Saturday, November 09, 2013

The London Triathlon 2013


I signed up for the Olympic distance London Triathlon at the end of last year. The prospect of a 1.5 km swim, 40 km cycle and 10 km run around the monuments of London excited me. Every so often I need a new challenge and I find that things of this nature give an additional focus to a year and provide a helpful incentive to get off my arse and be a bit more healthy. I had added incentive this year, hoping to raise funds for a charity dear to a very poorly friend of mine (the fantastic Royal Marsden). There was therefore no turning back.

The challenge of a triathlon is balancing the training and race effort on the three very different disciplines. I have done quite a lot of cycling, run the odd half marathon and the solitary full marathon, so I made the conscious choice to concentrate nearly all my training on the swimming. In this choice lay future pain…

I have always considered myself a reasonably strong swimmer, being the water baby that I am, but the truth is that I have never been all that good at freestyle. I am fine over a very short sprint, but I have never been able to get the breathing quite right. Triathlon obsessed friends had recommended doing a bit of coaching, but I could not quite bring myself to spend the money. So I just practised.

Weekly swims at the local pool shook the rust off and got me going, and I finally became a half competent freestyle swimmer going back and forth and back across a bay in front of my Greek house. A month of 1 km a day swims put me in better shape than I have been for years. Better still, covering so much distance just above the sea floor turned into a surprisingly fruitful Mediterranean wildlife safari. Squid, snails, flatfish, flying gunard (check them out on google - very cool), octopus and a dozen other variety of fish. The most remarkable and surprising encounter was a 5 minute swim next to a trumpet fish. These long, thin, alien looking fish are not even meant to live in the Med. It appears a few have slipped through the Suez Canal!

As for runs and cycles, let's just say I went for the minimalist training approach... and as for combining these disciplines with each other in training the very minimalist approach. 

THE ARENA


My thoughts of an idyllic race around the landmarks and prettier parts of London were dashed on arrival. Setting off from the Excel centre in the east end docklands, the route stuck resolutely to unattractive parts of the capital. The swim was to be in the sloppy green water of the dock, the cycle around a loop of an East London dual carriage way and the run around the Excel centre itself. Not exactly inspiring.
That is where my complaints of the event cease. So much effort goes into arranging the biggest participation triathlon in the world and they do a great job. There is a carnival, if a bit corporate, atmosphere at the Excel. Thousands of people milling around stalls which are selling (and occasionally giving away) everything triathlon related you could imagine and a lot more besides. I felt a real amateur with my knackered old hybrid bike, borrowed wet suit and speedos. Everywhere I looked were hardcore triathletes with top of the range break the bank road bikes and tri-suites.

The scale of the place and occasion struck home when I made it through to the change over area. Rows upon rows upon rows of change over lanes, complete with parked bikes and kit. This is a key part of the logistical nightmare of arranging a triathlon. Shepherding huge amounts of people at varying times in and out of a confined area to prep for the swim, transition from dripping wet wetsuit into cycle gear and then finally get ready for the run. This vast hall had room for a couple of thousand people at a time. I was not sure I was ready for this!

THE RACE

If you want to do “hopeless amateur” at a triathlon, I doubt there are many better ways to line up at the start line then with your wetsuit back-to-front. Having only tried on the wetsuit once before since borrowing it from a mate (thanks Ramsay), that is exactly what I did, triggering an embarrassingly ungainly torso tustle with neoprene in front of the crowds.


Now sweating and a bit perturbed, I joined in with the rest of my start group in the MC prompted high-fives and manly war grunts. Then out the door and into the disconcertingly green Thames water in the Royal Victoria Dock.
Thanks to Virgin Triathlon for this pic
I had heard many a horror story of triathletes beating the shit out of each other on the swim, all punches, pulls and half drownings. Whereas there was the odd inadvertent heavy contact with those around me (usually I imagine at my doing), overall I found the swim a pleasant experience. This is the part I had trained for and to my satisfaction it all went smoothly.  Trying to save something in the tank for legs 2 and 3 of the triathlon, I did not push myself too hard, but still finished the 1500m in the better half of the pack in just under 32 minutes.


Scrambling out the water and back towards the change-over zone, the enthusiastic crowd provided a real buzz of an atmosphere. Eventually finding my rack, I had to strip down and out of my budgie-smugglers and into my cycle gear without any stewards spotting my momentary nakedness (for some hyper-moral reason the powers that be at this triathlon have a real issue with people showing off their bits). That small feat achieved as part of an exceptionally unimpressive change-over time, I clipped into the bike and rolled out onto the road.
To my surprise and annoyance, I was climbing a hill before I knew it. One of the reasons I had chosen the London Triathlon was out of a misguided notion that London is flat and therefore I would not have to pant up and down inclines. I was wrong. The organisers had seemingly specifically chosen a route that goes up and down and up and down a series of tunnels and bridges, replicating some not inconsequential climbs. The impact of this on my performance was made clear as over and over, having past riders on the flat, they would then fly past me on the climbs on their multi-thousand pound feather light road bikes as I struggled with my chunky knackered old hybrid.


