Islandmomma

Exploring the Stories of the Islands and the Freedoms of Third Age


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Can you be too old to stay in a hostel?

A friend remarked recently that I’d lived my life the wrong way round, and I have to agree that’s true in some ways! It’s certainly true that I’d stayed in quite grand hotels before “poverty” made hostels the norm. One advantage of doing it that way round has been that I now feel quite unfazed by any type of accommodation – so long as it’s reasonably clean. Still, I had my list of doubts about whether it was a way of traveling with which I would be comfortable.

It took a long time for the penny to drop, and that partly because, despite (or because of!) the zillions of blog posts I’ve read over the last nine years or so, I still had an image of hostels as being full of  swinging teens, partying their way around the world. I thought that, at 60+, I would be the fish out of water, the square peg in the round hole, that I would stick out like a sore thumb.

My first hostel experience, in Guildford, England,  was only around three years ago, and  I was very hesitant about it. I was nervous that everyone else would be 40 years my junior; I was nervous about the safety of my laptop and camera (let’s face it, if I hadn’t bought the camera I might have been staying in a hotel & not a hostel that time!); and I was nervous that the name YMCA meant what it said – that my booking would be refused when I arrived, and they saw I was neither male, nor young, nor Christian! (OK they might not be able to see I wasn’t Christian, but don’t they have some sort of spiritual antennae or would there be some sort of test, knowledge of the Bible, perhaps?……but it was the only hostel in town, so there wasn’t any choice.   I was far too nervous to book a dorm, so I splashed out on a private room.

The very best thing about the hostel in Guildford is that it is just around the corner from this idyllic scene, and it’s lovely to take sandwiches & sit by the river & feed the ducks & just enjoy.

As it turned out, they didn’t look at me as if I was the freaky old woman down from the hills when I checked in – first relief! The attitude wasn’t what I’d read about though. Where were these friendly young receptionists, probably travelers themselves, earning a crust to see them on their way? I stayed there a couple more times over the next few months, and don’t believe I ever saw a smile. I felt guilty. That feeling that I shouldn’t be there was reinforced, although there were folk of every type coming and going. Perhaps they really did think I was some frugal old broad too mean to stay in a hotel? The room and the shared bathroom were both very basic and very worn, but also quite clean. It was, in short, just the sort of place I’d always thought hostels were like before they became trendy. It wasn’t my worst nightmare by any stretch of the imagination, but I hated it. It was depressing. I felt as if I was a nuisance any time I asked anything at the desk, and it made me feel kind of faceless and grey, but my laptop was still there at the end of the day when I returned at least, having left it quite unprotected in my room.

Happily, that was the worst experience. The next was far better. It was almost everything a good hostel experience should be, although, it was Sevilla, and who wants to hang around the hostel when you’re in Sevilla?! Maria and I had a double room in the Samay Hostel. It was colorfully decorated in a kind of hippie meets IKEA sort of way, and the location couldn’t have been better, slap bang in the middle of the historic heart of the city, so we were able to walk absolutely everywhere. Our room was located around the corner from the main building overlooking a leafy square, full of that old city sort of charm. The bathroom was immaculate. The staff were the young travelers I’d expected, but they were knowledgeable and helpful. Atop the main building was a delightful azotea, where we imagined would be a great place for hanging out and meeting other travelers. We didn’t simply because we kind of had a schedule to keep.  There was generally a queue for the computers, so we went around the corner to a very nice café to use the wifi, and it turned out to be the place to go, as it was obviously widely used.

View from the azotea (roof terrace) of Samay Hostel in Sevilla

Via the hostel we arranged to go on a walking tour, and that was when the penny dropped, and some of the illusions I had about hostels fell away. Our guide picked up first at Samay. We were the only customers that day, and we then scuttled around the other hostels in the area, collecting more punters, and as Filipo, our guide, emerged from each doorway with people in tow, I realized just what an eclectic  bunch we were. I probably wasn’t even the oldest! There were all nationalities, all types, all ages. It was a personal eye-opener that there were folk of my age, and that there were folk who really wanted to know about the culture of the city. They were interesting to talk with and already well-informed about where they were – totally unlike hotel experiences I’d had in the past with people who only wanted to boast about their own lifestyles, and who hadn’t a clue about where they were, let alone anything about its history.

