Monthly Archives: May 2019

Viva España – The road to Cazorla, Southern Spain. (3)

11th April – Escalona to Cazorla, via Toledo.

Finally some reprieve.  With Cazorla only four hours’ drive away, we relished the chance of a little sightseeing on route.

A speedy breakfast and quick outing with our host’s dogs later, we set off to explore the pretty little gem of Escalona. Although Escalona Golf Village may have been a little underwhelming, the town itself was quite a revelation, with its rich heritage dating from before the invasion by the Muslim Moors in the early Middle Ages.  And to think that just a day before we hadn’t even known Escalona existed.

At first a Roman villa, then a Moorish fortification near the Alberche River, in the hands of King Alfonso VI of Castile around the 12th century, the town developed into a stronghold for attacks on Toledo.  Escalona’s most emblematic monument, the Castillo de Escalona, was built in the 15th century; its moats, walls, towers and walkways still dominating the town.  The castle is currently privately owned and open to the public, but try as we might, we could not find an entrance to explore what lay beyond the walls and towers. Being a little pushed for time, we only sneaked a cursory glance at this main attraction and it wasn’t until we stopped to top up with petrol and looked back that we could truly appreciate the vast scale of the ruins.   

Of course, we managed a quick dash into the town to look at the walkways and walls, but were easily distracted by the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables in a grocery shop.  Rather than spending time being impressed by the architecture of the central square, we were seduced by a glut of Spanish strawberries, their sweetness and succulence irresistible…  For the next couple of days we overindulged devouring the largest two kilogram punnet of strawberries I have ever paid for, the fruits only second to the best strawberries in the world that used to grow in my Cotswold garden.  OK, it is possible I am a little biased, but they were definitely more mouth-watering and delectable than any shop-bought ones, even the Spanish ones…

With our sights set on an extended lunch break and playing tourist in Toledo, we headed for the city’s old historic centre.  Whereas Escalona’s legacies had come somewhat as a surprise, Toledo’s cultural heritage is well documented and had piqued my curiosity.  After a well-deserved coffee, I left Simon on a quest for antiques in town and forged my own route through the winding, narrow and steep roads that characterise Toledo’s old centre. 

Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes.

Toledo is a fascinating place, blending the architectural styles of its past cultural influences: Moorish, Christian and Jewish.  Moorish mosques have been built on Roman foundations;  an early, primitive mosque minaret houses the bell tower of the Catholic Mezquita-Iglesia de El Salvador; the old Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca, now owned and preserved by the Catholic Church, was constructed under the Christian Kingdom of Castile by Islamic architects for Jewish use.  Santa Maria La Blanca is considered a symbol of the cooperation between the three cultures that populated the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages.

Mezquita-Iglesia de El Salvador.

Another impressive example of this unique blend of architectural styles and religious tolerance is the Toledo Cathedral, considered to be one of the greatest Gothic structures in Europe.  Construction of the current building was started in 1227 on the foundations of a former Visigoth Cathedral originating from the 6th Century. During the Moorish occupation of Spain, the site was also used as a Mosque.

Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada (Toledo Cathedral)

And when in Toledo, the El Greco Museum, which displays some famous paintings by ‘The Greek from Toledo’ himself, is a must. But with Easter only a few days away and schools clearly in holiday mode, the place around the museum thronged with teenagers, chaperoned by teacher-lookalikes… and blocking the entrance to the ticket boot.  Free entrance for students, so no hope of me securing a ticket during our brief visit to town…  A mural inspired by some of El Greco’s masterpieces was plastered on an adjoining wall!  A perfect photo opportunity for the youngsters, trying to match their outfits with the colourful attire of the adulating apostles… But for now, this was the only El Greco work I would feast on, unless of course I ventured into some of the Toledo churches where other El Greco famous works can be seen. In his heyday, El Greco was quite prolific and whilst in Toledo received several major commissions and produced his best known paintings.

