Friday, 24 October 2014

The Rock

We might wait a while for something of moment to happen in Gibraltar.  Banners for an international jazz festival promised a lot, but nothing plays so loudly in Gibraltar as the sound of commerce. And sirens.

The port of Gibraltar, from the cable car

A week is plenty long enough in this odd little place. The Atlantic beckons. We've done Sheppards chandlery to death, and the spare engine parts we ordered at the beginning of the week from the UK were delivered to the Yanmar dealer (Marine Maintenance) in three working days. Impressive. There's nothing holding us here now except for an inconveniently-timed (spring) tide for transiting the Straits - and our own lacklustre health. We're tired. It's strange, as if something in us has been ebbing out for the past 10 days too. We'll wait for our tide to come back in. You don't head out into the Atlantic when you're feeling off colour.

Europa Point, at the eastern entrance to Gibraltar Bay

Our friends Ed and Sue stayed six weeks in Gibraltar. We find ourselves asking why, how...Perhaps we're missing something. Perhaps we've been distracted by Main Street's dreariness. We're not Anglophiles, and nothing could persuade me that a pint of beer and fish and chips for dinner is food worth paying for. What I do find fascinating is eavesdropping. The men at the next table, with English public school accents, are debating local politics (the Spanish are still to be mistrusted). I hear people - Gibraltarians - speaking to each other in a tangle of Spanish and English, switching between languages mid-conversation, inserting English numerals into Spanish sentences. I wonder if there's a dialect?

Enki is parked at Queensway Quay marina, amongst the real estate

The Rock speaks for itself
The Rock speaks for itself. Its place in British history is long taken care of (probably enough that Lord Nelson's body, pickled in a wine barrel, was brought back here in 1805 after the Battle of Trafalgar, but there's obviously a long list of military reasons why The Rock is famous for more than just its cheeky monkeys). There's a wonderful digital reconstruction in the musty Gibraltar museum of a Neanderthal child's face, built up from one of the prehistorics skulls found in caves on the Rock. People were living here at the beginning of human history, but most of their traces are gone, along with most of the Moorish town. What remains are the British bastions, the civil and naval institutions, the garrisons, the defensive walls, the hardware of recent centuries of war, and of course, the modern port, expanding into Gibraltar bay and paid for by the sale of real estate, one imagines.

Window display, Gibraltar bookshop

Monkeys on the wall names for Charles V

So what if there's nothing much in the town to catch the eye or if, judging from its urban signage, Gibraltar is run along the lines of a boot camp (more 100 quid fines for civic misdemeanours than you can poke a stick at, and only two shades of shoe polish for sale at Morrisons, the only supermarket in town  - light tan and regimental black). The Brits who've shelled out for apartments here - there are masses of tower blocks built on reclaimed land in Gibraltar Bay - must love the climate. It's the last week in October, and at six o'clock in the evening, I'm sitting outside in shorts and a tee-shirt.

Approach to the Rock, from the east


The best part about Gibraltar from our point of view was our arrival. To see The Rock emerge on the horizon, and to know that you were seeing the northern entrance to the Mediterranean, the Pillars of Hercules (with Africa clearly visible on the southern side of the Straits) was truly exciting. We took the cable car to the top on a day when dense cloud was pouring over the ridge like water spilling out of guttering. The wind was cold, but we walked back down, past the apes and the caves and the castle, down the uneven Castle Steps through a part of town which reeks of smuggling. The road is long, but not half as long as it must have been when everything was hauled up by horses and pulleys. What a miserable life it must have been as a soldier posted on the Rock, defending Gibraltar. But worth it, history records.

The cable car takes you to the top of the Rock

Looking down on the dry docks

Monday, 13 October 2014

The end of the ride

When we said we would take stock after a week away from the boat - Claudia in Vienna while we were  in Madrid - what we had in mind was a considered weighing up of the evidence to date, an "on the one hand, and on the other hand" kind of discussion. That's how it's been thus far. That's not what happened. Life sometimes outpaces you.

Small dog in a hurry - Madrid

The girl who met us back on the boat on Friday afternoon was radiant. She exuded calmness and sense of contentment. She had a different energy. Whatever she found in Vienna, it should be bottled. After breakfast the next morning, we convened the Planning Meeting. Claudia took the initiative. It was time, she said, for her to pick up her own life again.  Much as she loved being on the boat - and much as she would love to go straight back to Vienna - she needed to go home. Sort out her stuff. Get herself back on her feet. She was ready for that. She would not be coming down to the Canaries with us.

Less than 24 hours after that decision was made, we were putting her in an early morning taxi to Malaga airport. She was on her way back to Sydney, via Auckland, and whatever life awaits her there. Hers to make.

Alex and I are alone again. We have no immediate plans. Every plan we had made this season was contingent on Claudia's well-being. Now that is no longer our immediate responsibility. It's hers, which is as it should be.

