Just can’t wait to get on the road again
The life I love is making water with my friends (Willie Nelson, coach tour of Spain)
Of course a coach tour is not really the same as being on the road as a musician, so I’ve heard. In the latter, bad breath and a hangover is practically obligatory. And you don’t have a tour guide/director nagging your socks off.
The last time we did a coach tour it was pre-kids and we went up the North East of the USA and into Canada with a mix of folk from England, Wales, Eire, the Netherlands and some total pain in the arse sovereign citizen “I don’t have to pay tax, its in the Constitution” types from Queensland – one of whom I ended up in an argument with about Constitutional law, about which I know something having passed it, when it was de rigeur to fail, and finished a devastating submission on said subject “now shut the fuck up and leave me alone”. He did.
On the tour, two ladies from Eire became firm friends, one, a pillar of society in Cork, becoming a lasting travel companion on a number of other trips, including our last foray to the Dingle Peninsula and with whom we shared the inestimable pleasure of witnessing a local farmer unleashing the ripest of profanities upon a sheepdog. The pillar of society practically swooned and I managed to persuade Charlottey that the farmer was telling the dog what to do in Gaelic.
The tour guide was a dour and boring as batshit Dutch woman called Susannah who took us to all the choicestly tacky tourist traps and appeared to be on a sling from the proprietors of same. I certainly witnessed her taking a couple of brown paper bags in the same embarrassed fashion that the unashamedly corrupt never display Naturally we rebelled. For example we were practically ordered to all have lunch in the one spot near Kennebunkport. It was one of those all-you-can-eat buffets where the food looked like shit and tasted worse. However as our coach (part of a flotilla of 4) pulled into town we espied a rustic looking place on the river, with a water-wheel and what to any trained Australian eye looked like a beer garden over the water. A big sign said “Fish and Chips”. Right. While Susannah’s back was turned we skedaddled and made our way to this waterside Nirvana. It is my patriotic duty to advise that every single citizen of Felix Australis from the tour had done likewise. And while our compatriots were given the goose liver treatment with factory swill and warm coke we dined royally on swordfish steaks, chips as only are prepared in the umpteenth layer of heaven, washed down with craft beers.
We got in a lot of trouble for that.
Our current tour director has missed his calling. The chap’s name is Enrique. Young, handsome and looks a lot like Ricky Martin. But this is Spain and most of the blokes, and a large percentage of the women do as well, so it is nothing to be too excited about. He should either be in stand up comedy, although the recycled 2 Ronnies jokes are a bit naff, or early childhood education. He is obsessed with the regularity of our bowels and ensuring our bladders do not burst. In the pre-tour meeting some 50% of the time was spent in discussing the need to maintain hydraulic efficiency and, as Phil the Greek once observed, “never lose the opportunity” for a pee. Such is his solicitousness vide same I would not be surprised if we had pulled up in some secluded spot on the highway and got ordered off the bus for him to produce some plastic receptacles and shout “potty time!”.
The local guides were much the same, directing our attention to landmarks, toilets, art, toilets, souvenir shops, toilets, restaurants with toilets. And toilets.
I’ve not been told to go to the bog so much since kindergarten.
The tour commenced in Madrid, where we had spent a few days already. Of course a visit to Madrid is not complete without a mosey around the Prado Gallery – a counterpoint, if you will, to the perplexity of the Marcel Broodthayers retrospective elsewhere. Is the art magnificent? Yes. What’s it worth? Squintillions. Did I like it? No. Walking from room to room observing for the umpteenth time the crucifixion, the resurrection, the persecution of this person, the martyrdom of that one, etc it was all death, death, deathity-death with a loving spoonful of the worst imaginable, and unimaginable tortures, such as The Hanging by the Bollocks of St Goolius and most of it in the nick.
Now, I’m as broad minded as the next man but this art (and Marcel and his eggs were looking better by the minute) was evoking a sense in me that the creators and purveyors of same had a prurience not quite in keeping with what one might generally associate with any particular form of morality. Worse, it seemed also to be largely in the name of perpetuating, via scaring the shit out of you, a series of myths for the purpose of preserving an existing social order and structure, rather than anything else, with a strong and rather tasteless S+M/necrophiliac theme going on.
As Christopher Hitchens said “Christianity is a sick death cult”.
After an hour of so of I found it all positively oppressive. It was almost like a weight on my shoulders, which you ought not mistake for guilt as I am a born again atheist. I just yearned for something a bit more cheerful than a highly colourful representation of the bloody awfulness of the human condition as represented and perpetuated by religion. That a lot stuff all allegedly comes from a period allegedly known as the “renaissance” don’t matter a hill of beans.
