Africa 2009 – 02 France and Spain

Arras

Let us forget about our first nights rest at the Holiday Inn, Arras. It was a natural consequence of our late departure from the shores of England  that we finally set foot in France at 11, driving on dark and unbelievably empty roads, taking the wrong turning and ending up in Arras.  A lone drunk in the illuminated cobbled Arras square directed us to the station, where we selected the Holiday Inn because we thought it would be inexpensive. When the receptionist said Euro 98, we were too tired to refuse. A few months ago it would have been £70, now the Euro was on equal footing to our once sovereign pound. It was our first, and not last, taste of our weakening pound.

Our accidental arrival in Arras gives us chance for a reconnaissance of the intended spring visit with Garry and Lorraine.

The Battle for Arras, post the Conference at Chantily, was a JV between the French and English, with one army distracting  while the other pincered. Using the existing underground tunnels below Arras, the JV armies extended the network by joining branches planning an attack surfacing beyond the German lines. (Those lines – Hindenberg, Maginot, Sigfried Line, the blue line the brown line – pencil colours on a piece of paper determining lives and deaths). The battle was another of those infamous disasters: a few days before, the Germans decided to retreat to a higher vantage, so when the men surfaced, it was not behind but in full view of the German line: 4,000 English men died every day.

The tunnels have been recently been museumfied (March 2008) and we joined a Liverpool supporting guide. The original tunnels were carved between the 14th and 19th century to excavate the limestone blocks to build Arras and these were some huge like cathedral arches. Rough markings, written in black (English) and red (French), signed to WC, and tunnel numbers 4A. Drawings of sweet hearts, names and dates. Lemon Squeezers, the English called the Canadians. Many Scots with kilts. How cold was that!

Tastes of France: Apricot jam, butter croissants, shops closing for lunch, shutters on windows.

ORLEANS

Driving over flat landscape of massive fields, lines of graves, some being cleaned – the memory is still respected. At dusk, out of this flat land rose the extraordinary Chartre Cathedral, like an Egyptian pyramid, it was huge.

Moon River, is our song.

Dream maker, my heart breaker

Wherever you’re going, I’m going your way.

Two drifters, off to see the world

There’s such a lot of world to see.

We’re after the same rainbows end

Waiting round the bend

My huckleberry friend

Moon river and you.

Chance stop before Orleans finds us a modest Loggis with a high class meal and matching price. Euro 125, exceeds our plan for Euro 100 a night. Ouch.

BETHUEN

A good driving day in befitting grey skies, beyond Bordeaux through forests of pine trees many bent and fallen like match sticks evidence of the recent tempest. Barry splashes out on a kettle at motorway service station dedicated to long distance lorry drivers, which blows a fuse immediately.

Disaster struck as, late again, (my image of a prommanade des Anglais was a wind swept beach, no hotel in sight), the only room found had an attached toilet.

‘It’s right next door’, I said to appease Barry. And sure it was.

‘Worse than Waterloo station. Up all night, I was. Women, men, coughing, spluttering, slamming the door, There was a queue at one stage! Never again. No wonder the light switch is on a timer. This is not me. Why do I do it? I should never believe you. I’m the one who makes decisions. I should have gone with my instincts, driven to Spain. But you wanted another night in France… ‘ Barry rattled on.

The bar, however, was friendly and modest, the patron warm hearted, proudly giving us the same sturdy 5 course meal of meat (for a modest E11)  as he did a dining room of single men watching football.

BILBAO

Years ago I saw a picture of this building – perhaps on the TV or in a magazine – and it fascinated me a building designed outside of a box.  Guggenheim, Edmund supplied the forgotten name.

Amazingly amid all the complex streams of city traffic and lack of signposts, we drove straight to it into an underground car park. Titanium, limestone, glass, all curved boldly, overlapping, shapes like ships sails, or fish scales. Inside, the atrium was like a heart with ventricles. Not one flat surface throughout, save the floor. The architect, an American called Frank Gehry , designed the structure freehand, amazed at the forms that emerged. All lines connecting, converging.

