Monday, 28 May 2012

Getting off...

Eric Newby wrote, “No one really likes to travel by train.” Ordinarily I would disagree with him wholeheartedly, but the local train from Gravelone to Milan one August, Sunday morning was an adventure for some of the passengers on board that they would have rather gone without. As the train pulled into the station I took the huge step from platform to train. And I mean huge; the gap must have been some six inches from platform and a good nine inches up. Considering the average height of the older generations of Italians this presented some difficulty and grandmothers were unceremoniously shoved on board. To add to the difficulties the doors were heavy, making opening and closing them a Herculean task. I was on the old rolling stock this time, the bonus being larger seats.

White and silver shards danced upon the waters as we rounded the edge of Lago Maggiore. The train stopped at every station along the way to Milan. A middle-aged woman had risen in good time for her stop and stood by the door with her suitcase and two large laundry bags ready to disembark. The train clunked to a halt and she tried valiantly to open the door. A gallant man sprung to her aid but the door remained resolutely shut and the train pulled out of the station. First, entreaties were made to the station guard through the windows, but he made no attempt to halt the train; obscenities then stormed back at him as the train picked up speed and the platform slid from view. The lady whipped out her mobile and shouted her tale to the unseen recipient of the call. She moved to the other end of the carriage and waited. As the train jolted to a stop she threw herself bodily at the door which was not stuck as fast as the other. Holding onto the handle she swung out onto the platform and executed a perfect landing. Grabbing her luggage, she threw it onto the platform, fearful that at any moment the train would move away. As we pulled out of the station I watched her harangue the station master; his Mediterranean shrug of indifference had no effect on her as she continued to gesticulate in his face.

The next station was no less exciting. This time an elderly lady attempted to leave the train at her scheduled stop. She managed the not inconsiderable drop from train to platform but her bag did not. The door swung shut trapping the bag inside; its straps were still around the lady’s shoulders. She started to scream. Three men leapt to her assistance and between them they managed to open the door and release the bag before the train got under steam. She was thankful to her helpers, then bore down on the station master who had stood idly by. I would warrant he did not get away very easily. 

I thanked my lucky stars that I would be leaving the train at its terminus, and should be able to make a relatively dignified exit.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

The Beauty of Train Travel - Stations: Budapest Keleti pályaudvar

There are a myriad of reasons to travel by train, not least that one arrives at some of the most interesting and attractive buildings. I do not mean the rather dilapidated and run-down buildings that line the tracks at the approach to the stations, but the stations themselves. As travellers and commuters hurry through the stations I imagine that few notice the wonderful architecture that surrounds them. As an avid train traveller, I've decided to share my views of some of Europe's most beautiful stations. Today is the turn of Budapest Keleti pályaudvar.

I arrived in Budapest in the summer of 2000 having spent the whole night arguing with my travelling companion. I was, therefore, tired and in a far from pleasant frame of mind. Our train shuddered to a halt, the iron and glass dome of the platform roof rising above us. Regardless of my bloodshot eyes and the need to find the departure point of my bus, I noticed the beauty of the station. Constructed between 1881 and 1884 it is the largest of the three stations that serve the city and was designed in the 'eclectic style' as my guide book informed me. It certainly borrows from different architectural styles, and that is part of its charm.

The platform was lined with archways, the lunettes throwing light at us as we made our way to the enormous hall. The hall was dominated by the arch of glass in the middle of which sat the station clock. Tempting as it was to head stright out of the door and to the beds of our hostel, the beauty of the Lotz Hall made us stop. Marble pillars, murals and gold leaf, though a little tired (it has since been given a new lease of life) were a reminder of the heyday of train travel. I could imagine standing in my Victorian finery, a porter behind me with trunks loaded onto his barrow, awaiting the arrival of my train to take me to new lands.

The exterior is no less of a picture. Flanked by buildings of a clotted cream colour the central façade rises majestically above them. Statues of James Watt and George Stephenson stand in their niches as above them the pediment is topped with an allegorical sculpture of transportation.

Budapest's Keleti pu station is a wonderful piece of architecture with which to introduce a city, full of interesting buildings, to its visitors.
Budapest Eastern Railway Station, Lotz-Hall
Author: unrengur; Source: Wikipedia

Saturday, 12 May 2012

Antequera - The heart of AndalucÍa

We approached Antequera from Fuente de Piedra, after a visit to El Refugio del Burrito (the donkey sanctuary). Climbing the hill past modern apartment buiildings and a shopping centre, a visitor new to Antequera could be excused for thinking thay are entering a relatively modern town. It is only when you reach the nineteenth century bullring and the monumental archway do you start to appreciate Antequera's history.

