justice, but they are a work of art and engineering in one go and they show that Medieval Europeans weren’t the ignorant, religion-soaked oafs of popular imaginings but men who understood geometry and mathematics and were masters of the science of working and building in living stone. The cathedral doesn’t have its treasures any more; they have been stolen and pillaged by successive conquerors of Prague, but as long as the cathedral stands then generations of Europeans can see the real treasure of St Vita’s Cathedral – the genius of its builders.


Buttresses of St Vita’s Cathedral

We spent some time wandering the battlements of the castle in the sun and looking at the view of Prague from such an excellent vantage point, wondering at the strange buildings and towers in the town below. We also took the chance to look through the armour museum, even though there was a small charge for it, and we could see by the size of the armour that military men in the late Middle Ages were at least as big as me (5′ 11″) and many were much larger. I have no idea how they wielded their heavy swords for any length of time. 
View of city from Prague Castle

View of city from Prague Castle

We took the now well-travelled route past St Nicholas Church and over the Charles Bridge to see what we could find in the city. The road ran directly, though not at all straight, to Staromestske Square. We had to pay to walk down Golden Lane, but we thought that for  the cost it might be nice to wander down a steep narrow street through a neighbourhood of small houses formerly used by the artillery men of the castle which were now also small businesses.
One of those small houses turns out to be a former residence of Franz Kafka. I had read one of his works, The Castle, about the powerless you feel when grey un-named and un-nameable bureaucrats make – or sometimes even worse don’t make – decisions about you. This was when Prague Castle was still the major seat of government. That feeling of faceless men looking at you, knowing everything about you and plotting with each other to deny you, is called Kafkaesque.
Kafka’s house

Kafka’s house

The gothic splendour of the twin towers of Tynsky’s Cathedral dominate Staromestske, the large square in the centre of the city. That’s it in the photo on page 1, like something out of DisneyLand, except that it’s authentic. We never had a chance to look inside, but it is immensely impressive.
A small market was buzzing at the far end of the square and stallholders were displaying brightly coloured clothes and jewellery and country crafts. We made our way through stalls of hats and scarves and semiprecious stones set into trinkets. A young blacksmith in a leather apron hammered noisily with a short-handled 5-pounder on a flat piece of iron gripped securely to his anvil. He looked like a Greek god and I am sure he knew it. One day the blacksmith will be as modern as a rock band and he will have girls screaming at him while he works, with his neatly cropped beard and the iron-studded wrist band, the swirling smoke and the shriek of his bellows. In the lovely morning sunshine of a full summer day, bathed in sweat and wreathed with smoke, he showed off his power, his balance and his craftsmanship.
Blacksmith, Staromestske Square

Blacksmith, Staromestske Square

On the other side of the square was a most unusual clock. It had two different faces and it looked like it told the time as well as traced the visible heavenly bodies. I stood back to fit it all into my view-finder and tried to take its picture. I always like to get a picture with everyone fully in the frame, no-one cut off at the knees or half-entered at the left or half-leaving on the right. It’s also nice to get a picture of a building with someone in the frame, to give the building a well-used flavour.
Without people in the frame, one building is as dull as the next and just as anonymous. I waited for the opportunity, and took several photos just as things came right, but each time when I looked at the picture in the viewer, people had done something to muck it up. I waited for the crowd to thin a little, not wanting to keep Elaine waiting too long. “Come on, come on, get out of my picture,” I breathed. The crowd thinned and I took a couple of likely photos. When I examined them in the viewer, the best of them still had some confounded woman in the bottom right corner waving at something. Elaine was waiting. I turned around to join her still mumbling about my ill luck.
“What did you do that for?” she demanded.
“Eh? Take a picture?”
“No, tell everyone to buzz off like that. Don’t you know half the people here can understand English?”
“I said it really quietly,” I protested, “no-one heard me.”
“I did. And so did everyone else. Why do you think they all moved? You could get us shot doing that.” She grabbed my arm and dragged me off. “I’ll tell you what, if someone else doesn’t shoot you, I will.”
Clock, Old Town Hall

Clock, Old Town Hall

We spent the rest of the day looking for something truly Prague which Elaine could have in England but would also have a place in New Zealand. It would have to be both useful and decorative; Bohemian crystal seemed the best bet. Between visits, we passed this beautiful and evocative stone building called the Powder Tower. The Lonely Planet said it was true to its name. In the days when the city could defend itself this tower held powder, shot and weapons. It was a landmark for the rest of the time we were in Prague.

By the end of the day, Elaine’s quest had ended with a beautiful blue/green lotus-shaped crystal dish on a deeply cut stand. She would use it for peanuts or dried fruit when she pulled out her Denby dinner set, since it was such a good colour match. I flicked at the edge of the bowl with my fingernail. A beautifully satisfying single tone rang out, fully resonant with its own echoes built in. Heavy too.  
Elaine looked at me thoughtfully, remembering a wine glass I had shown her in a story she loved to tell. I was convinced the glass was polycarbonate plastic and I had tapped it on the edge of the table to prove I was right. It had shattered.
“These come in one piece,” said Elaine, “they don’t bounce and they don’t chip. I’m going to carry it.”
“On the train to Vienna, all around Vienna, then Bucharest, then the plane home? Along with your bag and your handbag?”
“Whatever it takes, I’m going to carry it.”




We seem to have got the best weather.  In the 10 days before we arrived, Cyprus was battered by huge storms, one of them with golf ball sized hailstones (said the locals) and all of them with sheets of rain and wild winds. We walked down the road from our hotel and in a dip of the road we could see that there had been a flood across the road at least 2 feet deep, because at that point, the road verge was 2 feet high and there were heavy mud stains across the footpath.

