A Quick Trip to the North Sea

In mid February, you can feel a bit blue no matter where you are. So when our friends Geoff and Carolee said that they were coming to visit from Canada, it was just the lift we needed. Together we planned a quick trip to the north east coast of England, in search of perfect places.

Years ago, Carolee and Geoff had been to Whitby. They had loved it and wanted to go back so we took a train from London to Leeds, picked up a rental car and headed out to coast of North Yorkshire.

Whitby is a quiet fishing village surrounded by the North York Moors.

Looking down on Whitby, with the North York Moors beyond

It is remote and isolated by the moors so it never became a major trading centre. However, its natural geography, a wide estuary between two cliffs, made it a valuable port.

The fishing boats of Whitby

By the end of the 18th century Whitby was renowned for shipbuilding and whaling. Captain Cook and William Scoresby (an Arctic navigator who began on the whaling ships) both learned their sailing skills here. Whaling in particular brought money into the town, and the wealth eventually encouraged Whitby’s development as a spa tourist destination.

The area is also a primary source of the mineral Jet, and the streets are lined with jewelers’ creations. The village has lovely quiet cobbled streets, spectacular views, and a terrific selection of good restaurants. Even in the dreary days of February there were a fair number of tourists – it must be packed in the high season.

High above the town sits the ghostly ruin of Whitby Abbey.

The ruined abbey above the town of Whitby

The first abbey was built in Whitby in 656. Called Streoneshalh (the old Norse name), it was a “double-monastery” for men and women and became a great centre of learning. It was here, in the 7th century, that Caedmon, first English poet whose name is actually known, wrote his poems in praise of God. This first abbey was ruined by the Danes and a second was built on the site in the 11th century. However, it was destroyed under the reign of Henry VIII and left to crumble and to suffer additional damage during the Second World War.

Whitby Abbey and cemetery

The Whitby Abbey ruin has been an inspiration for people throughout the centuries. It formed part of the setting of Dracula, by Bram Stoker so it is a contemporary Goth pilgrimage. We didn’t don our black garb, but we did huddle in the cemetery, battling in fierce winds that threatened to blow us off the cliff.

Most tourists would not chose the North Sea as a destination in February.

The cold waves of February along the coast at Whitby

A walk along the coastal path was invigorating, exhilarating and damp, just the kind of thing to spark a good appetite for a pint of local ale and an order of fish and chips. Whitby also specializes in smoked kippers, which has got to be the best breakfast in the world if you are planning a journey out on the Moors.

Just across the Moors from Whitby is the town of Goathland. Goathland (the “h” is slient) known all over the world as the fictional town of Aidensfield, the setting for the BBC series “Heartbeat”. Carolee has been researching her family tree for years and she had traced a distant cousin to Goathland, so off we went.

The main street of Goatland

Goathland is a tiny village of about 400 people. There are lovely stone paths and access points to footpaths on the Moors. The area is owned by the Duchy of Lancaster (basically, the Queen) and her Scottish Blackface sheep have a right to graze anywhere. There are no fences and the sheep roam everywhere, very much in ownership of the village. You have to watch carefully where you walk.

Little has changed in the 3 centuries since Carolee’s cousin Richard Middleton lived in Goathland, although he wouldn’t have seen the North Yorkshire Moors steam train station that was certainly a highlight of our visit.

Goathland Train station

It is the station that was used in the Harry Potter movies for the Hogsmeade stop. With Dracula, Heartbeat and Harry Potter, I was beginning to wonder if the entire area was real or imagined.

One of Tim’s preoccupations on this trip has been to try to find “the perfect seaside village”. So while in this part of England, we decided to take a day trip north to Alnmouth, which Tim thought he had seen from the window of a train many years ago. We wanted to find out if it was real, or imagined.

To get to Alnmouth, you need to go through Alnwick, a medieval market town dating from 600 AD. In 2002 Alnwick (pronounced Annick) was voted by Country Life as “the most picturesque market town in Northumberland, and the best place to live in Britain.” It has thrived as an agricultural centre and its history is intimately linked to the castle that rises above it.

Alnwick castle is still privately owned. It has been in the possession of the Percy family since 1309, making it the oldest continuous family-owned castle in the UK, other than Windsor Castle. Perhaps the most famous Percy was Sir Henry, known as Harry Hotspur, who lived there from 1364-1403.

Statue of Harry Hotspur

“… and by his light did all the chivalry of England move to do brave acts” Shakespeare, Henry IV part 2

The Castle is picture perfect.

Alnwick Castle

It, too, has been used as a film set (Harry Potter, Black Adder, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves). The Percy family was at home, so we were not able to go in to visit. Instead, we walked through the town and found a surprisingly good place to eat a light tapas lunch before heading out to the seaside town of Alnmouth.

Alnmouth was an important trading port at the mouth of the river Aln.

Alnmouth dunes at the mouth of the river Aln

The town was very prosperous in the 18th century when the river was used as a major shipping route for grain and smuggling. In 1748, John Wesley described it as “A small seaport town famous for all kinds of wickedness”.  But a huge storm in 1806 destroyed much and diverted the river, changing the fortunes of the town. Today, there is a population of only about 600, none of whom seemed particularly wicked.

It surprised me to find sandy dunes in England. The beach was dotted with winkle and clam shells, and smoothly polished natural coal.

The beach at Alnmouth

The wind was fierce, throwing a spray of fine sand in our faces. There is a reason why tourists are not out picnicking on the beach in February.

Alnmouth is on St. Oswald’s Way, a 97-mile walking route in Northumberland that stretches from Holy Island to Heavenfield. It sounds like the route that we might take another time, as we continue the search for the perfect place.

