Tuesday, 30 September 2008

Escape to the West

Now that our summer seems to have well and truly ended, thoughts turn to planning what to do next summer. (Well, you have to have something to look forward to, don't you, as the nights draw in?)

My other half's brother lives in Clevedon, in Somerset, and yesterday we were talking about a place that he'd like to visit close to his home: Steep Holm Island, in the Bristol Channel. So we've agreed top start planning a trip next year.

There's something about islands that stirs the imagination: the sense of escape and isolation; the sense of adventure and achievement in getting there; and something primeval about the sea, sky, and land ahoy!

But there's more to Steep Holm than it just being a small island: It's a nationally important nature reserve, with a colourful history of human occupation. As its name implies, this rocky outcrop of just under 50 acres (20 hectares) has high sea cliffs on all sides, and rises to just over 256ft (78m). Geologically, the island (formed of Carboniferous limestone) is a continuation of the Mendip Hills, lying just off the promontory of Brean Down in Somerset

Steep Holm has been inhabited since Roman times, with evidence of a Viking presence, too. (The name 'holm' is Norse and means 'island'.) In the 12th century, a small priory was established here, and a warren of rabbits was managed until modern times. In the late 1860s, the island was fortified as part of a plan by Prime Minister Palmerston to protect the Bristol Channel against foreign attack: barracks were built and two batteries of 7-ton guns installed (now scheduled ancient monuments). The island was similarly fortified in both subsequent World Wars.

Since 1974, the island has been owned by the Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust and maintained as a nature reserve: it is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) thanks to its unique Mediterranean micro-climate (frosts are rare), relative lack of human disturbance, and because botanical records have been kept for 400 hundred years.

The island is covered with dense thickets of Alexanders (Smyrnium olustratum), home to the only UK colonies of Wild Peony (Paeonia mascula), as well as important colonies of wild leek (Allium ampeloprasum), henbane (Hyoscyamun niger), Caper Spurge (Euphorbia lathyrus). A form of Buck's-horn plantain (Plantago coronupus) is unique to the island. Indeed, the 'Type specimen' (the definitive specimen which describes the species) for the leek plant was taken from the island and is now at the herbarium in Kew Gardens.

As well as the rabbits, there are also colonies of shy Muntjac Deer, as well as several species of gull, and it is a stopping point for many types of migrant birds. Its isolation has meant that many types of animals have diverged from their mainland counterparts and are studied for their genetic traits - especially apparent in the snail populations and those of the Slow Worm, Anguis fragilis.

Although no longer inhabited (except for wildlife wardens for part of the year), it can be visited. The Kenneth Allsop Memorial Trust organises boat trips during the summer months - for which advanced booking (by telephone) is essential. Part of an old barracks is used as an interpretation centre.

There is no landing pier on the island, so visitors must be fit enough (and suitably dressed!) to go ashore by gang-plank, and to ascend the steep paths on the island. Given the Channel's fickle weather, conditions are always changeable, windy and usually cooler than on the mainland. The Channel's strong tides mean that visits normally last about 8-10 hours.

Full details are on the Trust's websites - as above, and at: www.steepholm.freeserve.co.uk/trips.html.

Monday, 29 September 2008

Performance Cars at Earl's Court

One of the BBC's most popular programmes -and one of its most successful exports around the world - is 'Top Gear'.

It's come a long way from the days when it was a rather specialist but sober appraisal of the latest models in the world of motoring. The team - Jeremy Clarkson, Richard Hammond and James May - are among the most well known of BBC's presenters, and their 'boys' toys' approach to motoring - focusing on high performance cars, daredevil (or just plain wacky) exploits, and all-round entertainment has become hugely popular. (There's a 5-year waiting list to appear in the audience).

The programme (and Clarkson, especially) trades on an irreverent political incorrectness, which makes the programme loathed and loved in equal measure - depending on where you stand on green issues and whether you think using 'girly' or 'gay' is an appropriate adjective in the 21st Century. Less controversially, and a good indication of the entertainment factor, is the long line-up of guests also waiting to appear, to test their skills driving a saloon car around a racing circuit at high speed - recording their performance against other guests in a league table.

Anyway, for those for whom a weekly fix is not enough, and who can't wait 5 years for a ticket, the Top Gear team will be appearing at the forthcoming 'MPH' (ie miles per hour) performance car event at Earl's Court between 30th October and 2nd November. The rest of the show - subtitled the Prestige and Performance Motor Show - concentrates on high performance cars, including rare one-off models . Think Ferrari, Maserati, Lamborghini, Koenigsegg, Spyker and Aston Martin.

There are also sections featuring the lastest add-on gadgets, classic sports cars and 'Tuning and Styling', if you fancy yourself as a boy racer but can't quite afford a Maserati. (It'll be interesting to see if the credit crunch will impact on sales - but perhaps that'll just encourage more window shopping?)

