Travel as the masses do: all-inclusive Greece getaway…

18th-25th June 2019

Low on funds – I haven’t worked a day since taking leave from the world of gainful employment last September – these days I travel on a heavily restricted budget.  Fortunately, it doesn’t mean that travel is totally impossible, it is more a case of ‘adapting expectations’… 

I have toyed with the idea of trying out Couchsurfing, a scheme that attracted a rather negative response from my daughter. 

‘Mother, really…  Couchsurfing???  Do you know what Couchsurfing is all about??’ 

I do, as a matter of fact, and clearly possess a rather more trusting view of human nature, but it has to be said… she has a point, there are always risks, although some of my more memorable evenings of late have been with Airbnb hosts. And for me the joy of travelling is as much about meeting inspirational and interesting people, as it is about conquering soaring mountains..

I have momentarily shelved the thought of exploring a few corners of Europe overland, a-la-‘Race Around The World’: making things up on the cheap as you go along, finding bed and board with hospitable strangers, munching street food, or using overnight trains and buses to save on accommodation cost.  As these days budget airlines service every corner of Europe, there is no competition, and I reluctantly exchange adventure for convenience and economy… At least my daughter will sleep more soundly…

With very few commitments on the horizon, I can take advantage of the glut of amazingly cheap last-minute deals flooding the internet.  It is still June, just outside holiday peak season and fantastic pickings at rock-bottom prices plentiful.  Greece it is!! Halkidiki.  4-star. All-inclusive. For one whole week.  It’s the kind of holiday I haven’t subjected myself to for a long time, the kind of non-adventure beach-bum holiday that only requires a bikini, a towel and lots of sunscreen.   And, of course a book or two to stimulate the mind, because to be honest not much else will be stimulated whilst I’m lying comatose on a sunbed for the best part of the day.  It is not my kind of holiday, but needs must!!  It’s a hard life but I can do it if I have to…

Of course, some things are too good to be true, and rock bottom prices for classy hotels surely come with some hidden surprises…  So it was that two days after booking the holiday I took a closer look at the small print next to the glossy picture of the stylish rooms we could expect to lounge in.  With just a mere ten days to our departure, the hotel was in the midst of renovation work with the grand opening scheduled two days before our arrival.  I sighed at the prospect of noisy building work drowning out noisy music.  With any luck we should be just ahead of noisy children in the swimming pool.  But hey-ho, what else to expect from a cheapy get-away, at least the sun would be guaranteed…

A Ryan Air flight from Stansted to Thessaloniki added its own challenges.  The bikini, towel and sunscreen essentials I had envisaged stuffing in my smallish backpack quickly grew into a more substantial pile, including my laptop…  I know, why take a laptop on holiday!! Before booking the package holiday I had discussed the luggage issue with Simon who, at a loose end and in need of a break from the tedium of life, gallantly agreed to accompany me on this trip. 

‘Let’s just pay for at least one suitcase in the hold.  Much cheaper than adding it on later…,’ I had suggested.

But men being men, he’d been convinced his small carry-on case would fit the bill, and to be honest it didn’t exceed the allowed dimensions at all… I, on the other hand, bought myself a little space in the underbelly of the aeroplane to accommodate my slightly oversized carry-on bag so I could keep my precious laptop safely in view on the plane.

Queuing to board, some unease started brewing as passengers were divided into two distinct groups: priority boarding and non-priority boarding.  Penny-pinchers as we were, we had refused to fork out for getting on the plane before everyone else…  Who on earth bothers??  It appears: everyone else…  and with paying the priority premium came the added bonus of actually being allowed to take your carry-on luggage inside the plane.  Size restrictions were of no consequence for the likes of us who hadn’t read the small print.  My bag was OK, because it was a soft, small backpack… A new Ryan Air policy of hidden charges to fool those who do not regularly fly Ryan Air.  Poor Simon had to pay up.  No way was his little solid case allowed on the plane with him; in the hold it must go at an additional cost of £25 for the outward leg.  It made my £12 paid online when checking in seem a real bargain…  And we would have to pay the same again if we wanted to bring our luggage with us on the home stretch.  But hey, it’s a holiday… Smile and lesson learnt.

We arrived in Greece just before midnight. Our body clocks still on UK time, it felt early.  We piled into the waiting van to be transferred to our hotel and, A.C. on full blast, set off into the pitch-dark Greek countryside.  After an hour we swept up the drive of our newly refurbished hotel.  The grounds looked immaculate, the pool inviting, the reception desk bare and unmanned…  Hello, were they not expecting us??  

It took a while for a confused and befuddled staff member to appear and an animated conversation with our Greek tour chaperone ensued.  Of course, Greek not being a language that is commonly studied, we had to wait until the end of the debate to get the low-down.  The hotel was not ready, hadn’t we been told?? No A.C., dust everywhere.  But no panic, another hotel had been arranged for us, at least for tonight.   Suitcases reloaded, we clambered back on board, this time full of trepidation rather than anticipation… 

We needn’t have worried.  The next hotel had been awaiting our arrival.  With rooms allocated in a jiffy and a barman still on duty well past midnight, the holiday was back on track as we all took a ‘let’s wait and see’ approach… Maybe this hotel would do, no one really fancied spending a week hotel-hopping… A smelly room aside – which was remedied the next morning with new plumbing in the en-suite bathroom – the ‘new’ hotel turned out a winner.  Two awesome swimming pools inside the complex and a balmy sea a mere two-minute amble through an olive tree lined path away, we were in seaside and holiday nirvana… 

And the food!!! To die for! My only previous experiences of ‘all-inclusive’ dated back some years and centred around three-star hotels where food monotony reigned.  Not in our hotel.  Variety and quality!! Just not very Greek, more catering to the tastes of a less adventurous clientele and children.  Still, in amongst the pasta, rice, fries and sausages a few gems: crumbly feta, succulent dolmades and stuffed peppers, fillet steak and salmon sides, freshly caught local fish and seafood, and of course, moussaka and souvlaki.  

