In the Footsteps of the Swallows and Amazons

Swallows and Amazons

Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons and its sequel, Swallowdale were two of  my childhood favourites. They hark back to a time when children enjoyed rather more freedom than they do now (although even in those times surely not a lot of them was allowed to camp alone on an island). If you want your children to get outdoors to enjoy fresh air, if you want them to develop their imagination, if you want them to have interest in other things than just owning the latest iPhone… get these books for them and let them expand their horizons.

In terms of age, we’re talking about age ten and about, both boys and girls – because although these books treat adventure (adventure of the kind that’s actually believable), the girl characters are just as strongly drawn as the boys. A cut above Enid Blyton.

Swallows and Amazons

The Walker children go on holiday to Lake Coniston, in the Lake District in England, staying at a local farm with their mother and baby sister. They soon discover that there is a sailing boat, the Swallow, in the boathouse and an uninhabited island in the lake -  the perfect place for camping. Mother of course cannot take the baby to an uninhabited island but she lets the older children, aged between 7 and 14, to camp on the island on their own.

Now add in some rival children - the Amazons - plus a retired pirate who lives with his parrot on a houseboat nearby and suddenly you have rather more than just a simple camping holiday...


A year has passed and the Swallows are back on their island but only to suffer a shipwreck in the very beginning of the holiday. While their boat is repaired they are left ashore, camping in a well hidden little valley, while their friends and allies, the Amazons, suffer from the curse of the visiting Great Aunt... 

None of this stops the kids from having a great holiday of course!

In the Footsteps of the Swallows and Amazons

Now two years ago we had the good fortune to spend a short holiday in the Lake District, in the course of which we visited some of the locations of Swallows and Amazons. The holiday to the Lake District came about quite by accident – my father-in-law chose the location – but once there, we simply had to explore the places mentioned in the books. Including sailing on the original houseboat of the retired pirate, now a beautifully restored steam yacht doing the rounds on the lake, and climbing the Old Man of Coniston, aka Kanchenjunga…

You can read the resulting posts, complete with photos, here:

In the Footsteps of the Swallows and Amazons: Climbing the Kanchenjunga 

View with Lake Coniston from the Old Man of Coniston

In the Footsteps of the Swallows and Amazons: Around Lake Coniston

S.Y. Gondola

All this was two years ago.

But last weekend, we visited another Swallows and Amazon series location, so a third and – somewhat belated – part III is coming to be added to this particular mini-series of posts shortly.

This time the setting is not the Lake District, however; instead we’re going to visit Secret Water.

Hamford Water [By OpenStreetMap via Wikipedia CC BY-SA 2.0]

Secret Water

Secret Water is the eighth book in the Swallows and Amazon series and follows immediately the story of We Didn’t Mean to Go to Sea. Of all the Ransome books, I think these two must be my favourites* – and I was in my twenties when I first read them! The location is the neighbourhood of Harwich in Essex on the North Sea coast.

We Didn't Mean to Go to Sea

The Walker children are on holiday in Pin Mill, a small village near Harwich, where they make friends with a young sailing boat owner who invites them on a trip down the river and around Harwich harbour. Leaving his boat safely anchored in harbour with the Walkers on board, he goes ashore to get some petrol for the engine - but fails to return. In the meantime fog descends on the harbour, the tide turns, the boat drags her anchor and the Swallows find themselves drifting out to sea... 

To tell more would be spoiling the story. :)

Secret Water

The First Lord of the Admiralty puts a spanner in the Walker family plans when he cancels the holiday of the children's father. Captain Walker has to go back to work instead of taking his children sailing. 

The children therefore get marooned on an island in Secret Water with a blank map which they intend to fill in by exploring the neighbourhood... The baby of the family, Bridget, goes on holiday with the rest for the first time, the Amazons turn up and a new group of children, the savage tribe of the Eels, make their appearance to spice up the life of the explorers.

And then they (try to) cross the Red Sea...

In the Footsteps of the Swallows and Amazons: Crossing the Red Sea



* In addition to Swallows and Amazons that hooked us in the first place. Young Friend of the Elephants (currently aged 14) swears by Winter Holiday and Peter Duck. 

