Set your satnav for a driving tour of northern Spain, where the coastal provinces of Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia provide a culturally-rich and laid-back alternative to all-day breakfasts, packed beaches and crowded nightclubs.
Some things are best left to the experts, such as pouring exactly 3cm of cider from a bottle held high above your head into a glass at waist level. In Asturias, trainee bar and restaurant staff have to practise for weeks with water before they’re let loose on paying customers.
“It’s to prevent their bosses going bankrupt from all the dry-cleaning bills,” tour guide Ernesto Fernandez tells me as we admire the small harbour town of Luarca from its hillside cemetery.
“Look – that’s where I live,” he says, indicating his apartment building. “And this,” he adds, turning and pointing at the Fernandez family mausoleum, “is where I’ll be laid to rest when I die – my tomb with a view.”
Necrotourism is a new one on me, but people do make a holiday out of gawping at graveyards, and Luarca’s, full of white marble statues of angels, the Virgin and the crucified Christ, is on the list of “Ten Spanish cemeteries to see before you die”.
Down in the main square, a sign on a help-yourself tap outside a cafe reads: “Sidra. Gratis.” Asturian cider is so cheap – €3 for a litre bottle – that many bars provide it free to peregrinos (pilgrims) walking the Northern Way of the Camino de Santiago, which passes through Luarca.
It’s one of the many picturesque towns and villages I’ll visit during a week-long east-to-west driving tour of northern Spain that begins in Cantabria, continues into Asturias and ends in Galicia.
Up here on the breezy Bay of Biscay, where families from sizzling Seville take their summer break to escape the oppressive heat of home – 25C is cool compared with the 40-plus degrees they’re used to – the landscape increasingly resembles Donegal the farther I travel, with soaring cliffs, secluded beaches and pointy-topped mountains.
An hour’s drive from Santander, the Cantabrian capital, takes me to the fishing port of San Vicente de la Barquera, where the 13th century fortress and Gothic church of Santa Maria, set against the snow-capped Picos de Europa, provide one of the most-photographed sights in Spain.
San Vicente is the starting point for the little-known Camino Lebaniego, which covers a mere 72km and can be completed in three days.
It might be Camino-Lite, but this inland hike, which takes pilgrims to the monastery of Santo Toribio near Potes, is heavy on the scenery, and walkers would be wise to add a fourth day as a lot of time is spent stopping to take pictures.
Photography isn’t allowed in El Soplao Cave (elsoplao.es), but the millions of stalactites, stalagmites and physics-defying helictites – these last mentioned grow sideways, which the biggest brains in science still can’t explain – leave long-lasting mental images.
Close to the cave’s Chamber of the Phantasms, where the bigger and bulkier stalagmites resemble ghosts of the white bedsheet variety, one three-metre-tall and 45,000-year-old example looks more like a mitre-wearing Pope while another beside it reminds visitors of Homer Simpson.
Just outside medieval Santillana del Mar – arguably the most beautiful town in Spain – the Altamira Cave, with its 15,000-year-old ceiling paintings of wild bison and deer, had to be closed to the public in 2002. Exhaled breath was causing mould to form on the Ice Age artists’ work, but actual-size reproductions can be seen in the replica cave next door, which is today a world-class tourist attraction.
It’s hardly Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, but every Friday, five lucky people drawn from a years-long waiting list present their printed-out golden tickets at the entrance and are given a guided tour of the real thing, which was discovered by a local hunter in 1868.
In the coastal resort of Comillas, which has more multi-millionaire residents per capita than Monaco, no one has to ask who dreamed up the whimsical Villa Quijano.
Antoni Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, on which work began in March 1882, will be nice when it’s finished, but the villa, which he designed for super-rich lawyer Maximo Diaz de Quijano, was completed in 1885 and has been attracting envious looks ever since.
Better-known as Gaudi’s Caprice, it’s clearly influenced by Arab architecture and Oriental art, but an excited little boy gets it spot on when he says: “Mama – the tower is made from LEGO!”
Gaudi met an ignominious end in Barcelona in June 1926 when, at the age of 73, he was knocked down and gravely injured by a tram. Because he had taken to dressing in ragged clothing and was carrying no ID, he was presumed to be a beggar and taken to a hospital for the poor.
On the third day after the accident he was finally recognised, but he died that evening. Thousands of citizens lined the streets for his funeral procession, and he was laid to rest in the crypt of his art nouveau masterpiece. If he hadn’t been identified, his remains would have been buried in a pauper’s grave.
Cantabria has delivered big time on culture and natural history, and now it’s onward to Asturias to hook up with Ernesto in Llanes for a late-night seafood dinner in a little restaurant overlooking the marina.
After breakfast, we head off on a full-day exploration of the principality’s seaside communities, each laying claim, and not unreasonably, to the title of “Spain’s prettiest”.
Luarca, with its des-res cemetery, is in with a shout, as are Tazones, Ribadesella and Colunga, where the Jurassic Museum is a must-see if you’re travelling with children. Little ones go nuts to have their photos taken beside its life-sized dinosaur models, and then probably wake up screaming at three in the morning, having dreamt they were being eaten by a tyrannosaurus.
However, Cudillero, a higgledy-piggledy pile of pastel-coloured shops and houses clambering up a steep gorge from the sea, gets my vote, although I don’t tell that to Ernesto – the shock might dispatch him prematurely to his tomb with a view.
We say adiós the following lunchtime in Ribadeo, on the western side of the River Eo estuary that separates Asturias from Galicia.
The “handover”, as Ernesto ominously calls it, to “the Galician authorities” conjures up images of a midnight spy swap at fog-shrouded Checkpoint Charlie, but they’re quickly dispelled – it’s a beautiful day, and instead of being greeted by George Smiley, smiling tour guide Gabriela Garcia is waiting to whisk us off for a dip in the sea.
Unfortunately for me, but a lucky let-off for the public, I haven’t brought my Speedos, so I content myself with an hour-long stroll along Cathedrals Beach, which is only a short hop from Ribadeo.
The beach, with its 30-metre-tall sea arches that resemble flying buttresses, hence the name, is accessible only at low tide, and in the busy summer months you need permission, but free online reservations are available from ascatedrais.xunta.es.
The Galician capital, Santiago de Compostela – my ultimate destination – has loads to offer footsore hikers at the end of their long Camino journey, but there’s really only one show in town once they’ve emptied the local pharmacies of blister pads.
At 7.30pm mass each day, the 1,000-year-old cathedral is thronged with 1,200 people hoping to see the giant botafumeiro (censer) being swung from the ceiling by eight priests pulling hard on thick ropes.
It’s a centuries-old ritual with a practical purpose. In the pre-deodorant Middle Ages, pilgrims arriving at the cathedral to pray at the tomb of St James stank to high heaven after months on the road, so the wafting clouds of herb-scented smoke helped mask the stench.
Disappointingly, my visit doesn’t coincide with a scheduled ‘show’, so instead of getting giddy on smouldering incense, I’m treated to the heady aroma of Deep Heat sprayed on hundreds of aching legs.
Pilgrims with money to burn can pay in advance to see the botafumeiro in action, but the privilege comes at an eye-watering price – up to €800.
That’s a bit beyond my budget as I’m facing a hefty dry-cleaning bill after several pathetic attempts at pouring my own cider in Asturias left me looking like I’d peed my pants. Some things are best left to the experts.
Ryanair flies to Santander and Santiago de Compostela from Dublin; Brittany Ferries sails from Rosslare to Bilbao, from where it’s a one-hour drive to Santander.
Football superstar Cristiano Ronaldo’s home island will be one of the safest holiday destinations in Europe this summer and autumn, thanks to its no-nonsense response to the coronavirus pandemic. Here are some of the many attractions visitors can look forward to.
The black scabbard is a metre-long, lance-like predator with a mouth full of terrifying teeth that hunts in the deep Atlantic off Madeira. When a fisherman reels one in, the difference in pressure between a kilometre down and the surface makes its eyes pop out of their sockets. Visitors to this Portuguese island north of the Canaries will experience the same sensation when they see how cheap it is – food and drink cost 40pc less than in Ireland.
Having weathered the coronavirus storm significantly better than many places that rely on tourism, Madeira is being promoted as one of the safest holiday destinations in Europe once the travel traffic light turns green. The authorities are confident their rapid response to Covid and the measures imposed to suppress it will pay dividends with an influx of visitors this summer and autumn.
Since the start of February, the island has been home to hundreds of remote workers who tap at their laptops each day in the Digital Nomads Village in Ponto do Sol in the south of the island. Introduced as a pilot scheme, it’s due to end on June 30, but may be extended because of the demand for places – 4,800 people from 90 countries have so far registered an interest in passing the pandemic safely in the sun.
Madeira has in recent years shed its long-resented reputation as a pensioners-only paradise and become a magnet for outdoor adventurers. When holiday flights resume, they will again carry a complement of hikers, mountain bikers and trail runners, plus daredevils who go canyoning, which involves abseiling down thundering waterfalls. It’s something only a lunatic would try – and I have the selfies to prove it.
I’m standing, trembling, on the edge of a rocky outcrop, wearing a wetsuit I had to be shoehorned into in a situation I desperately want to get out of. Treading water in the river pool eight metres below, guide Nuno Freitas says he’ll count to three and then I should jump. As I prepare for the plunge, I ask him how often he has leapt from this same spot. “Never,” he replies. I shift swiftly into reverse gear, barge into my two companions – who are howling with laughter – and end up in a bush.
They’re still chuckling that evening over a delicious dinner of black scabbard with baked banana and passion fruit in Restaurant Santa Maria in Funchal’s old town.
Later, in Bar Venda Velha, we try poncha, Madeira’s famed firewater, made from distilled sugar cane and mixed with honey, lemon and a choice of freshly-squeezed fruit juices. Poncha packs a punch, but it goes down so well I have four – kiwi, mandarin, strawberry and tomato. A barman suggests a couple of places with music until dawn if we fancy sampling the nightlife. It took a lot of persuading for me to go canyoning, but nothing will get me to go clubbing – at 58, I’m hip replacement, not hip hop, and anyway, I have to be up early for a spot of mountain biking. It’s time for PJs, not DJs.
After breakfast, one of our party boards a boat for a whale spotting safari while the rest of us jump in a 4×4 that takes us high above the clouds to a roadside restaurant where our bikes await.
It’s a decent day for a descent – 10am and already 20C – that involves cycling 25km on dirt tracks and through daisy-dotted meadows, freewheeling down steep, snaking roads you’d have to be towed up and zig-zagging to avoid sunbathing lizards.
Guide Sergio Abreu, a competitive mountain biker, is impressed by my frequent up-on-the-pedals bursts of speed until I confess I could do with a cushion – those skinny saddles are torture, but the scenery goes some way to acting as a balm on my aching bum.
Next morning, we join naturalist Fabio Castro for a rainforest trek along a 6km stretch of Madeira’s levadas, the narrow, 16th century irrigation channels built to bring fresh water from the lush north to the more arid south. The network covers 2,200km, of which 1,400km are accessible to walkers, and the soundtrack to the trek is the cooing of doves and the chirruping of tiny firecrests, the smallest birds in Europe.
Some of the levadas are home to trout that have escaped from mountain lake fish farms, but there’s none on the menu that evening in the seafront Maktub restaurant in Paul do Mar, a 45-minute drive from Funchal.
Reggae-loving owner Fabio Afonso offers only what a local fisherman brings him each morning, and tonight it’s a big bruiser of a red snapper. I throw in the towel after a second helping. There’s loads left despite four of us having tucked in twice, but we’re leaving room for a couple of Fabio’s mojitos – he serves more of these Cuban highballs than anywhere else on the island.
Retiring to the lantern-lit terrace, we listen to the waves and reflect on three action-packed days that blew all our preconceptions about Madeira out of the water. Who knew the World Travel Awards judges recently named it the most beautiful island destination on the planet for the sixth year in a row from a shortlist that included Hawaii, Bali and the Seychelles?
While it will continue to be a favourite with seniors, thanks to its year-round sunny climate, value for money, near-negligible crime rate and Covid controls, the age profile of visitors is slipping as the younger set in search of thrills discover it offers adrenaline – as well as afternoon tea – on tap.
My companion who went out on the boat to see the orcas isn’t the only one who had a whale of a time on Madeira – like the black scabbard, I’m hooked.
GET THERE I was a guest of Madeira Tourism and TAP Air Portugal. TAP flies daily from Dublin to Cristiano Ronaldo Madeira International Airport via Lisbon.
STAY I stayed at the bright and modern 4-star Alto Lido Hotel in Funchal, which offers B&B from €67 a night. Facilities include childminding, an indoor heated pool and another outdoors with sun deck, 24-hour fitness centre with sauna and free town centre shuttle bus (10 minutes).
PACK If you’re going to try canyoning, bring along a spare pair of runners (or an old pair you can bin) because they’re going to get soaked through. Canyoning is classed as an extreme sport (along with shark cage diving) and travel insurance comes at a small extra premium, so make sure you’re adequately covered.
EAT The family-run Faja dos Padres beachside restaurant, at the foot of a 300-metre cliff just outside Funchal, is accessible only by cable car, which is part of the fun of having lunch there. I would urge everyone visiting Madeira to book a table – the setting is idyllic, the food is fabulous and the staff are charming.
We all have a favourite film, the one we can – and do – watch time and again without ever tiring of it. Mine is The Quiet Man, which I first saw as a child. A couple of years ago, I fulfilled a long-held ambition and travelled to the west of Ireland to visit the locations where the movie was shot. Here’s what I found on my starstruck pilgrimage.