But it paid to get to the restaurant ahead of the masses, before other guests – predominantly hailing from the Balkan region with a dribble of Polish and Russian tourists – descended and heaped plates with starters, main courses, desserts, cheese and fruit all at once…  Gluttony galore.  Tables laden with food for a week to be devoured by a twosome as if there would be no tomorrow.  And the leftovers, of which there were plenty, destined for the bin.  Such a waste…  In all honesty, I ate far too much too, unable to resist temptation, but in good old-fashion only took what I could comfortably consume before leaving the table.. 

Breakfast for two…

Excursions proved more challenging.  Not having a car at our disposal, and balking at the prices of renting one, we were at the mercy of taxis ferrying us to various starting points.  Not a viable option either as often the taxi fare alone exceeded the cost of the trip we had in mind.  So, instead we devoured books, bobbed on the waves on sea kayaks and car-shaped pedalos, spent a lot of time in the pool and in the evening, when the heat had abated, hiked to nearby sunset spots as Greek life passed us by…

On our last day, we treated ourselves to a little bit of the real Greece though… (to be continued)

National ‘Hug-A-Stranger’ Day…

24th July 2019

Does it exist?  National ‘Hug-a-stranger’ Day?  In the UK, the land of Stiff Upper Lips and formality? I have not the faintest idea, but if it doesn’t, it should.  Nothing is more surprising and uplifting than being hugged by a total stranger in the middle of a supermarket.  I should know, it happened to me this morning.

There I was, cocooned in a persistent cloud of melancholy, minding my own business and perusing the shelves for ingredients for tonight’s supper.  Should I buy broccoli?  Or courgettes perhaps? Decision time!  And something desperately needed to tax my brain… 

Today’s wander around the supermarket was by no means an isolated event, as a matter of fact it is pretty much a daily occurrence.  To keep my fitness level at its optimum, my exercise regime consists of a daily one-hour long hike to the nearest supermarket, backpack dangling off my shoulders.  As I can only carry so much in one go, there always seems to be something missing in the fridge. 

Crunch time.  I opted for broccoli in the end.  As I glanced up from my shopping basket, my eyes came to rest upon a fellow shopper standing right in front of me:  a woman in bold, summery dress peering musingly over her bespectacled nose, her face breaking into a broad, radiating smile.   I smiled back, it’s what anyone would do…

‘Fancy seeing you here.  Come here, let me give you a hug,’ she beamed.  For a moment, I hesitated.  Was someone standing behind me?  But no, without further ado, we got tangled into a very hearty embrace…  ‘Go with the flow,’ wisdom whispered in my ear, ‘no harm in a hug.’

I had a better look… Did our paths cross somewhere before, I wondered.   Did I detect at least a modicum of familiarity??’  I scoured my brain as, inwardly, I raced from the doctor’s waiting room to the chemist via the dentist, from the train station to the supermarket aisles and random people I may have  had random conversations with in the last few weeks, but my mind drew a blank… 

‘Do I know you?’ I hazarded.  Call me suspicious, but it’s not every day I get greeted with so much gusto and enthusiasm by a stranger…  The woman retorted with a quizzical look, clearly at a loss for an appropriate response.  I briefly suspected a brush of amnesia, or a touch of Alzheimer’s…

‘Oh my God,’ she blurted out suddenly, ‘I thought you were my sister-in-law!’ And after another thorough scan, and a shake of the head, she added, ‘You are her spitting image… Same hair style, same glasses, same figure…’. We couldn’t help but burst out in laughter.  Luckily, we were beyond the age and stage of embarrassment.  Haven’t we all done it before…  waved at someone on the other side of the road who turns out to be a perfect stranger, or being waved at by ‘Who On Earth Was That?’  Rushed to catch up with a friend’s back disappearing in a crowd, only to tap a lookalike on the shoulder…? However, it seldom becomes an intimate encounter involving a hug.  Most of the time, we have sussed out the error long before it gets to that… 

At least from the very personal entanglement, I would say she thought very fondly of her sister-in-law, but maybe more regular contact to know what she looks like and her dress-sense may be advisable.  Would my double also really go to the supermarket wearing flimsy, lace-rimmed shorts that are more at home on a sun-bleached Cambodian beach than in a British supermarket and UK suburbia?  I had debated this morning whether something a little longer in the leg might not have been more suitable.  In my defence, we are in the midst of a heatwave and we might as well have been in the Far East, even as early as 10 o’clock in the morning.   And what the heck, they’re my legs and they shall party if I want them to…

‘They say we all have a dead ringer somewhere in the world.  Mine is clearly not too far from home,’ I filled the awkward void once we had composed ourselves.  ‘Better not tell your sister-in-law about mistaking a stranger for her,’ I advised. 

‘No, maybe not,’ she agreed at first. ‘But come to think of it, I just might…  She will probably find it quite hilarious,’ she added with a big grin, adjusting the spectacles that had slipped even further to the edge of her nose. 

There was something special and more personal in our goodbyes.  ‘Well… um, enjoy the rest of the day.  And see you around some time.’  I had a new spring in my step and a wide smile on my face as I walked all the way home…  Being hugged by a stranger can have surprising effects.

