Thursday, April 27, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 27.4.17

Spanish life is not always likeable but it is compellingly loveable.
- Christopher Howse: A Pilgrim in Spain.

News from the Portuguese Camino: Very little today, in fact. A short walk of 12km from Barcelos to the very lovely town on Ponte de Lima. The only incident of note - in an otherwise uneventful day - was being sent for the keys of our hotel door to a café nearby which prefers to remain incognito. In other words, there was no indication anywhere on the front of the café as to its name. Which was a tad confusing.

But I did learn than Ponte de Lima technically qualifies as a city but prefers to remain a town, so that it can continue to claim that it's Portugal's 'oldest town'.

As for Spain . . . The regular themes:-

Corruption: Here's Don Quijones on the latest scandals. As he writes: President's Rajoy’s only response to the plethora of scandals affecting his party – Gürtel, Púnica, Lezo and more – is to travel abroad (he’s currently in Brazil), keep mum about domestic troubles, and offer speeches about the importance of maintaining economic growth and job creation in Spain.

One person who has so far escaped prosecution is the woman once dubbed Spain's Maggie Thatcher – Esperanza Aguirre, the ex Presidenta of the Madrid region. She's just tearfully resigned as head of the PP party in Madrid on the grounds that she was duped and ' betrayed' by her corrupt lieutenants. Suffice to say that not many people in Spain will believe that she has clean hands.

The Spanish Economy: The macro growth number that I regularly contrast with micro reality might not, it seems, be all that it's cracked up to be. A group of Spanish economists has written to the
Eurogroup President urging him to probe the Spanish national accounts, which they claim have been manipulated by Spain’s National Statistics Office.

Unemployment: Numbers – as long suspected – might not be that reliable here either. Especially down in very corrupt Andalucia. 

Spain's Banks: How safe are they really? Read DQ on this here.

Lunatic Prosecutions: Here's news of the latest one.

Beautiful Spain: A recent list from The Local which might well have appeared previously under another guise.

Galicia: An equine oddity.

Today's Cartoon: A rather vicious one from The Times, pointing up the hopeless performances of Britain's Labour Party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, at Prime Minister's Questions Time.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 26.4.17

If you read yesterday's post, you'll know that my camino colleague and I had a bad night in Barcelos, deprived of sleep by a fairground that operated at 11 on the dial until 1.15am and then at a lower volume until 5am.

Today things got considerably worse, culminating in a farce that reduced us to laughter out of a mixture of bemusement, desperation and a small helping of anger.

Things went well as regards the walking itself, though we were distracted by the presence of a café at one point and missed a turn, compelling us to walk half a kilometre in the wrong direction before concluding the yellow marker signs were not just few and far between but non-existent.

During the day, I'd received two messages – both in English – which encouraged me to think that we were heading for a nice accommodating place in Vitorino de Piães. The first was to ask whether they wanted us to arrange for the onward transport of our bags today and the other was to say that they had a lunch waiting for us yesterday. Despite the fact we wouldn't be arriving until 4 or 5.

We arrived in Vitorino de Piães around 4.15, left the camino and headed for the location of the B&B - A Casa do Campo as shown by Google Maps. We did this in the face of comments and advice from at least 5 kind locals, all of whom were, first, anxious to tell us we were going the wrong way for Santiago and, secondly, non-plussed when we told them we were heading for the Casa do Campo. Of which none of them had ever heard. But we plodded on, tired but sure we were doing the right thing. 

After walking around 900 metres we entered the cul-de-sac indicated by Google and found not a B&B but 2 locked and shuttered houses guarded by 3 large dogs on chains. 

I checked with both Google Maps and with the reservation from, only to be given the same - incorrect – information. I then accosted 2 passing ladies, who advised us to return to the church, where they thought the place might be. Though they'd never heard of it nor knew of the street it was said to be in. 

As we set off, I called the number on which messages had been sent to me and had a conversation in almost-English with what sounded like the son of the owners. This resulted in a promise that we'd be picked up from outside the church in ten minutes. I was left wondering who on earth had sent the 2 messages earlier in the day. Clearly not the owners of the B&B. Their son or's computer?? 

A car duly arrived, containing a family of 2 adults and 2 teenagers. They were clearly surprised there were 2 of us. As this was too many passengers for the car, the parents disappeared and left us to chat to the kids about the fact that Google and had both misdirected us. 

