We are in the south of Portugal, staying with Rob, whom persistent readers have met before, Ines his wife and Joca, his dog, who kills snakes. It is the fourteenth anniversary of the fortuitous but well-starred day when the better half and I first met in New York. Furthermore, this morning (as I write but not, in the absence of WiFi, post) the preservation of the Union was announced, a matter greeted here with quiet satisfaction. The first dog’s ashes are scattered on Dornoch Firth, the better half has a plan to scatter mine there too in the fullness of time and it would have been distressing for her to have had to submit the little urn to the scrutiny of sneering border thugs, booted and kilted.

The better half is shouting over the telephone at some dozy apparatchik in the office of an aspiring English public school. The reasons are too complicated to relate. She expresses the view that doziness might be acceptable in one of the ancient public schools but less so in one hoping to join their ranks one day and in the meantime clinging on to such reputation as it has by its rouble-buffed finger nails.

Some of the figs that Rob grew during the summer are drying on a wall. During the night it rained heavily, the heavens matching sympathetically (or as it might be imagined sympathetically) the coursing of tears down the Salmondian cheeks. When this happens he dries them (the figs not the cheeks) individually, singing to himself a song from the ‘Canterbury Sound’ of the late nineteen sixties or seventies. They then become ‘twice-dried figs’ (the Portuguese phrase escapes me) which are a considerable delicacy here.

Life is as it should be on holiday.

We took the Eurotunnel and drove down. We spent nights at Deauville, Biarritz and Salamanca. Biarritz we thought would have an understated elegance redolent of the Edwardian era. However that turned out to be Deauville: Biarritz was full of surfers and young people asserting their right to boogie.

Deauville did have understated elegance. They were having a festival of American Film. There were posters for it everywhere; unrecognised starlets posed for photographs on the beach. It was remarkable that none of the posters referred to any individual film or even star. It was American Film pour soi and en soi that was to be celebrated. How French, we thought, smugly. Because it was a minor festival, unlike, say, that at Cannes, there was only one hooker to go round, but she was a game one, with her little shorts and her shirt unbuttoned to the waist, parading up and down with a man who may have been her pimp: equally he may just have been a friend.

A century and a half ago Deauville was painted extensively by Eugene Boudin, its beaches crowded with ladies in crinolines and little tents with bright flags. Boudin is one of my favourite minor painters and the only one named after a blood-based culinary product.

In France Bella was welcomed in hotels and restaurants. When we arrived at the latter we would be ushered to a table, inside or outside as we preferred, and the waiter would bring her a bowl of water together with the menu. The further south we got the more that changed. In Spain she was regarded with obvious reservations and in Portugal with undisguised hatred. The Portuguese word for ‘dog’ is ‘cow’ (no doubt it is spelled differently) and cows are not welcome where people go.

Salamanca, apart from its frosty way with dogs, was special. It is the fourth oldest university in Europe, after the Sorbonne, Oxford and Bologna. Cambridge, The University of the South Bank and the others came rather later. The university buildings are of honey-coloured stone, just like Oxford but not crumbly. In the bright light of the Central Iberian Plain they look like Renaissance paintings, or stage sets. Salamanca is also the world centre (if one rejects the claims of Burgos, an hour or so up the road) for the imaginative treatment of parts of the pig otherwise thought inedible. I read that it is protected by UNESCO, but whether that is for the honey-coloured buildings or the black pudding I couldn’t establish. We ate morcilla and pig’s cheek for breakfast, lunch and dinner and decided that the better half’s strange regime involving uncooked vegetables could have a short moratorium.

There are if I got it right two cathedrals there, and I went into one and hired the audio-commentary. The best bit was El Cid’s chapel, where the faithful can gaze on the great man’s crucifix. When he went into battle against the Moors he would wave this in the hand that didn’t wield the sword, presumably directing his horse with well-practised knees. El Cid had a tame bishop and confessor called Geronimo, who would ride into battle just behind him. Geronimo also had a crucifix, which you can see today. After El Cid met his sad end, famously appearing one last time dead and strapped to the horse so as to inspire his troops to courage and the enemy to despair, Geronimo cut a deal with the Moors, who allowed him to go on being a bishop so long as he didn’t say anything beastly about Muslims.

The Portuguese may not like Bella but her El Cid-like courage has inspired unwilling respect. She has taken to engaging with the great Atlantic breakers. She swims out into the surf and waits for the big one. For a moment she sinks from sight, then there she is to be seen again, ears first, being borne triumphantly onshore, riding the wave and sleek from the foam. The Portuguese stand around in groups and mutter. I imagine that they are saying, ‘Ah [or some more demotic ejaculation]! There is a dog!’

Of course it might be: ‘Surely there is something in the new EU Health & Safety Regs about foreign cows in our, Portuguese, ocean.’

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5 thoughts on “Geronimo!

