All Time Wrestling Hard-men

Can it be year ago since I wrote on Wrestlemania 30 and the shock of seeing Brock Lesnar destroy The Undertaker.  I guess it must be as after 12 straight days of guided tours, I am looking forward to nothing more than looking forward to the 31st annual instalment of Wrestlemania.

Obviously there has been a long period of conjecture over the reality of wrestling, especially American style professional wrestling.  Wrestling isn’t fake but much of it can be scripted and just occasionally depending on the wrestling promotion or wrestler involved there are shoot matches or actual wrestling matches that are not in any way pre-planned.

Professional wrestlers are a tough bunch, they all fight year round as there is no off-season in wrestling and often they are in the ring for something like 13 nights out of 14 whilst crossing the globe.

Professional wrestlers have to train a great deal to firstly reach the stage where they can fight night after night but also so that they can avoid most injuries both to themselves and to their opponents.  Injuries do occur and fights do continue generally no matter what and sadly just last week a Mexican wrestler died in the ring.  There is a strict school of honour and tradition in wrestling, rather like old Roman gladiatorial schools.  However some wrestlers are undeniably tougher than others even if in the current PG era of wrestling we don’t get to see as much blood and violence as in recent years.

Just a few months ago Daniel Bryan filled a robbery on his house and incapacitated the suspect until police arrived.  Here is my list of the legitimately toughest wrestlers of the modern time and it doesn’t include legends like Kurt Angle who won the Olympic Gold Medal in wrestling despite fighting with a broken neck or Sabu who continued a match after jumping into a post and sustaining a 10 inch cut which he patched up with sticky tape.  Actually though not always visible, such things happen quite frequently in professional wrestling and its not surprising there are so many broken necks, dislocations and lacerations when you have people falling through tables or jumping off 40 feet  (understandably the wrestler involved took a long break after this).

9.  Former WWE Superstar Chris Masters is first on the list.  When his neighbour a lady in the house hostage and set it on fire, Christ Masters pulled up a tree with just brute strength and used it as a battering ram to break into the house…. all whilst police refused to enter the building on account of the raging fire.

8. Arn Anderson had a long wrestling career that peaked in the 80’s and 90’s.  Whilst others relied on fancy costumes and entrances, Arn was just legitimately tough.  During a 1993 UK tour with the WCW promotion, Arn got into a bar room brawl with fellow wrestler Sid Vicious. Sid stabbed Arn at least 20 times with a pair of scissors and lost a lot of blood which is just one of many instances that gave Arn the reputation of being a tough-guy.

Bam Bam Bigelow

Bam Bam Bigelow

7.  People of a certain age will remember the Beast From The East, Bam Bam Bigelow.  Ironically as his costume featured lots of fire, Bam Bam rushed into a burning house in the year 2000 and rescued 3 children and suffered 40% burns which after a prolonged hospitalisation left him unable to continue his career.  Sadly this set him on a downward trend and he died aged just 45 a few years later of a drug overdose.

6. Big Van Vader was never a wrestler I enjoyed watching but he was obviously a badass.  Back around 1990 whilst competing in Japan, he was struck by an opponent wielding a cow bell.  The opponent had bad vision without corrective lenses and accidentally broke Vaders nose.  Understandably, Vader was angered and laid on a few tough moves on his opponent who in turn attacked Vader with all his might.  Vader’s eye actually popped out of its socket.  Being the man he was, Vader simply pushed it back in place with his fingers and continued the match!

5. Mankind or Mick Foley as he is often called these days is legitimately one of the toughest athletes in sport.  With an apparent total lack of disregard for his own personal safety and a great love of wrestling, for over a decade Mankind was jumping off cages, falling through tack infested tables, being slammed through roofs, .  He took punishment beatings day in and day out and his own weapon of choice was a baseball bat covered in barbed wire.

Mick Foley as Mankind

Mick Foley as Mankind

One at least one occasion I remember him being struck by a falling chair from a 15 foot height that dislocated his jaw and knocked out teeth right through his skin with TV footage bizarrely showing his tongue through a hole in his face. The WWE owner thanked him profusely for the match but made him promise not to do anything like it again but so extreme were his matches that even less extreme fights were more hardcore than what anyone else did.

Bad News Barrett

Bad News Barrett

4. Current WWE Intercontinental Champion Bad News Barrett was once a champion bare knuckle fighter in his native England.  In the city of Liverpool he won a tournament and took away a great deal of cash.  Afterwards, Barrett was taking a short-cut through a dark alley whilst looking for a taxi when he was attacked by a man with an 8 inch knife.  Barrett suffered from a deep 12 inch long cut (his scar is still visible) but despite losing a lot of blood, Barrett proceeded to beat up his attacker who was hospitalised with serious injuries before escaping with his bag of cash!  Meeting him in our out of the ring is definitely bad news!

3. Not many people remember Perry Saturn during his relatively short stint in the WWE but he isn’t just a hard-man but a hero as well.  Whilst driving his girlfriend to work he noticed two men attacking a woman in the street. Perry got out of his car, beat up the guys and saved the lady.  When the police arrived they broke the news to Perry that he had been shot twice, apparently Perry thought he had just received two hard punches.  What a man!

Brock Lesnar wins!

History as made as Brock Lesnar smashes The Undertakers 21-0 record at Wrestlemania 30. Wrestling is full of traditions and one of them is that when a great wrestler retires he loses to a star that can carry on his name rather like the idea of a warrior taking the glory and power of the fallen he has beaten.

2. I’d really like to put Brock Lesnar in at the top spot of Wrestlings modern era tough guys.  As I wrote last year, Brock has been a champion in a variety of wrestling and martial arts and is probably one of the toughest individuals in sporting history. A few years ago when fighting fellow tough guy Kurt Angle, Brock suffered from a ill-worked Shooting Star Press which saw him land from a great height squarely on to his head.  Incredibly rather than die or at the very least suffer from a broken neck or paralysis, Brock just suffered from concussion and carried on the fight.  The Beast Incarnate is one tough mother!

1. I just admit as a kid, I never quite realised just how tough Haku was but a few decades and much reading later I’ve joined the popular opinion that former wrestler Haku is the baddest dude in modern wrestling history, at least until his retirement and the appearance of Brock Lesnar.

The tales of Haku are legendary and include pulling eyes out of sockets, pushing a cowboy through two sets of doors with just one hand.  Even Perry Saturn stated that he believed Haku could kill most other wrestlers.  Legendary manager Bobby Heenan recalls how in one bar brawl Haku reached into a mans mouth with just two fingers (no thumb) and snapped out teeth from his jaw something ‘The Brain’ said he could never have believed if he hadn’t seen it.  He is also reported to once having tried to break up a fight, been maced, arrested and then handcuffed by the police but still managed to snap and break the handcuffs!

He is said to be the only man of the modern era Andre The Giant was afraid of as were many wrestlers and promoters who were often scared to discipline him.  One time he was on the receiving end of a racial insult and took bit through the mans clothing into his back and pulled it out only to spit it on the floor. Wrestling legend Jake The Snake Roberts puts it best like this…

If I had a gun and was sitting inside a tank with one shell left and Meng is 300 yards away, he’s mine, right? Well the first thing I’m going to do is jump out of the tank and shoot myself because I don’t want to wound that son of a bitch and have him pissed off at me.

So enjoy your Wrestlemania but be aware of just how tough these men are and the training, injuries and deaths they suffer just doing their job.  Whatever else you do, don’t tell Haku you think it is fake as did some joker at Baltimore Airport.  Baku bit off his entire nose and spat it on the floor.

