Monday, 29 September 2014

I've moved: You can now find me at Oh hello, Spain

I won't be updating this blog after September 2014, so come over to the new address Oh hello, Spain.


After almost 5 years blogging at Tales of a Brit Abroad, I decided it was time for a name change.

What seemed like a reasonable name to me one night when I decided to create a blog out of boredom no longer feels like such a good idea now. Although I'm still fond of Tales of a Brit Abroad, and anyone who knows me will understand my sense of 'humour' in it, it's not the most catchy title – or the most professional.

After much consideration of the pros and cons of changing names and moving blog addresses, I decided to go for it. I've come up with something a bit more neutral that reflects the fact that my blog is about Spain, and is general enough to cover the different kinds of posts I share here.

 So, from now on you'll be able to find me at Oh hello, Spain. All the content from Tales of a Brit Abroad is still there, and the style of posts will remain the same: all that's changing is the name and address. I've also updated all my social media handles to @ohhellospain, so if you were following me on Twitter or Instagram, you still are. I'll also be transferring across my email subscriptions too, so if you're currently subscribed, you still will be. 

I'd like to take this opportunity to say thanks to my readers for all the support over the last few years. It's much appreciated, and hearing your responses and interacting with you is definitely one of the best parts of blogging. I hope you'll continue reading over at Oh hello, Spain – here's to another (almost) 5 years!


Sunday, 28 September 2014

Sunday stroll: Parc del Laberint d'Horta, Barcelona

I've moved! Come on over & read this post over on my new blog Oh hello, Spain.
You can also check out my new posts while you're there.

Probably because of the lack of Gaudi link, Parc del Laberint d'Horta isn't on most visitors' Barcelona itineraries. Located above the city in the well-heeled Horta-Guinardó neighbourhood, this park is a pretty diverse place, with both formal gardens and wilder areas with streams and waterfalls. Oh, and the 'labyrinth' in the name: a maze.

Parc del Laberint's formal gardens. The blur's from Instagram, not my shaky hand.


Entry is free on Sunday, making it the perfect day to head out of the centre and get your greenery fix. Admittedly you'll have to share that maze with plenty of over-excited children (and marginally less excited adults), but as the park covers 9 hectares, you're bound to find a relatively peaceful area. The Parc del Laberint is Barcelona's oldest garden, originally designed in 1792 by an Italian engineer (who presumably also had green fingers).



The contrast between the classical, formal gardens and the rambling forest is the Parc del Laberint's strong point. After strolling and admiring the neatly-ordered shrubberies and manoeuvred your way out of the maze (not that difficult, don't worry), you can wander into the woodland. With sculptures hidden away like surprises, it's far from being your average walk in the woods.



Afterwards, if you're travelling by car, head up to the mirador above Horta for some incredible views over the city and up to Tibidabo.

View from the mirador above Horta


The details
Parc del Laberint d'Horta is open daily from 10amdusk. Closed during November.
General admission: €2.23. Free on Sundays.
Metro: Mundet.

And now for the announcement!
So this will most likely be one of the last posts you read at Tales of a Brit Abroad. Don't worry, I'm not giving up on the blog: I'm just moving over to a new name and address. After almost 5 years, I feel it's time for a change and I need a name that's more Spain-related (and a bit more professional-sounding!). Nothing will change content-wise, you'll still be able to read the same mix of expat life posts, Madrid recommendations and travel posts: just at a different address. Over the next few days I'll be changing my social media handles (if you're already following me, you still will be  just at a different name) and transferring over to the new blog. When it's all up and running I'll post the link here. I'd love you to come on over and join me at the new address! 

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Expat issues: How to open a bank account in Spain

I've moved! Come on over & read this post over on my new blog Oh hello, Spain.
You can also check out my new posts while you're there.

After you arrive in Spain, one of the first things you’ll need to do is open a bank account. To open an account as a resident, you need a NIE (Número de Identidad de Extranjeros, or national identity number for foreigners). I had hoped to write my second expat issues post on how to get a NIE, but on further investigation, it seems like in the ten years since I got mine the process has changed a bit, and whether or not you need to make an appointment to get one varies from area to area.  I suggest you read the information here which explains the process of form-filling and obtaining this vital number from your local Oficina de Extranjeros. Getting a NIE should be your first brush with Spanish bureaucracy, as it’s needed for most official transactions, such as registering with a doctor, working legally and of course, opening a bank account.


I don't think that man bag's big enough for your special documentation folder, is it


Choosing your bank

The best way to open an account in Spain is to go to your chosen bank in person. But before you just casually wander in off the street, do a bit of research: not all banks are created equally. Although a few UK banks now offer premium accounts with a monthly charge for perks like travel insurance, many Spanish banks charge their customers for basic transactions. You can pay an annual fee for having a debit card, you can pay to transfer money to another account, and you may even have to pay to cash a cheque into your own account. For this reason, it’s important to look into what comisiones different banks charge. A number of them (Santander, La Caixa, BBVA) waive fees if you pay your monthly nómina (wage) into the account. Ing Direct also offers a Cuenta sin Nómina which is charge-free, and I’ve heard good reports about their Cuenta Nómina too. Be careful to read the small print and be sure about the lack of commission before you sign up: sometimes these offers apply to online only accounts, so if branch access is important to you, shop around. Santander’s standard nómina account is commission-free and lets you transfer money back to the UK free of charge too. 

No matter which bank you choose though, there’s a charge you’re unlikely to avoid. Most high-street banks charge customers to withdraw money from another bank’s cashpoints. There are 3 groups of banks, Servired, 4B and Euro6000. If you withdraw money from another bank in that group, it costs less than if you were to withdraw from a bank outside your group, but unless you bank with relatively rare Citibank, Evo Banco or Arquia (I don’t recall ever seeing a branch of the latter 2), you need to make sure you know key cashpoints around your town. Spain could learn a lot from the Link system, let me tell you (and my British friends who’ve been dragged round Madrid in search of my bank would definitely agree).