We followed the road to the sea and the beach was a mess of plastic blue and white sun lounger sofas scattered all along the sand and even up the steep bush-clad slope behind it.  The ice cream vendor’s stall was smashed as was the Sea Sports Club building.  The whole of Coral Bay beach was littered deep with rotting seaweed, sun loungers and broken bits of vendor shacks.

A week after we got back home Elaine spoke to one of her pupils who had started her holiday in Cyprus the day we left.  Her holiday was ruined by sand storms so bad she wasn’t allowed out of the hotel and the organisers had to postpone the New Years night fireworks. But us?  We had a week of glorious sunshine and 19C temperatures.

When we took off from Luton bound for Paphos, it seemed odd that we were flying in a northerly direction, but a straight line from Luton to Cyprus goes over Belgium and then the Balkans. Cyprus is so far buried at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, it’s only a half-hour flight from there to Israel and only an hour’s flight to Egypt.

We were shepherded from the plane across the tarmac to a large corrugated iron shed where we picked up our bags in the early evening gloom, passed through customs and found the bus that was transferring us to our hotel. We gave our luggage to the bus driver and rushed over to see the Med. It looked like Lake Taupo, except that it’s bigger so you can’t see the opposite shore, but the waves were similar with little white caps out to sea and a light splashing sound at our feet. There was a sharp breeze blowing in and the beach was shallow and covered in little white crystalline pebbles. There was no tide mark.

On holiday with the English

Let me tell you about the English, then I’ll tell you about Cyprus. The last person onto the bus was dressed in a green shirt and trousers and introduced himself to all of us as the Airtours transfer rep. So that’s the first thing you learn about travel from England to an overseas destination: you are a member of a tour party and everyone on the bus is a member of your tour party and you are always treated as a group, even though the members have never met. It was at about that point I realised that we were on an Airtours tour.

The tour companies lay on everything: the transfer bus to get you to and from the airport, a rep to look after your requests and complaints, the block booking at the hotel, activities and excursions during the day and entertainment at night. They had physed classes, pool activities and fun things for kids and adults to do all day, but they also offered an optional trip by coach (a big, luxury bus) to Nicosia, a day out in Egypt and an adventure tour up into the mountains.

The entertainment at night was the funniest bit. First the hotel did a buffet dinner for 5 pounds each then in a room downstairs the rep organised a 15-question quiz, then a single round of bingo with a 100 pound prize, then the real entertainment like dancing, a floor show or a karaoke night. When they do singalongs, the English have songs they absolutely adore and to those tunes they do movements such as waving their arms from side to side over their heads, or twirling their fingers or do a few line-dancing steps – all sorts of things.  You’ve seen Hi-De-Hi; you’ve got the picture. They re-create Butlins everywhere. They also like their English food; soup, chips, baked spuds, lamb chops, rib roasts, sausages, boiled veges, jelly and ice cream. They don’t want foreign food, they want what they like.

I’m not trying to take the mickey; I’m trying to show you how things work. Every nation does it; all the Kiwis on their big OE live with the Aussies and South Africans in the middle of London and go to rugby matches and watch the Super 12 on Sky and drink Fosters in a local pub. You see what I mean – people like to take bits of their home with them.

When the English go to their holiday destinations, they’re not really travelling; they are going to a resort where they will get looked after and have lots of fun in a climate more agreeable than the one they left behind. In the main they don’t leave the hotel, they haven’t come to experience the local culture nor to explore the local history, they are there to be entertained and to have fun with the same expectations they would have if they were in Blackpool, Brighton or Bognor Regis.

In Cyprus

The rep explained things about Cyprus in general and our hotel in particular as the bus drove from the airport to Pahpos and then from Paphos to Coral Bay, dropping off passengers as it went. Cyprus is safe – there’s hardly any crime. It’s divided into two with the southern half being run by Greek Cypriots and the northern half by the Turks.  The Greeks will tell you the Turks invaded in 1974 and the Turks will tell you the Greeks got control by staging a coup, backed by the military junta then in power in Greece.

 A British army officer drew a line on the Cyprus map with a green pen to divide the island and the line is referred to as the Green Line. It goes through the middle of the capital, Nicosia, and they say that Nicosia is the last divided city in Europe. Don’t put your toilet paper down the loo, put it in the rubbish basket next to the loo.  If you put it down the loo, you will block it because the pipes are too small.  Your loo will backfill and it will flood your apartment. You will then need to get the hotel to send a plumber to fix it and that is VERY embarrassing.

“Eat the local food whenever you get the opportunity,” he said, “because it’s cheap and delicious. The temperatures at this time of the year are mild rather than warm, but in the summer when you step off the plane it’s like walking into a sauna. And, it hardly ever rains here, the water comes from melted snow off the mountains in the middle of the island. Don’t drink the tap water, it will give you a tummy ache, buy and drink bottled water.”

We listened carefully to all of this, because he was actually living on the island with his girlfriend so he knew a bit about it.  While we listened to him we thumbed through our Thomas Cook Travellers CYPRUS book that we had bought before we left St Albans and recognised one of the place names that the coach passed – The Tombs of the Kings.  So the first day was taken up entirely in travelling there.  The hotel was a modern affair of Mediterranean styled villa apartments calling itself Aqua Sol Village with a very good view over the sea.

On the morning of the second day we had to wait until 11am to get our Rep’s Briefing. This was a meeting in the downstairs lounge where the rep gave us some briefing papers on Cyprus and what to expect as well as giving us invitations to various excursions and then explaining how to hire a car.  

We signed up for the coach tour to Nicosia the next day, the day in Egypt, an appointment with the Avis rep the morning after the Nicosia trip to pick up our hire car and spent the afternoon exploring Coral Bay on foot. In the middle of the village is a nightclub, a couple of jewellers, several restaurants, some real estate agents, a small supermarket and a few souvenir shops.

The eyecatcher, though, was the Blazing Saddles pub with proper steak meals, real English food and Sky television with a rolling display of all the English soccer games and when they would be shown – live, of course – on their big screen. All the businesses were open but there were very few customers.