This impediment did though bring rewards. Over the three laps of the course which lead from the Excel centre up towards (but not close enough to see) Tower Bridge and back again, I inadvertently played tag on repeat with another rider. We must have passed each other a dozen times. It was a really nice touch that he pulled alongside as the cycle came to a close and said, given that we had raced together for 40 km, we should finish together.
In toe behind my fellow rider, I made it up the ramp in a pretty average 1 hour 16 minutes for the ride. Not an awesome time, but given I had not really trained for the cycle and was riding the bike equivalent of a Volks Wagen (while most people were riding Porsches), I was relatively happy.

So to a quick change of shoes and onto the run. Only 10 km to go, comprising 3 short laps of a meandering course in and around Excel. As it turned out, a big “only”.

From the second I started jogging out over the start line, I knew I was struggling. Vengeful cramps wrenched my lower thighs and I really struggled to keep lifting my legs. I suddenly realised why everyone recommends that you combine different parts of the triathlon in your training schedule. The pumping of the pedals up and down the hills had left my upper legs shot and not prepared to run. As I hobbled along in significant pain I vowed to myself that I would train properly next time...

Being the bloody minded bastard I am, there was no chance of me not finishing, but on that first lap it was all I could do to alternately drag my legs into a faltering jog before falling back to a few seconds of walking. It is at these times that the crowd and other competitors really help. The triathlon has oodles of good will and camaraderie and there is mutual encouragement from all angles that spurs you on.

By the second lap the pain was still there, but I could feel the cramps starting to recede, replaced by sheer tiredness. I pushed on into a slow non-stop jog accompanied by a grimace. It felt like a long time before I crossed the line for the start of the final lap. I had thus far not concentrated on the time, but allowed myself a quick glance at the clock over the finish line. Given the trouble I was having with the run, I had long ago given up any idea of getting a decent time and was just looking to finish the race. To my serious surprise, on calculating my race time from the clock, I realised that if I got a move on I could still make sub 3 hours. All I needed was a 19 minute last lap.


As it turned out, this was just what I needed to get my arse into gear. With further grimaces and a self promoted fire up my arse I left every bit of energy I had on the route of the final lap. Running through the finish straight with the crowds cheering was a feeling of heightened exhilaration. The last surge of adrenaline drained out the pain and tiredness, leaving this fantastic buzz of endorphins and relief.
Crossing the line in 2:57 I was pretty chuffed. I even allowed myself an indulgent arms outstretched moment before the pain took back over and, hands over hips and bent double, I sucked beautiful oxygen back into my system.

In the immediate aftermath my thoughts veered between... if I just train properly, purchase a road bike and triathlon gear I could get my time down to 2:30... and... thank god that's over!

Despite the rather uninspiring East London location and inherent pain, the London Triathlon is a great event. A lot of people getting together with passion and a sense of common purpose to do something a bit different. An addictive buzz, but whereas I definitely plan to do a triathlon again, I don't think I was ever in danger of falling for the all too common pitfall amongst triathletes of obsessing over the sport to the point where other interests dwindle away and you have little else to talk about (I always have something to talk about!). If a friend of yours has ever done an iron man you will most likely know what I mean...


So to next year and a new challenge yet unknown. A final thanks to all those who sponsored me and raised money for the phenomenal Royal Marsden (http://www.justgiving.com/jimbo82-tri).

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Al Andalus - Granada

Central Andalusia is a relatively barren, hilly country. Once Cordoba fell to the Catholics, this was the frontier zone between Christianity and the last stronghold of Islam in Western Europe, Granada. As a product of those times, towns and villages were largely built on hill tops and fortified against the opposing side. This has left a beautiful spectacle for those driving through, as the roads skirt below white-washed towns with the obligatory crumbling fort.
I have wanted to visit Granada for a very long time and my first glimpse galvanised my growing excitement. Coming to the end of a high pass, the hills split and dropped, exposing a wide valley stretching to the snow-capped Sierra Nevada. Just visible, nestled in the rising roots of the mountain range, Granada sat invitingly.
 
Being a bit of a romantic, I had booked to stay in a guesthouse high above the city centre at the meeting point of the historic Albaicín district and Sacromonte, home to centuries old picturesque gypsy cave settlements. This area has no parking and I will spare you the details of shifting two kids under 20 months old with all their cots and baby paraphernalia from an out of town multi storey car park, across the whole city, through the narrow streets of the old town, part the way up a mountain and up to a villa that can only be reached via a crumbling winding stair. Impractical, but worth it, the place was amazing.
Solar Montes Clares is a small, Moroccan styled guesthouse. Everything is inch perfect and relaxed thanks to the endeavours of Antonio, who runs the place. Best of all are the views. The second I stepped out onto our balcony I knew all the kerfuffle of getting here was worth it. Slap bang in front of us was the Alhambra itself, lit up as night fell. Down below the cliffs which support it, the Albaicín sprawled up from the small river and over the hill to our right. Below the new city stretched out to the plain, via the spires of churches and, of course, the cathedral. Each night I sat out on our balcony reading to this view, accompanied by the complementary vino tinto.
 
