Following on from my earlier post on our initial return to Gibraltar after a gap of over twenty years, we have managed to visit several more times, and on each occasion, we have become increasingly impressed with life on the Rock. There’s no doubting that the drab and dreary Gibraltar of last century has been consigned firmly to the past and that a new, confident and energetic modern little city is rising in its place. Moreover, the once-faded and shabby old town centre has been sensitively spruced up and now stands above its modern surrounds like a proud grandparent watching over its thriving progeny.
“Unique” has become a much overused and abused term, but in the case of today’s Gibraltar it really is just about the only adjective that does the place justice. From its airport runway pedestrian crossing (sadly, to be lost very shortly to a new tunnel) to Rosia Bay, where one swims alongside giant container ships, not to mention it being Europe’s only truly harmonious “multiculture”, Gibraltar is a total one-off.
The iPhone snaps below hopefully transmit some of that uniqueness, and a sense of its intoxicating optimism…
With all due apologies to Greta Thunberg and her righteous minions, the thing I’m missing most during these dystopian times is travel – in particular, travel by air. I find myself staring up at the eerily silent skies above our Spanish home, longing for the return of vapour trails scratched out by distant aeroplanes, like small gleaming arrowheads, hurtling toward myriad destinations. Raised in the 1960’s and 70’s, I am an unreformed creature of my era and my conditioning, brought up to regard jet travel as the ultimate expression of independence and the gateway to adventure. And deprived of it now I feel caged in and frustrated, to the point where I find myself craving the most mundane of things, like the regular noise of the jet engines approaching and leaving our nearby airport, and even the smell of aviation fuel at the airport itself.
One of my most vivid childhood memories, is from my second ever flight in July of 1967 to Tel Aviv, on arriving at Lod Airport (as it was then – since renamed Ben Gurion) late at night. There were no airbridges in those days at Lod, and I can never forget, as we walked down the stairs, onto the floodlit apron, being instantly engulfed in a blanket of humid, oven-hot air, laced with the scent of kerosene. These intense sensations – startlingly alien to a little boy from north London suburbia – had a deeply intoxicating effect that lives with me to this day.
However, attitudes and perceptions have greatly altered in recent years, and what I still look back on as a happy memory that shaped my future, would, in these apparently more enlightened times, be considered by some as a scarring and damaging episode, which condemned me to life as an environmental criminal.
Nevertheless, during the 80’s and 90’s, when my painting career was in full swing, flying opened up an almost infinite canvas for my colour-hungry brushes, as expressed below in eight examples from those exuberant and innocent times. And so I would hope, even the most virtuous of those reading this piece, would at least own that some good came out of what they might otherwise regard as merely evidence of my multiple re-offending…
Normally, my travel themed posts concentrate on things we’ve done and seen. However, while I was preparing this short piece on our two stays in Santo Domingo de Silos I discovered that what is arguably its most interesting feature – and certainly it’s most famous tourist attraction – is something I never knew was there!
Briefly, Santo Domingo de Silos is a small town (more of a large village in actual fact) near the ancient royal city of Burgos in the north of Spain. Until 1968 it was most-known for its ancient Benedictine monastery (which closed its doors in 1835) and for possibly being within the estates of one Rodrigo de Vivar – otherwise known as Charlton Heston…I mean El Cid!
All this changed however in 1968 when the local cemetery, known as Sad Hill (Cementerio de Sad Hill in Spanish, apparently?) was used as the location for the final scene of the movie, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly. The combination of Sergio Leone’s super-terse direction; Enrico Morricone’s slow-build-tension music; the three actors involved (Eastwood, Wallach and Van Cleef); and the surreal cemetery itself created one of the most memorable – not to mention imitated and parodied scenes in the history of cinema.
Until this morning, I had always assumed that the scene was filmed somewhere in the Almeria region, like the vast majority of Leone’s “Spaghetti Western” location shots. I’d also assumed, given its unusual configuration, that the cemetery was an outdoor set created for the film. Never did it occur to me that it was an actual place, and one that I’d been a mere five minute walk from on two occasions.
