A taste of Madrid…

A few extra food-related pics from Madrid and La Alberca…..

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Foodie Madrid….

I’ve just come back from my fourth Pueblo Ingles programme – an incredible experience, once again, in which about 22 English speakers from all over the world spend a week with about 22 Spaniards who are aiming to improve their English. For the whole week, we talk nothing but English; very easy for the Anglos, but initially utterly terrifying for most of the Spaniards, who also have to prepare a presentation – also in English – for a small audience. More on that later…!20160920_145825

In order to take part in the programme, Anglos simply have to get themselves to and from Madrid; for Anglos, it makes sense to spend a few days before and after the programme in this beautiful, vibrant, exciting city. This year I met up, once again, with my Travel Buddy Sheila (a wonderful woman from California who I met on a programme two years ago) to spend a few days basically eating, drinking and shopping our way around Madrid before being whisked away to the little town of La Alberca (where our Pueblo Ingles programme was taking place).

20160926_090844Sheila and I get very excited each time we start one of our little Spanish Adventures; there are places we simply HAVE to visit each time we come, and the first place we’ll go for breakfast is usually the Mercado de San Miguel. This glass-sided palace of culinary delights is located between the Plaza Mayor and the Royal Palace. It is spotlessly clean and always full of a good mix of Spaniards and tourists. The food on offer is, quite simply, a feast for the eyes (as well as the taste buds!); once we’ve had our café con leche or cortado, dscf1390along with a warm, freshly baked Nata tart, we wander from counter to counter, drooling over the tortillas, the pastries, the dry-cured meats, the plump fruit ready to be blitzed into smoothies. There is fresh fish and seafood – bowls of strange-looking shellfish and baby eels (gulas) posing as bowls of pasta. Spiny 20160914_115521creatures from the bottom of the sea, razor clams and oysters are spread out on beds of glistening ice which reflect the lights of the building and the sunlight streaming through the glass. dscf140020160914_115510 20160914_115457Iberico and Serrano hams are suspended on hooks above great hunks of Kobi beef. 20160914_120635There are huge pans of paella, and chunky slices of crispy bread piled up with soft cheeses; prawns dipped in batter, strawberries dipped in licqueur and churros dipped in mugs of thick hot chocolate.

20160914_11531520160914_115308Sheila and I will usually walk around every stall at least three times before deciding what to try – so many choices! dscf1387Then we grab a stool at one of the tall tables and listen to the conversations going on around us while we eat; Spanish (obviously!), English, Japanese, Italian, Australian…we met a really nice English man who had (apparently) booked himself a flight into France and out of Spain while completely drunk at a party; he’d decided – when he’d sobered up – that he might as well take the flights anyway, and had used the trip to indulge in his passion for photography. He showed us some absolutely beautiful shots of the city of Paris, lit up and sparkling at night, as well as some of dramatic storm clouds rolling in over Madrid the night before.

20160926_091011Another favourite place to eat is kind of a guilty pleasure: when I first met Sheila and another Pueblo Ingles Anglo (the lovely Jerry from Florida) two years before, we’d come across a rather old-fashioned (…ok, cheesy!) little restaurant called Bodega Bohemia, which is close to the Mercado de San Miguel and was advertising ‘1/2 pollo y patatas fritas’ on a blackboard outside for just under 10 euros. I know chicken and chips doesn’t sound like a typically Spanish meal, but the smell that was wafting out from the restaurant was pure heaven! We sat outside, opposite the illuminated market building, and ate the most perfect spit-roasted chicken I have ever tasted in my life!20160915_222612 It was accompanied by fat chips, a basket of bread and a little bowl of olives, along with a jug of fruity sangria. I enjoyed the meal so much that I went back the following night on my own, and ate the same meal all over again. We went back twice when we were in Madrid last year, and three times this year! The same man is always playing a keyboard inside, and he obviously recognises us now – he popped over for a chat this time, between playing ‘Cuando, Cuando, Cuando?’ and ‘Besame Mucho’; and, as usual, a few of the Spanish diners took turns to sing while he played…..it’s probably the least hip place to eat in the whole city, but the food really is good and I really hope it never leaves it’s strange little time-warp! There are many other equally delicious looking items on the menu, but the chicken really is absolute perfection.

