The Coast of Light

Why do we travel? Is it because we are desperately trying to escape whatever little life we are living; escaping work and people and problems...the real world? Or is it the other way. Do we simply have a searing desire to see new places, to drown our eyes in newness, regardless of what awaits back home? Maybe one, maybe the other, maybe both. The point is we do it. The country you live in makes it easier or harder to do this. Russia is unwieldy. The UK is expensive. The USA is too full. China is too difficult. New Zealand, too far. Spain, time and time again, has proved to welcome the budding, itchy-footed traveller with sunny open arms. It's so easy, so tempting to hop on some bus or train and high-tail it to a far-off village. So I did, again.

Deep down, right down, in the south of the country is the Costa de Luz (the Coast of Light). The area of Cadiz and Huelva west along the coast from the heavily built-up and ruined Malaga part of the Spanish Med is a land of monstrous beaches of golden sand, little white towns and long evenings. Further inland the Cadiz province houses other delights: tiny postcard-perfect pueblos blancos that pepper the mountains and hills for miles around - mirroring the Alpujarras on the other side of Andalucia; and finally the quaint city of Jerez de la Frontera and all its sherry.

Hidden in the hills.

An hour east of Jerez de la Frontera the parched yellowing Andaluz plains give way to a humped horizon of deep viridian. As one climbs the world gets greener. First the road passes Arcos de la Frontera, an old fortress town placed prominently on a wedge of rock; its old quarter perched on a cliff face. From the aptly named El Bosque the drive is windier and reaches Benamahoma sitting in a mossy crux between two hills. Spiralling up away from the world, along an ever rising arm of valley, the whole green tapestry of grand forested and craggy lumps of mountain opened up for us. Then the road shot right, over a verge and dropped into Grazalema.

Grazalema is a shining example of a pueblo blanco. Sitting up in a nook, surrounded by peaks on three sides and one facing a low-set plain, Grazalema is a perfect little village of narrow cobbled streets and orange-tiled roofs and churches. The little towns like this only really subsist on the tourism trade, however the village still has a lively industry in cakes and artisan shops of different types. After Grazalema the road then climbs to its zenith at the Las Palomas pass, 1357m. It then descends and the view explodes away. Kilometres over nothing.

Hills and gargantuan mounds of earth that from the bottom up would appear monstrous, there seemed to be small eruptions of brown or far-off beached ships covered in olive groves. The white towns dotted the panorama like some giant had clumsily dropped paint drops on the planet; and the lakes looked like the sky had clumsily formed puddles that hadn't been mopped up yet. And then finally past Zahara de la Sierra that sat proudly like some white king cobra coiled up around a rocky outpost, topped with a castle looking out over its lake.

A Roman and his sand.

A similar distance south of Jerez de la Frontera, sailing past salt-marshes, house-sized heaps of sodium chloride, and sporadically ugly new development, one eventually hits the coast. Playa de Bolonia is a massive beach without a town; just a spattering of summer villas. It is backed by a cleft of hill that essentially cuts it off from over-development and Andalucia behind it. Standing on the the beach, Africa and its mountains can be seen lurking off in a haze, daring you to jump on a boat.

On the east end of the beach is a blob of land constituting a little mountainette and on the other is a thirty-metre high dune, ever-growing, that is slowly, bit by silica bit, eating a forest of beach pine trees. The azure Mediterranean, the straw-coloured sand, and the mossy intensity of the drowning forest forms a perfect natural tricolour. The real flag of the south.

Set back behind the sands, posing venerably in the shrubby grass are the remains of what was once probably the most scenic Roman settlement in the Empire. The ruins of Baelo Claudia, from the second century, show us that this distant outpost was in reality a thriving fishing town that was key in the production of a important and sought after fish sauce, garum. A fishy Roman Worcestershire sauce basically. They loved a condiment. It's less appetizing when you think that it was, and still is, made from fish guts.

To watch the sun drop into the sea, we saw off the day at another beach - El Palmar. It was longer than your focus could manage and was utterly undeveloped except for a single string of chiringuitos - little bars and restaurants - of one or two floors that ran along for a couple of kilometres. It all felt very 'surfer'; chilled out but with a buzz.

Uncle Pepe and his sherry.

After filling up on the delights of Manolo, Lucia's father's, cooking - acedias (a dab-like flatfish), gallo a la plancha (grilled plaice), ensalada de huevas (fish roe salad), pechuga de pollo al Jerez (chicken breasts fried in sherry), home-made alioli, all served with copious amounts of fino; and after sampling the somewhat limited nightlife of the city, it was time, with fuzzy heads, to explore the old town of Jerez de la Frontera.

Jerez de la Frontera is essentially a blown-up pueblo blanco that has got too big for its boots and spilled out into the modern age. The outskirts are mostly unattractive flats and shops, like everywhere in Spain. The centre, however, is a joy. White cobbled streets that slink off to nowhere and hide little churches; twee shops that show you that you are still in a provincial town really; floppy palm trees to remind you how close Africa is; old men sitting in the shade whilst beautiful young couples have morning paseos; a colourful flea-market buzzing at the base of the city's fortress, the Alcazaba; the haughty grand and Gothic cathedral, which stands oddly next to the Gonzalez Byass sherry factory; and a whole Andalucian sky of blue. To throw away a few hours Jerez is a perfect place, and it tastes nice too.

You can't not taste the town. The town called Jerez...sherry. The place is littered with bodegas that produce the finest tipple this side of the continent: Tio Pepe, Gonzalez Byass, Williams & Humbert, Garvey, Osborne; they're all there, getting drunk with each other when no one is looking.

That lingering hope is that this wonderful place never succumbs to the spoils of tourism and its merry band of pirates. May it never turn into another Malaga of Valencia coast. Good luck to it.

Old Hellos

Summer in Spain is often a time for lying on beaches inactive and crisping or a time for piling into the family's village flat near the coast and existing as a unit. With the distinct lack of a family here my Spanish summer holidays became more of a collection of rendezvous with old friends, some not seen for years.