“He’ll regret it till his dying day, if ever he lives that long.” Fans of The Quiet Man will immediately recognise that line as having been uttered by fierce-tempered farmer ‘Red’ Will Danaher, played to blustering perfection by Victor McLaglen. Danaher is the bullying big brother of beautiful redhead Mary Kate (Maureen O’Hara), who steals the heart of retired boxer Sean ‘Trooper Thorn’ Thornton (John Wayne), who had killed an opponent in the ring in the States.
Despite Danaher’s best spoiling efforts, and aided and abetted by the conniving villagers of fictional Inisfree, Sean, who was born there but grew up in Pittsburgh, woos and weds Mary Kate and then has an epic fist fight with his brother-in-law.
Based on the 1933 short story Green Rushes, by County Kerry novelist Maurice Walsh, The Quiet Man was director John Ford’s pet project and his cinematic love letter to his parents’ homeland. “It will never make a penny,” was one snooty studio reader’s opinion of Frank S Nugent’s 179-page screenplay. I hope he enjoyed eating his hat. The film cost $1.75 million to make, took in $3.8 million in its first year and has earned many times that in video and DVD sales and rentals.
Shot in the summer of 1951, mainly in and around Cong, County Mayo, and released the following year, it sparked a phenomenal influx of tourists eager to see the sights so gorgeously portrayed by cinematographers Winton C Hoch and Archie Stout. Their work earned them Academy Awards (Ford, whose real name was Sean Aloysius Feeney, got the Best Director Oscar) and put the town and county on the map.
Today, the coachloads of Quiet Man pilgrims who descend on Cong year-round are thrilled to find not much has changed since the cast and crew packed up and headed home.
Most of the buildings featured in the film, such as the Reverend and Mrs. Playfair’s ivy-covered house, are still there, and you’ll see fans, many of them moist-eyed Irish-Americans, wandering around doing more pointing than a bricklayer.
The house first appears when courting couple Sean and Mary Kate are out walking under the watchful eye of pipe-puffing mischief-maker, matchmaker and bookmaker Michaleen Og Flynn, who’s following in his horse-drawn trap. Fed up with the rigid formality, Sean spots a tandem bicycle propped against a window, tells Mary Kate to jump on and they go racing off down the street.
It is also seen near the end of the film when the Reverend Playfair (Arthur Shields) collects his £15 winnings from his boss, the Anglican Bishop (Philip Stainton), who had foolishly backed Danaher to win the fight. Playfair, a former amateur pugilist with a big collection of scrapbooks full of boxing articles and pictures, is the only person in the village who knows about Trooper Thorn killing his opponent, but the tragic secret is safe with him.
One of the funniest scenes is that in which Michaleen’s horse, Napoleon, comes to an abrupt, habitual halt outside Pat Cohan’s pub, nearly catapulting him out of his seat and prompting the line: “I think ye have more sense than meself!”
Michaleen was played by rubber-faced pixie Barry Fitzgerald, real name William Joseph Shields (Arthur’s brother), who won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Father Fitzgibbon in the 1944 tear-jerker Going My Way. Unfortunately, his ‘gold’ statuette came to a sticky end. While practising his golf swing in his living room, he knocked the head off it (during World War Two, they were made of plaster because of metal shortages) and had to glue it back on.
Cohan’s is where Sean and Danaher take a break from their fight, which resumes when the latter comes crashing backwards through the closed front door after throwing a pint of porter in the Yank’s face, for which he gets a piledriver of a punch in his own. The pub didn’t exist: it was actually a dressed-up grocer’s shop and the interiors were shot in Hollywood, so the punch that was thrown in California put Danaher on his backside 5,000 miles away in the street in Cong. The Pat Cohan’s that now welcomes customers opened as a fully-licensed bar in 2008.
Nearby is the house where dying man Dan Tobin makes a miraculous recovery, springing from his bed while being read the last rites when he hears the crowd outside running to see the big fight. Hopping down the street and pulling his trousers on over his long nightshirt, it’s the biggest comeback since Lazarus. White-bearded Tobin was played by Francis Ford, the director’s brother, and the young priest praying by his bedside, Fr Paul, was O’Hara’s brother, James.
Ashford Castle, on the outskirts of Cong, is one of Ireland’s poshest hotels, and for the several weeks of filming it was home to Ford, Wayne and O’Hara. It was also home to me and my pal John Morrison – another life-long Quiet Man fan – when we made a pilgrimage we had been promising ourselves for years. This was our base while we toured Cong and the surrounding countryside, visiting the places seen in the movie.
The castle dates from 1228, when the Anglo-Norman de Burgo clan, who had recently kicked the backsides of the native O’Connors, decided they liked the locality and put down roots. Three-and-a-half centuries later, in 1589, the de Burgos got a taste of their own medicine when English nobleman Lord Bingham and his boys decided they liked it too, and sent them packing.
In 1715, the Oranmore-Browne family took over, and in 1852 Sir Benjamin Lee Guinness of the brewing dynasty moved in, extending the estate to 26,000 acres and adding two Victorian-style extensions either side of the French-style chateau. In 1939, the castle became a luxury hotel, and in 1970 a large part of the grounds were given over to a golf course.
Several scenes in the film were shot on the castle estate, including that in which fly-fishing parish priest Father Peter Lonergan (Ward Bond) almost hooks the monster salmon he’s been after for years (out of shot, local man Jim Morrin was in the river tugging on the line). If only Mary Kate hadn’t come along moaning about her new husband bunking down in a sleeping bag – “with buttons!” – Fr Lonergan might have landed it.
Danaher’s house, looking much as it did except for the addition of a front door porch and garage door, is on the estate, too. This is where Sean comes calling with flowers in hand and Michaleen in tow to seek the irascible squire’s permission to court his sister, only to be sent off with a flea in his ear as a tearful Mary Kate looks forlornly from the left hand upstairs window.
The third fairway of the castle golf course, which didn’t exist in 1951, is where Sean first spots the barefooted Mary Kate herding sheep with a black and white collie (Jacko, owned by local shepherd John Murphy).
This area is also seen in the run-up to the big fight when Sean, who has had enough of Mary Kate’s bickering over her unpaid dowry, drags her along the ground by the collar, followed by the crowd.
In a continuation of this scene, but in a different location close to the Danaher house known as the Meadow Field, Sean dumps his wife at the feet of her brother, who’s harvesting the hay with his workers, and says: “You can take your sister back. It’s your custom, not mine. No fortune, no marriage. We call it quits.”
St. Mary’s Protestant church, whose exterior was used in the “patty fingers” scene in which Sean is told off by Michaleen for scooping holy water from the font for Mary Kate to bless herself, is on the road out of the estate into Cong.
Wealthy widow Sarah Tillane’s (Mildred Natwick) house, where Sean seals the deal to buy White O’ Mornin’, the cottage in which he and seven generations of his family were born, no longer exists, having been demolished years ago to make way for a car park for visitors to the estate. The long-neglected White O’ Mornin’, by the Failmore River, 21km west of Cong, has been reduced to a barely recognisable pile of rubble. It’s a crying shame.
Sixteen kilometres southwest of Cong, between Maam Cross and Oughterard, is Leam Bridge, also known as The Quiet Man Bridge and unchanged in 60 years. This is where Sean sits and views White O’ Mornin’ while his late mother’s voice reminisces: “Don’t you remember, Seanie, and how it was? The road led up past the chapel and it wound and wound. And there was the field where Dan Tobin’s bull chased you. It was a lovely little house, Seaneen. And the roses! Well, your father used to tease me about them, but he was that proud of them too.”
Drive 35km southeast of Cong and you’ll come to the now disused but still accessible Ballyglunin railway station, which in the film was called Castletown. It’s here that Sean gets off the green steam train at the start and is immediately surrounded by curious rail staff and villagers as narrator Fr. Lonergan clears his throat and sets the scene in voiceover.
“Now then, I’ll begin at the beginnin’,” he says. “A fine soft day in the spring it was when the train pulled into Castletown, three hours late as usual, and himself got off. He didn’t have the look of an American tourist at all about him. Not a camera on him. And what was worse, not even a fishing rod.”
After asking directions to Inisfree and being sent off in all directions, first by the conductor (“Do you see that road over there? Don’t take that one, it’ll do you no good”) and then by a fishwife (“My sister’s third young one is living at Inisfree, and she’d be only too happy to show you the road – if she was here”), Michaleen appears, lifts Sean’s case and says: “Inisfree? This way.”
And so they set off from the station in Michaleen’s trap and the adventure begins, to the comedic melody of The Rakes Of Mallow.
If you want to see Lettergesh Beach, where the Inisfree horse race meeting was filmed, drive 40km west of Cong to Renvyle, where the best view is from in front of Lettergesh post office. It’s during the races that Michaleen and Fr. Lonergan launch their plot, on which the movie hangs, to persuade Danaher to let Sean court Mary Kate.
The Quiet Man isn’t everyone’s cup of tea – or in Michaleen’s case, glass of whiskey. There are those who dismiss it as a mawkish dip into an over-romanticised world of shenanigans and blarney that never existed except in John Ford’s mind. However, stroll through Cong on any day of the week and you’ll see there are many more devotees than detractors, all walking around with movie location maps in their hands and smiles on their faces.
Six decades after the cameras stopped rolling, the film clearly occupies a special place in the hearts of the people of Cong because, like Trooper Thorn, and the scenery so spectacularly portrayed in Ford’s fond salute to Ireland, The Quiet Man still packs a punch.
I’ll leave you with an anecdote I was told in Pat Cohan’s pub. On a day off from filming, John Wayne travelled to Croke Park stadium in Dublin with a member of the crew to see the fiercely-fought All-Ireland hurling semi-final between Wexford and Galway. At half-time, the crewman said to him: “You’re a big athletic man, I bet you’d love to be down there with a hurley in your hand.” Wayne took a drag from his cigarette and drawled: “Well, I sure as hell wouldn’t like to be down there without one.”
Fr. Lonergan (to Sean): “Ah, yes. I knew your people, Sean. Your grandfather, he died in Australia, in a penal colony. And your father, he was a good man too.”
Fr. Lonergan(to villagers): “Now, when the Reverend Mr Playfair, good man that he is, comes down, I want us all to cheer like Protestants.”
Fishwife(to Sean): “Sir! Sir! Here’s a good stick, to beat the lovely lady.”
Mary Kate (to Michaleen): “Would you be stepping into the parlour? The house may belong to my brother, but what’s in the parlour belongs to me.” Michaleen: “I will then, and I hope there’s a bottle there, whoever it belongs to.”
Mary Kate (to Michaleen): “Could you use a little water in your whiskey?” Michaleen:“When I drink whiskey, I drink whiskey, and when I drink water, I drink water.”
Feeney (played by Jack MacGowran, to Mary Kate): “I saw him today, as I passed by the chapel – a tall handsome man.” Mary Kate: “If you passed the pub as quickly as you passed the chapel, you’d be better off, you little squint!”
Feeney (to Mary Kate): “Is that a bed or a parade ground? A man would have to be a sprinter to catch his wife in a bed that big.”
The illuminated sign outside the ABBA Museum in Stockholm invites visitors to WALK IN, DANCE OUT. It fails to mention you might have to be dragged out, because it’s such a fun-filled experience that nobody wants to leave. With the group’s universally-loved hits playing non-stop, a visit to the interactive ABBA Museum means you can dance, you can jive, and you’ll definitely be having the time of your life.
There’s a 1970s-style red plastic telephone in the ABBA Museum that will sometimes Ring, Ring. If you’re nearest to it when the bell trills and pick it up, you’ll find yourself speaking with Agnetha Faltskog, Bjorn Ulvaeus, Benny Andersson or Anni-Frid (Frida) Lyngstad.
They’re the only people in the world who know the number, and now and then one of them will call and chat with whoever answers. Knowing my luck, if I had answered it would have been a fraudster looking for some Money, Money, Money. Then again, it might have been a member of one of the world’s most successful pop groups of all time – calling to complain about my singing.
The thing is, there are three booths in the museum where visitors can warble along, karaoke-style, to an ABBA song of their choice. By swiping the bar code on their entrance ticket, would-be chart stars are recorded and the result can be downloaded online. I couldn’t resist, and launched into what I thought was a rousing rendition of Dancing Queen. My friends, who can be very cruel, thought otherwise. When they heard the recording later, they said: “Thank You (but No Thank You) for the Music.”
An electronic scoreboard awards points while you sing. The better you sound, the more points you accumulate. Anyone with half-a-note in their head can expect to score around 2,500. A good singer will get between 5,000 and 8,000. A really good singer is in the 10,000-plus club. I got 744. They’ll have to get a technician in.
Undeterred, I jumped at the chance to “become the fifth member of ABBA”. This is where visitors, one at a time, can get up on a stage and sing along with animated holograms of Agnetha, Bjorn, Benny and Frida.
There’s a choice of songs, and not wishing to fall victim to another computer glitch I chose Super Trouper. The lights came up, the ghostly band appeared either side of me, the music began – and so did the abuse.
It’s not easy trying to dance, read lyrics from a monitor and sing at the same time when, on the other side of the glass that separates performer from audience, people you thought were your pals are laughing their heads off.
They were sticking their thumbs in their ears and wiggling their fingers, poking their tongues out, pulling grotesque faces and making rude gestures. Gimme, Gimme, Gimme a break, I thought.
Mind you, when I downloaded the video later (swipe your ticket before going on stage for another unique souvenir) I could see their point. It was comedy gold.
Every one of the thousands of exhibits in the museum is the real thing – there are no replicas. The band recorded most of their singles and albums in the Polar Studios in Stockholm, and the ABBA studio has been installed in the museum.
It contains the original mixing console, instruments and other gear, but best of all, there’s a piano that occasionally springs into life. It’s hooked up to another one in Benny’s studio on nearby Skeppsholmen – one of Stockholm’s 14 islands – and when he plays there, the piano in the museum plays too.
