Monday, 18 September 2017

Halfway up the river Douro

Sitting in a riverside restaurant in Pinhao, halfway up the river Douro to the Spanish frontier.
Around me are voices speaking Portuguese with its distinctive intonation and "sh" sounds (every time an "s" occurs...).
I feel I have eaten too much fish for lunch, accompanied by the excellent local vinho branco (white wine), cool and delicious and far from costly!
Ever since we left Porto five days ago the sun has accompanied us, dispelling the early morning mists and urging us into shady places at midday.
Now we have moored Stroemhella at a convenient pontoon, where she bounces happily and is admired by the local fisherfolk.
I attempt a pic at this point:
Yes, this is our mast-less Stroemhella moored at the bouncing pontoon, beneath a verdant weeping willow. We are presently just with the two of us on the boat. We were accompanied from Porto marina by Ricardo, a young Portuguese student who proved indescribably helpful and also very entertaining and of course utterly indispensable when it came to speaking Portuguese with the lock-keepers. I am somewhat trepidatious (!) about my Portuguese on the return journey... but Ricardo has offered to help. (Long-distance telephoning...).

From the very start the trip was beautiful. The river gently curving first through houses and winding roads, further on between steep rocky hillsides.
Here we are leaving Porto and chugging upstream.

On the second day we had left the paved streets and on either side was woodland or huge rounded hills, often scorched by this summer's devastating fires.
And then came the rocky slopes, the huge boulders and the cracked stones, with the trees beginning to claim their autumn tones.

At the end of each day we found a quiet place to moor and David prepared us splendid meals so that we did not envy the guests in the five-star hotels. We would sit in the back cockpit until it grew too dark to see... And the nights were still and rocked us gently into bright dreams.
Sleep is deep and soft and holds no anguished moments.Unblemished.
Tomorrow we shall continue gently further.

This reminds me of:
Swete Themmes runne softley 
Till I end my song...

Ah, but today is very windy...

White wavelets across the river.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Another try for pix

Here is the monastery at Lece do Bilhao, where for four days there was a splendid costumed medieval fair, with music and jugglers and wondrous-tasting food cooked in wood-fired ovens. I have more jolly pix but as this one took over a minute to position here, I refrain from more until I've found an efficient manner to transfer them!
The weather continues sunny and friendly and helpful for outdoor activities.
The mast has now been taken down and the rigging extracted and washed and hung up to dry.
We have introduced ourselves to the staff here and practised Portuguese and are feeling very cheerful at the prospect of several months in this area.
But first the river Douro. So with lots of wishes for a Boa Viaje we plot our trip upstream and apply to the first locks that we'll need to negotiate.
We have asked a young Portuguese student to come with us : very useful as interpreter when my Portuguese becomes too Spanish (!) and very helpful for the moments when ropes need pulling, tying etc., since I still have considerable pain in my shoulders.
I plan to sing a lot as my contribution to the journey...

Monday, 11 September 2017

Wide horizons

Out there is only sea, unceasingly breaking in rushing foamy runnels, whooshing onto the sand. I have got used to its sound and now do not hear it all the time. But when we have stopped talking (or singing) there it is, unceasing, scarcely comforting, except in its familiarity.
It sucks away the sound of our voices, our words shrivel and there is only a huge wideness.
So how can I write when words become so trivial? All I need is the wind on my face and the sun on my back, and no aches in legs or shoulders. And off we go, at a good pace, across the wet sand and the bumpy hillocks and the uneven rocks.
This place is full of grace and cleanliness. Our small boat is moored at a pontoon (weathered slats of black wood, sometimes splitting, always rocking as we walk along it) ad our neighbours are boats of similar length, from other European countries, often waiting to cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean.
Not us: we have taken down our mast (quite a to-do) and in a few days will begin our trip up the river Douro to the Spanish frontier. Six locks to negotiate, many bends and day after day of quietness (at least, that's the idea).
We have also been entertained by some urban delights, in the centre of Porto, things like ancient buildings (churches and so forth) and fine meals in good restaurants (I never knew how excellent the Portuguese cuisine could be!) and medieval music at a beautifully organized Fayre in an old monastery nearby, which I have a charming picture of but the internet connection is so abysmally slow here on the boat that I will stick to words, not images.
In fact I'll try tomorrow when there's not such an overload!

