And then…thoughts of Libya

After I’d seen Ruth off, kindly escorted to the plane by a Spanish lady from the much-maligned Ryanair, I went back into Santander and booked into a swanky hotel on the seafront. I was looking for somewhere quiet to try and catch up with life in the real world, i.e. a place with a good Internet connection, where I could do things like fill in online job applications, get in touch with the Diploma course people to ask for a deferral and other such matters.

Despite costing an arm and a leg, the posh hotel had a particularly dire Internet connection, and furthermore, I didn’t like the place much. The staff were quite supercilious, as is often the way when you travel alone, I’ve found. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I’ve found it very hard to concentrate on anything other than the immediate future. For some strange reason, deciding what to have for lunch has taken on greater importance than how I’m going to survive  after the three-month notice period finishes and my salary stops being paid. The thought of going through job interviews is just too galling to contemplate, but I need to get my head in the right place, and start looking.

It’s been quite illuminating to follow the news about Libya here in Spain. Of course, although I haven’t mentioned it, during the time that my mother and I were flitting about northern Spain, the UN finally decided to support a ‘no-fly’ zone over Libya, and the desperate situation of government troops at the gates of Benghazi was alleviated somewhat. I don’t like either David Cameron or Nicolas Sarkozy, but I applauded their persistence in pushing this through. In the meantime, a lot of what I’ve heard via TV commentary and read in the newspapers, has been truly fascinating. Gaddafi was very clever, playing on Western paranoia, by insisting from the very first that Al Qaeda were responsible for the protests and rebellion in the east of the country. There’s nothing that scares us more than the mention of Al Qaeda, after all. Reluctance to supply the ‘rebel forces’ with weapons with which to combat government troops is blamed on fears that arms will fall into the hands of terrorists operating in eastern Libya and masquerading as ‘freedom fighters’.

The power of words is truly frightening. ‘Rebel forces’ and ‘rebel troops’ are frequently referred to in Spanish newspapers, and yet we are talking about ordinary people, young, middle-aged and old, who decided to seize the opportunity to ask for a change of government, while the eyes of the world were focussed on protests in neighbouring countries. They are not soldiers, but desperate civilians who have had to resort to fighting with whatever pitiful means they have to hand, because they know very well what will await them if they give up now, and so does anybody else who has ever lived in Libya, and experienced at first hand the ‘system’ that operates there. Al Qaeda does not have a power  base in Libya. In this respect, Gaddafi and 99% of the Libyan people are in agreement – they are not radical Muslims. It is most unfortunate that Libya is such an unknown quantity for the outside world after its many years of isolation, and that Libyans in general are automatically associated with all of the evil acts of terrorism perpetrated by the people in power there. My thoughts continue to be with my friends in Al Beida, and all the other poor folk struggling to survive this dreadful war.

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On the road back home

The weather wasn’t much better the following day, when we reluctantly left our beautiful accommodation. Carlos and Katie headed back to Ourense, while Ruth and I were going in exactly the opposite direction. We were told (I won’ t say by whom!) to turn left out of the village in order to get to the road for Monforte de Lemos, but this instruction led us to a dead-end at the end of a very long, twisty, cobbled street about the width of the car plus an inch on either side. As a smoker, I didn’t realise that my lungs were still capable of holding their breath during the entire process of reversing back out to where we’d started from. At least, that’s what it felt like, anyway!

Soon enough, we chanced upon the correct route, and were heading back towards Castilla y Leon. Curiously enough, almost as soon as we crossed the border from Galicia, the weather cleared up, and by the time we got to the centre of Astorga the sun was out.  A combination of circumstances meant that we arrived there pretty late in the afternoon, but I left Ruth guarding the car while I went round to the Hotel Gaudí to ask if they had rooms for the night. They did, and we were in time to have lunch too, even though it was almost 4 p.m., which is quite late even by Spanish standards. It seemed like a popular spot, as there was only one free table in the whole of the vast dining-room, and they had completely run out of our first-choice order, roast lamb.

