Chania harbour – first impressions of Crete

“Thank you for coming with me!”, said my lovely Aunty Pam as the Easyjet flight touched down at Chania airport in Crete. Pam had stayed in Chania as part of a group holiday a couple of years ago, and was keen to show me why she’d loved it so much – and she was happy to pay for both of us if I took on the job of booking the flights and hotel; how could I refuse?!
We had that wonderful moment of stepping out of the plane into the hot midday sun, having left a rather miserable London in the chilly early hours. As we found the bus that would take us into Chania town we were peeling off our extra layers, fanning ourselves with our flight tickets and willing the aircon into life.
I love the journey out of a foreign airport – I love to see signs and posters in a language that I don’t understand, and local people going about their normal lives. What I hadn’t expected to see was the range of mountains on the horizon, with their snow-covered peaks sparkling in the hot sun! As we neared Chania town, Pam started to recognise some of the landmarks, and she knew exactly where to go when the bus pulled into the bus station.
We’d only brought hand luggage, so the 10 minute walk to our little hotel near the sea was an easy journey. We passed inviting ice cream shops and patisseries, fascinating little craft shops and the usual tourist shops, full of olive oil soaps and postcards. “Almost there”, said Pam, and a few moments later we emerged onto the beautiful, picture-book little harbour, with a strong wind carrying the scent of salt and fish through the air, whipping my hair into a mass of tangles and forcing the little waves to slap against the harbour walls.
We needed to cool down, and the hotel wasn’t expecting us for another half an hour; plenty of time for us to relax with a cold drink and enjoy the view. The harbour is full of cafes and restaurants, all with their tables under shady awnings, all with waiters trying to tempt us in. We opted for a restaurant claiming to offer ‘the best frappe in Chania’ and enjoyed half an hour of watching the world go by before the short walk to our hotel to check in.
The ‘Antica Casa Studios’ are a minute’s walk from the harbour, close to the entrance to the Maritime Museum. We dragged our trolleys across the bumpy cobbles up the sloping alley, and found our studios, where Maria was sitting at the entrance waiting for us. We followed her up the steep, winding stairs to our room on the second floor (making a mental note that we wouldn’t want to do this after a few glasses of retsina!) and, after signing the paperwork and a chat with Maria, we were free to kick off our shoes and change into something cooler!
We started off by opening the shutters and doors onto the tiny balcony, furnished with a couple of chairs and a little metal table – perfect for a swift drink before dinner or a glass of juice in the morning. From here we could see down the alley to the sea, just visible and sparkling between the colourful little buildings. The warm breeze rippled through the flowers on the balcony and made the curtains sway behind us. The studio was quite large, with tall ceilings and tasteful décor. It had a tiny kitchen, with a hotplate, fridge and sink, and a small bathroom with a bathtub and shower. Once we’d unpacked our cases (it doesn’t take long when you only have cabin bags!) we decided to go straight out for a wander around the pretty little streets and the picturesque harbour. Dressed more comfortably now in sandals and sunglasses, it was time to get to know Chania…..

 

Info: Antica Casa Studios, Chania, Crete – http://www.simplychania.gr/antica.html

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Easter in Corfu

Flying into the little airport just outside Corfu Town is one of those fairly spectacular descents that adds just a tinge of uncertainty to the fabulous views – we banked over the mountain tops behind the little resort of Benitses (where we would be staying) and skimmed over the causeway crossing the bay before the steep descent onto the tiny runway, which ends metres from one of the main roads out of the town.

My sister, Julia, met us from the airport with her daughters, Lettie and Ellie (11 and 8 at the time), and whisked us away to a café for a much needed cold drink, then on into Corfu Town to the huge, green Plateia Leonida Vlachou, a kind of park-cum-town square. It was late April; the sun was streaming down, and we stood among the few trees, with the breeze drifting in from the nearby sea making the leaves dance above our heads. Earlier in the day, which was Palm Sunday, the relics of St Spyridon had been paraded through the nearby streets and the accompanying processions were still going on, with each local church represented by priests, nuns and local authority representatives carrying relics and icons, and brass bands (the Philharmonics, as they are known) following on. We relaxed there for a while, listening to the sounds and watching the different processions, before Julia drove us to our hotel in Benitses, about 8km from Corfu Town, so that we could check in.