The first corrida was held in the bullring in 1848. Its atmosphere remains, even when empty and viewed from the restaurant that nestles in its walls. It is that side of the town that is the more commercial. There are still houses and apartments from the town's Renaissance and Baroque periods which, when the ornate doors are open, show the havens from the city that are Andalucian courtyards.

The older part of the town houses the Moorish influence of the Alcazaba that stands proud above the town. When I had visited previously, I had used the audio guide (because it was included in the price!)and found it added to the experience. There were no remnants of the original Moorish artwork to see as the complex had been remodelled in the sixteenthe century, but it was definitely worth the visit. The views of the town spreading beneath us made the climb to the top of the fortress worthwhile.

Every time I set foot in Antequera the church of San Sebastian is closed. I have been deprived of its Baroque interior but I have seen the wonderful interior of the Belén church which is attached to a convent. The rather sombre exterrior of the church belies its richly decorated interior.

In 1504, the humanist university of the Real Colegiata de Santa María la Mayor was founded in Antequera. Important writers and scholars of the Spanish Renaissance would meet there including Pedro Espinosa, Luis Martín de la Plaza and Cristobalina Fernández de Alarcón. Outside the church that stands in the grounds of the Alcazaba, in the Plaza des Escribanos, is a statue of Espinosa.

Past the churches and out the other side of the town are the Dolmen caves - neolithic megaliths (not easy to say at the best of times). These small caves are incredible when you consider the basic technologies available to the farmers who created them, thousands of years before the Christian era. The caves line up with the La Peña, a rock formation that looks like a giant head reclined. The whole area arund Antequera is reknowned for natural and neolithic formations including the limestone formations of El Torcal just outside of the town.

On this visit, we lunched at the side of the road and enjoyed hearty sandwiches made from the bread of Antequera: mollete, a soft white bread roll which was toasted. Washed down with chilled white wine it was a perfect lunch for a sunny May day.

Antequera's long and interesting history makes it a super town to visit. From natural, surreal landscapes, to Moorish fortresses and Renaissance churches there is something to satisy all my cravings. It has a lot to offer and I never tire of returning. You never know one day I may time it correctly so I can see inside the church of San Sebastian!

Wednesday, 9 May 2012


I love Málaga, but it is sadly under-rated. Its name is synonymous with the airport destination for drunken Brits who scatter themselves - generally westwards - along the Costa del Sol. But it shouldn't be. Málaga is one of the oldest cities in the world; its culture and history date back to the Phoenicians in the eighth century BC. It is an elegant, vibrant and interesting city.

Málaga has been the home and birthplace of many famous people including Pablo Picasso and Antonio Banderas. It is home to art galleries - Picasso Museum, Carmen Thyssen Museum, CAC - museums and excellent shopping. There is far less of the tacky sombrero souvenir shopping than many expect. From the bus and train stations it is an easy meander to the tree-lined Avenida de Andalucïa and down to the port and the main attractions.

The port has just been refurbished, finishing touches are still being added to the 'Palmeral de las Sorpresas', a palm filled garden that runs along Wharf 2, with children's playground and quiet seating areas. The wharf takes you to the bars and restaurants, the lighthouse and, further round, the chiringuito-lined beaches. It is a pleasant place to sit - the sea on the one hand, skyline of the city on the other.

The skyline reflects Málaga's long and diverse history. Renaissance and Art-Deco buildings sit opposite the Paseo del Parque - a palm-shaded avenue that runs parallel to the port with botanical garden and quiet fountains. The walls of the Moorish palace Alcazaba, wind up towards the Castel Gibralfaro on top of the hill. The walk to the castle offers views across the city, and the port towards Africa. You can peek into the bullring from on high, as you rest against the bouganvillia lined walls. At the base of the Alcazaba is the Roman Theatre from where buildings of the sixteenth to twentieth centuries subtly blend as you wend through cool narrow streets to the Cathedral. The Cathedral’s soaring, dark interior with fine sculptures and intricately carved choir stall is inspiring.

I could go on listing the marvels of Málaga, but the best thing to do is to experience it for yourself. I want people to recognise the city of Málaga for what it is - beautiful, interesting, lively - one of the best places to visit in Andalucía.

Monday, 7 May 2012

Acebuchal - pueblo de fantasma

Acebuchal sits high in the hills of the Sierras Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama  between Competa and Frigiliana. It is the Pueblo el Fantasma (ghost village), a village abandoned for nearly fifty years that has quietly returned from the other side. Franco prevented the villagers from staying in their homes at night; he wanted the land clear for his private army to clear the rebels from the mountains. In 1949, Acebuchal was abandoned. In 1998, Antonio ‘el Zumbo’ returned with his wife and family to the home of his ancestors. Acebuchal breathes again.

