Category Archives: Europe

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)

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

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…

Viva España – The Road to Cazorla, Southern Spain (4)

12th – 17th April 2019

Day 5 or so…

‘Are you sure this is a wise idea?’ I asked hesitantly…  

Fed up with the long-winded one-way system built to negotiate the twisting, spaghetti-thin streets of Cazorla, Simon grinned confidently.   ‘We’ll be OK, you’ll see… There must be a way down in this direction..,’ he insisted.  Since I was not in the driver’s seat, who was I to stop him from resolutely ignoring the ‘dead-end’ sign at the bottom of our road…

Key in ignition, down we rolled.  By then I had almost overcome the spasms of vertigo that accompanied all our trips in and out of town.  Driving around Cazorla felt like being in the clutches of a perpetual, unending roller-coaster: swept along bend after tempestuous bend, drum-roll climbs followed by plunging depths.  Hold on to your stomachs…

Perched against the western slope of the Sierras de Cazorla at an elevation of 836m, the town had not exactly been constructed with the motorist in mind.  Simon’s cousin had kindly offered us the use of her house on the edge of the old part of town, where parking spaces were at a premium at best, and non-existent most of the time.  ‘You may find it easier to park at the bottom of town and walk up the rest,’ we had been advised.  But the trek up was pretty strenuous, arduous almost, and not without its perils.  On occasions we only just saved life and limb by tightly squeezing into shallow doorways to let raging cars charge past.  The temptation to claim that one vacant parking spot near the house often proved hard to resist…

If parking was a challenge, so was finding our way through the maze of lookalike streets… Not everyone is as sold on Google Maps as I am, ….hence ‘the’ plan of taking a short-cut into the unknown. Needless to say, that ‘dead end’ road indeed meant dead end road, no way out… Make a u-turn… Easier said than done with a large Range Rover wedged in the middle of a two-pronged fork, each end tapering into a sliver of nothingness.. Of course we could have coaxed the car into reverse and edged our way back up the precipitous, narrow street, but with just a few centimeters to spare either side of the car, this was madness, a last resort. So Simon set about the three-point turn whilst I, nerves a-jangle, stood guard on the side to prevent damage to the car and the surrounding masonry…

It didn’t take long for our futile attempts to attract the curiosity of the locals. Dolores – for name’s sake let’s call her Dolores, as we never made it to first-name terms – waddled from her front door surveying the racket, the smell of burnt tyre, brake fluid and diesel perfuming the air… Frustrated with our ineptitude and lack of progress, she decided to lend us a helping hand.

‘Gire, gire!!!’ Dolores commanded, followed hotly on the heel of ‘Pare, pare…!!!’ or ‘Izquierda!!!’ ‘Derecho!!’. Wildly gesticulating with Spanish gusto, she bombarded Simon with Spanish instructions, whilst I took a seat on the sidelines leaving it to the experts… In the end, it took the appearance of Pedro – whose name could easily have been Manuel – to get us on the right track. Whereas the verbal language was mostly lost on us, the body language made up for it. Simon turned the wheel left or right as directed and stopped when Pedro’s hand indicated a close encounter with a wall. The speed and efficiency with which Dolores and Pedro orchestrated our getaway led us to conclude we were not the first ones to find ourselves in this predicament… They were pros, they had done it all before…

All credit to Simon though. If I’d been the driver – apart from the minor fact I would have avoided going down a ‘dead-end road’ – I would have had to hand my keys to Pedro or one of his compatriots. It’s not my fault really, poor spatial awareness courses like an untamed river through the female line of my family…

Viva España – The road to Cazorla, Southern Spain. (3)

11th April – Escalona to Cazorla, via Toledo.

Finally some reprieve.  With Cazorla only four hours’ drive away, we relished the chance of a little sightseeing on route.

A speedy breakfast and quick outing with our host’s dogs later, we set off to explore the pretty little gem of Escalona. Although Escalona Golf Village may have been a little underwhelming, the town itself was quite a revelation, with its rich heritage dating from before the invasion by the Muslim Moors in the early Middle Ages.  And to think that just a day before we hadn’t even known Escalona existed.

At first a Roman villa, then a Moorish fortification near the Alberche River, in the hands of King Alfonso VI of Castile around the 12th century, the town developed into a stronghold for attacks on Toledo.  Escalona’s most emblematic monument, the Castillo de Escalona, was built in the 15th century; its moats, walls, towers and walkways still dominating the town.  The castle is currently privately owned and open to the public, but try as we might, we could not find an entrance to explore what lay beyond the walls and towers. Being a little pushed for time, we only sneaked a cursory glance at this main attraction and it wasn’t until we stopped to top up with petrol and looked back that we could truly appreciate the vast scale of the ruins.   