Opening your account

So, now you’ve chosen your bank, go armed with all the paperwork you possibly need (and more). Take your passport, NIE and work and rental contracts if you have them. But don’t just go into any old branch: make sure you go into one that’s going to be convenient for you, for example close to your home or office. Certain transactions (such as setting up a regular payment or closing an account) can only be done in your branch, so take that into consideration. You’ll need to queue up and let the cashier know that you want to open an account (abrir una cuenta), at which point, if you’re lucky, he or she will transform from a snarling harridan into a smooth charmer and indicate that you go and talk to their colleague at a mesa. The process of opening an account involves a lot of signing and photocopying, but is very straightforward. Also ask if they can set up your internet banking access while you’re there: sometimes they can give you passwords in the branch rather than waiting for them to arrive by post. They will inevitably attempt to also sell you various types of insurance, but that aside, make the most of these moments: they'll be your best experience of Spanish banking. Oh, apart from when I opened my first ever account way back in 2004 and the advisor was surreptitiously smoking. Perhaps he thought I wasn't going to notice the odour, the plume of smoke curling around his head and the cigarette in his below-desk-level hand. I did. Sorry, Angel.

Banking in Spain
It’s once you’ve opened an account that the real fun begins. Banking shows Spanish bureaucracy at its worst. Unless you want to age dramatically or enjoy bitter arguments with strangers, I recommend that you do as much of your banking online as possible. I find every visit to the bank fraught with potential disaster. When you’ve actually got through the door (strangely challenging at Santander, but I’ll let you experience that for yourself), there will inevitably be a considerable queue. Once you’ve quien-es-la-ultima’d your way into it, be patient. Very patient. When you finally reach the front of the queue, watch the cashier’s demeanour change as he bids a cheery goodbye to María in front of you and sees your smiling little guiri face. Anything you want seems to be too complicated for the cashier, even if you have a) gone to your branch and b) turned up armed with your special file of every scrap of Spain-related documentation you have. Let’s take this example scenario.

‘Hello, buenas tardes, my card doesn’t work when I try to shop online. Please could you help?’
 ‘But it works?’
‘Well no, when I try to buy things online it doesn’t work [insert details of appropriate error messages here]'.
‘But you can withdraw money?’
‘Yes’.
Cashier shrugs. ‘Well I don’t know what to do about it. I suppose you could go and wait and talk to someone at a mesa’.
Crestfallen, you realize you only have ten minutes of your lunch break left and there are already three people in the mesa queue staring daggers at you. So you request a phone number to call instead. Cashier eventually scribbles down something barely decipherable. When you call it, the number doesn’t even exist.

This is, for me, an average banking experience. I've come to view it as par for the course. It's certainly nothing compared to the time I almost got thrown out of a bank.* So, if you take one thing away from this post, it should be the merits of online banking. Oh, and if someone mentions a firma electrónica: it’s not an electronic version of a signature as one might think; it’s what we guiris would call a password. There, I’ve saved you from another pointlessly frustrating conversation.

As you may have gathered, banking is my bureaucracy nemesis. What are your best (or erm, worst) stories about banking in Spain?

*I am ever so slightly prone to exaggeration. After a tense stand-off in which I was made to go home to get my NIE, a piece of paper which can’t be used as identification, even though I had my passport, driving license and bank card, the situation escalated to the point where I was asked if I wanted to speak to the manager. I politely declined. That was the day I got my head round the firma electrónica and registered for online banking.


Photo from foreignexchange.co.uk

Monday, 22 September 2014

Madrid Monday: Day trip to Manzanares el Real

I've moved! Come on over & read this post over on my new blog Oh hello, Spain.
You can also check out my new posts while you're there.

The top day trips from Madrid are probably Segovia and Toledo, with good reason: they’re picturesque little cities, easily accessible by high-speed train and brimming with Instagram-worthy sights. But such popularity comes at a price – at weekends, they're often crammed with camera-toting tourists. So if you don't feel like adding to their number and fancy a weekend escape from the city crush, try Manzanares el Real instead.

The reservoir in Manzanares el Real, el Embalse de Santillana

Around 50 kilometres north of Madrid in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, Manzanares el Real is well-connected to the capital by bus. You can catch the 724 from Plaza Castilla once or twice an hour; the journey takes 45 minutes and the fare is €5.10. As the bus snakes its way into Manzanares, you'll see the the vast lake to the left, and the iconic castle to the right. Manzanares may be small, but it's definitely got enough to keep you entertained for the day.

The helpful tourist office can give you information on walks in the area, including a relatively easy one to up to the hillside chapel, the Ermita de Nuestra Senora de la Peña Sacra. If you're feeling more adventurous and visiting in summertime, you might fancy a trek up to La Charca Verde, where you can take a dip in natural pools. Manzanares is an ideal base or starting point for hikers, due to its proximity to La Pedriza: apparently the most interesting mountain in the area, if you're into that sort of thing. Think weird and wonderful rock formations, beautiful views – and a lot of thigh toning.

El Castillo de los Mendoza

If, like me, you'd rather limit your exertions to the town itself, Manzanares won't disappoint. The main sight is the medieval Castillo de los Mendoza, which dates back to 1475. The first batch of builders plundered stone from the town's existing castle, the now known as the Castillo Viejo, which has been reduced to little more than a wall. The Castillo de los Mendoza is in much better shape; it's one of the best-preserved castles in Spain, and began its life as a military fortress before becoming home to the noble Mendoza family. The palace-cum-fortress is open to visitors (€5), and you can explore its regal rooms, ramparts, courtyards and towers at your leisure. With views over the lake in one direction and out to the mountains on the other, you might have to become one of those camera-toting tourists after all.