Moving to Mars

I’m A Martian

I’m a Martian. This might surprise you, as I’m neither green, nor insectoid and have never dug a canal in my life, but I’m a Martian nevertheless – or at least NASA says so.

How To Become a Martian

Register your e-mail address on NASA's Mars Outreach website to be notified of new missions to Mars (see link at the end of the post). 

If you then decide to send your name to Mars, you become an honorary Martian, get your own boarding pass and start earning frequent flyer points. 

You'll be landing on Mars - at least in spirit. 🙂

Truth be told, I haven’t done much about being a Martian in the past three years, apart from watching The Martian (of course!), browsing NASA’s photo gallery and visiting the Planetarium in Greenwich on occasion. Instead of science, that’s mostly just science-fiction.

But today I added a new dimension to my existence as a Martian: I laid in a couch in the prototype of a Martian home. (It was quite difficult to get out of it afterwards but gravity is much lower on Mars, so that should be all right. On Mars, I mean.)

Today, I toyed with the idea of moving to Mars in the Design Museum in London.

Moving to Mars

Mars is there, waiting to be reached.

(Buzz Aldrin: Down to Earth)

A few years ago, NASA actually designed a space craft for just such a mission – straight out of Arthur C. Clarke, with a rotating ring to create artificial gravity – although Nautilus-X has never got off the drawing board and perhaps never will.

Nautilus-X (NASA) [public domain]
But the idea of a manned space flight to Mars in the foreseeable future fired the imagination of not just scientists and engineers but architects and interior designers too. Moving to Mars, the exhibition currently running in the Design Museum, brings together ideas that try to make life on Mars a reality.

There’s a reason why this exhibition is in the Design Museum and not the Science Museum: because it’s about design (which of course is influenced by science).

It’s an exploration of the practicalities of living on Mars – a not yet terraformed Mars. A pioneer existence, much like that of Mark Watney’s in The Martian. Growing your own food, making clothes of packaging materials… Remember: the Martians will have to take everything from Earth, unless they can produce it on Mars. That includes not just food, clothing and equipment but water and air. (Never mind home comforts. Young Friend of the Elephants – very keen to start living on Mars – is still trying to come to terms with the fact that if she was a Martian pioneer the toy elephant she grew up with would have to be left behind.)

The exhibition brings together as diverse items as:

  • a Babylonian clay tablet with astronomical observations and a book by Johannes Kepler,
  • film posters and the latest photos taken by NASA on the ground (by the rover Curiosity),
  • space suits and models of the rovers.

You learn a lot about the red planet on which you’re considering making your home. Did you know that the dust on Mars is as fine as icing sugar and dust storms can envelope almost the entire planet and last months? Or that the atmosphere mostly consists of carbon-dioxide? Did you know that for all that the surface looks like a hot desert, the average temperature is in fact around -60? And so on.

Curiosity’s view of a Martian dune after crossing it, 2014 [Courtesy of NASA]
The best bit, however, the bit that will surely fire your imagination, is the room that shows a potential prototype home on Mars. And not just little models of the various designs that could house such a home to protect it from the environment. You walk into the first Martian home, lie on the couch, look out of the window. You consider the food and how you’re growing it; the clothes and where you get them from. What about a Mars boot grown from human sweat and fungus? Or fashion a la Mars – clothes made out of discarded packaging materials? And by the way, how long does it take to drain a bathtub at a much lower gravity? Actually – given the scarcity of water – will there be a bathtub?

As this fascinating show makes clear, colonising the Red Planet will require technical genius – plus an eye for fashion and coffee you can drink upside-down.

The Guardian

Ready to Fly?

NASA Boarding Pass 2020 (template)

On your way out you come across the question posed by the exhibition organisers: Are you ready to travel to Mars…?

Am I ready?!

With a packed rucksack, clutching my boarding pass, and eyes firmly set on the future which I will not live to see… yes.

