Hot in the city

We are here, we are here, we are here!

We are here, we are here, we are here!

Lisbon in August was perhaps not our brightest idea. It was hot and we quickly got all citied out. The thing is, I enjoy cities much more in winter; they are cooler and have fewer tourists. Give me London in December rather than July, Rome in January rather than September. I’ve loved New York in March and Budapest in February. Perhaps I will return to Lisbon one day when it is not so stifling, and give the city the attention it deserves.

We sailed into Cascais, a well-to-do town that is effectively a suburb of Lisbon. As we approached along the coast we passed modern mansions nestled amongst the trees, all boxy and glassy and looking like they’d come straight from an episode of Grand Designs. Julian was later told, by the 65-year old woman manning the desk at the tourist office, that those mansions are where all the rich kids ‘do drugs and f*** each other’!

Carina's in there somewhere!

Carina’s in there somewhere!

We anchored in the harbour at Cascais, forsaking the only marina we have ever come across that has a crèche! However, it would have cost us almost €50 a night. It seems as though lots of other yachties thought the price too high – the anchorage was crowded and the marina was empty.

We were surrounded by a multitude of crowded beaches, backed by a blend of 14th Century fortresses, 16th Century churches, and more of that 21st Century glassy boxy architecture, all making for a very pleasant vista. We had arrived in the midst of the town’s 650th anniversary celebrations and there were free concerts on a stage on the beach every night.

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Our first morning in Cascais was pleasant. We visited the Tower of Santo António and the Fortress of Nossa Senhora da Luz, wonderfully restored since the rediscovery of the latter in 1987 and major archaeological work in the past decade. From there we walked the short distance to an amazing park with a great playground and multitude of shady trees. We ate our picnic lunch in the company of a flock of hens!

After that – well, let’s just say I’ve had better times elsewhere. Julian took the girls off for a couple of hours to give me some internet time. I found an almost empty bar in the marina that had free Wifi for customers and, as I and every other cruiser I’ve met over the past few months does, I ordered a coffee and asked for the Wifi code. The staff were none too friendly and, as I was about to order a second coffee, Wifi was turned off. I was the only person amongst the three customers who was (a) using Wifi and (b) not eating a whopping great plate of steak and chips. I got out of there quickly and eventually found an Irish pub where I ordered another drink and got online again.

Later, Julian went in search of some items for the boat and the girls and I spent the rest of the afternoon on a very crowded, very noisy beach. I hate being amongst great throngs of people. It stresses me out and makes me feel ill at ease. If I want to swim, I’m nervous about leaving my bag unattended. If I want to read, I’m nervous about taking my eyes off the kids and losing them in the crowds. Give me a quiet deserted beach any day of the week.

The next day we took the train to Lisbon. It is a beautiful city, but we all came close to melting. Highlights, for the girls and I, were a great little ice cream parlour and the Museum of Fashion and Design. Even I was surprised by Lily and Katie’s enthusiasm for the exhibition of 20th Century furniture.

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We left the anchorage at Cascais the next day and sailed up the River Tagus to Doca de Alcântara, under the suspension bridge and in Lisbon itself. Julian serviced the engine, made some repairs and cleaned the hull of Carina, while the girls and I explored. The marina was adjacent to the Museum of the Orient, where we spent three hours one day. I learned a lot about Portugal’s historic and cultural relationships with Goa, China, Thailand, Indonesia and India, and I expanded what I already knew about the Portuguese in Japan in the 16th Century, and brought me back to a trip with some friends to Goto Reto island in Nagasaki-ken in 1996 and a statue of the Blessed Virgin on the cliff. The highlight for Lily and Katie was the shadow puppet exhibition that took up the entire second floor. We saw shadow puppets from India and Indonesia and watched a great documentary about Chinese shadow puppetry.

If there's a tree in a city, the girls will climb it!

If there’s a tree in a city, the girls will climb it!

In Belem we visited the Museum of Electricity, predominantly to escape the heat of the unshaded banks of the Tagus. But it was well worth a visit. It wasn’t so much a museum of electricity as an old power station that had been transformed into a museum of itself. I loved it. But then, I’m a sucker for such silliness!

On our last afternoon in Alcântara I found a wall of forty murals commemorating 40 years since the April 25th 1974 revolution and depicting workers’ uprisings from around the world. They were amazing, and led to an impromptu lesson on workers’ rights, socialism and other such delights for the girls.

