Saturday, 31 May 2014

Córdoba in May: Feria de Nuestra Señora de la Salud

With a range of events including the Festival of the Patios and the Cruces de Mayo, May is arguably the best month to visit the andaluz city of Córdoba. It's also the month when Córdoba holds its Feria de Nuestra Señora de la Salud, and it was for this reason I visited last weekend.

The portada is modelled on the city's most famous sight, the Mezquita

Although most ferias run from Wednesday to Sunday, Córdoba's starts at midnight on Friday and runs until the following Sunday. They must have some stamina, those cordobeses. Held at the recinto ferial on the north bank of the Guadalquivir River, the fair is easily accessed by bus (or on foot, for those who don't opt for ridiculously high heels). With 96 casetas, it's smaller in size than the famous Feria de Abril in Sevilla, but Córdoba's feria is more accessible in that all of its casetas are open to the public.

Arriving at around 11 on Friday night, the calle del infierno (fairground) was teeming with over-excited children and mock-reluctant adults. Not so the casetas: even after the rather midnight lacklustre fireworks display (there's a crisis on, don't you know), revellers were rather thin on the ground. Our guiri duo wandered the recinto taking in the variety of casetas: as it's a few years since I've been to a city feria, I was surprised to see how many smart, semi-permanent constructions there were. Of course, there were the usual marquees with a sandy albero floor, but there were also plenty of casetas that wouldn't have looked out of place in Ibiza, bouncers and touts included. Call me old-fashioned, but a wooden floor at a feria feels wrong: I want to trail home with that familiar yellow dust smeared all over my shoes and halfway up my leg. The prices were another shock: after a familiar €5 jug of rebujito (the traditional feria drink of sherry mixed with 7Up), we were surprised to be quoted €10 in another caseta, and accidentally forked out €12 the following day due to a momentary lapse in 'sherry money watch'.

View of the fairground from the big wheel

After a 2.30am spin on El Ratón Vacilón, we decided to conserve our energy for Saturday. Returning to the recinto post-lunch, the feria de día was in full swing: glamorous groups of girls in their trajes de gitana hurried off to their favourite casetashorses and carriages swept under the impressive portada and down the feria's main streets. Modelled on Córdoba's most famous sight, the portada's archways mimic those of the Mezquita, the Mosque-turned-cathedral that keeps the city firmly on the tour of Spain map. The aesthetic appeal of the Feria de Córdoba doesn't end here either: many of the casetas are sleek and stylish, and the recinto is kept pretty tidy, with litter bins at every turn.

Portada close-up
Drinking & riding: anything goes at #FeriaCordoba

The afternoon slipped away as quickly as the rebujito, with a spin on the noria (big wheel: this one proudly announced itself as 'the biggest itinerant wheel in Europe'), severe cases of dress envy, an ice cream, a wander in and out of a few casetas and catching a live performance in one, El Esparraguero. Another thing that struck me about Córdoba's feria was the amount of hen and stag parties in attendance: at times there were two or three in a caseta. Easily accessible by high-speed train (AVE) from both Madrid and Sevilla, it's understandably a popular option for those wishing to bid farewell to singledom in flamenca style, but for me it only added to the slightly commercial feel of the feria. Returning in the evening, the groups were even more in evidence with their matching T-shirts and stags-in-drag. Unlike in England, there was no apparent rowdiness, but their appearance jarred somewhat with the women in their elegantly accessorized trajes and men in smart shirts.

Yes, it was absolutely necessary to run after these lovely ladies to take this. And yes, I really want one.

The evening session took a while to warm up thanks to the Champions League Final clash between Real and Atlético Madrid (shown on screens in some casetas), but it quickly became apparent that those sensible cordobeses skip opening night in favour of Saturday: after all, when you've got 9 nights to choose from, you don't want to peak too soon. Within a few hours, the recinto was jumping, with touts enticing us in with drinks offers and queues forming at the caseta doors. Despite the seeming one-in, one-out policy and the security on the door, there are never any admission charges – thankfully. given the amount of outlay required for a humble jug of rebujito. By the early hours, the casetas were buzzing to the rhythm of Spanish pop and reggaeton, with not a sevillana-style hand twirl in sight. At 5am, things started to wind down (see what I mean about these cordobeses having stamina?), so we made like the locals and chomped down some churros con chocolate at a Hermanos Pernia stand and limped to the taxi queue. Those six-inch wedges which seemed such a good idea at 9pm were now the bane of my life and enough to attract a sympathetic snort (but not a ride home) from the local Police.