First La Mancha, with Alfonso and Alfredo, two years absent from my life. Characters from my book. To visit his family again in the tiny wine-producing town Villanueva del Alcardete with its overblown church and quiet dusty streets. 38 degrees and as dry as the desert. Lunch, eleven of us, manchegan style. Moje manchego (a cold refreshing bowl of tomatoes, tuna, oil, and occasionally olives and eggs) followed by the mother's signature dish, chicken cooked in ham and juice. And wine. Dusty bottles from the family caves, from the house, from the family bodega that used to produce. The father happy with his 37-yr old bottles, the children wincing at the vinegar. And we leave through Belmonte, past shining fields of sunflowers and copper-red lands, a town with a huge castle that overlooks the flats. Some windmills too, for it is La Mancha.

James visits for a second time. The heat, 42 degrees. We flee to Manzanares el Real, a village up in the mountains of Madrid. There we eat tortilla and sandwiches and bathe in the cool, cold, freezing actually, waters of the Manzanares river. Other people, sexy young things, families, kids, also find a space, find a depth and kill time by doing nothing.

Then the wet air of Valencia, its old streets, river-bed park and colourful buildings dripping in the humidity, swimming pool air. The beach, glazed with a veil of throbbing heat, shimmering, mountains and industry off to the north, offers a sandy Mediterranean respite. Covered in bodies. Stationary, moving? Irrelevant. The body just leaks. Hideous. All the prettiness sullied by stickiness. And Imogen and Isobel. Blasts from the past. Imogen, another character from my book, whose happiness and effervescence is now, pleasingly, tinged with a little cynicism and bitchiness. And the Benimaclet district, an old village swallowed up. Little flats and little houses and little churches all bursting with pastel colours. But the heat, intolerable, sends us to terraces. It breeds inactivity.

Then the New Forest with friends of home, with purpled heather and wild ponies covering the flats and bumps. First sun, then cloud, then sun again and burnt noses. Beers and ciders fill us as we cycle. Stretches of green pastures and heathland sail away to a fringe of woods and cows. And a BBQ in the fog at night followed by a morning of blistering heat that makes us sit at a stream and lazily throw a Frisbee. Time walks on slowly.

Then Devon, glorious Devon, for a pilgrimage to the ancestral homeland of the Darracotts. To the south and the broad ruddy beaches of Torquay and Paington, all sunning themselves. Then to Brixham and Dartmouth, those picture-perfect harbour towns, pregnant with crab pots and crab sandwiches, smelling of fish and with old-coloured houses lining the bay. Past the secret huge beaches at Slapton to Plymouth, grand old Plymouth with its bizarre mix of Old Sea Shanty town, maritime grandeur, posh marina and ugly modern city. Through the heart of the county, past Dartmoor and field-buried Launceston, to little farms and villages of Darracott, touching Cornwall, and then on more to the wild north with the blustery cragginess of Hartland Point. Barnstaple, normal but nice; Clovelly, the prettiest thing, cascading steep down a hillside, donkeys to help, ruled by cats and looking onto what could be the Caribbean Sea, the beach is all rocks, seagulls and washed up dogfish. And finally over the high plateaus, with their views over golden wheat to the distant waters, to Ilfracombe, English seaside jewel nestled in between torn up but oh so green headlands.

And finally Buitrago de Lozoya, far in the north of Madrid, near Castilla y Leon. A medieval walled-town, sitting in a flat, surrounded by hills and with a river curling round it. A walk through the pine forests, skirting the water. The air is warm and thick with the cloying but attractive smell of cones and fat with gnats and butterflies. The wrong turn earlier taken means a diversion away from the water north, to the hamlet of Gandullas, which nobody knows, and back along the road for kilometres and kilometres in the sun. Stupid but interesting.

And back to work and humdrumity.

All the small places.

Spain, by all accounts, is a pretty large mass of country. At 506,000 kilometres squared it's no shrinking violet. The United Kingdom is smaller but also has about 20 million more people. What my small, wet, wind-beaten island also has is an incredibly widespread transport network. It's not really that hard to visit anywhere, just expensive. OK, maybe a Scottish Highland hamlet or some black-roofed Snowdonian village curled up in a valley is tricky, but generally everywhere's covered. Some regions of Spain are very remote, with only one bus a day visiting it from a particular nearby town, and sometimes only in the afternoon; the return bus being the following morning. The vast expanses of Aragon, Castilla and Extremadura are guilty of this. In the busy coastal regions in the East and South the buses flow fluidly like silverfish darting red, crisp foreigners along with anglo-battered Spaniards to homes and beaches. In the mountain-crumpled north one finds a bit of both. The North is quite industrial so due to this historically the hubs have been well connected. From Vigo in Galicia up to A Coruña and along to Oviedo, Santander, Bilbao and San Sebastian, the larger places, like everywhere else, are 'connected'. However, due to the imposing nature of the countryside - craggy mountains in Cantabria and Asturias and steep gorges, estuaries and valleys in Galicia - the transport to smaller towns is not only sporadic but also slow-going.

With a car you essentially unlock the country. Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia are no longer cut off mountain strongholds but glorious scenic swathes peppered with twee little villages that you can dip into slowly but with ease. Here I present a snapshot of each of the regions as I recently saw them.

Santillana del Mar sits in a plump pastoral verdancy, dripping with grubby clouds and fat cows, its medieval heart a duvet of cobbles and honey-coloured antiquity. San Vicente de la Barquera and Llanes sit on a lacerated northerly coastline, fisherman towns and wet beaches, seagulls shouting at the waves as the set-back mountains threaten to stomp into the sea; protected by fields.

The Cantabrian Picos hide coyly in those grey spongy cumuli. A fairytale gorge, all scraped steep sides and defiant undergrowth, allows one little road to slip through to Potes; another olde worlde ancient blip of a town, surrounded by heights and full of food, canals, bridges, and remoteness. The vast Vega Valley slinks up into the heights and the road slips into Castilla y Leon. The sun remembers what it must do and burns away the clouds. Truly far from anywhere tiny villages rest up against unfairly gorgeous countryside. Riaño, with its seat of the Gods, stands on its perch and spends its days looking across the embalse towards a child's drawing of mountains.

Those mountains again hide secrets, caves and cheese. Arenas de Cabrales, a one horse town, steeps on all sides. One thing here, cabrales cheese. Matured for months and years in dank caves the cheeses are sometimes so strong they leave the taste buds fried and the mouth numb. Oviedo - a city - poises elegantly with its pretty streets and clean walls as all around the low sheet of vapour ensconces the Elysium.

