Thirty-Four

Being a self-involved, heavy drinking Francophile myself, I have always held a fascination with Hemingway and have made a point of finding my way to his old haunts. Sitting with a red wine in Le Select, the hope was that Gertrude Stein might pop by for a bev, scathingly deconstruct my blog and introduce me to her pal Picasso, or even that a nice young lady might fall madly in love with me and say, “Oh Tattie, how wonderful and perfectly in love we are! Let’s drink more wine and toast ourselves in our tiny, perfect apartment. Will Fitzgerald come for tea?”

Sadly neither Stein or Picasso ever appeared but I still enjoy visiting the Lost Generation’s stomping ground. So when the opportunity arose recently I went to Valencia, on the East coast of Spain, to see the city that was so close to Hemingway’s heart.

Valencia is another former stronghold of the Moorish empire in Spain and much like Seville, these influences are still very clear. The main square stands under the shadow of the Cathedral’s tower not unlike La Giralda, and wandering the warren streets within you could imagine yourself back in a Moroccan souk. But as well as the décor, Valencia is a very modern Spanish city that today is more known for its heaving student population, great nightlife and even better food.

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Valencia’s main square, home to the Cathedral and very nice ice cream

First stop was La Malva Rosa beach, a gorgeous stretch of sand on the eastern side of the city, framed by a line of seafood restaurants serving Valencia’s famous dish: paella. Traditionally this rice dish is served with chicken and rabbit, but these days people think more of the marinera variety of prawns, chicken, crab and clams. There was no other choice but La Pepica, the most famous restaurant in town and favourite of none other than Ernie Hem himself. La Pepica looks much as it would have back then, with yellowing photos on the walls and no music but the buzz of clients tucking into a perfect pan of paella, myself included.

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Traditional paella is served with chicken and rabbit, as above

Full of paella and crisp white wine, the next stop on a whirlwind Valencia tour was the brand spanking new Ciudad de Artes y Ciencias, on the opposite side of town. For years the Turia river had threatened to burst its banks and when it did , one time too many, in 1975, the city decided to do away with the river completely. Turns out when Valencians make a decision, they don’t mess about.

In the river’s place there now sprawls a beautiful park, a public space where locals and visitors can enjoy tennis, botanic gardens, a huge play area for kids. Like snake it winds through the river banks and fittingly, at its peak is the bizarrely reptilian Ciudad de Ciencias y Artes. a huge, modern marine extravanganza that is home to the city’s Oceanográfico aquarium, a cinema, science museum and more

All in all I really enjoyed Valencia and found it to be a city that appeared to have everything – some surprise Sorello at the Museo de Bellas Artes, great food, amazing nightlife in El Carmen and of course, great weather for the beach.

Despite this bounty of culture, sunshine and history however, there was something missing. I was homesick. Traveling alone is great – you can sleep in for as long as you want, eat as much as you want with no one judging, wear the same pants for 2 days but it’s not the same as being with a pal.

So, unable to go back to England, I went instead to Alicante. Known as the hub for all visitors to the Costa del Sol – there is a direct tram to Benidorm – I wasn’t really sure what to expect. But when I stood on the port front and heard ringing through the air, “Eh love, take a photo then. Who would believe it – Alan, 4000 miles from Wigan!!!” all homesickness suddenly melted away.

Turns out, I love Alicante. It is of course a mini England at times, and some streets like Calle San Francisco with huge cartoon mushrooms to greet you, are as cheesy as Blackpool on toast. But they know it, and they love it, so I did too. I stayed in the old town in a very sweet B&B (a pretty new concept in Spain) called La Milagrosa. The terrace had a gorgeous view looking up to the mountain, home to – you guessed it – a Moorish stronghold, the Santa Bárbara castle. You can even take an elevator up through the mountain to the top and enjoy incredible views over the beach and port. Alicante is the perfect size for a weekend getaway with prices to match. My favourite discovery was Pesca al Peso, a seafood restaurant on the busy Calle Mayor that let’s you buy your fish by the weight and have it cooked right there in front of you. A month’s salary’s worth of fish later, and I’d had my fill.

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Calle San Francisco, Alicante

Overall I had a fantastic mini adventure on the Costa del Blackpool and would recommend it to anyone. Whether you’re a Hemingway or Peter Kay fan, there’s something for everyone and you won’t leave disappointed!