‘Do you remember,’, I began to Barry, ‘ how your father used to chop off the eels head, and you’d see the eel body sometimes wriggle away, still with life and slippery to touch? When Gehry, the Bilbao architect, was a child his mother would buy a live carp and keep it in the bath until it was ready to eat it. Such a singular moment in his life has given inspiration to this bold and beautiful building. One childhood imprint, resonates universally. Who’d have known?’

Our evening search had the potential of another disaster, as we searched waterside and port, backdrops to perfect places to stay.

‘I told you its impossible to park in Spain! Lets get somewhere outside the city, I said, but no, you wanted to be here. Why do I do this….’, B rattled on.

But we lucked in, and in a moment that I will have pleasure in reminding Barry often, we got advice from a friendly Tourist Information man, and found a traditional Spanish Pension, at 28Euro a night, right in the heart of this satellite village Portugalet, on the river front and a spit from the famous (UNESCO World Herritage) Puente Colgante Bridge.  We stay two nights.

Short men walking little dogs, South of France women with thin ankles, smart, neat stylish shoes – shoes are big here, and this cold time many very elegant boots.

Friday night is family night here in Portugalet. Past 9 in the evening, men are pushing prams, smoking, talking, out for the evening, as we walked the streets returning to our tapas bar of last  night. Girls and men, both beautiful, dark, dressed well, thin (yet everyone has a plate of chips). The same group of older men turn up, berets on thinning haired heads, cigarettes lit. A comraderie.

PLACENTINO/ Plasencia

After the flat treeless landscape came mountains, snow dusted. Cranes nesting in elegant pylons.

We choose Placentino: it’s nearing 6 in the evening and on the map we see a river and this village on the side of a mountain. It’s a fortress town with narrow cobbled streets. Hotel sorted, and after drifting into the most spectacular light shop either of us has ever seen, we find Placentino is a God town, with a church on every corner, a monastery and massive cathedral. Drawn to a group of people outside, we enter confidently, while a mass was in progress. Huge gold embroidered tapestries hang on walls, a gold leafed chariot takes up the aisle, and a Madame Tussauds line of Ku Klux Klan dummies kitted out in ecclesiastical colours, black, purple, white, with witch like pointed hoods, and face masks with cut out eyes. Where the blazes are we? A TV shows some strange ritual taking place. Speachless, outside, we drift into a four star hotel, mingle with some very smart dressed people, mink coat draped on radiator (‘It’s real’ B says, from his past when he dealt in black market mink coats and chinese carpets).

As we eat the famous IBERIAN jambon in a cosy full restaurant, we enjoy an animated people watching session. An unusually large confident man with a deep gravelly voice that vibrates in our space talking to a woman, both middle aged. As B observes, he has mastered the art of talking while eating, effortlessly. She hardly says anything.

‘And I said we should have never sold that land, but planted lemons and almonds….’ we make up their conversation, imitating his hand movements.

Talking naturally finds previous vista’s and journeys.

‘Nagis’, says B. ‘He wanted temporary carpet. How much? he asked. £3,500, I said. £3,000 we agreed. Here Petra, I said, take this and buy a round the world ticket. They were not common then, round the world tickets. And that was the beginning. I never saved a penny, even then, spent it straight away. And what a good job too’.

SAVILLE

Famous for oranges and my cousin. I had not seen Edmund in years, certainly since he and his family had moved to Spain where Edmund worked as a scientist growing potatoes best suited for chipping into crisps.

‘I’d prepared for Africa, but forgotten about Europe’, I explained to him on the phone, ‘and have just remembered you live out here. Can you recommend anywhere in Saville to stay?’

He generously offered us the use of his empty villa. It was a dismal cold and rainy night when we arrived. Maria, Edmunds sons girlfriend (young – probably 20 and chaperoned by her parents) let us in and dynamically found water sources and electrical boxes. Our evening meal was in an empty restaurant with no English spoken. We moo’ed, clucked and drew vegetables – those illusive foods that we longed for. The staff with no English came from Brazil, Venezela and Spain. ‘This is not me’, says B disappointed in the emptyness. ‘I’m not in control. I’d never have stayed her if i were with Petra. If I spend my money i want to enjoy it….’