On my way back to meet up with Simon, I lost myself in the tangle of small roads cluttered with tourist bagatelles… Oils and olives, sweet turrón, caramelized nut brittle, churros con chocolate offered by nuns, and of course the famed Toledo swords. As early as the 15th century, a Toledo sword crafted by Toledo bladesmiths marked a warrior’s superiority.. Musicians, displaying their prowess on stringed dulcimers, mesmerised passers-by into buying CDs, or just dropping a few euros in a box.

Still, we needed to continue our journey, our last leg, onwards to Cazorla where we would spend the next six days. And Tarja, our last Airbnb host, had not been exaggerating when she told us the best of our road trip was still to come. For miles we traversed across an enormous valley, stretching from Toledo all the way to the Sierra de Cazorla, a massive area of seemingly drought-stricken lands where agriculture thrived. Row upon row of neatly trimmed vines thirsting for rain and drenched by the sun; unending grassy slopes dotted with lonesome trees; the green of olive groves as far as the eye could see …

‘Can we stop, please, Simon,’ I gently nudged my companion, ‘I’d like to take some better pictures of the olive groves. They may well be the last ones we come across.’ We were no longer using motorways, so pulling off onto the roadside was finally within our grasp. I clicked away merrily, as if there would be no tomorrow… I needn’t have worried about olive groves. Little did I know then that Cazorla happens to be surrounded by olive groves and we would be spending most lunchtimes and evenings gazing at them from our rooftop terrace…

Viva España. The road to Cazorla, Southern Spain (2)

10th April: La Rochelle to Escalona

Having learnt our lesson the hard way, on Day Two we consulted every means of up-to-date navigation available to us:  Simon’s iPhone and the trusted Google Maps on my reliable Androids phone!  Obviously, nothing as solid as a road atlas. They went out of vogue years ago and are probably out of date as soon as they roll off the printing press anyway.   A little bit like ‘Satellite Man in the Know’ in Simon’s car who had probably missed out on an update or two… 

To ensure a timely arrival, our next Airbnb host – Tarja from Finland in Toledo – had lavished us with plentiful advice on how to reach her home via ‘the scenic route’ and thus avoiding getting trapped in or around Madrid.   Rather than putting Toledo as our final destination, she suggested using exotic sounding locations such as Vitoria-Gasteiz, Burgos, Valladolid, Segovia, Avila as waypoints…  ‘May add more miles to your journey, but the scenery will make up for it..  providing you get here before dark…’ she had tagged on. 

Somehow I got the better part of the deal on our trip; navigation was mainly in the hands of modern technology, and I was relegated to being passenger, a role I embraced with plenty of gusto…   I love road trips!!  Trains, buses, cars.  Gazing through the window at ever-evolving landscapes.  The greens and yellows and pinks of a budding spring.  The curves and folds of gently sloping hillsides. The crags and peaks of rugged, snow-capped mountains.  Plains that stretch as far as the eye can see.   And the South of France and Northern Spain did not disappoint with the rapeseed fields in bloom, vineyards stretching upwards to catch the sun, the Pyrennees still clinging to their winter robes…  It’s that part of Spain that most tourists never lay eyes on taking flights to the more popular beach resorts to soak up sea, sun and sangria…  

The biggest drawback of mostly sticking to motorways was that taking photographs was nigh on impossible.   Just as the next amazing landscape unfolded, a line of trees would block the view…  Cars and lorries would whizz past just as I pressed the button…  The foreground blurred into the haze of an impressionist masterpiece, leaving just the distance razor sharp.  I did my best whilst the windscreen slowly but surely filled with splatters of insect adding their finishing touches to my digital canvas..  Luckily the odd heavy shower along the way, washed the most offending blotches away. Anyway, as befits a road trip, my photographs show plenty of road…

‘Simon,’ I pleaded, ‘on our way back, we must try the B-roads.  We can actually stop to take photographs…. and it will also be a lot cheaper…’  The French motorway system is terribly efficient but its use comes at a sizable cost with every few miles yet another toll booth demanding a hefty Euro contribution to the upkeep of the network…  Even so, when speed is of the essence, there is no alternative and the drive from La Rochelle to Toledo would take us around 9 hours, the best part of a full day allowing for regular top-ups of solid and liquid refreshments, as well as much needed rest breaks.