Gijon - a gloomy port - stands firm against the northern whiplashes of the wind and provides a sense of determination to be better. A weeny old town - cute alleys and little coloured buildings - and an enormous beach that, in better weather, would be riddled with bodies. It's good, as is the fish, merluza a la sidra, hake cooked in cider with clams, and the local girls outside, stocky, and pouring their trademark boozy apple drink from a height into a glass and spilling it on the floor. Escanciar. Luarca, Asturias' Polperro, a cute cove fishing port, built into the cliff, is a farrago of roads, flaky boats bobbing in the still and jumper-wearing fisherman twittering on about their catch and the size of fish. 

A strange Celtic land where the coastline rips itself into a torn carpet of luxurious fjords and frayed sandy islands. The land, greener than anywhere and fat with trees, pines and wine. Crispy white Albariño in the estuary towns of the azure Rias Baixas and Ribeira Sacra, punchbowl fruity red, from the steep terraced canyon walls along the river Sil, hidden from the world but getting it drunker.

Bumpy and wild Galicia is a clutter of fishing villages - Cambados with its alcohol, Combarro and its waterfront granaries, Vilagarcia and its lively mussel boats and the Ila de Arousa perched on one side of the island of the same name, the other end all Caribbean sands and laced with cockle pickers.

Fishing villages and also a patchwork of large towns: classy Pontevedra, industrial Vigo, enchanting Santiago, frisky A Coruña, quiet Ourense and walled Lugo, all connected by a capillary network of remote villages drowning in viridian. At the bottom of the pagan oddness a citadel town, Tui, stands on one side of a bridge. Across the Miño, Valenca do Minho sits primly on a hill in the fields of Portugal locked up in a star-shaped fortress. Strolling through borders Galicia shines in the sun.

Ernest and his bulls.

Spain is a country often divided by two sharp horns, a sparkly suit and a swollen pair of taurine testicles. Bullfighting is a contentious issue all year round but the spotlight shines most heavily on it during the new heat of May, for the San Isidro festival: a month-long celebration of all things bull. Everyday, bullfights, corridas, are held in the Las Ventas bullring, the home of the fight. Although it hails primarily from Andalucia, the 'sport' has found its home in Madrid. Every May little dusty shops - their walls covered with old fight calendars - flutter open and offer tickets to see the bullfight. The little old men inside gargle out instructions as to which are the best seats in the house. Its opponents denounce it as nothing more than bloody torture. Hemingway loved it. Hemingway and taurine art brought me to the bulls. It was a snowball effect and it all started in a bar.

Matadors toast before the kill; toast a friend, toast another torero. Hemingway was toasted. Hemingway loved the bulls. Hemingway also loved a drink. A few traces of him are scattered over the city: the Cerveceria Alemana, the little Central ticket office and, where I drink sherry and eat cheese bathing in an unchanged wooden enclave, La Venencia bar. A bar where I decided to learn about the bulls.

Hemingway once wrote:
As to all arts the enjoyment increases with the knowledge of the art, but people will know the first time they go, if they go open-mindedly and only feel those things they actually feel and not the things they think they should feel, whether they will care for the bullfights or not.

The Bullfight/La Corrida

Wet, broiling black sky, lightning, ominous, arena sand dark and wet. 'Es como una pradera.' Sat shivering in the heavy lines of rain. Sea of multi-coloured raincoats and umbrellas. Plastic water bottles, emptied, filled with red wine. Cigars hiding ready in metal tubes. Little hired cushions to protect the buttocks. Fifteen minutes delay as the dark storm rips the sky. Two men on horseback. Frilly and silly, the alguacils, saluting the president and taking the key for the corral where the bulls are waiting and snorting in the calmness.

A trumpet.
A little man in blue waves to someone, perhaps the first matador, across the ring. He opens a gate. Out trots a huge, muscular, black shadow, head flicking left and right. Learning the land. The first part of any bullfight is testing the animal. Testing its bravery and ferocity, seeing which horn it favours (his ear which flicks the same side as his preferred horn), checking for cowardice. The first matador (for there are three) and his cuadrilla - team of four - all stand in the ring with large capes, the capote, and let the bull charge them. Next, a gate opens and two horses, blindfolded, covered in golden fabric padding, come out. On top a yellow man holding a long pole ending in a spike. These are the picadores. This part was not as appealing to the eye. After a couple of cape passes the bull is coaxed near the picador whereupon it launches an attack. The bull, intensely powerful, slams into the padded right flank of the horse. The horse is protected from penetration but I would be shocked if it wasn't winded or at the very least terrified. All the same the animal, instead, looked begrudgingly patient. The horses were punched off the ground but were saved by the rider. At the first impact the picador drives his spike into the bulls neck. A good picador will spìke the necessary area and then, with the help of a nearby cape-wielding torero, disconnect the bull from the horse's side and return it to the ring. The picador is usually attacked twice or more.

Another trumpet.
Next is a stage that is frankly impressive from a spectacle point of view, but still is queried in the stomach. The banderilleros. The men from the cuadrilñla. They have to run towards the bull, arms outstretched, holding in each a decorated spear called a banderilla (translated as little flags). Within striking distance of the beast's headgear the toreros straighten their bodies and their arms rigid and bring them down straight so they puncture the hide and stick. When the bull has been stuck and the four bullfighters have no more spears another trumpet call signifies the third and final stage.

The ring clears and all that is left is the bullfighter, the matador, and the hot bulk; blood shining down his back. The first hour passed like some Hadean surrealist nightmare. Sat shivering on the little cushion, wet to the marrow, drinking good wine with frozen hands, saving the cigar, the sky, dark with electric flashes and growling thunder; the stands, a colour spattered wall of rain-protectors; the muddy lagoon, hooves sloshing around while one man, all alone, attempts to pass the bull around him. He stands proud and straight and brings the now smaller cape, muleta, out in front of him by his front leg. The bull twitches and has enough energy to snort. The man flicks the cape and it ripples. The bull charges. The man shouts and leads the beast round his chest trying to have the animal come as close to him as possible and have the pass, the veronica, last as long as possible. He will do a few of these.

