- Travel and Places
A Russian Princess and this Writer do Spain and the UK
A Year's Work and Millions go up in FlamesClick thumbnail to view full-size
All fun, but...pick a warmer month!
I think the moment I finally realized I'd had a gutful of tourism was when we were asked to pay twenty pounds to enter Westminster Abbey just half an hour before the 4:00 pm closure for the day.
While we hovered, undecided, at the north gate, a suit asked if he could do anything for us. "You could lower this obscene entrance fee for a start," I snarled. His smart reply was, "You might sound more convincing if you were not carrying a Harrod's bag!" I was too foot-weary after a safari over Hyde Park to point out that is contained a half-gnawed loaf and lump of "sheep-cheese" from this magisterial pile, a paen to the celebration of greed - Arab style these days.
Yes, Harrods is more like a museum featuring articles unaffordable by the masses than a department store. Many and various are the "window-shoppers" but I rarely saw goods, money or credit card details changing hands, except in the cafe, or in the food halls on the ground floor, which is where I end up on any Harrods expedition. Lots of foreign students gorging £5 cakes and other decorative mouth- watering tit-bits. We contented ourselves with the cheese and bread like the two peasants we were in that glittering souk. I couldn't help thinking of my late aunt Mollie, whose boast was she bought most of the family shop there...puhleese!...our bread 'n' cheese was £11! (But try sheep milk cheese, which we first found in Spain - incredible)
The other half of the "we" in this story is Ivanna, (the nom de plume she chose for this story), a Mexican friend from Queretaro in that gorgeous Republic. Some years younger than my gnarly 70-plus, she is to tourism what sharks are to remoras...she can never get enough fresh blood.
Most folk where I live in England's rapidly disappearing Green Belt stay well away from Central London these days: it is too pricey and uncomfortable to get to; far too full of the world's clamouring crowds looking for "sight-bites," Heck, I can see Big Ben and all the familiar architecture on the telly or the internet without being jostled and pushed aside by camera and selfie-stick carrying crowds of Africans, Orientals and miscellaneous "white" citizens from every nation on Earth. Besides. I lived in Notting Hill Gate many years ago (before it became Nigeria West) and had seen the sights then.
Aren't you sick of the "selfie" contingent!? Every few yards there is another gathering of dim-wits recording their boring presences for mum and dad. Sorry hon. I must say that Ivanna would approach leader status amongst these "get it on the hand-held" brigade. And, in view of my special relationship's future, she is no dim-wit. But she is camera mad! Why?? Let's move on.
We were at the end of nearly a month of this madness, from Madrid, to Valencia, to Barcelona, to the UK.
We had met up in Madrid, she from Mexico, me from Herts, UK.
I don't intend to fill this small article with tourist fluff any more than is necessary. Madrid is food and more food; (and forget famous eatery, Botin, relying on it's dubious Hemmingway custom for its fame today...pricey and best forgotten).
Lovely Colonial architecture best showcased in the Plaza Mayor; the Prado where I was again to see my favourite painting...Velazquez' Las Meninas, (I have ordered this in a poster locally to avoid going through all this again to see it; my feet were so sore, I took a wheelchair this time to circumnavigate the endless galleries).
Adds Ivanna "Robert forgot to mention the food market, San Miguel, in Madrid which has the most delicious TAPAS and has changed over the last thirty years with now many Chinese stall operators.
One can also get very tired of Rumanians begging who won't take no for an answer in Madrid's public areas.
On the other hand, many people from Equador, Bolivia, and Columbia, etc., work in Spain for a living and have found the future they left their countries for."
Spain felt as cold as the wintery UK I had just left, and expensive. That is true of the tourist trail throughout Europe and probably throughout the whole wide world today, I don't intend to confirm this, thank you. It took me three weeks to get any semblance of muscular tone back into my legs...I am fine now, but had pain most of the holiday from sore feet and, later, a shin-splint...and perhaps the beginning of athritic fingers from trying to hold that darn camera/computer. Those things have no easy way to grip and my fingers kept getting into the image. How I missed a good old-fashioned camera, like my wonderful Canon digital I once owned. Yes, I know you can get electronic equivalents...I have a small one for HP and Ebay work!! I have never been a captured image fan, better the memories and new vistas.
Valencia was friendly, fresh but, again, cold. We had arrived to see Las Fallas, the year-long creation of the fabulous sets and figures, costing millions of Euros. (A Euro is about a dollar in value). I will mention a hotel here, because it was both a huge bargain and a first-rate, modern, establishment. This is the Primus Valencia, in the beach area, so quite a trek downtown to most of the Fallas, (see pics for some of the Fallas). (Incidently, the hostal I had accidently reserved in Madrid was so bad I want to forget it entirely...misleading website, guys!).
Japan must love Valencia! I was amazed to see 90% of the taxis are Toyota Prius! That must upset France and Germany no end as the same is true throughout Spain: Toyota and Skoda have coined the market, the European carmakers have been left in the dust...I mean, Volkswagen, were you asleep!? Peugeot, were you trapped in garlic-infused, Gallic dreams of yesteryear's glory? And Mercedes, are you too high and mighty to care about billion dollar sales to little brown entrepreneurs from Andalucia? We couldn't make it out at all. Nice as the Japanese and Chek. imports are, my 6-foot bulk found little space and comfort. Give me a London cab any day, or a German Mercedes taxi.