Links:NASA Mars Outreach (Send Your Name to Mars)NASA Photo GalleryPeter Harrison Planetarium (National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)Nautilus-X Project, NASAMoving to Mars (Design Museum, London)War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells (Gutenberg Project)

You might also like:The Future in the Past (2001: A Space Odyssey)

La verdad de las mentiras (The Truth of the Lies)

Estaba hojeando – figurativamente, porque de hecho se trataba de un libro electrónico – un libro de ensayos de Mario Vargas Llosa anoche, cuando me topé con la siguiente:

I have been leafing through – figuratively speaking, because it was actually an e-book – a book of essays by Mario Vargas Llosa last night, when I came across the following:

«Los inquisidores españoles, por ejemplo, prohibieron que se publicaran o importaran novelas en las colonias hispanoamericanas con el argumento de que esos libros disparatados y absurdos —es decir, mentirosos— podían ser perjudiciales para la salud espiritual de los indios. Por esta razón, los hispanoamericanos sólo leyeron ficciones de contrabando durante trescientos años y la primera novela que, con tal nombre, se publicó en la América española apareció sólo después de la independencia (en México, en 1816).

“The Spanish inquisitors, for example, forbade the publication and import of novels in the Latin-American colonies with the argument that these ludicrous and absurd – that’s to say lying – books might be  detrimental for the spiritual health of the Indians. For this reason, the Latin-Americans only read contraband fiction for three hundred years and the first novel, which, with this name, was published in Spanish America only appeared after the independence (in Mexico, in 1816).

Al prohibir no unas obras determinadas sino un género literario en abstracto, el Santo Oficio estableció algo que a sus ojos era una ley sin excepciones: que las novelas siempre mienten, que todas ellas ofrecen una visión falaz de la vida.

By forbidding not certain works but an entire literary genre, the Holy Office established something that to them was a law without exceptions: that novels always lie, that all of them offer a falsa view of life.

Hace años escribí un trabajo ridiculizando a esos arbitrarios, capaces de una generalización semejante. Ahora pienso que los inquisidores españoles fueron acaso los primeros en entender —antes que los críticos y que los propios novelistas— la naturaleza de la ficción y sus propensiones sediciosas.

Years ago I wrote a work ridiculing these arbitrary men who were capable of such a generalisation. Now I think that the Spanish inquisitors were perhaps the first to understand – before the critics and the novelists themselves – the nature of fiction and its rebellious tendencies.

En efecto, las novelas mienten —no pueden hacer otra cosa— pero ésa es sólo una parte de la historia. La otra es que, mintiendo, expresan una curiosa verdad, que sólo puede expresarse encubierta, disfrazada de lo que no es. Dicho así, esto tiene el semblante de un galimatías. Pero, en realidad, se trata de algo muy sencillo. Los hombres no están contentos con su suerte y casi todos —ricos o pobres, geniales o mediocres, célebres u oscuros— quisieran una vida distinta de la que viven. Para aplacar —tramposamente— ese apetito nacieron las ficciones. Ellas se escriben y se leen para que los seres humanos tengan las vidas que no se resignan a no tener. En el embrión de toda novela bulle una inconformidad, late un deseo insatisfecho.»

Indeed, novels lie – can’t do anything else – but this is only part of the story. The other part is that, lying, they express a curious truth, which can be only expressed covertly, dressed up as something it isn’t. Said like this, it sounds like goobledygook. But, really, it’s very simple. People are not content with their lot and almost all – rich or poor, genius or mediocre, famous or unknown – wish to have a different life from the one they live. Fiction appeared to satisfy – in a deceitful way – this appetite. It’s written and read so that human beings could have the lives that they can’t resign themselves to not having. All novels are born from dissent, from unsatisfied desire.”

(Mario Vargas Llosa:
La verdad de las mentiras / The Truth of the Lies)

Algo para pensar por la tarde de un sábado de lluvia.

Thought for a rainy Saturday afternoon.


Apropos of The Discreet Hero

I’m trying to get my mind round the fact that I’ve just finished a book which mentions Justin Bieber. I mean, Justin Bieber, you know, the pop star (if he’s still a star, that is, because I have to admit I’m not that up-to-date about these matters). The significance of Justin Bieber in this context is that he hasn’t been around for all that long. Not long enough, in my mind, to make it into a book. Hot diggety dog! I actually finished reading a book that’s set, like, now.

