We’ve been to Mallorca several times, albeit quite a few years ago, when our sons were young. We would fly into Palma with Thomson Airlines or Air 2000, be herded onto a waiting bus, then spend about an hour and a half listening to the ‘Welcome Speech’ by some bored transfer rep while desperately holding sick bags under the chins of our green-faced, travel-sick children. We’d arrive at Puerto Pollensa, a beautiful little traditional beach resort up in the north east of the island, loaded down with suitcases, kids’ backpacks, sunhats and (on our first visit) a pushchair.
This trip was a very different experience. For a start, I’ve become quite on expert on frugal packing over the last few years, and can easily pack all I need for a two week city break in one piece of hand luggage. We booked the flights with Ryanair, the centrally located hostal through Booking.com, and knew that we would easily be able to manage with public transport and our feet to get from the airport to our base for the next week. We did our homework, checked the necessary bus route online, and printed out useful maps. Without the encumbrance of suitcases and tired toddlers, this would be a doddle.
What I hadn’t allowed for was the fact that I just wasn’t familiar with Palma.
I knew what the cathedral looked like, and I knew it was virtually on the seafront in the old part of the city. I knew our hostal was in the maze of little streets nearby. I knew that we had to get off the bus by a park at the Placa de la Feixina on the Avinguda Argentina. But the airport bus took such a long, meandering route to get into and around the city, and because we passed absolutely nothing on that route that I was able to recognise, I was seriously beginning to wonder if I’d somehow managed to choose the wrong bus.
Eventually, though, we were driving alongside what looked (from the map) like the park near our hostal, so we jumped off the bus and marched off in what we knew was the right direction. Unfortunately, the map I’d printed was no help whatsoever, as most of the tiny streets in the Old Quarter weren’t labelled and the roads that were didn’t bear any resemblance to what we were seeing around us. The fact that I hate having to use a map (simply because it clearly marks me out as a tourist!) made me reluctant to have to stop and check our bearings – or worse still, ask somebody! – but we stopped, got our bearings as best we could, and decided that if we turned right at the next road we’d at least end up by the sea and could work out from there where to aim for. “What did you say the hostal was called?”, my husband asked, after about half an hour of aimless wandering. “Hostal Pons”, I replied; “Oh…..that one there, then?” he said, pointing down the road we’d not only just stopped at, but had also been past several times already.
The Hostal Pons, tucked away in Carrer del Vi, is….well,…..quirky! We guessed this from the descriptions and reviews online, but we knew, as soon as we stepped through the entrance into the pretty little whitewashed courtyard that this was no ordinary hostal. The colourful tiled staircase up to the first floor (where the Reception is located) is dotted with pot plants, and at the top of the stairs a cat was nonchalantly draped over a wooden chair. Bikes leaned against the courtyard wall, and straight ahead was an archway through which we could see flowers and greenery lit by the strong sunshine.
We went up the stairs – the cat ignored us completely – and found the hostal’s Reception desk. A man appeared from nowhere, and after checking in he gave us a brief guided tour of the building. There were stairs leading up to a small rooftop garden, and a cluttered communal kitchen area where we could help ourselves to fridge space and utensils. A couple of communal rooms, full of taxidermy, old dolls, oil paintings and ornaments, made us feel like we were in a cross between an antique shop and an elderly aunt’s house.
Then we were shown our room. In the centre, a large bed covered with a heavy cotton monogrammed bedspread; a set of shelves and rails in dark wood made a wardrobe area, and an old dressing table stood next to the tall window. On the wall, to the left of the bed, the head of the Virgin Mary gazed down judgementally. Leading off from the bedroom (through a curtained archway) was a bathroom with a shower and toilet. We opened the windows and let the sounds and sunlight from the little lane below seep into the room; time to say hello to the city!
We quickly freshened ourselves up, changed into cooler clothes and off we went. I love that first exploratory venture into a new place; senses are heightened, so you notice the sounds of the birds and the echo of voices further down the street. You smell flowers, coffee, garlic, cologne; you feel the late sun on your face as you emerge from the narrow, shaded street into a little square; you notice the cobbled, uneven pavements, the lettering on the street signs, the wrought iron balconies, the cats curled in doorways, the chit-chat from pavement cafes and tapas bars where waiters are setting up tables ready for pre-dinner drinks and nibbles. You hear the sticky sound of car tyres gripping on the hot road and a radio blaring out Latino music from an apartment. Ah, Spain, how I love you! We make our way towards what we guess is the city centre, along a street lined with restaurants and bars, until we come to the Passeig del Born – a tree-lined promenade with traffic on either side leading from a fountain close to the beautiful Seu (cathedral) to the main shopping street. By now, the sun is lower in the sky, and the heat of the day is subsiding. We wander up and down the Paseo, admiring the balcony windows jutting from the beautiful Art Nouveau buildings, the statues, the fountain and the stunning cathedral soaring up behind the palm trees. We discover where Palma’s ‘El Corte Ingles’ department store is located, we check out the various ‘Heladerias’ (Spanish ice cream is wonderful!) which we will need to try out during the week, and we make a note of several ‘Pastelerias’, their windows adorned with fruit tarts, different types of bread, fabulous cakes and massive ‘Ensaimadas’, big, soft brioche-like pinwheels, drenched in icing sugar and packed into pretty hexagonal boxes and given as gifts to family and friends. We’re hot and hungry, so we start to glance at menus as we pass different restaurants. They’re all inviting, but for now we want something quick and cheap, preferably accompanied by a few glasses of something refreshing and alcoholic. I do like to try the local cuisine, but we ended up coming back, eventually, to the street leading back to our hostal, to a busy little pizza restaurant with really good-looking (and delicious smelling) pizzas and cheap jugs of sangria. It was still a little early to eat by Spanish standards, but the place was already crowded so we were given the last table, up on the mezzanine overlooking the bar and the other diners, and right in front of the kitchen. The owner came and took our order, and we watched him down at the bar mixing a VERY potent jug of sangria, while through the serving hatch into the kitchen next to us, we watched a really hard-working chef create magic with pizza dough and delicious toppings. The meal was perfect; the pizzas were as good as any I’ve eaten in Italy, and with a decent mixed salad and some garlic bread, all washed down with copious amounts of good sangria, we left the restaurant feeling full, happy and just very slightly squiffy.
We still needed to unpack (and have a cool shower!), but the sun had gone down and the city had come to life. The fountain at the end of the Passeig del Born was lit up, and old-fashioned wrought-iron street lamps twinkled behind the leaves of the trees lining the road. The cathedral was bathed in soft yellow floodlights, and palm leaves were silhouetted in front of its ornate facades, beneath a crescent moon in the clear, darkening sky. Lights were on in all the shops and restaurants, and looking up we could catch glimpses of ornate chandeliers inside the balconied windows in some of the art nouveau buildings lining the Passeig. Outside every café and restaurant, the tables were filling up with groups of friends, families, lovers and tourists, but we wandered through the narrow lanes back to the hostal to unpack and have a shower. In the street below us, we heard snatches of conversations from people passing by, and with our cabin bags emptied, clothes folded or hung up, toiletries lined up in the bathroom and phones charging, we stumbled into bed, tired but excited, beneath the saintly gaze of the Madonna….
Info: Hostal Pons, Carre del Vi, 8, 07012, Palma de Mallorca, Spain. hostalpons.com.