Haku

Haku

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Beauty & The Beast – Double Standards in Ancient Greece

Standards of beauty have always changed through the years and from country to country.  What is fashionable in one time and place may not be in the other.  Whilst today is most Western countries it is considered trendy to sport a glowing sun tan, a few centuries ago being as white as a ghost was the look to go for.  Showing a sun tan meant that you must go outside and perform work and just how fashionable could working be compared to being a Lord or Lady of leisure.

High-heeled shoes and boots are now firmly the purview of women but it wasn’t always the case as for a long time it used to be men who wore them as many portraits of British nobility clearly indicate.  All of a sudden women began to wear them too and as quick as a flash, men dumped them and have never worn them again since.

Sometimes what is considered beautiful or desirable depends almost entirely on the class and style of the person.  Whilst in some countries ostentatious displays of gold or diamonds is a clear status sign showing that the owner is successful, in most situations such displays are considered distasteful, common and only donned by the section of the population known as Chavs.

Ancient Greek Hunk

Ancient Greek Hunk

You have to go a long way though to beat the double standards of Ancient Greece though. For those handsome Greek men it was clear that their beauty was a gift from the Gods.  They may have been the first but not the last to assume that if someone looked nice on the outside then they were also a good person on the inside or kaloskagathos as they called it.

Unfortunately the beautiful Greek ladies of times past were not so fortunate.  In the 8th Century BC the writer Hesiod labelled the first woman as  kalon kakon or beautiful-evil thing. She was evil because she was beautiful and beautiful because she was evil.  To be a beautiful woman in Ancient Greece was as bad news as it was a good thing to be a handsome man.   No doubt a Greek precursor to the modern stories of plain looking women to be of good character whilst the beautiful women in Hollywood films are often shown as being evil and untrustworthy.   Or perhaps Ancient Greek men control themselves unless around unattractive women as except for a few exceptions such as Helen of Troy, Greek women were best if on the large size.

Ancient Greek Lady

Ancient Greek Lady, modestly dressed and modestly attractive.

It was entirely bad for beautiful Greek ladies of times past as although the fashion was to have pale skin, often by being painted in a white substance much like Elizabethan ladies covered themselves in white powder, ancient Greeks rather liked ladies with red or ginger hair whereas for much of the next 2,000 years and in some places even today, ladies with ginger hair were thought to be witches.

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Cultural Vandalism – The destruction of priceless monuments by ISIS / ISIL

One of my most popular blog posts that I have ever written was on the ongoing  destruction of historic Mecca by Saudi Arabia and whilst one day soon I hope to write more on the topic, I thought for now it was important to write about some of the destruction of priceless artifacts that is taking place in the Middle-East by Islamic extremists in Syria, Iraq and other places whose philosophy and perhaps even support comes from sections of the very wealthy and apparently valued ally that is Saudi Arabia.

Islamic Terrorism

Map showing in red areas most affected by Islamic terrorism excluding S.E. Asia, USA and Argentina. Areas shaded blue responsible for State funding / support of Islamic State.

Throughout history civilisation has been threatened by heathens who have nothing to offer  any society except for destruction and death.  Sometimes their destructive ways even tag people centuries later such as the Vandals who destroyed Rome, others such as The Mongols no matter what benefits they might have brought are forever remembered for their countless massacres and destruction of works of art or civilisation such as the destruction of the fabled Library of Alexandria in Egypt or the sheer terror and sacrilege of the Viking raids in the Abbeys of north-east England.

The Ruins of Hatra

The Ruins of Hatra in Iraq here being visited by American infantry but now reportedly severely damaged by Islamic extremists.

Isis/Isil or whatever name the current mob go by are simply the latest in a long line of what historically we’d label barbarians.  One way or the other they always end up defeated simply because they have nothing to offer anyone outside their group and eventually factions will appear with some wanting to civilise themselves and others becoming increasingly extreme until they become isolated and numerically irrelevant.

What makes the events in the Middle-East particularly tragic is that in their every day actions the extremists are proving just how backwards they have become and how their ancestors up to 7,000 years ago were infinitely more civilised.  They are the equivalent of the crazy hillbilly or school bullies who every knows is crazy and stupid but all the normal people are held to ransom by them.

It doesn’t take much reading to discover that for almost 1,000 years the best buildings, greatest works of art and culture and most advanced astronomers, mathematicians and scientists were Islamic and inspired by a religion that demanded rational thinking and advancement.  Pretty much everything that those present day extremists are against.

Historically it hasn’t just been an Islamic phenomenon with Nazi book burning, Communist destruction of art and architecture and the Khmer Rouge murdering or everyone labelled as an Intellectual but there had been a growing trend which was first highlighted to many by the destruction of the giant buddhas in Afghanistan which were blown up by the Taliban on the puritan pretence that we should only worship God and that admiring arty sculptures is taking away some of the rightful glory of God.  Nearly 20 years on, the statues are only now in the process of being rebuilt using the original debris but of course it will never quite be the same again.

The last few weeks has seen unprecedented destruction, one such place is Khorsabad.  Now a village in northern Iraq but once Dur-Sharrakin, the capital of the legendary Assyrian Empire around 721BC.  It’s worth remembering that amid the current discussion on returning artefacts from the world museums of London, Paris, New York and other places, just how important they are in safeguarding priceless treasures both now and in the pas that may have otherwise now been destroyed such as these magnificent statues from Iraq I saw last year in the Louvre.

Legendary creatures of Babylon

Legendary creatures of Babylon to visit in London and Paris but perhaps not any longer in Iraq.

Entire ruined cities every bit as historic and important as Pompeii are rumoured of being demolished and smashed such as the Sasanid city of Hatra 180 miles NW of Baghdad which once fort off the Roman Empire and survived countless invasions from the Arabs through the Mongols, Ottomans, British and Americans was reported to have been destroyed by militants on 7th March 2015.

Arch Of Ctesiphon

Arch Of Ctesiphon – the oldest free standing arch in the world at risk along with many other already destroyed sites in Iraq.

One has to fear for  the legendary arch of Ctesiphon, the oldest free standing arch in the world built in 540AD.  I remember learning about this great arch and the people who built it at university and made a pledge to visit it one day.  Saddam Hussein deliberately positioned military equipment there know that it would likely not be targeted in such a precious site.  Let’s hope it survives the next few years and doesn’t meet the same end as the Afghanistan Buddhas that I also wanted to see.

Nimrod which is also in Iraq was another precious ruined city first settled almost 1,000 BC and full of priceless pottery, statues and irreplaceable ancient texts on religion, magic, culture and even peace treaties has in the last month reportedly been bulldozed by Islamic extremists over 3,000 years after they were created.

Cultural Vandalism

To most normal people this is Cultural Vandalism of irreplaceable artefacts. To ISIS these are Shirk or idolatry.

Many of us will have seen the shocking footage on TV news of the Crazies going through Mosul museum with sledgehammers destroying objects they know nothing about and which none of their number could ever create themselves in the name of a a God and a religion who once nurtured these same priceless creations.

It’s been reported that 80% of the Syrian city of Dura Europos has been excavated and destroyed to a depth of 3 metres (15 feet) by heavy machinery by extremists intent on destroying some of the very oldest churches and synagogues as well as over 3,000 other buildings and objects.

Mari fresco

This Mari fresco is thankfully in a Paris museum otherwise it would now be forever lost like thousands of other items in Mari.

