Exploring the Stories of the Islands and the Freedoms of Third Age


Asturias and Food and Unintentional Lessons: Getting off the Island

I’ve been told that I write too much about food. I don’t think that applies to this blog, but yes, on my Facebook Page, perhaps there are a few too many references to cake and ice cream! I have no intention of specializing in food, but perhaps food as a part of the enjoyment of life? Well that’s another matter! Then again, I’m also whingeing a fair bit about my weight – so perhaps I should shut up.

Right now, to be honest, I’m a bit preoccupied with the subject of gluten intolerance, not the full-blown celiac problem, but a mild irritation that can last anything from a couple of hours to a week or so. I’m very much experimenting at the moment, because I’ve been to doctors twice over the years with symptoms which I now think may be due to gluten intolerance, and they’ve not been interested. On one occasion I was, literally, doubled over in pain.

I’d intended to include the wonderful foods I sampled in Asturias in their appropriate places in the two posts I wrote, but I came to see how they may be connected to my experiments, so here goes.

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Dinner the first night in the parador in Gijon was excellent, though my memories are hazy, because the conversation (four writers, two representatives of Paradores and two representatives of Info Asturias) was varied and lively. I remember a good cheese salad and fabada. My only culinary ambitions (except for cheese, which was already on my agenda) for the trip was to try a genuine fabada, and, of course, Asturian cider. I’d only had the tinned fabada previously, and liked even that. Of course it turned out to be light years ahead of what I’d had, and needless to say I won’t be buying the tins again…..


Fabada is a traditional white bean stew, although other ingredients may vary; usually black pudding (morcilla) and chorizo or pieces of pork. It’s warming and not spicy as such. It’s definitely a sturdy, cold-weather food… I was luckythat June was a little cloudy and chill! Like a good stew should, it melds from one flavor to another in your mouth as you chew. You can find it in other parts of Spain, but Asturias is its true home. Living in these winter mountains calls for exactly such filling and warming fare. After cheese for starters, I resisted the temptation to clean up my plate with bread….make note.

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Asturias Day One: An Utter Contrast: Getting off the Island

Perhaps the biggest downside of living on an island, any island, is the occasional (or frequent, depending on your personal circumstances) feeling of claustrophobia. However beguiling island life can be, there are times when you get a bit stir crazy. Much as I love it, I’d be in denial if I said it wasn’t so. I think it’s fair to say that all immigrants feel this way, and a fair few native sons too.

You may wonder how I could get tired of almost constant good weather, great wines, dramatic mountain scenery, and beach life? I love all of those things (and more – I’m not entirely stupid!) about Tenerife, but I was born curious, I guess. I fell in love with Tenerife a very long time ago, but I’m not rooted here, just anchored for now.

Cool mists, mountain meadows, delicious cider and waterfalls would provide a contrast, the change I crave, no? That’s exactly what I found in Asturias two weeks ago.

I’ve been wondering why I haven’t explored the north of Spain until now. I can only think that 40 years of living in England had numbed me  to the delights of  rolling, green hillsides, doe-eyed cattle and sloshing along in mud, all of which I rediscovered in Picos de Europa National Park.

picos de europa

Of course that contrast with my local landscape, which already bears the parched aspect of summer, might have a lot to do with it, but it wasn’t just the landscapes, it was the people too, so relaxed and welcoming.

It’s very much a luxury to have your own, personal guide to show you around too. It made me realize how much we miss when we trot from place to place, looking but not fully understanding what we see. I knew little about Asturias, and I was asked pretty last-minute if I wanted to do the trip, so I didn’t have time to check very much out. Perhaps that was a good thing, because perhaps the awe wouldn’t have been the same if I’d seen the magnificent pictures on Naranjo de Bulnes or the Cares Gorge on the internet before I went.

After dinner the first night I was raring to go early-ish next morning. The drive from the airport to Gijon had definitely wound me up on the greenery. When you come from a desert environment, which the south of Tenerife is, green fields as far as the eye can see is like taking a long, cool drink when you’re seriously thirsty. It’s a balm for the eyes.

