Life in Mini-Europe

Life in Mini-Europe: it’s a life in plastic, but I’m not sure Barbie would feel at home here – there’s more going on than you might imagine

Mini-EuropeSome towns and even villages exhibit models of themselves. Tourists can walk about like Gulliver in Lilliput, exploring and taking photos. Brussels has Mini-Europe.

According to Mini-Europe’s English language website, this is where you can “visit Europe’s nices [sic] places” and see “the Best of the Best”.

Mini-Europe from AtomiumMini-Europe exists in the shadow of the Atomium. I had the opportunity for an overview – so to speak – during my time-travel experience there earlier this year. (See here.) Still, I wasn’t prepared to be quite as charmed as I was when Mrs SC and I paid it a visit recently.

Mini-Europe - Stockholm city hall representing SwedenI’m not sure whether it really has Europe’s nicest places, or whether they are indeed the best of the best. (As a Gothenburger, Mrs SC was a little peeved. The fine model of Stockholm’s city hall is the only building representing Sweden. This despite the half a dozen or so buildings for each of Belgium and The Netherlands.) Still, somebody has clearly had a lot of fun creating Mini-Europe. I was surprised and impressed at the attention to detail, also because they keep the park so up-to-date. (You’ll see what I mean in a bit.)

Sunbathing in BudapestMini-Europe is inhabited by mini-Europeans: mostly young, healthy tourists with a fetish about sunbathing. (For example, here they are, stretched out on sunbeds in Budapest’s Széchenyi Gyógyfürdö thermal spa.)

Tourists in mud - or worseThey also have a slightly plastic look about them, and often stand with their feet in something that might be mud. (Or worse. I am speaking from personal experience of the leavings of Brussels’ dogs.)

Happy ever afterStill, there is an attempt to present the whole breadth of life here, from the couple who joyfully rush from a German church to begin their happy ever after…

In the cemetary… to the little family visiting the grave of a loved one somewhere in the fields of Flanders.

The entrance ticket comes with a 64 page brochure which does not just present the buildings and scenes modeled. It also has something educative to say about the European Union, as well as about each of the countries represented. The park sports at least one building from each of the 28 EU member states.

Montmartre news kioskIn front of Montmartre a queue has formed of citizens seeking News. (You may just be able to make that out from the headlines on the papers for sale.)

Facing the terrorist threatIn the streets of Copenhagen (for some reason) a Belgian army truck – fully equipped with an anti-aircraft gun – stands ready to confront the terrorist threat. (I’m not sure how practical that is, but it’s certainly in keeping with the political reality in Brussels at present.)

Anti-Brexiteers rally outside Parliament in LondonMeanwhile, outside the Houses of Parliament in London a crowd has gathered. They are protesting Britain’s impending exit from the EU. “We heart EU.” “Me and EU 4 ever.” And my favourite: “I am not for or against anything I just like to walk around with a sign.” Slogans reproduced from a real protest that actually took place only days after the Brexit vote.

Mini-Europe - notice of demolitionNearby, an official sign announces the demolition of the British buildings awaits the outcome of Brexit negotiations.

It will be a shame if Mini-Europe has to remove the British buildings. Apart from other considerations, think of all the work someone’s put into making them.

Mini-Europe - Sunbathing on a raft in IrelandAnd what will happen to Ireland? Isolated beyond the empty spaces where Stratford and Longleat, Dover Castle and the crescents of Bath once stood? Will the little people still feel free to sunbath on their raft in the Shannon?

Coast guardOf course you could complain that Mini-Europe doesn’t cover all the bases. Where is a Pride Parade, for example?

Sinking gondola in VeniceAnd what about the refugee crisis? There’s a fine model of a Coast Guard boat, but where are the overloaded rubber dinghys? Mmm, perhaps I’m asking for too much. There is a sinking gondola in Venice.

A fire at the refinaryThere are a few dramatic moments. A bicycle race in Paris (where visitors can try to help their favourites on to victory by peddling for them). Vesuvius, that erupts (or at least rumbles and shakes) when you press the right button. And in the harbour of Barcelona an oil refinery catches fire on a regular basis. Firefighters on land and sea rush to prevent disaster – by looking at the flames apparently.

