I know it’s only February, and we can’t expect too much sunshine at this time of the year in the UK; we’ve been lucky – we’ve had relatively mild weather so far this winter, and some days we’ve even had clear blue skies and bright sunlight! Glorious!
But this afternoon has been horrible; we’ve had icy winds, sleet and hailstones – one of those bleak, miserable, grey days that just makes me pine for warm sun, blue skies and….well, a bit of colour. Anything but grey! As the wind howls through the trees outside, and dark clouds race across the sky above muddy brown fields, I remind myself that this time last year I was planning a break to Morocco.
Morocco is anything (and everything) BUT grey. Morocco attacks the senses like …..a charging camel, a sandstorm, an explosion in a spice factory; the moment you step into the streets you are bombarded with the sound of car horns and people shouting, the smell of spices and donkeys, the searing sensation of the sun burning your pale skin. And colour everywhere.
Even the ‘dull’ colours in Morocco are stunning. Many of the ochre-coloured buildings have a pinky-orange tinge to them, which glows as the sun starts to set. Vibrant flowers spill from pots on rooftops and vivid tiles decorate doorways, adding bursts of clashing colour to the warm walls.
The sun casts sharp shadows, so a row of sand-coloured buildings is punctuated with contrasting dark shapes. Shops and market stalls spill out onto the roads, displaying their wares on every possible surface – cumin, paprika, cinnamon piled high on wooden trays, scarves and carpets hanging from rails, babouches (leather slippers) in rainbow colours on racks against the walls, silver jewellery, copper pans, candles, perfumes….we even saw a huge tray in which about 40 live chicks, all dyed pink, green, blue and yellow, squeaked and flapped tiny wings.
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.
The Medersa Ben Youssef was founded in the 14th century as a place of religious learning. It was rebuilt around 1565 by the Saadian sultan Moulay Abdellah, and you can wander through this beautiful building and see the 130 dormitory cells where 900 young students studied the Koran. But it’s most famous for all the wonderful examples of traditional architectural details throughout the buildings and courtyards. As well as the carved stucco panels on the walls and the ornate arches and pillars, the lower sections of the walls in the courtyard are covered with zellij tiles – multi-coloured tiles laid out in complicated geometric patterns.
The students’ dormitories are small and sparse. Most contain two to four alcoves cut into the stone walls in which the students would sleep – presumably with some sort of thin mattress for comfort. The rooms are completely bare, although the floors of the corridors between the rooms are decorated once again with brightly patterned tiles. The thick walls help to keep the building relatively cool, and the hustle and bustle of the Medina just outside seems far away. The mixture of plain white plaster and areas of brilliantly coloured tiles and paintwork is stunning – monk-like simplicity blended with the exotic feel of a harem!
I found the same sense of exotic tranquility in the beautiful Bahia Palace, built in the 19th century for Ahmed Ibn Moussa, who brought in craftsmen from Fez to create a home for his concubines. The name means ‘Palace of the Beautiful’, and the 160 rooms are lavishly and colourfully decorated.
Ceilings in particular are intricately painted in jewel colours, and windows and doorways look out onto pretty, cool courtyards with marble fountains, ponds and rich green foliage.
It’s amazing what a difference a little greenery and running water makes – you instantly feel refreshed and a little calmer! I loved the courtyard in the Bahia Palace; it felt like a scene straight out of ‘One Thousand and One Nights’, with the cool marble, the fountains, the dazzling colours of the tiles and the paintwork. Around the Palace are beautiful gardens with orange and lemon trees, palms and rose bushes. Several cats lay sprawled in the dappled shade beneath the trees, ignoring the tourists and the tiny birds that flit around in the branches.
No visit to Marrakech would be complete without a visit to the famous Majorelle Gardens. This amazing space is in every Marrakech guide book’s Top Ten, although prior to our visit, I wasn’t too sure that I’d enjoy it; the photos I’d seen showed beautiful colours and lots of cacti and palms, but it all looked somehow a bit arid and modern – not the ancient, busy, bustling Middle Eastern mish-mash that I expected of Marrakech. But it gave us an excuse to wander into the New City, and in spite of getting completely lost (for about two hours, at the hottest time of day…), we finally found this colourful oasis in the middle of the town.
The shady little courtyard at the entrance is gorgeous; we’d have happily just sat there for hours, enjoying a rest in the dappled coolness, but through the gates we could see tantalising glimpses of the gardens beyond. The 4-acre plot was bought by French artist Jacques Majorelle soon after he arrived in Morocco with his wife in 1917. His passion for botany led him to fill the gardens with plants that he brought back from his travels around the world, looking for inspiration for his paintings. In 1931 he commissioned a cubist villa to be built in the gardens, which he used as a studio and workshop. He continued to lavish attention on the gardens between paintings, composing plants, trees and ponds into works of art, and using strong, vivid paints (including the brilliant cobalt blue known as Majorelle Blue) on the walls and plant pots.
