On a quest of adventure, temperate climes and some dramatic scenery we opted to spend our family summer holiday on the island of Sao Miguel in the Azores. With direct flights of only 3 hours from Madrid and many other European Cities the archipelago of the Azores is an attractive option. You can now impress your friends at the next pub quiz with your geographical knowledge that this volcanic string of islands lie 1500 km off the west coast of Portugal in the mid-Atlantic, well above Madeira which lies off of the coast of Morocco.
On our first day, relieved to be out of the intense heat on the Spanish peninsular, we enjoy the gentle sunshine as we step onto a large boat in search of whales. Moments later the clouds have rolled in and the boat is now keeling over. I hastily banish thoughts of the Titanic out of my mind to concentrate on the Marine Biologist´s shrieks of excitement as a 10 metre sperm whale glides past. By the time Moby Dick is in range for my camera the boat is dancing the Bossa Nova at full tilt with the horizontal rain driving everyone below deck where most people are heaving up lunch into small plastic sick bags. Weatherwise, the Azores and Scotland have a lot in common as you can often experience four seasons in the same hour.
The following day we went out in search of smaller marine mammals. Snorkelling with dolphins requires Swiss horological precision as you have to slide into the sea splash-free to see them play under the water. We caught sight of a mother and a baby with the stripey fetal folds still in evidence down her side as well as some turtles.
After 2 days of seasickness we stay on dry land, visiting the fascinating Gruta de Carvao where we clambered through volcanic rock caves in hard hats. The grotto had previously been used as a welcome cold storage in the days before fridges were commonplace.
A tasty light lunch of chicharros (fried baby mackerel) ensued with boiled yam and yuca followed by Queijada (bean cake pudding). After which we waddled up to Caldeira Velha thermal springs and waterfall to let off steam. The area is akin to a natural spa with lots of hot pools nestling amongst the lush, verdant vegetation.
Later on, in a desperate bid to inch my way up the scale in the Mummy cool-ometer I booked us onto a few adventurous sports excursions. The first one had us all rappelling down ravines in chains and a giant yellow plastic diaper. The plastic nappy is supposedly to protect your nether regions over your wetsuit as you bump down on your bottom over fast flowing waterfalls over rocks (keeping your arms glued into your sides). This proved a lot less terrifying than rappelling down ravines and jumping into narrow rock pools from vertiginous 5 metre heights but I did feel a tremendous sense of triumph over adversity when the terror trip (mercilessly) ended.
After that I felt ready for another bucket list activity to cross off….Stand Up Paddle Boarding. So we took a jeep to Sete Cidades where clusters of Swiss-style chalets cling to the shores of a volcanic lake and carefree cows wander aimlessly through pine forests. Goodness knows why it´s called Stand Up Paddle Board as our guide advised me to kneel down on it until I mastered my equilibrium. As it turned out there was quite a little current going on in the lake and the board had a mind of its own so there ensued a Mr Bean moment as I attempted to steer it away from reeds near the shore whilst in full genuflection.
I´m afraid there is no surviving photographic evidence of me indulging in this particular activity as I discovered, much to my chagrin, that one´s “smattering” of cellulite on the back of one´s thighs is vastly exaggerated when in the kneeling position.
The Azoreans are a resourceful bunch and we shall be extremely envious of their ability to make full use of the free natural resources with which to cook their food while we struggle with ever-rising energy bills this winter. It turns out that Sao Miguel´s natural geysers make for a handy free oven. Local chefs in Furnas think nothing of rising at 5.30 am to lower gargantuan pots of “cozido” on chains into gaping holes through the Earth´s core as geysers hiss noisily around them.
Seven hours later the pots are hauled up ceremoniously and a tasty lunch of slow-cooked meat, sausages and cabbage, kale stew is served in the nearby restaurants. As with so much Iberian fare, it is bigger on taste than it is on beauty. Especially when you spatter the soggy cabbage leaves with some local spicy pepper sauce.
What do Shakira, Salma Hayek, Amal Alamuddin (alias Mrs Clooney), Elie Saab (couturier to Angelina Jolie, Julia Roberts and Kate Middleton) all have in common? They’re all Lebanese, as have been former presidents of Jamaica, Colombia, Ecuador (3!) and Brazil.