As it so happens, there has been such a thing as ‘National Hugging Day’ in the US since 1986, celebrated each year on 21st January and apparently observed in many other countries.  And who knows, maybe members of younger generations in England are fully aware of this annual auspicious event, it is just that its existence has merely passed me by unnoticed…

And if you feel like partaking, either showering hugs or being happily on the receiving end, mark this date in your diary now:

National Hugging Day
Also called National Hug Day, International Hug Day
Observed by United States
Type Secular
Celebrations Offer hugs
Date 21 January
Next time Tuesday, 21 January 2020
Frequency annual

For more inspirational ideas to make the world a better and happier place, visit http://www.peopleforgood.ca It’s all common sense, we just have to act upon it.

A little bar hopping around Lake Como.

10th -13th May 2019

It’s not what you think.  No louche bars, no gaggles of giggling women, no boisterous men brawling in crowded, dank corners.  In Como, it is actual a very civilized, cultured experience which only on certain occasions calls for a dash of something intoxicating…  But it does revolve around potable liquid: coffee to be more precise.  I have landed in Italy, the land of coffee and cofficionados par excellence!!  And boy, do I love coffee.  Fuel for the morning, fuel for the brain, fuel for the body, just not particularly good for the heart…

I happened upon the word ‘cofficionado’ perchance…  It is entirely possible I had read it somewhere before, but here I was, totally convinced I had coined a new expression.  An effortless blend of coffee and afficionado.  It rolled off the tongue, as smooth and delectable as the finest Italian cappuccino.   The word may not have yet found its way into the Oxford or Cambridge dictionary, but alas, it transpires cofficionados are responsible for the superior flavour of Kenco Coffee administered to the taste buds of British coffee connoisseurs since 1923… Furthermore, the online Urban Dictionary seems much more open to novel and inspirational ideas and has already embraced the expression.  It will be only a matter of time before more distinguished lexicographers bow to the inevitable. No claim to fame for me, it appears.

I arrive at Malpensa – the lesser Milan airport where the budget flights end up – on a sunny Friday afternoon.  I travel on my own this time, feeling very confident of knowing the ins and outs of Italy’s public transport!  Of course, it helps that I have the expert advice of a friend in Como, a colleague and housemate from my teaching days in India.  Add to that the mountain of tips from my Airbnb host in Como, and, without so much as the need to utter a word of Italian, I find my way across Lombardy, all the way from Malpensa to Como, changing trains in Saronno.  I learnt the ropes of Italian trains and buses the hard way, some years back on a trip to Florence, only just getting away with a ticking off for not ‘validating’ my ticket.  How was I supposed to know it was not sufficient to buy a ticket, you also have to poke it into a little machine to add a time and date stamp… This time I get it right though and immediately spot the green ‘convalidatrice per biglietti magnetici’ next to the platform…  And just to ensure no tourist can claim ignorance, it even says so in English!

My first coffee encounter doesn’t happen until the next day, breakfast time.  Caffeine intake in the afternoons tends to have an adverse effect on my sleeping habits, so I leave the elixir of drinks to be enjoyed exclusively pre-lunch…   Although cooking facilities and coffee are supposed to be available at my accommodation, a rather prolonged Greek-brandy-infused bonding session with my Airbnb host the previous night did not stretch to breakfast practicalities.  Instead it spanned all kinds of topics ranging from politics and the dire state of Venezuela (host’s native country), singles’ life in Como, the dos and don’ts of online dating and vague notions of some coffee bars to the left and right of the building.  My bleary-eyed peruse of the kitchen does not immediately bring coffee making essentials to light.  There’s the authentic Italian Bialetta espresso maker – brainchild of the Italian engineer Alfonso Bailetta – perched on the hob, but without any ground coffee to hand, or in the few cupboards I cautiously open, there is no quick route to my wake-up cuppa.  Off I go to the nearest bar…  It’s what Italians do for breakfast according to my friend who has lived in Italy for the last three years. 

On a Saturday morning, the bar is empty, bar the barista of course and a whole display cabinet full of breakfast pastries.  I would have preferred something a bit healthier to start the day, but when in Rome – or in Como for that matter – do as the Romans do!  Not exactly well-versed in the Italian coffee lingo, I stick to the familiar and my friend’s recommendation: ‘Italians drink cappuccino in the morning.’  What I really thirst for is a simple, no-nonsense Americano-type coffee, milk on the side.  Not too strong, not too weak and definitely not too milky.  ‘Cannella  o cioccolato?’ the barista enquires with Saturday morning laze.  Cinnamon may have earned its place in many a spice cupboard, but not on my cappuccino.  I play it safe and opt for the more conventional, at least more conventional in the UK: ‘Chocolate, please.’  I choose a large croissant as accompaniment and hope it will stave off the hunger until lunchtime. 

When it arrives, I am blown away: a cappuccino of unrivalled frothiness, the like of which has never before touched my lips.  Not the sugar-laden confectionery I have drunk in lesser countries, but an unadulterated, wonderfully smooth shot of espresso melting away into the heavenly foam on top… Just a dusting of chocolate, and not a single grain of sugar added.  Perfection in a cup.  The only drawback??  Small cups!!  How can one cappuccino ever suffice as my morning caffeine fix?  As Italians opine that just one milky, airy cappuccino is a meal in itself, I don’t want to appear greedy and move on.  I settle myself in the next bar and repeat the whole process: another cappuccino and another croissant…  I admit that by day three I am no longer encumbered by such civilities and order two cappuccinos and two pastries in the same bar at the same time with not so much as a single blush on my face..