He then walks to the barrier, head held up, and swaps his show sword for the killing sword. This second one is metal, sharp, tipped downwards at the end so it finds a home in the heart, and has channels along it that allow air to enter, killing the bull quicker. He lines up the animal after another couple of passes, cocks his forward leg and brings the sword up to his face and aims it at the stationary, heaving mass of sinew and anger in front of him, its head lowered by the viciously sharp banderillas sticking in it. He steps at the bull and after a small flick of the cape releases and drives his flimsy looking weapon into him, through the spine and to the beating heart within.

On this day only once did the sword enter a bull first time – young Ruben Pinar, during the estocada. The others suffered through multiple matador-led attempts. When time runs out the rest of the cuadrilla come out to disorientate the dying bull, wheezing blood from its lungs, by standing either side and twirling their capes alternatively to ruin its neck. Another heavier sword is brought out – the verdugo – to kill the animal and bring it down, and then a dagger, a puntillero, is brought down on the head to kill the brain.

Horses drag out the now eerily vacant looking corpse. One bull lived. Weak on his knees but still charging the cuadrilla. El Fundi couldn’t kill him. The bull is brave. He is ‘free’. Other non-fighting bulls enter the sloppy arena with a shepherd and the toro bravo, after half-charging these new entities in a blood-confused stupor, leaves. The fighters are done. The bulls are dead. The blood, dark, has twirled sanguine marble in the water or pooled scarlet in the hoof-prints. Much of the crowd has left, the rest applauds. No ears and no tails are awarded. The veteran fans know which bulls did well and when the bullfighters succeeded and failed. They whistled the bad and cheered the good, shaking white tissues. A dance of death and not a bloody scrap. The bulls, whether cowardly or brave, will be made into meat or cooked. Nothing is wasted. The matadores salute the president and public with their hats, monteras the day is done.

Hemingway also wrote:
You went to a bullfight? How was it?...
How did it seem to you? I was simply bored to death. All right. You get the hell out of here.


It is a tricky business and not a simple issue. I don’t like to deal in black and white. There are parameters and other concepts in play. Many lump bullfighting in with fox hunting as nothing more than a simple blood sport. This is folly and stupid. It is not the same. The only similarity is that something beautiful and alive dies. Fox hunting is a sport. A blood sport. Bullfighting is a bloody tragedy.

Fox hunting leaves a nasty taste in the mouth for two reasons. One: it is a cruel hobby of a select few members of the countryside pompous elite. Two: statistically the fox hasn’t got a chance unless its little orange legs speed it to safety. Bullfighting opposes both of these ideas. One: bullfighting – though less popular with the current young generation – is tightly woven into the social fabric of Spain. From the hooray-Enriques to the teacher and the street cleaner, bullfighting is a largely classless pursuit. Two: despite the pummelling and unfair intrusions from the cuadrilla, the bull still has its chance to ‘win’. It will die anyway. All cows and bulls in the civilized world are bred to die, through slaughterhouse or fight.

This is not pro-bullfighting. It is an attempt to recognise that, despite the black and white brigade’s protests, the bullfight is not just some frivolous game. It has existed since the Romans. I wrestle with my own opinions. Of course I wince at the stabbings and I loathed the actions the picadors - I love animals for God's sake, but everything else was, it must be said, beautiful and highly artistic. Not a cruel, crazed blood sport, but a highly tortuous but practised art.

I was asked ‘did you like it?’ It’s a more difficult verb that it seems, ‘like’. I would say it was supremely fascinating and undeniably impressive and impacting. It was as terrible as it was glorious and as insightful as it was cruel. I may go again and I’ll still turn away. It helps me understand the country more.

The defenders say that one way or another the male bovine will be killed, either in a gruesome abattoir – some of them are truly devilish – or a heroic fight. Better the second option no? They say. More honourable. Maybe. It is also true that up to the final tragic day the bulls live the proverbial life of Riley. Across Spain the bulls’ land covers thousands and thousands of hectares of grazing ground. They have women too. Plenty. They are left undisturbed also. Near to no human contact – so that in the ring the bull hasn’t learned the real target is the humanoid shape. I was told by an anti-bullfighting Spaniard that despite his disgust at his country’s bloody tradition it was true that so much land is protected, like the English Green Belt, because of the bulls. And also, that if the bulls went, so would a fair chunk of the beloved Spanish countryside.

All this being said I still have no black or white final view. No ultimate opinion for the casual questioner. For the moment, for me, I must remain the bullfighting agnostic. The complexity is so great. I would have some parts banned by royal decree, yet some I would feel sad to have lost. The taurine posters on my bedroom walls and all those old little bull bars in the city would become strange vigils of some hokey old tradition. But the animals suffer and this is harsh and cruel. My decision will have to wait. Maybe bullfighting will slowly evolve like Portugal where the bulls aren't stabbed and killed, or maybe it'll receive a full ban like in Barcelona. Who knows? Time will test that. All I can say is that you must see one if you can. This is not to support it. This is to learn about it and help validate or confirm your opinion. Or not, in my case.

Sueños Andaluces

Those who have read my book will realise and those have read my blogs will have an inkling and those who haven't may not realise exactly how diverse Spain really is. Take the North; wet, comparatively cold and windy, mountainous and full of mountains and lakes and rivers. Take the East; plains of rice and dry land give way to beaches and cheap resort development while traditional Spain buzzes around it. Take the West; barren but immensely fertile lands of forgotten and unknown towns and cities and natural zones where many of the famous ingredients that make Spain so famous come from. Take the South; the most Spanish of Spains.

It was to the South that my last adventure took me. Me and my friend James from UK. Me and James and our little hired car, Peggy Sue. A trip that took us from Madrid, through La Mancha to Granada via Jaen, then down to the sea at Nerja and finally through the twisty turny roads of the Alpujarras. 