As we neared our destination, Google Maps suddenly drew a blank.  Tarja’s address was nowhere to be found in Toledo.  After a few frantic attempts to get hold of her, she finally replied to fine-tune her information. ‘Try Escalona instead,’ she urged, ‘Toledo is the name of the province’.   How were we supposed to know… Not only was Google Maps more obliging after receiving further instruction, it also shaved off a fair bit of mileage from our day’s journey.  We would definitely arrive before the onset of darkness.

Tarja lived in a lovely house, in the middle of nowhere. A brand new estate next to an abandoned and desolate golf course built at the height of the economic boom of the noughties and now providing luxurious living at a fraction of the intended cost… And as for the golf course?? Left to the dust of time whilst nature was happily reclaiming its territory. Perfect for Tarja with her brood of dogs and a horse…

Still, we were not in any mood to try out the golf course and headed into Escalona, in search of dinner. ‘Too early,’ the restaurant owner shook her head. ‘The chef only starts at 8 pm. But you can have a drink whilst you wait…’ Of course our Spanish left a lot to be desired but with a bit of French, our imagination and plenty of hand gestures we got the gist.

So we had our drinks first, accompanied by tasty tapas. The shape of things to come.

Viva España – The road to Cazorla, Southern Spain. (1)

9th – 20th April 2019

Day 1: 9th April

‘Simon,’ I shrieked, ‘we’re in Paris!!’ 

How the hell did we end up in Paris?  I know, it is probably many a girl’s dream to be whisked off to Paris, but we had been on a mission to miss the place altogether…

On a road trip to Southern Spain, our first stop was La Rochelle, a picturesque seaport on the Bay of Biscay.  We’d carefully studied the route on Google Maps on my laptop and phone: a blue line snaking down the length of the French Atlantic coast.  Nowhere near Paris…  Only, when we set off in the very early hours of the morning to catch the train across the channel, we’d put Google Maps to sleep.  No need for instructions to the port of Folkestone.  And once we reached France, Simon’s car, equipped with its own navigation system, took over.  My navigation skills totally redundant!!  Music on full blast and ‘Satellite Man in The Know’ only sporadically interrupting, we let ourselves be guided..

But with the car’s satnav only revealing our route an inch at the time, we had been lulled into a false sense of complacency.  Apparently, there is more than one road that eventually leads to La Rochelle…  and some of those indeed skirt the lovely city of Paris, its ring roads as notorious as its centre. I must admit I had pondered why the distance between our car and Paris seemed to shrink as we drove along.  But then again, British cars talk in miles, whereas the French signs speak an entirely different metric language, as one would expect…  and neither of us had really considered the possibility that the car was sending us into an entirely undesired direction…  Paris was definitely not a place to get stuck when all we wanted to do was hurtle down the motorway with a deadline to meet. 

We had booked our accommodation a few days ahead, an Airbnb find we hadn’t been able to resist.  Sleep on a boat in La Rochelle in the largest yachting marina in France:  Les Minimes, Port de Plaisance des Minimes??  Rock that boat.  Awesome!!  But in our rush to book, we hadn’t noticed the small print requiring a check-in time before 6pm…  ‘Of course, monsieur,’ we had argued, ‘we will get there in good time.’  Our host, Maxime, was less convinced and suggested maybe we should cancel.  ‘Annuler..?? Mais non… Miss out on rocking that boat?’ we gulped.  We took an earlier train across the channel, put our foot down as we raced through France, ground to a halt around Paris as we snailed through standstill traffic and took the wrong exits on the ring roads..  But we made it!! With about two hours to spare and a speeding ticket in the post!!

