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From The Pacific To The Atlantic - Part 2


An ex-Prime Minister of Australia had colourfully described Australia as situated at the arse end of the world. This is not a respectful way to refer to the country he loves dearly but most Australian would agree with him when it comes to traveling overseas from Australia. It will easily take up to 26 hours in total if one includes the arrival at the airport from one end of the journey to another and the transit time midway for refueling. Given a chance, most Australians would spend more than 4 weeks abroad to maximise the time away from the country. Anything less than 3 weeks will not be a worthwhile exercise. A couple from Adelaide whom we acquainted in the second half of our tour would have spent 10 weeks in total by the time they arrive home. Similar Magdalen and I would have spent 7 weeks overseas by the time we arrive Sydney in early June.


Just as we have allowed 3 days in Venice before we embarked on our cruise ship, we have earmarked the same number of days to tour Barcelona before we took the train to Madrid to join our land-tour of Spain and Portugal. We had high expectations of what we could get out of the Catalon capital and we were not disappointed. When the pier shuttle dropped us off at the start of the main pedestrian street, La Ramblas, the city had just woken up in the morning of May 11. It was a Saturday and the part pedestrian, part two single one-way lane vehicular street was beginning to fill up with people and traffic after a late Friday night - early 4 AM Saturday party. The locals came to the market to shop for fresh fish, fruits, grocers and vegetables and the tourists were lining up for their tapas, beer, wine and drinks. There were restaurants and ice cream stalls as well as artists and painters drawing portraits and caricatures for visitors as well as street performers posing either as statures, jugglers or clowns and musicians of all kinds busking for money along the one and a half kilometre pedestrian street. In fact, the street was complete with an 18th century opera house and a castle which houses a museum with many side streets that make the tourist lost in a wonderland. We quickly left our luggage at our hotel just off the main street and joined in the crowd, taking video clips of every aspect of the rustle and bustle of the street.

Our hotel room was conveniently located on a high floor. From the back balcony I could get a good impression of the whole city. On my right-hand side I saw the old Gothic quarters, on my left-hand side was a large cathedral and directly opposite our room was the church on top of the hill whose name I later found out to be Tibidabo. With this orientation, I followed my instincts without the benefit of a tourist map because I didn't have a destination to go to. Being a Saturday night certainly helped as revellers were leading the way to some exciting events. Before long we found ourselves in front of the Gothic Cathedral in readiness for a concert. They were testing the spot lights and tuning their instruments. Being early we found ourselves a seat directly facing the stage on the third row.


Sagrada Família                                                 Gothic Cathedral in Barcelona


I've watched many concerts on TV and DVDs but this was the first time I watched it live and at within 10 metres of the artists and the band. The spot lights were pointing at the front facade of the cathedral in the background using colour and spotting techniques. While the band members were tuning their instruments and testing their songs I asked the lady sitting next to me what this was all about. She explained that the concert was part of their spring festival of Catalan poetry reading and musical performance. The lead singer turned out to be the best poet and singer of Barcelona and all the artists were famous and well-known. The concert was not due to start until 10 PM so we had to wait for more than an hour but I knew I couldn't miss this life-time experience. Bless my lucky star for leading me to such an important event!

Before long the huge cathedral square was packed with a flag-waving audience a few thousand strong. The atmosphere was dynamic. People clapped and waved their flags whenever the lead singer and other band members were rehearsing a piece of something. Each member of the band played two instruments and the drummer used all kinds of improvisation to produce sounds of interest including birds and animals. I was told of their names but couldn't even remember the name of the lady singer but their love and passion for their art had left an indelible mark in my mind especially their yearning for Catalan independence. I understand now why the local people hung the Catalonia flag on their balcony everywhere in Barcelona.

