Archive for October, 2015
Wednesday 14 October: The ship that was loading sardines took all the Dutchmen (and some Poles) on board, and took them to Gibraltar – a 21-hour voyage. How were we to make the journey? Ian investigated a sea crossing, but it was prohibitively expensive (and not being great sailors, we were not disappointed). We considered flying, but that was also very expensive (and meant going via London!!!). So the only feasible option was to go by road, and that meant going through southern Spain.
We stayed last night in Huelva, and arrived in time to look round the city centre. There were some interesting buildings, and the main square was lively. This morning we visited the cathedral, and another church nearby, then it was off to Seville. Huelva was new to us, but we’d visited Seville several times. However, it is one of our favourite cities, and since it was on our direct route, we could not pass by without stopping.
We wandered around the old town, and decided to visit the Alcazar again, as entry was very cheap for pensioners! We had lunch in their café, and got talking to a Scottish couple who asked us what we thought of the giant mushrooms in the Plaza Mayor. We were baffled by this, so they showed us some photos. We had never seen a Plaza Mayor in Seville, could not find it on our map and the receptionist at our hotel confirmed that there was no Plaza Mayor in the city. But we’d seen those photos…
Thanks to the Internet, we discovered that the giant mushrooms were actually in the Plaza del Encarnación, and when we got there we found that the installation is called ‘Plaza Mayor’. Mystery solved! The giant mushrooms give shade to the square as well as something to look at (which you may love or hate); you can also take a lift up and follow a fascinating walkway with great views.
Thursday 15 October: Off to Gibraltar, our final destination. The plan was to drop our rental car in Algeciras and get a bus to La Linea (Spanish town opposite Gibraltar). But while checking the address on the Net, we found that (contrary to what we’d been told) Europcar has an office in La Linea; a phone call established that we could leave the car there. This made it easier for us; the only problem was finding the Europcar office – who would expect to find a car rental office in a pedestrian street? Before crossing the border, we had coffee at a café on the waterfront, with a great view of the Rock. It took Pa seven months to get from Zaandam to Gibraltar; it took us two, including a ten-day break back at home. We did not have to work on a French farm, or be interned in Spain. We did not have to face the difficulties and dangers he encountered, but for us it had been a real adventure nevertheless.
This afternoon we walked along the western coast of Gibraltar to the southern tip. On the way we planned to visit the South Mole, where the troopship moored that took the Dutchmen to England, but unauthorised people are not allowed. We did visit the ‘Hundred ton gun’, and at what is now called Europa Point we saw the lighthouse and the mosque, as well as the great views of Spain and Africa.
Friday 16 October: Our first stop this morning was to find the site of the school where Pa had been billeted during his stay on Gibraltar. We’d asked at the tourist information office if there was still a St Mary’s School in the city. The answer was yes, but the location did not match Pa’s description. When we explained, we were told he must have stayed in Sacred Heart School, which was closer to the position indicated in Pa’s book. Of course he could make mistakes, but he’d stayed there for over a month – would he not remember the name? The young lady at the tourist office then said that her mother had been at St Mary’s, and phoned her to ask if it had always been in its current location. No said Mum, it used to be in Johnstone’s Passage. What we assume used to be the school is now a block of flats, but the location was just right. Pa was vindicated again!
While in Gibraltar Pa had some free time for sightseeing, and we went to the places he mentions. He talks about the ‘innards of the Rock’ being ‘honeycombed’, and we visited two sets of tunnels: the World War II tunnels and the Great Siege Tunnels. We also visited the Moorish Castle, where (Pa reports) the Polish escapers were billeted in the casemates. In the afternoon we walked to Catalan Bay, on the east side of Gibraltar. Pa swam there, even though it was February. We dipped our toes in the water, but found it too cold for us, even in October!
Saturday 17 October: This morning we did the real ‘tourist thing’: we took the cable car to the top of the Rock and took photos of the monkeys. We also visited St Michael’s Cave, which has very impressive stalactites and stalagmites, although in our opinion the lighting (continually changing colours) rather spoiled the effect.