Singed firefighterMeanwhile the poor firefighter closest to the action, up on a ladder, is looking increasingly singed.

On a ferris wheelBut generally speaking life in Mini-Europe is pretty calm. The plastic people enjoy the mixed melodies – and blessings – of 28 national anthems (plus the “Ode to Joy”) whenever visitors press the right buttons. They sit around casually outside cafés and in ferris wheel gondolas, watching the world – and the giants – go by. And in Finland blonde women emerge from a little sauna to go skinny-dipping in the lake before nipping back inside (for some birch-twig flagelation no doubt).

It’s all so very EU.

Finnish sauna and naked bather
At the Finnish sauna…

I wrote this article for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Lisbon photo essay

A Lisbon photo essay to round off my series of entries from Lisbon.

The last week in June, Mrs SC and I visited Lisbon – my first visit, her second. In my two most recent blog entries here I focused on a couple of of Lisbon’s “sights” and their history. First off was the Alfama, the oldest part of the city dominated by the Castelo de Sao Jorge. That article retold the story of the 1147 Siege of Lisbon. Here’s a photo of the castle that I didn’t fit into that article.

Lisbon photo essay: Baixa - Looking up to the CastleIn my second article I wrote about our visit to the Museu de Marinha in Belém and how the museum presents the story of the Portuguese Age of Discovery… and what it leaves out. We didn’t spend the whole day in the Maritime Museum, though, and here’s a picture of an ancient fig tree in the Jardim Botânico Tropical, which turned out to be another good place to rest in the shade.

Lisbon photo essay: Belem - fig tree in the tropical botanical gardens
My final article was going to be about the great Lisbon earthquake of 1755, but I’ve had second thoughts. I love history, but I know I can run on a bit. The last couple of entries have been rather wordy, so today’s will be mostly photos. I’ll hold the earthquake over to a later date – or perhaps till after I revisit Lisbon, which I’m tempted to do. We did have a very good time.

But first, allow me just a little more history. I took the next photo on the morning of our first day. We were out scouting for breakfast, walking down the tree-shaded Avenida da Liberdade  when I saw this. As you probably remember from school, Christopher Columbus “discovered America” in 1492.
The Discovery of America 1472 - Avenida da Liberdade
OK:

  • The aboriginal peoples of America actually discovered it tens of thousands of years earlier,
  • Leif Eriksson was the first certain European visitor and he was there around the year 1000,
  • Columbus probably went to his grave believing he’d actually found India,
  • The Waldseemüller map – the first to actually name the continent America – didn’t appear till 1507.

Still… 1472?

I really thought it was a mistake. The sort of thing that happens sometimes when street painters doze on the job and paint SLOM on a road where they ought to have painted SLOW. But, no. It seems there’s this theory in Portugal that a Portuguese explorer called João Vaz Corte-Real discovered the New Land of the Codfish (Terra Nova do Bacalhau) in 1472. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, you Spanish and American Columbus lovers!

And while you’re doing that, enjoy these photos from a tram ride we took through Lisbon’s Bairro Alto district.

Lisbon photo essay: Tram 28 at Martin Montiz
Above is tram number 28 at the Martin Moniz stop.

Below is from the interior of a number 25 tram heading up to Bairro Alto.

Lisbon photo essay: Inside tram 25

Lisbon photo essay: Bairro Alto - street scene - reading the news
Above: Two gentlemen in the shade by a news kiosk – taken from the tram window.

Below: On the phone with the washing – also taken from the tram window.

Lisbon photo essay: Bairro Alto - street scene - on the phone

Lisbon photo essay: Bairro Alto - trams 28 and 25 passing
Above: A number 25 and number 28 tram passing on a corner in Barrio Alto. In places the tram lines are so steep I wonder how the trams manage to climb and not slide back.

Below: A Lisbon street seen through a tram window.

Lisbon photo essay: Bairro Alto - Through the tram windowThat was how we spent the morning of our final day in Lisbon. For a complete change, we took the metro to the ultra-modern district Parque das Nações and spent the afternoon at Lisbon’s Aquarium. The Oceanário de Lisboa is probably the most child-friendly place we visited on our trip. It was pretty entertaining for two older people without kids too. Here’s one of the sharks.

