PC 245 The Tagus and Cascais

A young elephant sets off on a journey and comes “to the banks of the great grey-green greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever.” Lovely alliteration from the British author Rudyard Kipling (1865 – 1936) in one of his ‘Just So stories – The Elephant’s Child. (Note 1) But it was the word ‘river’ which prompted me to remember the Limpopo (Note 2), as sitting in Estoril I am close to the estuary of the Tagus, the longest river in the Iberian Peninsula.

There is something obvious about major rivers and their part in the physical development of countries, as intercommunity trade was how societies grew – before airfreight! I am told that my readers often learn something new from my scribbles; that’s good as it’s never too late! Geography is a fascinating topic and the increasing focus and concern on man’s contribution to climate change will bring the location of some of the major world cities under the spotlight. For those which are sited on the coast, like Lisbon here in Portugal, or New York or Singapore or Wellington or like London, on a tidal river, a rise of only 1.5 metres in sea levels may have a significant impact.

Predicted sea levels in London in 2100

Just for fun, I have listed some of the major global capitals that lie on a river, some are of course a distance from the sea: Paris on The Seine, London on The Thames, Lisbon on The Tagus, Moscow on the Moskva River, Vienna on The Danube, further downstream Bratislava (Slovakia), still further Belgrade (Serbia) and even still further down The Danube Budapest, the capital of Hungary, with the hilly district of Buda across the river from the flat Pest. We have Rome on The Tiber, Washington on the Potomac, Khartoum (Sudan) lies on The Nile 2170 kms upstream of Cairo in Egypt, Baghdad on The Tigris, while in Africa Kinshasa (DRC) and Brazzaville (Republic of Congo) are astride on The Congo River. Amsterdam is on the River Amstel, Kiev on the Dnieper and Warsaw on The Vistula. In South America both Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay and Buenos Aires, Argentina’s, respectively sit north and south of the Rio de la Plata and across in South East Asia on the Mekong River lie Vientiane (Laos) and Phnom Penh (Cambodia).

Bill Nighy

You may have seen a Channel 5 series on British television called ‘The World’s Most Scenic Rivers’ narrated by Bill Nighy? Despite the syrupy nature of the commentary, with words like ‘spectacular’ and ‘marvellous’ (‘espetacular’ and ‘maravilhoso’ in Portuguese) gushing like the waters themselves, I suspect it was an informative series for most viewers. The rivers that earned the right to be called ‘most scenic’ were the Shannon in Ireland, the longest in both Ireland and the UK at 360 kms; the Spey in Scotland, famous for its salmon fishing; the Niagara (Note 3)  on the border between the Province of Ontario in Canada and the State of New York in the USA and one of the shortest rivers in the world at 58 kms; the longest river in Italy, The Po, at 652 kms; The Moselle in Germany famous for its wines and the Hudson in New York State, some 315 miles (506 kms) long.

So what would the producers of Bill Nighy’s series have made of the Tagus? Firstly it rises in the Sierra de Albarracin in eastern Spain, a thousand and seven kilometres from its mouth, and all its main tributaries flow into it from the north. The first major city along its banks is Sacedón.

Sacedón in eastern Spain

Its natural path is no longer smooth; there are several dams and dozens of hydroelectric schemes along its route, helping to provide drinking water and energy to population centres such as Aranjuez, Toledo ……

Toledo with the Alcantara bridge (Puente de Alcantara) over the Targus.

…… and Talavera. I can’t write Talavera without thinking immediately of the Peninsula War battle of the same name in 1809; British against the French (was ever thus!). Then the association runs to the Lines of Torres Vedras and the Duke of Wellington etcetera etcetera (Note 4).

The Tagus near Spanish/Portuguese border

By the time the Tagus reaches Portugal it’s slowed, meandering through a wide alluvial flood plain before mingling with the salt water of the sea.

