Friday 29 November 2013

A month in books - November

Can you believe we have been 'on the road' for a month already? We set out to Bosham on the 29th of October and it's now the same date in November. One of five months gone ... but still four months left so that's ok!
As there's not a lot to do of an evening once the sun has set, I have certainly been getting through a lot of books. If you're friend on Facebook or Twitter you might already have spotted these reviews being posted in real time. If not, or in case some were missed, I thought I'd do a recap post of my sixteen reads so far. Here goes ...

(The title links go to their respective Amazon pages.)

Magenta Shaman by Lily Childs *** I enjoyed what there was of this novella but thought it felt like the beginning of a story, rather than a complete work in itself. I know that there is at least one other novella in the series. However, I would have preferred more to have been made of this opening.

The Village that Died for England by Patrick Wright *** Patrick Wright has taken the history and myth of the requisitioned village of Tyneham in Dorset as his central theme in this book but has created a work that covers a much wider scope. From the German Youth Movements of the 1920s to the Arcitecture Association of the 1970s, he wanders far from the main theme in order to explore all the influential factors, theories and people. While his research has undoubtedly been thorough, I found that the book has too much information and its sprawl becomes overwhelming. It's a fantastic collation of knowledge but I think it needed much stronger editing.

Empire of the Sun by J G Ballard ***** I initially chose this book due to its evocative cover art and being aware that it is a classic I 'should' read! I didn't realise Ballard had written it so recently so was pleasantly surprised not to have to wade through 'British Raj' style writing as I had expected. <br/>Empire Of The Sun came across as young adult novel, both due to its language and the age of its primary character, Jim. I appreciated this as it did help to keep a slight distance, I felt, from the truly horrific scenes being played out. However, the undercurrents and allusions of the text give the work depth and help to make sense of the complete confusion that must have been so frightening at the time. Jim's sheer energy and enthusiasm for life is incredible and I thought, among all the great characters portrayed, he really did carry the story through. It was interesting, having learnt about this aspect of World War Two through the eyes of the novel to then also read a short interview with Ballard about his genuine war experience.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn **** Dave downloaded Gone Girl on to our Kindle months ago and loved the book. I've been meaning to get around to reading it ever since, especially as everyone else who's reviewed it was raving too. And for once, the book does deserve the hype. I liked the two-person viewpoint and the characterisations were brilliantly done. Perhaps the plot does unravel a little by overthinking after the books is finished, but it thunders along at a great pace and made for an entertaining couple of days reading.

Child of God by Cormac McCarthy **** I started though the first part of this book thinking that it was a bit 'gentle' for a Cormac McCarthy tale. Lester Ballard has a horrendous life, being even more in poverty than those around him, and I had been feeling sorry for him. Then I discovered a little more about Lester ... The descriptions of the town and its people are evocatively written, as is the countryside around it. I like the flow of the short chapter scenes. This is another wonderful Mccarthy story, saddening and thought-provoking, beautiful and horrific.

Love Me by Garrison Keillor *** Picked up whilst travelling and this is a pretty good holiday read. Amusing and somewhat poignant but nothing too deep or taxing!  

Madonna by Mark Bego *** A breathless, gushing biography of the then recently famous Madonna in which, for author Mark Bego, she can't put a step wrong. We get interviews with a school friend, a couple of film directors, Jellybean Benitez and the woman herself. It is fascinating to read this portrait of Madonna giving the impression that she had already conquered the musical world when, with the benefit of nearly thirty years of hindsight, we know that she would go on to achieve so much more! 

Capital by John Lanchester ***** For me, Capital was reminiscent of If Nobody Speaks Of Remarkable Things by Jon Mcgregor, both books being set along a single street and with a mysterious undercurrent throughout the work. I thought John Lanchester threaded his stories together beautifully with just enough connections between them but still maintaining the alienation of our contemporary society where neighbours are unlikely to mix. His characters are real, rounded people and I enjoyed the time I spent within their London.

NW by Zadie Smith *** I started out enjoying NW but unfortunately the book lost interest for me towards the end when it began concentrating solely on Natalie's story. I liked the interplay of characters earlier on and Smith's observation of life and speech is, as always, spot on. Perhaps reading NW straight after Capital was a mistake as both are primarily London novels. I thought NW was good but I had high expectations which it ultimately failed to meet.