The best thing about the hotel was that it looked onto the Palacio del Arzobispo, which is a Gaudí-designed extravagance situated right next to the conventional and rather dull-looking cathedral.

Archbishop's Palace, Astorga, Leon

The Gaudí building in all its splendour. In the background, the cathedral squats like a wall-flower at the school disco.

From Astorga, it was a very quick drive back through the provinces of Leon and Palencia to Burgos, and after a couple of days recuperating from our little jaunt around the north-west of Spain, I drove Ruth up to the airport at Santander, to catch the plane home. We had hatched a plan to travel to the border, hire another car, and drive up through France, so that Ruth could re-visit the village where my parents lived for several years in the nineties, but in the end, she decided that she’d done enough travelling for the time being, and that she quite fancied resting up at home for a while.

It was really nice to be able to spend that time with her, quite unexpectedly, and I hope she enjoyed herself, despite my unpredictable temper!

Ruth inspects a rather nice blossoming tree, somewhere near Sahagun, in the province of Leon

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Ribeira Sacra, Ourense

After two days in Lugo, we drove down to Ourense, stopping just before the city in the hamlet of Loureiro, where my friend Cathy has a house. She’s moved back to England now, to be nearer her family, and is trying to sell the place. We’d arranged to meet Katie there, and then go on to the city to have lunch. I’d booked us all rooms at a type of rural inn, up above the Sil river canyon, and we planned to head there afterwards. Of course, at this point, the weather decided to stop cooperating with our holiday arrangements, and it bucketed down during the entire day.

Carlos gives Katie the side-eye as she once again proves she can't be taken anywhere in public!

The rain stopped for one brief hour, in the evening, at which point we all dashed out from the bar where we’d been happily sampling the local product – Ribeira Sacra – to contemplate the fantastic views over the river canyon.

Cañon del Rio Sil

The postures give an idea of the freezing weather. The house, seen in the background, was lovely and warm though. You could do worse than choose "Casa Grande de Cristosende" (Tel: 0034 988207529) for a relaxing break if you're heading to Galicia!

Despite the dreadful weather, we all had a great time, and were rather sorry to be going our separate ways after just one night there.

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Galicia – Lugo, to be exact

We did nothing in Ribadeo – we didn’t even go out of the hotel, having had such a long day of driving. Strangely enough, although my mother always had her own room on this trip, I never contemplated doing anything without her, and as she was always ready for bed at around 9 o’clock in the evening, I didn’t visit any discos or pole-dancing bars during this trip!

The next day, although she’d wiped it off her list, I decided that we would visit Lugo. It was a short drive, and I had the idea that Mum would really like it once she saw it!

On the way, we saw beautiful, uninhabited beaches…

Beach just outside Ribadeo - maybe 'Las Catedrales'?

Ribadeo marked the point at which we left the coast and turned inland, which is exactly what the Camino del Norte does at this same point too. I deliberately didn’t choose the shortest route to Lugo, so that I could show my mother a couple more stages of the route. Lugo, the city, does not lie on the route of the Camino del Norte, but on the Camino Primitivo, which I have started two or three times and never yet managed to finish. If you are starting from Irun, or further back still, the Primitivo branches off at the Asturian cider-making town of Villaviciosa, and heads off to Oviedo and then on through the mountains to join up with the Camino Francés a few days before Santiago. The Camino del Norte, meanwhile, continues along the coast past Villaviciosa and then turns south-west towards Santiago de Compostela. They are both beautiful routes, although there’s a lot of road-walking on the coastal Camino.

