A few extra food-related pics from Madrid and La Alberca…..
I’ve just come back from my fourth Pueblo Ingles programme – an incredible experience, once again, in which about 22 English speakers from all over the world spend a week with about 22 Spaniards who are aiming to improve their English. For the whole week, we talk nothing but English; very easy for the Anglos, but initially utterly terrifying for most of the Spaniards, who also have to prepare a presentation – also in English – for a small audience. More on that later…!
In order to take part in the programme, Anglos simply have to get themselves to and from Madrid; for Anglos, it makes sense to spend a few days before and after the programme in this beautiful, vibrant, exciting city. This year I met up, once again, with my Travel Buddy Sheila (a wonderful woman from California who I met on a programme two years ago) to spend a few days basically eating, drinking and shopping our way around Madrid before being whisked away to the little town of La Alberca (where our Pueblo Ingles programme was taking place).
Sheila and I get very excited each time we start one of our little Spanish Adventures; there are places we simply HAVE to visit each time we come, and the first place we’ll go for breakfast is usually the Mercado de San Miguel. This glass-sided palace of culinary delights is located between the Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace. It is spotlessly clean and always full of a good mix of Spaniards and tourists. The food on offer is, quite simply, a feast for the eyes (as well as the taste buds!); once we’ve had our café con leche or cortado, along with a warm, freshly baked Nata tart, we wander from counter to counter, drooling over the tortillas, the pastries, the dry-cured meats, the plump fruit ready to be blitzed into smoothies. There is fresh fish and seafood – bowls of strange-looking shellfish and baby eels (gulas) posing as bowls of pasta. Spiny creatures from the bottom of the sea, razor clams and oysters are spread out on beds of glistening ice which reflect the lights of the building and the sunlight streaming through the glass. Iberico and Serrano hams are suspended on hooks above great hunks of Kobi beef. There are huge pans of paella, and chunky slices of crispy bread piled up with soft cheeses; prawns dipped in batter, strawberries dipped in licqueur and churros dipped in mugs of thick hot chocolate.
Sheila and I will usually walk around every stall at least three times before deciding what to try – so many choices! Then we grab a stool at one of the tall tables and listen to the conversations going on around us while we eat; Spanish (obviously!), English, Japanese, Italian, Australian…we met a really nice English man who had (apparently) booked himself a flight into France and out of Spain while completely drunk at a party; he’d decided – when he’d sobered up – that he might as well take the flights anyway, and had used the trip to indulge in his passion for photography. He showed us some absolutely beautiful shots of the city of Paris, lit up and sparkling at night, as well as some of dramatic storm clouds rolling in over Madrid the night before.
Another favourite place to eat is kind of a guilty pleasure: when I first met Sheila and another Pueblo Ingles Anglo (the lovely Jerry from Florida) two years before, we’d come across a rather old-fashioned (…ok, cheesy!) little restaurant called Bodega Bohemia, which is close to the Mercado de San Miguel and was advertising ‘1/2 pollo y patatas fritas’ on a blackboard outside for just under 10 euros. I know chicken and chips doesn’t sound like a typically Spanish meal, but the smell that was wafting out from the restaurant was pure heaven! We sat outside, opposite the illuminated market building, and ate the most perfect spit-roasted chicken I have ever tasted in my life! It was accompanied by fat chips, a basket of bread and a little bowl of olives, along with a jug of fruity sangria. I enjoyed the meal so much that I went back the following night on my own, and ate the same meal all over again. We went back twice when we were in Madrid last year, and three times this year! The same man is always playing a keyboard inside, and he obviously recognises us now – he popped over for a chat this time, between playing ‘Cuando, Cuando, Cuando?’ and ‘Besame Mucho’; and, as usual, a few of the Spanish diners took turns to sing while he played…..it’s probably the least hip place to eat in the whole city, but the food really is good and I really hope it never leaves it’s strange little time-warp! There are many other equally delicious looking items on the menu, but the chicken really is absolute perfection.
Our Pueblo Ingles programme took part in the beautiful little medieval village of La Alberca, up in the mountains near Salamanca, about 4 hours’ drive north west of Madrid. We stayed in villas in the grounds of a rather grand looking hotel, El Abadia de los Templarios. There was a restaurant in the grounds used just for the programme, in which we were fed delicious three course lunches and dinners (with plenty of wine), as well as a huge buffet breakfast each day. The village itself is about 1km away, reached either by road or by a footpath around the back of the hotel, and halfway through the programme we all walked along the path to the village, to learn about it’s history and to stop for lunch at a village restaurant owned by the hotel. A couple of stalls were set up in the village square, selling biscuits and products based on local honey and chestnuts. Before lunch, we were taken to a dark little bodega, where amid numerous cobwebs, dusty ancient wine bottles and fading bullfight posters we were fed paper thin slices of sweet Iberico ham, carved into almost transparent slices by an incredibly skilled man who had clearly spent years learning his craft! There were chunky slices of manchego cheese with crusty bread, while anyone feeling brave enough was given the chance to drink from a bota (a leather pouch full of wine which is poured straight into the mouth from arms length). Now full of wine and ham, we went back to the main square for lunch; I shared a table with Fran (from Canada), Manuel and Matias, and we had a really good meal in great company! Our regular waiters from our hotel had come into the village to serve us; we had a clear soup followed by chunks of crispy skinned suckling pig….and more wine! After a long and relaxed meal, Fran, Manuel, Matias and I made our way through the village for a gentle stroll back to the hotel. We paused as we wandered through the almost deserted cobbled streets to look in the windows of the tiny shops, selling all sorts of edible goodies, including olive oil, honey, bread and pastries, as well as tapas and pintxos. In one building we saw that the ceiling was full of hanging ham legs, with their little plastic cones to catch any oils seeping from the meat. It had been a relaxing day, and by the time everybody had wandered back to the hotel, through the path flanked by pine woods and in the shadow of the Pena de Francia, many of us took the chance to have a siesta before ‘work’ started again at 5pm; we’d all had lots to eat and a fair amount of tinto……and some of us may have needed a bit of extra sleep following the previous night’s party……!
