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

 

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……!

Colours of Marrakech

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, IMGP0190babouches (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.

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Black and green olives, lemons, oranges and dates are everywhere.

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.

 

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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.

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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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Away from the theme parks…

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.

When the heat became too much for us, we headed back to the car and followed the Park’s road to one of the fishing piers near the old Fort itself.

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.