Thursday, 18 September 2014

Your Year Abroad: Ailish's Year Abroad in Granada, Spain

As it's now been a whole decade since I first moved to Spain on my year abroad, I thought it would be fun to start a series of posts on Tales of a Brit Abroad that focus on year abroad experiences and give practical advice. You may already know that in the UK, it's customary for those who study languages at university to spend the third year of their degree course in a country where the languages they're learning are spoken. As this was my experience, the Your Year Abroad series of posts will primarily focus on spending a year in Spain in this context, although many topics will be relevant to anyone moving here. Expect more expat issues posts, practical tips for making the most of your year abroad and some erm, more recent experiences than mine.

To start the series, I interviewed Ailish McVeigh, who spent the academic year 2013–14 in Spain.


So Ailish, tell us a bit about yourself  where are you from and what are you studying?

I’m from a small town in Yorkshire and go to uni in a small ‘city’ in Lancashire, although I'm not really sure Lancaster is quite big enough to call a city! I study English Literature and Spanish, so I'd been looking forward to my year abroad pretty much since the start of my A-levels.

Good choice of subjects – that's what I studied too! Where did you go on your year abroad and what did you do there?
I spent the entire year in Andalucía studying in the Filsofía y Letras faculty at the Universidad de Granada.

View over Granada

How did you find moving abroad for the first time? What challenges did you have to overcome at the beginning?
I experienced every possible emotion the day I moved abroad; a big mixture of nerves and excitement, plus A LOT of tears. I’d worked in Spain for two months the previous summer, which definitely helped the separation element, but didn't really prepare me for everyday life there. One of the biggest challenges was actually finding the bus from Málaga to Granada when I arrived, as it just never appeared! Once that was dealt with, finding a house was very difficult, mainly due to the different culture of house hunting. Spanish people presumably think nothing of ringing up random numbers from adverts posted on the street corners, but for us Brits using websites like easypiso.es proved much more popular, as that's more similar to the way we look for accommodation back home.

 How did you find living in Granada?
I LOVED IT. It honestly couldn’t have been a better city to live in. I found it really authentically Spanish, there were picture-postcard views of the Alhambra and a massive Erasmus population. All these factors combined made the year so great. I couldn’t recommend going there enough, to live or just to visit. By the time I returned to Granada after Christmas, it already felt like I was going home.

Ailish and her new friends at the Holi Run in Santa Fe

Monday, 15 September 2014

Madrid Monday: Tapas at Celso y Manolo

Madrid Monday is a series of posts about the Spanish capital. Here I review restaurants and bars, and write about tourist attractions, cultural events and more. If you have any requests for topics to cover, just leave me a comment.

I could probably order tapas at most bars in Madrid without needing to look at the menu. Without possessing any telepathic powers, I know it'll most likely feature pimientos de padrón, patatas bravas, jamón, queso, croquetas and tortilla de patatas.

Those of you reading from outside Spain are probably thinking, 'That sounds delicious! What's this moany English girl's problem?' Well, if you're a pescetarian, those Spanish staples become a bit boring after a while – you crave variety; foodstuffs that haven't been deep-fried.

Which is why Celso y Manolo is a bite of fresh produce, so to speak. This Chueca-based bar provides a wide range of innovative morsels and modern spins on those ever-present classics. With a menu the size of a page from a broadsheet newspaper (prepare to get arm-ache as you peruse), the trouble here won't be what can I eat, but what do I want when it all sounds so tempting?

Beef tomato: One of Celso y Manolo's vegetarian options


As one of the few recommendations from James Blick's top tapas bar feature for The Guardian I hadn't visited, I was keen to check out Celso y Manolo for myself. Arriving on a Friday evening around 9, Kim of Becoming Sevillana and I were lucky enough to snag a table before the hungry hordes (and sensible folk with a reservation) descended: booking is definitely advisable at weekends. The decor reflects the menu: the standard zinc-topped bar is a sleek marble number; those mournful glass-eyed bulls heads are replaced with wicker versions. Service was polite, friendly and multi-lingual, with guidance around the mega menu offered.

Divided into many sub-sections, you'll find all the Spanish goodies your palate desires on this menu. There's a focus on regional ingredients, so no matter whether your favourite dish is Andaluz or Catalan, Celso y Manolo is likely to have it covered. If ensaladilla (potato salad) is your thing, you'll get to choose between classic, with anchovies, with ventresca (tuna belly) or caviar; if you're hoping to taste some good paella in Madrid you'll get to choose from their arroces anárquicos featuring morcilla, churrasco and more. I was pleased to see a whole section devoted to Spanish tomatoes and another to cheese, while those for whom a tapas-fest wouldn't be complete without evidence that deep frying is alive and well will enjoy the 'fritos crujientes' selection, which includes rabas de calamar (squid) and croquetas de bacalao (given the Celso y Manolo spin with the addition of Málaga raisins, pine nuts and spinach). There's plenty of meat, too, with a choice of eco-friendly beef and lamb dishes, as well as a range of raciones featuring chorizo, morcilla and salchichón.

Prices for the various dishes average around the €8 mark, and portion sizes are around what I'd consider a media ración,  based on what we had: a tortilla de bacalao, a chuletón de tomate and a cheese board. The tortilla (€6.50) was fluffy,delicious and clearly cooked to order; the flavour of the salt cod adding an interestingly flavoursome note. Rather than the usual fried onions, Celso y Manolo's take on the classic omelette recipe uses caramelized ones, and also features leek and peppers. Our half beef tomato (€8) was stuffed with a creative selection of fruit and veg, including avocado, papaya and mango: the flavours combined well rather than fighting with the tomato taste. Our cheese board was an off-menu improvisation by the waiter, allowing us to try a bit of the 6 cheeses on the list: sheep's cheese, goat's cheese, cow's cheese, Idiazabal, Ossau Iraty and gruyère. All of this was washed down with a couple of glasses of wine: although they serve a big choice by the bottle, including a number of Madrid wines, the by the glass selection is a bit more limited.