Harlequin by Bernard Cornwell **** Having been a great fan of the Sharpe TV series all those years ago, I don't think I've ever actually got around to reading any Bernard Cornwell book before. I expected something much fluffier and certainly not the (I believe) well researched and interesting tale that unfolded. I am now a little wiser about this important period in European history but still feel as though I have been entertained rather than educated! Harlequin was a World Book Night choice for 2012 which is how I found the title, but I wouldn't hesitate to recommend the novel to a wide readership - not just those who have a particular interest in history.

And that's it for now. On the shelf still to be read I've got The Bookman's Wake by John Dunning, Agent 6 by Tom Rob Smith, Grey Souls by Philippe Claudel and Prophecy by S J Parris. Expect me to publish reviews of these over the next few weeks and you can see a random selection of reviewed titles in the box at the bottom of the page. Click on any of the book covers to read more!

Tuesday 26 November 2013


View across fields to Bailey at Camping Alentejo 
Another Dutch-owned campsite for our second base in Portugal. Perhaps I should have downloaded a Dutch language course from Audible instead of the Portuguese one! Camping Alentejo is 3km from the pretty village of Evoramonte and our nearest town is Estremoz. The site is small, with good-sized pitches, is surrounded by cork oak fields and, although it is right by the N18, the traffic noise hasn't bothered us. The reception/shower block is an eye-catching building - architect designed apparently - and best of all, the door closes properly so there's no horrendous draughts to contend with while showering! We've had clear skies most nights and the stars are incredibly beautiful plus, the first night here, we heard owls hooting. I was delighted to see book exchange shelves in reception so have undertaken a spot of BookCrossing here - you can see my latest releases in the widget down the right-hand side of the blog. And, while I remember, please check out the blog of fellow BookCrosser Jacob who is in Wisconsin. I enjoyed his post On Judging A Book By Its Cover which is just so true!

Interesting windows, Estremoz 
We've visited several towns while we've been here, all of which begin with E. I'm not sure whether alliteration is a popular local pastime? Elvas was highly recommended to us from Camping Beira-Marvao but we were underwhelmed. It's a nice enough medieval town but I couldn't see what all the fuss was about. Perhaps I'm getting blase? Estremoz on the other hand was much more my style. Fun architecture included this restaurant with its variety of windows and, because of the amazing marble quarries just out of town, the whole town seems to gleam white. 

Walking has been a feature of our stay here. The campsite provided a 'map' of a two-hour walk that we've undertaken twice, once in each direction. And Dave also created a walk of our own setting out along the tracks from the deserted Evoramonte railway station. No tiles at this one! There's a couple of photos on Facebook together with pics from a fourth walk - up (and up and up) to the castle and old town of Evoramonte. Part of the castle surround is an open-air theatre space with granite block seating. The actors would need to be pretty amazing to distract audiences from the draw of the view. The gift shop was surprisingly decent and, amongst other local handicrafts, has fab shoulder bags and jewellery made of cork. I passed on buying, hoping there'd be more variety in touristy Evora. There was but at hefty prices so the birthday presents I hoped to find are yet to materialise.

Temple of Diana, Evora 
Visiting Evora was the main reason for our stopping in this part of Portugal because we both wanted to see the Roman architecture. The Temple of Diana is in a square in the middle of Evora. No real fuss or build-up. We turned a corner and it's just there! The columns are huge, towering above the stone base which in itself rises several feet above street level. Unfortunately we couldn't find the Roman baths. If you go to Evora, don't waste your 50c on the map from the Tourist Office - it's useless because not all the streets are named so start diverting down side roads and you'll soon get lost. Interestingly lost, but lost all the same. Fortunately Dave's phone has a GPS map thingy which found us. Instead, put your 50c towards the most delicious Pastel de Nata from the Pastelerie Violeta (on Rua José Elias García near the theatre). We got a bag of assorted savoury and sweet pastries for lunch which we ate sat on a bench in the sun. Perfect!

The cathedral is refreshingly plain with only a couple of spots where over-the-top gilt is in evidence (and yes, I do mean gilt, not guilt!) The ticket we bought also included entry into the attached sacred art museum which has artefacts mostly of the 17th and 18th centuries and here gilt is much in abundance. I liked the stunning golden embroidery on the vestments but some of the statuettes are bizarre to say the least. One, of a baby Jesus asleep on a cross that was resting on a skull, was decidedly creepy! Other areas of Evora that we liked included the tranquil public park space with elegant pairs of peacocks wandering around. There is an ornate bandstand and a beautiful partly-ruined Moorish building that I'm not quite sure what it was, plus a tall ivy covered tower that was evocative of fairy-tales like Rapunzel.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Arrived in Portugal - Beira

Tiled wall panel at Beira railway station 
Warning - Long post - Ensure comfortable seat!