Lugo is a city I first discovered when I went for a job interview there a few years ago, while I was still living in Spain. Although I didn’t get the job, I felt an instant attraction towards the old part of the city which is completely enclosed within a 2km wall, made of slate and stone, which dates back to Roman times. Quite unlike the golden walls of Avila, Lugo’s city walls are dour and unpretentious, and look at their very best when rain is falling, as it frequently does in Galicia. What I like most about them is that they have a part to play in the modern-day life of the city – you can walk right around the top at any time of day or night, and you’ll see people going for a stroll, jogging or simply socialising up there. It seems that half the population of Lugo take their daily exercise on the walls. You can also get up onto the walls in Avila, but you have to pay for the privilege, and you can’t walk all the way round, as you can in Lugo.

Lugo is full of secret gardens and old, tumbledown buildings. This was the view from my bedroom window.

I’ve never yet managed to get as far as Lugo on the Camino Primitivo, since I’ve fallen sick each time I’ve tried to complete it, but there is a Pilgrim’s Gate with a fine stone statue of Santiago in his Matamoros guise.

Santiago Matamoros - Puerta de Santiago, Lugo

Ruth gamely ignored her rheumatoid arthritis and walked about a third of the wall. She loved it, and it’s on her list of her places to return to.

Ruth up on the walls of Lugo

The only unfortunate aspect about the walls is that you cannot get a decent picture of them, since the authorities did not introduce any height limitations for buildings in the new town which surrounds the ‘casco viejo’, and so you cannot actually see the walls until you are right next to them. In this respect, they were much more sensible in Avila, but then the walls have long been seen as a tourist attraction there, which doesn’t seem to have been the case in Lugo.

The walls of Lugo

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Onward and upward

Ruth and I did ourselves proud with our consumption of local products, above all the wine! The next day, what more could I do than drive up to the coast via a most scenic route. I’d taken the liberty of booking us into the Parador in Ribadeo, so I knew it was going to be a bit of a trek in the car – something around 400 km – but the route was beautiful, so Ruth didn’t really notice quite how far we travelled.

The road to nowhere

There was even snow at the side of the road…

I stopped the car, and childishly trampled in this 'puddle' of snow

I have often travelled on Spanish side roads, almost always as the navigator, and I have been roundly cursed for the routes that I’ve chosen, but I actually enjoy driving these curvy, twisty roads so for me the route was an absolute pleasure which culminated in our arrival at the peak – Puerta de Piedrasluengas. What a fantastic view of the Cordillera Cantabrica!

The view from the 'mirador' (viewpoint) of Piedrasluengas

We duly arrived in Ribadeo, after travelling a fairly large portion of the Camino del Norte. I had no idea where the Parador was, and in the grand fashion of Spanish towns everywhere, there was no indication of which direction I should take, once I got over the bridge. Ruth suggested I stop at the bus station and ask there, so I did. There was a very helpful lady there, quietly drinking a coffee and waiting for her bus. She  tried, very patiently, to explain the complicated directions for getting to my destination whilst being constantly shouted down by a rather unpleasant and extremely drunk old man.  Eventually, I gave up and trusted to my own, fairly reasonable sense of direction.

The Parador was nice, with attractive views out over the ria (something like a fjord) to the Asturian villages on the other side.

Castropol, a village on the other side of the ria, as seen from my bedroom window

In the evening, we went for dinner, and the waitress, who was no spring chicken herself, took special care of my mother. “Take care of your mother”, she exhorted me, ” you only have one”. She was neither the first nor the last person in Spain to tell me this.

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Out and about in Spain

With no clear idea of where we wanted to go, apart from Ruth’s list – Camino del Norte; Leon; Santiago; Ourense; Cathy’s house (in a hamlet in the province of Ourense); Lugo – we headed off after several days of splendid rest and relaxation with our friends in Hornillos del Camino. I spent a long time wracking my brains over where we should go and what we should do, given that Ruth isn’t very mobile any more. Finally, I decided on a plan -we would go to Boca de Huergano where there’s a very nice hostal with great views and nice grounds, and from there we would head to the coast to set off along part of the Camino del Norte, which was my mother’s main interest.