Lisbon photo essay: In the aquarium - shark
And here is a panorama of silhouettes transfixed by the main ocean tank.

Lisbon photo esay: In the aquarium - silhouettes 2
A final couple of pictures to round this off.

Lisbon photo essay: Fado performance 2
Above: The first evening we went to a Fado bar…

Below: …and I had a sangria. Cheers!

John, sangria and Fado
So that was our visit to Lisbon. A very packed schedule, but we had a great time and certainly hope to return one of these days. On the way to the airport the taxi driver asked where we’d been and what we’d seen and then said: “Oh, but you haven’t see Sintra. Sintra is the best.” (It turned out Sintra was where he lived.) So we promised to put Sintra on our list for the next time.


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

The Age of Discovery at Museu de Marinha

I like history museums. It’s always interesting to see what history the museums choose to present, and the way they present it. It’s also telling to see what history they avoid presenting. Lisbon’s Museu de Marinha – the Maritime Museum – is a case in point.

Lisbon street with seaOn our way to the airport, the day we left Lisbon, the taxi driver asked how we’d enjoyed our visit. We made the usual noises about the fantastic weather, the food, the architecture. We said how much we liked that the city was built by the water. How much we missed that, living in Brussels which doesn’t even have a decent river, just a canal.

“And the history,” I said. “I like the history. I thought it was interesting to visit the Maritime Museum.”

“Ah, yes,” said the taxi driver. “If we have history, it’s all about the sea.” He was right about that.

Optical waves in tiles on Rossio squareLisbon is built on a tidal estuary – the mouth of the Tagus River where it opens into the Atlantic. You can see the water from many points in the city. Even when you can’t see it, it’s often present – in the architecture, in decorations, in monuments. And in the smell of the sea when the warm wind blows.

The second day of our holiday we took a train westward along by the side of the Tagus, four stops to Belém. In Belém, history and the sea are married even more closely. The train was crowded, every seat taken. Many teenagers in shorts and singlets and tennis shoes, suntanned limbs and cheerful faces, rolled towels and bottles of water. This was obviously the train to the beach. But the beach was not at Belém and only a few other tourists got out with us.

Tourist tram and Tuktuk at Praca de ComercioNot to say that Belém wasn’t busy. Tourist coaches, tourist trams, tourist tuk-tuks and private cars had all brought their share. The queue to get into the Mosteiro dos Jerónimos (the Monastery of Jerome) snaked across a wide square and stood still under a blazing sun. We decided not to join it. What does it have to show anyway? We consulted our guidebook. “A monument to the wealth of the Age of Discovery… financed by ‘pepper money’, a tax levied on spices…” And it houses the tomb of Vasco de Gama.

Belem the queue at Mosterio de JeronimosOK. Let’s visit the Museu de Marinha instead, housed in one (more modern) wing of the Monastery. Cool, out of the sun, un-crowded, with maps and instruments of navigation, models of ships and… interesting lacunae.

Portugal’s maritime history begins with fishermen and traders long before the Reconquista and the siege of Lisbon. (See last week’s entry.) Right up until the early 1400s Portugal was little more than an outpost of Europe. A largely insignificant country – like England or Norway – on the edge of Europe, just scratching by. Because of a long coastline, many people fished for a living in the coastal waters. Because there were fisher folk, there were also sailors and shipbuilders. Inevitably there were merchants too, people who helped build trade routes up and down the Atlantic coast.

Henry the Navigator tileThen in the early 1400s, along came Infante Henrique – Prince Henry the Navigator. Henry was the third son of King João I and his English Queen, Philippa of Lancaster. (Incidentally, Philippa was the sister of England’s Henry IV. Henry’s daughter, also Philippa of Lancaster, later married Eric of Pomerania – Erik av Pommern – and became Queen of Denmark, Norway and Sweden.)

Prince Henry (1394-1460) took what Portugal had in the way of seafaring expertise and made something more of it. His motivation – he claimed – was wholly holy. He wanted to carry the Reconquista onward into Africa, to take the crusade to the Moors. And he wanted to get back at the Arab pirates who regularly raided Portugal to carry villagers off into slavery.