Although we had hoped to spend two nights in La Rochelle, the boat was clearly in high demand and there was no availability to stay for a second night.  A shame really, because La Rochelle’s old harbour and city are certainly worth a day of exploration.  With another long drive ahead of us the next day, we had to content ourselves with mingling with the locals over a couple of glasses of crisp white wine and oysters.  Of course, La Rochelle and oysters go hand in hand…   

We watched the sun go down as cooler air breezed in, and woke up with the squawking seagulls to greet the sun. No time to dawdle though. After a quick breakfast, onward to the Spanish border and the Pyrenees. Next stop somewhere near Madrid and Toledo…

As UK winter morphs into spring… I practise patience!!!

December 2018 – May 2019

When I landed back in the UK at the end of November, winter hardly registered on my mind.  My UK visit was to be brief: a six-week interlude, a mere interruption of some well-laid travel plans… Alas, as plans go, they often need adapting to the changes in reality, and so it is that this six week break is turning into a six month break and beyond… 

Of course this doesn’t mean I am entirely at a standstill and not going anywhere.  Only, after a while the scenery along the motorways that link Southampton in the South, where my daughter lives, and Birmingham in the middle of the country, where my son lives, has become a tad monotonous.  The same hills, the same plains, the same tarmac…  In my stubbornness I continue to hike, or walk and complete daily one hour treks to the local shops, or the train station, or the local park or along the canals.  I no longer own a car and refuse to fork out on unnecessary buses or taxis as long as my legs and other essential body parts are willing to cooperate in my quest. Or, as long as I am not in danger of being doused by the persistent drizzle and unrelenting showers that are the hallmark of British weather…  Walking is my contribution – or lack thereof – to climate change!

At first it was passport woes that interfered with my return to the Far East.  Who would have thought that renewing a British passport would be such a long drawn out process??  Whereas a few years ago the Belgian Embassy employees in London hadn’t batted an eyelid over the discrepancy in surnames on my passports, their British counterparts were less forgiving…  I was given a stark choice: renounce my Belgian nationality (Who on earth would give up a European passport with the spectre of Brexit on the horizon???) or produce a brand-new Belgian passport in my new name as it appeared on my current and still valid British passport…  A name change that had been so flawlessly accepted by the British authorities at my naturalisation now proved a serious hiccup.

Although the British Passport Office returned my defunct and expired Belgian passport, they kept the valid British one firmly in their grip.  Still good for another two years, but so full of stamps that when I entered Malaysia in early November, the border control official had looked rather worried.  ‘No room in your passport,’ she argued until I pointed out that the Malaysian visa stamp was hardly going to cover more than a half page, of which I still had two left…  What was the problem?? Plenty of room for one last entry and exit stamp…

With no valid passport or other legal travel documents, I was stuck in the UK.  A process that should have taken two weeks at most, dragged on for almost two months.  Why women should consent to giving up their own name on marriage is beyond me..  A bureaucratic nightmare which I refused to buy into until about 10 years ago when I finally became British after passing the Britishness test with flying colours and sitting through the British Citizenship Ceremony…  Having moved to the UK in the 80s and married in the 80s, it took me until the late noughties to accept the British nationality along with my Belgian one.  Don’t get me wrong, I am proud to be British and I definitely feel more British than Belgian..  In the end, my concession to name changing at marriage (22 years after the event…) was annexing my husband’s (now ex-husband..) short English name to the end of my maiden name: an addendum or a kind of afterthought.  Aren’t hyphenated, double-barrelled surnames the latest rage anyway??   

Several weeks later, in early January, with my Foreign Office authenticated Deed Poll* in hand, I made it to the Belgian Embassy, along with numerous other dual nationals who suddenly discovered the value of a Belgian passport…  Brexit was still ticking down, 29th March had not yet come and gone…  Finally, by the end of January, I had completed the mission: two brand new passports.  Ready for Europe after Brexit and beyond…

1st February 2019, the one and only day of snow during my UK stay.

One silver lining of my rather protracted UK visit was being in the country when my tenants moved out and new ones moved in.  Being in a rush to get going, I had allowed myself a mere week for the turnaround: just one major issue and a few minor issues in the house to deal with.  It was 31st January and an escape to the Far East at the end of the next month still looked a distinct possibility… What could possibly go wrong?

