Friday, August 25, 2017

Portugal, the Other Iberian Country

Portugal has changed from my particular idea of the place. This could be because I have an old black and white guidebook from 1957, and, let’s face it, nothing stays the same forever.
By Spanish standards, it’s still a bit gloomy, a bit quiet and the Portuguese still read the news pages rather than the sports pages, but that large piece of the country that the Spanish weather forecasters solemnly leave blank has quietly turned itself into a modern European state.
We had been in Mérida – a very hot part of Spain during the summer months. Mérida is a city where, if you kick over a rock or even a stubborn weed you’ll likely find some remains from the Roman times. The town is quite beautiful (even if it stands somewhere behind Córdoba and Granada) and it’s a fine place to visit, especially if forty degree weather doesn’t bother you unduly.
In the best tradition of Spain, you are never far from a bar in the city of Mérida – the name comes from the Latin Augusta Ēmerita – or a decent restaurant. Or, as we have seen, a Roman ruin, many of which are used today for theatre, concerts or scenic backdrops to one’s holiday snaps. The region itself is attractive and covered with storks’ nests. These comical birds like to find an interesting looking building, preferably a highly-prized monument, to build their giant nest of sticks on top of with an insouciant ‘well, what?’ attitude. It all helps keep us in our place, I think.
Mérida is, of course, at sixty kilometres, not far from Elvas, the Portuguese town leaping with castles, palaces, churches and a fine aqueduct. It took no time at all to reach since the formalities of crossing a frontier from one Schengen country to another involve nothing more than turning to your companion and saying ‘Cor, looks like we’re going to need that phrasebook soon’.
We spent our first night in Portugal in a hotel outside Elvas. We had decided the route and the various hotels with – which apart from a very odd place near Seville had served us well. The Elvas place had a fine restaurant where we discovered that the Portuguese have a trick. They leave various plates on your table of cheese, ham, fish paste and olives before you’ve settled down and looked at the menu, and then they charge you heavily for them afterwards. Later on in a Lisbon restaurant, we said to the waiter ‘all of this stuff – fuera!’ The Portuguese couple at the next table looked vaguely impressed. ‘Yeah’, they said, ‘you can take ours away too’. 
The food in Portugal is great; the wine – especially the vinho verde – is excellent. Chicken, by the way, is called frango. Easy to remember, I told my Spanish girlfriend after a glass or two, just think of Francisco Frango.
The coffee is served black in tiny cups.
Our particular trip took us from there to a coastal city called Aveiro which is notable for its canals; its handsome three and four story tiled buildings and a beautiful old palace which makes a fine cup of tea in a china pot. My partner had her first ever cup of Earl Grey.
We had brought our swimming things with us on the tour, but the weather was cool: sweaters in the evening. ‘You won’t want to swim here’, we were told, ‘the ocean is far too cold’.
After a daily return north to Oporto on the local train (150 kms total at seven euros per passenger), to meet a friend, to marvel at the dramatic beauty of the city and to buy a bottle of port (my article on Oporto here), we left Aveiro for Lisbon.
The roads are pretty good, with the motorways usually run by concessionaries who charge a toll, either with an operator, or with slightly annoying cameras. We pay the first willingly enough, but ruefully ignore the second. Perhaps the president of the company will send us a bill here in Spain for the one euro fifty we owe, but I doubt I shall pay it.
I’ll let you know if I’m wrong about this.
The normal country roads are more or less fine, although the Portuguese sometimes add large metal posts to where a simple white line of paint would serve nicely. Driving through the country, the best thing for me – we live in the desert of Almería – was the greenery. As we had had some trouble with the GPS – Movistar doesn’t make it easy when you switch to another country – we got a bit lost at one point, and found ourselves driving through the burned forest which claimed over sixty lives recently. It’s a large and most depressing stretch of country. The Portuguese have been blamed for planting eucalyptus in the countryside, and the fires are consequentially dangerous and immediate. We saw several reported on their TV news channels.
Lisbon is a tremendous place. High buildings and narrow streets cover the seven hills. Small yellow trams; tuc tuc three-wheelers with a sofa nailed to the back; tiny electric two-seater Renaults; some Segways, some motorcycles with sidecars and a few expensive looking battery-run BMWs make up most of the traffic. The city is full of tourists. Everyone speaks English, and French and anything else – except of course Spanish. Spanish? Forget it. It doesn’t exist.
We spent three contented days in the Portuguese capital – where the history of their abandoned colonies in Africa and Asia, plus their success story of Brazil – means that you see people of all colours and, unlike anywhere else I know, perfectly integrated.  Portugal has a lot going for it.
We spent our last day in a small town called Castro Verde, where we felt like the first tourists ever. The place was peaceful and grimly bucolic: the food in the local restaurant was terrific.
And so back across the border to Spain, with our booty of fridge magnets, tee shirts and decorated mugs. Our first stop was in a giant motorway cafe near Antequera. The noise of a hundred and fifty gleeful diners was welcome – and ear-splitting. ‘We’re home at last’ my partner shouted happily to me as she stirred her café con leche.