One - Cities

After passing through the immediately attractive but finally monotonous slab of flat that comprises La Mancha south of Madrid - speeding through Valdepeñas for wine and Ciudad Real because it's there - you fly through the dramatic Despeñaperros gorge and burst into the first of Andalucia's provinces, Jaen. It's an alien land where thick forests of moody green and laden olive trees coat the thirteen thousand square kilometre region. It's a fairly, or unfairly, unknown province. Understandable if you're not keen on olives or have already visited its two pearls Ubeda and Baeza. I had. Jaen city waited though, sitting pert and confident and surrounded by the aggressive Santa Catalina peaks. As a city Jaen is mostly unappealing but does sport two outstanding monuments. After James heroically pulled Peggy Sue through Jaen's minimalist narrow streets - only incurring one scraping along a wall during which I directed like a father and invited bemused locals to come out and watch in their doorways - we drove uphill to the Santa Catalina Castle. As a building it is grand. As a viewpoint in the area it is insurmountable. The carpet of olive groves, the bouncy and jagged mountains around which Jaen curls like a white cat and the city's gargantuan cathedral taking up all the skyline, was quite something.

Granada is...Spain. Granada is...basically perfect. The city is drowning in history, monuments and areas to visit; from the Alhambra to the old quarter. The city is backed by the highest mountains in the country, the Sierra Nevada. The azure waters of the Mediterranean sea are but an hour away. Drinks come with free food; tapas of the order of paninis with rice and olives. In the evening you have the choice to drink and eat Spanish or to wallow in the Arabic quarter, sip tea and puff cachimbas - James and I did both. The women are spectacular and dark. The people are happy and relaxed. I shall not say much more on the place as I have previously done so in another post. If you haven't visited you must. If not Madrid or Barcelona, Granada - tied with San Sebastian - is the most necessary of Spanish cities to see.

Two - Coast

After skirting the snow-capped Sierra Nevada and almost crashing due to preferring the view of lofty heights to that of the road and due to seeing the 120kmph speed limit and open roads as permission for 140/150kmph, you slide along the south coast through Almuñecar and Salobreña before arriving at Nerja. It rests, hanging over low cliffs and looking out over the sea, a jumble of villas and white pedestrian streets, sparkling between the blue of the water and the set back Sierra.

Nerja's 'atmosphere' is odd. It is both very Spanish but also inescapably touristy. On the one hand we were swimming in the sea, watching serious Easter processions, eating boquerones fritos (fried anchovies) and drinking glasses of manzanilla with free tapas, but on the other hand 60% of the voices we heard were foreign, the shops and menus all wielded the English language with pride and retailers were bursting with colourful tat. At least it was the middle-class bought ourselves a villa on the costa tourist and not the beach and booze Benidorm variety.

Three - Mountains

The famous high-rises of the south of Spain, and of Granada province, are the Sierra Nevada mountains. Big, white and covered in skiers they are easy to visit and are a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. The 'foothills' of the Sierra Nevada - still higher than anything in the UK - are the Alpujarras hills. Long an area of comparative poverty and remoteness, the range is becoming more well known thanks to an influx of alternative lifestyle foreigners setting up shop there and also through the popular writings of both Gerald Brenan in 'South from Granada' and Chris Stewart's 'Driving Over Lemons'.

The alternativitiy can be seen at O Sel Ling, a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery up a heart-in-mouth shoddy dirt track. A place of windy, serene beauty where the only sound are the bells and squeak from the prayer wheel. Apparently this was the place where the next in line for Lama-dom stopped and felt the enlightenment in the air.

The driving through the hills is both gratifying long - as there are but a couple of roads that wind round the hillside - and absurdly scenic. The 'high Alpujarras' road that we chose skirts one side of the valley wall, providing near constant vistas down to the dappled green and gold fields and opposing mountain range. Little whitewashed villages, cut off from the rest of the country, are dotted around the valley. Some nestle in the valley floor, but most cling precariously to the slopes, with their Berber village-style boxey houses and flat roofs. The names were fantastic: Soportujar, Pampaneira, Bubion, Capileira, Busquistar, Valor, Laroles, Yegen, Bayareales...

After a plato alpujarreño - a carnivorous plate of chorizo, morcilla, jamon, some other chunk of meat, fried egg and papas a lo pobre (potatoes sliced and fried up with peppers) - we burst out of the north of the range and down into the grandest view imaginable towards plains and the two towns of La Calahorra, which sports 800 people but a vast hilltop castle backed by mountains, and Guadix, an odd place with an overblown church, a fort, and a district where people live in modern cave houses.

Spain isn't Andalucia, but Andalucia is Spain. Go.


There are places near Spain that I am to this day ashamed that I haven’t yet visited. Italy, Austria, the South of France, to name but a few. Another place was Portugal. This country in particular left me with no excuse. It is stuck on the side of Spain and its cities are no further away than many in Spain itself. So, one bank holiday, and with a Scottish friend in tow, I offed to the capital of Lisbon.

At the risk of presenting a twee ‘oooh, this is what I did on my holiday’ look at Lisbon, I will instead present the city to the reader via its varied barrios as I saw them.


Essentially the ‘centre’, Baixa is the area where you find the principal squares, the tourists and their symbiotic touts, the cleanest streets, the drug-dealers, the tat-sellers, and the city’s grandest buildings. The best place to start is the large open space of the Praça do Comercio: a square, centred with a statue of King Jose I on a horse and hugged by the striking mustard-yellow apartments. It looks out onto the water and across the Tejo’s estuary to the banks on the other side. Despite the few tourists and odd guitarist hoping for some cents it is a truly peaceful place. The vast waters have not yet become sea so they lap at your feet quite gently.

North from this place handsome parallel streets – all feeling like Bath had been made Mediterranean – shoot up like bamboo shoots and hit a variety of squares. The first, smallest, and oddest, was Praça Figueira, housing another statue – this time King John I on a horse – and, oddly for a warm March, an ice-rink. Seagulls cooed and squawked and the Castelo São Jorge – St. George Castle – glowed amber in the failing light up on its hill. The second, and finest, square was the Praça Rossio, lined by pretty cafés, headed by the national theatre and this time housing a column and a fountain. The third, and least spectacular, was the Praça dos Restauradores. Wider and more open, this square was only notably for its London Ritzy style, pastel-coloured hotels and modernist style cinema.