But I'm not sure how Clarkson et al would view a household that doesn't even own a car...

Wednesday, 24 September 2008

Who should take credit for the Credit Crunch?

With property sales in West London grinding to a standstill, and the news media filled with stories about the credit crunch, the turmoil in the markets and desperate action by Central Banks on both sides of the Atlantic, those of us watching helplessly from the sidelines can but wonder how we got here.

Of course, the greed of bankers, deregulation and loose fiscal regimes in the UK and USA have been blamed. It's all 'their' fault: the banks, the regulators, the government. But where, in all this, is the discussion about common sense, on the part of both lenders and borrowers? What happened to individual responsibility?

Over the past few years, on any discussion about money matters, I have always ended feeling terribly old-fashioned and conservative (with a small 'c'). I've lived through the roller-coaster of economic cycles from the 1960s onwards, and recall the strict financial limits imposed on me when I applied for my first mortgage: I could borrow only 2.5 times my own salary. Credit card and other debts were probed in the process.

I must admit that I was one of that lucky generation that didn't pile up huge student debts, thanks to the grant system and working through my holidays. Even so, I've paid off my credit card every month for 30 years, and only ever taken out one bank loan beyond a mortgage - and that was for my first - and very second-hand - car. (That Ford Fiesta was 11 years old before I sold it).

For everything else, I was taught to save first and take my time in deciding what to buy. That way, I got a certain sense of achievement out of buying an item: and still do. It takes me hours of research before buying a new camera; I try on dozens of suits before deciding which fits best.

Fast-forward to the the situation over the past few years: I listened with horror to younger colleagues at work, who had five-figure student debts ("but I don't have to pay that off yet"); five-figure credit card debts ("but I want a new (ie brand new) car, now"); and were taking out loans of 6 times their joint salaries for property ("we want a house with three bedrooms and two bathrooms. We couldn't possibly start with a small flat. We need a separate dining room.").

And all this on salaries of £30,000. In London.

At the same time, some older colleagues were cheerfully extending their mortgages by tens of thousands to pay for exotic foreign holidays, designer label clothes, new cars. I could understand it if it was for their children's education, or a house extension - but it wasn't. Again, these things were classed as essentials. The scale of some of this additional debt - which, of course, all has to be paid off with interest - made me feel queasy.

When we talked about interest rates, the reply was "they are at an historic low". Well, yes. But won't that just increase the leverage? A rise from 4% to 5% is a rise of 25%. "But the Chancellor says there will no more boom and bust". Er, yes. But do you believe him? Others say the housing market is becoming a bubble. "Then let's hope they're wrong!"

But substituting hope for prudence isn't much of a policy. We seem to have become terribly child-like in our approach to money: "If they'll lend it to me, it must be OK". And child-like in our desire for things: "I must have this now". At the other end, of course, banks have colluded in all this. But then, with the security of someone's house as the back-stop, their risk - or so they thought - was controlled. But you can bet the bank managers won't be homeless (although some junior staff might get waved good-bye).

I realise I'm going to sound terribly smug in writing this, and terribly kill-joy. But I don't take pleasure in the misery the current situation is causing: I know too many people stuck in the mire, and desperately worried. And few of us are actually immune: I need to put my own property on the market before too long, and I'm self-employed, so I'm caught up in this as much as anyone else.

That said, I must confess there is a part of me that thinks a brake on at least some of the excesses of the past decade or so might not be a bad thing. We might find better ways of spending our leisure time than shopping. It might even take the shine off the vacuous celebrity culture we've come to worship. But it's a terrible price to pay.

So, perhaps it is time to be pay heed to Shakespeare, in Hamlet, when Polonius says:

Neither a borrower nor a lender be
For loan oft loses both itself and friend
And borrowing dulls the edge of husbandry.

Or maybe time to resurrect Micawber's law..?

Tuesday, 23 September 2008

A grand Pearson church in South Wales

It's interesting how many of the great Victorian churches are located in surprising places, and not just those in West London. St Cuthbert's, my parish church, is tucked away in a leafy crescent and would never be found by accident.

And so it is with Port Talbot: the South Wales town is almost universally associated in most people's minds with the huge nearby Steel Works. But it is also home - among other things - to one of Wales's most splendid Victorian churches, St Theodore's.

The church was the brainchild of Miss Emily Charlotte Talbot, the local landowner and heiress of the Talbot family fortune. She and her father were largely responsible for the development of the town as a major port (which bears their name), but in 1876 her brother, Theodore Mansel Talbot, was killed in a riding accident, and her sister Olivia had also died young, in 1894.

