Monday, 29 December 2014

Oh Hello Spain 2014 Travel Roundup: The Take 12 Trips Challenge

My friends and family may joke that I'm away more often than at home, but the truth is, I love a trip. 2014 has been no exception, with Spanish weekend breaks and trips home to the UK aplenty, plus further-flung travels. Yesterday I stumbled across the #take12trips challenge from Need Another Holiday on Twitter, and thought this summed up my approach to seeing the world perfectly.

Blogger Clare created the #take12trips challenge last year to inspire those who work full-time to get out and about a minimum of once a month. While downing tools for a week or more and heading off on holiday every month is unrealistic for most employees, taking a day trip or weekend break isn't, with some careful planning and budgeting. Rather than waiting until August to take a whole month off like most of my Spanish colleagues, I'm more an advocate of regular weekend breaks and the odd longer holiday here and there. Basically, any excuse to pack a bag and set off to see a bit more of the world.

I'm cheating a bit and joining the 2014 challenge retrospectively, but in 2015 I'm planning to make a conscious effort to take my 12 trips. As you'll see below, I don't think I'll struggle...

So, here's how my 2014 year in travel shaped up... It's a bit of a mammoth read, so grab a cup of tea and settle in.


The Plaza Mayor in Salamanca

My 2014 travels started well with a trip to Salamanca straight after Reyes for my work's annual conference. Although we spend most of the time holed up in an auditorium listening with rapt attention to the speakers (ahem), there was also plenty of time to socialise, and the event concluded with a tour of the pretty university city on a chilly winter morning. I've visited Salamanca twice before, and as the Spanish equivalent of Oxford, I feel right at home there.

Business trips provide a great opportunity to stay a while longer and soak up a city's atmosphere, but as I'd already seen Salamanca in 2013, a friend and I headed instead to Zamora for our post-conference recovery. A weekend in the beautifully-restored NH Palacio del Duero did the trick; we even managed a tapas crawl around the casco antiguo which involved a lock-in with a cast of interesting characters. That said, winter probably isn't the best time to visit Zamora: this Castilian town gets pretty damn cold, and most sights and shops closed at midday, so we spent plenty of time huddling in cafés over steaming cups of cola cao.

January ended with some sunshine thanks to a hop on the AVE to visit my friend Vicki in Utrera, close to Seville. This welcoming little town has more quality tapas bars per square mile than Madrid, I swear. Understandably, the weekend was spent dipping in and out of many of those, notably Besana, Casa Diego and Doña Juana, catching up over tasty bites and plenty of white wine.


Oh hello, Barcelona!

After January's trip-fest, February was a calmer month, with one trip to Barcelona to attend another conference. Stepping off the AVE, I was pleasantly surprised by the much milder temperature than Madrid. The temperature wasn't the only reason I warmed to the Catalan capital, though: being whisked off for dinner at beachside Pez Vela and cocktails at the sail-shaped W Hotel with a view over the twinkling city lights might have had something to do with it. This trip inspired more than one repeat visit to Barcelona, a city I'd previously been undecided about.


The Guggenheim in Bilbao
In March, I welcomed two different friends from the UK to Madrid, so a couple of weekends were spent in the capital, sightseeing, snacking and shopping our way around the city. March also saw me take another work trip to a city beginning with B: this time, I headed off to Bilbao. In addition to attending an event there, I also managed to wander the beautiful casco antiguo and the riverside, as well as catching up with a friend over lunch and a visit to the Guggenheim. The wow of Bilbao inspired my second-ever blog post in 2010; 4 years later the effect was the same. This compact city nestled in the green valleys of the Basque country is a gritty industrial hub no longer. Instead, it's the ideal mix of ancient and modern, with a friendly feel to boot. The Basque country is famous for its food, and Bilbao is no exception: I was only sorry not to bag a table at the Guggenheim restaurant as I had last time. Modern Casilda made a pretty good alternative, though. 

March ended with a quick trip up to Barcelona and a drive down the coast towards Tarragona, taking in stunning coastal views from curving mountain roads.

