Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Portugal Once Again

It’s curious, but I haven’t been to Portugal for an embarrassing five years.

Embarrassing because I have spent a couple of years, on and off, in Portugal; many years (actually, decades ago)I had a Portuguese girlfriend for eighteen months, speak enough of the language to stave off starvation or thirst, and am generally a Lusophile.

Landing in Lisbon from a short and slightly odd flight from La Coruna the decision was to rent a car or take a taxi to Sesimbra, one of my favourite places in the world, and thirty kilometres south of Lisbon. Quoted €87 for a taxi ride, the decision was simple; head to get the economy car that I had reserved with Hertz.

Now, formerly an Avis fan, I now LOVE Hertz! A fine Saab 93 convertible, complete with perfect weather was waiting for me; a thirty-mile journey grew to a two-hundred kilometre deviation along perfect highways (designed to test such an automobile) and picture perfect back roads and twisty hill climbs until we got to our destination.

It is difficult to adequately describe a place that has captured one’s heart; Sesimbra is such a place. I first travelled there in 1963 with my parents; it was a fishing village and for the next ten years or so we had an apartment there for August each year; I was fortunate, I know, but it was a wonderful way to spend my formative summers. I learned some Portuguese, but I have to say that when I confidently spoke to my then-girlfriend’s family, they howled with a rather scornful derision; they were one of the country’s old families, ruling elites and of the diplomatic corps; my Portuguese was that of the fishermen of Sesimbra.

I digress; it is a town that has grown up, faster than I in many respects. It has seen the massive boom of property development that has reversed itself abruptly in recent years, and its rather lopsided growth is only now balancing itself. One can, as in northern Spain, see the difference between credit-fuelled growth and growth from an organically expanding business; fortunately, my friend Caetano falls into the latter group.

I met Caetano in 1964. He was fourteen, and just starting to work at a small café, while I was an eight year-old brat from London. Why we like each other was never really sure, and indeed if we did think of each other between summers was never clear. I was very aware, however, of his absence in 1969 when he went to Africa to fight in Mozambique. It was Europe’s war in those days, and an absolute parallel to the American’s adventures in Vietnam. Portugal fought brutal and eventually futile wars in Angola and Mozambique to protect some image of the past, and perhaps to justify the country’s future; who knows. In any event, Caetano went, and did his bit for his country. Fortunately he came back.

I remember the summer of 1971 when he returned. Trying to tell me of the horrors that I didn’t understand; sitting in darkened rooms looking at photographs of a war that the world ignored; talking about peace, rights, colonies and the confused discussions of friends that seemed to share more ideas than language. It branded an image that I have never shaken, nor wanted to shake.

The years passed (as they must, (tra la), and I have returned to Sesimbra often; taking our girls there when they were little, seeing Caetano buy and build his café, then restaurant and each year wishing that our language skills were such that we could speak more of our lives, and our influences; we both know, I think, but it would have been better to share. When our oldest daughter travelled through Europe, Caetano looked after her, arranging for her to stay at his aunt’s house, and every year or so we dropped by.

And then, in 2007, we bought a house in France, and Portugal took second place. No visits, no weekends and no lazy weeks enjoying its beach and reminiscing about the past; just France.

And so, five years later, coasting unwittingly but happily in our Saab 93 (did I mention that it was a convertible) we stopped by for a night. A stopover en route from La Coruna to Munich and home was all we could manage, but it was important. As we walked up to is Restaurante Maré, I spotted him; “that’s Caetano” I said to Andrea, “I could recognise him anywhere!” It was actually Pedro, his son, identical stance and smile to his father, and when we saw him, then then moments later his Dad, five years disappeared into a weekend.

Sesimbra is a wonderful place; it is, of course, the classic example of a place being the sum of its people, and for me, the memories of forty-nine years add up to a quite remarkable village; do I see it through rose-tinted glasses? Perhaps, but isn’t that what memories are for?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Second Leg

Actually it was the third, but the final stretch from Ribadeo to La Coruna was in many respects the most interesting. Attuned by now to the gentle clacking rhythm of Spain passing under our feet, the scenery and topography now relegated to occasional expressions of marvel, we could simply enjoy the passing countryside; to enjoy the privilege of watching Spain, mile by mile, passing by.