Gijon, our destination, is the largest city in Asturias, but I saw nothing of the city outside of the hotel, being whisked away to the mountains each day.  The main thing I noted was how quiet the roads were compared to Tenerife. Perhaps it was just where I was, but noticeably more tranquil.

This is my first reason to go back – to see Gijon, which has a long history, Roman Ruins and An International Bagpipe Museum – now that I just have to see!

My second reason is to see Oviedo, because Woody Allen said if he ever left Manhattan, Oviedo is where he would choose to live. Of course he gave it a shout out in “Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona” and it looked pretty cool.

My third reason is to see the coastline! The glimpses I saw of the beaches were quite breathtaking, utterly different from Tenerife (not that there is anything wrong with beaches here, just that I love variety!) , but the beaches fell to someone else, and my “beat” was the mountains.

Tunnel covered with vegetation

Nothing could have been a better starting point for me. This spring on the island had kindled a yearning for greenery that hadn’t surfaced in a while. I even found myself giggling about how the road tunnels through which we passed were covered with grass and even trees. It seemed almost surreal.

Driving through forest and alongside churning rivers was a bit like being on another planet. Listening to my guide, Juanjo, was a revelation. It was hard to keep up with his commentary (I get carsick when I take my eyes off the road!), but I think I remember the important points!

First to Covadonga, the one place I had had time to read up on, but even so I was utterly unprepared for what was to come. Covadonga was the inspiration for, and the kernel of the Picos de Europa National Park in 1918. In 1995 the Park was extended to its present size, encompassing mountains in Castille & Leon and Canatabria as well as Asturias. I wrote about its champion Pedro Pidal y Bernaldo de Quiros, Marques de Villaviciosa here for The Spain Scoop, so I won’t repeat it……..just let me say he sounds like my ideal man!

la basilica de covadonga


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Finding Flamenco in Sevilla

It’s kind of a relief to know that life got in the way of lots of posts in 2011.  I enjoy blogging, but in order to have something about which to write you have to do or witness something, and that I’ve missed some means I was busy :=)  Going back through notes and photos as a year-end exercise but also in the wake of the house move I found some which probably deserve a quick mention, although sadly the memories aren’t as sharp as they might have been. So I’m going to whizz off the rest in the next couple of days, in no, particular order, beginning with:

Sevilla > Flamenco, synonymous, no? So why didn’t I write about it back in October, because we did go to see some. We based our choice on economy.  There was mounds of publicity around in the hostel, the tourist information office, posters everywhere for different shows, some including dinner, but making a choice wasn’t that hard because some were so expensive.  We had no way of knowing which of them might be more authentic and less dressed up for tourism, but the one we chose at Bar Huelva Ocho  gave a good  impression.  We passed by the bar on our way back to the hostel to siesta, and liked what we saw.  We spoke to one of the waiters who advised we go early to get the best seats, and as they had what he described as a limited selection of food on quiet Sunday evenings,  we decided we’d eat there too for convenience.

It proved a good choice.  The food was wonderful, the kind waiter placed our scarves on seats in the best spot, and we only wished we’d gone just a little earlier to linger over the meal a bit longer!  Enough to say that we returned to eat there the following night, even though there was no music! We chose 3 or 4 tapas-sized dishes of very original cuisine to share, and each one was a new taste sensation, this washed down with tinto de verano was a definite bonus!

At the back of the bar there was a slightly raised platform with four chairs facing into the bar, a row of chairs along either side, and several rows facing the stage. A portrait of legendary and innovative Flamenco artist Paco de Lucia had pride of place over the performance area.  We saw our scarves on chairs along the side of the stage area, and took our seats. There was quite an air of expectancy and it was full, although the waiter had told us that Sunday was quiet.  It had that kind of hushed feeling you get in a church, as if we shouldn’t be speaking.  Without fanfare, two men and a woman in what we think of as traditional Andalucian dress entered and took their places on the chairs on the stage.