Although I had a great weekend at the Feria de Córdoba, I couldn't help but feel a bit saddened by the increasing commercialization of one of my favourite aspects of andaluz culture. Sure, it's a sign of the times, and given the current state of the Spanish economy, any opportunity to make money needs to be taken. But with all the stags, hens, touts, pricey drinks and bouncers, I couldn't help but stop to wonder where I was. Saturday night in Chorley? Nope,  Feria de Córdoba. Still, the  feria de día was more traditional, with the usual fashion parade of trajes, dancing of sevillanas and general exuberance. But I have a feeling I might prefer my ferias a bit more local: after all, it's much easier to familiarize yourself when you've only got 40 or fewer casetas to choose from, and it's easier to meet people in a smaller place. That said, I think Córdoba's feria is a great option for those looking for their first feria experience: sizeable without being overwhelming, accessible and visually appealing. Just lower those prices and chuck the wooden floors, and I'll be back.

Want to check out the feria de Córdoba? Here's some practical information.

  • Córdoba's feria is held in the last week of May every year. 
  • If you're planning to attend, download the free iFeria Córdoba app, which is packed with information about casetas, what's on when, offers, transport and weather. 
  • You can find a map of the fairground here.
  • For cheap rebujito head to Caseta Juan 23. For a traditional atmosphere, try El Esparraguero. For all-round good times, check out Caseta Ajetreo. For a bit of reggaeton in classy surroundings (what a paradox), try El Yunque.

Read more: For more information on what feria is and a glossary of terms used above, please see my Guiri's guide to feria post. For more about visiting Córdoba, see this post.

Photos taken from my Instagram feed @ohhellospain, which I regularly update with photos of Spain and travels around Europe.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A guiri's guide to feria in Andalucia, Spain

Spoiler: This is how much I love feria

So what's feria then? 

Put simply, it's my favourite thing about Spain. Most common in the southern region of Andalucía, it's basically an annual excuse for a party. Although it literally translates as 'fair', feria is much more than an opportunity to bash your way round the dodgems and munch some candyfloss. The majority of towns in Andalucía hold their feria at the same time each year, often in honour of their patron saint. The first ferias were held in the 19th century, and began as livestock fairs. How you can make a party out of selling cattle I don't know, but the Spanish managed it – and I'm glad they did.

An event which lasts several days (usually from Wednesday to Sunday), feria revolves around drinking, dancing and having a good time. But this is nothing like clubbing in Ibiza: it's a traditional, family-friendly affair that's enjoyed by all ages. During the day, the recinto ferial (dedicated area of land used for feria) fills with party-goers decked out in their finest - and with horses. Either ridden by jinetes (male riders) or amazonas (women), or attached to carriages carrying exuberant passengers, equines are a key part of the feria de día. They obviously aren't allowed in the casetas (marquees) though, which is where all the dancing of sevillanas and drinking of rebujito goes on. Yes, even in the day. Come the evening, the horses clip-clop out of the recinto ferial and the music gradually switches over to Spanish pop and reggaeton. The party usually continues until around 4 or 5am, when the neon lights dim, the big wheel stops spinning and the fairground sleeps for a few hours.

What do you mean I can't have a ride?

When and where are they?
The feria season runs from April to September every year. The most famous feria is one of the earliest: Seville's Feria de Abril, which starts two weeks after Semana Santa (Holy Week). It's also the biggest and most exclusive: some locals and visitors alike have mixed feelings about this feria due to the invite-only policy of most of its casetas. There are still a fair few which open to the general public (usually run by political parties or neighbourhood associations), but many belong to associations and groups of friends, so it helps to have friends in the city. As it's the most famous, it's also the most popular with tourists, who most likely don't have well-connected sevillano acquaintances. Sevilla is the only feria with this door policy, so it can be a better idea to try one in a different city, such as Jerez's Feria del Caballo (mid-May) or the ferias in Córdoba (late May) and Málaga (August). Or go local: I personally love a small town feria, where it's much easier to meet people, be shown how to dance sevillanas and wander in and out of every single caseta. The drinks are also cheaper. Either way, you can find a list of ferias all over Andalucia here.