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The sultry heat, throngs of tourists and noise of the city stressed me out. I’m a cold weather country bumpkin, and proud of it! A few days at sea, far from land, far from other people, with sea breezes to keep me cool – the perfect antidote to our few days in the city.

Making friends

One of the things people often commented on as we prepared to set sail was the potential lack of children for Lily and Katie to play with. This didn’t concern me too much, as every book and blog I have read about sailing with children has reassured me there are plenty of other sailing parents out there, all eager to find play mates for their children at every opportunity.

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Before we even left Plymouth, Lily and Katie played with the three boys aboard Tarquilla, who had recently returned from a couple of years on the north coast of Spain. Despite the fact that the older two boys were twice Lily’s age, all five children played together with great enthusiasm.

In La Coruña we met the Dutch family aboard Tofino and our paths continued to cross as we sailed the Galician Rias. Though that little boy and girl were slightly too young for Lily and Katie to properly play with, the girls really enjoyed having them on board Carina and sharing their toys.

In Baiona we found ourselves anchored beside Tallulah May and, before our families had officially met, our girls and their 4-year old and 6-year old girls were shouting over to each other and bringing their toys into the cockpit for a show and tell. Over the past couple of weeks the four girls have played together at every opportunity – on each other’s boats, in parks, on beaches. This family from Somerset has also lived in one of the Plymouth marinas so the girls (and their parents) have much in common. The older of the two taught Lily and Katie to draw trees and animals and that one lesson has revolutionised the girls’ drawing abilities!

In Peniche we met three Swiss children aboard Lucy. They played aboard Carina and we briefly visited Lucy. The middle child was exactly Lily’s age and his sister only a couple of years older. Together the children talked and played and read stories.

And then there are the local children that Lily and Katie meet and play with on beaches and in playgrounds. Some children, like the amazing 9-year old we met at Louro, speak English, but most don’t. It doesn’t seem to matter. I’ve seen my girls play hide-and-seek and tag with Spanish girls and boys, somehow working out the rules even though they don’t share a common language.

While the girls don’t have opportunities to play with other children on a daily basis, they make friends quickly when they have the chance. It is delightful to see the confidence with which they engage with other children (and their parents) and to see the impact those brief encounters have on their abilities and on the way they play with each other.

Speeding through Portugal

 

The coastline at Peniche

The coastline at Peniche

We are zipping down the Portuguese coast, not giving it the time we gave to Galicia. But it was always our plan to not spend more than two or three weeks on the west coast of Portugal, due to the lack of anchorages and the expense of marinas. The changes in landscape and economy as we move south are noticeable. From Leixoes, just north of Porto, we sailed 100 miles to Nazaré. Along the way we passed an extensive stretch of sand dunes, running almost this entire section of coast.

The huge beach at Nazaré was littered with sun-bathers, beach parasols and sun loungers as we passed on our way into the harbour. We had reached package holiday territory. The land is more arid and dusty here and, as we walked from the harbour into town, Julian and I remarked on how much it felt like other resort towns we had been to in Lanzarote and Sharm-el-Sheik – white buildings, shops selling cheap holiday tat (beach balls, beach towels, flip flops, dresses and shirts and skirts in gaudy colours that seem like a good idea when on holidays, but that you never wear again once you return home). There were Irish pubs, signs for English breakfasts, restaurant menus in multiple European languages. Gone were the restaurants (on the sea front at least) serving local fare and in their place hamburgers, pizza and chips.

A few streets back from the front we found the municipal market – an immense and lively building where vendors sold their produce in long rows of tables. The colours and smells of those luscious fruits and vegetables made my mouth water. Around the edges of the greengrocer stalls were butchers, fish-mongers, bakers and cheese-mongers. Julian and I went our separate ways and, when we bumped into each other in the middle of the market, he excitedly showed me the three carrier bags of fruits, vegetables and salads he’d bought. ‘Guess how much I paid for all this?’ he challenged me. ‘Less than a fiver?’ I asked. He nodded. ‘Less than four? Less than three?’ For that bounty of fresh locally produced food he had shelled out €2.05! Back in Britain it would have felt like a bargain if we paid £10.

The fort at Peniche

The fort at Peniche

After one night in Nazaré we sailed south to Peniche. The harbour there had scant facilities – indeed we are finding the lack of Internet and laundry facilities in Portuguese marinas somewhat trying on our patience! However, the staff at Peniche were incredibly generous, and we will remember that generosity for a long time to come. Although I wonder whether the generosity was borne from Julian, when asked to provide photo ID, giving his shot firer card. This led to a conversation with the marina employee about Julian’s explosives training and the 2 tons of explosives he once took to Antarctica. When a huge bearded man tells you he’s handy with explosives, I guess you’re going to err on the side of extreme generosity!