Baixa was a funny old district. It combined very Portuguese Portugal with utter tourist trappy tourism. On the positive hand you had the opportunity to eat some of the finest fish – in particular bacalhau (cod) and my favourite bacalhau com natas (creamy cod) – and sample local liquors like Ginjinja (a fortified sour cherry wine) from tiny little bars that only serve that particular drink. On the other hand if you’re not careful at restaurants waiters may leave little ‘tapas’ on the table at the start of your meal so that the visitors munch away thinking they’re free, only to be slammed with a fortified bill at the end. Similarly we were often badgered by tat-sellers and quite the politest drug-dealers.
‘You guys want hash or coco?’
‘No thanks.’
‘OK guys, no worries, have a good night.’


This is the magical postcard area of Lisbon that causes the visitor to ooh and ahh at the views. It’s a jumble of streets and hills and trams and architecture styles and churches and accordion views – one minute claustrophobic, the next minute utterly wide-reaching to sea and sky. This is the old zone and is built up around a hill on which sits the castle. Lisbon’s city planners cleverly created various miradouros, viewpoints, that open the city and allow you to contemplate how it sits. The lay of the land. Like some white tortoise with a terracotta shell, the Alfama is full with flats, churches and monasteries and photographers.

As with all these places there exists the large, gleaming, double-edged sword. On the one hand tourists naturally veer towards somewhere worth snapping, worth seeing, somewhere that the book says you should see. On the other hand however, they also tend to veer towards whatever star of the show may be present. In the Alfama this was the castle. It’s a tasty entry fee of €7.50 so we desisted. The advantage of having a star of the show means that the tourists are sucked away from the other, less ‘things-to-see’ streets. The atmosphere in the Alfama is warm and cosy; little bars spilling out into cobbled streets, sun dripping into the lanes and birds in cages tweeting merrily as old ladies lean out of their stable-style front doors.

Barrio Alto/Chiado

This area, alto because it straddles the hill opposite the one topped with the castle is a mess of slightly scruffier streets bulging with more bohemian shops and little restaurants and bars. It was likened to Madrid’s La Latina tapas district, bursting with life. We hit the area at around nine o’clock and it was, for a city with a population that varies between 540,000 and 3 million depending on how you count it, dead. It was quiet and not how it was publicized. Perhaps we went too late.

During the day Barrio Alto is similar in texture to the Alfama, but a little better kept. All throughout streets dip over the edge and offer views to the city. Always views. Little parks and little cafes. Not much traffic. Lisbon is very quiet.

Chiado is the way an old quarter like Barrio Alto evolves into a smarter more modern one like Baixa. It’s seamless and attractive. One interesting part of Chiado is the Elevador de Santa Justa, a towering neo-Gothic lift in the middle of an unassuming street that stands 45m high and has stood for one hundred and ten years. The views – again with the views – are glorious. This was one of many lifts that were part of a plan by the Lisbon council to improve turn of the century Lisbonians’ movement around the city. Then the trams came. Trams are snazzier. It was a no-brainer.


The final area, ‘the second day area’, is the old village of Belem – long since absorbed into the city limits but still retaining a disconnected feel. We walked there, crisping and bubbling in the beautiful heat, but a tram can be taken too. The path follows the water west towards where it swims with salt and becomes sea. There are essentially four things to see. The first is the quite breathtaking bridge – the Ponte 25 de Abril – that is essentially the twin of the Golden Gate Bridge. Indeed, the same company built it. At 2.2km in length – the 21st largest suspension bridge in the world – it launches over the water to the southern banks where a statue of Christ the Redeemer stands, arms outstretched. Under it nestles an area of lovely restaurants by a glittering marina. Good place to stop for a while.

The second, third and fourth items are collected together on the far tip of the land. The Padrao dos Descobrimentos is a hefty 52m high, blockish statue at who’s base can be found 33 larger-than-life sized characters from the annuls of the great period of Portuguese imperial Age of Discovery including everyone’s favourite, Vasco de Gama.

The third is one of the more spectacular religious behemoths that I’ve ever seen: the Monasterio dos Jeronimos. An absurd building, long and floridly built in the hard to find Manueline style, the UNESCO monument is quite lovely. Its cousin is the Torre de Belem – the fourth item on the menu – that is plonked at the furthest point a tourist would go. Another 16th century Manueline style building, it was useful for two reasons. 1. To see off the ships on their expeditions to discover things for the Empire and 2. To protect Lisbon militarily at its entrance. It is frilly and grey and fortified and quite, apologies for the lame word, cool.

The sun set shimmering and shining over the Atlantic and Lisbon was put to bed. Visit it, you buggers, visit it.

New Ceremonies.

When you're single and bored you look for diversion and/or inspiration wherever it is. Be it with friends or alone you always look for something to do. Weeks get filled from Monday and days are spent either doing far too much, cramming every bit of socialising or appointments into free space, or mysteriously excusing oneself from exercise under the lying guise of 'tiredness' and wasting an evening in front of the telly watching complete shite.

This is where the city sometimes comes to the rescue. My mountains have often been a source of release for me and my friends in the post-festive funk. Last weekend we dominated some of the highest peaks during the hardest walk possible to do. La Maliciosa and La Bola del Mundo - 2227m and 2258m respectively - sit oppressively, still topped with a fat film of white snow and offer views south to the community of Madrid and north to Castilla y Leon where you could even see Segovia. It is always sad to leave the firmament and return to ground zero and urbanity. People have wasted their days at home, bored, hungover, or monging, but you touched the realm of the Gods and had to leave it. But needs must, as they say.

Another entertaining pursuit is to people watch at a football match. Spain, much like England, is a football nation. Unlike England, however, the teams here are quite political. Madrid has a few, but the principal two are Real Madrid and Atletico de Madrid. The former, and by far the better team, is considered both pijo and chulo, that is to say posh and cocky - the conservative team. Atletico is more the working class team. The everyman team. The sometimes chavvy team. People watching is quite fun in the Vicente Calderon stadium. It is also one of the few stadiums of the world from where you can see churches and a sunset from your seat. Amongst the crowds were all the typical people: chanting scarf-swingers, dads with sons, pierced chonis (chavs), die-hard vehement fans, newbies like me, and the foreign supporters. The whole stadium is a turbulent sea of red, white, and whatever other colours are visiting that day.

