Adventure, Countries, Europe, Food, Food & Wine

SPORTUGAL

It’s the footwork, dahling… turn your toes in. And keep the hands open, and dahling, trust your partner.

I half expect to see Craig Revel Horwood sitting opposite, giving out and holding up a 2.

Thankfully I’m not being judged on my dancing but my tennis by my mixed doubles partner Judy Murray.

Yes, that Judy Murray, tennis supercoach, mum-of-two Wimbledon champions, and just as importantly in our house a Strictly Come Dancing legend.

Europe’s new four ball: John and Jim

Judy has had half an eye on Ashley, Faye, Lauren, Stacey, Joe, Charles, et al this series.

Only half an eye though as her main focus has been making tennis players out of the flotsam collection of wannabe racquet tyros I’m assembled here with.

In the new Campus sporting development in Quinta Do Lago in the Algarve.

Judy is running a series of tennis coaching lessons for young and old, good and bad, studious and messers, which, er, would be me.

That cow’s still got his name on it

In my defence her starter hooter was too inviting not to play keepie-uppie with.

Judy, though, as well as being very good at sport is a very good sport and even allowed me to waltz her around at the end.

Another very good sport and one that you won’t have heard so much about is padel which is more popular in the Iberian Peninsula than tennis.

Former rugby international Max Evans who with soccer great John Terry took to the game on a trip to the Algarve, describes it as the baby that tennis and squash would beget.

And wash it down with some Portuguese vino

Played to the same scoring system as tennis, the big difference is in the non-string bats, the underhand serve, the fact that you can play off the side glass walls.

And, dare I say it, that it might just be better fun than tennis.

Judy’s work done, she gets a deserved breather. Me, I’m off to bother the gold pros.

For four days I will have a team of experts tasked with trying to make an athlete of me, just as they can for you too.

With a Paralympian legend: Me and Brian Rohan

The professional at the Paul McGinley Golf Academy shows off the latest golf technology, tracking machines, sensory guides et al.

It can turn the most ordinary club member into a Rory or a Tiger, or at least on the odd shot.

If you concentrate that is.

But there’s always one messer who gets distracted.

Water trap: Have a chip with your dinner

In this case drawn to Paul McGinley’s buggy from when he captained Europe to Ryder Cup success at Gleneagles.

There’s a good reason why the big boys and girls in our party get to play The South Course, one of three Championship courses here at Quinta do Lago, while yours truly is kept to the driving range.

I do get to drive me a buggy, though not Paul’s Ryder Cup cart, which sensibly is kept where it is.

And I get to see the course, safely for me and the golfers, or at least that’s the plan before the boy racer in me kicks in.

My boat comes in

And I cut up the buggy in front and almost drive into the lake that skirts one of the greens.

I dare say I would have come up with my pockets bursting with stray golf balls.

Maybe I’ll fare better on two wheels.

Quinta do Lago means Farm by the Lake and Quinta is at great pains to keep human athletic exertions and the natural world in perfect harmony.

Or a dip after your lunch

The Ria Formosa reserve which runs parallel to the course, is more geared to Shiny Ibises and Spoonbill birdies.

And yes, get off your bike, get your binos out and you really will see these fascinating birds scoop up their prey with spoonlike beaks.

I’d like to say I planned my disembarkation but the truth is I took one sandy corner too many and too sharply in my obsession to lead the party.

Eyebrows may have been raised as to my suitability to go back with the sensible ones on the roads, but hunger called.

The new mixed doubles

That hunger was sated as it invariably is in these parts by the harvest of the seas.

The world literally is your piscine pleasure in Portugal and no fish is safe, so I felt not a pang of guilt in devouring Dory’s pals, the lobster, prawns, clams, seabass both here at the island restaurant Casa do Lago at the Campus.

And more of that later.

For golfers, there is a green in the water for diners to shoot at but it was wisely out of bounds for us on the day. 

If the Scotland manager is watching

The appeal of The Campus is its infrastructure and expertise.

Why else would it attract Premier League side Burnley, Champions League winners Olympique Marseille and Rio Ferdinand who runs a soccer camp.