Because if it represents a transition from the so-called Dark Ages, the transition is little more than watching porno in digital rather than analog.
Charlottey was feeling the same way, little bloody heathen that she is, but she sparked up when we did find a lovely painting of Noah counting the animals in 2 by 2. A wide range of critters were represented in this particular work but I am sure that certain precautions should have been taken – like segregating the rabbits for starters.
One work did actually catch my eye and did hold my interest (apart from the stoning of a Saint and I noticed his second toe was longer than his big one – an attention to detail that is commendable) and that is Mary and the Souls in Purgatory (Pedro Machuca C16). This represents herself and her baby expressing milk from her breasts onto tortured souls in Purgatory thus cleansing them etc.
Now do not for one moment think I am actually being smutty. Breast is best and all that sort of thing and to hell with anyone who gives a mother a hard time for feeding a baby in public. But as I studied the painting and read the screed that went with it and reflected on what it all means and such, but one thing went through my mind “What the bloody hell was Pedro thinking?” This is the wife of a Jewish Galilee chippie for goodness sakes, not a post-partum Kim Kardashian shooting YouTube clips. I did ponder whether Pedro might have been wet nursed or bottle-fed or was just a boob man and got nowhere with it. He would have had Freud knackered. And I’ll tell you something, come out with something like that these days, and the protests vide Piss Christ would look like a picnic in comparison.
Leaving the Prado and the Super-Soaker Virgin and it’s time to meet our group. Ricky has us gathered in the dining room and gives us the low down of all the do’s and don’ts. Most of it is don’ts, including, peculiarly, not using the loo on the bus. We can use any others the length and breadth of the Iberian Peninsula and are actively encouraged to do so. But not the one on the bus.
Another don’t is pocketing nosh from the breakfast buffet to nibble on throughout the day. Firstly, they don’t want the bus to get all manky and secondly – well, there isn’t a secondly. While we might have paid for the food we are only permitted to eat it in the actual room. The waiters will be watching us like hawks. Ha. I’m here to tell you that me and my crew are expert foragers, as has been explained elsewhere, and can pocket muffins, croissants, fruit and bread rolls in a sleight of hand that would leave Harry Potter scratching his head. And we are on the road after all so thinking of a rainy day is an article of faith. We managed.
We are issued with little receivers with earpieces
This is for the purpose of shoogling us from point of interest to point of interest without having to shout. Ricky said these things were called “Whispers” which evinced some snickering among some of the ladies and a few of the blokes, noting that this is also a brand of feminine hygiene product, or “ladies’ tackle” as my Grandad would have it, in many parts of the world. Although not Spain, apparently. Everywhere we get off the bus we are exhorted to “Don’t forget your Whispers” and Ricky didn’t twig to why this produced muffled hilarity. Bless.
The fun bit is that there is an earpiece on a cable and we all wander about looking like the Secret Service would look if an Oompah-Loompah was President.
The tour group itself was a mishmash of folk from a few different places – Sri Lanka, Wales, Canada, India, Taiwan, Singapore and Oz. There are some interesting personalities such as the two that wait for the precise moment for Ricky to be imparting important information concerning timings, safety and stuff and immediately start talking, to be comprehensively “shooshed” with extreme prejudice. Then there is the sociopathic dentist from Ontario with a European accent straight from Transylvania who flatly refuses to rotate on the bus because of “travel sickness”. Pig’s arse – she just wants the best seat behind the driver. On walkabout she attaches herself to Ricky and the local guides as with a portable umbilical cord and won’t shut up with pointless observations and frivolous and vexatious questions, is constantly walking in front of photographs or standing in the way with an evil look on her dial; probably much like the one she adopts when doing root canal without anaesthesia and is otherwise as popular as dentists generally are.
Why someone so bloody awkward and anti-human comes on a group tour is beyond me. She may have been genuinely lonely, but she was also genuinely a pain in the arse, according to the two who had initially room-shared with her. She insisted on sleeping with the dunny light on, snored like a chainsaw, talked to herself both in awake and sleep mode and, given the accent, was likely a vampire. Anyhow following an unfortunate incident in Alhambra the two rotators claimed to have the ‘flu and didn’t want the Countess of Bathory to get it and so are happy for herself to continue the tour with her own room. Ricky assented and the gleam of triumph in the ivory mechanic’s eye was nothing to the look of relief and joy of her former room-mates. Whenever I picture this person as a dentist I can only imagine the her looming over me with the instruments of torture held firmly, looking like Hannibal Lecter with a good appetite.