At this time of year, Corfu is absolutely beautiful. The weather is hot, but there is still a freshness to the breeze, when it comes. Everything is green, with flowers blooming everywhere, and the beaches are not yet full of tourists. We spent our first day in and around Benitses itself, buying bottled water, juice and breakfast brioches from the tiny local supermarket, walking around the little marina and watching the yachts bobbing up and down serenely in the rippling water, eating ice creams and following a path up into the mountain behind the town. From up there we could look down over the coastline, so serene and peaceful.

We knew the week ahead was going to be busy. We wanted to spend some time with Julia and her family (she’s lived on Corfu for many years now, with a Greek husband and their two beautiful bi-lingual daughters); but we also wanted to spend a bit of time exploring on our own, and to find out what Easter was like on the island. We already knew quite a bit: the whole week leading up to Easter Sunday in Corfu is based around preparations for what is, as in many Mediterranean countries, the most important religious festival of the year, and the associated traditions and religious (and non-religious) activities are taken very seriously. While most of us in the UK will be stockpiling hot cross buns and overpriced, over-packaged chocolate (mostly egg-shaped, but I swear I saw a chocolate Easter dinosaur the other day!), the Corfiot population will be buying ingredients to cook traditional local dishes, decorating candles and attending special concerts, poetry recitals and church services. In the Liston, a park opposite a beautiful, long colonnaded building in the town, local bands will practise parading up and down, and special brioche-type Easter loaves (fogatses) and almond and honey flavoured macaroons (mandolato) will start appearing in the windows of bakers’ shops. Lettie and Ellie had been busy decorating candles for Colin and I – mine had a picture of Tinkerbell on it! – and later in the week (Maundy Thursday, traditionally) they would be dying eggs red. These red eggs are used to decorate the fogatses, and children also like to bang their red eggs together to see whose egg holds out for longest before the shell breaks.

Easter celebrations really escalate on Good Friday. Each church decorates a symbolic funeral bier (epitafios) with flowers and embroidered images of Christ. Following the ceremony, each of the epitafios is taken out of the church, followed by the priest, the congregation and a brass band. In Corfu Town alone there are more than 25 epitafios processions and they all converge in the centre of the town, with the procession from the Orthodox Cathedral at 10pm being the final and most important and impressive of all. By this time, darkness has fallen; the Venetian lights all the way along the Liston are coloured purple as a sign of mourning, and the local Philharmonics each traditionally play specific funereal music.

The atmosphere now is something very special. The balconies of the surrounding hotels and apartments are full of people, leaning out to get a better view of the spectacle marching slowly along the street. A TV camera is held high by a small crane, sending live images to people in little remote villages all over the island. Every outside table of every bar and restaurant has been taken, people having staked their places hours before. The streets are packed, and we are hemmed in by bodies in every direction. Small children have been lifted onto Daddy’s shoulders, and camera flashes blink constantly. The polished brass of the bands’ instruments reflects the lights all around, as they play the deep, sombre notes of Abinoni’s “Adagio” or Mariani’s “Sventuro”. You feel as well as hear the slow, heavy drumbeats, and as the procession passes by, lit by hundreds of raised, flickering candles, there is a sense of something shared; something important and moving.

The music and the drumbeat eventually dies away, and the chatter among the crowd starts up again, having quelled during the final procession. The crowd disperses – parents take young children home to bed, couples wander off to bars and we head off for the last bus back to Benitses. It’s very tempting to stay longer, to breathe in a little more of the atmosphere of this special, balmy night, but we have to be up early in the morning.

A quick breakfast of brioche, coffee and orange juice on our terrace looking out over the rooftops of Benitses to the sea beyond, and then it’s off to the bus for the 20 minute ride back into Corfu Town. We’re meeting Julia, Lettie and Ellie to witness something unique and very special, something which only takes place in Corfu, and only on Easter Saturday. We’ve arrived early, so we lose ourselves in the little back streets, following the distant sound of music to a little square where a band is playing something beautiful, atmospheric and intensely moving. It’s one of those perfect moments, when you know you’re in exactly the right place at the right time, and we share this moment with people of all ages, entranced by the music.