During the Pueblo Ingles programme, I asked Eduardo, one of the Spaniards, to suggest an alternative place to eat breakfast when we got back to Madrid; he said that – despite sounding like an odd choice – we should try the Gourmet Experience at the top of El Corte Ingles department store, based on the Gran Via. He had me at “….they have a very good pastry section…”, but he also pointed out that the outdoor terrace gives fabulous views over the city. So, Sheila, Kate and I decided to give it a try before getting the train to El Escorial on our final Saturday. We met English piano teacher, Kate, at last year’s Pueblo Ingles programme, and we shared some very emotional times together – including the most hilarious moment of the whole programme: Kate made a random comment that kept us crying with laughter over dinner one night! Kate is so sweet and English rose-ey, but has the biggest, most raucous laugh – which she combines with an expression of delighted shock when listening to dirty jokes and rude limericks (thanks, Doug)!! Anyway, we made our way to the 9th floor of El Corte Ingles, bought coffee and croissants from the wonderful pastry counter (Harina), and wandered on to the terrace. A glass screen all around the terrace kept the breeze to a minimum (and presumably stopped naughty schoolkids from dripping gazpacho over the unsuspecting pedestrians down in the street below). The screen was etched with simple outlines of the more famous buildings on the skyline, each named, so we could identify them; very clever! We spent far too long nattering over our breakfast….then we wandered back inside and spent several minutes gazing through the glass panel that looked out over a perfect view of the Gran Via, before checking out all the interesting foodie items for sale and the different counters selling Mexican food, sushi, pintxos, cocktails, hamburgers, ice cream, pizza….We didn’t leave the store until midday, but it was wonderful to sit and natter in the sunshine, looking out over the spires and domes bathed in warm sunlight….
Kate had to return to England the day before Sheila and I left. On our last morning in Madrid, Sheila and I got up early to look for breakfast and to take some final photos. Many of the shops weren’t open yet, but luckily we noticed that La Mallorquina (a very old and traditional bakery/patisserie at one end of Sol) was not only open, but it also had a café area upstairs. Joy of joys! With every kind of cake and pastry imaginable on sale, I restrained myself and just had a croissant (which was very nice, but not as good as the ones at El Corte Ingles!), before taking photos of some of the beautiful creations on sale as we left through the shop. We wandered around the back of the Plaza Mayor, passing the Bodega Bohemia and the famous Botin, said to be the oldest restaurant in the world (it was founded in 1725). We wanted to hang around, to have a final trip to the Mercado, to stop for churros at the Chocelateria de San Gines, to sit in the Plaza Mayor with a final café con leche – but we were late, and we had to go back for our luggage and make our way to the airport. But we did have time for one last ice cream…..!
Info: You can find out all about Pueblo Ingles by contacting Diverbo: www.diverbo.com.
The Mercado de San Miguel: http://www.mercadodesanmiguel.es.
El Corte Ingles – the Gourmet Experience: http://www.elcorteingles.es/supermercado/aptc/gourmet-experience.
Restaurant Botin: http://www.botin.es.
There’s something really special about getting up early in the morning when you’re in a foreign city; that quiet time of day when the sun is just breaking through, casting a pale golden light over rooftops and trees; when shopkeepers are sluicing water over the pavements, and market traders are setting up their stalls.
Commuters are rushing to work or dawdling over steaming coffee in busy little cafes. The noises are different, somehow; footsteps seem to echo more, and you notice the sound of rubber tyres on cobbled roads. Streetlights are still lit, even though the early sunlight is casting stark shadows between the buildings. My last morning in Madrid, not wanting yet to leave this wonderful city, but bags packed and ready to go. One more stroll along the Gran Via; one last cafe con leche and a warm, flaky croissant, one last amble across the Puerta del Sol….
….Madrid is waking up, the stately buildings glow in the warm sunshine; I take a deep breath and shut my eyes so I can lock the sounds and smells in my mind…
When I cruised around the Eastern Caribbean, I was aboard what was, at the time, one of the two biggest cruise ships in the world. Royal Caribbean’s ‘Freedom of the Seas’ can carry just over 4,000 passengers, and although you can always find somewhere quiet, away from the crowds, it was hard at times to feel connected to the vast, rolling sea beneath. So one morning I set my alarm clock to wake me really early, and I snuck up on the highest deck at the front of the ship so that I could watch the sunrise as we sailed majestically into Charlotte Amalie in St Thomas. There was nobody about. I was barely aware of the hum of the engines, but I could hear a flag on the prow of the ship being buffeted by the wind, the occasional cry of a gull, and far below the hiss of sea spray as the ship cut through the surf. Up ahead, the dark, rocky outline of St Thomas was spreading out on the horizon, as yet an uninspiring and unwelcoming island, too vague and distant to look inviting. The real magic was happening in the sky and was mirrored in the silvery grey of the morning sea. There was no special moment, as I’d hoped, where a deep orange sun gradually emerged above the horizon to a fanfare of pink and purple; maybe I was just up a little too late. But the sky was beautiful; huge fluffy pinky grey clouds were slowly but surely changing colour, and little wispy trails were drifting off into the atmosphere. I sat on a bench, the breeze in my hair, feeling completely alone, and watched as the light and patterns on the water changed with each passing minute. St Thomas was closer now; I could make out the rough shape of the coastline, and the island was no longer a dark lump of land – I could see hints of green and grey, light and shade. The sky was slowly becoming more blue, with the rosy-edged clouds dissolving into the warming air, and the sun casting steep shadows on the ship’s deck. We were approaching a bay, now; I could make out buildings, palm trees, other boats. I was so busy trying to see what was happening on the land, I took my eyes off the sea and the sky for a while. While I was watching the port of Charlotte Amelie preparing to bring in another big ship and welcome the crowds of tourists, the dawn had slipped away and the sun was already climbing high and making the sea sparkle. I realised that other people had joined me on deck, leaning over the ship’s rails, chatting excitedly, taking photos, peering through binoculars. Time for another luxurious breakfast before exploring the pretty little town of Charlotte Amalie beneath another perfectly blue Caribbean sky…