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Beachin’ in Valencia

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Thirty-Three

The first sign of Spanish spring is not a rise in temperature, nor chicklings hatching. You won’t see Easter eggs in shop windows or feel the tell tale sign of a warm breeze. To know if Primavera is officially upon you, there are 3 gospel signs. If a hat-trick is not scored, forget it; it’s not Spring just yet.

  1. Old lady in a Fur Coat.

One of my favourite Spanish sports is Fur Coat Bingo. Any woman over 60 worth her salt in Spain does not step outside between October and March without her trusty pelt. The fur isn’t necessarily important; a fur trim on a long padded coat is acceptable (albeit Basic) while a white floor length mink is probably overkill – literally – but as long as it is fur, it counts. The optimum Winter Old Lady in a Fur Coat wears a mid length mink with thick collar, accessorised with Pat Butcher earrings and ideally a tweed coated husband wearing a trilby, gently parading the Plaza Mayor. Only when Old Spanish Ladies transition from fur coats to short padded jackets can you be confident that Spring has officially Sprung.

A side note: the symbolic transition is much more subtle from Spring to Summer as Old Spanish Ladies compete to see who is the most Spanish and therefore, the most hardcore. I once saw a Sevillana woman wearing her fur in June, as I slowly melted into a puddle beside her in 45 degree heat. Old Spanish Lady: 1. Young Tourist Woman: O

  1. Impeccably dressed small children:

When the weather improves Spanish families descend on the main squares until the early hours to meet up, enjoy the balmy nights and a good old cerveza. One of my favourite things about Spanish culture is that children are not excluded from post 7pm fun I doubt any Spanish mother outside Madrid would accept the concept of a babysitter. Whether in bars, terraces, restaurants or parks, at 10pm or even midnight it’s perfectly normal to see adults enjoying a beer while the kids play happily together, as a communal enjoyable night out. However; try and find a scruffily dressed child in Spain. They do not exist. When Spring appears and the Old Ladies take off their fur coats, it’s time for the small children to don their matching outfits and frolick in the park, complete in 3 piece suit. The benchmark is about 10-12 years old – until this point, all siblings will be dressed in identikit formal dress, from patent shoes to silk ribbon and cravat.

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A paso commemorating La Flagelación passing the University

  1. Semana Santa

The final nod to Spring is Semana Santa. In the UK we’re weaned on on Easter eggs, chocolate, bunnies and chicks. Spanish children have the legit Easter story – perhaps not as jolly, but certainly memorable. Semana Santa is a phenomenon; there is truly nothing else like it. Every year Spanish towns and cities commemorate the Holy Week with processions, each devoted to Christ’s last days. The processions continue day and night and have 3 main components. Firstly the paso; a decorative float that tells part of the Easter story. The paso is carefully stored throughout the year and each church or cofradia has their own paso. The floats are incredibly detailed, and stunning to behold. They’re also bloody heavy, which is why there are so many nazarenos required to carry them. The nazarenos are the second component; hooded penants that disguise their identity and represent their cofradia (brotherhood). The cofradias are actually secular for the most part which demonstrates the interaction in Spain between the church and daily life. It also makes participating in the procession a bit of a jolly – many times I’ve seen a hooded penant peek out of his cone to check his iPhone and salute an audience member “HIYA! Say hi to your mum, I’ll meet you in the pub after this!”. The penants are followed by the band, who provide the haunting music that accompanies the pasos. The pounding drums and screeching trumpets, along with the smell of burning incense that rises up from the often very affecting pasos, make for the unique experience of Semana Santa.

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The Flagelación – a paso made in the 1500’s, approaching the University of Salamanca

Last year I was in Sevilla for Holy Week, where the pasos are so revered that people will cry upon seeing the famous Macarena or flagellate themselves barefoot in the streets. Here in slightly more emotionally stunted Salamanca it’s a less sombre affair. Being a university town there are many students amongst the crowd and the cofradias, and you see families out to appreciate the procession and continue the night into the early hours. They have snacks and policemen chat on their phones while accepting wafers from the crowd. It’s all very jovial. Besides the whole, you know, serious religious relevance thing.

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The final tell tale sign of Spring – the storks in Salamanca have finally had their babies! This shot taken from the top of the University towers.

I’m looking forward to a bit of time off over this week before starting the second half of the semester. We have around 6 weeks left in Salamanca and now that the 3 signs of Spring have arrived, it’s time to get out the sunscreen and burn as a good Englishwoman should. Enjoy your Easter break everyone!

