12 August 2019

They paved paradise and put up a parking lot

Let us hope that you never have an argument over the last parking space and get buried under a car park, because loosely speaking that is what happened to King Richard III. In the words of Joni Mitchell, "they paved paradise and put up a parking lot". He may not have argued over the last parking space, but it was an argument (called the Battle of Bosworth) over land he wanted (namely the kingdom of England) and he did end up buried under a car park in Leicester. Not the greatest way to end up, although now he has been excavated and given a resting place in Leicester Cathedral worthy of a King, albeit an unpopular one.

Richard III no longer under a car park

I have just spent four days this week in Leicester with my bestest friends in the whole world reliving the sights and sounds of a Leicester we first encountered 50 years ago. We met in the autumn of 1969 as fresh 18-year-olds away from home for the first time. My parents had taken me and my belongings up to Leicester and had just left for their return to London, leaving me there in my allocated Hall of Residence.  I was feeling pretty bereft, when I bumped into the girl from the room next door who was equally abandoned. We teamed up to go into supper together that evening and the rest is history. She was studying French and I was studying German. She also went on to make friends with another girl also studying French and the three of us became the intrepid Musketeers, whose lives intertwined for fifty years afterwards through boyfriends, marriages, children and life. We've stayed in touch as best we can and, although we live a good many miles apart - one in Hertfordshire, one in Sussex and me in London, we try to visit one another or meet in London as often as life allows.  As it was fifty years since we first met, I did not feel we could let this go uncelebrated so this  week we booked into a hotel in the town to revisit old haunts, albeit it with creaking joints and less of the elan of youth.

Some things had changed. Some things hadn't. The university campus largely looked the same with a few new buildings added on - a Computer Centre for a start (I don't think the university even boasted one computer back in 1969). It also now has a Medical School built on after we left. We caused some merriment (or maybe it was pity) when everyone we encountered was told we had been students there 50 years ago. We searched for the famous paternoster lifts we used to hop on and off to discover they had been decommissioned last year. Such a shame as I wanted to hurl myself into one of the compartments and ride up and across the top as the video shows. 

Much of the town was familiar, although we spotted building facades we swear weren't there 50 years ago, but must have been as they were Victorian or older. There were dragons all over the place (or heraldic wyverns, as we discovered they are called), that are symbolic of Leicester and found on weather vanes, carved into walls or decorating 
the fountain in the Town Hall square.

Wyverns in Town Hall Square

Some things looked like we had never left, although our memories let us down on how to get from A to B on many an occasion. The Richard III centre was of course new and well worth the visit documenting both the history, the man, the discovery of his whereabouts and the excavation.

Our hotel was situated on New Walk - a pedestrianised street which led us all the way into the town centre each day. It was lined with beautiful Georgian or Queen Anne houses that must have many a story to tell. The original gas street lamps are still there, although now electrified.

New Walk - a delightful way to get into the town centre

Complete with original gas lamps

The most poignant moment of our visit came when we revisited our old Hall of Residence. It is no longer a Hall but has been turned into a Conference Centre. With trepidation, we entered the site, imagining all sorts of ghastly changes, but found it much the same. We even managed to get inside the block where we had our rooms, although the rooms (more like cells) had been knocked into one another to make them larger and allow for en suite bathrooms, something we never had the luxury of. We went into the old Junior Common Room to find it was now a coffee bar, but had some old photos in picture frames on the walls of how it had once looked and how we had remembered it. We were part of its history!  This spiral staircase is still there - a cause of joy for us, as that is where one of us singed our hair holding a candle to provide light for the other two sitting on the step below playing guitars to a crowd below.

04 August 2019

Spain (Part 2)

Well, if there was anything to top the Alcazar or the Church of San Salvador in Seville,  as described in my last post, it would have to be blimmin out of this world. And it was! 

Midway through the week in the late afternoon, Kay and I caught the national bus from Seville bus station and made the three-hour journey to Granada. I had originally intended to go by train, but apparently the line was closed in part and would have meant a coach trip part of the way anyway, so I decided it would be less complicated to go by coach all the way and see some lovely scenery en route.  Thankfully the bus was air-conditioned, as outside the temperatures were 38C plus. We dozed fitfully as we passed miles and miles of olive groves stretching into the horizon, broken up by the occasional field of sunflowers. So much for concentrating on the scenery! We were ejected in Granada bus station and took a taxi to our hotel, as we did not fancy experimenting with local buses, as it was already quite late.