The gardens were opened to the public in 1947, to help pay for their upkeep, and soon Majorelle was earning more from the gardens than from his art work. He said “The garden is a momentous task, to which I give myself entirely. It will take my last years from me and I will fall, exhausted, under it’s branches, having given it all my love.”
Following his divorce – and then finding a new partner – Majorelle had a serious car accident in 1956, which led to the amputation of his left leg; he was forced to sell off part of the gardens to raise some money, but after a second accident just months later, he was sent to France to recover. He died there in 1962, never seeing his beloved Marrakech or his beautiful gardens again.
The famous fashion designer, Yves Saint-Laurent, and his partner Pierre Bergé fell in love with the now dilapidated and overgrown gardens when they first visited Marrakech in 1966. The land was due to be bulldozed to make way for a hotel, but Saint-Laurent managed to prevent this, and the couple bought the gardens in 1980. They set about restoring Majorelle’s vision, installing complicated irrigation systems, adding new plants (there are now 300 different species) and employing 20 gardeners. The cubist villa now houses a Berber museum. When Saint-Laurent died in 2008, his ashes were scattered over the rose garden, and a pillar brought from Tangiers stands as his memorial, surrounded by palm trees and bamboo.
As well as the stunning plants and flowers, the gardens are home to chirruping small birds and cooing doves, humming bees and croaking frogs. Butterflies flit above the blossoms, and water trickles from fountains and over stones. It’s a world away from the harsh, dry tourist trap I’d expected; the Moroccan sun beats down, accentuating the bright colours and stark shadows, but you can also find lush, green avenues and cool, shaded benches; little wooden bridges looking out over still, lily-covered ponds, and tranquil pergolas draped with leafy green fronds. Bliss!
Back in England, opening the curtains just after dawn onto another cold, grey English winter morning, I try to remember those scorching, mind-melting days in Marrakech….the smells, the sounds….but most of all, the incredibly vibrant colours….
I know, this blog is meant to be about travel. “Breakfast on the Beach” should, hopefully, take you back to that feeling you get when you’re far from home and you have a day of exploration, discovery and excitement ahead; a day away from your normal life; a day of being free from the day-to-day routine. So bear with me while I tell you about another way I’ve found of transporting myself somewhere else…..
It’s no secret that I LOVE musicals; I was brought up listening to film soundtracks, and from a very early age I knew every word to all the songs from West Side Story, which I remember seeing at the cinema with my Mum. We lived in South East London when I was a child, and occasionally Mum or one of my aunties would take me to the West End to the cinema or theatre – I particularly loved going to the ballet, and would stand behind the sofa on tiptoes after seeing The Nutcracker or Swan Lake. I’d dance around the living room to music from the ballets and sing along to the soundtrack from West Side Story, The Sound of Music and Mary Poppins.
Let’s get this straight – I cannot sing, and my dancing (which was ok when I was younger) can only really be described as ‘enthusiastic’ these days. I still wish fervently that I’d had the talent to go into musical theatre when I was deciding what I most wanted to do with my life, but even my best rose-coloured glasses couldn’t allow me to fool myself that I would ever make a living on the stage. So I’d sit through show after show, singing along in my mind, and with every bone in my body itching to join in with the dance routines.
I’ve lost count of how many productions of ‘West Side Story’ I’ve seen over the years, as well as lots of the older ‘classics’ – South Pacific, Oklahoma, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, The King and I….. I’ve seen Annie, Pal Joey, the original productions of A Chorus Line and Chicago as well as the recent versions, Grease, Fame, Saturday Night Fever, Hairspray, Legally Blonde, Evita; Les Miserables, Miss Saigon, Memphis, Wicked and Jersey Boys (oh, that show is SOOOOOO cool!!!) and countless others; and next year I have Guys and Dolls and Mamma Mia to cross off the list, as well as, hopefully, many more……
I opened my theatre programme while waiting for a show to start here in Norwich in the winter of 2011, and saw an advert which said something along the lines of “HAVE YOU ALWAYS WANTED TO BE IN MUSICALS? How would you like to learn and perform numbers from top West End shows alongside professional performers…?”
I applied straight away…
The company is called ‘West End Experience’, and they describe themselves as “…the ultimate workshop for anyone who loves musical theatre”. The company holds courses at various locations around the UK, giving children and adults the opportunity to train and perform with professional choreographers, musical directors, dance captains and actors from the West End or Broadway. Courses run for five consecutive days, from the first workshop on the Monday to the final show performed in front of a paying audience on the Friday. The courses are always held during school holidays; here in Norwich we have a course at Easter and another during the October half term. The children (about 70 of them, although it feels like about 700 when we’re all squeezed backstage on show night!) learn their routines from 9am to 4pm from Monday to Thursday, with the adult group (around 30 of us) taking over, after work each evening, from 6pm to 9pm. On Friday – show day – we spend most of the day going over routines and songs ready for the one and only run through of the show with both the children AND the adults, before the show itself in the evening.