Some translation issues made me giggle!

Some translation issues made me giggle!

As I write, we are anchored in the harbour at Cascais, a few miles outside of Lisbon, in the mouth of the Tagus. We arrived last night amid a beach concert (more loud music!) and are looking forward to exploring this very well-to-do Lisbon suburb today and Lisbon itself over the next few days.

A strange kind of night sail

Up to now, my night sailing experience has been far from land in the open sea: between the Isles of Scilly and Ireland, the English Channel, the Bay of Biscay. A few days ago we decided to cover the 100 nautical miles between Leixoes and Nazaré in one go, departing at 7pm and sailing south through the night along the Portuguese coast.

It started out as normal, despite our rather ham-fisted departure from the marina. We ate the chilli I had cooked earlier and the girls took themselves off to bed around 9pm, at the same time as Julian lay down in the saloon port berth and I took the first watch.

I’ve written before about how much I enjoy night sailing. Despite having to battle fatigue, I love the solitude of being on the helm alone with my thoughts after dark, the moon or stars bright in the sky, phosphorescent plankton shimmering in the water. The Portuguese coast had other ideas.

As soon as I was on my own in the cockpit I became aware of a dull hum coming from the land. Over the next two to three hours this grew louder and more penetrating. It was a rock concert, although all that reached me, three miles off shore, were the percussion and bass. Now, I’ve been to some pretty loud rock concerts in my time, but is this how they sounded from a distance? It was horrible, like sitting in a train carriage and hearing the noise from someone’s tinny headphones. It filled my left ear and reverberated through my body and I was relieved when we were eventually on the other side of the Doppler effect, and the reverberations faded into the background. The audience certainly got value for money – the show went on and on.

To the west a long line of cargo ships anchored in a queue, I imagine awaiting their turn to enter Leixoes port to off-load. Now, before I go any further, I need to explain VHF Channel 16 to the non-seafaring amongst you. Most vessels, Carina included, are fitted with a VHF radio to facilitate communication. The radio is switched on at all times when at sea, and is tuned to Channel 16.

Channel 16 is the sacred channel. Its purpose is ‘Distress, Safety and Calling’. 16 can be used to briefly established contact with another vessel, but both then quickly switch to a mutually acceptable channel, leaving 16 clear for its main purpose – distress calls. The Maritime Guidance Notes (bear with me…I’m going somewhere with this) state:
‘The following should be avoided: (a) calling on Channel 16 for purposes other than distress, and very brief safety communications; (b) non-essential transmissions, e.g. needless and superfluous correspondence; (f) transmitting without correct identification; (g) use of offensive language’.

The point I’m laboriously making is Channel 16 must be used as little as possible, so that vessel in distress (man overboard, fire on board, holed by whales, etc etc) can use it to contact emergency rescue services.

So, back to that line of cargo ships awaiting entry to Leixoes port. Shortly after dark the air was filled with the noise of some awful pop song (a woman whining on about something, with Gangnam Style sampled through it) playing on Channel 16. It made me laugh and I had a little dance in the cockpit. There was radio silence for a few minutes, followed by an extended conversation between what I can only imagine were crew members of different cargo vessels. Of course they didn’t identify themselves, but the fact that the conversations were all in heavily-accented English suggests they weren’t local Portuguese fishermen!

The conversations, with a decidedly racist tone, carried on for over two hours. At one point someone even radioed ‘Coast guard, coast guard, help me’. I’m not sure which annoyed me more – the racism or the fact that these gobshites were endangering me and my family, and anyone else at sea that night, by hogging the emergency channel.

Sailing around on the south coast of England I have often heard the Coast Guard quickly cutting in on conversations between two yachties who have forgotten to switch from channel 16 and are discussing where they will rendezvous for dinner later. I waited and waited, expecting the Portuguese authorities to ask these guys to take their conversation elsewhere. It was over two hours before an older sounding man, in a jaded tone, asked them to keep Channel 16 clear.

Well, that was my four-hour watch, and at 1am Julian and I swapped places. He got radio silence, but I’m not sure he got a better deal. This part of the Portuguese coastline is littered with lobster pots, laid in 60 metres of water, tethered to buoys at the surface. Many of the buoys fly flags from one metre poles, but many of the flags have ripped or disintegrated, and so only a thin black pole sticks up out of the water to alert vessels of the presence of the pots. Lobster pots are a curse, because if you happen to pass over one, you can easily befoul the boat’s propeller, rendering the boat incapable of motoring, until the rope has been removed from around the prop by someone diving in to do it manually.

