Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Not a whimper

In Spain you're either for Real Madrid or for Barça. In Valencia, in Alicante, there is an identification with the Catalans but here in Ciudad Rodrigo the majority are for Real. So although Barça beat Manchester United 2-0 in Rome a few minutes ago there are no cars going by full of flag waving fans. It's all quiet.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Any ideas?

Why did this bunch of people just walk down our street singing and playing the drum, flutes and castanets?

They laughed, and stopped, when they saw my camera.

European voting

We got our postal voting papers this morning. Two envelopes, one to the polling station the other in which to enclose the vote, a certificate to prove to the polling station that we are registered voters and about 40 slips with the list of candidates for each of the parties standing.

The Spanish system is that each party prepares a list of its candidates. They put their key candidate at the top of the list and so on down to something like their 49th choice. Dependant on what percentage, if any, of the vote they achieve then their candidates go forward as MEPs for Spain.

I haven't been through all the lists but there are some odd ones, The Falange - the old state Fascist party, the Communists, The National Front and The Greens are there as are all the separatist movements, the Feminist Alliance and the parties that will actually get most candidates elected - The Partido Popular ("Conservatives") and the Partido Socialista Obrero Español ("Labour").

Not quite as exciting as turning up and putting our envelopes in the ballot box but participation nonetheless.

More on Paul

I wasn't there, just outside the Cathedral in Ciudad Rodrigo last Wednesday, to see Paul beheaded. But fortunately my spy was.

It looks so realistic. Can you believe that they were inviting anyone with their own pair of sandals to turn up to be in the crowd scene? The production values are right up there with the Stainland Amateur Players.

More information about filmaking in Ciudad Rodrigo from the post of 19 May.

Sunday, 24 May 2009


I've always liked bookshops. They have a nice sort of smell. Bookshops with a stationery section are even better - so many useful things and so colourful too.

In general though I avoid going into Spanish bookshops. They are a commonplace sort of shop but they are dangerous places best avoided.

The books are usually piled up, literally, with no order that I can ever discern. Sometimes there are thematic sections but their disposition in the shops seem to be quite random. In a bookshop yesterday I noticed that the children's section was next to accountancy. There was no subdivision of the section either - everything for children lumped in together - no alphabetisation, no division between literature and factual books, no age banding.

In Corte Inglés, the big department store, there is always a book section. I had a title in mind but I couldn't find it so I plucked up my courage and asked. The assistant took me from stand to stand searching for the book and in fact came up with two examples. It turned out that the books were arranged by publishers!

In fnac, which is by far and away the best organised bookshop I've been to in Spain, the assistant looked up the title we wanted on the computer system and then we headed off, with her, to get the book. We went to the section indicated in the catalogue, it wasn't there, she rechecked the computer, we went back to the section and indeed to two more sections before she found our book.

It's not this bizarre organisation that makes the shops difficult though. The main problem is that it is often impossible to browse the books because they are piled onto shelves behind the shop counter. You have to ask for whatever you want. This is fine if you want something specific but if you want to see what birding books they have and how much they are you find yourself in the tricky position of having to look through the books under the watchful eye of the shop person.

And to price. Often prices are marked on books but not always. Prices vary from publisher to publisher and it's easy to pay three times as much as you need to for a "classic" book unless you compare the various editions. And books are pretty expensive; there is legislation to stop discounting of books by more than 5% below the publisher's price so it's pretty common to pay 25€ for a paperback novel in the bestseller list. I picked up a book yesterday, it was unpriced, it was a collection of articles by a newspaper journalist but it was piled on top of some accountancy books. The book was reprinted in 2008, it's a soft cover book with 992 pages. It had no price so I asked. It cost 39.50€. I checked today, it's the same price on the Internet and, because of the rule about discounting, internet books actually cost more because of the postage and packing. I've heard that's the reason there is no

I presume there are well organised, modern bookshops in Spain but our paths seem destined never to cross.

An odd thing

Gypsies are not held in very high regard in Spain.

