Wednesday, November 26, 2008

May 21, 2008, Viseu, Portugal

Continuing with our 2008 trundle around Europe, we decided to head east from the Atlantic coast and the tawdry town of Barra and get back to Spain which, by now, had started to look quite attractive. About halfway across, on the A25 road, is the city of Viseu.
The Romans kept a 90 acre garrison on the hilltop that eventually
became Viseu. In the 6th century, the Suevi tribe of the Vandals drove the Romans off and installed a Catholic regime on the area. The Visigoths, in turn, frightened off the Vandals in the 7th century but shortly thereafter, were themselves ejected by the Moors.
The Moors hung in until the 12th century when King Alfonso V of León drove the Moors away and annexed the area into the County of Portucale. Later, when Dom Afonso invented the Kingdom of Portugal, Viseu became part and of it. Check out a few of the local sights here.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

May, 2008 - Continental Camping and other Odd Things

European camping is so very different from the leisurely, made in the shade luxury we enjoy here in the US. It's not that it's bad, it's just different. Check out some of the "sites".

Friday, November 21, 2008

May 20th, 2008 - Barra, A Day at the Beach!

About halfway down the coast of Portugal there is a large sand bar that forms a complex of intra-coastal waterways. In 1932, the Big Cheese of Portugal, Presidente da Republica General Antonio Oscar de Fragoso Carmona Iancou, solemnly laid the first stone of a monument commemorating the development of the area. Subsequently Praia Barro (Barro Beach) and Costa Nova (New Coast) grew into laid back communities of low cost housing. In the last few years however, everything has changed - this rustic area was "discovered" and quickly sprouted high rise holiday homes and yuppie cafes while the waterways filled with leisure boats and the low cost houses were tarted up to imitate holiday homes. Each to his own. Additional scenes from paradise here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

May 20, 2008 - Coimbra, Portugal

Our Coimbra day was one of those occasional days when we should have stayed in bed. "Big Cityed" out, horrible humidity, on and off rain and no possible chance of parking near the good stuff all combined to render a unamimous decision for a short visit. We took a slothful stroll along the river, rubbernecked a while and left.
Coimbra is the seventh largest city in Portugal and is number seven of just eight cities that have a population over 100,000.
The University of Coimbra, with 23,000 students on campus, many of them international, was founded in 1290 and is the oldest academic institution in Portugal and one of the oldest in Europe. A further 12,000 students attend other higher education institutions giving the town an energetic and cosmopolitan atmosphere.
The city contains important archeological remains, including a well preserved aqueduct, from the time when it was the Roman town of Aeminium. Built on a hill near the river Mondego, Coimbra is located near the Atlantic coast, 70 miles south of Porto, 120 miles north of Lisbon and about 25 miles inland. Around 600 CE, the Visigoths kicked the romans out before being vanquished themselves by the Moors in 711. Five hundred and fifty years later, in 1064, Ferdinand I of León booted the Moors out - score one for the Christians!
Several extant monuments such as the Old Cathedral, the Church of St. James and the Santa Cruz Monastery date back to the period commencing with Ferdinand I. Some remnants of the original city wall fortifications are stll visible. Lots of great sights in Coimbra from all reports - kinda sorry we were not more up to the challenge.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

October 8th, 2008 - A European Refuge

For the last couple of years we have been fortunate to have had the use of a UK based European camper van (RV) for several months. All told, between the spring of 2007 and the summer of 2008, we spent more than a third of a year traveling the highways and byways of about 20 European countries and visiting more than 100 camp sites. The only problem we've encountered to date, is that the experience is habit forming - so much scenery, so many historical sites, so much cuisine, so many shopping adventures and all this in a variety of languages.
The question then became "How to organize to be able to make such visits on an as required basis". Some research and a little luck produced a possible answer - "Turner Cars and Campers" in Utrecht, NL, so off to Utrecht we went. To make a long story short, after verifying how the plan works we scouted around for a suitable vehicle and quickly became the impoverished owners of a mobile holiday home in Europe. See here for pictures of "Ons Huis".
Europe anyone?