So we hit the road with our destination being Granada, but a stop at Toledo for a dauner around the old city. One word for Toledo – spectacular.
Toledo, like a lot of places in Spain is as old as recorded history, as back as the BC times it was a fortified city, occupied over time by the usual suspects: Romans, Visigoths, Arabs and Moors until Alfonso VI got the Spanish shit in a sock and re-took the city. The 3 main Abrahamic religions managed, on one view, to generally live alongside each other here during a period known as La Convivencia (The Co-existence). There is an alternate school of thought that while the three religions did manage to co-exist there was hostility and violence which only seemed to subside following the establishment of Catholic rule which included the expulsion of the Jews and the forced conversion or slaughter of the Muslims. Sigh. Imagine.
The old city of Toledo is a joy to wander around in. The streets are incredibly narrow. Chavi, our local guide, explained that this was a Moorish thing, keeping the streets cool in summer and shelter from the cold winds in winter. Cars are actually driven down these streets – less than 10% room for error with a bee’s dick allowance of zero:
Toledo is very well known for a fab piece of artwork by El Greco (the Greek) – The Burial of the Count of Orgaz. OK, another death theme, but with a great backstory. The Count was a great philanthropist and decreed that when he carked he was to be buried in an unassuming grave and he was such a decent chap, as evidenced by his large gifts of moolah to the Church that St Stephen and St Augustine personally dropped by to bury him. They did it in front of everyone too, which is kind of neat:
A couple of fun facts. The kid in the front row is El Greco’s son, Jorge. Note, however, how he is holding the torch. The little scamp is setting fire to bloke in the grey cowl. And if you take a closer view of the look on his face he knows exactly what he is about. Fine boy. Also, the bloke looking at us immediately above the raised hand is El Greco. Ergo, an early selfie. What you won’t find in the books, according to Chavi, was that while the picture is utterly fab, those in higher authority felt that El Greco was taking the piss somewhat and he fell out of favour. Even so, in high season the queue to get to see the painting is often several hundred metres long. Unless you are French, of course, and you go straight to the front.
Toledo is also possessed of a swish Catedral:
We didn’t go in. The last Catedral we visited was in Madrid where on our way back from a major tapas blow-out we dropped into the Catedral. We were met at the front of the crypt by this:
It was “voluntary”. Right. That’s why they had an enforcer on the door. I dropped in a 5 Euro note. And we wandered about noting there are some really creepy wooden altar boys that follow you around.
At Toledo they were less subtle. Entry fee E10. This is the second richest Catedral in Spain. Sorry, but am I missing something here? Two Catedrals. On prime real estate, worth a bomb, owned by arguably the richest Church in the known Galaxy and they are either panhandling for donations or charging a flat fee to get in while, noting the scenario in Australia (and elsewhere) fighting tooth and toenail to not pay compensation to people who suffered the most appalling abuse as kids and not paying, as an institution, tax. Well, as Shakespeare might have said “fuck dat shit”.
Also the votive candles are not only electric but you only get to light one with the insertion of .50c. How cheap is that?
Confession – this photo is actually from Lisbon, but I got unnerved in Madrid due to wooden altarboy. William though it was Chucky’s cousin.
The hypocrisy is breathtaking. But then again hypocrisy and religion go hand in hand. And on the other hand, take masturbation, the penalty for which has traditionally been anything from going blind to burning in hellfire and everything in-between. Check out this guy though:
Enough of this juvenility. Toledo, as any boy scout who had one of the red handled sheath knives in the 1970s will tell you (leather sheath too!) makes good steel. Every second shop was a veritable armoury of blades of every shape and style and we were fortunate enough to visit a place with the oldest forge in Spain:
We then had a tour around the shop. Note the displays. A lovely advisory was that “You are strongly advised not to play with the swords”. Pig’s arse to that. The shop became a scene from Braveheart and some of us were lucky not to lose an eye, arm, leg or anything else. So for those of you that like to get your Jaime Lannister or Brienne of Tarth or even a Highlander without a Scottish accent or a Spaniard with a Scottish accent on and wander about tooled up, have a squint at this lot:
Hello muddah, hello faddah
Next stop, Granada. This is, of course, where one of the most elegant and wonderful historical sites, Alhambra, is at. There is lots and lots to say about Alhambra, but the best thing to do is wander around and take in the utter splendour of the place.