The Tagus estuary from air, looking towards Cascais

On the northern banks of the Tagus estuary, some 30 minutes by a dinky little train west of Lisbon, lies Cascais (pronounced Kashkise) on what the Tourist Industry maintains is the Portuguese Riviera (Note 5). The resort was made popular by European royalty, particularly during the Second World War when Portugal was neutral. Today luxury villas are second homes to the rich and hotels cater for the well-heeled. Espetacular e maravilhoso!

A night at the Hotel Albatroz, set on a promontory overlooking the harbour, would set you back 420 euros; and that’s without breakfast! Today the era of elegance created by Cascais’ famous visitors has faded, swallowed by a faster pace of life and sadly less time to ‘stand & stare’.

In the summer months the tourists walk the tiled pavements ………,

……. gawk at the grand castle and marina and invade the fast-food establishments serving pizza or pasta.

This seaside restaurant is ….. marvellous

Some large mansions and hotels have been sympathetically converted into apartments whilst others stand gaunt and covered in shrubs and weeds, often the result of laws on inheritance producing no agreement as to ownership.

Needs a little more than TLC?

Cascais is some 20kms south of the western-most point in Europe, Cabo da Roca. Just north of Gincho Beach, the lighthouse on top of the cliffs is at 38° 47’N 9° 30’W. If the world was flat you might think you could see North America – on a day with good visibility!

Cabo da Roca

Richard 27th August 2021


Note 1 Some years ago I managed a bookshop on Northcote Road, Battersea, for a day while the owner went off to a wedding. A challenging but interesting experience, dealing with potential customers and doing the cash balance at the end of the day. One customer asked me what I would recommend for his 13 year old son; I remembered Kipling’s Just So Stories ……. and made a sale!

Note 2 The Limpopo River flows through Mozambique.

Note 3 Niagara Falls got an unfavourable mention in my PC 51 (October 2015) about Foz do Iguazu in Brazil.

Note 4 Numerous books on Portugal but Patrick Wilcken’s 2004 Empire Adrift, about the royal family decamping to Brazil in the early 1800s, and Barry Hatton’s Portugal are very good.

Note 5 ‘The Riviera’ normally refers to the coastline between Cannes in France, and includes the Côte d’Azur, and La Spezia in Italy.

PC 244 What Is This Thing Called Love (2)

We humans seem to have an insatiable appetite for tales of romantic love, whether fictional ones from Jane Austen for example, or real ones from across the centuries. The fact that these stories often have a very sad ending intrigues us more; how can an emotion such as love be the cause of its own demise? (Note 1)

Such was the passion between Antony and Cleopatra, Queen of Egypt, that in some ways the end was never in doubt; they choose suicide to stay together in their eternity. When the Roman general Mark Antony first saw Cleopatra he reportedly exclaimed: “Brilliant to look upon and to listen to, with the powers to subjugate everyone.” She could have had anything or anyone she wanted but she fell passionately in love with this Roman. As Shakespeare depicts it, their relationship was volatile but, after they risked all in a war with Rome and lost, they chose to die together in 30 BC, rather than be paraded through the streets of Rome in disgrace. Mark Antony stabbed himself with his sword whilst Cleopatra ‘allowed herself to be bitten by an asp’, an Egyptian cobra.

In the first postcard about tragic love affairs I mentioned Elvira Madigan, whom I knew about from travels in Denmark. Many visits to Vienna and holidaying on an Austrian lake gave me insight into the Mayerling story, although I admit it’s not well known here. I thought it was a simple tale of two lovers who commit suicide, but there’s more to it than that.

No one at the time could foresee the fall-out from the doomed love affair between Rudolph, the 30 year old Crown Prince of Austria, and his lover 17 year old Mary Freiin von Vetsera. Rudolf, who was married to Princess Stéphanie of Belgium, was the only son of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth, and was heir apparent to the throne of Austria-Hungary; crucially they had no son, only a daughter. The romantic version is that the strict codes of the Hapsburgs forbade this dalliance and that Rudolf proposed a suicide pact with Mary. Sneaking away to a royal hunting lodge in Mayerling, an hour outside Vienna, the crown prince shot his lover and then turned the gun on himself; it was 30th January 1890.