The car returned several minutes later, minus the wife. The husband, then drove us back towards the wrong cul-de-sac and up the next minor road, for several hundred metres. Finally, we arrived at an imposing gate, drove up a long drive and arrived at a large house, where the wife was waiting. 

Once inside the house, it didn't take us long to realise it was a self-catering place, devoid of any food whatsoever. And with an Aga-type thing in the kitchen on which we were clearly expected to cook our dinner, sans instructions. In fact - apart from bed linen and towels – the only things in the place were our bags, which - to our relief and very great surprise - had found their from our hotel in Barcelos. Oh, and a small TV on top of the (empty) fridge, offering - it turned out - 7 Portuguese channels. But no bath for our weary limbs. 

As we looked at each other in more-than-mild shock, the couple asked us what we wanted them to buy for us by way of food, both for last night and this morning. And then left us to ask ourselves what on earth was going on and why had not advised of the nature of the place. Or, indeed, on how to get to it correctly! And we wondered how previous guests – if indeed there had been any – had found their way to it 

An hour or so later, the 4 of them returned with a stack of food and drink. I took the opportunity to ask the son whether it was a new venture, and was less than surprised to hear it was and that they hadn't had any guests - foreignor otherwise - before us. Clear evidence of this was the newness of the toaster, the kitchen utensils, the plastic washing-up bowl and a few other things the family had brought back from their shopping trip to - I guessed – Ponte de Lima.

It has to be stressed that the couple were charm itself and said they'd bring us 'portable wifi' shortly. And that the wife would come by in the morning to hand over our bags to the transport company after we'd left. Meanwhile, they stressed that several items were gifts from them. 

As they drove away, we opened the bottle of red wine they'd brought and then settled down to cook cod, cabbage, carrots and potatoes. And, meanwhile, eat the pastries we'd been gifted. Well, one of us did. 

All's well that ends well, they say. Which was never truer than in this case. Our bemusement and mild anger at being guinea pigs had been converted into pleasure by the kindness and all round niceness of the family. 

Final note: The street – lane, rather – in which the house is actually situated was only a few hundred metres from where the 2 old dears had told me they had no idea where it was. This is not the first time I've experienced this with people who've lived in the same place all their lives. My impression is that new streets never become known to them. That said, the address of Casa do Campo is: Rua Fonte de Ferrão. One possible reason why no one in the tiny village had heard of it was that a double R in Portuguese is pronounced as Kh, and so nothing like the double R in Spanish I'm familiar with and was employing . . . .

At the insistence of my walking companion, here's a foto of the cooker/oven:-

Footnote to yesterday: When I checked out of our hotel in Barcelos, I told the receptionist that the least the hotel could do - in view of my lack of sleep – was not to charge me for the Kit Kat I'd had from the minibar. Happily, she readily agreed. But I will still send off my letters of complaint. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 25.3.17

Yesterday I walked 29km or 18 miles, which was rather more than I usually do on the first day of a camino. Any day, in fact. I arrived at our hotel in Barcelos with my walking companion at 17.05 having set out from Vilar do Conde on the Atlantic coast at 8.20.

This is the conversation that took place at the reception desk when we arrived there:

Boa Tarde
Boa Tarde. I have a reservation for 2 rooms tonight.
Name please?
No, we don't have anything. How did you reserve?
What is the name of the second guest?
Ah, yes. We have 2 reservations in that name.
Strange, then, that they took the money from my debit card.
As you can see, there's a fairground right outside and it'll be noisy until late. We have only 1 room at the backside of the hotel. So, who wants that room?
How late?
Maybe up to 10pm.
I live in Spain. The noise is not that great and that's not late in Spain.
Well, maybe 11.
Still not late. I won't be going to sleep until after that. So, I'll take a room at the front.

But, truth to tell, the noise - and the vibration of the entire hotel it caused - didn't stop at 10. Or at 11. Or at 12. Or at 1am. It actually stopped at . . . Well I don't really know as - with foam plugs deep in my ear canal and a pillow on top of my head - I finally got to sleep sometime after 1.10.

All of which was very bad news for my colleague as, when we checked in, she had bravely plumped for a 'frontside' room as well. But later found, after she'd quickly changed her mind, that the only 'backside' room had just gone

By the way . . .  I did record the noise at 1.08 but it woefully failed to do justice to both the noise and the vibration caused by the relentless deep bass beat. Or whatever it's called.

