Monday, 16 October 2017

What Lonely Planet never mentions.

I don't know why we still invest in guidebooks. There is so much information readily available on our smart phones, not only overtly commercial sites like TripAdvisor, but municipal authorities' websites, links through Google Maps and Wikipedia. Nevertheless, we tend to take a chunky tome with us, and over the years we have bought Lonely Planet guides more than any others.

This is odd, as in terms of the information offered much of it is irrelevant to us, we are unlikely to stay in the hotels mentioned (we camp), many of the restaurants are beyond out price range, and anyway, we eat in, not just because it's cheaper, but Gill loves to cook using local ingredients and I am her biggest fan.

So far as sites go, Lonely Planet tends to emphasise significant churches, palaces, and museums and galleries. Generally religious buildings irk Gill who is the most rational and least superstitious person I have ever met. Large scale palaces and such get up my nose mainly because I see them as instruments of oppression and, unsurprisingly find them oppressive. Gill, as an ex-student of geography finds places more rewarding than artefacts, so landscapes and cityscapes interest her more. I tend to go along with that knowing I will learn new things from her perspective, whereas often the objects in museums and how they have been curated tends to reinforce or extend what I know already.

So, I have concluded that I like the Lonely Planet Guidebooks not for their usefulness or practicality, but because of the way they are written. Their style leans towards part ageing hippy, a bit cultured hipster and occasional waif thin backpacker. They are not stuffy and are concerned as much with what seems cool as what is culturally significant. It engages and infuriates me in equal measure. It's like travelling with an interesting, but annoying friend or your grown-up children.

Which brings me by a somewhat circuitous route to today's visit to Ubeda. The Area Caravanes is on the edge of town next to a rather grim looking Guardia Civil barracks and training school.

The buildings assert the Guadia Civil's quasi military history - making recent  events in Catalonia seem very sinister.
The town itself has a confusing layout so we were pleased to stumble upon the tourist information. They provided Gill with a town map with all the important places to see circled in biro. These were exactly the same monuments that our Lonely Planet Spain guide had highlighted, which prompts you to speculate, why? Do Lonely Planet contributors simply roll into the local tourist office and write-up their recommendations? Conversely, is it the case that the local tourist office is savvy about what guidebooks regard as iconic, so simply serve up the usual menu to their customers? Whatever the reason, we followed their recommended route anyway.

Inevitably Ubeda's renowned Renaissance Palaces and Baroque Churches featured strongly:

Magnificent, imposing but oppressive - the pleasant park with the palm tree is where the Inquisition burned heretics - the nobility used to watch, apparently from the safety of the first floor balconies....

The Lonely Planet guide mentions 'Plateresque' a lot - this is a good example apparently

A number of the Palaccios have been converted into swanky Parador hotels.
Whatever dark history the buildings conceal, they did look stately and beautiful in the evening sunlight.
More 'Plateresque' detail (word of the day) - derived from silversmithing - I can see that similarity in the detail....

The style is unique to Spain mixing Gothic, Renaissance and Mujedar elements.
I guess the blend of naturalism within a hieratic compositional frame derived from late Gothic reflects the eclectic mix.
As we wandered about we found plenty to entertain us that you would never find in a guidebook.

Quirky stuff

We noted this in a religious gift shop window surrounded by statues of the Virgin Mary - reflecting Spain's two major religions
As Gill said, "It may be ghastly, but think of all the work...."
Nice boots....
Sad Alley Cafe - pitched at the lonely hearted?
Fellow tourists

It being late in the day on a Monday in mid-October, unsurprisingly there were relatively few tourists wandering about Ubeda. It is equally unsurprising that we kept bumping into each other due to either having been given the same biro marked map by the Tourist Information office, or possibly all carrying an identical edition of Lonely Planet Spain in our luggage. Of this happy band of wanderers we were undoubtedly the scruffiest. It was clear that most others were guests from the Paradors. The car parked outside the largest of these was a high end Mercedes convertible; Any of our fellow sightseers, apart from us, could have been the owner. There is a limit as to how inquisitive you can be armed with a camera, its probably rude to point full stop. So to maintain the illusion of good manners I am going to pretend that the couple below inadvertanty wandered into my shot, which is utterly untrue, as I had just tried and failed to capture an amusing little episode involving them both only moments before.

People posed for photographs long before there were snapshots. Early equipment was so cumbersome that you had no option but to line people up and instruct them to look natural. Family albums are full of the awkwardly posed group shot. My dad specialised in photographic decapitation. There are many pictures of the family's torsos but very few that includes all of our heads. In the age of the photo-bomb and the selfie-stick you might think spontaneity would have triumphed. It has largely, apart from where couples are concerned. I have noticed an upsurge of SLR man and designer scarf woman playing out a little fantasy in front of bucket list site. SLR man shows off the length of his telephoto while designer scarf woman strikes a pouting, winsome pose in front of notable edifice. The pair above had just played out a disastrous variant of this, where winsome woman, specially costumed in floppy hat and floaty dress of cultured tourist draped herself pointedly in front of notable monuments but was roundly ignored by SLR man who remained intent on taking artistic deeply shadowed shots of plateresque fenestration. Eventually he noticed floppy hat woman's need and took a quick winsome shot. They wandered off happily enough, but I foresee divorce papers pending.

Ordinary streets, extraordinary light

A sea of olives

Given that Ubeda is basically a small island in a sea of olives it is little surprise that directly behind the area caravanes is a large olive mill. On the way into town Gill popped into the shop to ask when they closed. At 7:00pm came the reply. We'll come back later we promised, which we did. The youngish guy behind the counter spoke good English and we spent quarter of an hour or so talking olive oil. He seemed genuinely interested in our story about arriving at a small place in the Peloponnese and sampling the bright green oil that had been pressed only the day before. He explained this year's local crop would only be available in December. Then he paused a moment, grinned, and disappeared into an ante-room. Moments later he re-emerged clutching a 25cl plastic water bottle filled with a semi-translucent lime green liquid. "Ours this year!" he announces proudly. Carefully he poured a few centilitres of the precious liquid into tiny disposable tumblers. "Very smooth," Gill noted, "then hot and peppery." "Yes," the young man asserted, "our oil always smooth, then after, hot, this year, much spice."

The world is not wholly pre-packaged and commodified, behind the veneer of branding real stuff still exists. Authenticity is not some notion out-moded by the Post-modern. You have choice, but you must seek out the authentic, it won't come to you like a facile Tweet.

I wonder sometimes why I, we, love to travel. It's certainly not to do with checking off cultural highlights, nor following some sort of must do bucket list. Maybe we are simply wanderers, people who enjoy not knowing what is around the corner and find an inexplicable solace in stumbling across all the beautiful mundane things that Lonely Planet fails to mention. We have a one litre bottle of Ubeda olive oil to use now, five litres stashed away for home.

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