From the moment that the first guitar chord sounded the room fell into an awed silence, and Maria said afterwards that she had goosebumps. A shiver ran down my spine.  I never hear flamenco without cursing that I don’t speak better Spanish, and yet the passion and the heartbreak often don’t need any translation at all.  None of the performers looked once at the audience. They were in a whole other place, eyes fixed on points far above our heads.  The dancer clapped, her face betraying that she was living the words of the songs in her head. When she rose to dance eventually, I took a sharp intake of breath, the anticipation had been wrought out of us so well. Still eyes fixed on something beyond our vision or comprehension, she told stories with her hands and feet and body, exuding anguish, despair, defiance and love in turn, and then, in the same way they had arrived, they rose and left, almost as one person. It was over, and despite the small crowd the room felt empty.

We were lucky to have hit on a night which was free.  We couldn’t quite figure out why, something to do with it being Sunday, but at €14 including a drink it was quite one of the most reasonably priced shows around anyway.  The food is nothing short of divine, if you don’t want to see Flamenco try it for lunch!  As we left we recognized a couple of the guides from Pancho Tours with whom we’d done the walking tour the previous day, so it clearly is on their night-time agenda too.


2011: Postcards to Myself

2011 was, well, ok. It had several challenges and some very low spots, but there were plenty of good times too, and those are the times we remember.

It was another slow travel year, though, this recession bites deeper all the time. That said, it was Sevilla and Barcelona, York and London and the English Lake District, not exactly the armpits of the world, eh! It was also Cirque du Soleil, Las Tablas de San Andres and snow, lots of snow this year :=) (well, up in the mountains at least). There was also lots of sunshine, waves, fiestas, visits from friends old and new; some wonderful hiking and delicious food and wine. It was a chance to improve my photography, and some stunning scenery to inspire it, both near and afar-ish.

Things that stand out:

  •  I actually got paid to write something! OK not going to either win the Pulitzer nor keep the wolf from the door, but it was an ambition achieved.
  • I went rappelling, which just shook my whole world up in terms of having done something I didn’t think I could do.
  •  Kew Gardens, which was amazing (and I only saw a fraction of it!) and proved to me that even in a place you’ve known for years you can still find new and wonderful things.
  • The forth was the first time Maria and I went in search of the stars and instead found the amost overwhelmingly beautiful sunset ever (We did find stars in the end too, but it was the unexpected sunset which took away my breath).
  • “Discovering” the Anaga Mountains was memorable too. It was the last place on Tenerife I hadn’t been, and within a half hour of hiking it had become my favorite.

Mostly what stands out are the times I spent with my wonderful family and friends every one of whom is a blessing to me, and whom I am very grateful to have in my life. Not all those times are represented in this mosaic because not everyone is comfortable being splashed around online.

Since I began this blog I’ve never used New Year’s Eve for musings much.  I did hit a big birthday this year, and that has given me pause for thought, but more of that another day, for now it’s just what I’ve always done – paint a wee mosaic of my year.


My Special Barcelona Places

It’s almost over, 2011, and I was looking back over the things I’d filed away to post “later” and never did get around to doing.  Considering that my only trip this year was a mere three or four weeks I can’t believe how much of it I missed posting about.  Probably because so much of it was very personal time, and I have, even now, a lingering sense of sadness about the trip.

That aside, Barcelona, was, as always, a very vibrant memory, and I deliberately didn’t write about my favorite places because I wanted to take my time and do them justice.  However, it is now time. I always like to at least try to begin the new year with as many ends as possible tidied up, so here are some more memories from one of my favorite cities:

Barcelona might be the richest city in the world architecturally, and many of the inspiring buildings are churches and cathedrals. When you say “Barcelona,” for many people the image which first springs to mind is Gaudi’s still-unfinished masterpiece, La Sagrada Familia, others will register the word “Gothic” and think about the Cathedral and its surrounds, but the two images which first flash across my brain are these:

Santa Maria del Mar

The church of Santa Maria del Mar may not be as grand and flashy as La Sagrada Familia or the Gothic Cathedral, but it’s one of the few churches I know which make me feel the way I think I should feel in a church…..peaceful and happy.