Turn a corner and there’s the helicopter from the cover of the 1976 Arrival album. Hop in, grab the joystick and have your picture taken. Close by is the green park bench from the Greatest Hits album (also 1976), with a backdrop of Benny and Frida eating the faces off each other.
Next to them, Agnetha sits looking miserable and Bjorn reads a pharmaceuticals brochure promoting antibiotics (the photographer was supposed to bring a copy of Time magazine but forgot, and the brochure was all he had in his bag).
Continue wandering and you’ll see the white upright piano from Benny and Bjorn’s songwriting hut on the island of Viggso, band manager Stig Anderson’s office and ABBA’s on-tour dressing room.
The most photographed exhibits, though, are the costumes ABBA wore and the star-shaped guitar Bjorn played when they won the 1974 Eurovision Song Contest in Brighton, England, with Waterloo (the Wombles were the interval act, God love us). There are many more costumes from the band’s world tours displayed in glass cases, each vying for the gold medal for gaudiness.
Album covers in umpteen languages cover every inch of wall space, along with concert posters, programmes and tickets. There are gold discs, platinum discs and the real danger of slipped discs if you overdo the dancing in the museum’s disco.
If you have more than a passing interest in the band, there are several touchscreens on your journey through the museum on which you can test your ABBA knowledge with quiz questions ranging from easy-peasy to nerdishly knowledgeable.
Just inside the museum entrance is the giant sign with ‘ABBA’ picked out in light bulbs that was used as a stage prop on the group’s 1979 tour of Europe and America. Four years later, they went their separate ways and ABBA was no more. Or rather, ABBA the band and ABBA the two married couples – Bjorn/Agnetha and Benny/Frida – were no more. ABBA the brand, however, lives on.
Since 1974, fans have bought 380 million albums and singles, which still sell by the truckload. Mamma Mia!, the ABBA stage musical which debuted in London in April 1999, has been seen by 50 million people worldwide and grossed more than $2 billion. Mamma Mia! the movie, starring Meryl Streep, Pierce Brosnan and Colin Firth, which cost $52 million to make, has grossed $602 million since its release in July 2008. The sequel, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018), was made for $75 million and has so far taken $395 million at the worldwide box office.
My taxi driver home from Dublin airport was convinced that if ABBA were to re-form tomorrow and announce a world tour, the tickets would sell out in minutes. It’s a nice thought, but sadly – or maybe fortunately, given the members are now all in their 70s – it won’t happen. However, we can still be grateful for their songs.
So, ABBA, thank you for the music – and thank you for the museum. For two laughter-filled hours I made an absolute fool of myself and enjoyed every second. It was Funny, Funny, Funny.
The ABBA Museum (Djurgardsvagen 68, Djurgarden) is part of the Swedish Music Hall of Fame and is open from 10am to 6pm from Saturday to Tuesday and 10am to 8pm from Wednesday to Friday. Tickets (buy online) are for pre-selected time slots to avoid overcrowding and so visitors can avoid queues.
A fascinating audio guide narrated in English by the members of ABBA (it was written by Catherine Johnson, who scripted the Mamma Mia! movie) is available to rent.
I’ve had a long-standing love affair with seductive Stockholm, but after a fling with flirtatious Gothenburg and a little treasure of an island in its archipelago, there are now three in this relationship. While my passion for Sweden’s capital is as hot as ever, its as-cool-as-they-come second city will be seeing a lot more of me.
Like Nancy Sinatra’s boots, the streets of Gothenburg are made for walkin’. That said, you wouldn’t want to dilly-dally while crossing the main avenue, Kungsportsavenyen, on Saturday afternoons. That’s when the fancy-car fraternity and the even noisier show-offs on two wheels use it as a race track when the cops have their backs turned.
I’m soaking up the sun on the street-front terrace of one of the avenue’s posh bar-restaurants and thinking dark thoughts about the idiots roaring past. Looking around to share my chagrin with someone, it strikes me that nobody is paying them a blind bit of notice. It apparently takes more than a pimped-up Porsche or a growling Guzi to impress the laid-back locals.
My admiration for the easy-going Gothenburgers soars when I overhear a waitress reprimanding an English guy for lighting a cigarette.
“But I’m outside. It’s a terrace – innit?” he says in a tone that makes me bristle.
“Yes, but it’s a non-smoking terrace,” says the waitress. “People are eating – and that lady there is pregnant. So please, put your cigarette out now.”
I’ve been in Gothenburg for only a few hours, and I’ve already fallen for a feisty waitress who speaks in italics. I know I’m going to like it here.
At the top of the avenue, behind the Poseidon fountain, stands the yellow-brick Gothenburg Museum of Art, where the exhibits include works by Rembrandt, Monet, Munch and Picasso – and a four-metre-tall, upside-down revolving pole dancer.
In the Furstenburg Gallery on the sixth floor, I innocently rest a hand on a waist-high pink marble table on which sits a life-sized fibreglass baby in a green romper suit with flower-tipped antlers sprouting from his head. It’s a good spot from which to view the huge oil painting on the wall.
The table must be wired with sensors, because a couple of seconds later I feel a presence at my shoulder. I turn, and there’s a security guard, arms folded across her chest. She arches an eyebrow and nods at my hand, which I immediately shove in my pocket before she can get the cuffs out.
“Touching the exhibits is not allowed,” she says.
“Sorry,” I reply. “I just rested my hand while I was looking at that painting of the naked women.”
The words are out before I can stop them. Two minutes later, I’m on the ground floor, hot-footing it through the Hasselblad Centre. I’m told the photographic exhibition is well worth seeing, but you’ll have to read about it elsewhere, because in my embarrassment I’m out the front door in a flash.
Businessman Matts Johansson is instantly likeable, but there’s nothing instant about the brews the young baristas serve in his four Da Matteo coffee shops. I can’t vouch for his knowledge of onions, but award-winning master blender Matts knows his beans and has trenchant views on how coffee should be best enjoyed.
“Only bad coffee needs milk,” he says, which is awkward as I have the jug in my hand, ready to pour. I immediately pass it to the puzzled teenager behind me with a cheery “Here you are”.
The first Da Matteo opened in Gothenburg’s Victoriapassagen, but I’ve fled after my run-in with the security guard to Matts’ flagship cafe, coffee roasting shop and sour dough bakery in Magasinsgatan, named Sweden’s Cafe of the Year 2015 by the country’s authoritative White Guide.
Matts knows his buns as well as his beans, and although he says the cinnamon and cardamom varieties that sell like, well, hotcakes will kill the subtle flavours of the coffee, they’re too good to ignore. As for the goat cheese and fig marmalade sandwiches, I can’t resist buying one to take with me on my afternoon stroll.
Gothenburg isn’t especially big, but when it comes to serving up delightful distractions it goes large. Quaint cobbled alleyways are home to hipster hangouts, coffee shops galore, micro-breweries, the occasional biker bar, vinyl stores and loads of vintage clothes shops and big-name designer boutiques.
In Drottninggatan, I halt at the Nudie Jeans Co sales outlet and repair shop, where a guy is busy at a sewing machine in the window. Young people in Gothenburg get their jeans repaired? They don’t in Dublin, where girls walk around with theirs full of holes and guys wear them halfway down the back of their legs and think they’re the height of fashion.
Nudie Jeans Co was founded in Gothenburg in 2001 and is fast becoming a global brand. Its repair shops will wash and patch your frayed or torn Nudies at no cost, or you can trade them in for a discount on a new pair.
They’re also into recycling at the Myrorna second-hand emporium (Jarntorgsgatan 10), where a rummage among the retro rails on the ground floor suggests the Bay City Rollers were once popular in Gothenburg, as tartan-trimmed short-sleeved shirts and high-waistband, shin-length flares abound.
I was a child of the mid-Seventies when Rollermania was at its peak, and that was how my classmates and I dressed for school, so I take back what I said about the young fellas with their jeans flying at half-mast. We looked even more ridiculous and we had mullets as well.
I decide to have dinner in my hotel, the four-star Scandic Europa. This is mainly because I’m all walked-out, but I’ve noticed the in-house HAK restaurant has a Spanish charcuterie station offering a big selection of chorizos, cured hams and strings of sausages, plus some of my favourite cheeses. There’s also a big potato tortilla that has just been made, so I pull up a high stool where I can inhale the steam and get chatting with man-behind-the-counter Mario, who sports a splendid Salvador Dali waxed and pointy moustache.
“I can pick up Sky Sports on this,” he says, twiddling the ends.
Everybody I’ve asked so far to recommend the must-visit pub in Gothenburg has, without hesitation, cited the same place, so I run the question past Mario.
“That’s easy,” he says. “Olhallen 7:an. It’s crazy, and full of crazy people.”
There will be one more crazy person in it before I head back to Dublin, because that’s the pub everyone has named, so I add it to my itinerary.
I’m late for breakfast next morning, having forgotten Sweden is an hour ahead of Ireland, so I grab a couple of croissants and a banana from the buffet and head out to do some more exploring.
Swedes are the foremost consumers of bananas in Europe, getting through, on average, 20kg each per year, a fact I learn from commentator Annika Nilsson during a 50-minute flat-bottomed boat tour of the city’s 17th century canals and moat.
Gothenburg is just as winsome from the water, where the much-photographed four-masted tall ship Viking is moored in the harbour. With a 55-metre foremast, this magnificent vessel is a permanent fixture – its passage to the sea is barred by a 45-metre-tall bridge that wasn’t there when it arrived in 1950. Viking is now a hotel that gets glowing online reviews.
Psychology student Annika, who works part-time for sightseeing boat operator Paddan, could enjoy a glittering career as a stand-up comedian specialising in painful puns (“We Swedes are bananas for bananas”) if it weren’t for Gothenburg’s Cheese Grater bridge. With only six inches of sitting-down headroom as the boat passes underneath, she would be decapitated if she even tried to stand up. When the wise-cracking Annika says “duck”, she’s not referring to the ones that go “quack”.
Slipping effortlessly from commentary in Swedish to faultless English and back again, Annika and her fellow guides are a big hit with passengers. It’s a hugely enjoyable way to see and learn about the city, with laughs galore thrown in. The boats leave three times an hour from Kungsportsplatsen, where Gothenburg was founded in 1621.
One of the more unusual sights during the Paddan tour is the Feskekorka, or Fish Church, at Roselundsgatan by the canal. It certainly looks like a church, but it’s Gothenburg’s indoor fish market, “built in 1874 and dedicated to the glory and worship of the Lord our cod”, says Annika, to a chorus of groans.
Back on dry land, I head straight to the Feskekorka, where the first person I get chatting with is student Hanna Mahaffey, from Chicago. Between chopping the heads off fish, she tells me she’s half-American, half-Swedish, and is studying to be a sea captain.
I ask her if working in the fish market is part of her course. As stupid questions go, it’s up there with the best. “No, it pays my rent,” she says, and I leave it at that as she’s brandishing a cleaver.
The Feskekorka is home to one of Gothenburg’s best seafood restaurants, Restaurang Gabriel, which is owned and run by chef Johan Malm, a former gold medal winner in the Oyster Opening World Cup, the Nordic and Swedish Championships and the Galway International Oyster Festival. He must be good, because despite opening around 500 oysters a week in Restaurang Gabriel, he has a full complement of fingers and thumbs.
A tip from maestro Malm: a squeeze of lemon is all an oyster needs, and you should chew it properly to “get the flavour of the sea”. An oyster takes up to seven years to grow to maturity, so it seems a shame to just chuck it down your neck.
A 25-minute ride on the number 11 tram from Brunnsparken in the city centre takes me to Saltholmen, where I board one of the frequent ferries that serve the islands of Gothenburg’s southern archipelago.
One of those islands is Styrso, which occupies a mere 1.58 square kilometres and has a resident population of 1,300. I wish I was one of them. If Robinson Crusoe had been washed up here, he would have put out the fire, hidden in a hole and told Man Friday to stop leaping about like a lunatic if the sails of a rescue ship had appeared on the horizon. This is an island to escape to, not from.
Life on Styrso is car, care and crime-free. The islanders and their envious visitors get around on foot, bikes, mopeds and what appear to be converted lawnmowers. If you call a cab, a golf buggy arrives. I’ve no idea how the two resident police officers occupy their time, but it’s reassuring to know they’re there.
The Pensionat Styrso Skaret guesthouse, which is owned and run by Ola Tulldahl and his wife Ylva Sjoberg, is a mere five-minute stroll from where the ferry pulls in.
Ola tells me he loves Fawlty Towers, which is a wee bit worrying as I’ll be dining later in his restaurant, so I make a mental note not to order the Waldorf salad in case he has run out of Waldorfs.
Ola and Ylva started off working here for the previous owner, then bought the place and toiled day and night to turn it into the best guesthouse I’ve ever set foot in.
“We want our guests to feel like they’re visiting grandma’s house,” says Ola, which evokes best-forgotten childhood memories of Granny Sweeney’s bloomers steaming on the drying line above the kitchen range.
I know what he means, though. This is a flat-pack-free zone: every piece of furniture in the common areas and 13-bedrooms, which have sea or garden views, is handmade from teak, mahogany or oak by craftsmen now long-dead.
Ola lends me a bike – a girly one – so I can cycle around the island and see the sights. The last bike I owned was a Raleigh Chopper that I rode on my paper round and had conventional brakes, unlike Ola’s, which he says I have to pedal backwards to slow down and stop.
I can’t get the hang of it. I’ve only just had my best brogues resoled, yet within 10 minutes of setting off from the guesthouse I feel I’ve been walking on red-hot coals. Picture the moment an aeroplane lands and its tyres throw up a pall of smoke. That’s the bottoms of my shoes every time I plank them down on the road to avoid overshooting a junction, crashing through a fence into someone’s garden or taking an unplanned dip in the sea.
