My mother is vexed. Without so much as a palabra of Spanish herself, she has lost 3 of her 4 children to the charms of the Iberian Peninsula. My younger sister enjoys Madrid´s artistic scene to the full as an actor’s agent whilst my brother has become one of Europe´s most remote hoteliers.
In a bid to see the real Spain before enjoying the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992, my brother Alasdair and a fellow student friend did a grand tour of the country in his clapped out VW Golf. By night they slept rough under the stars, often next to the village municipal swimming pools where they would perform their daily ablutions and by day they would explore Spain’s interior provinces zig zagging from one to other. After two months of this nomadic existence, tales of cobalt blue reservoirs, almond and olive groves, dinosaur fossils and deserted dramatic countryside lured Alasdair into the remote area of Teruel. About 4 hours east of Madrid, this province is the subject of the “Teruel Existe”,the (Teruel Does Exist”) movement to promote the area and reduce its rural depopulation. Today, ironically, the result of this neglect is a beautiful, unspoilt evergreen area peppered with medieval fortified hilltop villages and lots of and lots of piggies. Teruel ham now graces tables all over the world.
Mesmerised by the dramatic countryside, the hospitality of the people and the beauty of the preserved villages and inheriting a not insignificant smattering of family eccentricity, Alasdair vowed to buy an almond farm as soon as he was “grown up”. In 2000, now a TV producer and camera man Alasdair had narrowed down his search, thanks to numerous visits with me (purely for culinary research purposes and my fluency in Aragonese) to the area of Matarraña in the eastern part of Teruel which enjoys a milder climate and boasts two of Spain´s most beautiful villages in the “Pueblos Más Bonitos de España” list, namely Valderrobres and Calaceite.
So, unfazed by his lack of building or hotelier experience Alasdair bought a masia (farmhouse) which could have been more aptly described as a skeletal heap of crumbling rocks and spent 3 years restoring it. In 2010 the building work was complete and whilst Alasdair hasn’t scrimped on the sanitaryware, providing both a sauna and outdoor hot tub there are a couple of second hand items that add to the quirky atmosphere. In 1979 Margaret Thatcher’s lavatory was requisitioned by my grandmother from a skip outside her Chelsea home. Realising it was incompatible with her Victorian house’s plumbing she converted it into a plant pot on a pedestal in her drawing room complete with the blue plaque “Margaret Thatcher sat here from 1967 – 1979” and it is now enjoying its retirement in the Masia alongside my grandmother’s enamel and iron bath.
Naturally, 4 hours is quite a long way to drive to view former politicians´ memorabilia but if you are interested in gorge walking, wild swimming in natural pools, kayaking, dinosaurs, ibex mountain goats, quaffing delicious truffles in heritage villages without any crowds, whilst you rest your action-weary limbs in a glass cube or in the same medieval watch tower hotel as the former King and Queen of Spain then stand by for a summary for the highlights of Matarraña next week and you too will be scouting high and low for a bargain mound of rocks…………..and maybe Aznar’s bathroom suite.
Spain is literally at your feet …hiking is a fabulous way to get to know Spain in a more up-close-and-personal way. It is a great way to explore Madrid, discover historic towns, see lots of different scenery, get great exercise, and meet interesting new people. Living in Spain introduced me to hiking and it is now a regular part of my life.
I started my journey to get to know Spain step-by-step when I did the French Road on the Camino de Santiago in 2014. Despite being overweight and out of shape, I walked 790 kms which is nearly 500 miles! To qualify as a “pilgrim” you only have to walk 100kms and I would encourage every expat living in Spain to do it – it is an unforgettable experience. In 2015, I did a different route with 3 friends – Santiago – Finisterre – Muxia – Galicia is beautiful! By this point I was hooked on hiking and in October 2015 I went international, walking 84 miles coast to coast in northern England along Hadrian’s Wall, built by Roman Emperor Hadrian in 122 AD.