Unfortunately, my past obliviousness means that the pictures illustrating this post, of the picturesque town and its other environs, do not include any of Sad Hill Cemetery. Fortunately though, we plan to pass through the area again in the near future, and although our main reason for doing so had been to sample the delicious local roast lamb, we now have Sad Hill firmly on the agenda.
Standing a loved one or a friend, or even an animal before a fabulous vista is a cultural staple of the holiday snapper. For me, apart from the “I/we was/were there” element, the juxtaposing of a human and or animal before vastness simultaneously humanises and accentuates the majesty of the given panorama. Painters have been doing the same thing since the days of the great Dutch and British landscape painters of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries, from Van Ruisdael to Caspar David Friedrich.
Presented here are sadly no Friedrich’s, but this set of enhanced-photos from all my years of travel do nevertheless express something of that dramatic relationship between “us” and the landscapes we move within…
This dates back to the late 70’s when my old mate Simon and I drove around Cork and Kerry in his old orange Datsun. This is Simon peering over the edge at Slea Head near Dingle on the Kerry coast (famous for being the location for the movie Ryan’s Daughter)…
Taken around 1981, this is the summit of Mount Gilboa. The field of boulders could seem to bear witness to the power of David’s curse in his great lament for the fallen Saul and Jonathan that nothing should ever grow upon the mountain’s slopes again…
Regular readers of these pages will know that travel comprises a significant part of my life, even to the point that I once had homes concurrently in three different countries.
But, when I look back now, of all the hundreds of journeys, vacations and adventures since my first flight – aged three – to Zurich from London on a Swiss Air Caravelle (I remember that we sat facing each other with a little table between us, as on a train) – there are eight trips of which every detail remains etched into my memory.
All of these trips were specifically formative in that they either changed my life in a literal sense, or my perceptions of life in some fundamental way. Followers of this blog might already be aware of some of these episodes.
Firstly there was the trip to Israel in 1967 just weeks after the Six-Day War which blew both my 7-year old mind and my 1960’s, suburban British olfactory senses. I vividly remember being on the Golan Heights, walking along the safe paths marked out by Israeli mine disposal teams, into Quneitra and dozens of Syrian military documents blowing on the dusty hot winds like confetti. And equally, I recall the first time I tasted real humus and roasted eggplant and being almost emotionally overcome with the sheer pleasure of it;
Then there was a gastronomic drive along the length of France in 1970 which turned me into one of the England’s most precocious connoisseurs of food and wine;
A year later, I was treated to my first visit to Spain where I discovered the hitherto (to a typical Jewish lad like me) forbidden twin joys of fried bacon and fresh shellfish in addition to poolside cocktails and luxury hotels. The fact this was all part of a photographic shoot for Max Factor and that I spent the entire time in the company of two of the UK’s top fashion models was the icing on the cake for a sexually curious eleven-year-old;
Fourteen years after it was Andalusia again, but this time a romantic five days in Seville, in the company of a beautiful law student, where I discovered the exotic joys of tapas washed down with ice-cold fino and late-night flamenco.
About a decade later in 1991 saw my first flight across the Pond, where the sublime “New World” strangeness of newly-democratic Chile bludgeoned me back into painting landscapes and left me a life-long lover of cazuela de pollo;
Then, twelve years after that in 2003, there was our visit to southern India where I was held enthral to the equally glorious and wonderful strangeness of ancient Tamil Nadu and Kerala and where I discovered that a mostly vegetarian diet could almost be fun (not to mention hugely fattening);
In 2007, I made my first trip to Australia, which, especially in magnificent Melbourne turned out to be quite simply the most enjoyable and mentally invigorating shattering of dearly-held pre-conceptions I have ever experienced;
And finally, just this January, when the cliché “better (incredibly) late than never” took on a whole new profundity for me after my first visit to New York City left me and all my senses dazed, awestruck and ecstatic in equal measure.
However, when I ask myself what was the trip that played the biggest and most enduring role in shaping the adult I eventually became, it would have to be another of the trips I made to Israel; this time in in 1978, during the summer break of my first year at Saint Martin’s School of Art.