Piazza Vittoria,

I meet up with my friend in the Piazza Vittoria – Victory Square – with its imposing monument to Guiseppe Garibaldi, the famous Italian general credited with liberating the city from the Austrians in 1859. From there we saunter through Como’s delightful little streets and squares, towards the lake in search of Ristorante/Bar Il Laria… 

because, of course, how else to continue a day that has barely started than with another coffee…  My friend’s gentle nudges towards a macchiato fall on deaf ears…  Somehow this in-between coffee to be drunk at any time of the day and consisting of a measure of mind-blowing espresso topped with the tiniest dash of floaty milk just doesn’t enthuse my taste buds.  Or perhaps a caffe latte, she suggests, but I prefer coffee with milk rather than milk with coffee if you get what I mean… And I am definitely not tempted to order a latte; in Italy I would be served a glass of milk.  So mid-morning my fussy self – at least where coffee is concerned – sticks to the tried and tested Italian cappuccino.  No one does it as the Italians do…

With coffee needs tended, we get on with sightseeing:  a stroll along Lake Como and a fun ride on the funicular up to the little town of Brunate for spectacular views of Como’s historic centre as well as the lake.  And for those with energy to spare, there is a hike up to Volta’s Lighthouse, a hilltop lighthouse and memorial to electrical pioneer Alessandro Volta, that at night alternately flashes the green, white and red colours of the Italian flag. No such trek for me I’m afraid, as I begrudgingly concede that an hour-long climb up a steep hill might just be asking for trouble… Did I not spot a defibrillator box (minus defibrillator..) at my bus stop in the morning??? An omen, perhaps??? Better have another capuccino to smooth the day. The grey sky dulls the views but what the town and lake lack in lustre and shine on a moody, cloudy day is more than made up for by the glisten and glimmer of night-time Como. 

After yet another evening of fraternising with my Airbnb host – just a little less alcoholic lubrication this time  – she decides it is her turn to introduce me to the breakfast delights of Como… Sunday morning Como is slow to awaken and for a long while only our banter fills the empty streets.  Nevertheless her favourite bar is busy with customers on the hoof, barely touching the ground as they gulp cappuccinos and munch breakfast pastries at the counter.  My friend A. had explained this earlier, ‘Cheaper to drink your coffees at the bar, you will be charged more when you’re seated.’  But as it’s Sunday, my host and I want to enjoy our breakfast at leisure and decide to settle ourselves in a quiet corner. 

I pay for my coffee and the barista pushes the receipt into my hand.  ‘No,’ I signal, ‘I don’t need my receipt.’  She insists, I relent and immediately deposit the slip of paper into the nearest bin.  Such a no-no!!!  It is only later that I am made aware of the existence of Italy’s tax police.  In order to curb Italians’ lifetime habits of dodging a bit of tax – don’t we all??? – and maybe giving a friend a freebie, customers are expected to be able to produce their receipt on demand within the shop or restaurant as well as in the streets..  Proof of purchase is essential, otherwise the tax police slap on a hefty fine for not just the customer but also the shopkeeper.  I start my collection and on my return to the UK, purge trousers pockets and handbag from all the bits of paper that accumulate from then on…

With plenty of time on our hands on a leisurely Sunday morning, and my host not in a rush to head back home, she suggests another bar, another favourite…  ‘You must try the Marocchino,’ she advises as she selects some mouth-watering nibbles to complement the sweetness of her drink. But as I am still craving my second cappuccino, I am not yet ready to give that one a go.  ‘A mixture of coffee and chocolate,’ she muses, ‘often laced with a layer of Nutella at the bottom…’  Chocolate spread and coffee???  I make a mental note to give it a try, just not for breakfast… Cappuccino, please.

Today I am meeting my friend at the bus station for a trip to the neighbouring villages of Bellagio and Menaggio, with a quick glimpse of George Clooney’s Como residence along the way. No sign of George, of course… more’s the pity. Just a mere hint of his intended presence sets the town atwitter and these days rumour has it that George rarely visits Como, being too busy with wife and twins in more desirable parts of the world. What’s wrong with Como??? Unfortunately, the bus whizzes past, not even a chance of taking a blurry shot. Still the lake with the Alps as the backdrop is the real attraction and beautiful it is indeed, but better seen with the naked eye than through the lens of my phone camera. Somehow the pictures don’t do it justice…

It is pretty cold by the time we arrive in Menaggio and we immediately look for shelter in one of the bars. So is everyone else clearly and it takes us a while to find one with an empty table and two chairs inside.. Whilst my friend orders a cappuccino, I plump for a marocchino… let the chocolate extravaganza begin!! The addition of oodles of gooey chocolate happens to be quite pleasant to be honest, although not a patch on a cappuccino. Still, it pays to be adventurous and broaden the culinary horizons.

In the meantime a nasty wind whips up angry waves on Lago di Como. Not a good thing for us, and many other tourists, as ferries do not cross the lake on blustery days. Our plans for a boat trip to visit Belaggio on the other side thwarted, we trundle along the narrow, winding streets of time-honoured Menaggio and indulge in smoked salmon and pasta for lunch before heading back to Como.

Monday morning, after my last Italian breakfast cappuccinos for a while, I set off to meet up with my friend before she heads off to work and I board the train back to Malpensa airport and onwards to the UK… How better to say goodbyes than with another cup of coffee. I cannot remember what kind I chose, but for sure I never tried a real caffè… I leave that for my next visit, and might just ask for a caffè corretto: a shot of espresso ‘corrected’ with a shot of liquor!! That will definitely get a buzz going!

There’s much to be said about coffee in Italy, or Como for that matter…

Italia: un amore di caffè

Taking to the skies with my son at the helm. Awesome.

