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Brihuega – enveloped in the heady aromas of lavender, larger than life Hobbit caves and some Guinness record-holding miniatures

November 20th, 2020 by

“And if you don´t come out by 1 pm I´ll be putting you through the mince grinder” quipped the seasoned butcher-cum-custodian of the Arab caves to my daughter who was dawdling in the labyrinthine tunnels under the main square.  Visitors to the sprawling caves have to negotiate the swinging carcasses in his shop next to the main entrance in order to request the key.

Hide and seek in the Arab caves

Images of 7-year old Claudia being ground into Anglo-Spanish meatballs prompted me to give her a prod as I checked my watch anxiously. The children had been spending a merry hour scampering through the 8 km maze of tunnels dating from the 10th Century.  Originally built to provide sanctuary from invaders and religious persecutors, the constant temperature of 12 degrees had also rendered the caves under the main square a convenient storage facility.

The Main Square

The medieval-walled town of Brihuega, at only 90 km from Madrid makes for an interesting daytrip. With only 3000 inhabitants, the population of this historic town in Guadalajara is swelled by visitors flocking to admire the local lavender fields that bloom in July. The rest of the time you can enjoy most of the venerable sights without the ubiquitous crowds more commonly found in Segovia or Toledo. Lavender features heavily in the local economy and its heady aroma is used in soaps and sweets in and around the town´s bustling market and shops.

Another unusual highlight on offer is the world-acclaimed Miniatures Museum* that houses over 65,000 tiny replicas of anything from hats to palaces; dogs; suitcases; cities; shops; furniture and even “The 7 Wonders of the World”, the latter of which are painted onto lentils. A feast for all ages of eyes and definitely a contender for “Most Unusual Museum” prize with its chewing gum sculptures and matchstick paintings. And there was me expecting an aeroplane-size bottle of Beefeater.

San Felipe Iglesia

Brihuega also boasts several notable examples of historic architecture such as the Romanesque Iglesia de San Felipe; the Castle of Piedra Bermeja whose origins date back to Arab times, a 17th Century convent and Textile Factory offering impressive views across the Tajuña Valley. It was at the castle cemetery that we stumbled across some charming Romanians. After a short exchange about our elusive bear tracking exploits there a few years ago and the underwhelming promotion of their country´s fascinating sights beyond Dracula and Transylvania we established that, coincidentally, they were huge fans of my brother´s TV documentary series on the bears and medieval communities in the Carpathian mountains which was took us all rather by surprise.  

Searching for burly bears in Romania

All this talk of Romanian sausages gave us an appetite and if you´re after some authentic Alacarreñan cuisine there are plenty of restaurants with wood-fired ovens serving roasted pork, lamb and fish dishes to choose from. However, if you´re looking for the full gourmet experience then head to Michelin-starred Doncel where you can dine out on Black pudding chips, 4 x 4 Pork scratchings (evenly crisped up on all four sides) and Venison carpaccio with Thyme ice cream. On my next visit I will just have to borrow a concoction from Alice in Wonderland to shrink the kids and donate them to the Miniatures Museum so as to indulge myself on Bambi and fries uninterrupted.

Queen of the Castle

A mere 10 minutes by car from the Brihuega centre takes you to the Tolkienesque abandoned village of Cívica. There is a charming outdoor café at the river´s edge opposite the ruins where you can recharge after exploring the tangled web limestone hidey-holes that may have hosted many a retiring monk or Sephardic Jew according to local legend.

Find Frodo

All in all, Brihuega and its environs make for an enchanting peak into Castillian history against an intriguing backdrop of fantasy and myths.

*Museum opening times may be affected by Covid-19

Starstruck in the Serra da Estrela

October 9th, 2020 by

Nowadays, more than ever, we find ourselves on a permanent quest to avoid crowds whilst we scour endless websites of far-flung places that promise to restore body and spirit.

However, in addition to the beaches and mountains of Asturias, Cantabria or Granada we can essentially disappear into an abyss of anonymity only 4 hours away from Madrid if we cross over in Portugal.

Covão-dos-Conchos

Just 2 hours west of Salamanca lies Portugal´s largest national park in the craggy mountains and glacial valleys of the Serra da Estrela (Star Mountain Range). Stellar by name and galactic by nature as some of the precipitous peaks poke through the clouds at the country’s highest point at 2000 m, thus providing respite from the summer heat as well as Portugal´s premier ski resort in winter.