Of course, it didn’t work out quite as I’d planned, since I discovered that although my mother loves looking at maps of any types, she makes an absolutely dreadful navigator. Somehow or another, we ended up on the road to Cervera de Pisuerga, and I thought of the beautifully situated Parador there. That would surely do for a first stop.  I left the motor running while I nipped in to ask if they had rooms. They did. On an impulse, I asked for a room with a view over the lake for my mother, and then thought ‘bugger it’ and asked for the same for myself. We checked in, and went up to our adjoining rooms. My mother was blown away by the beautiful views and told me that she could quite happily go home tomorrow, since I wouldn’t be able to find anywhere to beat this particular hotel.

Ruth contemplates the great outdoors

We then went down for lunch, at which point I discovered the charming new restaurant iniative of the Parador kitchen, which is called ‘ Arte Breve de la Cocina’ – it’s a menu they have in their restaurants, each one different, in which they try to give you a run-through of local cuisine. I embraced it enthusiastically that first day, and have been a fan ever since. (More details of the Cervera de Pisuerga menu later)

The view from the balcony of my room

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A plan is born

I told my mother of my intentions and she seemed quite interested, so on an impulse I asked her if she’d like to come along, and perhaps drive a back-up car, so that I didn’t have to carry panniers on the bike. She sounded very enthusiastic at the idea, but then we’d both been hammering the wine for quite a while, so I said I would give her a few hours’ grace to think it over, before I booked the transport.

The next day, despite our slightly hung-over look, she was still keen to come along, so I booked places on a ferry going to Santander, and a large car to be picked up at  Santander Airport. We duly made our way down to Portsmouth and stayed the night in what is now called something like the Maritime Club, although once upon a time it was the Home Club, exclusive to RN personnel and their families – quite a blast from the past for me, although I always detested Portsmouth and everything about it when I was stationed in Gosport.

More or less how Ruth and I felt on the ferry!

The ferry trip was pleasant, and Ruth really enjoyed herself, having thought that her travelling days were over. Mind you, she says this every year, so I don’t put too much store by it! We had an extremely nice meal in the evening, accompanied by a healthy ration of wine, but even that didn’t help either of us to have a good night’s sleep in the over-heated cabin. By midday the next day, we had docked in Santander, and we caught a taxi straight to the airport, picked up our car and took off for Burgos, for a few days’ R & R.

This is all that's left of the Navy? No wonder we're not helping Libya out!

Ruth toasts her arthritic knees at home in Hornillos del Camino

I had no plans whatsoever, apart from the vague idea of trying to bring some publicity to the Libyan cause, so I asked Ruth to think of anywhere that she’d like to visit up in the  north of Spain, and to make a list. We had already decided that she would not be doing the bulk of the driving, given the size of the car, the fact that it was manual, and that it was left-hand drive, and that she would be driving on the opposite side of the road, having not driven at all for three years. The bicycle was going to remain in mothballs for the time being, while I showed my mother around Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia in a bizarre sort of touring holiday which didn’t feel entirely appropriate to either of us.

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….and what happens exactly, when you are unceremoniously obliged to flee from your home, your job and the country you live in? I cannot speak for my companions, but after visiting my mother for a few days I really hadn’t a clue what to do with myself. The news from Libya was terribly depressing, and I felt sick at the thought of what might be about to transpire in Beida with government forces advancing swiftly towards Benghazi. I decided to go and visit the Teaching Assistants marooned up in Newcastle, and so I did. I took the train up one Friday and went directly to their student accommodation to visit them. They were putting a very brave face on things, and had prepared a sumptuous feast of Libyan dishes to welcome me. I felt somewhat ashamed to be the first person to have paid them a visit.

God bless you, ladies!

M. was due to arrive the following day, and I’d agreed to stay an extra day in order to meet her, as she was nervous about seeing her TAs. I’m glad I did stay, and visit again, because it was quite an education to  see how the facade fell away from one of our girls, and she confessed how very worried, alone and stressed she felt, stuck there in Newcastle not really knowing what was going on in Beida.