I often hold the door for people or I wait for them to pass. My mother would withhold my pocket money if I didn't! It's what we older Brits do. Very seldom does anyone here in Spain nod or mouth a thank-you as a result. They are usually chatting to someone trailing in their wake so they do not register the open door or the clear passage. Doors regularly slam in my face or my passage is blocked because a Spanish person simply fails to notice me. It's not a big deal. It's how things works here but it is noticeable as a difference.

Today my car was blocked in. A man rushed to move his car and apologised. On the other side of the car, as I waited, I closed my car door to let a man get into his van, he thanked me.

Both men were Gypsies.

Friday, 22 May 2009

The War of Independence

The King's Shropshire Light Infantry were here in town last month to lay a wreath at the tomb of Major General Robert Craufurd. He died, leading from the front, when Wellington's troops stormed Ciudad Rodrigo on 19 January 1812.

When Alan Crawford was here earlier this week we went to the Portuguese town of Almeida which, like Ciudad Rodrigo, has substantial fortifications. Almeida was besieged, and taken, by the French in 1810 as they chased the British back to Torres Vedras near Lisbon.

In Fuentes de Oñoro, we tried to buy bread, but in May 1811 nearly 4,000 troops died there as the French attempted to advance back into Portugal from their base in Ciudad Rodrigo. They had been back in Spain sprucing themselves up after taking a bit of a pasting flinging themselves against those defences at Torres Vedras.

These various jaunts made me realise that I didn't really know much about the Peninsular War, as we Brits call it, or the War of Independence as the Spanish call it. So here is my cut down version for anyone who is interested.

In 1808 Napoleon was master of Europe. Well most of it. A shortish, sea going chap with multiple disabilities called Nelson had rather upset the Little Corporal's ambitions to conquer Britain by obliterating the combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar. Napoleon, peeved I suppose, tried to stop British goods from entering Europe but with the Portuguese ports still open that plan wasn't going well either. Taking advantage of a power struggle within the Spanish Royal Family Napoleon moved 100,000 French Troops into Spain on the pretext of invading Portugal. He used the leverage an army gives you to install his brother on the Spanish throne. The Spanish didn't like this much and they revolted.

The British had been biding their time but with a new Spanish ally and with commitments to the Portuguese they now sent Sir Arthur Wellesley to Portugal. After a couple of opening battles Wellesley dug in at Vimeiro Hill. The French attacked but the British infantry line held. It was the first time that the French tactics had failed. It was enough to persuade the French to evacuate Portugal as part of a controversial agreement that saw Wellesley have to return to England to clear his name. This left Sir John Moore in command of 30,000 British troops in Portugal.

When the Spanish army had an unexpected and remarkable victory over the French at Bailén Napoleon decided it was time to get involved personally. He brought 200,000 battle hardened veterans with him. Moore slipped over the border into Spain to engage Napoleon's army near Burgos. Moore bolted for La Coruña when the French turned to fight. He lost a lot of men on the way but the Royal Navy was there to pull them out when they reached the coast. Moore was killed in the evacuation. Napoleon left Spain.

Wellesley was now back in Portugal. He beat the French at Porto and headed for Spain where he joined up with Spanish troops. The French attacked the allied force at Talavera but the British-Portuguese-Spanish lines held. With French reinforcements on the way Wellesley decided to fall back. He hurried all the way to Lisbon where he dug in so deep at Torres Vedras that when the French finally got there, having smashed a couple of Spanish armies on the way, they couldn't get to him. Wellesley was doing well and was now Viscount Wellington of Talavera.

In 1811 the war ebbed and flowed but it was the French who were on the defensive now though Wellington did not advance into Spain until the beginning of 1812. His first target was Ciudad Rodrigo which he took in just two days. He moved on to Badajoz and took that too. In both towns the British troops went beserk for a few days in an orgy of killing, raping and looting.

Wellington's work was made easier because the French were having a lot of trouble with the Spanish who would not fight fair. They were shadowing French forces all over the country taking pot shots and then running away, poisoning water supplies and generally being a nuisance. It was a little war – guerrilla - in Spanish.

