So, it turns out that the rail network in Southern Andalusia is out of action. This was a surprise to we Eurail touting travellers. It was also a surprise to people in hotel receptions, travel information offices and even ticket booking sites on the internet. It shouldn’t really have been a surprise to any of us, it has been this way since 2015. The rails are being upgraded to cope with high-speed trains but nobody is telling anyone.
This has resulted in much bus travel over recent weeks. Some by buses put on by Renfe, the Spanish rail company, and some by private bus providers. The Renfe buses leave from and arrive at the railway stations, which are well maintained, staffed and presented. Communication could be improved between stations so that we aren’t told to catch trains further down the line where none are running. Or, indeed that there are no buses when arrival at that destination demonstrates there are. This problem meant we have often gone to bus stations.
The buses are as good as two travellers prone to motion sickness could find them. The drivers are friendly and experts at their jobs. Then there are the bus stations. Cities go all out to ensure that air arrivals are treated to the best the region has to offer and that the comforts of air travellers are well met. But, judgement of a location should not be made in the comforts of the airport. Instead, visit the bus station. While there you can ask yourself why people who use this mode of mass transit must sit in cheerless, draughty buildings on hard seats with little thought given to their comfort, entertainment or local impression. Is it because bus is the cheapest form of transport? Are bus stations a reinforcement of class? Should a city be judged on the respect it shows for the less materially affluent? I hadn’t thought about it before but I suspect the answer is yes.
During our trip we have been woken on most mornings by the dawn chorus of birds. During the times between walking to take photos of imposing castles or quaint streets that must be a nightmare to live in, we have been thinking about the dawn chorus. Between stints of active problem based learning – which is the best description I can make of French and Spanish train stations* – this melodious early morning wake up call has been much discussed. To the point we now feel a serious ornithologist will be required to set us straight.
You see we are developing a conspiracy theory. No, not about roads being closed and attractions temporarily closed for only the day we’re there. That one definitely is a conspiracy. The new one involves the dawn chorus. It starts every morning precisely at the same time – even though last week the clocks changed from Summer to Winter time. Who told the birds? And the whole symphony is exactly the same each time, the sound of the birds has not differed from Normandy to the Pyrenees. The same songs in the same order.
We have arrived at the only possible conclusion. The whole thing is a recording played through the heating systems of hotels into the rooms of guests who wouldn’t know better. Somewhere, someone is getting up early, pressing the play button and returning, sniggering, to bed. It will take some ornithological convincing to persuade us that no matter whether we are in the centre of Toulouse or the outskirts of Andorra La Vella, all the birds arrive at precisely the same time to sing on our bloody window ledge!
* This is the only reason I can think up that would lie behind the way the stations are laid out, miss labeled, have secret sections and hide the elevators (this is important to me with a torn muscle crutches and half a tonne of luggage). The are set up to improve the problem solving capacity of the rail travelling public at large. At every station we have visited new construction work was being undertaken. I wonder what fiendish new tests are being set in place for the next generation of train goers.
Andorra La Vella Old Town
Segrada Familia, Barcelona
Roman Amphitheatre, Tarrogona
William the Bastard, promised the English throne, took it against the wishes of the English nobility in 1066. As people in Jersey comment, England is part of their country. The Bayeux tapestry, still missing the ending, tells the story and has moved to a much better facility since I last saw it nearly forty years ago. I remembered it from childhood so the story is effectively told.
The other story from Normandy is more recent. The cemeteries that stretch on, white stone after white stone across in towns across this part of France leave a picture equally indelible as the tapestry. Just as I remember the needle work from childhood I also remember the stones and their inscriptions. As a child the memory that stuck most was of German graves inscribed with ages barely older than I was at the time. This time I was brought to tears by inscriptions on the gravestones of British soldiers, some as young as nineteen. Some inscriptions quoted ‘a corner of a foreign field that will be forever England, others told that duty was done and now was time for rest. The ones that brought tears to my eyes ended we love you, mum and dad.
A walk through these graveyards of potential and futures lost is the greatest anti-war message available. Maybe we should judge our leaders by how they respond to it. At the end of the day, the people conquered by William the first, came to free Normandy.
I have mixed feelings about cathedrals. Most of the historic towns in Europe have a beautifully crafted monument to human incredulity at their heart. Unlike the Vatican where the overwhelming feeling I experienced was disgust at the hundreds of gilded “art” works depicting various biblical scenes. At a time when the majority of Europe’s population was illiterate, likely to die young and living in miserable conditions, I felt the money locked up in the Vatican for the benefit of a few should have been used more commendably. Particularly by an organisation that touted itself as the carer of those less fortunate.
Cathedrals make me feel a little different. They were constructed to awe, of course. The craft in their construction is a tribute to human ingenuity and an early foray into the world of advertising – using architecture to manipulate an audience’s emotions. When confronted with sunlight streaming through stained-glass windows everyone feels something. Then there’s the sheer size, both inside and out. If you lived most of your life in a two room mud (wattle and daub) walled abode, these houses of God would be stunning. Look at this place, there must be something to those stories they are telling.