We meet Julia and the girls back at the Plateia, where crowds have already gathered; many people are carrying little clay pots, which we’d noticed for sale all over the city in the preceding days. We push through the crowds to a spot at the southern end of the Liston, close to several apartment buildings. Once again, the balconies are packed solid, many of them with red cloths draped over them. At 6 o’clock that morning, we could have gone to the church of Panogio ton Xenon (the Madonna of Foreigners) to see a re-creation of the earthquake which, according to Orthodox scriptures, took place at the moment of Christ’s resurrection. At 9am, another procession had wound it’s way through the streets, with it’s epitafios, it’s funereal music and it’s relics, which we’d also missed.

At 11 am on the dot, the mood changes. Up on the balconies and window ledges, clay pots of all shapes and sizes are appearing. You can feel the excitement and anticipation spreading through the crowd like a breeze; cameras and phones are held high, and fingers point towards a large pot, the size of a head, as it’s pushed over the balcony to the street below (the area beneath the buildings has been cleared of people, obviously). Gradually, as we watch, we see pots falling all over the place – we’re speechless at the craziness of it, our eyes darting backwards and forwards as we try to catch sight of the biggest ones just at the point of no return. After a few minutes, a particularly tall pot is hoisted onto the railings of a balcony. It must be about 70cms tall, and pretty heavy. You can almost imagine it’s owner making a speech, in his head, to the crowd: “Hey, look everybody, look at my pot! Is it not bigger and heavier than all the other pots? Look how tall, how beautiful it is! Watch me as I send my tall, heavy, beautiful pot crashing to the ground and marvel as it explodes into a million pieces…..!!” The crowd has noticed the pot, and the crowd is impressed. People nudge each other and point, cameras are poised and a murmur of appreciation ripples through us all like a wave. It is, indeed, a Very Fine Pot. The Pot Man knows that this is his moment; and with a gentle flick of the wrist, he pushes the pot over the edge and it smashes on the ground, out of sight. I expect a round of applause, but the crowd is already looking for something bigger and better.  More pots, some full of water, tumble down, and we try (mostly unsuccessfully) to capture the moment on our cameras.

Suddenly our eyes are drawn upwards. On the top floor of one of the buildings a massive red pot has appeared, bigger than any we’d seen before. It’s huge. I imagine the previous Big Pot Man seething with jealousy, but I can’t take my eyes off this new pot, the size of a pig, teetering on its ledge high above the watching crowd. It’s owner (who even from this distance I can tell has a smug expression on his face) tilts the pot… ever so slightly…over the edge before easing it back again. “Ooooh!!…”, says the crowd. Cameras once again are held high, and sensing his inner Showman, the Bigger Pot Man nudges it forward again. “Aaaah!!!…” says the crowd, willing the giant red pot to fall……and then down it goes, manhandled over the balcony by a man who will be the toast of the local bars for weeks to come, and it crashes and explodes noisily on the pavement below.

We watch and wait; a few more pots are thrown, but nothing else quite so spectacular. The show is over, for this year. The crowd has been entertained, and the officials allow people back into the area below the buildings. Children scamper forward to collect pieces of broken pottery for luck and everyone ambles off, disappearing slowly into the maze of little streets to find an ice-cold frappe and something to nibble. After a brief lunch, Julia heads off home with the girls (she has food to prepare ready for tomorrow), while Colin and I walk along the seafront, watching the cruise ships gliding towards the harbour, and drinking in the sunshine and the happy chatter all around us, before taking the bus back to Benitses.