I’ve just come back from my fourth Pueblo Ingles programme – an incredible experience, once again, in which about 22 English speakers from all over the world spend a week with about 22 Spaniards who are aiming to improve their English. For the whole week, we talk nothing but English; very easy for the Anglos, but initially utterly terrifying for most of the Spaniards, who also have to prepare a presentation – also in English – for a small audience. More on that later…!
In order to take part in the programme, Anglos simply have to get themselves to and from Madrid; for Anglos, it makes sense to spend a few days before and after the programme in this beautiful, vibrant, exciting city. This year I met up, once again, with my Travel Buddy Sheila (a wonderful woman from California who I met on a programme two years ago) to spend a few days basically eating, drinking and shopping our way around Madrid before being whisked away to the little town of La Alberca (where our Pueblo Ingles programme was taking place).
Sheila and I get very excited each time we start one of our little Spanish Adventures; there are places we simply HAVE to visit each time we come, and the first place we’ll go for breakfast is usually the Mercado de San Miguel. This glass-sided palace of culinary delights is located between the Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace. It is spotlessly clean and always full of a good mix of Spaniards and tourists. The food on offer is, quite simply, a feast for the eyes (as well as the taste buds!); once we’ve had our café con leche or cortado, along with a warm, freshly baked Nata tart, we wander from counter to counter, drooling over the tortillas, the pastries, the dry-cured meats, the plump fruit ready to be blitzed into smoothies. There is fresh fish and seafood – bowls of strange-looking shellfish and baby eels (gulas) posing as bowls of pasta. Spiny creatures from the bottom of the sea, razor clams and oysters are spread out on beds of glistening ice which reflect the lights of the building and the sunlight streaming through the glass. Iberico and Serrano hams are suspended on hooks above great hunks of Kobi beef. There are huge pans of paella, and chunky slices of crispy bread piled up with soft cheeses; prawns dipped in batter, strawberries dipped in licqueur and churros dipped in mugs of thick hot chocolate.
Sheila and I will usually walk around every stall at least three times before deciding what to try – so many choices! Then we grab a stool at one of the tall tables and listen to the conversations going on around us while we eat; Spanish (obviously!), English, Japanese, Italian, Australian…we met a really nice English man who had (apparently) booked himself a flight into France and out of Spain while completely drunk at a party; he’d decided – when he’d sobered up – that he might as well take the flights anyway, and had used the trip to indulge in his passion for photography. He showed us some absolutely beautiful shots of the city of Paris, lit up and sparkling at night, as well as some of dramatic storm clouds rolling in over Madrid the night before.
Another favourite place to eat is kind of a guilty pleasure: when I first met Sheila and another Pueblo Ingles Anglo (the lovely Jerry from Florida) two years before, we’d come across a rather old-fashioned (…ok, cheesy!) little restaurant called Bodega Bohemia, which is close to the Mercado de San Miguel and was advertising ‘1/2 pollo y patatas fritas’ on a blackboard outside for just under 10 euros. I know chicken and chips doesn’t sound like a typically Spanish meal, but the smell that was wafting out from the restaurant was pure heaven! We sat outside, opposite the illuminated market building, and ate the most perfect spit-roasted chicken I have ever tasted in my life! It was accompanied by fat chips, a basket of bread and a little bowl of olives, along with a jug of fruity sangria. I enjoyed the meal so much that I went back the following night on my own, and ate the same meal all over again. We went back twice when we were in Madrid last year, and three times this year! The same man is always playing a keyboard inside, and he obviously recognises us now – he popped over for a chat this time, between playing ‘Cuando, Cuando, Cuando?’ and ‘Besame Mucho’; and, as usual, a few of the Spanish diners took turns to sing while he played…..it’s probably the least hip place to eat in the whole city, but the food really is good and I really hope it never leaves it’s strange little time-warp! There are many other equally delicious looking items on the menu, but the chicken really is absolute perfection.
Our Pueblo Ingles programme took part in the beautiful little medieval village of La Alberca, up in the mountains near Salamanca, about 4 hours’ drive north west of Madrid. We stayed in villas in the grounds of a rather grand looking hotel, El Abadia de los Templarios. There was a restaurant in the grounds used just for the programme, in which we were fed delicious three course lunches and dinners (with plenty of wine), as well as a huge buffet breakfast each day. The village itself is about 1km away, reached either by road or by a footpath around the back of the hotel, and halfway through the programme we all walked along the path to the village, to learn about it’s history and to stop for lunch at a village restaurant owned by the hotel. A couple of stalls were set up in the village square, selling biscuits and products based on local honey and chestnuts. Before lunch, we were taken to a dark little bodega, where amid numerous cobwebs, dusty ancient wine bottles and fading bullfight posters we were fed paper thin slices of sweet Iberico ham, carved into almost transparent slices by an incredibly skilled man who had clearly spent years learning his craft! There were chunky slices of manchego cheese with crusty bread, while anyone feeling brave enough was given the chance to drink from a bota (a leather pouch full of wine which is poured straight into the mouth from arms length). Now full of wine and ham, we went back to the main square for lunch; I shared a table with Fran (from Canada), Manuel and Matias, and we had a really good meal in great company! Our regular waiters from our hotel had come into the village to serve us; we had a clear soup followed by chunks of crispy skinned suckling pig….and more wine! After a long and relaxed meal, Fran, Manuel, Matias and I made our way through the village for a gentle stroll back to the hotel. We paused as we wandered through the almost deserted cobbled streets to look in the windows of the tiny shops, selling all sorts of edible goodies, including olive oil, honey, bread and pastries, as well as tapas and pintxos. In one building we saw that the ceiling was full of hanging ham legs, with their little plastic cones to catch any oils seeping from the meat. It had been a relaxing day, and by the time everybody had wandered back to the hotel, through the path flanked by pine woods and in the shadow of the Pena de Francia, many of us took the chance to have a siesta before ‘work’ started again at 5pm; we’d all had lots to eat and a fair amount of tinto……and some of us may have needed a bit of extra sleep following the previous night’s party……!
During the Pueblo Ingles programme, I asked Eduardo, one of the Spaniards, to suggest an alternative place to eat breakfast when we got back to Madrid; he said that – despite sounding like an odd choice – we should try the Gourmet Experience at the top of El Corte Ingles department store, based on the Gran Via. He had me at “….they have a very good pastry section…”, but he also pointed out that the outdoor terrace gives fabulous views over the city. So, Sheila, Kate and I decided to give it a try before getting the train to El Escorial on our final Saturday. We met English piano teacher, Kate, at last year’s Pueblo Ingles programme, and we shared some very emotional times together – including the most hilarious moment of the whole programme: Kate made a random comment that kept us crying with laughter over dinner one night! Kate is so sweet and English rose-ey, but has the biggest, most raucous laugh – which she combines with an expression of delighted shock when listening to dirty jokes and rude limericks (thanks, Doug)!! Anyway, we made our way to the 9th floor of El Corte Ingles, bought coffee and croissants from the wonderful pastry counter (Harina), and wandered on to the terrace. A glass screen all around the terrace kept the breeze to a minimum (and presumably stopped naughty schoolkids from dripping gazpacho over the unsuspecting pedestrians down in the street below). The screen was etched with simple outlines of the more famous buildings on the skyline, each named, so we could identify them; very clever! We spent far too long nattering over our breakfast….then we wandered back inside and spent several minutes gazing through the glass panel that looked out over a perfect view of the Gran Via, before checking out all the interesting foodie items for sale and the different counters selling Mexican food, sushi, pintxos, cocktails, hamburgers, ice cream, pizza….We didn’t leave the store until midday, but it was wonderful to sit and natter in the sunshine, looking out over the spires and domes bathed in warm sunlight….