In 2018, I decided to try out Hiking Madrid, which leads hikes on the abundant trails centered on historic towns in close proximity to Madrid. The group was started by hiking aficionados Beau and Cynthia, who decided to write the first hiking book in the Community of Madrid. After exploring over 160 routes, they published “Take a Hike; the Best 50 routes in the Community of Madrid”, found in bookstores all over Madrid. The group, now led by Jonathan and Barbara, offers hikes every weekend and sometimes on Spanish holidays. The walks range from easy strolls on cleared paths to more challenging hikes on unmaintained trails through hilly terrain, ranging from 10 – 20 kms. For only 12 euros, you get a guided hike, a snack, lunch, and a post-hike drink. Bus fare from Madrid to the starting point is extra. Hikers include Americans, Europeans, Australians, Canadians and Spaniards, ranging in age from early 20s to retirees. I particularly like Hiking Madrid because nearly every hike takes me to someplace I’ve never been before – even after nearly 10 years in Spain. They also offer private hikes, customized any way you like, if you have a large enough group which could perhaps make a great INC activity.
InterNations and Meet Up also have hiking groups, and a quick internet search turned up over 100 hiking groups within 25 miles of Madrid.
Everyone in INC is familiar with Anne Pinder’s City Walks and she organises a 100km Camino group every year in May. In the past, INC has had a group that walked regularly in Casa de Campo. The Retiro and the Parque del Oeste are other beautiful destinations for walks. Or you can explore Madrid at street level, taking advantage of the new, wider sidewalks and pedestrianized areas. Walking doesn’t take any special equipment and can be done by anyone, no matter your fitness level.
Walk out your front door and take the first step! We have a beautiful city and country to explore.
I hope everyone had a fabulous Christmas and you’re all gearing up for the New Year celebrations! I’ve taken a couple of weeks respite from the blog over Navidad as we’ve had loads of visitors and a house full for Christmas lunch.
We decided to take a little road trip between Christmas and New Year to visit friends in Portugal and take in some of the sights on the way. This week has us in Mérida, a lovely city in Extremadura. It was founded by the Romans in the first century B.C. and has some fabulously interesting Roman remains.
There is the Teatro Romano, which is still used today and is an impressive example of Roman architecture and general cleverness.
Visit the ancient Amphitheatre and learn about the various gladiators who entertained the crowd thousands of years ago.
The ancient Puente Romano, a 792m bridge spanning the Rio Guadiana is the longest Roman bridge still standing.
There are numerous temples and structures that demonstrate just how forward and industrious the Romans were.
A house located on what used to be the outskirts of town shows an impressive example of how the Romans used to live. You can also see the remains of some frescos and mosaic floors. About 500 meters from here is an ancient burial site!! This was extremely interesting. You can see various head stones, some of which still
bear the inscriptions and you’ll get a general idea of how the Romans used to prepare their dead for burial.
Alcazaba, built in 835 A.D. by the Arabs to control the city is also a must see!
There is a train station not far from the old part of the city and plenty of good hotels. We stayed in the Parador, which has been converted from an old convent and is in and of itself a historical delight.
I recommend purchasing the complete tour ticket, which gives you entry into many of the Roman remains.
Mérida is jam packed with history, fabulous architecture and beauty – it truly is a MUST SEE!
Recently we travelled to The Canary Islands on a Defence group tour. This was our first time to these beautiful islands and as is usually the case our stay was not long enough! The good thing about Islas Canarias however is that the temperature is pretty steady all year round which means one has ample opportunity to visit and also take advantage of the beach.
We stayed in a hotel in Las Palmas in Gran Canaria that was within walking distance of Islas Canteras, one of the main beaches. Sun beds and umbrellas can be hired on the beach and there are also many shops and restaurants along the waterfront to keep you busy.
I recommend you visit the botanical gardens in Las Palmas. These gardens are impressive and also provide some great exercise, as it’s a little laborious wandering the somewhat rocky terrain. At the gardens you can see some great examples of local plants and trees and they also have a notable cactus garden.
Tenerife is also a must see! We took the ferry from Gran Canaria to the island, then a bus tour through the National Park and up to Mt. Teide, the dormant volcano. Mt. Teide provided some impressive scenery that I imagine would be similar to what a meteorite might look like – or Mars! This volcano would make an interesting hiking experience. Rock climbing is also possible here.
Along the way we stopped at a local restaurant for a delicious meal of chicken soup, jamon, Canary wrinkly potatoes with Mojo sauce, steak and fish.
It was a great trip but 4 days wasn’t long enough. When it gets cold in Madrid, think about a visit to Las Canarias for some sun, sand and surf. Next time we might hit one of the resorts and take some day trips to some of the other islands.