Unfortunately, we missed the demise of the Fallas as they are burned to the ground on the final day...I was not able to reserve in the hotel through the weekend. But the consolation was Barcelona, one of the great cities of Europe and a personal favourite.
Our luck persisted with our Ramblas location in the superb Hotel Arc la Rambla, 19 las Ramblas, just up from the Colon (Columbus) statue at the port end of this fabulous avenue. This is quite a small establishment, comfortable, with an excellent breakfast system geared for Brits. Not bargain basement by any means but it's location makes up for the cost in spades. Very friendly, welcoming staff.
Pity the Ramblas is only a pale imitation of itself in years gone by. Still a great 2-mile stroll, from the statue of Colon to Constitution Square at the other end. But no more chattering aviaries of brightly colored birds, and the flower and plant displays not what I remembered from 30 years ago. Still fun and friendly at night...but like Valencia and Madrid, far too chilly to be enjoyable in late March. My advice is come a bit later in the year and pay the extra this will take....mid May on should be fine.
Sorry, but forget Gaudi. His cathedral, as ever, unfinished and spikey with scaffolding; mobbed with pilgrims; the distant Parque Guell (read Cruel, after the tramp uphill for a mile, oh, my throbbing tootsies!). The screaming, selfie hordes have beaten you to it and you either can't get in, or you will regret that you have. Anything with half a name is being cashed-in on in Europe; next, you will find curtained wall-plaques with entrepreneurs charging ten Euros a peek. It will come.
(It's the same back home. We visited the Kent coast and my birth place of Broadstairs (best stop on the trip, Ivanna loved it, reminded her of her Dacha on the Black Sea, ahem). Canterbury Cathedral was as lovely and mysterious as ever (I could gaze at Beckett's tragic nook and the Black Prince's tomb for hours, (I often did in the 1950's when I went to school next door). But the admission price was far too high...hey, these buildings belong to the people of Britain and weren't constructed to become commercial money spinners for the few, and yes, I know they are expensive to upkeep, but we are way over the limit with crass commercialism of everything these days. Almost had me calling the Archbishop of Canterbury a bastard...he is one? Oh, sorry!)
Back to Barca, finding £100 pounds I wanted to dispose of, we went and had dinner in the posher of the Restaurant Salamanca's two outlets. This was sea-food par excellence and we had the undivided attention of two waiters, so I was almost happy to part with a £15 tip on top of the £85 bill. As I usually feast in places like tipless and tasteless Kentucky Fried Chicken, this type of largess is not the norm. But this dinner was - is - unforgetable and I have no regrets. The restaurant is a smart, 30-minute walk from the Colon Monument, left along the port to the beach area.
I lived in Barcelona for a year in the 1980's. Robbery, often mildly violent, was the norm along the Ramblas, as bag-snatchers swept in from the Gothic colonias to the left and right, often punching resisters or flashing knives as well as taking their possessions. I saw none of this in a week this trip, a great relief as we gradually relaxed along this area after dark. The Ramblas was always busy, but not overwhelmingly so; the food market was even better than I remembered and we had a few much cheaper yet memorable meals there...those sardines! I'll never look canned sardines in the eye again! Not to mention those giant prawns and langostines! I'm slavering at the memory.
As in Madrid, we took the hours long tourist bus trips around the city. Good value, as you can use them like the metro or taxis, getting off at any point, sightseeing, and joining the route later. My companion liked this service so well she returned for a second tour the next day, leaving me to console battered feet and try to memorise my credit card pin numbers.
So by the time Central London claimed us, I was a bit jaundiced not to say lighter in the wallet (Decide what a trip will cost then multiply by three!).
We gave the delights of the Abbey (lots of very dead word-smiths and grasping Royals) a miss and walked over Jubilee Bridge, catching the underground (subway...metro, whatever) at Embankment. My usual decision to use taxis in London generally for two or more travellers was born out again as the tickets for a few stops along to Liverpool Street for both were £9.00! It's not worth the anguish and time spent deciphering the ticket computers, (staff hover to help the uninitiated with these technical teasers); grab a "fast black" is good advice, even if they are all the colors of the rainbow these days, and with not very chatty drivers, either, such a rebuff after the friendly Spanish taxi drivers...especially in Valencia...boy, do they love their town and the spectacular Fallas!).
My Russian princess and I spent the last week relaxing in my small flat in Essex. Local visits to Bishop's Stortford and Saffron Walden...cooked in and checked out the local greasy spoons. Ivanna fell in love with pies - any kind, and my cheesy mashed potatoes. We didn't cook Mexican food, I will wait until September when we join forces on her turf this time, all things being equal...and I know what food I want over there!
Please note. We are having trouble uploading our pictures from the trip (Ivanna has them in Mexico). To get the story up and running I have used impersonal ones, but I will add or replace as ours are sent to me.