With reasonable prices given the quality of the ingredients, efficient service and a good atmosphere, Celso y Manolo is the perfect modern take on the classic Spanish tapas bar.

The details
Celso y Manolo is at Calle Libertad 1 (metro Chueca).
Tel: 915 318 079
Open daily from 1–5pm & 7.30 pm–2am.

Thursday, 11 September 2014

Sun, sand & stretching: Yoga & pilates in Morocco

Yoga and pilates retreat.

You're probably imagining crusty hippies wearing ill-fitting tie-dyed hemp, saluting the sun and enduring meagre meals in silence. (Or is that just me?)

Well, as it turns out, it doesn't have to be like that at all. A recent trip with My Escape turned out to be a hemp-free week of sunbathing, stretching and dining on delicious vegetarian food.

Knowing I've flirted with a bit of sun saluting myself in the past, a friend suggested we sign up for My Escape's yoga and pilates holiday to Morocco. Despite my reservations about holidaying with strangers, I was won over by the relaxed itinerary (one or two classes a day, plus optional day trips and activities including surfing and horse riding), the sound of the (seemingly abundant!) food  and the price. At just £600 for a week's accommodation in a beachfront Moroccan villa plus meals and classes, it sounded like a bargain. Especially because I was clearly going to return to Madrid looking like a toned goddess.

Holly & Ellie of My Escape


Run by Brighton-based Ellie Priest and Holly Cooper, My Escape offers yoga and pilates holidays at destinations around the globe, including Morocco and South Africa. Although yoga retreats are common, yoga and pilates holidays aren't: My Escape are one of the few companies that offer both complementary disciplines. The Moroccan retreat at Villa Mandala in surfers' paradise Taghazout, near Agadir, was their first foray into holidays, and has now been running for several years.

Villa Mandala


Arriving at Villa Mandala stressed and tired from an intense few months at work, I was ready to switch off and relax. But exactly how chilled would spending a week in close quarters with a group of unknowns turn out to be? We'd be sharing classes, meals and sunbathing time – surely someone used to their own space would feel crowded? Fortunately, Villa Mandala turned out to be a spacious place, with well-decorated bedrooms, cosy corners to curl up in with a book, a swimming pool and two terraces. As I was travelling with a friend, we shared a spacious ensuite bedroom with views of the Atlas Mountains. There were 17 guests in total; with those travelling solo paired up to share. I needn't have worried: not only were our instructors and fellow guests warm and friendly, Villa Mandala is large enough that you never feel crowded by others. And with a choice of beaches nearby and optional activities on offer every day, it was rare that we all found ourselves there together outside of class, breakfast and dinner (we had a packed lunch, which we often ate on the beach). We found that you could get involved as much or as little as you wanted, with no pressure.


Monday, 8 September 2014

Madrid Monday: Where to do sport in Madrid

Madrid Monday is a series of posts about the Spanish capital. Here I review restaurants and bars, and write about tourist attractions, cultural events and more. If you have any requests for topics to cover, just leave me a comment.

If you're in Madrid for more than a few days, chances are that you might want to get some exercise. Whether you're looking for an easy way to get some exercise while you're on holiday or you're a Madrid resident wanting to take up a sporty new hobby, read on.

Madrid Rio: A great place to run or cycle

Running 
If you're wondering where to run in MadridEl Retiro Park and Madrid Rio are two good starting points. Both are central, easily accessible and scenic. The river bank is particularly flat if you're looking for an easy run. The Parque del Canal has a 1.25km running track, while Dehesa de la Villa in the north west has a wilder trail if you fancy a challenge. If you prefer to run in company, check out the free Nike+ Run Club, which departs two evenings a week from the Nike store on Gran Via and twice a week from the Calle Serrano branch.

If you're interested in races in Madrid, try the Carreras Populares site, which lists official events both in the capital and around the country. There are 10k races in the city and the surrounding Comunidad de Madrid most Sundays, with other distances popular too. The Madrid marathon and half marathon are both held each year in spring.

Cycling
As of 2014, Madrid has finally joined Seville, Barcelona, Valencia and other cities around Spain by offering a city bike scheme, BiciMAD. Users can pick up and drop off electronic bikes at 123 locations around the capital. However, at the moment the service is only on offer to those who sign up for a year's pass, but you can rent bikes by the hour or day from Trixi near Sol. There are bike lanes around the city, but these still aren't too widespread and cycling in Madrid's notoriously crazy traffic can be dangerous. If you'd rather not join the city traffic, you can also rent bikes by the river. EcoMoving Sports rents different types of bikes (including tandems and family bikes) by the hour or day.

Tennis
A group tennis lesson with Denzil Reid

If you're looking to take up the sport or improve your game, try a tennis lesson or two with English coach Denzil Reid. Based in Pozuelo, he can also travel to a court near you for very reasonable rates. Denzil's been coaching both children and adults for thirty years, and specializes in helping with tournament preparation, so if you've got your sights on Wimbledon (or want to impress your friends with a few new moves), join the ranks. To find out more, you can contact Denzil here or on 669097599. Both individual and group lessons are available.


Monday, 25 August 2014

Madrid Monday: Madrid Food Tour's Tapas, Taverns & History Tour

Madrid Monday is a series of posts about the Spanish capital. Here I review restaurants and bars, and write about tourist attractions, cultural events and more. If you have any requests for topics to cover, just leave me a comment.

It's your first night in a new city. You want to start your holiday with a memorable meal. But how to choose a restaurant?

Nowadays, we're more informed on where to eat and drink (and do just about anything else) than ever before. In just a few clicks we can access listings, restaurant booking sites, reviews from fellow travellers and the advice of locals. But which to listen to?