Spain is, of course, and ancient and resilient country; it has weathered storms far worse that the current economic crisis, and will weather this too. It is inconceivable that visitors to Iberia in, say, two hundred years will face a cultural and economic wasteland. No, the current mess is contemporary, and simply watching folks climbing on and off our succession of country trains, to watch their communities pass by and to imagine actually being a Galician or Cantabrian gave cause for optimism.

It is probably worth starting this story in Santander; home to a large and basically uninspiring city, it is home to one of the world’s largest banking conglomerates. The Santander group has its tentacles in every nook and cranny of the globe’s economy. Its headquarters, at least the substantial and economically sound looking building in Santander offers an image of substance, soundness and above all, judgement. We know, because we read the papers, that Europe’s banks have been having a rough time explaining their curiously immodest gambles of the past decade that are now coming home to roost. Every banking ration that banking-ration aficionados reveal offer optimism, yet watching Spain passing by, a different story unfolds.

It is a story of two worlds; fantastic developments unfinished and the stoicism of a people working to live a normal and uninflated life alongside. It is a picture of coffees that now cost an hour’s wages that used to be a staple of life; it is a story of people working for the past thirty post-Generalissimo decades and the past twenty Euro decades to keep their families, their lives and their cultures intact.

And by and large they seem to have succeeded, although it remains to see the price that average Spaniards will have to pay for the dreams of Santander bankers and their high-flying colleagues’ pursuits.

The ability to be a three-day expert is the province of a wanderer; I like the freedom it gives to make sweeping observations, and to offer wide opinions to anything that I might see.  It is clear, however, that the financial world looks after itself - the Greek bail-out is not actually a bail out for the Greeks, but for the banks foolish enough to lend them such large amounts of money - and the Spanish bail-out, be it in one or ten years, will be a soft landing for the financial institutions who so recklessly lent money in sole pursuit of their own profit.

However, that was not all that we saw from the train.  We saw laughter, communities, contemporary building that mirrored village-styles of millennia past. We saw resilience, landscapes that left us breathless, a life that continued with the rhythm of the seasons and the punctuation of the daily railway trains; we saw a life that I envied for its continuity, and above all a landscape that was whole; people, geography, buildings and a freedom from the massive infrastructural projects that punctuated the eastern part of the journey.

Our connection in Ferrol was tight, or so we thought; only twenty minutes to transfer to the periodic train that ran to La Corunna, the regional centre. As it turned out, twenty minutes were sufficient to buy tickets, read a newspaper, buy sandwiches and nearly strand Dick who was deputised to buy food, and nearly spent more of his retirement in Galicia that was originally planned. He did make the train.

And so to La Coruna. Home of the Spanish navy, and a good place to hide their Armada it is; a wild bay, miles across with deep, protected harbours, fine access to the sea and enough bars and restaurants to warm the sea-hardened cockles of any seaman’s heart.

I liked the place; again, based on a quick overnight stop and exploration for evening sustenance. It is, however, a place of some splendour; it is a city that has solidity, encompassing both a past and a future. It is a place of substance, not, perhaps, the most attractive tourist destination in Spain, but worth a couple of anyone’s days. It offers grand squares, grand private buildings redolent of the rough and tumble of nineteenth and twentieth century economic victories. It offers magnificent public buildings built with the confidence the is bred by success; grand streets, magnificent façades of buildings, if slightly down-at-heel, rim the harbour, and all around the feeling of security.

It is the security that comes with distance from Madrid and the Spanish mainstream; a unique climate that breeds stoicism and the knowledge that whatever happens to the country’s economy, life will inevitably continue; a very reassuring place.