Little is known of the ancient city of Mari in Syria which is thought to be over 5,000 years old where there was a 300 room palace from which this fresco originates from.  Excavations here only began well into the 20th century but have already uncovered over 25,000 clay tablets that are transforming our knowledge of the ancient world.  Sadly the site is now under the occupation of hundreds of armed militants intent on destroying monuments and undiscovered treasures before we can ever know what they are.

Crac des Chevaliers

This Crusader Castle is one of the most massive in the world.

It’s not just ancient monuments of art being destroyed but much more recent wonders.  Crac de Chavaliers in Syria was a Crusader built castle and is possibly the most fantastical castle in the whole world but has been severely damaged by the fighting between extremists and the Syrian Army. Other neighbouring castles and old buildings have like wise been severely damaged.

Ruined Crac Des Chavaliers

Ruined Crac Des Chavaliers damaged by terrorists and even bombed by the Syrian Airforce!

Syria is also home to one of the greatest Roman cities in the world in the shape of Palmyra which after its re-discovery by British and French travellers a few centuries greatly encouraged the trend towards neo-classical architecture that is seen all over the UK and the great public buildings of the United States.  Sadly the site has been looted by Islamists before being occupied by Syrian tanks that apparently rumble through the city machine gunning terrorists as they hide amongst the ruins.

Temple-of-Bel_Palmyra-Syria

The Temple of Bel, just a small part of Palmyra in Syria before the war.

Syria has many great old cities but perhaps except for Damascus, none the greater than Aleppo which has been lived in for over 8,000 years.  As I learned in my history cause, there are still giant stone catapult balls that the Mongols fired against the citadel walls in the 13th century that haven’t moved in nearly 800 years.  In fact before WW1 the city had lived through the Hittites, Assyrians, Akkadians, Greeks, Romans, Umayyads, Ayyubids, Mongols, Mameluks, and Ottomans and home to pagans, Jews, Christians and Muslims.

Umayyad Mosque in Syria

Umayyad Mosque in Syria before the war

The United Nations reports that large areas of Aleppo have been entirely wiped out, even the famed Umayyad Mosque, one of the indisputably beautiful mosques in the world has been badly damaged.  For westerners who might not be overly bothered about this, it is worth remembering that the mosque also holds one of the holiest relicts of Christianity, the alleged head of John the Baptist.

Umayyad Mosque in ruins

Umayyad Mosque in ruins

It’s sadly not just the Middle-East where cultural heritage is in danger from Islamic extremists.  Terrorists in Mali have all ready savaged and destroyed many priceless artefacts in the famous Islamic city of Timbuktu until chased out by French backed forces. Today the country of Libya is in chaos and some of the worlds greatest historic sites are at risk of being systematically destroyed by religious extremists.  Though there are countless smaller sites at risk it is obviously high profile sites like Leptis Magna that are obvious targets from the Roman and Phoenician Empires.  Even further back in time, Libya hosts some rock art going back 14,000 years.  If extremists looted historic mosques during the Libyan Revolution then it’s hard to imagine what might happen here.

Sabratha

Sabratha , one of many Roman ruins on the coast of Libya.

All in all over 1.5 million historic and architectural sites are deemed at risk from ISIS related activities and with this weeks terrorist attack in a museum in Tunisia, the menace is growing.

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A Guided Tour Inside The Houses Of Parliament

The last year or so I have probably visited Parliament a dozen times but always from the outside.  I’ve been in before when I was about 10 years and remember bits and pieces of the interior and especially inside the famous clock tower of Big Ben and the unusual scenario of being deafened by the bell whilst looking through the opaque glass clock face towards the street below.

However I’ve long since wanted to return there and my wife had never been inside at all.  After several years of thinking about returning and mentioning it in passing to our local MP who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several times since the 2010 election, we were very excited to receive an invitation to visit the Mother of Parliaments.

Going into Parliament

Going into Parliament

It wasn’t just us on the tour as our MP Richard Harrington is a big believer of encouraging everyone into politics and to get involved in the system regardless of their political affiliation which I think is fantastic. He’s been running several tours and with many booked out, we did quite well to get ourselves on a small tour of a about 15-20 people.

I had spent all day thinking back to how I hadn’t been to Parliament since my school trip and that going on a coach into London was itself rathe like being on a school trip when I met an old friend from school who I had barely seen since the trip itself and not at all for 25 years.  How strange!

We arrived at Parliament just before 7pm and after being waved through the first police check-point made our way to the security check-point, much like an airport security check but with much more polite officials and none of the mad scramble to get in and out as quick as possible.  With security completed and a visitor pass round my neck, I actually found myself inside Parliament!  It was a very cool feeling that everyone else couldn’t quite believe either.

To illustrate just how Parliament really is open to everyone and easy to enter (with good reason) my wife had made her own way here after her work and despite wondering if she would have any problems getting in, she was there inside the ancient Westminster Hall when I arrived before we went into a meeting room where Richard welcomed us all personally.

It was all much more friendly and informal than we had imagined with drinks and cakes waiting for us and Richard gave an introductory talk to us explaining why he entered politics and about life in the Palace of Westminster.  He was extremely down to earth, interesting and impartial and we all got the feeling he really was passionate about his work and helping normal people with their problems and also getting involved themselves.

My chair

My chair in the Houses of Parliament.

Richard also explained about the merits of both career politicians and those who enter into Westminster later to life having had a career in business, education, the military, charity or whatever else.  Apparently the first few days of becoming an MP are particularly hard as there isn’t really any mechanism to show new MPs the ropes and he compared it to taking your school exams one day and then the next morning going straight to university with responsibilities, meetings and correspondence right from the off.   He even mentioned someone who won an election in the European Parliament and they were met outside their house in the middle of the night with a car containing ministerial papers and the like.

Richard was worried about boring us but it is fair to say we all found it rather interesting but after 20 minutes or so he led us off with his two of his young assistants on the tour itself.  Westminster is so full of history, arts and architecture you could really take photos of everything.  Though photos are allowed in many places, there are also many where photography is not permitted even in places that are routinely filmed on television or in documentaries.  Richard joked that though he didn’t mind me taking photos himself, the police in some of the rooms might have a different opinion and so as tempting as it was to take photos in some places, I decided not to as everyone was being so nice and kind to us anyway besides which as we were later to be told several times, we were not just welcome back any time but it is our right to to return when we need to as well.

The first highlight we went to was the House of Lords and whilst walking there I had a brief chance to chat to our MP about the recent Parliament documentary series which both he and ourselves were a big fan of as it showcased behind the scenes footage and lots of informal work with various politicians from the Prime Minister downwards and though some had more extreme views than others, they all seemed to be hard working and good people and almost the opposite as how the media portrays them.

The House of Lords

The House of Lords. Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament

The chamber of the House of Lords is one of the most breath-taking places I’ve ever visited.  Sumptuously decorated in gold around the area where the Queen sits and with beautiful dark red leather benches and ornate old oak panelling underneath a very, very high wooden roof under which are statues of knights, coats of arms and everything else you might imagine from a medieval hall except now TV show or movie I have ever seen has quite had anything quite as magnificent as this.

I stood near the entrance at what was once the Dock when the Lords was also used as the highest court in the land. The Lord Chancellor sits on what is known as the Woolsack which is a reminder of how medieval England gained its wealth and later importance from the wool-trade.  From the Romans until the Georgians, it was our famed climate that made our lands so fertile that the quantity and quality of the wool from the sheep that was important  long before the modern age of industry.

The House of Lords has a public viewing area where anyone can come to watch and listen to the debates.  Television monitor screens are throughout Parliament giving details of who is talking and on what debate and as the schedule is publicised days or even weeks in advance, you can attend for something you find interesting.