As I approach the lovely old whitewashed Lutheran church in the village of Byn, the lady pastor, Agneta Olsson, steps into the narrow road ahead and gives me a cheery wave. Little does she realise that any second now she could be waving the world goodbye.
My soles hit the tarmac, and the quick-thinking pastor performs a manoeuvre not unlike the one in bullfighting that’s known as a veronica. This is where the torero stands rooted to the spot and swings sideways as the bull charges past, its horns – or in my case, handlebars – a mere inch or two short of doing appalling damage. In the bullring, a successful veronica is accompanied by a deafening “Ole!” from the crowd. In Byn, it’s accompanied by a pathetic “Ting-ting!” from my bicycle bell.
I step inside the church, which was completed in 1752. Near the pulpit, a local teenager is practising on the piano, and very talented he is too. Smart as well, because as soon as he realises he has company, he segues seamlessly from Taylor Swift to something a bit more suitable for the surroundings. His playing is accompanied by the tick-tock of what I presume to be a metronome, until I realise it’s coming from the grandfather clock behind him that’s nearly as old as the building.
Continuing my two-wheeled tour, I pass a couple of eye-poppingly plush properties that are probably owned by Swedish billionaires Viktor and Vilda Volvo and their good friends Erik and Elsa Electrolux. There are plenty of no-less-impressive cottages too, with picket fences, rose gardens, apple trees and, invariably, a kayak or small boat from which many a line is no doubt cast to reel in something tasty for tea.
Ola and Ylva’s restaurant, which specialises in superlative seafood caught each morning within a couple of hundred metres of their front door, is open to non-residents and is always busy, so reservations are a must.
Ylva steers me to a table by a window, with wonderful late afternoon views of the channel that separates Styrso from the neighbouring island of Donso. She comes back a couple of minutes later with the menu, which changes every day according to the catch.
“I hear you bumped into the pastor,” says Ylva, with terrible timing, as I nearly drown on the mouthful of lager that’s halfway down my throat. “Ola was buying some things in the store opposite the church and saw you chatting. Did you take photos of the church. It’s beautiful, isn’t it?”
It certainly is, and so is my early dinner of wild mushroom soup, langoustines, fish and shellfish with vegetables and herbs from Ola’s garden, plus freshly-baked bread, each dish accompanied by a craft beer recommended by Ylva. I’m as happy as Larry. Or, seeing as I’m in Sweden, as happy as Lars.
Before setting off for the ferry to return to the city, I ask Ola if he has heard of a pub named Olhallen 7:an.
“Oh, yeah,” he says. “It’s like Fawlty Towers. You should go there.”
Gothenburgers go out of their way to look after visitors – stand in the street for two seconds consulting a map and someone will be over to ask if they can help with directions.
As a second city, it’s not always a first-choice destination for anyone planning a visit to Sweden, so those who go there will find they’re extra welcome, and visitors from Ireland are extra-extra welcome, as I learn when I squeeze through the early-afternoon crowd in Olhallen 7:an (Kungstorget 7).
Like the vast majority of Swedes, bushy-bearded barman Christoffer Johansson speaks flawless English, although in his case with a broad Northern Ireland accent – the last thing I expect, because Swedes invariably sound as if they’ve learned the lingo from either Captain Mainwaring or Captain Kirk.
I ask him if he’s from Belfast. “Nah, Ah’m from here, so Ah am,” he says, with a big grin. “Wee pint?”
It turns out Christoffer’s best buddies are Belfast expats living and working in Gothenburg, “so they are”, and he can’t wait for the autumn, “so I can’t”, when he’s going to Ireland for a wedding. It will be his first visit, and he’s super-excited, so he is.
I take my drink outside to the busy terrace, where everyone else is drinking “wee pints” – from Smithwick’s Irish ale glasses. There isn’t a wine to be seen, or a gin-and-this or a vodka-and-that. That’s why it’s called Olhallen, which translates as ale hall – it sells only beer.
Olhallen 7:an has been in business since 1900, which makes it Gothenburg’s oldest watering hole. It has umpteen reasons to blow its own trumpet, but chooses inexplicably to big up the fact that it still has its original floor. That’s like a tour guide in Egypt telling visitors to ignore the pyramids and admire the sand.
It’s OK as floors go, but it’s hardly a Roman mosaic, and the only way you’ll see more than a square foot of it at a time is if you’re first in the door when it opens, because the place fills up quickly.
Olhallen 7:an doesn’t sell food. Rather, customers help themselves to as many free salami sandwiches, sausages and chunks of cheese as they want from regularly replenished platters on the counter. It means you can soak up the beer as well as the atmosphere.
Ireland’s ambassador to Sweden, Austin Gormley, took up his role only a few months ago, which would explain why he hasn’t yet had a chance to appoint an honorary consul-general in Gothenburg (where there’s a pub called The Irish Embassy). I can save him a lot of time and bother, so I can, because I know the very man, so I do, and he’d do a grand job, so he would.
As a barman working in a pub where hairy bikers rub shoulders with bankers, hipsters and less-of-your-lipsters, Christoffer deals with diplomatic incidents every day, so he’s a shoo-in – and an Irishman at heart. He epitomises all that’s great about the grounded and good-natured Gothenburgers and their city, as do Ola and Ylva on Styrso and tour guide Annika.
People make a place, and salt-of-the-earth people make it special. That’s especially true of Gothenburg, which doesn’t start with “Go” for nothing.
GET THERE:Ryanair flies (seasonally) direct from Dublin to Gothenburg. SAS flies daily from Dublin to Gothenburg via either Stockholm or Copenhagen.
STAY: The 456-room Scandic Europa Hotel (Nilsericsonsgatan 21) is slap bang in the centre of the city and has rooms from €115 to €240 with free access to the pool, sauna and gym. The hotel’s HAK restaurant and bar are hugely popular and hopping most nights, with live music at the weekend. The central train station is directly opposite, and Nordstan, Sweden’s biggest shopping centre, is right next door. Pensionat Styrso Skaret (Skaretvagen 53) is a warm and welcoming base from which to explore Styrso island. Rooms from €170 to €195 and a restaurant to rave about.
If you see a brightly-coloured plastic bucket on the beach in Taormina, it won’t be for making sandcastles. Rather, it will contain an expensive bottle of something bubbly chilling on ice. Chilling is what holidays are all about in this posh Sicilian resort, which gets more daily hours of sunshine year-round than anywhere else in Europe. While it has long been a playground for the rich, they’re greatly outnumbered by visitors of more realistic means who don’t mind saving a little longer for a week or two in a town Ernest Hemingway described as “so pretty it hurts to look”. From a master of fiction, that’s an indisputable fact.
During the long, monotonous months of the midnight sun in far northern Sweden, people set their alarms to go to sleep.
“At 1am, it looks like lunchtime, so we need a reminder when it’s time for bed,” Laplander Johanna Siljehagen tells me over a nightcap on the terrace of the Meridiana Hotel in Taormina. “But look at the sky here over the bay – it’s black and full of twinkling stars. I used to dream of skies like this. Now I’m living my dream.”
In 2006, while channel-hopping in her hometown of Kiruna, 200km above the Arctic Circle, Johanna happened upon an episode of whimsical Italian police drama Inspector Montalbano, which is set in Sicily. So impressed was she with the scenery that, next day, she booked a flight to go and investigate. Twelve months later, she moved to Taormina and now runs a successful business exporting organic produce (johannasiljehagen.com).
Johanna’s friend, Trina Cria Laurent, who’s from Mauritius, lived in Dublin before relocating to Sicily four years ago.
“I adore Dublin, but coming from an Indian Ocean climate, I missed the sunshine,” says tour organiser, model, cook and cookbook author Trina (email@example.com) during a leisurely walk the following morning. “My Sicilian friends in Ranelagh kept urging me to come here. When I did, I fell in love with the place. It’s beautiful, it’s always sunny and I swim in the sea nearly every day. I’m living my dream, too.”
It’s only 11.30, but already 23C – in early October – and the gelatos we bought a couple of minutes before are melting rapidly as we admire the views from high up in the third century BC Teatro Greco, the town’s most-visited attraction.
The hillside amphitheatre, which was remodelled by the Romans and once hosted gladiatorial contests, is the venue every June for open-air screenings during the star-studded film festival (taorminafilmfest.it) and hosts big-name concerts – Tony Bennett, Elton John, Sting and Bob Dylan have played here.
Trina points through an ancient archway that frames the reassuringly distant Mount Etna, from whose 3,350-metre peak a plume of dark volcanic ash billows. In July 2001, during an especially fiery series of eruptions, Dylan told his crew to rearrange the stage so the audience would get the best views of the explosive action in the background.
A half-day Etna excursion involving a coach trip, cable car ascent and truck ride takes visitors close to the summit, where the air can be chilly while the volcanic earth only a few centimetres beneath the soles of your boots is oven-hot.
Europe’s tallest active volcano, whose upper slopes from December to March are covered in snow and full of downhill and cross-country skiers, isn’t the only thing that’s rumbling as we wander through the gardens of Villa Comunale on the way to an early lunch.
The gardens were created by wealthy young English woman Florence Trevelyan (1852-1907), who sprouted green fingers at an early age in her native Northumberland and became a noted botanist and conservationist. She was also noted for having had an affair with Queen Victoria’s eldest son, Albert, Prince of Wales, who succeeded his mother in 1901 and reigned as Edward VII until his death in 1910.
Florence was orphaned as a child, and through family connections was fostered into the royal household at Balmoral. Victoria was fond of her, but on learning she was jumping in and out of bed with playboy Bertie she banished her from court and, ultimately, from Britain. On the queen’s command, Florence was granted a generous monthly allowance of £50, and in 1879 set off on a tour of Europe and North Africa. For company, she travelled with her cousin, Louisa Perceval, a granddaughter of the late prime minister Spencer Perceval, who was shot dead by an aggrieved merchant in the lobby of the House of Commons in May 1812.
La Signora Inglesa, as Florence was to become known, first visited Taormina in 1881 and was immediately smitten. She told Louisa she would return and live here, and did so three years later. While she loved her new home, the often spice-rich Sicilian cuisine didn’t agree with her and she suffered terribly from acid reflux. In 1890, she married local doctor and mayor Salvatore Cacciola, who cured her ailment by changing her diet, for which the woman who was baptised in the hamlet of Hartburn was most grateful.
The Villa Comunale gardens, which became public property in 1922 and are free to visit, are a riot of native and tropical flowers, plants and trees. Pathways are bordered by hibiscus and magnolia and there are several sizeable follies and pavilions constructed in Gothic, Romanesque and rococo styles from salvaged building materials, including bits and bobs pinched from the Teatro Greco, and lava rock. Best of all, the bougainvillea-edged promenade overlooking the sea is perfect for a passeggiata, that most civilised evening tradition when couples, families and friends fare un giro (go for a stroll).
At nearly €70 for two salads and two pasta dishes each, plus a bottle of house red, lunch on the shaded terrace of Gourmet 32 (Via Bagnoli Croci 31) isn’t cheap. Nevertheless, I return for dinner the following evening and tuck in again to pasta con le sarde – spaghetti cooked with fresh sardines, white fennel, pine nuts and sultanas – while reviewing three days’ worth of fabulous photos I didn’t know I was capable of capturing. Like the Hollywood stars who attend the annual film festival, Taormina knows how to present its best side for the camera.
It’s only a couple of minutes’ walk from Gourmet 32 to Bam Bar (43 Via di Giovanni), where we’re meeting Trina’s pal Rita Curcio for an afternoon granita, a blend of coarse-crushed ice and fresh fruit that comes in a variety of non-alcoholic flavours and is accompanied by a warm brioche. Lemon, peach, strawberry, kiwi, almond and pistachio are among the versions on offer, though Nutella has its devotees, and the whipped fresh cream topping is optional.
While Taormina isn’t short of cafes and bars serving granitas – the concoction was introduced by the Saracens who invaded Sicily from Tunisia in 827AD and was originally made with ice brought from Etna’s upper slopes – locals will tell you Bam Bar’s are the best.
Alarm bells ring when Trina introduces Rita (ritacurcio.it) as the island’s in-demand dress designer – I’m on the run from the fashion police in a mismatched mix from Penneys, where I bought four days’ worth of T-shirts, polos, shorts, socks and jocks for 60 quid (there’s a gents’ boutique on Taormina’s traffic-free main street, Corso Umberto, with a light blue linen jacket in the window for €540 – you can get flights and a week in a hotel for less).
Mercifully, my get-up goes unremarked upon, although Trina, who’s wearing one of Rita’s creations, waxes lyrical about her friend’s collections. “Her colours and designs reflect the warmth and vibrancy of Sicily,” she says. “Wearing Rita is like wearing summer.”
Totally out of my depth, I reply: “Oh, yes, absolutely.”
I leave them to it and dawdle off to catch the cable car (€3) down to Mazzaro beach for a swim in the sea around tiny Isola Bella (Beautiful Island), passing en route a bride and groom posing for photos. Taormina is a top spot for tying the knot, and I learn later there were two Irish weddings during my visit and one a fortnight before.
When Florence Trevelyan first took up residence here, she paid 5,700 lire – the equivalent today of around €24,000 – for Isola Bella, which is accessible by way of a strip of sand when the tide is out. When it’s in, you can wade or swim to it, although it’s wise to buy a pair of cheap plastic sandals from one of the beachside shops as the seabed is a sole-destroying minefield of sharp rocks. A snorkel and mask from the same outlets will come in handy, too, as the clear water teems with colourful marine life.