We spent a couple of days dragging the double pram up and down the encaptivating streets of the Albaicín, peeping into grand churches that were once mosques, taking time out in small plazas and dropping down into town to find more great food. The small road which runs between the Albaicín and the river below the Alhambra was particularly vibrant. Granada is famous for its eclectic community and this route was lined with artists, artisans and musicians. Best of all was a large group playing gypsy inspired tunes which infused Niko and a hundred other people with the jiggles. The place has a real buzz.
At the end of this road, the city flattens out into a series of wide open squares and a real mixture of building styles. 70’s monstrosities face off medieval churches. Find the right spot and there is little better than sitting back in a cosy square with beer, tapas and the passing warmth of February sunshine.
On our penultimate night we marched up to the sunset panorama in the Albaicín, a perfect place to whet the appetite for the trip up to the Alhambra the next morning. Situated at a high point before the land drops into the gulley at the bottom of the Alhambra hill, this vantage point provides an awesome view. The Sierra Nevada mountains dominate the backdrop. As they fall rapidly and give way to the flatlands and the city they thrust out one final arm of elevation. A high ridge jutting out into the populous, with steep cliffs on three sides. The palaces and castles of the Alhambra cling to the top of this ridge, peering down at those below. Quite a sight as the sun dives off the Western horizon in streams of red and orange.

THE ALHAMBRA
 
 
I have never met someone who has been to the Alhambra and not waxed lyrical about its magnificence and beauty. That is probably why you need to book your ticket way in advance. Fortunately we had had that insight. Early the next morning, we trekked up the back steps to the plateau at the top of the ridge with Alexi in the Bjorn and Niko on the shoulders.
 
When first hearing about the place I had imagined it would be relatively uniform in terms of style and date, like the Taj Mahal or Angkor Wat. From the very start of our visit it was evident that it is instead a hotchpotch of variety, made up of religious buildings, fortifications and, of course, palaces from a wide range of eras.
This makes sense when you think of the important natural position of strength that the ridge holds. Like the Acropolis in Athens, it has proved irresistable as a seat for power for millennia. You therefore have Visigothic archeological digs, next to Moorish baths, which are in turn just around the corner from the gordy renaissance palace of Charles V (Charles II from Spain’s perspective - the most powerful of sixteenth century Europeans).
 
The Moorish fort is large and stark, with high crenelated walls rising above the steep sides of the hill. At the further end of the hill from the mountains, the fortifications jut out into the city imposingly staring down at the minions. We had loads of fun climbing along the walls and staring out at the rarefied views from the parapets.
Peering into the Christian extension to the palace, we quickly moved on to what proved to be the undoubted pinnacle of our whole trip in Andalusia, the Nasrid Palaces. From the first antechamber, I was taken aback. Every surface was covered with carvings of exquisite intricacy and delicacy. Prohibited from recreating Allah’s creation in their work, the craftsman took the symmetrical, almost hypnotic form of Islamic art to a heightened level. Out of ideological constraints, human creativity reached new levels.
Passing through one courtyard after another, as no doubt intended by the creators, the splendour only increased, culminating at the Court of Lions, perhaps the most superlative piece of fine architecture I have witnessed. Designed and sculpted to mirror paradise, it comes strikingly close. A place that has to be seen to be believed. Go there!
Before leaving the Alhambra we had just enough time to wander up to the summer palace and gardens that adorn the hill above the main site. This is well worth a visit, providing fantastic views to the palace, city and plain beyond. To my mind at least, the stump of a centuries old cedar tree which once shaded the Muslim inhabitants of the Alhambra was a moving link to the past.

THE RECONQUSITA
 
It was fitting that our tour of Andalusia should end with a visit to the cavernous cathedral of Granada and, more specifically the Capilla Real which is adjoined to it. Here, tellingly, lie the Catholic Kings. In 1492 Granada fell and with it the 700 hundred year reign of the Moors in the Iberian peninsula. Ferdinand and Isabella had completed the crusade of the Reconquista, which forms the foundation stone of the Spanish nation to this day. In the fateful year of 1492, the world shifted. In the very same year as the fall of Granada, Columbus discovered the New World under the patronage of those very same royals, Ferdinand and Isabella. Staring at the tombs of husband and wife, you are in the decayed presence of prime movers. World changers.

With Christian conquest came a decline in science, art, architecture and tolerance. The Jews joined the Moors in forced exile. The inquisition followed. No longer would religions co-exist in relative peace and productivity. Soaking in the treasures and culture of Islamic Spain you can’t but feel that this was, at least in the medium term, a backward step. Thankfully, history leaves it mark, and the rich vein of influence left by people’s as diverse as Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Catholics has made this region into the simply fascinating place that it is today.

