Blog Archive

Monday, September 1, 2014

The Commonwealth Games, 100 Year Anniversary of WW1, We are what we eat, Bilbao, The Basque Language, Avoid the Tourist Areas.

The Commonwealth Games took place this summer in Glasgow.  What a palava - the media don’t half make a meal of it!  71 commonwealth countries participating.  Just really a showcase for England, Australia, Canada and Scotland to show everyone else that there is something they can still win at if you exclude all the other serious countries from the competition.  Also a nice opportunity for the dictators of dozens of nasty countries across the world to come over and soak up the Glasgow rain with their peers on the world stage.  The dictators and rulers of many of the countries attending regularly kill their political opponents, persecute homosexuals and generally kill people they don’t like.  For example King Mswati 3 (sounds a bit like a motorbike) has 15 wives of which 2 are appointed by the state.  He lives a very lavish lifestyle with many very luxury cars.  His household budget is $61m per annum.  Meanwhile his people, amongst the poorest in the world, struggle to live on $1.25 per day.  You can google him to see a long list of all the other nasty things he does.  Should we separate sport from politics and ignore all this stuff?  And of course there has been mass speculation as to whether Usain Bolt did actually call the Games ‘a bit shit’ compared to the Olympic Games.  Well at least he bothered to turn up to run for Jamaica unlike various other famous athletes.  If he did say it I can’t say I disagree with him although I remain undecided if we should ignore all the bad things and say ‘Hey this is sport so it’s all okay’.

London Evening Standard

Last month we commemorated the 100-year anniversary of the start of the First World WarOn August 4th 100 years ago, Britain declared war on Germany following the invasion of Belgium by the German army.  All wars are terrible, but this one was clearly one of the worst: over 9 million soldiers died as a result of the fighting. Food shortages, sometimes deliberately inflicted by blockade and sometimes resulting from failed harvests, weakened the people who remained on the home fronts. Nearly 6 million civilians died from disease or starvation. Almost 1 million more were killed as a direct result of military operations. In all, the estimate of dead resulting from the war stands at over 16 million.  And then there were the wounded. More than 21 million. Some recovered. Others were never the same again, either in body or in mind. It is very hard for us to imagine the implications of this as it is on such a massive scale.  Even worse, it was all in vain as the same countries were at war again just 20 years later.  The commemoration ceremonies held across Europe, both locally and internationally were dignified and relevant.  The international ceremonies started in Liège in Belgium which is where the first battle of WW1 took place.  The sequence of events in that 24 hour period that led to this disastrous war were as follows:  on August 3rd 1914 the Belgian Government refused German demands to allow them passage to France and the British Government guaranteed military support to Belgium, should Germany invade. Germany declared war on France, the British government ordered general mobilisation and Italy declared neutrality. On 4 August the British government sent an ultimatum to Germany and declared war on Germany at midnight on 4–5 August, Central European Time. Belgium severed diplomatic relations with Germany and Germany declared war on Belgium. German troops crossed the Belgian frontier and attacked Liège. It was very fitting therefore that the commemorations should start in Liège and move on to Mons, some 130 kilometres to the west, where the Germans first fought the British army.  Kings, Queens, Leaders and representatives of those who fought in the battles 100 years ago from Germany as well as the allied nations were all attending.  The first British soldier killed in the war was John Parr.  He was from Lodge Lane in North Finchley, very close to where I was brought up in London.  He was killed in his role as a reconnaissance cyclist as he located the enemy and stayed to engage them as his colleague went back to report on their location.  He is buried in the St Symphorien cemetery near Mons.  The last British soldier said to have been killed was George Edwin Ellison, who was killed 90 minutes before the Armistice came into effect.  He was also killed near Mons and is also buried at St Symphorien cemetery.  A further co-incidence is that his grave faces that of John Parr.  St Symphorien was created and maintained by the German Army, and it contains the graves of 229 Commonwealth servicemen and 284 German soldiers. A very small cemetery by WW1 standards. One of the strongest images of the commemorations of the atrocities we embarked on 100 years ago for me is the outstanding artwork being created at the Tower of London, which was used for the recruiting and training of troops.  A ceramic poppy is being ‘planted’ in the moat areas for each of the British and Commonwealth soldiers killed in the war.  The art is called “Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red” designed by Paul Cummins and Top Piper.  888,246 poppies are being plated between August 4th and November 11th to remember every Commonwealth soldier killed in that terrible war.  I will be going to see it at the first opportunity.  One of the reasons I am in favour of the European Union is that it was set up after WW2 with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours.

The Tower of London

We are what we eat.  Or are we?  I recently visited the food market in Salamanca in Spain, a city some 200 kilometers north west of Madrid that I was fortunate to be staying in for a couple of days.  It is a beautiful city with a rich history.  The central square, Plaza Mayor, made me think of Piazza San Marco in Venice.  We had time to visit a good deal of the historic old town, including the extraordinary cathedral (which consists of the old cathedral from the 13th century and the new one from the 17th century, both of which are breath taking in their scale, beauty and workmanship) and we stopped to have a look at the large two storey fresh food market.  There were four types of food stall: fruit and veg, fish, meat and jamón.  The fruit and veg didn’t hold any surprises for me, nor did the fish although the varieties and quality looked impressive, particularly the profusion of squid and octopus (which I don’t normally see in Tesco).  The jamón shops were quite eye opening in terms of the sheer volume of different types of ham from classic Ibericos to Pata Negra top grades and dozens of varieties in between.  And I can tell you not only does it look good but it tastes amazing.  Particularly with a glass of red Rioja, Ribero del Duero or another wonderful Spanish wine.  And these ham shops can be found all over the city; from tiny shops of no more than 10 square meters to large luxurious ‘supermarkets’ and bars just selling hams and tapas and pinchos, raciones and bocadillios full of ham.  But the most unusual for me was some of the produce in the meat shops; pigs trotters (piles of them), pigs snouts (all sizes), stomachs (that look like sheets of white rubber with bumps on), pigs’ tails, ears, brains, ox tails, whole baby pigs (they are very very white, can’t be more than a few weeks old) and plenty of other stuff I didn’t even recognise.  But no, I am still a meat eater with no immediate plans to become a vegetarian.  The trouble is most of the dishes I have tried taste so damn good.  So if we are what we eat I will leave you, Dear Reader, to guess what I am.