Given the choice, I'll go with local advice every time. Living in a city really gives you the chance to explore its bar and restaurant scene, to roadtest different places and pick your favourites. Residence gives an in-depth knowledge that tourists can only aspire to. But now, thanks to Madrid Food Tour, visitors to the Spanish capital can easily access this local knowledge: the company runs a range of tours around the city guided by residents. Founded by Lauren Aloise in 2012, Madrid Food Tour now offers a choice of three routes, taking in tapas bars and food markets scattered throughout the centre. Led by established expat residents of the city, these tours are run during the day (Ultimate Spanish Cuisine and Huertas Neighbourhood Food and Market Tour) and evening (Tapas, Taverns & History) and cater to small groups. Any trepidation I had about being herded in and out of tourist traps to munch on Spanish omelette washed down with sangria were dispelled by their website: they emphasize that tours take in busy family-run establishments and that seating can't always be guaranteed, as is the norm in Spanish bars. They also recommend that visitors take one of their tours soon after arriving in Madrid, so that it serves as an introduction to dining Spanish-style and provides enough knowledge recommendations to last the rest of your trip.

Stop1: Aperitif time

Lauren invited me to try out the Tapas, Taverns & History Tour, which runs 5 evenings a week and takes in 5–6 bars around the centre. It promises customers a stomach-filling 12 tapas accompanied by drinks, and can be adapted for pescetarian customers (although not veggies – they're best suited to the Huertas Tour or the Ultimate Cuisine Tour, which can also be tailored to celiacs). The blurb on the website promised more than just delicious bites to eat: as the name suggests, the other aim of this particular tour is to educate visitors on Madrid's history. I admitted that my historical knowledge was somewhat lacking, but what would a fellow resident be able to teach me about where to eat well in central Madrid? Quite a lot, it turned out.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Expat issues: Renting an apartment in Spain

Despite saying I blog about life as an expat in Spain, the truth is that most of my posts relate to what to see and do in Madrid or to visiting different parts of the country. I thought I'd try and make my blog description a bit more accurate by starting an 'Expat issues' series of posts designed to be (hopefully) of practical help to anyone moving to or living in Spain.

First up: how to rent an apartment.

Before you arrive
Unsurprisingly, it's difficult to set up permanent accommodation in advance of arriving in Spain (or any other country, for that matter). Unless you have someone already in your town or city of choice who's willing to do the groundwork and apartment visits for you (and whose taste you trust, obviously), I'd recommend sticking to research only rather than committing to something you've never seen. There's also the issue of whether the person you're dealing with over the internet is genuine. Even if that lovely apartment you've seen soft-focus pictures of does exist, it could well be in a less-than-desirable area or on a noisy street.

You'll be seeing a lot of these while you're flat-hunting

That said, you can accomplish a lot in terms of research. Before I moved to Madrid last year, I spent a few weeks trawling Idealista for flats to rent in the approximate area I had identified. Based on my experiences on several occasions, Idealista is the best site to use: it seems to have the most options and be the most up-to-date, both for renting an entire apartment and a room (flats for sale are also advertised). Although I live in Madrid, properties all over the country are advertised here. You can search the entire city or wider areas, identifying criteria that are important to you in a future home: number of bedrooms and bathrooms, furnished or not, air conditioning, etc. You can also include 'exterior' as a search filter: if you aren't familiar with Spanish flats, this may sound odd, but what it means is that the windows face out into the street rather than onto an internal patio. Interior flats tend to be pretty dark inside, so if you're a fan of natural light, check the exterior box. In addition to Idealista, you can also try Fotocasa, but I found the selection a lot more limited.

One thing to consider when reading adverts is whether properties are being advertised by an agency or a 'particular' (private landlord). Personally I chose to go with a private landlord, as it eliminates agency fees: in Madrid, these are equivalent to a month's rent (whether that be €500 or €1500, even though they're doing the same job) which you'll never see again. As for deposits, since the crisis hit, one month's rent is the norm, although in some cases you'll see two requested, but you can probably negotiate this.

Before you move, use your sites of choice to create a favourites list and contact landlords or agencies to book viewings. It's also worth making sure you'll have funds accessible to pay a deposit. If you don't know the city you're moving to very well, it could be worth arranging a temporary apartment for a month to give you chance to get to know your new hometown better and explore areas before you decide where you'd like to live. I once did this and rented a room through Accommadrid which is more aimed at students, but you could also try Airbnb or look for short lets on Idealista.

What you can expect to pay

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Two UK city breaks: Oxford and Lancaster

Like most of my adopted country, I've been professionally inactive for the past few weeks. Like all good expats, I've been back home visiting family and friends. While I was back in the UK, my itinerary took me to Oxford, the city where I studied, started my publishing career, and lived before I moved to Madrid (on both occasions). I love returning there, not just to see friends, but also because it's a stunning city: in the centre, almost every corner you turn reveals an ancient college quad peeping out from under an archway, a gargoyle-bedecked library or a row of rickety bikes awaiting their owners. Going back there as a visitor, I appreciate the details I overlooked during the heads-down rush of the morning commute.

The Radcliffe Camera, one of Oxford University's libraries

While Oxford is a fantastic place to visit, full of architectural and cultural delights, it was as a resident that I really got to appreciate the non-university side of the city. Once my studies were over, I enjoyed spending weekends exploring Jericho's bar scene or dining out on buzzing Cowley Road. A local's knowledge is invaluable, and for this reason Travelodge recently asked me to share my Oxford insights as part of their new Get Up and Go Guide. A series of interactive maps and blog posts, the Get Up and Go Guide is packed with information for visiting UK destinations where Travelodge have properties. For non-UK readers who may not be familiar with Travelodge, it's a chain of affordable hotels in key locations in Britain and Europe.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

A budget break in Córdoba, Spain

Often viewed as one of the cities comprising Andalucia's 'must-see' trinity (the others being Granada and Seville), Córdoba is compact enough to explore in a weekend. Easily accessible by the AVE high-speed train from Madrid and Seville, it's an ideal city break getaway for those looking for a relaxed destination with historical sights and good food.

