Sunday, 28 June 2009

From the Castro to Castrelos

Something is going on at the Castro: obras of an unusual sort.

On the west side of the Castro park, the remains of a pre-roman (second century BC to third century AD) settlement always used to be pretty overgrown. In the spring of this year, notices went up warning dog-owners not to let their pets run into the settlement enclave as the grass had been sprayed with something toxic. Then, in the last few weeks the grass in the area has been cleared, piles of stones are around, supports are in place holding up walls and diggers are in action. Something is happening but it is not clear what!

According to one source, information boards which used to be alongside the site were long ago vandalised. All that remain are empty boards but they are supposed to be being replaced soon. Maybe a process of restoration is going on. I await further developments with interest.

It seems that the settlement was discovered accidentally in 1929 when some trees were being planted but nothing much was done with the discovery until 1952 when archeologists got round to investigating the site. Circular ruins are apparently pre-roman while rectangular ones have been "romanised". Much of the investigation was directed by Jose Maria Alvarez Blazquez who set up an exhibition of his finds in the Quinones de Leon museum in the Castrelos Park, a museum and pazo well worth visiting.

Today the Castrelos Park was hosting the festa das penas, the festival of neighbourhood associations. As many of these are connected with local churches there was an open air mass followed by a procession through the park: small and not so small girls in regional dress and the inevitable gaita music.

The pena de actividades creativas had an exhibition of its work in a tent.

There were the usual stalls selling do-nuts, sweets and plastic windmills for the children but this time there was more.

No fiesta worth its name is complete without a proper feast and this one was certainly worth its name.

Tables were set up for the community lunch and barbecues were busy grilling sardines. The threatened rain restricted itself to a bit of drizzle; nothing was going aguar this fiesta!

Friday, 26 June 2009

Pigs might fly ...

If pigs could fly, maybe they would go along to the A Laxe Centro Comercial here in Vigo to see one of their mates, a wonderfully blue winged porker standing outside the entrance.

Now, when we think of animals and Spain, it's usually bulls that come to mind. Allariz, which I visited recently, celebrates
A Festa do Boi, the feast of the bull/ox in the first week or so of June. This fiesta dates back to the middle ages and reflects some of the Jewish - Christian conflict of the time. It seems that the Jewish community of Allariz would make fun of the priests and the religious symbols in the Corpus Christi procession as it went past the streets of the Jewish quarter. One year a certain Xan de Arzua, a devout if not very forgiving Christian, decided he had had enough and rode in the procession on a bull, throwing ants and ashes at the "disrespectful Jews".

And so began a new tradition, running garlanded oxen or bulls through the town, which continues to this day. The fiesta has extended nowadays to a week-long affair, quite a big tourist attraction including a day of activities for children so that they don't feel left out. As this is Spain, of course, there has to be some eating and drinking involved and so a big communal meal is organised for all the people involved in the fun and games.

And there there is Pamplona and the San Fermines, described by Hemingway in his book,
The Sun also Rises. The religious aspect of the feast of San Fermin, celebrated with bull-running in Pamplona early in July but in reality rather later in the year, seems to have got lost in the mists of time. What we are left with is the opportunity for crazy people of many nationalities to have a go at running through the streets of Pamplona chasing or chased by large and dangerous animals.

Here in Vigo, however, we do not run any risks from the pigs which adorn the shopping centre. Sponsored by Lalin Pork Art, originating with some artists from Lalin in the province of Pontevedra, it is a form of street art, intended to engage the public and arouse some interest. The pigs are here until the end of August when they move on to fresh fields and pigsties new.

This has been described as Galicia's answer to the Cow Parade which I saw back in 2004 in Manchester, colourful cows spread over the whole of the city centre with a map to help you locate all of them: great fun if shopping with children. That exhibition also moved around a lot and I saw some of the cows again in Florence the following year on a very cold Christmas visit. The exhibits from the Cow Parade were sponsored by people such as Elton John, Ringo Starr and Queen Rania of Jordan and were finally auctioned for charity.

Mind you, the best example of such street art, for my money, is the Palomas por la Paz which I saw on my first ever visit to Bilbao in the summer of 2004. Local schools had been given huge model doves to decorate as they liked. These were then placed around the city, perched in trees, suspended in flight between buildings, drinking from fountains or just plain standing around, each one with a label saying which group of children had decorated it. This was street art with a message.