Kate had to return to England the day before Sheila and I left. On our last morning in Madrid, Sheila and I got up early to look for breakfast and to take some final photos. Many of the shops weren’t open yet, but luckily we noticed that La Mallorquina (a very old and traditional bakery/patisserie at one end of Sol) was not only open, but it also had a café area upstairs. Joy of joys! With every kind of cake and pastry imaginable on sale, I restrained myself and just had a croissant (which was very nice, but not as good as the ones at El Corte Ingles!), before taking photos of some of the beautiful creations on sale as we left through the shop. We wandered around the back of the Plaza Mayor, passing the Bodega Bohemia and the famous Botin, said to be the oldest restaurant in the world (it was founded in 1725). We wanted to hang around, to have a final trip to the Mercado, to stop for churros at the Chocelateria de San Gines, to sit in the Plaza Mayor with a final café con leche – but we were late, and we had to go back for our luggage and make our way to the airport. But we did have time for one last ice cream…..!
Info: You can find out all about Pueblo Ingles by contacting Diverbo: www.diverbo.com.
Well, here we are again….Pueblo Ingles – same routine, different location. And many different Spanish faces; some with beaming smiles, eager to make friends, jumping in at the deep end. Others looking like they’d rather be having teeth pulled – wondering what happened to all those years of English tuition and terrified at the thought of seven whole days of talking to around 40 complete strangers in a foreign language.
We arrived at El Mirlo Blanco, our home for the next week, were given our name badges and were allocated our rooms – most of us in little villas dotted around the gardens, and a few in the main hotel building. My villa – number 15 – had twin beds, a decent bathroom with a good shower, a small fridge, and plenty of storage space. I flung open the large window to one side, and the French doors which opened on to a little terrace with a table and chairs; the sun streamed in, along with the sound of birdsong and the gentle clinking of cowbells from the field behind. From my patio I could just see the hotel’s pool between the trees, and to the right the stunning Gredos mountains rose majestically beyond the hotel gardens.
But this is Pueblo Ingles, the English Immersion programme for Spaniards which takes around 20 English speaking volunteers (‘Anglos’) from different parts of the world and the same number of paying Spaniards and mixes them together for a week. Every day is strictly timetabled, and Day One, although fairly relaxed (to ease us all in gently), is no exception. And first thing on the timetable was lunch……
The English conversation at Pueblo Ingles never stops; each table generally seats two Anglos and two Spaniards, and enjoying a meal and a glass of wine with new friends is a great way to get to know each other better. We were still waiting for a few Spaniards who were driving to the venue, so there were just three of us on our table for lunch: two Anglos (myself and Chris from the USA), and a lone Spaniard – Carlos M.L. (sometimes called ‘Lope’ as there was also a Carlos M.S…..). I felt sorry for Lope; he was the lone Spaniard on a table with two Anglos….it must be hard for him, poor guy!! But I really needn’t have worried – Lope clearly wasn’t the shy, retiring type! The food wasn’t great but the company was, and as I glanced around the restaurant, I could see that at every table there were animated, happy conversations going on.
After lunch we had a little more free time to unpack properly, and then we had to meet in the gardens for a game of ‘Human Bingo’ – a good chance to put names to faces and find out a bit more about everyone. We were all given a sheet of paper divided into squares – in each square was a statement which related to at least one person (Anglo or Spaniard) in the group, and we had to try and tick off every square: “Doesn’t like pizza”, “Has acted in a play”, “Has more than three siblings”… by the time we’d spent 20 minutes frantically asking each other the questions on the sheets, we’d learnt several names and had spoken (briefly) to everybody else on the programme.
Later that day we had another meeting, explaining a few more details about the week ahead. Our Programme Director, Sabela, and our Master of Ceremonies, Amelia, told us about choosing our meals from a menu each night for the following day (and using colour-coded tokens at the table so the waiters knew what we’d ordered). They told us how each day’s timetable would be posted on the notice board every morning and after lunch, and of the importance of punctuality. They explained to the Spaniards that they would each have to plan a presentation for later in the week. They asked if any of the Anglos would be prepared to take part in some theatre, and if they’d volunteer to take part in some conference calls. They told us that we would be having a party on the Monday, an excursion on the Tuesday, and ‘something special’ on the Sunday evening…..Most of us had a fairly early night that night, ready for a busy week ahead.
The next morning – our first full day – we awoke in glorious sunshine, although there was a bit of a chill in the mountain air. Sheila (my Californian friend who I’d met at Pueblo Ingles last year) and I met in one of the little wooden pergolas just outside the restaurant to compare notes on our respective rooms – Sheila’s was in the main hotel building, with a huge window looking out across the mountains. Gradually people started drifting towards the restaurant, where a buffet breakfast had been laid out, and already it was obvious that everyone was much more relaxed now. After breakfast we gathered around the notice board to look at the morning’s schedule: one-to-ones from 10am to 1pm, then a group activity before lunch at 2pm. By now, the initial coolness of the day had given way to blazing sunshine, and as we each went off with our assigned partner, many of us were looking for somewhere shady to sit. Olga and I decided to take a walk along the lane outside the hotel, through sparse oak woodland where purple crocuses and tiny white flowers pushed through the mossy ground. We talked about theatre, about our work, about our families….all in English, and soon it was time to wander back for a 10 minute break before our next partners. After the one-to-ones, the group activity had us all in the conference room, sitting Anglo/Spaniard/Anglo/Spaniard, where we were put into pairs (although I was in a group of three with Olga and Ann) and given about 10 minutes to find out three interesting facts about each other. Each group then took it in turns to stand up and tell everybody what they had found out. This was the first proper chance I’d had to talk to Ann (a tall Spaniard with an American father); I’d seen her standing in the hotel entrance the previous day and thought she looked quite scary – tall, with a slightly haughty expression; just goes to show how wrong you can be! Ann had a wicked, dry sense of humour, and a good enough command of the English language to use irony and sarcasm in a way that had me in hysterics on many occasions during the week! We all learnt a lot more about each other in this activity – what an amazing group of people!! There were Spaniards who worked in the Nuclear Power industry, in publishing, in packaging, in medicine, in telecommunications; among the Anglos was a retired college Principal, a bass guitarist, a tour operator, an actor…there were Anglos from Canada, the USA, Australia, England and Wales, and ages across the board ranged from mid twenties to early seventies. By the time we stopped for lunch at 2pm, I think all of us were feeling completely relaxed in each others’ company. Having chosen our lunch menu the previous evening, we selected our coloured tokens and sat down to dinner for some more Anglo/Spanish conversation.