The pictures below are all that remain of my “Wanderers Period” and represent the most eloquent way I can describe the feeling and atmosphere of those six weeks; the highlight of which was when four of us – two guys and two girls – walked the entire circumference of the Sea of Galilee in two days. We slept on the pebble beaches, and lived on falafel and bags of crisps washed down with cheap wine, accompanied by the dulcet tones of Weekend in LA on our cassette player. Without going into details, it became my coming-of-age drama in every sense, emotional, intellectual, spiritual and of course, sensual. It was my “Summer of 42”, except it was 78. It was when I truly fell in love with life and this Earth (and the incomparable virtuosity of George Benson).
Most unfortunately, the large canvases that emerged from these sketches and scrawls I painted over the following year after my art school tutors deemed them “unsubtle, hopelessly romantic and naïve” – they were a bunch of passionless idiots, but that’s another story. Nevertheless, I think these pictures, for all their rawness, convey the power of an 18-year old’s emotions, lusts, yearnings and wondering (and one or two aren’t bad drawings either)…
This is almost totally true except for the fact that the lady cutting my hair had two girlfriends in the salon with her and for much of the time my head was compressed by three sets of boobs rather than just merely one as they passed the time of day over my poor noggin!
The “salon” was situated in our local pueblo blanco, where, back in the 90’s “men were men” and never entered – let alone got their hair cut in such a “feminine” establishment. Thus, the hairdresser’s surprise and thrill at getting her hands on a head like mine was extreme.
Fortunately, Dido took pity on me and immediately raced me down to our local town on the coast for a remedial styling…
This is the first in the series where I stretched the truth somewhat, insomuch as the last box is a slight exaggeration – in reality, Dido merely manhandled the hotel manager out of the room. This happened on our drive down through Spain on the journey when we actually moved here – in the early summer of 1993. The most amazing element of the episode was how passive Aura remained throughout the contretemps – which was fortunate for all concerned!
Here’s a cautionary tale set down in comic-strip form from our second year here at our finca in southern Spain. I actually made it as a birthday card to Dido the June following our first grape harvest, although I’m not sure how amused she was by the memory. The message is pretty unsubtle and obvious – don’t gorge yourself on moscatel grapes, however delicious or bountiful!! Good for trees – humans, not so much…The same goes for figs by the way…
THESE DAYS, VIEWING THE ALHAMBRA PALACE IS MORE OF A CHORE THAN A JOY. THE PLACE IS SO POPULAR WITH TOURISTS THAT YOU HAVE TO PRE-BOOK DAYS AHEAD (WEEKS AHEAD IN SUMMER) FOR A “SLOT” FOR THE DUBIOUS “PLEASURE” OF SHARING ONES’S VIEWING EXPERIENCE WITH A THOUSAND FELLOW SARDINES. ON MY LAST VISIT, THE CROWDS WERE SO DENSE, ESPECIALLY AT THE PALACE ITSELF, IT FELT MORE LIKE LEAVING A FOOTBALL STADIUM THAN A GENTLE AMBLE AROUND ONE OF THE MOST BEAUTIFUL BUILDINGS ON EARTH.
FORTUNATELY FOR ME, THIS WAS NOT ALWAYS THE CASE. ONE BALMY NOVEMBER DAY, BACK IN THE MID 1980’S, BEFORE THE NEED FOR “SLOTS”, MY THEN PARTNER AND I VIRTUALLY HAD THE PLACE TO OURSELVES AND IT REMAINS ONE OF THE MOST TREASURED “SIGHTSEEING” MEMORIES OF MY LIFE. NOT ONLY DID WE HAVE THE TIME AND SPACE TO TRULY APPRECIATE THE UNDERSTATED GLORY OF THE PALACE ITSELF, THE FRAGRANT GLADES AND PATHWAYS OF THE GENERALIFE GARDENS WERE AS TRANQUIL AND SOOTHING UPON THE SENSES AS THEY WERE DESIGNED TO BE.
THE EIGHT IMAGES HERE ARE FROM PHOTOGRAPHS TAKEN DURING THAT VISIT, AND I THINK THEY CAPTURE SOMETHING OF THE SERENITY WE EXPERIENCED.