The church was built in their memory, and consecrated in 1897. It became the parish church in 1901. The unusual dedication - to the 7th century Greek monk who later became Archbishop of Canterbury - is in memory of Miss Talbot's brother.

The architect chosen for the new church was John Loughborough Pearson (1817-1897), one of the foremost names of the Victorian Gothic Revival, and responsible (among many others) for Truro Cathedral, Brisbane Cathedral, St Augustine's in Kilburn, and a host of restorations on other English cathedrals.

For Miss Talbot, he designed a church on a cathedral-like scale and of the highest quality. The church is traditional in plan, with transepts, nave aisles and north and south porches and a Lady Chapel extending from the south aisle. It is all executed in the Early English Gothic style, although some of the fittings and architectural detailing is in the more elaborate Decorated Gothic. An intended west tower was never built so, unusually, there is no west door. The exterior is in the local sandstone with bath stone dressings, with the interior faced entirely in ashlar.

Inside, the west end comprises a large vestibule, which would have been the vault under the western tower, had it ever been built. This opens up into the nave of five bays of tall gothic arcades, surmounted by a triforium of romanesque blank arcades, pierced with quatrefoils, rising in turn to a clerestory of paired Early English lancets. The extraordinarily lofty nave roof is a wooden arched truss, and continues across the crossing, giving a great sense of spaciousness. The aisles, Lady Chapel and Chancel are all vaulted. Both East and West windows consist of three tall Early English lancets.

The fittings are of an appropriate quality for such a building: both pulpit and font are executed in marble, and the Lady Chapel and South Aisle have windows by Clayton and Bell. Two of these, depicting the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, commemorate Port Talbot's only holder of the Victoria Cross, Lieutenant Rupert Price Hallowes, a member of the church who was killed in Hooge, Belgium, in 1915.

The Lady Chapel also has a curtain screen by William Morris, impressively detailed wrought iron screens, and the sanctuaries of both the Lady Chapel and the High Altar have pavements of beautifully preserved encaustic tiles. In addition, an imposing gilded Victorian reredos has recently been installed behind the High Altar, brought from St James the Great, Cardiff. This was originally thought to have been by Comper, although is now thought that it may have been a product of his workshop.

The church had suffered terribly from the effects of industrial pollution over the years, with both stonework and stained glass badly blackened, but was completely restored between 1996 ad 2002 after a massive fund raising effort secured over £500,000. The interior is now a light and very impressive space, although it can - because of its sheer scale - feel a little empty in between services. On the other hand, it makes a splendid setting for the traditional Mass, with excellent acoustics and plenty of space for incense to rise!

The parish is a busy and active one, and is in the traditional Anglo-Catholic tradition. It has recently raised yet more funds, for a new Youth Hall adjacent to the church, which has now been completed. (The parish hall is also undergoing refurbishment at the time of writing). There are two other daughter churches within the parish: full details of these, and of all events at St Theodore's, can be found on the parish website.

For more photographs, see the review of Church of St Theodore, Port Talbot.

Thursday, 18 September 2008

Conkers Everywhere

As autumn gently arrives (not that it's following much of a summer), the trees in the square in front of my flat are beginning to turn brown, and the horse chestnuts are shedding their conkers.

Now, as a child I remember being taken by my Mum and Dad to collect conkers on a lane on the hill of Brent Knoll in Somerset: the conkers from the few trees around where we lived were quickly snapped up by eager young hands, whereas where we went there was less competition.

Of course, we always collected far more than we needed to play conkers at school, in those blissful, far off days when, if you'd told anyone that playing conkers might one day be banned by the Health & Safety people, they would have thought you were mad.

Fast-forward to 2008 and the trees in Nevern Square (and one in particular) are producing a bountiful harvest of fresh, plump conkers. I think they are beautiful objects in their own right, but alas, no-one seems to collect them these days: there are plenty of children around here, but clearly this is one tradition that has bitten the dust. There are drifts of conkers lying in the road, just waiting to be squashed by parking cars.

It seems such a terrible waste to me: perhaps I should go and collect some, just for old times' sake...

Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Barcelona: Monastery and Museum of Pedralbes

OK, so I'm still trawling my recent holiday in Spain for inspiration, but when you go somewhere as nice but relatively unknown as Pedralbes, I feel I should bring it to the attention of the wider world. Situated some way out in what is now a genteel northern suburb of Barcelona, this is one sight that it is well worth travelling out of the centre to see: the Monastery at Pedralbes is one of the most important Gothic monuments in Catalonia. Its cloister is famed for its delicate architecture, and it includes important frescoes by Ferrer Bassa, a student of Giotto.


The monastery was founded by Elisenda de Montcada in 1327, the young Queen of the Catalan King Jaume II. Married at just 13 years of age, when King Jaume was already an old man, the monastery was intended as a place for her to spend her widowhood. Elisenda was never a Nun, however; the early monastery included a small palace complex, which was to be demolished upon her death.