I don’t know too much about the children’s workshops. For most of the week, we adults have no contact with them at all, apart from the odd comments from the professionals who teach both groups (and there are a few parents in the adult group whose children are also doing the course during the day). What I do know is that they are very well chaperoned, with responsible adults present at all times to dish out water, plasters, and friendly help. The chaperones make sure the kids are in the right place at the right time, they will look for lost jazz shoes and lyrics sheets, and they make sure that nobody feels lost, left out or lonely (no chance of that!). I also know that WEE receives hundreds of letters and emails each year from grateful parents, thanking them for the incredible experience their child has had and the confidence they’ve gained throughout the week.
WEE, to me, is so much more than a ‘workshop’.
I have just completed my 8th course, and because most of us love it so much, we sign up for the next one as soon as each show is over. The same, lovely, people each time, referring to ourselves as our ‘WEE family’ – we have a shared, wonderful (but exhausting!) experience, and we see each other at our worst (tired and sweaty) as well as at our best (elated, having finally remembered complicated dance routines when it mattered most)! That feeling of camaraderie as we all take our bow together to rapturous applause at the end of another show…well, it’s hard to beat.
All the organising and administration for WEE in Norwich is done by an incredible lady called Jo Chandler. Jo posts out application forms, collects the payments, deals with all queries, sends out emails, and is a cross between a friend, a mother hen and a headmistress. Before my very first WEE workshop, back in April 2012, I was thrilled to receive an email from her, a week or two before the course, telling us what shows we would be covering and with lyrics attached for the songs we’d be singing. Our shows at that time included Billy Elliott, Wicked, Legally Blonde and….West Side Story!! I almost cried with happiness!
I could happily wax lyrical about every course I’ve taken part in, every song we’ve sung, every dance we’ve performed, every dramatic scene we’ve acted in, every incredible West End Performer who has generously taught us the actual dance routines from the show or sung with us on the stage. It has always been magical, and each time the course ends, we all feel at a loss, deflated…
So to give you an insight into why we all love it so much, let me tell you about our most recent workshop, which ran at the Open Studios in Norwich, from Monday 26th to Friday 30th October.
Around mid October (at which point we were already frantically counting down the days to the next WEE on Facebook!), Jo sent us the eagerly anticipated email outlining the shows and songs we’d be performing. Not for the first time, I was initially a bit disappointed; the line-up included Dirty Dancing (which I’ve never quite ‘got’), and Starlight Express (I saw the touring production, and really didn’t think much of it – the cast were fantastic, but I just didn’t like the songs). However, Saturday Night Fever was going to be fun, and I was really excited to be doing Mamma Mia! Straight away there were Facebook messages going backwards and forwards (“OMG! Mamma Mia!! SOOOOOOO excited!!”), and YouTube clips downloaded so that we could familiarise ourselves with the songs.
So, Monday night, 6pm: many of the WEE adults had already arrived in the ‘music’ room at the venue; lots of hugs all round – lovely to see old friends again, along with some new faces! We started with a singing session with our MD (Musical Director), the hilariously naughty Karl Davies, who has us in stitches every night while somehow managing to teach us to sound rather wonderful when we sing! Although I really don’t sing well, it’s such an amazing feeling to be singing along as part of a group, especially when Karl throws in harmonies and makes a bit of magic! Then it was up to the dance studio, where Claire Cassidy, our Dance Captain, taught us the choreography for ‘Light at the End of the Tunnel’, from Starlight Express. In spite of not having loved the show, I really enjoyed the dance routine – which is often the case! We have about an hour each night to learn a dance, which is as close as it can be, choreography-wise, to the actual dance performed by the cast in the show. We ended with an acting class with the lovely Craig Whiteley, using a selection of hand puppets to act out a scene from Avenue Q.
Then Day 1 is over – I get home around 9.45pm, have something to eat, and try to remember the dance routine and the song harmonies which I’d learnt just a couple of hours before, but which are already slipping from my mind…..luckily, I have the video of the dance (recorded during the class and posted on our closed Facebook group) and a voice recording of the song harmonies to help refresh my memory before falling, exhausted, into bed.
The days follow a pattern; up early for a full day’s work (where the only chance I have of practising what I’d learnt at WEE the previous night is in my half hour lunch break, during which I also have to eat some lunch, as I won’t eat again until around 10pm….), drive the 17 miles from work back into Norwich for WEE, where we learn ANOTHER song and ANOTHER dance routine and go over bits and pieces of what we’d learnt on previous nights.