The concert commenced just past 10 PM and I noticed the square was packed with thousands of people. The singer reminded me of Joan Baez, a heroine of my age in the late 1960s. As I couldn't understand the Catalan language, her poetry made little sense to me other than the spirit she had inspired in the audience. The band members played their parts by adding it their individual character making the one and a half hour concert a memorable success. There were another 15 minutes of encores when they kept on coming back onto the stage for more performances with the audience joining in. When we left the cathedral square, it was close to midnight. As we walked back to our hotel, we noticed that all the bars and restaurants were packed with people and seemingly just warming-up for the night. We were very tired after a long day and were not going to verify if the legendary night life continued pass 4 and 5 AM in this exciting city.


Another aspect of Catalan nationalism is the all persuasive influence of its famous son, the Catalan architect Antoni Gaudi. In Barcelona you just can't miss his highly individual and distinctive style of architecture. It can be found in the main street leading from the Plaza Catalunya called Passeig de Gracia with Casa Ballo on the one side and Casa Mila "La Pedrera" on the other. Of course, none is more obvious than his magnum opus, the Sagrada Família, nicknamed the Gaudi Cathedral. I have seen quite a few Italian cathedrals but this one challenged my traditional conception when Gaudi changed the 1882 Gothic cathedral with his idea of nature with generous use of fruits on the spires. As we didn't go inside the cathedral to study its architecture, I should reserve my comments until I got more familiar with his work. We did however enjoyed the techniques he used in the treatment of waste ceramic pieces. We spent 4 hours at Gaudi's masterpiece, Parc Güell, and enjoyed the undulating lines and harmonies of colours and materials he showcased in his garden.


Casa Ballo                                                                               Casa Mila


My friend in Sydney told me that no visit to Barcelona was complete without going up to Tibidabo to gain a bird eye's view of the city. We took a bus to the top and walked to the church on top of the hill. On top of the church we could see Christ the King spreading his arms to bless the city. To get close to Him, we had to take the lift at the base of the church and climbed the last few flights of stairs. It was well-worth the trouble as we could see everything in Barcelona. By the time we got back to Barcelona it was close to 6:45 PM. The bus which we took from Tibidabo was blocked by a road barrier put up by the Police. The bus driver stopped to let all the passengers down so we followed. In the distance we could hear loud music with football fans rallying and chanting Barca! Barca! Baaarca! We knew that we had to join in the fun.

One of the advice that my son Enguang gave me was to watch a soccer match in Barcelona. Only then, he said, could one feel the people of Barcelona and share their passions. I didn't believe him then but he was correct. We had had our first taste of Catalan nationalism in the Concert at the Gothic Cathedral. How lucky were we to get another shot! The occasion was Barcelona's win in the Spanish League. Unbeknown to us, the street parade was scheduled for the evening at 7:30 PM. Already there were thousands of fans congregating in the street where traffic had been blocked off. Everyone was dressed in the club uniform of Barcelona, most with #10 and the name Messi written at the back of the uniform. In case you don't know, Messi was the best soccer player in the world with a whooping income of more than 20 million Euros a year.  Young men and women, little kids as young as 4 years old were all dressed up with the club's logo waving the club's flag. The MC was standing on a truck with a microphone leading the chanting of war cries. The repertoire even included the English song and lyrics: "We are the champions!"

There was this official Barca FC song which everyone and I meant everyone from a 4 year old kid to a 80 year old lady could sing and it ended up with people extending their right arm ending in their index finger shouting: Barca! Barca! Baaarca! It went on and on with the MC leading the crowd and the loudspeakers blaring in a deafening pitch from the top of the truck. The crowd loved it and so did we. I went over closer to the truck and saw officials handing out flags of the Barcelona FC so I pushed myself in to get a flag to join in the flag-waving fun. I got one eventually but failed to get another one for Magdalen as the crowd was pushing me away as I was pushed away in a human swell. This was the first time I had experience the power of a human wave and I could understand now how people could be stampeded to death if they toppled each other in a stampede as I had completely lost control of my own footings and rendered utterly powerless by the frenzied crowd which pushing me from left, right and centre.