It has been awkward for the girls as they are all lodging in the same place – TAs from Sebha, Gharyan, Misrata, Sirte and Beida – and obviously some are from pro-regime families and others are not. They’ve done a great job of muddling along together and not falling out over politics, despite all their worries. It has been odd, but liberating, to finally hear people express their opinions, when we have always been so careful not to discuss such matters!

After M’s visit to her TAs, who number 7 or 8, we repaired to the hotel and proceeded to drown our worries in whisky!

M. puts hairs on her chest!

By the time I got back to Woodbridge on Monday, I’d resolved to go to Spain, and had the idea that I might cycle one of the caminos, trailing a rebel Libyan flag behind my bike, in order to draw attention to the plight of the ordinary Libyans.

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Idle times

Although I’m no longer physically in Libya, I feel as though I ought to update this blog to reflect what’s been going through my mind while events have unfolded in that unfortunate country.

I spent some time at my mother’s house in Woodbridge, but I was restless and pacing about like a caged lion. The news wasn’t promising with regard to Libya, and I decided to go up to Newcastle and pay a visit to our poor TAs, trapped there as a result of being on a pre-Masters course when everything kicked off. Having kept in touch with a few colleagues, I discovered that one of them also wanted to visit her TAs so I agreed to delay my visit  by a few days so that we could meet up in Newcastle. In the interim, I stayed in Woodbridge, seldom venturing forth except to buy wine, with which I staved off the inevitable depression that came with realising that I’d lost my home and virtually all of my possessions.

It didn’t escape my notice that travelling to Woodbridge entailed leaving from Liverpool Street Station in London, which features an impressive monument to evacuees in its forecourt.

Monument to evacuees at Liverpool Street Station, London.

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Six days later…

It’s been a strange week all told. On Tuesday and Wednesday, I was at Head Office where the Admin staff were very kind and helpful. We have all received an emergency pay-out, and the good news is that the company has managed to retrieve our February pay from the Libyan bank, so we will at least have funds for the next month. Effectively, there is now a 30-day waiting period, after which the situation in Libya will be reassessed, and decisions will presumably be made about our collective and individual future plans. Although the company kindly offers five nights in a London hotel, I’ve had enough after two, and disappear to Suffolk to visit my mother, and try to get rid of the stinking cold I have. I’m almost completely deaf at the moment, which is extraordinarily irritating.

During my two days in London, I had the chance to see videos of Tripoli street action, as recorded on a friend’s mobile phone, and a striking photograph of the thousands of bags and suitcases abandoned at Tripoli Airport, in the aftermath of the mass exodus. I’ve spoken to various friends, and heard about their experiences, and I’ve had to recount my own escape so many times that I’m sick of the sound of my own voice.

Peter, Martin and Catherine are all safely back at home now. I’m awaiting permission to visit from the UK university where three of our Teaching Assistants are finishing a two-month course and wondering just how on earth they’re going to get home now. The news from Libya is not too promising, although it’s difficult to separate fact from speculation in the media reports. This conflict promises to be a long-winded affair, and it seems that the Libyans are to be left to sort it out themselves, while the world spectates. It could drag on for years. Spare a thought for the ordinary Libyan caught up in this dreadful struggle, and also the thousands of foreign workers whose home countries were not able to mount an evacuation mission. I’m thinking of the Biwater Ghanaians, still stuck in the country and vulnerable to attack, given their perceived resemblance to the mercenaries sent to attack and subdue Beida, or the 150 Vietnamese people working on a project near Derna, who are probably still there, with no idea of how they are going to get home.

I think of Dr. A., of my neighbours, of my students, of the good people of Beida, and of course I think of my cats. I hope all’s well with all of them. I’ve only once managed to make contact since crossing the border. Here is a video made by a young lady I know, and posted to YouTube before the Internet vanished from Beida once more.

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