On the 8th of March Atletico played Besiktas, a Turkish team. I had a ticket, and a cheap Atleti scarf, and joined my friends at a riverside bar before the game to sup on a couple of cold cañas. Then the police arrived, some on horses, some in heavy duty gear. Then the armoured vans arrived. We weren't particularly sure what was going on but our lounging was gruffly interrupted by some overly anxious officers.
'Get in the bar please.'
We shared glances, not understanding what was happening.
'Let's just wait it out and play the English card.'
'Get in the bar now please, it's for your safety!'
'Right, we should move in then.'

We all - drinkers, old men and women, passersby - crammed into the small bar. Horses clopped past  as well as police cars. These were followed and joined by a large column of Turkish football fans. I was stuck by the window, the waiters rushing to bring in the last of the glasses and chairs, next to a plate of sun-warmed torreznos (pork scratchings), next to an old man moaning about the horses crapping on the pavement. Often rowdy, the Turks passed by peacefully. Tables were scattered again and more drinks were bought. Despite the build up the only violence during the match was a very fat angry man complaining about a sandwich and trying to fight some little hair-styled-pierced-ear chav. We couldn't work out what happened. We think the chav knocked the tubby fellow's bocata out of his hand but didn't seem to care. Blows were thrown but caught by friends and the crowd told them to put a sock in it. 3-1 in the end. Well done Madrid.

And so that ended. And so it always ends and life begs you to treat it to some more fun. And you consult your imagination; maybe strapping on your boots or flashing your cash at a waiter. Don't get stuck. Don't get boring. The greatest sin in life is to be boring. Make your minutes interesting. Fill them to bursting with joy and love and pastimes and people. Don't vegetate. Play.

Chilly Pedestrian Rage

First of all I want to take this opportunity for a good old-fashioned rant. I haven't had one in quite a while so I've pent up a fairly unhealthy level of aggression. That being said I shall try to make my venom spit educatively and not spitefully. Can't promise anything though.
The target for today's grump is Spanish pedestrians; on the one hand because I want to highlight them with a hope of changing them, and on the other because they are rubbish.
Their behaviour, after two and a bit years of analysis, can be split into various problematic areas.

1. Speed: They are slow. So achingly slow. Slow to the point that if you walk at the same pace as them you feel as though you are obviously taking the piss. This I believe I can attribute to the weather. Hotter countries maybe have slower walkers. This is certainly true of Spain and Italy. Conversely British people walk faster, and Russians faster still. Very slow.

2. Spatial awareness: Non-existent. This is a two-fold problem. Firstly, they seem utterly incapable of keeping in a straight line. They strafe as if their legs have minds or they are tired or drunk. The second thing is their 'in-the-clouds' behaviour. They aren't aware of what's happening around them. They - often gaggles of girls - rarely look before crossing the road then shout 'ay, Maria, cuidado!' when a car honks past. Similarly they will leave shops without looking, resulting once in me receiving an opening umbrella to the face. Or they will see a friend and stop in the middle of a busy street kissing and hugging and talking and forcing others to stop and siphon round them.

3. Line-walking: On a Sunday afternoon the Spanish love to pasear, stroll. This is good. In fact it's lovely. The problem is that when the numbers increase the intelligence evaporates. They walk in lines, like approaching redcoats. If you're behind them you can't get past them and if you're in front of them, approaching, you have to break them up or, more commonly, are forced into the road. Along the river I once counted a line of eleven people. Eleven. Arm in arm and waddling along merrily.

4. Standing where they shouldn't: I use the example of escalators. If you're going up an escalator you stand on the right-hand side, not the left talking to your friend in a bubble of ignorance. It's rude, but not specific to Spain. This happens everywhere. A tactic I was taught by a student was to walk up behind the felon and lead in near their ear saying sternly, 'permiso!'.

5. Queues: Non-existent. The concept of queuing here is fluid. In England it's law. George Mikes famously said 'An Englishman, even if he is alone, forms an orderly queue of one', and it's true. Here it isn't. People waiting for a bus mill about in a cloud of 'expectancy'. Others join at different places, smoking, reading timetables, choosing where they want to be. The silver-haired brigade are the worst. They bustle and push to the front, to get on first. I always want to say 'listen dear, well done for not dying and all that but bugger off down the line, I was here first'. Instead I must bite my tongue and let them do what they like. Bloody old people.

There is one salient point though; they never do any of this maliciously. It's dopeyness. Pure, simple, undistilled dopeyness. It's hard to hate them for it, even when I'm raging.


'No! Not looking for old people. Bustarviejo!'
'Ah, right, that makes more sense.'
Spain is not all grandiose cities and imposing buildings. It is mostly tiny, hidden and unknown towns and villages without much to offer past a local church and a main square. Bustarviejo is one such miniscule town hidden high up in the mountains of Madrid. It was a cold day when I visited. Tiptoeing around the zero. There was enough wind to topple an elephant and it arrived in intermittent pulses that buffered walkers and knocked over shop signs. The Ruta de la Mina de Plata - the Silver Mine Route - lead out from the white-walled, but plain, village and up through a deep cleft between the hills; a sort of high-plain valley. Sharply turning right, it then rose steeply up the side of a mountain, its flanks covered by pine forests, bulbous rock extrusions, multicoloured meseta-grasses - all reds and burnt yellows, and fine layers of snow ever thicker on the way up.

Snowflakes whipped through the air and the clouds were low, skirting the peaks, touching distance. From the summit, the Pozo Maestro, at 1500m everything was laid out. It was me, Nikki, some old mine shafts and equipment and land and nothing and solitude. It was quite special.

The cold has seeped into the capital too. One morning was -7. Crisp and fresh and dry, the cold is as penetrating as it is invigorating. My hands are dry and look a little eczema tainted. The snow has left us disappointed. It has capped the far off sierra, but hasn't visited the city. The trick now is to delve further into the bumps of the sierra and find where the white is really living.

All that's New.

The man with the microphone screamed,
'Here come the next few runners! They'll be really wanting to cross the line before the hour is up!!!'
Somehow I had agreed to do another mini-marathon in Guadalajara. Back in 2010 it was the fairly easy 6km run. This time I had for some reason nodded yes to the 11km rompepiernas 'Leg-breaker' run. I flickered over the line with a time of 58:20. Under an hour. Leaking like a heffa in the Sahara.