My lovely Aunty Pam took me to Luxor in Egypt a few years ago (I know, I’m a very lucky girl!). It was while I was working for First Choice, where my favourite customers were a very adventurous elderly couple, Mr and Mrs Godfrey. We hit it off right from the start, and I booked several holidays for them at their favourite hotel in their favourite place in the world – the Sheraton Hotel in Luxor. When Pam suggested the trip, having already been to Luxor before (and keen to show me the ancient sights), we followed the Godfreys’ advice and booked a Nile View room at the Sheraton. It was night time when we arrived in Luxor – the streets were pitch black (vehicles seemed to prefer driving with no headlights – what fun!) and we could just glimpse some ancient monuments floodlit behind a McDonalds as our transfer bus dodged horses and carts on the way to the hotel. Arriving in our room, I pulled the curtains aside but could see nothing but blackness beyond our window. I awoke early the next morning, desperate for my first view of the river; and there it was – the majestic, timeless Nile – already busy with lines of long cruise ships following one another upstream in the hazy early morning half-light. Quickly getting dressed, Pam and I stepped out on to the terrace for a better view. On the opposite side of the vast river, about six hot air balloons were already hovering over the West Bank; and on the water, pretty white-sailed feluccas were catching the river breeze and dodging the ships which were slowly disappearing south towards Aswan in the morning mist. It was a picture I’d seen hundreds of times, in travel books and brochures; but nothing could prepare me for that breathtaking moment when I saw it – and felt it – for myself. In spite of the chugging ships, and the blasts of flame occasionally lighting up the balloons, this was a scene that had barely changed for thousands of years, and the sense of the past was overwhelming. Timeless, ageless beauty, evocative and unforgettable. A few days later, Pam and I treated ourselves to a once-in-a-lifetime balloon ride. It was still dark when we were collected from our hotel around 4.30am (the heat becomes unbearable even by mid morning), and it was still dark. By the time we crossed the Nile to the West Bank on a little boat, where we and the other nervous passengers (about 12 of us altogether) had to sign accident waiver forms ready for our flight, the sun was just starting to rise – a glimmer of pink and gold above the mountains . None of us spoke much – it seemed surreal, somehow, and exciting, but the darkness added to the sense of trepidation we were feeling. After crossing the river, we were driven to our waiting balloon, the red and yellow canopy hanging limply to the side of the basket just starting to come to life. There were people everywhere, tying cables, unfolding the canopy, adjusting pipes. Amid the noise and bustle, we were introduced to our pilot, who gave us a brief safety talk before we were all helped into the massive wicker basket. After what seemed like ages, the balloon canopy was billowing above us, the pilot gave it a few more deafening blasts of gas, and we could feel the basket creaking and straining to be freed from it’s tethers. And then we were released, majestically rising higher in the dawn sky, the bright low sun casting long shadows between the sparse little houses scattered across the dry ground; surprisingly rich green fields bordered the river, which shone like a silver serpent in the distance. Inside the basket, we all grew silent as we joined many other balloons gliding towards the Valley of the Kings in the morning air. An unforgettable way to start the day….
The worst mornings, when you’re travelling, are those last mornings, when your bags are packed, you’ve had your final breakfast in the hotel or your favourite café, you’ve said your goodbyes to the beach/pool/room and your suitcase is packed, ready and waiting for the journey home. You think of all the things you didn’t get to do while you were there – sometimes you promise yourself that you’ll do them next time; but there won’t always be a next time. There’s something wonderful about going back to a place you love – but there’s something even more wonderful about waking up early in a brand new, as yet unfamiliar destination, discovering new sights, new smells and new sounds…
Royal Caribbean cruises: http://http://www.royalcaribbean.co.uk
Magic Horizon Balloons: http://www.visitluxorinhotairballoon.com/magichorizonballoons
I’m so sorry I haven’t posted for a while….my beloved laptop is being mended (I was told it would take a week, and that was SEVEN weeks ago)! I have lots of lovely pictures to show you and tales of far-away places, but until Currys/PC World sort themselves out, and due to the lack of any suitable alternative, I’m afraid I’m not able to post anything much on my blog for the time being. Please bear with me……!
I know it’s only February, and we can’t expect too much sunshine at this time of the year in the UK; we’ve been lucky – we’ve had relatively mild weather so far this winter, and some days we’ve even had clear blue skies and bright sunlight! Glorious!
But this afternoon has been horrible; we’ve had icy winds, sleet and hailstones – one of those bleak, miserable, grey days that just makes me pine for warm sun, blue skies and….well, a bit of colour. Anything but grey! As the wind howls through the trees outside, and dark clouds race across the sky above muddy brown fields, I remind myself that this time last year I was planning a break to Morocco.
Morocco is anything (and everything) BUT grey. Morocco attacks the senses like …..a charging camel, a sandstorm, an explosion in a spice factory; the moment you step into the streets you are bombarded with the sound of car horns and people shouting, the smell of spices and donkeys, the searing sensation of the sun burning your pale skin. And colour everywhere.
Even the ‘dull’ colours in Morocco are stunning. Many of the ochre-coloured buildings have a pinky-orange tinge to them, which glows as the sun starts to set. Vibrant flowers spill from pots on rooftops and vivid tiles decorate doorways, adding bursts of clashing colour to the warm walls.
The sun casts sharp shadows, so a row of sand-coloured buildings is punctuated with contrasting dark shapes. Shops and market stalls spill out onto the roads, displaying their wares on every possible surface – cumin, paprika, cinnamon piled high on wooden trays, scarves and carpets hanging from rails, babouches (leather slippers) in rainbow colours on racks against the walls, silver jewellery, copper pans, candles, perfumes….we even saw a huge tray in which about 40 live chicks, all dyed pink, green, blue and yellow, squeaked and flapped tiny wings.
Bottles filled with colourful oils and potions line shop windows, many decorated with brightly coloured tassels hanging from the stoppers. Soft leather bags and purses, ceramic pots, hand made bangles and bracelets catch your eyes from every nook and cranny. Blossoms and fruit sit among rich green leaves on trees whose gently swaying branches make dappled patterns on dusty tiled paths.