May 24th, 2019

It’s my first time in a helicopter.  I’ve been in small aircraft before, as a passenger though and never even made it as a guest in the cockpit.  So how awesome to have my first helicopter flight with my son at the controls…

I suppose it should not really have come as a surprise.  Even as a child he was inseparable from Flight Simulator games, landing and crash-landing all kinds of jets and aeroplanes in far flung, exotic locations, albeit in the safety of our living room.  Growing up he joined the Air Cadets and found his wings gliding over the Oxfordshire countryside.  He dreamed of joining the Royal Air Force and cleaving the skies in the whirlwind of Typhoon and Tornedo fighter jets, following in the footsteps of his grandfather who served in the RAF during World War II.  Instead, whilst still at university, my son became hooked on skydiving, his hobby for the last 10 years with well over 1000 jumps and an instructor badge to his name… I suppose it takes only one small step and a lot of courage to move from being in charge of a plane to jumping from its bowels into the surrounding nothingness.  Still, destiny finally caught up with him and this March he gained his PPL: Private Pilot Licence… A helicopter pilot!! 

And as a parent, it is quite rewarding to be able to reap the benefits of his exploits.  A tandem skydive over Stonehenge and the Wiltshire countryside in August 2013, filmed by my son and photographed by one of his friends,

and just a couple of weeks ago, a bird’s eye view of the East Midlands, UK. 

One hazy and sunny morning in late May, my son and I set off to the helicopter centre.   As only the second person he has taken as a passenger on one of his solo trips – girlfriend of course taking priority – I feel quite privileged. The weather looks promising: not too windy, not too cloudy and definitely no rain on the horizon.  Perfect meteorological conditions as a matter of fact!  No choppy adventures in the chopper for me…

I have been given the broad outline of our flight plan and am happy to leave the minutiae up to my son. Finalising the flight plan actually takes quite some time, involves quite a bit of mathematics and calculator wizardry, and definitely some map-reading and geographically expertise… I sit back and marvel. Stumping up for many years of educating the brood has clearly paid off.

Wearing bright yellow high-viz jackets, we cross the tarmac to the dragonfly look-alike helicopter. It seems barely big enough to take the two of us up into the wild grey-cloud yonder…

And whilst I attend to the only task I have been entrusted with – holding the flight map – my son takes care of all the pre-flight checks. It is very reassuring to see that no corners are cut where safety is concerned… There is a lot of pressing buttons, pushing levers, swiping iPad screens, and eventually talking to the control tower in a language completely alien to the uninitiated. Anything involving sequences of numbers and letters would have me lost in an instance. Not so my son who clearly has a knack for retaining such random information…

And off we go… slowly hovering over the airfield before gaining some momentum and height whilst ‘England’s Green and Pleasant Land’ slowly unfolds beneath us: endless verdant pastures flecked with brown stubble fields; garlands of trees and clusters of woodland; rivers lazily meandering; sprawling towns; and ancient castles standing proud on hillocks overlooking the surrounding vales.

Belvoir Castle

Although much of Blake’s England has stood the test of time, other parts have succumbed to the inevitable tide of change… Rather than being enveloped by the Victorian smog and fumes of the ‘Satanic Mills’, we glide over sun-seeking solar farms and lines of powerful wind turbines. We watch Matchbox cars on tarmacked roads below us rather than farmers with their carts and horses on muddy tracks. Towns have kept on expanding. In the midst of a large woodland in Staffordshire, we spy Alton Towers, the UK’s largest theme park full of thrill-filled rides. And of course, the very fact that we are able to glory in it all from a bird’s eye perspective was nothing but a dream in Blake’s England.

Alton Towers

All in all, a two-hour long fantastic experience. Hopefully one that can be repeated in the future to scan different parts of England. Time will tell. Maybe by then I will have figured out how to reduce the reflections in the photographs… A cloudy day perhaps??

Spanish road-trip – The home stretch…

Viva España – The Road Back from Cazorla (Southern Spain) (7)

18th – 20th April 2019

‘Another one???’  I can hear you sigh…  ‘Haven’t we heard enough about Spain?’

I cannot but agree, but alas, spinning out the few highlights in my life, means spinning out the tales of Spain, extracting every bit of juice.  So it is only fair to those who have doggedly followed my exploits that I should see it through to the bitter end.  We made it back to the UK, in one piece…

We left Cazorla at the crack of dawn in the pelting rain, not another soul in view.  Not the best start for a drive that would take up the best part of the day.  As we were keeping to our original plan of avoiding all major cities, our destination was just south of Barcelona.  A smallish coastal town with the pretty name of Sitges, next to the grander Sant Pere de Ribes.  Of course, forever budget conscious, reasonably priced Airbnbs had been easier to find in less glamorous cities.

Even before we made it out of town, we attracted the attention of the local Guardia…  Our misdemeanour?  Nothing more suspicious than stopping by the side of the road to study the route suggested by the various satellite navigation systems at our disposal.  With all the space around the car obliterated by blackness and no visible landmarks to guide our departure, we were at the mercy of technology.  Having had our fingers burnt on previous trips, we weren’t taking any chances and before putting our foot down on the gas pedal and speeding off in the wrong direction, a bit of map scrutiny looked like a very wise move… To us any way. 

Blue lights sneaked up in the rear-view mirror.  No sirens to alert us. The Guardia car first passed us slowly, casting a beady eye over our ‘guilty-looking’ behaviour.  Scanning Google Maps on a phone???  They turned and pulled up alongside us.  We wound down the window and showed them the phone as we indicated, ‘We’re OK, just checking the route…’ in our best, non-existent Spanish.  It is however quite plausible that they just wanted to help some stranded travellers; the British number plate would have been a give-away..  Thumbs up on both sides and off they drove into the black gloom.  Still, on the upside, it was nice to see police vigilantly patrolling the roads and taking safety seriously…

With dawn approaching and heavy rain melting into drizzle, we finally managed to see a bit more of the Spanish countryside: small villages, vineyards springing into leaf, bud and fruit, and, as we approached Valencia, orange groves – minus the oranges.  Too late for the harvest and too early for the sweet-smelling blossoms, they looked a rather dull boring green…

The seaside on the other hand – when we finally reached our bed-for-the-night destination – was a welcome sight. Although we had hoped to arrive early enough to dip in a toe or two, wild, tempestuous waves tempered our craving. No need to get splashed by turbulent waves unless the weather was more forgiving… It didn’t spoil our enjoyment though: there’s nothing quite like wind-tussled and salt-misted hair.