Amanda, Carolee and Geoff on the beach at Alnmouth with a brisk North Sea wind

Ferry ‘cross the Mersey

Tim’s mother’s family came from Bromborough, a suburb of Birkenhead on the Wirral Peninsula. The Wirral is directly across the river Mersey from Liverpool. It is easy to get there by rail – there is a tunnel under the river. But of course the more interesting and fun trip is by ferry. Ferry ‘cross the Mersey.

Tim on the Mersey Ferry, at the dock in Liverpool

The Gerry & the Pacemakers song plays as you start out on the ferry. Click on the link for a wonderful YouTube clip of them singing on the ferry. Nothing has changed. You can’t get the song out of your head for days.

The ferry took us to the Woodside dock, where we took a side trip to “The U-Boat Story” – a tour of a WW2 U-boat.


U-534 was sunk the day that peace was declared. It had not surrendering and seemed to be evading capture. There were rumours that it was carrying important Nazi documents, or perhaps even Nazi officials. It was attacked by RAF fighters and sunk just beyond Norway. It rested on the bottom of the ocean until 1993, when it was raised, cleaned up and brought to Merseyside as an interactive display. They have divided it into sections so that you can see the inner workings. No treasure was ever found, and the boat remains steeped in mystery.

From the Woodside dock, we got on the Merseytravel train (like a metro) and travelled about 20 minutes to Spital in search of “Ravensheugh”, Tim’s mother’s family home. Tim and his family had stayed there just prior to immigrating to Canada.He had gotten rough directions to the house from his cousin.

Much has changed in the intervening 60 years of course. Spital Road is a busy thoroughfare, and we felt quite disheartened as we walked along. We looked carefully at all of the houses that we thought might be Ravensheugh, but we had no number and there were no names posted. We were just about to leave when a couple pulled up into a driveway next to us. We asked them if they had ever heard of a house called Ravensheugh. Sure, they said, the house just down the street calls itself Ravensheugh, but the original Ravensheugh is just where you are standing.

Tim at Ravensheugh, Spital Road

The house is not as grand as it was when Tim’s family was there, but at least we had found it. We walked back through the wild and wonderful park that Tim would have played in as a child, feeling connected to a personal past.

We got back on the train and got out at the next stop, Port Sunlight. In 1887, William Lever and his brothers were looking for a place to build a new soap factory to expand their business. They purchased acreage between the Mersey river and the railway line and proceeded to build a factory, plus a model village to house the workers which they called Port Sunlight. Lever thought of the business as a profit share, but instead of giving the workers the extra money, he built them homes based on principles promoted by William Morris and the Arts and Crafts movement.

Port Sunlight

There are 900 lovely homes in Port Sunlight. Lever used a number of different designers for the homes, so each section is quite unique and fronts on wide, open streets. Lever built schools, community centres, a hospital and the Lady Lever Art Gallery. The community is protected from further development and preserved as an important historic area. It was a bold social experiement in valuing the lives of workers. Certainly it didn’t hurt the Lever Brother’s business. Sunlight soap is known the world over.

Some of the workers houses in Port Sunlight

By the time we arrived at The Lady Lever Art Gallery it was closing in 20 minutes.  We dashed in and were stopped dead in our tracks by some of our most favourite Pre-Raphaelite paintings. Burne-Jones’ The Beguiling of Merlin, Holman Hunt’s Scapegoat, Rossetti’s Blessed Damozel– our jaws dropped. We started rushing from room to room trying to gather them into our hearts before they closed the doors. A very kind guard said to me, “You know, most people plan to spend a whole day here.”

They gently pushed us out the doors and we drifted back to the train and back to the 21st century.

Of course one of the must sees in Liverpool is the Cavern Club on Matthew Street, where the Beatles played as their fame took off. The club is still there, although it has been moved a bit over from its original location. Three floors under the street, the stage is at one end of the small brick cavern, and the whole club is only 3 cavern arches wide. Adele played there just last year – it is hard to fathom how her huge voice would have reverberated off of these brick walls. We watched a Beatles tribute band,  and joined in as everyone sang “Love, Love Me Do” and “Please, Please Me” in the darkness of the cave.

The Cavern Club

Filled with bittersweet Beatle lyrics, we went back out to Matthew Street and went into another club across the road. There was a big band there, with a horn section, guitars, piano and a decent singer. They were covering Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Santana. Great vibe and energy, lots of people dancing.

We headed out and into the Cavern Pub where we saw an amazingly flash guitar player, doing some brilliant Hendrix stuff. He had only one hand – his picking hand was a very effect prosthetic. He was brilliant. The band is called “Xander and the Peace Pirates” Really, really good.

There were no chairs in these clubs. People stood and drank and danced. Most of all, they paid  attention to the music. When they wanted to hear something else, they bought drinks and carried them from one club to the next. Being on Matthew Street was like going to one big street party, and this was on a Sunday night in February! We walked home late through the misty Liverpool streets with music in our ears.

The next day we had a great visit with Tim’s cousin Keith, who lives outside Manchester and was able to give us a few more details about growing up in the Wirral. We had lunch and went walking through Liverpool, passing through a rather torn down and dispirited Chinatown. It is the oldest Chinatown in Europe but with there wasn’t a lot to recommend it.

Chinatown in Liverpool

We ambled through the new Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. The design is very Gothic, with wide vaulting ceilings and the world’s highest and widest Gothic arches. It wasn’t particularly inspiring to us, even with the UK’s largest pipe organ 910, 267 pipes), but perhaps it is still a bit new.

