As part of our extended stay away from Jungle Tide and Sri Lanka – something we don’t plan to repeat, it’s been way too long – we did a kind of Brexit farewell tour to some of Europe. In two parts – the northern leg in the long summer days and the southern leg in the dying embers of autumn. Including an off-piste week in Tangier as neither of us had previously set foot in Africa (if you ignore a day in Casablanca as a fifteen year old on an educational cruise in 1964). A few impressions, then.
The natives were friendly. Without exception shocked and dismayed by the Brexit vote, their sympathy for us remainers was touching. While xenophobia is not a British monopoly, no-one on the mainland seems to link it to EU membership like so many Brits do. And the Swedes were even forgiving about the football result – as an earlier blog recounts, we were there when the deed was done. Only in Lisbon did we encounter anything like negativity, and that was sullen bad manners more than outright hostility. And not, we think, directed at us because we were British but at tourists generally. Lisbonians (is that the term?) feel a bit over-run by tourists, and not without reason. By contrast their Madeiran counterparts bent over backwards to be friendly, tourism having been the lifeblood of their island for many decades.
Which brings me to my continuing theme of language and communications. I can get by in French and stumble about in Spanish but that’s it. I’m not proud of it, but there’s little motivation when the rest of the world speaks (broken) English. Danish guests at Jungle Tide even mock their own language and seem to prefer to speak English or German. I admit to having had fearful feelings in Portugal, wondering whether to try my few words of Portuguese at the risk of falling into Spanish – would that be considered gratuitously offensive? Every tourist brochure, most signage and of course every menu appears with an English translation, often incomprehensible and sometimes hilarious. Here’s a list of items found on a single menu, in a café in the fabulous Triana market in Seville:
Grilled Meagre with Garlic
Clams to Seafaring Style
Urtafish to Rota Style
Triana market was but one of many delightful surprises we encountered. Yes, we did the big things and some of them more than lived up to their billing. Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens at sunset, Amsterdam’s Reichsmuseum, Gaudi’s Garda Familia in Barcelona, the Alcazar in Seville, the palaces and castles of Sintra near Lisbon, the Kasbah in Tangier and the cable car ride in Funchal. Copenhagen’s “Little Mermaid” also lived up to its billing as the world’s least interesting tourist attraction, by the way. But it’s always the lesser-known gems that get my juices flowing. Sometimes just because they’re special places which ought to be better known – the underground cisterns in Frederiksburg Park in Copenhagen with an astounding art installation; the Caves of Hercules near Tangier (the best free attraction I’ve ever come across). Sometimes because they’re serendipitous, spur-of-the-moment happenings – a crazy tuk-tuk tour in Lisbon with a very entertaining driver which happened because the ride on the famous Line 28 tram was off due to a road accident; an impromptu pre-Christmas night-time procession right outside our apartment in Seville involving a sizeable brass band and an elaborately carved, painted and lit piece of statuary depicting the nativity (sort of). Sometimes because they’re just wacky experiences – the Madeira Theme Park which actually does have a theme, the theme being the history of the island, told in an off-beat, childish but very fetching way; a canal cruise in Amsterdam where the captain introduced proceedings thus: “We won’t be telling you much about what you’ll see, but all the alcohol on board is included in your ticket price so as soon as we leave the quayside you need to get stuck in!”
Hallowe’en in Madeira was odd. We had our grandchildren aged five and eight with us so something had to be done. Madeira is not a place where Hallowe’en is celebrated. I did spot one diminutive cloaked figure flitting around a corner in Funchal in the afternoon just before we discovered the only shop in the city stocking any Hallowe’en-related merchandise and duly bought half of it. Although none of the supermarkets or veg shops sell pumpkins, even to eat, we still managed a fun evening before getting the kids to bed. Then there was a knock on the door and a couple of teenagers, not dressed up in any way, offered “trick or treat”. They’d obviously seen the Brits coming, I doubt if they knocked on any of the neighbours’ doors. Late at night, from somewhere nearby, came the haunting sound of a bassoon slowly playing Oranges and Lemons: “Here comes a candle to light you to bed. Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.” We never heard the instrument played again in our two weeks’ stay.
All the places we stayed were house-swaps (see the previous entry). They included a remote old farmhouse in southern Sweden, an apartment normally used to house travelling players as part of an Amsterdam theatre, tiny apartments in historic quarters of Lisbon and Seville and a breathtakingly lovely old medina house right outside the Kasbah walls in Tangier. But topping all these was the place where we stayed in Madeira. We flew in after dark and the taxi took fifteen minutes to convey us to the house up steep and winding roads. So it was something of a surprise to wake the next morning and find ourselves looking down on the runway, with incoming planes below us. Beyond that the Atlantic dotted with rocky islets. And in the other direction a view of Nuwara Eliya, in Sri Lanka’s hill country. Well, it could have been – white and pale-coloured houses dotted across a mountainside terraced with neat rows of vegetables and small banana plantations. Madeira has been the only place we’ve eaten bananas since we left Sri Lanka at the beginning of July. Since they’re grown locally they’re properly ripe and tasty, unlike the pallid imported fruits in the UK and mainland Europe.
One of the pleasures of travel is experiencing public transport in all its varied and glorious forms. I jest. But have to say that the stereotypes seem to apply. In Scandinavia buses and trains run on time almost to the second; further south they are less reliably timetabled though in the cities mercifully frequent (in Madeira we had the use of a car though you don’t see much as most of the main road system is underground). Only in Barcelona did we encounter problems; a prolonged and torrential rainstorm managed to flood their metro system and when, soaked and desperate, we finally managed to find a cab the vehicle hit a kerb in a flood and the driver refused to take us further. We were saved by a waitress in a nearby bar who made it her personal mission to find us transport to our apartment. In Tangier public transport takes the form of innumerable battered blue taxis with ripped upholstery and staggeringly cheap to hire.
In a forty eight hour period at the end of our stay in Lisbon we managed to sample travel by boat, plane, taxi, bus, train, metro, traditional tram and modern tram. Only a horse ride was missing. We’ve crossed the Straits of Gibraltar on a ferry. We’ve been through more airports than I care to remember, with mixed but usually unpleasant experiences. And airport regulations continue to baffle me. Why is it essential security procedure in one airport to remove one’s laptop from its case before putting it through a scanner while in another airport it is absolutely forbidden to do so? Ditto for footwear. But one questions such absurdities at one’s peril, so I meekly comply with whatever foolishness I’m confronted with, being the kind of guy who feels browbeaten by satnavs.
Then we returned to Britain and the chaos of buses and trains, lack of information and staff surliness that characterises our neglected public transport system. Not to mention twilight at 3pm, grey skies, grey clothes, grey faces. Why mainland Europe ever wanted us as members could be the real question.
A friend in Sri Lanka keeps me thinking of home with two new pieces of tuk-tuk wisdom for the burgeoning collection:
I BELIEVE IN ANGLES (I thought that was the title of Euclid’s autobiography)
WIN WITHOUT BASTING (A hint for cooking the Christmas turkey?)
And my proofreader daughter chips in with a couple of grammatical gems:
The reason why we have the apostrophe: it’s the difference between knowing your shit and knowing you’re shit.
The reason we use upper case letters: it’s the difference between helping your Uncle Jack off a horse and helping your uncle jack off a horse.
Finally, an image spotted in Sri Lanka some while ago which I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to use. Now seems as good a time as any.