On the first floor above the debating chamber is a little rail and curtain just a few inches high which was set up to protect the modesty of the wives watching their husbands in the debating chamber below.  As our MP joked, having an inch of ankle visible back then would be almost like sitting naked there today!

The Houses of Parliament have several hallways or lobby’s where various corridors and chambers come together from different angles.  Outside of the House of Lords is the Peers Lobby where one can meet with a Lord or deliver mail etc.  Everyone is allowed here and it is no doubt where the phrase “to lobby” originates from.  It’s important to differentiate the phrase to lobby which indicates you want to influence an individual and “to petition” as general petitions are for the entirety of the Commons or Lords respectively.

Not too far away is the Central Lobby which has a theme of unity in it as it is the one place where MPs and Lords might reasonably meet as usually neither are permitted in each others chamber.  The Central Lobby is a very ornate part of the building and has a chandelier that weighs 3 tonnes hanging from the ceiling.  Above the 4 arches are the patron saints of the 4 nations that make up the United Kingdom; England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as well of statues of pretty much every monarch up until the 19th century.

Just down another corridor is the Commons Lobby.  If you ever want to meet your MP, this is the place to come to and providing he or she is in Parliament, every effort will be made to find them for you.  It’s always best to inform them that you’d like to meet them first though!  This is also where MPs have their mail and their 650 mail boxes light up if there are any papers or envelopes inside.

The Central Lobby

The Central Lobby by © Jorge Royan / http://www.royan.com.ar. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:London_-_The_Parliament_-_2773.jpg#/media/File:London_-_The_Parliament_-_2773.jpg

As with the other rooms here, aside from the beautiful floors, ceilings and entire furnishings in almost all of Parliament, one of the highlights of the Commons Lobby is the statues of some of the 4 most important Prime Ministers of the 20th Century along with smaller ones of the others in the 19th and 20th centuries.  The big 4 are David Lloyd-George, the fiery and passionate Welshman who led the country in WW1 and was earlier instrumental in improving the conditions of the poor.  Then there is Sir Winston Churchill who amongst many other things, led the country through its darkest hour in WW2 and again several years later.  If you think that Churchill is looking particularly Churchillian then you’d be right of course.  Parliament was severely bombed by the Luftwaffe in WW2 and this statue is based on his pose on seeing the damage.  In fact the archway behind these two statues looks rather damaged and rough, this is because Churchill had it rebuilt using debris from the destroyed chamber so that later generations would be reminded of how their forebears kept faith in democracy even through war, nightly bombings and the threat of imminent invasion.

Members Lobby

Two great 20th Century politicians Churchill and Lloyd-George at the entrance to The House of Commons. parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament.

Besides the other main archway stands Clement Atlee, the first Prime Minister after WW2 and the one responsible for creating the modern Welfare State and starting work on all the problems our country faced when peace arrived.  Finally there is the unmistakeable Iron Lady, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher famous for amongst other things for her free-market economics that transformed the country and playing a major part in ending the Cold War.   Quite where Tony Blair, David Cameron and his successors might go is hard to say!

After ogling another room full of history, we finally went into the chamber of the House of Commons.  This is where our MPs sit on the famous green benches with the Prime Minister, Ministers and MPs of the government on one side and the Leader of the Opposition, the Shadow Ministers and MPs on the other (along with more minor political parties).  Most famously this is where Prime Ministers Question Time takes places with its boisterous questions and answers.  It was clear to most of us that the Commons chamber is smaller and much less magnificently decorated than the Lords though probably still finer than many other debating chambers.  This is partly due to the need to keep costs down after reconstruction from the bombing damage but also historically reflects the much greater grandeur and importance of the Lords over the Commons.

The House of Commons

The House of Commons. Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament.

Again an upstairs seated area is available for visitors though sadly the main section is now glassed off after a series of disruptions of campaigners throwing flour and other things down on the MPs below.  However Richard told us that a smaller area is available without the screen and that persons known to their MP are allowed to sit here if there is room.

People might notice the red lines along the carpet by the front benches.  Traditionally these lines are two sword lengths apart and politicians are expected not to go past them towards their political foes.  This is where the phrase ‘Toe the line” comes from.

There is a large table in between the government and opposition benches with two Despatch boxes from which it is expected senior politicians will address the Commons.  Inside the boxes are the Holy Bible and other things involved with MPs swearing an oath prior to their service.  The table also holds The Mace which is a symbol of the Monarchy and towards the back is where the officials make a written note of every word ever spoken in the debating chamber.

Despatch Box

The House of Commons. Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament.

At the back of the Commons chamber is the chair belonging to The Speaker.  The Speaker is the most senior person in the House of Commons and it is his job to maintain order and select the people to speak in debates.  As well as being The Speaker, he is also an MP albeit one who has the honour of being the only one to have a residence in the Palace of Westminster.  During debates, all politicians address The Speaker as it is officially to him that they make their points.  On the back of the Speakers Chair hangs a number of green bags which in times gone by people would leave letters and petitions in for The Speaker to collect at the end of each day and prepare to debate the following day.  It is from here that we get the phrase “In the bag”.

These days there are a number of Deputy Speakers but for centuries there was only The Speaker and as he wasn’t allowed to leave the chamber whilst debates went on, the seat is actually also a toilet and historically the speaker would have pulled a curtain round to cover him so the debates could continue as he did whatever he had to do.

When the Commons chamber was rebuilt after WW2, all the Commonwealth countries contributed elements to the furnishings and so different parts showcase the workmanship of nations such as Australia, India, Canada, South Africa, New Zealand and many others.  It’s interesting to note that there isn’t actually enough room for all the MPs to grab a seat, this is intentional and is meant to add to the passion and atmosphere of the Commons rather than have a quiet and sedate Parliamentary chamber.

When a motion is passed in the House of Commons, The Speaker asks for those who support the motion to shout ‘Aye’ and those who opposing it to shout ‘No’.  If there is an obvious winner then The Speaker will declare it, usually though it is hard to distinguish who the winner is and so instead MPs go and vote in person.  Most Parliaments have long had some form of electronic voting but in the UK Parliament not only is there no such thing but such an idea is not even being considered.  To cast their vote, MPs will leave the chamber and have two lobby’s to walk through, one where those who vote ‘yes’ walk and one where those who vote ‘no’ walk.  MPs give their name to the official in each lobby and their names are literally blanked off a list.  They have exactly 8 minutes per vote to get themselves from wherever they are in Parliament into the voting lobby. This style of voting has gone on for centuries and the reason why it no one really wants to change it is because it gives an opportunity for all MPs of every party to meet and discuss points with government ministers or senior party members.  Surprisingly this system works remarkably well and allows everyone to meet the relevant stakeholder that they need to to further the cause of their constituent.

Retracing our steps slightly, we went back through the House of Commons and the finely decorated corridors to St. Stephens Hall which as the name suggests, used to have a religious function.   This room is heaving with history.  This room is where King Charles came and kicked over the Speakers chair who refused to tell him where the four MPs were that the king suspected of plotting against him.  You can still see where the chair used to sit.  The King was forced to leave Parliament empty handed and gossip ran through London that the King had been either humiliated or put in his place depending on their point of view.  As such the way was set for the Civil War which went on to inspire pivotal movements such as the French Revolution and American Declaration of Independence.