While Irish Paralympian, road race great Brian Rohan runs The Bike Shed, which is so much more than just that.

Ask him kindly and he might even let you hold one of his Olympic gold medals.

And I’ve got my goal celebration sorted

Of course when it comes to sport we’re all of us experts, and so my last night was spent at a sports bar where I watched THREE soccer games simultaneously on the big screens (and who said men couldn’t multi-task?).

I’d like to say all the games were thrillers but I was in my element all the same.

I was tackling (cleanly) a chicken casserole for two, to soak up the beer you understand, while exchanging sporting trivia with my Portuguese hosts.

I was less good at the Halloween pub quiz I have to admit but always back myself against any Dancing Dad when the house band appears. 

Get the yoga in

There’s always a price to pay of course for revelry and that is invariably a sore head the next morning.

Yes, the art deco style Magnolia where we are staying specialises in fixing that too…

The Mag burger, beef, bacon, cheese and lettuce burger and fries, with a special peppery sauce the secret of which the Chef, naturally wasn’t sharing, and a pineapple, OJ, coconut and SPINACH smoothie.

Are you watching Craig Revel Horwood?

I felt invincible again and was ready to show off to my new No. 1 fan with my moves, a dive into the pool (yes, strictly against the hotel  rules).

But nobody was watching apart from Judy Murray that is.

Keeeep practising!

IMPORTANT WEBSITES: The Campus, Quinta do Lago https://www.quintadolago.com/en/sports-wellness/the-campus/ with costs for the night at the Magnolia Hotel at €105, and Ryanair http://www.ryanair.com with prices from €39.99.

This article was first published in the Irish Daily Mail in January 2019.

America, Asia, Caribbean, Countries, Europe, Flying, Food, Food & Wine, Ireland, UK

In defence of… air travel

If you’re reading, Greta Thunberg and the Flygstam (or flying shame) brigade…

I can’t tell you how many air miles I racked up last year.

I was away more than a dozen times with everywhere from Tobago www.visittobago.gov.tt and Ready, steady GOAT… racing in Tobago

Through the Oo Es of Eh www.visitusa.ie and https://www.visitusa.org.uk and living the California life www.visitcalifornia.com My Weekend With Marilyn and Stair Wars.

Down to South Africa www.visitsouthafrica.com What’s new pussycat? and up to Jordan www.visitjordan.com The water of life, Petra, and the sands of time.

I only mention them over the other equally fabulous and welcoming destinations who hosted me because they were at the extremities of my Travel footprint.

Do I feel guilty, or should you? Well, yes. How could we not the way Greta goes on?

Of course there’s a multitude of evidence out there on the world wide web to back up Greta.

And like everything on the net you can find anything to support your view.

But I wax taken by the research done by https://www.smithsonianmag.com/travel/how-bad-is-air-travel-for-the-environment-51166834/ on the subject.

And their contention that air travel was better for the environment than car travel.

They estimate that the world’s drivers go through 1 billion gallons of fuel a day against 750 million gallons for air passengers.

Of course the fact that one form of transport is less harmful than another is not a strong enough argument.

Against that I would propose the positive effects of air travel… in expanding our minds, our frontiers and our appreciation of other peoples.

While fielding the accusations of the Flygskam brigade that the world is only in lockdown because of selfish air travellers who carried it across the globe…

In big monstrous metal birds.

Just imagine though a world in which our possibilities were restricted by a lack of air travel, or if you will, the past.

A world where we only learned about other peoples through the books and information we are given.

Now I’m not suggesting Boris Johnson or Donald Trump are feeding such a narrative but here is a cautionary tale of what could happen when we close ourselves off from others…

Legend has it that the people of Hartlepool in the north-east of England hanged a monkey who they mistook for a French spy during the Napoleonic Wars.

I have always believed that we are at our best as humans when we are being progressive rather than regressive.

While obviously being respectful of the world around us and those with whom we share it.

And being aware of our limitations with many a salutary tale out there from time immemorial of when to pull back.

Such as the tale of Icarus who flew too close to the sun only for the wax on his wings to melt.

This, and many more moral fables of how we should live with the natural environment around us, are all around you in Greece.., https://athensattica.com and My Greek odyssey.