Then back home for a bite to eat, a glance at the recording of the new dance routine (by which point I have no recollection whatsoever of the previous night’s routine!), before collapsing into bed after a much needed bath! I have learnt that it helps to have a day’s leave from work midweek; it gives me a chance to go over the songs and dances learnt on the first couple of days before learning yet more on the Wednesday and Thursday nights!
We are incredibly lucky to have some absolutely wonderful professionals teaching us dance routines from West End shows they’ve performed in. This week we had Emma Woods, who appeared in Dirty Dancing (among other things), and taught us to bring out our Latin side with sultry salsa moves.
Emma’s husband, Stephane Anelli, showed us how to strut our stuff when he taught us the ‘Staying Alive’ routine from Saturday Night Fever; and the lovely, smiley Nikki Mae (who, like Claire Cassidy had been in the cast of Mamma Mia) showed us the moves for the ‘Money, Money, Money!’ scene: “Be more Greek!! Exaggerateyour hand movements! Donna! Table! Table…”!
Not only are the professional tutors extremely talented, they are very generous: not only do they patiently teach us almost the exact choreography from the shows, they also chat to us about their lives and pose for photos; and they NEVER patronise us – we have to turn out our knees, extend our arms, straighten our backs and perform complicated footwork just like the West End cast do, AND do it with as much passion as possible! We may not be as slick as the professionals, but hey – we’ve only had 12 hours to learn everything we do!
Working with the stars (and I include all the regular WEE tutors here, not just the visiting performers) gives us moments of such surreal pride and joy. We’ve met some really talented people; I particularly remember being taught by the lovely Laurie Scarth (Hairspray) and Jonathan David Dudley (one of the students in the film version of Les Miserables), as well as Gemma Baird, Zizi Strallen, Rachael Wooding and Ruthie Stephenson, to name a few. But there were some real highlights for me; we performed one of my all-time favourite routines – ‘One’, from A Chorus Line – complete with top hats, taught by Michael Steedon, who I’d seen dancing the same number in the show at the London Palladium. Where else would I ever get the chance to do that?!
Then we had the incredibly handsome (and extremely nice and chatty!) Oliver Tompsett, who had played Galileo in We Will Rock You, before taking the role of Fiyero in Wicked; he’d even performed with Idina Menzel!
Then we had one of those ‘pinch-me-I’m-dreaming’ moments: we were rehearsing the poem ‘The Naming of Cats’ from ‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’ as an introduction to a section of the show dedicated to ‘Cats’ the musical. Sophia Ragavelas, who was starring in the show, came to tweak our performances; she showed us how to be more cat-like as we spoke, and then we were supposed to slink away, cat-like, as we shunned the aging Grizabella (Sophia) as she walked among us to sing ‘Memory’. We all assumed she’d save her voice for the show, but up there in the dance studio, with the music track playing in the background, we were treated to a private (and beautiful) performance of an iconic song from one of the most famous musicals in the world, by the star of the show! We were all speechless and emotional afterwards – that voice!! Wow!
But for me, the absolute peak of happiness was meeting Eugene McCoy, who played Nick Massi in the original London cast of Jersey Boys.
At this point, I’d seen the film version of the show, which I really enjoyed, and had tickets booked to see the stage show. We were introduced to this tall, gorgeous man who had the sexiest voice and a wonderful smile, and he taught us the coolest dance routine we’ve ever done at WEE (to ‘Who Loves You?), explaining how he and the other Jersey Boys spent weeks just perfecting the tiniest movements – which is why Jersey Boys is so slick. I’m so upset that I was too overawed and embarrassed to ask for a selfie with Eugene at the time…!
For four nights, we had strutted and sweated, posed and pranced, sung our hearts out (in four-part harmony) and worked our socks off. All too soon it was show day. I’d taken the day off work, so that I could wash my hair and practise the songs and dance routines prior to the final rehearsals. I packed my spare rehearsal clothes (it does get rather hot in that dance studio), my jazz shoes and my stage make up. I grabbed some healthy food on the way in – we have to eat when we get the chance, because we can be called onstage at any time for a run-through – and arrived at Open Studios around 1pm. The staff had already set up the chairs for the audience (over 400 expected that evening), and the tech crew were running sound checks and adjusting lighting, while a group of the children were being positioned for one of their numbers on the stage. The children are expected to arrive around 11am, and any adults who are free get there as soon as possible after that.
About half the adult group were already up in the dance studio, running through our dance numbers under the expert guidance of a wonderful lady called Katy Carroll, who runs a local dance school and acts as our Dance Captain during the rehearsals. I don’t think Katy realises how immensely grateful we all are to her for going over and over the niggly little bits of choreography that we all stumble over during the week, but which she breaks down for us and practises with us as many times as we need on show day!
