Category Archives: Travel

History Is Happening All The Time

Pont Romá Mallorca

It would feel safe to say that the island of Mallorca was inhabited well before the Romans came to settle. In prehistoric times, in the Neolithic period, there was life on the island, mostly in caves, it is said. At around 2500 B. C. and up to about 1400 B. C., one speaks of the pre-Talaiotic period, coinciding with the bronze and iron ages, when people settled in caves and man-made Navetes. The Talaiotic period covers the time between 1400 B. C. and the arrival of the Romans, at around 123 B. C., when Talaiotic settlements were built with impressive towers and robust fortifications.

The Romans changed all that. It seems that they first arrived on the Northern shore of the island. Settlements were made in Bocchoris near what today is Port de Pollença, and Pollentia, near today’s Alcúdia. The Pont Roma (Roman bridge, shown here) in Pollença dates from approximately 400 A. D.

The North of the island must have had its attraction for the early settlers just as it has today, what with Port d’Alcúdia, Port de Pollença, Formentor, s’Albufera and the scenery between the Badia de Pollença and the Badia de Alcúdia, embracing the Peninsula de la Victoria. One might assume that the Romans did not play golf nor practiced kite surfing nor cycling, but they may have done some bird watching, mountaineering or rock climbing, just as you can do today in this popular part of Mallorca.

If you should be looking for accommodation in the rural area of Alcúdia, there is plenty of accommodation for rent, such as can be found at Alcúdia villas. Enjoy an encounter with the past when you savour your holiday.

Primus Circumdedistum

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On the last day of this year I want to tell you about something first ever. Or rather, someone who was the first one ever.

Juan Sebastián Elcano was the first man, and a Spanish one at that, who ever made the complete circumnavigation of the globe. Of course, the world thinks that it was Portuguese-born naval commander and navigator Hernando Magellan (Portuguese: Fernão de Magalhães) to claim such a feat, but one tends to overlook that Magellan was killed during a fight with natives in the Philippine Islands, half way through the circumference. Hence, Magellan attempted, but never completed the full circuit. 

Once Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese arrived in India in 1498, it became urgent for Spain to find a new commercial route to Asia and the Spice Islands. The Treaty of Tordesillas (see my entry dated  April 6th, 2007) reserved for Portugal the sea routes that went around Africa. The Spanish Crown therefore decided to send out exploratory expeditions in order to find a way to Asia, travelling westwards. 

Magellan had tried, but had failed to convince Manuel, the 14th King of Portugal and the Algarves, of such an endeavour. However, he was more successful in convincing the Spanish King Carlos V of his proposition. 

Magellan set out from Sevilla, Spain, in 1519 in service of the Spanish Crown with an expeditionary fleet of five vessels and a total of 265 men, including 40 from the Basque land (amongst which Juan Elcano from Getaria, Guipúzcoa). After Magellan’s death, it was Juan Elcano who brought the only surviving of Magellan’s original five ships, the Victoria, back to Sevilla with a handful of survivors, in September 1522, after a journey lasting three years and one month.

An adventurer, Elcano fought under orders of Gonzalo Fernández de Córdoba in Italy and, in 1509, he joined the expedition organized by Cardinal Cisneros against Algiers. Later, he settled himself in Sevilla and became a merchant ship captain.

After violating Castilian law by surrendering a ship of his to Genoan bankers in repayment of a debt, he sought a pardon from the Spanish King, by signing on, as a subordinate officer, to Hernando Magellan’s expedition to open a westward route to the Spice Islands (Molucca Islands). He was spared from execution by Magellan after taking part in a failed mutiny in Patagonia and, after five months of hard labour in chains, Elcano was made captain of the Concepción, one of the five vessels.

Elcano went on to take command of the fleet when Magellan was killed in the battle of Mactan, the Philippines, on April 27th, 1521. Only three ships of the original fleet survived by then, but there were insufficient hands to man them, so Elcano set the Concepción on fire and continued the voyage with the Trinidad and the Victoria.

Confused as to what direction to take, they sailed west towards Borneo, where they contacted the Sultan of Brunei. After a conflict with the Sultan’s men, they sailed back eastward and then southeast towards the Spice Islands.

After arriving in the Molucca Islands November 8th, 1521, and loading the ships with spices, he divided the fleet: the Trinidad was to sail back through the Pacific Ocean, while the Victoria, captained by Elcano himself, would risk the passage of the Indian Ocean, a Portuguese controlled area. The Trinidad was left behind for repairs and was later stripped by the Portuguese and destroyed in a squall.

 

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In order to avoid conflict with the Portuguese, Elcano sailed directly from Timor through the Indian Ocean without approaching the coast. They reached Cape of Good Hope on May 6th, 1522.