But it wasn't a complete waste of an evening. I know now Portuguese hotel receptionists can lie as blatantly as those in Spain - and doubtless elsewhere - when it comes to things that might irritate guests. No wonder they took the money upfront. I rather doubt that my imminent complaint to and a nasty review on Tripadvisor will achieve much but one must do one's bit for posterity.

A couple of photos . . .

This is taken in the shop in Pontevedra I mentioned last year as not being an official distributor for Swiss army knives. So, where did they get the display stand from? And is it genuine? More to the point - Are the knives?

Finally . . . This is a bar in our old quarter which might well be owned by a couple of grocers . . . .

Monday, April 24, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 24.4.17

I can't write a post this morning. So, here's:-
  1. Something I penned out of boredom on the train yesterday morning, and
  2. Something I wrote while my 2 friends visited a Port cave in Oporto yesterday midday.
Sunday morning in Valença, Portugal

8.00: Arrive at the train station and park, aiming to have a coffee and catch the 8.36 to Oporto. Nothing open. Neither a ticket office nor the café. No sign of any employees of CP, the national rail company. Two trains at Platform 1, both with their engines chugging away.

I wander down the platform and see some chap in civvies in what looks like a store room-cum-office. I ask him in Portuguese/Spanish/Gallego about the train to Oporto and where we can buy tickets. He points to one of the chugging trains but I'm not convinced, as I know ours is coming from Vigo and doesn't look as tatty as the 2 already in the station. I suspect that one of these is the 9.11 to Oporto, which takes about 2 days. I finally find a timetable which confirms departure of our train at 8.36 and then talk to the guy about the train coming from Spain. He agrees this is a different one and will be on Platform 2. I ask for and get the key to the toilets.

8.25: One of the chugging trains moves off in the direction of Spain, probably to go along the border to Mençao.

8.30: Our train arrives and we cross the tracks to get to it. There are bout 10 other passengers and none of us can get on the train because the doors won't open. Along comes a guy in a denim jacket and opens each door. I wonder about passengers who were planning to get off. But there aren't any.

8.42: We set off, 7 minutes late already. After 12 minutes in the station.

8.45: We buy our tickets. I hand over a €20 and get more than €9 back in coins.

8.53: We stop at Vila Nova de Ceveira, which is unscheduled. No one opens the doors.

9.01am: We stop at Caminha, at the mouth of the river Miño/Minho, the border with Spain. Also unscheduled. The doors open and one person gets on. He shakes hands with the guard and I conclude he's an employee of CP. So maybe a special stop just for him.

9.18: We stop on the outskirts of Viana de Castelo. A passenger on the other side stands up to get off and kindly tells me my wallet is on the floor.

9.21: We arrive at Viana do Costelo, now 13 minutes behind schedule.

9.23: We set off, now 14 minutes late.

9.26: We stop for no apparent reason. The train moves slowly backwards.

9.28: We set off again. Next stop is scheduled for 9.49 at Nine. I'm guessing 10.05.

9.36: Another unscheduled stop, possibly outside Darque station. No 3 or 4G, so no internet.

9.40: The train is now racing along at maybe 65kph (40mph). We might just be making up some time.

9.44: Another unscheduled stop, at Tamel. Another minute lost.

9.52: Yet another unscheduled stop, at Barcelos. The doors open and at least one passenger gets on.

I've noted that the there's only one track. This must complicate the scheduling challenge. And a quick look at the timetable suggests we're running not to the normal timetable for the Vigo-Oporto 'fast' train from Renfe but to that of the 7.56 semi-stopping train from Valença to Oporto on CP. Possibly because it's Sunday. From Barcelos to Nine is 11 minutes on this timetable, meaning we will Nine before the 10.05 I predicted. Still 15 minutes late. As there's no 3 or 4G, I can't warn the friend who's meeting us in Oporto at 10.30.

10.01: We arrive earlier than expected at Nine.

10.03: We depart, now a mere 13 minutes late. But, if I'm right about today's timetable, we've another 3 stops to make above and beyond the timetable we were supposed to be on. We are certainly not going to arrive at Campanha station by 10.18.

10.08: As feared, we stop at the first of the 3 stations, Farmalicão.

Jack tells me he has 4G through an operator called NOS. My phone tells me I'm with MEO, which used to be Telecom Portugal but I have no signal. Jack tells me to switch off and on and, possibly by coincidence, I now have a signal.