Lateen sailTo this end he encouraged the development of faster, more nimble sailing vessels – the Portuguese caravel with its lateen sail. He financed exploration further and further out into the Atlantic and south along the western coast of North Africa. He may have set up a school of navigation, although this seems to be more of a legend than a fact.

It was on Henry’s efforts that future Portuguese exploration built – and a century of effort finally paid off in 1499. That was when da Gama returned to Lisbon after the first European voyage to India round the south of Africa. The cargo of spices da Gama’s ships brought back was worth many times more than the cost of the expedition.

Vasco da GamaThat’s the story the Maritime Museum tells, and it tells it well. A good story, with lots of detail and many objects displayed to bolster its veracity.

But it’s not the full story. Not by a long chalk.

So what’s missing?

Well, slavery for one thing.

It’s true that Henry the Navigator wanted to spread Christianity. It’s true he wanted to put an end to slaver raids on Portuguese territory. It’s also a fact he wanted to make money from the expeditions – but more often than not lost money instead.

Museu de Marinha - Portuguese discoveries camelsWestern Africa was a land of gold – certainly gold came out of western Africa. The Portuguese reasoned it must come from somewhere, and Henry’s explorers were trying to find where. They were not very successful. However, they could see that slaves were a valuable commodity in Morocco.

Rescuing kidnapped Portuguese from the pirate slave markets of Morocco, the Portuguese saw that black Africans were also being traded as slaves. Though they couldn’t find gold, they could certainly find people. From a very early stage, Prince Henry and his explorers started financing their exploration by raiding African villages for slaves. To begin with they sold the Africans to Moroccan slavers – the same people they wanted to stop trading in captured Europeans. Very soon, though, the Portuguese started using African slaves themselves.

Museu de Marinha - Portuguese discoveries map detail 5 - AtlanticAs the explorations continued, more Atlantic islands were discovered, claimed for Portugal and colonised. The Portuguese started to colonise Madeira from 1425 and the Azores from 1433. In both places, from 1450 Prince Henry was encouraging the colonists to cultivate sugar cane and sugar beet. Refined sugar was in great demand in Europe and so a valuable cash crop – but cultivating it was labour intensive. Slavery was the answer.

The transatlantic slave trade was born in the Portuguese island colonies. Throughout the 1400s it was the principle source of finance for the Portuguese Age of Discovery.

Hunted by fishAfterwards, of course, the Portuguese slave trade was eclipsed by the Spanish, the British, the French, the Dutch…  (Even Sweden had a small corner of it.) However, the former Portuguese colony of Brazil became the last country in the Americas to end slavery. It hung on till 1888.

Nowhere in the Maritime Museum is there a breath about any of this.

Quite a serious oversight I feel.

Parque metro station - Ship with negroesInterestingly, we did find one place where there’s at least a hint that some Portuguese have not completely forgotten this dark side of the Age of Discovery. Each of Lisbon’s underground stations has it’s own unique decorative theme. The nearest station to our hotel, Parque, was themed around the Age of Discovery. All the illustrations for this post that have dark blue backgrounds come from the tiles of the Parque station. And, as you see, here at least the slave ships figure.

There were other interesting absences in the Museu de Marinha. Nothing, for example, about the Portuguese Empire between 1600 and the French Revolution. (It was a period of decline when Portugal lost out to the Dutch and the British.) It was also curious to see how the museum chose to describe the loss of Portugal’s colony Goa to independent India in 1961. (Complete with a recording of funereal music.) Not to mention the veil drawn over the independence struggles of the African colonies 1961-1974.

Still, we enjoyed our visit. I’d go back again!

Museu de Marinha, Belem - Portuguese discoveries map detail 1 - navigator


This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

Castelo de Sao Jorge

The Castelo de Sao Jorge in Lisbon – visited by tourists for at least 970 years, and by Mrs SC and me last week

Old Lisbon street in AlfamaIt’s a long, steep climb up from the river, through the narrow winding streets – some of them stairs – of the Alfama. Up, up to the highest battlements of the Castelo de Sao Jorge – Lisbon’s Castle of St George. You need to stop at times on the way. Stand in the shade of a wall. Sit for a glass of fresh pressed orange juice or a cup of coffee. Feel the heat and the history radiating from the walls and the streets’ mosaic paving.