Coral Bay itself is M-shaped, except that the middle leg is quite short, and sweeps upward from the sea inland to an horizon at least 400ft above sea level.  On every yard of that uphill sweep, developers are building houses. Their owners will have a fantastic view of the lapis-blue Med, but there will be a terrible cost to the crumbly, rocky, barren hillside while the individual buildings are just one Mediterranean design endlessly repeated with every one of them painted white.

We wandered along the beach and met an English couple who were sweeping the wide sandy beach with metal detectors looking for coins, rings, jewellery and other metal treasures, then we walked over the rocks to a local fisherman and watched him hold a little red float out into the water as far as he could reach with a very long fibreglass fishing rod.  There was a fresh catch still flapping in a white plastic bag near the upturned bucket he was sitting on. We could see through the plastic bag the shining silver flashes of an exhausted fish barely half a pound in weight.

Dusk turns into dark night very quickly on Cyprus so at about 4:00pm we walked the long way back to our hotel stopping to inspect shuttered houses and to note the mess of broken branches, scattered leaves and water-swept mud left behind by recent storms.

On the morning of the third day we found we wouldn’t be going to Egypt because not enough people had booked and the flight had to be full. Elaine was very disappointed because she was dead keen to see the pyramids and sail the Nile because getting to Egypt is very expensive from England and she wonders if we’ll ever get a second chance.

I was pleased we weren’t going because I wasn’t keen to take a day out from our Cyprus holiday to take a totally unconnected side trip. This was the day of our coach trip to Nicosia. There was a 17km ride to Paphos endlessly interrupted with bumpy rides down narrow, dusty streets picking up passengers from various hotels.

Then there was a long uninspiring ride on the motorway with tantalising glimpses of the sea broken by only two events.  The guide (we picked her up in Paphos) pointed to a couple of rocks in the surf just out of Paphos but a fair way from the motorway and said that was the birthplace of Aphrodite; we took a mental note to come back. And there was a hurried stop for a loo break and a cup of tea in a smoky mountain cafe.

The most interesting thing about Nicosia is the Green Line.  Everything else is generic European City with a few notable exceptions.  There is the Venetian Wall which is a high earth embankment that the Venetians built as part of the defences for the Old City in the 1560s to try to keep out the Turks. The wall would be about 10m high and is faced with heavy sandstone blocks. It didn’t succeed as a defence for very long. There is a 30m bronze statue of Makarios outside the presidential palace – and his heart is preserved in the bedroom! Within the grounds of the palace there is St John’s Cathedral, which is pock-marked rather ominously with bullet holes from the fighting during the coup that toppled Markarios. The cathedral is heavily adorned inside with bright paintings of saints and scenes from the scriptures, many of them painted in the late 1600s.  

Elizabethan ramparts, Berwick

The seats have very tall backs and tilt-up bottoms, with an arm rest for when you are sitting and a higher arm rest for when you are standing because, said the guide, the services can be very long – up to 5 hours on a special day. Behind the cathedral is a museum of, mostly, Byzantine icons.  Icons are paintings of saints, with a special emphasis on the Madonna and the Madonna and Child, and they are holy objects in their own right. They are usually painted on a wooden or cork backing and were made to be portable so they could be carried round the villages. Some of them are decorated with silver over the saint’s halo and the three icons painted by the apostle Luke himself are now totally covered in silver because they are so holy ordinary mortals are not allowed to view the pictures.

We had made up our minds to see the Green Line so we followed a winding and narrowing little street, hoping it lead in the general direction. We passed St Katherine’s. It was converted to a mosque in the 1570s after the Turkish conquest.  It is eerie and uncomfortable to see the stout gothic arches of a Christian church which has alongside it a tall minaret with four large loudspeakers pointing resolutely in each of the compass directions. We walked uncertainly through the gate and along the path to the main door of the building and stopped when we saw rugs in rows on the floor and shoes in rows at the door. A man walked up to us in a white flowing robe. We said hello. He stopped and looked at us. We fled. We felt miserable, isolated, intruders even. Certainly strangers. But I look at those loudspeakers in my photo of the minaret and I wonder. There was a time when a man would climb all those stairs to the platform five times a day and he would call the faithful to prayer. He had to have special qualities in his voice and use the tones that would carry in the wind, those special tones and cadences developed over centuries that make Middle Eastern music so distinctive.  Now, no-one has to make that difficult climb at all, let alone five times a day and no-one has to train his voice so he can be heard by the faithful. Someone turns on a tape player; the amplifier and those huge speakers, they do all the work.
As the street got narrower, so it got dirtier.



The little shops with little houses interspersed were untidy, grubby and uncared for, their paint pealing off, their plaster cracked with holes broken through it in places and their windows translucent with dust. We heard a bandsaw cutting wood and turned a corner to see that the road had ended in a drum-strewn yard enclosed with a tall fence of thick mesh topped with barbed wire. There was a sign, which said in faded paint something about No Photographs. There was an open gate on the other side of the yard so we picked our way across the rubble and saw blue-uniformed soldiers either side of a heavily concreted archway with concrete steps leading upwards.  The windows above us had sandbags piled three-high on the windowsills but the sandbags were growing moss, grass and even small shrubs.

There was no sign this time but we knew were at the Green Line and we guessed that the pale blue uniforms belonged to the United Nations forces that patrol the few metres of space that goes for a no-man’s land along the whole length of the Green Line.  The bandsaw echoed in a building to our left and we could see that it was a builder or a carpenter at work in his business. When we moved a little further up the road so we couldn’t hear it any more, we noticed that the whole place was absolutely dead silent. No vehicles, no birds, no voices, nothing. Elaine was really spooked. She wanted to get out of there – fast. She never wanted to go in there in the first place…  We smiled uncertainly at a soldier who suddenly appeared a little to our right, but he wasn’t carrying any weapons and he just disappeared up some steps we hadn’t seen were even there before he used them. He took no notice of us at all.

