Saturday, 27 February 2016

Opera at Wetherspoons, jumble sales, Ottolenghi's and computer traumas....

Phew, Hastings Battleaxe has had a busy week... Opera at Wetherspoons?  Oh yes. In a previous post, I've mentioned the Opera House Wetherspoons in Tunbridge Wells, a spectacular and sympathetic conversion from theatre to pub. Once a year they restore it to a theatre and stage an opera, we went last weekend.  The day before that, we had the hectic and very successful WI Jumble Sale, on Wednesday I spent the day in London with my old friend Diana, and I've had on-going computer traumas as well.
     Ever since we first visited the pub in Tunbridge Wells a few years ago I wanted to have the opera experience, and I am so glad we did it. We went with friends Jan and Tom. It was hard to get tickets - they convert the pub into dining/theatre, so seats are limited. The place was done out very well - crisp white table cloths, and even white covers on the pub chairs like you get at weddings. However, pub chairs are a bit bum-numbing for watching an opera.
     We had a fantastic place right in the front of the upper stalls, right by the brass rail shown in the photo below, and munched our way happily through a classic Wetherspoons roast chicken dinner before the gig started. It must be the most stylish Wetherspoons meal ever.....



To opera house

Eating a Wetherspoons roast dinner in style...
    We watched La Boheme, performed by the young and enthusiatic Merry Opera Company. The first thing that struck me was the astonishing acoustic in the little theatre - the musical director spoke to the audience before the performance, and he didn't even have to raise his voice.  That meant that some of the singers were almost too loud for comfort, including Mimi, but particularly Rodolfo, who had a fine voice, but very powerful, more of a heroic than a lyric tenor.
     We wondered about the theatre's previous life. Are modern singers trained to sing more loudly than old-style singers? (That can't necessarily be the case, thinking of the likes of Dame Clara Butt, who was renowned for 'Land of Hope and Glory'', zapping the furthest corners of the Royal Albert Hall without a microphone). Was it the relative inexperience of the young singers, leading them to over-project their voices? Or would it have been as loud as that in the past? Did old-style audiences talk during the performances? Was there more sound-muffling heavy drapery?
     As it happened, the music was provided by a piano - it was a pity they did not have a few more instruments - but imagine how loud an orchestra would have been.  However, the singing and acting was of a very high standard, and we enjoyed it unreservedly.
The cast take their bow
     Philosopher sat next to Zai Koder, the Chair of the Merry Opera Trustees - I could hear him suggesting to her that they came to perform at St Mary in the Castle in Hastings, which would be an excellent venue for them.
     Jan and I were still tired following our monumental efforts at the WI Jumble Sale the day before. Battleaxe was more than tired, totally exhausted.  We got back from Madrid about 10.45pm on Thursday night - Friday was setting up the sale, and Saturday was the sale itself. I've written about this before in previous posts, and I'll say it again, I have never seen a team of people work so well as a crowd of WI women.  We start with an empty hall, and next thing it is full of tables groaning with fantastic stuff people have donated, together with a lovely little tea room with loads of of cakes. Then, as soon as the sale is over, we have an empty hall again in less than an hour. If I could write a management text book about what makes us such a brilliant team, I could make a fortune.
    I guess it helps that those of us who do the sales really enjoy it - I know I do. I don't know what is more fun - finding treasures amongst the stuff people bring in, or selling things to people who are also delighted with the treasures they have found.
    Our sales are getting very popular - queue stretching out into the street, and a total free-for-all hurly burly for about the first half hour.  We raised about £600.
Jumble frenzy....
    On Wednesday I went to London to meet my old friend Diana. We went for lunch to Ottolenghi in Upper Street in Islington. My goodness, the food there is yummy. You can have four salads for £14, there were eight on the menu, so we had all eight between us with a bottle of wine. Felt a little full.
    Now that's weird. When I try to put in a link to the Ottolenghi site my computer announces it has blocked the site because it is 'malicious'.  How could it be? That takes me on to a very fraught topic. While I was in Spain I took my desktop down to the local computer health farm with instructions to speed it up and install Windows 10.  When we came back it wasn't ready... for the next three days....and when I eventually went down to collect it the bloke told me he had 'wiped' it in order to clean it up. Fortunately I had backed up my data. The bloody thing was totally blank except for Windows 10 which I didn't know how to use. It wouldn't even connect to the internet, and then I had to reinstall everything and download endless backups. I have suffered hours of effing and blinding, boiling blood pressure.
     My mother died of a brain hemorrhage (is that right? Computer no longer seems to want to inspect my spelling...) because she was angry about a cafe opening near her house. I will surely die of computer rage. I get positively tearful with frustration.