We waited for the moment for our heroes to arrive. They were late but we didn't mind as we kept on chanting Barca! Barca! Baaarca! Finally the official parade began when the security guards cleared people from the middle of the street and directing the crowd to both sides. I was filming the parade buses and nearly got pushed by the police to the ground. The Spanish pageant police led the way on horseback, then came the truck-load of pong pong girls, then a bus full of Club officials and finally the Barca heros drinking champaine and beer, acknowledging the fans and punching their fists in the air. The song "We are the Champions" and the Club song alternated, each time punching the finger and yelling out Barca! Barca! Baaarca! Yes, Enguang was correct! You've got to be there to experience the Barcelonian passions!


We took a train from the Catalan capital to the national capital of Spain. I shall give a tip to my fellow travelers above the age of 60. You could get a discount like nowhere else on earth when you travel in Spanish trains. For 4 persons we were given a further discount because we were seated facing each other so we ended up paying only 46 Euros each for a 600 kilometre journey in the super-fast AVE train! The train was ultra modern and comfortable traveling on average at 275 km per hour but with half a dozen stops it took just over 3 hours and 10 minutes. The DVD screened for the journey was a adult drama movie with sex scenes and nudity which would be restricted to a mature audience on Australian TV. My traveling companions reminded me that we were in Europe and we needed a bit of excitement for a long train journey!

Madrid is situated 2180 feet above sea level and according to the travel brochure the Spaniards considers their city the nearest thing to heaven. I didn't find that to be true if I went by the number of beggars in the capital. It was indicative of the state of the Spanish economy of high unemployment when you could see so many able-bodied beggars of all ages, many in their mid 20s asking for money. I also found it odd to see young street sweepers in their 20s in both sexes cleaning the streets early in the morning both in Barcelona and Madrid because I was used to seeing old people in Hong Kong and China doing this kind of 'demeaning' labour and couldn't relate it to young people. This reminds me of another strange phenomenon when I saw young people doing the work of 'lollipop lady' directing tourists across the road in Alaska wile old people in their late 60s and 70s clinging on work as bus drivers working very long hours.
Were these cases of unemployment in Western societies caused by machines replacing people so much so that they couldn't get dignified work?


Illuminated Plaza Mayor


We left Madrid early in the morning and drove south to the ancient capital of Toledo. Situated on a granite hill surrounded by a loop of the Tagus River, the ancient Castilian capital was made famous in El Greco's paintings. It's like a great open-air museum of Spanish history and art so it was perfect for video photography. An old city wall still intact overlooking an ancient bridge took us back 1500 years ago when the Moors ruled over the Catholic kings in Spain. Many Moorish buildings still remained but most had been partly converted to Christian churches. 


We had lunch in one of the restaurants along the highway. One couple from our tour group, Paul and Anne-Michele took their backpack along when they had lunch. Two girls sat behind them and knocked Paul's chair from behind. When Paul turned his head to see what happened, another girl took his backpack and left without his wife's notice. Later Paul told us that his laptop computer was inside his backpack. This was the second theft reported in our tour group. The first one happened when Alex had his camera stolen inside the backpack that he was carrying on his back. He was riding on a bus and because there was not enough seats he was standing up and that gave the thief the opportunity.

Grenada was a stronghold of the Moorish kings. After we checked in we went to the centre of town to visit the cathedral and the city. The city was busy building a series of metro-station so it was rather dusty. The overnight rain gave the city a freshening clean-up in readiness for our visit of the royal palace the next day. Amazingly the Christians had left the palace alone. The beauty of its architecture and the magnificence of its gardens were stunning, quite comparable to those found in Istanbul. We spent about 2 hours in the palace when I ran around talking video shots on cobbled stones which eventually injured my ankles. Subsequently I limped along the rest of the journey. Magdalen too had trouble with her knees. Age must have caught up with both of us.