I like Galicia.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Northwestern Spain; Basque country to Gallicia in Thirty-Nine Stops

Well, eighty-eight actually since boarding the little railways of northern Spain at Hendaye, but the past days have proved to be most instructive. Firstly, it has to be said, was the instruction that these trains were not designed to travel great distances. Most of the clientele are travelling for relatively short journeys, but putting that aside, they are comfortable, clean and as cheap as chips.
To date the journey from Hendaye to San Sebastian (12 stops/1.70) was short but a very necessary way to cross the border. While borders no longer exist in any practical form for most travellers within Europe, they exist in the past. Huge and slightly forbidding customs buildings crumbling aside the main roads; offices of long-forgotten customs brokers and currency exchangers offer testament to a previous existence. No more, however, for the European voyager, now the simplicity of the EuskoTren service, thoughtfully extended the one stop across the bridge for those of us needing to enter Spain.

San Sebastian is absolutely wonderful. Originally scheduled to be a thirty-six hour stop before the railway marathon, it was cut short to ensure the adequate cleaning of the French house. And so we were restricted to a single night to graze the city’s many pintxo bars, enjoy copious amounts of Basque cider and sample foods as diverse as pig’s ears to strange, unnamed but delicious vegetables.
And then the journey began. From San Sebastian to Santander (36 stops/5.25) was, frankly dull in the most part. It is one of Spain’s few economically active regions, and as such, full of factories, chemical plants, new and extremely uninspiring apartments, and the weeping concrete of thirty-year-old crumbling buildings. With nothing quite finished, and drizzle to boot it was a touch dreary It must be said, however, that behind the industrial foreground, the backdrop of rugged peaks, wild woodlands and painted from a deep-green palate, it did trigger the odd sharp-intake of breath. The varied trainscape did, however, an instrumental exhibition of Spain’s recent past.

Only released from The Generalissimo’s iron grasp in 1975, there was a housing boom in the eighties that corresponded to the newly kick-started economy, and the natural desire for families to live in less crowded circumstances. Sadly, the building boom was uncontrolled by any effective town planning or building codes, and while a step up from  the housing stock of, say, Vilnius or Tbilisi, it was pretty drab. It was also funded in Pesetas, a currency that was at least locally controlled.
Then came the Euro and the binge of credit that we see collapsing today, and here it is evidenced by the endless construction of both housing stock, with a large number of “For Sale” signs in evidence and massive infrastructure projects; interesting, but barely scenic.

And thus to Bilbao, a frankly dreary city with a few nice monuments and a well-known museum; but our interests were of the railway, and from the delightful Victorian station of the “CF de Santander e Bilbao”, we launched toward Santander, some 33 stops and 8.25 further east. The train, now of FEVE rather than the EuskoTren of the Basque country was again suburban in nature, comfortable but without diversion. Other than the scenery which started to give hints of the wonder that is northern Spain. Now interspersed with industry, the landscapes offered a green usually restricted to Ireland, some delightful old villages, and in the distance, occasional glimpses of the mountains. The train’s passengers got on and off with only us soldiering on to Santander at the end of the line.
Frankly uninspiring, at least from our cursory, overnight glance, Santander is a major centre of banking, fishing and a regional distribution centre. After San Sebastian, its nightlife, although late as is the tradition in these parts, was dull. The tapas were boring, the cider unremarkable and more cafes than the more convivial bars that we sought. We did, however, have the first bottle (and second, one has to admit) of Albario, the delicious white wine of northern Spain.

And so now, as we bounce along on a simply fantastic day, on the 50 stop/15 leg from Santander, we climbed between the sea and the mountains far from industry, many of our fellow passengers being hikers with varying degrees of equipment on their backs seeking the obvious charms of the Picos De Europa.
Truly stunning; verdant greens, rugged peaks, crashing rivers and tidy, solid villages offering an obviously warm welcome to the tourists who come to explore this region. It was the scenery that I had wanted; the luxury of sitting in a train, watching the world pass by and simply having time to think is precious to me, and today is proving to be wonderful.

In a few minutes we will pull into Oviedo, with time for lunch and probably a bottle of Albariῆo before the next train to the seaside town of Ribadeo. I have no knowledge of the town at all, it was simply picked due to (a) it being adjacent to the sea and (b) fitting well into the timetable, arriving there at 1730 and not heading out on the last day’s riding until 1130 in the morning.
More than time, I would imagine, to find some suitable sustenance and a decent place to sleep.