10.20: We arrive at Trofa. This is even slower than the 7.26 timetable, which has us down as taking only 9 minutes between these stations. Contrasting with the 12 we've just taken. Clearly a Sunday driver.

10.31: We arrive at Ermesinde. Only another 14 minutes to our destination, where we'll arrive 17 minutes later than expected. And, indeed, scheduled.

10.40: We finally arrive at Campanha station and head for the San Bento metro station, where our friend has been waiting since around 10.00.


Note: This curmudgeonly comment on Oporto might well be stimulated in part both by the above and by my having previously had to wrestle with 2 machines.

The first was a ticket machine on the Metro. These are so user-unfriendly that even Portuguese folk tend to take several minutes getting them to spew out tickets. Leading to long queues. The machine at Campanha station added injury to insult my making it difficult for me to put my coins in and then told me time had run out after I'd got the first one in. And then refused to give it back. Regular readers might recall my account last year of the guy who makes a living on the Metro by offering to help confused tourists and then asking them for the 80 cents he claims he lacks to buy his own ticket. Which rather says it all.

The second machine was the one giving access to a left-luggage locker at São Bento mainline station. The system there is so complicated – with instructions only in Portuguese – that there's a guy standing there all day explaining to local and tourists alike how to use it. Or at least there was when we were there. This gentleman kindly suggested we take a photo of the codes on the receipts issued by the machine as, if we should lose them, we'd never see our luggage ever again . . . 

Oporto is a truly lovely city which I've visited probably 10 times. But it has changed a lot since my first visit in the 1990s. In fact, it's an excellent example of the curse of tourism.

Even in April it's overflowing with tourists. As one emerges from the metro at São Bento of a Sunday morning, the first challenge you face is to negotiate the groups of people blocking the pavement while being lectured to by a guide.

Then, en route to the Port Caves in Gaia, there is the riverbank path that used to be derelict and dangerous but which is now stuffed with bars, cafés and restaurants. And, of course, people.

Above the bridge, the 'characterful' slope of slums has been transformed into something far less noteworthy. Which I suppose is a good thing.

Gaia itself is nothing like it was 15-20 years ago. It's essentially a riverside promenade and, apparently, a magnet for noisy motorbikers, who - the waitress tells me - congregate ther every Sunday in their dozens. Near the entrance to the cable car, should you want to know where to avoid.

As in all cities in which tourism is the real money spinner, service is now poor. Appalling even. I left 2 bars after the waiters had walked past my table twice without saying anything. Indeed, in the first one, the waiter declined to respond to my wishing him Bom día. At the third, I had to wave to attract the attention of the waitress, who was standing at the entrance, before she came to my table on the terrace at the roadside.

As I write, the only consolation is that I can hear myself think. Which would never be the case if I were in a Spanish city among so many people.

But, anyway, here's a nice foto of the city, taken from Gaia:-

And we did have an excellent lunch away from the hordes, up near São Francisco church.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Thoughts from Galicia: 23.4.17

I'm off to Oporto early this morning, to start a week long camino on the Portuguese Way, up to the border with Spain. My young guest - Jack - has solved a problem for me by volunteering this summary of why he loves to come to Spain. Apart from the free accommodation that is. He used to come with my younger daughter, who was a teacher colleague a few years ago, but now has the chutzpah to come alone:-

Things I like about Spain
  1. Toilets in stations are free to access
  2. It's acceptable to drink wine at 11.30am and not be labelled a drunk
  3. Free tapas/pinxos with drinks
  4. The Guapas (Beautiful women)
  5. The cleanliness
  6. A little Spanish goes a long way
  7. Once you're introduced it's like you have a new friend for life
  8. Jamón in its many forms and qualities
  9. The Spanish love of the elderly and how many elderly people join their families in the evening
  10. How conversations in Spanish sound like arguments but can actually be quite polite in tone
  11. The colourful shirts
  12. "16-60s". (Faye Davies will know what I mean!)
  13. Late opening times
  14. How 10.30am is considered early morning
  15. The level of noise which is considered acceptable
  16. How people wear up to 3 layers of clothes even though it's 28 degrees
  17. How relaxed things are
  18. The scenic views
  19. The quality of wine (even a cheap one tastes good)
  20. Plans change; people get on with it.
Me: I don't have any problem with these, except perhaps no. 15. But it has to be said that Jack confided in me this afternoon that, although he loved to visit, he very much doubted he could work here. I sympathised.

Finally . . . Today's cartoon

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