Alhambra in Granada


We arrived Malaga in the afternoon. This is a coastal city and the birthplace of Picasso although he had left the city at the age of 19 and never returned. The city honours him with a museum devoted to his paintings. We went in and were puzzled by what we saw because it worked against what we have considered as art. Then we read a statement made by Picasso in 1935: "Academic training is a sham. We have been deceived, but so well deceived that we can scarcely get back even a shadow of the truth. The beauties of the Pantheon, Venuses, Nymphs, Narcissuses, are so many lies. Art is not the application of a canon of beauty but what the instinct and the brain can conceive beyond any canon. When we love a woman we don't start measuring her limbs. We love with our desires --- although everything has been done to try and apply a canon even to love." I had another look at Magdalen and had to agree with Picasso.

Behind Picasso's mask is another statement: "You have to wake people up. To revolutionise their way of identifying things. You've got to create images they won't accept. Make them foam out from their mouth. Force them to understand that they're living in a pretty queer world. A world that's not reassuring. A world that's not what they think it is." I left Picasso's museum half convinced. Obviously I live in a different world.


We stayed two nights in this seaside resort. The sea was a bit rough at the time of our arrival and it was windy. Roughly translated as the Sunshine Coast, this resort city had quite a lot of high rise along its foreshore and restaurants of all descriptions and national cuisines. We had a walk along the waterfront and found the sand quite coarse. The water was still too cold for swimming so the beach was deserted. On the next day we took a bus to visit the typical Andalusia market town of Mijas. It is situated on the upper terrace of the mountain overlooking the beach. The layout of the town resembles those in the island of Mykonos. It was a relaxing afternoon.


An impressive rock indeed viewed from a distance! From the top of the Rock I could catch my first glimpse of the Atlantic. Trust the British to turn back the 13 Spanish military attempts to wrestle control over this Spanish territory! Gibraltar is strategically vital to guard the entry into the Mediterranean from the Atlantic. Little wonder that it remains a thorn in the thigh of Spain for the people of Gibraltar had voted overwhelmingly not to join Spain. We took a short tour of Gibraltar driving on roads carved off the Rock. There was a cave inside the Rock which was quite colourful. However, I didn't find the city centre exciting as I am used to English buildings in Australia.


Seville is a river city about 100 metres to the Atlantic coast. This was where all the navigators such as Christopher Columbus and Ferdinand Magellan set sail for their explorations around the world. Soon after our arrival at Seville we visited the Plaza de Espana which was built in 1929 to commemorate the 500th anniversary of Columbus's discovery of the New World. The half-circle square has buildings continually running around the edge accessible over the moat by a number of bridges with a large fountain in the centre. The setting is so impressive that the movie Lawrence of Arabia was filmed here.

While driving to Seville, one of the tour members who is a flamenco teacher in San Diego, Juana, took the bus microphone and gave us a briefing on the flamenco dance. We were told of the history of the persecution of the Andalucía gypsies which contributed to the evolution of the dance. The briefing went on for quite a while with Juana actually sang some of the more popular flamenco songs over the microphone. She promised that tonight's flamenco show was going to be an experience of emotion and passion. Our tour director, Miguel, agreed and suggested that we should yell out OLE generously to acknowledge the artists' performances.

There were 4 male, 4 female dancers, 2 guitarists, a singer and a person leading the clapping. Each dancer performed in turn with intense passion and enthusiasm. The guitarists used very strong percussive strikes on the strings which seemed to direct the dancer's routine and held his or her performance together. Related to this was the singer who also played an important role directing the dancer's passion. One after another, the male and female dancers unleashed force and power in their dance while maintaining grace and dignity throughout. It was a wonderful and passionate experience. The exciting rhythms woven around the song was created by hand-clapping, fingers snapping and the fast rattling of their feet. We enjoyed watching the show so much that we couldn't help shouting out OLE to the dancers who in turn responded by displaying more enthusiasm and spirit. The show went on non-stop for an hour and a half and I could see that both the artists on stage and the audience below were exhausted. I was particularly pleased as I have brought back something which I will remember long after my holidays are over.  