St. Stephen's Hall

St. Stephen’s Hall. Parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament

The hall is lined with statues, one of which has a figure with a slightly broken spur on it.  This is because around 100 years ago, Suffragettes infiltrated Parliament and chained themselves to the statue as part of the long campaign to give women the vote.  Though the chains were cut off, one of the statues was slightly damaged but never repaired.  In fact in the basement below the hall Emily Davison illegally hid herself in a cupboard overnight.  The next day the Census was taken and switch every census, everyone had to list the address that they spent the previous night. As a publicity stunt, she managed to get her address on the census as being the Houses of Parliament and so came slightly closer to having women in Parliament.

President Obama

President Obama addresses both Houses of Parliament at Westminster Hall

Finally our tour of Parliament was nearing an end and we moved along into Westminster Hall, the oldest part of the building dating from the 1390’s.  The Hall is a vast open space with a fantastic roof and though less sophisticated in its style of decoration, feels every bit as important and impressive as the newer sections.  Amongst other things the Civil War ended here with King Charles found guilty and sentenced to death.  The hall is also used where those who have a State Funeral lay in state, recent funerals include Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and just last year former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was interred in the adjoining chapel the night before her funeral.  The hall is also used for historic occasions such as the addressing of both houses in Parliament by the most important of foreign leaders such as Nelson Mandela.

Me in Westminster Hall

Standing in the same spot as Obama, Mandela, Clinton, Queen Elizabeth, Gorbachev, De Gaulle and about 700 years of Monarchs.

We’d been in Parliament for several hours and seen many of the main sights but our MP Richard Harrington informed us that if we wanted to see inside the Big Ben clock tower or have a tour more focuses on the art and treasure of Parliament that we were all very welcome back in the future though with the General Election looming in May 2015, no-one  can say whether Richard will retain his seat but I for one wish him well and a big thank-you to him and his team for a great tour.  However things go, we will remember our tour around Parliament for a long time to come and I think it did enthuse everyone who visited to get more involved in future as well as helping see MPs in a much more human light than the one dimensional television interviews or newspaper reports. It may have taken me 30 years between my first visit and my second but I’ll be sure to visit again and maybe watch some proceedings much sooner than another 30 years.

I hoped you all enjoyed the tour, feel free to ask if you have any questions. I didn’t take any notes so I hope I remembered most of it correctly!  If you’re coming to London be sure to look me up if you want a private guided tour around the outside of Parliament and many other great places in London.

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A Brief History of Parliament

On Thursday evening I was kindly invited on a guided tour of the Houses of Parliament by my local MP, Richard Harrington.  Before I write-up a post about the tour itself I thought this would give a great opportunity to write a little about Parliament itself.

Though there were bodies with some parliamentary like qualities in ancient India and the Middle-East, Athens is often talked of as the cradle of democracy where the Assembly or Ekklesia was the most important institution in public life but whilst citizens were encouraged to vote, to be a fully fledged citizen you had to be an adult male.  The Roman Republic also had assemblies and a Senate which debated issues and dispensed power of the vast majority of peoples who had no voting rights whatsoever.

When it comes to Parliament though, it is fair to say that England is no slouch and many around the world refer to the British Parliament as the Mother of Parliaments or the Cradle of Democracy.  Going right back to the 4th and 5th centuries there was the Witenagemot.  Though these were irregularly held and usually at the behest of the monarch, they gave the opportunity for noblemen and religious figures to discuss matters with the King.  Whilst in many places the monarch was always the supreme power the Witenagemot didn’t just debate and advise the King but also had the power to elect or veto a King and could even replace the monarch if he were deemed.  At this time there were several Witenagemot’s, each for one of the great Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms of Northumbria, Kent, Sussex, Wessex and Mercia but as the land was unified the tradition continued with the earliest recorded acts coming from the 6th century.

Foreign dignitaries appearing before an Anglo-Saxon King and the Witenagemot

Foreign dignitaries appearing before an Anglo-Saxon King and the Witenagemot

William The Conqueror brought over some French and Norman traditions but the idea of the Witenagemot basically remained and through events such as The Magna Carta the power of the people grew.  Parliament itself is an English take on the French word  ‘Parler’ or to speak.   The Model Parliament in 1295 is considered important as it set the tone for the parliaments to follow and it constituted elected rural landowners and townsmen and gained further promises and restraints on the power of the monarch.

Things really began to take shape in Tudor times and it was under King Henry VIII that the country changed from one where the monarch was by far the most powerful figure to one where the monarch had to share real power with Parliament, in fact the monarch would rule through parliament.  Both Parliament and the Monarch had to agree to change laws, taxes or even religions.  Much of this evolution on the effectiveness of Parliament which gave the country the ability to rule itself even without a monarch is down to the diligent efforts of Thomas Cromwell during the Reformation who probably had one of hardest jobs in history as the Chief Minister.  He was the man who dealt with the many complex technicalities involving the religious split between Rome and London as well as creating the procedures and processes that took a medieval Parliament into a modern effective force.  He was also a clever and devious politician who made many enemies on his climb to the very top of society before his untimely execution at the hands of the King!

Having a Parliament obviously gave the country an advantage over other nations as England was no longer at the whim of often rash and ill-thought out decisions by hot-headed monarchs like King Henry VIII and it gave the country stability.

Unlike other most other countries, the United Kingdom does not have a single Written Constitution which gives certain guarantees whether in theory or practice.  Instead our constitution is based on countless thousands of laws passed in the Houses of Parliament and in the courts of which until just a few years ago, the House of Lords was the most powerful in the land. While this may have some apparent weaknesses to those overseas as our rights are interpreted and guaranteed from many sometimes unknown documents rather than an easy to understand and crystal clear constitution or bill of rights, we seem to manage very well without it.  It also means that the country or government is not tied to any outdated political, religious or personal concept.  If something needs changing then a new law is debated in Parliament.

If society changes to a degree that something becomes out-dated then a new precedence can be set at a court by any individual and if they win their case then it will strongly influence future laws in that area until it too is eventually superseded maybe just months or maybe a millennia in the future.  Our lack of a basic bill of rights didn’t stop the various collected works becoming the inspiration for constitutions around the world and more recently for the United Nations and European Union.

Parliament is made up of two Houses, The House of Commons which is the Lower House and The House of Lords which is the Upper House.  For centuries the House of Lords was by far the most powerful body.  Since the Civil War and Oliver Cromwell however, the Commons has gradually caught up and now surpassed the Lords in importance and even of the Monarchy itself in most practical ways and many of the traditions of Parliament date from this important time when a brave group of Parliamentarians stood up the Crown.

The House of Commons is composed of 650 Members of Parliament that are directly elected by their constituents and they debate the issues of the day in a multi-party democratic system.  The House of Lords as the Upper House does not draft laws itself but instead refines laws before they come into effect.  The Lords can reject a law three times but if the Commons passes it for a fourth time then the Lords can no longer hold it up and it passes to the Queen to sign off.

The House of Lords is an unusual Upper Chamber composed for Lords (and Ladies) or Peers some of whom have inherited their titles and others who have gained them through nomination of the Prime Minister and other Commoners.  It also contains many senior figures of the Church of England, former members of parliaments, military figures, business leaders and even sports personalities and dedicated charity workers who have given their working lives to helping others. Opinion is split over whether to make the house democratically elected but many others believe this should not happen.  The reason for this is that having an elected house would make it like every other senior political chamber in the world.  Open to corruption but more likely encouraging the very same people who become politicians the world-over.  There is something to be said for having an Upper House full of the very best performing people of all sections of societies and with entirely different areas of expertise that are not easily swayed by vested interests, money or the worry of getting elected!