In August we visited Plasencia, a lovely town in Western, Spain about 2.5 hours drive from Madrid. It’s a medieval walled city on the famous “Silver Route”.
Main city sites:
Catedral de Plasencia
The remains of a Roman Aqueduct
The city walls with six gates in all
The museum (located near the Cathedral)
Various other churches, monasteries and convents.
We stayed at the Parador, which has been converted from a Monastery. It has fabulous historical value and the building is spectacular. For this stay at the Parador we opted for “half board” which includes breakfast each day and lunch and/or dinner. This means of course that you’re limited to eating most meals at the hotel restaurant. I’d recommend checking the reviews for the particular Parador before you take this option to ensure that the restaurant has received decent assessments. We enjoyed the food but the half board meant we we’re limited in our menu selection. It was a different way of doing things and we just wanted to check this option out.
Cherries are particularly popular in Plasencia and must be grown locally (but we were unable to find any fresh ones). You can however find lots of cherry influenced products like jewellery, magnets, pate and cheese flavoured with cherries, dried cherries, etc, etc …
I do recommend that you visit this picturesque city.
My type of camping! We decided to go glamping with a couple other families at Camping Cobijo (http://www.campingcobijo.com), located about 2 hours outside of Madrid in Vinuesa, Soria next to Laguna Negra.
Each f amily had their own cabin, fitting up to 6 people in the two bedrooms. The cabins all had a small equipped kitchen, living room, bathroom, sheets, towels, heat and a cute porch with a table and chairs.
Every morning started with the bells of the cows or sheep passing the camping grounds – and the squeals of delight as all the children in our party ran out to see them. The kids then happily collected bugs, pine cones and anything else they could find. The parents slowly woke up we headed up to the restaurant on the grounds for a delicious cup of coffee (in the mornings the fire is already roaring if it is chilly outside). While we were enjoying the coffee the kids would head to the playground in front. Now, our kids were happy to spend one whole day in the camp. There were small streams to build dams in (and of course we had a few fall in), exploring to be done and games to be played.
In the evening we sent the kids to gather firewood for the BBQ for dinner. We brought our meat from home although there is a small shop also on the grounds in case you forget anything. After dinner we treated the kids to s’mores and then played flashlight tag.
If you go for a weekend, I highly recommend you spend at least one day hiking up to Laguna Negra. It is a short drive from the campgrounds, just ask at the front desk and they will point the way to you. Once you reach the beginning of the park, you can either hike up the hill or take a bu
s – we hiked and even my 4 year old made it to the top (although she was on my shoulders for part of the hike). The Lake was beautiful, filled with waterfalls, caves to explore (and we found snow in one even in May), and lots of bugs of course.
All in all a great weekend and a beautiful new area to explore.
Recently I had the opportunity to tour Valencia, Cartagena and Murcia. These cities were fabulous to visit and a must for your Spanish bucket list.
Valencia is a port city. It’s bigger than I expected and has loads of interesting shops and shopping malls, however it’s largely known for its arts and sciences and its futuristic architecture. It has a fabulous planetarium, an aquarium and an interactive science museum. Valencia is a great place to take the kids, with the beaches nearby and the various museums to entertain.
Cartagena, in the Murcia province, is another picturesque port city and naval base. We took a drive down La Manga (a seaside spit approximately 22 kms long) and enjoyed a fabulous lunch of seafood paella and a walk along the strip. Also in Cartagena there is a historical military museum, a beautiful cathedral and a Roman Theatre. Just wandering the streets and the port/marina section is a must in this lovely city.
Nearby is the capital of the Murcia province (also called Murcia). This city is full of surprises. A university town, well known for its spectacular cathedral but it is also considered the city of contrasts — garden, sea and dessert. Beautiful and interesting, even just strolling around its streets is a delight. Enjoy tapas and a drink in one of the many gardens or picturesque squares. Walk around Santo Domingo Square and stop for a coffee in Romea Square — and don’t miss a visit to the Romea Theatre! Murcia has much to offer and would be well worth some independent investigation before a visit.
These really are cities that offer something for everyone, whether you want to lie on the beach, stroll around the city or hit the museums and cathedrals — you’ll find something here.