The wide arches of Liverpool Cathedral

We ended up back at the Adelphi for tea with Keith. We ensconced ourselves into the plush sofas under massive chandeliers.

Keith, Amanda and Tim having tea at the Adelphi

Having made a wonderful connection to Tim’s cousin, I couldn’t help wondering how different Tim’s life would have been had his family stayed in the area. Would he have spoken with the same beautiful Liverpudlian accent as Keith? Would he have hung out in the Cavern Club as a teenager, groovin’ on the Merseybeat?

Our last morning in Liverpool was spent in homage to The Beatles. “The Beatles’ Story” is an excellent museum down at Albert Docks. An audio guide (read by Julia Lennon, John’s sister) takes you through the history of the Fab Four from their days in high school to the break up in 1970. The phenomenally short 8-year recording career that changed the way the world thought about music.

There were recordings of the Quarrymen and photos of the teenage John playing in his skiffle band. There was a recreation of the office of The Merseybeat (the newspaper that promoted the Mersey sound), of the recording studio at Apple Records, and of Brian Epstein’s record store. The life-size cover for the St. Pepper album was there (they made it life-size for the cover shoot). At the end there is a section devoted to what each Beatle has done, creatively, since the band broke up.

We came around the last corner, ready to head out to get the train back to London and walked into a recreation of John’s white room. “Imagine” was playing.

John Lennon's white room

We left Liverpool with music in our hearts.

Liverpool. A world of surprises

“I have heard of the greatness of Liverpool but the reality far surpasses my expectation” Prince Albert, 1846

The Liver Bird welcomes all to Liverpool

We decided to go to Liverpool for a couple of days. I had some research I wanted to do there, and Tim had some family roots that he wanted to explore. We didn’t have major plans, but thought it would be an interesting part of the country to visit. Like Prince Albert, the reality far surpassed our expectations.

The ornamental gateway to the old Liverpool Sailor's Home

Liverpool was one of the world’s most important ports and it is no exaggeration to say that it played a part in the fate of nations. In the 18th century it was the hub for trade from Ireland, Europe, and the West Indies. By the 19thcentury 40% of the world’s trade went through Liverpool. It was richer than London. But when trading practices changed, Liverpool changed. Container ships were created and thousands of dockworkers were unemployed. The Germans tried their best to destroy the city during the Liverpool Blitz of the Second World War. Over 4,000 people were killed and much of the city destroyed. Liverpool has been a city of great wealth and great poverty, great building and great destruction. What we saw was a city that has put thought and energy into reconstruction. The past is valued. Contemporary architecture and world culture is embraced. There is a reason why the city was the European Capital of Culture, 2008.

We booked ourselves into the historic Adelphi Hotel.

Amanda writing in the lounge of the Adelphi. Product placement for Apple computer.

Built in 1911, the Adelphi was regarded at the time as the most elegant hotel outside of London. Its grandure has faded but it has old style character and charm and was surprisingly inexpensive. It symbolized the many contradictions we found in Liverpool.

We had arrived hungry and set out to find a bit of lunch, perhaps a little pub. We discovered The Salt House where we were surprised to find fabulous tapas, as good as anything we had in Barcelona. The first of many surprises in this visit.

The Salt House. Fabulous Tapas in a great renovated building

We finished lunch and went to investigate the new Museum of Liverpool, the largest newly-built national museum to be built in the UK in over 100 years. It is a great piece of architecture sitting beside the Mersey River. We had just started to explore displays about the history of the city when we got a call from cousin Matt, who was coincidentally in Liverpool, taking a break from university in Newcastle. So of course we met up and went for a drink in an archetypal Liverpool pub.

A Liverpool/Manchester football (soccer) game had just finished. The pub was filled with at least twelve huge flat screen TVs, all playing highlights. Loud, energetic, and filled with delicious Liverpudlian accents, the pub was a real hit of what we imagined we’d find in Liverpool. We watched a table of young men, each with 2 pints of beer in front of them, drinking mixed cocktails out of fishbowls that they passed from one to the next. Guzzle drink from fishbowl, pass it on, guzzle another until all were gone and attention could be focused back on the beer.

We decided to find somewhere to go for dinner. We walked around the corner from the pub and travelled into an entirely different world.  A large, modern pedestrian mall goes through the centre of town, filled with stylish chain stores. Usually I hate this kind of consumerist centre, but the area had a good, honest energy about it. Maybe it was the width of the mall, maybe it was the way that people were using it, enjoying the angled walkways on this damp grey evening.  A few hearty souls were sitting outside for coffee.

We decided to splurge on a dinner at “Jamie’s Italian”, Jamie Oliver’s Italian restaurant, where we sat in a glass fronted restaurant overlooking the mall, feasting on squid ink pasta and shell fish risotto A far cry from the pub around the block, but this too is the real Liverpool. Modern architecture embracing the old buildings in the kind of eccentric mix that comes from re-thinking a city after devastation. International cuisine created by someone who has worked his way up from cooking in his parent’s pub.

The Pump House (now a restaurant) in Albert Docks. The Museum of Liverpool is in the background

We started our next day of surprises down on the waterfront. UNESCO declared Liverpool’s waterfront a World Heritage Site because it represents a “supreme example of a commercial port at the time of Britain’s greatest global significance.” The site begins at Albert Docks. Albert Docks has the largest collection of Grade 1 buildings (buildings of special architectural or historical interest) in the UK. The Docks were originally opened in 1846, by Prince Albert, which is when he made his comment about reality surpassing expectations. They were the world’s first non-combustible commercial docks, made entirely of brick, cast iron and stone. They contained the world’s first enclosed dry dock (built in the 18th century) and the first hydraulic lifts. The docks were built to support the huge volume of goods that came through the port. But the days of shipping into the Mersey estuary were numbered and the Albert Docks closed down for commercial shipping in 1972.