Florence built a small house on Isola Bella, which is also known as the Pearl of the Ionian Sea, and planted all around with Mediterranean and imported exotic shrubs. The island has changed ownership several times in the 114 years since she herself was planted in a small private cemetery just outside the mountain village of Castelmola, which overlooks Taormina. In 1984, after many years of abandonment, Isola Bella was declared a protected natural site and is now looked after by the Italian branch of the Worldwide Fund for Nature.
I’ve been well looked after by Meridiana Hotel owner Romano Piazza and his wife Olga, whose next-door guest cottage has been my des res for three nights. I’ve only actually slept and showered there as the days have been given over to exploring the town, tut-tutting at the prices in boutique windows, slurping granitas and stuffing my face. The fully-equipped kitchen has seen no action, but the power shower saw plenty when I returned from my trek on Etna looking like the cartoon victim of an exploding cigar – that black volcanic dust doesn’t half cling.
After a bye-bye breakfast in the hotel, my phone pings to tell me Trina is waiting at the top of the hill with the engine running. Having flown from Dublin to Catania, I’m returning home from Palermo, where I’ll spend the last night of my Sicilian sojourn in a palace with Trina and her boyfriend, Francesco Cazzaniga.
It’s a three-hour drive from Taormina, or nearly five hours by bus or train, to the island capital, where Francesco’s Uncle Massimo has a bachelor pad, Palazzo La Bella Palermo, that makes the 5-star Shelbourne Hotel look like a middling B&B. To help with the upkeep, art collector Massimo allows paying guests to rent his far-from-humble abode and live like royalty beneath his roof while he’s away.
There are five en suite bedrooms, all replete with antique furniture, paintings, sculptures and curios; several grand salons; a library; and a huge Downton Abbey kitchen. My room, like the others, is the size of a large apartment, and it must be the first time a pair of Penneys cotton boxer shorts have touched the silk sheets on the 200-year-old four-poster where I’ll lay my head after an evening out with my hosts.
I’m eager to repay Trina and Francesco’s hospitality by treating them to dinner in the family-run Bisso Bistrot (Via Maqueda 172A/Piazza Quattro Canti), which specialises in the Sicilian dishes that mammas make, and, with Taormina prices in mind, resign myself to living on cornflakes until pay day. When the bill eventually arrives, I nearly collapse. For two starters, three mains and two carafes of house red it’s €460.
That’s without my glasses on. With them, it’s €46, which is why the defibrillator remained on the wall. It also explains why the place is packed day and night and reservations are a must after 7.30pm (if you let them know you’ll be having a drink in a nearby bar, they’ll send a text alert 10 minutes before your table is ready).
It’s late, yet still shirt sleeves-warm as we take our time walking back to the palazzo through crowded narrow streets full of bars hopping with young people enjoying some midnight fun. We have a nightcap on Uncle Massimo’s terrace, beneath a black sky full of twinkling stars. I don’t have to set an alarm to go to sleep – I’m exhausted with exhilaration. Like Johanna and Trina, I’ve lived the dream, albeit briefly, and in a few hours it will be time to say arrivederci. Sicilia, you’re breaking my heart.
GET THERE: Flights from Dublin to Sicily are seasonal. Aer Lingus flies to Catania and Ryanair to Palermo. A frequent bus service operates from Catania airport to Taormina and buses and trains run from Palermo airport to the city centre.
STAY:Taormina The four-star Meridiana Hotel has nine en-suite rooms with furnished terraces overlooking the bay, an outdoor pool and hot tub and a guest cottage that sleeps two. Breakfast is a buffet affair, although freshly-made omelettes are always on offer. See the website for special offers, but be aware the hotel is at the bottom of a steep hill.
PalermoPalazzo La Bella Palermo is a self-catering property in the historical city centre and sleeps a maximum of eight guests. The whole house can be rented by family groups or friends (rooms are not available individually) for €1,700 a night. When the cost is split between eight people, it works out at €212.50 per person per night.
You needn’t journey to Genoa for a taste of the Italian Riviera. Head instead to north Wales, where a man with a dream built the most beautiful tourist and holiday village in Britain. It looks like Portofino, but this is Portmeirion, and it has enchanted millions of visitors since it welcomed the first in 1925.
Portmeirion is in the parish of Penrhyndeudraeth, where supporters of the local rugby team are famed for their chant: “Give us a P, give us an E, give us an N . . . ah, here, give us a break.”
The village was the setting for the 1960s British television drama The Prisoner, which starred Irish-American actor Patrick McGoohan. Today, Portmeirion is a star in its own right, attracting 235,000 day visitors and overnight guests every year.
Many are far-flung fans of the show, who travel from all over the world to see the exterior locations from their favourite science fiction-cum-spy series. Most, however, are excursionists from Britain and Ireland, who come to goggle at the eclectic yet harmonious collection of architectural oddities and marvels, with every turn of a corner bringing an appreciative gasp and each archway situated to frame a delightful view.
Unsurprisingly, Portmeirion’s town hall hosts two or three weddings a week during the summer as couples take advantage of the fairy tale backdrops for enviable photos of their big day (a survey for publishers Mills and Boon named it among Britain’s top 10 romantic places).
The Prisoner made its UK TV debut in September 1967 and quickly attracted a cult following that has never waned. Over 17 episodes, it follows an unnamed British agent who angrily quits the intelligence service, but is rendered unconscious by knockout gas while packing to leave his apartment and his old life behind. Outside, a hearse parked behind his yellow and dark green Lotus Seven SII awaits to spirit him off to a sinister police state called The Village, where surveillance is constant.
Known only as Number Six, which pleased tobacco company John Player & Sons, which at the time produced the top-selling cigarette of the same name, McGoohan’s character is followed around by a big white weather balloon named Rover (a sentry programmed to capture or kill anyone trying to flee) and subjected to mind-control experiments.
The chief baddy is the mysterious Number One, whose lackey, Number Two, does his damnedest to find out why Number Six resigned and extract secret information from him using dream manipulation, indoctrination and hallucinogenic drugs, but to no avail. He should have tickled his feet with a feather – that always works.
While McGoohan created The Prisoner, Portmeirion was created by visionary architect Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978), who was a tad eccentric – he owned nine identical tweed jackets and matching pairs of knickerbockers, complemented by knee-length yellow socks, so he didn’t have to waste time wondering what to wear each morning.
That was perfectly normal behaviour when compared with Mrs. Adelaide Haig, who lived in the manor house, which is now the Portmeirion Hotel, from 1870 until her death in 1917 – every day, she sat behind a screen and read passages from the Bible to her adopted dogs, of which she had 15 or so at any time.
Scripture knowledge was no guarantee of a place in pooch paradise, but at least when one of her pets died it was buried in its own lovingly tended grave in the dogs’ cemetery in the woods, where Irish wolfhound Boru, several boxers and umpteen poodles and terriers are among the scores resting in peace.
When Mrs. Haig died, the hearse sent to collect her remains couldn’t reach the house as the driveway was a mass of overgrown shrubbery. As a nature lover, she had forbidden her groundsmen from harming any growing thing, so they had to hack a path to the door to get the coffin in and the body out. It was the first bit of gardening they had done in years.
Vicar’s son Williams-Ellis’s motto was “Cherish the Past, Adorn the Present, Construct for the Future”. Over the course of half-a-century, from 1925 to 1976, he remained true to the tenet as Portmeirion took shape on a wooded promontory overlooking Tremadog Bay, although there was an enforced 15-year break from the start of World War II in 1939 until 1954 because of a national building embargo.
He had surveyed a site on a Scottish island, but decided that while it was exactly what he was looking for, the logistics of getting there would have deterred potential visitors. Perhaps he recalled the words of 18th century essayist Samuel Johnson, who, when asked if the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim was worth seeing, replied: “Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see.”
Williams-Ellis was no stranger to Antrim. He designed the Causeway School, now a museum close to the Giant’s Causeway Visitors Centre; the arts and crafts-style houses, reminiscent of a Cornish fishing village, on Cushendun Square; and in Belfast, the white-painted First Church of Christ, Scientist, on University Avenue.
His early life was as colourful as his socks. As an officer in the Welsh Guards and later the Royal Tank Corps, he served with distinction in Flanders during World War I and survived unscathed. That was quite an achievement – for a period, he was an observer sent up in a tethered hot air balloon to take a peek at what the Germans were up to beyond No Man’s Land. Fortunately for him, the basket was metal-lined, and bullets fired at him from behind enemy lines ricocheted off it.
Williams-Ellis’s after-life was even more colourful – his ashes were stored away for 20 years after his death at the age of 94 in 1978, but on New Year’s Eve 1998 they were decanted into a rocket that was sent skywards from Portmeirion’s central piazza during a fireworks display, as per his wishes. If anyone ever went out with a bang, it was him.
The micro-climate that sees subtropical plants and eucalyptus and palm trees thrive reinforces the impression that Portmeirion is in Italy – until you hear that lovely Welsh lilt from the busy tour guides.
There’s nothing they don’t know about Williams-Ellis and the weird and wonderful buildings he designed and constructed on the land he bought for £5,000 in 1925, which was then, as he recalled, “a neglected wilderness – long abandoned by those romantics who had been carried away by their grandiose landscaping into sorrowful bankruptcy”.
Determined to avoid following the previous owners into penury, he turned the dilapidated manor house into a hotel, which opened in 1926, to help fund the development of the village.
By the early 1930s, the hotel had become a magnet for moneyed visitors, mostly from London. It was a lengthy drive in those pre-motorway days, so Williams-Ellis bought a private residence in the village of Atcham, near Shrewsbury, and converted it back to the inn it once was to serve as a halfway house. He named it the Mytton and Mermaid, and it’s now one of the poshest hotels in Shropshire.
The Portmeirion Hotel’s most famous guest was Edward, Prince of Wales, who visited in 1934, but only after Williams-Ellis had agreed to knock two adjoining rooms together and install an en suite – the man who would be king, albeit briefly, didn’t want to take the royal wee in a shared bathroom. To further ensure the prince’s privacy during his stay, Williams-Ellis temporarily increased the day admission price to a hefty 10 shillings to reduce visitor numbers.
Playwright Noel Coward checked-in to the village on May 2, 1941 after the Luftwaffe’s bombs had destroyed his London office and flat, and in a six-day creative spurt while staying in the Fountain suites wrote his smash-hit comedy, Blithe Spirit. It went from typewriter to stage in a mere three weeks, debuting at the Manchester Opera House on June 1 before transferring to the West End, where it ran for five years.
Other notable visitors were George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Daphne du Maurier and Ernest Hemingway from the world of literature; actors Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck; Beatle George Harrison, who held his 50th birthday in the village in 1993; Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who was a frequent summer guest; and a man who needs no introduction, King Zog of Albania.
Williams-Ellis was an early pioneer in the recycling of building materials and ornamental features, often travelling great distances to buy or salvage bits and bobs destined for the dump to incorporate in his existing and planned creations. He called Portmeirion “a home for fallen buildings” and, in a nod to its many disparate styles, including Gothic, Jacobean, Italianate, Palladian, Georgian and Arts and Crafts, “an architectural mongrel”.
Perhaps his most curious acquisition was the periscope from a captured U-boat, which provided the lens and apparatus for the camera obscura in the Observatory Tower next to the White Horses guest cottage, where McGoohan stayed while filming The Prisoner.
By far the quirkiest and most photographed artefact is the antique red and blue painted oak statue of a preaching Saint Peter on the balcony of the Toll House, a self-catering cottage above the Battery Square coffee shop.
The Italianate Bell Tower, which looks as if it has been there for hundreds of years, was built in 1928, using stones from the ruins of the 12th century castle that had stood on a nearby prominence. The castle was demolished in 1869 by the land’s then owner, William Fothergill Cook, the inventor of the electric telegraph, to deter sightseers – the antithesis of Williams-Ellis’s come one, come all ethos.
The domed Pantheon was completed in 1961 and is fronted by a lofty Gothic porch of red sandstone, now painted white, which was once a massive fireplace topped by a minstrels’ gallery in the music room of Dawpool House in Cheshire. Dawpool was built between 1882 and 1886 for Thomas Henry Ismay, the founder of the White Star Line, which commissioned the Belfast-built Titanic. His son, Joseph Bruce Ismay, sailed on the ‘unsinkable’ liner’s ill-fated maiden voyage in 1912 and survived.
In a pantiled loggia directly below the Pantheon, the big gilded plaster statue of Buddha was a prop used during filming in 1958 of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, based on the true story of English missionary Gladys Aylward, played by Ingrid Bergman. The film was set in China in the years leading up to World War II, and many of the exteriors were shot at Plas Brondanw, Williams-Ellis’s ancestral home, four miles from Portmeirion. When the cast and crew finished their work, he bagged Buddha.
Even the National Benzole petrol pump outside Neptune, one of the first guest cottages built by Williams-Ellis, has a story. The early 19th century painted pine figurehead on top was stolen in 1983 and quickly replaced with a replica. The original was forgotten about until 1996, when it appeared for sale in the small ads in Country Life magazine. A dealer who had bought it at auction for £720 was offloading it, and agreed to sell it back to Portmeirion – for £1,300. The replica remains in place, while the original is among the historical items on display in the Pantheon.
Every early autumn, Portmeirion hosts the four-day Festival No6 celebration of music, arts, comedy and culture. The first was held in 2012 to popular and critical acclaim. In 2014, The Pet Shop Boys described it as “undoubtedly a career highlight”; The Telegraph said it is “still the oddest and most magical of the lot”; and in the 2018 NME Awards, it was named Best Small Festival of the Year.
The annual Prisoner Convention, PortmeiriCon, has been running a lot longer, since 1977. Organised by the Six of One Prisoner Appreciation Society, it’s a spring weekend gathering of diehard fans who dress in colourful costumes to watch episodes of their favourite series, compete in quizzes and other competitions, play human chess on the giant open-air board, empty the village shop’s shelves of merchandise and generally enjoy Williams-Ellis’s creations.