Sunday, November 16, 2008

October 4th, 2008 - Nether Netherland

After a frigid day in Harwich we felt in need of a little coddling, perhaps even a lot of coddling. Our expectations of a cabin on the ferry had not been high and included greasy metal grid floors, rusting communal toilets, fishy smelling corridors and indescribable galley food.
What a pleasant surprise then, that the Stena Line ferry turned out to be a mini cruise ship. Comfortable room, crisp linens, large private bath and shower, great shopping and two restaurants serving delicacies such as Steak
Pie and Fries swimming in Gravy - Mmmm. Thus was our need for pampering sated.
Next morning we woke in Holland, left the ferry and took a train into
Rotterdam. There we picked up a car and set off into the hinterland. Although the focus of our visit was Utrecht we actually spent little time there, instead we ran around all over the local countryside and spent a whole lot of time looking for vacant hotel rooms - the whole place seemed to be buzzing.
We did visit a little place called Harderwijk a couple of times and managed a quick walkabout.
See here for more of this Dutch treat.

October 3rd, 2008 - Harwich, a Day at the Seaside

Bright and early on Friday, we boarded a bus to Liverpool Street Station in north east London, from which trains serve the 2 o'clock sector of England, known as East Anglia. About an hour and a half later, during which we reached speeds of 92 mph, we alighted in Harwich and were chastened by cold, windy and wet weather. Brr.
Harwich is a threadbare coastal town in the county of Essex, that provides the only significant protected anchorage on the North Sea coast between the Thames in the south and the River Humber in Yorkshire. The town received its charter in 1238, became a naval base in 1657 and was fortified with the Harwich Redoubt and a couple of coastal batteries in 1808, to ward off possible attack during the Napoleonic War. At one time an important port, Harwich, like the ports of London, was left behind by containerization and now has little more than a struggling ferry terminal. It is highly-regarded in architectural circles and is mostly under protection as a conservation area.
Some buildings of note include the parish church of St. Nicholas and the Guildhall of 1769, the only Grade I listed building in Harwich. The Pier Hotel of 1860 and Great Eastern Hotel of 1864 (now an apartment block) both grew out of increased traffic after the railway arrived in 1854. Click here for more.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

September 30th, 2008 - Some City Sights

"The City" covers just about 1 square mile. This is pretty much the area walled in by the Romans in the 2nd century to protect their port and, with a small deviation here and there, the original wall line still defines the city. Prior to 1666 with its Great Fire, the area fairly bristled with churches - more than 100 of them, 97 of which fell within the walls. The fire destroyed 89 of these and, after much debate, just 51 replacement churches were rebuilt, mostly by Christopher Wren.
Totaling these with new churches built in the 18th and 19th centuries, less losses
due to WWII and normal attrition, today a mere 38 survive.
In the meantime however, the City population increased from 200,000
residents at the time of the fire, to a peak of around 400,000 from which it has steadily declined to less than 8,000 currently - about 160 potential parishioners per church. Essentially, the entire square mile has been absorbed by the financial community and every working day some 300,000 commuters pour in and out of the area. As in European cities, the protection of so many historical buildings runs counter to the needs of modernization and efficiency required to maintain a competitive business environment. In London's case at least, there exists a solution in the razing of the docklands and the development of a whole new "City" known as Canary Wharf. Hopefully, this will not soon lead to mourning for the old City. Check here for some City pics.

September 30th, 2008 - A Tour of Towers

Traveling up the River Thames from its estuary in the North Sea, the first bridge to be seen is the iconic Tower Bridge, built at the end of the 19th century. Named not for its own towers, but for its proximity to the Tower of London, one of the best known attractions in London, that graces the north bank of the river at this point.
Soundly in the land of Roman invaders, plagues, fires, empire building and
treachery, pirates and cutthroats, the former business center of the world, feuding royal lines and more sights per mile than anywhere else in Europe it is truly a place worth visiting. For more drivel, click here.