Our Pueblo Ingles programme took part in the beautiful little medieval village of La Alberca, up in the mountains near Salamanca, about 4 hours’ drive north west of Madrid. We stayed in villas in the grounds of a rather grand looking hotel, El Abadia de los Templarios. 20160918_143152There was a restaurant in the grounds used just for the programme, in which we were fed delicious three course lunches and dinners (with plenty of wine), as well as a huge buffet breakfast each day. The village itself is about 1km away,20160920_122331 reached either by road or by a footpath around the back of the hotel, and halfway through the programme we all walked along the path to the village, to learn about it’s history and to stop for lunch at a village restaurant owned by the hotel. A couple of stalls were set up in the village square, selling biscuits and products based on local honey and chestnuts.20160920_113941 Before lunch, we were taken to a dark little bodega, where amid numerous cobwebs, dusty ancient wine bottles and fading bullfight posters we were fed paper thin slices of sweet Iberico ham20160920_121509, carved into almost transparent slices by an incredibly skilled man who had clearly spent years learning his craft! There were chunky slices of manchego cheese with crusty bread, while anyone feeling brave enough was given the chance to drink from a bota (a leather pouch full of wine which is poured straight into the mouth from arms length). Now full of wine and ham, we went back to the main square for lunch; I shared a table with Fran (from Canada), Manuel and Matias, and we had a really good meal in great company! Our regular waiters from our hotel had come into the village to serve us; we had a clear soup followed by chunks of crispy skinned suckling pig….and more wine! 20160920_150216After a long and relaxed meal, Fran, Manuel, Matias and I made our way through the village for a gentle stroll back to the hotel. We paused as we wandered through the almost deserted cobbled streets to look in the windows of the tiny shops, selling all sorts of edible goodies, including olive oil, honey, bread and pastries, as well as tapas and pintxos. In one building we saw that the ceiling was full of hanging ham legs, with their little plastic cones to catch any oils seeping from the meat. 20160920_12121120160920_14551820160920_14590920160920_150252It had been a relaxing day, and by the time everybody had wandered back to the hotel, through the path flanked by pine woods and in the shadow of the Pena de Francia, many of us took the chance to have a siesta before ‘work’ started again at 5pm; we’d all had lots to eat and a fair amount of tinto……and some of us may have needed a bit of extra sleep following the previous night’s party……!

20160924_112722During the Pueblo Ingles programme, I asked Eduardo, one of the Spaniards, to suggest an alternative place to eat breakfast when we got back to Madrid; he said that – despite sounding like an odd choice – we should try the Gourmet Experience at the top of El Corte Ingles department store, based on the Gran Via. He had me at “….they have a very good pastry section…”,dscf1433 but he also pointed out that the outdoor terrace gives fabulous views over the city. So, Sheila, Kate and I decided to give it a try before getting the train to El Escorial on our final Saturday. We met English piano teacher, Kate, at last year’s Pueblo Ingles programme, and we shared some very emotional times together – including the most hilarious moment of the whole programme: Kate made a random comment that kept us crying with laughter over dinner one night! Kate is so sweet and English rose-ey, but has the biggest, most raucous laugh – which she combines with an expression of delighted shock when listening to dirty jokes and rude limericks (thanks, Doug)!! dscf1427Anyway, we made our way to the 9th floor of El Corte Ingles, bought coffee and croissants from the wonderful pastry counter (Harina), and wandered on to the terrace. A glass screen all around the terrace kept the breeze to a minimum (and presumably stopped naughty schoolkids from dripping gazpacho over the unsuspecting pedestrians down in the street below). The screen was etched with simple outlines of the more famous buildings on the skyline, each named, so we could identify them; very clever! 20160924_112630pWe spent far too long nattering over our breakfast….then we wandered back inside and spent several minutes gazing through the glass panel that looked out over a perfect view of the Gran Via,dscf1430 before checking out all the interesting foodie items for sale and the different counters selling Mexican food, sushi, pintxos, cocktails, hamburgers, ice cream, pizza….We didn’t leave the store until midday, but it was wonderful to sit and natter in the sunshine, looking out over the spires and domes bathed in warm sunlight….