The Mayerling tragedy is the subject of both a film (1968) and ballet. The former stars such actors as Omar Sharif, Catherine Deneuve, James Mason, Ava Gardner and James Robertson Justice. Historians now agree that Rudolf was a poetic young man, liberal in his politics and often at odds with his conservative father. But he was also a rake, someone who used his position to bed as many women as possible. It’s believed he had some 31 illegitimate children! Another rumour was that he was ill with syphilis and felt guilty that he had infected his wife.

The Habsburg court tried to stifle the facts, suggesting he had died of a heart attack but their enemies enjoyed the scandal. As Rudolf had no son, the succession would eventually pass to Franz Joseph’s brother Archduke Karl Ludwig’s eldest son, Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Sadly for everyone Gavrilo Princip, a Yugoslav nationalist and ethnic Serb, assassinated him in Sarajevo in June 1914. The dominos fell: Austria declared war on Serbia, an ally of the Russian Empire and the systems of other alliances resulted in the start of the First World War that autumn.

What if Rudolph had not committed suicide? He was obviously a man conflicted by the demands of duty and his own personal wishes (Thinks? This reminds me of another prince?), but he had a growing reputation as a liberal on the European political scene and was not supportive of his father’s conservative aims for the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Maybe there would have been no First World War? You can have fun with ‘What if ….?’

Don’t you find it weird when various songs pop into your conscious brain, every so often? It’s either the lyrics or the musical score or both. Whenever I meet someone called Maria I can’t help it; ‘I once met a girl named Maria.’ just arrives, the memory sung by Tony (Richard Beymer) to his Maria (the beautiful Natalie Wood (Note 2)) in the 1961 film West Side Story. In a smoky cinema in Devizes in Wiltshire one evening I watched another modern day Romeo & Juliet take, this one set in 1950s New York. The portrayal is strong, vibrant, colourful and energetic as rival teenage gangs, The Jets, a white gang led by Riff, and The Sharks, a Puerto Rican gang led by Bernardo, fight for turf on the mean streets of the Upper West Side. Tony, a Jet and best friend of Riff, and Maria, a Shark and Bernardo’s younger sister, fall in love …… then everyone thinks they know better ….. there’s fighting ….. and a song ‘Officer Krupke’ …….. and eventually Chino, Maria’s fiancé, shoots Tony, who dies in Maria’s arms. Maria takes the gun from Chino and pleads with everyone to stop the inter-gang warfare.

My education never covered Greek mythologies but gradually I have learned the outline of the story of Helen of Troy. (Note 3) When Parris (one ‘r’ or two?), the woman-mad Prince of Troy, made a diplomatic mission to Sparta (modern-day Greece), he met Helen and fell head-over-heels in love with her. They ran back to Troy together, causing the Greeks to assemble a great army, led by Menelaus’s brother Agamemnon, to rescue Helen, thereby starting the decade long Trojan War. Whether she wanted to be rescued is a matter for debate, so of course is whether she actually existed! We’ll never know, but her romantic part in the greatest epic of all time can never be forgotten, forever remembered as ‘the face that launched a thousand ships.’. She didn’t actually smash a bottle of Greek Metaxa brandy over the bows as she wasn’t there; it was her face that Menelaus kept in the forefront of his mind when he built the huge navy built with which to attack Troy. Later the Greeks constructed a wooden horse to gain entry to the City of Troy; it secured their victory. Paris was killed and Helen and Menelaus returned to Sparta. (Note 4)

Richard 20th August 2021(my 5th wedding anniversary!)


PS To be continued ……..

Note 1 Well! Of course! Those of us who have experienced love that withers, love that dies, shouldn’t be surprised!!

Note 2 Natalie Wood (1938 – 1981) had married, divorced and remarried fellow American actor Robert Wagner. He remains ‘a person of interest’

38 years after she fell off their yacht and drowned, aged 43. (In the film Marni Nixon and Jimmy Bryant’s voices sing ‘Maria’).