The first time I came across it, knowing nothing about it, was by accident.  I had been in the city for a few days, and was recovering from the worst food poisoning of my life, so I was strolling very gently, sin rumbo (without direction – love that phrase in Spanish), when something drew me in.  From the outside it really didn’t look very impressive, but when I entered it was like crossing the threshold to another dimension. To eyes perhaps wearied by Gaudí’s opulence, and a heart jaded by Gothic religious overkill, the church was a haven of light and elegance.

Although it was under construction during the same period as the city’s cathedral in the 14th century, and the style is Gothic, there is a simplicity to the interior which makes me feel as though, if  “God”  had to choose somewhere to live, this would be it. The lack of clutter, an open space without transepts, and columns which really seem to be reaching to heaven give it a graceful majesty, but the stained glass windows give it warmth. It’s accepted that this church is the church of the people, (whereas the much more showy Cathedral was for the nobility) and, of course, of the sailors and fishermen who made up so much of the population of that time.

Santa Maria del Mar is on the tourist beat (where inBarcelonaisn’t these days?) but it’s less crowded than perhaps better-known places.  My second favorite place is a haven for both tourists and locals, and it’s Port Vell.

Port Vell

Having stuffed ourselves on tapas yet again in wonderful bars which look so uninviting from the outside, but which open out into quirky or cosy or chic interiors, Maria and I thought we might take in an IMAX movie in Port Vell on the city’s stylish waterfront to finish the day. There were certain distractions, though, a street market and a quirky fountain to photograph! In the end we were too late for the movie, so we bought waffles from a kiosk and perched on a bench to scoff them.

Port Vell as it is today was created for the 1992 Olympics, held in Barcelona, but surely must have paid for itself in the tourism it’s attracted since. I adore IMAX movies, so it’s somewhere I always want to go just for that alone, but over the years I’ve eaten some great seafood there, visited the excellent aquarium, done some serious shopping and, on this occasion, had my breath taken away by a stunning sunset.

For a short visit we packed in a lot of on that trip, and there is yet one more place, but I’m saving that for another post… it may yet be 2012 before I am finished with all my notes and snaps from this year!


Reasons to Return

Although I think of myself, essentially, as a country-girl, I love cities. I love their quirks, and their ability to change, and to mix modern with traditional, and how there is always something new to discover, and above all their energy. I need to feed off that energy just as much as I need to feed off the peace of the countryside or the seashore.

I especially adore Spanish cities. I have yet to find one I don’t like, and want to return to – Sevilla, Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Malaga, not forgetting Santa Cruz de Tenerife – all have their special charms, and lots of soul.

Maria and I went to Sevilla this time largely because Cirque de Soleil was there. Temperatures were in the high thirties and locals all said it was a freak heat wave, even by standards of a city known for its summer heat. It was a magical few days, as I’ve already noted, but leaving Sevilla wasn’t that hard. It was time. You don’t always get that feeling, but I had it, despite that I was standing on a street corner at 5am waiting for a taxi, I knew it. I was happy to be on the move again. I’d had a wonderful time, and I loved her to bits, I really hoped to return but I wasn’t in love.

Speeding to the airport you could see that there were wide, modern thoroughfares and smart office blocks outside of the historic and touristy heart of the city. Avenida Kansas City for goodness sake, there must be an interesting story behind that name, surely.

It doesn’t take long to get to Barcelona, you’re still in Spain, but the difference is palpable in the first whiff of air, even at the airport. There is that vibe of a city on the move, an energy which, I’m sorry, I missed in Sevilla. I’m very aware it’s possibly because we stuck to an area which radiated roughly from the cathedral. We only crossed the river once, and I know I still have much to learn and discover. = Reason to return!