The convention is a strange affair, but nowhere near as strange as Number Six’s incessant attempts to escape from The Village. When I stayed there, escape was the last thing on my mind. If Portmeirion was McGoohan’s idea of a prison, I’ll happily return tomorrow to begin a life sentence.
GET THERE: On my visit to north Wales, I was a guest of Stena Line, which operates four daily return sailings from Dublin Port to Holyhead. From Holyhead, it’s just over an hour’s drive to Portmeirion.
VISIT/STAY:Portmeirion is open to day visitors from 9.30am to 5.30pm (book online). Adult tickets cost £12, children £8.50 (under-5s free) and family tickets are available from £23. The admission price includes a free guided walking tour. Overnight guests can stay in the four-star, 14-room hotel with its top-class restaurant, outdoor pool and low-tide beach; the four-star Castell Deudraeth, with 11 rooms and suites and a restaurant; a serviced village room (there are 32); or one of 13 self-catering cottages. For those who like massages and pampering, the village’s Mermaid Spa caters to all needs – and kneads.
WATCH: ITV Wales’s six-part series, The Village, goes behind the scenes over the course of a year at Portmeirion. See itv.com/walesprogrammes
SIDE TRIP 1: There’s no record of the height or speed reached by the rocket that took Williams-Ellis’s ashes aloft, but it couldn’t have been anywhere near as high or as fast as I went during a side trip from Portmeirion to Penrhyn quarry, near Bangor, for a go on Velocity 2, the world’s scariest and Europe’s longest zip line. The experience sounds expensive at £65 for a minute-and-a-half on weekdays (at weekends it costs up to £89), but the adrenaline rush is worth every penny. Apparently, you can see the Isle of Man from up there, but that’s not easy when your life is flashing before your eyes. See zipworld.co.uk
SIDE TRIP 2: Only slightly less exciting than the zip line is a high-speed rigid inflatable boat (RIB) safari along the Menai Strait that separates the island of Anglesey from the Welsh mainland. Brothers Charles and Christian Harris are the skippers on these waterborne adventures that bounce along at up to 80kph. It’s great fun, and the boats are often accompanied by playful dolphins. Tickets from £25. See ribride.co.uk
IN GOOD HANDS: Claire Copeman runs North Wales-based Adventure Tours UK, which specialises in outdoor activities for private and corporate groups and organised my zip line and RIB ride experiences. I couldn’t have been in better hands or better company throughout my stay in her neck of the woods and mountains. See adventuretoursuk.com
GET TO KNOW WALES: For more on what Wales has to offer, see visitwales.com
The biggest-selling items in Edinburgh’s souvenir shops are not postcards, fridge magnets or tartan bonnets sprouting ginger hair, they’re plastic rain ponchos – even in summer. Edinburgh is nicknamed Auld Reekie (Old Smokey) for the coal-fired filth that used to spew from its chimneys. Now the air is pure but frequently heavy with the threat of a downpour, which is why the city is also known as Auld Leaky. However, when its historical streets and monuments are bathed in sunshine and Edinburgh puffs out its chest, there’s nowhere else I’d rather be.
Anyone who tells you Edinburgh Castle is the foremost must-visit attraction during a long weekend in the Scottish capital is talking through their sporran. Granted, no other city in the world has a crowning glory quite as magnificent as the don’t-mess-with-me fortress that sits atop a volcanic plus. However, the 12th century castle is best seen from the comfort of a bench in Princes Street Gardens, so grab a pew with an amazing view, get your camera out and snap away.
Visit Edinburgh in August and you’ll find the world’s biggest international arts festival and the Festival Fringe in full swing, with the streets of the Old Town – especially the ancient Royal Mile – packed with tourists and performers from morning to midnight.
Year-round, though, indoors and out, there’s an abundance of things to see and do, and a great many won’t cost you a penny. Guidebooks and websites trumpet lists of the city’s top-this and best-that, and they’re all excellent recommendations, but here are my Magnificent Seven Edinburgh must-sees, based on 30-plus years of frequent visits – and one of them just happens to be a pub.
Forth Rail Bridge One of the most thrilling experiences for adventurous visitors to Edinburgh involves getting the hell out of the place for a couple of hours after breakfast. Hot foot it to Waverley or Haymarket station and take the train to North Queensferry – a mere 20-minute journey – for a trip across the most instantly recognisable rail bridge in the world. Train buffs (or should that be buffers?) know everything there is to know about this colossal feat of Victorian engineering, but here are a few facts for the uninitiated
The bridge is 2.5km long and the track is 48 metres above the water.
The steel superstructure weighs 53,000 tons and is held together by 6.5 million rivets.
There are 45 acres of metal surface, each square centimetre of which has three coats of the colour known as Forth Bridge Red.
Painting the bridge used to be a full-time, year-round job for a team of workers with a head for heights, but the high-tech topcoat applied in 2012 should last until 2032.
Construction began in 1883 and the bridge opened on March 4, 1890.
The cost was £3.2 million, which today would be around £235 million.
The best thing about crossing the bridge is that you’ll do it twice with a return ticket in your pocket. As well as that, having set out after breakfast, you’ll be back in the city in plenty of time for lunch in the Cafe Royal, the most beautiful pub-restaurant in Scotland. See www.forth-bridges.co.uk and www.scotrail.co.uk
Cafe Royal If anyone’s ever looking for me in Edinburgh at lunchtime, I’ll be sitting at the bar in the Cafe Royal, tucking in to a bucket of steaming fresh mussels or a plate of oysters and studying the single-malt menu, while to hand will be a creamy-topped pint of craft ale. No pub that serves grub comes closer to perfection.
The Cafe Royal’s exterior is elegant and enticing, the interior exotic and exquisite, the food is the finest you’ll find without paying a fortune and the professional and personable staff are the envy of their peers – if you work here, you’re regarded as a Premier League player. I was there on the day an inexperienced new kid behind the bar was chalking up the wine of the week and wrote “Sauvignon Plonk”. Several years later, she’s still there and is now an authority on all things red, white and rosé.
Hidden up an alleyway (West Register Street) opposite the majestic Balmoral Hotel on Princes Street, the Cafe Royal opened in 1836. It has changed little since then and it won’t be changing any time soon, because the whole building is protected by the highest category preservation order. See www.caferoyaledinburgh.com
Nelson Monument The £5 fee to enter the Nelson Monument on Calton Hill is hardly steep, but the 143 well-worn winding steps to the open-air balcony at the top certainly are. The 360-degree views from up there are breathtaking, and the climb will take your breath away too. This is where photographers get their kicks and their most memorable clicks.
Built to commemorate Vice-Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson’s victory over the French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 (at which he died, with his body being preserved in a barrel of brandy for the voyage home) and resembling an upturned spyglass, the monument opened in 1816. Edinburgh-born Robert Louis Stevenson wasn’t impressed – he said it was “among the vilest of men’s handiworks”, which is a bit rich coming from the author who created Dr Jekyll’s vile alter-ego Mr Hyde.
Sharing the picnic-perfect hilltop with an unfinished replica of the Parthenon in Athens, the monument is 32-metres-tall, and on a clear day you can see for more than 20 kilometres. Be aware that the door on to the balcony is only 18 inches wide, which could prove a problem for some visitors.
The Parthenon, or National Monument of Scotland, was intended as “A Memorial of the Past and Incentive to the Future Heroism of the Men of Scotland”. Work began in 1862 but stopped three years later when the money ran out, the city having raised only £16,000 of the required £42,000.
Another historical building on the hill is the City Observatory (opened in 1818), where Scotland’s Astronomer Royal for 42 years, Charles Piazzi Smyth (1819-1900), was based. Smyth was brilliant at his job but otherwise bonkers – his initially harmless fascination with the Great Pyramid at Giza turned into an obsession, and he came to believe its dimensions pointed to the date of Christ’s Second Coming. He’s buried beneath a pyramid-shaped tombstone in Sharow, Yorkshire. See www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk
Scott Monument The smoke-darkened sandstone monument to the historical novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771 to 1832) in Princes Street looks like a big black space rocket and is known locally as Thunderbird 1.
If you have any energy left after conquering Calton Hill, part with another fiver and climb the 287 internal steps to the top. At 61 metres tall and comprising neo-Gothic spires, niches, gargoyles and statues of characters from Scott’s novels, it’s the biggest monument to a writer in the world and was inaugurated in August 1846. At the base, the white marble statue of Scott with his deerhound, Maida, by his side is the work of John Steell (1804-1891), who was the spitting image of Oscar Wilde.
Apart from Scott and his dog, 68 statues and busts by various sculptors adorn the monument. Ninety-three real life people and literary characters are represented, including Bonnie Prince Charlie, Queen Elizabeth I, Mary, Queen of Scots, Robert the Bruce, Rob Roy MacGregor, Oliver Cromwell, Friar Tuck, Richard the Lionheart, Robert Burns and Lord Byron.
The monument’s designer, George Meikle Kemp, missed the grand opening ceremony, having fallen into the Union Canal while walking home on a foggy March night in 1844. He was a good swimmer, but got snagged on something beneath the water – most likely a supermarket trolley – and drowned. See www.edinburghmuseums.org.uk
Camera Obscura If you’re too cuddly to get through the Nelson Monument’s narrow balcony door, stand in front of the magic mirrors in the Camera Obscura close to the castle esplanade and you’ll be transformed into a beanpole.
At £17.50 for adults and £13.50 for children (so £62 for a family of four), the entrance fee is bordering on a bit of a cheek, but take it on the chin because this is by far the most fascinating and fun-filled attraction in Edinburgh, and kids adore it. See their wide-eyed smiling faces (and those of their dads) when they come out and you’ll know you just have to go in.
The building’s five floors are packed with a wealth of weird and wonderful optical experiences, interactive science exhibits and, as Dougal of Father Ted fame would say, mad stuff. I grumble about the ticket price, but I visit every time I’m in town because there’s always something new at which to marvel. See www.camera-obscura.co.uk
Greyfriars Bobby’s statue and grave To be awarded the freedom of your home city and have a statue erected to you is a great honour. To be the subject of a couple of Hollywood movies further enhances your reputation. Greyfriars Bobby went one better and had a pub named after him as well – the ultimate accolade. The faithful little dog is buried in Greyfriars Kirkyard behind the pub (it’s the most-visited grave in Scotland) and his statue stands outside on Candlemaker Row, opposite the National Museum.
Skye terrier Bobby, who died aged 16 in 1872, is famed for his dogged devotion to his late master – he remained pining by city constable John ‘Auld Jock’ Gray’s grave in all weathers for 14 years.
Bobby’s weathered bronze statue has a shiny nose from people rubbing it for luck, but they wouldn’t be so eager if he had been a Rottweiler.
Edinburgh Military Tattoo I’ve saved the best for last. The Tattoo isn’t something you get inked on your ankle, but the memory of one of the most spectacular shows on Earth, which was first staged in 1950 and each year attracts a worldwide TV audience of 100 million, will prove just as indelible.
Every August, the floodlit castle esplanade is the venue for nightly sold-out performances by pipe bands, drum bands, marching bands and precision drill squads from all over the world. The audience is international too, but it’s tourists from the United States who appreciate it most – they buy more tickets than anyone else and place the greatest number of orders for the souvenir DVD.
The highlight of each night is the grand finale march-off led by the massed pipes and drums of the tartan-clad Scottish regiments, bagpipes skirling, kilts swinging and snare drums rat-tat-tatting like machine guns as they take their leave of an ecstatic audience. Tickets should be booked months in advance. See edintattoo.co.uk
GET THERE:Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly several times daily, year-round, from Dublin to Edinburgh. Regular shuttle buses and trams run between the airport and the city centre.
GUIDED TOURS: Edinburgh-based Ken Hanley is one of the most in-demand Blue Badge driver-guides in Scotland and specialises in history, golf, whisky, photography and corporate and incentive tours. For a memorable guided tour of Edinburgh or farther afield with one of the nicest fellas you could ever wish to meet, see small-world-tours.co.uk and realscotchwhiskyguide.co.uk
FURTHER INFORMATION: To learn more about the wealth of attractions Edinburgh and Scotland have to offer, see www.visitscotland.com
Everyone has heard of the Camino de Santiago, the collective name for the ancient Christian pilgrimage routes that lead to Santiago de Compostela and the tomb of Saint James in Galicia. However, very few people outside of northern Spain know of the Camino Lebaniego in Cantabria, which is a pity. At only 72kms, or roughly 95,000 steps, the ‘Secret Camino’ is the road less travelled but the most scenic of all. (First published in October 2017.)
In the Franciscan monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana, close to the picturesque town of Potes, two thick walls either side of a courtyard separate the church from the souvenir shop cum pilgrimage office – which is just as well. Were it not for the sound-absorbing stone, visitors queuing in solemn silence before the altar to kiss a piece of the cross on which Christ died would have heard a little Spanish girl squeal: “Daddy! Look! The baby Jesus is riding Noddy’s scooter!”
She was right. Standing out from the array of rosary beads and religious statuettes in the shop was a small, red and yellow ceramic Vespa with the Holy Family on board. The little girl’s daddy was mortified, but the footsore pilgrims waiting to get the final stamp on their special passports (credenciales) nearly wet their pants laughing.
They had chosen a good time (mid-May) to walk the Camino Lebaniego – a few weeks earlier and they might have arrived at the monastery with their pants already sodden. Cantabria didn’t get to be as green as Ireland without getting drenched; in summer it can be scorching, but at other times the rain in Spain falls mainly here.
The purpose of the pilgrims’ journey is to venerate the Lignum Crucis, reputedly the largest surviving piece of the True Cross, which would be a lot larger but for its early monastic custodians’ readiness to exchange fragments for favours.