September 30th, 2008 - A Rainy River Ride

This was another excursion, booked via the Internet before leaving the US, that went according to script. A couple of bus rides to get to Westminster Bridge where there is a City Cruises pier and jump on the next boat to leave for Greenwich, a southeast Borough of London about 7 miles downriver. The plan then was to have lunch in Greenwich before catching another boat back as far as the Tower of London and walking west from there. The weather was not too cooperative - on and off rain, occasional torrential downpours and a strong, biting west wind. England in the fall...
The boat skippers voluntarily provide an interesting, amusing and frequently inaccurate running commentary in a dialect reminiscent of an uncultured version of the talking gecko seen on TV. This turned out to
be a terrific bonus since so many features would otherwise have slid by completely unnoticed. If nothing else, a solid day spent on the river would be a great primer for planning future on-shore trips.
Lunch in Greenwich was a disaster with brolly breaking high winds and heavy rains, the 19th century tea clipper,
Cutty Sark, discovered burnt to the ground and a heart clogging clump of fish and chips to contemplate. As soon as the next boat arrived it was back to the big city. Pictures on this page are from Wikipedia. Click here for River Thames pictures.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Retracing the Royal Route

Whenever there's serious Kinging or Queening to be done in England, weddings, coronations and things like that, the Royals hitch up one of their fairy coaches and trot the 1.4 miles from the Palace to Westminster Abbey. There's a ton of stuff to see along the way so it seemed a good choice with which to start the journey home from the London Eye. Check out some of the sights here.
After leaving the Palace, the rest of the journey back to Marylebone passed by Green Park, Piccadilly Circus, Regents Street, Carnaby Street, All Souls Church and the original British Broadcasting Corporation building. More pictures here.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

The London Eye, a wheel treat

The London Eye - officially the Millennium Wheel - is 443 feet high, the biggest Ferris wheel in Europe and the most popular paid tourist attraction in the United Kingdom attracting about 3-1/2 million riders each year. At completion, in December 1999, it was the tallest such wheel in the world but was eclipsed in 2006 by the Star of Nanchang at 525 feet which in turn was topped by the Singapore Flyer in 2008, at 542 feet.
Located on the South Bank of the River Thames close to Westminster Bridge in the same area occupied by the 1951 Festival of Britain, the London Eye is catty-corner to the Houses of Parliament across the river. Thirty-two air-conditioned capsules, each capable of holding around 25 punters, are mounted around the wheel, which rotates at 10 inches per second (about 0.5mph), one revolution taking about 30 minutes. From the top, on a clear day, it is possible to see about 25 miles in all directions - click here for details.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Polemics, Mohamed's shop and Albert's memorial

In addition to plenty of parks, London also has lots of train stations. Ignoring subway and other commuter stops there are no less than eight major rail terminals clustered around town. The Romans, who originally laid out London, built their cities with radial roads - one road for each significant distant destination. Inconveniently, this system survived the centuries and, when the railways came along, stations were slavishly built more or less coinciding with the original Roman roads. By this mechanism, the whole country is neatly chopped up like the pieces of a pie.
Unfortunately, to tra
vel from the nine o'clock sector to the six o'clock sector of the pie, it is necessary to take a train to the nine o'clock station, Paddington, struggle with bus or subway to the five mile distant six o'clock station, Victoria, and then get the train out again. All unlikely to change anytime soon.
Marian left from St Pancras Station, the one o'clock sector, to do her baby
visits in Nottingham which is about halfway up the country. When she returned we met her at the same station and then went walkabout. Check here for more cheap thrills.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Marylebone and about

London is well endowed with parks and commons. There are 10 major Royal Parks and over 100 other significant open spaces. It is a straightfoward matter to cross central London, from Kensington Palace to Parliament Square, without stepping out of a park except to cross a street separating one from another. With its name derived from the small church St Mary on the Bourne, Marylebone became a popular residential district due to its location between the peaceful Regents Park and bustling Oxford Street. The 487 acre The Regents Park is just to the north with the 256 feet high Primrose Hill open space immediately to the north of that. The Regents Park is home to the London Zoo and is also crossed by the Regents Canal connecting the Grand Union Canal to the former London Docks. In addition to a boating lake, the park provides all manner of sporting facilities and miles of walking and jogging tracks. See some of the sights here.