Wellington took Salamanca, then Madrid but he backtracked as the French massed a large army against him. Meanwhile things weren't going well for Napleon in Russia. As his broken army retreated old enemies rose against him. Napoleon couldn't spare extra troops for Spain.

By May 1813,Wellington was on the move and heading towards Burgos. When the French dug in near the Zadorra River they were soundly thrashed at the battle of Vitoria.

And that was more or less it. The victory at Vitoria rallied the anti Napoleon forces in the East. By July Wellington was at the Pyrenees, by October he was in France and in March 1814 Paris fell. In April Napoleon abdicated and the Penninsular War was over.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Ciudad Rodrigowood

Ciudad Rodrigo is in the midst of a filming frenzy. There are more film makers here than bearded Brits with sensible headwear.

A film called Pablo de Tarso (Paul of Tarsus, the misogynist Biblical, burning bush chappie*) is being filmed around the town by a local film company throughout May. To add to the fun the state TV broadcaster, RTVE, sent a team to do a report about making that film a couple of weeks ago.

So this Monday Mr Crawford and I were in town to have a coffee in the main square. We came across a film crew outside one of the local bars. The people who were being filmed were dressed up as ramblers complete with boots, sticks and rucsacks. Knowledgeably I explained that the film being shot in the town was some sort of costume drama (I didn't know it was about Paul till I checked a local website) so all I could surmise was that the film must be using flashbacks along with the historical component to tell its story. You know the sort of thing - "Down here!, here's the shoemaker where Wellington had his first pair of boots made up," shouts the man in the Helly Hanson - cut to a picture of the Iron Duke, wearing wellis and staring manfully into the distance, astride a big white horse.

But, despite a lot of Googling, there is no reference in the Pablo de Tarso schedule to anything other than Roman scenes so I have no idea why or what the film crew were doing today other than yelling "Action" and "Cut" in strong Spanish accents.

*Bob Filby made a comment to say that he thought the burning bush was Moses not Paul and, after exhaustive research, well I asked Maggie, that should read "Paul of Tarsus, the misogynist Biblical, blinding light chappie."

Sunday, 17 May 2009

Harassing and knocking down

Acoso y derribo means exactly what the post title says. Two blokes with pointed lances riding on horses chase a cow down a field. Once the cow crosses a line, marked with flags, the two horseriders try to knock the cow over as many times as possible by sticking the lance into its haunches before it crosses another line a couple of hundred metres further on.

We, that's my friend Alan Crawford and I, went to an Acoso y Deribo event in Lumbrales. Whilst it wasn't exactly sickening it wasn't heartwarming either and I can't say that it particularly stirred my blood as a spectacle. Now, when we got a beer and a pinchito at the beer stall (I decided it would be a while before I had to drive today), that was definitely both heartwarming and exciting. Much more fun.


Righting a wrong

In several of the blog entries I have made passing mention of tourist offices in the various towns we visit. Usually I complain that they are closed at exactly the times when there are likely to be visitors about - weekends, fiesta time, public holidays etc.

In Ciudad Rodrigo we have three tourist offices. Two are run by the Town Hall and one is run by the regional government of Castilla y Leon. As we went to the pictures last Sunday we passed the Castilla y Leon office at about 8.0pm and it was very definitely open.

They are now on summer opening hours. Good job.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

San Isidro Labrador

San Isidro is the Patron saint of fieldworkers. The day proper was yesterday but there are lots of events going on over this weekend to celebrate. I left the flu riddled Maggie for a little while to go and see the Enciero a Caballo (bringing in the bulls using horses) at the bizarrely named Águeda del Caudillo.

It's odd because Caudillo was the name chosen by Franco, like Führer or Il Duce, and most reminders of the days of the Dictator have been removed. Not here though, the main street is called Calle del Generalisimo.

As if to prove how rural it was the stands for spectators were farm and lorry trailers. I stood on the back of one of them and waited for the horses and bulls to go past. I never know what's going on and I never ask for fear of speaking but a little girl next to me asked her dad what was going to happen. He gave her the blandest of answers but she wanted details so he asked the person standing next to him what the routine was and that person didn't know either. I felt much less lost.