When it arrived in Cantabria in the Middle Ages from the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, brought by Saint Turibius of Astorga, it was the entire left arm of the cross, but splinter by splinter it was whittled away until it resembled a walking stick well on its way to becoming a chopstick.
In 1679, the monks cut what remained into two pieces and encased them in a gilded silver cruciform reliquary. The longer, vertical piece is exposed near its base, revealing the hole where the nail was hammered through Christ’s wrist.
The wood is Mediterranean cypress, which was and is common in the Holy Land, and carbon dating shows the tree from which it came grew 2,000-odd years ago. Science puts it in the right place at the right time, while faith verifies its bona fides for believers.
The Secret Camino is walked almost exclusively by in-the-know Spaniards, but that’s not because they’re keeping it quietly to themselves; rather, it’s put in the shade by the more famous long-distance routes, especially the busy, 790km Camino Frances, which has become even busier on the back of the worldwide success of the 2011 film, The Way, in which it and Martin Sheen co-starred.
Now, however, it’s the Lebaniego’s turn to shine – without the help of Hollywood lighting – because 2017 is a Jubilee, or Holy Year, on the Cantabrian Way, which occurs only when the feast of Santo Toribio, April 16, falls on a Sunday (the next one is in 2023).
During the current special 12-month period, which ends next April 15, pilgrims who pass through the monastery’s Puerta del Perdon (Door of Forgiveness) and comply with a handful of simple conditions will have the time they’ve accrued in Purgatory annulled. It’s like getting penalty points wiped from a driving licence.
Beginning at the fishing port and holiday resort of San Vicente de la Barquera, the Lebaniego can be walked in as few as three days or incorporated in a weeks-long trek that takes in the North and French Ways, which it partly connects, en route to Santiago.
For those keen on keeping in touch with the outside world while getting in touch with their inner selves, there’s free wifi every step of its modest length, making even the narrowest forest trail a lane on the information super-highway.
Spiritual fulfilment aside, the reward for walking the Lebaniego is a certificate of completion (a lebaniega), but it’s the coastal, riverside, woodland and mountain scenery that make the journey such a joy. Snappable sights that nature crafted or man made present themselves at almost every turn, so pilgrims should factor into their daily schedule time spent stopping to take photos.
Those who opt to spend a pre-pilgrimage night in San Vicente should stand on the eastern shore of the estuary just before twilight and look across the water. With some moody clouds to better highlight the historic towers, turrets and rooftops against the snow-capped mountains, the town looks like it should be hanging in a frame.
The mountains are the Picos de Europa, so named by 16th century cod fishermen and whalers from the Basque Country returning after months of hooking and harpooning in the waters off of what are now Newfoundland and Maine. When the Picos came into view, they knew they were nearly home – the Basques are the Cantabrians’ next-door neighbours to the east.
Pilgrims and holidaymakers are not alone in flocking to San Vicente. Thanks to the estuary and the nearby marshes, cliffs and dunes, many species of migratory aquatic birds congregate here; in the Picos, vultures, eagles, hawks, falcons and owls rule the roost.
Anyone with even only a passing interest in our feathered friends will find Fat Birder a fascinating online resource. Clearly a labour of love for English ornithologist Richard Crombet-Beolens, whose surname looks suspiciously like an anagram but isn’t, it includes a comprehensive section on Cantabria’s birdlife.
The Lebaniego has three stages – San Vicente to Cades (28.5kms), Cades to Cabañes (31.3kms) and Cabañes to Potes and the monastery (12.1kms) – and most people walk them in three days. However, the journey can be broken into four or five, which allows time for some peripheral exploring.
Any visitor attraction described as “the subterranean Sistine Chapel” had better live up to its billing. The natural cave of El Soplao, near Cades, does so with its extraordinary stalactites, stalagmites and helictites, these last also known as eccentrics because they grow at gravity-defying angles.
The 240-million-year-old cave was discovered in the early 20th century during exploratory drilling for zinc deposits, which were there in abundance. Unfortunately for the prospectors, they knocked through into what became known as the Gallery of the Ghosts; fortunately for posterity, what they saw – before they turned tail and ran, screaming – helped ensure El Soplao has remained unspoiled.
The gallery is named after the group of 500,000-year-old man-sized stalagmites that look like spooks of the white bedsheet variety. Fear of the supernatural meant miners gave this part of the cave a wide berth, although apprentices were tricked into a first-day-on-the-job initiation they would never forget. Disappointingly, photography in the cave’s several galleries isn’t allowed, but on the plus side there are no bats.
A day on the go can be taxing, and food becomes a fixation. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, but with a three-course menu del dia including coffee and a half-litre of wine costing as little as €10 in roadside restaurants, it’s as good as gratis.
For dinner, Cantabrians love hearty stews (cocidos) and ladle them out in glutton-sized portions. That might sound off-putting, but the spectacle of skinnymalinks feverishly polishing their plates with chunks of bread is unremarkable.
Cocido lebaniego and cocido montañes, which feature on most menus along the way, differ only in that the former contains chickpeas while the latter has white beans. Otherwise, the big terracotta dishes from which both are served are piled high with ham, pork belly, beef, baby goat, black puddings and sausages.
Cocidos are nutritious and delicious and more than replace all those calories burned on the hoof, allowing pilgrims to set off each morning with a spring in their step. These beauts are made for walking.
At the 55km mark, two of the Lebaniego’s most photographed sights stand, in jarring contrast, a few metres apart. One is the small, 10th century church of Santa María de Lebeña with its tiny, overgrown graveyard where wildflowers have been spared the hoe. The other is the gnarled, barkless and sun-bleached trunk of a lifeless yew that has inexplicably been spared the axe.
Resembling a fist with the middle finger raised, it’s the rudest tree in the world. The parish powers-that-be must have a mischievous sense of humour or are blissfully oblivious to the obvious; either way, there it is – dead, defiant and crying out for a photo to be sniggered over later in the El Hayal hostel in Cabañes, 5 kilometres distant.
Typical of most hostels on the Lebaniego, El Hayal (+34 942 744203) offers B&B for around €20, and half and full-board are also available. It’s not the Ritz: guests sleep in singles or bunk beds in six rooms accommodating from four to 18 people with half-a-dozen shared bathrooms, but it’s well-run and spotlessly clean.
Although not exclusively for pilgrims, being principally a base for hillwalkers, cyclists and birders, everyone’s welcome to enjoy the food and facilities, which include a pool, and drift off beneath its rustic timbered roof.
Birders rise with the larks, but pilgrims needn’t get up early for the last stage of the journey. With only 12kms to go, there’s time to tarry over lunch in Tama, where a chunky tuna salad in the Hotel Corcal’s Casa Fofi restaurant is sufficient sustenance for the home stretch; anything more substantial might spoil the appetite for a mission-accomplished dinner in Potes.
After collecting that certificate from the monastery, there’s not a lot to do back in Potes apart from pottering around the narrow streets, admiring the medieval houses and dandering by the Deva River that runs through town; still, it’s a pleasant way to kill time until the best restaurant on the Lebaniego opens at 8pm.
In the attic dining room of El Cenador del Capitán, where reservations are a must and tall people should beware the rafters, choosing from the menu isn’t easy: diners who spend 10 minutes deciding what to order frequently change their minds as soon as they see what those at neighbouring tables are having.
To avoid trying the waiting staff’s patience, opt for the house’s award-winning cocido lebaniego; a bottle of local red wine, rarely seen outside of Cantabria but top class; a dessert selection of local cheeses, which are among the best in Spain; and, to round things off, a pot of herbal rock tea (té de roca) with a generous splash of the regional firewater, orujo. At around €30 a head, it’s a steal.
As soon as that orujo hits the spot, it’s time to hit the pillow. The pilgrimage is over – but not necessarily so the adventure. Those with time to spare and a head for heights should hop on the bus the next morning to Fuente de, half-an-hour from Potes, for a daredevil cable car ride in the Picos de Europa National Park.
There are two cars, which sway and sometimes lurch in anything more than a breeze, each with a capacity for 20 passengers. The bottom station is at 1,090 metres above sea level and the top one is at 1,850 metres – a vertical ‘drop’ of 760 metres, or six-and-a-bit Dublin Spires. The trip, which covers a cable distance of 1.45kms, takes three minutes and 40 seconds and the cars can reach a top speed of 10 metres per second, or 36kms per hour.
Nervy passengers tend to observe the ascent and descent through splayed fingers, but even a peek-a-boo view of the mountains high above and the valleys far below draws admiring gasps. Only a fibber would deny it’s frightening: countless prayers are said in the church in the monastery, but plenty of Hail Marys are whispered aboard the cable cars, too.
The phenomenal international interest in the various caminos shows no sign of abating – year after year, they register sizeable increases in the number of people walking them. When next April 15 comes around and the Jubilee ends, the souvenir shop cum pilgrimage office where everyone nearly wet their pants laughing will have issued more lebaniegas than in any previous 12-month period.
As people continue to return home to regale family and friends with tales of their experiences and share treasured photos, the Secret Camino won’t stay secret for much longer. It will, however, remain the loveliest pilgrimage route in Europe.
Talking of lovely: somewhere in Spain, a beautiful little girl is the proud owner of a unique souvenir of her visit to the monastery in the mountains. Her father may have been mortified by her excited outburst, but no doting daddy could refuse to buy his daughter a model of the baby Jesus riding Noddy’s scooter.
GET THERE:Ryanair flies from Dublin to Santander and Aer Lingus from Dublin to Bilbao. Flights arrive in late afternoon, so stay over and take an early Alsa Lines bus to San Vicente (book well in advance). To reserve a bed in a pilgrims’ hostel (again, book well in advance) and for detailed information on the Lebaniego route, see caminolebaniego.com. Autobuses Palomera (+34 942 880641) operates a three-times-daily service from Potes to Santander, from where Alsa serves Bilbao.
PILGRIM PASSPORT: You’ll need a credencial to sleep in cheap pilgrim hostels, where it will be stamped as proof of your journey, and to obtain a certificate of completion at the monastery of Santo Toribio de Liébana. Collect your credencial (€2) from the Church of Santa María de Los Ángeles, Calle Alta 24, in San Vicente. Apply at firstname.lastname@example.org or call +34 942 211563 (it might be wiser and quicker to phone, because they’re frustratingly slow at responding to emails).
TOP TIP: There are no ATMs or supermarkets between San Vicente and Potes, so carry sufficient cash for lunch stops and commandeer pastries and fruit from the breakfast buffets of your accommodation, where vending machines offer water (always carry a litre), chocolate and energy bars.
Artists of every kind make all of Madrid a stage. From footballers on the playing field to painters in world-renowned museums, and from buskers and flamenco dancers to cooks preparing haute or homely cuisine, visitors will find the Spanish capital a hotbed of talent waiting to be discovered.
It’s a balmy Wednesday night in April, and 59,000 football fans are swarming out of the Santiago Bernabeu, where Real Madrid have just drawn 1-1 with Athletic Bilbao. On a traffic island in front of the stadium’s main entrance a digital display shows the temperature is 17C and the hour 23.02. Time for dinner. In a city where long, leisurely lunches often last beyond five o’clock and the evening meal rarely starts before half-past nine, eating late is the norm.
A 12-minute ride on the Metro from Santiago Bernabeu takes me to Plaza España, where my hotel is located. I squeeze through the throng into a nearby bar bunged with disappointed Real supporters. The result has left a sour taste in their mouths – they expected an easy win – and they’re doing their best to wash it away with glasses of Madrid brew Mahou, for me the best lager in Spain.
The kitchen is working overtime turning out tapas and the noise is off the scale. Customers bawl their orders at the barmen, who acknowledge them with a bellow. The floor is a debris field of discarded serviettes, toothpicks, prawn shells and olive pips, but every five minutes a boy with a broom clears it all away. In a lacklustre match the Real and Athletic sweepers did little of note, but this kid is playing a blinder.
All eyes are on the TV. In the studio, the football pundits are giving their considered analyses of the game. In the bar, the fans are giving them dog’s abuse. It’s great fun – cursing in Spanish is colourful and not a little cringe-inducing – but it’s nearly 1am and time for bed. The bill for three bottles of Mahou and a plate each of Serrano ham, Manchego cheese and potato omelette comes to €16.50. That’s what you call a result.
Around the corner from the VP Plaza España Design hotel, where I’m staying, is the 18th century Royal Palace. With its five-metre-high doorways, the 3,418-room official residence of the Spanish monarchs is one of the few buildings that six-foot-four King Felipe can enter without doing a limbo dance.
At midday in front of the palace, tourists gather around street musicians. These aren’t any old buskers: as befits the regal backdrop, they’re the best in town and have had to audition to earn a city hall permit and a coveted performance spot.
An elderly gentleman in a pristine cream suit and Panama hat, looking every inch the man from Del Monte, plays Glenn Miller favourites on a clarinet. When he follows Moonlight Serenade with Little Brown Jug, a middle-aged American couple can’t contain themselves and start dancing like professionals.
A teenage girl with an acoustic guitar and a mane of natural red hair – a much-admired rarity in Spain – enchants her audience with the haunting second movement of Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. When she finally takes a bashful bow, coins rain into her instrument case.
The Golden Buzzer, however, goes to the man playing movie themes on an array of stemless brandy bowls and champagne flutes stuck with putty to a trestle table. Dipping his fingertips into a flask of water at his hip, he runs them around the rims and the Titanic signature tune fills the air. He must dread the day when a mezzo-soprano sets up nearby and hits a glass-shattering high C.
It’s a 20-minute walk to Plaza de la Puerta del Sol, which has its street entertainers too, and among them is a man dressed as Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp character, known in Spain as Charlot. At his feet is a sign that reads: “English spoken here by man who left City Cork 65 years ago.”
