Tuesday, 30 January 2018

City: Almería

If history makes your heart happy you must visit Almería; regardless of when your favourite period is, this city has something for you. If you don't like history there's plenty to amuse too, beaches, bars, museums but being a bit of a history-nut this post features on places of historical interest.

Alcazaba and Arab baths
In the 10th century Almería was a thriving port city under the Caliph of Cordoba, Abd ar-Rahman III. They developed the relevant infrastructure to go with this and you can visit  - the old Arab cisterns have anachronistically been opened as a museum of traditional Spanish culture. If you want to experience Arab baths a hotel on the old market square has opened an arab-bath experience on the site of a historic bath. At 25E for 2 hours it is good value - you get to use all the facilities, including the flotation tank which was a personal favourite of mine and you can drink as much mint tea as you like!

The Alcazaba or castle also arrived in the 10th century, the distinctive ramparts still dominate the city's skyline although you will have to walk slightly beyond the modern city centre and climb a hill to get there. If you can climb all the steps before it closes the castle and its gardens are free to enter and offer great views of the surrounding city and coastline - aspects that were no doubt fundamental to its original creation.

(Alcazaba ramparts)
(Alcazaba gardens)

It would be easy to confuse this 16th century building with a castle, as it is so well fortified, but it is in fact a cathedral. You do have to pay to get in but it wasn't expensive, maybe 5E, and an audio-tour in English was included in the ticket price. It was quite ornate and pretty inside, a nice place to spend an hour or two but its not a 'day-visit' location.


Refugios de Almería
If you like your history a little more contemporary you can take a subterranean trip through the underground bunkers used by the residents of Almería during the Civil war. This was a really great way to spend an 1hr and a half or so and was not expensive. 3E for a video subtitled in English and then a guided tour in Spanish - with brief summaries given in English too - is really good value. Although it is essentially a series of concrete tunnels they have done a good job of bringing people's stories to life and I particularly enjoyed the underground hospital reconstruction.

(Refugio tour)

(Hospital in the bunker)

The Museum of Almería 
This is hands-down the best free museum I have ever been too; that is quite a claim as I have been to many museums, but its true. The museum covers the region's history spanning from Los Millares to the present day with a focus on the early history of the region. What was particularly striking about this museum was the way they fused audio visual with artistic installations by local artists and genuine artefacts, the integrity of presenting real objects wasn't compromised by experience but enhanced by it. I was particularly impressed with a map of the Los Millares site - you could see the geographical layout of the site but you could also learn about their attitude towards the economy and spirituality, for example, through symbolic objects such as beads, shells.

(Los Millares map with symbols)

With Morocco visible across the water, Almería as a town and as a wider region exists in this liminal space - with a foot in each camp of Europe and Africa - but definitely no-one's pet! Almería owns its ancient heritage; continuing ancient practical practices like building houses into the rocks and cave structures; since the Chalcolithic they have been artisans, creating copper from raw ingredients, firing pots in ingenious fashion whilst looking after the landscape around them.

Luckily for me Almería has been off the tourist track for a long time - as successive governments have ignored it and refused to invest in the area - this has caused real problems financially for the area and is part of the reason why we have the unsightly 'plastics' today, but is also the reason for incredible scenery and for that I am grateful.

Country: Sierra Alhamilla & Tabernas Desert

When I booked my holiday to the Cabo de Gata I had a number of choices about where to stay; the city of Almería - urban, well connected, beaches possible; the coast - bit difficult to get to, bit remote if don't like; the mountains - friendly host, oceans of history, bit remote but close to many interesting things; reader I chose the mountains.

In my initial post I told you a little bit about the village where I stayed, Níjar. This time I'd love to share some of the gems north of the village. Níjar is an old village on the edge of an ancient valley. When the Arabs had control of the region they built an incredible water management system which allowed them to live long-term in the area. The water system is still extant today; more on this later.