The Medersa Ben Youssef was founded in the 14th century as a place of religious learning. It was rebuilt around 1565 by the Saadian sultan Moulay Abdellah, and you can wander through this beautiful building and see the 130 dormitory cells where 900 young students studied the Koran. But it’s most famous for all the wonderful examples of traditional architectural details throughout the buildings and courtyards. As well as the carved stucco panels on the walls and the ornate arches and pillars, the lower sections of the walls in the courtyard are covered with zellij tiles – multi-coloured tiles laid out in complicated geometric patterns.
The students’ dormitories are small and sparse. Most contain two to four alcoves cut into the stone walls in which the students would sleep – presumably with some sort of thin mattress for comfort. The rooms are completely bare, although the floors of the corridors between the rooms are decorated once again with brightly patterned tiles. The thick walls help to keep the building relatively cool, and the hustle and bustle of the Medina just outside seems far away. The mixture of plain white plaster and areas of brilliantly coloured tiles and paintwork is stunning – monk-like simplicity blended with the exotic feel of a harem!
I found the same sense of exotic tranquility in the beautiful Bahia Palace, built in the 19th century for Ahmed Ibn Moussa, who brought in craftsmen from Fez to create a home for his concubines. The name means ‘Palace of the Beautiful’, and the 160 rooms are lavishly and colourfully decorated.
Ceilings in particular are intricately painted in jewel colours, and windows and doorways look out onto pretty, cool courtyards with marble fountains, ponds and rich green foliage.
It’s amazing what a difference a little greenery and running water makes – you instantly feel refreshed and a little calmer! I loved the courtyard in the Bahia Palace; it felt like a scene straight out of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, with the cool marble, the fountains, the dazzling colours of the tiles and the paintwork. Around the Palace are beautiful gardens with orange and lemon trees, palms and rose bushes. Several cats lay sprawled in the dappled shade beneath the trees, ignoring the tourists and the tiny birds that flit around in the branches.
No visit to Marrakech would be complete without a visit to the famous Majorelle Gardens. This amazing space is in every Marrakech guide book’s Top Ten, although prior to our visit, I wasn’t too sure that I’d enjoy it; the photos I’d seen showed beautiful colours and lots of cacti and palms, but it all looked somehow a bit arid and modern – not the ancient, busy, bustling Middle Eastern mish-mash that I expected of Marrakech. But it gave us an excuse to wander into the New City, and in spite of getting completely lost (for about two hours, at the hottest time of day…), we finally found this colourful oasis in the middle of the town.
The shady little courtyard at the entrance is gorgeous; we’d have happily just sat there for hours, enjoying a rest in the dappled coolness, but through the gates we could see tantalising glimpses of the gardens beyond. The 4-acre plot was bought by French artist Jacques Majorelle soon after he arrived in Morocco with his wife in 1917. His passion for botany led him to fill the gardens with plants that he brought back from his travels around the world, looking for inspiration for his paintings. In 1931 he commissioned a cubist villa to be built in the gardens, which he used as a studio and workshop. He continued to lavish attention on the gardens between paintings, composing plants, trees and ponds into works of art, and using strong, vivid paints (including the brilliant cobalt blue known as Majorelle Blue) on the walls and plant pots.
The gardens were opened to the public in 1947, to help pay for their upkeep, and soon Majorelle was earning more from the gardens than from his art work. He said “The garden is a momentous task, to which I give myself entirely. It will take my last years from me and I will fall, exhausted, under it’s branches, having given it all my love.”
Following his divorce – and then finding a new partner – Majorelle had a serious car accident in 1956, which led to the amputation of his left leg; he was forced to sell off part of the gardens to raise some money, but after a second accident just months later, he was sent to France to recover. He died there in 1962, never seeing his beloved Marrakech or his beautiful gardens again.
The famous fashion designer, Yves Saint-Laurent, and his partner Pierre Bergé fell in love with the now dilapidated and overgrown gardens when they first visited Marrakech in 1966. The land was due to be bulldozed to make way for a hotel, but Saint-Laurent managed to prevent this, and the couple bought the gardens in 1980. They set about restoring Majorelle’s vision, installing complicated irrigation systems, adding new plants (there are now 300 different species) and employing 20 gardeners. The cubist villa now houses a Berber museum. When Saint-Laurent died in 2008, his ashes were scattered over the rose garden, and a pillar brought from Tangiers stands as his memorial, surrounded by palm trees and bamboo.
As well as the stunning plants and flowers, the gardens are home to chirruping small birds and cooing doves, humming bees and croaking frogs. Butterflies flit above the blossoms, and water trickles from fountains and over stones. It’s a world away from the harsh, dry tourist trap I’d expected; the Moroccan sun beats down, accentuating the bright colours and stark shadows, but you can also find lush, green avenues and cool, shaded benches; little wooden bridges looking out over still, lily-covered ponds, and tranquil pergolas draped with leafy green fronds. Bliss!
Back in England, opening the curtains just after dawn onto another cold, grey English winter morning, I try to remember those scorching, mind-melting days in Marrakech….the smells, the sounds….but most of all, the incredibly vibrant colours….
Info: The Majorelle Gardens (Jardin Majorelle) – http://www.jardinmajorelle.com/ang
Medersa Ben Youssef – http://www.medersa-ben-youssef.com/en
I know, this blog is meant to be about travel. “Breakfast on the Beach” should, hopefully, take you back to that feeling you get when you’re far from home and you have a day of exploration, discovery and excitement ahead; a day away from your normal life; a day of being free from the day-to-day routine. So bear with me while I tell you about another way I’ve found of transporting myself somewhere else…..
It’s no secret that I LOVE musicals; I was brought up listening to film soundtracks, and from a very early age I knew every word to all the songs from West Side Story, which I remember seeing at the cinema with my Mum. We lived in South East London when I was a child, and occasionally Mum or one of my aunties would take me to the West End to the cinema or theatre – I particularly loved going to the ballet, and would stand behind the sofa on tiptoes after seeing The Nutcracker or Swan Lake. I’d dance around the living room to music from the ballets and sing along to the soundtrack from West Side Story, The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins.