Meals at El Mirlo Blanco were….interesting! Our three waiters, a young Spanish married couple called Ruth and David, and an older man called Andres, were completely professional, very friendly and always smiling. Unfortunately, the food itself was not the exciting, delicious cuisine we’d experienced at La Alberca when we were at Pueblo Ingles the year before. But we weren’t here for the food; anyway, even the most mundane meals were vastly improved by the free-flowing wine and interesting, funny and stimulating conversations. The afternoon timetable didn’t start again until 5pm, so after a leisurely lunch we were free to take a siesta, swim in the pool, go for a walk, play cards or catch up with emails and Facebook (I posted quite a few photos of the sun-drenched view from my patio on Facebook to family and friends back home in grey-skied England..!). Then it was back to the notice board to check the afternoon’s timetable, and another round of one-to-ones and group activities until dinner at 9pm. Each day ended with social activities after dinner, generally in the bar, and finished when the last person shuffled back to their room, usually in the early hours of the morning. Our activity at the end of that first full day was a game of ‘Taboo’, Spaniards versus Anglos (with slightly more…’relaxed’ rules for the Spaniards!), involving one person trying to get their team to guess the word at the top of a card without saying any of the other related words printed below it. “The Spaniards ALWAYS win!”, said Amelia; I’m not sure if it was a comment or an order, but, sure enough, the Spaniards won! After the game, a few people went to bed, some bought drinks and a group of smokers sat outside in one of the pergolas – nicknamed the ‘smoking hut’ – and eventually I walked back to my villa through the gardens, looking up at the clear sky splattered with stars, listening to the crickets and the occasional ring of a cowbell as the cows behind the villa fidgeted in their sleep.
Most days of the week at El Mirlo Blanco followed the same pattern; through one-to-ones, two-to-twos and group discussions we got to know each other incredibly well. Some of our chats were funny and lighthearted – discussing favourite actors/actresses, talking about films that made us laugh, learning about Spanish customs or how to make a proper paella. I had a wonderful conversation with lovely Manuel, who told me with great pride about his three young sons; without exception, all the Spaniards LOVE talking about their families – particularly their children. Amparo told me about her complete despair when her son was very ill and she didn’t know if he would pull through. Concha told me how proud she is of her Turkish daughter-in-law and the beautiful grandson she had given her. We all talked about everything: I heard about the best places to eat in Cordoba, about a divorce, about the impending birth of a first child. About someone’s love of singing, and someone’s love of literature. About a special anniversary trip to Paris, about a hope that a new relationship would last. Somehow it didn’t seem at all odd that we were sharing our feelings with people we barely knew.
Group activities were always my favourites. These could involve discussions among groups of 4-6 people about all sorts of pre-suggested topics. Or we’d play games: chairs set out in a large circle under the trees in the garden – one fewer chair than the number of people; the person without a chair stands in the middle and says “All those who…..are wearing a watch/are younger than 40/have brown eyes…” – at which point there’s a mad rush as everyone fitting the description swaps seats leaving a different person in the centre to call out the instruction.
Sometimes a small group of us would be timetabled for theatre rehearsals. Me, Ann, Ana B and Elena were all given a script (Monty Python’s ‘Argument Clinic’ sketch) and access to the dressing-up box, and we had about two hours (with a bit of direction from Amelia) to produce a performance for the others.
Other groups performed a silent skit based on couples watching a film at a cinema, and a take-off of the Pueblo Ingles experience. There was even a performance of Roald Dahl’s ‘Cinderella’ – Raul and Norman looked wonderful as the Ugly Sisters in their wigs and sparkly dresses!
We had a special treat in store on the Sunday night, when we took part in a Pueblo Ingles tradition involving an ancient Galician ritual – the Queimada!
Queimada is a traditional ‘witches brew’ made with Galician Orujo (a spirit distilled from black grape skins) and flavoured with cinnamon, lemon peel, sugar and coffee beans. This strong punch, mixed in a huge clay pot, needs to be made outside in the open air, on a dark night; the lights from the nearby buildings go out and the Queimada is set alight as brandy is slowly added. The burning liquid is stirred while three witches chant an incantation – in English, Castilian Spanish and Gallego – banishing evil spirits and bringing peace and special powers to those gathered round to share the brew…
“…And when this beverage goes down our throats, we will get free of the evil of our soul and of any charm. Forces of air, earth, sea and fire, to you I make this call: if it’s true that you have more power than people, here and now, make the spirits of the friends who are outside, take part with us in this Queimada.”
Three mysterious witches appeared to recite the incantation, while Sabela stirred the Queimada; the burning liquid is held up in a ladle and poured back into the pot, the blue flames dancing on the surface of the brew….. We’re invited to dip a finger into the flames and lick off the burning drips as we make a wish. Eventually, the flames die down, and the drink is ladled into clay pots and shared among us. It’s strong stuff, but warming in the cool night air. It all feels very primitive, very special, very spiritual….
With the Orujo helping everyone to relax, it was time for a change of mood: each ‘country’ had been given a little time in the afternoon to practise a song (which was vaguely representative of their homeland) and the songs were performed after the Queimada. The performances ranged from a (very brave) Lisa, representing the whole of Australia all on her own by singing ‘Waltzing Matilda’, to all the Spaniards throwing themselves into ‘Y Viva Espana’!….
Monday was memorable for two reasons: Monday night is Party Night, but Monday lunchtime involved a meal that became a running joke for the rest of the week. There were two menu options for Monday’s lunch, one of which was calamares (squid). As the main course was being handed out, I gradually became aware of stifled laughter around the room…and glancing to the next table, I could see why: the squid had arrived….
I’m not sure if anybody ate it, but the salad bar suddenly became very popular!
After dinner, we all put our glad rags on for Party Night!! Lots of wine at dinner and Spanish measures at the bar meant we were all very mellow and merry, and all the cheesy music sounded so much more fun when everyone was singing along with their different accents! I remember, at one point, beautiful Montse buying a bottle of Spanish cider for a few of us to try, and she explained to us how it should be poured from a height into small glasses,….but then the lure of the ‘Macarena’ proved too much….! I think I returned to my villa around 3am…
On Tuesday we had an excursion to Las Cuevas del Aguila, a massive and beautiful cavern 20 minutes drive away. The cave remained undiscovered until 1963, when five boys, sons of local farmworkers, discovered a column of what they thought was smoke rising from a small hole in the ground; the condensing air was escaping from what turned out to be the entrance to a huge cave, and the boys decided to explore, with just one small flashlight and a small length of rope.
They were lost in the cave for five hours before finding their way out and telling everyone what they’d found. Now the caves have become a popular tourist attraction, where you can amble along the designated walkway in your own time or with the help of a guide.
Afterwards we were dropped off at the little town of Candeleda, which we had only glimpsed briefly as we’d passed it on the way to our hotel.
The town centre was draped with bunting from a fiesta which had taken place over the weekend, and when we arrived late on the Tuesday morning, most of the shops were still closed after the festivities. The streets were quiet, with just the odd car cruising past the old men sitting in the shade beneath the palms, a statue of a mountain goat looking down on them. As we looked along the empty streets, we could see the mountains in the distance, washing hanging from windows and geraniums spilling from pots on balconies. A few of us Anglos had decided to look for local jewellery, and Montse offered to help us, asking the locals where we might find somewhere open. She led us to a lovely little shop – the shopkeeper must have thought her ship had come in when four eager tourists descended on her, desperate to buy rings and earrings! It would have been nice to have had a little more time in the town, but we were expected back at our hotel for lunch.
There were so many things about the week that I’ll remember: the scorpion on the floor of Lisa’s villa; the sound of music coming from Kaz’s early morning zumba classes; shouts and splashing coming from the pool in the early hours; Caitlin and Calvin’s dance class (poor Chris had the bad luck of partnering me when Calvin decided it was time for the men to ‘dip’ their partners!); talking to Ann about our favourite books; watching Lyn literally crying with laughter one lunchtime; watching Calvin and Kaz dancing together; listening to the songs each group made up on the last day – many mentioning the scorpion and ALL of them featuring the calamari; the vast, clear, starry night sky; Elena singing a beautiful song to me in Catalan; walking along the lane with Montse watching a herd of goats being shepherded from one field to another, and then being greeted by two men riding by on beautiful black horses; playing ‘Spoons’ late in the evening; the sight of Raul, Manuel and Donald dressed as women……
All too quickly, we were approaching the end of the week and it would soon be time to go home. On our last evening – the Thursday evening – we were told that it would be wise to pack our bags before dinner, as our final meal was to be a barbecue outside, followed by more music and dancing to celebrate the end of a fantastic week.