Much the same can be said for having a benevolent monarch as almost every President or Prime Minister is eventually involved in scandal or disliked by their country either from being to a certain degree inept or corrupt or just from the pressures of making genuinely difficult decisions that eventually alienate at first the public and eventually their own supporters.  The Queen in particular and indeed the House of Lords to a large degree are above the political scandals that today cause splits and wasted energy in some other governments, including occasionally in our own Lower House.  Of course the downside is that if we have an inept monarch then we are rather stuck with them, thankfully that hasn’t happened for a long time.

One of the reasons The House of Commons gained prominence was the slow but sure gain of political suffrage from just the King to landowners to men of a certain age and class to all men and very quickly after that, all women too. This all came about due to the hard work and much suffering of ordinary people inside and outside of Parliament as well as farsighted and usually liberal-minded Parliamentarians inside Westminster.

Houses of Parliament

Houses of Parliament

The present day parliament building was built after a fire burnt down much of the old Palace in the 1830’s. However Westminster Hall and a few other areas still remain from the 1390s and the sense of history is everywhere giving Parliament an unusual mix of a museum, parliament and modern 21st century business.   The Houses of Lords and Parliament still sit in the original oppositional way that they did before the fire which gives British politics an unusually fiery reputation as.  Though oration is obviously important everywhere, there can be few other parliaments where it is so valued and such a necessity.  A famous relatively recent example of the differing nature of British politics to many other places is when maverick MP George Galloway appeared before a U.S. Senate committee that was blown away by his combative nature, lack of deference and verbal dexterity and while his political views aren’t that widely agreed with, his ability to talk a good line is not in dispute. Despite the idea of British politeness, the idea that we are deferential to our betters disappeared by WW2.  The general public often have little time for politics or their elected representatives and life for politicians is tough for both government opposition in the Commons both from the public and their political opponents.

This is all no doubt why there are so many strange rules and procedures in Parliament that have been in place from the time when members would bring their swords with them and politics was a very life or death business.    While Prime Ministers Question time is often the pinnacle of life at Parliament and particularly rambunctious, other debates are often much more civilised and Members of Parliament spend lots of time working quietly away in committee rooms dealing with important issues of the day.  It is not just governmental ministers who have great authority.  All-Party committees such as last years investigation into  tax avoidance policies by companies such as Amazon, Google and Starbucks was headed by an opposition Labour MP that for a time made her something of a national hero and has seen Starbucks UK income fall off a cliff and yet bizarrely suddenly make their first official taxable profits for 17 years!

That being said two of the most visited statues in Parliament are that of former Conservative Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill and Liberal David Lloyd-George who is best remembered for laying the groundwork for much of the modern welfare state such as old age pensions and education improvements for the poor.  They were also the Prime Ministers in the two world wars and shared the gift of oratory and it is the tradition of many MPs to rub their shoes before going in the chamber for good luck.

Members Lobby

Two great 20th Century politicians Churchill and Lloyd-George at the entrance to The House of Commons. parliamentary copyright images are reproduced with the permission of Parliament.

When Parliament was badly bombed in WW2, Churchill was adamant that the chambers be rebuilt in the traditional format rather than the less adversarial rounded seating styles elsewhere.  This all goes back to how the first Parliamentarians met in a former chapel in the Palace of Westminster with benches at each side under the windows and The Speakers chair in the middle.  The Speaker remains the most important person in the chamber and even the Prime Minister must defer to him whilst The Mace is the symbol of the third element of Parliament, the Monarchy.

There is still very much a religious angle in Parliament as well as the Christian Bishops in the House of Lords most likely soon to be joined by leaders of other faiths (as well as Lords who happen to be of other faiths already) and morning prayers are said at the start of each day in the House of Commons.  The hallways are also full of Biblical paintings and scriptures as well as the various saints of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland and above the door is a large painting of Moses receiving the laws of God in the form of the 10 Commandments.

Next week I will write and show some of the places that I got to visit on my tour of Parliament.

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Sinatra – The Jewel in the crown of Lisbon

Having spent all day on the Friday sight-seeing around Lisbon we were eagerly awaiting Saturday, our second day in Portugal and our only full day.

As there is so much to see in Lisbon I had planned to spend the second day in some of the many museums and galleries but then we thought about visiting Sintra.   Sintra is a UNESCO World Heritage site about 30 miles outside of Lisbon.  It seemed to be a good idea as it also would allow us to get into the Portugal countryside.

Lisbon!

Lisbon!

We didn’t realise just how great Sintra would be nor quite how exhausting it could be too. Like several great European cities, the Royals would prefer to get out of the capitals and get a bit of fresh air.  As a result I think some of the best places to visit are actually away from the big cities.  London has quaint and beautiful Windsor with its castle; 20km out of Berlin and you are in wonderful Potsdam and in the case of Paris, whilst Versaille the town isn’t anything special, the former royal palace certainly is.

Anyone seen a train station?

Anyone seen a train station?

Sintra is set high amongst the hills of western Portugal just a short distance from the Atlantic coast and historically the Portuguese Royal Family and several others would flee Lisbon and the summer heat for this oasis of green, fresh air and frequent fog.

Lisbon Hill

The street from our hotel

It took a while to find the train station in Lisbon, primarily as the building looked too ornate and beautiful to be a train station, plus it was sat on one of Lisbons fantastically steep hills.  A little more investigation and with the help of a friendly local we re-traced our steps and entered the train station and up several flights of escalators before we got to the booking hall.  There was 6 minutes until the train and with one person in front of us we were hopefully we might just catch it but somehow 3 or 4 others joined this man in front of us, he was like a Tardis of queuing and when at last all of them left us we had less than two minutes left.  Yet again we were astounded at the beyond helpful ticket office staff who saw our train about to go and served us in 20 seconds flat.  We said our thank-you’s, ran like crazy, worked out how to navigate the ticket barriers and jumped on the train.  The whistle went and the doors closed before our feet touched the floor of the train carriage.

The train ride to Sintra took about 45 minutes, we didn’t get to see as much countryside as we imagined as there were miles of tower blocks but eventually we saw the country rushing passed us.

Sinatra Town Hall

Sinatra Town Hall

Sintra (or Sinatra as WordPress encourages me to change it to) is a beautiful little place.  Old stone houses full of little antique shops, cafes and quite a few china shops.  We got ahead of the crowd and walked the mile or so from the train station to the centre, taking the first of a multitude of photos as we did so.

Sintra alleyways

Sintra alleyways

We had little idea of where to go or what to see.  one thing that caught our eye was the old castle on top of a mountain.  It looked great, or at least what we saw of it in the fog looked great but there is no way at all we would get up there on this trip.

Castle of The Moors

Castle of The Moors from Sintra.

Forgoing the many taxis and shuttle buses we joined a hardy few and decided to walk to the first of the many great houses in Sintra that we could find.  After 10 minutes of walking we found a rather vague sign for the Pena Palace, it looked nice on the rather unhelpful map we had so off we walked. We normally walk a lot on our holidays but it is far to say that we probably wouldn’t have walked as far as we did, wearing what we were if we had known just how far away it was.  Up and up we went, the forest was beautiful but the signs were few and far between.   One thing is for certain, for someone with asthma I sure put many others to shame on the climb though when I say many, I mean anyone else stupid enough to walk here.

Sintra Rocks!

Sintra Rocks! – The whole mountain is filled with these massive boulders. Anyone spot Fred Flintstone?

We stopped for lunch after an hour or so.  The mist of central Sintra had given way to a very English fog/fine drizzle.  I was still wearing a t-shirt for though it wasn’t the best of weather, it was still considerably warmer than what I’d been used to but there were many others in raincoat, wooly scarves and hats.  I saw them on the tourist taxis as they drove past us up the hill!