We slalomed through clusters of these all down the Portuguese coast. During the day they aren’t a problem, but none of them are lit and after I went to bed Julian ran through a few particularly thick patches which, in the dark, could only be seen when Carina was almost on top of them. To add to Julian’s woes, a pod of dolphins came alongside and he was distracted by their phosphorescence-covered bodies as they leaped and played around the boat. A couple of times, so distracted by the dolphins, he only narrowly missed some lobster buoys and it was sheer luck that our prop wasn’t befouled.

I got up at 5am, just in time for the fog! Early morning fogs are typical of this stretch of coast, so we weren’t surprised. But it meant that Julian couldn’t go to bed, as a look-out was needed – not for ships for once, but for lobster buoys. By 6am the fog had listed sufficiently that I could see a few hundred metres, so Julian could get some rest.

It wasn’t a bad night sail, so much as a different one to what we are used to. The sailing itself was pleasant, until we lost the wind in the middle of the night and had to motor. The stars filled the sky, the Milky Way ran over my head, and in the middle of the night the yellow half moon rose up from behind the land. But if I had to choose between the open ocean and listening to the bored crew of a cargo vessel while dodging lobster pots, I know which one I’d go for!

Porto

We have bid farewell, for the time being, to Spain and to leisurely cruising. We are now passage-making down the coast of Portugal. The dramatic changes to the coastline mean there are few sheltered anchorages, and greater distances between marinas. The deep sheltered Rias of Galicia, with their mountainous backdrops, have been replaced by long stretches of sand dunes with low hills behind. For us that means longer passages between marinas, avoiding those that are outrageously expensive.

We departed Baiona on early Thursday morning while Lily and Katie were still asleep. Although it was a hot day, we had the northerly wind behind us, which proved a little chilly. We motored for a couple of hours, but once the wind was sufficiently strong, we threw the sails out and bolted along at over 6 knots. Twelve hours later we arrived in Leixoes, the container port a couple of miles north of Porto.

The little marina is tucked in behind the massive container terminal and next to the oil refinery. We are in sight (and hearing) of immense ships, flying the flags of Antigua, Madeira, and other far-flung places. I like it here. I like the industry, the constant coming and going of these leviathans, carrying their cargo to and from who knows where. I’m fascinated by what might be inside the containers, although given the events at Tillbury Dock in the past 24 hours, the containers have taken on a somewhat more sinister aspect.

Early morning view from Carina

Early morning view from Carina

From Leixoes, it is a walk and a Metro ride to Porto, one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited. The girls and I explored the city on Friday and Julian joined us on Saturday, but we have only scratched the surface. I would like a month to explore all the narrow streets, museums, churches, forts and port warehouses.

Avenida dos Aliados

Avenida dos Aliados

On our first day, the girls and I began our explorations with a picnic on the Avenida dos Aliados, one of the many places around the city with chairs and tables permanently installed. The splendor of the Avenida was breathtaking, the wide open expanse of it, the majestic buildings at either end.

Lily and Katie enjoying their picnic

Lily and Katie enjoying their picnic

From there we strolled to the central train station, on a tip regarding its impressive interior. Inside the station, the walls have been tiled (as is the style on facades throughout the city) with the history of Portugal. The girls were a bit too frisky that first day for me to take much of it in, but when we returned on Saturday with Julian, I had time to read and figure out the meaning of the murals.

Interior of the central train station

Interior of the central train station

The view from outside the train station was awe-inspiring. In every direction there was another jaw-dropping scene, and it was hard to know where to look.

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The Cathedral was a short walk away, on top of a hill, and when we walked inside, there was a wedding taking place. Lily and Katie have never been to a wedding, so we sat quietly at the back (as did many other tourists and visitors) and watched the proceedings. The girls were enchanted (as was I). The cathedral itself is very beautiful, but to witness a typical Catholic wedding, with a beautiful bride and groom, and all the well-dressed wedding guests was an added treat. Even better, four sopranos, accompanied by a flautist and violinist, filled the air with the most beautiful music. When a lone soprano sang Schubert’s Ave Maria unaccompanied, I all but swooned. As the bride and groom walked down the aisle, the groom spotted Katie grinning up at him and reached over to tweak her nose. It made her day. She’s been talking about ‘brides and brooms’ ever since!

