Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015 in Travel: The highs... and lows

Despite jaunts to Portugal, France, Croatia and Slovenia, my 2015 travel was mostly in Spain (for a change). I saw in a new year of travel with a work conference Zaragoza, and my final destination of 2015 was another business trip to Murcia. There was plenty of travel for pleasure, though, with long weekends in the Basque Country and Extremadura, and a week touring the Costa Brava on two wheels.

So what were my 2015 travel highs... and lows?

Favourite new destination

I have boomerang tendencies when it comes to travel, bouncing back to destinations I've loved. So in 2015 I tried to branch out, ticking off a few 'new' towns and cities – including Girona, Baiona, San Sebastián and Cáceres – plus a previously unvisited country, Croatia. When it comes to picking a favourite, I was torn between the pretty cities of Girona and San Sebastián. Both beautiful, compact, with buzzing food scenes and lively bars, San Sebastián ultimately swung it thanks to the sandy sweep of La Concha beach. Given its lack of stand-out museums and tourist attractions, San Sebastian is all about the food and drink: the bars in the old town and seafront Gros come alive at night, when pintxos washed down with txacoli steal the show. With nothing more pressing to do than eat, promenade and party, San Sebastián is a fun, fuss-free weekend break destination.

Stunning San Sebastian: My favourite destination of 2016

Most visited destination

This will come as no surprise to regular readers, but I clocked up 5 visits to Barcelona this year. With its cosmopolitan charm, great restaurants and firm grasp on tradition, I'm a sucker for the Catalan capital. I particularly enjoyed learning more about Catalan cuisine with Devour Barcelona, and finally witnessing castellers assemble a human tower during September's Festes de la Mercè. Watching a correfoc (fire run) from the sidelines is one experience I'd be happy not to repeat, though: the flying sparks and booming firecrackers just centimetres away were a bit too much for me.

Castellers in Barcelona (and anonymous selfie snapper)

Favourite hotel

In terms of Instagram-worthy images and a stunning setting, it would hands-down have to be the Parador in Baiona. But when comfort, service and food are thrown into the mix, there's no contest: Hotel Sa Punta in Platja de Pals takes the title. From a room upgrade to friendly but professional service, a gorgeous freshwater pool with spa jets, big balconies and a tranquil location, the scene was set for serious relaxation. My expectations of hotel restaurants are generally low: often overpriced and uninspiring, I tend to avoid them. But the Sa Punta restaurant is no standard hotel dining room: it pre-dates the hotel itself and attracts diners from around Catalunya. And you can see why. With three-course menus drawing on the best of local produce and combining delicious flavours with perfect presentation, it's a real treat. Service is attentive yet discreet, and the wine choices were spot on. I'd return in a heartbeat.

Biggest surprise hit

The first time I visited Palma de Mallorca as a teen, I was so ill I ended up in hospital the following day. With clouded memories, I was unsure what to expect from my second trip years later - but I was blown away. Chic and international with a very Spanish feel, Palma is packed with impressive architecture, interesting sights and top-notch bars and restaurants. I felt so at home there, I didn't want to leave. Watch this space for a return visit in 2016.

Palma de Mallorca: Picture perfect

Best trip

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Festive fun in Madrid: Christmas 2015

Last year's Christmas post proved pretty popular, so here's an updated version for those who'll be in Madrid over the 2015 festive season. In Spain, the holidays last longer than many other European countries, culminating in the traditional present-exchanging on 6 January, or Three Kings Day. If you're around on the 5th, be sure to check out the Cabalgata de Reyes (parade) which runs down Paseo de la Castellana – but only if you don't mind the crowds!

What else can you do in Madrid during the lead-up to Christmas?

Seeing the Christmas lights

Christmas lights 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 dreamed up by top Spanish designers. Most of the conical Christmas trees which pepper the city's plazas are unfortunately sponsored, with the names of multinational companies 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 (under 7s go free), the trip on an open-top bus runs daily from 6–11pm until 6 January. The route takes in Puerta de Alcalá, 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 shopping: Markets, pop-ups & local brands

If high-street 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 the Mercado de Motores (12 & 13 December) and the  Mercadillo del Gato from 11 December–2 January 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 back for another year. Cute and very Instagram-worthy it may be, but unless you spend triple-figures on Christmas presents, it's best for a browse, a drink and a snack from Olivia te Cuida's pop-up area. 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.

If you're more of an online shopper, check out some homegrown brands such as jewellery label Tartesia (25% off with the code TARTESIAFRIEND) and the cute Mr Wonderful.

Spanish-made Tartesia jewellery

Ice skating

Although you can glide on the ice year-round at Palacio de Hielo, a few outdoor ice rinks pop up in Madrid during winter. They're usually not quite the grand rinks in prime locations that London and New York have to offer, but they're fun for a quick spin, especially for kids. This year however, there's a new offering that could challenge other cities: the Hola! (yes, the magazine) rink at Plaza Colón (until 6 January).You can find another central rink at the normally borderline salubrious Plaza de la Luna, and if you venture a little further out of town, you'll find one at Parque Berlin

Seeing some real snow

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