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20160926_08374820160924_195431Kate had to return to England the day before Sheila and I left. On our last morning in Madrid, Sheila and I got up early to look for breakfast and to take some final photos. Many of the shops weren’t open yet, but luckily we noticed that La Mallorquina (a very old and traditional bakery/patisserie at one end of Sol) was not only open, but it also had a café area upstairs. Joy of joys! 20160924_195508With every kind of cake and pastry imaginable on sale, I restrained myself and just had a croissant (which was very nice, but not as good as the ones at El Corte Ingles!), before taking photos of some of the beautiful creations on sale as we left through the shop. 20160926_08443320160924_195456We wandered around the back of the Plaza Mayor, passing the Bodega Bohemia and the famous Botin, said to be the oldest restaurant in the world (it was founded in 1725). 20160926_09180920160926_091652dscf1476We wanted to hang around, to have a final trip to the Mercado, to stop for churros at the Chocelateria de San Gines, to sit in the Plaza Mayor with a final café con leche – but we were late, and we had to go back for our luggage and make our way to the airport. But we did have time for one last ice cream…..!

 

Info: You can find out all about Pueblo Ingles by contacting Diverbo: www.diverbo.com.

The Mercado de San Miguel: http://www.mercadodesanmiguel.es.

El Corte Ingles – the Gourmet Experience: http://www.elcorteingles.es/supermercado/aptc/gourmet-experience.

Restaurant Botin: http://www.botin.es.

Early Mornings…

DSCF9986pThere’s something really special about getting up early in the morning when you’re in a foreign city; that quiet time of day when the sun is just breaking through, casting a pale golden light over rooftops and trees; when shopkeepers are sluicing water over the pavements, and market traders are setting up their stalls. 20150928_082018p

Commuters are rushing to work or dawdling over steaming coffee in busy little cafes. The noises are different, somehow; footsteps seem to echo more, and you notice the sound of rubber tyres on cobbled roads.20150928_080107p Streetlights are still lit, even though the early sunlight is casting stark shadows between the buildings. 20150928_082320pMy last morning in Madrid, not wanting yet to leave this wonderful city, but bags packed and ready to go. 20150928_075820pOne more stroll along the Gran Via; one last cafe con leche and a warm, flaky croissant, one last amble across the Puerta del Sol….DSCF9985p

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….Madrid is waking up, the stately buildings glow in the warm sunshine; I take a deep breath and shut my eyes so I can lock the sounds and smells in my mind…

 

When I cruised around the Eastern Caribbean, I was aboard what was, at the time, one of the two biggest cruise ships in the world. Royal Caribbean’s ‘Freedom of the Seas’ can carry just over 4,000 passengers, and although you can always find somewhere quiet, away from the crowds, it was hard at times to feel connected to the vast, rolling sea beneath. So one morning I set my alarm clock to wake me really early, and I snuck up on the highest deck at the front of the ship so that I could watch the sunrise as we sailed majestically into Charlotte Amalie in St Thomas. There was nobody about. I was barely aware of the hum of the engines, but I could hear a flag on the prow of the ship being buffeted by the wind, the occasional cry of a gull, and far below the hiss of sea spray as the ship cut through the surf. Up ahead, the dark, rocky outline of St Thomas was spreading out on the horizon, as yet an uninspiring and unwelcoming island, too vague and distant to look inviting. The real magic was happening in the sky and was mirrored in the silvery grey of the morning sea. There was no special moment, as I’d hoped, where a deep orange sun gradually emerged above the horizon to a fanfare of pink and purple; maybe I was just up a little too late. But the sky was beautiful; huge fluffy pinky grey clouds were slowly but surely changing colour, and little wispy trails were drifting off into the atmosphere. I sat on a bench, the breeze in my hair, feeling completely alone, and watched as the light and patterns on the water changed with each passing minute. St Thomas was closer now; I could make out the rough shape of the coastline, and the island was no longer a dark lump of land – I could see hints of green and grey, light and shade. The sky was slowly becoming more blue, with the rosy-edged clouds dissolving into the warming air, and the sun casting steep shadows on the ship’s deck. We were approaching a bay, now; I could make out buildings, palm trees, other boats. I was so busy trying to see what was happening on the land, I took my eyes off the sea and the sky for a while. While I was watching the port of Charlotte Amelie preparing to bring in another big ship and welcome the crowds of tourists, the dawn had slipped away and the sun was already climbing high and making the sea sparkle. I realised that other people had joined me on deck, leaning over the ship’s rails, chatting excitedly, taking photos, peering through binoculars. Time for another luxurious breakfast before exploring the pretty little town of Charlotte Amalie beneath another perfectly blue Caribbean sky…