Wedding in the Cathedral

Wedding in the Cathedral

Porto is an incredibly hilly city, and from many locations, including the cathedral, there are delightful views out over seas of house roofs. Something that I loved about the city, and something that reminded me very much of Rome, was all the ordinary life going on amidst all the splendor of churches and historic buildings. I enjoyed seeing people sitting outside their homes, hanging their laundry out to dry, in houses and apartments that look at least as old as the 12th and 14th century historic sites around them.

Homes built on top of the rocky hills

Homes built on top of the rocky hills

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The narrow roads lead ever downward towards the River Douro, a hive of tourist activity. Although the north bank of the river is very beautiful, I found it a little crazy, with too many people around and every squished together like sardines. Better still was the view of the north bank of the river from the bridge across to the south bank.

One of the many quirky buildings on the north bank

One of the many quirky buildings on the north bank

View of the north bank from the Ponte Luis I bridge

View of the north bank from the Ponte Luis I bridge

The south bank of the river is home to the city’s many port warehouses, many offering tours. Unfortunately, we got there too late to take a tour, but it was lovely to walk amongst them and recognise famous brands of port. The cobbled streets behind the warehouses are steep, with a mixture of old homes and gentrified trendy apartments and homes. Down on the riverside, the street is broader with more room for pedestrians, and I didn’t feel quite so squished!

Port warehouses on the south bank of the Douro

Port warehouses on the south bank of the Douro

Port warehouse roofs

Port warehouse roofs

At every turn there was something else to see and think about – the history of the city, and Portugal’s colonial past; the historical importance of the cod fishing industry, and the continuing importance of the port industry (which we discovered is historically linked to the cod fishing); Catholicism; tourism; secular and sacred art; the importance of the river; old and new (seemingly) happily residing side by side. It was too much to soak in in two short visits. But what a beautiful and amazing city.

PS…Henry, Stewart et al….a great city for a Human Geography field trip!!

 

Revisiting Columbus

DSCI4217After twenty days we finally left the Ria de Arousa and sailed 37 miles south to Baiona. It was a misty drizzly day with poor visibility, but about ten miles out from Baiona the sky cleared and we were treated to the sight of green mountains and high majestic islands with overhanging clouds. As we sailed into Baiona over the swell rolling in off the Atlantic it was easy to imagine Martin Pinzón and the crew of La Pinta looking on exactly the same sight (minus the high rises of Vigo) 522 years ago as they returned with the first news of having discovered land to the west. It was a few more days before Columbus reached Lisbon, and by then news of the success of the voyage had been dispatched to Ferdinand and Isabella.

Replica Pinta in the harbour in Baiona

Replica Pinta in Baiona harbour

The landing of La Pinta suffuses Baiona. There are monuments, statues and street names, and a replica of La Pinta in the harbour. The first Native American to die on European soil is buried here (he died within days of La Pinta’s arrival), and monuments around town celebrate the ‘meeting of worlds’ and the importance of Columbus’ accomplishments. Indeed, it would appear that Baiona is currently seeking UNESCO world heritage status due to its link with the first Columbus voyage.

DSCI4233I find all of this celebration strangely lacking in context or reflection. I looked forward to the audio-guide that accompanied the visit to La Pinta. But while it recounted in great detail the difficulties of seafaring at the time, life aboard for the crew, and all the wonderful and exotic products they introduced to Europe (peppers, cotton, maize, tobacco, from that first voyage), there was little historical or cultural context. Why had Columbus sailed west in the first place? What impact did the discovery have on Europe? And crucially, what impact did the discovery have on the Americas? There was no mention of the forced labour, enslavement, disease and genocide that ultimately led to the deaths, according to some estimates, of 200 million original inhabitants of the ‘New World’. Nor is there mention of the African slave trade that became established a mere decade after that first voyage.

So, while enthralled by the presence of this reminder of a crucial moment in world history, we are also aware of the lack of reflection on what it meant, what it led to, and how this late medieval event reverberates down to the present day.

DSCI4236When Julian and I had exhausted our own knowledge of Columbus’ voyages, we turned to our onboard reference books and then to the Internet. We have taken advantage of this piece of history in our midst to have ‘Columbus days’ with the girls. We have explored La Pinta and have visited the various monuments, all the time talking about who these historical figures were, why they did what they did, and what the repercussions have been. I’m not sure if the girls appreciate that before the ‘discovery’, Europeans didn’t have potatoes, tomatoes, maize, cotton, tobacco, coffee, and much more besides. Indeed, I find it hard to imagine Europe without those, or to get my head around how recently my own country, Ireland, had become dependent on the potato before the Great Famine.