The book in question is The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa. I recommend it. 🙂


Musashi: The Master Swordsman of Medieval Japan

The Battle of Sekigahara… anyone?

Well, I’d never heard of it either before I read Eiji Yoshikawa’s novel, Musashi.

Which brings us to the next question: Miyamoto Musashi, anyone?

Your answer, of course, is in the title of this post: Miyamoto Musashi was one of the most famous – if not the most famous – swordsman Japan ever produced. Already in his lifetime he became a legend.

Continue reading “Musashi: The Master Swordsman of Medieval Japan”

How to Live like a Local in Budapest (Summer Edition)

The Expat Goes Home

The trouble with being an expat is that you end up being a stranger to your own hometown. In your absence things move on; after a few years you being to feel alienated. The post How to Live like a Local in Budapest two years ago was born of the experience of visiting my own city with the eyes of a tourist: I was trying to show off the attractions – especially the unique ones – to my children. It was a wintery experience of Budapest, however, so today, you’re going to get the summer edition. If it’ll inspire you to visit one of the most lovable and liveable cities in Europe, good. 🙂

The Széchenyi Chain Bridge spanning the Danube, Budapest. Photo by Anon. via Pixabay.

Continue reading “How to Live like a Local in Budapest (Summer Edition)”

Woe Is Me, Alhama!

Woe Is Me, Alhama!

Boabdil’s Farewell to Granada by Alfred Dehodencq [public domain via Wikipedia]
One of my favourite Spanish historical ballads is A Very Mournful Ballad of the Siege and Conquest of Alhama, also known as The Moorish King Rides Up and Down or Woe Is Me, Alhama! It was also one of the first Spanish ballads I’ve ever read in the original (Spanish learners take note – the text is that accessible). I came across it in a collection of ballads which I found in a second-hand bookshop in Southport in Lancashire; it was a university textbook from the 1960s. In A Brief (Literary) History of the Reconquista I have already shared an excerpt with you (and a shorter version a few years ago in The Moorish King Rides Up & Down) but the ballad deserves better, so today you’re going to get the full version – plus the Spanish original for those of you who can enjoy it.

Continue reading “Woe Is Me, Alhama!”

Ode on a Grecian Urn (Answer)

As mentioned last week, six years ago I forcefully dragged my family to Delphi; and despite themselves, they so liked the place that they gave me a Greek vase as a thank you present:

I gave you a chance in last week’s post to figure out which Greek myth is depicted on the vase, and today… well, you’re getting the answer. 🙂

Which is:

Theseus kills Procrustes

We’ll hand over to Robert Graves here:
On reaching Attic Cordallus, Theseus slew Sinis’s father Polypemon, surnamed Procrustes, who lived beside the road and had two beds in his house, one small, the other large. Offering a night’s lodging to travellers, he would lay the short men on the large bed, and rack them out to fit it; but the tall men on the small bed, sawing off as much of their legs as projected beyond it. Some say, however, that he used only one bed, and lengthened or shortened his lodgers according to its measure. In either case, Theseus served him as he had served others.
(Robert Graves: Greek Myths)
The picture on my vase is, of course, only a replica. The original is this kylix (wine-drinking cup), c. 440 B.C.:
The Labours of Theseus. Photo by Egisto Sani [CC BY-NC-SA 2.0] via Flickr.


Ode on a Grecian Urn (Guess the Picture)

What leaf-fring’d legend haunts about thy shape
Of deities or mortals, or of both,
In Tempe or the dales of Arcady?
What men or gods are these? What maidens loth?
What mad pursuit? What struggle to escape?
What pipes and timbrels? What wild ecstasy?

(John Keats: Ode on a Grecian Urn)

Six years ago I dragged my family to Delphi – three hours coach travel from Athens in thirty degrees heat. As it happens, my family is – mostly – interested in history but they had extreme doubts as to why they were asked to see some more Greek ruins; after all we already visited the Acropolis and the Agora of Athens, the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, Knossos in Crete… But I couldn’t imagine a visit to Greece being complete without having visited Delphi, home to the Delphi Oracle, where Apollo himself dealt with the invading Persians… and well, Delphi, right?