One day we took a drive up into the mountains of the Sierra Alhamilla. It is not a drive for the faint hearted; the roads are narrow and full of pot-holes, but you will be well rewarded for leaving the well-trodden path. Within 20 minutes of leaving Níjar we reached this abandoned house; well warned about the snakes I was free to explore the house and its neighbouring threshing-floor where people threshed the wheat over 1000 years. As we continued through the Alhamilla we saw so many plants and animals and I could tell why they felt so happy there as it was so tranquil. Man has clearly made his mark in the Alhamilla; there are plenty of hunting lodges and a couple of satellite stations but in a broadly unobtrusive and respectful way to the landscape.

(Abandoned house)

(Threshing floor)

The famous exception to this is the city of Los Millares, a Chalcolithic settlement and the home of the Bronze Age; it is at Los Millares that they worked out the metallurgy for bronze. As we crossed the Tabernas desert to this famous archaeological site it was awe inspiring to think that we were likely driving the same route as these early pioneers. When we got to the site they had just closed for the day which was a shame but we got to see it and the drive over was truly sensational. The Tabernas Desert is the largest desert in Europe and as such was a cheap location for filming Westerns in the 20th century. I think you can see why!

(Into the Tabernas Desert)


Now, I did say I'd tell you more about these water systems. I got up-close and personal with them on one Saturday afternoon when it was suggested I go on a little walk up to the next village, Huebro, for a swim in the reservoir. Heartened by the promise it would only take an hour and the route marked 'facil' I set off. The first 20 minutes or so following the painted signs was easy, but then the markers disappeared. I had to guess the route. At first this was quite fun, I felt like Indiana Jones having slid down into the valley floor, climbing through the undergrowth. But it soon became apparent to me that this was not the route. I was stuck by this stage, surrounded by trees and shrubs, wondering what other animals were sat with me looking at a wall of rock and alluvial sand 3 metres high. How was I going to get out? I had no phone signal and there was no-one around because it was siesta time. I started to really regret being there the decision of a little afternoon walk. It took me three attempts to climb out of this tight spot, every time I stopped to review my progress up the wall if my foot was on compacted sand and not rock I slid back down and had to start again! When I eventually got to the top of the wall, I rolled through brambles to get out - my legs and arms were bruised and scratched but miraculously I was otherwise OK. I carried on my walk to Huebro in a state of shock, and awe at the archaeology. Huebro itself was nice enough, I drank two fanta lemons, ate a sandwich, did not swim in the reservoir as it was more algae than water by the afternoon, and then set off home again. Like the Wise Men I returned via another route...

(Maximising irrigation for agriculture)

(Industrial archaeology)

So the countryside of the Alhamilla and Tabernas - not to be underestimated, but stunning; best viewed in a car that can off-road, although I hear the caving and official(!) climbing opportunities are also good fun.

(Walking away from Huebro)

Coast: Cabo de Gata

It was a drizzly afternoon in April, Manchester UK and I was dreaming of sitting on a beach in the sunshine. I was not looking for a coastal resort, what I had in mind was more like the start of Prince Caspian, but without the flight to New Zealand. The Cabo de Gata has this in bucket-loads. I only spent two afternoons at the seaside but I enjoyed both dips in the Alborean sea.

(The set for Prince Caspian, filmed in New Zealand)

The first day my host drove us from Níjar to San Miguel which took the best part of an hour. The drive took us through the rather unsightly, but highly productive 'plastics' in the region which produce all sorts of vegetables including a black tomato. Emerging from the plastics, we saw the protected salt-marshes and their flamingos which weren't looking particularly pink but they did look happy.

(San Miguel)

As it was a public holiday we weren't really sure if anywhere would be open but we headed for the Torreón de San Miguel and found a little chiringuito (tapas bar) at the beach. There is such a delight in the directness of eating fresh seafood beside the same sea it was fished from. The beach was quite busy at San Miguel but I enjoyed watching people going about their Bank Holiday activities. One of group of young men were going on a fishing trip with their dad. The fishing boat was rolled down to the sea on wooden logs, in Viking-style, don't fix what ain't broke I suppose!