Salamanca Food Market

When we were in Bilbao, it was the annual carnival, Semana Grande in Spanish or Aste Nagusia in Basque, and of a metropolitan population of about 1 million people, it is estimated that 100,000 were in the streets that evening which kicked off with fireworks at 22.45 precisely.  We had a stroll around the old town where the celebrations were focused and there were musicians in the streets singing and giving free concerts, there were actors with spinning tops, with puppets like skeletons, and a very large series of fairground type attractions lining the banks of the Rio Bilbao and in the park.  This very festive atmosphere was of course complimented by piles of delicious looking food that had been prepared in the bars and restaurants, of which there are hundreds, all looking tempting, snacks from tostados with tomato and jamón, to tortillias and a whole variety of scrumptious mouth watering looking things, although I have not the faintest idea what most of them were, which makes ordering them quite tricky and even harder if you don’t speak Basque.  Maybe some contained pigs snouts but boy did it look amazing.  Very hard to order something you don’t know the name of, in a language you can’t speak, and in a section of the bar where they won’t serve you those anyway!  Despite being deprived of the tapas, our eyes, ears and noses were all popping out of their figurative sockets by the variety of activities and peoples surrounding us.  The vast majority were local Basques, but there were also other groups who looked very different.  Teams of small round native Latin-American people walked around with very large balloon-like blankets that presumably concealed their wares.  These balloons were easily as large as they were and I imagine they were waiting for the right moment to settle down and display their wares – whatever they may have been.  And then there were African men wandering around with various trinkets for sale, all very polite and gentle.  And large groups of African ladies ladies in bright coloured clothing, each with a very large suitcase, sitting down, waiting.  And travellers cooking churros and other delicacies in vats of hot oil, with the smells mingling with all of the other fragrances.  It was quite an event for the senses.  Bilbao used to be a big industrial town with virtually no tourism.  Over the last ten tears it has transformed itself into a modern city, largely service-based, with tourist numbers rising from 25,000 annually to over 625,000 now.  The Guggenheim museum is at the heart of the tourist route but there is plenty more to see from the fine shopping in the modern commercial district to the sightseeing opportunities in the old town.

The Guggenheim Bilbao

The Basque language makes for difficult navigation in Bilbao.  The street names are all in Basque – words made up mostly of ‘ZZs’ ‘XXs’ and ‘TTs’ a bit like welsh is all ’LLLs’ and ‘YYs’.  The trouble with this is that google maps and other navigation shows it all in Spanish and to match the Spanish names to the Basque ones you need to be more than a good detective.  This explains why it took us half an hour to find a tapas bar (rated best restaurant in Bilbao on Tripadvisor) that was actually just 3 minute walk from our hotel.  And when we did eventually find it, it was full.  Unless you want to stand near the bar and drink with one hand and eat tapas off a porcelain plate with the other, which I certainly would have done without hesitation if I had a few more hands.  Before returning to France we visited the seaside Basque city called Donostia.  In English, French and Spanish it is called San Sebastian.

Pinxtos or Tapas in Bilbao

We have got quite good over the years at trying to avoid the tourist areas and eat where the locals eat, or at least away from the main tourist corridors.  The benefits this brings are twofold: better quality food, cooked with more care and attention; much lower prices.  But there is no clear formula.  For example, in San Sebastien (Donostia) we decided to eat on Saturday evening at the hotel rather than on the beach or in the old town, both of which would have been more atmospheric.  But at the hotel, they have to try much harder to get people to eat there.  The service was second to none and the food certainly exceeded expectations.  We chose a 23 euro menu that included three courses of freshly prepared local ingredients.  The fish was very good indeed.  We asked for a glass of white wine each and were given and excellent local Chardonnay and some mineral water.  A pleasant surprise when we were served the bill was that all of the drinks were included!  On the other hand, the following morning we were not very hungry after such a great and copious meal so we decided to give the hotel breakfast at 18 euros each a miss and go to a local café instead.  We found a modern film themed café with the usual tapas of jamón and tortilla patatas piled up on the counter.  There we had freshly squeezes orange juice, café con leche and the best croissant I have eaten in years (no grease), all for under 3 euros each.  That is 5 times less than we would have paid at the hotel!  Imagine how much we would have paid and how bad the food would most likely have been at a tourist café or restaurant near the beach!  We had a similar experience in Venice many years ago where we were fed up with the high prices and lousy food everywhere.  The best meal we had was in a side canal behind the coach station where the menu was only in Italian and the staff could not speak and other language.  The pasta was amazing and it cost half the amount we had paid elsewhere.  The moral to this story is that it is hard to have top location and top food and service together!

"The lamps are going out all over Europe. We shall not see them lit again in our life-time."
Edward Grey, British Foreign Secretary, 3rd August 1914

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