Travels in Old Europe

We spent nearly seven weeks in Spain during May and June followed by 11 days in France. Highlights included week-long walks in the Alpujarras and the Pyrenees but more of that in other posts.

Old Europe battling recession

Spain seems to spending a lot of Euros on public works in response to the recession and high unemployment. The whole country is a construction site, with many new buildings under way as well as restorations of older ones. They might even finish Gaudi’s Barcelona temple this century. The roof is on at last!

The remaining single-lane highways are being replaced by major expressways. Most of these are toll roads that the truckies avoid, taking the slower free ones. Cost rather than time pressure seems to be the priority after the financial downturn.

Spanish drivers are among the most considerate we’ve come across. They stop for pedestrians at crossings and rarely use their horns. The exception was Barcelona where gridlock is the order of the peak hour and locals drive their scooters recklessly. Expect at least one to run every red light a couple of seconds late. We were rear-ended whilst stationary by a Land Rover driver suffering a touch of road rage. He seemed to deliberately nudge us, perhaps a bit harder than intended. He jumped out of the car looking for an argument but was disappointed when I said I didn’t speak Spanish. The car in front of us was double parked not us. Anyway it was the only bump in 3000 kilometres around Spain.

Tour de …

In Spain tourism appeared to be mostly locals, with few places overcrowded. There were plenty of buskers and street performance artists but not as many beggars as we found in Paris. The Metro buskers are likely to be the unemployed rather than the real thing we’ve experienced on past visits.

France had lots more overseas tourists. Being later in the season, cheap airfares and the decline in swine flu hysteria may have accounted for this. Two new museums were highlights in Paris. Firstly, the Musée Quai Branly, the new museum near the Eiffel Tower, specialises in indigenous art, cultures and civilizations from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. It also features Australian indigenous artists, whose work decorates the administration building.

Le Musée de la Cinémathèque française, located in a Frank Geary designed building, is a must for cinema lovers.

Sacred sights

The Sacré-Coeur Basilica and the surrounding Montmartre area were not just extremely crowded. We were disgusted by the hordes of visitors partying on the steps and lawns. Early morning is the best time to visit the church if you can put up with the rubbish, broken bottles and smell of urine.

Speaking of sacred places, we visited Jim Morrison’s grave at Père Lachaise Cemetery again after a sixteen year gap. There is still a gendarme on duty but the monument is looking tacky, though much of the graffiti on other graves has been removed. I was more interested in seeing Oscar’s Wilde’s. Sadly the new tomb by sculptor Jacob Epstein is defaced with lipstick kisses and graffiti. There is no guard, despite the fact that it has been declared a French National Monument.

As Wilde said, “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” I’m sure they’ll be talking about him long after the Doors are less than a footnote on the 20th Century.

Turnbull: “I Will Win the Next Election”

Despite taking a hammering over his handling over the ute-gate affair, and murmurings amongst senior Liberal Party ranks, the Federal Opposition Leader Malcolm Turnbull is convinced that the coalition will win the next election.

Mr Turnbull is obviously buoyed by a new Newspoll survey that suggests he has clawed back six percentage points to see his overall approval rating rise to 31 per cent.

Relishing the opportunity to appear before an audience of the nation’s powerbrokers, Mr Turnbull today visited a self-funded retiree forum at a retirement village in Sydney’s south and fielded questions about the economic crisis and income tax.

According to reports, one woman in the audience asked:

“Are we going to live long enough for you to get back into government?”

“The answer is assuredly yes,” Mr Turnbull said.

“You’ve only got to wait until the next election.”

“As I said, we’ll be back in power at the next election with their support,” he said.

“And I wish everybody in that room a long and healthy life as I do to everybody of course, all Australians.”

Hu you gonna call?

Not Kevin Rudd evidently.

Despite the PM’s so called “special relationship” with China, and his self-professed title as a “diplomat” it seems as though the PM carries as influence as a wet rag in Chinese diplomatic circles.

The Federal Government is still no closer to extracting more information from China about the arrest of Australian mining executive Stern Hu. Chinese born Mr Hu and his three Rio Tinto colleagues were arrested last Sunday for allegedly spying and stealing state secrets.

China’s acting ambassador to Australia was called into the Foreign Affairs Department again yesterday but the Foreign Affairs Minister admits no more detail has been forthcoming.

This report from ABC’s AM Chief political correspondent Lyndal Curtis:

LYNDAL CURTIS: Three times the Government has sought to extract more information from China’s acting ambassador to Australia and it’s still no closer to answers to its questions.

STEPHEN SMITH: No, and that is why we pressed them both in Canberra and in Beijing but I have made the point in recent days despite some people thinking that somehow this difficult issue can be magically solved by one phone call, this is a difficult and complex case. It requires constant attention which is what we are giving it.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Australian officials were able to see Mr Hu last week but under the consular agreement struck with China they won’t be able to see him again for another month.

The Foreign Affairs Minister Stephen Smith has told Radio National the Government’s priority is getting detailed information on the charges that may be facing Mr Hu.

STEPHEN SMITH: To enable us to, in our view, try and protect Mr Hu’s interests, we need to have more detail about that and more precise detail about it and that is what we are pressing Chinese officials for.

LYNDAL CURTIS: And he’s not happy that Australian ministers have been reduced to scouring Chinese newspapers and websites for information.

STEPHEN SMITH: I have made it crystal clear, as have our officials, that I would have much preferred that this information be given to us through the normal diplomatic channels and you can be reliably assured that that is a point that has been made in the last 24 hours to Chinese officials both here and in Beijing.

LYNDAL CURTIS: While Mr Smith and the Trade Minister Simon Crean are trying to separate the detention of Mr Hu from the broader economic and trade relationship between the countries, one former ambassador to China, Ross Garnaut believes the episode may do wider damage.

ROSS GARNAUT: It is going to be an episode that does do damage to China and its international partners. It’s in all of our interests that that be handled with great sensitivity within and without China.

I have no doubt that within China there will be concerns about the international business response.

LYNDAL CURTIS: Stephen Smith has rejected the Opposition’s continuing calls that either he or the Prime Minster pick up the phone to speak to their counterparts in China. He says the Government is being methodical and proportionate and isn’t giving up on Mr Hu but the Coalition’s defence spokesman David Johnston has told ABC TV the Government’s performance isn’t nearly good enough.

DAVID JOHNSTON: The Prime Minister proclaims that he has a special relationship. He is a diplomat. What have we seen from this government with respect to resolving this man’s plight? I just think it is absolutely outrageous and I just cannot believe we are sitting back allegedly, quietly manoeuvring behind the scenes.