We picked up some postcards of Nicosia and a couple of CD’s of Greek music on our way back to the coach. Even the air seemed cleaner as we got further away from the Green Line. The traffic began to roar around us and normality resumed.  On our way home the coach called in at Lefkara, a village in the hills that specialises in a unique kind of hand – drawn lace as well as beautiful filigree silver work.  When we got back to the hotel we changed into our finest and caught a taxi to a Greek restaurant out of town a bit that specialised in Greek dancing for after-dinner entertainment.  The place was actually a vineyard and made its own branded wine.



There was a buffet meal of about 10 dishes, but no desert and we could drink as much wine as we liked, but beer, water and lemonade were extra. Greek dancing affects you a bit like Irish dancing and Flamenco dancing; it’s colourful, fascinating and a musical feast, but once is enough. We had to go, of course, and we hoped it was authentic. They had traditional dances in those distinctive Greek pantaloons the men wear, with one very memorable dance about how to seduce the local water-carrying girl. One of the men performed a dance which ended up with his balancing 50 glasses in a pyramid of trays about 1m high on his head. The troupe finished off the night doing Zorba the Greek to a balalaika and a small accordion.

We had to meet the Avis man, sign our forms and pay for our car at 0900 the next day.  The car hadn’t been cleaned from the previous users, but we grabbed it and ran, deciding that we’d start close to home and work our way outwards.

We called in firstly at a small Byzantine-style Greek Orthodox church that was built on a mound overlooking the Coral Bay beach. We thought we might go there on Christmas morning. The public part of the church was really small with seating for only about 20 people, but it was well worth sitting there because the pictures on the walls and ceiling were spectacular in their bright colours and simple graphics. They were the usual iconic scenes of saints and Bible stories but they were so clear they almost spoke aloud. It was the only Greek church we found open of all the churches we visited. We went to the Paphos market. It was mostly under cover and that was a good thing because the morning was fairly cool with light rain and the wind was a bit crisp.

Greek Orthodox church

Greek Orthodox church

As a market it had lots of stalls selling all the usual things – toys, snacks, clothes, leather goods, bags and suitcases, souvenirs, silver and gold, army surplus and, of course, lots and lots of junk. But there were three incidents that made the visit entirely memorable. The first was the vegetable vendors. Much of the food was in bags either on low tables or arranged on the ground with the vendor squatting behind their wares. There was an awful lot of fresh food lying on the ground, though; I suppose tastefully enough arranged – but on the ground. Are there no food regulations?

I took a photograph of the elderly ladies in their market clothes and pinnies attending to their businesses. Just as we left the vege area, there were two stalls that really shook me. A middle-aged woman with filthy hands was eating a banana and watching over a three-tiered stall of fresh fruit and green vegetables. She had on a grubby floral frock and a faded pink scarf. To her left was a concrete block wall. She threw the banana away and grinned at me with broken teeth. I took her photograph, captivated. On the other side of the wall a woman of about the same age and general description sat on the ground and tended a small stall of fresh fruit. all of which was arranged on the ground. I took a photograph of both the stalls with the wall between them. Someone walked between me and them while I took the photo and it was then I realised that the woman sitting on the ground was sitting in the doorway of the women’s loo.
The market, Paphos

The market, Paphos

Secondly, I was looking for a hand painting of a Cyprus scene, rather like the ones we’ve got of Paris and of Blackfriars. They had paintings all right but they were endless repeats of only 5 scenes. One is of a girl in a Victorian hat and dress walking through a poppy field. Another is a Greek Island scene of fishing boats moored to a stone jetty, another of a domed church by a bright blue sea, there’s one of the moon over the Alps at night and then there’s a scene of Paris. Any of them could have been perfect in the right context, but none of them was about Cyprus. At a stall filled with artists supplies I found a watercolour of Aphrodite’s rock. The picture was old and curled at the corners and it wasn’t particularly well done.  It was, however, a picture of Cyprus and I took it inside because I was sure I could get a better price than the 50 pounds price tag on the back.  I suggested it was too expensive. “No,” said the girl, it’s an original painting and it’s going to be sold for 50 pounds.”  

I said, “It’s been sitting out here on display for a long time, it’s tattered and it’s amateurish. How about 10 pounds?”

She said, “My painting will last a hundred years and it will be sold for 50 pounds or it won’t be sold at all.” I was talking to the artist.  She was determined, I was embarrassed and Elaine was horrified. We left without the painting.  I caught up with Elaine. “How was I to know that the only painting I wanted in the entire place was painted by her?”

“One of these days someone is going to shoot you.  I just hope he misses me.”

The third thing were the tablecloths. They were beautifully made in lots of colours, sizes and patterns.  They were locally produced and they were quite reasonable in price. Elaine spent at least an hour with one of the vendors in a shop that positively dripped table cloths and finally settled on three real beauties, with intricate embroidery, clear, sharp colours and patterns and generous dimensions.
We drove back to the sign announcing the Tombs of the Kings, with a hotel immediately opposite called the Valley of the Kings. The tombs weren’t made for kings but they are so impressive that it looks like they should have been.  They were carved underground out of the solid rock about 2300 years ago. The site is a World Heritage Park, which I think means mostly that Cyprus doesn’t have the cost of looking after it.  The early tombs were horizontal shafts cut into the rock and sealed after they had been used. The later tombs were very elaborate, large square holes rather like an underground house, with a staircase cut into the rock to give access to the rooms below with beautifully crafted doric pillars fronting burial chambers.  Some of the shafts dug into the walls are for just one burial and others are for whole families.
Valley of the kings, Paphos

Valley of the kings, Paphos

Think of it this way; you are standing at ground level looking down into a hole carved out of red rock about 15m square and 5m deep. Immediately in front of you at the bottom of the hole are 5 gracefully tapering columns holding up the roof. To your right is a stone staircase cut out of the solid rock.  Behind the columns are deep horizontal shafts for holding the dead.  What you are looking down into must have been the room the mourners walked down into and held the last ceremonies before sealing the dead in those shafts. It’s an extraordinary feat, multiplied many times and adapted in differing ways as people’s beliefs modified over time. The whole site would have been at least 30 acres with lots of tombs and much of the site marked out for future exploration.

