Lost In Europe
I’m in that happiest state – between books. I finished one last week and am not planning to start another for two weeks. In this lacuna it’s time for a break, and Europe is England’s garden, just a short hop to a thousand interesting destinations.
But one of the problems I have about European travel is the condensation of tourist destinations that makes them unbearable in summer. Whether you’re in Luca or Firenze, Villefranche or Cordoba you’re likely to be surrounded by guided tours led by someone holding a plastic flag. This isn’t tourism snobbery but the sheer exhaustion caused by getting from one town to the next, and the impossibility of seeing a sight in its natural state.
One solution is to go out of season; Venice at Christmas is infinitely more rewarding and enjoyable than visiting at high season, and a lot less expensive. Another is to remove the beaten paths from your map and stay in out-of-the-way places. It has led me to visiting Baltic and Eastern European countries, but you don’t have to avoid sunnier climes, either.
Right now I’m in Jerez, Cadiz country in ‘African’ Spain, where the temperatures sear but the walls of old townhouses are so thick that they’re virtually refrigerated in summer. I can hear no cars in the streets as I type this, only the clopping of horses and the clatter of cartwheels on cobbles. It’s the week of the feria, an event held throughout the country, typified by equestrian events and a fair-like atmosphere at night, when thousands of lacework lights are illuminated.
Although there are tourists we’re vastly outnumbered by locals, the men dressed in blue narrow-waisted suits, the women in frilled, patterned traditional gowns with mantillas, the headscarves that come with a high comb called a peineta, a look inspired by muslim women from North Africa.
From here I’m heading to where scenes of many spaghetti westerns were shot in Spain, in particular the Tabernas desert of Almeria, Andalusia. Spain stands in for many scenes in ‘Game of Thrones’ because of its exotic and sometimes alien landscapes.
I’ll arrive in Valencia too late for the Falles, the traditional celebration of St Joseph in which bonfires are lit throughout the city. The Fallas festivities are all about fire: loud fire-crackers, immense firework displays and huge, bizarre sculptures. It all builds up towards the final Nit del Foc (night of the fire) when all the Fallas without exception are burned.
For some reason, the Northern territories of Europe are also ignored by tourists, and many cities are entirely free of coaches. Of course one European country gets left off most travel guides – Germany. And yet, as Simon Winder’s book ‘Germania’ explains, it’s one of the most fascinating places to visit.
This year climate extremes are affecting more of Europe than ever, with changeability playing havoc with traditional seasonal weather. Here in Jerez, though, it’s sizzling blue skies and calm spots in parks where you can read and think without the risk of being rained on – priceless.