This afternoon it was time to go home! Pa went by ship to Liverpool, and then train to London; we were to fly from Gibraltar to Heathrow, a much quicker journey. But not quite as quick as we expected, because the incoming plane could not land at Gibraltar (the Rock was covered in fog) so we were diverted to Malaga, and reached London four hours behind schedule.
Tuesday 6 October: Pa was one of 120 Dutch men who gathered at Atocha station in late January 1944. They boarded a special train for Portugal, but were not told their exact destination. The train headed west, and their first stop was at Elvas, just across the border. There they had to change trains, because the Portuguese gauge was different from the Spanish.
There are no trains now to Elvas. You can go halfway by rail, and then get a bus to Badajoz on the Spanish side of the border; from there you need another bus or taxi to Elvas. And unfortunately the times do not mesh. So having explored all possibilities, we decided once again that it was necessary to hire a car. After paying our visit to the El Greco Museum, we drove from Toledo to Elvas, crossing the old railway line twice on the way.
Wednesday 7 October: We’d never heard of Elvas before we started planning our trip, but it was well worth a visit. The old town was atmospheric last night and beautiful in the morning sunshine. All of the buildings were painted white with yellow trim: the only exception we saw was yellow with white trim (obviously owned by a rebel!). We first went on foot to visit the castle and some of the churches. Then we collected the car and went to places further out: the Fort of Santa Luzia, the impressive aqueduct and (most important for us) the railway station. We could not verify the different gauges: as far as we could tell, all the railway lines were the same width. But there are amazing tiled pictures all along the platform, now being carefully restored by two artists whom we saw at work.
From Elvas Pa’s train continued west, and it seemed that they were heading for Lisbon, perhaps to fly to England from there. But then the train changed direction and headed south until it reached the Atlantic coast, then back east until it finally stopped in a small fishing village close to the Spanish border. We followed roughly the same route (but by motorway) until we reached the Algarve. This is one place we’d never been, but wanted to visit; moreover, it seemed a shame to come so far and spend so little time in Portugal. So we had a break from our research and turned west instead of east, for a few days R&R.
Thursday 8 October: We drove to Cape St Vincent, the most westerly point of Europe, and worked our way back from there to Lagos, where we were staying. On the way we visited the fort at Sagres, the fishing village of Salema, and the thriving holiday resort of Luz. Before returning to our apartment, we drove out to the Ponta da Piedade, and enjoyed seeing the amazing rock formations in the late afternoon sun.
Friday 9 October: We went first to Silves, a picturesque town with the best-preserved castle in the Algarve – we walked right round the battlements. On to Alte, the prettiest village in the Algarve according to the guidebook, but we found it disappointing. Then Paderne Castle, in an isolated position some way out of the village. Ian did not want to drive on the rough track, so we left the car and walked the last mile or so – only to find that the castle was closed!
Saturday 10 October: After days of blue sky and sun, it was a shock to awake to grey skies and pouring rain. When we left the apartment the rain had eased, and we convinced ourselves that it was getting better. We headed for Albufeira, but on the way the rain came down in torrents, and made driving difficult. We diverted to Portimao, where we visited a church, had coffee and looked in some shops. But the rain poured continuously, we were soaked and there was nothing else we could do. So we returned to our apartment in Lagos, changed our wet clothes and had lunch there.
During the afternoon, the rain finally stopped and we went for a walk around the city walls. We then found a bar by the marina and started the celebrations for our wedding anniversary – 45 years today! We continued later with dinner at a nice restaurant in the town centre.
Sunday 11 October: Cloudy this morning, but at least it was fine. We checked out of our apartment and headed east. First stop was Armaçao de Pera, where we walked along the beach and the cliffs admiring some typical Algarve scenery. While we were doing so, the sun came out – the weather was changeable all day. Next stop Albufeira, the very popular resort. We thought that Lagos was busy and touristy, until we saw Albufeira!
