The Curious Case of Madonna’s New Clothes

I lived out in Abu Dhabi (U.A.E) on and off for three years back in the early nineties while providing endless IT training courses for the Town Planning Department. Life back then in the Emirates was at a very slow pace (a little different to now) and once you got used to the stifling heat it was a very pleasant and chilled place to spend your time.

One thing that I loved to do was to get my daily copy of the English language ‘Gulf News’ and chuckle to myself at the mundane stories which made the front page in a place where crime was almost zero. Memorable headline stories included; a single vehicle road traffic accident in which no-one was even mildly injured; a man who accidently left a shop without paying for a packet of cigarettes; and, a lady who’d lost her purse only to return to her supermarket and find it on the fresh fruit counter, where she’d accidentally left it a week earlier.

You knew you were in the safest of safe places with no need to fear for your personal or possessions safety.

Now I’m not claiming that Galicia is crime free, and with the economic ‘crisis’ there has been an increase in burglary and theft, but is is far lower than the Spanish or European averages. I have been pleased to note, however, that the local newspapers (including regional) have been filled with ‘Gulf News’ like controversy over the weekend with a story which wouldn’t merit a single column centimetre in the Huddersfield Examiner.

The full facts have yet to be established but it appears that the tiny ‘Madonna’ from the church in Conforto (on the road from A Pontenova to Taramundi) has been subject to some shenanigans.

The congregation arrived at the church recently to find that the Madonna had gone missing, only for her to re-appear a couple of weeks later wearing a new gown, new crown and without some of her original jewels.

The community was in uproar and questions were asked at the highest level.

It appears what had happened was that, with the best of intentions, the priest had taken the Madonna away for a refurbishment without the permission of the local parishoners who were all distressed and her disappearance and at what was returned in their Madonnas place.

Rather than resolve the issue with the priest the police were called and allegations of theft were made against the clergy. There has been uproar and the whole of the local community has become involved.

The priest has now made a full apology through local media suggesting that he thought the local congregation would be pleased with the ‘upgrade’, but it doesn’t look like the controversy will by dying down anytime soon.


You have to chuckle at the triviality of it, but in these current times I think it is indicative of the tranquility of the area that this is the focus of local attention. Personally I think that the Madonnas make-over is an improvement (judge for yourself from the picture above) and looks far more regal in her new garb.

If the whole thing is a publicity stunt to get more people to visit the church in Conforto then it has worked, as I’ll definitely be popping in for a look on our next visit.

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France, on the Way to Spain

As an Hispanophile I have recently considered France as a ‘necessary evil’ between England and Spain, should one be forced to use the roads rather than the sea or air. I have been there on multiple holidays, including one where Amanda and I used the motorways to drive down to Perpignan, but it never really appealed over Spain. But twenty hours of sitting high up behind the wheel of Hercules, avoiding the tolls, and with no-ones company but my own, has somewhat changed my opinion.

I had decided that for the solo journey home I would avoid as many toll roads as I could, so I was condemned to lots of single carriageway roads with the occasional roundabout. The main menace were the hundreds of speed cameras which seemed to be located in even more stupid places than they are in England, and the resulting build-up in traffic, as I tried to avoid getting points to my name in yet another European country.

One of Amanda’s friends, the lovely Jenny and long-suffering husband Tony had agreed to put me up for the night in Clergoux (in the central massif) and had promised me a good meal, a glass of wine (or three), and a comfy bed.

After discovering that it is only possible to buy ‘Cheese & Ham’ sandwiches from French service stations, which isn’t great for a vegetarian,  the thought of a hot meal, and some decent conversation, was well worth the 175km (1 ½ hour) detour. After getting lost just once under my own steam, I followed Tony’s instructions to the letter, and thirteen hours after leaving the barn I was stood in Jenny’s kitchen, clutching a nice cup of tea and comparing French/Spanish diesel prices.

Revitalised after a great nights sleep, I set off around nine-thirty leaving my benevolent hosts to their day, and set the satnav to avoid all toll roads (quickly forgetting that Tony had told me that I must take a short seventy cent toll across to the A20).

The satnav obeyed without question and within ten minutes it exposed the folly of my plan.

I always ridicule the many tales of people who follow their satnav systems onto railway lines or into canals, but now I found myself at the entrance to a small hump-backed stone bridge wondering whether Hercules would fit, or worse, whether he’d become beached on the summit. After a minutes consideration I decided to persevere, as navigating the last three kilometres in reverse seemed like the greater of the two evils.

After negotiating the bridge the ‘trial by small spaces’ wasn’t over.

I was then in the smallest of villages (Gimel-les-Cascades), in the largest of vehicles, with a very tight left turn to make between two houses. I accelerated gently and waited for the crunch which would signify that a nice eighteenth century French cottage was gaining twenty-first century red stripe. But mercifully it never came.

The first chance I got I stopped and re-programmed the navigation.

The rest of the journey was without incident. Downtown Orleans was downtrodden and a bit grim with boarded up businesses and empty office blocks, but apart from that the French countryside was delightful. Small, beautiful, well-kept villages. Small, pretty, towns to by-pass, and mile after mile after mile of rolling fields and tree lined avenues.

franceMuch of Northern France had been driven in the dark on our trip out to Spain but I saw it in its full glory on the way home and there was much to like. The good, or possibly bad, news was that the awful rotten cabbage stench which had plagued us for the first four hours on our outward trip was nowhere to be smelled. This inclines me to believe it might have had more to do with my co-pilot than he was letting on.

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Natures Hamper Overflows

Despite cutting it extremely fine, on Tuesday I managed to get Chris on his plane back from Asturias Airport to Stansted. Left to my own devices I had just over a week to ‘potter’, do jobs, put up shelves, clean, find homes for possessions, and visit the neighbours for coffee and cake.