 STOP PRESS - EVEN MORE TEARFUL WITH FRUSTRATION - I can't see your comments when I am signed into Google - so can't reply - sorry!

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Visit to Toledo - Battleaxe goes it alone

I'll just do one more quick post on Spain before catching up with Hastings life. You remember from the last post that Philosopher was poorly - now has terrible cold - and I was going to Toledo by myself? Well, I went, on the high-speed train from Madrid.
    These days, it is quite unusual for me to take an unaccompanied trip into the unknown. When I was at work I used to travel all over the place, but now I seldom explore new things without either Philosopher, or friends. It felt quite strange.
     First, I had to navigate the huge and alarming Madrid Atocha Station - on three levels, serving three different categories of train... I wanted the AVE high-speed, which turned out to have its own booking office, concourse etc. It was like catching a plane. The train was a long-snouted bullety affair that did the 75km to Toledo in 26 minutes, for 20 euros return. Amazing. Makes our British public transport look a bit sick.
Spanish high-speed train

     Toledo has the most fantastic old Moorish style station. The contrast between futuristic train and station was a bit bizarre. Here are some pictures:
Toledo Station
Booking Hall, Toledo Station
Through this door - to the futuristic train
Refreshment Room
Old ticket windows

     The old city is about a mile from the station, on the top of a steep hill, surrounded on three sides by the Tagus river. I duly caught a bus but was so excited when it rattled through a gate in the ancient walls that I jumped off, forgetting that it still had to climb the hill.
First sight of Toledo

     I immediately lost myself in a maze of narrow cobbled alleys running in all directions between tightly packed old houses. I had assumed that I would be able to navigate by sighting the Cathedral, or the Alcazar (fortress) on the very top of the crag, but I couldn't see either of them above the high buildings. It was very interesting and very pretty indeed, but I wandered for what felt like ages, totally lost, and not meeting anyone who spoke English who could help me. My Spanish is severely limited, I can go 'Per favor, donde esta...', but I hardly ever know the Spanish word for the what I want to find. Eventually had to resort to navigating by Google maps.

     Toledo has a fantastic history - Romans, Visigoths, Muslims, Jews, Christians.... There are any number of ancient monasteries, synagogues, mosques, palaces and of course the Cathedral, supposedly one of the largest in Christendom. 

     Toledo was also the home of El Greco - his house is a museum, which I didn't visit, and his works are all over the city.
      I stopped for a beer in a cafe, and eventually found myself sitting in the sun outside the Cathedral eating my sandwich, probably the sunniest moment of our entire trip.
Toledo Cathedral

      The Cathedral was indeed very large and impressive, but not like our Northern European Cathedrals. It was more solidly massive, like peering through a forest of enormous columns resembling the bases of huge old trees. 
Giant columns

     You couldn't stand at one end and look down the aisle, the view was obstructed by high screens and sanctuaries all festooned with gold, marble, paintings and rioting statuary.

     The side chapels were bigger than most churches. Doors led off the main edifice into a maze of cloisters, some totally silent and empty, with orange groves in the middle. 

     I found a gallery full of El Greco paintings...

      After getting lost yet again in the cloisters I tried to set off back to the station. On my way up in the bus I had noticed people crossing the Tagus on a high, arched old bridge, and thought it would be good to us that route back to the station. Could I find it? Sometimes I'd emerge on a path above the bridge, sometimes beside it, one time below it... I was hot, tired and anxious by the time I eventually found it and crossed the river.  It was worth the effort for the views of the city.
     Worn out, I headed back to the station.

      The verdict?  Toledo - totally worth visiting. It probably needs longer than a day. Take plenty of water and a good street map! I was sorry that Philosopher missed it, otherwise it would have been the highlight of our holiday.
       However, I was relieved to discover that my appetite and capacity for solitary exploration remains intact...
       We flew home the next day - me already starting to develop Philosopher's cold, and needing to be on parade for the grand WI Jumble Sale.....