Leaving Caceres presented us with a couple of not-so-pleasant moments. Firstly Dave banged his nose which then refused to stop bleeding for several minutes. Then the casing shattered on one side of the MotorMover as we pulled out of Camping Caceres. Grrr. Fortunately the drive to the border was breath-taking. Stunning autumnal scenery over the hills and we saw so many vultures. At one point there were eighteen together, all wheeling in a tower above each other in the sky.

Once through the border crossing, we overtook a man leading a horse before the smallest roads we've yet attempted with Bailey led towards Camping Beira-Marvao, our first Portuguese stop and definitely our favourite campsite so far. Its entrance is a steep sandy lane which nearly stranded us part way. The tranquil quinta site is owned by Annick and Rudy, a very friendly and helpful Dutch couple. They are harvesting their olive crop at the moment so frequently all we could see of Annick was her feet peeping out below tree branches at the top of a ladder! The pitches aren't marked so there's freedom to set up anywhere. The shower block is pretty new and has the Citizen M of camping showers - they're brilliant! The first evening, we walked into the nearest village, Beira, where we were very pleasantly surprised by being charged only 70c each for a small beer (which I ordered in my best Portuguese). We saw an abandoned railway station with several incredible blue and white tiled panels including the one shown above which depicts pride in local trades. The whole place felt distinctly eerie - perfectly maintained yet completely deserted

Next morning, after Dave had undertaken a lengthy bicycle reconnaissance, we chose Castelo De Vide to visit on our first afternoon. It's a perfectly picturesque medieval town with incredibly steep and narrow cobbled streets, tiny houses with thick wooden doors, and its own castle tower. We visited a one-room archaeology museum where the guide talked at great length about the varied local historic sites. We saw ancient pottery, beads and beautiful arrow heads which were almost like jewels, they were so delicately crafted. We did some food shopping including a delicious pineapple cake and another local cheese, this time a sheep's cheese from Queijos Fortunato. As dusk fell, we decided to put up the awning - perhaps we should have started a few minutes earlier as this got somewhat fraught in the dark! However, it was well worth the effort as we have since done all our cooking out there on the camping stove so are preserving our precious caravan gas. Temperatures are falling rapidly up here this week with a couple of nights dropping to below five degrees. it's reminding me of Gocek in Turkey because the early mornings and nights are cold, but its still almost t-shirt weather in the afternoons (if we can get out of the wind!). However, several sights have been positively spring-like - there's young lambs in many fields and I posted a photo on Facebook of purple crocuses on the edge of a footpath.
Baby lambs near Beira, 
photo by Dave Greene 

Day two saw us driving around ancient sites including a six metre tall menhir, a grass-roofed stone shepherd's hut and several lake-side graves marked with stone slabs. I'm not sure if the graves would originally have been by water because the river has been dammed to make the lake. And I think I saw an eagle overhead when we were by the menhir. None of the birds have got close enough for a good photo yet. Several motorhomes were parked at one end and we walked round for a couple of hours after eating our bread and cheese picnic on its shore in the sun. Idyllic!

The third day we started by walking. Annick and Rudy have created a selection of maps of walking routes around their campsite. They have a Google Earth map on one side and English language directions on the back. We took a short detour around the delapidated village of Cabecudos which has a stream running right through the middle - complete with stepping stone ford. Dave went off on his bike again in the afternoon - he's now done over 1000km since he bought it so well worth the investment. I tried a short (10 minute) jog and my leg was ok so that's encouraging.

We winged a walk on the fourth morning which looked like it should have been a loop on Dave's phone, but the track petered out into brambles so turned into an out-and-back instead. Dave had pain in his back from about 30mins onwards which I blamed on him getting cold while cycling on the day before and he blamed on getting cold while being on the laptop earlier in the day. One good and bad thing about Camping Beira-Marvao is that the wifi is only available outside reception. There are nice tiled bench-tables to use and the signal is strong, but it gets bitter sitting there for any length of time. This sounds bad but is good because we don't dwell online but go walking instead! (I'm supposed to be using this trip to rescue my eyesight after all.)