As the bus stops, back at Benitses, we see that a small stage area is being erected in the centre of the village; there is a sense of hustle and bustle as we make our way back up the steep little lane to our home for the week, the lovely Argo Studios, where the owners, Anna and Spiros, are keen to hear what we thought of the festivities in the Town. They have kindly left a couple of candles by our bedside (but, of course, we’re going to use the ones the girls made for us). Spiros invites us to join him later that night for a bowl of Magiritsa – a traditional Greek Easter soup, made with lamb offal and lettuce, and usually eaten just after midnight. I decline as politely as I can (even the smell of offal turns my stomach!), but Colin is polite and agrees that he’d love to try a little, later on. But for now we have to get ready; as the sun starts to set, people in little towns and villages all over the island are preparing for candle-lit processions to local churches. Colin and I light the candles that my nieces had so beautifully decorated, and follow family groups and friends up the steep road and steps to the pretty little church; in the twilight, the flickering flames light up happy faces, and while a few of the older people seem more serious, more thoughtful, the general feeling is of contentment, of love and companionship, and of tradition. While many of the people eventually wander into the church, we hover for a while before picking our way down the steps and along the sloping lane back to the village centre. People are ambling around with bottles of beer, children are chasing each other through the trees, toddlers in pushchairs are eating huge, messy ice creams and all the tables under the awnings of the sea-facing restaurants are full of noisy diners. Amazingly, one of Julia’s friends (who I’ve never met before) recognises me among the crowd from Julia’s photos – there’s obviously quite a family resemblance – and we have a brief chat with her and her husband. They seem like lovely people, but they are out to meet up with friends and family (like Julia, they’ve lived on Corfu for many years), so we leave them to enjoy the festivities. Colin and I walk to the front of the harbour; at the stroke of midnight, Corfu Town has a massive firework display, which we’ve been told may be visible from Benitses, all the way around the bay. But apart from a faint glow in the sky in that direction, there’s nothing to see; there are no bangs and whizzes to be heard either – just the sound of water lapping against the low marina walls, the occasional creak and knock of little wooden boats gently bumping together, and the muffled sounds of music and laughter from the village square. We go for a walk to the far end of the village, in the opposite direction from Corfu Town, where the village noise is replaced by chirruping crickets and the occasional barking dog. Nobody seems to be at home; the few houses we pass are in darkness – everyone is in the village, so we turn round and eventually head back to the hotel. Spiros welcomes us back and insists that we sit down at one of the little tables by the pool so that Colin can try the Magiritsa. I choose a cocktail instead, which slides down very nicely, as I watch Colin bravely chewing unrecognisable pieces of sheep’s innards floating in the strong-tasting soup. Spiros offers him more, but he politely declines. I make a mental note to order him to brush his teeth very thoroughly when we get back to our room.

Easter Day; Sunday. After another breakfast on our terrace overlooking the pool, we get the bus the few kilometres along the coast to Julia’s house, where we have been invited to her (extended) family’s Easter lunch at the home of her In-Laws next door; there are aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews, and we are introduced to everybody. They are all incredibly welcoming, doing their best to include us in their conversations (we don’t speak Greek, so a lot of the ‘conversation’ involved piling heaps of delicious food on our plates and smiling a lot)! Huge mounds of food have been laid out on a big table on their terrace; we eat roasted goat, salad, spanakopita (spinach in flaky filo pastry), bread and roasted potatoes, while the children race around, returning every few minutes to graze on a little more food before shooting off to play outside again in the hot sun. It’s all delicious, and there’s probably enough here to feed the whole village for a week – I know that, over the last few days, Julia has been cooking bits and pieces to contribute to the feast, as have all the other women in the family. The meal lasts most of the afternoon, and I know that all around the little village – in fact, all over the island – thousands of people are doing exactly the same: sharing good, home-cooked food with their families, enjoying the sunshine, the company, and the sense of tradition. Colin and I feel very honoured to have been invited to share this special occasion with such lovely people.