Plenty of bathing opportunities whilst you hike

How did I end up there? Simple, having been an ardent traveller my whole adult life I rather favour physical maps from which to plan itineraries. So, whilst everyone else was heading for deepest Denia or extreme solitude in Extremadura I unfurled my old country map of Portugal and saw an enormous uncluttered area of mountains intermeshed with spidery tributaries miles away from the popular haunts of Coimbra, Lisbon and Oporto within shouting distance of the Spanish border.

This has proven to be a most reliable way to travel in the past and I´m fortunate to have a battered suitcase full of maps of anywhere from Bhutan to Rumania. The internet then becomes a suitable tool with which to check there aren´t any remote military training grounds in the vicinity and that quality variety of food or wine is readily obtainable. Although I must say, I did have to rather stretch that final criteria to the limit on my trip to Romania.  Fortunately a sheep´s bladder full of fresh cheese in the boot of our car managed to keep us going for 2 weeks and the awe-inspiring sights more than compensated for any gastronomic shortcomings.

The main house at Casas do Toural

In my enthusiasm to escape Senhor Covid ravaging through the suburbs of Lisbon, I forgot to take into account that holidaying in remote mountainous terrain might be somewhat of a challenge for someone who had only just relinquished her wheelchair following a fractured hip. However, undeterred, westwards we drove, wending our way through picturesque villages, vine-clad hills, scattered with endless herds of sheep and goats until we arrived at a boutique farm at Casas do Toural in Gouveia.

Sao Pedro church at Gouveia

A perfect location for the circumstances as each guest had its own bijou self-catering house complete with its own private terraced garden brimming with flowers and allocated walkway to the communal pool,  all within walking distance of the local shops and restaurants. The owner, Maria José Osório is a keen gardener and her coral pink manorial house is framed by a rainbow of horticultural gems. There are also a few sheep and plenty of entertainment by way of a tennis court, billiards room and even a painting studio on site. Gouveia, is an attractive gateway from which to explore the more remote outposts of the Serra da Estrela National Park which I will mention in Part II. Find out next week more about Jewish synagogues, the wool trade and celestial cheese as I explore deeper in the Serra da Estrela.

The quaint Casa das Framboesas at Casas do Toural

Susannah follows her Phoenician pipe dream to Shakira´s ancestral roots

November 15th, 2019 by
Mosque, cathedral and Roman ruins are next to each other in Beirut
Melting pot of Roman, Islamic and Christian cultures live on cheek by jowl

Where in the world can you enjoy Mediterranean beaches, ski resorts amidst 2000 year-old Cedar forests, the world’s longest stalactite, aromatic cuisine and heartfelt hospitality whilst you marvel at ancient Phoenician and Roman ruins in a country that is half the size of Wales? Answer: all this is four and half hours away when you touch down in Lebanon. 

Beirut has long been known as the Paris of the East and the Lebanese, like the Spaniards prize the importance of family, lovingly-prepared food and having as much fun as possible, albeit often in the face of adversity. This Spring I decided to satisfy my deep-seated curiosity for myself and here are the highlights from our memorable experience of a country with famous exports such as booty-shaking Shakira.

New Beirut offers a rainbow of hope against a backdrop of war-ravaged buildings

Lebanon is a land of contrasts; revived Roman ruins jostle for space next to gleaming Dubai-style skycrapers. The minarets from domed-mosques jut above the skyline next to Greek Orthodox and Catholic church spires. The longstanding Armenian population are well-integrated and contribute to the multi-cultural patchwork of daily life and commerce in Lebanon.

After indulging in the traditional breakfast circus display of chefs blitzing mint into fruit juices and sizzling flatbreads oozing with cheese we strode forth purposefully through beautifully-restored Parisian-style buildings to our first port of call …Catholic mass.