A quiet moment inside a caseta at the Feria de Abril

What exactly happens?
For andaluces, the local feria is a great opportunity to meet up (and party) with all of your friends. All casetas put on music (sometimes live) and serve drinks. Many also offer food at lunch and dinnertime, so there's no need to take a break (unless you want to change your outfit, of course). People often move from caseta to caseta, getting a feel for the different atmospheres and stopping for a chat, a drink and a dance. There are also over-priced rides and 'win a tacky prize' booths, common to fairs worldwide. For that Spanish touch, there are also plenty of churros vendors waiting to serve you an early breakfast before you stumble home.

La noria

How do I get the most out of my feria experience?
Once you've chosen your feria, you'll probably find that there's quite a bit of information about it online, especially if you're attending one in a city. Websites often feature maps of the recinto ferial, details about the casetas and public transport information (recintos are often on the edge of town). Bigger ferias such as Córdoba and Seville also offer apps which tell you what's on when, as well as offers, weather and transport information and more.
The best way to enjoy feria as a guiri (foreigner) is to try visiting both during the day and at night, wander round and soak it all up (both the atmosphere and the rebujito). Admire the elegant Andalucian horses, the girls dressed in their perfectly-accessorized trajes de gitana and the ability of all ages to know exactly when to spin around when dancing sevillanas.

Rebujito anyone?

What should I wear?
Ladies, let's get this one straight: nobody expects you to wear a traje de gitana (what we'd call a flamenco dress) as a foreigner. Especially not if you're making a one-off visit. Of course, you can if you really want to get into the spirit and make an investment, but although you might experience massive dress envy, you'll also find plenty of other women who are simply quite smartly dressed (or even in jeans). Wear what you feel comfortable in. As a foreigner, you might stand out anyway, so sticking a flower on the side of your head isn't necessarily going to help matters. If you fancy picking up a few complementos (accessories) to jazz up your outfit though, these can easily be picked up for a few euros locally. If you're going in the evening, up the glamour stakes: a dress always works, and this year in Cordoba, a palazzo pant worn with a vertiginous wedge was the look del día. Just don't blame me if your feet still hurt three days later (ahem). Also, be careful with sandals - your feet will get covered in albero (the dust that's used to make the recinto's surface), and you may even get your toenail bent backwards by a clumsy feriante. Not since I did a half-marathon have my toes known so much pain.

Not compulsory wear. Honest.

Anything else?
Always take tissues and hand sanitiser. One word: portaloo.

If you ever get the chance to experience feria, don't turn it down. Even though it's a key constituent of andaluz culture, I've never felt out of place there. As long as you're prepared to get involved and have a good time, you'll find that most people welcome guiris with open arms – and maybe a glass of rebujito.

All of the lights

The guiri's feria glossary

Here are some key feria terms to learn before you go.

albero – the dusty substance used to make the surface of the recinto ferial. Has a habit of ending up all over your shoes. 
calle del infierno a common name for the fairgorund part of the feria (literally 'hell street')
caseta – a tent or marquee run by an association or group of friends. They all have bars, and some serve food. The casetas are where the party happens during feria: all play music (sometimes live) and everyone has a drink and a dance.
farolillo – little paper lantern, a key part of the decor at feria
noria – the big wheel
portada – the big archway that serves as the entrance to the feria. Seville's changes design every year, but many stay the same
rebujito – a mix of sherry and 7Up, rebujito is the traditional drink at feria. Sounds odd, tastes delicious and goes down far too easily in the heat. Usually served in jugs (jarras) and decanted into tiny plastic cups.
sevillanas – the traditional dance, influenced by flamenco. Involves some artful hand-twirling and spinning. I am useless at it. 

Have you ever been to a feria? What did you think of it?

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Visiting the Costa Brava: Port de la Selva

'You going anywhere for the puente? 'Yep, the Costa Brava'. 'Oh right, nice. I went to Lloret de Mar once...'

I lost count of the times I had this conversation with my British work colleagues before this year's puente de mayo (bank holiday weekend). But my destination wasn't prime Brit abroad territory Lloret, it was the little town of Port de la Selva. Although Costa Brava is best known among most Brits for the party resort of Lloret, its reputation in Spain is more closely related to natural beauty than beer and bikinis. Stretching from  Blanes all the way to the French border, the rather rugged coastline is dotted with a string of beachside towns and resorts.