Barcelona is more familiar – this was my fourth visit, and, not only that, but it’s Maria’s hometown, and you can’t do better than to be with someone in their hometown if you want to really “get” a place. That said, I had a couple of requests; places I’d missed on previous visits. On my last visit I’d kind of “done” Gaudi, but got distracted by Roman ruins and a chocolate museum (no surprise there, then, for those who know me!), and I missed Parque Güell. Since then I’d watched “Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona” a few times, so I really needed to experience it.

Seeing the famous architecture and sculptures I couldn’t, actually, believe that I hadn’t been there before. I had the same reaction when I went to New York. It was all so familiar (but no less impressive for that), because I’d seen it so often on the screen.

The vista from atop the park is stunning. The city meanders over the foreground like a miniature village, and landmarks like La Sagrada Familia (still encircled by cranes) tower above the mass of other structures with authority. We couldn’t resist the corny photo ops – afterall, it’s the fact that something is so good that makes it popular!

As for Gaudi? His vision, his surreal take on the world is beyond words.  So many public spaces, worldwide, copy his style these days, it’s easy to forget just how avant-garde he must have been.  Happily for us he and his imitators have brought much color and humor into our modern lives!

Alas the photos here are all that remain. It’s looking very much as if I’ve deleted the rest by mistake, and I could cry! If I find them hidden somewhere on this p*ta computer I’ll post them as a photo essay, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely :=( Most of these have been recovered from Flickr and Twitpic, so if the quality is lacking, that’s why. = Reason to Return!

I also made my best-ever Bookcrossing release in Parque Güell. I left the book about Gaudi which I’d bought on my last visit, lying on a park bench for the next reader. I figure you can’t get much more apt than that!

What I hadn’t realized from movies or books (I read Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s “The Angel’s Game” as my preparation for this visit, perhaps I should have stuck to guides?!) was just how extensive the park is, and that there is more to it than just a pilgrimage to Gaudi. I love to have reasons to revisit places, and since we’d hightailed it straight down there after arriving in the morning, and a lovely lunch prepared by Maria’s sister, we didn’t have enough time to explore it all = Reason to Return :=)

My other requests were the Palau de la Musíca and La Boqueria Market. The latter was to elude me yet again. The last time I attempted to visit was a bank holiday (January 6th, the Day of the Kings) and, as luck would have it, so was the day we chose this year! It was October 12th, Spain’s National Day, and the market was all closed up, save for a few bars around the periphery, which, of course, were chock-a-block. BUT another Reason to Return!

As for the Palau de la Musíca, well, it kind of half-eluded me. From the pictures I’d seen of the Music Palace I imagined it to dominate the surrounding neighborhood, but I’d forgotten about how narrow the streets of the old city are, and we rounded a corner, and there it was, before us. Very impressive, nevertheless, and now protected by a glass façade, which does detract from its beauty, but with which you can’t argue. History has to be preserved and protected, and this is probably the best way. The entry price was just too much for the current state of my bank account, so we had to content ourselves with a stroll just inside the ground floor bar area, and then we trotted around the corner to snap the lavish exterior. The building, designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and inaugurated in 1908, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it so epitomizes an era which fascinated me for many years that I could almost have cried. One day I WILL be back to see the elaborate interior and the famous stained glass! =Reason to Return!

Barcelona is one of the best cities I know for just strolling around. I’ve been in all sorts of weather, and even at its coldest or wettest I haven’t been deterred.

Outside the cathedral there is a new photo-op. I have to say again how much I love this blend of ancient and modern that you find in great cities. It’s a sense of life continuing and evolving, appreciating the beauty of the past, but loving the present and looking forward to a bright future. The times I’ve hated cities have been when I’ve visited ones which seemed to be stuck in their past, however fascinating that might be!