Not to let down my 'reputation' as a traveller I seized the opportunity to visit a town the day before the run. Sigüenza lies deep in the Castillian plains, built on a small and subtle bump of ground, surrounded by low hills. It is small, has a few cobbled streets, some attractive old flats and a frankly absurd collection of monuments. Given the fact you can cross the town in about thirty minutes, it is fat and plump with more historic buildings than you would presume normal. Guadalajara, despite being the provincial capital and a far larger city, lost out on getting the cathedral. On the left flank of wee little Sigüenza you can find a most wonderful pinky-orange cathedral squatting beside a porticoed square. Continuing up the little windy avenues, passed churches and artesenal shops, the visitor is spat out grandly into an open area that is unremarkable apart from the massive castle plonked on it, topped with fluttering flags. Therefore, I suppose you could say, it is remarkable. I left Sigüena purring into the night, the sky hurling deeps reds with christmas lights twinkling into life and out on the Manchegan plains more stars that you have ever seen. Delightful.

* * * *

Christmas passed in a haze of surreality. The traditional English Christmas, those days of the ho-ho fat man, were spent, grumpily and ever so slightly Scrooge-ily, in Madrid. Such is the evil of the holiday period at my academy. Christmas Eve was a happy affair. The lemon-stuffed chicken that I crammed into the oven roasted up a treat. Matt and I devoured it with potatoes, garlic carrots, cauliflower, peas, gravy and some defrosted sprouts fried up with walnuts, pancetta and balsamic vinegar. After the feast we lugged our weightier haunches over to Matt's to watch Home Alone and Die Hard with mince pies. Classic. Christ's birthday was where the weirdness arrived. Matt and Rakel used my oven in the morning and we played Trivial Pursuit on an ipad. They left. I gathered leftovers. With my pungent tupperware of goodies, a bottle of artesan beer and a christmas cake sent to me by my friend James at home, I was off to Ed and Niall's house. We ate the leftovers. We ordered a curry. We drank the beer. A couple of others arrived. We opened wine. We watched The Great Escape - everyone being assigned a character. I got drunk. Everyone got drunk. Most fell asleep. I went home and then had the flu for a week and a half. Christmas.

Then it was the turn of the Spanish Christmas. Reyes. I think God-heads call the period Epiphany, on the 5th/6th of January. Concerned that I wasn't going to have a proper Christmas with my family, Elena's parents effusively invited me to spend the festive period with them. I had woken up at 5 o'clock in the morning on the 5th to catch my plane from England to Madrid. In the afternoon of the same day I was in a car blasting through the dusk towards an orange sky, sliding through the wide plains between the Sierra de Gredos and the Sierra de Guadalupe.

We arrived just in time to catch the small town's Cabalgata, the procession of the Three Kings. In Spain, in place of the ol' fat, port-breathed hedonist Saint Nick, the young of the country are brought their presents by the three wise men; Baltasar, Gaspar and Melchior. They arrived on the last three of a wide selection of colourful floats, covered in local schoolchildren throwing sweets to the crowds while dressed up as various themed characters. Post sweet-parade we handed out our gifts back at an aunt's house. I was very grateful to receive a shirt from Elena and her boyfriend and a selection of Spanish food and drink from 'la familia'. We ate, a lot. Ham, cured meats, cheese, bacalao, snails in a spiced tomato sauce and other tapas. As soon as we arrived and had visited one family, we ferried ourselves off to another large house when I met the rest of the family. It was a surreal wine-tippled experience where I was introduced to about twenty boisterous and felicitous Extremadurans as they got on with their Christmas. It is typical in this period to eat roscon after basically every meal. It is a large, bread-like circular cake with a hole punched in the middle, topped with sugar and candied fruits. Sounds nice. It's a bit bland actually, but you can find some decked out with cream, chocolate or crema catalana if you're lucky. The tradition is that inside the cake are two 'gifts'. One is good, usually a little king, and one is bad, usually a nut. If you get the nut you are supposed to pay for the roscon. I got the nut. Much laughter and ribbing. 'You'll have to come back next year and pay for it!!'

The following day I was driven around 'la ruta de los embalses' in the Badajoz province.
'People say that Extremadura is so dry,' said Angel, Elena's father, from the driver's seat, 'but that's because they don't know...'
A single road takes the vehicle through the village of Orellana la Vieja to an enormous area of small green hills that shelter three gigantic reservoirs: Orellana, Serena and Zujar. This whole area of Extremadura is where the productive magic happens. Murcia Community (over by the east of Andalucia) is the huerta, vegetable patch, of Spain, while Extremadura is called the despensa, the larder. The whole zone is covered in vast farms and fruit and veg producers. The reservoirs provide the water.
The only problem was that the day was foggier than any I've seen and so the majesty was all but hidden.

We finished a little deflated at the lakes and drove to the minuscule village of Guadalperales; a Franco-era grid-formation planned collectivist town. The family had booked into a family-style restaurant called Los Jamones. In its air-hanger sized dining hall we ate cochinillo (suckling pig) and cabrito (kid [goat]), sozzling ourselves on local wine. The day ended in another surreal haze of family fun, this time bingo.

The last day, well, day of any real consequence, was a burning blue day.
'Today is the matanza, do you want to see it?'
'Matanza...the killing?'
'Well yes, but don't worry, the farmers kill the pigs. It's the day my family makes chorizos and sausages'
I entered a room, was handed cheese and wine, and witnessed two burly, but light-hearted, men, sleeves rolled up, standing over a huge blue bowl filled with fresh mincemeat. One was turning it over with his hands while the other added oil and spices.

Later, the women of the family sat at a long table at proceeded to tie up the sausages that slid out of the meat grinder and into cleaned skins. Once tied, one of the burly, but light-hearted, gents - with a cheeky penchant for calling me Simon or Robinson - would hang them in a side-room where they would hang for the next month. During this process another aunt, matronly wielding a gargantuan saucepan, cooked migas - essentially breadcrumbs fried in oil and paprika and liberally sprinkled with garlic and smoked meat.

So that was that. And this is this. There are things I have forgotten. Things I'll want to have put in. Things about society, about food, about life, but haven't. This is the 'what I've been up to' blog. If you didn't enjoy it, I suggest you drown yourself in a bowl of cottage cheese. If you stuck with it, thank you, and we'll be running normally forthwith.