AN ALMOST COMIC DEPARTURE

It would be amiss to not share a short summary of our return to the UK and lacking context not to reiterate that we were travelling with Niko and Alexi, our small children who are but 20 months and 7 months respectively. As we were packing for departure, BA informed us by text that, due to an Iberia strike, our flight back to London from Malaga would be diverted to Gibraltar. Another country, but only a couple of hours away, no worries. Leaving Granada, the heavens had other ideas. After a couple of weeks of sunshine, a winter storm made its way in from the Atlantic and culminated in a non-stop torrential downpour. Pressing on we made it to the Spanish border with Gibraltar, dropped off the car and carried the family over the border (carry cots, car sears, suitcases, pram and, of course, kids). The rain was unrelenting and we were soaked as we passed through passport control with the weather battered Rock looming ahead.
We had made it. We ran into the terminal and went up to the desk. “I am sorry to inform you, but due to heavy winds, your plane cannot take off from Gibraltar”. Apparently Gibraltar has a very short runway and is hence prone to such things. The latest news was that we would be shipped onto buses and driven a few hundred KMs to Jerez, where they hoped to find a plane and break the Iberia strike. Better yet, we were required to still check in at Gibraltar, go through customs, wait, wait some more, then pick up all the luggage again and traipse back across the border by foot into Spain. The storm did us no favours and battered us some more. To their eternal credit, well past their bed time and wired, of the hundred or so passengers, our little ones were probably the most jovial when we made it on to the bus to Jerez.
A couple more hours later we made it to a small airport the other side of Andalusia and, greeted by many an anti-BA/Iberia strike sign but thankfully no strikers, made it through the doors and into departures. A long wait later we were onto a plane and on our way home. A real inconvenience in normal conditions. A real adventure with two babies. We made it home via three plane diversions with only three nappies. The joys of family travel!

Saturday, September 07, 2013

Al Andalus - Cordoba

Driving north across the plain from Seville, two bright lights parried my vision. The first, unremarkably for this non-dreary part of the world, was the sun. The second I could not quite figure out. Blindingly bright and drawing ever nearer from the horizon, it did not lag far behind the sun in its intensity. As we drew closer, it became apparent that this was not a single light, but a myriad of separated groups of solar beams firing in an ordered pattern between the earth and a single point in the sky. A bit like a monolithic disco ball.  Drawing closer still, I could see the large concrete tower which housed this giant reflecting (or receiving) object. My best guess is that this forms part of an ambitious solar energy complex.  Remarkable and quite unlike anything I have seen before.

Apart from the disco ball, the road to Cordoba was largely forgettable. Cordoba itself was anything but.

LA CIUDAD ANTIGUA 

We were staying on the other side of the Guadalaquivir river from the old city. Leaning out of our window, I was astounded by the view. A partially reconstructed Roman bridge spans a wide fast flowing stretch of water, broken up by copse-laden and ruin-strewn islets. On the far side, the bridge lands beneath the imposing city walls, with the Mezquita, the jewel in Cordoba’s crown, dominating the view above. More of that later.
Around the Mezquita are a warren of wonderfully preserved medieval streets. My uncle, whose opinions I respect above most on such matters, thinks it is the best preserved medieval city in Europe, and I certainly had no reason to argue. Once past the tourist tat of the immediate vicinity we lost ourselves in the winding alleys of whitewashed stone work, occasionally sneaking a peak at the inner courtyards of 500 year old mansions. It is an endearing feature of pre and post-colonial Spanish architecture that the true grandeur of buildings is enticingly hidden from view.  Inner gardens and terraces which resemble, and presumably originate from, the Moorish style.
Once out of the old town, the picturesque nature of the city quickly diminishes, but it is still full of surprises. Meandering through busy shopping streets, an ugly road interchange is interrupted by a Roman temple. Just up the street, an unattractive square is brought to life by a bunch of chicos playing Spanish guitar and singing. Nothing special you might think, but these guys weren’t part of an act or busking. They were just sitting in a café, chilling out, smoking fags and making music for their own enjoyment. The little ones absolutely loved it.

My favourite place in Cordoba was Plaza de la Corredera. A large seventeenth century square hemmed in by four-storey town houses. A little run down, it was populated by a rag tag of friendly restaurants selling tapas and beer at a song, students playing guitar and old men watching the world pass by. A little out of the way and seriously charming. We came back each day of our stay, chowing down on chorizo in vino tinto and patatas bravas (Niko’s favourite word in Andalusia quickly became “patata-patata”)

THE MEZQUITA

A unique treasure and one of the most impressive structures in Europe, it is hard not to spit superlatives about this place. Like many of the cities in these parts, Cordoba has Roman roots and a Visigothic past, but the Moors made the place, with Islam at its core.
Cordoba was the capital of a powerful caliphate. At its height, it was the most sophisticated and cultured centre in Western Europe. The Mezquita was its pinnacle. From our perspective, a gift to the future. From the perspective of the Moors, the centre of Islam and life in Al Andalus. A place to submit to the God who delivered to them and their kin lands stretching from the Atlantic to the Gulf.