Sunday morning and we were climbing the mountain track from Cómpeta. Fording the clear mountain stream we rose between the pine trees warming in the early May sun. The scent evoked memories of childhood holidays where Spanish playgrounds were always surrounded by pines, the carpet of dusty needles our soft landing. This is the smell of Spain I recognise.

Snuggled amongst the trees and alpine flowers the white village is no longer inhabited by ghosts; no longer abandoned. After almost 50 years of loneliness Acebuchal is being restored. With holiday lets, resident families and its compact chapel, very few of the buildings remain roofless. White-washed buildings cosy up to the winding cobbled lanes. Splashes of colour from doors, shutters and flower-pots break the monotony of white.
In the bar/restaurant, Antonio serves up local food: wild boar from the mountainside, vegetables from his plot and his own doughy bread. Inside his tienda, shop, he offers ‘dulce vino, diez años’. The wine is thick, sweet with the flavour of juicy squashed raisins.

Republican rebels no longer hide in the mountains; the Guardia Civil now police, not wage war. Franco is dead; Acebuchal lives again.

Saturday, 5 May 2012

The Beauty of Train Travel - Stations

There are a myriad of reasons to travel by train, not least that one arrives at some of the most interesting and attractive buildings. I do not mean the rather dilapidated and run-down buildings that line the tracks at the approach to the stations, but the stations themselves. As travellers and commuters hurry through the stations I imagine that few notice the wonderful architecture that surrounds them. As an avid train traveller, I've decided to share my views of some of Europe's most beautiful stations. Today is the turn of Milan.

Milan Central Station is a grand, airy building that was inaugurated in 1931. As one of the main rail termini in Europe, the opening of the Simplon Tunnel in 1906 increased the level of traffic to such an extent that the old transit station could no longer cope. A station capable of dealing with the flow of trains and befitting of Italy was required. Mussolini saw the opportunity to create a symbol of his fascist regime that could not be ignored. The original plans were cast aside for a much grander affair. The resulting station is an elegant and expansive edifice; a mix of architectural styles with Art Deco influences very apparent. Wide stairs and escalators move you from one side of the station to the next. Walls are adorned with sculptures and other decoration evoking the Roman empire. I relished the echo my footsteps made on the marble floor beneath the domed ceilings. Winged horses adorn the exterior façade that dominates the Piazza Duca d'Aosta. It is an extravagant statement of a power since lost, but an incredibly beautiful building nonetheless.
Milan Central Station
Source: Flickr, Author: Patrick Denker, 2007

N.B. Considerable refurbishment works have been undertaken since my last visit.

Friday, 4 May 2012

The Piazza Navona, Rome

My first view of  the Piazza Navona was the Fountain of the Four Rivers. 

It was there that my love affair began. In front of me was the most incredible piece of sculpture I had ever seen. The almost ubiquitous obelisk rose out of the centre, but at its base were sculptures of such beauty and power that I was awe-struck.

Four men, river gods, their perfectly proportioned, magnificent musculature made my fingers tingle. I wanted to trace my hands across their torsos, run my fingers through their hair; they almost breathed. Four figures frozen in a moment, their size telling me that these were not mortal men of flesh but gods created by human hand - Bernini’s hands; hands that turned cold marble into warm flesh.

Ganges, the river of Asia, held in his strong left hand an oar, representing his navigability; his body twisted as his right arm, biceps and triceps bulging, rested on the travertine rock beneath which the water poured into the fountain’s basin. Danube, his curly long beard cascading onto his chest, faced inwards, his hand touching the papal coat of arms. The creases in his stomach as he leant back and turned slightly gave him a softness that contrasted to his muscular strength. Between Danube and Plata, a horse emerged from the creviced rock, mane flowing and forelegs raised as, nostrils flaring, it plunged through the water. Above the horse a snake slithered towards Plata who recoiled in fear, hand raised, fingers splayed. Plata’s veins bulged with increased blood flow from the fear, his toes gripped the rock. I found him singularly unattractive, with huge ears and snub nose. From besidse Danube, Plata looked as if he was about to slip from the pile of coins upon which he sat, the coins symbolic of the riches of the Americas. From the other side he was firmly sat on his coins defending his riches from the snake – symbolic of the fear of rich men of losing their wealth. And then there was Nile. Nile’s head was covered, his body ripped with muscles. Africa’s representative demonstrated his power and potency and the mystery of his source. He sat next to a plam tree beneath which a lion crouched ready to attack. Each river god and animal had movement, life and power within it. Bernini’s hands had changed the hard, inflexible material so that it appeared supple, soft and graceful.