But like Odysseus I have gone off on a tangent.

I will deal with the other forms of transport in the next parts of my ‘In Defence of’ series which will include cars,.

And no car hater me… how could I be? I should by rights be driving through the Florida Keys right now.

But to leave you on an up… the South Africans have discovered a balancing solution to carbon emissions under their feet.,, This plant can save the world.

And our shared history has shown too that our medicinal cures too can be found in the natural world.

So here’s to when we can all travel again.

And a shoutout to all our friends in the aviation industry who are our dreamcatchers… #DontPanicPostpone.#loveairtravel.

Countries, Cruising, Europe, Food, Food & Wine

Messi around on the water

Only one man walks on water in Barcelona.

He’s everywhere – in every shop window, on the backs of every family of tourists or parading his skills before 100,000 worshippers at the Cathedral of Sport, the Camp Nou.

Only on the day I visited the Spanish city, he’s not.

The ubiquitous Lionel Messi is back in his native South America on International duty playing for Argentina rather than curling in free-kicks for his adopted Barca.

Barcelona has a vacancy for a sporting hero then…

And I’m thinking if I nail it I might just get my name on the back of the football top that big fluffy bear is wearing.

He’s sitting in a sports car on the shopping area of a cruise ship in port at the foot of La Rambla.

Such are the trappings of fame… and I want some of it.

And I have the chance.

To walk on water on Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis of the Seas’ surf simulator FlowRider.

And I only have the best in the business to get me up to speed, Irish surfing superstar Gearoid McDaid.

We’re lucky to have Gearoid here, his feet rarely touch the ground.

Gearoid is not ling back from a couple of months surfing in Chile, was in Indonesia before that and is on his way to Portugal.

Gearoid is not what I expect though, no man bun, goatee beard, tattoo sleeve… just a regular Sligo boy.

Although he is pals with Kian Egan.

Thankfully there is one Fiftysomething who keeps up appearances with his bandana and windswept beard.

But boy can he surf… Gearoid, that is!

The simulator is on the 15th deck of the €1.4bn Oasis of the Seas cruise ship which is on its way to Majorca, France and then Italy…

With 6,300 passengers. enjoying five pools and numerous bats, restaurants and shows… and a park, ‘Central Park’ (you’ll forget you’re at sea).

But alas without us who’ll have to get off kicking and screaming before sail time, if they can find us hiding away down in the staff quarters.

The idea of the simulator which is 40ft long, is that a rush of water shoots out to build up the swell.

Which you then surf against.

It’s all in the knees, back and arms – and the trick is to sway and not panic.

Too late, the board went that way and the bandana and everything under it the other way.

It’s official. I don’t walk on water (but my family could tell you that). Maybe I’ll have better luck on my knees.

Eureka or ‘goooooal’ as Lionel Messi might shout.

I manage to master those waves in the prayer position on a boogie board with more than a little help from Mauritian teacher Kai.

Suddenly I feel indestructible. And here I was worried that I’d be caught with my shorts down.

And quite literally I almost was at half-mast.

I hadn’t pulled the cord tightly enough before the surfing class and the waves carried me away.

To be avoided – particularly if you’ve booked up for my next challenge, the 82ft Zip Line.

Nobody nine decks below on the Boardwalk wants to have Stars and Stripes boardie trunks land on them, believe me.

When they’re out shopping having an early-afternoon drink or are on their way to lunch.

Thankfully I can’t do much damage in the Spanish restaurant, other than embarrass myself and my party by getting my maracas out (steady!)

Well, once in we weighed into the plates and plates of tapas and a big jug of sangria (when in Spain).

Fuelled with patatas and shrimp al ajillo we swagger off the ship, only taking time to pass by an eight-year-old boy twisting and turning on the other simulator..

And onto the famous La Rambla shopping and market thoroughfare.

Christopher Columbus is still there where I remember him from the last time I visited Barcelona 15 years ago.

And drew back the curtains of my balcony cabin.

He is proudly guarding the city and pointing out to sea.

To be fair, the arm is right, though I’d maybe bend the elbow and those legs are way too straight.