The tower of Córdoba's Mezquita

Where to stay
The partly-pedestrianized centre of Córdoba is compact, and easily accessed from the train and bus stations either on foot (around 15 minutes, depending on how many books/shoes you packed for your weekend break) or by local bus. Córdoba's most famous sight is the Mezquita, the mosque-turned-cathedral, which is surrounded by narrow cobbled lanes lined with souvenir shops, restaurants and pensiones. If a peaceful location close to the sights (the Alcázar and Puente Romano – Roman bridge – are also close by), go for a pension or hostal near the Mezquita, such as El Antiguo Convento. This area can be quiet once sun sets and the day trippers leave, so if you'd like to be closer to tapas bars, try one-star Hotel Boston on Plaza de las Tendillas. This pretty café-filled square is lively in the day and evening, but by bedtime the action has moved on  the hotel's sound proofing's good, too. Hotel Boston has decent en-suite rooms for a low price – ask for one of the corner rooms with views of the square. You're less then a ten-minute walk from the Mezquita in one-direction, and a few steps from tapas and wine bars in the other.

Where to eat
Tortilla at Bar Santos

With food possibly more important to me than the sights (hey, a dire meal can ruin a holiday – a dull museum can't), Córdoba doesn't disappoint. It may be a column-filler in every guide book, but Bar Santos is on tourists' itineraries for a reason: it serves the best tortilla in town. You'll spot this stand-up bar next to the Mezquita from the queue of locals and visitors snaking out of the door (it moves quickly). Make like the cordobeses and buy yourself a slice of the thickest Spanish omelette you'll ever see and a cup of salmorejo  (cold tomato cream typical of Córdoba) and head outside to the steps near the Mezquita: lunch for under €5. In the evening, you'll find plenty of cheap tapas bars on and around Plaza San Miguel, most of which have tables outside in summer. El Aguacero and La Tortuga are both trendy but kind to your wallet, serving a mix of traditional and modern bites and salads. You'll find dirt-cheap drinks nearby at Mercado Provenzal: yes it's a chain, but it has a terrace. And who can argue with 40 cent cañas (small beers) or a €1.50 glass of Rueda (white wine)?

Monday, 21 July 2014

Madrid Monday: Outdoor swimming pools in Madrid

Madrid Monday is a series of posts about the Spanish capital. Here I review restaurants and bars, and write about tourist attractions, cultural events and more. If you have any requests for topics to cover, just leave me a comment.

When Felipe II made Madrid the capital of Spain in 1561, he overlooked an important detail: its distance from the coast. Smack bang in the middle or the country it might be, but it's also around 3 hours drive from the nearest beach in Alicante. The city's extreme climate (sometimes punishingly cold in winter, brutally hot in summer) means that a coastal escape is on everyone's weekend wishlist once July and August roll around. Thankfully for those who can't afford regular breaks (that'll be most of us, then), Madrid has a good number of outdoor swimming pools where you can sunbathe and cool off with a refreshing dip.

Public pools
The council runs a number of open-air pools around the city, including a few easily accessed from the centre. In 2014, the pools opened on 31 May and will close on 7 September. This year, an adult swim at any council pool costs €5 during the week and €6 at weekends, while young person's rates are €4 and €4.80 and children's €3 and €3.60. You're young if you're under 20 and a child if you're under 14, for the purposes of this exercise. If you're planning to go often, you can buy a bono of 10 visits which works out cheaper. You can find all pricing information here.

The pool at Francos Rodriguez

Monday, 14 July 2014

Madrid Monday: What to do in Madrid this summer

Madrid Monday is a series of posts about the Spanish capital. Here I review restaurants and bars, and write about tourist attractions, cultural events and more. If you have any requests for topics to cover, just leave me a comment.

Summer is not the best time to visit Madrid. As the mercury shoots up the thermometer to 35 plus, city dwellers pack their bags and flee Spain's capital for the breezy beaches of the coast. For those left behind in July and August (and the tourists who were brave/daft enough to book summer breaks), it can sometimes seem as though the city is almost deserted. It's true, at 4pm there's barely a soul in some streets, bar the aforementioned tourists. But for those sticking around over summer, there's plenty to do. Here's a selection of events in Madrid in summer 2014.

Veranos de la Villa: Madrid's annual arts festival

The Jardines de Sabatini, one of the Veranos de la Villa venues
Every year, venues around the city play host to the many concerts and performances that make up the programme of Veranos de la Villa. With dance, film, music and theatre all on the agenda, there's something to suit all artistic leanings. Veranos de la Villa runs throughout July and August, and in 2014 you'll find events at Teatro Circo Price, the outdoor location of Jardines de Sabatini below the Royal Palace, the Matadero cultural centre, the Plaza Mayor and more. This year's highlights include Argentinian singer Andrés Calamaro's concert at Teatro Price on 23 July, the Moscow Ballet's performances of Giselle and Swan Lake at the Jardines de Sabatini from 27–30 August and (for Spanish speakers) the Fringe Festival of theatre, dance, music and performance art running throughout July at Matadero. There's also a puppet festival for children in Retiro Park. You can find all information and book tickets here.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

On living in Madrid's Little Caribbean (and how to compliment like a Dominican)

Telling people I live near Cuatro Caminos gets mixed reactions. Sometimes it's simply 'I don't know where that is' or a non-committal 'Oh right'. I've had the occasional fond reminiscence from former residents of the area, but quite often people don't seem to understand my choice of postcode. It's true Cuatro Caminos isn't hip and trendy like Malasaña, vibrant like Huertas or stately like Chamberí. It's a low-rise tangle of streets in north-west Madrid inhabited largely by Latin American immigrants and older Spaniards. Since 2013 it's also been home to a rather conspicuous-looking blonde Brit, who for some reason feels much more at ease in this working-class corner of Madrid than she ever did in Chamberí. It may not be scenic, it may have nothing of interest to visitors and I may have to sidestep dog poo and discarded shoes more than once on my walk to work, but I've grown very fond of my barrio.