Alhambra is incredibly romantic. Part it was built especially for a honeymoon by Prince something or other. Him and the wife rooted themselves stupid in it and then used it for nothing else. A more recent tale has more of the flowery stuff
At Alhambra there is a schedule tighter than your quoit when you have the trots and a cough, with timed entrances. Miss your entrance time and you’ve done your dough. One of our number, travelling solo, a youngish lady from Singapore, following the advice of Enrique to always use the restrooms as much as possible, wanders off in search of the ladies’. Didn’t tell anyone, although her then room-mate did know she’d gone off but said nothing. While away our local guide, Miguel, comes back with our tix and we have to go. At a canter. A number of us voice concern for our colleague. Mig is a bit callous, and only after a bit does he go and talk to a guard and get them on the look out. Some of our number step off smartly but about half of us dawdle like anything, with one young bloke trying to call said waif and stray (who was by now having a panic attack we learned later) and me and my young bloke keeping a lookout as arse-end Charlies. No dice. Our timed ticket has come up and we have to go. And we do. At a snail’s pace, and Miguel, picks up the vibe and slows up too. Hevenchewually he gets a call. Our colleague ” ‘as been founded” and he vaminoses off to go and get her while we all stay put and behave. Actually we wandered off and buggerised about. Presently he returns with herself – and there are tears and hugs all round.
Of course this would have put everyone on notice to stick together. Yeah, nah. The straggling became intense as the episode brought together those who had wanted to stay and wait, and they faffed about, taking silly photos and generally wasting time. Loved it and Miguel thought it funny too. Anyhow, we got back to the parking lot and there is our lady’s saviour, a complete dish of a chap who is a guard and who saw her in distress, slayed 10 dragons, plus a giant or two, picked up her hanky and saw her safe. She asks for a picture of the two on her phone. Not wanting to miss a thing I oblige. Next thing he’s asking her to send him the pix. So she gets his email. She gives hers. Bugger it, they swap phone numbers. They will call each other. She is literally melting and he then plays the ace, the left and right bowers and the joker: “I am not Spanish though, I am from Italy”. Bingo.
It would, of course, be rotten of me to tell you that the psycho dentist from Ontario had been the damsel in distress’ roomie the night before, so pretend I didn’t.
The Costa del Sold: Malaga
The next stop on the tour was Malaga. Two words. It’s crap. Another two. Don’t go. In season it is hot and horrible and full of aged English tourists. So in the land of the sun-tanned and swarthy El Cid in full battle armour, putting the Moors to flight with martial cries and sending all the Senoritas in a state of swoon the best you can hope for is a pink and wrinkled Old Sid, in terry towelling hat, shorts, socks and sandals, moaning about the food and the toilet paper and being nagged to death by his vulture of a wife whose gob demonstrates perpetual motion. Out of season it’s still crap. Long streets closed off to traffic with the sort of anodyne and generic shops you can find anywhere and it is only the fact that people are talking Spanish and are otherwise having a kip between 3 and 5pm that lets you know it is in Spain. Where normally you could skive off down a side street – forget it. They are all blocked off and smell of cat’s piss. So down tourism central you are sent.
Why, oh why do we do this? Why do we make everywhere else seem exactly the same as anywhere else selling the same anywhere else shit to the same anywhere else people that you would gladly go to anywhere else to avoid, but you can’t. As I may have pointed out before, the point of travel is to be somewhere, not in a random anywhere. Frankly, given a choice over the Malagas of the world, and I’ve been to a lot of them, I’d prefer to be in the middle of fucking nowhere. Then at least I’d know where I was.
The only thing Malaga has is funny shop signs.
Bidding a glad farewell to Malaga, and making a vow never to return, even if I ever own a terry-towelling hat or sandals, we made our way to Seville. The trip was memorable for two things. Enrique doing both a gentle advocacy for and spirited disapproval of, bullfighting and his choice of music, for “relaxation”.
Bullfighting. In some areas of Spain this is banned. In others they go nuts for it. In the latter the nuts of the bull are also a delicacy, but the bull must first be slaughtered for amusement of the locals. Actually, first, it has to be bred. And there are whole acreages set aside for raising toros, that are fed, watered and exercised and spoiled rotten for 4 years or so until it’s off to Pamplona or some such where these pampered bovines are let loose on the streets for the amusement of the several and the purpose of injuring, hopefully fatally, drunken Australian tourists. From thence it is to the bullrings. Apparently great store is set on the bravery of the bull and the incredible courage of the matador but it is all crap.