Non muslims are welcome in Beirut´s Blue Mosque

Running slightly behind schedule we arrive huffing and puffing at the back pew of a heaving church. As if by magic a suited chap appears at our side and inquires what part of Greece we’re from. Somewhat baffled we reply “Err it’s Madrid actually…” to which he beams …”I see, welcome to the Greek Orthodox Church of Beirut, perhaps you were aiming for St Elias Catholic Church down the road? Please do join us anyway as their mass will be over by now”.  We are then involved in much bread roll eating and handshaking with the High Priest before being treated to a guided tour of the bullet holes in the church’s colourful murals. This unconditional welcome was echoed by almost every single person we came into contact with, from taxi drivers to passers-by we flagged down in the street to illuminate us with their version of local history.

In addition to their boundless charm and hospitality we also found the Lebanese to be full of mischief. Not least the pastry chef at The Phoenicia Hotel who relished waving his freshly-made macaroons in the face of fasting Muslim staff during Ramadan.

Vertiginous view of Jounieh Bay from the cable car

Memorable day trips outside the capital included the vertiginous 600 m cable car trip up to the Virgin Mary statue in Harissa from which you can see the 5 km-wide bay and sparkling resort of Jounieh, a favourite hedonistic haven for middle class Lebanese during the Civil War. Also recommended is a boat trip through the underwater caves of the 9 km-long Jeita Grotto flanked by spectacularly-illuminated stalactites and stalagmites. No visit to Lebanon is complete without a trip to the oldest continuously inhabited town in the world: Byblos next to a vibrant fishing port.

Phoenician fishing port of Byblos still thrives today

Further south I recommend visiting the Chouf Cedar Reserve to hike along some of the many trails through Lebanon´s emblematic 2000 year-old Cedar trees which have symbolised majesty, wisdom and foresight for several centuries.

The Chouf Cedar Reserve is a haven for nature lovers

Other highlights include the laid-back old Ottoman-era town of Deir-al-Qaamar and the opulent Beiteddine Palace with its fine Byzantine mosaics.

Like a phoenix rising up from its scarred image of a war-torn territory, Lebanon leaves an indelible impression on visitors of all ages and its renaissance is testament to the resilience of its resourceful people. 

Backgammon and nargile pipe smoking are a major Lebanese pastime

Editor´s Note: A huge thank you to INC members Marlene Makhoul and Rula Norregaard for their invaluable tips and recommendations!

MARGARET THATCHER DECAMPS TO TERUEL by Susannah Grant

May 27th, 2019 by

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.

Yucalcari – a day trip kayaking from Madrid! By Caroline Ferneyhough

May 4th, 2018 by

 

I recently went on a day trip out of Madrid, kayaking!

Yucalcari is a company that rents kayaks & stand up paddleboards to use on the San Juan reservoir. I went with a group of Moms from school, at the end of their summer season, in late September. The reservoir is about an hour’s drive west from Madrid. We came prepared, wearing swimmers, some had water shoes on. The facility had a lockable change room, where we left our car keys, and changed clothes. The company provide life jackets, and then we chose either single or double kayaks. After a quick debriefing from Yucalcari, we headed to the shore.

As it was the end of a hot, dry summer, the water level was low, so we were able to see the remains of a Roman bridge, usually submerged by the water. We kayaked for an hour, with some of us jumping into the water for a dip. There’s a couple of restaurants beside the water, we had a reservation at one of these for a paella lunch, before heading back to Madrid. Whilst we were there, a school group were also having lots of fun, so it’s lots of fun for the kids too. The kayak rental was 10 Euros per hour. Call before you go, to check they are open!

+34 617 709 274 & their website is www.yucalcari.com

“Why do women look so attractive dressed in the “Traje de Flamenca”? Part 2 – by María Aragón

March 21st, 2018 by

 

Shoes are also very important. The Flamenca dress is always accompanied by high-heeled shoes, in keeping with the very feminine spirit of the dress, since a high heel always flatters the figure. No matter whether it measures 2 cm or 10 cm, every woman knows what she’s used to wearing, and how long she will have to wear them in El Real. Generally she will cho ose a medium heel – about 4 cm – which is comfortable and elegant at the same time.  Traditionally the shoe has always been the same style, varying only in the colour, black or red, to match the colors of the dress or accessories. It is a very simple style with no big adornments. However, in recent years the trend, especially among younger girls, has been towards a type of espadrille wedge, also about 4 cm high, more comfortable, and also very pretty, but simple, always discreet.