After two months without re-supplying, in July 1522, the Victoria, without enough water or other necessary supplies, arrived at the Cabo Verde Islands, a Portuguese base in the Atlantic coast of Africa. Elcano lied to the Portuguese authorities pretending that he was sailing from the Castilian territories in America. Yet one of the sailors eventually revealed the fabrication and Elcano had to part hastily from Cabo Verde.

On September 6th, 1522, Elcano sailed into Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain, aboard the Victoria, after a 78,000 km trip around the world, along with 17 other survivors of the 265 men who originally had embarked on the expedition. The profits resulting from the spices they carried made them suitably rich.

For completing the first world circumnavigation in History and the unprecedented final sailing from the Philippines to Spain, King Carlos V awarded Juan Elcano a coat of arms with the words Primus circumdedisti me (‘You went around me first’) surrounding a world globe, plus an annual pension.

In July, 1525, Elcano sailed again from Spain, in a second expedition under command of Garcia Loaiza, and, after making some explorations on the eastern coast of South America, passed again through Magellan’s Strait, in May 1526. Loaiza died in July of that year and Elcano succeeded him, but did not survive him for very long. The voyage eventually led to the second circumnavigation of the globe, but without Elcano completing the full circuit the second time round.

The Basque people in Spain are particularly proud of Juan Sebastián Elcano for being a native of the País Vasco. The first circumnavigation of the globe was the greatest single journey ever made, by far exceeding Cristobal Colom’s discovery of the West Indies. By comparison, all subsequent journeys have been increments on the known.

On the day the leaking Victoria returned home, Elcano wrote to his King and Emperor ‘we have given practical proof that the earth is a sphere’, adding ‘having sailed round it, coming from the west, we have come back through the east’.

There has not been any event in the history of exploration which provoked among the general population such a sense of the miraculous.

Juan Sebastián Elcano’s statue (see main photo above) is erected in Getaria, Guipúzcoa, in the País Vasco. Say hello for me if you ever make it there.

Biodiversity in the Cabo Verde Islands

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May I suggest a trip to the Cabo Verde Islands, one day?

The Cabo Verde Islands (approx. 16 00 N 24 00 W) are situated about 600 km off the coast of Cap Vert, in Senegal, West Africa. If you are tired of the well trodden destinations of Greece, Thailand, the Caribbean islands, et al., why not pop down to São Vicente, for instance, for the discovery of an intriguing mixture of the African with the Portuguese and the Brazilian?

Many of us know Cabo Verde only through the haunting ‘mornas’ of Cesaria Evora, the ‘barefoot diva’. A visit to her homeland – a volcanic archipelago – helps us to understand the strange, bittersweet chemistry of West African rhythms and mournful Portuguese melodies that shape Evora’s music.

The Cabo Verde Islands (also often called Cape Verde) were discovered and colonized by the Portuguese in the middle of the 15th century; the islands belonged to Portugal until 1975 when the Republica de Cabo Verde gained independence. There are ten islands and five islets, but their total area is not much greater than the size of Mallorca, Spain, let’s say, or Rhode Island, USA, for instance. The islands are of volcanic origin, most of them being made up of high mountains covered with lava. Some of the islands are all rock; others have patches of rice, corn, and tobacco; cotton and indigo grow wild in the woods.

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The Cabo Verde Islands were turned into a major hub for the transatlantic slave trade during the 16th to 18th centuries. Most Cabo Verdeans have both African and Portuguese antecedents as a consequence of this ominous historic period.

 

The islands fall into two main groups – the Barlavento, or Windward, islands in the north, which include Santo Antão, São Vicente, Santa Luzia, São Nicolau, Boa Vista, and Sal, and the Sotavento, or Leeward, islands in the south, which include São Tiago (approx. 1,550 sq km, the largest island), Fogo, Maio, and Brava.

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The climate is generally temperate and comparable to the weather conditions of the Canary Islands, with warm, dry summers; any precipitation is meager and very erratic.

The archipelago’s beaches increasingly attract the package-tour crowd, but still, Cabo Verde seems to remain a destination for the connoisseur: the intrepid hiker, the die-hard windsurfer, the deep-sea angler and the ‘morna’ devotee.

 

Cabo Verde’s biodiversity is of global importance as it includes many endemic species of plants, birds, insects, as well as marine species. Its beaches provide important nesting sites and feeding grounds for endangered marine turtles, and breeding humpback whales that are frequently seen around Boa Vista and Sal, Boa Vista’s northern neighbour. Approximately 3,000 loggerhead turtles (Caretta caretta) nest in Boa Vista and Sal annually making these areas the second most important nesting site in the entire Atlantic Ocean.