Originally started in the eighth century on the spot of a Visigothic church and expanded over subsequent generations, the mosque followed the normal pattern of minaret, ablution garden and prayer hall. Beyond that it is anything but the norm. A supreme combination of scale, minutiae and, most of all, balance. One of the largest buildings erected in Europe between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance, yet decorated with such painstaking intricacy. This attention to detail is especially apparent in the oldest parts. Indeed, it is said you can see the slow decline of the Caliphate in the mild degeneration of particulars as each new section was built.

What is most striking about the Mezquita is its internal symmetry and harmony.  Entering from the garden of ablutions through grand carved doors, you step into the vast prayer hall and encounter row after row after row after row of parallel, adjoining Islamic arches, each decorated in a simple red and white pattern. It has a different impact to the vast cavernous space of a cathedral. More intimate, yet no less impressive or imposing. It affected me like very few buildings have. A place of heightened calm. I felt momentarily lost drifting around the fringes of this huge rectangle space.

After the Reconquista seized back Cordoba, we have the Catholics to thank for not tearing down this masterpiece of human ingenuity and endeavour. They took the building in the name of their own god. On the flip side, the Catholics almost unforgivably tore a huge hole in the heart of the Mesquite and threw up a gaudy cathedral. In another context it would no doubt be an impressive building, but entering from the serenity of the surrounding Islamic arches it just resembles expensive tack. A bit like throwing up a Disney World at the heart of Tuscany. 
This violation was not lost on contemporaries. Charles V famously remarked "they have taken something unique in all the world and destroyed it to build something you can find in any city". One can only try and imagine how more magnificent this structure must have been before the Christian monstrosity.


A FINAL VIEW

After a walk around the beautiful gardens of the old fort, we made our way back to the river as the sun was setting. Stepping onto the bridge we took a moment to stop and stare. Narrowing shards of sunlight disintegrated into the thin mist which hung to the rapid current. To our right the remains of a Roman watermill. To our left, crumbling fortifications. Left, right and centre, hundreds of cormorants circling, swimming, dipping into the flow or, wings flung wide, basking in the glory of the end of the day. Far ahead loomed the fortified hills which showed the way to Granada.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Al Andalus - Seville


We spend four days in Seville and it was not nearly sufficient. A grand city, it has the feel of a great European capital while still retaining the laid-back nature of the region. A chilled out Paris with friendly people.

Straddling the banks of the Guadaquivir not far from the remains of Roman Italica, Seville has had its fair share of glory days. The old town is a conglomeration of pretty streets and squares punctuated by stand-out buildings leftover from headier times. At its heart is the Cathedral de Santa Maria de la Sede.
Build, upon, around and inside the old grand mosque, the building symbolises the triumph of the Reconquista, is vast and very impressive. Indeed it is the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. On entering, Niko looked up at the ceiling way above and span round and round lost in its vastness (or at least that was my interpretation…). I did the same thing and so must have people for centuries. The religion fuelled ambition is remarkable. To build such a building today would be a very expensive headache, but the mind boggles at the difficulty of building it back then.  My favourite features are though Islamic.

Neighbouring the main structure of the church is the orange garden which started its life as the garden of ablution for the original mosque. A place of peace and calm, still with the original water channels to feed the trees. Above the Giralda, the remnants of the mosque's minaret, rises up to the heavens. Shortened and converted into a bell tower, it still stands 105 m tall. When originally built in the twelfth century it was the tallest structure in the world. An astounding place, showing the fusion of cultures which makes the region so special.
Crossing a horse and cart strewn square from the Cathedral the bold gates of the Alcazar hold the view. Walk through and you enter the fortress and palace of the Muslim emirs and then Catholic kings. While the intricacy and scale of the palace is impressive, it is the gardens that take the biscuit. Enclosed by the fortified walls, they are varied, lush and carefully laid out to calm the mind and put one at peace.
Seville encapsulates the laid back grand nature of a Spanish imperial city. Spiralling around the old town from these core, it was like I was back in Quito or La Candelaria in Bogota. In fact one corner was so similar to Cuzco that I had a flashback to an unfortunate Peruvian encounter with a group of thugs intent on robbing and beating me (fortunately the combination of warnings from a kind little old lady, a big stick and fast turn of heels just about got me out of that one!).
Not for a long time will I forget walking along the broad walkways which line the Guadaquivir river as the sun set.  A circular Moorish fort still stands guard, its stone work shown off by the narrowing spectrum of light.