We’d need to vacate our rooms when we came to breakfast on the Friday morning, pay our bar bills and have our suitcases ready to load on the bus for the journey back to Madrid. I’d done a brilliant job of fitting 13 days’ worth of luggage into a single cabin bag when I flew to Spain, but I struggled to get everything back in! Then it was time for our last dinner together: long tables were laid out in the gardens, set with water, wine and flickering candles. To one side, the hotel cooks were grilling sausages, chicken portions, chorizo and pork ribs, and another table was laid with salads, potato mashed with paprika, bread and corn on the cob.
There was the wonderful smell of sizzling, seared meat, and smoke was rising from the barbecue into the darkness. There was lots of chatter, a bit of boozy singing and plenty of laughter above the sound of clinking glasses; and sitting among all these people who were now my friends, it felt odd to think that the next day we would all be going our separate ways.
After we’d finished eating, we went back inside the bar for a bit of a boogie and lots of silly photos before the bar staff decided it was time for bed, and those of us who still didn’t want the night to end were banished back to the garden where we sat talking until the cold finally got the better of me and I dragged myself back to my villa for the last time.
I was up early. I packed away my last bits and pieces, checked the cupboards and under the bed, locked the door and trundled my cabin bag along the garden path for the last time, saying goodbye to the cows as I passed them. Our last breakfast. Andres, Ruth and David were presented with the money we’d collected for them as a ‘thank you’ for all their hard work throughout the week. Finally, after breakfast, we all congregated again in the conference room, where our final activity involved making up and performing songs based on our experiences of the week. Hilarious!
Then it was time for the ‘Graduation’ ceremony; one by one we were invited to collect a certificate acknowledging our efforts throughout the programme, and to say a few parting words. This is hard – very hard; we’ve all shared so many memories over the week: incredibly good times, very happy times and hilariously funny times, as well as some moments of deep sadness (one of the Anglos found out that she’d unexpectedly lost a family member the previous day). There were people here who we would never have met (and probably would never have thought we’d get along with so well) had it not been for Pueblo Ingles, and although most of us will keep in touch – through Facebook and emails – we may never see each other again. During the Farewell Ceremony there were a few sniffs, a few eyes being wiped, a few sad faces….I can’t remember what I said as I collected my certificate, but I think it echoed what everyone else had said: that we’d met so many wonderful people who we could now call friends, and had a week that we’ll never forget.
We said goodbye to some of the Spaniards who were leaving before lunch, driving themselves back home or to work. Hugs and kisses all round, promises to write, to share photos, to meet up next time we were in Madrid. Then lunch – my last meal shared with Ruben (soon to be a first time father, who reminded me of a young Gary Sinise), Amparo (who is going to Brazil in the new year to dance samba in the Rio carnival) and Adam (a tall Canadian with the most gorgeous, deep voice). Finally the coach arrived. Spanish was no longer banned, and the Spaniards could turn the tables on us! It somehow sounded so strange to hear all these Spaniards, who up until now we’d only heard speaking English (albeit with a lovely Spanish accent), suddenly speaking in their native language! Lope came and sat in front of me at one point and asked me some questions v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y in Spanish, enunciating every syllable super clearly – which I thought was extremely funny before it occurred to me that maybe that’s how we Anglos had spoken to many of the Spaniards during the week!
And then we were back in Madrid, drawing up by the Diverbo offices on Calle Agustin de Betancourt, our suitcases deposited on the pavement. A few of us arranged to try and meet up later that night for dinner, we all hugged and kissed cheeks some more, and gradually, one by one, everyone disappeared into the Madrid rush hour.
Well, not quite; Sheila, Lyn, Kate and I went back to the café where we’d had breakfast on the day we left Madrid for Candeleda the week before. We reminisced about Pueblo Ingles over coffee and pastries, and then Sheila, Lyn and I headed for the Metro while Kate went to search for her B&B nearby. Lyn came with us while Sheila and I checked in to the Hostal San Isidro near Sol, and left her luggage in our room while we went to wait by the bear statue for Marissa, a friend from last year’s Pueblo Ingles, before heading off for dinner. So that night, back at La Bodega Bohemia, six of us (me, Sheila, Marissa, Lyn, Chris and Lisa) had a wonderful, final meal together. Then Pueblo Ingles really was over, as we all hugged goodbye and Sheila and I finally turned in for the night in our little hostel room……
There were heavy grey clouds over Stansted as Sheila (my amazing Californian friend who I met at Pueblo Ingles last year) and I took off, buffeted by crosswinds and blasted by the rain.
According to the Spanish pilot, it was a bit drizzly in Madrid, too – but the temperature was about 12 degrees higher than in England. Having only one cabin bag and an EU passport, I breezed through security on arrival (yay!), and we then began the 20 mile trek (or so it seems) from the arrivals hall to the metro.
Madrid’s metro system is clean, efficient and very easy to use; the station names sound so exotic to English ears…..Rios Rosas, Acacias, Cuatro Caminos, Pacifico, La Latina…
We emerged, hot but happy, at Puerta del Sol at about 8.45pm, the bright Tio Pepe sign shining down on the bustling plaza, and crowds of people posing for photos in front of the statue of the bear (the traditional meeting point for a night out in Madrid).
Our hostel (the lovely Hostal de Nuestra Senora de la Paloma – which was on the floor directly above a hostel I’d stayed at the previous year!) was just a short walk away, halfway between Sol and the Plaza Mayor. Our twin bedded room had a teeny bathroom with a shower, and shuttered doors opening onto a little balcony festooned with geraniums.
I was desperate to eat once again at the cheap and cheerful Bodega Bohemia (opposite the Mercado de San Miguel), where the year before we’d had the most delicious spit-roasted chicken and chips (I know… not exactly a local speciality!); it was less than 10 euros, but
the chicken was succulent and garlicky, the waiter (Nicolas) very friendly and the food was accompanied by cheesy keyboard music and elderly Spanish karaoke singers – sounds awful but it really added to the atmosphere (as did the very large and very welcome glass of sangria)!
We left the restaurant around midnight, just as other diners were arriving for dinner….
Madrid can be very noisy, and especially so in the early hours of the morning, when you’re desperately tired and even earplugs won’t muffle the sound of revellers, motor bikes, police sirens, more revellers, refuse lorries…so we woke, bleary-eyed and brain-dead, and set off for coffee and breakfast…
…which we found in the Mercado de San Miguel. The food there really is a feast for all the senses. There are stalls selling seafood, fruit, pastries, tapas, coffee, cheese, olives, jamon, smoothies, paella, tortilla……
..we toured the hall about three times before deciding on what to eat (café con leche, a creamy nata tart, and a tiny spinach quiche for me).
This popular indoor market is busy, lively, full of chatter, clinking cups and rattling cutlery; all kinds of delicious smells waft from the different stalls: fresh coffee, spicy chorizo, pungent cheeses, briny seafood, sweet vanilla from the bakeries……and every single stall presents their wares as works of art.