Cuatro Caminos: A hive of positivity. What's not to love?

My main objective when moving back to Madrid was to find a flat within walking distance of my office. Some people would rather base their address on other factors than a commute, but taking the Metro in the morning isn't for me. This particular corner of Cuatro Caminos – close to Alvarado – wasn't really on my radar. On my way to view my flat for the first time, I realised I stood out quite a bit from the area's other residents. Stepping into a light-filled apartment with more metres squared for my money than any others I'd seen, I was more than happy to make this unknown neighbourhood my home. After all, it's well-connected, with plenty of shops and services on my doorstep – and it's cheap. It's a residential area, but it's not exactly sleepy: a few streets away is the 'Little Caribbean', El País's name for the area that's home to the biggest Dominican community in Madrid. It's well-documented that the Spanish love to be outside, with the evening paseo and bata-clad abuelas on the doorstep a common sight in towns around the country. Well, they've got nothing on the Dominicans.


Monday, 23 June 2014

Madrid Monday: My Madrid

Madrid Monday is a new series of posts about the Spanish capital. I'll be reviewing restaurants and bars, and writing about tourist attractions, cultural events and more. If you have any requests, just leave me a comment.

Today's Madrid Monday post is a bit of a cheat. I'm inviting you to head on over to Madrid Food Tour's website, where I feature in their 'My Madrid' series. Founded by blogger Lauren Aloise of Spanish Sabores in 2012, Madrid Food Tour is helping visitors to get the most out of Madrid's culinary scene by offering different tours concentrating on key aspects of dining in Spain, from market-fresh produce to tapas taken with a vermouth while propped up by the bar. I was recently invited on one of their tours, which will be featuring on Tales of a Brit Abroad soon.

This guy is definitely part of my Madrid


In addition to offering tours, Madrid Food Tour has a comprehensive website including dining recommendations and a blog with advice for visitors to Madrid. The 'My Madrid' series of posts features Spain bloggers' thoughts and opinions on the city, including their favourite places to drink, eat (of course), relax and party. Other bloggers who have featured include Madrid residents Cassandra of Gee, Cassandra, Kaley of Kaley... & Más, Courtney of Adelante and well-known Spain bloggers Cat of Sunshine & Siestas and Jessica of Barcelona Blonde. I joined them last week, so follow this link to read the story of how I came to live in Madrid and find out a few of my favourite places in the city.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Madrid Monday: Outlet shopping

Madrid Monday is a new series of posts about the Spanish capital. I'll be reviewing restaurants and bars, and writing about tourist attractions, cultural events and more. If you have any requests, just leave me a comment.

If you need a bargain shopping fix in Madrid outside the strict Spanish sales windows (January and July), try one of the city's two outlets, The Style Outlets and Las Rozas Village, which offer cut-price designer and high-street clothes and homewares year-round. The catch? They're both out in the suburbs. Thankfully they're also accessible by public transport, but it's best to put aside at least half a day if you want to do some serious
shopping.

Shopping at Las Rozas Village


The Style Outlets, San Sebastián de los Reyes
The Style Outlets is a shopping centre in San Sebastián de los Reyes containing 120 stores. There's a mixture of high-street and designer shops here, with names ranging from Benetton to Bimba y Lola. There are plenty of women's clothes shops, including Mango and Nice Things, plus unisex retailers like Desigual, Pull & Bear, Pepe Jeans and Massimo Dutti. There are also a few sportswear shops, including Nike and Under Armour. It's fair to see that most shops are high-street rather than high-end, but the reductions at more pricey shops like Hugo Boss and Guess make it worth a visit if you don't want to pay full price. There's more than just clothing, though: there are also a couple of homewares stores, accessories shops, shoe retailers and some cosmetics stores (although the reductions here are less significant). If you're looking for some summer swimwear and can't wait for the sales, there are big discounts on last season's bikinis and swimsuits at Calzedonia.

Top pick: Bimba y Lola. The reductions on past seasons of women's clothing and leather goods are significant, especially on their beautifully-designed handbags.
How to get there: Take the metro (line 10) to Hospital Infanta Sofia. It's in zone B1, so tickets cost €3.50 and you have to change trains at Tres Olivos. It's open daily.
Top tip: Don't go hungry - there's only a simple cafe in The Style Outlets, and the choices at the nearby shopping centre are pretty poor chain restaurants and fast-food outlets.

Las Rozas Village, Las Rozas
Las Rozas Village is part of a worldwide group of designer outlet villages, including Bicester Village in Oxfordshire and Kildare Village near Dublin. It has a more luxe feel than The Style Outlets, and is designed to feel like a chichi town centre as opposed to a mall. The brands on offer here are also more upmarket, with designer names such as Armani, Belstaff, Burberry, Michael Kors and more. There are also plenty of homegrown designers represented here, including Carolina Herrera and Loewe. As there are more big-name brands here, prices aren't as low as at The Style Outlets, where sub-€10 clothing items are normal at some stores, but if you've saved up and want some cut-price luxury goods, this is the place for you. In addition to clothing, accessories and leather goods, you'll find wedding and bridesmaids dresses, skiwear and homewares.

Top pick: Spanish brands such as Carolina Herrera, Desigual and El Ganso for locally-designed bargains.
How to get there: You can either take the Cercanias trains to El Pinar de Las Rozas (3km from the village) or take 'The Shopping Express', the coach laid on by Las Rozas Village which departs from Madrid 3 times a day and costs €16 return. Everyone who takes the coach also receives a VIP card for further shopping discounts. Open daily.
Top tip: Sundays are quieter, so if you want more space to peruse, it's a better choice than Saturday.