Behind this is the opulent Parque de Maria Luisa, stretching on through one variety of horticulture to another and, at its centre, the preposterous Plaza de Espana. A little downstream is the huge Plaza de Toros, one of the oldest bullrings in Spain and only second in stature to the bullring in Madrid. A tour illustrated just how refined and steeped in history this much derided blood sport is. Along with the inherent savagery comes tradition, skill and bravery. I left with a desire to witness it in the flesh (so to speak). Next time.

So many remnants of rich and, depending upon your perspective, glorious times. It gets me to thinking of what our times will leave behind. We are richer than any other time in history (in an absolute if not always a relative sense), but what grand public structures and parks will we leave behind to startle and confound those centuries henceforth? I suspect a disappointing number. Canary Wharf definitely does not count.

ONWARDS AND OUT

Seville really is a wonderful city. Alongside its clear aesthetic attributes, most of all I was captured by the charm off its people. From the friendly waiter who late on our first night warmly welcomed into his restaurant two tired parents with two even more tired tiny children, to ice-cream sellers who wanted our life story. Great, engaging people.
I was sad to move on, but move on we did via some very confused driving through the confounding one way system of the old town and an emergency U-turn on a main thoroughfare. Bring on Cordoba!

Friday, June 28, 2013

Al Andalus – Ronda


Quickly brushing past the ugly over-development of the Cost del Sol we climbed up and over the coastal hills to the spectacular town of Ronda. Having put some significant elevation between us and the coast, the warmth of the Med was lost to a bitterly cold chill. Nonetheless we locked down the little ones in the pram and went to explore.  
 
Ronda is famous for having the oldest bullring in Spain. Dating from 1784, it is small but perfectly formed. A whitewashed round, topped by terracotta.  Fittingly, we feasted on oxtail at the neighbouring Pedro Romero, in the company of mounted bull heads and memorabilia of famous fights and fighters.
Ronda has its fair share of picturesque medieval cobbled streets, mansions and churches, but what makes it stand out is its simply ridiculous setting. The town steadily rises from the high plain before unexpectedly giving way to sheer cliffs. Beyond, the rugged, striking countryside stretches out for miles to wide ridges which hem in the wider high valley.  A feast for the eyes and, in our case, the senses, as we were buffeted by winds so strong that all but a trace of my exhilarated shrieks were drowned out of existence.  
 
To cap it all off, the town is sundered in two by a deep canyon which cracks open the cliffs and strafes its way back and forth into the land behind. This geological rift is crossed by an oft-photographed medieval bridge which, as Christina will verify, is exceptional in its vertigo prompting qualities as well as its ingenuity.

Sad to leave, we jumped back in the wagon and headed North-West. Past the edge of the valley the winding mountain roads slowly straightened, leading on to an odd hilly terrain with undulations which resembled a rolling ocean. A bit further and the land ironed out into the plains of Seville, our next destination.

Thursday, March 28, 2013

Al Andalus - Gibraltar

Having swept across the Maghreb, the Moors invaded the Hispanic peninsular in the early 8th century and were not expelled until the death of the 16th century. They brought with them a high culture and drive which conquered the whole peninsular, culminating in a civilisation which put Western Europe of the dark ages to shame. Even as the years waned and their power and territory diminished, they left an indelible mark on Spain. From architecture to the nation forming catalyst of the Reconquista which it took to drive them out. In the tongue of the Moors their land was Al Andalus. Today  the southern-most province of Spain retains a bastardised version of that identity. Andalusia: the heart and longest enduring part of Moorish power in Europe.

Grand historic cities, mountains and beaches, there is so much to explore. A perfect place for a road trip and where better to start then the very place where the Moors are said to have first invaded, Jebel Tariq or, in common parlance, Gibraltar.

JEBEL TARIQ

Jebel Tariq literally means Tariq’s mountain and in geographical terms that pretty much sums up Gibraltar, the “Rock”.  Pre modern land recovery from the sea this place of such rich history and political sensitivity was little more than a ridge of mountainous limestone jutting out from the mainland into a confluence of sea and ocean. A small dot on the map, barely 2.5 miles long and 1 mile wide, yet dramatic.
 
Flying in on a clear February day it could not be missed jutting out of the landscape. What also was unavoidable was the precarious nature of the runway. To overcome the limitations of such a small space the runway has been literally built into the sea, extending out into the bay from the narrow isthmus which links Spain to Gibraltar. Not a landing for the faint hearted, sweeping around the mass of the rock, banking hard and touching down within meters of the waves. Great fun. Plus, Niko got to sit in the pilot’s seat with the captain’s hat on (and I got to use my son as an excuse for entering an active cockpit for the first time)!

Leaving the airport there are two simple choices. Right to the grimy over-grown Spanish border town of La Linea or left across the runway to Gibraltar town. Yes, I did just write “across the runway”. How many other international airports have a road running across it? A place you definitely do not run a red light.

THE TOWN

Before arriving I had plenty of expectations of the Rock, but little of the town. It is a distinctively strange place. As with other far flung British Overseas territories it shares the odd sight of traditionally British objects basking in beautiful weather, but looking beyond the red telephone boxes, bobbies on the beat and ye olde pubs there are more interesting things to discover.
 