On our final day in Seville we went to Italica, a Roman ruins dated back to the 2nd century. At the entrance of the ruins stands the statue of Venus of 2nd century vintage which was unearthed in the 1940s. The Roman emperor Hadrian was generous to his settled town, which he added temples venerating the Seville-born emperor Trajan. Italica’s amphitheatre could seat 25,000 spectators—half as many as the one in Rome. The city's Roman population at the time was estimated to have been only 8000 so the shortfall must have come from the local aristocracy. They must have funded the games and theatrical performances. Our guide told us that the existence of Italica and later on Seville was dependent on the profits from mining because great wealth had been generated from mining of silver, gold and copper since the Roman times. I also learned that even today the international mining giant, Rio Tinto, is still extracting copper from this profitable mine site!     


Departing Seville, we traveled west into Portugal where the oak trees are planted for its cork industry. Miguel is Portuguese so he knew this industry very well. It is a labour intensive industry which is good in solving part of the unemployment problem. It is also a pollution-free industry as the only greenhouse gases it emits to the atmosphere only comes from the trucks used to pick up the cork to be taken to the factory for processing. Evora is the first Portuguese town we went to and it has many shops which sell cork products ranging from a baseball cap to a lady's handbag, to a man's necktie and many many more cork products. As we didn't shop we went to see a Roman ruin known as the Temple of Diana which resembles the Greek Acropolis. All of us were encouraged by Miguel who suggested that we should visit the Church of the Dead which was quite creepy. True to its description, the inside linings of the Church were made of human bones and skulls. There must be
thousands of bones and skulls which made up the pillars, walls and ceilings. What made it more creepy was the line which said: "We bones here, your bones await."

We arrived Lisbon in the afternoon. The bridge that spanned across the Tagas River resembles the Golden Gate of San Francisco in the US. At eastern end of the bridge stands the statue of Christ the King opening his arms was built later to offer blessing to the city. Miguel told us about the 1755 Lisbon earthquake and Tsunami which wiped out two third of its population estimated up to 100,000. Seismologists today estimate the quake had a magnitude of 8.5 to 9.0. It happened on All Saints Day with subsequent fires the earthquake almost totally destroyed Lisbon and adjoining areas. It accentuated political tensions in Portugal and disrupted the country's colonial ambitions. The city was rebuilt with the construction of big squares, rectilineals, large avenues and widened streets.
We joined an excursion which gave us an opportunity to sit down and enjoy dinner and the Fabo show. As I am not a great fan of folk dancing, I wasn't impressed as much as the Flamenco dance we saw in Seville but the singing was good. We had a great evening. The next day we were taken to see Portugal's great achievements in explorations. For a small nation to explore two thirds of the world the Portuguese deserve the praise. We visited the cathedral by the seaside and paid tribute to Vasco Da gama's tomb inside. The afternoon was spent in an excursion along the coast to the fishing village of Cascais and the Royal Palace at Sintra. In the evening we had a seafood dinner sampling the sea-bass and sardines. A note of caution when you go into a Portuguese restaurant. They will offer you a range of small snacks without your asking and they are quite costly for the amount that you get. Don't be surprised that you get charged a few Euros for a few olives!

The Portuguese are staunch and devour Roman Catholics. In the parish of Fatima they believe that a lady dressed in white, later on referred to Our lady of the Rosary was sent by God with a message of prayer and penitence. She appeared before 3 young shepherds, Lucia and her two cousins Francisco and Jacinta, on 13 May 1917 and then subsequently each month on the 13th day until October when she was witnessed by 70,000 pilgrims who saw the Miracle of the Sun. I visited the shine and took photos of Pope John Paul II but am not convinced that prayers would make any difference to my journey to hell.