I was expecting Sunday to be ultra religious in Portugal, as in Spain, but Annick assured us the supermarket, Pingo Doce, would be open all day and it was - 8.30am to 9pm! Swordfish steaks from the extensive fish counter made a delicious dinner with sauteed potatoes and red peppers. In between shopping and eating, we tried another of the provided walk maps. Unfortunately, having walked for an hour and a half, we then found a padlocked gate right where a left turn should have been so had to retrace our steps instead of completing the circuit. I am missing ordnance survey maps and the security of yellow arrow footpath signs. Walking back home, we would have hopped over the gate. Here, you're likely to be confronted by a large, loud dog!

Then it was Monday and the last of our Beira days. We finally got to Marvao. Perched as high up as it is possible to get around here, the views are certainly marvellous. We weren't sure how far we could see - maybe fifty miles, maybe a hundred. Breathtaking - but almost completely deserted! One art gallery was open so I got my first culture dose from the papier mache sea-and-island paintings of Rui Da Rosa and we saw the courtroom of Mouzinho da Silveira, a very important Portuguese personage! Other than these, we weren't actually that impressed with Marvao so went back to Castelo instead.

And now it's Tuesday so I end this post with an appropriate YouTube!

Friday 15 November 2013


Plaza Mayor in Cacares
Our journey to Caceres was marked by the first of several firsts! We pulled into an aire by the forecourt of the wrongly named Hostal Mirabel to eat our first en route picnic in Bailey. Corner steadies down, table laid, lunch ready - rapid and civilised! Driving through hills we saw wide areas of autumnal trees with beautiful yellows and oranges. There were also frequent sightings of large birds that may have been vultures. I haven't got around to googling them yet. They elegantly soar and hover alongside the motorways and are mostly dark coloured with white patches under their wings.

Camping Caceres was easy to find and we discovered that its baffling website mention of each pitch having its own bathroom was not a dodgy translation but meant just that: a small lockable shed bathroom with a wc, sink and shower inside and a water tap and washing up sink outside. A table and four chairs are also provided and most pitches are flat hardstanding. I undertook my first continental BookCrossing forays (another first!) by utilising the Libros shelves in Reception. However, the wifi was irritatingly sporadic and the whole site, while functional, was a bit too concrete for our liking. It was hot though! Sunday lunchtime was warm enough to eat al fresco (the third first).

Street in Caceres medieval quarter
photo by Dave Greene
Caceres has a tranquil medieval old quarter with a few museums within its walls but, unusually and pleasantly, no tacky tourist shops. They are all out in the modern streets! We visited a small army museum that had aerial photos of the surrounding towns. Particularly interesting was a series of Caceres images taken some twenty years apart and showing how the town had grown since the 1920s. Narrow cobbled streets are steep and, having not already seen Castelo De Vide at this point, we thought the medieval atmosphere was well preserved! There's a spacious Plaza Mayor just outside the walls where we stopped to have a coffee and I took the first photo illustrating this post. The second picture shows one of the cobbled streets in the old quarter. There's also pleasant tree lined promenades into town and, on the Sunday, a group of around 300 cyclists had gathered. We weren't exactly sure of the reason but it seemed to be organised by something along the lines of Bespoke. There's an interesting commercial town centre and we managed to get some of our groceries in little shops. A locally-made cheese, Queso de Casar, has an almost fruity tang and, at Dave's insistence we also tried a vibrant orange fruit called Kakis. They're persimmons and are delicious!

Saturday 9 November 2013


giant painted hand
in Salamanca 
So now it's farewell to Salamanca as we're moving on to Cacares. We've been staying in the campsite at Hotel Regio which is good - not outstanding but has everything we need. The bus into the city stops right outside once an hour so we've taken full advantage of that for one day and actually walked in - nearly two hours including wooded island detour - on the second.

Salamanca is a great historical city with a remarkably calm old town - perhaps the time of year has helped as it must be pretty frantic in the summer. A UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1988, the range of architecture is impressive and we enjoyed seeing the House of the Shells and the fabulous stonework on the outside of the Cathedral. Dave spotted the little astronaut in amongst all the carved religious icons, gargoyles, vines and leaves. Public art is popular throughout the city and the giant hand pictured is painted on the side of a tower block just up from El Corte Ingles where we failed to find any cargo shorts for Dave, but did get a great deal on a bread knife! The favourite shop in Salamanca appears to be butchers and there are so many legs of ham hung in windows around the city, it's amazing there's any pigs left.