The weather. Hard to believe that with last winter’s (February 2018) ‘Beast of the East’ – and the resulting deluge of snow that paralysed the country – still on everybody’s mind, the workmen who were scheduled to start a two-day repair on an inside wall should decide to follow their Sat Nav’s advice instead of using common sense…  On the one and only day this winter that heavy snowfall made travel tricky, they decided to trundle along the smaller, hilly roads across the Cotswolds..  No surprise they got stuck just a few miles from my house!!  Sandwiched between masses of snow in front of them and the snowplough on their heels, they were well and truly snookered on a hill crest and had to wait to be rescued.  Another well-laid plan scuppered… Luckily, the setback was not insurmountable, but it piled on the pressure on those already very tense few days between tenants..

Whilst February marched on, other issues reared up their ugly head. In my ‘wisdom’, I was persuaded by my GP to make use of the free National Health Service, rather than giving in to my gut feeling and make a quick escape back to Vietnam, where private health clinics offer the same good quality care at a fraction of the cost of private clinics in the UK… When a hospital appointment that was supposed to happen within two weeks failed to materialise, my telephone enquiry about its progress was hardly encouraging. The stern and toneless voice at the other end declared, ‘Well, at the moment we are seeing people who have been referred to the clinic in August… Your GP letter is from January… ‘ Basically, don’t hold your breath, nothing’s going to happen anytime soon.

I discussed the issue over lunch with ‘Red Porsche Andy’. ‘Well,’ his reasonable advice sounded, ‘if you want to get things moving on the NHS, there’s no surer way than ending up as an emergency in A&E (accident and emergency)’ ‘ How about a little panic attack?? Might just do the trick…,’ he suggested.

In the end, after the stress of getting the house ready for new tenants in record time, I had no need to pretend and wholly justifiably called the NHS 111 number. Not 999, the emergency number, but the next best thing. I felt sure I would be able to make it to the hospital on my own steam, but there are certain key words that ring alarm bells with the 111 service… Ambulance was on its way. A gross overreaction, I thought, but at least someone was taking notice. After 16 hours in A&E, an ECG, several blood tests and an X-ray later, I was discharged as dawn was breaking. Urgent appointments for diagnostic tests to follow in the post…

At least the weather didn’t disappoint. After an abysmal start, February turned out almost spring-like. Plenty of blue skies in Southampton,

Sudeley Castle and the Cotswolds offering a great hiking reprieve,

and the smooth mirror canals of Birmingham reflecting “winter-scapes” in all their glory.

Onwards to March… Hospital letters started arriving. Somewhere in between the early hours of my hospital discharge and the doctor’s recommendations landing on the desk of the appointments clerk, the word ‘urgent’ had taken on a different meaning. With no immediate escape from the UK in sight and the first signs of Spring in the air, I relentlessly carried on stomping the by now familiar grounds of Southampton and Birmingham…

Still, with a five week break between hospital visits on the horizon, April got off on a pleasant start. A quick 10-day getaway to Spain and the birth of grandchild Number 1 later, there was cautious optimism in the air whilst the English countryside streaked yellow, the woodlands sprouted blue and the leaves on the trees unfurled in verdant extravaganza. Maybe, just maybe the end of April appointment would signal a turning point and I would be on my way… or at least in a position to fix a date for my return to the Far East…

Nope… At the onset of May, the NHS is keeping me stubbornly within its grasp. More tests, more appointments, no quick exit route ahead… I have decided I might as well plan for the long haul and aim for a return to warmer shores nearer the end of the summer… Surely, an English summer isn’t all that bad…

Southsea, May 6th 2019

*In the UK, a surname can by changed by Deed Poll, an official document that shows the transition from the old name to the new one.  As my Deed Poll was required by a foreign embassy (Belgian Embassy in this case) I also needed to have the document authenticated by the British Foreign Office.  Not only time consuming, but also adding cost…