Lunch with attitude. Is this the ugliest meal in Madrid?

Arrived in Madrid today to speak at the Unibike cycling trade show at the weekend.

The presentation of lunch was initially very off-putting – but in the end very tasty.

Who had the idea that fish simulating crocodile eating itself made the food more interesting? A high risk strategy indeed.

Photo Kevin Mayne

 

Photo Kevin Mayne

Nice setting though.

Plaza del Ildefonso Madrid

 

 

Special Olympics Europe 2014 Opening Ceremony – a celebration of inclusion

Photo Kevin Mayne

On Saturday my wife and I had the pleasure of being guests at the Opening Ceremony of the European Summer Special Olympics which are taking place this week in Belgium.

It was an enjoyable and at times moving experience, the Special Olympics is a really distinctive movement that is well worth celebrating and Belgium did a great job with the launch.

The Special Olympics are the separate movement for people with Intellectual Disabilities which keeps the games separate from the much bigger and more extensively funded Olympics and Paralympics.

It began in the 1950s and 1960s when Eunice Kennedy Shriver (the fifth of the nine Kennedys from the renowned US political family) began working to introduce sports and physical activities in to summer camps for children with Intellectual Disabilities. In 1968 they became the Special Olympics which formed a part of her much wider work in the field.

There are now Special Olympics for continents as well as world summer and winter games. This year’s event in Belgium was for the Eurasia region so it included not only most European countries but also many participants from the central Asian countries that used to be part of the Soviet Union.

The Paralympics have grown in profile and stature since they were linked to the Olympic Games but the Special Olympics are by far the smaller player in the sport scene and they are much less well known internationally. I was delighted to discover that Belgium has one of the best established national Special Olympics programmes in Europe which meant it was a very proud host of the games. The city of Antwerp is actually the host city however because of their support the European Union and the national Belgian supporters were invited to celebrate the opening of the games in the national capital with the Belgian Queen, Prime Minister, outgoing President of the European Council Hermann van Rompuy and a range of other guests and supporters.

So that is how we ended up on a lovely summer afternoon at Heysel, the part of Brussels that hosts the national stadium, national Expo Centre and our old friend the Atomium which was glistening brightly in the sunshine.

Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne

Our ceremony took place in one of the indoor halls which gave it a nice intimate feeling suitable for the “inclusive games” and enabled the show to be all about light and music. Unfortunately my little camera is really not up to the job of indoor photography in this environment so you can see some of my blurry impressions here but I have also linked to the very excellent 7 minute highlights film of the ceremony below and some of the official photographs can be found on the official web site here.

We were treated to an extended dance and acrobatic show that threaded its way through the two hour event and kept the whole thing bouncing along.

Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne Photo Kevin Mayne

A Belgian flavour was given by the giants and puppets which are a feature of the celebrated Belgian carnivals and parades of Mardi Gras.

Photo Kevin Mayne

But my far the most impactful moments were perhaps the simplest, the ones that were most about the people the games are celebrating.

The teams were accompanied into the room by lively music, applause and cheering that never stopped. You could see the teams just burst with enjoyment at the welcome, dancing and waving their way to their seats. There was a huge welcome for all Belgium’s neighbours like Luxembourg and the Netherlands and of course a massive welcome for the home team, biggest of the whole event.

The raising of the games flags and the EU flag were accompanied by the EU Hymn, “Ode to Joy” but instead of the full orchestra the music was played by a young German man with an Intellectual Disability who played the tune on a harmonica to barely a dry eye in the house. You can see him in the video.

And finally there was just a ticker tape snowstorm over the heads of the athletes who were up and applauding their welcome. Joyful and celebratory.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Please enjoy the video of the event, it was a special occasion. (If the link to a video does not appear here please read the original post in your browser.)

During this week one of the 10 sports taking place will be the cycling events in Antwerp including time trials and road races with the rules allowing for tandems and trikes as well as modified bikes.

I am really delighted by that, both personally and professionally. When I worked at the national cyclists’ charity in the UK one of my proudest achievements was raising money to launch an inclusion programme for cycling which meant we could run development activities at centres right across the country. Almost every time I found myself visiting one of our special sessions for people with Intellectual or physical disabilities I was moved by the enormous sense of achievement that the simple bike ride many of us take for granted can bring to so many lives. This could be a life transforming change as participants found mobility or health through cycling.

There is a brilliant gallery of the cycling at the Belgian Special Olympics pre-event held last September that just brings out the best of that spirit. There is something special in almost every image. Many similar programmes exist all over the world, almost all run by volunteers, they should all be applauded and supported.

I have no doubt whatsoever of the transformative work that the whole Special Olympics movement does. The games themselves are the pinnacle and it was a pleasure to celebrate them with everybody here in the country we now call home.

Yet another “what were they thinking” moment – a beautiful Belgian cycle route with a bonkers twist.

Cycle route to lasne

Close to where I live there is just one cross country cycle leisure route that mimics the best farmland routes that I found on my recent tour in Flanders.

Lasne cycle route signFrom the Ottignies suburb of Mousty there is a former farm track that has now been covered by a perfectly smooth surface to make a car free cycle route, signposted to our town of Lasne, seven kilometres away.

It runs up across the open farmland with wide open views that I thoroughly enjoy, especially on these late summer evenings when the sun is low and yellow.

Looking towards Mousty on the cycle path

And then.

After winding through a few cottages we come to a small valley.

Mousty Lasne cycle path

For some unimaginable reason the planners decided to go straight down, so steeply that they then had to insert barriers which theoretically might stop unsuspecting cyclists shooting out without warning onto a Route Nationale (main road) at the bottom.