Despite their purpose, the construction of cathedrals would have acted as stimuli to the local economy. Think Nation Building Projects these days. The skilled people employed on these vast undertakings had the equivalent of a job for life. With competition between towns and bishops to have the most magnificent, I wonder if the artisans involved could name their own price from the seeming bottomless church coffers. The tradespeople would hire labour, they would need to eat, be entertained, have their own homes, provide for their families, and everything else to have a lifestyle commensurate with their talents. There are probably studies of the economics of cathedral building and the prosperity of areas during their construction. There’s some reading for me in the future.
Today was our last day in Jersey and, coincidently the last day of the hotel for the season. As the desk clerk put it – ‘Everyone is checking out tomorrow.’ She has a job in London to move on to. I suspect many of the staff are moving on somewhere else as they are not Jersey inhabitants – working in a seasonal industry would be tough. Nothing to take for granted, lack of stability, just applying the skills developed in one place to another.
We stayed on the beach side of St Helier and, despite some sunshine, we were not tempted to use the seawater swimming pool on the beach. Others were and, except for today when it rained and blew a gale, we saw people take to the water for a dip. We weren’t even present for the middle of the day when conditions would have been best. With the sun setting in the west, people were clambering down the rough concrete steps and jumping into the sea water trapped inside the swimming space.
The tides in this part of the world are huge. Kilometres of sand and rock lie uncovered on the ocean’s retreat and, a few short hours later, the waves are crashing over the breakwater and soaking the footpath. We walked a causeway back from an island. The causeway lay underwater when we were taken out to the island (it had a castle on it, of course). Eighteen soldiers garrisoned on the island were drowned one night when the heeded the warning drums and attempted to walk back to the castle as the tide rushed in.
The short cycles of the tides changes the physical nature of the resort section of St Helier dramatically, the longer cycles of seasons changes the lives of workers caring for the visitors that allow the resort to exist.
The hotel, shortly before being closed up for the season.
We love castles. Of all kinds. We gloss over the brutality involved in their use, and, in some regards the all too human reasons for their existence in the first place. We love the stamp they make on the landscape, the sheer physicality of so much stone in the one place, and their dominance over the landscape.
Castle Cornet, in Peter Port, guards the port and acts to prevent its capture and use. To this end it is positioned to rain destruction down on the Port. During the English Civil War, the castle held for the crown while the island of Guernsey sided with Parliament. The defenders of the castle took pot shots at the town until the buildings along the front were in ruin. Supplied from Jersey, an island equally divided, the castle remained untaken throughout the civil war.
Mount Orguiel Castle overlooks Gorey harbour, one so strewn with underwater hazards it’s hard to imagine any ship making it in unscathed. Advantages by a granite bluff Orguiel fills the sky on the Northern side of the harbour. Built in the twelfth century, the castle displays crenelated walls and towers ringed with arrow slits. Building over the next three centuries created flatter broader walls to withstand cannon fire and space for cannons to return that fire. The views are spectacular and the setting almost magical.
Both castles were modified to some degree by occupying forces in World War II. Cornet contains extensive3 bunkers, shelters and gun emplacements, each carefully designed to fit the castle profile and not draw attention from the air. Orguiel, closer to and facing France, has fewer modifications that are also concealed.
We topped the history jaunts of the last few days off with La Hougue Bie (Hug-a-bee?), a Neolithic mound that lights up inside at the summer solstice as the rising sun casts its rays through the low, narrow opening and lights the chambers inside. And the Jersey Tunnels, blasted, hammered and levered out of the cliff face, these were constructed by occupying forces between 1940 and 1945. Slave and forced labour were used to create them with little in the way of safety. The deaths of hundreds of the workers, particularly prisoners from Eastern Europe, in their construction a reminder that all castles have brutality at their core.
Guernsey’s St Peter Port sits behind a massive Seawall, today we got to see it in use. The tide most of the way in with a breeze behind the sea and waves pounded against the wall and sprayed over the top. Flying is a terrible thing to set against our need to remove greenhouse gases from the atmosphere rather than put more in but how else do we get people to know the world? Seeing people live their lives reduces the chances of seeing them as ‘other’. A necessity for a fair and peaceful world. Cutting people off in their own little worlds creates fear of the outsider. It’s a bit of a bind. The seas will rise, it’s already locked in, there are lags in the natural system and we won’t be able to reduce the greenhouse gas concentrations in time to prevent some things from happening. I worried about the future of St Peter Port when I saw the tide come in.
So, for most of the trip it’s rail or ferry, not perfect but far less a contributor to the build up of greenhouse gases. Our Ferry came late but made it to St Helier on Jersey ahead of the storm that now whistles outside the hotel windows. The windows of the doomed hotel. It sits with the sea on two sides and barely above it at high tide. I’ve openly seen it in the dark but the waves spray over the Seawall to add to the corrosion problems of the parked vehicles and causing braves British tourists to scurry to the other side. One meter of sea level rise, probably a good deal less, and the hotel will need to be amphibious. Across the road, at the same height above current sea level, the hotels, bars and restaurants all have basements. The basements will not last. How many times could they be reclaimed from flooding. St Peter Port is in trouble, I think it is already too late for parts of St Helier, and I feel worse about flying.
Front at St Peter Port
View from hotel at St Helier