Albert Docks

They were refurbished and re-opened in 1988 to house museums, shops, and various cultural attractions.

The Merseyside Maritime Museum and the International Slavery Museum are here. The Maritime Museum gives a great background to the importance of the port city of Liverpool. There was a special exhibit about the Titanic, the Empress of Ireland and the Lusitania, three magnificent ocean liners that left from Liverpool between 1912 and 1915 and all sank with great loss of life. There was also a great exhibit called “Hello Sailor” about gay life on the ships. With terribly punitive laws on homosexuality, ship life was, apparently, the place where men could come out of the closet safely. There were fabulously happy, campy photos from life aboard the ships.

The ugly side of Liverpool’s prosperity is examined at the Slavery Museum. Liverpool’s wealth was due, in no small part, to its connection to the slave trade. During the American Civil War, they were unofficially backing the Confederate army. Ships left from Liverpool and collected goods in Europe that they could trade to African traders in exchange for human slaves. It was disconcerting to see some of the same lovely glass beads that we had seen in Venice used to buy slaves in Africa. The museum sets exhibits about African culture beside hard-hitting stories of life on the ships and in captivity. Exhibits showing the contribution of black culture to European and North American culture aim at reconciliation. It’s powerful museum, and given a place of honour in the city. A city of contradictions. A city of stories. And we hadn’t even been on the Beatle trail yet…

The old and new mix at the waterfront. The Museum of Liverpool (the low white building) is in the distance behind the bridge.

Happy Birthday Mr. Dickens

Last week was the bicentenary of Charles Dickens birth. A big thing around these parts. There have been masses of tributes pouring in from all over the world. There was a birthday party of sorts at Westminster Abbey. Prince Charles laid a wreathe, Ralph Fiennes read from Bleak House, and the largest ever gathering of the Dickens family were in attendance.

I wasn’t invited, but I wanted to pay my respects so I went to the Abbey on my own, on a bleak morning that seemed very much out of a Dickens novel. Big Ben was chiming twelve, and a cold mist had settled on the stones.

Westminster Abbey on a cold day in February

Being in Westminster Abbey is like being in the Who’s Who of English history. Everyone who is anyone is there. My first mission was to go to Poet’s Corner. This part of the abbey is dedicated to remembering important British writers and other artists. Some are buried in the Abbey and some are elsewhere, but remembered here with memorial stones.

Poets’ Corner began with the interment of Geoffrey Chaucer in 1400. Since then, hundreds of worthy British artists have been buried or remembered in the South Transept.

It is here that Dickens is buried, although he wanted to be buried in his home town of Rochester. When he died there was a huge public demand for him to be in London, and so he was buried in Westminster against his wishes. The price of fame.

Dickens has a prominent, but simple stone on the floor. I had arrived two days after his birthday, and the wreathes from the celebration were still there. Just close to Dickens is Handel, his carved figure clutching a piece of music, music that had its premiere performance in Westminster Abbey. Across from Handel is a statue of Shakespeare. Shakespeare is buried in Stratford-upon-Avon, and although there was talk of moving him to Westminster, he seems well settled in his home town. His memorial in Westminster is suitably impressive, however, and he holds a carved manuscript page from “The Tempest”:

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Ye all which it inherit, shall dissolve
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind.

The Tempest, Act 4, Scene 1

Shakespeare’s marble eyes gaze down to the floor to look upon a stone for Lawrence Olivier, whose ashes are buried beneath. The beauty of this moved me to tears.

Beside Shakespeare there is a huge tomb for Oliver Goldsmith, out of proportion for our day and age, but suitable for his worth in the 16th century. Rudyard Kipling, Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll), Dylan Thomas, Ted Hughes, William Blake, Jane Austen – they are all here. There is a beautiful new carving for the founders of the Royal Ballet, Fredrick Ashton, Margo Fonteyne, Constant Lamburt and Ninette de Valois. In keeping with their profession, the letters are swooped and graceful, full of movement.

As a calligrapher and letter carver, I was thrilled to see some of these newer carvings. You can’t take photos in the Abbey, but I was able to take a few out in the Cloisters. I particularly liked one in slate dedicated to Edmond Halley, of the comet fame, with gorgeous gold leaf trails. A bit blurry, unfortunately. It was very cold in the Cloisters.

A Stone for Edmund Halley

But these monuments and memorials are all recent history for the Abbey. Westminster Abbey was begun in the 11th century by Edward the Confessor. The first coronation was held there in 1066 for William the Conqueror. All coronations of English kings have taken place there ever since. Coronations, and of course, subsequent burials. There are tombs for various Edwards, Richards and Henrys. Elizabeth 1 is there, her half-sister Mary Tudor buried beneath her. I have just been reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel and getting a glimpse into the terrible relationship between these two daughters of Henry VIII. In life, they could not have been more divided. In death they are buried one on top of the other, with the inscription: “Partners in throne and grave, here we sleep, Elizabeth and Mary, sisters, in hope of the Resurrection”. The other Mary, Mary Queen of Scots is just across the hall.

It seems as though the whole history of Great Britain is contained here. And I realized that up until that moment, all of these Royal figures had been a fiction in my mind. I knew that they existed from reading about them. But, to quote Lewis Carroll, “They may write such things in a book“. Seeing their tombs, their likenesses carved from their death masks, gave them substance and a reality they hadn’t had for me before. Walking amongst these tombs gave life to history.