Thirty-Two

Easy step by step guide to being robbed in Madrid:

Step 1: Allow oneself to be distracted by charming Irishmen

Step 2: Place bag on floor for 2 minutes

Step 3: Congratulations! You have been robbed of your important documents, keys and access to money. Now go to the bar and collect your free drink/s.

In fairness I have been very lucky in my travels and have never been pickpocketed or mugged, much to the astonishment of locals when I tell them I have gone into a favela by myself/wandered into the wrong side of Buenos Aires/generally gone outside alone. I am blessed with the natural appearance of being someone who frankly, is not worth robbing. I have wondered if pickpockets just feel sorry for me and steer clear, or assume I have already been mugged judging from my terrible wardrobe and dazed appearance. Whatever my tactic was, it was working up until last Saturday when I put my bag on the floor of a hostel bar and listened to Irish anecdotes brimming with craic. Two crooks snuck into the bar (we are awaiting CCTV to know if they were carrying bags labelled SWAG) and scooped up my new handbag, complete with passport, cards, keys and FAVOURITE FLIPPING LIPSTICK. Have they no shame?!

Bad luck indeed, but on the other side of the coin, my fortunes were reversed by the global friend team kicking into action and rescuing me from woe. One person booked a hotel for me, another went to order me pizza online while another gave me Consulate advice, as well as the kindness of a friend’s mum who provided cash flow. Most importantly, the hostel gave me free bar. I forget what happened after that.

I was initially unperturbed by the crisis, having faced this much worse in my job over the last year. It was certainly not the last call to the Embassy I’ll ever make, nor the last emergency frozen yoghurt I’ll buy. However no woman is made of stone and, inevitably, I cracked. The crack just came with unfortunate timing.

I didn’t crack when they took the passport. I didn’t crack when the policeman suggested it was my fault for looking at the Irishmen and not my bag. I was a cool calm lake when the Embassy worker told me that I hadn’t needed to take the day off work to go there after all; the passport application is online. My waters were calm when the British Embassy wifi went down. As tranquil as a Jedi frappucino when the Embassy printer malfunctioned and the kind gentleman couldn’t help me as he was trapped in a glass cage of Embassy security. It didn’t faze me even when the cup of coffee he offered me in recompense was made with fake milk Omega 3 enriched milk. Not even when the photographer taking my very specifically sized passport photo told me to smile repeatedly and wouldn’t take the photo unless you’re smiling young lady! Show me that pretty face!

Unfortunately, I cracked when the woman serving my frozen yoghurt offered me the wifi code.

I’m not sure that woman has ever had anyone begin to cry hysterically in front of her when faced with the wifi code to use with all electronic wifi enabled devices, with compliments of Llallao yoghurt company. Understandably she wasn’t sure quite what to do, and nervously added more dulce de leche to my froyo as I thanked her between gasping, choking sobs.

I took my hysteria outside and quietly mourned my lost iPhone between gulps of sticky fat free goodness. Things get a bit blurry when I cry, and puffy, and red, and generally horrendous. I found myself regressing to a toddler, covered in frozen yoghurt, toffee sauce and trying desperately to peel off the serviettes that kept flying out of my hands in the wind and sticking to my hair, clothes, coat and so on, conveniently covered in toffee as they were.

Again, silver linings here. The kind older man who stopped to ask me if I was alright just proved that you can make friends anywhere, even in a crisis. “It’s just…..you’re crying…..and you’re covered in yoghurt, I mean really covered…..are you alright? Do you need help?”

No, thank you sir, leave me to drown in my puddle of yoghurt and woe. I’ll be fine.

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The iconic Tio Pepe sign on Plaza del Sol. Tio Pepe is a brand of beer and therefore loved by default across Spain. It stood on the opposite side of the square until Apple bought the building and decided they didn’t want Tio Pepe anymore. Soz Tio Pepe, time to move.

Fine I was and in between the drama of losing my best passport picture I still managed to have fun in Madrid, one of my favourite cities. You could see the Spanish capital as a small collection of tiny villages, each stamped with their own identity. This could be said for many places but I doubt in any of them are the little villages so tightly packed and overlapping as in Madrid. One minute you’re in the Broadway style glamour of Gran Vía, the next you’ve taken a turn and found yourself in Malasaña, the former red light district now undergoing major hipster gentrification. I was staying in one of my favourite areas, on the border of classy Plaza Santa Ana and grungey Lavapiés, apparently the next “in” place. Naturally I wasn’t allowed in.