Granada had a different feel to Seville. It was more bustling, touristy, slightly on the shabby side, big, loud, in your face, demanding attention. It took a while to acclimatise from the chic quaintness of Seville. We checked into our hotel -a sort of Spanish equivalent of Travelodge - and went out to explore. It turned out we were a mere 30 seconds from the Plaza Nueva, the hub of nightlife, where a large American group of seemingly professional dancers were dancing the jive to a mesmerised crowd. (Another night on that same square, we saw a Chinese girl dancing a perfect flamenco with all the expertise of a genuine Spanish girl.)  Crowds milled, African tradesmen sold their wares of bumbags and cheap Spanish fans, tourists devoured copious amounts of ice cream to quench their thirst. Did I mention it was 38 degrees Celsius? Even at midnight, the temperature rarely dropped below 30C. 

Our initial thoughts on Granada somewhat mellowed as the days went on. Brash as the city was, it also had a good feel to it and of course the number one reason for that was The Alhambra palace. You could not escape it. Wherever you were, it would suddenly peep from behind a building and remind you it was up there looking down on everything, keeping guard as it had been built to do eight centuries ago. It was imposing enough viewed from the city and breathtaking once up there. Just when you felt you couldn't see anything better, something else even more amazing would grab your attention. I must have taken more than two hundred photos of the Alhambra alone. Here is but a sample of them........believe me there are hundreds more.

On  that day we walked for hours around the Alhambra site, soaking up its beauty, or would find shade for a welcome drink before we carried on. Much later we wandered way downhill to the town centre below then climbed uphill again in another direction into the Albaicin area - a quaint labyrinth of cobbled streets and whitewashed houses that afford a much sought-after distant view of the Alhambra. That evening, Kay announced that, according to her i-phone,  we had walked over 20,000 steps that day or 13.5 kilometres.  My feet and legs certainly vouched for that! All in 38C. Did I mention that?

View of the Alhambra from the Albaicin district

Too hot to bark

Arguably the best sangria in Spain

The cathedral - in our opinion - was much better than the one in Seville. It was bathed in light both inside and out and very colourful. The nearby Royal Chapel houses the tombs of past Kings and Queens, notably Ferdinand and Isabel, as well as Philip and Joanna.

The very heart of Granada has a North African style medina or bazaar - a rabbit warren of lanes that contain souvenir shops selling fridge magnets,  ceramics, brass, spanish fans and clothes (although we discovered the clothes were made in Thailand and can be bought anywhere in the tourist world).

One day we visited the Arabian public baths, built a thousand years ago.  There weren't many tourists there and no security officials to watch your every move, so it felt just like the last bather had popped home again and left the baths just for us.

We saved the best bit till last. We had seen a professional flamenco show in Seville, danced by the teachers at a flamenco school, but wanted to see another and our hotel recommended one to us. It was based in Sacromonte, a suburb further uphill from the Albaicin area we had visited earlier. High on a hill opposite the Alhambra, it has become the area where gypsies live. The facades of the house from a distance look like houses, but they are just that - a facade. Behind them, the living quarters are carved into the rock as caves. For centuries, the gypsies have lived like that, as pariahs of the community. There's even a cave museum up there. The gypsies are the origin of flamenco, which came over first from India and then Egypt, as they sought better lives. Their dance and song is their history of their struggles and triumphs.  The ticket we paid included collection from the town centre in a minibus, the ride uphill to Sacromonte, the show, a free drink of Sangria or beer and the return ride back to the town centre. Once through the front door, we found ourselves in a small narrow cave. The walls were lined with old photos of previous visitors and VIPs. The ceilings covered with brass and copper pots and pans. There was a row of chair down one side of the very narrow cave and a row opposite down the other side. The gap between the two rows was just enough for two people to pass or dance.... for the show was to take place between those two rows! It was amazing. It looked as if the whole family had turned up. There was the young guitarist (who had a passing resemblance to Jesus Christ), his cousin (maybe) was the singer, and sisters or cousins who danced. Then there was the grandmother, who introduced the show in Spanish only (no translations which somehow made the whole thing more authentic) and she then set off with a very slow doddery flamenco to open the proceedings, which attracted rapturous applause. The younger girls and men were amazing. Skirts twirled past our noses, castanets clicked in our ears and we were so part of it, it was hard not to be caught up in the emotion of the tapping and clapping and stamping, as well as the plaintive singing. How their legs and feet can physically tap so fast defies anatomy. Like a swan - graceful on top and stamping furiously beneath. [Apologies for the videos on their sides. If anyone knows how to correct this, let me know. I can usually upright photos but it would seem the same process cannot be done for videos.]

I'm back home again now, but it certainly was a week to remember.