The monastery – actually a convent – was built for the _Poor Clares_, the female equivalent of the Fransiscans. Built in the Gothic style at the height of Catalonia’s Golden Age, Elisenda’s generous endowment (the Montcadas were one of Catalonia’s most powerful and richest families) meant that no expense was spared on its architecture: the three-storey cloister is one of Europe’s largest and most harmonious.

Most of main buildings and the church date from the 14th century, although it was extended and improved over subsequent decades, especially the 16th. Many of the Nuns came from wealthy families, and brought considerable endowments, used to buy religious art and other sacred objects: even the size and layout of the Nun’s cells reflected their social status.

After the 16th Century it entered a period of decline, although it continued as a convent except for a short period during the Catalan Republic in the 1930s, when the Nuns moved out to escape the attentions of the Anarchists.

As a closed order, few people were able to see its interior or Treasures. In the 1970s, the Nuns opened part of the Cloister for public viewing one morning a week, which led to the Catalan Government negotiating greater access in 1983, when the cloister and most of the original monastic buildings were opened permanently as a museum: the Nuns (still a closed order) now live in a newly-built annex.

The complex includes a Treasury representing seven centuries of religious art, sacred objects and books. The collection is both unique and important as – apart from its size and quality – it represents one of the few intact collections of mediaeval and renaissance art still located in the institution for which it was intended.

The tour

The reception leads straight onto the Cloister, in many ways the highlight of the visit. Each side has twenty nine gracefully arched sides, arranged in three storeys. The use of incredibly delicate clustered columns of marble (much stronger than stone) gives an unusually light and open feel. The columns capitals are decorated with the King and Queen’s coats of arms, a clear fusion of the secular and religious.

Immediately on the right is the chapel of St Michael, decorated in 1343 from floor to ceiling with frescoes by Ferrer Bassa, a student of Giotto. Giotto’s influence is tangible in features such as the bold use of colour, naturalistic postures and almond eyes, although it is likely that Bassa’s own students did much of the work. The themes reflect the life of Christ and the consolations of the Virgin Mary.

Next is the chapel of the tomb of Queen Elisenda. It is in the Decorated Gothic style, with the tomb itself under a large canopy. The tomb is double-sided: on the cloister side Elisenda is depicted as a widow and penitent, attended by saints and angels, on the church side as a Queen. Adjacent to this in the same chapel – and rather smaller – is the tomb of the first abbess, Fransesca ça Portella. Back in the cloister, a series of three more tombs of abbesses are set against a background of well preserved but rather more prosaic 14th century frescoes.

Next, at the beginning of the cloister’s west side, is the entrance to the Treasures of the Monastery, contained in the enormous vaulted space of the original dormitory (first floor level – there is a lift). The exhibition also describes the development and use of this space, which in the 20th century was divided into individual sleeping cells. At the end of the dormitory is another vaulted room, the Queen’s Hall, which may be the only part of Elisenda’s Palace rooms to survive. The small but impressive collection consists of paintings, alter-pieces, crosses, monstrances and a rare, complete collection of late mediaeval books of sacred monastic choir music. Flemish and Italian art are particularly well represented.

Back to the cloister, the next part of the visit includes a number of the Nun’s day cells at ground and first floor level. Most of these can only be seen through their windows, and contain altars and pieces of religious art as well as everyday objects. The size and decoration of the cells reflected the individual Nun’s secular status and wealth – somewhat at odds with the principles of monastic life, but reflecting the circumstances of its foundation. The most interesting rooms (which can be entered) are the store room (which leads to an artificial cave, used for storing perishable items), and the dispensary of herbal medicines.

The cloister gardens are worth visiting at this point: part have been laid out as a mediaeval medicinal and culinary herb garden. They contain a pool, an elaborate 18th well-head above a huge cistern, and a three-tiered fountain topped by an angel.

On the far side of the cloister is the impressive dining hall and kitchen: the latter has large stone sinks and no fewer than three cooking ranges: an early 19th century tiled range, an early 20th century coal-fired range and a modern butane stove. Further along is the huge complex of the infirmary, rebuilt in the 16th Century – one of the best preserved examples of a late mediaeval hospital complex, with four large wards, each with space for four beds. It was paid or by King Philip II and bears his Coat of Arms. Below this is the vaulted Procurator’s office, where food, wine and other goods would be stored, a passage leading to the base of the cistern, and a store room containing a series of charming 19th and 20th century dioramas of religious scenes: making such scenes for public is still widely practised in Catalonia.

Past the infirmary is the Abbey, the home of the Abbess, which contains its original 14th Century wall decorations (resembling wall hangings) and an impressive 14th Century mural of the Crucifixion. The next and final room is the Chapter House, which contains another mural of the Virgin and child, 14th Century glass windows, and an impressive ceiling boss of the Virgin with the 12 apostles.