As I started to leave the Abbey, past the commemorative, side by side sculptures of Isaac Newton and Charles Darwin, I came upon a small door covered in locks and chains. This is an Amnesty memorial remembering jailed dissidents the world over. This week we were urged to remember Liu Xiaobo, Chinese writer and human rights activist jailed in 2009 as a political prisoner.

Tellingly, across from the Amnesty memorial is the “Tomb of the Unknown Soldier”, a simple black marble slab, marked with a border of poppies. An unidentified soldier who died in France in the First World War, “For God, for King and Country, For loved ones home and empire, For the sacred cause of justice and freedom of the world. They buried him here among the Kings because he had done good toward God and his house”.

I left the Abbey feeling very alive and thankful. I may not have gotten a loot bag at the birthday party, but I was leaving with riches galore. Happy Birthday Mr. Dickens.

“Dickens’s humanity and compassion made an extraordinary impact on Victorian England through his writings …This bicentenary should help renew our commitment to improving the lot of the disadvantaged of our own day.” Dean of Westminster, the Very Reverend Dr. John Hall

Glamourous Limping with family and friends in London

Although we were sorry to bid goodbye to our Spanish adventure, it was wonderful to get back to London. No sooner had we gotten off the plane than we whisked off to a large Lunberg family outing to see Tosca at the English National Opera. It was great to be back with our noisy and passionate family, wildly gesticulating and explosively laughing through our pre-opera pizzas. We hadn’t seen Tosca before, and it was a fabulous production, with bold, dramatic lighting designs that emphasized the violent emotions of the story. And when Tosca fell backwards off the set to her death, there was an audible gasp in the audience.

The next day, with barely a moment to unpack, I went to the Haymarket theatre to see a really interesting play called the Two Worlds of Charlie F. The production was an outreach project that the Haymarket did in collaboration with the British Legion. Soldiers from the Bravo 22 Company who were wounded in Afghanistan worked with a director, writer and professional actors to create an incredibly moving piece of theatre. They brought their stories to life with shocking honesty. They showed me the effects of war and created images I will never forget. They performed with humour, integrity and insight.

However, I could only stay for the first half of the show. My foot, which had been sore for a number of days, began to swell up and soon I was in tremendous pain. Nothing close to the pain I was seeing on stage, but nevertheless, I had to leave. I hobbled home to Surbiton and headed to the emergency department of the Kingston hospital. The NHS (National Health Service) was terrific and diagnosed it as cellulitis, an infection brought on by my excessive walking in Barcelona. I was proscribing an aggressive round of antibiotics. It was going to be a while before I could put on any shoes.

Even though I was taking it a bit easy, nothing was going to stop us from having a great Robbie Burns party later that week. Bryan and Robbie Burns share the same birthday, so it is a tradition here in Surbiton to have a big party to celebrate. Because my birthday was in the same week, we got to share in the festive dinner, which included a huge roast beef, various root vegetables (parsnips, turnips, swedes, carrots, potatoes) and vast amounts of haggis (vegetarian and non). A fabulous meal, and about as far from our Spanish diet of shellfish and squid that you could get!

A birthday party for Bryan, Amanda and Robbie Burns

The next night, I was able to hobble out so that we could go for a farewell evening with David and Hinda. We went to the new movie of Coriolanus (incredible—one of the best adaptations of Shakespeare I have ever seen. See it in the theatre if you can, because the sound track is amazing.), followed by dinner at Pollen Street Social, offering “de-formalized fine dining”. I was still wearing my hiking boots because of my foot, which felt very embarrassing in such a posh environment. Definitely “de-formalized”. But the meal soon made me forget everything else. Starters of Cornish crab vinaigrette with Nashi pear and light cured Sheltland Salmon with avocado; mains of roasted sea bass with truffle sauce and halibut bourguignon; finishing with a cheese plate of 10 different cheeses from throughout the UK and Europe. Each dish was a unique sensation, with incredible attention to detail.

Suddenly it was after midnight. We bid a fond farewell to David and Hinda and hurried to catch the last train to Surbiton, racing to Waterloo in a cab, since the Tube was already closed. It was the first time I had realized that the Tube closes so early. Seems crazy!

I was still in my unlovely but functional hiking boots a few days later when we went to the opening of the “Works on Paper Art Fair”, an art exhibit and sale. There were 54 different booths from art dealers all across the country. It was like a scene from a movie with dealers, aficionados, speculators and investors walking around with bottles of champagne and talking about the first Hockney/Renoir/Matisse that they bought. I decided to pretend that I was so fabulously rich that I didn’t have to care how I looked, and within minutes was having a long conversation about some exquisite (and expensive) Samuel Palmer lithographs. I took the dealer’s card as regally as I could, and promised to visit the gallery when I was next in Herefordshire.

Retreating from that rarified atmosphere, we headed to the Phoenix Artist’s Club to see “La Chunga”, a play by Peruvian-Spanish writer Mario Vargas Llosa. A friend from Ottawa, Jessica Ruano, was the assistant director on the production, and it was great to see her, and her work. The play is a really compelling exploration of machismo culture and sexual politics, stylish and honest in its approach. It was performed in a tiny space at the back of the pub, downstairs from the Phoenix Theatre. A great venue and perfect for the play, which takes place in a bar. We loved it.

Sometimes, it drives me crazy to be here with so much going on all of the time. The possibilities are infinite. There is a new adventure around every corner. It is great to be back in London.

Little plates and big ideas in Barcelona

Our landlords in Barcelona gave us a special gift – a certificate for an evening of regional treats at Quimet & Quimet, a local bar/bodega. We decided to go there on our return from Bilbao.