Note 3 She’s always known as Helen of Troy but of course she was born a Spartan.

Note 4 Coincidentally ……in last Sunday’s Sunday Times book reviews there’s one of ‘The Women of Troy’ by Pat Barker. The most thrilling scenes are ‘set inside the Trojan Horse; sweaty Greek soldiers packed into the wooden contraption as tight as olives’. I can instantly visualise them!!

PC 243 Le Renard et Les Poulets

It starts early, one’s understanding of the fox. If you learned the basics of French at school, you will no doubt remember the cautionary tale of the conversation between the fox, le renard, and the crow, le corbeau (Note 1)

Maître Corbeau, sur un arbre perché, tenait en son bec un fromage. Maître Renard, par l’odeur alléché, lui tint à peu prés ce langage: ‘Et bonjour Monsieur du Corbeau. ……….

…. you know the story? The fox encourages the crow to sing by remarking how beautiful the crow’s feathers are and how wonderful it would be to hear him sing. Eventually the crow is persuaded, opens its beak to sing, whereupon the piece of cheese falls …… into the mouth of the fox. ‘Thank you’ says the fox, ‘Although it is slightly cracked you have a voice sure enough, but where are your wits?’ The moral of this fable – don’t listen to flattery, or if you do, don’t act!

They’ve been around for millennia, these stories about foxes. Aesop, a Greek aged 56 when he died in 564BC, is credited with collecting numerous moral stories which today are known as Aesop’s Fables; they include one about a fox and some grapes. (Note 2)

For those who don’t know much about the fox, it’s a mammal native to every continent except Antarctica. More like a cat than a dog, foxes are nocturnal, solitary, smelly and extremely playful animals with impeccable hearing.

The pupils of vulpes vulpes are similar to a cat, vertical, which apparently helps them see very well at night. They can live for up to 5 years, are quite territorial and live underground. Living in London I was often woken at night by foxes screaming as they fought other foxes for territory or maybe over the contents of a Wheelie Bin! Scientists have recorded some 40 individual sounds emitted by the fox. In Hove, our neighbours’ cat Mummu often confronts the local fox; no love lost but they have a healthy respect for each other!

Our garden fox wanders off after a confrontation with Mummu!

The fox appears in many cultures, symbols of cunning and trickery and with a reputation derived especially from their ability to evade hunters. In Asian folklore, foxes are depicted as familiar spirits possessing magic powers, with the ability to disguise as an attractive female human. Certainly in western culture the adjective ‘foxy’ is used to describe a sexually-attractive woman. Up in the night sky the fox is represented by the constellation Vulpecula.

Nineteenth Century European settlers exported the hunting of foxes to all corners of the world and that continues today. In Australia the fox is responsible for a decline in native mammalian species and they prey on livestock and young lambs. Fox hunting with hounds was banned in the UK in 2004 although you can still hunt foxes without dogs and you can drink in the ‘The Fox & Hounds’!

You may be wondering by now why I have written this postcard at all …. and entitled it Le Renard & Les Poulets? Well, because of something that happened in mid-July. My step-mother had had chickens (See PC 73 July 2016) and I wasn’t a fan, not of the chickens per se but the way she never seemed to wash her hands after dealing with them! Debbie in Worthing has chickens, which delightfully means a little box of eggs whenever we meet.

My daughter Jade could, I suspect, live The Good Life as portrayed by Barbara (Felicity Kendal) and Tom Good (Richard Briars), in the 1975 TV sitcom of the same name. She teaches in a secondary school instead but I am sure has those wistful moments; don’t we all? Living in a village on the Surrey/Hampshire border surrounded by farmland and with good friends who farm, it seemed inevitable that at some point after the two cats, the American Red Labrador Margo and the tank of goldfish, she would lean towards getting chickens. Sure enough, 18 months or so ago some arrived, to be housed in the hutch and run that Sam her husband had cleverly constructed at the bottom of their garden.