On the way back to the hotel we saw a sign leading past our turnoff that said Coral Bay Sea Caves. It was nearly dark but we knew we wouldn’t be back this way so we went to see the caves. We parked on a flat area that had been formed by the simple expedient of bulldozing the clifftop into the sea below. The rest of the cliff formed a horse-shoe to our right and immediately opposite us we saw the caves, sea-carved recesses deeply undercutting the solid rock cliff that rose about 100ft and then swung upwards in a series of terraces to a horizon about 300 feet high but about a kilometre inland. They were building houses on that steep slope. I couldn’t believe it. I would have thought if they wanted to use this site as a tourist attraction, or even if they didn’t, with those beautiful caves being pounded by deep blue sea at the base of a sheer white cliff, the least you’d do would be to keep the view.

In the CYPRUS book was a walk around Paphos that I was keen to do. The following morning, day 5, we drove into Paphos, parked the car near the waterfront and had a cup of coffee at one of the waterfront cafes that looked out on the old harbour fort while we checked our book to see where the walk should start. It said “1. Waterfront cafes.” There’s a breakwater and a small sheltered harbour with colourful local fishing boats moored alongside multi-storey millionaire yachts.  

We had a look through the old fort which was a part of the city’s defences long ago, but had been used in the 18th century as a prison by the Turks then a salt warehouse for the British and now was a prized and much-loved city landmark. We wandered along the waterfront to talk to the fishermen.  

We couldn’t see they were catching anything. “What are you catching?” Elaine asked one of these men with his super-long fishing rod, no reel and a small yellow float bobbing on the water. “You ask me what I am catching today?” said the man with a huge grin and a shrug. “Nothing. But if you are asking me what I am going to catch tomorrow – anything!” There was a mackerel flapping around in one of the men’s buckets so we thought that was probably the main thing caught.  We grinned back at him and left him to it.

At the back of the harbour was another World Heritage Site with the remains of some magnificent Roman villas. We could see that they were built exactly the same as the houses we had explored and studied in St Albans.  They had the same sturdy concrete foundations – yes, the Romans built in concrete – as the houses in St Albans and some still had the remains of the underfloor heating – called the hypocaust – that we have seen here.  

What put these houses apart, though, was their absolutely magnificent mosaic floors. The pictures were of Roman gods and their adventures. The biggest house with the most complete mosaic floors is now fully covered with a modern roof and viewing platforms so people can move about the house and see these floors without causing any harm.  According to some accounts the more usual pictures were factory made in Rome and you ordered them from the factory or the trader much as you might these days order a roll of lino for the kitchen floor.  The mosaic came on a web backing and you stuck it to the floor.  These particular mosaics are so unusual that it is generally supposed they were made in Cyprus and laid in situ by local craftsmen.

Also on the site was a Roman amphitheatre called the Odeion Theatre and a Byzantine fort called Forty Columns, now in ruins, that had mostly been carved from the solid rock.  A lot of what was left was the catacombs underground.  There were large broken pillars lying on the ground and ruined arches outlined against the sky like skeletons that spoke volumes about how grand and how imposing the fully functional building must have been. Just outside the perimeter fence of the site was a lighthouse and beyond that, stuck fast in breaking waves on a shallow reef about half a mile off-shore was a freighter. When we asked the locals about it, they said that the freighter’s owners had run it aground to get the insurance when the shipping company had run out of money.

My walk said “5.  Agia Solomoni,” so we walked up one of the main streets of Paphos looking for a tree bedecked in handkerchiefs. The tree grows out from under the pavement and its heavy trunk bends sharply upwards, looking as though it were nearly dead and a good wind would topple it. The tree was indeed covered with bits of cloth tied to it, a sign said that the faithful believed they could leave their affliction behind them tied to the tree.  There was a deep, square hole with a narrow rock staircase more or less underneath the tree and since my little book said it was still in use as a church, we went down the steps very quietly.  

When we were in the middle of the hole we could see the sky above but as our eyes became used to the gloom we could also see that the northern wall of the hole had been much further hollowed out into the solid rock to make two rooms.  The room on the right had low forms to sit on, candles glowing in hollows in the wall and in other alcoves someone had set up very old and faded icons of the sort we had seen in Nicosia.

At the end of the room was a table covered with a white tablecloth and there was a large bunch of flowers in a crockery vase.  As we sat down, an old lady shuffled in from the small room next door.  She looked at us for a moment and said, “Church.”  We nodded.  She went to each of the alcoves in turn and bent deep into the space, then very gently and very quietly she kissed each of the icons. We could hear the slight touch of her lips with each kiss. She shuffled back into the small room. A few minutes later when we bent under the door lintel to say goodbye, we found she had gone. I still have no idea how she could have gone so quietly.

By this stage it was getting gloomy and we still had one more visit to make. St Paul’s pillar was supposed to be up a side street a few hundred metres back down the road.  We found the place, marked by a very nice old church flanked by a deep gully with a narrow wooden bridge. The church was called Agia Kyriaki and was built in the 12th century, making it the same age as the Norman churches in England, and when we looked inside we could see that it was used by both Catholics and Anglicans.