Sadly there is an extra message with the street art of Lalin Pork Art. Each exhibit has a plaque saying who designed it and then an accompanying message asking the public to respect the art and reminding them that anyone damaging an exhibit is liable to a fine of 1,200 euros! Ouch! But then, they do hope to sell each little piggy for around 3,500 euros!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Leaping over bonfires

Today, or more correctly tonight, is la noche de San Juan, St John's Eve, a festival celebrated by lighting bonfires, letting off fireworks and grilling and eating sardines in the streets. There are, however, a few problems this year as the sardine catch has been poor and so grilled sardines will be more expensive. Also some places are restricting their bonfires because of EU regulations as they want to keep their beaches' bandera azul status. Fewer sardines and fewer bonfires!

I first experienced
la noche de San Juan quite accidentally a couple of years ago when I brought a group of sixth form students to La Coruna on a visit which coincided with the festivities. One of my students, concerned for his rather baggy trousers, came to tell me that his exchange partner said he had to jump over a bonfire. Was this true? I assured him that it was not obligatory and that I would really prefer him not to do so as I had signed insurance documents saying that the students were not going to take part in dangerous sports!

But jumping bonfires is a part of
la noche de San Juan and la Coruna's Riazor beach is one of the best places to see the fun.

Apparently this dangerous activity (the local free paper gives advice on what to do if you catch fire: do not run! throw yourself down and roll on the ground!) ensures you good fortune for the coming year. What's more, if you have something you wish to forget, you can write it on a piece of paper and throw it on the bonfire: instant amnesia! Unmarried people can look out of their window as June 24th dawns and see the love of their life go past. I have not found any guarantee that thelove of your life stops and notices you!! However, getting up early to do that guarantees that you will not be tired all year.

Washing in the dawn dew on June 24th is said to protect you from evil for the coming year. Some say that washing your face at dawn with the water in which various herbs and wild flowers have stood overnight is even better and is also good for the complexion. And yes, I have seen people walking along with large bunches of the correct wild flowers, on sale in various florists. Offered the chance to do this during my San Juan visit to La Coruna, I declined. Somehow, old flower water does not appeal to me. I'll stick to my beauty products.

And then, there are the witches. Galicia has benevolent witches,
meigas, as well as the bad kind, brujas. Many places choose a local beauty to be chief meiga for the noche de San Juan. A cartoon in the local free paper shows that some people believe that all girls are meigas on St John's eve while others believe that certain girls, expecially ex-wives or girlfriends, are brujas all year round.

Of course, the whole thing is connected with the summer solstice. In Britain, stonehenge and celebrating the solstice has been taken over again by would-be pagans to a large extent. Here though, the pagan ritual continues to be subsumed into Christianity. Conveniently it seems that John the Baptist was born on June 24th and his father lit a bonfire to announce the event.

Meanwhile, this morning in Vigo, preparations were underway to build a bonfire in Berbes Square, one of many places to organise a celebration.

There will also be bonfires on Samil beach and Vitrasa, the Vigo bus company, has kindly extended its bus service from the city to the beach into the small hours of the morning to allow people to get there. Community cooperation in action!

Sunday, 21 June 2009

The book club goes out for the day

Sometime in May in the Club de Lectura Frances at the library someone said that what we really needed was a trip to France. This would encourage some of the more reluctant, less confident speakers to make a real effort to express themselves. It was a good idea but unfortunately at that late stage in the year (the library's activities work on the academic calendar) it was really not feasible. Quel dommage! everyone agreed.

The next best thing, it was suggested, would be a more local "residential", a weekend away somewhere, maybe going to a spa where we could have all kinds of therapeutic treatments as well. The main advantage,
naturellement, would be having meals together, going to visit places and talking French ALL THE TIME! In the end, however, this proved equally impossible. Few people could manage to take a weekend out of their lives at short notice and then, there was the cost.

So we settled for a day out, with lunch together in some nice place and everyone doing their best to speak French all the time. Allariz, near Ourense/Orense was chosen as our destination. I came back from the UK just in time and got up early on Saturday to rendez-vous (there's the French again) at 9.20 near the Plaza de Espana. We were a dozen people so we split into three carloads and off we went, arriving at Allariz in time for late morning coffee.

Allariz is a well preserved, well restored little town in the valley of the river Arnoia, with several small museums: leather, cloth, toys, iconography among others.

part from an appeal for independencia at the entrance to the alameda, there was no graffiti to be seen and, amazingly, no roadworks. Perhaps they are reserved for the newer parts of the town.

The old town has a Roman bridge and the usual collection of picturesque narrow streets and numerous churches, as well as the rather imposing Convent of Santa Clara.

We tramped up to the
monte del castillo to discover that it exactly matched its description: the hill where the castle used to be. Although nothing much remains of the castle, some of the old fortifications remain and the old gateway has been incorporated into the streets of the town.