The shoes should never be the protagonist, but they should not detract from the overall look of the outfit, and never, under any circumstances, should you neglect them, for if you are lucky enough that your partner takes you up behind him on his horse, you will sit sideways on the rump, with your legs hanging down the side of the horse, and the first thing that everyone will see will be your shoes!

So what name do we give to the dress? Usually it is called “Flamenca” because it is so intimately linked to the art of the dance “Flamenco”, although it is also known as “Traje de Gitana” or Gypsy Dress. However there is one more name which you might hear “Traje de Faralaes” (literally, a dress with flounces), but please never use it, as to a woman from Sevilla it sounds insulting and vulgar.

So, it doesn’t matter whether you are fat or slim, if you are tall or short, young or old, have big eyes or small… you will always look perfect dressed “de Flamenca”!

In my personal opinion (and here I am probably going to offend some people!) only women who have been born in, or have had some link with Andalucia from childhood, have the “gracia” (elegance) and “salero” (charm) required to wear a Traje de Flamenca and look comfortable and natural – as opposed to looking like they dressed up for a Carnival Party, and of course this is absolutely not it at all.

But what is the real secret of why women dressed “de Flamenca” look so spectacular? THE SMILE. You will never see a woman looking tired, angry, or uncomfortable, even if they are. They keep their smile all the time, and not only in El Real de La Feria, but in general, in our everyday life we are all of us ALWAYS attractive when we smile!!

Author´s Note:  “I want to say thank you to Diana Rodríguez who kindly help me in translating and organizing the text into a proper English”.

Finally, a special mention to my dear friend Manoli, a “sevillana por los cuatro costados” (Sevillana through and through) whose insights have revealed to me everything that’s INSIDE when you experience the Feria de Sevilla; being driven around in an XVIII Century horse-drawn carriage or “Enganche” as they are known in Seville, crossing the Rio Guadalquivir bridge, overlooking the Torre del Oro and the Giralda above the roofs of the city, the scent of orange blossom while crossing the Parque de Maria Luisa, the elegant buildings of the Universal Exhibition of the beginning of the XX century, while she and I talk about all these treasures. But INSIDE also means from inside the heart of a women from Seville, who loves Seville and who loves to transmit her passion, with a perfect mix of humility and pride in her city and its people…

“Why do women look so attractive dressed in the “Traje de Flamenca”? Part 1 – by María Aragón

March 6th, 2018 by

Because these dresses, typical of Andalucia, are specially made to highlight the best of the female body. And I’m not talking from a “machista” point of view, in fact just the opposite. Women dressed “de Flamenca” are admired for the beauty of the whole outfit, by both women and men, but mainly by women, who know all the hard work, that does not show, but is essential to look perfect in El Real (the place where the Feria is held, in the Barrio de Los Remedios, Seville); from the flower on the head down to the shoes.

There are fashion trends, shown in the most important Fair: SIMOF (Salon Internacional de la Moda Flamenca), every year in January/February, where the designers who specialise in Vestidos de Flamenca, show their latest ideas. The fashions can change: in the print of the fabric, in the number of the flounces on the skirt, whether they are wide or narrow, whether the sleeves have flounces or not – although usually they have flounces, matching the ones in the skirt, of course – and whether they fall from the shoulder or start at the elbow. Even the length of the dress can vary with fashion; normally it reaches to the shoes, but can also be between knee and ankle. This means that although what we are accustomed to seeing, the traditional red dress with white polka-dots, is not considered out of fashion, it is generally worn by more conservtive women. However if you feel brave enough to take a risk and draw attention to yourself, then you should change your “vestido de lunares” (polka-dot dress) for the new trends shown by the top designers.

So what else goes into the dress? The fabric used is normally high resistance lycra, that makes the dress into a second skin, extremely tight, from the top down to the knees, which requires a special elegance when walking – short steps, and balancing your body… and even requires help to go to the bathroom!  As the back and the front usually have a plunging neckline it can be difficult to keep the dress in the right position, so they have a fine hidden cord (cordoncillo) that has to be tied tightly enough to keep the dress in place, but not so tight as to leave a mark on the skin.  It’s not attractive when this “cordoncillo” shows, so often the dress is accompanied by the “mantoncillo” a little shawl with fringes, in a colour that matches the dress, the flower, the earrings, etc..