Passing through some impressive battlements you enter a pleasant central square with, as always, the Rock as an imposing backdrop. From here runs a high street which reminded me of some poor Southern town, possibly Farnborough.  Not what I expected from this famed tax haven. All the standard British high street fare with an extra splattering of budget shops. Winding Rock-side of this street are a number of narrow roads ascending back and forth up the hill. This is where we were staying amongst a mixture of quite impressive colonial architecture and a surprising number of derelict buildings. Every so often you would see the plaque of some big company on an ordinary looking building denoting a place of efficient tax planning…

To the sea side of the main street lie some more impressive fortifications and then a mis-match of old Naval dockyard, snazzy new marina and working port. A place still very much in transition. In the past Gibraltar was fundamentally a military asset, dominated by all things naval. As times and technology has changed, so has the need for this asset. Over the past 30 years Gibraltar has thrown its stock in as a tax haven, luring in money and high net worth individuals and the shiny new things they require. In 30 more years I fear the harbour may be nothing but characterless glass buildings, but for now it lives in a strange limbo between these worlds not altogether satisfactorily.

I wonder how the human dynamics of this change will play out. The cheap British high street reflects the low wages of the true locals (the only supermarket is a Morrison). What can be done to stop them being priced out, while still making the place attractive to the super-rich individuals and companies who pay the bills? I do not have an answer.
 
One thing for sure is it has a rich and long history. At no point was this better illustrated to me than during a visit to the historic graveyard on the edge of the old city walls. A place of green serenity where generations of those who passed, and in some cases gave, their lives to Gibraltar lie in rest. One particular grave sticks in my mind. That of a 20 year old sailor who, like his admiral, died of wounds taken at the Battle of Trafalgar.  

THE ROCK


While the town is definitely worth a wander, the Rock is the reason to come to Gibraltar and we had a full day devoted to it. Reached by cable car or paved road, it rises 400m above the harbour and takes up by far the majority of the territory. We took the cable car. As you rise the views get better and better. At first the Bay of Gibraltar, curving around to the west. Then, as you rise high above the town, Africa  dominates to the south. I never realised just how narrow the straits were. Within easy sight the coast of Morocco rises out of the joining of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic. Behind the snow-capped Atlas mountains set off the scene.
 
While I don’t wish to dim the magnificence of this vista, it would be amiss to leave out the blot on the landscape. As ever it seems with Gibraltar, international politics leaves its mark. The Spanish chose to litter the potentially very beautiful Bay of Gibraltar with heavy industry. I don’t know if this was Franco’s revenge for the British refusing to depart their small but influential foothold on the Hispanic peninsular, but one way or another a bloody good job has been done of making the bay look like some nightmare over-industrialised bit of China. All smoke spitting chimneys and monster port machines. Fortunately this is less than a fifth of the view from the top.
 
We jumped off the cable car to grab some more of the view, mistakenly thinking we were at the mid-way change over station showed on the map.  While captivated by the far-off African hills we had one of those so nearly nightmare moments which end up mildly comic. While holding Niko, our older kid, pointing out the horizon, a woman from above gave a shriek. We spun round and saw to our shock a mid-sized hairy animal pawing at our very little one’s pram. After swiftly discarding my immediate thought of dog, the shape proved to be a monkey and not just any monkey. The big alpha male Barbary ape of the cable station family was frighteningly close to a very personal interaction with my 6 month old. Just in time we chased him a few steps away with a shout and a stern look. Alexi hadn’t even noticed, but the bites another clueless tourist received that same day from another monkey proved that it was a close shave.
There are a few hundred of these monkeys living in family groups on the rock. They are the only semi-wild monkeys in Europe. While many stories abound of their origin, the most likely is they came across with sailors from North Africa. I am a lover of wildlife, but these are sinister little creatures. Cunning, manipulative and opportunistic. I have disliked them ever since as a 19 year old a whole pack of them chased my ex-girlfriend and me through a patch of rainforest in Borneo, all gnashing teeth, screams and puffed up chests. When the park warden heard he nearly pissed himself laughing. It is all a power game with macaques. If you stand up to them they will usually back down. If you show a hint of fear, they will pounce on it. In Borneo, the ex ran and I had little choice but to follow. Another story, another time. Now I stared down the shits while Niko stared, smiled and tried to chase them. Be scared little monkeys, be very afraid!
 
From the viewing platform and the high path which runs near to the ridge of the Rock the views just keep on coming. The shallow port industry aside, Andalusia is a beautiful sight. Sweeping bays backed by rolling hills. To the east slopes rise sharply to the snow-capped mountain of the Sierra Nevada. To the Mediterranean side, the Rock falls away in 400m sheer cliffs. Below, the sea opens up and on the near side is dotted by dozens of ships. On close inspection and perspective realisation it becomes clear that these ships are huge. Mega oil tankers sheltering in the protection of the rock while saving on port expenses that would be levied on the other side. I have never seen so many giant ships together. To the south the eye is always drawn to Africa.