At various points during the afternoon we were called down to the stage so that we could work out the logistics of getting on and off the stage with the children for the first time, as well as being given our positions for the songs. Claire – who had almost lost her voice completely by now – either praised us or scolded us, as necessary, for forgetting instructions or for being too slow to make an entrance. Claire has spent the entire week going through all the dance routines we’ve learnt and polishing them up – for both adults and children – as well as staging the songs, and somehow still has loads of energy, prowling in front of the stage and trying to organise over 100 nervous, excited performers. Claire is our hero; she always gives the adults a pep talk, and we absolutely don’t want to let her down. She tells us how she loves working with the adults, because we’re so desperately keen to do well and because we work so hard while holding down daytime jobs, and because, however tired we may be during the rehearsals, we always do her proud in the final show. She tells us that she drives us hard because we can take it, because she knows we will shine on the stage, because we are the ones performing, and there will be people in the audience – watching us – and thinking how lucky we are to be up there in the spotlight, performing with the stars. We know that this is true – it takes courage and guts to do what we adults do, especially those of us who are less….well, young…than we used to be!
We have one, single run-through of the show; one attempt to get on and off the ridiculously narrow steps to the stage without bumping into hundreds of children; one attempt to pick up the cue and get into the right position before the lights come up; one attempt to get the lighting right with the full company on stage, and one practise of being in the right place at the right time. Things go wrong, we forget our words, we arrive on stage late; but the audience isn’t there yet, and we have a precious hour or so to change into our show clothes (black leggings or trousers and a WEE navy T-shirt, which WEE provides), drink several litres of water and eat something – including the lovely cakes that Hayley and Tristan somehow have had time to make!
The audience is already coming in. We’re told to get ready for the first song, ‘Roar’. We’ve already checked the running order sheets, stuck on walls and doorways backstage, to see how much time we’ll have before we’re on next for our Dirty Dancing routine. The noise level backstage drops – “ssshhhh!” – as the doors are opened, the lights are dimmed and we take our places to sing. Heads down, arms by our sides. Deep breaths. We’re aware of a sea of faces, watching us expectantly, but I’m used to this now, not worrying about the audience, concentrating instead on remembering the words, the harmonies and the steps. The music starts; the lights come up….
….and we’re off! Somehow, we remember the words, the lyrics, the choreography. Somehow I manage to keep my body moving in spite of the dodgy knee and the swollen ankle. We watch the children from the back of the stage – so much enthusiasm, so much energy, so much joy on their faces! From the corridors, we hear the visiting professionals singing so beautifully. We hear the applause, for them, for the children and for ourselves.
We sing, we dance, we act, we sing again. We make the odd mistake, but we cover it up with smiley enthusiasm and jazz hands. We’ve been trains, nuns and crazy Greek peasants; we’ve hammed it up for Avenue Q and soothed the soul with The Sound of Music. Finally, it’s over; we all follow Craig in a celebratory ‘Dad dance’, performed by the entire company, before we stagger down the steps as the applause dies down. We collect our bags from the changing room, take photos, hug each other, and go out through the auditorium to meet up with family and friends who’ve watched the show. I share a hug with Jo, Karl, Craig and Claire, each with a queue of very happy and excited children and their proud parents, waiting to thank them and say goodbye until next time.
We have already got our application forms filled in for next April, and we’ve ordered the DVDs of the show; the adults will get together for a DVD night in a couple of weeks, so we can re-live the experience and see the parts of the show that so far we’ve only heard from backstage. Another amazing night with my WEE family….another amazing West End Experience.
Info: I can’t explain how special WEE is to me, twice a year. We are so lucky, here in Norwich, to be able to be part of the West End Experience. Although so many of us return time and time again, there are always some new faces, and we love seeing how the slightly nervous newbies fall in love with the whole process! If you want to know more, please visit the website: www.westendexperience.net .
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.
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…..
Don’t you just love that moment when, having left behind a dull and breezy spring day in the UK, your flight Captain announces that the local temperature is 39 degrees?
We landed in Marrakech-Menara airport at 8.40pm. It was already getting dark, but the heat that hit us as we stepped off the plane was almost tropical. The muffled voices echoing around the Arrivals hall were mostly speaking French, and signs in French and Arabic added to that lovely feeling you get when you’ve just arrived somewhere new and exciting. After the compulsory visit to the loo, we joined the queue for passport control (had my passport stamped – yay!) and went to collect our suitcase from the carousel. Then changed British money into Moroccan Dirhams, and headed out to our transfer driver, Faisal, who had been waiting patiently.