Most of it was quite boring really. The horse riders galloped down the main street, hung around a while and galloped back to a field where a few oxen were let loose. The horses chased the oxen around the field until they streamed up the street at a canter. Then they let go a couple of young fighting bulls which the horse riders chased around again. I only saw them successfully surround one of the fighting bulls and move it to the corral at the top of the main street. Actually that was quite good. It looked as though they had it right; the riders with their long lances formed a wall of horse flesh around the bull and moved it to the pen in a very organised looking way.

I had a look at the saddlery stall and the beer tent but, as I was driving, I couldn't have one and that seemed to be the sum of the things to look at. So I drove away. As I left the bulls were still running hither and thither in the field with horses, riders and bull runners doing likewise.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Blessed are the cheesemakers..

And others in dairy produce. This has been Maggie's running quip since I reminded her that it was the 6th Annual International Cheese Festival at Hinjosa del Duero today a village only about 50kms from home.

And International it was. There were Spanish producers, one Swiss producer and lots of Portuguese. In fact despite spending a bundle of money on cheese and wine when we got home we seem only to have bought things produced in Portugal. Everyone was handing out free samples but the Portuguese always spotted our dodgy Spanish accents and broke into very passable English which probably made the difference. We felt honour bound to buy. That and the Portuguese cheese seemed to be a bit cheaper and more to our taste whether it was made from sheep, goat or cow's milk. Lots of the prize winning Spanish cheese we tried was very hard, dry and quite sharp whilst the Portuguese stuff tended to be softer and more savoury.

As well as the country produce (there were things like honey, olive oil and liqueurs) the organisers handed out free plates full of wild boar meat and there was a display of about 20 Classic Cars that had driven in from Salamanca. Remarkably the town museum also stayed open through lunchtime. Now if they'd put some labels on the exhibits in the museum they would have cracked it!

No serial killers in the Post Office

I know that European Elections aren't considered very important - who cares about Strasbourg? But we have the right to vote here in Spain in those elections and it seemed wrong to let it slip by.

We're registered to vote in Culebrón, and as we won't be there on polling day, I popped by the Post Office and got the papers to ask for a postal vote. We went back today to prove our identity and send off the forms. It was pretty obvious that the chap behind the counter had never dealt with the forms before but it all seemed to go smoothly enough in the end.

Oh, and the ad on the telly here has a woman running by the polling booth, terrified, but still voting. A bloke weraring a mask and carrying an axe follows her in to the polling station. I presume it's the same ad in the UK.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Sevilla comes to Ciudad Rodrigo

Well that was the tag line on the posters at least. Horses are definitely a big thing around here but I'm not sure about the dances, the Sevillanas. One of the dancers in the group, the blue and red dress, is the woman that both Maggie and I do an intercambio with - she gets the opportunity to speak a bit of English and we are supposed to do the same in Spanish.

One of the local riding schools was holding a little festival and they invited the city's dance groups to take part, hence the snap.

They were dead unlucky with the weather; we've had days and days of sun and heat but this afternoon it suddenly clouded over and started to spit. Those dancers must have been a bit cold and I had no excuse to drink a thirst quenching beer.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

On football

I was coming back from a class and I heard a roar from the bar close to our flat. Ah, Barcelona - Chelsea I thought. And it has been a nice warm day, mid to high twenties, Maggie is away on a course so a beer seemed in order.

Rafa, the barman, asked me if I was for Chelsea. I suddenly realised that being English tonight might be a bit of a handicap. I must have got the answer right. He gave me a beer on the house. My barber was sitting in the corner of the bar - "Chelsea or Barça?" I mumbled something about Liverpool and Manchester. "I'm for Chelsea" he said, "I'm a Madrid man." Bingo beer number two, well three actually as I'd actually bought one myself. A man came in, he was smoking a big cigar, he leaned on the bar next to me, "Barça are buggered aren't they?" he asked to anyone who would answer. I told him the scoreline. He muttered under his breath as the Barcelona fans shouted at the telly. "Let me get you a beer" he said.