The Church is a large but spare example of Catalan Gothic (characterised by its height and width, and lack of flying buttresses), with side chapels and an apse. Originally covered in whitewash and frescoes, its 19th Century ‘restoration’ scraped it back to bare stone walls, which lend it a rather bare feel, but highlights the scale and forms of the architecture. The most impressive monument is the other side of the tomb of Queen Elisenda, this time dressed as a Queen, under a Decorated Gothic canopy.

Opposite the main entrance is a 19th Century building, decorated with capitals and carvings – some copies - from mediaeval (mostly Romanesque) churches.


The Monastery is a 15 minute walk east along from Reina Elisenda station, the terminus of line L6 on the FGC service from Plaça de Catalunya: take the lift from the entrance hall to Passeig de la Reina Elisenda de Montcada, and turn right. Alternatively, buses 22, 63, 64 and 78 stop just outside. The entrance is through an archway and then up a short street.

There are lockers to leave bags, lavatories and drinks machines by the reception, which also has a small range of items books, postcards, etc – for sale. The ground floor of the cloister, its gardens and the Treasury are fully accessible, but some of the rooms, the Procurator’s Office and the upper gallery of the cloister are only accessible by steep stairs. The street outside is also rather unevenly cobbled.

Access to the church is not included in the price or subject to the same opening times: it is still used regularly by the Nuns. It can be seen on a more restricted basis – telephone in advance or enquire at the reception for details.

The entrance ticket is also valid at six other sites run by the City History Museum of Barcelona (MCHB), including the Park Güell Interpretation Centre, the museum-building complex at the Plaça del Rei, the Museum Verdaguer and the Santa Caterina Archaeological Interpretation Centre.

Barcelona is a wonderful city, but there's no doubting that the centre is hectic and can get oppressive in the summer heat. Pedralbes is the perfect antidote - an oasis of peace and calm. But don't just take it from me - go and see it yourself.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Spanish TV

One of the paradoxes of modern life is how much we complain about the quality of television programmes in the UK, and yet it is widely regarded abroad as one of the best TV systems in the world. I've always found this hard to believe. Until, that is, we started watching TV when we went to Spain.

Now, don't think me obsessive: when we are on holiday, we don't just sit in watching this stuff. We do try to get out and about - honestly. But there's something temptingly fascinating about watching TV in another country and another language, and Spain is one of the most informative...

Spanish TV – all 14 or so free channels – is good introduction to the Spanish psyche. For a start, programmes often start and finish late, and get rescheduled at short notice. The TV schedules are renowned for saying ' Sin determinar' (not known) when referring to the films planned for the week ahead. Do they really not know what is going to be on?

Then there are lots and lots of adverts; between programmes, these can last for anything up to ten minutes. These are for all sorts of products that would fall foul of the Advertising Standards controls in the UK, especially for wonder slimming products which claim to lose you five inches of waistline just by painting on some green goo. In any programme with an exciting ending – a film or quiz show, for example – just before the end there is often a long advert break of at least five minutes.

Sport is a national obsession, with a lot more on sports such as cycling, motor-cycling and motor-racing. Soccer, of course, is the main attraction, and matches are often repeated again and again. For internationals, the commentators get very worked up when goals are scored for Spain: they shout ‘goal’ and hold the note for as long as they can, before becoming completely hyperactive - as in, 'goooooaaaaaaaaal. Goal por Espanya! Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal! Goal!'. It's definitely not 'Grandstand'.

Daytime chat show programmes - of which there are a huge number - are notable for large groups of guests - six or seven is not uncommon - who often all talk at once. Seemingly random camera shots often focus on the crotch area with gratuitous, lingering images of women’s cleavages. (This can happen in any programme, actually). Women’s make-up - especially for late middle-aged celebrities - is often heavy to the point of scary, with lashings of mascara and eye-liner featuring prominently.

One of the most interesting contrasts with the UK is the Spanish equivalent of ‘Deal or No Deal’ , called ‘Alla Tu’, on Tele 5. It’s much more fun that the UK version to watch – completely hyper-active. Expect spontaneous singing and dancing (another facet of Spanish TV, generally), especially if someone gets a run of bad luck - they have a song they sing, which goes something on the lines of, 'let's do away with the bad luck'. The absence of Noel Edmonds helps, of course: there is none of the faux seriousness in trying to build up the tension. The other contrast with Noel Edmonds is that the host is usually the oh-so-televisual Jesus Vasquez – a fantastically worked-out gay man, and generally regarded as one of the most handsome in Spain.