I managed to fit in some decent exploring and tried out the famous Populart, one of the best jazz bars in Madrid. Every night at 10.30pm a live jazz band strikes up the beat on Calle Huertas, and best of all, it’s free entry. I really enjoyed this little corner as it reminded me of Paris, but in a better way, a way that didn’t cost €30.

Another snippet of the Madrid music scene came in the form of Méson de la Guitarra, a little basement bar near the Mercado San Miguel that I discovered with an Australian sidekick last year. Along this street are several mesones, all with a different theme and a really quaint charm. At Meson de la Guitarra, the bar barely fits 20 people but is always crammed with at least 50, enjoying the cheap drinks, cosy atmosphere and best of all the live guitarists, who play folkloric Spanish songs which, naturally, everyone sings along to. I tend to sip sangria and shout OLÉ! every now and again to fit in.

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Madrid’s cathedral, facing the Palacio Real. I had a glass of white wine at lunch in nearby La Latina, and had to have a nap immediately afterwards in front of the Palace. Thankfully no one robbed me while I napped. They waited until I was awake instead.

The secret to Madrid is knowing that it’s not really a capital city of the ilk of London or Paris, who are world capitals and rest easy on their enormous laurels. Madrid is a chilled out counterpart, happy to shrug his shoulders when faced with comparison because hey, we’ve got huge clubs, we’ve got mesones, we’ve got tapas. What more could you want?

Well, ideally a pickpocket cull, but besides that, Madrid is doing just fine.

This week is another busy one, with salsa classes and film nights taking up the work front and a visit from one of my best pals this weekend to the Big Lights of Salamanca. Have a great week everyone!

Thirty-One

Everybody loves a polygamist. That’s kind of the whole point.

So when our friendly Moroccan guide announced on the coach that he has three wives (as is perfectly acceptable in local custom) and is looking for a fourth, preferably English speaking, I took a deep breath and took the first step into what looked like a journey of serious cultural adjustment.

They say it’s impossible to build Rome in a day, but no one said anything about seeing the entirety of Northern Morocco in two. I have never been to Morocco, or indeed Africa, so had no idea what to expect, but suspected I would find out as we humped our way through camel rides, markets, haggling, pharmacies, restaurants and hotels in Chefchaoen, Tangiers and Tetouan, each a glittering jewel for each of Michael Douglas’ wives. OH. By the way, our guide is called Michael Douglas. He didn’t say if one wife is called Catherine.

First up was Chefchaoen, a blue nugget nestled in the mountains about 90 minutes drive from our base in Tetouan. The town went unnoticed for many years but has since firmly established itself on the tourist trail thanks to its unique habit of painting every building a beautiful shade of sky blue. We had a guide named Abdel to show us around; a frankly hilarious man about 5ft tall who we all concluded was the Moroccan Yoda. Shuffling along in yellow leather slippers, an enormous jilaba and a small pink fez, Yoda screeched through two teeth and a healthy fistful of “snuff” that his town and birthplace was blue to prevent mosquitoes, an idea that had grown to characterise this gorgeous village.

Abdel looked familiar to me. And this was strange, seeing as I have never been to Morocco, or met a Moroccan two-toothed fez wearing leather slipper shuffling pensioner before. But sure enough, the man felt like a very old friend. I expressed this to him and before I could say IT’S DEFINITELY NOT TO DO WITH THAT, ABDEL, my new pal was rolling up his floor length tunic to shove his snuff covered hand into his crotch.

“Perhaps you’ve seen my Facebook page?”, he asked, having just produced a brand new iPad from his trousers to show me his Facebook friend, Barack Obama.

Mystery solved. No, our common friend is not Obama, but the 30 students I waved off to Morocco last Spring with another tour company, and in whose photos I had spotted a small pink fez and lack of teeth.

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Morocco’s Yoda, folks

Newly reassured that the world was and is as small as ever, I began to get into my Moroccan stride. Now, getting into my stride normally involves a large glass of Rioja – a no no in Morocco where a woman drinking is equivalent to a woman in fishnets on a street corner (so they say). Instead my new vice is Moroccan mint tea, the nectar of the non-alcoholic gods. I’d been really looking forward to trying Moroccan food and drink and it didn’t disappoint. Over the weekend I was stuffed with cous cous, chicken, tea and glorious goat’s cheese.