Sorry, Chris, but you’d be no use on a surfboard either.

TRAVEL FACTS

The deal: Sail the Western Mediterranean for seven nights on Oasis of the Seas from €1049pp based on two sharing, departing Barcelona. Visit Palma, Marseille, Florence/Pisa, Rome (Civitavecchia), Napless and arrive back at Barcelona. www.royalcaribbean.ie. Flights not included.

How to get there: Aer Lingus www.aerlingus.com and Ryanair www.ryanair.com.

Where to stay in Barcelona: Hotel Concordia www.hotelconcordiabarcelona.com is a central hub and has a rooftop pool that will tempt you to linger. Pride was on when we visited and the neighbourhood was jumping. €135 per room per night.

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Padova – city of frescoes

As calling cards go, it does the job – simple, functional and just what is needed if your stock painting will be halos.

With a swish and a brush of red paint Giotto di Bondone had announced himself to the Papal envoy with his freehand circle.

And within a few years he would announce himself to the world with his magnum opus, his fresco in 1305 of the Scrovegni Chapel in Padova.

Which would in turn inspire Michelangelo when he came to adorn the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Self-portrait

For all of us who have attempted a still life and ended up with an egg in a basket of fruit instead of an orange you will know just how difficult it is to draw the perfect circle.

But only perfect circles would do.

As Giotto’s patron Enrico Scrovegni had let his halo slip and needed to make a grand gesture to gain absolution and enter through the gates of heaven.

In safe hands

Enrico’s crime was usury – charging excess interest on loans.

It is a crime so serious that it resulted in the banker being damned to the fires of Hell. Worth a shot in this country!

Rather than appealing straight to Our Lord, though, Scrovegni had the bright idea of asking His mother to intercede on his behalf.

An expansive canvas

And so he dedicated the chapel and the frescoes to her life with a celebration of her role in human salvation.

And just to leave nobody in any doubt of his devotion he had Giotto paint him into the main scene.

He is presenting a model of the chapel to her in the fresco The Last Judgment.

The Scrovegni Chapel is Padova’s calling card but it is only a hint of a more expansive canvas.

I am in Padova (Padua), 38km west of Venice in the Veneto region and 209km from Milan.

As well as looking upwards – Padova is the City of Frescoes – it also looks outwards.

Standing over us: Galileo

It has been home to the Venetians, French and Austro-Hungarians over the last millennium and embraced all of their influences.

Today it is looking westwards – which is where we Irish probably come in.

But more immediately to Milan’s Expo 2015, a showcase for feeding the planet and energy for life.

Padova has a rich history of doing both.

The Brenta River which leads right down to the Grand Canal teems with life.

While the Venetian Plain attracted the mariners of that great city to avail of its rich agriculture and build grand villas and palaces to entertain dign taries.

Finding what is lost

It is also home to the oldest botanical gardens in the world.

On this trip, we will get to witness all of this.

But today it’s Sunday, so Church and a visit to the Basilica of St Anthony of Padova.

Yes that St Anthony, the one who helps you – for some coins in his charity box – to find your keys.

St Anthony, we are told, has a wider reach than just those objects that fall out of your rucksacks and handbags.

He is also the patron saint of people who have lost their way in life or lost, or fear, losing something or somebody close to them.

Amazing

St Anthony’s bones are kept in an altar tomb in the basilica and people.

And people file past it in veneration touching the side, which is adorned with photographs of their loved ones.

The image of a young man, his head bowed and his hand placed on the side in silent invocation was truly moving.

I have to confess that this simple devotion touched me more than the veneration to St Anthony’s tongue and the bottom set of his teeth.

Which are in elaborate gold reliquaries further up the church.

A story with teeth

The story goes that when St Anthony’s body was exhumed his tongue was still moist in recognition of his great preaching prowess.

So the Padovans decided to place it on show for veneration.

St Anthony hailed from Lisbon, had he, of course, been Italian then you’d have to think his hands would have been on display.

Perhaps, it is because this is a university city, but not just any old university city, among the top ten oldest in the world.

Galileo magnifico

And where Galileo taught – naturally the statue to him.