On the plus side, Catalan TV makes some wonderful documentaries - my favourite being the 'Routes of Faith' programme every Sunday morning, when they travel around the little-known villages and towns of the Catalan Pyrenees looking at the history and fascinating early mediaeval architecture of their churches (whole chunks of the area are included as UNESCO Heritage Sites). They also buy in lots of foreign stuff (they seem to like British programmes - lots of Dr Who and Spooks), which is a good way to get your head around the heavy consonant sounds of the language.

But best of all are the South American soaps. These can show schoolgirls (looking about 25 and heavily made up) in unfeasibly sexy uniforms (tall leather boots, crotch-high skirts and copious cleavage, anyone?) - which seem to be timed mysteriously accurately for when Spanish men are returning home from work. But most show feuding families, á la Dynasty, with evil, greedy and jealous women a speciality.

The general format of all of these consists of unfeasibly complex plots, with five or six parallel story-lines (which develop tediously slowly), featuring unhappy but vengeful rich people with their (largely) contented peasants in the background. I read somewhere that this had been devised as a form of social control - to encourage the general population to aspire to the lifestyles they see, without actually fostering resentment against the rich for their wealth.

The downside of watching this stuff as a foreigner is that you learn a rather skewed vocabulary: words like murder, poison, revenge and hate, and a whole lot of unpleasant ways of bumping people off. The highlight at the end of one series, La Tormenta, was one of the women being bitten by a spider just as she was about to reach the zenith of her drawn-out evil scheme: it paralysed her, and the camera focused on her terrified face as a boa constrictor slithered into view...

Perhaps 'East Enders' could take a note or two...?

Sunday, 14 September 2008


Oh dear - I've just realised this is another whingeing blog about our recent visit to Spain. We did have a lovely holiday, honest. But each time we came across a disappointment or other, my other half says, 'You have to blog this'. So here goes, and I promise to write something more cheerful next time.

Anyway, one of the frustrations of holidays is visiting places to find they are in the process of being refurbished, rebuilt, or that their collections have been moved somewhere else. I recall many such experiences when I travelled around Europe on my month-long ‘Inter-Rail’ ticket: finding the twin towers of Cologne Cathedral wrapped in scaffolding being one of the more memorable and irritating.

More recently, the tower of Frankfurt's great church was similarly clad, although I have no doubt that lots of visitors to these shores have been saying the same thing about St Paul's Cathedral in London over the last few years (and they still haven't finished).

Now, of course I understand completely that old buildings need a lot of tlc to keep them in prime condition, and that museums have to refresh and reorganise their collections from time to time to keep them interesting. But there’s no doubt that some places seem more prone to this than others.

Having travelled a lot around Spain in recent years, it seems particularly prone to the ‘closed at short notice’ syndrome, with even the local tourist office unaware that a site or collection is currently undergoing refurbishment. Among the many joys of a recent holidays there, this happened twice.

The first was a visit planned to a restored archaeological site – a prehistoric Iberian settlement, in fact - on the edge of the resort of Calafell near Tarragona. We had visited a sister site a few days before, and been given information about this site, among others. We asked about opening hours and so forth, and were assured it was open.

Fortunately, it wasn’t too far to travel there when we visited a few days later – and just as well, as the main entrance was firmly closed, with a photocopied notice informing us that it was being refurbished and would reopen after the tourist season, in October. Quite why this timing was felt appropriate wasn’t clear – why reopen after the tourists have gone home? Still, we got to peek from outside, and it looks worth a look on our next trip.

Anyway, the experience was repeated a few days later at another site, fortunately only half an hour’s walk from where we were staying in Vilanova. This is a large and very imposing mansion on the edge of town, called Masia d’en Cabanyes. It was one of the houses belonging to a wealthy 18th-19th century family, whose son, Manuel de Cabanyes (1808-1833), became a noted poet. His life and poetry must wait for another day – it’s worth a blog in its own right – but suffice to say that this one of his family’s mansions is now a museum to the Catalan Romantic movement.

Unfortunately, the museum seems to suffer particularly badly from ‘temporary closure’ syndrome. For starters, it’s only open on Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays from 10am to 2pm, so catching it open requires planning in the first place. But, even so, it has a knack of being closed. We’ve now been five times, and still never got in.

The reasons are always wonderfully clichéd: a shortage of staff due to illness (can’t they provide cover?); staff on annual holidays (er – ditto – and can’t this be planned in advance...?); and, on this occasion, sudden problems with the electrics - requiring a week’s unplanned closure. Each time there has been the hurriedly prepared print-out on a piece of paper, taped over the entrance board. It’s always very nicely apologetic, though.

We should have learned our lesson by now, of course, and telephoned ahead, just to check, but I have the strange feeling that things could go wrong between putting the phone down and getting there. Perhaps they’re just shy?