We were due to meet the other Anglos (English speakers) at Casa Patas – a famous flamenco club and restaurant, at 2pm. It seemed that many of them were already Pueblo Ingles converts – some having already been at least five times. The Anglos who’d not done the programme before must have been reassured by the number of people who regularly give up a week of their lives just to take part – it must be good, right? We all got to know each other over paella and dessert before heading upstairs to watch some very good flamenco; the restaurant runs a highly regarded flamenco academy. Then the Pueblo Ingles leaders (Jez, Jason, Amelia and Sabela) took it in turns to talk to us about the meeting point for the bus the next morning, what to expect from the Spaniards, what kind of activities we might be doing during the week, and how hard it may all seem at first. Then we were free to head off around the city. Having visited Madrid four times before, I feel very comfortable here, and I know my way around the centre reasonably well. I love watching the street performers in the Plaza Mayor and the Puerta del Sol; I love the architecture, from the famous buildings to the tiny architectural details; I love the shop signs and the window displays and the street signs. I love the people – Spaniards are cheerful, exuberant, opinionated, noisy, lively, friendly and helpful. Apart from the fact that I can’t walk around Madrid without a camera in my hand, I don’t really feel like a tourist here any more. Even so, I know that I’ve barely scratched the surface of this vibrant city. But for the rest of the afternoon and evening, we took it easy, strolling around the shops and having dinner with some of our new Anglo friends.
We left our hostel early the next morning for our metro ride to the bus meeting point at Nuevos Ministerios. We just had time for a croissant and coffee at a nearby café before joining the crowd of people waiting to join the bus. Sabela and Amelia, our Programme Director and MC for this trip, were ticking names off a list and welcoming the Spaniards who, as usual, looked somewhat nervous. “Spanish stops here!” said Amelia, inviting us all to board the bus, and reminding us that Spaniards had to sit next to an Anglo. Quite a few of the Spaniards had chosen to drive directly to the venue, so there were a few empty seats; I ‘shared’ Sheila’s Spaniard, Miguel, who (in very good English) pointed out various famous sights as we drove out of the city.
As bustling Madrid gave way to rolling countryside scattered with olive trees and castles, the Gredos mountains gradually came into view. We continued through acres of oak trees, home of the black pigs reared for their Iberico ham. We crossed narrow bridges over rivers, the water fresh from the mountains, sparkling clear and freezing cold. Small groups of bulls languished in the sun, and about two hours after leaving Madrid we turned into the entrance of El Mirlo Blanco, our home for the next week. Let the fun begin…..!!
Info: We stayed at the Hostal Nuestra Senora de la Paloma in Madrid (www.nuestrasenoradelapaloma.com ).
“How would you like a free holiday in Spain?” asked the TV presenter.
“Free”, “holiday” and “Spain” are three of my absolute favourite words, so I made notes while the presenter explained that Pueblo Ingles is a ‘language immersion course’ in which native English speakers (‘Anglos’) are given free bed and board for about a week in return for lots of conversation with Spaniards who are keen to improve their English. It sounded great, but then life got in the way and I pushed it to the back of my mind.
Jump forward about 10 years; the Travel Agency I’d worked for went into liquidation, and the cheap (or free) travel that I’d relished for so long suddenly dried up. For the first time in years I was faced with the horrendous prospect of Not Going Abroad, so the time seemed right to look into Pueblo Ingles again.
Now that Pueblo Ingles had spread to teaching in Germany as well as Spain, the company is known as Diverbo (www.diverbo.com), with the name Pueblo Ingles still being used to cover the programmes in Spain. I found the website, read the details, gave my choice of 3 preferred dates, and clicked ‘apply’. Simple.
It took a while for Diverbo to reply, because they take care to ensure that there’s a good mix of Anglos to keep the Spaniards on their toes. They want all ages and different nationalities on each programme, so that the Spaniards can get used to different accents and idioms. I was offered a place in October 2011, and a couple of weeks before the programme all the Anglos were sent group emails so that we could get to know each other a bit online prior to meeting in Madrid.
The programme is not cheap for the Spaniards, whose employers often pay for their places on the course. The Anglos, however, only have to cover the cost of getting to Madrid, and a couple of nights accommodation, if they want, at the beginning and end of the programme. I was amazed to see that among my fellow Anglos were people flying in from the USA, Canada and even Australia; and several were coming for their second or third time. Although some were fitting it in as part of a longer tour around Europe, one man had flown all the way from Philadelphia in the USA just to take part in Pueblo Ingles!
Most of the programmes start from Madrid on a Friday, but Diverbo arrange a Get-Together meal at Casa Patas (www.casapatas.com), a popular restaurant in Madrid, the day before, just for the Anglos to meet each other and put names to faces. My flight got me to a bright and sunny Madrid at midday on the Thursday, hot and sweaty in the rainproof jacket I’d needed as I left a grey and drizzly Stansted earlier that morning. I just had time to check in to the Hostal Santillan on the Gran Via (and have a brief shower) before rushing off to the restaurant.
A small group had already congregated outside Casa Patas when I arrived, and as I sidled up nervously I was immediately made welcome; “Oh, you’re Paula! Hi, I’m Julia, we chatted by email….”. Everyone introduced themselves (“Oh, my God, you’ve come all the way from Sydney…?!”) and by the time we’d all sat down at the tables inside, everyone was laughing and nattering like long lost friends. Of course – this is why we were all here: naturally talkative people, eager to meet new friends and have new experiences! We met Jez (our MC – Master of Ceremonies – for the week) and Alan, the Programme Director, who wandered between us making jokes and getting to know us all.
After a lovely meal and plenty of wine, we wandered upstairs to watch a brief flamenco show (for which Casa Patas is famous). We were given coffee while Jez and Alan filled us in on a few more details and answered any questions. Having made sure we all knew where to pick up the coach the next morning, we were free to explore the streets of Madrid.
There are some people you meet in life that you instantly click with. A little group of us ambled (or should that be ‘staggered’!) off towards the Prado, where entry is free after 6pm (it was a long lunch!), and a queue was already snaking around the building. As we wandered around one of the greatest art collections in the world, I realised that Debbie (from Canada) and I were going to get on like a house on fire – maybe it was the wine, but we both collapsed into fits of giggles in front of some of the more earthy exhibits, made worse by the fierce ‘shushing’ from the (mostly female) security guards! We learnt each others’ backgrounds and shared photos of our children, and within a couple of hours it was as if we’d been friends for years.
After the Prado Debbie, Ari and I walked through the darkening streets as the city came to life. Ari (short for Arianwen) is amazing, and she now writes a fantastic blog about her adventures around the world: Beyond Blighty (www.beyondblighty.com – probably the best travel blog name I’ve ever heard!). We found a little restaurant for another bite to eat, then made our way through the crowds of Madrilenos off for a night out, back to our respective hostels for an early start the next day.
Terrified of over-sleeping, getting lost on the Madrid Metro (difficult – it’s very user-friendly), or not being able to find the meeting point for the bus, I set two alarms for the crack of dawn. I trundled my suitcase down the Gran Via, past the aroma of fresh coffee and bread wafting from nearby cafes, and through puddles where the pavement had been swept and washed as the sun rose. The metro journey was easy, and I arrived at the meeting place early enough to drop into a nearby café for a bit of breakfast. Two of the Anglos – Carolyn and Clive from Australia – were already there, and I had to admit to feeling a brief moment of relief that I was in the right place at the right time!