This was going to be an enduring love affair.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

A Mixed Bag of Learning

My reading material is a bit of a mixed bag at the moment. I am preparing for my Masters that starts in the autumn and have been getting to grips with the reading list. The novels I need to read, so far they have not created a problem. I have been introduced to J.M. Coetzee, renewed my acquaintance with the 'Wide Sargasso Sea' and 'Jane Eyre'. Soon I shall be bumping into 'Robinson Crusoe' again, and 'Antigone' in a couple of disguises. I am going to circle the room for as long as possible before I have no alternative but to nod politely in Coriolanus' direction and then beat a hasty retreat. It is possible I may take to him a little more at this meeting...but I doubt it.

It hasn't been out and out pleasure. I've been forced into the company of the boffins that stand in the corner exerting their influence over all present. I've always thought of them as party-poopers, whose only reason for existence is to tear apart my favourite books and stick them back together in a form I do not recognise. I used to snatch my book back, cry over it's lost form and innocence and leave it on the floor, pages flipping back and forth in the icy breeze that would fill the room.

I've had to look into the eyes of these 'violators' and step into their theories. I still have the urge to give some of them a jolly good slap (OK, most of them), to try and shake them free from their absorption and obsession. In the past I wanted to shout in their faces, "Leave my beloved books alone. Let me read into them whatever I want to, and if that is nothing, just a good story, without hidden meanings, then let me!" But, and here's the rub, I've learned something from them.

Let me begin at the beginning, 'Beginning Theory' in fact; it is a little soiree with the critics. I've kicked at, muttered obscenities at, and been an ungracious guest to the exponents of Structuralism, Post-structuralism and Modernism. I've flirted a little with the Psychoanalytic critics (I have a soft spot for Freud, make of that what you will). I've been polite to the Feminist, gay/lesbian and post-colonial bods; I can see they have a point. Individually, they're still a little infuriating, but as a group they are interesting, almost entertaining. From the Structuralists I've learned about the paradigmatic chain, something most of us instinctively know but, in my case certainly, did not necessarily consider when reading. I've indulged in discussion with Barthes about the independence of literary text, the point at which he went beyond structuralism and became 'post'. For the record I think he is half-right. Where I really clicked was when discussing Stylistics, when Ronald Carter made me understand collocation.

Collocation refers to an expected co-occurrence of words, words that are often, habitually found inhabiting the same space. British TV viewers of the 1980s and 90s, cast your mind back to those early Saturday evening shows of 'Blankety Blank', where the contestants had to fill in the blank (or blanks) and find the most common occurence of a phrase or group of words. For example,


Would the contestant choose 'cat', 'hat', or 'notch' to fill the blank, or some obscure word that saw them bomb out? What they were playing was actually the 'Collocation Game', not quite such a snappy title and not as easy to put a repetitive jingle to, but that is what is was. As Carter informed me, poetry often breaks these 'habitual patterns' and joins together words rarely, if ever, seen in each other's company. And then it clicked, I'm reading this in action, now, in a book where collocation is given its marching orders...'The Book Thief'.

As I read 'The Book Thief' in those twenty minutes every night before I go to sleep, I have been taken by Marcus Zusak's unusual and interesting use of verbs. (I have an excited bubbling in my tummy just thinking about it.) He takes verbs that are habitually applied to living things and pairs them with inanimate objects, and vice versa. He does the same thing with adjectives, pairing them with what would seem to be disparate nouns. It works. It makes the whole read, as does the concept of the book of course, intriguing and dynamic.

I liked 'The Book Thief' before I knew the name of the 'rule' that the author had so spectacularly and successfully broken.  Sad as it may sound to some, now knowing the technical terminology has increased that pleasure. That may seem to fly in the face of my earlier comments but the point is I recognised the dismissal of collocation without having to dig for it. I did not have to pull the book apart, shred sentences, ignore other aspects of the writing because they do not fit neatly into a specific theory shaped hole. My enjoyment of the book has been in no way diminished by over-analysis, BUT now I understand better.

I do have a Masters to start and finish, and I will have to 'bring a range of relevant theoretical approaches to literary texts' as my course description informs me. But that is OK, because I think I am maturing (finally!); I think I may be able to rub shoulders with these theoretical boffins without resorting to infantile behaviour and you never know, I may be able to find pleasure in them.

Paradigmatic chain  - a chain of related words, for example, hovel, hut, house, mansion, palace. Remove one from the chain and the definition of the others would have to change to accommodate its removal.
Roland Barthes, 'Death of the Author'
My Masters course is with the Open University

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