Strangely, this doesn’t seem to happen to other museums in the town: the Railway Museum and Library-Museum are doggedly open as planned, and the Can Papiol Museum (another mansion) is undergoing an elaborate and very planned closure until the end of 2009. Clearly, this seems to affect certain places more than others.

However, I'm not one to give up easily, so shall write a blog as soon as I succeed in undertaking a visit. In the meantime, don't hold your breath...

Saturday, 13 September 2008

A disappointing experience...

This is one of those reviews which is disappointing to write: reporting a place where you've had good or - at least - perfectly acceptable experiences: and then you get ripped off.

It happened on our recent holiday to Spain, with my other half and my in-laws. The bar in question was one in a place in a long strip of cafes and restaurants of various types on the seafront of Vilanova i la Geltru, just opposite its large and busy Marina. The cafe has one of the better specs, with a large area outside in which to eat, under a spacious, brand new awning.

We'd had several drinks here and the odd sandwich at various times of day and it had always been fine. Nothing fancy, but perfectly OK. However, on this visit, they tried to rip us off. When the bill came, the prices of both beers and soft drinks had mysteriously been increased from those we had paid a few days earlier, and were more than the prices on the menus at the tables.

When we pointed this out, I thought they'd try the excuse that eating outside brings with it a higher price, as is often the custom in Mediterranean countries - fair enough, actually, so long as the prices on the menu make this clear, and their pricing policy is consistent from day to day.

But no, the waiter sheepishly just brought us another bill, this time with the right prices, as set out on the menu.

What a pity. They've just lost our custom forever, and earned themselves a bad review in the process...

(You can see the full review on Qype).

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Olèrdola - 4,000 years of Catalan history

The archaeological site at Olèrdola, despite the unpromising official name, is one of the most extensive in Catalonia.

Oddly overlooked by many guide-books, this imposing and strategic mountain-top site, with its stunning views over the Penedès plain, has been occupied for over 4,000 years in various guises, and was only completely abandoned in the late 19th century. The site has remains from the Bronze Age through to the 13th century, as well as a museum and interpretation centre.

Admittedly, it’s no Pompeii, as apart from the walls and a church, most of what’s here is restricted to low walls and foundations, and features cut into the limestone rock, such as hearths, silos and tombs. But it’s a fascinating amalgam of features for anyone with an interest in history and archaeology.


Its history is complex, but essentially it was first occupied in the Bronze Age, around 2,000 BC. From this period, a few hut walls survive, along with some pottery and tools (now in the museum). Around the 8th and 7th centuries BC, at the start of the Iron Age, the first part of the wall was built.

Between the 5th and 1st centuries BC, it was occupied by the Cessetans, one of the Iberian peoples who are regarded as Spain’s first historical culture (and who have given the peninsular its name). Their town or oppidum was extensive, and the foundations of many of their buildings, including a large leather tannery, survive.

The Romans chose the site around the 1st Century BC as a regional capital to control the Penedès plain. Of their works, 1km-long circumference wall, a huge water cistern, a quarry area, street drains and remains of a watchtower survive. The site declined once Iberia was fully conquered, and for a thousand years the site was only occupied sporadically.

Then, in the 10th Century, it once again became a strategic location as a frontier town of the County of Barcelona. Formally refounded in 929AD, it played a key role in the Christian reconquest of Catalonia from the Moors, and grew beyond the walls across the whole of the summit plateau, to encompass an area of 25 hectares. The remains of a castle, two churches, two necropolises, streets, houses and yet more walls testify to its importance. The town declined again from the 12th century and was largely abandoned by the 14th, as the frontier of Christian Spain shifted south and the inhabitants moved to the more fertile and well-watered plain below. However, the site continued to be used in times of conflict, right up until the Napoleonic Wars, and the church of St Michael – the best preserved building on the site – was in regular use until 1885.

Site tour

This takes about an hour, and involves some scrambling over rocky and uneven surfaces. Many of the buildings are identifiable only from the foundations and other features cut into the limestone rock, but these are very extensive, a testament to the thin topsoil.

Starting from the south are the remains of the Roman Watchtower and Mediaeval castle, and sections of perimeter wall, mostly from the 10th Century. In the central section is the well-preserved church of St Michael. Consecrated in 935AD and built with unusual Moorish style aches, it was rebuilt in 992 in the present Romanesque style, but destroyed by the Moors in 1108. The present church was rebuilt from the ruins and dates from this time, and has simple Romanesque features, a rare window pane made from a thin sheet of quartz, and blocked-up doorways and other elements from the earlier churches.

Around the church is the first necropolis. The graves (all now empty) are cut into the rock (due to the thin soil) and are anthropomorphic – ie shaped to fit a human body. The large number of small baby- and child-sized graves testifies to the high infant mortality rates of the period. To the east is a well preserved section of wall, and to the west is the Roman Quarry, where unfinished stone blocks are still visible.