Of course, we managed a quick dash into the town to look at the walkways and walls, but were easily distracted by the abundance of fresh fruit and vegetables in a grocery shop.  Rather than spending time being impressed by the architecture of the central square, we were seduced by a glut of Spanish strawberries, their sweetness and succulence irresistible…  For the next couple of days we overindulged devouring the largest two kilogram punnet of strawberries I have ever paid for, the fruits only second to the best strawberries in the world that used to grow in my Cotswold garden.  OK, it is possible I am a little biased, but they were definitely more mouth-watering and delectable than any shop-bought ones, even the Spanish ones…

With our sights set on an extended lunch break and playing tourist in Toledo, we headed for the city’s old historic centre.  Whereas Escalona’s legacies had come somewhat as a surprise, Toledo’s cultural heritage is well documented and had piqued my curiosity.  After a well-deserved coffee, I left Simon on a quest for antiques in town and forged my own route through the winding, narrow and steep roads that characterise Toledo’s old centre. 

Monastery of San Juan de los Reyes.

Toledo is a fascinating place, blending the architectural styles of its past cultural influences: Moorish, Christian and Jewish.  Moorish mosques have been built on Roman foundations;  an early, primitive mosque minaret houses the bell tower of the Catholic Mezquita-Iglesia de El Salvador; the old Synagogue of Santa Maria La Blanca, now owned and preserved by the Catholic Church, was constructed under the Christian Kingdom of Castile by Islamic architects for Jewish use.  Santa Maria La Blanca is considered a symbol of the cooperation between the three cultures that populated the Iberian Peninsula during the Middle Ages.

Mezquita-Iglesia de El Salvador.

Another impressive example of this unique blend of architectural styles and religious tolerance is the Toledo Cathedral, considered to be one of the greatest Gothic structures in Europe.  Construction of the current building was started in 1227 on the foundations of a former Visigoth Cathedral originating from the 6th Century. During the Moorish occupation of Spain, the site was also used as a Mosque.

Santa Iglesia Catedral Primada (Toledo Cathedral)

And when in Toledo, the El Greco Museum, which displays some famous paintings by ‘The Greek from Toledo’ himself, is a must. But with Easter only a few days away and schools clearly in holiday mode, the place around the museum thronged with teenagers, chaperoned by teacher-lookalikes… and blocking the entrance to the ticket boot.  Free entrance for students, so no hope of me securing a ticket during our brief visit to town…  A mural inspired by some of El Greco’s masterpieces was plastered on an adjoining wall!  A perfect photo opportunity for the youngsters, trying to match their outfits with the colourful attire of the adulating apostles… But for now, this was the only El Greco work I would feast on, unless of course I ventured into some of the Toledo churches where other El Greco famous works can be seen. In his heyday, El Greco was quite prolific and whilst in Toledo received several major commissions and produced his best known paintings.

On my way back to meet up with Simon, I lost myself in the tangle of small roads cluttered with tourist bagatelles… Oils and olives, sweet turrón, caramelized nut brittle, churros con chocolate offered by nuns, and of course the famed Toledo swords. As early as the 15th century, a Toledo sword crafted by Toledo bladesmiths marked a warrior’s superiority.. Musicians, displaying their prowess on stringed dulcimers, mesmerised passers-by into buying CDs, or just dropping a few euros in a box.

Still, we needed to continue our journey, our last leg, onwards to Cazorla where we would spend the next six days. And Tarja, our last Airbnb host, had not been exaggerating when she told us the best of our road trip was still to come. For miles we traversed across an enormous valley, stretching from Toledo all the way to the Sierra de Cazorla, a massive area of seemingly drought-stricken lands where agriculture thrived. Row upon row of neatly trimmed vines thirsting for rain and drenched by the sun; unending grassy slopes dotted with lonesome trees; the green of olive groves as far as the eye could see …

‘Can we stop, please, Simon,’ I gently nudged my companion, ‘I’d like to take some better pictures of the olive groves. They may well be the last ones we come across.’ We were no longer using motorways, so pulling off onto the roadside was finally within our grasp. I clicked away merrily, as if there would be no tomorrow… I needn’t have worried about olive groves. Little did I know then that Cazorla happens to be surrounded by olive groves and we would be spending most lunchtimes and evenings gazing at them from our rooftop terrace…