On to the Roman ruins at Milreu, and nearby Estoi – we hoped to see the 18th century palace there, but discovered it is now a small luxury hotel, so not open to the public. Finally Faro, capital of the Algarve, which was more attractive than we had anticipated. We strolled through the town and along the waterfront. Baffled by the sight (and sound!) of many Scotsmen in kilts, we asked the reason, and discovered there was an international football match being played later that day.
Monday 12 October: We continued east, stopping at the two main towns in that part of the Algarve: Alhão and Tavira. We were disappointed with Alhão, but liked Tavira. We ended up at Vila Real de Santo Antonio (VRSA), on the border with Spain. This is where Pa’s long train journey ended. We were back on the trail!
Pa described VRSA as a small fishing village. We guessed it might have grown (most towns have) but were amazed to see crowds of people and cars – we drove round and round looking for somewhere to park. We later discovered that there was a four-day ‘party’ going on, though we never found out what they were celebrating.
Tuesday 13 October: VRSA is almost due south of Elvas, but there is no direct train line, which is why Pa’s train took a seemingly roundabout route. Trains still go east-west across the Algarve, and we’d crossed the railway a few times in our wandering. We went to the station in VRSA: it had a definite 30s art deco look, but we were confused by pavement artwork with the date 4-9-45. However, we confirmed later that the station was built in 1936, so was definitely where the Dutchmen arrived.
Pa mentions two other places in the town, but our lack of Portuguese made research difficult. The fact that the tourist info office remained closed while we were there did not help either! Pa and some others slept overnight on the dance floor in the village hall. We found one quite elaborate structure which dated from the early 20th century; it was originally a barracks, then a market, and is now a cultural centre. We thought maybe this was the village hall, but were unable to confirm it.
Pa saw sardines being loaded from the canning factory onto a waiting British ship. No sardine factories remain, but we were directed to the far end of the quayside, where there are the remains of several factories. It seemed unlikely though that a big ship would be able to moor close by, and why did he talk as if there was only one factory? By chance we managed to talk to a fisherman with a long family history in the town; he spoke good English and knew lots about World War II! He directed us to the ruins of a solitary factory much closer to the village centre, with the remains of an old jetty close by. This fitted Pa’s description much better.
Just north of VRSA is Castro Marim, a castle within the walls of an older castle. Research done, we visited the castle before saying farewell to Portugal and heading back to Spain.
Tuesday 29 September: From Lleida Pa and his fellow Dutchmen were taken by train (handcuffed and in a goods wagon) to the concentration camp at Miranda de Ebro, some 240 miles west. On the way the train stopped at Zaragoza. We had to return our rental car there, so we drove the first part of the journey and took the train the rest of the way.
Wednesday 30 September: Pa describes the horrific conditions at Lleida, but says little about Miranda, which apparently was even worse. Little of the camp remains, except the washhouse, the guard hut, the base of the guard tower and the walls which surrounded it. We walked around the area, and met a Belgian couple on a very similar mission. In the tourist information office we were shown a book about the history of the camp, and given a photocopy of the page relating to the Dutch contingent who were there in 1943.
We spent the rest of the day looking at places of general interest, but Miranda is a small town and there are not many!
Thursday 1 October: An alternative title for this blog might be ‘prison and freedom’.
After two months at Miranda, Pa and his friends were released, and given train tickets to Madrid, where they were accommodated in hotels while waiting for their transit visas for Portugal. They were not allowed to leave the city, but had plenty of time for sightseeing. We’d visited the city once before, but that was 12 years ago, so we were happy to have another opportunity to see some of the sights, focusing on places that Pa mentions in his book.
Friday 2 October: Had a frustrating morning. Pa & co spent a lot of time at the British Embassy Reading Room, finding out as much as possible about ‘the nation they hoped to join’. We’d looked up the Embassy online, and found the road mentioned easily enough. But after fruitless searching, we discovered that the Paseo de la Castellana is the longest road in Madrid, and the Embassy is about four miles out of town. We went there by Metro, managed to get through security but not past reception (despite the website saying that they are open to visitors!).