Port de la Selva: Lloret it's not

Tucked into a bay on the particularly wild Cap de Creus coastline, Port de la Selva is more popular among Catalan, Spanish and French tourists than with my compatriots, which explains why I hadn't heard of it until a couple of months ago. A twenty-minute drive through the mountains from more famous Cadaqués, Port de la Selva is a relaxed resort encompassing a wide sweep of sandy beach, a harbour of bobbing boats and a cluster of coves nestling at the foot of its cliffs. It's a popular spot with fishermen and sporty types; windsurfers were out taking full advantage of the famous tramontana wind over the weekend. But Port de la Selva still appeals to those who wouldn't know how to catch an octopus/stand upright on a windsurf if their lives depended on it (i.e. me). Everything about the town is laid-back and low-key, with a relaxed air that soothes the stress of city life away after a few hours.

Exploring one of the bays. I don't recommend wearing sandals.

There may be little in the way of sights to explore (the hilltop Monastery of Sant Pere de Rodes is the nearest tourist attraction), but Port de la Selva's charm lies in its atmosphere. In summer, things liven up a little, when a beachside chiringuito pops up and windsurfs and boats are available for hire. Out of season, however, it was blissfully quiet, with little more to do than wander the streets lined with whitewashed buildings, stop for a seafront coffee, take snaps of the hilltop views and enjoy seafood dinners. But sometimes, that's all you need.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Sunday stroll: Riverside in Bilbao

The Guggenheim museum, Bilbao

Before the arrival of the world-famous Guggenheim museum, Bilbao was definitely not considered a pretty city. Once commonly dubbed industrial, the Basque Country's biggest city had something of a makeover when the glamorous Frank Gehry-designed gallery swept into town.

One of the main areas to benefit from the Guggenheim-sparked regeneration was the city stretch of the once-polluted Nervion River. Bilbao was once a shipping hub, from which locally-mined iron was despatched around the world. By the time the museum was constructed, the glory days of iron exportation were over, but the legacy (and the smell) remained. As the Guggenheim sits on the riverbank around 15 minutes' walk from the city centre, the surrounding area understandably needed sprucing up. 

Nowadays, it's a different story. With wide, flat paths suitable for pedestrians and cyclists, modern bridges spanning the river and landscaped borders, a stroll along the banks of the Nervion is decidedly appealing. Views of the undeniably photogenic Guggenheim dominate one bank, while the opposite side features grassy hills stretching away beyond the city. It may be an urban walk, but the tree-lined banks and vistas of the mountain backdrop make a walk by the river feel like an escape.

Thursday, 15 May 2014

On being (almost) a vegetarian in Spain

'But ham isn't meat!' 'Do you eat chicken, though?' 'Are you OK health-wise?' 'But why?'

These are just a handful of standard responses the revelation that I don't eat meat is met with in Spain. I'm actually a pescetarian, meaning that I eat (and enjoy) both fish and seafood. But even this caveat isn't quite enough to soothe most Spaniards: a fair number believe my diet is downright weird.

Vegetarianism is quite literally a foreign concept in Spain. In the UK, it's a fairly common choice, with all restaurants and fast-food outlets catering to non-meat eaters in some way, even if it is only by offering those menu staples of a goat's cheese tart or mushroom risotto. But here in Spain, it's just not the done thing. This, after all, is the land of jamón, where prized pigs are fed a diet of acorns and pampered more than your average princess before ending up on Juan and María's plates. The Mediterranean diet features fish, olive oil, vegetables and fruit in abundance: but it also features meat in all its different forms. Rabo de toro (ox tail) and oreja a la plancha (grilled pigs' ear) are more likely to be found on your average Spanish menu than the aforementioned mushroom risotto.