It's always good to see the sea: the coast between Barcelona & Tarragona

Read more: Bilbao and Barcelona.


April was another busy month, beginning with another conference in Harrogate in Yorkshire, to which I added a trip home to my parents' in Lancashire. I found myself back there a few weeks later for a significant birthday, which I also celebrated with friends in London.

A Semana Santa procession getting underway in Baena

Easter fell late this year, and I was lucky enough to follow my birthday with a trip to the 9 Andalucian towns that make up the Caminos de Pasión route: Carmona, Osuna, Puente Genil, Cabra, Priego de Córdoba, Baena, Alcalá la Real and Lucena. The trip aimed to introduce a group of international journalists to the sights and sounds of Semana Santa in these towns in the provinces of Seville, Córdoba and Jaén, and from the hundreds of times my finger clicked my camera shutter and the ringing in my ears afterwards, the goal was achieved. Semana Santa processions in Seville and Málaga are well-known – and for that reason, well-attended. As the Caminos de Pasión route is exclusively made up of medium-sized towns not often on foreign tourists' itineraries, we were able to get close to the passing pasos and chat to local costaleros (men and women who carry the pasos). I'll be writing about this experience in the March 2015 issue of Flush Magazine, but if you're thinking of an Easter trip to Spain, try some of the Caminos towns for a less crowded experience.

My intense introduction to Semana Santa ended on a high with sábado santo in Seville. An experience shared with Kim from Becoming Sevillana, we were whisked from procession to procession by a keen crown of capillita boys, finishing by watching the solemnly beautiful entry of the Virgin into San Lorenzo church, where she'll wait for another year. Kim and I both touched the wooden door of the iglesia once it closed behind her, which according to local lore means we'll be returning next year.

Read more: Easter in Andalucía and Holy Saturday in Seville


My first trip to the Costa Brava: Port de la Selva

Even though April found me away from Madrid more days than not, Spain's puente de Mayo is a travel excuse that can't be missed: free days off! I took my first trip to the Costa Brava, staying in laid-back little Port de la Selva and day-tripping out to nearby Cadaqués, Llança and over the border to the French town of Banyuls-sur-Mer. With the infamous tramontana wind whipping holidaymakers into submission, there was no chance of early sunbathing, but a visit to Salvador Dalí's former home in Portlligat was a much more cultural way to pass the time. I fell for the wild, rugged coastline of the Cap de Creus, a side of Spain I hadn't seen before. That's one thing I love about living there: a weekend break can take you to a region so far removed from the one where you normally reside, both geographically and culturally.

My second May trip was less leisurely: a weekend in Córdoba with the sole aim of pasándolo bien at the feria. My favourite Spanish tradition involves andaluz towns and cities throwing a week-long party during which anyone with ganas de fiesta decamps to the recinto ferial on a daily basis, dolled up to the nines ready to sip rebujito and dance sevillanas by day, and switch over to copas and reggaeton by night. I'd never attended Córdoba's fair before, but found it to be a good size, with plenty of different casetas all open to the public. The cordobeses certainly have stamina: their feria lasts 9 days and continues well into the early hours of the morning – things were only just winding down as we limped home at 4.30am.

Feria de Cordoba: Welcome to the party

Read more: Costa Brava posts and Córdoba posts

Monday, 22 December 2014

Visiting Spain in Winter: Where to go, what to do

December 2014 in Spain may have been mild, but it's now officially winter. This may not be a season when many people plan to travel (unless you're keen on winter sports), but if you don't spend up at Christmas, you can find some real bargains in January and February, when flights and accommodation drop in price.

Where to go in Winter

Temperatures can get pretty chilly in Spain's heartland during winter, so you may want to skip Castilla-León and Aragón and opt for a coastal city instead. Valencia, Alicante and Málaga are usually sunny at this time of year, and winter can be a good time to visit Barcelona, with prices a little lower than the rest of the year. Andalucía in general is a safe choice at this time of year, with plenty of sunny days and mild temperatures. You can get great deals at some top hotels in winter, such as the Reserva del Higuerón in Fuengirola. Although the sun's likely to shine, it won't be tanning weather, so go for a hotel with plenty of facilities to keep you entertained or enough nearby to visit. The best bet for off-season sun has to be the Canary Islands though: sunbathing's possible there even in the depths of winter.