Margo the Labrador was bemused by them – they couldn’t care less!

The names chosen by my grandsons, perhaps unconsciously predicting some future event, were Roast, Dinner, Noodle, Nugget, Cookie and Pip. Can’t find an association between ‘pip’ and ‘chicken’ but I am sure there was one. Jade’s favourite was an enormous one, reminding me of those chickens at the Devonshire family seat Chatsworth.

Their local fox had obviously sussed out the arrangements where the chickens were kept and timed his attack at dawn one morning; humans attack at dawn when the sentries are sleepy and foxes are similarly cunning. The next-door dog barked a warning but it was too late. Mr Fox had ripped off the heads of some, took two and left one alive, although I sense Nugget was now so traumatised she’ll never lay another egg in her life! (Note 3)

Thoughts of the tragedy were short lived as at the end of July another 5 hens, Dot, Pearl, Opal, Emerald and Daisy, arrived to live in what must now be the most secure henhouse in Crondall! C’est la vie!

And for another coincidence, one of the word puzzles in The Times this week had ‘Foxy’ as an answer!

Richard 13th August 2021


Note 1 My family name is Corbett and the family crest is a depiction of a crow – those wanting not to appear too common would argue it’s a Raven!

Note 2 These fables were collated by American professor Ben Perry into The Perry Index, although it’s acknowledged that some listed were around before Aesop and some were not written for hundreds of years after he died! From number 15, the tale of the fox and the grapes, comes the term ‘sour grapes’.

Note 3 In the UK the majority of poultry is killed using gas. Sadly when slaughtered for Halal meat, they are only stunned using an electric shock, before being decapitated. The US has no Federal regulations concerning slaughtering chickens.

PC 242 What Is This Thing Called Love?

Ella Fitzgerald sang: “What is this thing called love? This funny thing called love? Just who can solve its mystery? Why should it make a fool of me?”

We have all, I hope, fallen in love with another human (Note 1) and experienced the waves of inexplicable emotions that wash over us. Some love affairs are short in duration, intense and all-consuming, with others, like the slow-cooking of a shoulder of lamb in the bottom of the oven for hours, one’s aware of changes to how you feel about someone and the appetite and longing grow. The freedom to love, and give love in return, is a very basic instinct. So when desire goes against societal convention, familial customs and unwritten class boundaries there is, often, a tragic but foreseen ending; “This is not going to end well!”

Romeo + Juliet (1996) Directed by Baz Luhrmann Shown: Leonardo DiCaprio, Claire Danes

Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet must be the most well-known of the doomed love tales, this one fictional. His Montagues and Capulets are powerful families in Verona, fighting to gain civic control. Romeo, a Montague, sees Juliet, a Capulet probably aged just 14, (note 2) at a ball, where she is resisting the advances of the much older Count Paris (Note 3). Romeo falls head over heels in love, there’s the famous balcony scene, and then the following day they get married (as you do!). Romeo gets involved in a duel, is forced into exile but manages to consummate his marriage before fleeing; got his priorities right! Paris tries his luck again and Juliet, in an effort to put him off, gets Friar Lawrence to give her some potion to fake her death, for 24 hours! Before the friar is able to tell Romeo of the trick being played on Paris, Romeo hears she’s died. He buys some poison, kills Paris, then commits suicide. Juliet wakes up, finds Romeo dead and stabs herself. The End! God! How exhausting!

A recent letter in The Times suggested this is a tale of silly teenagers, prone to act on impulse without thought for the consequences. However you see it, it has stood the test of time since being written around 1594;  the bare bones of the story have featured in some 32 films, the last one ‘Romeo & Juliet’ in 2013.