Looking to get out of the city for a day? I am always surprised how many people have yet to hear about Safari Madrid (www.safarimadrid.com), but that is probably because any random day off from school my girls and I head off to the Safari.
Safari Madrid has a little bit of everything. Upon entrance to the Safari you will get out of the car and can watch the impressive bird show which is next to the mini zoo, where my kids love seeing the wolves who press their noses up against the glass to smell the kids and then follow them back and forth as they run.
Next, you can walk or get back into your car and head over to the lunch area. Here you can buy your lunch or snacks (although note on off season days they are not always open so I always pack a picnic). Behind the lunch area is the gift shop and the bird area (which often gets overlooked – I don’t think we saw it till our third or fourth trip). But my kids’ favorite activity in this area is the goats! Here you are allowed to enter in and feed and hold the goats. Spring is a great time of year to go, as there are plenty of baby goats to hold, they cuddle right up in your arms and nestle in for a nap. On our last trip we were lucky enough to see babies who were only a day old! Now why they do sell carrots to feed the goats? I highly recommend you refrain, as soon as you enter with a bag of carrots the goats will be jumping on you and knocking each other away. Across from the goats are go-karts, slides and a pool – we have actually never ventured over there as my kids are all about the animals.
Now it is time to get back into the car and head towards the picnic area. If you are lucky you will arrive in time to see the reptile show and even get to hold a snake! Located in this area is also the insect house, the alligator and crocodile habitat, the reptile house and of course ice cream concession stand!
Next it is time to get back in your car and head to the main attraction! That’s right – the drive thru safari area of the park. In the first two sections, roll down your windows and enjoy feeding the ostriches, reindeer, emus, horses and much more. Just be careful with the zebras – they can bite! In the third section it is time to roll up your windows as you drive by the lions. The fourth section you will see the impressive Bison, I never appreciated how big they really are till having them that close to my car. Then on to the fifth section – the hippos, rhinoceros, brown bear and the baboons – but make sure you don’t stop your car unless you want a visitor to come along for the drive. Don’t worry, if you have missed anything you can see it on the return loop. Have fun exploring!
We travelled to Palma, Mallorca last week for an extended weekend. We looked at the flights over Semana Santa and decided that it’s quite a bit cheaper to travel outside of a popular holiday and far less crowded!
The weather was good the majority of the time however on Friday it rained heavily so we kept to the inside tourist sites. A must visit is of course the cathedral in the old town. This is a beautiful building and looks almost surreal, surrounded as it is by palm trees and the Marina.
We did a boat tour around the harbour, which was enjoyable and something a little different. There are quite a few other boat tours to the islands nearby but due to the early season, many of these weren’t running. Also, it was too cold for us to hit the beach or the hotel pool. Some other, more adventurous souls had no such qualms however and were seen sunning themselves by the pool before taking a dip!
Another fabulous day out and a great way to see the island is the Ferrocarril de Soller. This quirky train will take you around scenic Palma then on to Soller where you can enjoy a stroll, a bit of shopping and some lovely little cafes.
There is also a Hope on Hop off Bus but this was disappointing, as we didn’t get to travel on it! We purchased the tickets on Saturday to use on Sunday but the lady who sold them to us neglected to mention that the main streets of Palma would be closed for a marathon!
There is much more to do in Mallorca but our four days had us a little limited. This just means that we must return to do those things that we missed out on this last visit!
Cuenca is a small city in central Spain. It’s approximately 1.5 hours by car from Madrid. We spent a couple of days there over Easter and enjoyed our time immensely.
There is a lovely cathedral here in the old quarter. After a visit to the cathedral you can wander through the narrow cobbled streets and stop at a bar for a refreshment in Plaza Major.
There are also some museums and the old city wall which you can walk around.
Cuenca is famous for its hanging houses. These amazing structures seem to defy gravity but have been built so sturdily that they continue to perch, unaffected on the cliff faces, even after 500 years!
We stayed at the Parador which is a renovated monastery and a lovely building.
I highly recommend the restaurant, El Figón. It is popular so it’s best to make a booking before you go. Here you can dine on fantastic local food and have a glass of wine on their terrace overlooking the valley.
There are some beautiful walks around the area. Cuenca makes a great day trip or an overnight stay but personally I think two days is more than adequate.