Situated on the northern bank of the River Douro, I was told that the city was built by merchants without patronage by the aristocracy. The guide showed us the Chamber of Commerce and the railway station as proofs of her assertions. She was correct in both instances. The concourse of the railway station has murals set in blue tiles on all sides of its walls. I wondered what happened to the graffiti artists, the merchants might have paid them handsomely to spare this part of the world. We tasted the Portuguese red and white port and the name of this company is Sandeman and he was originally Scottish. We had a river cruise but I could help to think that the city needs something drastic to get it going.

From Oporto to the Spanish border was quite a distance but I was surprised to find that the land was not used in any meaningful way. There were little evidence of organised farming of oak trees or olive trees, the pastures were not used for grazing and yet there was water in the river and unlike the Spaniards who planted wind turbines and solar panels to capture wind and solar energies the Portuguese did very little to harness the resources in their environment. Maybe I was not looking hard enough or maybe they are growing oxygen for humanity. Not until we were near the Spanish border that I found some Portuguese men working on the land and some sheep grazing. Could it be the Spanish influence? Miguel might have something to say to refute my inference of indolence or the Portuguese Government being inactive. 

We arrived at the ancient university town of Salamanca late in the afternoon. As our hotel was only next to the "Plaza Mayor" of Salamanca, we wasted no time to explore its surroundings as the cathedral is only a few minutes away. The place comes alive with young people, mostly university students. It reminds me of my working days at my university. After dinner we ventured out again as there was light even pass 9:30 PM. We were told that the lights at "Plaza Mayor" would light up at night so we waited for the moment to arrive. At 10:05 PM the square suddenly lit up and it was a sight to behold. We went to the Cathedral and found the same and it seemed that the town came alive again. Did it ever sleep, I wondered?

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985, it was hailed as a typical 16th century Spanish city. The construction work started in 1090. The wall has a perimeter of 2516 m with 88 semicircular towers and an average height of 12 m and has 9 gates. Unfortunately we couldn't stay overnight because it is illuminated at night. We tried to walk around the walled city as much as we could but we were not given enough time but Miguel was kind enough to allow us a stop outside the city to film the beautiful city. It was quite a sight at a distance.

Another medieval town, it was famous for its 2000 years old Roman aqueduct which continued to carry water to the city until the 19th century. At its tallest, the aqueduct reaches a height of 28.5 m, including nearly 6 m of foundation. There are both single and double arches supported by pillars. From the point the aqueduct enters the city until it reaches Plaza de Díaz Sanz, it includes 75 single arches and 44 double arches (or 88 arches when counted individually), followed by four single arches, totaling 166 arches in all. Amazing feat when you consider that it is built of unmortared brick-like granite blocks. After taken a group photo we went to visit the Segovia castle. Originally built as a fortress, it is one of the most distinctive castle-palaces in Spain by virtue of its shape --- like the bow of a ship. Looking at it I was wondering where I've seen it before and it turns out to be Walt Disney's Cinderella Castle. We didn't have time to go inside to inspect the interior but having visited the royal palace in Madrid we thought it would be similar.

An hour later we stepped back to modernity when we sported Madrid's modern skyline of 4 distinctive skyscrapers. We stayed in Madrid for two more days to digest its history and culture which we had sampled in the last fortnight. I would recommend Spain to anyone visiting Europe because of its beauty and passions. Had Spain and Portugal not been occupied by the Moors it would have been a different story. I came and I enjoyed what I saw. I hope that some day I will have another chance to visit this memorable country again.

Still fresh from images of the Atlantic, Magdalen and I flew back to Hong Kong via London to spend another week there to say goodbye to family and friends. Last year we flew east from the Pacific in Hong Kong to the west coast of America and saw a fair bit of the Rockies in the US and then Canada as far north as the Inside Passage of Alaska and we saw some of the best scenery in the world. This year we traveled west from Hong Kong and crossed many oceans and seas from the Pacific to the Atlantic and feasted ourselves of many ancient cultures: Hellenistic, Islamic, Roman and Iberian. To complete the hemispheres we have to travel to the east coast of America. It will be a long distance to cover yet again for someone who live in the arse end of the world.       

--- By Philip Lee

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