My favourite place in the city was undoubtedly Casa Lis, an amazing museum of art nouveau and art deco artefacts. There are gorgeous gold and ivory statuettes, perfume bottles and vases and the building itself has a stunning blue glass roof and stained glass windows looking out over the river. We spent ages walking around spotting Lalique and Galle glass as well as learning new names to look out for: Demetre Chiparus, Ferdinand Preiss, Otto Hoffman and Karl Hagenauer. Their cafe is beautiful too and does a very good rooibos tea. Talking of tea, another tiny shop that caught my eye was El motin del te on Rua Mayor where I purchased a cute tea ball, having left mine at home. They also have a wide range of loose leaf teas and loads of other tea-related accessories.

We've learned a few things about Bailey over this first week. There's actually far more storage space than we need and the whole caravan manages to feel both spacious and cosy, especially after dark when the lights are on and we return from our post-dinner paseo. On the more irritating side, holding down the hob button for twenty seconds and then still having the gas go out is quite annoying.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Cubillas Santa Marta

Don Quixote sculpture in
Valoria La Buena
photo by Dave Greene
Our second stop, between Palencia and Valladolid was Camping Cubillas which, although being almost right on the A62, was quiet. The site is a mix of touring pitches, permanent caravans, and statics. Some of the little gardens created around the permanent caravans and statics were wonderful, hedges and arbours, little wooden gates and paved patios. We had the place pretty much to ourselves on the Monday so took the opportunity to peep over several hedges!

We didn't see much in the way of walking opportunities so chose to take a drive on the Sunday morning instead. There are several bodegas close to the campsite, all of which appeared to be closed, and three little villages. We spotted this cool sculpture by the road into Valoria La Buena and, having recently seen the wonderful ROH ballet of Don Quixote, couldn't resist stopping to take a few photos. On the other side of the A62, the Canal Castilla passes close by so we did get our walk after all, over two hours along the towpath which was picturesque, but judging distance was deceptive as it is dead straight for miles. Almost deserted, we only met three other people - two fishermen and a Spanish man who pointed out a large dead snake in the grass by the path. It was about a metre long and a pretty green colour.

Monday had light rain for most of the morning. We did get to play tennis in the afternoon - my first attempt in nearly thirty years but fortunately Dave was encouraging. He only mentioned once that he wished Kim was there instead! The evening was spent reading The House of Rumour by Jake Arnott, a great novel that incorporates many conspiracy theories from the 1940s. As a previous X-Files fan, I knew most of the back stories and like how Arnott has entwined them around his own narrative. I'm planning to leave the book in Salamanca somewhere later this week as my first Spanish BookCrossing release if I can find a suitable place.

Tuesday 5 November 2013

Aguilar de Campoo

Lake reservoir at Aguilar de Campoo
A post originally written on the 2nd of November but which I couldn't publish so it's a bit delayed!

We're moving on from Aguilar de Campoo today. The industry here was biscuit making and, although there are only three factories left now, there was a delicious aroma of baking as we arrived. Aguilar is a pretty little town with an olde worlde feel to the centre and lovely porticoed streets that reminded us of Bologna. Unfortunately there was a car parked in front of the pharmacy or I would have photographed its painted frontage. A 16th century arch has been preserved but the medieval walls that adjoined it are long gone. 

We stayed in Camping Monte Royal on a hill above the town. There is a big house at the entrance which doubles up as a bar and restaurant. I imagine it would be busy there in summer as the site is among pine trees and is just over the road from a huge lake-reservoir. The accompanying photograph was taken at dusk on Thursday evening when the rocks were glowing orange in the setting sun. Monte Royal officially stays open all year, but we were directed to set up at the edge of the drive. We discovered that all the water in the sanitary block was off so had to fill the aqua roll from the sinks in the bar toilets! Bailey would probably have got stuck had we tried to tow through the trees but it did feel odd being parked up on concrete. 

The second day saw us walking for a couple of hours part-way round the lake and over its two dams, one current and one decommissioned. Dave was brave enough to stand out on a viewpoint, a concrete tower WAAAAY above the lake. I didn't even want to walk across the narrow concrete bridge. Far too scary!