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

These autumn days...

I'm getting ready to return to the boat which is now in a marina in Porto (northern Portugal, on the Atlantic coast).
Change of life-style, no more space to twirl in but instead a rocking floor (!) and lullaby of the waves washing onto the sandy beach.
Bags packed, weight checked, should be just the right amount...
Too many thoughts chasing around in my head, stories friends have been telling me, tales of death and sickness, countered by the laughter of children playing in the street outside my window.
I must try to make a pic of me sitting typing at my long oak table, looking out across the narrow road, to where the roses climb up the brick wall of my neighbours' house.
Below: me looking from my balcony.
Last night I lay thinking about my life onland in contrast to my life on the boat. I still prefer a dry bed...
Something like this: how grand the sea viewed from the shore, how beautiful the clouds when not about to shower down and make the deck slippery ... and no space inside the boat to get dry...
(The painting above is of course by a Dutch master and presently hanging in Berlin.)
I love it, the soft colours, the huge sky, I feel the wind blowing, I hear it soughing in the sails (or it that only for the leaves of trees?). Very happy to be near the sea (where I was born, with the Rocky mountains on the other side).
We'll give it another try.
Seven weeks before the winter rains arrive in Porto.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Amazing urban peace...

In the night it started to rain. Puddles appeared where there had been green grass. The sand could not absorb the downpour. Lots of happy ducks.
People donned rain capes and cycled off as usual. The day remained grey.
Amsterdam remains beautiful! Indeed, a quiet envelopes the streets. It is still August, holiday month, but almost over.
I walked down to the Town Hall (known as the Stopera, combined with the Opera House) and noticed a considerable decrease in tourists. But still met a couple from the region of Abruzzo, so could keep my Italian oiled. When we sailed down the east coast of Italy a few years ago we visited Abruzzo and admired its mountainous beauty. That was September 2014 (for the record!)
Today in Amsterdam there were still quite a few people out on foot, despite the rain. And of course, it did clear up.
Here some pix of a flotilla cycling through the Rijksmuseum, and nearby canals.
Returning home from my expedition I encountered a sad sight: on the corner of the street where the (historic monument) building has stood for several hundred years, the once French consulate, Maison Descartes, was being emptied. The building (a landmark monument) has been sold to a property developer and the French consulate is off to The Hague. No more lovely French films without subtitles (!), no more delicious meals (there used to be a real French cook who produced real French cuisine, not minimal!) and no more cultural activities (I once had the pleasure of hearing Tim Parks talk about his writing). Definitely the end of an era. Not yet clear what will happen with this building (presently in need of considerable t.l.c.): we wait to see. Happily it is a monument and thereby protected...
Here some pix:
taking boxes and furniture from an upper storey
Boxes being exited!
Yes, I think this counts as the end of an era ... or perhaps simply part of the ever-ongoing urbanization of the inner city. It seems that "ordinary" people are being pushed out, schools closing, and cities in Europe and elsewhere being taken over by hotels, restaurants and trinket shops. No, this is definitely not true of Amsterdam, though I do detect these tendencies ... But the Gymnasium (secondary school where you can learn Latin and Greek and many other subjects to a very high level before opting for university if you wish) which my kids attended is still round the corner from our house and still flourishing. However, the small bakers and butchers and flower shops have all gone; the supermarkets and "to-go" shops have taken over.
Yet this remains a fascinating city to live in; and on my visit to the Town Hall (the Stadhuis, donating its first two letters to the name Stopera: the Opera wins!) this morning I enjoyed a wonderful typically Amsterdam scene: two children, strangers to each other, a blonde three year old girl and a dark slightly older boy, played a  game circling one of the large pillars in the spacious waiting room. It was a kind of hide and seek... she found it hilarious and her delight was infectious: the little boy, more serious and shy to begin with, was soon sharing her giggles and whoops of delight. One of the many Dutch people watching, said how good it was to see this uninhibited pleasure (before the woes of the world overtake these children!).
Outside it is raining again. Here's a picture of the sky brightening. Beautiful city. Trees, and bikes, and water.