Still, the best part of our visit to Sitges was savouring the glorious delicacies in NeM, a restaurant renowned for its tapas and recommended by our excellent Airbnb hosts. Rather than the tired and ubiquitous patatas bravas, tortillas and chorizo slices, the menu featured mind-boggling concoctions such as ‘Roast Beef, Thai curry , Peanuts and Basil’; ‘Kofta of Lamb, Tomato, Chili, Tahini and Yoghurt’, ‘Passion Sorbet, Coconut Tapioca, Tangerine and Malvasia’… Not your ordinary Spanish fare, but daring combinations of the best flavours borrowed from diverse corners of the world. Tapas gone global!!

Roast Beef , Thai Curry, Peanuts & Basil. Photograph from https://www.facebook.com/nemsitges/ )
My photograph of the Roast Beef and Thai Curry. Finger-licking awesome!! ‘Pan con tomate’ at the top.
Kofta of Lamb, Tomato, Chili, Tahini and Yoghurt ( https://www.facebook.com/nemsitges/ )
Passion Sorbet, Coconut Tapioca, Tangerine and Malvasia. ( https://www.facebook.com/nemsitges/ )

Day two of our return travel took us across the border, into France. Our foray into B-road adventures backfired rapidly and instead of having plenty of opportunity to shoot some better photographs, we had plenty of opportunity to curse the slow traffic and photograph non-stop strings of angry red braking lights. I restrained myself, and refrained… Still, the splendid views of the snow-capped Pyrenees were definitely easier to capture at this leisurely speed.

We spent the last night of our trip on the outskirts of Lyon and, to the disappointment of our Airbnb host, arrived rather too late to venture into town. She had already merrily unfolded her map of the locality to show us where to find the best museums and viewpoints of Vieux Lyon and the Rhône. In the end, we were just content with the quickest route to food and opted for some local French cuisine. Delectable, I would say, however my companion would probably disagree. In his haste, he rashly order ‘boeuf tartare’, expecting steak of some sort, but certainly not the raw, ‘haché’ variety. His loss was my gain! I love ‘steak tartare’, although in my native Belgium is has a different name. But to savour the delicate spiciness, spiked with heavenly tabasco and accompanied by pickled gherkins and silver onions was to be transported to my youth…

No time to lose on our last day with a deadline to meet at the channel tunnel. Calais, here we come. A race across France using the toll roads as we reveled in the beauty of the yellow rapeseed fields streaking past.

We made it to Calais in plenty of time; settled our car on the train and were taken across the Channel in comfort. Only a few more hours driving on the correct side of the road, and we were home. Mission accomplished.

Plans are already brewing for another adventure…

The gorge-ousness of the Sierra de Cazorla.

Viva España – The Road to Cazorla, Southern Spain, (6)

Days 4 – 9

In my book, no trip or holiday is entirely complete if it doesn’t involve at least a small amount of hiking..  And with our accommodation perching on the edge of the Sierra de la Cazorla, we had definitely ended up in the perfect spot to dust off our hiking boots and head for the mountains that were teasing and tempting me from our rooftop terrace.  Nothing too strenuous though, doctor’s orders, but there were plenty of flattish walks meandering next to sheer rock faces and along rivers carved by water and time through the Parque Natural Sierras de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas.

The Natural Park, which covers an area of over 800 square miles, was established in 1986 and is the largest protected area in Spain and the second largest in Europe.   UNESCO had already declared it a biosphere reserve in 1983, and in 1988 turned it into a Special Protection Area for migratory birds.  The park includes two high mountain ranges – the Sierra de Cazorla and the Sierra de Segura – as well as the headwaters of major rivers such as the Guadalquivir and the Segura.  The awesome countryside and the diversity of the local flora and fauna, combined with a rich cultural heritage, have made the region an important tourist destination.

No wonder the brochure we picked up from the Tourist centre in town described the Sierra de Cazorla as ‘…so much more than you imagined… The Sierra de Cazorla is nature and countryside… high peaks, deep ravines, woods, valleys, semi-desert areas, woodland flora and fauna…, it is heritage … castles, churches, shrines, Iberian and Roman sites…, it is culture…museums and thematic centres, festivals, theatre, music and dance…, it is health and sport…natural therapies, fishing, hunting, mountaineering, climbing, cycling…, it is a place for leisure activities and for relaxing, for going for a stroll, eating and shopping, a place for enjoyment…you will enjoy a different experience with each visit’.

And on our first hike – following the Rio Borosa, passing the Cerrada de Elías and onwards to the Embalsa de Aguas Negras – we could, first-hand, admire the spectacular river views and impressive waterfall extravaganzas that have made this area of Spain such a popular tourist attraction.  Even before we reached our starting point at the Torre del Vinagre tourist centre, we stopped at awe-inspiring viewpoints along the route: olive groves undulating into eternity, mountain peaks bluish in the morning haze; frosty, far-away crests stubbornly clinging to a coating of snow.