As it happened, they were all really impressed by the ruins in Delphi (even Young Friend of the Elephants, aged 5, who had zero interest in traipsing around on hot mountain sides among ancient ruins but was more than happy to crawl into random holes in the ground) and they got me a Greek vase as a thank you present.

This one:

It took me quite a while to figure out which Greek myth is depicted on this side of the vase.

Today’s challenge is for you to work it out for yourselves. 🙂 I’m making it easier for you by turning it into a multiple choice question – please vote. I’ll give you the correct answer next week. Have fun!


When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”

(John Keats: Ode on a Grecian Urn)
You might also like:Guess the PictureA Take on the Column

Highlights (Four Years Blogging)

Suddenly it dawned on me: it’s that time of the year again. Four years ago to the day I wrote my first blog post although I didn’t know it at the time. (I didn’t know what a blog was, either.) Four years and I’m still at it; four years and I’m still full of ideas. The difficulty, in fact, lies in finding the time and energy to turn those ideas into posts. At the moment, I’m in no danger of running out of topics.

In the past four years I came to read a lot of great books and I wrote a lot of posts that were great fun to write. Here comes my entirely self-pleasing highlights for each period of twelve months (excluding books that I was re-reading):

19 July 2015 – 19 July 2016

Best Book: El coronel no tiene quien le escriba (No One Writes to the Colonel) by Gabriel García Márquez
Runner Up: Moscow Stations by Venedikt Yerofeev

Two very short books about life not being funny at all – full of dark humour. Beg, borrow or steal, but read these two books before you die.

Favourite Post: When with Eagle Eyes He Star’d at the Pacific

A post that brings together Austrian author Stephan Zweig, the English poet John Keats and a great moment in history. I only wish my writing was up to the quality of the topic.

20 July 2016 – 19 July 2017

Best Book: The Bible in Spain by George Borrow
Runner Up: Anabasis (The Persian Expedition) by Xenophon

Two first hand accounts: two quests for salvation, two journeys full of adventure, landscape and human interaction. Borrow travelled a civil warn torn Spain peddling a forbidden edition of the Bible to the locals; Xenophon led an army of Greek mercenaries across hostile territory from the heart of Mesopotamia back to Greece. Both are unforgettable.

Favourite Post: Pride & Prejudice in a Dozen Tweets

I probably wrote better posts in this twelve month period; I definitely wrote more informative ones. But with this one, I was just having a bit of shameless fun.

20 July 2017-19 July 2018:

Best Book: The Samurai by Shusaku Endo
Runner Up: Vida de este capitán (The Life of This Captain) by Alonso de Contreras

Two books treating real events in the beginning of the 17th century. The first one is a novel about a Japanese embassy to Spain and to the Vatican in the 17th century; a wonderful travel story and an amazing culture clash. The second one is autobiography of Spanish desperado, who lived at the turn of the 16th-17th century. You couldn’t make the stories up if you tried.

Favourite Post: Implacabile (The Corvette that Never Was)

This period was quite rich in posts that I really enjoyed writing: The Master of Cold Mountain for example, or An Evening with Matsuo Basho are such examples. In the end, Implacabile won it because of the research that went into it and because – believe me – you won’t find a word about this topic in English anywhere else on the web. Unique. 🙂

20 July 2018-19 July 2019:

Best Book: The Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam
Runner Up: Don Quijote de la Mancha by Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra

I discovered Omar Khayyam, this 11th century Persian fatalist, a lover of wine, women, good books and gardens (probably in that order). And I rediscovered Don Quijote in the recent edition of the Spanish Royal Academy – which I can only recommend, if you can read Spanish.

Favourite Post: Burns vs Petőfi: Or Whose National Poet Was More S**t?

I didn’t have a particularly difficult time to choose this one: in the last twelve months unfortunately I had struggled to keep the blog going at all and I wrote much fewer posts than previously. It came down to a relatively simple choice, with The Dark Side of Life (In Nine Haikus) being a strong runner up. In the end Burns vs Petőfi won because of the outrageousness of the idea to rubbish two national poets. Boy, did I enjoy slagging them off (well, they deserve it). 🙂

To another year of blogging!