The roads of modern Marrakech are wide and busy; while Faisal told us all about the trips he would be happy to arrange for us, we watched as modern buildings, billboards and palm trees sped past in the dark, and we clung on to our seats as Faisal cut up every vehicle that tried to pass us on either side. Marrakech – so far – looked nothing like I expected, until Faisal pointed out the approaching walls of the Medina (the old town) looming in front of us. We pulled into an entrance to the city at exactly the same time as about 3 other vehicles, all with horns blaring, but Faisal, un-phased, just continued his commentary, narrowly missing a parked donkey cart. This was the Marrakech I’d imagined: increasingly narrow streets, tight corners, roads lit by lights radiating from tiny shops and stalls, boys on bikes, old men sitting on the pavements, dark doorways, and noise – everywhere, noise: car horns, bicycle bells, cart wheels, motor bike engines, shouting…..
Suddenly we stopped, and in the same breath as pointing out his ‘Travel Agency’ close by (“…where I will meet you first thing in the morning to book all your excursions…”), Faisal was barking instructions and passing our luggage to a teenage boy who turned and started walking off down a smaller lane, among several cyclists and people pushing carts along through the dark alleys.
We hastily tipped Faisal and followed after the boy, turning into smaller lanes and then yet smaller and darker ones. A group of young children crouching on the corner watched silently as we passed.
Finally we were at an impressive, open doorway. The sign above showed we’d arrived at the Riad El Youssoufi, and a young man of about 27 was standing in the warm light just inside. “Welcome,” he said, “and mind your heads!” Julien took our luggage from the boy and stood back to let us stoop carefully down into the calm, cool oasis that was to be our home for the next 6 days…..
There’s something very magical about that first couple of hours when you arrive at a foreign destination. Something extra special about that first sniff of foreign air, that sensation of being in a different climate, the sound of a different language being spoken; seeing signs in different alphabets, faces with different features, cafes serving different food. As you leave the airport for your hotel in a car, taxi, minibus or coach, you see different shops, different brand names above petrol stations, unfamiliar road signs and place names, buildings that could be schools, clinics, libraries, police stations. Or you take the metro, watching locals get on and off, immediately recognising you as a tourist with your map and suitcase, as you pass through stations with unfamiliar names.
Then you arrive at your hotel or lodging with a feeling of trepidation. Will it be as nice in real life as it was in the photos? Have they given you a decent room? All the other guests know their way around and look at your untanned skin and travel-crumpled clothes (flight socks under sandals – good look!) with curiosity as they amble through the lobby on their way to the pool/the nightclub/dinner.
You spend half an hour unpacking the essentials, finding places for everything, checking out the bathroom, reading any guest information, logging on to wifi, locking and unlocking the safe (if you have one) – not sure how much cash to keep on you for your first night, not sure where to keep your camera/ipod/documents….Within a couple of days, it will all be familiar; your room will feel like home, and you will know exactly where to go for a bottle of water/the best spot by the pool/some great local street food.
But for now, it’s all out there, waiting to be explored, waiting to be discovered…..exciting, uplifting, exotic; and you relish that tingle of expectancy that runs through you as the adventure begins.
I had dreams that our 30th wedding anniversary would involve my husband whisking me off to an exotic island –I have been hinting about Bora Bora for an awfully long time, after all! But deep down, I knew this was never going to happen – for several reasons:
Bora Bora is VERY expensive to get to.
Despite leaving suitable travel brochures laying around, with pages turned down and hotel descriptions heavily ringed in black biro, my husband has not noticed that Bora Bora is El Numero Uno on my bucket list. I suppose the fact that there are always numerous holiday brochures, travel magazines and guide books covering every surface in our house may make it easy for these to be overlooked….
Bora Bora is VERY, VERY expensive to get to.
My husband – bless him – readily admits he would have no idea of where to start when it comes to booking a holiday, even though I have travel agent friends who would hold his hand and gently guide him through the whole process! My fault, I know; having had a travel-obsessed travel consultant as a wife does rather mean he has had no involvement in organizing any of our travel plans…
My husband would be terrified of Getting It Wrong….he knows there would be dire consequences if he booked the wrong flights/airlines/hotels!!!
Bora Bora is NOT CHEAP.
An expensive trip to a tiny speck in a distant ocean on the other side of the world merits a stay of at least two weeks; Hubby would have to clear it with my employers behind my back and it wouldn’t be easy for him to take time off (he’s self employed…)
So…..it was up to ME to surprise HIM.
And now the tables were turned, I realised that it’s actually not quite that easy to organise a surprise holiday; I asked him if he’d be happy for me to surprise him, and gave him some rough dates. Yes, that was fine, he said (with a slightly worried expression).
So; where to go? Bora Bora is out of the question until we win the lottery. We couldn’t be away for more than a week due to work constraints. We both hate the idea of spending all day, every day on a beach. I didn’t want to stay in a bland hotel.