 

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Although the islands are mountainous and of volcanic origin, the only active volcano is at the archipelago’s highest point, Cano (ca. 2,830 m), which is located on Fogo island. Cano was regularly active until the 18th century, and the volcano’s most recent eruptions were in 1951 and 1995. The area is sometimes subject to severe droughts and the fierce Harmattan, a dry and dusty West African trade wind.

Most Cabo Verdeans are of Roman Catholic faith; their religion is often mixed with the indigenous beliefs of their African ancestors.

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Portuguese and Crioulo, a blend of Portuguese and West African languages, are widely spoken. English and Spanish help if you speak neither.

 

Enjoy your trip if you do go, one day.

 

Barcelona, Here We Come

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It might have been some while since you last spent time in Barcelona. Fancy a weekend there, perhaps?

I am suggesting Barcelona, because it is right on our doorstep. It is easy to get to, and it is exciting, whatever the time of the year. Right now, Barcelona is immersed in some autumnal bliss.

Barcelona has, as most coastal towns in Spain, a long and interesting history. Since its foundation in around 200 B. C., it has been dominated in turn by Carthaginians, Visigoths and the Moors. It was not until the 9th century when the Muslims were defeated by the Christians that the city was inhabited by Cataláns. During the 14th century the Catalán mini-empire reached its splendour, extending to areas such as Valencia, the Balearics Islands and even parts of southern France. In 1473, the kingdom of Castilla invaded Catalunya after various conflicts. In 1700, the Catalán language was forbidden for a long period after the Cataláns had joined forces with the English army against Castilla.

 

During the regime of Franco, the Cataláns were repressed and their language was again forbidden, this time by the threat of death. But, when Franco died in 1975, the Cataláns got back their freedom. Today, Barcelona is a very sparkling city and Catalunya as a whole, a very independent region. Both are very proud of their very own language and a certain nation-within-a-nation status. Do not always expect to get by with your usual Castellano idiom once you stray away from the tourist trail.

 

Be that as it may be, I would suggest you fly to Barcelona. Although I have taken ferry boats plenty of times (and you may not even come, as I would, from the Balearic Isles), I do not recommend you take your car, as Barcelona is rather arduous when it comes to parking, and traffic in general.

From the airport, you can take the bus to Plaça Catalunya. From there you will best be going to your hotel by taxi. I do not suggest you stay at the rather fashionable Hotel Arts, flash and stylish as it may be, because it is just too expensive. Also, I have heard comments that the hotel service is not on the same level as are the room rates. A hotel to my liking, with a very central location and with quite a bit of historic flair, is the Majestic on Paseo de Gràcia. Josephine Baker stayed there in the Twenties.

Barcelona of course, would not be Barcelona without its glorious heritage of buildings, parks and other wonders, created by Antoni Gaudí. If you have not done the Gaudí trail yet, now is a good time. And if you should be staying at the Hotel Majestic, you cannot be better located to appreciate some great works built by Gaudí’s genius.

 

There is too much Gaudí in Barcelona and its surroundings to see them all in just a few days, but the do-not-misses are Casa Batlló, Casa Milà (La Pedrera), Palacio Güell, and Parque Güell. And most of all, of course, this wonderful cathedral of all cathedrals, La Sagrada Familia. This one has been under construction since 1885, and it is still unfinished. But I assure you that you have not seen the likes before. In 1984, Gaudí’s buildings were awarded the status of being UNESCO World Heritage sites.

 

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Next on your list of priorities will have to be some concert, opera or theatre performance. The best would be a visit to the newly rebuilt Gran Teatre de Liceu, where concerts are given this weekend of works by Igor Stravinsky, at the occasion of the composer’s 125th birthday, but I am afraid that tickets have to be booked well in advance. I suppose that the front manager at the Majestic will be able to help you, but I do not know.

Apart from the Liceu, I would recommend a visit to the Mercat de les Flors for Ballet, the Espai Escenic Brossa, the Teatre Borras, Teatre Nacional de Catalunya or the Teatre Principal. For music, mostly classical, I recommend the Auditori and the Palau de Musica Catalana with its beautiful Modernist architecture. For Pop, the Palau Jordi.

 

For more information about Barcelona see the Barcelona City Guide.

Barcelona is Spain’s creative capital, and Art with a capital A keeps the creativity going. That is Art in its widest sense, including fashion, architecture, music, design, as well as street cred. For fine art, I recommend visits to the Miró Foundation, the CaixaForum, the MOCBA Museum of Modern Art, the CCCB, the Fundación Tàpies, and the Centre Cultural Caixa de Catalunya, inside of Gaudí’s La Pedrera. And most important of all, the Picasso Museum. For friends of Pre-Columbian art, the Museum Barbier-Mueller is a must. And do not forget a visit to the Catedral de Barcelona, the cathedral.