Spanish sky - through museum window in Madrid

We haven't had another planning meeting yet. I've been a bit sick, and the weather is rotten anyway. Another few days in the marina won't matter a jot. We need to collect our thoughts. Claudia has left a big hole, one that I keep falling into. Being away from our family has always been the hardest part of this "adventure" of ours. Alex is keeping himself busy doing "jobs" - setting up the preventer lines, pulling out all the spare lines and measuring off their lengths. I am reading. Delaying tactics. We should be booking a marina somewhere in the Canaries, or at least in Gibraltar. We should be thinking ahead. Tomorrow.

But let me backtrack a few days to Madrid.

Madrid streetscapes (and below)

Atocha railway station, central Madrid (and below)

The four days we spent there are already contained by a closed pair of brackets. Perhaps it's because of how we travelled - by very fast train, with no stops in between (Spain has a great train network). When you are used to marking off sea miles in units of 10 minutes, the rapidity of air and fast train transport can be a bit dislocating. Or perhaps that's just tourism - your holiday has a beginning, a middle and an end. Travelling by boat is different. The beginning is long ago, and the end too far away to imagine. On a boat, you're just living.

Henry VIII, painted by Holbein
In Madrid, there are three superb art galleries which, even if you go for nothing else, are worth the detour. We picked them off a day at a time, pacing ourselves according to the state of Alex's back ("museum back" is a condition which varies from irritating to excruciating, depending on the length of the visit). First stop was the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza which is a bit like a very sumptuous box of mixed chocolates, a private collection which, given the deep pockets of the collectors, can just about do as a complete course in Western art history. I would compare it to the Frick collection in New York. Frick made his fortune out of coal, the Thyssen-Bornemiszas made theirs out of steel and armaments. The number of paintings which the fifth and last Mrs Thyssen-Bornemisza, a former Miss Spain, collected between 1987 and 1993 suggests there's a lot of money in the kitty. I liked her choices. Surprisingly distinct from those of her husband and his father.

In the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza (and below)

Velaquez, outside the Prado
Then we fronted up to the Prado, which has been on my bucket list for many years. Goya isn't a painter you can see anywhere else other than the Prado - or that's my understanding - and Goya, as I've come to realise, is one of those mysterious painters who inspire devotion. Robert Hughes and Siri Hustvedt have both written very passionately about him. I wanted to know why. One viewing isn't enough, but since the Prado has a lot of Goya works, you can at least start to think about the man. Take away something. His complexity, his exquisite portraits, his dark private murals, his brutal etchings. Alex loved Ribera even more. So strongly Spanish. I was surprised by Velaquez, who came a century before Goya, and by the Prado's massive collection of Rubens - Phillip IV was a huge fan and patron of Rubens who was a prolific painter and shrewd marketer.

Prado exterior (no photos allowed inside)

I expected to be overwhelmed by the Prado, but it wasn't the case. Overjoyed is more like it. Alex too, even through the pain haze created by "museum back".

San Miguel "market"  - tapas and drinks

Plaza Mayor

Planting a wall

Just what we saw (and below)

That left the contemporary art museum called Centro de Arte Reina Sofia. Its prize exhibit is Picasso's Guernica. That's some prize for sure, but in fact the whole place is intoxicating, offering surprising new perspectives and brilliant use of space. We spent an entire day there.

Reine Sofia museum (and below)

Museums aren't to everyone's liking. You can make a case for visiting a big city like Madrid and wandering the streets, talking (ah, the language) to locals, sitting in bars, soaking up the buzz. Or in the case of the few days we were there, the panic - because the first case of Ebola contracted in Europe was made public during our stay. You could hear the headlines screaming. But in museums, if you put in the time, you get a sense of perspective that an afternoon spent soaking up the sun in the Plaza Mayor and digesting a platter of tapas doesn't give you. History comes in all sorts of guises, but one way to approach it is through art. For example, once you've seen the big history paintings in the Prado, the impact of Guernica - the last large-scale European history painting - is even greater. Picasso was painting in the tradition of Goya and Velaquez, for all his individual genius.

Now we've taken Madrid, what next? Odds are on the Atlantic.

Sunday, 5 October 2014

The Spanish steps

Some of the boys who guard Spain's coastline

Good wind angle, great speed showing on Enki's instruments

You could say we've been on the run. This Spanish caper at the tail end of summer is not cruising. Neither Spain's defaced Mediterranean coastline nor the regular drumbeat of bleak daily forecasts issued by AEMet (thanks to Google Translate for everything) have tempted us to linger long anywhere as we've pushed on west towards the mouth of the Med. It's time that's driving us on now,  and if winds from the east bring with them rain and poor visibility, well, you turn on the gadgets (AIS and radar) and go with them - and give thanks. The swell is another story, but isn't it always in the Med? 

Dodging the squalls

Leaving Alicante harbour - behind Whisper HR

This buoy was easy to see, most are not

Enki on approach to the Cabo de Gata
Sometimes what you don't know helps you (usually it doesn't when you're on the water). When we came into the forgettable resort town of Aguadulce (a few miles west of Almeria) after a long and demanding sail which took us around the south-eastern corner of Spain, the marina staff expressed admiration for our "bravery" in attempting the Cabo de Gata in such weather. There were other yachts out there, but not many. The winds were strong, 30 knots, and the seas about two metres high - not big by ocean standards, but short and tricky and confused. Alex hand-steered for a few hours, the old surfer in him understanding much better than I do how waves track, and how to take them. 