A couple of days later, we return to the UK. Easter, in all its commercial glory, had been done and dusted; everyone is sick of hot cross buns and Cadbury’s Creme Eggs. To the majority of Britons, Easter has simply been an excuse to eat too much and have a couple of extra days off work. Easter in Britain has become very superficial, very commercialised. Easter in Corfu, on the other hand, has been an experience that will stay with me for a long, long time. It is a celebration of religion, of tradition; of family and of community. I’m not a religious person, but there was definitely something special and spiritual in the Greek celebrations which is sadly lacking in Britain; and I think we, as a nation, are seriously missing out…

Info: We stayed at the lovely Argo Studios and Apartments, Benitses 49084, Corfu, Greece.  http://www.argobenitses.gr

 

A JOURNEY TO SKIPTON

It’s hard to get up early in the morning at this time of year; especially when it’s a Saturday, the day when we usually lounge in bed with a cup of tea and a good book. But this morning I was up just after 5am, grabbing the last few bits to put in my bag. My poor husband had been roped in to drive me to the station for the 06.53 train to Skipton, North Yorkshire, for a girlie weekend with my lovely travel buddies, Shiela and Kate.

We’d all met through the Diverbo/Pueblo Ingles programme in Spain, and we’d all hit it off straight away. Sheila – from California –  is a bit of an Anglophile (who knew?!, as she would say), and she has come over to the UK for a long stretch over the spring and summer, using it as a base to lead groups of tourists on her ‘Britain Your Way’ tours. She often stays in Skipton, and English Kate and I are joining her for a long weekend. I expect laughter, tears, and plenty of naughty food and wine!

My train left on time, and I looked forward to watching the countryside roll by in the early morning sun. Or not; the weather was that particular type of grim grey that makes the whole landscape look like someone has done a beautiful pencil drawing and then rubbed it all out with a dirty rubber. And the word ‘landscape’ can only mean one thing in East Anglia – miles and miles of flat fields , stretching as far as the eye can see to a horizon dotted with the odd clump of trees or ramshackle old farm buildings to break the monotony. On a late summer’s evening, the skies come alive over this part of England, with livid sunsets that fill up the sky and throw pink and gold light across fields of corn and deep green meadows. But this morning everything was just grey.

To add to the fun, there was nowhere close by where I could store my huge flight bag (only just legally sized for budget airlines) – luggage racks were miles away where I couldn’t keep an eye on it, and the rack above the seat was too narrow. I had reserved a seat – I must have accidentally ticked the box on the screen asking if I would like the least possible leg space, rear-facing and between two windows (so I could only see the ‘view’ outside by performing the sort of head rotation only seen in ‘The Exorcist’); a very nice man – middle aged, glasses, man-bag – had apparently reserved the seat next to mine, and we immediately struck up a conversation. Well, he did, mostly. He told me when he’d bought his ticket, how much he paid, how he’d tried to split the journey to make it cheaper, why he was going to Grantham (to pick up a car – a Suzuki –  for his wife, who doesn’t like driving), and how they’d spent a lovely weekend in Lincoln a while back. He also told me he planned to move across the aisle to a front-facing window seat, if no-one else claimed it. Luckily, no-one else did, and I also moved across, to the seat behind his, with a little more window and amazingly a bit more legroom, too.

Through the grey gloom outside I did manage to spot quite a lot of wildlife; typically of East Anglia there were several fields of happy-looking pigs, lolling around their little tin shacks, but also several deer (a small herd in one place, grazing at the edge of a clump of tall pine trees) and pair of graceful swans, gliding up from an irrigation channel in the Fens.

At Ely, the train went into reverse, so I was no longer facing the direction of travel; I don’t know why this should be less pleasant, but somehow it is. Maybe it’s psychological – it seems more positive to be looking forward, and catching a first glimpse of what’s to come, rather than seeing things that you’ve already passed speed away into the distance.

Somewhere between March and Whittlesea, I think, we crossed huge areas of water, dotted with tiny islands of reeds. Somehow the grey water sparkled just a little in places, reflecting the odd little ray of sunlight breaking through the grey sky above. It made a change from muddy fields….