The road out of Sintra

The road out of Sintra

Country House

One of many country houses on the steep climb up to the Castle Of The Moors.

After finishing off our home-made picnic we walked the last kilometre to the palace front gates.  It was something of a false dawn as we were later to see or rather not see that the Palace was still a good 15-20 minutes climb upwards through the formal and not so formal gardens.  The fog was such that everyone was getting lost, no-one could find the house and my only complaint about the whole weekend was that they could have done with more signs or at least staff to tell people the way.

National Palace, Sintra

National Palace, Sintra in one of the less foggy moments

Pena Palace was in retrospect well worth the effort of getting up here.  It is perched fantastically on top of the high ground and was magically swathed in fog.  Very brightly coloured it seemed rather like it belonged in Kings Landing on Game of Thrones.

The lady at the entrance surmised that due to my clothing, I wasn’t a local.  We also received some bitter-sweet news.  We had taken the long route up here and that a different part of Sintra had a sign giving a direct route rather than the many foggy hair-pin bends we walked up.  It turned out that about 100 metres between these two signs cost us many miles of up hill walking.  The good, surprising or mind-blowing news was that after we finished with the place, the castle was just 5 minutes walk up the road.  Good heavens, we hadn’t just walked about 6 miles but also climbed 1400 feet / 430 metres all whilst not expecting to do very much more than window-shop.

The history of Pena Palace started in 1493 when King John II and his Queen Leonor made a pilgrimage to a site.  A Chapel was soon built which lasted several centuries until it fell into disrepair due to lightning strikes and a severe earthquake.  In 1838, the future King Ferdinand II decided to use the spot as a place to build a summer palace to shelter from the heat.

Inside the National Palace at Sintra

Inside the National Palace at Sintra

In 1908 the Portuguese King and his successor son were assassinated whilst riding in a carriage through the streets.  the murderers were instantly shot dead by royal bodyguards but just two years later a military coup took place and Portugal became a republic with Pena Palace still being used by the President of Portugal on some state occasions.

By and large the palace is quite small in scope and less sumptuously decorated than palaces I’ve seen in other countries but this was no doubt partly due to the restricted space on top of the mountain.  It was still a beautiful place to visit and quite a unique and special place.

When we came out of the palace, the fog had got even thicker and it’s no exaggeration to say that there were groups of people wondering around lost in the small paved area outside the palace itself.  We didn’t have a problem leaving as I’d memorised the way we came in or perhaps had the torturous route burned into my brain.

Sinatra Walk

Red is the long route we took, yellow is the way we went back.

We decided as we had come this far that we would walk a little further and reach the castle we had never expected to reach.  Some complaints were aired at this point about tired legs and maybe the odd curse word but not from me!  It was worth it though as The Castle Of The Moors is one of the most dramatic places that I have ever visited.  Built in the 8th and 9th centuries by the Muslim Moors who came from North Africa and occupied Portugal, Spain and even part of France.  Centuries later it was voluntarily handed over to Christian forces after the Reconquista had expelled the Moors from Lisbon in 1147. Such an old castle was in perilous condition by the 20th Century but decades of repairs mean the castle is looking better than it has for centuries.

Castelo dos Mouros

Castelo dos Mouros

We spent about an hour looking around the castle and in truth could have spent a lot longer if we weren’t so tired.  The castle perimeter walls are nearly 500 metres/ 1500 feet in length and has towers that climb up steep rocky promintaries which give the most fantastic views to Sintra below.  It’s hard to imagine how the Moors from hot North Africa managed to build such a fortress in such an impregnable area 1300 years ago.  It was an entirely breathtaking experience in more ways than one and was even more dramatic with how the fog blowing in and momentarily displaying and then eclipsing various towers.  We decided not to climb to the very tallest tower, the steps were very steep, the wind was blowing and the fog was so bad that we could see a few feet in front of us.  Instead we visited old churches, secret passageways and other goodies.

Castle of the Moors between the fog!

Castle of the Moors between the fog!

I mentioned in my post on Lisbon how seeing the Vasco De Gama bridge reminded me of The Golden Gate Bridge in California, well to me at least the Castle of The Moors looks a lot like The Great Wall of China.

On top of the world!

On top of the world!

I always like finding a surprised highlight of any trip and this castle was an incredible surprise which kept our spirits high as we negotiated a short cut footpath that quickly descended us through the forest to Sintra below, so much more quickly than the way we had come and then another mile saw us back on the train which by luck again departed just after we got on board.  We have to go back to Sintra as there are so many other grand palaces to see there that we never got to visit.

Sintra Panoramic Shot

Sintra Panoramic Shot from one of the lower castle walls.

Lisbon and Portugal made a big impact on us both the people and the attractions and I hope to go back there quickly.  I crossed off another country from my to-do list and flight number 29 went relatively smoothly too except for an hours delay before take-off.  I hope that you enjoyed my brief posts on Lisbon and Sintra and that more people will visit these incredible cities which in my opinion are every bit as rewarding as other perhaps big name European cities.

Lord Byron

Lord Byron – Mad, bad and dangerous to know… he probably was if he walked the long way to the castle only to find a badly signed short cut on the way down.

IMG_3733

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Jerónimos Monastery in Lisbon

It had been a long old winter with two potentially serious health scares that thankfully were gradually eliminated over repeated visits to doctors, hospitals and specialists.  With good news ringing in my ears and strong encouragement from some friends I vowed to make up for lost time and treat myself to a weekend away.  I wanted to go a bit further than the Eurostar trains for the sake of my long-suffering wife.

It’s a well known secret that I hate flying and always have.  Despite the fact that I’ve made 27 flights before.  I know what you’re thinking, 27 is an odd number… did Stephen chicken out of a return flight somewhere?  No, Stephen didn’t! I made that odd number flight on the way back of a long overland journey.

Why do I hate flying so much?  Aside from my natural predilection for hating flying I think much of it is due to circumstances.  I was flying out of Paris the day Concorde blew up there, I’ve had various aborted foggy landings, failed take-offs due to electrical failures and to top it all some of my flights have been scheduled to places in Europe where by pure chance on the days leading up to the flights, there have been major crashes with hundreds dead such as was the case with my honeymoon in Spain.

Of course this time that we live in is probably the worst for decades for those of us who hate flying as terrorists, extremists and rogue states dream up ever new ways to crash planes and even if you get lucky and avoid that there is all the heightened security problems and various missing planes in the Far East.  The problem with being a writer and having lots of imagination is that you can dream up all sorts of scenarios and it might be in everyones best interests if the CIA approached me right this minute to pursue my worst-case scenarios seeing as flying planes into tower blocks was something I thought was very obvious and worried about a decade before 9/11 albeit for entirely selfish reasons.

As a bonus flying from Britain you’re often likely to encounter bad weather during take-offs or landings and generally speaking at both.  Nothing like torrential rain, strong winds and fog to make a take-off a little more death-defying.

Anyway I put all of that behind me at least for those crazy few seconds when I booked a long weekend in Lisbon.  Take-off was at 7am which was good as everywhere is quiet.  The carrier was British Airways which was good as they are the only ones I’ve never had a bad experience with and on the day it was clear blue skies and no wind.  I even went to the extent of tacking the same flight numbers on my iPad to check my hunch that the flight to Lisbon was a straight forward one, none of those 270 degree banking when taking off in fog scenarios that I hate.  Just a gentle dip to the south west and that was that.