Heartened at last by this great experience I booked a dorm (ok, let’s go for it!) for my next-but-one destination in York, England. If I was going to have a true hostel experience it was time to get realistic, not to mention that funds were dwindling! The great thing about booking hostels or anything else today, is that you can get an idea from the internet as to what to expect before you arrive, and with two differing experiences now under my belt I was curious about my next. It really helped the still-nervous me that it came recommended by a fellow blogger, Barbara from HoleintheDonut, a far more widely traveled lady then I.

Section of York’s well-preserved Roman wall, just a couple of minutes from Ace Hostel.

The Ace Hostel in York proved to be an altogether different experience again. For one thing it has oodles of history, dating back to 1753, so despite the fact that you share a dorm with 9 other people it still has a touch of that grand hotel feel about it. In fact, it deserves a post all of its own one day, so I won’t make this one any longer by describing the charms of Micklegate House. Micklegate itself is one of the city’s main, historic streets, and the original Roman wall lies just a couple of minutes from the hostel’s door, and just about anything else you might want is just a hop, skip and a jump.

Whilst my vast age has taught me to be reasonably confident in most situations, I can go a bit shy faced with a host of other people, so that first time I entered the key-coded room a bit tentatively. I’d chosen girls only. I’m pretty sure that I could never face a mixed dorm, although I stand to be corrected as experience grows and money dwindles! I needn’t have worried. The dorm of ten beds, was pretty full, but everyone was friendly, and if anyone wondered about a woman of my age being there no-one made it obvious, plus, later that evening another “mature” lady arrived, and down in the bar there were several people in my age bracket too. The beds were immaculate and comfy, and the staff friendly. I’ve stayed there three times more since then, using a private room when I thought arriving at 3am might disturb a dorm, and I swear I don’t know where those cleaning fairies come from, but it’s always spotless. The wifi’s pretty cool too, not in the rooms, but ample in the assigned room.

So – would I recommend women my age to forget their inhibitions and try a hostel? Absolutely!                     I appreciate that I have yet to experience hostels on other continents, but I think it was good to dip my toe in the water first. Just in the same way that if you have doubts about traveling solo you should start by taking yourself out for a solitary meal to test your reactions. The thought of less modern plumbing etc doesn’t worry this child of the late 40s at all. What would have worried me, had I not given them a try in Europe, is that I would have been a bit intimidated,  and been made to feel my age – something, apparently, I rarely do in the course of normal life. But it appears that there are thousands more of we, “mature travelers” having exactly the same experience, so that is most certainly crossed off my list of doubts. For sure there are more under 30s than over, and some are perhaps not over-friendly, but then, again, isn’t that typical of life in general? I’m sure that just as with life the exceptions will more than make up for the rest, and the opportunities for meeting folk, swapping stories and even making new friends are certainly more abundant than when you stay in a posh hotel…….not that there is anything at all wrong with a bit of luxury when you have the money and the inclination to truly wind down.


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Finding Flamenco in Sevilla

It’s kind of a relief to know that life got in the way of lots of posts in 2011.  I enjoy blogging, but in order to have something about which to write you have to do or witness something, and that I’ve missed some means I was busy :=)  Going back through notes and photos as a year-end exercise but also in the wake of the house move I found some which probably deserve a quick mention, although sadly the memories aren’t as sharp as they might have been. So I’m going to whizz off the rest in the next couple of days, in no, particular order, beginning with:

Sevilla > Flamenco, synonymous, no? So why didn’t I write about it back in October, because we did go to see some. We based our choice on economy.  There was mounds of publicity around in the hostel, the tourist information office, posters everywhere for different shows, some including dinner, but making a choice wasn’t that hard because some were so expensive.  We had no way of knowing which of them might be more authentic and less dressed up for tourism, but the one we chose at Bar Huelva Ocho  gave a good  impression.  We passed by the bar on our way back to the hostel to siesta, and liked what we saw.  We spoke to one of the waiters who advised we go early to get the best seats, and as they had what he described as a limited selection of food on quiet Sunday evenings,  we decided we’d eat there too for convenience.

It proved a good choice.  The food was wonderful, the kind waiter placed our scarves on seats in the best spot, and we only wished we’d gone just a little earlier to linger over the meal a bit longer!  Enough to say that we returned to eat there the following night, even though there was no music! We chose 3 or 4 tapas-sized dishes of very original cuisine to share, and each one was a new taste sensation, this washed down with tinto de verano was a definite bonus!