Some English people were busy organising the next morning’s Christmas service. In the grounds to the left were two abandoned old low stone buildings with distinctive domed roofs with holes in them that marked them out as Turkish baths.  In front of the church but well fenced off were the ruins of a Roman building, generally thought to be the forum, with a good collection of columns, some still standing, some half broken and some crashed on the ground. We found a sign that pointed to a short, broken-off pillar.  This was the pillar to which the Romans had tied Paul and given him 39 lashes because the Governor objected to him preaching Christianity.  It was dark and we had covered all our walk of Paphos.

We wanted day 6 to be used exploring the northern beaches and reckoned that Polis, only 34km away, had to be only about a ½ hour drive. This was when we saw that the Cyprus economy is made up of a booming tourist and urban economy laid on top of rural poverty. We took a good quality sealed road to Polis and saw quite clearly the deep rural decline.  

All the hillsides, right up to the very tops, were fully terraced for olives or grapes, yet very little was growing anywhere. Fields close to villages have grape vines, olive groves, horses and donkeys but up on the hillsides on terraces up to a thousand years old, nothing grew.  We pulled off the main road and took a winding little sealed road a couple of kilometres into one of the mountain villages where we parked the car and walked around.

Everyone there was old. Half a dozen old men were making a noise in a dilapidated cafe and a few old men shuffled up the road to join them as we watched. An old woman walked down the road with milk and bread she had bought from the store near the cafe. The roofs of the houses have missing tiles and the stone walls of the cottages are buckled, unstable and unpainted for many years.

There was a sign outside a newly renovated cottage, something to do with a department for rural regeneration. A donkey lying a paddock of long lush grass idly watched us walk by as we tried to work out how the Cypriot outside oven was operated.  We had seen them built into people’s garden walls everywhere we had been in Cyprus and there was one in a wall of every cottage we had passed, although none here had been used recently because grass and moss grew in the oven cavity.

The oven consists of three domed cavities of which the centre one is the largest. We couldn’t see a chimney so we didn’t (don’t) know if they actually have a fire in the central cavity or if they simply fill it with glowing embers.   The two side cavities are used for implements and food mixes. We had seen a postcard of two women taking newly baked bread out of one, so we assumed there was some truth in the picture.

The road going north ended at the beach in a fork – left to Latchi and Aphrodite’s bath and right to Polis.  We stayed with Aphrodite and turned left. Latchi is a delightful little village kept painted and bright behind a little harbour protected by a new stony breakwater.  There were at least 20 restaurants selling mostly seafood meals and a couple of boatbuilding yards with fishing boats and launches in dry dock being serviced.

There were no customers in the restaurants.  They didn’t look overly concerned; when the weather warmed up, the tourist season would start again and their customers would come flooding back. We followed the road to Aphrodite’s Bath and at a small restaurant with a spectacular view over Chrysochou Bay, there was parking under a carob tree. I picked up a very dark brown/green, semi-circular carob pod and held it up for Elaine to photograph against the background of the tree it came from.

Five carob seeds (one gram) was the earliest weight for precious metals and gems. It’s the root word for carot, the basic measurement of diamonds and gold. We followed the dirt path up the hill, saying no thanks to the three vans-full of vendors who crowded the path trying to sell us citrus fruit, and walked into a cool little opening in the trees.  A small trickle of water oozed out of the stratified rock, splashed down the cliff and sprayed out into a clear, cold, rocky pool.  A big branch from a tree above bowed deeply towards the water and an eel turned over leaves on the bottom looking for food. There was a very conspicuous sign asking people not to enter the water so I took a photo of Elaine sitting on a rock with this lovely pool in the background. This was where Aphrodite bathed before her marriage. It’s a glorious spot and it’s associated with a charming and romantic story.

We went back to the restaurant, ducking the citrus vendors on the way and had a coffee with one of the most spectacular panoramic views of the Med you could hope to see. From the restaurant we walked down a steep pathway with 179 concrete steps (each one numbered) to the Mediterranean Sea and sat on a rock near the water close to a steep, tree-covered island just off shore. In the bright sunshine with the calm, blue sea and the island close off to our left we felt transported into another world.

A car on the other side of the road, going to the pool, blocked our way on the road back to Polis because the lady driver had stopped for a mule that stood in the road. This must have been a well-rehearsed trick for the mule because he simply wouldn’t move so this well-dressed young lady in a cream suit and long dark hair got out of the car and waved her arms to shoo him away. He looked at her.  She pushed him with her hands and he stood his ground. She went around his other side and leant her shoulder into his flanks. He walked around her open door and pushed his head right into the car and then all the way over the driver’s seat into the rear. She stood watching him, totally non-plussed while her male passenger followed the story with his video camera. The mule must have been satisfied with his inspection (or he couldn’t find any food) because he pulled his head out of the car, backed away a little and walked off. She looked around and saw there was a line of cars behind her and a line of cars behind us, every single one of us with their camera on her and the mule.
Polis had a large, very interesting well-decorated domed Greek church so we stopped to inspect it but it was closed. The town itself was a mixture of 1950’s houses and BP service stations with a one-way system that I think we got wrong … but it did have a most beautiful graveyard with large white marble sarcophagi in measured rows. We drove on the coast road for about 20 minutes with the Med on our left and rather plush farmland of long green grass and low-growing grape vines on our right, until we came to the top of a steep cliff with a commanding view of the sea.  We stopped the car to admire the view and we were hit by an appalling smell from a tightly packed goat farm in a paddock on the other side of the road. People were building new houses here to take advantage of that wonderful view. Didn’t they notice the smell on the day they bought their section? It was dusk. We had gone far enough.