For lunch we had booked a table at the Acea da Costa restaurant, a former mill where you can still see the river rush under the building although we opted to eat outside under the trees on the riverside. The food was excellent and reasonably priced.

By now some of our party had used up their French and had reverted to Spanish. Earlier in the day, however, we had been greeted with a friendly
bonjour from one of the locals who had heard French spoken.

After lunch some of us went for a digestive stroll, which turned into quite a lengthy hike, along the riverbank, choosing the shady side as it was a very hot day. Others gave in to the call of shopping as Allariz has outlet shops for many of the big names, selling clothes by Massimo Dutti, Adolfo Dominguez and such at bargain prices.

At the end of the day we all got back together for a drink in the Plaza Mayor. It was time to embarrass Maribel, the book club co-ordiator, by giving her a thank you present.

And then we were ready to get back in the cars and return to Vigo, with plans for a visit to, perhaps, Marseilles next year. Who knows; if enough club members put pressure on at the library there might even be funding towards the cost of such an excursion!

Friday, 19 June 2009

Back in Vigo

So here we are, back in Vigo after a hectic fortnight in the UK, trying, with only partial success, to see ALL the old friends we had promised to visit. Our final day there involved travelling across Greater Manchester by bus through the rain to lunch with friends.

But to be fair to the northwest of England, after the first few days of cold, wet and miserable weather, it improved considerably and the region showed itself off very well: lush greenery, wild flowers and even goslings on the canal!

Wednesday, however, was wet, not just rain but special Manchester torrential rain, creating huge puddles which the drains refused to swallow. Yesterday, by way of a total contrast, was crisp and clear for our journey back here and so we said goodbye to a sunny UK.

Now, Liverpool's John Lennon airport, our point of departure, is proving to be a victim of its own success and has difficulty processing passengers through security. Long queues of tense people fret because they are aware that their plane is almost certainly boarding while they are still on the wrong side of the security gate, despite having arrived at the airport in plenty of time.

Forewarned, we had sacrificed our principles and purchased peace of mind via on line passes which got us into fast track security checks. The airport promises to invest the money in improving facilities for all so our queue-jumping guilt was somewhat assuaged.

I suspect though that it was the slow passage of many through security that led to our plane being slow to board and so taking off a little late. A large party of Spanish schoolchildren were the last to board. Sleepy Spanish youngsters (it was not yet 7.00 in the morning) were looking for no longer existent window seats and equally sleepy teachers were finally snapping: No hay remedio. Sientate alli, Sara! Sara, por favor!!!

Then there were the baggage problems. Encouraging as many people as possible to travel with hand luggage only causes its own kind of chaos. Some of the "small" cases had to be taken off the plane and processed to go in the hold. A further delay!

Our plane was supposed to arrive at Oporto at 9.10. At 9.20 we started our descent to the airport. The Galizabus to Vigo was due to leave at 9.45, with a three hour wait for the next one if we missed it. So it was a case of grabbing our bags and running, just in time for the bus. Thank heavens we had only hand luggage!

We were "entertained" during our journey by an opinionated young man who kept up a running conversation with the driver at the top of his voice in a mix of Spanish, French and Italian, explaining to us all what is wrong with Spain at present: immigration, Chinese people who don't pay taxes, housing, schools, just about anything at all. It was a relief to get off the bus.

Finally back in Vigo, we walked home from the bus station in the afternoon sun, dropped our bags off at home and went around the corner to have a late (8 euro) lunch at the Cafe Cortes. Oh, the wonders of the Spanish menu del dia!

Checking out the city this morning, everything seems to be in order. The breadshop lady complained about the heat, there was the usual unemployed person asking for una ayuda outside the Eroski supermarket, there was a demonstration, complete with whistles, on Urzaiz and the wild girl greeted some of us by name as she asked us for money outside the Cafe de la Reconquista.

Oh, and the roadworks are still progressing. Mind you, the centre of Manchester is similarly in turmoil as they do things to the tram system - mellorando o futuro no doubt!

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Oh for online booking!

Some time ago I discovered that Leonard Cohen is coming to the Castrelos Park in Vigo in August. The newspaper where I gleaned that information told me that tickets could be purchased from the Tourist Office. I had been charmed, delighted, completely overwhelmed by Mr Cohen's performance in Manchester last year. The open air venue in the Castrelos park is appealing. Finally a friend and fellow Leonard fan is visiting in August, coinciding with the concert. So I went to the Tourist Information Office to enquire.

No information was available! The helpful gentleman there told me that he thought the ayuntamiento had not yet booked anyone for Festival Castrelos. So why was the local paper talking about it? He had no answer and I made my despondent way home.