At Quimet & Quimet

The minute we walked in, we felt a great sense of camaraderie. A tiny, one room space, Quimet & Quimet has been going since 1914 passing from one generation to the next and currently run by a brother and sister team. The small room is filled with bottles of wine and spirits floor to ceiling (some, perhaps, that have been there since the bodega opened). There is a long prep counter along one wall, where the owners were busily working.

The place felt full with only 14 customers. There were no chairs and only two tables to stand at, so we parked ourselves beside a long refrigerator filled with wine bottles. When the owners understood that we had been given a gift certificate, they filled our glasses with Cave, put the remainder of the bottle in the fridge beside us, and told us to fill our glasses whenever we needed. Then, over the course of the next hour and a half, they treated us with 16 different montaditos – little cold tapas creations on crusty breads.

The montaditos are improvised every night, depending on the fresh ingredients at hand. We explained that we were eating pescatarian/vegetarian and were presented with assemblages of fish, shellfish, roe, beans, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. We set them out along the top of the refrigerator and shared them amongst the four of us, only regretting that we didn’t know what most of the ingredients were. Joana, one of the owners, told us what she could, but between her Spanish, and our ignorance, we were not always sure of what we were eating. However, they were exciting and unique tastes, lovingly and individually created.

Because there were no tables, we felt as though we were in someone’s home, at a great party. The hosts were creating food, non-stop, but also chatting with people and keeping the “party” going. Soon we had met and had great conversations with almost everyone in the place.

The owners, busy behind the bar at Quimet & Quimet

Quimet & Quimet specialize in local cheeses. Someone told us about Cabrallas, “the strongest sheep’s milk cheese”, made in the north of Spain. It is wrapped in “vegetable matter”, buried in the ground under cow manure and left to age for a couple of years. Apparently, the homemade version is eaten with the worms that gather around the edges. The commercial version, we were assured is worm free.

Of course we had to try some. It was that kind of a place, that kind of evening.  (It was a very strong cheese. A little went a long way)

We finished the evening with Portado Miso, a chilled herbal digestif from Galicia. We walked back to the apartment feeling really lucky to have been invited and wishing that we could spend a lot more time there.

Tim, Amanda and Hinda at Quimet & Quimet

We spent the next day walking along the harbor and visiting galleries. We went to the Joan Miro gallery on Muntanya de Montjuic overlooking the city, and to the Picasso museum in Gothic palaces in the centre of the old city. Both gave us insights into the artists’ connection to their Catalan childhoods and the influence that they had on each other’s work. Inspired, we decided to go to see the work of the third great Catalan artist of the twentieth century. We went to the small town of Figueres, about 60 miles away, to experience the Dali museum.

The back of the museum, covered in little loaves of bread and giant eggs
A whimsical Dali out front

Dali created his museum in a renovated theatre in his hometown. He knew it would put the town on the map as a tourist destination and it certainly has. Figueres is a pretty little Spanish town, quite ordinary, except for the fact that it houses the world’s most elaborately eccentric gallery.

The Dali museum is totally fun. It is arranged randomly, although there are arrows to guide you so that you don’t get too lost. It is filled with whimsical things that Dali made specifically for the museum. He also built it knowing it would also be his “final resting place”. His tomb is in the middle of the gallery, in a surprisingly conservative setting, surrounded by his gold jewelry creations, turning him into a kind of Faberge icon.

The central courtyard of the gallery is filled with a sculpture based on an old car.

Car sculpture in the courtyard

When you look inside the car, the driver is being consumed by ivy.

Inside the car

For one euro, you can make it rain inside the car.

The “Face of Mae West which can be used as an apartment” installation is an apartment size recreation of a Dali painting.

Face of Mae West which can be used as an apartment, intstalation
Face of Mae West through the glass

By looking through a concave glass, the three-dimensional pieces come together to reproduce the painting.

Throughout the gallery there are wonderful drawings and paintings, reminding you how technically accomplished Dali was. Because we had spent the previous day with Miro and Picasso, we saw connections –  a Dali hologram with elements of the same Velazquez painting that we had seen recreated as a cubist painting by Picasso. A mannequin leg sculpture almost identical to one of Miro’s sculptures we’d seen.

Dali Sculpture
Miro sculpture

The gallery became greater than the sum of its parts. Politics, art, environment. Food and wine. All in the eye of the beholder, and we had beheld a lot.

Visiting this surreal gallery in the midst of a very ordinary, but lovely little town, made Dali’s work seem even more startling. We sat outside at a café in the main street of Figueres to soak up the sun and the juxtaposition. It was a fitting farewell to our time in Spain, a land of many surprises.

Lunch on the main street in Figueres

Bilbao and more surprises in Spain

Bilbao sits at the head of the Estuary of Bilbao in the Bay of Biscay, in the north central part of Spain, along the river Nervion. It is the largest city in the Basque country, which is an “autonomous region of Spain”. I have always heard about the Basque fight for rights and independence, but know none of the politics or history. Going to Bilbao gave me an immediate appreciation for the distinctiveness of the region.

Bilbao along the river Nervion

No one in Bilbao refers to it as “Basque”. The correct name is Euskadi, which comes from the standardized version of the language, called Euskara Batua, developed in the 1960s and based on the central Basque dialect. It is now the most spoken language in the region and has official status in Spain. As a cosmopolitan city of 350,000, the tourist centres in Bilbao provide information in Euskara, Spanish, Catalan, Galacian, French and English.

The minute we arrived we knew that we wouldn’t really have enough time to do the area justice.