At the back of the bar there was a slightly raised platform with four chairs facing into the bar, a row of chairs along either side, and several rows facing the stage. A portrait of legendary and innovative Flamenco artist Paco de Lucia had pride of place over the performance area.  We saw our scarves on chairs along the side of the stage area, and took our seats. There was quite an air of expectancy and it was full, although the waiter had told us that Sunday was quiet.  It had that kind of hushed feeling you get in a church, as if we shouldn’t be speaking.  Without fanfare, two men and a woman in what we think of as traditional Andalucian dress entered and took their places on the chairs on the stage.

From the moment that the first guitar chord sounded the room fell into an awed silence, and Maria said afterwards that she had goosebumps. A shiver ran down my spine.  I never hear flamenco without cursing that I don’t speak better Spanish, and yet the passion and the heartbreak often don’t need any translation at all.  None of the performers looked once at the audience. They were in a whole other place, eyes fixed on points far above our heads.  The dancer clapped, her face betraying that she was living the words of the songs in her head. When she rose to dance eventually, I took a sharp intake of breath, the anticipation had been wrought out of us so well. Still eyes fixed on something beyond our vision or comprehension, she told stories with her hands and feet and body, exuding anguish, despair, defiance and love in turn, and then, in the same way they had arrived, they rose and left, almost as one person. It was over, and despite the small crowd the room felt empty.

We were lucky to have hit on a night which was free.  We couldn’t quite figure out why, something to do with it being Sunday, but at €14 including a drink it was quite one of the most reasonably priced shows around anyway.  The food is nothing short of divine, if you don’t want to see Flamenco try it for lunch!  As we left we recognized a couple of the guides from Pancho Tours with whom we’d done the walking tour the previous day, so it clearly is on their night-time agenda too.


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2011: Postcards to Myself

2011 was, well, ok. It had several challenges and some very low spots, but there were plenty of good times too, and those are the times we remember.

It was another slow travel year, though, this recession bites deeper all the time. That said, it was Sevilla and Barcelona, York and London and the English Lake District, not exactly the armpits of the world, eh! It was also Cirque du Soleil, Las Tablas de San Andres and snow, lots of snow this year :=) (well, up in the mountains at least). There was also lots of sunshine, waves, fiestas, visits from friends old and new; some wonderful hiking and delicious food and wine. It was a chance to improve my photography, and some stunning scenery to inspire it, both near and afar-ish.

Things that stand out:

  •  I actually got paid to write something! OK not going to either win the Pulitzer nor keep the wolf from the door, but it was an ambition achieved.
  • I went rappelling, which just shook my whole world up in terms of having done something I didn’t think I could do.
  •  Kew Gardens, which was amazing (and I only saw a fraction of it!) and proved to me that even in a place you’ve known for years you can still find new and wonderful things.
  • The forth was the first time Maria and I went in search of the stars and instead found the amost overwhelmingly beautiful sunset ever (We did find stars in the end too, but it was the unexpected sunset which took away my breath).
  • “Discovering” the Anaga Mountains was memorable too. It was the last place on Tenerife I hadn’t been, and within a half hour of hiking it had become my favorite.

Mostly what stands out are the times I spent with my wonderful family and friends every one of whom is a blessing to me, and whom I am very grateful to have in my life. Not all those times are represented in this mosaic because not everyone is comfortable being splashed around online.

Since I began this blog I’ve never used New Year’s Eve for musings much.  I did hit a big birthday this year, and that has given me pause for thought, but more of that another day, for now it’s just what I’ve always done – paint a wee mosaic of my year.


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Reasons to Return

Although I think of myself, essentially, as a country-girl, I love cities. I love their quirks, and their ability to change, and to mix modern with traditional, and how there is always something new to discover, and above all their energy. I need to feed off that energy just as much as I need to feed off the peace of the countryside or the seashore.

I especially adore Spanish cities. I have yet to find one I don’t like, and want to return to – Sevilla, Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Malaga, not forgetting Santa Cruz de Tenerife – all have their special charms, and lots of soul.