A bright January day in the Alcazar gardens, Sevilla

If you prefer a country escape to a city break, winter's a great time to get friends and family together and rent a casa rural. And if you like it cold or enjoy winter sports, head to the Pyrenees, the sierra around Madrid or the Sierra Nevada in Granada.

Winter fiestas

Caga Tio, the Catalan Christmas log. Photo from

In Spain, the main Christmas celebrations take place on 24 December, when families get together in the evening for a big meal. Cataluña has some particularly curious traditions, including the Caga Tió ('poo log', to put it politely), a cute tree trunk with a smiley face who children 'feed' during December so that he erm, produces gifts for them when they bash him with sticks and sing to him on the 24th. I kid you not. The Catalans are a fan of scataological humour, with their figure of the 'Caganer' common in nativity scenes around the province. This figure of a man doing his business has become something of a collector's item, with controversial figures (often politicians) on sale every year. You can find both the Caga Tió and Caganers during December in markets around Cataluña, including the Fira de Santa Llúcia in Barcelona. You can find more details of Christmas and New Year activities in Barcelona here.

Christmas lights in Madrid

Monday, 15 December 2014

Festive fun in Madrid: Christmas lights, markets, skating & snow

Callao at Christmas. I admit I added the snow.

Being from England, I sometimes struggle to get into the festive spirit in Spain without the sludge-skied days, cracker-pulling at Christmas dos, pre-Christmas mince pies and the schmaltzy John Lewis advert on TV. They do the holiday season a bit differently here, so I'm currently looking for excuses to get into the Christmas mood. If you're in Madrid over the next few weeks, here's a guide to festive fun around the city.

Seeing the Christmas lights

Christmas lights as seen from the Navibus. Photos from my Instagram feed

Madrid puts on a good show in the evening (until the oddly early hour of 11pm). All around the centre, streets are illuminated with glitzy lights, some of which were designed by top Spanish designers. Most of the conical Christmas trees which pepper the city's plazas are unfortunately sponsored this year, with the name of the sponsor festooned in lights, but the huge gold tree in Puerta del Sol is sponsorship-free. Sol looks particularly good at Christmas, and Gran Vía and Cibeles to the Puerta de Alcalá are also festively lit. If you want to get a good look at the city's best displays, take the Navibus from Plaza Colón (opposite Calle Serrano 30); an after-dark tour of the city's Christmas lights. Costing €2 for adults and €1.50 for children, the trip on an open-top bus runs from 6–10pm Monday–Thursday and until 11pm on weekends plus 25 December and 1 January. The route takes in Puerta de Alcala, Cibeles, Calle Alcalá, Gran Vía up to Santo Domingo where it doubles back and follows the same trail in reverse, adding in some of barrio Salamanca on the return journey. The tour lasts about 40 minutes and is fun for kids of all ages.

Christmas markets and pop-ups

If standard Christmas shopping isn't for you, you might want to check out some of the many markets and pop-up stores on offer in Madrid this month. There's a very comprehensive list (in Spanish) over on Madrid Diferente, but a few highlights include Diferente Market  (20 & 21 December) which will sell products from 30 independent designers and also offer a café bar and a DJ session, and the Mercadillo del Gato from 13–23 December with vintage goods, jewellery, cosmetics, artisanal products and more. 

The Hovse: Pretty but pricey

On the pop-up front, the much-hyped (and stupidly-named) The Hovse is best for a browse and a leisurely vermouth at La Vermuteria pop-up (a pop-up within a pop-up, how hipster) unless you're utterly loaded. As at the very similar, equally stupidly-named (Meaning) – their brackets not mine – at the Palacio Santa Barbara, all the independently-designed goods are beautifully presented, but their price tags are not within reach for your average mil eurista. If you're looking for similar gift items, clothes and jewellery at a more reasonable price, try boutiques La Intrusa and Nest instead. Nest also sells Christmas cards.