Soon after 9am, we took ourselves off round the corner of the street and were met by a throng of people; all the Anglos we’d met the previous day looked relaxed and cheerful. The Spaniards, on the other hand, looked mostly terrified! Most of them didn’t know anybody. A few had identified – and were talking to – previously unknown colleagues from their companies, but most had come alone. Jez and Alan took charge as the bus arrived, ticking off names and telling us that each Spaniard had to sit next to an Anglo. Once we were on the bus, absolutely no more Spanish was allowed. Sitting behind Debbie, I was joined by Peng, a very friendly Spaniard from a Chinese family, and once we’d got the basics out of the way (‘what’s your name?’, ‘where do you live?’, ‘what do you do?’, ‘are you married?’ etc) we discussed favourite films, Spanish food, British TV, holidays….and before we knew it, we were pulling into a service station just a short distance from the beautiful walled town of Avila.
After our ‘comfort break’, the Spaniards were told to swap to a new Anglo for the remainder of the journey, but Peng was having none of it. “I feel safe with you!”, he said, putting off the inevitable moment when he would have to face a new and no doubt terrifying Anglo. By the time we were winding around the gentle mountain slopes that surround the little medieval village of La Alberca, we were firm friends!
We were given name badges and allocated our villas: one Anglo and one Spaniard in each. Every villa contains two twin-bedded rooms, one upstairs and one downstairs. I was to share with Javier from Seville; we each had our own keys to the communal stable door (leading to a large lounge and small kitchen area) as well as to our own rooms.
My ground floor room was accessed from the lounge, and I had a neat little bathroom with a shower, two single beds and a tiny terrace area outside. There’s no TV or radio, so it’s very peaceful – the only sounds were the constant ‘plops’ as another chestnut dropped heavily to the ground from the trees outside, and the bell in the clock tower which chimed on the hour. Occasionally I heard snatches of conversation from people walking along the footpaths which wind from villa to villa among the beautiful chestnut trees, and I opened my bedroom window to the warm afternoon sun.
Lunch first. After a few minutes to freshen up, we filled the restaurant – always two Anglos and two Spaniards at every table – and had our first taste of the wonderful food that we were treated to at every meal.
There was plenty of wine available, too, so it didn’t take very long for everyone to relax. After we’d eaten, Jez explained a little more about the week ahead, including the meal ordering system – we pick what we’ll want to eat the following day from a menu put up each evening.
When we arrive for lunch and dinner the next day, we take tokens colour-coded to match each dish we’ve chosen; then we display our tokens on the table so that the waiters can serve us without disrupting the flow of the conversation! Jez also announced an ice-breaking activity in the bar area after lunch, and by the end of the afternoon we’d all spoken to each other and knew most peoples’ names. Everyone was really friendly and gradually I started to remember who was who without having to look at their badges first.
Dinner that evening was followed by a game in the presentation room above the restaurant, and the day officially finished at 10pm, when several of us headed to the bar for a last glass of wine or a hot cup of coffee. Spain was having a late blast of sunshine that October, but up in the mountains the nights were a bit chilly. That night I slept deeply and snugly in my comfy bed.
Every day at Pueblo Ingles is timetabled, and it is stressed to everybody that punctuality is vital for the programme to be a success.
So, at 9am each morning we were all queuing for breakfast (fresh fruit, pears poached in cinnamon, cereals, eggs, bacon, bread, yogurts, cheeses, French toast….and best of all, wonderful slices of warm tortilla).
At 10am the ‘One-to-Ones’ start: each Anglo is paired up with a Spaniard, and they are free to spend the hour wherever they want – and talk about whatever they want – but they must ONLY speak English. A chart in the bar tells you who you will be talking to for each hour-long slot, and a few people have to either give (or watch) a presentation. Some people are timetabled to have free time. The Anglos are also given a phrase or idiom that they have to explain to their Spaniard (“raining cats and dogs”, “a leap of faith”….).
Almost every One-to-One conversation starts with the usual questions about family and work, but soon you are talking about all kinds of things; about travel, shopping, medicine, music, children, local traditions…..sometimes the conversation becomes very personal. Someone you’ve only just met will tell you how sad they are after the break up of their marriage, the death of their mother, their fear of never finding the Right One to share their life with…..
A few of the Spaniards were almost rigid with fear at the start of the week. They could all speak basic English, but one girl in particular (I’d hate to embarrass her, so let’s call her Veronica) clammed up completely. “So, Veronica…where do you work?”. Veronica looked at me as if I’d simply screamed at her. “Are you married?” – I think she was about to cry. “Have you ever been to England?” was almost enough to have her running back to her villa. But slowly, slowly, over sharing meals, playing silly games, walks through the hotel grounds and lots of dressing up, Veronica blossomed. She overcame the sheer terror that had enveloped her at the beginning, and was soon joining in with everything with the same enthusiasm as everyone else.
Carlos was another surprise. All the Spaniards have to give two presentations during the week. They can be on any subject, but often they focus on their jobs, as did Carlos. He had a very responsible position with the Spanish army, and part of his job involved buying equipment from the UK or the USA. Up until now, this was mostly done in writing, with the help of a huge Spanish-English dictionary; but now that he was expected to contact English speaking suppliers by phone, it was clear that his spoken English needed to improve. Carlos’ first presentation (in front of Jez, a few Anglos timetabled to watch, and a few more Anglos foregoing a free hour to support Carlos) was not very successful. He’d had a chance to prepare his presentation, but between the stuttering, the brow-mopping, the apologies “sorry….so sorry…!” and the inaudible mumbling, it was painful to watch. Everyone clapped encouragingly, but it was clear that he’d gone through sheer hell.
A few days later, Carlos gave his second talk, in which he had worked on his speech, pronunciation and presentation skills. It was like watching a different man; no longer hiding behind a sweat-stained page of notes, Carlos spoke clearly, confidently, in near-perfect English, and the improvement in his presentation brought the room to tears. I was lucky enough to be at both his presentations, and I felt so proud of the progress he’d made. We’d all helped him; all the Anglos and all the Spaniards, just by constantly talking to him, gently correcting his mistakes, laughing at his jokes, understanding that this mild-mannered, middle-aged man just needed a little support and encouragement.
At the other end of the spectrum there was the OTHER Javier (‘Javier V’, to distinguish him from the more sedate Javier from Seville who shared my villa).
An adorable, big-hearted and completely hilarious man, Javier V simply lit up the room when he walked in. A natural joker, he was full of life and could have us all in hysterics within seconds. He wanted to improve his English as he was moving his wife and young children to London at the start of 2012 while he worked as part of his company’s team at the London Olympics. He was constantly moving, talking, singing, dancing and laughing, and he really threw himself into every activity, never caring if he made a fool of himself, and I’ve no doubt that he made every day of his family’s stay in London completely magical. He was a showman, and the (few) mistakes he made with his English didn’t matter – his personality made him a natural communicator in any language!
The One-to-Ones and conference calls (it’s harder to understand a foreign language when you can’t see the speaker) were interspersed with sessions of completely off-the-wall stupidity….
We were encouraged to delve into the gigantic ‘dressing-up’ box, filled with pink wigs, sequinned dresses, feather boas, jackets, boots, make-up…on several occasions we were split into groups for improvisations, little theatrical scenes and daft role-play, looking like leftovers from ‘The Rocky Horror Show’!
We had quizzes, played games, acted out scenes from famous films, invented new religions, and had a party (the Spanish REALLY know how to party)!!