Barça and Manchester United coming soon to a bar near me.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

What a nice woman!

I listen to a free podcast, a Spanish language podcast, produced by a woman called Mercedes León. The themes are pretty diverse - you might guess from some of the (translated) titles - Mum, I'm Gay; We're going to live together; Ecological underwear; On tapas and terraces, Chemical castration and Bloody holidays!

The podcasts are aimed at those of us trying to learn or improve our Spanish. They usually take the form of a conversation, with Mercedes taking all the roles, which she then dissects to explain grammatical points, stylistic use, everyday jargon and the like. Each podcast is nearly half an hour long and they are backed up with a free written transcript. The whole package must take hours to produce.

Anyway, the other day I sent her an email asking if she could weave a particular verb into one of the podcasts; it's a word I hear a lot but one that I can't get a handle on. Not only did I get a 200 word response within 24 hours but she took the time to point out an error in my Spanish - I'd asked if she could weave a word into a podcast and she said that Spanish speakers would not use the verb weave in that context. 

What a nice woman.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Please send a gunboat

It could have been David in Saudi Arabia or it could have been Mary in St Ives but someone told me, many years ago, that in the midst of some internal crisis in the country in which they were living a chap from the British Consulate had popped by their house and put a short note under the door advising them to fill their bath with water.

Being the good citizen that I am I registered with the Consulate when we moved to Spain. You never can tell when you'll need a gunboat after all. And today the director of Consular Services, Iberia sent me an email about Swine Flu full of useful information about how to blow my nose and wash my hands.

Nice to know that Her Britannic Majesty's Government is still looking out for us.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

On museums

Back from our travels and I was writing my diary. I was just about to echo the words I'd used in the last post about wandering around Extremadura and "the Splendid Roman Museum" or more accurately the Museo Nacional de Arte Romano. As I wrote I was thinking forward to how to describe the trip around the monastery at Guadalupe and my pen hovered. In some ways the Roman museum wasn't that good. The building was great, the display was uncluttered, the labelling was relatively informative but there was no context - nothing about the place that art took within Roman society, nothing about artists, nothing about technique, nothing about changing styles over the centuries, no interactive displays, no opportunity to try your hand at something. And the shop was a joke; shops are obviously about making profit for the museums but, alongside the T shirts are the books and DVDs that continue the work of the museum. Not in Mérida they didn't. Not in Spain they don't.

The Monastery tour was much more Spanish. A guide ushered a party of maybe 50 people into some space. She started talking before the last people at the back were in place. She was competing for the Fanny Craddock and Patrick Moore Speed Talking Award. Most explanations consisted of a date, a name and a fact. This crucifix was carved by Michelangelo in 1523. Christopher Columbus received a letter here from Isabel and Ferdinand in 1491 granting him permission to sail to the Indies. Sometimes the facts were interesting enough, did you know, for instance, that one of those illustrated books that monks used to spend their time colouring weighs in at around 70kgs which is why the books are fitted with wheels? But again, no context; nothing about the daily life of a monk, nothing about why they were colouring books or what place the books had within the monastery or a wider context. And why was Cristóbal Colón (that's Columbus to you and me) in Guadalupe anyway?

More than 30 years ago I did a tour around St Peter's in Rome. The story about Michelangelo's work there, on the dome, has stuck with me all this time. In Versailles, in a room a bit short of furniture, the guide made up for it by describing what the room would have contained and why it would have been like that given the social and political setting at the time. Someone who took me around Peterborough Cathedral told me about how the masons worked and left me with something to remind me of that story every time I search for their marks in the stone.

Just in writing this I've realised that, with one possible exception, I've never actually been to a good Spanish museum. Lots of them are fine but in most of them the owners don't really want to give away too much information. The possible exception, that I've come across so far, is the Palm Museum in Elche which has videos of men shinning up palm trees to explain what they did in each season, working models of irrigation systems and lots more in a similar vein. I hope, I'm sure, there are other good ones too. I just haven't found them yet.