One of things I did manage to do, was take a wander around the finca and have a good look at what was growing. Being mid-August, and with Carlos having removed his horses due to ‘hierba mala’ (bad grass –  a slightly different connotation to what most inner city youth would imagine), mother nature had taken over and was exercising full rampant control.

I don’t think that I’ve ever been at the house at early harvest time before and it was enlightening to see what fruits and vegetables were battling drought and neglect and persevering to ripeness.

Despite being uninhabited for around forty years the land has been managed by Carlos (we bought it from his sister) and when we’ve made trips out in September the boughs and branches have been stripped bare into wooden boxes, which I assume have been nicely stacked away in Carlos’ larder for the long winter.

Plums?Peaches?GrapesBlackberriesApplesMore Apples

I’m not sure about the top two photos but suspect plums and peaches (any help appreciated), although the latter are as hard as bullets at the moment. The rest are fairly easy to identify.

We’ve also got; Potato, wild garlic, mint (at least two types), cherries, possibly a couple of pear trees, and a fig tree (without fruit this year as it has put all its effort into growth after we demolished it with a digger last winter).

I suspect that by the time we get out there in mid-October everything will have vanished, either by Carlos or by nature. But we now know what we can bank on for next years harvest, albeit depriving Carlos of his usual free bounty.

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Thirty two hours to Paradise

If you say thirty-two hours fast then it seems like nothing, but when you are munching the miles in 3.5 tonnes of  Mercedes Sprinter and avoiding the expensive French toll roads, then believe me, it feels like forever.

I left Huddersfield at 13:00 on Saturday, picked my co-pilot Chris up at Stansted airport at 17:00, and we got to Dover just after 19:00 for a 21:00 sailing to Calais.

We’d decided to take two hour shifts (approximately) and Chris suggests that I took the first on the continent. As it turned out all of my stints behind the wheel were on free-flowing roads and motorways with reasonable weather, but Chris had all the congested, urban and road works stretches when the weather occasionally verged on the apocalyptic. It wasn’t deliberate though!

Coffee, biscuits, croissants, chocolate, crisps, and water were our staple diet, normal fare for Chris, but unusual for me to not have anything green or fruity for thirty hours.

vanAt 21:15 on Sunday night we finally made it to the barn, about thirty minutes before dusk, and after thirty-two hours of travelling. The van hadn’t missed a beat or given a single grumble. We’d been relentless and ‘Hercules’ seemed to revel in the challenges that we threw at him.

The highlight of the journey was the pair of us singing along to ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ at full pelt at three o’clock in the morning. All the right notes were in there, but just not in the right order.

Chris’s stay was all too short but he had obligations back home. We visited Rinlo for tapas, the supermarket so I could stock up on provisions for my stay (and for Chris to buy pasta, wine and oil for me to bring him back), and we had a great meal at Hotel Taramundi on Monday night so that Chris could try the Fabas.

All too quickly he was on the plane home but vowed to return to a green Spain which was a long way removed from his expectation of sun, sea and sangria.

Now down to the hard work trying to find a home for our possessions and to leave the place looking tidy as next time Amanda will be with me.

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The ‘Old Firm’ is Back Together for its Swansong

Since purchasing the big red van I’ve been on a quest to find the perfect co-driver for my trip to Galicia, to ensure the safe passage of all our valuable possessions (and Amanda’s shoes and handbags).  The choice of an ideal accomplice was far from simple.

I needed someone that is; dependable, mature, safe behind the wheel, fluent in French and with enough charm to talk us out of the clutches of the gendarmerie or guardia civil, should the occasion arise.

In the end, and in absolute desperation, I plumped for the only person who was allowed by their Wife/Mum/Work/Probation Officer/Doctor to join me in my quest, and at least he’s got one of my desired co-pilot qualities, he’s mature! With the other desirable qualities…we’ll just have to take our chances.

bbbmwChris and I have history. He was my colleague and co-director for close on twenty years and this won’t be the first time that we’ve driven to Spain together, although this time will be somewhat different to the first.

Back in 2009 we took part in Barcelona Bangers, a charity ‘race’ from Calais to Barcelona in a car that had to have cost less than £200.

We managed to acquire a clapped out four cylinder BMW for the princely sum of £195, spend a few hundred pounds making it roadworthy, and then covered it in paper maps and sponsors logos on the way to making over £4,500 for our chosen charity, MapAction.

The car made it to Barcelona with just the smallest of glitches and then decided to ‘turn up its toes’ in an underground car park at our hotel. Had I not been able to convince a bell-boy, in very poor Spanish, that we were prepared to give him the car in exchange for his signature in the ‘Permanent Export’ box on the V5 certificate, we’d have missed our flight home.

It was a terrific adventure as we travelled in convoy with a Jeep dressed as a bull, a Fiat Pope-Mobile covered in condom advertising which drew hatred from the populous of the deeply Catholic heartlands of western France, and sixty or so other garishly decorated old bangers.

Chris has made some sacrifices to join me, and I’d specifically like to thank his long-suffering wife and daughters for giving their blessing for him to come on my Galician odyssey.

Our 2,060 kilometre (1,290 miles) journey starts on Saturday lunchtime and we hope to be at the Barn in Galicia sometime on Sunday evening having travelled all weekend and avoided the majority of the road tolls, traffic jams, road works and the various traffic enforcement authorities.

Tomorrow is all about packing, weighing, and then unpacking enough things to make the journey at a legal weight. Fortunately my brother Ian is coming to lend his muscles for the afternoon.

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