‘Columbus days’ have also led to conversations about trade winds, sailing directions, hurricanes, animals native to the Americas, animals introduced by Europeans, and much more besides.

The human history of contact between the Old and New Worlds is too horrific to delve too deeply into with small children. But what we can talk about are the vast and varied cultures of the Americas, the technologies unknown to Europeans, how people utilised the land and animals, spiritual and artistic culture. I guess what we’re trying to instil in them is that what Columbus ‘discovered’ was already home to millions of people.

Seamlessly fitting in….by Julian

I am in the rather strange position of having by far the best Spanish on the boat. This is nothing to boast about and is due simply to having done a year of Spanish at school. I also spent some time in my 20s travelling in Bolivia and Chile, when the phrase “Lava ropa?”* often came in handy. However, it has been 6 years since I have had to say “Hola” to anyone and the sad little bit of Spanish I once had now largely eludes me. Everyday words and phrases like “Wife”, “Too much” and “Are you sure you’re not completely fleecing me because I’m a foreigner?” have me reaching for the diccionario. I dearly look forward to the day when I can talk to people here without the cumbersome ‘Spanglish’ interspersed with grunts and hand gestures (largely mine). Here in Galicia regional Galego is widely spoken so the locals have already managed two languages before they think about English. Portugese and French are also common third languages. Everyone else on board is doing their best, learning from our recently acquired ‘Spanish for beginners’ book. The girls really try hard with “hola”, “me llamo Lily” etc. But we just have to accept that it is going to take a lot of work and time to get into this.

It is not only the language but the culture and environment to get used to. Martina and I have spent many afternoons getting slightly sun or heat stroked along with near dehydration for little practical benefit. Chores on deck and scouting the local area can always wait until it cools a bit. There is a reason nothing is open here between 2:00 and 4:00 in the afternoon, and many businesses are closed between 1:00 and 5:30. The locals have a relaxed shady lunch and then go to sleep, while we have often found ourselves wobbling about, completely exhausted and sun-frazzled at 5 or 6 o’clock simply through our inability to observe the local custom and take a siesta. The trouble is that we have mastered the staying up late, dinner at 9pm and so on, but in our true British or Irish fashion we have adjusted to this late bedtime by getting up later in the morning. Therefore we miss the morning markets, the post office, cool walks, fresh bread and finally emerge into the heat of the day baking ourselves crispy whilst everything around us remains shut until 5:30!!

Now I realise that nothing I have written is in any way original. Indeed I cringe at my lack of profound observation. Brit after Brit has noted exactly the same things. It is worth stating them again as we always fail to heed our own good advice, myself especially. The advice is simple, learn some more of the lingo and get a siesta whilst the sun fries the earth like the fires of Hades.

Tomorrow you should not be in the least surprised to find me wandering about half dazed, the colour of a freshly cooked lobster, knotted handkerchief on my head, sweat pouring down my face like Niagara, slowly shouting at some local the immortal line “DO YOU SPEAK ANY ENGLISH?” I think I deserve to be fleeced, don’t you?

*Martina: Julian tells me this means ‘clothes washing’, or something close. Given that we hand wash most of our laundry on board, the phrase isn’t getting much use!

The world’s greatest swimming pool

We are anchored on the west side of the Ria de Arousa, just off the beach of the pretty town Pobra do Caramiñal. After a few days of intense, oppressive heat, the clouds came over, offering us a welcome respite and a chance, at last, to go walking in the hills. The woman at the tourist office recommended As Piscinas on the Rio Pedras and we figured the 6km round trip wouldn’t be too much for the girls to undertake.

IMG_20140801_134011We walked out of town on a gradual incline, soon getting away from the main road and onto a walking track through the woods. Since arriving in Galicia, we have been struck by the profusion of eucalyptus trees and were so confused by their presence (and not trusting ourselves that that’s what they were, despite all evidence they were) that we turned to the Internet for answers. We discovered eucalyptus trees were introduced to the region from Australia only 150 years ago, for pulp and charcoal production, but quickly became a problematic invasive species, rapidly spreading over the hills and blocking natural wildlife corridors. Yet, despite the harm they cause, it is impossible to not be impressed by their beauty and aroma. Their slender silver trunks, stripped of bark, and dusky leaves cast a grey-blue glow on the land. Their soft swooshing as they sway in the breeze, and their unmistakable eucalyptus aroma, makes walking through these woods a joy to the senses. I can’t help but wonder what these hills were like before they took over.