My lovely Aunty Pam took me to Luxor in Egypt a few years ago (I know, I’m a very lucky girl!). It was while I was working for First Choice, where my favourite customers were a very adventurous elderly couple, Mr and Mrs Godfrey. We hit it off right from the start, and I booked several holidays for them at their favourite hotel in their favourite place in the world – the Sheraton Hotel in Luxor. When Pam suggested the trip, having already been to Luxor before (and keen to show me the ancient sights), we followed the Godfreys’ advice and booked a Nile View room at the Sheraton. It was night time when we arrived in Luxor – the streets were pitch black (vehicles seemed to prefer driving with no headlights – what fun!) and we could just glimpse some ancient monuments floodlit behind a McDonalds as our transfer bus dodged horses and carts on the way to the hotel. Arriving in our room, I pulled the curtains aside but could see nothing but blackness beyond our window. I awoke early the next morning, desperate for my first view of the river; and there it was – the majestic, timeless Nile – already busy with lines of long cruise ships following one another upstream in the hazy early morning half-light. Quickly getting dressed, Pam and I stepped out on to the terrace for a better view. On the opposite side of the vast river, about six hot air balloons were already hovering over the West Bank; and on the water, pretty white-sailed feluccas were catching the river breeze and dodging the ships which were slowly disappearing south towards Aswan in the morning mist. It was a picture I’d seen hundreds of times, in travel books and brochures; but nothing could prepare me for that breathtaking moment when I saw it – and felt it – for myself. In spite of the chugging ships, and the blasts of flame occasionally lighting up the balloons, this was a scene that had barely changed for thousands of years, and the sense of the past was overwhelming. Timeless, ageless beauty, evocative and unforgettable. A few days later, Pam and I treated ourselves to a once-in-a-lifetime balloon ride. It was still dark when we were collected from our hotel around 4.30am (the heat becomes unbearable even by mid morning), and it was still dark.  By the time we crossed the Nile to the West Bank on a little boat, where we and the other nervous passengers (about 12 of us altogether) had to sign accident waiver forms ready for our flight, the sun was just starting to rise – a glimmer of pink and gold above the mountains . None of us spoke much – it seemed surreal, somehow, and exciting, but the darkness added to the sense of trepidation we were feeling. After crossing the river, we were driven to our waiting balloon, the red and yellow canopy hanging limply to the side of the basket just starting to come to life. There were people everywhere, tying cables, unfolding the canopy, adjusting pipes. Amid the noise and bustle, we were introduced to our pilot, who gave us a brief safety talk before we were all helped into the massive wicker basket. After what seemed like ages, the balloon canopy was billowing above us, the pilot gave it a few more deafening blasts of gas, and we could feel the basket creaking and straining to be freed from it’s tethers. And then we were released, majestically rising higher in the dawn sky, the bright low sun casting long shadows between the sparse little houses scattered across the dry ground; surprisingly rich green fields bordered the river, which shone like a silver serpent in the distance. Inside the basket, we all grew silent as we joined many other balloons gliding towards the Valley of the Kings in the morning air. An unforgettable way to start the day….

The worst mornings, when you’re travelling, are those last mornings, when your bags are packed, you’ve had your final breakfast in the hotel or your favourite café, you’ve said your goodbyes to the beach/pool/room and your suitcase is packed, ready and waiting for the journey home. You think of all the things you didn’t get to do while you were there – sometimes you promise yourself that you’ll do them next time; but there won’t always be a next time. There’s something wonderful about going back to a place you love – but there’s something even more wonderful about waking up early in a brand new, as yet unfamiliar destination, discovering new sights, new smells and new sounds…

Info:

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

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

Madrid to Candeleda….Pueblo Ingles number 3!

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…

The iconic sign at Puerta del Sol
The iconic sign at Puerta del Sol

 

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).

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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

Pollo, patatas y sangria!
Pollo, patatas y sangria!

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…

Mercado de San Miguel
Mercado de San Miguel

…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……

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Breakfast
Breakfast

..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.

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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.

Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor
Puerta del Sol
Puerta del Sol

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.

The Gredos mountains
The Gredos mountains

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…..!!

Gardens at El Mirlo Blanco
Gardens at El Mirlo Blanco

 

Info: We stayed at the Hostal Nuestra Senora de la Paloma in Madrid (www.nuestrasenoradelapaloma.com ).

Our venue for Pueblo Ingles in Candeleda was El Mirlo Blanco (www.casaruralavila.es). Email: info@el-mirlo-blanco.com .

You can find out more about Pueblo Ingles at http://www.diverbo.com .

 

Speaking to Spaniards – my first time at Pueblo Ingles

“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.

Plaza Mayor
Plaza Mayor

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…..