Adjacent to this is a large bare area, the site of part of the mediaeval town, where the plans of houses can be made out from the foundation cut into the rock (and yet more silos and hearths). A long rock-cut drain leads from here, via a filter pond to the impressive swimming pool-sized Roman cistern, used to collect and store rainwater. Still functional, it has a capacity of 350,000 litres and a set of steps carved along one side, used to clean the tank as well as to collect water. Further on are the remains of a mediaeval wine press and cellar area.

Moving north-east, you come to another section of mediaeval wall and a ‘street’ with a central water-channel and steps, and the foundations of more houses all date from the 10th-12th centuries. To the north west, just before the visitor centre, is the main and most impressive section of wall, with the pre-Iberian, Roman and mediaeval levels clearly visible. Here are also the remains of the Bronze Age and Iberian settlement, including a tannery and floors in which infants were buried – their skeletons are eerily re-created in the hols in which they were found.

Beyond the visitor centre, a series of mediaeval rock-cut steps leads to a spring and a platform on which were more houses (and more cisterns). To the north, a five minute walk takes you to the extensive mediaeval settlement outside the walls, which grew up between the walls and the 10th-Century chapel of Santa Maria (now in ruins). Few remains of buildings survive, but around the chapel are about a hundred anthropomorphic tombs, many clearly of newborn babies and infants. The name of the area, the Pla de Albats, comes from the Catalan word for ‘new-born’. It's an eerie reminder of what life was really like in those times.


The site is accessed from the C-15 road from Vilafranca del Penedès to Vilanova i la Geltrú, just north of the town of Canyelles. The site is 2km up a steep but good road, and there is a large car-park by the Visitor centre, in front of the main wall.

The Visitor Centre houses a small museum and interpretation centre, water fountains and toilets (including accessible toilets - although much of the site is not suitable for wheelchair users). There is also a picnic area. Allow about 20 minutes for the museum and at least an hour to walk around the site.

Good footwear is advisable to clamber over the uneven surfaces and steep paths, as well as a sun hat in summer – much of the site has little shade and I can testify that you need it in 30C heat!

If you don’t have a car, there is a foot-path from St Miquel d'Olèrdola, which is a fairly strenuous 4km, 600ft climb via a footpath (one hour) or slightly less on the road (although this is unpleasantly busy for the few hundred metres on the C-15 until you turn off for the site). St Miquel d'Olèrdola is served by the roughly two-hourly bus service from Vilafranca to Vilanova, and there is a restaurant / bar there.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Sun, sea and sand - and cultre and gastronomy - on the Costa Daurada

It is always hard to think of places to go on holiday that offer a wide variety of things to do without busting the budget. City breaks are fine for Mum and Dad on their own, but dragging small children around the Metro (or equivalent) can be a nightmare. Seaside resort can be great as a family escape, but can leave Mum and Dad feeling they've left civilisation behind. France has lots of choice when trying to combine the two, although it can be pretty pricey, and the beaches around places like Cannes and Nice aren't exactly geared up for buckets and spades.
So here's an alternative: Cambrils, on the Spanish Costa Daurada.
Cambrils is one of the main towns of this 'Golden Coast', which stretches south of Barcelona to just south of Tarragona. It's close to the main tourist airport at Reus (15km) and just 10km from the larger and better resort of Salou. Taragona itself is a 20 minute train or bus ride away. Cambrils is a much nicer propect than Salou, however. It tends to cater for families and couples, and generally doesn't go in for raucous 18-30 type clientele.

Although it is still an unashamedly touristy place, it has an historic core a kilometre or so inland, with a mediaeval church, narrow, windy streets, a traditional indoor market, a mediaeval gateway and a convent with an impressive 14th tower, the Torre de l'Ermita, located on the route of the former Royal Road from Barcelona to Valencia. To the west of the centre are the remains of a Roman Villa, now a museum of antiquities, where you can view the remains.

On the coast itself is a large port - a mixture of marina and fishing port - and the 17th century watchtower, now a small museum. Around this is the more touristy area of hotels, beaches, shops, restaurants and a very impressive seafront drive, all palm trees and elaborate paving.

There are also some seriously attractive 'Blue Flag' beaches - several miles of them - as well as a few parks. Less than 15km away is also the huge 'Port Aventura' - Spain's answer to Alton Towers, and accessible by bus and train.

On the gastronomic side, although the resort caters happily for families with pizza and Chinese restaurants and a few 'fish and chips' type places, Cambrils also has some seriously swanky fish restaurants, and has a couple with Michelin stars. Fish is landed here every day, so it is guaranteed to be fresh.

Although most visitors to the town from the UK still go with package tours, there are also some very competitive short breaks available, via Reus airport.