Monday, 28 August 2017

Golden late summer

A friend of mine who has lived in Amsterdam for around forty years claims that August is the best month to be here. I tend to agree (well, provided there's plenty of sunlight.) It's holiday time for schools and businesses, and the traffic is substantially diminished. Of course, over the past decade there have been increasing numbers of tourists, so that there are a few streets, like those round the Museum Plein and the Rijksmuseum, where it can grow pretty dense... But I have a soft spot for tourists, and just love practising my languages (presently I'm into Portuguese and have charming chats with visitors from both Portugal and Brazil). Yesterday in the Flower Market, buying Dutch cheese with a friend, I detected some vowel sounds that seemed unfamiliar, and indeed, our assistant told us she came from the Ukraine and had married a Dutchman. Kiev is one of the cities I haven't yet visited, although my son had a school-friend whose mother was Ukrainian and one summer the two boys went to Russia, as it then was, and adventured to the Crimea and swam in the Black Sea (or was it the Caspian...??). Things to do! We have a family from the Ukraine living in our street (employees of Google I believe) and contributing to the considerably multi-ethnic character of this neighbourhood. At our last street party I spoke to people, just from my block, of nine different nationalities. This is Amsterdam for you... 
Living right in the city centre, I am close to the Vondel Park, where once I took my small children to play in one of the sand pits, still there today. I watch the kids who are intently building sand structures, talking to themselves about, or with, their invisible heroes, making the necessary noises to enhance their story. So far they are not distracted by smartphones, headphones or such like and can create from their imaginations the adventures that they choose. I am relieved.
I saw an astounding performance under one of the bridges near the main entrance to the Vondelpark, by SK Thoth, whom I had never heard of but my younger companions had. We looked him up on Youtube when we got home and watched "the story of his life" made about fifteen years ago. Born in the US, here he was in the Netherlands, playing his violin (a very good musician),  dancing and rhythmically stamping his feet so that the small bells round his ankles chattered an accompaniment. He sang and the sound caused goose bumps, a rich full alto voice (I thought at first it was the young woman singing who accompanied him playing on her violin) and then a full bass tone, the words resembling Italian, or perhaps an Indian language. Amazing. Rich and tender, powerful and haunting.
The sun shone, people stood still to listen, scattered over the grass lay the young and old, relaxing in the warmth.
Here a pic of the light through the green...

Friday, 25 August 2017

Green cities. Amsterdam and Berlin

That title is a slight pun, since in the recent General Elections in the Netherlands, the Green Party gained the majority in the city of Amsterdam. But apart from that, it is the trees, in all their shimmering variety, that are so striking as one drives into either Amsterdam or Berlin, from one of their airports.
First, Berlin, where I spent a week in August. Interesting weather, I missed the heat wave and arrived to rain, and experienced torrential downpours at the end of my stay. In between, clouds, sun and warm wind; most pleasant. I stayed most of the time on Markgrafendamm and familiarized myself with U and S bahnen and the local buses. One sunny day I explored the nearby Trep Tower Park, with its huge monument to the Soviet heroes (!) who died fighting fascism, we are told by the inscription.
It was a warm Berlin summer day, people licked ice-cream cornets  as they strolled along, children ran and jumped in the pools of sparkling water gushing from the fountains, couples rented small paddle boats and disported (!) themselves on the lake, the huge trees spread dappled shadows on the paths, and the overall feeling was one of happy holidays. Forget briefly the craziness in Barcelona and elsewhere. Mourn and enjoy simultaneously...
Berlin has some of the most magnificent museums in Europe, and I spent some very happy days seeing excellent exhibitions. Unforgettable was the Kathe Kollwitz museum. Learned a lot about Berlin between the two world wars. Understand more...
I took quite a lot of pix of parks and sculptures and will attempt to fly them into my blog, who knows, it might work...

So this is a sculpture Kathe Kollwitz made, one of the few, which is displayed on the top floor of the museum dedicated to her life and work.
A place of memory and hope.

Here in Amsterdam it is sunny and green, the streets are packed with tourists round the centre, but it is easy to find quiet slipways! Many Amsterdammers go on holiday in August but there are also splendid activities such as the travelling "circus" known as The Parade. This is encamped on the grass of one of the green parks on the outskirts of the city, beside the river. It is a collections of small tents in which there are performances and videos and music and dancing while outside long tables stretch out to welcome the hungry. I saw an enthralling performance titled 100 degrees centigrade. Go see if you have time!