I managed to grab the emergency exit seat over the left wing.  For most people this gives the advantage of extra leg room but for me it allowed me the best chance possible to be sucked out of the door during an emergency situation or more likely, see the creature from The Twilight Zone that drives a passenger insane as he watches the wings and engine being picked apart.

I always like to fly by the windows as I can never sleep when travelling and I get irked by people having such a great view right next to them and they sleep or watch a movie the whole way through.  I do love looking out of the plane windows and seeing what I can see, also if we are going to hit a mountain or one of those 270 degree banking manoeuvres sees us ditching into the ground, I want to be the first to know about it!

Remarkably everything went to plan and once we got past what I call the “Go with throttle-up” moment which doomed the Spaceshuttle Challenger in the 1980’s, the realisation struck me that I might actually have to plan what to do in Lisbon as my chances of arriving safely seemed to be increasing by the minute.

The British Airways plane interiors seem so much better than the budget airlines and dare I say it, the staff much more pleasant, the passengers too and with a delicious breakfast over the English Channel I decided nothing would go wrong until the landing anyway.

Two hours later we found ourselves on the Lisbon Metro. I found Lisbon a wonderful place to visit, it is surprisingly clean and modern and the people were probably the friendliest of anyplace I have ever visited.  Egyptians are also very friendly but the Portuguese police don’t seem to want to threaten you with guns if you don’t pay bribes and 2 in 5 of the population don’t want baksheesh.

Spring had already arrived in Lisbon though I doubt Lisbon ever has a winter as I know it, there were certainly many oranges on trees.  The streets were full of patisseries similar to Paris except the goods inside seemed more savoury than sweet as in Paris.  The place is also deserted in my eyes but then the whole of Portugal has less people than London so know wonder I felt like I had the entire capital city to myself.

Getting our bearings in Lisbon.

Getting our bearings in Lisbon.

Whenever I go abroad I always try to live and travel like a local.  Use their transport, go to non-touristy places, eat local foods from local markets and that sort of thing.  Though there are more than a few modern buildings in Lisbon, I particularly liked the traditional buildings, they just look so ornate and Portuguese.  Lisbon is also possible the hilliest or at least second hilliest city I have ever been too.  They have slopes in Lisbon that you could ski down if they were in the country.  A good pair of shoes and an adequate supply of asthma inhalers is my tip for visiting this great city.

A touch of home

England and Portugal have the oldest alliance in the world. Maybe why this sign gives me the feeling someone has been here before.

We spent out first few hours wondering around pretty old streets and checking out some local churches.  I had particularly planned to visit San Roque Church which is a little out of the way but a oasis of peace and tranquility with some of the most incredible painted interiors I’ve seen in a church since I last flew… to Malta in 2012.  We visited a few other churches, local shops and some place selling fridge magnets where bizarrely the owner seemed to be an British Indian from Whitechapel in East London.

Sao Roquo Church

San Roquo Church

At midday we dropped our bags off at the Europa Turim hotel and took a bus to Jeronimo’s monastery.  I thought it was apt to name monastery after the person who invented jumping out of planes with a parachute.  It’s always a bit risky getting a bus in a city on your first day.  You don’t know where you’re going to, where to get off and I only had a printed map and a memory that the bus journey from the hotel took approximately 43 minutes which still gave a huge amount of room for things to go wrong given traffic jams and the fact we didn’t have a watch or phone with us!

Oranges on trees in a Lisbon park.

Oranges on trees in a Lisbon park.

As it happened the route I remembered from Google Maps earlier in the week was vaguely correct and we exited the bus at precisely the right location.  After a quick lunch we headed to Jeronimo’s monastery.

Jeronimos Monastery

Jeronimos Monastery

The monastery to Saint Jerome was built in 1501 and almost 600 years later became a World Heritage site granting it the same status the Egyptian pyramids or Stonehenge.  It’s easy to see why, the outside of the vast building is one of the most incredible structures I have seen with fine archways and towers decorated with intricate carvings in the white rock.

The cloisters at Jeronimos

The cloisters at Jeronimos

It has a long and illustrious history surviving both physical earthquakes and political ones such as the Iberian union which for a long time united Spain and Portugal.  Several royals were laid to rest here and for a long time is was possibly one of the mostly richly decorated Christian buildings in the world before many of the treasures were later confiscated by various monarchs.

Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon.

Jeronimos Monastery in Lisbon. Photo by Massimo Caterinella

The cloisters of the monastery are incredibly beautiful and the building is so big that despite there being many tourists it was easy to find deserted areas to admire the building and for a sun-starved Englishman to enjoy a few rays of sun.  We could really have spent a lot more time here and in the adjoining museum but we were only in Lisbon for two days and there was lots to see on our busy schedule.

Part of the monastery includes a beautiful old church though in many ays it seemed more like a cathedral.  Though it is no doubt the resting place for many of the greats in Lisbon and Portugal, it’s most famous inhabitant is likely to be the legendary Portuguese explore Vasco De Gama who was if my history is right the first man to sail from Europe round the bottom of South Africa to the west coast of India.

Memorial to Vasco De Gama

Memorial to Vasco De Gama

Understandably for such a great man, Lisbon is rather Vasco De Gama mad.  Near to the monastery is a monument to the explorer who it seems is walking up a giant plank about to enter a sailing ship.  A mile or so up the road is the relatively new Vasco De Gama bridge which is the longest bridge in Europe if you include the sections over the deep troughs of Lisbon streets at either end.  For my wife and I it both reminded us of the Golden Gate Bridge, when I say reminded us, it is the sort of reminder we have for seeing it on television rather than in person but if I didn’t know better it was one and the same.

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After leaving the monastery we walked through some ornate parks and encountered some ice-cream sellers who gave us the biggest scoops of ice-cream imaginable.  I had chocolate chip, mint chocolate and vanilla.  My wife and I both thought it funny as I had spend much of the last week or two in England loudly stating how I fancied an ice-cream and my wife being from a warmer country always thinks it is funny how us British eat ice-creams on the street even when the temperature is around freezing as it was for most of the last few months.

Around 10 minutes walk away along the coast is another Unesco site, The Belem Tower. Belem is one of several parts of Lisbon which is bursting with museums, galleries and palaces and in my opinion make it a bit of a hidden treasure for tourists.  Thanks in no small part to Vasco De Gama, Portugal like Spain had a large empire but whilst Spain is famed for her empire in the New World, Portugal had ambitions all over the place and for good or for ill Lisbon is the beneficiary of a once wealthy and powerful empire.

The Belem Tower

The Belem Tower

Belem Tower sits right on the coast of the Atlantic and though isn’t very big, is quite ornately decorated.  At one point it was largely a gun tower to protect the waters approaching Lisbon from enemy attack.  Now it is a largely empty and at times very tight tourist attraction.  From the open top roof however you have the most incredible views of the old royal palace up the hill and of the sunny coast line and looking back towards Lisbon you can see epic span of the Vasco De Gama Bridge and the statue of Christ The King on the far bank at Almada.

The Vasco De Gama Bridge

The Vasco De Gama Bridge

It was 6pm, we’d been up for 14 hours and it was time to head back our hotel before darkness fell.  We walked back along the shoreline to our bus stop, it was safe to say that we were the only tourists on board.  Before returning to our hotel we did a spot of shopping in local shops and markets coming away with a bag full of fruits, local cheeses, meats, breads and cakes.  We had already fallen in love with Lisbon, it had been a great day and tomorrow would be even better.

A great place for an ice-cream

A great place for an ice-cream

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