On my second trip to the seaside we went in the opposite direction to Agua Amarga. A small diversion from the route took us to see this olive tree; it was producing olives in 1066 and still produces olives today. It felt almost holy to be in the presence of a tree that has seen so much and still stands fruitful - I think there's a sermon in there! In classic Spanish style there is little ceremony made about this tree just a little plaque.

(The ancient olive tree)

Agua Amarga means Bitter Water and there is a local joke that its not just the water that's bitter...I found it was a perfectly nice beach to spend an hour or two, I felt very safe, the water was clear but there were British tourists everywhere.

(Agua Amarga) 

When I first booked a trip to the Cabo I was thinking of rustic unspoiled coves, where you felt completely alone, where you'd spend the day reading, swimming, napping and eating sandy sandwiches. I believe this is still possible at the Cabo de Gata; but I think you really do need your own transport. I was reliant on my kind and accommodating host but was limited by the time he was willing to spend. Without him I'd have been reliant on buses which do go to and fro from the city of Almería but not via the villages and even then only a couple of times a day. As with several elements of this trip on balance a hire car would have been a good idea; but I still enjoyed the coast.

Adventure, Anxiety and Andalucia : all begin with A

Last Autumn I was looking for a little Autumn sun; so I googled unspoiled beaches and decided to  take one of my biggest adventures yet - exploring the Cabo de Gata coast, the Sierra Alhamilla and Tabernas Desert in a mere 6 days.

(Cabo de Gata coast)

(Driving across the Sierra Alhamilla)

It was a big adventure for me because I was going somewhere rural - although you might not have guessed this from the package holiday airlines that served Almería - I was on my own, and going to a place in the shadow of a volcano. My base for the week was the village of Níjar - a historic hill village with early medieval water systems, Moorish watch towers, and distant views of the coastline, the house I stayed in built into caves that people have lived in since the Neolithic!

(Ancient landscaping)

The village is culturally renowned for rag-rugs and special pottery. The high street shopping model has not changed much since the medieval period - artists have their shop in the 'living room' area at the front of the house, and then they live behind and above the shop. I was visiting one of these potters, drinking coffee and chatting away when we came to talking about anxiety and stress. She said I was very brave to travel on my own, that she is too anxious to travel. I get anxious and worried about a lot of things but I don't let it stop me travelling; I said, 'if I can get anxious just sat at home I'd rather see the world and have something real to worry about'.
(Unique ceramic from Níjar)

These are famous last words because my week exploring the Almería region was quite eventful and I did have plenty of real worries to contend with whilst exploring this area of incredible beauty. This short series of blog posts will explore the coast, the country and the city in the Almería region.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

Fight fire with satire: Wipers Times and Savage Ink

In the run up to Remembrance Day I have been to the theatre and the People's History Museum. Both the play and the exhibition look at the role of satire in helping us face scary circumstances and to speak truth to power.

Wipers Times - Theatre Show

The Wipers Times was a newspaper created by Captain Fred Roberts and his battalion during the First World War produced in the trenches themselves. The 12th Battalion Sherwood Foresters faced some very serious scenes they were present at Ypres and the Somme with Captain Fred decorated with the military cross for bravery.  They were under no illusions about the awful nature of war, 'Most of us have been cured of any little illusions we may have had about the pomp and glory of war, and know it for the vilest disaster that can befall mankind'. This is echoed in their humour, one ad read, ‘Are you a victim to optimism?...do you sometimes think the war will end within the next twelve months?...do you consider or leaders are competent?'.

Copyright: The Wipers Times

There are many responses to war - fear it, glamorize it, or satirize it. Drawing on the traditions of both music hall - Hind and berg: sword swallowers and nail eaters at the Cloth Hall - 'the best ventilated hall in the town' (it was a ruin); and high-literature (Kipling, Shakespeare, Arthur Conan Doyle) they punned their way to hope right in the midst of battle.  They played close to the wire when it came to respected war correspondents both Hilaire Belloc and Beach Thomas's names are spoonerised and spoof articles written to illustrate just how far from reality their articles had departed. The bureaucrats of the war machine also do not get off lightly - Roberts took their regular request to 'up the offensive' as a rallying cry for the paper, 'Are we as offensive as we might be?'.