It was obvious that (a) the Embassy no longer has a reading room, and (b) the flashy tower where they are now based did not exist in 1943. Eventually we located the previous home of the Embassy, although the building appeared to be later than 1943. We had little luck with the Dutch Consulate, where Pa was taken on arrival in Madrid. He gives the name of the street, but not the number, and we walked the length of the street without being able to identify the building.
We had no problems of course in finding the Prado Museum and the Retiro Park. The zoo mentioned by Pa has long since disappeared, but the boating lake is still there. Finally we visited the Atocha railway station, a sight worth seeing in its own right, and the place from which Pa left for Portugal. We cannot stick to the order in which he did things, or we’d be zigzagging across Madrid for weeks!
Saturday 3 October: Another frustrating day. Pa went frequently to the River Manzanares, where there was an indoor swimming pool. Our enquiries about this had mainly produced blank looks or shrugs, but one lady had pointed us to an outdoor pool (with an indoor section, she thought) at Moncloa, close to the river. We took the metro there, but despite the ‘Piscina’ sign the building was completely locked up, and for various reasons we doubt if that was the place we wanted.
We walked along the river to the Principe Pio shopping centre, formerly the Estación del Norte, where Pa arrived from Miranda. Then on to the Basilica de San Francisco el Grande, where Pa and several friends attended midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1943. Afterwards they walked back to the Hotel Internacional, and we did the same. They had to report every week at the Seguridad in the Puerto del Sol; we were not sure which building it was in. However, there was no problem identifying the famous department store, El Corte Ingles, where Pa used the ‘chit’ he had been given to buy new clothes.
We went to the Museo de Historia de Madrid, hoping for (ideally) a map of Madrid as it was during the war. But they had nothing as recent as the 20th century. The friendly ladies there told us that we really needed the Historical Library of Madrid – but that was closed for the weekend!!!
A small bonus tonight. We paid an early evening visit to the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, which used to be the General Hospital for Madrid, and was therefore the place (we assume) where Pa visited his sick comrades.
Sunday 4 October: First stop today was the Basilica de San Francisco; we were able to get in this time, and the interior is certainly impressive, but sadly photography was not allowed. Next to the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales; Pa does not mention it, but we missed out on our previous visit to Madrid. We discovered that you have to take a guided tour, and the next one with availability was not for two hours. We filled the gap by going down to the main part of the river and having another fruitless search for Pa’s swimming pool. The monastery was also a disappointment: the many works of art are doubtless priceless, but not to our taste.
Monday 5 October: Pa and his friends were not allowed to leave Madrid unaccompanied, but they got permission to visit Toledo, escorted by a policeman in mufti. They did a day trip by train; we did not need to return to Madrid, so decided to make Toledo the next stop on our journey. But before that…
We got up early and visited the Historical Library of Madrid. We were there well over an hour, struggling with language and technology (it’s a long while since we used microfilm!). But we made a number of useful discoveries:
- In 1943 the British Embassy was located at the address we visited on Friday (though probably not in the same building)
- The Netherlands Consulate was at number 25 in the Calle Claudio Coëllo
- The Seguridad was in the main building in the Puerto del Sol
- The swimming pool was called La Isla, and was located in the Calle Ribera del Manzanares – where we had walked on Saturday, but on the opposite bank. With this information, Ian was later able to trace it on the Net, and even obtained a photo!
We went to Calle Claudio Coëllo, and took photos of number 25, before returning to our apartment, collecting our luggage and heading for Atocha Station, where we caught the train to Toledo. The procedure for buying tickets was incredible (we succeeded finally by using a machine) and the security system for boarding was akin to that at airports.
In Toledo we saw many examples of the steel blades mentioned by Pa, and the damascene work which he admired. We visited some of the places where he had been, notably the cathedral with its treasury (and the tower – we climbed to the top, not sure whether Pa did that). And the beautiful synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca, a former mosque. We intended to visit the El Greco House and Museum, but it is closed on Mondays, so we went there the following morning, before setting off for Portugal.