We changed at the hotel and decided we would try one of the local restaurants for dinner on this, our Christmas Eve in Cyprus. Of course we chose a Greek restaurant and ordered the meze.  It was supposed to be lots of small dishes, 7 Cyprus pounds per person, plus drinks.  When we were served the eighth course, I said to the waiter, “How many more?”  And he said, “How many do you want?” Everything was absolutely delicious. They used honey instead of sugar, cooked in olive oil and used a little garlic in some dishes and cinnamon in others. Their bread was fresh and sweet, their vegetables hot but still crisp and their meat just lightly toasted and soooo soft.  Elaine was so taken with this beautiful style that she scoured the bookshelves wherever she saw them for the next two days until she found, at the local supermarket, a magnificent Greek cookbook with lots of different recipes and really good photographs.
Elaine sitting by the hotel pool

Elaine sitting by the hotel pool

One book for her, a second one for Genevieve.  The restaurant was offering a turkey dinner for Christmas night so we signed up for that and drove back to the hotel.

Christmas Day. We wanted to take the coast road that runs parallel to the motorway, but much closer to the sea, all the way from Coral Bay to Agia Napa, if we could, but the one thing we had to do was to see Aphrodite’s rock.  We had travelled several kilometres past Paphos when the first brown sign on the way told us to stop at Paphos Castle.

The big brown road signs indicate sites of interest to the visitor. The site wasn’t open because it was Christmas Day, but a small sign next to the ice-cream vendor-cum-ticket booth said entry to the site was free, the visitor only paid to enter the museum. It turns out that Palaia Paphos was the original location of Paphos and the new town was built in its present location, as a port, when this castle was taken by the Persians in – listen carefully – 500BC.
The town was already 1200 years old … A temple to Aphrodite had been built there in 1000 BC. Some of the original neolithic stones are still in place in parts of the foundations and the lower walls.  The neolithic stones are the largest building blocks on the site. There are parts of the castle that are Persian, Byzantine and Roman.  My guide book said there was a mosaic floor featuring the story of Leda and the swan in a Roman villa 200m from the castle itself.  
This particular mosaic is depicted on many of the postcards of Cyprus and, apart from the statue of Aphrodite herself, is the most memorable and charming Cypriot image. We spent more than half an hour looking and eventually, having climbed through a hole in the fence to a little outbuilding that was mostly a roof, we were able to look at this most beautiful mosaic.  Leda is in an argument with a swan and she is about to sweep away in a huff, swinging a corner of her diaphanous dress in a dramatic gesture. The angry swan is a metamorphosed Zeus, but I’m not familiar with the story.
The picture, though, is a wonderfully crafted piece all the more remarkable because the colours are not painted on the tiny mosaic tiles; the colours used are those of the stones themselves. . It wasn’t very big – I doubt that the whole mosaic was a metre square, decorated border included – but the movement, the humour and the passion were so lovingly and colourfully depicted that we could see immediately why Leda’s mosaic was so well known across the whole island. We felt privileged; we had finally seen Leda and the swan.
Opposite the castle was a small 12th century Byzantine church. It too, was closed, but we did wonder why there was a wrapping of string all the way around the building, about 8ft off the ground. The church in Polis was similarly wrapped, too.

We headed for Aphrodite’s Rock and we had a magnificent view from the road above of three rocks in a deep blue sea.  When we drove up to the beach, we found that the largest rock was called Petro tou Romiou (The Rock of Romius) and that Aphrodite was born out of the foam of the waves around the rock.  That’s how she was named – afros, the sea foam.  We had a cup of coffee in a kiosk nearby and looked out over the stunning blue Mediterranean Sea on a beautiful Christmas morning while we watched the waves splash and crash and foam around the rocks and onto the beach and listened to them telling us one of the great stories of ancient civilisation.

We followed the sign to the Sanctury of Apollo Hylates.  It, too, was closed on Christmas Day but some people who were leaving showed us where the hole in the fence was. On this site was the best preserved and most complete set of Roman buildings we have seen so far – anywhere – but even so, most of what was there were foundations. It seems that almost everything on the island was flattened by several earthquakes in the 4th century.
There were four main buildings: a barracks that held troops to guard the temple, with an ablutions block and toilets – you could even see the Roman tile pipes, and the much smaller lead pipes, that were part of the plumbing.  There was a gallery, which was a narrow building at least 50m long, where the Governor hung pictures and other objects of art for visitors to admire. There was a Roman bath-house with the most complete hypocaust we have seen. The column of tiles holding up the floor would have been a metre high, and the hole where the copper boiler once sat would have held a boiler of about 1.5m in diameter and about 3m high.
The fourth building was the most spectacular because it was the original temple to Apollo, partially restored. My guide book says it was so small, the Romans must have held the ceremonies outdoors. There were several new columns modelled on the very old one that was still standing when the restoration was attempted and part of the back wall was full height. It would have been majestic in its day and it had a panoramic view over the valley and off to the hills in the background.

About 1/2km down the road, unheralded, was a Roman games venue with a sign that said The Stadium.  We just sort of drove into it and it was quite a sight in the deeply gathering gloom.  The walls were big blocks of sandstone arranged in terraces to about 3m high on both sides of a dead flat floor at least 120m long but only about 50m wide. I have no idea what they did in there, but it was a very good venue for it. We were forced to go back to town because it was so dark, and we hadn’t even got as far as Lemisol. There are lots of other places we should go to if we ever go back, but our adventures were intensely satisfying and we both felt that we had seen and done as much as was possible on a quiet, relaxing holiday to Cyprus.
We arrived, washed, changed and in our Sunday best, exactly on time for our appointment with Christmas dinner at the Greek restaurant in the Coral Bay village centre.  The chef made the most tender and succulent turkey I have ever tasted, with a sumptuous stuffing of ground chestnuts, honey, cinnamon and prunes along with all the usual trimmings of veges and baked potatoes. Then he put out the Christmas puds, individually cooked as dumpling-sized cakes in pottery bowls with brandy sauce and a crepe suzette.  There were Christmas candles all around us and hanging webs of sparkling glow-worm lights on a background of Greek fishing vessels, a small Christmas tree and heavy wooden furniture. We had a truly magical night.

On Boxing Day morning we packed up and left Cyprus, arriving in England after dark to a cold, wet, wintry welcome at Luton.