The stage show written by Ian Hislop and Nick Newman did a good job of translating a newspaper into a stage show; the show tunes and adverts translate particularly well. They also added extra context showing the war leaders, people at home and the impact of war on the veterans future careers all of which I thought was helpful. Although it was an entertaining show it was also a 'thinker'. I was very moved by the performance of 'To My Chum' a poem which featured in the print version of Wipers Times from the pen of a private in the trenches, reproduced in part here:

Confessions of an alcohol slave advert. Copyright: The Wipers Times

 'We’ve shared what shelter could be had
The same crump hole
when the whizz-bangs shrieked;
The same old billet that always leaked,
 And now – you’ve stopped one.'

It is precise, concise poetry that cuts to the heart of a man grieving his friend.

To face fear head on and to laugh seems such an appropriate response, and the show a great way to remember in all its complexity.

Savage Ink - A temporary exhibition at PHM

The Savage Ink exhibition illustrates the rich tradition that Wipers Times drew on; showcasing satirical cartoons from the 18th century onward including several works by Hogarth, Gillray and Fluck drawing right up to the present day cartoons criticising the Labour cabinet views on Trident.

Gillray, Substitutes for Bread

One of the most interesting cartoons is Gillray's, 'Substitutes for Bread' (1795) which shows Pitt, his Chancellor Loughborough and other ministers tucking into many lavish substitutes for bread; venison, turtle soup, champagne whilst the people outside starve. In 1795 the UK was at war with France and was running out of both money and commodities. The Board of Agriculture sent out pamphlets suggesting people substitute their expensive tastes for white bread with mixed grain loaves and eat more meat and fish instead, in a bid to help the war effort. This is all rather akin to Marie Antoinette's, 'Qu'ils mangent de la brioche' and the unrealistic expectations of those in power on those living with the reality of their decisions.

It seems if you had money in 1795 you could enjoy pretty much anything you liked, and the poor paid the price for war; nothing changes does it.

This remembrance day I pray, with Captain Fred and Gillray, never again.

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

5 surprising things about America

This year I went on a springtime trip to California; my first ever trip to the USA here are my top five surprising things.

(It is so bright here!)

1. No kettles, anywhere! 
I suppose given the events of 1773 it is not as much of a surprise but people don't own kettles, electric or hob based! If you want a cup of tea you've to risk an urn, or a pod-machine (!), or scalding yourself boiling water in a saucepan all in a bid for a cup of tea.

2. People still sign 'the check'
This blew my mind, people always say that America is the future but this felt like stepping in a time machine to the 90's! Chip and pin in the UK is frustrating (in comparison to contactless) but can you imagine signing every receipt? I can just about remember supermarket shopping with my Mum where she used to sign for our shopping but as an adult on my own account, nope. Also calculating tax, in the UK tax is almost always included in the price (unless you're buying wholesale or something). But trying to calculate what the final price would be for even small items was a real headache. A perk though is that sometimes people in the shops still expect to pack your shopping, another thing I can only just about remember from childhood.

(Shopping for spices and target preparing for St Patricks Day)

3. Bikes on the front of buses
I was quietly minding my own business (getting over the sweet/savoury thing, see below) in Berkeley when a Greyhound bus passed the window. Lo and behold! The bus had someone's bike on the front! Instead of trying to fit the push-bike in the hold or in the cabin space of the bus they just stick it on the front. This is actually quite an ingenious idea, but I'd never even thought of it before.

4. Icing sugar and bacon on the same plate; and no-one is bothered.
I knew before I went that there was a bit of a laissez-faire attitude towards sweet and savoury on a plate over the pond. Even a neanderthal like me has experienced pancakes with bacon and maple syrup and been won round to a little sweetness. I had, however, understimated the extent of the combination. One morning my friend had a fry up; to all intents and purposes it was a full English breakfast, except it came with toast coated in icing sugar - and no-one was suprised or bothered by that except me.