A week or so later I took a look online. This time I found out that tickets would be on sale through Caixanova from Monday June 8th, from ten o' clock in the morning. As we planned to be in the UK by that date I duly made a note in the diary for June 8th: book Leonard Cohen tickets. After all, we had bought tickets online for concerts at the Caixanova Centro Social several times without problems.

June 8th arrived. I went online. The official Leonard Cohen website said tickets were on sale and there was a link to Caixanova - taquilla (box office) but no sign of a Festival Castrelos or Leonard Cohen. No results at all for the concert date!!!

On June 9th I tried again.The same story! So today, June 10th, I phoned Servinova on the number given on the Caixanove web page. When I got through, having been told that my conversation could be recorded, I had to choose between Gallego and Castellano as my language of choice, pressing the appropriate key on my phone. Then came a series of options: for general information press 1, for a list of venues press 2 and so on. Eventually I was connected to a human being!

I explained the problem. Oh, that was easy. The tickets are not yet on sale. No, she did not know when they would be on sale. I should keep on trying on the website.

For total lack of information press .............

Monday, 8 June 2009

Back to Blighty briefly!

From the sunshine of Vigo's Samil beach where we caught crabs in the rock pools and from lizard spotting in the Castro park we travelled home for a couple of weeks to visit friends and family in the UK.

We flew back through the clouds to the cooler sunshi
ne of Liverpool's John Lennon airport and hurried to catch the Terravision bus to Manchester city centre.

Stocking up with a few basic essentials before catching the local bus out of Manchester towards home, one of the differences between Spanish and British city centres struck us at once. We've got used to Vigo city centre supermarkets with everyday family shoppers. City centre Manchester supermarkets (yes, they do exist) are full of Manchester workers in a hurry on their lunch break. I won't even mention price differences!

So we made it home, still with enough sunshine to sit and chat to a neighbour in the garden. (Quite serendipitously we were also just in time to vote on the European elections, with a ballot paper as long as your arm and eventual results which led to another round of doom and gloom!) The grass clearly needed cutting but we were assured that the weather had been dry and sunny, even hot, for the last couple of weeks, so that should not be a problem. There would be time to get the mower out in the next few days and there was a little matter of local festivities to deal with.

For Whit Friday in our neck of the woods is one of the few occasions when we come close having a
fiesta. The morning was fine and clear and the Whit Walks went ahead as usual, the local children following the Sunday School banners in a procession through the villages before indulging in the traditional pea-shooter competitions. Woe betide anyone who gets in their way!

Bus services and parking arrangements are seriously disrupted later in the day as the Band Contest gets underway. Brass bands from all over the ocuntry and from outside the country come to play in each of the villages and compete to see which is judged to be the best band.

Last year was warm and sunny but this year the clouds gathered in the afternoon and by early evening the rain had started to come down. Bandsmen had to wear raincoats and even the police horses looked cold. But the contest continued all the same although the crowds who normally line the streets six or seven deep were seeking refuge in the pubs and friends who usually folllow the bands from village to village opted to get in the car and go home. Spanish expressions spring to mind, such as
aguar la fiesta which means to be a party pooper but literally to water down the party

On the Saturday morning the bridge was being decorated for the Tame Duck Race, nothing to do with domesticated ducks but a matter of floating plastic ducks down a section of the River Tame.
By the afternoon though the rain was back. The scheduled Beer Walk took place all the same. Teams of hardy or crazy people dressed as WWII soldiers, cartooon characters, jungle animals and much more tramped from village to village, stopping at all the participating pubs for refreshment and collecting money for charity along the way.

We, however, stayed at home, struggling once more to gain Internet access. Having solved our Vigo connection problems, we now found that we needed to coax and cajole our UK connection into letting us access email and Internet. Nothing changes!

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Out to the Islands

Out in the Ria de Vigo are the Islas Cies, a nature reserve cum tourist destination. Visiting the islands with my daughter and her family, here on a visit, I got into conversation with a teacher accompanying a group of Spanish high school students. In his opinion, it is easy for those who live near a treasure like the Islas Cies to take them for granted and not quite forget about them but put off visiting until "another day".

So he feels that everyone should visit them every so often to remind themselves of what they have. He usually visits three or four times a year, whenever he has visitors and wants to impress them with the beauties of this part of Galicia.

We feel
the same way and that was our intention on Monday, as well as wanting to visit one of the best beaches in the world - it must be true, the Guardian says so!!! The ferry to the islands has only just started running again on a daily basis. Throughout the month of May they have been on weekends only and from mid September to Easter no-one can visit at all.