The top of the Rock is a nature reserve, acting as the lungs of the territory. We had a great day meandering back and forth along the path which at first follows the crest of the south and then criss-crosses back down to the town. Surprisingly green and very peaceful, it is a great place to soak in the sunshine and views.

Towards the southern end of the Rock a couple of openings, more aggressive monkeys and a large number of Chinese tourists sign-post St Michael’s cave. Over countless thousands of years rainwater has percolated down through the limestone carving out gigantic caverns and tunnels in the heart of the mountain. Simply massive stalactites and stalagmites abound. We only saw the opening couple of hundred meters, but it was very impressive. From the remains of Neanderthal man, to a make shift WWII military hospital, man has used this cave system as a place of shelter for millennia. I wanted to explore more as further openings lured me, but that will have to wait for another day. The cave system apparently goes on for kilometres, burrowing ever deeper into the earth.

TERRITORIAL IDENTITY?

Cutting back along the side of the steep hill, the path eventually reaches another sub-terranean system at the very northern tip of the Rock. These tunnels are though not a natural phenomenon. Gibraltar is a veritable rabbit warren of military tunnels. Some 70 km or so wind their way this way and that into the limestone. The Rock itself was a living fortress.
 
Only very limited sections are open to the public and we ventured into one of the oldest sections. Originally dug out during the Great Siege (Spain and France laid siege to Gibraltar for over 3 and half years up to the spring of 1783) and later extended, a tunnel was dug out a few meters inside the steep north face, punctured by gun emplacements facing Spain. Achieved through engineering ingenuity and desperately hard labour, these defences helped defeat the siege. The commander of the Spanish troops likened it to a feat of the Romans. Looking out through the centuries old gun holes at La Linea, the historic strength and vulnerability of Gibraltar is clear. Yes, a fortress, but one surrounded by potential foes.

Today thankfully neighbourly relations are much more warm. Many Spaniards work in Gibraltar, Gibraltese regularly escape their small chunk of land for Spain and the border crossing is free flowing. The way it should be. This does not though mean that there is a comfortable long term equilibrium. Far from relinquishing its claim, Spain actively seeks unification with Gibraltar.

Before arriving I was not sure what to think of this. One part of me thinks that in a modern Europe such things are becoming increasingly meaningless. In a union should not antagonistic borders be left to history? I can’t deny another part of me instinctively supports a British claim. Long-bred nationalism is hard to shed. Facing up to my own biases, I seek conclusions in what the people want.

But who are the people? That is perhaps the facet of Gibraltar which most surprised me. I came half expecting a mix of sun-seeking Brits and rich tax evading foreigners. While both these groups may be present, the majority have their own identity. This is most evident in the language, where locals flip between Spanish and English mid-sentence. They are bilingual and multicultural. They have a pride in their community forged over centuries in this necessarily odd and geographically constrained patch of earth they inhabit.

In referendum after referendum the locals choose the status quo. Even when in 2002 the UK tacitly backed a deal to give Gibraltar joint sovereignty with Spain, 98.5 per cent of the electorate resoundingly rejected it. Before visiting I would have viewed this as at its heart a vote to stay British. Now I see it more as a vote to stay Gibraltese. Through a quirk of history this small chunk of rock has developed its own unique character, identity and community since its capture in 1704. While it may suit the UK and Spain to come to one agreement or another over the future of Gibraltar I would far prefer that the people choose. If they choose the slightly anachronistic status quo then good luck to them.


ACROSS THE BORDER AND ONWARDS...

Feeling like a pack-horse loaded to the hilt, I crossed the border on foot with Chris and the boys. On to Spain and  more of Al Andalus. Next stop... Seville.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Mont Blanc Reminder

A sensation brimming full of exhilaration and life. Rarely felt, but instantly linking in with all such times encountered before. It is that moment when you draw in a long breath of chilled mountain air, the snow-strewn slopes pouring away before you, jagged white peaks rising in front. Vitally, the adrenaline and sheer enjoyment of a couple of good runs has flushed out the edgy hangover which promised to ruin your day. The headache melts away. You are metaphorically and geographically on top of the world.
 
Hyperbole perhaps, but if you’ve been lucky enough to have experienced that sensation, you will know exactly what I mean. The key to it is the flip from feeling terrible to phenomenal in a short space of time, co-mingled with an adventure sport buzz and the humbling majesty of the surroundings.
 
Perched near the top of Mont Joux in the French Alps, I recently had such a moment. The backdrop provided by the expanive west face of Mont Blanc rising above the mists into an azul blue sky. Not bad at all. A stark reminder of why I am addicted to seeing the world. My reaction? Book a hell of a lot of holidays and get back to some proper travel. Hopefully I will have lots more to write about soon...