The man for the job

Admiring crew

In the lee of the Cabo, the water flattened out, and then we had some fun. That's when he gave me the wheel - a bone for the dog. And didn't those Sicilian long-neck beers taste SO good after we tied up alongside the fuel dock in Aguadulce, even if later in the evening when we got "dressed up" and went out to find a restaurant to celebrate Claudia's birthday we met with cool indifference and zipped up restaurant fronts. The season is over. 

Speed queen

That was a big day - tied up in Aguadulce (and below)

This development looks organic - best of the bunch
We've often wondered how Spaniards maintain their enthusiasm for boating when there are so few places for them to go. It's the Balearics or...what? On our journey south from Alicante, and particularly once we were past the welcoming yacht club at Torreveija, we sailed along a forbiddingly hostile coastline, with stark mountains dropping steeply to the sea. But then there are the beaches. Sandy beaches are Mediterranean Spain's big asset - that and the sunshine. Where there's a beach the land for miles around is completely covered with multi-storey hotels and apartments, totally without charm. I haven't seen such relentlessly debased development anywhere else in the Med. Sicily has some very nasty blemishes on its skin, but it's a rough kind of island anyway; Turkey has gone down the Spanish cheap packaged tourism route (think of Marmaris and Antalya) and you want to shout, STOP RIGHT NOW. Preserve your beauty. Think of Spain. So much of its Mediterranean coastline is beyond repair. You'd like to scrape off all that ugliness, blitz Benidorm and Torremolinos, but the sun damage is done.  

Torrevieja - typical Spanish coastal development

Aguadulce - more of the same

The coast road

Plenty of lighthouses

The dirty end of Cartagena harbour

There are many harbours along the Spanish Med but very few natural ones - the most splendid is Cartagena which was famous even before the Romans developed the city. Most are man-made ports  and are usually full of local fishing boats, thus with little space for visiting boats. Yachts over 12 m and with a reasonable draft (like Enki) have an even harder time finding a spot. We didn't even think of anchoring. There are a few small coves where yachts can anchor (there are some starkly beautiful stretches of coastline which the developers haven't ravaged) and I imagine that in "settled weather" from the north they could be pleasant enough. But not now. 

Our course is 270 degrees - due west, keeping clear of the bumps

And of Spain itself? It's hard to say. It's not a country to see from the water. I'd say the same about France too, and Italy even. The western Med is a sea for travelling through rather than cruising. The Volvo boats which leave from Alicante any moment to race around the world will barely see a thing for the spray, I imagine. We stopped a while in Alicante. The boats were still up on the hard, their keels wrapped against prying eyes. The town was full of pre-race buzz. The gun goes on October 11. Maybe we'll see them fly past us like rosella parakeets, down to the Southern Ocean. 
Big boys' toys - the Volvo boats

Outlook from the higher reaches of Alicante

The colourful part of town - the barrio (and below)

Despite having scored the Volvo race, and the cachet that goes with hosting a Formula One yachting event, Alicante is an ordinary port town, without Valencia's style or class. It parties hard, from all accounts. We wouldn't know about that, but we can register the best mojito of the summer (special note to Sea Cloud). Also, the best market we've yet seen. Hard-core fishmongers, not to mention so much meat that Claudia stepped outside for flesh-relief. 

Alicante market (and below)

The sea dog gets a Number Two

Where the cool kids drink in Alicante

Kevin and Mei slide past
From Alicante down to Cartagena, we were delayed by weather with the bonus that we sailed onto Cartagena with Kevin and Mei who caught up with us. They have a fine boat, and they sail her well, as you can see from Alex's photos of Whisper HR coming into Cartagena.  When we left them 18 months ago, as is always the case with sailing friends, it was with "see you when we see you". They're most likely spending the winter in Cartagena. It seems like a good place to stay. A well protected and welcoming marina alongside an interesting town. That's the basics covered. I could stay there, if push came to shove. It might yet. 

Whisper HR on our tail

Is this her best side?

A man has to go fishing 

For various reasons, we're staying put for a week in Benalmadena, which is near Malaga (and you'll be raising your eyebrows, wondering whether time is still of the essence....). Claudia has gone to meet a friend in Vienna (that's for her to explain to those who need to know) and we will go to Madrid by train tomorrow. I'm sure it's possible to leave Spain without having been to El Prado museum but I don't want to try it. 

At its heart Malaga is an elegant town

Cafe near the massive Malaga cathedral

Saturday afternoon in downtown Malaga

Picasso was born in Malaga - everyone wants a piece of that reputation

Kids playing in the square near where Picasso was born

At the end of the week, after all this excitement, we'll decide what to do next. There are quite a few things in play after the past couple of months with Claudia. Importantly, we're now at the right end of the Med to get down to the Canaries and cross the Atlantic in December, if that's what we decide to do. Alex has been whirling like a dervish today, pulling the boat apart and stowing and cleaning. It's how he lets off steam, and it's why Enki looks so trim.