After all that theatre and art, Picasso and Gaudí, you will want to wine and dine in Barcelona. Barcelona is one of the World Capitals of good food. There are too many restaurants (more than 10,000), tapas bars, bodegas and cervezerias to choose from, and some of them of a very good quality. I suggest that you buy yourself a copy of B-guided or of Guía del Ocío for guidance. What I would do, in any case, is to go either to the Barrio Gotico, the Port Vell area, or the Olympic village. There you will find seafood restaurants galore, plus restaurants specializing in Catalán food, or Mediterranean food. Just enter the establecimiento that seems busiest of all. You will not be disappointed. Or you could try Restaurante Hofmann, in Calle Argenteria, 74-78. Pricey, but first class.

If time allows, and your fancy takes you, you could head North-East to Girona or Figueres. In Figueres, you could pay an unforgettable visit to the museum of that other Catalán artist genius, Salvador Dalí, whereas in Girona you would visit that beautiful medieval old town centre, including the historically unique Jewish quarters, the Call.

North-West takes you, instead, to the Monasterio de Montserrat. And also to Terrassa, where you can enjoy the annual Festival de Jazz, in full swing right now.

I hope you will enjoy your trip.

 

A Quite Unique Spanish Town – Llívia, in France

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Llívia is a very special Spanish town, that most people have never heard of.

To be honest, there is not all that much to know about Llívia, other than it is small, charming, and rather laid back. The town sits at an altitude of 1,223 m due south-east of the Principality of Andorra, and its municipal boundaries extend to an area of less than 13 square kilometres. The area is quite pleasant for serious walking or some rather challenging mountain biking. Of course, the spellbinding Pyrenees mountains rise to an impressive height in the very near distance. There is a small museum that houses the complete remnants of what is said to have been the most ancient pharmacy in Europe. Some decent café solo, some proper tapas and a truly scrumptious tortilla are served in the local bar, and the 1,300 inhabitants are really friendly if you speak to them in Catalán.

 

Hey, that’s what makes this place so special. Everybody else in the area speaks French.

 

What and why and whence and who?

Llívia is a unique Spanish town in as much as it is completely surrounded by French territory (Pyrénées-Orientales département). Llívia is plainly situated in France and should normally be French, if you ask me, if it were not for the ominous Treaty of the Pyrenees.

The town of Llívia is part of Cerdanya, a province of Spain, and forms a Spanish exclave surrounded by France. The exclave is separated from the rest of Cerdanya, and Spain, by a corridor with a width of about 2 km, a corridor which also includes the French communes of Ur, and Bourg-Madame. Access is provided between Llívia and Puigcerdà, the nearest Spanish town in the Pyrenees, via a road that is considered neutral and that is administered in turn by France and by Spain, with a rota of 6 months each.

The Treaty of the Pyrenees was signed in 1659 to end the war between France and Spain that had begun in 1635 during the Thirty Years’ War. It was signed on Pheasant Island (called Isla de los Faisanes by the Spanish and Île des Faisans, Île de l’hôpital or Île de la Conférence by the French, or Konpantzia by the Basque people), a river island on the border between the two countries.

A long time ago, Llívia was the site of the Iberian Oppidum (Roman settlement) commanding the region and was named Julia Libica by the Romans. It was also the ancient capital of Cerdanya up to the early Middle Ages.

The Treaty of the Pyrenees (1659) ceded the Spanish territories of Roussillon, Conflent, Capcir, Vallespir, and northern Cerdanya (called Cerdagne in French) to the French Crown. Llívia did, however, not become part of the French kingdom as part of this agreement, because the treaty stipulated that only villages were to be ceded to France, and Llívia was considered a city and not a village due to its status as the ancient capital of the region.

Julia Libica, now Llívia, is a charming political anomaly in our contemporary European knit. You might want to visit and perhaps enjoy some tortilla and a copa, if you are anywhere near, any time soon.

But, please, don’t tell anyone in Brussels of the fun you had amidst this curiosity, or else the peaceful days at the foothills of the Pyrenees might soon be over.

 

Things used to be even more complicated a few years ago when the French neighbors in the area had their French Francs, whereas the Llívia folks had to pay for their vino tinto in Spanish Pesetas, but, with the onset of the Euro, there now is one less problem to deal with.

And thanks to www.klyk.net for the photo of the forlorn Llívian cow. Small wonder that the bovine creature looks a bit confused.

 

The Japanese ‘Camino de Santiago’

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Let me invite you to a virtual visit of Japan.