Photo from lujazos.com

Saturday, 14 June 2014

Brunch in Madrid: Carmencita Bar

In part 4 of #BrunchChallenge, I try the international menu at cosy Carmencita Bar in Malasaña.

Carmencita Bar is a cute little cafe-bar at the Noviciado end of Calle San Vicente Ferrer, simply decorated with white walls and mismatched tables and chairs in classic Malasaña style. It's certainly petite, with a few high tables and some bar space in addition to tables for two and small groups.

Visiting around 12.30 on a Sunday, there was one table free for brunch (they take reservations). The short menu is translated into English, an international gesture that's explained by the fact that around half the customers seemed to be American or English. The menu was as varied as the clientele, with 6 options including the bizarrely-named 'Bunny plate' (eggs benedict served with salmon, avocado and crispy bacon, €10.50. And no, I have no idea what that has to do with rabbits either), French toast with scrambled eggs and bacon  and huevos rancheros with black beans (both €8.50). You definitely need to bring your appetite to Carmencita. There's nothing light about the menu; you'll find no granola and berries here. The particularly hungry can order the fixed brunch menu for €14, which includes eggs benedict with salmon, avocado or crispy bacon, home fried, hash browns or salad, the dessert of the day, a Mimosa and a coffee. Carmencita's usual range of burgers (no veggie option) are also on offer at brunch time.

Mushroom revuelto, hiding under the home fries

Monday, 9 June 2014

Madrid Monday: Restaurants for vegetarians

Madrid Monday is a new series of posts about the Spanish capital. I'll be reviewing restaurants and bars, and writing about tourist attractions, cultural events and more. If you have any requests, just leave me a comment.

Meat is part of Spanish culture. It's not just part of the diet: jamón is practically part of the national psyche (and not eating it is utterly incomprehensible). Living in or visiting Spain can definitely prove challenging for non-meat eaters, but if you're armed with the right information, you'll manage to survive (and hopefully not solely on a diet of potatoes). For more details on what to order and how to avoid 'surprise' jamón, see this post about being a vegetarian in Spain.

As a cosmopolitan city, Madrid has more vegetarian and vegetarian-friendly restaurants than most. However, traditional restaurants abound, particularly outside the city centre. While pescetarians will almost always find something to suit them, vegetarians have it a little more difficult. Here are a few recommendations for those who don't eat meat, including plenty that will also appeal to their carnivorous fellow-diners.

Sala de Despiece: suitable for vegetarians. The asparagus confirms it.

Burrata & raf tomatoes at Sala de Despiece

Read on for my recommendations of restaurants and tapas bars in Madrid.

Saturday, 7 June 2014

Visiting the Costa Brava: Cadaqués

In part 2 of my trip to the Costa Brava, I visit Cadaqués. You can read part 1, about Port de la Selva, here.

If Port de la Selva is laid-back and low profile, Cadaqués is its glossier, more popular neighbour. It's all relative though: this white-washed beachside town is no Monaco. Cadaqués isn't ritzy and glitzy; nor is it over-crowded – but its pin is more firmly in the international tourist map thanks to its most famous former resident, Salvador Dalí.

Salvador Dalí's former home in Portlligat
The artist actually lived around the bay from Cadaqués in the hamlet of Portlligat. Even the term 'hamlet' doesn't quite capture the petite proportions of the place: it's nothing more than a cluster of buildings and chiringuitos huddled around a pebble beach. The most prominent building is, of course, Dalí's former residence. Now open to the public (tickets cost €11 and must be bought in advance, you can do so here), Dalí and his wife Gala lived there for 50 years, until Gala's death in 1982. During that time, their home expanded from simple fisherman's hut to the rambling complex of rooms that remains today. I began my visit to Cadaques with a visit there, and was surprised at how much the private side of Spain's most flamboyant son the building still reveals over 30 years after his departure. As you'd expect, eccentricity is very much in evidence, from the stuffed bear-cum-umbrella stand in the entrance hall to the penis-shaped swimming pool, but a much more intimate glimpse into the couple's life is afforded through this guided visit. I learnt that Dalí had carefully positioned a mirror in his bedroom so that he could awake to beautiful bay views without needing to stir from his bed; that he rigged up a complicated contraption that allowed him to paint while seated; that he was a collector of bizarre knick-knacks and trinkets. For a full account of my visit, you can read my article on the Travel Belles website here.

Monday, 2 June 2014

Madrid Monday: Bar Galleta, the new restaurant on the block

This is the first installment of a new feature on Tales of a Brit Abroad: Madrid Monday. Each Monday, I'll bring you a new post about the Spanish capital. I'll be reviewing restaurants and bars, and writing about tourist attractions, cultural events and more. If you have any requests, just leave me a comment.




If you're looking for the hippest spots in Madrid, you'll find them around semi-scruffy, up and coming Triball. An area that's only been placed on the map since its 'christening' a few years ago, this corner of Malasana encompassing Calles Corredera Baja de San Pablo, Pez, Valverde and Ballesta was once better known for ladies of the night than hot night-time hangouts. These days, it's Madrid's version of hipster heaven: plenty of checked shirts and beards, but little of the pretension and posing you'd find in London's equivalent areas. Since the creation of Triball, bars, restaurants and quirky boutiques began opening their doors, and these days it's one of my favourite areas of Madrid for a dinner or a drink.

The latest offering in this hip 'hood is Bar Galleta, a restaurant which opened its doors just over two weeks ago. Situated on Corredera Baja de San Pablo, it faces competition from the excellent Clarita and Maricastaña, two spots which seem fairly similar at first glance. Large glass-windowed frontage and inconspicuous signage? Check. Chic decor made homely with fresh flowers on the tables? Check. A menu of modern Spanish/European food? Check again. So what differentiates Bar Galleta from its neighbours? Well, obviously I had to visit and verify.

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.

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.

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 host of 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.

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. 

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.

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 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

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