Steep hill on the Lasne Mousty cycle route

However as there is no indication that the RN is there, why would you stop? Assuming that you can ride down at all. I will just about ride down it on a day when the path is clear and dry. Which isn’t very often, because it is tree lined and usually covered in leaves or damp, so I have to walk.

From the bottom looking up it is just possible to believe that the barriers are there to aid pedestrians in fixing their climbing ropes before tackling the ascent. It certainly isn’t rideable except for the most competent of mountain bikers.

Cycle path from Mousty to Lasne

So at some point, somewhere, somebody thought it was a good idea to make a cycle route from a slippery descent with tricky chicanes and a blind entrance onto a main road. Even when they had an alternative which could take about an additional kilometre and connect to the rest of their network, actually bypassing the valley completely.

Given that the commune of Ottignies Louvain-la-Neuve is actually one of the more cycle friendly municipalities round here I say it again “what were they thinking?”

Sighs deeply,

Impressions of Eurobike 2014 – cycling with style

Gallery

This gallery contains 11 photos.

Fortunately I am not a cycling writer, at least not one who has to write about bikes and bits for a living. There are over 1300 exhibitors at the world’s biggest bike show so it is hard to get an … Continue reading

My Eurobike hotel room – in Weingarten Abbey, Church and Shrine of the Holy Blood, Weingarten, Germany

One of the great pleasures of travel is when you are given a totally unexpected treat.

I have just spent the week at Eurobike, the great bike industry frenzy at Friedrichshafen on the banks of Lake Constance. That in itself is a bike lover’s indulgence of which there will be more later. But this year I got a bonus.

As far as I knew our German colleagues had booked us into some sort of college near Ravensburg which was offering a good package for the week. I thought no more of it, and I had certainly not checked anything other than the directions when I arrived at Ravensburg train station.

When the taxi driver pulled up on the forecourt of a huge church complex overlooking the neighbouring town of Weingarten I was quite convinced I must have misread something, until I was warmly welcomed at the Conference Centre in the Benedictine Abbey and Basilica of Weingarten, the largest Baroque church north of the Alps and an important religious site for over a thousand years.

Photo Kevin Mayne

One wing of the former Abbey is now a training centre and conference suite for the Diocese. So that is why I found myself throwing open my room window to discover I had a view over a courtyard and the great dome of the Basilica, nicknamed “Swabia’s St Peter’s”. It may have been a bit cloudy and gloomy but the setting lifted me up after ten hours of train travel.

Photo Kevin Mayne

The next evening after work I was able to wander the grounds and discover more about where I had ended up, especially with the help of a little guide book I bought in the Basilica.

Photo Kevin Mayne

It was hard to step back far enough to get a clear view of the buildings because they were constructed on a huge scale and the Basilica itself was flanked by two large wings, each around a courtyard which would have formed the cloisters of the abbey when it was at its peak. From ground level this inner perspective was of one of somewhat severe and austere walls, probably not what it was like before its final phase of building in the 18th Century.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Photo Kevin MayneThe only way to see its original style and scale properly was looking up from the town below. Unfortunately ugly restoration work and grey weather deprived me of that view this time so I had to rely on the image from the guide book to help me imagine it.

Looking out from that viewpoint at the front of the church I did have an excellent view down over the town itself, looking from a terrace that has been planted with vines to recognise the town’s name – “Wine garden” in English. At dusk groups of young people gathered here to chill out, have a beer and watch the sun set.

Photo Kevin Mayne

Photo Kevin Mayne

Inside the Basilica there is a totally different perspective. Firstly I could really sense the scale which I had found it hard to identify from outside. Apparently it is over 100 metres long and the dome goes up over 60 metres.

Photo Kevin Mayne

And there was certainly nothing plain about the inside, the white masonry made it seem light and bright and contrasted with the splashes of gilding and paint in all the alcoves and up onto the ceiling.

Photo Kevin Mayne

I have no particular religious affinity with any of the churches and temples I visit when I am travelling but particularly in Europe these buildings are a vital part of our landscape and heritage, it was a rare treat to be able to say I was staying in the “spare room” at the Weingarten Abbey.

There is however a footnote to my tale.

One of the nice features of my first night was to see the courtyard in front of my room being used as an outdoor cinema for the town, a great setting with a nice atmosphere, towers above and bats flitting around. It is apparently a summer season feature of Weingarten and a nice symbol of the multi-functional use of the complex by the regional government who now own it.

Photo Kevin Mayne

But the volume was incredibly high and I did wonder to myself just how long they might be going on when I wanted to go to bed. It was nice when it stopped, but only then did I appreciate that the cinema sound had to overcome the church bells which rang out every 15 minutes. We had a discussion later amongst our group whether they actually continued all night; the lighter sleepers were convinced they did. From the third floor, not so far from the bell tower itself I can categorically say they chimed 12 times at midnight and for sure they were going again at 5.30am.

I think we have to assume that the bells are part of the setting. Personally I am not complaining, but I am not so sure about some of the others!

Further post-script – last year’s accommodation wasn’t bad either – this is a great area to visit. Click here for more about my stay in Ravensburg.

Flanders cycle tour day 3 – Bicycle Paradise.  Geleen, Maasmechelen, Hoge Kempen National Park, Genk and Hassalt.

Gallery

This gallery contains 17 photos.

I keep wanting to write that that this trip was a “Tour of Flanders”. However the cycling traditionalist part of my brain keeps telling me that the name Tour of Flanders is reserved for Ronde Van Vlaanderen the great one … Continue reading