Special mention should be made of the head adornments and the arrangement of the hair, which has to be fixed really firmly, since it must be perfect for more than twelve hours, holding the flower, and the “peineta” or comb. Here too, fashion is important. One year hairstyles will have the hair with the flower arranged on top of the head, but other years it will be dressed on one side, just above the ear, or even below the ear, it depends on what is seen at SIMOF: there can be one big flower on top, or several small flowers. But a big one on top is the most widely-seen way to wear it. The ensemble is completed with the typical dangling earings, and make-up that enhances the eyes.

You will never, ever, see a woman dressed “de Flamenco” clutching money, house keys, kleenex, lipstick or a mobile phone in her hand, or even worse, pushed into her neckline… For this they have a small fabric bag, called “la Faltriquera”, which is fastened with cords to the inside of the skirt, between the skirt and the lining. Sometimes you might catch sight of a woman who, very discreetly, goes into a corner and puts her hands between the flounces of her skirt. She is looking for something in her “Faltriquera”. She does this with discretion, although not actually hiding herself, since it is considered in very bad taste to put her hand under her skirt openly in public. The only thing a Flamenca will carry in her hand is her fan, which she uses with sensual grace. Part two will be published on March 21st.

Author´s Note:  “I want to say thank you to Diana Rodríguez who kindly help me in translating and organizing the text into a proper English”. 

Athens…By Kirsty Leggatt

June 2nd, 2015 by

At the risk of sounding like a travel guide!! This week I’d like to write a little bit about Athens. I’ve been out of Spain for the last two weeks so I feel compelled to write about where I have been! I know I’ve written about this before, but I thought I’d touch a little more on Acropolis and some of the surrounding sights that are interesting to visit. In my opinion Athens is not a pretty city, but what it lacks in beauty it more than makes up for in history!

Of course Acropolis is the highlight of Athens and the sight seeing circuit so it goes without saying that this is a must see. The Parthenon was constructed between 447-432 BC and was originally built to house a colossal statue of Athena. There are also some other interesting temples to see on the hill. The walk to the top whilst not overly strenuous could be a little difficult for the elderly or infirm, so do keep that in mind and the rocks are quite slippery!

I love wandering around the Ancient Agora, at the base of Acropolis. This was the focus of political, commercial and social activity. Although much of it is in ruins, the layout is still apparent.

The Acropolis museum is full of interesting and original artefacts and definitely should be on your tour list.

Other sights to visit include, Hadrian’s Library and Hadrian’s Gate/Arch, the Temple of Olympian Zeus, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Olympic Stadium (which hosted the first modern Olympic Games in 1896), the National Gardens and perhaps Kerameikos Cemetery where some very notable Ancient Athenians are buried.

There is also a lookout and café located on Lycabettus Hill where you can enjoy panoramic views of Athens.

The Plaka is a favourite district of mine. It’s made up of narrow streets and laneways and lots of tourist shops and restaurants. It’s the most historical and picturesque part of town and has a really upbeat ambience. The Monastiraki area is great for a little retail therapy. It’s where the Flea Market is held. Sunday is the best day to visit Monastiraki (as the full flea market is open) — early is better, if you can manage it. Also, you must wander down Ermou Walkway and check out the shops there. The retail section has the advantage of being a pedestrian street so you can spend more time window browsing and less time looking out for vehicles!

The Erechtheion - Acropolis
The Erechtheion – Acropolis

Street in the Plaka
Street in the Plaka

My husband and I at Acropolis (Parthenon in the background)
My husband and I at Acropolis (Parthenon in the background)

Painted London Buses, by Trevor Leeden – Part 1

February 17th, 2015 by

LondonBus London’s iconic buses take on some new looks. join Trevor as he travels around London for a two part journey of these wonderful painted buses. http://thelegsyboys.blogspot.com.es/2014/11/boriss-buses-and-lump-in-throat-did-you.html

Salvation in Santiago, by Trevor Leeden

January 27th, 2015 by

SantSalvTrevor’s final log in northern Spain brings he, and his family, to Santiago. Thank you Trevor for sharing your Spanish adventures with us. Read along by clicking here: http://thelegsyboys.blogspot.com.es/2014/10/salvation-in-santiago-as-anyone-who-has.html