More traditional outdoor markets selling artisanal goods, food and jewellery among other gift items can be found around Plaza Mayor, near the Palace and in Plaza Santo Domingo. 

Ice skating

Thursday, 11 December 2014

Georgina's Year Abroad in Huesca: Part 1

This week's post is a guest post by Georgina Dorr, a student of French, Spanish & Portuguese at Exeter University who is currently on her year abroad in Huesca. Georgina is working as a British Council Language Assistant and blogging about her year abroad over at The Treasured Notebook

Hands up if you’ve ever heard of Aragón?

No? I hadn’t either, until I moved here nearly three months ago. It’s an autonomous community in the North East of Spain, bordering France and in my opinion, seriously underrated!

Georgina outside Huesca Cathedral

Aragón is the only region that has snowy mountains, sandy deserts and metropolitan cities. It’s got a bit of everything really. I’m currently living in Huesca, a small city of 50,000 people in the North of Aragón. ‘Why Huesca?!’ I hear you cry, and the answer to that would be random selection.

I’m currently working as an Auxiliar de Conversación (English Language Assistant) for the British Council, and the application process is pretty much random. You can select your preferred regions (mine being Andalucía in the South and then Aragón and Navarra, the ski resorts in the North) and they randomly allocate you. Annoyingly, I didn’t find out until around 6 weeks before I moved here, but that’s just the nature of the British Council process.

Views on the drive between Huesca & Pamplona

At first, I was slightly disappointed not to be in the sunny Spain that I’d first imagined: palm trees, Piña Coladas and la playa. Instead, I’m around 40 minutes from the Pyrenees ski resorts and completely inland, but I genuinely wouldn’t change a thing. Huesca is a small city but I really like the familiarity of it and seeing people I know every time I go to the local supermarket. I’m really loving living here and being somewhere that tourists would never think to visit (I can count the English speakers in Huesca on one hand!). I’m also really lucky to be living with two lovely Spanish students, with whom I can practise my Spanish and really discover the Spanish culture, which you wouldn’t see if you lived with other expats.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Costa del Conference Venue: Working in Fuengirola

Last month I shared my snobbish surprise that Fuengirola was an ideal beach break destination: with excellent-value hotels, clean beaches and good shopping, what's not to love? But the reason I found myself in Fuengirola in the first place was business, not pleasure: my company had chosen to host their annual summer conference in this seaside resort.

Business or pleasure?

I couldn't understand the logic behind holding a conference in a popular tourist destination in the height of summer, but once I clicked through to the website of the THB Reserva del Higuerón, I didn't care. This four star superior (whatever that means) hotel nestles in the hills between Fuengirola and its neighbouring resort Benalmádena and has more facilities than you can shake your sun cream at. Or at least, more than you can road test during a three-day conference: there's a health club including a gym, full spa and tennis courts; three swimming pools (one of which is a swanky infinity pool), a choice of restaurants, cafés and bars, a mini-train to trundle you off to the beach and a beach club once you get there.

The view from my room at THB Reserva del Higueron

The Reserva del Higuerón isn't just crammed full of facilities, though; it's also rather trendy. Decor is sleek and chic, with piped electronic music reminding you how deeply fashionable the place is. There's the odd pretentious element, and there was a fair bit of posing going down on the couples' sunloungers surrounding the infinity pool, but the staff are friendly and helpful. There were a few style over substance gaffes, however: in the bedrooms, a sliding door served both the toilet and the adjacent shower – but it didn't cover both at the same time. The bathtub was also positioned in the room itself, presumably designed so that you could soak up the view at the same time as the bubbles, but these decisions mean it's not ideal for friends sharing (or new partners). There were no phones in the rooms either – reception supplied a mobile if you needed one. Presumably this was a cost-cutting incentive dressed up as a digital era decision, but it's not the handiest plan for a hotel that also offers conference facilities.