The Lebanese are an entrepreneurial nation and many Beirutis I have met are proud of the commercial spirit that comes from their innovative and enterprising Phoenician merchant heritage; those ancient founders of coastal colonies all over the Mediterranean, not least in Cádiz.
In 2019 we decided to see Beirut for ourselves. After a fascinating peak at the local cathedral, mosque and recently-excavated Roman ruins my ice cream fetish started to override any more thoughts of culture and our 11 and 6 year olds’ eyes flickered with increasing interest. Having seen a particular ice cream parlour on one of Rick Stein and Nigel Slater’s UK BBC cookery programmes it had long been my ambition to try the Hanni Mitri ice cream for myself. So armed with former INC member Linda Talluto’s picture of the place we embarked on a monumental five-hour treasure hunt …on foot. There’s nothing like roaming through the streets of a city on a mission to savour superlative ice cream to really get to know it. If only our map had also marked the contours of all those steep hills that abound in Beirut.
After 5 hours I got very excited as we turned a corner and spied a very unassuming bullet-ridden corner shop at the end of a narrow road that I recognised from Linda’s photo. The children had virtually melted en route but were immediately revived and miraculously ordered strawberry and lemon flavour in fluent school French.
The family-owned business has been going since 1949 and has seen a few bombs in its time. There are no seats and no frills. The shop has since moved temporarily followed the Beirut blast in 2020 and the all the ice cream continues to be made on site daily.
Mr Mitri and his diminutive mother were both expecting us to order and leave their minuscule premises but there was no getting rid of us. Buoyed up by fragrant iced perfumes and the cooling freezers we weren’t going anywhere. Copious ice creams and Mr Mitri’s family history later (he ditched banking to take on his father’s ice cream business) we finally re-emerged into the burning sun. As Mr Mitri isn’t coming here anytime soon I urge you all to book a flight just to try his ices.
Mother Mitri uses plastic gloves to literally thumb the different flavours into narrow biscuit cones or down into a plastic cup that literally defies any normal physics of mass and volume. So you end up with rainbow ribbons of zingy oranges and lemons nudged into a corner by the heady aromas of rosewater sorbet and all tempered by a snow-white coating of clotted cream or “ashta”. In addition to the more traditional flavours, you can find mulberry, watermelon, mango and amareddine which is an apricot paste sorbet filled with crunchy toasted pine nuts.
There is clearly no need to fix up the bullet holes (one of them is actually embedded inside his ice cream machinery) as people are more interested in what’s in their hand than on the wall.
Now, you might think that 3,500 km is a long way to fly, albeit on a direct flight, for an ice cream but actually when you factor in all the ancient culture and the boundless hospitality on tap in Beirut it´s definitely worth it.
However, if you do find yourself on an authentic ice cream mission in Madrid here are a few of my favourites closer to home:
Heladeria Gioelia is a favourite amongst our treasurer, Shalini. Particularly the Cremino flavour of white chocolate with hazelnuts and chocolate praline cream. Most importantly, they also deliver!
Heladeria Los Alpes is one of Madrid´s oldest ice cream parlours, since the Tuscan founders arrived here in 1933 and has a few branches across the city and suburbs including Las Rozas and Pozuelo de Alarcón.
Meanwhile if alchemy is more your style, head to N2LAB where liquid nitrogen is the star ingredient and the resultant creamiest of creams are served up by staff in scientific overalls and protective glasses in Calle Gravina, 5 (Chueca).
After a gander round the Retiro I usually make a beeline for Maison Glacée which also doubles up as an innovative pastry shop. Ecological milk from the Comunidad de Madrid is used to ease out what for me is the most authentic Italian style ice cream in the capital in Calle Alcalá 77 and Calle Ibiza, 42
Italian INC member, Tiziana is rather partial to Gelateria Sienna on Calle Narváez and I´m inclined to believe her so I shall be heading there on my next trip into the city.
Finally, there is ubiquitous global brand, Amorino whereby exotic ices are fashioned with a spatula into the shape of a rose. Each flavour forming a different petal. My favourite branch is in El Corte Inglés Gourmet section in Callao from which you can admire spectacular views over Madrid´s rooftops.
Where in the world can you visit the biggest natural wildlife attraction in Europe, have a fresh waterfall massage in a natural pool, ogle dinosaurs, meander through medieval villages, soar above a cobalt blue reservoir on a zipwire, walk the plank over rocky gorges and snaffle up a hearty plate of local almonds and ham whilst watching the ibex mountain goats scramble across the rocky hills?