One evening we took part in the Galician ritual of the Queimada, a potent drink with the addition of coffee beans, concocted in a clay pot and set on fire. As it is stirred, an incantation is chanted, calling the elements to purify the drink and to bring closer the spirits of families and friends who are far away. Then little cups of the smoking brew are passed around to be sipped as we listen to the incantation.
This incantation was read out by three ‘witches’: in English, in Castilian Spanish (allowed for this special occasion) and Gallegan (the language of Galicia). Late at night, outside in the dark, with the blue smoke rising from the flaming pot, and our hands wrapped around our cups for warmth, we felt part of something ancient, magical and spiritual.
The nearby village of La Alberca is a 2km walk away, either through little pathways behind the hotel, or along the main road. Jez rounded up a small group of us to start the days with a brisk walk before dawn. Not being fond of very early mornings or any walking that could be described as ‘brisk’, I did manage to drag myself out of my cosy bed and out into the still-dark air on two or three occasions.
We all whispered our ‘hello’s’, as we tried to recognise each other in the dark, not wanting to wake everyone else still sleeping soundly. We walked very briskly along the dark road almost as far as the village, crunching chestnuts underfoot, and hearing wild dogs barking from the other side of the valley, our breath visible in the crisp morning air, before turning back to the hotel as the sun rose from behind the mountains.
The timetable each day went something like this: breakfast was served at 9am. The day’s ‘work’ usually consisted of four ‘One-to-One’ sessions, finishing at 2pm, which was lunch time. Lunch, like dinner, was always a relaxed affair involving three courses, bread, wine and coffee. After lunch we had free time until 5pm, when we had an hour of group activities – games, improvisations and challenges.
From 6pm to 8pm there are more One-to-Ones or telephone sessions, followed by an hour of presentations or theatre before dinner at 9pm (including a hilarious presentation about Halloween customs in the U.S.)! After dinner there are ‘social activities’ – quizzes, games and so on, usually held in or around the bar, usually involving lots of noise and quite a bit of banter. The bar closes around midnight but there are usually quite a few people sitting at the tables outside, still chatting (and drinking) until the early hours….
One of the things I really love about Pueblo Ingles is listening to the Spaniards talking English to each other. Early in the week, you see them groping for words, searching their brains for the translation they need before they speak – and they don’t cheat! You can creep up on them when they think there’s no-one around, and there they are, struggling to find a way of saying what they want using English …..but they persevere! They get there in the end! And by the end of the week they are joking in English, singing in English, swearing in English….and you realise that somewhere around the middle of the week they have actually started to think in English!
In the free time after lunch, little groups of us would sometimes stroll into the village through the footpaths, passing happy goats and pigs snuffling in an orchard; I walked back one day with Javier V and two of the other Spanish men. Javier explained why the Spanish National Anthem has no lyrics – it used to, during the Franco regime, but the nation chose to forget the words after Franco died. We all skipped, arm in arm, back to the hotel, singing the tune at the top of our voices (“La la la….”), with Javier occasionally substituting his own lyrics!
We spent a day at the village, visiting a bodega full of dusty wine bottles and bullfighting posters, where we ate freshly sliced Serrano ham and drank wine from a bota; we bought local honey and sweets made from chestnuts at a little market stall, and all the women swarmed a tiny jeweller’s shop, where they sold the traditional ornate silver rings of the area. We visited the beautiful little church, and heard the legend of the mysterious bells above the ossuary, which, legend has it, rang out all by themselves on a dark, stormy night many years ago. We saw the seashells carved in wood and stone on buildings signifying that we were on part of el camino de Santiago.
The village is full of timber framed buildings, with balconies dripping with brightly coloured flowers, looking more like Bavaria than Spain. We had lunch in a village restaurant owned by our hotel, and then returned there at the end of the week for a final evening meal in its beautiful cellar.
There was one last formal activity before the programme ended; the Farewell ceremony. One by one, all the Anglos stepped forward to accept a certificate (and the applause of the other participants), while Jez and Alan thanked us for our ‘generosity’ – for giving up a week of our lives to talk and play with a group of Spanish strangers. Then it was the turn of the Spanish. They, too, stepped up to receive their certificates, proof that they had been completely immersed in the English language for a week, and proof that their English had improved in leaps and bounds. As they shook hands with Jez and Alan, the audience clapped, and the Spaniard had to face the audience and say a few words. When Carlos turned round to speak, the entire audience was on its feet; there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
The bus ride back to Madrid felt very strange; for a start, the Spaniards were finally allowed to speak in their native language. Hearing people (who so far we had only heard speaking in faltering English) suddenly speaking in rapid Spanish was really weird! We all swapped phone numbers and emails, and a little group of us arranged to meet later that night for dinner in Madrid. We were deposited back at the starting point, where we’d all met as strangers a week before; as people hugged each other and collected their suitcases, before wandering off to the metro, it felt like we were losing our family.
That evening, Debbie and I met up again with 9 other new friends from the week, Anglos and Spaniards. We spoke in English AND Spanish, and reminisced about what a fantastic time we’d all had over the previous week. The Spaniards had all, without exception, improved their English no end. Veronica was with us that night; no longer terrified, Veronica told jokes, laughed and chatted happily – in English.
I have kept in touch with many of the wonderful people I met from all over the world at my first experience of Pueblo Ingles. There were so many special moments, with so many special people, and I can’t possibly mention all of them here…..but here’s a few:
…sitting outside the bar until 3am, drinking wine and watching the stars, long after the bar had closed and the lights had all gone out….
…watching the sun set over the mountains, with the smell of woodsmoke hanging in the air….
…sharing a dinner table with the stunningly beautiful Rhoda (from Ireland), the gossipy and hilarious Lourdes (from Seville) and the witty and laconic Rocio, with her deep, husky voice. We’d had plenty of wine, and something trivial (a comment Lourdes made about her soup, I think) made us laugh…and we couldn’t stop. Each time we all tried to calm down, Lourdes would catch sight of our faces, snort with a mouthful of food, and we’d all start up again, tears streaming down our faces, laughing like drains and feeling like naughty children….I honestly can’t remember many other times in my life where I had laughed so completely uncontrollably! I can’t remember what we ate that night, but I will always remember the laughter….
…watching the Spaniards sing together; one night, each nationality had to perform a group song. I think there were four of us Brits; we sang Monty Python’s ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’ very nervously and fairly badly. The Spaniards – all 22 or so of them – sang an obviously popular Spanish pop song originally performed by a male/female duo. They belted it out passionately, girls singing at the men, the men singing the chorus back at the girls, with lots of arm waving, stamping feet and hand gestures….
…dancing Sevillanas at the party night….
…the Quiz Night; I can still hear Jan shouting to Jim: “…The zipper, Jim, the zipper…!!” (Don’t ask!)
…sitting on the terrace of my villa in the sunshine late in October….
…watching Canadian Kristina’s presentation where she told us of her life as circus performer. She was one of the first Canadians to enter the Olympic stadium to perform at the closing ceremony, as Canada took over the role of welcoming the world to the next Olympics….
…the wonderful breakfasts and three course meals cooked just for us every day, with plenty of wine….
…having One-to-Ones in the hammocks by the pool, or walking along the path towards the village, or sitting on a bench in the gardens overlooking the mountains, or in the bar with a coffee….
…”Peng!!” Peng was always the last to arrive, and we’d all shout out his name as he entered the room….
…The last day. Unless you’ve experienced it yourself, you can’t begin to imagine how emotionally attached you’ve all become to each other. Everybody hugs each other; everybody cries…..