(Look at the icing sugar on that!)

5. Windscreen cleaners at petrol stations
I was reminded of this when Mayim Bialik did a video in May (3:53); in California. at least. one of the things people do in petrol stations is clean their windows using wiper blades which are offered free of charge. It just threw me a little.

There were of course many other things people had told me that I didn't think could be true - like even fruit and veg is giant sized there, and how no-one walks anywhere; and how in a shorter distance than London to Durham I could go from 25 degree heat to treading through snow overnight. These were just the 5 unexpected things.

Monday, 14 August 2017

DUNKIRK: A review

I recognise I'm pretty late to this party but last week I saw Dunkirk and regardless of anything else it was a lesson in cinematography.


I'll admit I was affected by location and circumstance. The day before I had made that same journey, to Dunkirk and then on to Paris with my 10 year old godson, albeit we went under, not over the ocean. Travelling on the metro we saw signs for the film with its French spelling (Dunkerque) and I thought about how a French director or screenwriter might have written a slightly different film.

I went to see the film when I was staying with my parents, at a budget friendly, no frills cinema on Canvey Island. Driving to and from the cinema I drove along that same coastline that had sent the little fishing boats from Leigh on Sea to their heroic adventure; the story of the Dunkirk flotilla is written into our local story. Both the French and Essex experiences helped a long-distant event feel very present to me.

And that's to say nothing of the cinematography. There are some political aspects to this film which I will come around to, but first I want to tell you about the incredible creativity that was poured out on this highly stylised film quite so effectively.

Blue and Grey

Colour and musical tone were used to great effect. Everything was different shades of blue and grey for a long time; despair was played out in monochrome monotony - the sea and sky became indistinguishable at the horizon and I really believed like the men at sea that maybe help was never coming. This was echoed in Hans Zimmer's score - all minor chords and constant suspense. Christopher Nolan is well known for his use of the Shepard tone - its a corkscrew effect that makes you feel as if the music is constantly climbing and it sets your teeth on edge - he uses it to good effect in this film.

But when the fleet of ships arrive all of this changes the little boat is full of colour - the sailor's jumper, the hull of the boat, the women on the other ships - warm reds and oranges explode onto the screen in this triumph of hope. This glory is reflected in the music which changes to major and we get this brief reprieve from the Shepard Tone. This is epitomised in the final flight of Farrier to Elgar's Nimrod - all major chords and full colour; hope for the soldiers and for us.

Our glorious past?

Whilst the majority of the film feels hopeless and disastrous and not at all glamorous I would define it as a patriotic film. Through thoroughly limited dialogue a large emphasis is put on the role of 'home', and putting Churchill's words into the mouth of an ordinary soldier was very effective at underlining the sacrifice of 'the few'. It did make every body out to be heroes - Nolan shows some awareness of this in the heroic write up of George, killed by his own side but declared a war hero in the paper, but the rest of the film argues against this. Commander Bolton chooses to 'wait for the French' at the end of the film instead of getting the boat home, he chooses certain death; although Dad pointed out to me this is a charming nod to the 50's films I felt it was a bit dramatic.

The issue I take with this film is the effect it had on me, I left the cinema thinking, 'you know what we need? A jolly good war!'. And that scares me because I am by nature a fairly peaceful soul; somebody more prone to conflict would be easily fired up by the narrative.

Like any story you do have to simplify the facts for the sake of a good story, but I agree with Sharmal that there was significant white-washing in this film - and the featured token person of colour was tokenism exemplified. Although the stance taken by Nolan on this was inline with the narrative we are told in schools there was a real opportunity here to tell less known stories; it is a shame that opportunity was missed.

In summary this is a powerful piece of cinema, expertly composed, that will rightly win many awards; entertainment does not always have to be educational - and it certainly was an education in cinematography - but I do wish we had been told a story of somebody new that recognised the complexity of war, rather than glorification of the armed forces.