Shakespeare got the story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses published in 8AD. He wrote about Pyramus and Thisbe, children of rival families in the city of Babylon, who fall in love by talking through the party wall between their homes (Note 4). They arrange a secret tryst; Thisbe arrives first but is scared off by a lioness devouring a recent kill. As she flees, she drops her cloak which the lioness rips and plays with, covering it with the blood of her kill. Pyramus arrives, sees the cloak and, thinking 2 plus 2 equals 4, believes Thisbe’s been eaten and kills himself. She finds his body under a white mulberry bush, now covered with her lover’s blood. Her heart broken, Thisbe later kills herself with the same sword. The gods are so moved that the colour of the Mulberry fruit is forever changed to blood red!

If you have never been to Denmark, a particular story of doomed love may have passed you by. I had explored a great deal of the Danish coastline sailing, but many years ago undertook a trip by car, looking at some of the pretty villages that dot the landscape. It was a cool, rain-swept summer afternoon when I visited the little Landet cemetery on the islet of Tasinge, just south of the town of Svendborg. As water dripped off the leaves of a magnificent oak tree, I looked for the grave of two lovers.

The islet of Tasinge on the south of Fyn

I had heard that Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21in C is sometimes referred to as the ‘Elvira Madigan’. Further research revealed that its Andante movement had been used in the soundtrack of the 1967 film of the same name. So who was Elvira Madigan? Actually it was the stage name of a Danish tightrope walker called Hedvig Eleonore Jensen, born in 1867, who performed in her step-father’s travelling circus.

In the audience one evening is Swedish Lieutenant Count Bengt Sixten Sparre, a member of the Swedish aristocracy, married with two children. Sparre falls madly in love with Elvira, abandons his family and career and embarks on what he imagines will be an idyllic love affair. For a while it lasts, but eventually they find themselves living on Tasinge, barely surviving on handouts from the local population. As their situation becomes more desperate they see death as the only option; Hedvig is only 21when she was shot by Sixten, who then killed himself.    

Such is the draw of these tragic stories that the original individual graves, hers marked by white marble and his by grey granite to recognise they were not married, were moved together in a circular pavement design only 8 years ago.

Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier on the left

My regular readers I hope appreciate these scribbles are not simply created two hours before posting and that I love coincidences? Well, imagine my surprise when I saw the news article, above, about Monaco in today’s Times, as the following was written on Monday:

Grace Kelly was one of the highest-paid and most respected actresses in the world, having starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ and ‘Dial M for Murder’. The American film star met Prince Rainier III while she was filming ‘To Catch a Thief’ on the French Riviera in 1955. Rainier needed a bride and an heir, hopefully in that order, as without the latter Monaco would become part of France. (For today’s news, see Note 5) Fortunately love blossomed and they married in 1956, producing three children, Caroline, Albert and Stéphanie. 

Tragedy struck on 13th September 1982, when Princess Grace suffered a stroke as she and her younger daughter were driving along the steep cliffs of the Côte d’Azur region of southern France. The car spun off the cliff’s edge and plunged down a 45-foot embankment. Mother and daughter were rushed to a hospital, where Princess Grace spent 24 hours in a coma before being taken off life support, dead at the age of 52. Princess Stéphanie suffered a hairline fracture of a vertebra but survived the crash. Rainier was heartbroken and never remarried; he died in 2005.

(This collection will be continued)

Richard 6th August 2021


Note 1 Love of another human is one thing but for some of us the love of an animal lifts one to a different level.

Note 2 The UK government has pledged to raise the legal age someone can get married to 18. The ‘age of consent’, the legal age someone can have sex, is 16. These ages vary enormously across the diverse global cultures.

Note 3 He is named after Paris, Prince of Troy, in Homer’s Illiad.

Note 4 Whether in a terrace or between semi-detached houses, the ‘common’ wall is known as the party wall.

Note 5 Lovely coincidence in today’s Times. Count Louis de Causans, a German descendant of Honoré III, from whom the current ruler Albert is descended, is claiming compensation from the French State. He argues that, in the early C20th, it pressured Prince Louis II to ‘find an heir’ to prevent the principality falling into German hands! An illegitimate daughter was adopted and gave birth to Prince Rainier.