Maria and I went to Sevilla this time largely because Cirque de Soleil was there. Temperatures were in the high thirties and locals all said it was a freak heat wave, even by standards of a city known for its summer heat. It was a magical few days, as I’ve already noted, but leaving Sevilla wasn’t that hard. It was time. You don’t always get that feeling, but I had it, despite that I was standing on a street corner at 5am waiting for a taxi, I knew it. I was happy to be on the move again. I’d had a wonderful time, and I loved her to bits, I really hoped to return but I wasn’t in love.

Speeding to the airport you could see that there were wide, modern thoroughfares and smart office blocks outside of the historic and touristy heart of the city. Avenida Kansas City for goodness sake, there must be an interesting story behind that name, surely.

It doesn’t take long to get to Barcelona, you’re still in Spain, but the difference is palpable in the first whiff of air, even at the airport. There is that vibe of a city on the move, an energy which, I’m sorry, I missed in Sevilla. I’m very aware it’s possibly because we stuck to an area which radiated roughly from the cathedral. We only crossed the river once, and I know I still have much to learn and discover. = Reason to return!

Barcelona is more familiar – this was my fourth visit, and, not only that, but it’s Maria’s hometown, and you can’t do better than to be with someone in their hometown if you want to really “get” a place. That said, I had a couple of requests; places I’d missed on previous visits. On my last visit I’d kind of “done” Gaudi, but got distracted by Roman ruins and a chocolate museum (no surprise there, then, for those who know me!), and I missed Parque Güell. Since then I’d watched “Vicky, Cristina, Barcelona” a few times, so I really needed to experience it.

Seeing the famous architecture and sculptures I couldn’t, actually, believe that I hadn’t been there before. I had the same reaction when I went to New York. It was all so familiar (but no less impressive for that), because I’d seen it so often on the screen.

The vista from atop the park is stunning. The city meanders over the foreground like a miniature village, and landmarks like La Sagrada Familia (still encircled by cranes) tower above the mass of other structures with authority. We couldn’t resist the corny photo ops – afterall, it’s the fact that something is so good that makes it popular!

As for Gaudi? His vision, his surreal take on the world is beyond words.  So many public spaces, worldwide, copy his style these days, it’s easy to forget just how avant-garde he must have been.  Happily for us he and his imitators have brought much color and humor into our modern lives!

Alas the photos here are all that remain. It’s looking very much as if I’ve deleted the rest by mistake, and I could cry! If I find them hidden somewhere on this p*ta computer I’ll post them as a photo essay, but it’s looking increasingly unlikely :=( Most of these have been recovered from Flickr and Twitpic, so if the quality is lacking, that’s why. = Reason to Return!

I also made my best-ever Bookcrossing release in Parque Güell. I left the book about Gaudi which I’d bought on my last visit, lying on a park bench for the next reader. I figure you can’t get much more apt than that!

What I hadn’t realized from movies or books (I read Carlos Ruiz Zafón’s “The Angel’s Game” as my preparation for this visit, perhaps I should have stuck to guides?!) was just how extensive the park is, and that there is more to it than just a pilgrimage to Gaudi. I love to have reasons to revisit places, and since we’d hightailed it straight down there after arriving in the morning, and a lovely lunch prepared by Maria’s sister, we didn’t have enough time to explore it all = Reason to Return :=)

My other requests were the Palau de la Musíca and La Boqueria Market. The latter was to elude me yet again. The last time I attempted to visit was a bank holiday (January 6th, the Day of the Kings) and, as luck would have it, so was the day we chose this year! It was October 12th, Spain’s National Day, and the market was all closed up, save for a few bars around the periphery, which, of course, were chock-a-block. BUT another Reason to Return!

As for the Palau de la Musíca, well, it kind of half-eluded me. From the pictures I’d seen of the Music Palace I imagined it to dominate the surrounding neighborhood, but I’d forgotten about how narrow the streets of the old city are, and we rounded a corner, and there it was, before us. Very impressive, nevertheless, and now protected by a glass façade, which does detract from its beauty, but with which you can’t argue. History has to be preserved and protected, and this is probably the best way. The entry price was just too much for the current state of my bank account, so we had to content ourselves with a stroll just inside the ground floor bar area, and then we trotted around the corner to snap the lavish exterior. The building, designed by Lluís Domènech i Montaner, and inaugurated in 1908, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it so epitomizes an era which fascinated me for many years that I could almost have cried. One day I WILL be back to see the elaborate interior and the famous stained glass! =Reason to Return!