IMG_20140801_135516We walked up the beautiful river valley – at times along a path than ran beside the boulder strewn river, at other times alongside small fields of vines or maize, the tinkling sound of the river always in our ears.

Katie contemplating the vines

Katie contemplating the vines

Upwards we went until the sound of teenagers alerted us to the proximity of the first pool on the upper reaches of the river. We climbed down the bank to a pool in the river where a family with four teenagers swam and ate their lunch. We ate our picnic lunch sitting on the rocks with our feet dipped in the fast flowing river, but then decided to search for more pools farther upstream.

DSCI4212We walked for another fifteen minutes until we reached the last of the pools, one of the most magical places I have ever been. The bedrock was smooth underfoot as we stepped into the warm river water, shallow enough in places for Lily and Katie to stand up, but deep enough elsewhere for Julian and me to enjoy a swim. A little higher up, a waterfall fell into a smaller pool. Julian and I took turns sitting on a rock underneath the waterfall. It was a natural Jacuzzi and we sat there with the water foaming and bubbling around us, massaging our bodies and roaring in our ears.

DSCI4195A natural water slide led from our pool to the next one downriver, lined with slick moss, and Julian entertained himself for ages by repeatedly sliding down. I tried it once and laughed so hard my sides ached. That first day we failed to convince the girls to have a go, but when we returned the next day, Lily eagerly went down the slide sitting on Julian’s lap.

DSCI4206Katie found a little pool all to herself and, holding on to a ledge, splashed and kicked her legs and had a glorious time. When not in the water, the girls foraged for juicy blackberries in the brambles.

My own little bit of paradise

My own little bit of paradise

The most wonderful thing, however, was that we had the place all to ourselves. Our own private piece of paradise. All along the 3km walk back home the girls asked if we could go back again. So we did, two days later. This time we shared ‘our’ pool with some other families, and later moved down the river to another pool that we had all to ourselves. What a treat!

 

 

Rianxo, oh, Rianxo

I’ve fallen in love with Rianxo – not some hot young Galician clam fisherman, but a delightful town tucked into the northern corner of the Ria de Arousa. We spent two nights on a pontoon at Rianxo’s Club Nautico, the only people aboard one of the few yachts amidst small fishing and power boats. Most of the harbour is taken up by the larger fishing pontoons, home to the town’s many mussel and oyster boats.

DSCI4144Arriving on Monday morning, we ran the gauntlet of a fleet of small cockle-fishing boats across the harbour mouth, taking up the prime cockling sites. In each small open boat one or two fishers used rakes on long extendable poles to rake the seafloor for cockles. We barely had space to squeeze through, but the sight was impressive.

DSCI4150I have a weakness for working boats and boatyards, and having to walk amongst the fishing boats in the boatyard every time I left Carina was sheer delight to my quirky senses.

Is it just my imagination, or are there more tall blond Spaniards here than elsewhere? Well, the Vikings did invade back in the 11th Century, and a festival is held each year to commemorate the invasion, complete with replica long ships and locals dressed as
Vikings. Along the seafront a street sculpture recalls the prows and oars of a long ship.

DSCI4164Rianxo’s public spaces are many and varied. On the seafront, in the centre of town and elsewhere, are large open, but shady tree covered plazas, with benches, sculptures and busts of celebrated locals. They are cafe free, and the largest of them, The Xardina, was and continues to be a public meeting place. One can imagine rousing speeches from the steps of the town hall located at one end of The Xardina. On market day it was filled with market stalls selling clothes, shoes and household wares.

IMG_20140729_161858Rianxo has a housing style known as casas de remo. Remo means ‘oar’ and the tall narrow houses are only the width of an oar. The streets are narrow, some tiled, some cobbled, with cafes, butchers and bakers tucked away down narrow alleyways. The town rises from the seafront and from the streets running parallel to the sea one can catch occasional glimpses of the deep blue sea and the hills rising up on the opposite side of the Ria.

DSCI4168It was one of the most delightful towns I’ve encountered so far, and something about its quirkiness captured my heart.

Julian and I go on a date

My friend Katie kindly offered to look after the girls one evening so Julian and I could go out. I imagined a little moonlit table in a plaza, tapas, a bottle of chilled local wine. We’d relax, make plans, enjoy each other’s company. I put on a light summer dress and Julian his best shirt. We walked hand-in-hand up the pontoon, looking forward to the evening ahead. As we walked through the marina gate, we met the middle-aged English couple from the neighbouring pontoon coming in.