Meat-free Spanish omelette

Despite the lack of understanding, being a pescetarian in Spain isn't that much of a challenge. Yes, I have to study menus a bit more carefully than I would in my home country, but I'll usually find a fish option that suits me. Choices are more limited for me than for meat eaters, and I can't vouch for the contents of the stock used in some of the dishes, but in general, life as a pescetarian is pretty easy. When I first arrived in Spain aged 20, it's fair to say that my fish consumption went as far as fish fingers and the occasional piece of skinless cod. Being presented with a whole fish, all glassy-eyed and shimmering in its skin, was a learning curve. I admit I'm still not adept in slicing fish efficiently and often end up with a mouthful of bones, but I'm much less phased by having something on my plate that actually resembles a sea creature. Pescetarian visitors to Spain who are prepared to get involved with their dinner and do a bit of head-removing and shell-cracking will be just fine. It's their vegetarian cousins I worry about more.

Vegetarian visitors to Spain need to be flexible. And prepared to have their choice of diet questioned. In general, first courses in Spain cater reasonably well to vegetarians, with dishes such as gazpacho and salmorejo (cold tomato soups, the latter creamier than the former), vegetable soup and salads featuring on many menus. The challenge is the main course, where you'll generally find only meat and fish options. Tapas is another battleground: even the most vegetarian-sounding dishes ('fried artichokes') can surprise ('fried artichokes with ham' would have been a more accurate description). Here are some tips for surviving Spain as a vegetarian (or fish finger-loving pescetarian), and some ideas of what to order.

1) Confess
No, not to a priest, to your waiter. He or she needs to know you don't eat meat just in case (see point 2). It may do precious little to help, given the lack of understanding of the concept, but it's worth mentioning. Say 'soy vegetariano/a' or 'no como carne' and ask 'Qué puedo comer?' (What can I eat?)

2) Anticipate surprises
One of my main frustrations is finding meat where I least expect it. I'm all too familiar with the sinking feeling that comes along with that vegetarian dish you ordered that actually contains ham (it's always bloody ham). Even if you think you're safe, ask 'No lleva carne, verdad?' when ordering. This is wise even with fish dishes, just in case.
Be careful with: salmorejo (often topped with chunks of ham and boiled egg), ensalada mixta (usually contains tuna - go for 'verde' if you're a vegetarian), sandwich vegetal (likewise, often contains tuna)

3) Potatoes are your friend
Two staples of the Spanish diet are meat-free: tortilla de patatas (Spanish omelette) and patatas bravas (roast potatoes with hot sauce, also served with ali oli - with garlic sauce). Commonly found in both tapas bars and traditional restaurants, these dishes may be carb-heavy, but they're a safe choice.
Be careful with: patatas aliñadas (common in Seville, also known as ensalada campera in Madrid) - contains tuna

4) Tapas without the traps
In addition to potato dishes, pimientos de padrón are a safe bet. Yes, they may be greasy, but these roasted green peppers drenched in oil and salt are always meat-free. Other vegetarian tapas to try include croquetas de espinacas or de boletus (spinach/mushroom croquettes), espinacas con garbanzos (spinach and chickpeas), pisto (ratatouille) and berenjenas con miel (battered aubergine/eggplant drenched with honey). Many bars also offer tostas and montaditos (small sandwiches) which are usually available with a cheese (queso) filling. If you're in a Basque-style pintxos bar with mini-montaditos on the counter, perusing should be easy, but make sure to rock out the phrase in point 2 when ordering.

5) Go international
In bigger cities like Madrid and Barcelona, you'll find a range of international restaurants, from Indian to Ethiopian to Greek. Many of these will offer more meat-free options than your average Spanish place, so these are good bets when you've had enough of potatoes. In smaller towns, your only 'ethnic' option might be a Chinese, where you'll find a salteado de verduras (vegetable stir fry) on the menu, at the very least.
Be careful with: arroz tres delicias. The standard rice served in Chinese restaurants in Spain, this contains egg, peas and... ham. Ask for arroz blanco instead to avoid these meaty morsels.

6) Try a vegetarian restaurant
Thankfully also reasonably common in Spain's larger metropolises, vegetarian restaurants are a meat-free oasis in a desert of jamón. Many are old-school hippy numbers serving stalwart choices like soya burgers, but some are more modern with a flavoursome variety of meatless munchies on their menus. Hit Google and TripAdvisor to see if your destination has a veggie restaurant. In Madrid, even carnivores will be appeased by the tasty variety on offer at buffet restaurant Viva la Vida in La Latina's Plaza de la Paja. In Valencia, La Tastaolletes in Barrio del Carmen is a welcome respite from paella, serving creative salads and more substantial mains.