You might also like (or more highlights from previous years):

⇒ Tolstoy, Mario Vargas Llosa, My Grandmother and Me (On War & Peace)A Trial of FreedomFever PitchExit

⇒ The Bible in SpainOzymandias: Shelley and the Feet of Ramessess IICity of FortuneSave the Trinidad: The Unwritten Biography of Cayetano ValdésThe Power and the Glory

⇒ The Battle of Salamis (Retold in Poetry) I and IIThe Beauty of Patterns (The Rabbit Problem)In the Footsteps of the Swallows and Amazons: Climbing the KanchenjungaFace to Face with My Ancestors (The Scythians in the British Museum)The Master of Cold Mountain

⇒ The Dark Side of Life (In Nine Haikus)Call No Man HappyThe Rubaiyat of Omar KhayyamThe True Stories of...

Vulcano, la forja de los dioses

Read this in English

Hefesto y Vulcano

Hefesto, el dios herrero, era tan enclenque cuando nació que su madre Hera, disgustada, lo arrojó desde la cima del Olimpo para librarse de la vergüenza…

Robert Graves: Los mitos griegos

Bueno, exactemente aquí ya puedes ver de dónde sacaron los espartanos su idea de arrojar los recién nacidos con defectos físicos o enfermos de los acantilados del Taigeto. Pero en cuanto a Hefesto, el dios del fuego y de la forja, el herrero de los dioses del Olimpo, él tenía suerte en esta primera caída: se cayó en el mar, donde la ninfa Tetis lo encontró y lo llevó a casa. Unos años más tarde, Hefesto estableció una pequeña forja submarina, y le pagó por la amabilidad con unas chucherías domesticas, por no mencionar unas joyas estupendas que llamaron la atención de Hera. Debido a lo cual no sólo se le permitió regresar al Olimpo sino que también se le dio Afrodita para su esposa… Pues eso acabó bien, o, al menos, hubiera acabado bien, si Hefesto entonces calló. Pero no, dedicó unas palabras poco prudentes a Zeus, quién, de nuevo, lo arrojó de la montaña… Esta vez tenía menos suerte, como que se cayo en tierra, y se quedó cojo para el resto de su vida inmortal.

Adelanto rápido a los tiempos romanos. Como sabemos, los romanos fueron muy ingeniosos en la ingeniería (mi favorito es el corvus, una puente para el abordaje de las galeras cartaginenses, la solución clásica para el problema de cómo-cambiar-una-batalla-del-mar-en-que-somos-inútiles-en-una-batalla-de-tierra-en-que-somos-mucho-mejores), por no mencionar sus varios otros éxitos que llamaron la atención. A pesar de esto, parece que los romanos no tenían ninguna imaginación cuando se trataba de su religión: tanto que no se molestaron en inventar la suya propia, sino que sencillamente importaron la antigua griega. Y así Hefesto, el griego, se convirtió en Vulcano, ciudadano de Roma. Larga vida a los dioses, bajo un nombre u otro.

La forja de Vulcano por Jacopo Tintoretto [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]
Pues pasó que cuando Hefesto volvió al favor de Hera, abandonó su herrero submarino y establició una forja nueva en el Olimpo. O al menos eso dice la leyenda pero las leyendas son sujetos a cambios… y dicen que Hefesto tenía forjas en lugares distintos.

Los colonos griegos en Sicilia ya tomaron nota del lugar, pero probablemente debemos la ubicación de la forja de Vulcano a los romanos, quienes elegiron el lugar perfecto: una isla pequeña cerca de las orillas de Sicilia, convinientemente llamada…

Continue reading “Vulcano, la forja de los dioses”

Vulcano, the Forge of Gods

Leer esto en castellano

Hephaestus and Vulcan

Hephaestus, the ugly and ill-tempered Smith-god, was so weakly at birth that his disgusted mother, Hera, dropped him from the height of Olympus, to rid herself of the embarrassment…