Barcelona is one of the best cities I know for just strolling around. I’ve been in all sorts of weather, and even at its coldest or wettest I haven’t been deterred.

Outside the cathedral there is a new photo-op. I have to say again how much I love this blend of ancient and modern that you find in great cities. It’s a sense of life continuing and evolving, appreciating the beauty of the past, but loving the present and looking forward to a bright future. The times I’ve hated cities have been when I’ve visited ones which seemed to be stuck in their past, however fascinating that might be!

We were intrigued, as were dozens of others, as we snapped away, by the red water, looking like blood, oozing from this fountain. It was pretty gruesome, and a couple of weeks to go to Halloween, so not for that. We couldn’t find out if it was intentional, it was Spain’s National Day, a day when the sacrifices of its military are honored, so perhaps, but Maria’s sister thinks it was probably a prank.

There was so much more to this day, but I was relying on the photos as memory prompts…..so I guess I’ll just have to go back to relive it all….maybe it’s one of the joys of travel always having a Reason to Return?


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If Sevilla was a Woman

If  Sevilla was a woman, and I was a man, she would be the  elegant and perfect wife I would cheat on by hanging out in Madrid or Barcelona for a bit of excitement, or I’d have an exotic, foreign fling with London or New York or Rome.

Sevilla is, without much doubt, the prettiest city I know, and she is so tourist-friendly it almost hurts.

This was my second visit, and the only plan Maria and I had for our long weekend was to see Cirque du Soleil and then the idea was to soak in the atmosphere, mainly wander and stop wherever took our fancy, and avoid anywhere which involved spending too much money. The only other “must” was to see  some Flamenco in its homeland, although our budget was going to limit what we could see.  We arrived in an autumnal heatwave.  We’d expected it to be a bit cooler than at home, but it turned out to be even hotter.  I found myself short of hot weather clothes, having packed for an onward journey to a chilly England, based on Ryanair’s ridiculous weight restrictions.

My memories from my last visit, over ten years ago, were of a city of light and great beauty, and this trip did nothing to change my impression.  Even with temperatures in the high 30ºs it seemed easy enough to find narrow, shady streets to explore when the going got too hot.

Through gates and ironwork in the passages we glimpsed cool courtyards where pretty fountains glugged and we smelled faint perfumes of herbs and flowers.  Mainly we smelled jasmine. Sevilla smells of jasmine, the sweet and lovely perfume of the faithful wife. Sometimes it’s just a waft as you pass a walled garden, and other times it tumbles over railings and snakes up the walls of houses. I might always think of Sevilla when I smell jasmine now.  Most days Maria plucked a small flower to put in her hair, which, even when spent the next morning still smelled sweet.

It’s a great city to get lost in. Dodging the heat into alleyways or detouring through a green park you come across peaceful squares, or stumble onto a historic site almost without warning, and yet we always managed to find our way around without that panicky feeling of being truly lost. The way you would feel secure in a good marriage.

When the streets aren’t the narrow alleyways of yore they are wide and handsome, with well controlled crossings, and around the tourist hub by the cathedral the trams glide like ghosts.  This also has to be the most bicycle-friendly city in Europe.  I know that Amsterdam used to claim that title, and it’s years now since I was there, so I don’t know how time has tempered the claim, but in Sevilla it seemed as if everyone was on two wheels, from rent-a-bikes to fold up bikes, from middle-aged mums to hip young guys.  I’m not great on a bike, but it really made me want to ride around the sights on one!   There were tricycles too!

Maybe it was the profusion of bikes which make it such a quiet city by modern standards. Oh, I realize that away from the tourist heart it’s a bit noisier and harsher, but essentially it’s well-behaved and correct.

I’ve yet to find a Spanish city I didn’t fall in love with, and Sevilla is no exception – it’s beautiful, it has bags of history, it’s clean (hmm maybe the dog doodies could be cleaned up better – it’s a very dog-friendly city too), the food was fabulous, and the pavement cafés like nowhere else,  and the weather was great, even small shops like the one below were pretty and colorful – yet, it doesn’t grab me and excite me the way rougher or uglier cities do.