7) Know your shops
If you're self-catering, take advantage of the local markets and fruterías, which sell good quality fruit and veg more cheaply than supermarkets. When it comes to other ingredients, Mercadona and Carrefour are safe choices. The former sells houmous, tofu and a good range of cheeses, while Carrefour deals in tofu, veggie burgers and seitan. Some branches have a health-food section which sells goodies like quinoa (at a price). Herbolarios (health-food stores) often sell a selection of vegetarian products too.

8) Be brave
If you can't find a meat-free main course on a set menu, there's nothing wrong with ordering two starters. And if you can't find anything vegetarian on the menu, don't be afraid to go off-piste and ask for something you can actually eat - restaurants will usually be happy to cater to you, once they understand your dietary requirements. If you like eggs, revueltos (scrambled eggs with different ingredients) and tortillas (omelettes) are a good option. Being a vegetarian in Spain doesn't give the potentially adventurous much scope, but being a pescetarian does: don't be put off by heads, tails and shells - just get involved. Spain does fish well, so the teeth-gritting and effort will pay off.

You may not eat the most balanced diet of your life while visiting Spain, but with a bit of patience and a fondness for potatoes, you'll get by. I can't see vegetarianism becoming widespread in Spain in the near future, but more modern restaurants and tapas bars are certainly seeing the potential of the humble vegetable and the pulse, with more creative options on offer using these ingredients. It's still wise to watch out for that pesky jamón, though.

You'll find details of restaurants in Madrid suitable for vegetarians (and some their meat-eating friends will like too) in this post

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Semana Santa 2014: Saturday in Seville

If Semana Santa in Andalucia is famous, Semana Santa in Sevilla is right at the top of the A-list. And for this reason, during Holy Week the city's streets are swamped with both locals and tourists all eager to get the best view of the Virgins as they sway by. I'd heard so much about the famous bulla (the pushing and shoving of the crowd), the footsore hours of waiting to witness a half-hour procession, the pickpocketing risks. But after four days of touring the region's towns to find out more about their Holy Week traditions, I had to see how it's done in the big city.

You're either a Semana Santa fan or you get out of town every time it rolls round. Luckily for me, my friend Kim of Becoming Sevillana is a fan. And even more fortunately, she had managed to find herself a crew of capillita boys to guide her around the 2014 processions. It turns out there are fans, and there are capillitas. A capillita is a Semana Santa devotee, someone who considers this their favourite week of the year, and in this case, someone whose knowledge of Holy Week is almost encyclopaedic. A group of smart young gents who had clearly absorbed every detail printed in El Llamador (the guide to Semana Santa in Sevilla), these guys didn't just know the best places to see the processions, they knew the shortcuts between them, the sculptors of the figures, the number of members of each of the hermandades, and the inside leg measurements of the costaleros. OK, I lied about the last one.

During an evening's procession watching (and marvelling at the capillitas' knowledge), I realized that Sevilla does Semana Santa on a different scale. Not surprising, when you consider that there are over 60 cofradías in Sevilla, with thousands of members between them. Given the huge numbers of nazarenos, it can take over an hour from seeing the cruz de guía at the start of the procession for the entire thing to pass by. Then there's the pasos themselves: some were on a par with those I'd seen in towns around the region, but others were so much grander, more opulent, more magnificent.

After more than five hours of dashing from procession to procession, I was about ready to call it a night. But the boys assured us that there was one moment we simply couldn't miss: the entrada of the Virgen de la Soledad into the Iglesia de San Lorenzo. In Sevilla, each procession leaves from its church to make its way to the cathedral, where the pasos are blessed, before making its way back 'home'. During the week, I had seen expectations mount and emotions run high at numerous salidas, but I hadn't seen any processions return to the church. The return of La Soledad has a great significance in Seville's Semana Santa: it marks the symbolic end of Holy Week before Resurrection Sunday (Easter Sunday). Hundreds of people turn out at midnight to see the procession make its way back home for another year. We secured a spot close to the door of the church and waited. The first flames of the nazarenos' candles floated into view, and the procession gradually wove its way through the darkness towards us.