  1. Sounds like a wonderful trip – I recently indulged myself with a ferry trip to Bilbao because the Guggenheim is on my so called ‘Bucket List’ – Bilbao was in the middle of its’ August Festival of which the theme is ‘Let’s all get thoroughly pissed and Dance in the streets – then we’ll have some fireworks’ – to assist the passage from sobriety to oblivion tented bars were set up in every available space (no food – just booze) – but it was all thoroughly good humoured and bore no relation, at all, to the shot fuelled scenes in GB on a Saturday night – in fact I can’t recall seeing a single policeman – and the fireworks were brilliant. The downside was that the n=museum was majoring on a show by bloody Yoko Ono – now I can, quite easily, put a dirty Wellington boot or empty Evian bottle on a white, Grecian, plinth – but I can’t call it ‘art’ because I am not famous and I am singularly un-connected with anybody with celebrity status – dead or alive – wretched woman!

    I then drove up the coast (fabulous, scenic, drive) to Archachon where, it seems, 90% of the French go on holiday – definitely a tad ‘Deauvilly’ but nearby Guerande was interesting and, no, I didn’t by any bloody salt!

    A few diversions to Bordeaux, visits to the Lalande de Pomerol vinicoles and a few alcoholic purchases – some charge a fortune just to visit and charge you for ‘degustation’ unless you buy loads – others, thank goodness, as quite happy to give you a tour for free and, luckily, I found a couple of these.

    On to St Nazaire – prompted by my interest in ‘The St Nazaire Raid’ (google it – one minor victory at a time when we were losing hopelessly) – the fabulous ‘Todt Organisation’ submarine pens are still there and, typically, the French have turned them into a tourist attraction – despite the infamy of the regime they served those Engineers deserve some credit for a fantastic job.

    Onward to my old Stamping ground, Granville.- all the time scouring the roads and villages for ‘Brocantes’ and ‘Depot Ventes’ where I could search for ashtrays and jugs for my, currently thriving, e-bay business – I bought three ashtrays in one place for 2 Euros and sold one of them within two days of my return to the UK for 300 quid – I also supplied ‘L’Escargot’ in Soho with some decorative French bar and restaurant Ephemera for which the owner gave me £ 500 – trip nearly paid for itself!

    Take care Robin – maybe see you soon!

  2. alablague says:

    How nice to hear from you, John.

    You obviously know that part of the world much better than I do. Our experience is limited to Languedoc and parts of Portugal, Porto being a particular favourite. The wife also likes places where she can hurtle down the mountainside in special clothes but I avoid all that these days. Once she went skiing near Andorra and I stood admiringly all day at the bottom of the slope with my feet freezing. I’ve never seen the attraction.

    We thought of going to Bilbao on our way down this time, but decided that there was only time to look at the Guggenheim from the outside, and what was the point of that, having seen the photos? If I’d known that it was Yoko Ono inside that would have strengthened my resolve. I think that she is in many ways admirable and took a lot of unjustified hate from Beatle fans, but as an artist she is certainly a relentless purveyor of the bleeding obvious, and keeps better people from getting the exposure that they deserve.

    I had a plan to descend on you recently with my daughter, who lives in Southampton, on the way to collect my mother, who was coming to stay, from my sister, but it was derailed by my sister, who insisted on handing over my mother in Surrey, which was no help at all – if that makes sense. The plan remains and I will put it into action in modified form on another occasion, if you’re prepared to be descended on. My daughter Rachel, Dr Bynoe in fact, is an underwater archaeologist. You won’t therefore have seen her but you may have noticed occasional tell-tale bubbles marking the otherwise serene surface of the Solent.

    • Any time Robin – I have a few trips planned (can’t abide being stuck here alone and I am free to travel) – Sardinia from the 12th October for a week and I’ve said ‘sod the family’ (what’s left of them) and booked Christmas in St Petersburg – the cruise ships that trundle past my window daily are also a temptation but I have already succumbed to that once so another cruise will have to wait till next year and, in the main, the port calls are great but the rest is boring – and I can’t abide the semi mental blackmail that’s exerted forcing one to ‘dress’ like a bloody penguin for dinner every night – I’m a t-shirt and jeans man!

      Enjoy your break and hope to see you soon and please feel free to bring ‘Marina’ with you (web footed Marine Biologist in that film about Oil prospecting and Scottish villagers – senile mental block on the title)

    • ‘Local Hero’ – Googled it!

  3. alablague says:

    Local Hero. One of my very favourite films, and one that I am privileged to have litigated.

    Do let me know before you go to St Petersburg. The better half hails from there and could let you have names and ideas.

    Enjoy Sardinia. I’ve never been. I gather that it too is full of Russians.

    I had an idea for a science fiction novel once. There is a nuclear war and the continents are destroyed. All that remains of humanity is the Saga cruise ships, whose elderly charges inherit the Earth in their DJs and nice frocks. The problem of course is the next generation. I suppose it would have to be cabin girls.

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