Greek Myths by Robert Graves

Well, right there you can see where the Spartans might have got their notions of throwing sickly newborns off the cliffs of Taygetus. But as regards Hephaestus, god of fire and the blacksmith of the gods of Mt Olympus, in this first fall he was lucky: he fell into the sea, where he was found by the nymph Thetys, who duly took him home. A few years later, Hephaestus repaid the kindness by setting up a little undersea smithy and making for her some useful household odds and ends, not to mention some fancy jewellery which caught the eye of Hera. Owing to which not only he was allowed to return to Olympus but was given Aphrodite for his wife. All’s well that ends well, or would have, except that he then said some unwise words to Zeus, who once again hurled him off the mountain… This time he was less lucky, because he fell on hard ground and remained lame for the rest of his immortal life.

Fast forward to Roman times. As we know, the Romans were quite ingenious when it came to engineering (my personal favourite is the corvus, a bridge for boarding Carthaginian galleys, the classic solution to the conundrum of how-to-turn-a-naval-battle-at-which-we’re-****-into-a-land-battle-at-which-we’re-so-much-better), not to mention their various other achievements that clamour for attention. Despite of this, the Romans seemed sadly lacking in imagination when it came to their religion: so much so that they didn’t bother to come up with their own – they merely imported in the Ancient Greek one. And so Hephaestus the Greek became Vulcan, the citizen of Rome. Long live the gods, under one name or another.

Vulcan’s Forge by Jacopo Tintoretto [public domain via Wikimedia Commons]
Now it so happened that when Hephaestus returned to Hera’s favour, owing to his ability to make fancy jewellery, he abandoned his undersea workshop and set up a new smithy on Mt Olympus. Or at least so says the original myth but myths are subject to change… and Hephaestus is reputed to have forges in more than one place.

The Greeks settlers on Sicily have already noted the place, but ultimately we probably owe the location of Vulcan’s forge to the incoming Romans who have hit on just the spot: a little volcanic island off the shores of Sicily, conveniently named…

Continue reading “Vulcano, the Forge of Gods”

A Brief (Literary) History of the Reconquista

The other day (okay, a few weeks ago, it took me a while to finish this post) I wrote a few lines about Covadonga in Asturias, the place where the reconquista, the reconquering of Spain from the Moors began in 722 A.D. If you haven’t read it:

View from the Holy Cave, Covadonga

Asturias Is Spain… (And the Rest Is Conquered Land)

…then you’d bloody well better 🙂 because today you’re going to get part two of the story that started in Covadonga: the story of the reconquista.

In keeping with Waterblogged tradition, we’re going to explore the topic through the medium of literature; I hope you’ll enjoy this brief history of the reconquista as told by Spanish historical ballads!

Continue reading “A Brief (Literary) History of the Reconquista”

Felix in the Bath

The Wanderings of Brother Felix Fabri

I was reading Felix Fabri in the bath the other night (and I did not dropped him into the tub), when I very appropriately I came across the passage of his visit to an Arabic bath house in the city of Gaza. Enjoy! And if you ever have the chance to visit a Turkish bath in Budapest or a Moorish bath in Spain – do not miss the experience!

For those of you who don’t remember who Felix Fabri was (or have never heard of him): He was a German monk from the city of Ulm who made two pilgrimages to the Holy Land in 1480 and 1483. He was blessed with an inquiring mind, an eye for detail, a photographic memory and the gift of the gab. He does at times bore you to tears with the many indulgences (plenary and otherwise) which he collects by kissing the various most holy places in the company of his fellow pilgrims but he can most entertaining when he goes beyond the details of the religious pilgrimage and talks about people, foreign customs, novel experiences or travel mishaps. Of which, as you can imagine, there was plenty of in the 15th century while touring an enemy land!