My first thought was Madrid. I love Madrid with a passion, and I’ve been there several times, although Hubby has never been. But I’ll be going again in September – maybe better to look at somewhere I’d never been before. Cordoba? Granada? Seville…?
I looked at Seville; cheap flights, some beautiful, Moorish hotels….which made me think of Morocco. Marrakech – perfect!! Both our son and my aunt have been to Morocco and loved it. It’s very cheap to get to, it’s a perfect destination for a shorter break, it would be a new experience for both of us and it would be full of colour and noise and smells and…..well, exotic-ness!!!
I found the flights. I found a BEAUTIFUL Riad within the walls of the Medina – small and romantic, so perfect for the occasion. I booked the airport parking. I organized the travel insurance. I checked our passports…….Oh dear: Hubby’s passport would expire less than 3 months after our return date, and the Moroccan websites all told us that he’d need at least 6 months remaining. I told him he’d have to renew his passport.
I spoke to a nurse at our local GP surgery to check that we were up to date with our travel vaccinations. Although not compulsory, she strongly recommended that we had the appropriate jabs, although she couldn’t fit us in for the same appointment. I had to explain that my husband had no idea where we were going, so she was under strict orders not to give the game away! So off he went, bless him, to be prodded and pricked….he came back with a glint in his eye, though; “Well, that rules Madrid out!” he said.
Then, as the holiday got nearer, I asked Hubby to get together some clothes that he might like to take; I could help him decide what would be suitable and what else he might need to buy. “Will I need beach clothes?” he asked. “…..Possibly,” I told him, mysteriously (I knew we might have a day trip to the coast). “Will it be hot?” he asked. “Hmmmnn…hotter than here, I expect,” I said, trying to look as though I’d had to think very hard about that one. “How much money will I need to take?” he asked. “Well, just enough for food, and a little extra in case we take an excursion, and some more for bits and pieces, ice creams, souvenirs, postcards……” “OK; Euros….?”
In Morocco the currency is the Dirham. It is possible to use Euros in a few places over there, particularly in Marrakech, but it is expected that visitors bring Dirhams – which you can’t get until you arrive in Morocco. “Maybe you should just bring all your currency in Sterling?” I told him. “But you always tell me it’s not safe to take too much cash on holiday,“ he said; “Will I be able to use my cards while we’re away? Shouldn’t I advise my bank in advance…?”
With just a few days to go, I realised that it wasn’t so easy to keep everything secret. Perhaps, if we’d been going off on a standard package tour to a Mediterranean beach resort, it would have been simpler. Regardless of which country you’re in, you kind of know what to expect from a beach package. But I was beginning to realise that he needed to have an idea of the destination; even though I could tell him what clothes, toiletries and currency to bring, he needed to mentally prepare for where we were going – just as I would have wanted to. It also gave him a chance to read a little about Marrakech, to get an idea of what he might not want to miss when we were there. Perhaps keeping the whole thing secret was more for my own benefit – it gave me total control, and I had an excuse for not sharing the planning and the details with anybody else. But it can’t have been easy for him. So, two days before we left, I told him that we were going to Morocco. Which he’d already guessed, anyway.
I still had the satisfaction of knowing that the location inside the Medina walls would be a surprise, as would the tasteful, romantic and exotic Riad that I had chosen. I knew the holiday would be special, because of the occasion it was celebrating. And to an extent, it would be a surprise to both of us – however much I’d been told by other people, however many photos I’d seen, however many books I’d read, I knew Marrakech would be different to anywhere I’d been before, so I hoped and expected that it would still surprise me.
And I’m still hoping that, one day, he’ll tell me to book two weeks off work and to stock up on sun cream, ready for when he whisks me off to…….well, hopefully it’ll be a surprise…!!!
We never had lots of money when I was young – we certainly weren’t poor, but family holidays tended to involve staying with relatives, or in a caravan on the south coast. I never felt I was missing out as a child; until I was in my teens, I didn’t really know anyone who went abroad on holiday.
When I was very young, we lived for a few years in my grandparents’ home. This was great – I had wonderful aunties and uncles around who spoilt me rotten – and a Nana and Grandad who were EXACTLY what a good Nana and Grandad should be; Nana would take me to the bottom of the garden to feed the chickens and collect the eggs, and Grandad would sit me on his knee, and tell me about his travels. He smelt of tobacco and I used to love looking at the tattoos on his arms.
My Grandad, and his eldest son (my Uncle Dave), were both in the Navy, and the house was full of special treasures from all over the world: carved ivory (I know, I know – not something any of us would want to buy now), dark wooden tribal masks, and my favourite of all – a tiny, delicate Chinese tea set, made with china so fine that it was almost transparent; when you tipped it up, the face of a Chinese lady appeared in the base of the cup! Grandad must have told me about the places he’d been to buy such treasures, and although I don’t remember any stories in particular, I think he must have unlocked something deep within me.