Let’s get this straight – I cannot sing, and my dancing (which was ok when I was younger) can only really be described as ‘enthusiastic’ these days. I still wish fervently that I’d had the talent to go into musical theatre when I was deciding what I most wanted to do with my life, but even my best rose-coloured glasses couldn’t allow me to fool myself that I would ever make a living on the stage. So I’d sit through show after show, singing along in my mind, and with every bone in my body itching to join in with the dance routines.
I’ve lost count of how many productions of ‘West Side Story’ I’ve seen over the years, as well as lots of the older ‘classics’ – South Pacific, Oklahoma, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The King and I….. I’ve seen Annie, Pal Joey, the original productions of A Chorus Line and Chicago as well as the recent versions, Grease, Fame, Saturday Night Fever, Hairspray, Legally Blonde, Evita; Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Memphis, Wicked and Jersey Boys (oh, that show is SOOOOOO cool!!!) and countless others; and next year I have Guys and Dolls and Mamma Mia to cross off the list, as well as, hopefully, many more……
I opened my theatre programme while waiting for a show to start here in Norwich in the winter of 2011, and saw an advert which said something along the lines of “HAVE YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO BE IN MUSICALS? How would you like to learn and perform numbers from top West End shows alongside professional performers…?”
I applied straight away…
The company is called ‘West End Experience’, and they describe themselves as “…the ultimate workshop for anyone who loves musical theatre”. The company holds courses at various locations around the UK, giving children and adults the opportunity to train and perform with professional choreographers, musical directors, dance captains and actors from the West End or Broadway. Courses run for five consecutive days, from the first workshop on the Monday to the final show performed in front of a paying audience on the Friday. The courses are always held during school holidays; here in Norwich we have a course at Easter and another during the October half term. The children (about 70 of them, although it feels like about 700 when we’re all squeezed backstage on show night!) learn their routines from 9am to 4pm from Monday to Thursday, with the adult group (around 30 of us) taking over, after work each evening, from 6pm to 9pm. On Friday – show day – we spend most of the day going over routines and songs ready for the one and only run through of the show with both the children AND the adults, before the show itself in the evening.
I don’t know too much about the children’s workshops. For most of the week, we adults have no contact with them at all, apart from the odd comments from the professionals who teach both groups (and there are a few parents in the adult group whose children are also doing the course during the day). What I do know is that they are very well chaperoned, with responsible adults present at all times to dish out water, plasters, and friendly help. The chaperones make sure the kids are in the right place at the right time, they will look for lost jazz shoes and lyrics sheets, and they make sure that nobody feels lost, left out or lonely (no chance of that!). I also know that WEE receives hundreds of letters and emails each year from grateful parents, thanking them for the incredible experience their child has had and the confidence they’ve gained throughout the week.
WEE, to me, is so much more than a ‘workshop’.
I have just completed my 8th course, and because most of us love it so much, we sign up for the next one as soon as each show is over. The same, lovely, people each time, referring to ourselves as our ‘WEE family’ – we have a shared, wonderful (but exhausting!) experience, and we see each other at our worst (tired and sweaty) as well as at our best (elated, having finally remembered complicated dance routines when it mattered most)! That feeling of camaraderie as we all take our bow together to rapturous applause at the end of another show…well, it’s hard to beat.
All the organising and administration for WEE in Norwich is done by an incredible lady called Jo Chandler. Jo posts out application forms, collects the payments, deals with all queries, sends out emails, and is a cross between a friend, a mother hen and a headmistress. Before my very first WEE workshop, back in April 2012, I was thrilled to receive an email from her, a week or two before the course, telling us what shows we would be covering and with lyrics attached for the songs we’d be singing. Our shows at that time included Billy Elliott, Wicked, Legally Blonde and….West Side Story!! I almost cried with happiness!
I could happily wax lyrical about every course I’ve taken part in, every song we’ve sung, every dance we’ve performed, every dramatic scene we’ve acted in, every incredible West End Performer who has generously taught us the actual dance routines from the show or sung with us on the stage. It has always been magical, and each time the course ends, we all feel at a loss, deflated…
Around mid October (at which point we were already frantically counting down the days to the next WEE on Facebook!), Jo sent us the eagerly anticipated email outlining the shows and songs we’d be performing. Not for the first time, I was initially a bit disappointed; the line-up included Dirty Dancing (which I’ve never quite ‘got’), and Starlight Express (I saw the touring production, and really didn’t think much of it – the cast were fantastic, but I just didn’t like the songs). However, Saturday Night Fever was going to be fun, and I was really excited to be doing Mamma Mia! Straight away there were Facebook messages going backwards and forwards (“OMG! Mamma Mia!! SOOOOOOO excited!!”), and YouTube clips downloaded so that we could familiarise ourselves with the songs.
So, Monday night, 6pm: many of the WEE adults had already arrived in the ‘music’ room at the venue; lots of hugs all round – lovely to see old friends again, along with some new faces! We started with a singing session with our MD (Musical Director), the hilariously naughty Karl Davies, who has us in stitches every night while somehow managing to teach us to sound rather wonderful when we sing! Although I really don’t sing well, it’s such an amazing feeling to be singing along as part of a group, especially when Karl throws in harmonies and makes a bit of magic! Then it was up to the dance studio, where Claire Cassidy, our Dance Captain, taught us the choreography for ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’, from Starlight Express. In spite of not having loved the show, I really enjoyed the dance routine – which is often the case! We have about an hour each night to learn a dance, which is as close as it can be, choreography-wise, to the actual dance performed by the cast in the show. We ended with an acting class with the lovely Craig Whiteley, using a selection of hand puppets to act out a scene from Avenue Q.
Then Day 1 is over – I get home around 9.45pm, have something to eat, and try to remember the dance routine and the song harmonies which I’d learnt just a couple of hours before, but which are already slipping from my mind…..luckily, I have the video of the dance (recorded during the class and posted on our closed Facebook group) and a voice recording of the song harmonies to help refresh my memory before falling, exhausted, into bed.
The days follow a pattern; up early for a full day’s work (where the only chance I have of practising what I’d learnt at WEE the previous night is in my half hour lunch break, during which I also have to eat some lunch, as I won’t eat again until around 10pm….), drive the 17 miles from work back into Norwich for WEE, where we learn ANOTHER song and ANOTHER dance routine and go over bits and pieces of what we’d learnt on previous nights.