Just off the eastern coast of the Japanese mainland, the island of Shikoku is only ten kilometres away from the nightlife of Osaka, but in all other ways it is worlds apart. Shikoku is the smallest of the four islands that make up Japan, for a moment leaving aside the much smaller, and in my opinion not truly Japanese archipelago of Ryūkyū, probably better known by most as Okinawa. But that would be a different story, some other day.

The island of Shikoku is famous for its 88 Sacred Sites which connect on a pilgrimage trail. The route of the 88 temples of Shikoku is the classic Japanese Buddhist pilgrimage. For over a thousand years, only the Japanese followed the path to the remote places of Shikoku island, but over the last thirty years or so, anybody can visit and walk and follow the trail. The walk around the perimeter of the island is said to take somewhere between 50 and 60 days to complete if done in the traditional manner, with a total distance of some 1,400 kms. If one should feel so inclined, one could call the Shikoku trail the Japanese Camino de Santiago.

You might be aghast at the idea of a 60 day lone walk, but when I said earlier on this blog that the Spanish Camino de Santiago walk took me 35 days, that did not include the six weeks of a preparatory warming-up period, when I covered some 500 kms on Mallorca, the island where I live. Without that breaking-in, I would not have been physically able to bring my Spanish Camino to its conclusion. All together, I was walking for eleven weeks and covered some 1,350 kms, or so I think.

Before we settled in Mallorca, my wife and I had planned a prolonged trip to Kyūshū in Japan which never materialized, due to the birth of our first, and then, our second daughter. Fittingly, we have given our second daughter the Japanese name of Onna, in lieu of the journey to Nippon that never happened. Since  then, I have been to Japan once, but only for five days, and not on a walking tour.

 

I am looking forward to going back there for an extended period next time and to return to Japan, though with a mission.

I understand that the temples on Shikoku island are spread around the circumference of the isle. In some areas, especially in and around the larger cities, the temples are very close together and one can visit several temples a day. In other areas the temples are much more spread out and it can take three days or so to travel by foot from one to the other.

Of the 88 temples, 66 are located in the mountains and 27 are on the plain and near the coast. Of the mountain temples, 25 seem located at or near the top of their mountain with the highest situated at an elevation of over 900 m.

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First records of the pilgrimage’s existence in any form similar to today’s didn’t appear until a few guidebooks were written in the 1680s. If and when I go, I shall probably rely on a more recent guide book, perhaps Echoes of Incense, by Don Weiss, even though I believe that that one seems to be out of print. I have also been recommended A Henro Pilgrimage Guide to the 88 Temples of Shikoku Island, Japan, published by Buddhist Bishop Taisen Miyata, in Los Angeles, California. Some more research will have to be done before I set off.

 

Apparently, one Buddhist theory says that the number 88 is the sum of the unlucky ages (yakudoshi) of men, women, and children. Japanese folklore supposedly claims that there are a number of ages which are particularly unlucky for people. When one reaches one of these special years, certain special religious practices need to be performed to guard against bad luck and other potential misfortunes. Of the several unlucky ages, though, the most dangerous are 42 for men, 33 for women, and 13 for children of both sexes. The total of these ages is 88. Hence, as the theory goes, this is an especially unlucky number. As I am well past the age of 42, and still a long way off the age of 88, I am quite hopeful that my future Shikoku pilgrimage attempt will be a lucky one.

 

As I am writing this I notice that my ARXXIDUC blog has just had its 8,888th visitor (or hit; I know it’s not the same). I take that as a rather good omen for my planned 88 temples trip, even though that journey might still be some time away.

 

To make it all a bit more complicated, it seems that there are 108 temples, if one were to include the twenty unnumbered Bangai temples as well. For the moment though, I shall concentrate on the Pilgrimage of the 88 Sacred Places of Shikoku, if and when it all comes to fruition.

 

First of all I have to learn the Japanese word for Ultreia.

 

The Beauty of the Pyrenees Mountains

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Welcome to the Autumn season.

 

Autumn is a perfect time to travel, in my opinion, and that is certainly true for a country like Spain. Today, I do not attempt to lure you into Spain, if not lure you to the threshold that marks the boundaries between Europe and Spain – the Pyrenees.

 

The best way, in my mind, to travel to Spain from Europe is by land. Whilst I am not adverse to air travel (I travel by air quite frequently) I often prefer to make an exception in the case of Spain. There is no better welcome to the Iberian Peninsula than across the mountain range that separates Hispaña from the rest of Europe.

The Pyrenees are a range of mountains in southwest Europe that form a natural border between France and Spain. They separate the Iberian Peninsula from France, and extent for about 450 km from the Atlantic Ocean (Bay of Biscay) to the Mediterranean Sea (Golf de Lyon). The highest Pyrenean summit is said to be the Pico d’Aneto with 3,404 m, even though Mont Perdu with 3,355 m might be slightly better known. The Pyrenees seem to be older than the Alps with about 100 to 150 million years since their formation, but that is neither here nor there. They are both intriguing; I personally prefer the Pyrenees.