I have now decided that the only acceptable way to enjoy goat’s cheese is served in a 1kg portion on a large leaf, in the middle of a medina. This was how I got my (first) portion on Saturday as we toured Tetouan’s gargantuan (garganTetouan??) market, now a UNESCO World Heritage site, our second stop on the tour. The medina is walled and with its one entrance and seven exits, it’s easy to get lost in what to me seemed like a small, self sufficient city. People live, work, sleep, eat, meet and worship in the medina. We were introduced to the stunning mosque, the oven, the fountain and the school, all of which come together as defining pillars of any medina worth its salt. One of my favourite parts was the tannery, not so much for the stench of rotting flesh, blood and lye covered skin, but for the delightful products that emerge on the other side.

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Tanning leather in Tetouan medina

Not since Ron Swanson redecorated his living room has there been so much leather in one place. In this store I was overwhelmed by the bags, shoes, books, and so many other leather products that you would never have expected to find made from cow/camel skin.

Unfortunately I had a terrible accident and left half of my salary in that one Moroccan medina. If anyone ever sees my life savings, please tell me and my new mustard camel skin handbag.

It was unfortunate timing that straight from buying their compatriot’s hides to hold our lipsticks, we then went straight to Tangiers for a camel ride.

I had been prepared for this by a colleague, who warned me that it was not so much the 5* Mercedes Benz experience as being plonked on a camel in a car park, led lumpily around for 2 minutes while the owner screams “OH MY GOOOOOOD, CAMELZZZZZ, AFRICAAAAAAAA” to garner excitement. It was all of this and more; in an attempt to get a selfie I sat in camel piss. It’s the price you pay. However the timing was incredible as we got to ride our camels backlit by one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen.

From there we ventured into Tangiers, which had a much more bustling and animated vibe than what I had seen of the sleepy Tetouan medina ­– though that could be due to going at night, when most of Morocco comes out to play. The medina this time felt like going into the belly of the beast and much more electric. We ran through alleys and turned down backstreets, frantically chasing Michael Douglas as he led my boys to the ultimate goal; a good fake Rolex store.

Armed with our souvenirs, both traditional leather and knock-off luxury, we boarded the bus the next day for the gruelling 12 hour bus ride. As we left, Michael had the final surprise. He didn’t really have three wives, just the one, and, shockingly, his real name is not Michael Douglas.

I can’t say I would rush back to Morocco, and cannot put my finger on why. Everyone I met was lovely, the traditions fascinating and the mood buoyant but for some reason I didn’t click with it. It was a beautiful place, but inevitably as a  group you have a different introduction to a city than if you were alone, and I’m not sure I could solo travel in Morocco without some serious research and without working on my palm-greasing skills – hideously, trying to tip Abdel I ended up dropping 100 dirhams onto his leather slippers, like some sort of mini Moroccan Yoda foot stripper. So I’ll work on that.

It’s telling that my mood totally lifted once we did a pit stop in Seville, my old stomping ground from last year. Seville was home to some very rough times for me but it somehow felt like coming full circle. After a really ball-aching time in Seville, this time I came back smiling, covered in camel pee and leather goods, rocking fake Ray Bans and beaming. Maybe this time next year I will return to Morocco and reconnect with it as I did its Spanish neighbour. Without the camel pee.

Now I’m back in Salamanca and fully launched into the rest of the time I have left here, all 9 weeks of it. This weekend I’m headed to Madrid for a much needed wine R&R session and will do some exploring of one of my favourite wine bars cities. Until then, shokran for reading!

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Thirty

Much of my life is spent planning the details of a day down to the minute. When you have 60 people in tow, there’s not a lot of room for spontaneity unless it’s in the framework of “organised fun”. For example, my spontaneous “let’s stop at this amazing beach I have just heard about from the wise old man I met outside our hotel selling oranges at the stall he’s manned for 55 years” stop in Portugal has actually come about via careful research and won’t come about until precisely 3.15pm on April 25th 2015, after our similarly planned spontaneous coffee and bathroom stop.

Needless to say, when I do my own travelling, the fun is in the (lack of) details. However, I’ll be the first to say that this weekend I took it a bit too far. You know you should have done a bit more planning when you end up in a different country without realising.