Then back home for a bite to eat, a glance at the recording of the new dance routine (by which point I have no recollection whatsoever of the previous night’s routine!), before collapsing into bed after a much needed bath! I have learnt that it helps to have a day’s leave from work midweek; it gives me a chance to go over the songs and dances learnt on the first couple of days before learning yet more on the Wednesday and Thursday nights!
We are incredibly lucky to have some absolutely wonderful professionals teaching us dance routines from West End shows they’ve performed in. This week we had Emma Woods, who appeared in Dirty Dancing (among other things), and taught us to bring out our Latin side with sultry salsa moves.
Emma’s husband, Stephane Anelli, showed us how to strut our stuff when he taught us the ‘Staying Alive’ routine from Saturday Night Fever; and the lovely, smiley Nikki Mae (who, like Claire Cassidy had been in the cast of Mamma Mia) showed us the moves for the ‘Money, Money, Money!’ scene: “Be more Greek!! Exaggerate your hand movements! Donna! Table! Table…”!
Not only are the professional tutors extremely talented, they are very generous: not only do they patiently teach us almost the exact choreography from the shows, they also chat to us about their lives and pose for photos; and they NEVER patronise us – we have to turn out our knees, extend our arms, straighten our backs and perform complicated footwork just like the West End cast do, AND do it with as much passion as possible! We may not be as slick as the professionals, but hey – we’ve only had 12 hours to learn everything we do!
Working with the stars (and I include all the regular WEE tutors here, not just the visiting performers) gives us moments of such surreal pride and joy. We’ve met some really talented people; I particularly remember being taught by the lovely Laurie Scarth (Hairspray) and Jonathan David Dudley (one of the students in the film version of Les Miserables), as well as Gemma Baird, Zizi Strallen, Rachael Wooding and Ruthie Stephenson, to name a few. But there were some real highlights for me; we performed one of my all-time favourite routines – ‘One’, from A Chorus Line – complete with top hats, taught by Michael Steedon, who I’d seen dancing the same number in the show at the London Palladium. Where else would I ever get the chance to do that?!
Then we had the incredibly handsome (and extremely nice and chatty!) Oliver Tompsett, who had played Galileo in We Will Rock You, before taking the role of Fiyero in Wicked; he’d even performed with Idina Menzel!
Then we had one of those ‘pinch-me-I’m-dreaming’ moments: we were rehearsing the poem ‘The Naming of Cats’ from ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ as an introduction to a section of the show dedicated to ‘Cats’ the musical. Sophia Ragavelas, who was starring in the show, came to tweak our performances; she showed us how to be more cat-like as we spoke, and then we were supposed to slink away, cat-like, as we shunned the aging Grizabella (Sophia) as she walked among us to sing ‘Memory’. We all assumed she’d save her voice for the show, but up there in the dance studio, with the music track playing in the background, we were treated to a private (and beautiful) performance of an iconic song from one of the most famous musicals in the world, by the star of the show! We were all speechless and emotional afterwards – that voice!! Wow!
But for me, the absolute peak of happiness was meeting Eugene McCoy, who played Nick Massi in the original London cast of Jersey Boys.
At this point, I’d seen the film version of the show, which I really enjoyed, and had tickets booked to see the stage show. We were introduced to this tall, gorgeous man who had the sexiest voice and a wonderful smile, and he taught us the coolest dance routine we’ve ever done at WEE (to ‘Who Loves You?), explaining how he and the other Jersey Boys spent weeks just perfecting the tiniest movements – which is why Jersey Boys is so slick. I’m so upset that I was too overawed and embarrassed to ask for a selfie with Eugene at the time…!
For four nights, we had strutted and sweated, posed and pranced, sung our hearts out (in four-part harmony) and worked our socks off. All too soon it was show day. I’d taken the day off work, so that I could wash my hair and practise the songs and dance routines prior to the final rehearsals. I packed my spare rehearsal clothes (it does get rather hot in that dance studio), my jazz shoes and my stage make up. I grabbed some healthy food on the way in – we have to eat when we get the chance, because we can be called onstage at any time for a run-through – and arrived at Open Studios around 1pm. The staff had already set up the chairs for the audience (over 400 expected that evening), and the tech crew were running sound checks and adjusting lighting, while a group of the children were being positioned for one of their numbers on the stage. The children are expected to arrive around 11am, and any adults who are free get there as soon as possible after that.
About half the adult group were already up in the dance studio, running through our dance numbers under the expert guidance of a wonderful lady called Katy Carroll, who runs a local dance school and acts as our Dance Captain during the rehearsals. I don’t think Katy realises how immensely grateful we all are to her for going over and over the niggly little bits of choreography that we all stumble over during the week, but which she breaks down for us and practises with us as many times as we need on show day!
At various points during the afternoon we were called down to the stage so that we could work out the logistics of getting on and off the stage with the children for the first time, as well as being given our positions for the songs. Claire – who had almost lost her voice completely by now – either praised us or scolded us, as necessary, for forgetting instructions or for being too slow to make an entrance. Claire has spent the entire week going through all the dance routines we’ve learnt and polishing them up – for both adults and children – as well as staging the songs, and somehow still has loads of energy, prowling in front of the stage and trying to organise over 100 nervous, excited performers. Claire is our hero; she always gives the adults a pep talk, and we absolutely don’t want to let her down. She tells us how she loves working with the adults, because we’re so desperately keen to do well and because we work so hard while holding down daytime jobs, and because, however tired we may be during the rehearsals, we always do her proud in the final show. She tells us that she drives us hard because we can take it, because she knows we will shine on the stage, because we are the ones performing, and there will be people in the audience – watching us – and thinking how lucky we are to be up there in the spotlight, performing with the stars. We know that this is true – it takes courage and guts to do what we adults do, especially those of us who are less….well, young…than we used to be!