A Turkish bath in Budapest, Hungary. Photo by Trey Ratcliff via Flickr [CC-BY-NC-SA 2.0]
Continue reading “Felix in the Bath”

The Seven Princes of Lara

In the process of writing a brief literary history of the reconquista (the reconquering of Spain from the Moors), I found myself debating whether the tragic story of the seven princes of Lara should be included or not. On the one hand, it seemed difficult to leave out such a popular ballad from the era of the reconquista altogether; on the other hand, the brief literary history is already long enough without adding in something that, strictly speaking, is not so much a story of the reconquista but a story of a family feud. Upon reflection I decided that the famous story of the seven princes of Lara deserved a post of its own. To keep you busy while I finish the brief literary history. 🙂

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Asturias Is Spain…

…And The Rest Is Conquered Land

There’s a popular saying in Spain, principally in Asturias, a province on the Bay of Biscay in Northern Spain, which goes:

Asturias es España, y lo demás tierra conquistada.

Asturias is Spain, and the rest is conquered land.

It makes reference to the Battle of Covadonga, 722 A.D. when the troops of Don Pelayo, king of Asturias, defeated the invading Moors. The battle is considered the starting point of the reconquista, the reconquest of Spain from the Moors (a long process of wars which ended with the taking of Granada in 1492). Legend would have it that Pelayo and his 300 defeated an army of 180,000 Moors. Historically speaking, it’s more likely that the Moors were not quite so numerous, nor Pelayo’s lot so few but – why spoil the legend? It’s still a famous victory for those defending their homeland.

Don Pelayo in Covadonga by Luis de Madrazo y Kuntz, 1855. Courtesy of the Museum of Prado

As a consequence of Don Pelayo’s victory, Asturias has never been conquered by the Moors which explains the above saying.

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Call No Man Happy

The Best Stories of Herodotus returns today – after a shamefully long gap – with a story that has nothing to do with our favourite topic, the Greek-Persian Wars. Because The Histories of Herodotus is so much more than the long-winded retelling of a few gory battles: in his effort to unearth the causes of the war, Herodotus went as far back in time as the origins of the War of Troy and ranged across the Eastern Mediterranean and across subjects in a way that modern historians would never dare. Today’s story is a great example.

Let’s introduce the three protagonists first: Solon, Croesus and Cyrus.

Continue reading “Call No Man Happy”

The View from My Window II (La vista desde mi ventana II)

Your desire to be near to window is your desire to be near to life!

(Mehmet Murat Ildan)

For the third time in the last year and a half, I had to spend several days in a certain building in Central London. At least I had a view.

Enjoy this ‘study’ of the changing skies of London, May 2019. (Click in the gallery to enlarge the photos.)

¡Tu deseo de estar cerca de la ventana es tu deseo de estar cerca de la vida!

(Mehmet Murat Ildan)

Por la tercera vez en el último año y medio, tuve que pasar unos días en un cierto edificio en el centro de Londres. Al menos, había una vista.

Que disfrutéis este ‘estudio’ de los cielos cambiantes de Londres, mayo de 2019. (Haz click para ampliar.)

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Land of Giants

Leer esto en castellano

Or The Windmills of Don Quixote


The Lonely Planet guide about the La Mancha town of Campo de Criptana reads:

One of the most popular stops on the Don Quijote route, Campo de Criptana is crowned by 10 windmills visible from kilometres around. Revered contemporary film-maker Pedro Almodóvar¹ was born here, but left for Madrid in his teens. The town is pleasant, if unexceptional.

Actually, unexceptional doesn’t even begin to describe the town if you arrive by train (Campo de Criptana is on the mainline from Madrid to Albacete, the capital of Castile-La Mancha). Downright ugly might be a better description: as in many Spanish towns, the railway station is on the outskirts, in this case surrounded by industrial buildings of little appeal. Luckily, Campo de Criptana is a small place and fifteen minutes walk will bring you to the centre of town.

Which is unexceptional.

Statue of Cervantes, Campo de Criptana

But you don’t really want the centre of town. You’re a reader, a reader of Don Quixote at that, and what you want is the famous windmills, the giants that Don Quixote fought. Head uphill from the unexceptional Plaza Mayor with its obligatory Cervantes statue, through the Albaícin – the old Moorish quarter -, through the narrow cobblestoned alleys, between whitewashed houses edged in indigo blue… it sounds better already, doesn’t it? There. As you turn the corner, you spot your first windmill. And there are other nine to come.

Continue reading “Land of Giants”