First, the bull is merely doing what bulls will do if you rile them up – gore you, stomp on you and generally give you a thin time for interrupting their chewing of the cud. And fair enough, you deserve it. Second, there is nothing brave about any of this. The fight lasts 20 minutes. This is so the bull doesn’t learn the moves and runs anyone through or gets bored, has a crap and chews some more cud. The fight is in 3 phases. The first is when a pair of idiots on blindfolded horses padded up as if for cricket gallop about and poke the bull with lances in the shoulders to cause blood loss and weakness in the neck area. The second phase is where a troika of pillocks on foot stab the bull with barbed sticks around the shoulders causing further weakness and blood loss. By the time the third phase starts the bull is quite wobbly from loss of blood and cannot hold its head up properly and can only look directly at the cape that the matador is waving around in a rather effeminate fashion. Eventually when the poor sod of a bull is utterly exhausted the heroic matador, dressed in very heroic garb of plus fours, a too short but heroic gold lame jacket, tights, dancing pumps and a Mickey Mouse hat, runs it through with a sword. The bull collapses and your man then runs around like he just scored the winning goal in the world cup or is on a promise from Salma Hayak.
So to recap. The big hero at the bullfight is the one who comes on right at the very end when all the hard work has been done by others. Hero? No. Bullfighting is a longish buildup to a coward’s punch in fancy dress. I’d sooner go to a Broodthayers retrospective or watch a lactating virgin (and riddle me that one, Batman) giving Purgatory the once over.
This was, of course, tempered, by the tour music. Andean pipes. Saying a prayer that we’d be spared El Condor Pasa (beautifully renamed I’d Rather be a Hanky than a Snot by P.J. O’Rourke) I settled back….and descended into Hell. The playlist for which is:
Imagine (I wish)
Fernando (My bollocks are exploding in slow motion)
Woman in Love (Followed by my skull)
Where Do I Begin? (Please don’t)
Let It Go (And don’t pick it up again)
IIIIYIIIIIIYIIIII Will Always Love Yoouuuuuuuuuuuuu (Agghhhhhhhhhh!)
Personally, I think the bull got off lightly. I distinctly heard Jose, our driver, gritting his teeth.
This was a highlight. First off there is Spanish Square, which as well as being utterly spectacular was used for a Star Wars movie and it doesn’t get a lot better than that.
Eschewing the evening’s entertainment of a dinner and a flamingo – (or was it flamenco?), we went to see Seville give Malaga FC a seeing to in the local derby. The stadium was packed, noisier than I even believed Spaniards were capable of – even the Malaga FC supporters, confined, we think, for their own safety, to one corner of the ground made a hell of a racket. The home hooligans behind the goals were moshing like the dickens, jumping up and down like Masai tribesmen with itchy bums and making the Barmy Army sound like a bridge club in a library. But this was soccer and, ergo, with bugger all going on largely vide the game there was plenty of the usual histrionics associated with this most theatrical of sports which I punctuated with sledges more suited to a Raider’s match (I was wearing Raiders clobber too): dive taking (“get up ya sook!”); appeals for penalties (“tell him he’s dreamin'”) and Lazarus like recoveries when same were denied (“Feeling better, Jose?”); high dudgeon when yellow cards were dispensed (“he’s been doing it all day”) and grand mal trantrums for a red (“off off off, y’grub”). Some goals were scored, but it all got missed in the rest of the palaver.
Seville, like most Spanish cities, is a wonder just to swan about. Twas but a short walk from our hotel to downtown, perhaps a mile at the most, this being nothing to such seasoned city walkers and cheapskates as ourselves who eschew buses as for the soft. Thusly we found ourselves at the Catedral where Christopher Columbus is safely buried. There is any amount of revisionism now about that masturbating, fornicating, sonofabitch (so the ditty goes) Columbo and rightly so. First. He did not discover America. Are we clear? There were people already there and perfectly happy to get on with things without the trappings of so called civilisation. Second, nor did he bring civilisation to the Americas neither.
OK, at that time in the Americas there were cultures that practised genocide, feudalism, slavery and public human sacrifice to appease the gods in a society where religion and the royalty reigned supreme. What Spain brought was essentially no different. They just changed the gods and whomsoever was in charge. There was still death in quantity, usually in public and a heaping helping of torture to go with it. Slavery was also a thing and genocide went with the territory.
So now he is under this slab:
And given what he unleashed in the Americas he deserves to be a lot further down.
Seville is also fabulously easy to get lost in, and, we are given to understand, practically compulsory. So we did, and wandered around. First it was with absolutely no idea, happily, then slightly unhappily, then downright pissed offedly, then going postally emerging not where we thought we might, which would have been a short wander of 500m back to our digs, but right at the beginning of downtown where we had originally started and consequently a further mile to go, this being practically fatal to such over it city walkers and cheapskates who had not studied the bus timetables as ourselves.
Never mind. We will revive on the 4 hours to Portugal. Without Andean pipes. We think Jose nicked the CD and binned it.