We were intrigued, as were dozens of others, as we snapped away, by the red water, looking like blood, oozing from this fountain. It was pretty gruesome, and a couple of weeks to go to Halloween, so not for that. We couldn’t find out if it was intentional, it was Spain’s National Day, a day when the sacrifices of its military are honored, so perhaps, but Maria’s sister thinks it was probably a prank.

There was so much more to this day, but I was relying on the photos as memory prompts… I guess I’ll just have to go back to relive it all….maybe it’s one of the joys of travel always having a Reason to Return?


If Sevilla was a Woman

If  Sevilla was a woman, and I was a man, she would be the  elegant and perfect wife I would cheat on by hanging out in Madrid or Barcelona for a bit of excitement, or I’d have an exotic, foreign fling with London or New York or Rome.

Sevilla is, without much doubt, the prettiest city I know, and she is so tourist-friendly it almost hurts.

This was my second visit, and the only plan Maria and I had for our long weekend was to see Cirque du Soleil and then the idea was to soak in the atmosphere, mainly wander and stop wherever took our fancy, and avoid anywhere which involved spending too much money. The only other “must” was to see  some Flamenco in its homeland, although our budget was going to limit what we could see.  We arrived in an autumnal heatwave.  We’d expected it to be a bit cooler than at home, but it turned out to be even hotter.  I found myself short of hot weather clothes, having packed for an onward journey to a chilly England, based on Ryanair’s ridiculous weight restrictions.

My memories from my last visit, over ten years ago, were of a city of light and great beauty, and this trip did nothing to change my impression.  Even with temperatures in the high 30ºs it seemed easy enough to find narrow, shady streets to explore when the going got too hot.

Through gates and ironwork in the passages we glimpsed cool courtyards where pretty fountains glugged and we smelled faint perfumes of herbs and flowers.  Mainly we smelled jasmine. Sevilla smells of jasmine, the sweet and lovely perfume of the faithful wife. Sometimes it’s just a waft as you pass a walled garden, and other times it tumbles over railings and snakes up the walls of houses. I might always think of Sevilla when I smell jasmine now.  Most days Maria plucked a small flower to put in her hair, which, even when spent the next morning still smelled sweet.

It’s a great city to get lost in. Dodging the heat into alleyways or detouring through a green park you come across peaceful squares, or stumble onto a historic site almost without warning, and yet we always managed to find our way around without that panicky feeling of being truly lost. The way you would feel secure in a good marriage.

When the streets aren’t the narrow alleyways of yore they are wide and handsome, with well controlled crossings, and around the tourist hub by the cathedral the trams glide like ghosts.  This also has to be the most bicycle-friendly city in Europe.  I know that Amsterdam used to claim that title, and it’s years now since I was there, so I don’t know how time has tempered the claim, but in Sevilla it seemed as if everyone was on two wheels, from rent-a-bikes to fold up bikes, from middle-aged mums to hip young guys.  I’m not great on a bike, but it really made me want to ride around the sights on one!   There were tricycles too!

Maybe it was the profusion of bikes which make it such a quiet city by modern standards. Oh, I realize that away from the tourist heart it’s a bit noisier and harsher, but essentially it’s well-behaved and correct.

I’ve yet to find a Spanish city I didn’t fall in love with, and Sevilla is no exception – it’s beautiful, it has bags of history, it’s clean (hmm maybe the dog doodies could be cleaned up better – it’s a very dog-friendly city too), the food was fabulous, and the pavement cafés like nowhere else,  and the weather was great, even small shops like the one below were pretty and colorful – yet, it doesn’t grab me and excite me the way rougher or uglier cities do.

Was it me? What was missing, or what was I missing? Then I read this  post on Sunshine and Siestas blog – note the adjective “stuffy”? – and I knew that it wasn’t just me.  Without knowing why, I completely understood that adjective.  I don’t mean to criticize Sevilla, she might even be perfect – except, and I think now I understand, she lacks the energy of other places, and it’s always the energy which draws me to cities.  For tranquility and peace I’ll choose countryside or deserted beach, but in a city I thrive on the energy, and Sevilla, for me, relies on her beauty and history.