Aegina, Greece

“You must go to Aegina! If you are in Athens for more than a day, then you have time to go to Aegina.” This from George, a jeweller in the Athens Flea-market, who spoke good English because, he said, he had spent many years in Sydney before coming back to Athens.
“Aegina,” he explained, “is only an hour by ferry from Piraeus.” We’d heard of Piraeus – the port of Athens, and the seediest place in all Greece, said Lonely Planet. “It is named after the aegina nuts that have grown there for thousands of years and it is still the main crop – you will see lots of orchards.”
“People now call them pistachios, but they are really aeginas and even the Romans ate them. At one time,” he continued, “Aegina was the capital of Greece.” He stopped and examined us; “You must go there.”

Pistachio nuts growing in an orchard

We took the Metro from Athens to Piraeus and it didn’t take us long to find the kiosk on the harbour front that sold tickets for the ferry to Aegina. It was about 24 euros return for both of us, and the trip did indeed only take about an hour. A pleasant enough crossing, too. Aegina is one of the Greek Islands, albeit pretty close inshore. We didn’t have a hope of getting to any of the other islands, such as Santorini, because some of them take all night on the ferry to get there. We met one of the islanders on the ferry – her parents lived on the harbour and she was attending Athens University, going home most weekends.

As you can see from the pictures below, Aegina simply glows in the sunshine. The temperatures were mild and the food in a cafe near where I took the picture of the fisherman, was simply delicious. We did enjoy excellent Greek cooking all around Athens and now we knew cooking was very much a passion throughout Greece.
Boats in Aegina harbour

Boats in Aegina harbour

Aegina harbour is a little pearl of white houses with terracotta roofs, narrow twisting lanes to explore, some nice Roman and Greek ancient sites and three beautiful churches.
Aegina harbour

Aegina harbour

The most remarkable is the tiny twin-domed church of Agios Nikolaos nestled against the harbour wall and having the most beautifully painted and decorated interior.
Church of Agios

Church of Agios

I saw the priest below sitting in a (bus?) shelter reading and I asked him if I could take his photo. He looked at me blankly. I pointed to my camera and then him, and he nodded once.


After I had taken the photo I told him I would give five euros to the Agios church, but he ignored me. We walked to the church and it was closed, so once we were back in Piraeus I went into the crypt of the church there and gave my euros to the elderly woman custodian. I think she understood what I said.
We walked around the harbour and explored the narrow lanes. There were tiny houses perched upon shops and little market stalls, mostly filled with gaudy trinkets waiting somewhat sadly for the tourist season to return. The souvenirs were of the outer Greek Islands and we couldn’t find a single one of Aegina itself. We walked about 4 miles from the harbour following the coast road, past an orchard of postachios, a small school, a summer playground, a few empty houses built for the season, but nothing of any consequence. Just a nice, quiet walk. We walked back to town and then around the other side of the harbour to the Theatre of Apollo, with its one tall column, but it closed at 3pm and we were just late. Never mind – a nice town, lovely atmosphere and a pretty harbour.
When all is said and done, this is still a harbour and when the wind blows, things get covered in sea and salt. You’d have thought a local would have known better than to park his car alongside the sea wall.
Car getting wet

Car getting wet

As we strolled around the harbour, we couldn’t help noticing that half the taxis here were of the horse and buggy type. This poor, tired horse was typical of the breed as they trotted noisily and colourfully around the small town.
Horse and carriage

Horse and carriage


Tour of Athens, Greece

A week in Athens in mid February is a fairly good time to go – the weather is generally mild, and there are some sunny days. There are no crowds, the Greeks are polite and helpful, many speak English, and their cooking is often incredibly good, even in very simple premises.


This, below, is the 19th Century Church of St George, with a very large silver icon of our national hero, and a muted, quiet, contemplative atmosphere inside. To the right is its spectacular setting on a hill accessible by funicular railway after a long, hot climb through narrow, picturesque streets.
Church of St George

Church of St George

In the middle of Athens is the remarkable Church of St Dionysius, the patron saint of Athens, with twin towers, a huge dome, and some lovely icons. This young woman, left, was up in the roof on restoration work.
Church of St Dionysius

Church of St Dionysius

We walked around the crowded, sometimes intimidating streets of the 7-day Flea Market. This chap, right, was running a small furniture store. Nice little place, too.
Flea Market

Flea Market

When in Athens of course you visit the Parthenon. Take a walking trip around the Acropolis and you can see two major outdoor theatres, Ancient Agora, Roman Agora, Hadrian’s Gate, the Temple of Athena Nike, and, of course, the Parthenon and its museum. Definitely worth 12 euros.


These spectacular and beautiful statues, are part of a temple on the Acropolis called The Erechtheion. They are not the originals, of course, which are in museums, but they are excellent reproductions.


In the midst of Ancient Agora, at the foot of the Acropolis this beautiful temple, left, called The Theseion, sits grandly on a small hill by itself – absolutely gorgeous in the sunshine.
The Theseion

The Theseion

Ayios Eleftherios, a tiny 11th C church next to Athens Cathedral. We lit a candle here because the interior was just beautiful, even though quite simple. However, the Greeks have a particularly disconcerting habit of removing the lit candles quite quickly and throwing them in the rubbish. Your candle may be lit, but it won’t last long.

Ayios Eleftherios

This monster face, mounted on an empty fountain, was part of a group of attractions in front of Syntagma Metro Station. The celebrations were part of the Carnival, a lead-up to Lent.
Near Syntagma Metro Station

Near Syntagma Metro Station

Behind Syntagma station are Parliament Buildings, which you can see in pink marble behind the creature above. At the foot of the buildings is the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. These two soldiers, right, guarded the monument.
Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

From the ferry to Aegina, I saw this great sight, left, of a ship approaching the entrance to Pireaus Harbour.
Pireaus Harbour

Pireaus Harbour