Monday, 15 February 2016

Winter in Madrid

A coincidence. Winter in Madrid by CJ Sansom is our current WI book group read, and here are Battleaxe and Philosopher on a six-day break. I'm finding the book does not help paint a better picture of the city, so will say no more about it here.
     We are staying just by the Royal Palace, at the Apartosuites Jardines de Sabatini.  Very good accommodation - a large mini-suite with cooking facililities etc., reasonable price, central, very handy for public transport, Battleaxe would recommend. Here is the path we walk down to get home, by the Palace.
Madrid, Royal Palace

     Our journey here was a bit eventful - Southern Trains went pear-shaped on us and we only just got to Gatwick in time.  By the time we reached the Iberia Express check-in, Economy was full,  so we were upgraded to Business Class.... Excellent.
     It is indeed winter in Madrid, a mix of very chilly but sunny days, and blustery showers.  
     There are three massive art galleries to see.  In our DK Eyewitness Madrid guidebook, it suggests doing all three in one day, which would be beyond ridiculous. 
      First, the Reina Sofia, which is all modern art, including must-see sights like Picasso's Guernica.  Amazing external lifts.

Reina Sofia Gallery

      You can always tell where the must-sees are hanging because dense crowds of Japanese tourists or noisy groups of gum-chewing youth are blocking the paintings from view....
      I liked this Picasso: 
Picasso - Girl Laughing

      Next, the Prado, looking nice in the sun.
The Prado

      Surprisingly, given that the gallery is one of the world top sights, it was not too full, and I actually got right to the front of the crowd to look at 'The Garden of Earthly Delights'.  I never noticed before that Bosch painted life-like birds mixed in with his strange little figures - we spotted a goldfinch, a kingfisher and a jay. 

 We saw the Goya 'black' paintings - creepy, Velasquez, El Greco, Van Dyck, Titian, Rembrandt, Cranach....
      I ask myself if there is any point visiting galleries to see these famous paintings when there are umpteen copies on the internet. However, when I was searching for the Bosch birds above, I found every copy was a different colour, and none as good as the bright and vibrant original.
      The last gallery, the Thyssen-Bornimissa, was a private art collection, acquired by Spain in the 1990s. Lots there too, going from early right up to date.  Philosopher had a bad stomach, so our tour was a bit quicker than it might have been.  Here's a Kandinsky:

      Sunday is flea market day in Madrid - El Rastro. A couple of violent hail storms with strong gusts of wind blew some of the stalls right over, soaked everything and somewhat dampened our enthusiasm. We didn't buy anything.

El Rastro

      We've trawled so many bazaars and flea markets. The same things are hawked by the same people..... Paris, Rome, Berlin, the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, Khan El Khalelli in Cairo..... Enigmatic North African men with slightly smelly leather goods, chipper Indian, Pakistani or Turkish boys selling knock-off handbags, watches and jeans. Ethnic knitwear and jewellery, broken cardboard boxes full of bras. T-shirts and mobile phone covers. Fierce East European women with stalls of vintage clothes and ratty old furs, ancients squatting by drab garments and old shoes piled on blue tarpaulins. Kitchen plastic, pots and pans, mouse traps..... and the occasional burst of interesting retro or antiques.
      Shopping. Was pleased to find a large Desigual store - a particular Spanish brand of clothes I like. The stuff is incredibly colourful. You have to be careful not to wear too much at once - risk of the mad cat lady look. 
      I could have bought the whole shop and better still, it was all reduced in price. Ended up with a wonderful blue coat and two tops.

      As usual on these trips, I wanted to inspect the grandest and most historic hotel in the city.  In Madrid, it is the Westin Palace - as stayed in by those who seemed to spend their time in such places: Ernest Hemingway, Mata Hari, Winston Churchill, Greta Garbo, Charles De Gaulle, Agatha Christie, Jackie Kennedy etc. Did those people not have jobs to do, countries to run? Philosopher returned to the hotel while I swanned graciously in for a cup of Earl Grey (cost 8 euros).  Passed a pleasant half hour on a velvet sofa in the Rotunda, cared for by elderly and dignified waiters.  I like the way the domed glass roof is reflected in the table.

      So, what do we think of Madrid?  
      It hasn't grabbed us as much as other European cities.  It feels a bit bleak, cold and hard - maybe because the weather is actually very cold, but I don't think that's totally it. People are very friendly and helpful, so not that either.  Architecture is..... OK, but not amazing. Not like Barcelona. I think we have explored most of the historic city centre now, and the outer areas are pleasant, but plain.  
We've found some perfectly reasonable eating places.... Not an issue. Street life?  Not that interesting.     This sounds a bit negative but it is really very cold, and Philosopher is still not well - a worry....
       We planned to go to Toledo on the train for our last day. I went on my own..... Another post I think. 
       Here are a few odd Madrid photos to finish up.  Sorry if the quality of this post is not as good as usual - am using my iPad.  Home tomorrow.