This is former millionaire builder Tony O’Connor, who made a fortune and then lost the lot a decade ago when the construction boom went bust. Don’t expect to hear a lilting Leeside accent, though – his parents left Cork for London when he was small and he’s as Cockney as they come.
Tony, who has emphysema, has a pitch in front of the famed La Mallorquina cake shop, whose display windows need to be wiped a couple of times a day to remove child-sized palm prints and smudges left by little noses pressed against the glass.
“I don’t have the breath to sing and I can’t compete with those young guys over there doing their acrobatics,” says Tony. “I’m lucky to collect €400 a month in winter, though I can make around €1,400 in the summer, just sitting here chatting with whoever stops to hear my story. A couple of years ago, a guy handed me an envelope and disappeared. When I opened it, there was €600 inside. I couldn’t believe it.”
On the third floor above La Mallorquina is the luxury apartment that Tony and his wife had to sell when it all went wrong. If it came on the market today, the owner would be looking for at least €700,000. “Ah, well, that’s life,” says Tony, and breaks off to direct an English couple to Madrid’s top visitor attraction, the Prado Museum.
The Prado and its near neighbours, the Reina Sofia and the Thyssen-Bornemisza, form the 1.5-kilometre-long Paseo del Arte (Art Walk), otherwise known as the Golden Triangle. No other city in the world has three treasure houses in such close proximity. The English couple are in for a treat.
The Prado is a 15-minute stroll from Puerta del Sol and houses the most important collection of Spanish art in the world. It also has the best air-conditioning in Madrid, a godsend in July and August when afternoon temperatures hit 30C and forget to stop.
Diego Rodriguez de Silva Velazquez (1599-1660) and Francisco Jose de Goya y Lucientes (1746-1828) are the stars of the show, with El Greco as the main support act on a bill that includes Rubens, Raphael, Titian, Tintoretto, Van Der Weyden, Ribera, Zurburan and Murillo, which sounds like a Real Madrid starting XI.
While the galleries and halls of the Prado are dripping with masterpieces, two paintings attract the biggest crowds: Velazquez’s Las Meninas (1656), which is most visitors’ favourite, and Goya’s Carlos IV of Spain and His Family (1801).
Goya’s portrait depicts King Carlos, his wife Maria Luisa, seven of their 14 children, including Crown Prince Ferdinand who later ruled as the despised Ferdinand VII, and other relatives in a line-up more motley than majestic.
The focal point of Las Meninas is King Felipe IV and Queen Mariana’s five-year-old daughter Princess Margarita, who stands with two ladies-in-waiting, a nun, a dwarf, a jester and a mastiff dog. In an open doorway in the background lurks the queen’s chamberlain, and reflected in a mirror on the back wall are Felipe and Mariana.
In perhaps the first example of a selfie, Velazquez has included himself in his most-admired work, eyes front as he paints the out-of-shot royal couple, hence their reflection in the mirror. Not to be outdone, fellow bighead Goya appears in the background of his painting of Carlos and his kin.
French painter Edouard Manet (1832-1883) said Seville-born Velazquez was “the greatest painter that has ever existed. He alone is worth the trip to Madrid”. Few who stand before Las Meninas would disagree, but it’s another painting by another Andalucian, in the Reina Sofia, that art lovers from all over the world do make the trip to see.
Pablo Picasso’s Guernica (1937) is arguably the best-known painting of the 20th century. Measuring 7.8 by 3.5 metres, it’s certainly one of the biggest. Completed in black, white and grey oils on canvas, it’s a denunciation of the aerial bombing on April 26, 1937 of the eponymous Basque town by Hitler’s Condor Legion.
Picasso, or to give him his full name, Pablo Diego Jose Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno Maria de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santisima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso, which added five minutes to the morning roll call in school, was born in Malaga in October 1881 and spent most of his long adult life in France, where he died aged 91 in April 1973.
It was in his Paris loft that he painted Guernica for the Spanish Republic’s pavilion at the 1937 International Exposition in his adopted city. On learning of the attack – the town was the northern stronghold of the Republican resistance during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), which made it a target for Franco’s Nationalist forces – Picasso abandoned his intended commissioned work and produced instead the most powerful anti-war painting of all time.
The bombs fell on market day, and many women and children were among the at least 300 people killed. A mother holding a dead baby features large in the work, but the two most prominent figures are a bull, representing the onslaught of fascism, and a gored horse, representing the people of the town (horses were often disembowelled by the bulls’ horns during a corrida).
The death and destruction visited on Guernica were appalling; that the attack was used by the Condor Legion and the Italian Aviazione Legionaria to try out new carpet bombing techniques on a civilian target was atrocious. At the Nuremberg Trials in 1946, Luftwaffe chief Herman Goering said Guernica was a “testing ground” – confirmation, if any were needed, that Picasso painted the nightmarish result of a cynical experiment in extermination.
Portraiture rules in the Thyssen-Bornemisza, and its most instantly recognisable portrait is of a ruler. German artist Hans Holbein the Younger’s (1497-1543) painting of Henry VIII of England is one of scores of contemporaneous copies of the original (1537), which was lost in a fire in 1698, but this is the only one by Holbein (the others were by apprentices). Think of Henry, and this is the bejewelled and bejowled image that springs to mind.
While the Prado and the Reina Sofia allow art lovers to study specific painters’ bodies of work, the Thyssen-Bornemisza is more a Hall of Fame of all-time greats, who are represented in abundance.
Bacon is here, as are Freud, Pollock, Munch and Hockney, whose 1972 Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures) sold recently at auction in New York to an anonymous buyer for $90.3m, setting a new record for a work by a living artist. Visitors can also gaze upon paintings by Spaniards Dali and Miro; France’s Gauguin, Manet, Renoir, Degas and Matisse; Dutch masters Rembrandt and Vermeer; and Italy’s Caravaggio, Canaletto and Tintoretto. It’s like rubbing shoulders with Hollywood royalty at the best Oscars after-party.
The museum’s most poignant painting is not a portrait. Vincent van Gogh’s French rural landscape, Les Vessenots, is the last work he completed, only days before his suicide in 1890. In late May of that year, the Dutch post-impressionist (born 1853) travelled 35 kilometres north from Paris to the village of Auvers-sur-Oise. For several weeks he worked outdoors in glorious weather, producing many landscapes, until he surrendered to his demons. On the morning of July 27, Van Gogh put down his paintbrush, lifted a gun and ended his torment. He was 37.
Some of Madrid’s best-loved artists work mostly anonymously behind the scenes in kitchens. The city has 20 Michelin-starred restaurants, but in this most cosmopolitan of capitals where all of the world’s great cuisines are on offer, humble fare is preferred to highfalutin.
Cocido is the comfort food that exiled Madrileños yearn for in the way Irish people living abroad dream of Tayto crisps. A hearty but not mushy stew, it typically contains chicken, beef, bacon, pork belly, morcilla (blood sausage), chorizo, potatoes, carrots, cabbage and chickpeas. It’s among the top choices when eating out, but even as they’re tucking in, diners are thinking: “Mmmm, tasty, but nowhere near as tasty as Mama’s.” In a word, albeit a makey-uppy one, cocido is stewpendous.
Merluza (hake), bacalao (cod), rape (rah-pay – monkfish) and dorado (sea bream) are the most popular fish dishes, but when time is pressing, the seafood snack of choice is the bocata de calamares, a hot bread roll that’s crispy on the outside, moist inside and loaded with deep-fried squid rings. No sauce, no garnish, no need.
A close second in the snack stakes is the bocata de jamon Serrano. The air-cured, mildewed legs of ham from which wafer-thin slices of succulent Serrano are carved with expert precision bordering on the parsimonious cost up to €500 each, but a bocata will set you back a mere €3. Traditionalists prefer their ham on a plate, accompanied perhaps by slices of Manchego cheese and some big fat juicy olives that have been marinated so long they’re falling apart.
Chocolateria de San Gines, which opened in 1894, never closes, so there’s no excuse for not feasting on the quintessential Spanish breakfast of chocolate con churros. These long fingers of deep-fried doughnut batter (and the fatter version, porras) dipped in hot chocolate are a great start to the day, though they’re also devoured by nightclubbers on their way home when most people have been asleep for hours.
If any dish can be said to occupy the throne of Spanish cuisine, it’s the tortilla de patatas – the ubiquitous potato omelette. It’s made with only three ingredients: eggs, sliced boiled potatoes and onions. Some cooks who don’t know any better add chopped red peppers, a sacrilege akin to putting honey on a Highlander’s porridge. Tortilla de patatas needs no adornment, although if the onions are caramelised before being added to the mix, the omelette steps up from perfecto to perfectisimo.
In his 1932 novel, Death In The Afternoon, Ernest Hemingway wrote: “Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night.” No better man, then, to have written The Sun Also Rises (1926) – he witnessed the dawn often enough during his many long stays here in the 1920s, 30s and 50s.
On the wall of the Antigua Farmacia de la Reina Madre on Calle Mayor, the illuminated green cross shows the temperature is 19C and the hour 22.05. Time to walk the short distance to one of the author’s favourite haunts, Plaza de Santa Ana, where hundreds of people are eating and drinking on the terraces of some of the most popular bars and restaurants in the city (‘Don Ernesto’ drank daily in Cerveceria Alemana).
Jazz and other live music venues abound around here, but in the plaza itself is Villa Rosa where, every night, art and soul fuse in a frenetic performance of raw passion that makes audiences’ hearts beat faster and throats go dry. It’s called flamenco, and Villa Rosa, which staged its first show in 1911, is the temple to which aficionados and tourists flock. It’s not the only place staging this most Spanish of spectacles, which consists of three parts – guitar, song and dance – but for me it’s the best.
A statue of Granada-born poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936) stands in Plaza de Santa Ana. Lorca, who was executed without trial by a right-wing firing squad in the opening month of the Spanish Civil War, lived in Madrid for 17 years and never missed a chance to see a flamenco show. No one has better described the principal performer.
He wrote: “The dancer’s trembling heart must bring everything into harmony, from the tips of her shoes to the flutter of her eyelashes, from the rustles of her dress to the incessant play of her fingers. Shipwrecked in a field of air, she must measure lines, silences, zig-zags and rapid curves, with a sixth sense of aroma and geometry, without ever mistaking her terrain. In this she resembles the torero, whose heart must keep to the neck of the bull. Both of them face the same danger – he, death; and she, darkness.”
Flamenco, football, food, fine art and a fella with an orchestra at his damp fingertips are only a few of the attractions that make a long weekend in the Spanish capital a memorable experience. There’s an old saying: “If you’re in Madrid, you’re from Madrid.” Well, maybe; but one thing’s for sure – if you’re in Madrid, you have very good taste in cities.
GET THERE:Aer Lingus and Ryanair fly daily from Dublin to Adolfo Suarez Madrid-Barajas airport. The Airport Express yellow bus service to and from the city centre operates 24 hours, every 15 minutes during the day and every 35 minutes at night. There are only three stops – O’Donnell, Atocha and Plaza de Cibeles (this last one is the most central). The journey takes around 40 minutes and a one-way ticket costs €5 from the driver.
EAT:Cocido In 2015, the multi-award-winning Cruz Blanca Vallecas (58 Martin Alvarez) received the National Catering Award for its cocido, and quite right too. Try also Casa Paco (11 Puerta Cerrada), a family-run restaurant that serves a wide range of fabulous homemade food.
Bocata de calamaresEl Brillante (8 Plaza del Emperador Carlos V) serves 2,000 bocatas de calamares every day, and that’s recommendation enough.
Bocata de jamon Serrano The excellent kosher restaurant La Escudilla (16 Santisima Trinidad) is one of only a handful of establishments in Madrid that doesn’t offer bocatas de jamon Serrano or anything else containing pork. Otherwise, every bar, cafe and restaurant serves this simple yet sensational staple.
Chocolate con churrosChocolateria San Gines (5 Pasadizo de San Gines) serves 10,000 freshly-made churros and 2,000 cups of hot chocolate every day. Chocolateria Valor (7 Postigo de San Martin) is the pretender to San Gines’s crown.
Tortilla de patatas The potato omelette served in Juana la Loca (4 Plaza de la Puerta de Moros) has no equal. Juana la Loca (Joanna the Mad), the elder sister of Catherine of Aragon and sister-in-law of Henry VIII, was Queen of Castile from 1504 to 1555, but never actually ruled due to her mental instability.
VISIT:Prado Museum Paseo del Prado (Metro Banco de España). Mon-Sat 10am-8pm, Sun 10am-7pm; general admission €15.
Reina Sofia Museum 52 Santa Isabel (Metro Atocha). Mon-Sat (closed Tuesday) 10am-9pm, Sun 10am-7pm; general admission €10.
Santiago Bernabeu Avenida de Concha Espina (Metro Santiago Bernabeu). Stadium tour, including trophy room, dressing room, press room and pitch, Mon-Sat 10am-7pm, Sun 10.30am-6.30pm (except match days); from €14.
Tablao de Flamenco Villa Rosa 15 Plaza de Santa Ana (Metros Sol, Anton Martin and Tirso de Molina). Shows: Sun-Thu 8.30pm and 10.45pm, Fri & Sat 8.30pm, 10.45pm and 12.15am. Admission to show, including a drink, costs €35; show plus meal, including a drink, from €65. Book well in advance online.
STAY: I was a guest of the 5-star VP Plaza de España Design. On the 12th floor, the Gingko Restaurant and Sky Bar with its swimming pool and wraparound terrace welcomes non-guests and has quickly become one of the city’s most popular nightspots for wining, dining, partying and 360-degree views of the city. Double rooms cost from €220.