La Soledad de San Lorenzo approaches the church

As the procession approached, a hush fell over the crowd and a single voice cut through the night, singing a traditional saeta. Gradually another voice joined in, and the two singers accompanied the Virgin as her candle-lit paso was carried towards the door. The Virgin, her clearly visible to all without a palio* covering the paso, was set down to rest for one last time as the saeta ended. The leader of the procession knocked on the closed church door, calling out to those inside and asking for admittance. The costaleros lifted the Virgin high for the final time that year and bore her into the church.

La Virgen de la Soledad de San Lorenzo

Until next year

The door swung closed, and those gathered outside surged forward to touch it. According to local superstition, those who touch the church door will return once again the following year to witness the beautiful moment again. Our group, capillitas and guiris alike, all brushed the wooden door. Returning to see La Soledad come home again in 2015 sounds great to me.

All photos by Juanma Sánchez, who is much better with a camera than me.

*palio = canopy Follow my blog with Bloglovin

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Brunch in Madrid: Café Oliver

In the third part of #BrunchChallenge, I visit a Madrid classic, Café Oliver in Chueca.

January 2015 update: Café Oliver is moving to C/Ventura de la Vega 11.

Sunday at 2pm. Every table is full, waiters whirl through the packed restaurant wielding plates of pancakes and scrambled eggs. There's a Spanish version of a queue clustered round the bar. E and I aren't phased by the scene in front of us though: we had a reservation. Five minutes and not even a nod of acknowledgment from a waiter later, we started to lose confidence. And when we finally were acknowledged, we were informed that no we didn't have a reservation, because you can't book for brunch. All this despite Café Oliver's website taking reservations for the brunch time period, and E having the email confirmation to prove it.

Good start somewhat soured, we were eventually seated and handed the brunch menu. Like many other venues that serve brunch in Madrid, French-style Café Oliver follows the 'set formula' approach, which costs €25 for three 'courses': a selection of pastries, a choice of eggs and a main dish, with a juice, a choice of hot drink and, rather oddly, a bottle of Actimel. With Sunday brunch on offer there since 2002, it's the city's most famous place to have brunch. But would it live up to high expectations?

A waiter soon brought over two jugs of juice, one containing orange, and the other melon and watermelon. I chose a glass of the latter, which tasted homemade. We were also presented with our 'first course', a basket containing a croissant and a pain au chocolat, plus two bread rolls, some butter and jam. I passed on the rather average-looking bread but tried both the croissant and its chocolatey counterpart; both were flaky, buttery and decidedly tasty, unlike the sugary versions often served in Spain. I followed this with scrambled eggs with cheese, herbs and a few pieces of toasted baguette, while E opted for Eggs Benedict (also on offer was fried eggs with bacon). I'm not the world's biggest fan of all things egg, but Café Oliver's scrambled version was well-cooked: clearly freshly-made and neither runny nor dry. E's Eggs Benedict were appetizing enough, but not the best she's ever eaten: the sauce in Spain often isn't quite right, so I'm informed.

Scrambled eggs with cheese and herbs

Eggs Benedict

For the 'main course', we had a choice of caesar salad, cheeseburger, pancakes with maple syrup and a 'tropical salad' of fresh fruit. We both opted for the pancakes, which were huge, fluffy and incredibly filling. A few berries to accompany them wouldn't have gone amiss, though.

Pancakes with maple syrup

Given the amount of food served for €25, brunch at Café Oliver is decent value if you want to go gluttonous and fill your stomach for the day. I'm more a fan of the pick n' mix approach, but with a wide range of choices within the set menu, Café Oliver's brunch recipe works. I can certainly understand why it's so popular, but given the less-than-tepid welcome we received and the booking confusion, I won't be rushing back too quickly. If you like a busy place with a bustling vibe and lots of food, brunch at Café Oliver is definitely worth a try, though.

The details
Address: Calle Almirante 12, 28004 Madrid
Tel: 915 217 379
How to get there: Metro to Chueca (line 5) or Alonso Martinez (lines 4, 5 & 10)
Opening hours: daily from 1.30–4pm & 9pm–midnight. Brunch is served on Sunday afternoons. Despite what it says on the website, you can't book for brunch.

The verdict
After round 3, Federal is still in the lead, with Cafe Oliver taking a respectable second over Maricastaña.

Where do you think serves the best brunch in Madrid? Where should I try next? If you have any suggestions, leave me a comment below or tweet me @ohhellospain. 
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