Was it me? What was missing, or what was I missing? Then I read this  post on Sunshine and Siestas blog – note the adjective “stuffy”? – and I knew that it wasn’t just me.  Without knowing why, I completely understood that adjective.  I don’t mean to criticize Sevilla, she might even be perfect – except, and I think now I understand, she lacks the energy of other places, and it’s always the energy which draws me to cities.  For tranquility and peace I’ll choose countryside or deserted beach, but in a city I thrive on the energy, and Sevilla, for me, relies on her beauty and history.


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Walking Tours: Are They Worth It?

Hands up if you’ve ever made fun of a group of folk trailing along behind a guide carrying aloft a flag or an umbrella, or just a folded pamphlet.  It’s so easy, especially if you’re in a familiar place to put down walking tours, but they’re growing in popularity all over the world.  There aren’t now many cities which don’t boast some form of tour.

I’m one of those with my hand in the air.  Until recent years I considered it extremely embarrassing to be found trooping along the streets  being mocked by the sophisticated locals. Two things made me change my mind. One was a visit to Rome a few years back.  It was my third visit, and I was chuffed to find that I remembered how to get around to the main sights quite well. I was with my friend, Maggie, and it was her first visit, so it was fun to act as our own guide, but when she mentioned wanting to visit Tivoli I knew that it was beyond my capacity to get us there without a lot of hassle, and we plumped for an organized tour recommended by the hotel.  It turned out to be a great idea.  The tour included a visit to Hadrian’s Villa too, and our totally entertaining guide was full of the sort of anecdotes you don’t find in the official brochures.  On the bus back he sat with us, and it turned out that he’d worked in Tenerife, so we had some repartee on that account.  I don’t remember his name any more, but I do vividly remember the visit, and lots of the information he gave us because he did it in such an entertaining way.

I don’t have any pictures from Hadrian’s Villa or Tivoli because I dropped my camera and broke it, but here I am a couple of days before that, throwing my obligatory coin in the Trevi Fountain – managed to get close enough despite the usual hoards because it was (as you may be able to make out) raining! Note to the gods of the fountain: it’s time I was back there!

The second mind-changing event was actually two events, and happened here in Tenerife.  One, which I blogged last year, was a tour euphemistically named La Ruta de los Castillos (Route of the Castles) in Santa Cruz, and the other, lead, as it turned out by the same guide, was a nocturnal museum tour followed by a walking tour of La Laguna, which I didn’t blog.  Both of them organized by the Museums of Tenerife, and both very informative and entertaining, full of stuff I didn’t know before.

The other thing which surprised me and gladdened my heart was that most of the folk on the tours were actually interested in knowing more about the places they visited, and didn’t fit the “ugly tourist” mold at all.

Visiting any city is overwhelming if you’re going for a short stay, unless you’ve done a lot of research first, and know exactly what aspect of the city to concentrate on, so a guided tour of some sort isn’t a bad starting place to get your bearings.  You can always pick out the places which really interest you and return later to find out more.

So then, in Sevilla Maria and I opted to take the tour.  Actually, we took two.  One was a short river cruise, which was fairly cheap (and appealed because of the breeze too – we went in a heat wave, remember!).  There was a constant commentary, so we could scurry from side to side snapping away to our hearts’ content and know what we were seeing!

This was one of the buildings from the 1929 Iber-Americano Exhibition, which, I learned had a huge influence on how the city looks today.  

The pictures above are of the simply stunning Plaza de España, which also dates from the  Iber-Americano Exhibition, although it’s also a beautiful reminder of typical Andalucian architecture and the debt it owes to the Moors. Many of the buildings we saw on the tour dated from this exhibition, without the delightful Filipo explaining everything I wouldn’t have known that.

The other reason we opted for this, particular tour was that it was free.  Of course, at the end we could give or not, as we chose, based on how well we thought Filipo had done.  Some of the sites we saw we’d already seen, so to begin with we did wonder, especially considering the heat again, whether it was a good move or not.  Turned out it was.

There had been a choice of tours, and we opted for one called something like “Myths and Folklore” partly because we both like the old stories and partly because it included the barrio (neighborhood) of Triana, across the river from where we were staying, and said to be the Flamenco heart of Sevilla, so we were sure that the stories would be rich and colorful.  It turned out that the tour company considered that too far to walk in the heat – they were almost certainly right, it definitely wouldn’t have been a good idea for some in our group – so that was a bit disappointing, but what we did get was a tour which was flavored with quirky stories rather than dry facts, and Filipo made sure that wherever we stopped it was in the shade!