We have one, single run-through of the show; one attempt to get on and off the ridiculously narrow steps to the stage without bumping into hundreds of children; one attempt to pick up the cue and get into the right position before the lights come up; one attempt to get the lighting right with the full company on stage, and one practise of being in the right place at the right time. Things go wrong, we forget our words, we arrive on stage late; but the audience isn’t there yet, and we have a precious hour or so to change into our show clothes (black leggings or trousers and a WEE navy T-shirt, which WEE provides), drink several litres of water and eat something – including the lovely cakes that Hayley and Tristan somehow have had time to make!
The audience is already coming in. We’re told to get ready for the first song, ‘Roar’. We’ve already checked the running order sheets, stuck on walls and doorways backstage, to see how much time we’ll have before we’re on next for our Dirty Dancing routine. The noise level backstage drops – “ssshhhh!” – as the doors are opened, the lights are dimmed and we take our places to sing. Heads down, arms by our sides. Deep breaths. We’re aware of a sea of faces, watching us expectantly, but I’m used to this now, not worrying about the audience, concentrating instead on remembering the words, the harmonies and the steps. The music starts; the lights come up….
….and we’re off! Somehow, we remember the words, the lyrics, the choreography. Somehow I manage to keep my body moving in spite of the dodgy knee and the swollen ankle. We watch the children from the back of the stage – so much enthusiasm, so much energy, so much joy on their faces! From the corridors, we hear the visiting professionals singing so beautifully. We hear the applause, for them, for the children and for ourselves.
We sing, we dance, we act, we sing again. We make the odd mistake, but we cover it up with smiley enthusiasm and jazz hands. We’ve been trains, nuns and crazy Greek peasants; we’ve hammed it up for Avenue Q and soothed the soul with The Sound of Music. Finally, it’s over; we all follow Craig in a celebratory ‘Dad dance’, performed by the entire company, before we stagger down the steps as the applause dies down. We collect our bags from the changing room, take photos, hug each other, and go out through the auditorium to meet up with family and friends who’ve watched the show. I share a hug with Jo, Karl, Craig and Claire, each with a queue of very happy and excited children and their proud parents, waiting to thank them and say goodbye until next time.
We have already got our application forms filled in for next April, and we’ve ordered the DVDs of the show; the adults will get together for a DVD night in a couple of weeks, so we can re-live the experience and see the parts of the show that so far we’ve only heard from backstage. Another amazing night with my WEE family….another amazing West End Experience.
Info: I can’t explain how special WEE is to me, twice a year. We are so lucky, here in Norwich, to be able to be part of the West End Experience. Although so many of us return time and time again, there are always some new faces, and we love seeing how the slightly nervous newbies fall in love with the whole process! If you want to know more, please visit the website: www.westendexperience.net .
Some photos on this post are my own, but most are by Lee Harper, our official WEE photographer: www.leeharperphotography.com.
Just over two hours driving time from the thrills and spills of the world’s best theme parks in Orlando is an area of Florida often overlooked by the British.
Clearwater Beach lays on a barrier island in the clear warm seas of the Gulf of Mexico on Florida’s west coast. My mother (a very young 72 year-old at the time) and I tore ourselves away from the fun of Orlando and drove just over 100 miles towards the sea. Initially terrified of driving on the wrong side of the road in an area I didn’t know – AND in an automatic car – I soon relaxed at the wheel and began to enjoy the scenery. We knew we were near the sea when we crossed over a vast, sparkling expanse of water – on the Courtney Campbell Causeway – where pelicans perched on each side of the bridge and the water shimmered in the hot Florida sunshine. We crossed Pinellas county and another road bridge and soon arrived at our destination, Clearwater Beach.
Our hotel, the Hilton Clearwater Beach Resort(www.hiltonclearwaterbeachresort.com), was in a perfect position; right on the beach, but also within a very short walk to some great restaurants, the marina, and the famous Pier 60. The check-in staff were welcoming and friendly, and our room, although not overlooking the beach, had a balcony with views across the causeway to the mainland. From here we could see the steady flow of boats coming and going in the marina, and the trolley buses passing in the street below.
But we’d only just arrived, and wanted to stretch our legs and wind down with a cool drink and something to eat. We wandered towards the marina and were lured by delicious aromas into Crabby Bill’s Seafood Restaurant, where we ate hot chicken ‘sandwiches’ and drank ice-cold, freshly-squeezed Florida orange juice. We were here at last, relaxing on Crabby Bill’s shady veranda, beneath the gentle breeze of the ceiling fans, enjoying the warmth and the salty sea air, and listening to a couple of ‘good ole boys’ singing along to their guitars!
The marina at Clearwater Beach (not to be confused with Clearwater itself on the mainland) is full of boats of all types; some are just for tourists (Captain Nemo’s Pirate Cruise Ship takes buccaneers of all ages on a 2-hour swashbuckling adventure along the coast, where kids get to be Captain Jack Sparrow while their parents relax with a rum punch); some supply fresh fish to local seafood restaurants, and some will take landlubbers out to chase marlin and mahi-mahi.
Huge brown pelicans perch on every mooring post, and herons strut around on the boardwalks hoping to catch the leftovers as the fishermen sort the day’s catch. Alongside the marina are little shops selling fishing tackle, sea shells, sun cream and gifts.
The resort itself stretches out along the coast, and has no obvious central focal point, apart from in the late afternoon when the sun starts to lose a little of its heat.
Then, two hours before sundown, Pier 60 becomes The Place To Be.
By day the pier is just a wooden boardwalk stretching into the sea; but come sunset, local craftsmen set up little stalls all along it, selling paintings, jewellery, candles and photographic prints. It becomes the focal point for locals and tourists, who gather to potter among the stalls and watch the jugglers, buskers and magicians who entertain adults and children alike. You’ll probably want to join the many people sitting on the soft, white sand of this broad beach to watch the sun slip below the horizon out to sea.
Sunsets here are spectacular; and if you’re REALLY lucky, you just might see the elusive ‘green flash’, a phenomenon that sometimes bathes the horizon in a flash of green light if atmospheric conditions are just right. Then it’s time for a local favourite – Cajun-fried grouper at Frenchy’s Saltwater Café – washed down with a cold beer or a cocktail.