At Peterborough, I changed trains and platforms to board Virgin Trains service to Leeds. I wandered along the platform, which had been helpfully marked so that you knew where exactly to wait for your particular carriage. Standing by a bench, ready for carriage C, I was aware of a group of four or five men nearby, who I assumed must have been off for a day of birdwatching (we were in Fen country, and they all had big, impressive cameras and binoculars – one of them had even brought his own fold-up chair); it was only when they all trotted over towards the edge of the platform and started squealing excitedly as a “…41299, D-class..!” came rolling through that I realised they were spotting trains, not birds. “What time did you get here, Malcolm?” one of them asked after the excitement had passed by. “Oh, I only got here half an hour ago”, said Malcolm, “and I can’t stay long – I’ll have to leave around 4.30” (it wasn’t even 8.30 at that point!). Obviously a day of great excitement ahead for them, bless ‘em!

The Virgin train from Peterborough to Leeds was much more comfortable; I had a forward facing table seat, with a plug socket (I’ve learnt never to pass up a free phone charge while travelling) and decent toilets; plus a lovely lady making announcements and a refreshments trolley. The scenery was fairly pleasant in that there were a few more low hills and we passed through some major towns (Grantham, Newark, Doncaster and Wakefield).

 

We arrived in Leeds pretty much on time, and I gave up on the queue for the ladies’ toilets and headed straight to my final train to Skipton. Which (luckily) had a toilet on board!

On this part of the journey I feel very much that I’m ‘Up North’. I’m a Southern gal, growing up on the outskirts of London and Buckinghamshire. The North is a place of mystery to me, a world I’ve only really seen on TV. But the landscape that rolled past was suddenly very much as I expected Yorkshire to look…. Rolling fields and steep hillsides, flocks of sheep nestling under dry stone walls, little towns with rows of terraced houses and converted mills. We passed through Keighley (a very pretty little station with a steam engine puffing away on another platform), Bingley, Saltaire…familiar names, but places from that far-away land of the North, where winters are tough and men are men and (quite possibly) there be dragons. It was – (and I’m ashamed to say, to my surprise) – all very pretty. I was really enjoying the ongoing view from my train window, watching the shadows of clouds sweep across the distant hills and the unfamiliar little clusters of cottages. I was also enjoying the snatches of conversations I could hear from other passengers, in accents that I’m not used to hearing in my day-to-day life; that is, until a couple of irritating twenty-something men sat across from me, loudly name-dropping about how much their band was earning for their latest album and how someone who was married to Richard Branson’s daughter was looking at their screenplay – all said very loudly in what seemed to be a fake, slightly Antipodean drawl.  I put my iPod on, and drowned them out with a bit of soothing Rufus Wainwright as we slowly slid into Skipton station…..

 

Foodie Madrid….

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…!20160920_145825

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).

20160926_090844Sheila 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, dscf1390along 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 20160914_115521creatures 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. dscf140020160914_115510 20160914_115457Iberico and Serrano hams are suspended on hooks above great hunks of Kobi beef. 20160914_120635There 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.

20160914_11531520160914_115308Sheila and I will usually walk around every stall at least three times before deciding what to try – so many choices! dscf1387Then 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.

20160926_091011Another 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!20160915_222612 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. 20160918_143152There 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,20160920_122331 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.20160920_113941 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 ham20160920_121509, 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! 20160920_150216After 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. 20160920_12121120160920_14551820160920_14590920160920_150252It 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……!

20160924_112722During 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…”,dscf1433 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)!! dscf1427Anyway, 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! 20160924_112630pWe 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,dscf1430 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….

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20160926_08374820160924_195431Kate 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! 20160924_195508With 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. 20160926_08443320160924_195456We 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). 20160926_09180920160926_091652dscf1476We 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.

Early Mornings…

DSCF9986pThere’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. 20150928_082018p

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.20150928_080107p Streetlights are still lit, even though the early sunlight is casting stark shadows between the buildings. 20150928_082320pMy last morning in Madrid, not wanting yet to leave this wonderful city, but bags packed and ready to go. 20150928_075820pOne more stroll along the Gran Via; one last cafe con leche and a warm, flaky croissant, one last amble across the Puerta del Sol….DSCF9985p

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….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…

Info:

Royal Caribbean cruises:  http://http://www.royalcaribbean.co.uk

Magic Horizon Balloons: http://www.visitluxorinhotairballoon.com/magichorizonballoons

Apologies….

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……!