Versions of this article have appeared in The Olive Press and as an opinion piece in Business over Tapas

Thursday, August 10, 2017

More Bad News for the Priors

It's a well-known story, how almost ten years ago, Len and Helen Prior watched as a bulldozer operated by the provincial representative of the Junta de Andalucía knocked down their house in a quiet area outside the town of Vera (Almería). There weren't any particular plans for the location, it wasn't on a motorway, or a landing strip or a sewage station or a beach or a rare plantation or in a beauty spot or on a flood plain. It's just a quiet area behind Vera. There are a few other houses there, and ten years later, they are still all there, just as they were then.
So what was the point?
It certainly had an effect: untold millions of euros never made it to Almería, which then, in 2008, had an unemployment rate in the mid thirties - about the highest unemployment of anywhere in the whole of Europe. The Junta de Andalucía, which is so anal that it knows to the exact head how many sheep there are in the territory (seriously, they're all microchipped), airily suggested at the time that there were some 300,000 illegal properties stretched across Andalucía - all built while someone, everyone, was looking the other way... at least until the cheques cleared.
Ten years later, there are still a few court cases - even a few mayors or planners being sent down (always from other parties than the PSOE, of course). As for the home-owners, who often had an illegal house with no water or electricity, well, they could usually go and whistle Dixie.
A lawyer called Gerardo Vásquez, an association called the AUAN, the international press and a number of other concerned people put some dents in this astonishing situation, and the Junta de Andalucía's legislators eventually came up with a new Spanish word to describe these homes: 'alegal' which means neither legal nor illegal. Illegalish, perhaps. So much the better. A climb down indeed. In a recent case, the mayor of another non-socialist Almería town went to jail... but the houses were allowed to stand. Empty, vandalised and useless, but justice tempered with mercy was seen to prevail.
The Priors, almost ten years later, are still living in the ruins of their home. This of course is very contrary of them, since they should have long since slipped away back to the UK to be forgotten.
They live in the garage (unbelievably, it was on a separate deed and thus escaped the demolition), plus some sheds they've built, and surrounded by their garden and their swimming pool which also escaped the attack.
Vera Town Hall was declared the guilty party (it was run by the Partido Andalucista at the time of the events described) but the Priors never received compensation.
Now, as the authorities continue to ignore this atrocious attack on Len and Helen's civil rights, we hear that the Town Hall is now claiming some 24,843€ in legal costs against them.
Len says he'll go to jail before he pays. 

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

How Many Tourists are 'Enough'?

Tourism brings untold wealth and a huge number of jobs to Spain – yet there are now some voices raised against this summer onslaught.

Hotels often use the ‘all-inclusive’ plan, which means that the clients can drink and eat for free – within their hotel. The bar round the corner may not be too pleased, but it won’t be a member of a wealthy gremio: an association, a guild really, of powerful businessmen with ‘friends in high places’. The hotels, whether all-inclusive or not, not only set the standards for tourism (being, as it were, the owners of ‘expert opinion on all matters to do with tourism’), they also frown on anyone who stays in any establishment that isn’t one of their own.

While we wait for a caution for putting up friends in our guest bedroom, we already have fresh, stringent rules in place against short-term rentals. Leading the rentals is the Airbnb company, which puts your apartment or spare room on its books. The level of attack against this service is intense, with daily press stories bemoaning the opening up of guest-rooms to a different kind of visitor, and income to a different kind of small businessperson. In the Balearics, apparently, you can get a 40,000€ fine for renting your place to tourists. Meanwhile, a story this week in El Independiente talks of 50,000 Airbnb offers in Ibiza, 20,500 in Barcelona and over 16,000 in Madrid – money that the hotels simply aren’t getting. Seventy five million tourists visited Spain from abroad last year, and many millions more Spaniards also hit the beaches or the museums or perhaps went off to see their relatives in their pueblo. One way or another (with this heat), a lot of beer was drunk.

In some cases, following the beer and perhaps the consumption of other stimulating products available on the street corner, damage was done to the local infrastructure. Someone being sick in the garden, some kids playing their music loud around the pool, a street light wilfully broken. Ten young people sharing (and destroying) a two-bed apartment... The residents don’t like this behaviour: the trickle-down of tourist money never makes it to them. Only the noise, the queues, the inconvenience and the hassle.

How much money does tourism bring to Spain? 16% of Spain’s GDP apparently comes from the visitors. But not much of that makes it to your particular pocket if you are a waiter. An article in Iniciativa Debate talks of twelve hour shifts, seven days a week work (the owner only declares four) for 700 euros per month. The same source looks at room cleaners who get 1,50€ per room. It talks of summer rent increases from 500 to 900 euros and asks: ‘Do you suffer from turismofobia’?

So, as we see in El Español, we get groups of people, or extreme left wing gangs, or simple graffitists, or perhaps some fed-up burgers, who have had enough. They start complaining about the hoards of visitors and put up posters or graffiti of the ‘tourist go home’ variety as they start to make their presence felt.  The Government has even gone as far as to threaten a harsh reaction to anyone who practices anti-tourist activities.

Some of the tourists aren’t very happy either, with new (rather pointless) procedures at the airports adding long impatient queues for holidaymakers. What is this? Our money not good enough, they ask. The Olive Press talks here of ‘Why you may have to queue for four hours at Spanish airports’ (It’s as bad as getting into Gibraltar!).

Tourism brings jobs and wealth, but it also brings inconvenience, rental hikes, vandalism and – sometimes even airport strikes. Like most things in life – there’s the good and the bad. Our advice: head for the hills!