So we took advantage of the fine weather and set off on the boat, having told them which boat back we intended to catch, information required by the ticket office in order to regulate the number of visitors at any one time. In June children under 12 travel free, a fact which pleased us with three children in tow. We were given plastic bags para la basura as no rubbish can be left behind; there are no litter bins there.

We arrived at the island and followed the path which leads to the only campsite (limited places, limited length of stay) and the small self-service restaurant where we intended to have lunch. En route we went past the lago, a lagoon in which no-one is allowed to swim in order to protect the marine life. The shoals of fish were impressive.

After lunch
we headed for the beach, a wonderful expanse of white sand. The water was still a bit too cold for me to venture in much beyond my knees but there were hardy souls swimming out there with the fish.

As the afternoon wore on sea mist began to move in. Gradually the other island disappeared, then the boats moo
red in the bay and finally parts of the main island itself. It did not diminish our enjoyment, just added another dimension. And as we finally set off for Vigo on the return journey the island looked mysteriously tropical and strange.

Vigo itself was similarly shrouded in mist as the boat pulled in.

Away from the harbour, however, the sun still shone as we encouraged tired children to trudge up the hill to home, bath, supper and at last bed. Another good day!

Monday, 1 June 2009

Into Portugal!

Some weeks ago, my friend Maria from the yoga class discovered during a conversation about places to visit that we do not have a car here in Vigo. Now, this is not usually a problem for us, apart from getting to occasional travel blackspots such as Ribadavia! Maria, however, was quite horrified and decided that we needed taking in hand. So she began to plan an excursion, somewhere out beyond Cangas or maybe across the border into Portugal, before she had even asked her husband whether he really felt like driving two unknown English people around. Eventually though both husbands were consulted and a decision was taken: destination - Portugal, day - a Saturday in late May, lunch - somewhere good but not too expensive.

The Saturday in question dawned damp and the forecast was not good. Maria phone early to consult. We decided to go ahead anyway; Friday had also started wet and had then improved so maybe Saturday would do the same. And indeed, as we headed south it got better. Maria and Juan had some little matrimonial discussion about the route. He thought they had agreed one route, she another. He thought the ferry from A Guarda into Portugal would be a good idea but she did not.

It all settl
ed down at last into a nice drive, crossing the river by bridge to Vilanova de Cerveira and through Cominha, past neat houses with red-tiled roofs. The scenery was geographically similar, if not in fact identical, to southern Galicia but subtly different, divided into precise plots and vineyards. We stopped to buy cherries from a roadside stall, Maria arguing the price (too high for her!) with the stall holder while I marvelled at how much cheaper they were than in the UK!

We arrived at Ponte de Lima, our first destination, which signposts told us is the oldest town in Portugal. Coincidentally, they were having a mediaeval fair in the town and we walked over the Roman bridge, looking down at displays of archery and falconry and lots of people in fancy dress.

Then we moved on in search of lunch. settling for Vilaverde where we ate a very good parillada de peixes, a selection of grilled fish accompanied by more vegetables than is usual in Spain. A good meal in nice surroundings.

After a digestive stroll, we
headed back to the car, intending to move on to Valenca. Somewhere on the road out of Vilaverde, however, the signposts disappeared and we drove for some time through pleasant countryside, clearly not heading for Valenca but not quite sure where exactly we were heading. Juan did comment at one point that Maria was not the best co-pilota in the world.

Eventually we turned around and went back to the first roundabout outside Vilaverde to find that from that direction the signposts were as clear as they could possibly be. By now, tired of picturesque minor roads, Juan chose the motorway and we were soon in Valenca.

This old border town still has all its massive fortifications in a state of excellent preservation. We had coffee in the pousada - Portuguese parador - and discussed la crisis, the political legacy of Thatcher, the miners' strike of her era, las Malvinas and more. Then, after admiring the view across the river to Tui, we went walkabout in the town.

Within the walls the town has kept its narrow streets and old houses in good repair with some fine examples of Portuguese tile work.

For such a small town it has a surprising large number of chapels and churches, quite normal for Portugal according to our very informative friends.

If given her head, Maria would have persuaded us to go and look at many other places but it really was time to go back over the old iron bridge across the river, back into Spain and eventually to Vigo.

Gran Via was one lo
ng traffic jam; was everyone returning from a Saturday out sight-seeing? We stopped near the fishermen statue, gathered our belongings, thanked Maria and Juan several times over and said our goodbyes Spanish style with Juan leaping out of the car - never mind the queue of traffic - for the kisses on the cheeks and a shake of hand.

The crossings all had green men to speed us on our way back home to finish the day in good English style with .... a nice cup of tea!