They had been less than friendly towards us earlier, so I was surprised when they now decided to engage us in conversation. Earlier in the day, as I’d been hanging towels to dry on the guard rails, I overheard a conversation between them and the local Garda Civil that could have been mistaken for a Little Britain comedy sketch. The two policemen were visiting each yacht to check passports and boats’ papers.

At our neighbour’s boat, I heard one policeman, speaking Spanish-accented English, ask, ‘Your boat insurance papers, please’. The skipper, sitting on his deck replied, in heavily-English-accented Spanish, ‘No hablo Español’. The policeman repeated the question, the skipper repeated the answer. Then he called to his wife. ‘Your boat insurance papers, please’, the policeman said, once again in English, to Her Below Decks when she appeared in the cockpit. ‘He wants the boat insurance papers’, she told her husband. ‘Oh, the insurance papers’, said the skipper and he sent her back below to fetch them. I almost fell down the companionway in my eagerness to recount the incident to Julian and our guest, Katie.

And now, on our first evening out alone in months, this same couple had stopped us for a chat. Well, at least the skipper wanted to chat. Her Below Decks said next to nothing. He enquired as to our sailing plans…and then informed us that our choices were all wrong. We were choosing the wrong places at the wrong times. He informed us of the right places. He told us that they were sorely disappointed with this town. There was nothing going on, it had nothing of interest. I found this odd, considering they had arrived on the day of the town’s biggest festival, and we ourselves had enjoyed days of wonderful cafes, wonderful walks through the ancient town centre, a wonderful museum, wonderful beaches. Our only complaint was that it was too hot to go exploring the surrounding hills. And in every guide book we read, the town was noted as perhaps the most beautiful in the Rias. But we were WRONG. And the skipper told us why.

Still giving this couple the benefit of the doubt, we gave ourselves more rope to hang by when we informed them of our long-term dream of crossing the Atlantic and one day passing through the Panama Canal. Julian told them that we currently lack the finances to equip the boat with an autopilot or wind-vane steering system. The skipper was incredulous. How could we live in such primitive conditions? ‘You’ll pick up an auto steering system for less than £1000. If you don’t get it you’ll soon stop sailing altogether’. He went on to expertly inform us that our Wifi capabilities are rubbish (we know) and that we could get a decent system for ‘less than £1000’. ‘And you’re sailing with the sheets forward of the cockpit?’ he asked with a smirk. ‘You need to bring them back to the cockpit’, and then informed us how we should rig our sails for easier sailing. This was helpful advice, but given in such a condescending way that I wanted to punch him.

He then enquired about our fridge, and we made the fatal error of telling him that we live fridgeless when at anchor. He was beside himself with joy at the chance to tell us again what we were doing wrong. ‘You need a better array of solar panels. You’d get sorted for (you’ve guessed it) less than £1000. You need to change over to LED lighting’. He informed us that their saloon is lit by 19 LED lights. I imagined something akin to Las Vegas in there.

We have had nothing but positive experiences with Spanish officials – Garda Civil and customs officers – but the skipper told us we should be careful, he didn’t trust them. When we told him we’d cruised in Ireland a couple of years ago, he made some equally disparaging comments that started with ‘Well, knowing the Irish…’ That enamored me to him no end, I can tell you!

All those ‘less than one thousand pounds’ he was so eager for us to spend add up, and when, an hour later, Julian and I eventually escaped this know-it-all, we reflected on what we would do if we had £1000 to spare. A new dinghy maybe, so our feet don’t get wet every time we go the short distance to shore – a dinghy that’s more dinghy and less patches. New anchor chain maybe, to replace the rusty anchor chain we’ve currently got out. LED lights, refrigeration and high-tech communication system are way down our list of priorities.

Almost every day we meet sailors with years and years of experience who are generous with their advice, interesting to talk to, and who help us to develop our sailing skills and improve the way we do things. They give us advice about great places to visit and places to avoid. They are encouraging and inspiring. But this guy got our backs up so much with his know-it-all condescending attitude.

But when he told us he’d been cruising in Spain for the past fifteen years, I wondered how he’d managed to avoid learning enough Spanish even to understand a Spaniard speaking English! We eventually did find that little table in the moonlit plaza, with its tapas and chilled local wine. But I’m sure we did our date all wrong!