My colleague who has lived in Salamanca for 35 years has been raving for some time about a local flower show that apparently is a Big Deal and Unmissable. It was this Sunday, so I figured I would give it a shot. All I had to do was pay €10, I’d be picked up on a coach, driven for X amount of time, dropped off, and picked up again some time later. For €10 one can’t get very far, so I assumed a quaint market town about 30 minutes away, perhaps with some old ladies selling peonies and a small café where I could sit, relax and read my book on the second Post-Franco Spanish generation, and be back in time for lunch.

I boarded the bus at 0845, and arrived 3 hours later in Portugal, a country that is not Spain. For most of the way an international student, presumably similarly disappointed with her lack of snacking forethought, vomited a disturbing amount of milk into a leaking plastic bag, next to me. There was a brief moment where she stopped ejectng milk from her body, the old people on the bus slept, and our coach wandered between the mountains dotted with blossoms, a mechanical stranger in an all too rare haven of nature, and it became a calm and beautiful day.

It was at this point that I became aware that the blossoms were actually the whole reason for the day trip. The hint was when the bus driver exclaimed over the microphone, “QUICK, LOOK, THERE’S A TREE, A TREE IN BLOOM, THERE’S ONE” and the whole bus, 98% pensioners, moved anxiously to look at said tree.

I had inadvertently embroiled myself in “Día de la Almendra”, aka ALMOND TREE DAY. On March 1st every year, folks around the Spain – Portuguese mountainous border gather, play music, drink wine, sell miscellaneous leather goods and (apparently) erect Spongebob Squarepants bouncy castles to celebrate the bloom of the majestic Almond trees that blanket the endless mountainsides; a party amongst the white moors to ring in Spring.

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The star of the day, the Almond Tree

This would have been much more effective had the flowers actually bloomed, but it turns out Spring 2015 is a bit shy. So it was more ‘market day’ than Majestic Almond Tree Day. We were dropped just over the Portuguese border and, somewhat bemused, I followed the OAP crowd along an abandoned railway track that, for some unknown reason, eventually led to a pop up flea market. I didn’t buy much, but it was pleasant to sit and eat fried chicken and potatoes with my fingers on the side of a lake. It reminded me of that time Patrick the salsa dancing Argentinian drove me for an hour to watch a boat rusting on the beach, looking out to the Falkland Islands. The world is a beautiful place.

I sat at the lake for around 2 hours before getting back on the bus, pleasantly surprised by my trip to an abandoned Portugese railway in the mountains, but needless to say ready to go home. It was a 3 hour journey but, I figured, worth it for the adventure.

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Walking along an abandoned railway with your shopping, because Portugal.

15 minutes later we stopped in a town I could cross in precisely 3 minutes, and stayed there for the next 4 hours. It was here that I found the Spongebob bouncy castle, that entertained me for around 20 minutes, but then it was over. I asked the coach driver what one does in a town like this for 4 hours, and he suggested taking a nap. Ever resourceful, I found the bar.

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You haven’t partied til you’ve visited a Spongebob bouncy castle in an isolated mountain village

I may have had better ideas than getting slightly drunk in a Spanish mountainside village and then going yourself on an hour long hike alone, but I can’t think of any as that’s precisely what I did.

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The Hills are Alive! With the sound of sangria

Maybe it was the sangria, wine and chocolate, but being a bit drunk so isolated in the mountain air with literally nothing to do but look at a rock makes you appreciate wine the majesty of nature. I gasped in the fresh air, shouted as far and as wide as I could to drink in the beauty of nature, and then again to make sure no one could hear me, and then again because I was still a bit drunk and thought it was fun.

Before long, 4 hours had passed and I was back on the coach, sharing a kilo of almonds with another passenger and listening to Vomit Girl doing her thing, right up until 9pm when I finally got home. All in all, Almond Day was a success.

This week will be slightly more organised when I take 40 people on a tour of Northern Morocco. I’ll be visiting Tetuán, Tangiers and Chefchaoen, and finally realise my 2015 resolution of falling off riding a camel. This trip is most certainly planned down to the second, but will it be as fun? Time will tell.

Twenty Nine

Part of true love is acceptance that love comes in all shapes and sizes, and that sometimes the best things come in small packages ; especially if that small thing can provide you with tapas to compensate. Salamanca has reminded me of just that.