Not sure of how long the hike was, and none of the fellow hikers we met on the trail any the wiser either, we didn’t make it all the way to the Embalsa de Aguas Negra – the Reservoir of Black Water.  A shame really, as after the long, sweaty trek, a cooling dip would have been most welcome…  We just had to cope with a refreshing splash on the way back…

Our next excursion took us in a different direction and a bit further afield, all the way to the Embalse de La Bolera, a large reservoir created by a dam completed in 1967 and fed from the waters of the surrounding rivers.  Not only do the crystalline and unpoluted waters promote healthy and richly varied flora in the area, in the hotter summer months the lake attracts swimmers and bathers, as well as more adventurous water sports enthusiasts.  In the freshness of early April, we had to make do with spectacular panoramas enjoyed from different viewing points and platforms and the terrace of our lunch retreat.

With a whole afternoon stretching ahead of us, we allowed ourselves to be swept along twisting off-the-beaten-track roads, through mountain ranges and ridges and past castles and caves. We didn’t have time or opportunity to stop everywhere and take it all in.. Even though there was less traffic, the roads were narrow and windy, zigzagging most of the time, so photo stops were not always possible.

We briefly stopped at the Cueva del Agua, where legend has it that the first known miracle of the Virgin of Tíscar happened. It is said the Virgin Mary appeared to the Moorish Chief, Mohammed Andón, to persuade him to convert to Christianity and as such save himself, and all the people seeking sanctuary in his fortified castle, from certain death. We clambered through the narrow tunnel and down the steep stairs to a viewing platform inside the grotto where a shrine has been erected: a statue of the Virgin, with the infant Jesus, El Niño, at her feet. On the rocks below we spotted votive candles and photographs and speculated how on earth anyone would have been able to reach the other side as water thundered down from the waterfall.

Our exploration of the mountains curbed by my limitations, we opted for a last unchallenging hike around the Utrero Gorge. It pained me to have to submit to a route described on the map as ‘Difficulty: Low’; it seemed such a cop-out after having reached Base Camp Everest with relative ease last October… But that was then and I was facing a new reality now.

In spite of the route around the Cerrada del Utrero being fairly short (less than 2 km), it passes through one of the most impressive corners of these mountains. The trail runs along the side of the leafy El Lanchón ( a lapies rock formation created by the erosion of limestone by water) carved by the Guadalquivir River, just a few kilometres from its source. Over the course of thousands of years, the rock has been worn away, slowly chiseling one of the most spectacular gorges in the mountain range: Le Cerrada del Utrero. The exit to the gorge has been blocked off by a small dam and on both sides of the path, interesting vegetation has adapted to this stony landscape, clinging to the rocks and growing in the smallest of cracks and crevices, seemingly defying gravity.

Steep steps lead down from the wall of the dam and follow the river as the water hurls downwards in a series of waterfalls. On the opposite side, a group of dare-devils were canyoning down the Cascada de Linerajos, an impressive waterfall on the River Linerajos, whose waters feed into the Guadalquivir River. The path continues as it skirts around more of the stunning rock formation of El Lanchón.

Not quite sated with the exercise involved in a hike of ‘low’ difficulty, we decided to add on a little extra. The girl in the Tourist Centre was all too keen to point out other possibilities to us, although she suggested driving a bit closer to the viewpoint she had in mind for us: the Mirador de Linarejos. From there we would have a much better outlook on the waterfall…

It may be that we were slightly on the wrong path, we didn’t exactly have a proper map with us, but we seemed to be teetering precariously on the edge of a vertiginous riverbank, clawing our way through overhanging branches and roots jutting out from nowhere. With x-ray vision of an imminent future, I could see an accident waiting to happen. ‘Simon,’ I proposed, ‘Let’s be sensible and walk on the riverbed. It’s dry and bound to be less hazardous than walking on this riverbank…’

Famous old words. Simon obliged, of course… it made sense. So we descended into the abyss, balancing on jagged rocks, traipsing over enormous boulders, taking snapshots of the waterfall, and decided to keep to the riverbed on our way back. I have no idea how it happened: I may have slipped; a momentary lapse of concentration; I possibly looked back to take a quick picture and with Simon well ahead in the distance, I may have rushed… Whatever the cause, I ended up on all fours, toppling over and bashing my knees and shins on the ancient, solid boulders that certainly weren’t in any mood to budge for anyone..

I admit I needed a minute or two – more like ten to be honest – to recover… A nice Spanish gentleman who chivalrously came to offer me a hand to get up, was unceremoniously brushed aside. ‘No, thank you,’ I insisted, gritting my teeth, ‘I am OK, totally OK. I just need a moment,’ as I stared at the ground waiting for the wave of nausea to pass.

‘Simon,’ I called, ‘Simon, stop!! Come back!!’

Luckily, no broken bones. Just bruised shins, cut knees and hurt pride… I would live. Onwards and upwards, back to the car we went.

Cazorla’s take on Semana Santa.

Viva España – The Road to Cazorla, Southern Spain. (5)

Days 4 – 9

We took to Spanish life with unabashed ease…  Lazy mornings in the ‘Plaza de la Corredera o del Huevo’ or the ‘Plaza de la Constitución’: sipping away on fragrant café con leche or cappuccino, feasting on a breakfast of divine chocolate-dipped churros followed by fresh bread liberally drizzled with local virgin olive oil and piled high with fleshy tomatoes or cured jamón.  Who needed lunch when every drink we ordered after eleven in the morning was accompanied by mouth-watering tapas, their variety only limited by the chefs’ imagination…  But with such an abundance of fresh produce at my fingertips in the local supermarkets, we savoured most of our lunches and dinners on our rooftop terrace, indulging in heart-healthy salads and my own Jamie Oliver-inspired, spur-of-the-moment concoctions whilst enjoying the unending views of olive groves.  No need for a cookery book, we were on holiday, and so was everyone else it seemed..