I have crossed the Pyrenees mountains by car on at least a half a dozen occasions, each time choosing a different route, and always being amazed about the sheer beauty of the mountainous landscape, the warmth of the Pyreneans, be they French, Basque, Andorran, Aquitanian or Spanish, and by the stark contrast between the Europe that one leaves behind and the Iberian otherness that one enters.

 

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Of course I have crossed the Pyrenees by aeroplane as well, dozens of times, and whilst I prefer to travel by land I must admit that the beauty from above the clouds is unbeatable, especially in the snowy season.

If you travel to the Pyrenees instead of through them you are a very lucky person. The Pyrenees have now in a sense been discovered by hikers and backpackers, outdoor activists and walkers, skiers and mountaineers, Camino pilgrims and individualist travellers, and that has led to an increase in popularity to such an extend that the Pyrenees are becoming an alternative to the much better explored Alps.

I can only recommend a trip to and a journey through the Pyrenees. If you do not live in Spain as I do, but come from the north and thus, France, you could make your entry into the Pyrenean wonderland from Bordeaux, possibly via Pau and Lourdes. Or you could come down from Biarritz and make your way to Donostia (San Sebastián) via Irún. In both cases your voyage might continue to Pamplona, depending on your final destination.

Further east, you could make your way right up to the Principality of Andorra, one of the smallest European countries which shares its money, its stamps and its defense with both, France and Spain, without belonging to either. In this case you might well have come down from Toulouse, passing the charming French provincial town of Foix before you ascend to Andorra. 

 

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If you have come down the Autoroutes du Sud de la France and Perpignan, I would urge you to leave the motorway and make your way up into the Pyrénées Orientales, heading for Prades and Puigcerdà. From there you could continue to Vic and eventually Barcelona.

 

Do not fail to allow for plenty of time whilst in the Pyrenees, either for some walking or some outdoor activities, and some sampling of the gastronomic delights, food and beverage wise, that this region has to offer. 

 

I would be very surprised if you would ever regret a visit. 

 

Have You Seen the Pyramids of … Spain?

guimar_pyramids.jpgOn the whole, people go to Egypt if they want to see some pyramides. Or Mexico. Or Peru.

Well, they could try Spain as well. The Canary Isles, actually.

Sitting around 100 kms off Morocco on the North West coast of Africa, eleven volcanic Islands make up the archipelago of the Canary Isles.

Tenerife, the largest of the Canaries, proudly sports the Black Pyramids, one of the Canary Islands’ many mysteries, resembling similar structures in both Mexico and Peru, with six angular stone steps.

 

Offering some insight into the ancient civilizations that once inhabited the area, the Parque Etnografico ‘Pirámides de Güímar’ is situated in the Tenerifan town of Güímar, with a museum, café and souvenir shop nearby. The Black Pyramids are an attraction for anyone on holiday on the island of Tenerife.

Archaeologists still know surprisingly little about the pyramids that form the complex, although excavations indicate that there was a community based around them. The complex comprises of six-steps pyramids which are aligned to the East, suggesting that they were used to worship the sun. During the sun solstice, they are said to line up with the sunset in a distinctive spot on the mountainous horizon.

 

The Canaries’ unique geographical location has made the Islands an important point in maritime routes for hundreds of years; Columbus, for example, used La Gomera as his last port of call before he made the long trip across the Atlantic Ocean to America.

 

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For years there has been dispute as to whether Leif Eriksson, the Norse, or Christopher Columbus actually discovered America first, but there seems to be a distinct possibility that both of them were a few centuries too late and that the people of Meso-America and the Islanders of Tenerife established expeditions or even trade routes between their respective civilizations, actually much earlier.

Norwegian explorer, anthropologist and author, the late Thor Heyerdahl spent the last few years of his life in Güímar, supervising the archaeological mission there to survey and preserve the pyramids and the complex they were part of. Thor Heyerdahl was convinced that South Americans had crossed the Pacific to reach Polynesia and in 1947, he undertook a successful ocean crossing in a primitive raft, the Kon Tiki, to prove his theory. He then expanded his theory further, claiming that if Peruvian explorers first travelled across the Pacific and settled in Polynesia, it was possible that Tenerife was settled in a similar way. In that case the Peruvian pioneers would have built their temples and pyramids along similar lines to the ones they had left back home. If Dr. Heyerdahl’s theories are correct, then it is clear that those Peruvian seafarers might have been responsible for the construction of the pyramid complex discovered at Güímar.