This delightful corner of Spain has truly charmed me in these first couple of weeks that I have spent here. Salamanca is not the Don Juan that is Barcelona, flexing his big Sagrada Familia muscles on the beach and rubbing in your sun tan lotion. Nor is it the party boy Madrid who whisks you off to Kapital for a night of tequila, club music and “Don’t worry we’ll get in, I know a guy”. Rather, Salamanca is the bow tied young gentleman who at first glance might seem a bit bookish and twee, before suddenly taking you to a secret underground tapas bar, plying you with Rioja and seducing you with a romantic walk through cobbled streets under the starlit sky.

The key to Salamanca is that it knows the way to anyone’s heart, especially mine, is through the heart and liver. As this is Salamanca’s main selling point, let’s talk tapas.

Whilst settling in here I’ve mostly eaten out at restaurants – mainly in the name of getting to know the city, but really because I cannot cook a bean and only worked out how to turn my hob on a couple of days ago. I had forgotten the simple joy of tapas and every time I am reunited with them, wonder why fish and chips exist at all when the UK could renounce it all and become a nation of endless tiny portions. The idea behind tapas is that they are a small snack to accompany the main player, the Beverage. Between a few of you, these tapas are shared and complement each other, although you should never count on the tapas being served at the same time. Many times I have made the mistake of hoping to create a meat and two veg plate and ending up eating them out of order 20 minutes apart. Tapas are designed to be eaten late at night, well after the principal lunch of the day, to which 2.5 hours are designated in Salamanca (try buying toilet roll at 3pm on a Wednesday. TRY). They are more than a nibble, less than a snack, entirely delicious.

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The lovely Salamanca Cathedral. At 500 years old can you believe this is the “new” cathedral??

First up on my Tapas Tour was when I forced myself out into the world on my first night, determined to hit the ground running with a full belly. I went in the direction of the Plaza Mayor, Salamanca’s crowning jewel. The Plaza is bustling from morning to night, full of people meeting to sit and chat amongst the medallions of famous Spanish politicians, artists and writers such as Cervantes. The square is even more stunning at night, when endless floodlights beam into the nooks and crannies of the square, and in my opinion would seriously piss off anyone trying to have a nap inside. I stumbled upon El Bodegón de la Plaza, a small door just off the side of the Plaza. This bar falls into the category of “not quite ready to accept modernisation but happy enough to throw in a teriyaki salmon” type Spanish bar. In many tapas bars you’ll still find the leg of jamón in the corner, dusty ceilings and the old Spanish man in a corner talking about bullfighting. It’s the equivalent of our local, and why should they have to change? They know their shit. Here the tapas were traditional with enough twist to bring in the tourists such as myself, and the teriyaki salmon went really well with my patatas bravas (essentially spicy wedges) and queso iberico (along the lines of a hard cheddar).

So if the first place was a traditional bar nodding its head to alternative cuisine, my next haunt is the opposite. I have become exceedingly fond of Café Atelier, a vegetarian/vegan café conveniently opposite my workplace/apartment. Just the fact that they have the word vegano on their publicity board was enough to make my jaw drop – in Seville trying to explain this dietary requirement was like that scene from My Fat Greek Wedding (“you don’t eat meat?? Ok, I give you lamb.”). Atélier is a glimpse of vegetables in a sea of deep fried carbohydrates; wafting homemade houmous, quionoa and onion tortilla at you as you claw your way in from endless cheese and saturated fat in the outside world. What I love about this place is that it’s styled as the old Spanish haunt at first glance – paper serviettes, marble top tables, the glass cabinet showing the tapas on the counter top. But when you look closer and see that the art on the walls is actually modern, and the leaflets under your tapas are for Podemos meetings, you see it’s no ordinary place. Needless to say, me and the Portuguese waiter – the man with the food – are now the best of friends.

So I’ve been bouncing from tapa to tapa here and along the way have navigated this gorgeous corner of Spain enough to introduce it fairly to my vibrant Californians who arrived last week, full of enthusiasm and good fun. From now on I expect they will be my main human contact as I’m highly likely to stay on Celibate Mountain for the foreseeable future. Although, you never know. Spanish Tinder has proved a cultural minefield, and this week my cleaner dropped the grenade that she runs an erotic toy business on the side. Perhaps Salamanca has more hidden under his bow tie than originally thought…

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This chap sits in another great café , Café Novelty, the oldest in Salamanca at 100 years old. 