We hit Cazorla at the start of Semana Santa.  And whereas in secular Britain the significance of Holy Week is rather glossed over by all but committed churchgoers, in Catholic Spain it is a time for festivals and parades that bring whole towns together.  In all honesty, we were quite oblivious to the advent of Easter, and apart from the pang of guilt at not yet having bought chocolate eggs for my now adult offspring, this most auspicious day on the Christian calendar hardly featured on our agenda until we ventured into town on Sunday morning in search of freshly baked bread.

It was nearing lunchtime and the plaza thronged with people milling around without apparent purpose, little clusters blocking the pavement, the air heavy with expectation. The main road leading towards our house on the hill was cordoned off, a clear no-go area for cars.  It was obvious something was imminent, but it wasn’t until I spotted long and short palm leaves being waved about that I had an inkling…  Palm Sunday, perhaps.  We quized a young-looking couple but our lack of Spanish and their lack of English left a lot to the imagination.  Our only option was to join the crowd and wait to see what all the fuss was about…

And indeed, eventually our patience paid off.  To the upbeat sound of a live marching band we saw them approaching the roundabout, a massive cross at the head of the parade… Lines of strangely costumed people, wearing long, white, flowing robes and yellow conical hats with just circles for the eyes.  Ku-Klux-Klan revisited?  What may have looked like strange, Ku-Klux-Klan-imitation attire to tourists was the traditional garb of the ‘brotherhoods’ or cofradías, worn during the Easter observances and Easter re-enactments of The Passion of Christ.

Many participants in the procession dress in the penitential robe, consisting of a tunic and conical hood – or capirote – which conceals the face. Although today the capirote is a symbol of a Catholic trying to redeem himself in the eyes of God, and only members of a ‘brotherhood of penance’ are allowed to wear them during solemn processions, its origin is far more sinister. The use of the capirote dates back at least as far as the Spanish Inquisition, the witch hunt instigated in 1478 by the fervently Catholic Spanish rulers to rid the country of Jews and Muslims. People condemned by the Tribunal were obliged to wear a yellow robe – sacobendito, aka blessed robe – that covered their chest and back. They also had to wear a paper-made cone on their heads with different signs on it, alluding to the type of crime they had committed. The hat’s colour reflected the sentence meted out.  Red ones were for the death penalty…  In time, the cap was adopted by the Catholic brotherhoods as a voluntary guise for flagellants as they walked along the streets whilst flogging themselves to make amends for their sins.

These days, cofradías are generally Christian voluntary organisations of lay people, associated with a particular church, and are involved in charitable or religious work.  Each brotherhood has its own set of rules, and membership may be very exclusive to include only men, only women, or only youth.  During Semana Santa, the brotherhoods are bestowed with the honour of carrying large floats, or pasos, adorned with religious sculptures depicting the various stages of the Easter story, starting on Palm Sunday with Jesus’ jubilant entry into Jerusalem.  Many of these pasos are quite old and have been preserved by the brotherhoods for hundreds of years.

The members of the cofradia may no longer be indulging in flagellation as a form of penance, but taking part in the Semana Santa processions itself is seen as an act of atonement. And it sure is no mean feat to be underneath the floats in the heat of the April spring sun… We tried to count the number of feet, clad in black shoes or not clad at all, peeping from under the long skirt draped over the float. In the region of 32 men were shouldering the paso burden, shuffling along short distances at the time, to the tune of either uplifting or solemn music and the command of the foreman who decided the time between the paso being lifted and put down again – just enough time for a quick quench of thirst..

No sign of any Semana Santa processions on Monday; of course, it may have been that we were otherwise engaged and not in town.. But there was no mistaking the Tuesday extravaganza. Enjoying a spot of sun on the rooftop terrace, the afternoon peace was suddenly interrupted by the vibrant sounds of a brass band. ‘More entertainment?’ we wondered as we, curiosity roused, made our way towards the commotion. Turning the corner in front of Iglesia del Carmen we bumped into the musicians, smartly dressed in black and red and belting out cheery tunes. No way through for us, but with the road on a steep incline we could just get a glimpse of the procession leaving the church.

With a quick detour, negotiating other narrow streets, we found ourselves ahead of the parade and in a perfect spot for taking a few shots. At the fore of the procession, a red-hooded member of the Hermandad de la Juventud – a youth brotherhood – carrying the cross, a couple of Roman soldiers close on his heels.

This time, the sides of the paso were not covered and the porters, both boys and girls, were in full view as they carried the heavy float through town, followed en masse by what looked like the rest of the inhabitants of Cazorla.

Unfortunately, we needed to start our return journey to the UK on Thursday, so we missed out on the complete Semana Santa experience. But by Wednesday, we had figured out that more events were planned. Shop fronts displayed posters with the start and end points of the parades, as well as the planned route and timings. And Miercoles Santo 2019 was an evening parade…

The procession pretty much followed the familiar pattern: cross-bearer at the front; two lines of hooded and cloaked – blue and white this time – members of the brotherhood ; a weighty float with statues of Jesus, some disciples and a Roman soldier; a marching band.

But this time, there was an additional cofradía : a ‘brotherhood’ of women wearing La Mantilla – the traditional outfit made up of the lace mantle, stiffened by shell or another material, and a black dress – and all holding a rosary and a lit candle. The women’s sober cortège preceded a second paso, one depicting a glorious Mary in all splendour.

Of course, Semana Santa is celebrated all over Spain and the parades of the bigger cities, such as Seville, Malaga or Granada are probably much more elaborate and attract many more tourists than the modest one in Carzorla. But if anything, Semana Santa in Cazorla was a humbling experience… When all my Easter thoughts before had focused on chocolate, it seemed fitting to be reminded of the real meaning of Easter.