We had come to Bilbao from Barcelona to go to the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. This world famous building was designed by Frank Gehry in 1997 and it has put Bilbao on the tourist map. In 1995, before the museum opened, Bilbao had 25,000 tourists.  In 2009 there were 615,000 visitors annually. Bilbao is definitely worth the pilgrimage because, aside from the museum, it is a livable and welcoming small city with delicious regional cuisine.

The 14th century cathedral in the heart of the old city

We arrived on a sunny morning, settling into a small hotel in the old city Casco Veijo.

The centre of the Casco Viejo

The original city was developed in 1300, with the cathedral at the centre of seven streets surrounded by a walled enclosure. It has a picture perfect central square with stores, cafes and a very friendly feel. A quick café con leche and we headed out for a sunny walk along the river in search of the museum.

Bilbao has a great river walk, with dramatically designed bridges and wonderful buildings set against a mountain backdrop.

Tim sitting by the river in the sunshine

It is the perfect way to come upon the Guggenheim Museum bringing you, effectively, from the back around to the front of the museum.

There is a reason why this building is world famous. It is a stunning sight from every viewpoint and much larger than any of us had imagined.

The Bilbao Guggenheim

We kept circling around it, trying to fathom its shape, which seemed infinitely changeable. Being on a river, it was designed to resemble a ship, but one that is in constant motion. The organic sculpted contours create folds, curves and angles that catch the light.

When we finally made it to the front of the museum we found “Puppy”, by Jeff Koons, a wonderful living sculpture. “Puppy” sits out front fully clad in flowers that change with the season. It is about 20’ tall and gives an incredibly cheerful welcome to the museum.

"Puppy" by Jeff Koons

Inside, the museum was equally surprising. We toured the space, walking out onto the terraces and touching the soft titanium panels of the outer shell that remind you of fish scales. The museum is the art that people come to see and we were not disappointed.

The museum, and Puppy, at the end of the street

We did take some time to go through the exhibits, of course. A vast Richard Serra show, built for the gallery, takes up almost half of the first floor. The show is very much an extension of the gallery, losing us in a maze of metal, making us dizzy in the weight of the structures around us. I’ve never really appreciated Richard Serra, but seeing this work, in this space, was quite mind-bending.

Serra’s work was paired with the sculptor Constantin Brancusi. A marvelous room with soaring high ceilings was the perfect setting for Brancusi’s bird sculptures. After the density of galleries in Italy, it was wonderful to see these sculptures given such an open, spacious setting.

The Guggenheim on the river Nervion

We walked back along the river, and journeyed back in time to the old city. Tourists off-season, we went to dinner early, 9:00, for meal of new fish discoveries. Tim had the “best fish soup” of his life – a dark rich thick broth that made every other fish stock seem anemic. We each had different kinds of fish – biscayan cod, gilthead fish, pastry parcels stuffed with mussels and prawns, monkfish.

Up early the next morning, we decided to visit the market, to see some of these local fish on offer. On the way we passed a small park that had public exercise equipment, designed for easy use. A woman was sitting reading her paper while quietly biking in place.

A well designed park for exercising beside the river

This is not a place for heavy sweating, but a lovely way to build up a few muscles, gently, while still enjoying the river. After all of our eating, we probably should have spent more time there.

Our last adventure in Bilboa was to take the Metro out the old port of Getxo. The Bilbao Metro is clean, efficient and easy to use. In fact we were treated to some great entertainment en route with a couple of Mexican mariachi musicians serenading the car.

HInda on the Metro with a Mexican musician

Probably illegal, we realized, as they hastily put everything away before the doors opened at the next stop. But quite wonderful for us.

We didn’t have much time to explore Getxo, unfortunately. But we were able to walk in the sunshine, look out to the Bay of Biscay, and to see some of the ships that brought us our fish last night.

Heading up the cliff

We spotted a restaurant on the edge of the cliff. A quick climb and we were sitting outside in the sunshine, enjoying delicious local olives, perfect salads with gorgeous fresh anchovies and local wine at Cafe Usategi Algorta. It’s an amazing restaurant with many local specialties, and a complete surprise for us. We had come with no expectations and were treated to one of the best meals of our stay in Spain.

Tim and David choking on laughter at the Cafe Usategi Algorta

Our visit to Euskadi was all too short.

The Bay of Biscay

Organic structures and learning how to eat bread in Spain

Functionality and form on the roof top of Casa Milà

One of the main reasons for wanting to go to Barcelona was because of the work of Antoni Gaudí. I have always been enchanted with photos that I have seen of his work – large fantastical monuments, whimsical and daring, connecting earth and spirit. I found it hard to believe that the buildings and forms would really be there, in the midst of a busy city.

Gaudí grew up in the countryside in Catalunya, a sickly child who loved to be in nature.

“With the flowerpots, surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, cheered by the clucking of hens, the song of the birds and the buzzing of the insects, and with the mountains of Prades in the distance, I captured the purest and most pleasant images of nature that is ever our Mistress” (Gaudí).

Everything in his work was dictated by a connection to the organic forms in nature and to a deep spirituality. There were three main works of Gaudí’s that we wanted to see in Barcelona: the cathedral Sagrada Familia; Parc Guëll; and the apartment house Casa Milà.

Sagrada Familia

The first stone for Sagrada Familia was laid in 1882. They think it might be finished in the first third of this century. Thousands of builders and artists have worked on it over the last 125 years in what is truly a labour of devotion. Gaudí himself lived on site for the last 10 years of his life.

Sagrada Familia sanctuary

Visiting Sagrada Familia was an overwhelmingly spiritual experience. This, I thought, must have been what it was like to go onto the construction site of Notre Dame Cathedral, which took a mere 80 years to build. Sagrada Familia is vast in size, scale and imagination – everywhere you look there are carvings, images with resonance to Christian symbolism. There is light, space, and a feeling of soaring energy.