I was also an avid reader, and my favourite books of all were tales from other lands. Tales from Scandinavia, where it was always twilight and the silent, snowy land was ruled by evil Ice Queens. Oriental stories of dragons and pagodas, and Folk tales from central and eastern Europe, full of tiny villages nestling among forested mountain sides inhabited by wolves. Stories from Africa or South America, where witch doctors danced around fires, and concocted strange herbal potions; and tales from the Middle East, where a dusky-skinned princess gazed out across endless deserts, waiting for an Arab prince to come galloping up to her marble palace (on a jet black stallion, of course), where he would summon a Djinn to create a magic carpet and whisk her away to a sultry oasis (I particularly liked this scenario…!). In my mind I would imagine myself there, the warm breeze playing through the leaves of the date palms, a subtle hint of incense carried across the sand, and the dark sky pierced by millions of the brightest twinkling stars….
At junior school, my somewhat romanticised view of All Things Foreign was brought down to earth by a series of geography programmes on TV, which we watched occasionally during lessons. They showed us what life was like for children living in dusty villages in Africa, in jungle clearings in South America, and in Inuit communities in the Arctic. I was fascinated by how similar – yet how different – their lives were to mine. I wondered what it would be like to have to catch or gather your food each day, to wear heavy animal skins to keep warm or to wear as little as possible to keep cool. I tried to imagine having to keep an eye out for tarantulas, snakes or polar bears all the time. Their lives were worlds apart from mine, but I found every detail and every difference fascinating.
The Great Big World Out There suddenly came within my grasp when a schoolfriend’s next door neighbour, who was a teacher at another school, was taking a group of pupils on a trip to Paris. My friend and I were offered places on the trip to fill up the seats, and this meant that I would leave England for the very first time in my life. For a 13-year-old with a serious motion sickness problem, the journey (by coach and ferry) was horrendous. But every second of heaving into paper bags was worth it as we drove along the Peripherique – the Paris equivalent of the M25 – and I experienced a life-changing moment: there, in the distance, if I craned my neck and squinted through the sunlight, I could – just – make out the iconic shape of the Eiffel Tower….
THE EIFFEL TOWER!!! I had seen hundreds of photos of it, seen it represented in paintings, and watched programmes on TV about it. But this was the Real Thing – I was in France – in Paris – without anyone else from my family – and I could see the real, actual, proper Eiffel Tower!
It was a great trip, full of little experiences and discoveries that completely overwhemed me: they call chips ‘frites’! Their money is different! They drive on the other side of the road! Their policemen wear funny hats! Everything about Paris impressed me so much that when I returned home I announced to everybody that I was going to live there when I was older…
In the seventies, package holidays offered a relatively cheap and easy way to visit the sun-drenched beaches of the Mediterranean, and suddenly people we knew were jetting off to Spain, returning with suntans, sombreros and almost life-sized straw donkeys. My parents seemed to be determined that we would continue with our annual family holidays to a beautiful seaside village in Devon, a little slice of English heaven called Branscombe, which I will always love;
but I was beginning to realise that there’s an awfully big and exciting world out there, and I desperately wanted to explore it. A family holiday abroad would cost more than my parents were willing to spend, but I saved up money from my Saturday job and put it towards another trip with my fiend’s neighbour’s school (this time to Belgium, with day trips to The Netherlands and Luxembourg), and then a Spanish exchange trip organised by my own school. Having now visited France, Belgium, Holland (we never called it The Netherlands in those days!), Luxembourg and Spain – and all without my parents – I felt like a regular little globetrotter!
When I was growing up, there was a TV advert that just got to me. It showed beautiful people arriving at the rooftop of a castle by hot air balloons, where they watch the sun go down across a beautiful landscape as they sipped their Martinis. The song hinted at a lifestyle full of the promise of luxury in special places: “Any time, any place, anywhere…there’s a wonderful world you can share…”. That was the life I wanted. There was an even better ad for Martini showing at cinemas – instead of balloons, the Beautiful People were meeting for sundowners on a secluded, rocky beach by seaplane. You saw the seaplanes skimming across a sparkling azure sea and soaring over a little archipelago before bobbing gently on the darkening water as the Beatiful People clinked their ice-filled Martini glasses and the sun slipped lower in the sky. Oh, heaven! This is how the Jet Set live!
I never had a hope in hell of belonging to the Jet Set while (a) I was still at school (and my Saturday job at the local greengrocer’s didn’t quite give me the millionaire’s lifestyle I wanted), and (b) I had never yet been on a plane! And then….”Why don’t we all go on holiday?….” said one of my friends, “….before we get to our final year and have loads of exams to do..?” So then we all started saving, all six of us – all girls; and we started planning The Best Holiday Ever…..(but that’s another story)!