Only few scholars endorse the idea, however, that American Indigenous Indians navigated the oceans in the way Thor Heyerdahl suggested, and discount this hypothesis largely on linguistic, genetic and cultural grounds, all of which point to the settlers having come from the east, not the west. However, none of the scholars have come up with a convincing explanation as to how the Canary Islands ended up with their own step pyramids.

At the same time, no one can deny that there are undoubtedly parallels between the Meso-American cultures and the Canary Island cultures. Artefacts have been found on the islands that are almost identical to ones found in South America.

If you fancy a bit of theorizing yourself, even a bit of Kon Tiki rafting, you better make your way to the Canaries one of these days and see for yourself.

 

999 Red Balloons Striving For National Identity

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Gibraltar is celebrating its National Day today. Many happy returns.

Hang on a minute. A National Day surely would suggest a nation. Is Gibraltar a nation all of a sudden?

Wikipedia states that “Gibraltar is a British overseas territory located near the southernmost tip of the Iberian Peninsula overlooking the Strait of Gibraltar. The territory shares a border with Spain to the north. Gibraltar has historically been an important base for the British Armed Forces and is the site of a Royal Navy base.” Hmm, no nation there. But perhaps Wikipedia gets it wrong.

Britain itself does not claim nation status for Gibraltar either. Instead, a British overseas territory is claimed. So, where does this Gibraltar National Day have its origins?

September 10th, 1967, a referendum was held in which Gibraltar’s voters were asked whether they wished to either remain under British sovereignty, with institutions of self-government, or pass under Spanish sovereignty. The vote resulted overwhelmingly in favour of continuance of British sovereignty, with 12,138 to 44 votes rejecting the Spanish sovereignty option. Well, what had they thought? But does that make an overseas territory into a nation, all of a sudden?

There is evidence of human habitation in Gibraltar as early as by the Neanderthals, an extinct species of the Homo genus. The first historical people known to have settled there were the Phoenicians around 950 BC (again, the Phoenicians. Perhaps they would have a valid point in claiming Gibraltar, Málaga, Melilla and half of southern Spain).

More settlements were later established by the Carthaginians and Romans. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, Gibraltar came briefly under the control of the Vandals, and later formed part of the Visigothic Kingdom of Hispania until its collapse due to the Moorish conquest in 711 AD.

The first permanent settlement was built by the Almohad Sultan Abd al-Mu’min, who ordered the construction of a fortification on the Rock, the remains of which are still present. Gibraltar later became part of the Kingdom of Granada until 1309, when it was briefly occupied by Castilian troops. In 1333, it was conquered by the Marinids who had invaded Moorish Spain. The Marinids ceded Gibraltar to the Kingdom of Granada in 1374. Finally, it was re-conquered definitively by the Duke of Medina Sidonia in 1462, ending 750 years of Moorish control.

In the initial years under Medina Sidonia, Gibraltar was granted sovereignty as a home to a population of exiled Sephardic Jews. Pedro de Herrera, a Jewish converso from Córdoba who had led the conquest of Gibraltar, led a group of 4,000+ Jews from Córdoba and Seville to establish themselves in the town. A community was built and a garrison established to defend the peninsula. However, this lasted only for three years. In 1476, the Duke of Medina Sidonia realigned with the Spanish Crown; the Sefardim were then forced back to Córdoba and the Spanish Inquisition.

In 1501 Gibraltar passed under the hands of the Spanish Crown, which had been established in 1479. Gibraltar was granted its coat of arms by a Royal Warrant passed in Toledo by Queen Isabel of Castile in 1501. Does a coat of arms warrant nation status?

The naval Battle of Gibraltar took place in 1607 during the Eighty Years’ War when a Dutch fleet surprised and engaged a Spanish fleet anchored at the Bay of Gibraltar. During the four-hour action, the entire Spanish fleet was destroyed. That’s 400 years ago this year. Is that why the Spanish looked a bit blemished, earlier this year?

During the War of the Spanish Succession, British and Dutch troops, allies of Archduke Charles, the Austrian pretender to the Spanish Crown, formed a confederate fleet and attacked various towns on the southern coast of Spain. On August 4th, 1704, the confederate fleet, commanded by Admiral George Rooke assisted by Field Marshal Prince George of Hesse-Darmstadt comprising some 1,800 Dutch and British marines captured the town of Gibraltar and claimed it in the name of the Archduke Charles. Terms of surrender were agreed upon, after which much of the population chose to leave Gibraltar peacefully.

Franco-Spanish troops failed to retake the town, and British sovereignty over Gibraltar was subsequently recognized by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which ended the war. Spain ceded Gibraltar and Menorca to the United Kingdom, which has retained sovereignty over the former ever since, despite all attempts by Spain to recapture it.