Sagrada Familia the trinity triangle above the alter, made with mosaic and light.

“The expiatory church of La Sagrada Família is made by the people and is mirrored in them. It is a work that is in the hands of God and the will of the people.” Gaudí.

This commitment to the people included building a school, on site, for the children of the workers. A cozy place to learn.

Sagrada Familia school

In these days when we expect instant results, when monolithic buildings are built in a matter of months, it is extraordinary to think of the commitment that Barcelona has made to this long-term, monumental building project. You can see it from every part of the city. Words and pictures cannot do it justice. You will have to go to see it yourself. And when you do, you will be reminded that your entrance fee will go toward helping to complete the cathedral. A good reason to go.

Sagrada Familia. The passion and resurrection entrance, detail

A few blocks from Sagrada Familia we found ourselves in a perfect little “Tienda y Restaurante”. It was our first big meal in Barcelona and without knowing it we began an incredible three-hour lunchtime extravaganza at Los Bellota, productos de Extremadura.

Extremadura is in western Spain, an entirely different climate and markedly different cuisine from Catalunya. It was at this meal that we were taught the Spanish way of enjoying bread. A basket of bread, deliciously toasted and rough on one side, was brought to the table, as well as several whole tomatoes and large cloves of fresh garlic. We were a bit mystified until our waiter came over to show us what to do. Rub the garlic directly onto the warm bread. Cut the tomato and rub it directly into the bread. Dip it into olive oil. Simple and really, really good. The trick is in the roughness of the toasted bread – it must have the right kind of grating quality to liberate the garlic and tomato juices.

Bread was followed by multiple dishes of exciting tastes: “Torta Extremeña”, a baked and runny cheese that we scooped onto little toasts; “Boquerones con tomate”, anchovies on tomatoes with a parsley drizzle; “Bacalao Dorado con Cebolla y Patatas”, a kind of fry up with cod, onion and potato; “Ensalada con Queso y Frutos secos con Miel”, salad with greens, cheese, nuts, dried fruit, honey and potato (thin crisps, really) with a kind of wine vinegar reduction. Honey is used a lot in Extremadura cooking and the honey and potato combination is apparently common. The table was heaped with food and everything was incredibly good. We drank a wine from the region, “Macabeo Campo Barro”, and when we were sure we couldn’t fit in one more mouthful, the waiter brought us a digestif, on the house – a frosted drink that seemed to be a kind of aqua vitae with caramel liquour dripped in. It was delicious, the perfect finale to the meal. He left the bottle at the table, encouraging us to have as much as we liked, which was generous but considering how full we were, impossible.

There is something amazingly wonderful about huge meals in the middle of the day. This was to be the first of many extravagant lunches, with many tasty plates and incredibly good local wines. It was a good thing we had so much walking to do, so many sights to see.

La Pedrera

Gaudí was commissioned by Pere Milà 1906 to begin work on Casa Milà, affectionately called “La Pedrera”, the stone quarry. The apartment building was a showcase for L’Eixample and represented the pride in the growth of Barcelona. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the building is now owned by CatalunyaCaixa, an organization that focuses on Cultural, Environmental and Educational social projects. A portion of La Pedrera, including an apartment on the 4th floor, is open to the public. It recreates the home of a bourgeois Barcelonian family of the early 20thcentury, complete with all original fittings.

Kitchen in the apartment at La Pedrera

There is a softness to the lines in the apartment, and ingenious “modern” design elements including a composting and heating system that make the apartment feel far more contemporary than it is. On one side the apartment building circles around an inner, private courtyard. On the other it faces outward to the busy city.

Looking down into the inner courtyard for the apartments of La Pedrera

The roof top terrace was the most exciting part of the building for me. Gaudí created harmony in all of the elements of his buildings, always embracing beauty and natural forms.

The roof top of La Pedrera

The curves on the front of the building are mirrored in the dipping and swooping of the rooftop. The architectural sculptures on the roof  are fully functional and encompass stairwells, ventilation towers and chimneys. And the rooftop gives a fabulous view of the L’Eixample and Sagrada Familia beyond.

Tim on the roof top of La Pedrera. Sagrada Familia in the distance

Going to Parc Guëll, we had a different view of the city.

The entrance to Parc Guëll with the city and ocean beyond

Funded by Count Eusibi Guëll, the park was originally envisioned as a housing site on a rocky hill with little vegetation called Muntanya Pelada (Bare Mountain). Sixty houses were planned, but in the end there were no buyers, so Gaudi designed the site as a fantastical public garden, filled with symbolic, historical and spiritual elements.

Entrance to Park Guëlll, the terraced benches above

The focal point of the main entrance is a huge mosaic dragon that curves around to become a large terrace surrounded by mosaicked benches. Apparently Gaudí used the impression of a workman’s buttocks in wet clay to give him the shape he wanted for the curvature of the bench. It is a wonderfully social space, and the curves invite weary buttocks to rest. Small groups cluster on the benches. There is a feeling of intimacy and privacy.

Tim and Amanda on the mosaic benches

Weird and wonderful stone columns create walkways amidst thick vegetation.

Stone arches amongst the vegetation
Parc Guëll stone archways

Mock Parakeets flit through the trees. We walked away from the main tourist area, to the quiet of some stone archways. A lone classical guitar player was playing soft sounds that resonated off the stone and into our hearts. A human creating beautiful sounds on a simple instrument. As the park bathed us in organic shapes and texture, natural and manmade, the music completed the experience. Gaudí and a simple street musician, brought us to a sense of home.

A musician under the arches
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