Sunset from the infinity pool

Apart from that though, I couldn't fault the Reserva del Higuerón as a conference venue – or a hotel for those seeking a relaxing escape. As we were in meetings and training sessions all day, proximity to the beach, restaurants and shops wasn't a priority, but for those who like to feel the sand between their toes or want to get out on day trips, the location may be a bit remote. The free mini-train service connects the hotel with the shopping centre, the train station and the beach in Fuengirola, but with 8 services a day (the last one at 7pm), it's of limited help. However, as the facilities and food in the hotel are of a high standard, this doesn't matter if you're looking for somewhere to chill out for a few days. And if you do want to venture further afield, you can hire cars in reception. Another big plus is its status as an 'adults only' hotel: when I saw this one the website, I feared swingers' nights would be advertised in reception, but it means exactly what it says – children aren't allowed to stay here, meaning a peaceful poolside experience for all.

The meeting room we were allocated was well-appointed and all the audiovisual equipment worked: a must for a conference venue. And in the snatches of free time we got, we could enjoy the gym or the swimming pools (awkward 'colleague in swimsuit' alert). We enjoyed buffet-style breakfasts and lunches, and were whisked off by bus to dine in the evenings. The nearby Restaurante El Higuerón (handily located across a motorway, so yes the bus was needed) served delicious Spanish dishes in traditional surroundings, with a panoramic view over the hills and down to the sea. Watching the sun set from here while tucking into gourmet food wasn't a shabby experience at all.

Fuengirola surprised me again. It may not be your traditional conference venue, but I'd much more stay in a chic hotel surrounded by (well-behaved) holidaymakers to dilute the business experience a little. And when you can end the day with a sunbathe, a swim and a sip of cava by the infinity pool, so much the better.

The details
THB Reserva del Higuerón is at Autopista Costa del Sol, salida 217, Avenida del Higuerón 46, 29640 Fuengirola. It's 19km from Malaga airport and 2km from the beach.
Prices start from €46 in low season for a double room excluding breakfast. This is an absolute bargain.

You can read my post about my weekend break in Fuengirola here.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Madrid Monday: A trendy take on tapas at La Pescadería

You're in Madrid and looking to dine at a stylish spot with a bit of atmosphere. The food's got to be good too, of course. Oh, and you don't have a lot to spend.

In a city saturated with restaurants, finding somewhere that fits all these criteria shouldn't be a tall order: but it is. Until recently, my go-tos for good value meals in a trendy setting were always La Musa and La Mucca –  until I discovered La Pescadería.

The lovely indoor patio at La Pescaderia

From the same stable as success story La Mucca (which has a branch just off Calle Pez and another on Calle Prado), La Pescadería is on newly-happening Calle Ballesta and offers diners a winning formula of cocktails, tapas and main meals. Like La Mucca, it's atmospherically-lit (no complexion-draining strip lighting beloved of bares Manolo here, señores) with that industrial-chic feel that's doing the rounds on the hipster circuit at the moment. So far, so Triball identikit, right?

But wait: the food's great. And don't just take my word for it: I took my notoriously fussy mother here and she loved it. She's still talking about it a month later. With a more modern Spanish menu than La Mucca, La Pescadería offers a generous selection of tapas to share, including vegetarian, meat and you guessed it, fish options. You'll see a few staples such as patatas bravas and chipirones encebollados (baby squid with onion) lurking amongst the tempting-sounding modern dishes, and you may well consider ignoring them. Don't. La Pescadería's are some of the best bravas I've ever had, with fresh, plump potatoes that somehow avoid feeling fried and a rich, creamy, spicy sauce. The succulent chipirones are one of the stand-out dishes, recommended by the friendly staff.

Atmospheric lighting = bad food shots. Pumpkin & goat's cheese salad

Other top tapas include the pumpkin, goat's cheese and walnut salad, the buñuelos de bacalao (cod fritters – my personal favourite) with piquillo pepper sauce, vegetable tempura and rabas (squid strips) with saffron alioli. Portions are a decent size for tapas; after several visits I've found four tapas to be enough between two people wanting a light meal, but if you're hungry, order more. Prices hover around the €5 mark for the tapas, with main meals such as boletus risotto, gourmet hamburger, meats and fish generally €13 plus. Wines by the glass are a cut above the usual and cheap, and there's an extensive cocktail list.

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