If all of that makes Gibraltar a nation, what about Menorca? Is Menorca a nation? Is Menorca still a British overseas territory? Last time I was in Menorca I was on Spanish territory. What am I missing here?

Gibraltar subsequently became an important naval base for the British Royal Navy and played an important part in the Battle of Trafalgar. Its strategic value increased with the opening of the Suez Canal, as it controlled the important sea route between the UK and colonies such as India and Australia. During World War II, the civilian residents of Gibraltar were evacuated, and the Rock was turned into a fortress. An airfield was built over the civilian racecourse. Guns on Gibraltar controlled the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. Plans by Nazi Germany to capture the Rock were frustrated by Spain’s reluctance to allow the German Army onto Spanish soil.

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In the 1950s, Spain, then under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, renewed its claim to sovereignty over Gibraltar, sparked in part by the visit of Queen Elizabeth II in 1954 to celebrate the 250th anniversary of the Rock’s capture. For the next thirty years, Spain restricted movement between Gibraltar and Spain, in application of one of the articles of the Utrecht Treaty. The border with Spain was partially reopened in 1982, and fully reopened in 1985 after Spain’s accession into the European Community. Joint talks on the future of the Rock held between Spain and the UK have occurred since the late 1980s, with various proposals for joint sovereignty discussed. The question of Gibraltar continues to affect Anglo-Spanish relations.

Queen Elizabeth II refrained from attending the celebrations in Gibraltar in 2004 on occasion of the 300th anniversary of the capture of Gibraltar. Instead, UK Defense Minister Geoff Hoon’s attendance was scoffed at by the Spanish as ‘insensitive’.

2006 saw representatives of the UK, Gibraltar and Spain conclude talks in Córdoba, Spain, a landmark agreement on a range of cross-cutting issues affecting the Rock and the Campo de Gibraltar removing many of the restrictions imposed by Spain. This agreement resolved a number of long standing issues; improved flow of traffic at the frontier, use of the airport by other carriers, recognition of the 350 telephone code and the settlement of the long-running dispute regarding the pensions of former Spanish workers in Gibraltar, who lost their jobs when Spain closed its border in 1969.

Last week, British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband, was in Madrid for talks with Spain’s Prime Minister José Luis Rodriguez Zapatero during a meeting at the Moncloa Palace. One might speculate that Gibraltar was one of the issues on the agenda. No statement was issued at the end of Miliband’s visit before the Foreign Secretary travelled to the EU Foreign Ministers meeting in Portugal.

I agree that it won’t be easy to resolve the Gibraltar issue. Let’s all agree that the Gibraltarians have all the rights in the world to celebrate whatever. A National Day today may be wrong in semantics, but why not strive for a nation, if that is what is wanted.

I suggest that Gibraltar could become Gibraltarian one day, even a nation if that is what is wanted. As part of the European Union, it should be possible to give independence to Gibraltar and perhaps other European places of contention as well, be the conflict of ethnical or historical or political origins. The Basque country, Corsica, Cyprus, Kaliningrad, Kosovo, Kurdistan and a handful more come to my mind immediately.

All of these, including Gibraltar, could become sovereign, self-governed Member States of the European Union, a bit like Andorra or Liechtenstein. Perhaps the status of Free Port would help Gibraltar and Kaliningrad to ease the transition.

Then we would all have reason to celebrate. And the world might become a safer place.

 

Fiesta Time in Ecuador

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People in the Republic of Ecuador celebrate the Fiesta de la Virgen del Cisne today in the city of Loja in the mountains of southern Ecuador. Sadly, I cannot make it there but, if she got there in time, our daughter Kilina will.

The city of Loja is one of the oldest cities in Ecuador and was established in its current location in 1548. It was the first city in Ecuador that made use of electricity in 1897; quite an achievement considering the time. 

Loja has an estimated population of 150,000 people and is particularly proud of its music conservatory. It is said that the best, most talented musicians in Ecuador originate from Loja. Some people call Loja the cultural and musical capital of this Andean nation.

The best known attraction to visit Loja for, however, is the festival of the Virgen del Cisne. What’s that all about?

North west of the city of Loja you’ll find the place of El Cisne, a small town in Ecuador’s Southern Andes, the site of the venerated shrine of the Virgen María

Every August there is a three day pilgrimage of faithful Ecuadorians carrying the statue of La Virgen del Cisne from El Cisne to Loja with fiestas in every town along the way. The statue of the Virgin Mary is carried 74 kms to the cathedral of Loja where it is the focus of one of the oldest festivals in Latin America on September 8th, i. e. today. 

 

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The venerated statue remains in the cathedral of Loja until November 3rd and is then returned to El Cisne for the remainder of the year. 

We expect our daughter to be back long before that.