Come 11, when we are ending our eating, the place filled up and by the time we left there was not an empty table.

Edmunds villa is unbelievably cold – it is warmer but wetter outside. It is also unloved. Trashed, he described, by his tenants. But it has Boy A, which I devour in one night, rain beating down on our shutters, both of us cursing not packing a hot water bottle. It is the story of the Bulger boy, told from the position of one of the two boys who killed him. The downward spiral, aided by bullying and isolation. The kindly Uncle Terry – the boys social worker – sacrifices his own life, blind to the festering anger of his own son, which is the trigger for the final moves. We never know his birth name. Jack, Jack and the beanstalk, Jack the lad, the name chosen by himself for his coming out identity. Some of the story reminded me of Bob, his son and Jake.

What shall we see in Saville? I asked Maria.The Cathedral, she replied as a good Catholic.

B was furious at having to surrender 8 Euro to God. God is big here. Blood is real. Ecstasy writ large in the women’s faces. It’s all about sex, I explain to B in Seville national gallery, another place in which God is big. Sex dressed up as religion. The greatest painting we see is death – the dying Bull Fighter. Of course, I must to a cemetery to find graves of Spanish bull fighters, but the iconography is disappointingly not bulls  but the virgin Mary’s, the Spanish mans muse.

Edmunds was a perfect base to stock up and repack Des.

We lost hours and 120 Euro in a Carrefor, yet did not find a meal for the evening. Feeling fat, with tree trunk legs, and very unfit. B is furious to eat the unconventional meal I prepare of Spanish jambon and Manchego cheese (we cannot find vegetables!). ‘I’ve had meat and two veg every night of my life’ ! Both of us are out of sorts.

‘This is not me. I don’t need to ask advice on where to eat. I can find it myself. You’re always wanting someones suggestion’ our discourse on this old chestnut returns with fire as we drive through rain to find a Basque restaurant. ‘You even ask strangers you meet – what do they know that I want?’

‘What would you recommend to someone — a stranger to London – what to see?

‘Tower of London, then a walk in the London parks, Harrods, Museums…’

‘Yes, you see we recommend what we would like to see, so by asking someone, I learn a bit about them. I’d go with Museums (if raining), Kew Gardens, Inns of Court, and cemeteries.’

ALGECIRAS / TERRIFA  – Land of Wind

Ferry or no ferry? The unseasonal dramatic weather shows no sign of abating. Edmund gives news of snow in UK unseen in 18 years; Marlon says it’s the worst ever coupled with the recession, means no business coming through B&P door. As we drive the coast to Teriffa, we pass hills deep with wind turbines. So we are in land of WIND, and with good fortune in that evenings bar we meet an English wind turbine engineer who can tell the story. He is freshly arrived with 4 of his mates for a boys weekend of wind surfing (conditional on the weather improving – if not theoretical wind surfing in Terrifa’s many bars..)

‘Those you saw are an early first generation – small and on top of traditional pylon posts; they cannot cope with winds of more than 20mph so they have breaks on them, that’s why you probably saw so many still. The next generation developed angled ends to cope with higher winds. The latest are two swimming pools wide and laser controlled. Wave energy is like wind was 10 years ago.

Stick with me, kiddo, I say to B, rubbing it in. The bar is a great success and was RECOMMENDED by our worldly guest house owner, (Spanish bohemian, home of  inner courtyard, walls full of bright confident paintings, tables with objects gathered, plants growing, curtains layered) which in turn was RECOMMENDED by the girl in the port who told us the evening sailing was cancelled. It all plays into my current campaign with B – RECOMMENDATION through talking and asking is gold-dust. Forget independence, control and Lonely Planets. Find and ask a stranger!

What I love about B is, come the evening, when I sometimes read the days log to him, imitating his voice, saying  ‘This is not me…..I don’t do this..’ , he chuckles away. And sometimes tickles my similar exhibitionist Rooster nature by pricking my bubbles of puffed up conceit  ‘I’m not Having it’, with a playful exaggeration of the h.

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