Twenty-Eight

People often ask me what the worst part of my job is. This question can be blurted immediately after I tell them what I do for a living, or even before.

“Hi there, how are you, what’s the worst part of your job then?”. Part of me thinks that the inevitability of this question is a symptom of being British – the common need to find something negative and bond over mutual moaning, accompanied by a cup of tea. Interestingly, the only Americans who ask me about the downside of life have always had British family or close friends. Hmmmm.

The answer is packing. Being a professional nomad means that I pack up my worldly belongings every 3 months or so (6 times in the last year, if you’re asking) and you’d think I’d be a pro at it by now. Turns out, I’m not.

I am constantly astounded by the human capacity to surround oneself with endless mounds of meaningless, useless shit. I am a case in point of this quirk. No matter how ruthless I am with packing, I will consistently reach a point where I am perplexed by a small pile I imagine normal people would put in “the fourth drawer down”, “the inside of the pouffe”, or “the cupboard under the sink”. I have no drawer, I have a suitcase, but still can’t let go of the Useless Tat Pile. This small hillock of crap means something to me. One day I might need that magazine clipping! What if one day I’m looking for the perfect butternut squash recipe I will never use and it’s not in the fourth drawer down?

A solution to this has become the “Vacuous Folder of Doom”. An A4 plastic wallet has become home to an albeit limited stash of postcards, notes, scraps of wool, some battered paper butterflies my Nan gave me and a lonely old Valentines card that I’m considering reposting to myself this year if no one else will.

The Vacuous Folder of Doom is just one of a few packing tips I’ve learned along the way. Read on for the Normal Girl’s Guide to Travelling Every Five Bloody Minutes:

1. Forgive yourself a few luxuries : You’ll see lots of blogs telling you to ditch the toiletries because, shock horror, you can buy shampoo abroad. I agree but would argue that an occasional conditioner, shampoo or shower gel home comfort won’t kill you. There is room for that one product you have been using forever – mine is Superdrug Vitamin E body cream. I suffer from psoriasis when I’m stressed (i.e., ALL the time) and have spent years looking for something that will calm my skin down and keep me from turning into a scaly crocodile in the constantly changing weather my skin is subjected to. This cream is it, and at £.2.99 it’s a snip! Unfortunately it weighs about as much as  a baby dingo, but it is worth it.

2.Get your sh*t together: People, be better than a battered plastic wallet at check in. During a flash flood of spending at Gatwick a while back I bought a cute travel wallet and can honestly say it has changed my life. Doesn’t take much, does it. But it does make a difference to have all your tickets in one place – not only do you feel like a snazzy pro, swishing past the basic balancing her sprogs in one hand, garish suitcase in another and trying desperately to find her (already ripped) boarding pass, you know that you have everything in one place and will encounter no such panic.

3. Bring as many bags as you have arms. I refuse to take more than a suitcase, carry on and backpack wherever I am going. I only have two arms so can just about stretch to these three items. A while back I did travel with two carry ons and a large suitcase and felt like I was pulling my soul through the seventh circle of hell. On the tube a man offered to carry my suitcase and then proceeded to lecture me on the way down “if you can’t carry your own bag, little girl, don’t pack so much makeup”. After wiping my hands from ripping his testicles off and flinging them at him, I thought he might have a point. I don’t rely on anyone else the rest of the time, so why would I in transit? If you can’t carry it, don’t bring it.

4. Start the process 2 days before. It is a sad fact that we all faff and procrastinate until realising we have 5 minutes to go and haven’t packed yet. I have seen people turn up at the airport with no shoes – they have packed so quickly that they forgot to wear shoes. Shoes. Don’t forget your shoes, folks. Pack 2 days before so that all that is left is your fourth drawer down, and you have enough time for a glass of wine lamenting the Pile of Tat  before you actually have to do something with it

5. Pack some open mindedness. The best thing you can bring with you on a trip is the ability to keep calm and carry on. There’s been a few times where I’ve shown up and the door is locked, or the train is delayed, or my boss thinks you’re a qualified drama teacher and is giving you a 3 hour time slot to teach theatre to 30 adults. These things happen and the challenges are much more interesting than the easy rides, a lot of the time. Packing some consideration, patience and a smile will serve you better than any anti ageing cream or dehumidifier.

So there’s a couple of things to think about when packing your life up and moving to a new country. Next week I’ll be in Salamanca, gastronomic capital of Spain, home to its oldest university, and me. See you there!