A bit of a trip around Extremadura

All of the famous Conquistadores, well the two I know the names of, Cortés and Pizarro, came from the region of Extremadura. The conventional wisdom is that it was such a desolate place that they were willing to do anything to get away. Even today it is one of the poorest regions of Spain but because it's the next region to the South of Ciudad Rodrigo and as we'd never been to the provincial Capital at Badajoz and because we had the "Bank Holiday" weekend we thought we should go and have a nosey.

Everyone had warned us about Badajoz but we had taken no heed. It was as boring as they said. Two hours and we'd had enough. We headed for Mérida, the town that makes its living from the Roman remains. We couldn't find a hotel. This weekend of fun and frolic was turning into a mini disaster. We decided that we may as well come back home. By now we'd driven for some 4½ hours and done over 400kms but we were cross enough to just turn around and head home in the middle of the night. Fortunately for us, about 30kms out of Mérida there was a truck stop café cum hotel and we stayed there in a slightly musty room. The next morning we went back to Mérida to see the splendid Roman Museum and then on to Guadalupe.

The little town of Guadalupe was rather nice. Full of tourists and trinket shops but then we were tourists happy to browse amongst the trinkets in the warm sun. Guadalupe is another of those places where a statue of the Virgin was found under miraculous conditions and where a Monastery was built up around the statue. This one was lucky enough to get Royal Patronage though and Our Lady of Guadalupe became a rallying cry for Spanish armies through the centuries. We joined the 4€ tour of the monastery but the Franciscan monk who was set to show us the statue made it very clear that seeing "Our Lady" had nothing whatsoever to do with the guided tour we'd just had and that if we weren't believers then we should push off pronto. He made the crowd recite something, that they all seemed to know, and then they filed past the statue kissing something that the priest held up for them. We were scared. Maggie had a story ready about her Methodist beliefs and I was frantically trying to put together a workable Spanish translation of the Second Commandment. We hung back and saw the statue from two or three metres away and made good our escape with the last of the believers.

Then we had a beer and we drove home. Just a bit over 850kms all together, there and back.

Saturday, 2 May 2009

Riding along in my automobile

Sometimes, I travelled from Stanground to Pondersbridge in Cambridgeshire. It didn't matter what time of day or night I made that run there were always vehicles on the road. It used to drive me bonkers. I could understand the non stop congestion on the A14, I could understand the 15 mile tailbacks on the M25 but on this tiny back road?

There are plenty of cars and traffic in the cities and towns of Spain but there are huge tracts of this country with hardly a vehicle. The picture was taken at around one in the afternoon on the A5, one of  the key motorways that radiates out from Madrid. 

It's like one of those adverts for cars on the telly - the thrill of the open road; it's all rather nice.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Watching the telly

Last night Maggie and I watched the first episode of a new TV series called La Chica de Ayer. It was a repeat of the programme that we'd missed on Sunday. In this series a Chief Inspector of Police is knocked down by a car and wakes up in the past, in 1977. He finds his colleagues brutal, ill equipped and inefficient. I don't think he's that keen on his orange shirt and leather jacket either.

La Chica de Ayer took over the Sunday evening slot formerly held by a programme called Doctor Mateo. That's about a high flying Madrid surgeon who is scared of blood so he moves to a small and picturesque village on the Asturian coast as the new GP. The village hosts an assortment of "eccentric" characters, the doctor isn't outwardly friendly but we all know he is really and he is soon integrated into the life of the village.

Do they sound familiar? I've never seen Life on Mars but I did see the first few episodes of Doc Martin before I left the UK.

We have all those talent show competitions and variations on things like Strictly Come Dancing, Big Brother, Who Wants to be a Millionaire, Come Dine With Me etc. and I knew about the franchising potential of those type of programmes but I wasn't really aware that there was a trade in the characters and plots of TV shows.

The funny thing is that whilst we were in Culebrón at Easter there was a feature length Doc Martin available through our satellite dish. Because we were enjoying Doctor Mateo so much on Spanish TV we settled down, brandy and wine ready, to chuckle along with the UK version. There was absolutely no doubt about it, we were disappointed, we like Doctor Mateo better!