Which is among 78 in the Isola Memmia in the Prato della Valle, portrays him with his hands outstretched.

It is also where the first woman anywhere in the world graduated.

St Anthony’s church

An inclusive place then and one where you can, if you don’t have two left feet like your writer, get up to dance the tango.

With dozens of other Padovans in the piazza at night.

Perhaps with another glass of Venetian Spritz – the local speciality of Aperol (think Campari) Prosecco and mineral water? Well, next time.

A word on the food and drink.

I had the good fortune to have accom- plished travel writer, food expert and bon viveur Peter on our trip.

Food as an art form

And I’m insisting that he come on all my future expeditions,.

So that he can describe in erudite fashion how good the likes of regional favourite Risi e bisi is.

A merely English translation as rice and peas clearly doesn’t do it justice so it’s best left in Italian.

I’m sure other restaurants do Risi e bisi just as well as Taverna degli Artisti.

But my dish came at the end of an enchanting visit to Cittadella, a 13th-century walled city which stands 14ft-16ft high and 4,793ft around.

Taverna degli Artisti stands opposite the quaint old theatre we entered behind a market stall and through what looked like a lock-up door.

A treasure more memorable because it feels hidden away.

Padova life

There is nothing shy and retiring, though, about the baroque Villa Pisani in Strà on the banks of the River Brenta.

Built by Alvise Pisani, the 114th doge, or leader, of Venice in 1735, there would be 114 rooms, with frescoes of gods and men and women living and loving lustily.

A palace for dictators

With vino flowing as copiously as the water on the nearby Brenta – and without the dams that that river employs to hold it back.

Pride of place in the villa is Napoleon Bonaparte’s bedroom – the little general bought it in 1806.

Bony’s bedroom is surrounded by empirical emblems and deliberately is the first the sun hits in the morning.

A work of art

Not to be outdone, Mussolini and Hitler met here in Villa Pisani for the first time.

One imagines there must have been a fight to see who got Bony’s room.

The Villa Pisani comes with its very own maze, the Labyrinth of Love.

Where we are told a young cloaked woman would stand in the centre at the top of a spiral staircase.

She was the prize for the man who managed to wend his way through the labyrinth.

Mazeballs

There is no historical record that Bony, Benito or Hitler burrowed their way manically through the maze.

But you would have to imagine that, like us, they did.

We can only assume too that the young cloaked woman in the centre of the maze who was to be our prize was on a day off.

But anyway it was time to get back on our burchiello – or boat.

We skirt along the river at a gentle pace, gurgling wine and scoffing hors d’oeuvres, in the manner of those nobles of old in the villa we have just left.

And are informed that many of the villas along the banks are also richly blessed but lie empty.

Still needing to be renovated.

Babbling brooks

It is a theme that keeps recurring.

That the Italians, having finished what they had set out to build during the Renaissance packed up…

Lay back, and enjoyed the fruits of their labour.

So with dragonflies gently skipping along the water by our side I contemplate how the energy of life sometimes has to come in great rushes.

But is often best captured in quiet moments and in water colours.

Venice in the distance

A gondola by the banks suggests Venice is drawing nearer.

But that is for another time, and besides the boat voyage runs both ways and inland to Padova and its environs.

The Venetians, after all, came this way for pleasures and sustenance.

So who am I to argue?

And look what’s just upstream

How to get there

Aer Lingus http://www.aerlingus.com departs for Venice on Fridays, returning Sundays. From €657.80.

Ryanair http://www.ryanair.com departs for Treviso, Thursdays and returns Thursdays. From €297.80.

Where to stay

The Only Weekend Padova option offers a double room in the central Hotel Europa.

Where you will enjoy a comfortable night’s stay, a balcony and breakfast, for two nights at €155.

Padova Terme Euganee Convention & Visitors Bureau offers the PadovaCard for free (https://www.hoteleuropapd.it).

The Padova Card is valid 48 hours (€16) or 72 hours (€21) and valid for one adult and child under 14 http://www.turismopadova.it/en/context/42.

Besides free admission, the Padova Card also provides discounts on attractions.

And allows visitors to use urban transit buses for free.