The next day we took the Suncoast Beach Trolley – a very cheap way of travelling (slowly) down the coast – to the quaint little community of Pass-a-Grille, passing through the little seaside resorts of Belleair Shore, Indian Rocks Beach and Treasure Island. All the way along we had tantalising glimpses of the Gulf between the small hotels and guest houses. Just before Pass-a-Grille we drove past the huge Don CeSar Beach Resort, at the southern end of St Pete Beach. This ornate pink building, with its towers and turrets, dating back to 1928, is straight out of a Hollywood movie, and dominates the beach it sits on. Pass-a-Grille, in contrast – a mixture of small B&Bs, bars and restaurants, and private homes – is low key, laid-back, homely and quiet. The road here runs as far down the coast as it can before it turns back on itself; you can’t get any further, and guest houses are called ‘Island’s End’ and ‘Inn on the Beach’. All along the Gulf side the old-fashioned pastel-coloured buildings face onto the sea-grass and the white sands. One block back, the road looks out over the bay to the ‘mainland’ of Tierra Verde and a stretch of luxury homes with moorings for private boats. Here again, every mooring pole provides a comfy sun-spot for brown pelicans. At Pass-a-Grille’s famous Hurricane Seafood Restaurant we took ourselves up to the roof terrace, where we ordered margaritas, conch fritters and battered gator tails (a bit chewy, and a bit like squid)! Jimmy Buffet songs played quietly in the background, and we gazed across between the palm trees at this little slice of Florida that seemed to be happily and firmly stuck in a bygone era. I could live here….! We ate ice cream and paddled at the water’s edge, looking for sand dollars – flat white ‘sea-shells’ commonly found on these shores. Then we took the trolley-bus back to our hotel to see what Pier 60 had to offer that night.
We’d heard so much about the beaches around here – those at Clearwater and Pass-a-Grille were fantastic, but we knew that just a couple more miles further south lay Fort De Soto (www.pinellascounty.org/park), which over several years has been voted America’s Top Beach and Trip Advisor’s Number One Beach! We took the car this time, driving down the Pinellas Bayway until we found ourselves at Fort De Soto, in what, from the car, appeared to be an area of flat scrubland with a few clumps of trees dotted around. We found a huge, shaded, fairly deserted car park and followed a path through some trees which we assumed would lead us to somewhere more interesting….
Then, suddenly, a view that took our breath away.
Stretched out before us was a vast expanse of the whitest sand, the bluest sky, and the deepest turquoise sea I have ever seen. Everything shimmered and sparkled; pelicans floated lazily across the cloudless sky; the leaves on the palm trees clicked together in the breeze, and across the vast expanse of soft, white, powdery sand we could hear gentle waves lapping on the shore. Little tufts of sea oats and sea grapes clustered around the back of the beach, and groups of sandpipers ran in and out of the waves, looking for shells.
In spite of a gentle wind, the heat was incredible. I left my mother stretched out in the shade, and wandered along the shore next to the sea as far as I could go before shrubbery took over the sand. Here, behind the beach, a small wooded area hid a vast dappled lake, where I sat for twenty minutes watching a heron stalking fish in the shallows.
We walked to the end of the pier, where a few people were fishing, attracting a huge amount of attention from herons and pelicans (which would fly parallel to the pier, then suddenly fold back their wings, stretch their heads downwards, and dive like bullets head-first into the sea, slicing through the waves with a muffled splash).
Once dwindling in numbers, these brown pelicans have made a strong comeback thanks to strict conservation measures in the area. They frequently get tangled up in fishing lines as they try to snatch the fishermens’ catches; the men will calmly untangle the huge ungainly birds and send them on their way, squawking and flapping.
Then – the highlight of the day – out to sea the silver-grey shimmer of a dolphin fin broke the surface….then another… and we realised there were several of them, in little pods of three or four. I’ve swum with dolphins before, in Discovery Cove in Orlando, where you can hold their fins as they propel you through the water, and lift a finger to make them jump and twirl. But nothing can compare to the thrill of seeing them in the wild, zooming across the waves and frolicking in the sunshine! This was spellbinding, magical, unforgettable. I tried to take photos, but they were too quick for me, and I couldn’t focus on the right place at the right time. In the end I gave up and just enjoyed the spectacle. Reluctantly, eventually, we said goodbye to Fort De Soto; we’d barely scratched the surface of this amazing park, which covers over 1,000 acres, and as well as the perfect beaches has a hugely popular campground, paved cycling and skating paths, kayak trails, bike rentals, shower blocks and snack bars.
We only spent five nights at Clearwater Beach, then moved on to St Pete Beach for a further five nights (staying at the Tradewinds Sandpiper Resort – http://www.justletgo.com/flbch).
St Pete Beach is scattered out along the coast road and seems to consist of a long line of hotels, restaurants and bars, all with easy access to the stunning beach and nightly sunset show. There is so much to do in this part of Florida that at least two weeks would be needed to do it justice. We managed to squeeze in a day at St Petersburg, where we visited the world-famous Dali Museum, and the Pier with its upside-down pyramid building. We found lovely, homely little diners where we had our breakfast each day (eggs over-easy, pancakes with bacon and maple syrup, and fresh strong coffee..), and in the evenings we ate in burger shacks, Cuban bars and upmarket seafood restaurants. We would sit on our balcony at night and watch the lights of the cars driving over the causeway as Captain Nemo’s Pirate Ship sailed off into the sunset. At the Tradewinds Sandpiper, we lay in hammocks on the sand, or wandered around the little waterways in the beautiful tropical gardens of the sister hotel just along the beach, (the more upmarket Tradewinds Island Grand). We never saw the legendary ‘green flash’, but every sunset was breathtaking.
We DIDN’T get a chance to visit Busch Gardens theme park in Tampa Bay; or the Clearwater Marine Aquarium, Caladesi State Park (Fort De Soto’s rival for the title of America’s Best Beach), the Museum of Science and Industry in Tampa, the eclectic shops and restaurants of the Historic John’s Pass Village and Boardwalk; and many, many tantalising restaurants and fascinating places that we just didn’t have time to try. But I will be back, next time with my husband and teenage sons, because this part of Florida – the lesser known part – has absolutely everything for a family holiday that will stay in your memory forever.