You can see why these heights were attractive: easy to defend, hard to take. They command the mouth of the River Tagus – the Tejo – and the harbour below; the routes out to the Atlantic in one direction, inland to Iberia in the other.

Battlements of Castelo de Sao Jorge and view over LisbonThe castle was built by Portugal’s Moorish rulers in the 700s, though the archaeology confirms previous fortifications from Roman, Carthaginian and pre-historic times. From the 700s to the 1100s the castle grew, and the city it protected. By 1147 it was, if not impregnable, certainly a tough challenge. At that point the Reconquista – the Christian re-conquest of Islamic Iberia – had been underway for a good 300 years. The current local leader was Dom Alfonso, Count of Portugal. The Count’s army wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t up to the challenge of Lisbon’s fortifications.

Fortune brought him reinforcements.

Part of Castelo de Sao Jorge held together with staplesThe Second Crusade was underway. The Pope in Rome had given the Catalans, Castilians, and Portuguese dispensation to fight their own fight at home. He summoned everyone else to spill blood in the Holy Land. An armada of ships from around the English Channel and the North Sea collected and sailed from Dartmouth in England. Figures differ, but there may have been upward of 160 ships. They ran into bad weather and put into Oporto where Dom Alfonso seized the day.

He persuaded this motley gang of bruisers – sorry, army of noble knights – to stay and besiege Lisbon. In keeping with their Christian faith, they drove a hard bargain. Dom Alfonso had to agree to let them hold the city after they had captured it. Just for a period. Just until they had taken everything of value they found and all the ransom they could squeeze from their prisoners. Don Alfonso also promised them feudal estates in the territories they captured if they chose to stay. They wouldn’t have to pay taxes either.

Lisbon from Castelo de Sao JorgeThe siege began on 1st July 1147 and ended on 25th October. The castle was starved into submission, though later Portuguese mythology gave the credit to a Portuguese knight, Martim Moniz. The story is that Moniz saw the Moors had left a door open (because after a four-month siege the defenders would of course open a door). He forced himself into the doorway, sacrificing his own life to stop the Moors closing it. His heroism allowed time for his comrades in arms to reach him and break through door to capture the castle.

In fact the defenders negotiated a surrender which would allow them to leave the castle with their lives and goods intact. Once in possession the Crusaders reneged on this agreement.

Arches in the Cathedral CloisterAfterwards, while some Crusaders sailed on to Palestine and the otherwise unmitigated disaster of the Second Crusade, others stayed. One English knight – Gilbert of Hastings – became the Bishop of Lisbon. No doubt his holy work during the siege had qualified him for the job.

Gilbert’s Cathedral – Sé de Lisboa – was constructed on part of the ruins of the city after the siege. An archaeological excavation under the Cathedral’s cloister reveals Moorish, Roman and earlier remains, and the site is open to the public. Mrs SC and I stopped there on our climb to the castle and looked into the depths of history. A blackbird was singing in the excavation and then it flew down and under the arch of a Roman sewer where, presumably, it had a nest.

Mrs SC reviews the archaeology in the Cathedral CloisterUp on the battlements, when we finally reach them, the limestone of the walls is weathering. I can see fossilised mussel shells and the imprint of clams created millennia ago. Along one of the castle’s lower, broader shoulders pines in the hot sun scent the air. Hollow and decayed trunks of olive trees, looking old enough to remember the siege, yet sprout twigs with small bunches of grey-green leaves. There’s life in the old wood yet.

View over Lisbon and the Tagus from Castel de Sao Jorge
View over Lisbon and the Tagus from Castel de Sao Jorge looking west


A few words of extra information. My rather sententious account of the Crusaders capturing Lisbon depends to some extent on Wikipedia, to some extent on accounts available at Castelo de Sao Jorge and to some extent on the eye-witness account by Osbernus De expugnatione Lyxbonensi (The Capture of Lisbon) at the Medieval Sourcebook. I should probably add that by 1147 Dom Alfonso was recognisd by his own people as King of Portugal, but not by any other state or ruler. It wasn’t till 1179 that he managed to finesse his achievements in the Reconquista into Papal recognition as the first King of Portugal.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.