No matter what season you visit the Matarraña Province of Teruel in North Eastern Spain it will knock you out.
This is Spanish Tuscany on speed without the spectators. The panoramic views of the surrounding mountains and olive and almond groves from the fortified hilltop villages are more reminiscent of Tuscany than Iberia.
Surprisingly, water is a recurring theme in this inland province as visitors can enjoy kayaking and paddle-boarding on the local azure waters of the Embalse de Peña reservoir or gorge walking on wooden boards set above the crystalline waters at El Parrizal before refuelling at local restaurants such as Raco or Roda in tiny Beceite whose population totals a mere 603 inhabitants.
Matarraña is also host to the internationally-acclaimed “vulture man”, José Ramón Moragrega, whose wild vulture reserve is the biggest natural wildlife attraction in Europe. Moragrega’s interest in vultures began 25 years ago when these carnivorous creatures’ source of food dried up thanks to the ban in leaving out animal carcasses after the outbreak of mad cow disease so now every morning at 9.30 am sharp he feeds 250 kilos of rabbit to 300 odd vultures at the Mas de Bunyol farm and conservation centre which also includes 6 guest bedrooms on site.
Jurassic Park enthusiasts will be fascinated by the Dinópolis circuit of 7 interactive dinosaur museums dotted around Teruel where the largest dinosaur remains were found in Europe. The Inhóspitak centre in the tiny hamlet of Peñarroya de Tastavins, a stunning 20 minute drive through the mountainous heart of Matarraña from the fortified village of Valderrobres provides a fun and informative introduction to excavating dinosaur remains through interactive video games.
If adrenaline is more your vibe, look no further than the newly opened Tirolina Fuentespalda which boasts the longest zipwire in Europe at 2000km with endorphine-fuelled ascents of up to 200m.
There are now several interesting places to stay in Matarraña. The first hotel to make its mark on the area and where the former monarchs of Spain, Juan Carlos and Sofía have stayed is Torre del Visco, run by British-born Jemma who has converted a stunning medieval watchtower near Fuentespalda into a luxury boutique Relais & Chateaux hotel with all the trimmings and charm, including a river with natural swimming and outstanding local cuisine from their on-site organic farm.
Perched on a hill at 985 metres above sea level is Mas de la Serra Wilderness Retreat, a restored farmhouse or masía on an almond farm in between Fuentespalda and Valdrerrobres. Guests are treated to arresting views of the mountains and pine and oak forests from the terrace of one of the remotest hotels in Europe. The masía is available for exclusive hire or by the night as a hotel and whilst the owner, my brother, 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 namely Margaret Thatcher’s lavatory and my grandmother’s enamel and iron bath.
At dusk whilst diners tuck into herb-crusted lamb baked in the outdoor oven or rabbit in almond sauce, the rare wild mountain goats, known as Ibex, punctuate the deafening silence as they scramble up and down the scraggy hillsides. Serious foodies can arrange truffle hunting trips in the area that is responsible for 70% of the world´s truffle production, a lot of which ends up in the finest Italian restaurants. Whilst walkers can wander past the almond groves up to La Picosa to enjoy magnificent views of the piercing blue reservoir in the valley below.
If modern architecture is your thing you can consider sleeping in a square glass cube balanced precariously along the edge of a mountain ridge in Monroyo at Hotel and Restaurant Consolación. The restaurant is also open to non-guests and pays homage to local ingredients such as Monroyo black truffles, wild honey, light Aragonese lamb and plenty of Teruel ham.
Last year saw the opening of the fully-restored Torre del Marqués, the area’s first 5 star hotel complete with spa facilities and vineyards which promise to reactivate the former flourishing local wine industry, the forebear of the area´s fruit and almond production.
Suffice it to say that, as per Teruel´s advertising slogan, Teruel Existe (Teruel exists), the region is very much alive and is certainly my favourite unspoilt area of rural Spain.
“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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
All in all, Brihuega and its environs make for an enchanting peak into Castillian history against an intriguing backdrop of fantasy and myths.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
Editor´s Note: A huge thank you to INC members Marlene Makhoul and Rula Norregaard for their invaluable tips and recommendations!
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.
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
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…
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”.