Triana, seen only from the opposite river bank, and a reminder to return to Sevilla

We were a very varied group, both in age and nationality, and only one couple dropped out, despite the heat. Our guide turned out to be funny and friendly, but not over-flamboyant, and  the experience was definitely positive.  I’d do one again for sure – although I did chicken out on the Ghosts of York tour I planned to do the following week in England.  It was just too bl**dy cold to be tramping the streets at night!

If you’re travelling alone, walking tours would also offer a great way to meet people, and if you’re nervous of cities of course there is safety in numbers.  It was suggested that we might  join an evening tour too, but we’d already made our own decisions based on our budget for that.  As it turned out we’d chosen one of the bars which Pancho Tours with whom we’d gone, visited and we bumped into one of the guides we’d seen that morning with a good-natured crowd in tow.

Shady avenue of the Parque Maria Luisa in which is situated La Plaza de España.

As always, recommending Pancho Tours.com is something I’m doing because I enjoyed their tour and the friendliness of the service, not because I’m receiving any payment for giving them a plug, in fact, of course, they have no idea I’m doing it. They picked us up at the hostel and then we trotted around to various other locations, picking up folk as we went, like the Pied Piper. At the end we were left in no doubt that we should only give according to our feelings and pocket, there was no hassle at all.  As well as the tour we did they do a historic walk, bike tours and tapas tours.  If you look at the pictures on their website it might look as if it’s all for the young folk, but, as I said, we were a very mixed group.

So – walking tours, worth it or not?  End of the day it depends. Definitely they are probably the most in-depth “snapshot” you’ll get of a city if you’ve got limited time.  You can wander around and ogle gorgeous buildings for hours and not appreciate what you’re seeing.    Knowing the history, myth or tradition of a place brings it alive.  That said, next time in Sevilla, having now, after a couple of visits, got a sense of the city, I’d research first and then choose specific places to visit…..I would also spend longer – city breaks are great, but always leave you wanting more!


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Sevilla: A Feast of Tapas and Finger Food!

My philosophy is that when you’re in a country you should eat the local cuisine, except, of course, when you’re “at home” – wherever that may be – in which case you are allowed to sample any nationality of food available to you, on the principle that sticking to one kind in this modern world is boring, and anyway eating Italian or Thai or whatever brings back happy memories!

You might think that visiting Sevilla didn’t qualify as “foreign” for me, since I already live in Spain, but Canarian cuisine, although it owes a lot to Spain (and also to the Moors – because of the conquests (of Spain by the Moors, and in turn, of the Canaries by Spain) not because of the proximity of the islands to Africa – is different in many ways. The relative isolation of the islands historically, and simply because they are islands, meant that resources for traditional dishes had to be sourced locally.

These days tapas can be eaten in any major city of the world, and in lots of smaller towns too, and what you find in Tenerife, generally, is what you can find almost anywhere – Serrano ham, Manchego cheese, marinated anchovies, potato croquettes (with ham or fish usually), salpicón (a bit like cheviche) of tuna or octopus, meatballs, mushrooms or prawns in garlic. These dishes are pretty standard, but what we found in Sevilla was that they do them with a twist, and the very best way is to let my friend, Maria (anyone wanting to employ her as a t.v. food critic please contact her through me!) talk you through a typical lunch we enjoyed a couple of weeks back.

Mouth watering now? That was just one lunch!

On our first night, lured in by the promise of cheap (but in the end non-existent) mojitos, we were just a little disappointed to be served very ordinary food. It wasn’t bad, it was just ordinary, except for the sweetest, juiciest pineapple ever for dessert.  My disappointment wasn’t huge.  I have lived almost all of my life in touristy places, so my expectations weren’t over-high, but happily for me, for the rest of the time, they were so far exceeded as make me quite giddy! Sevilla was, quite simply, a feast of tapas and finger foods, and not only that, but very reasonably priced too – especially considering that the purchase tax there is three times that I’m used to in the Canary Islands!

I have an aversion to bars PR-ing but in the case of Ramon at Bar Jacaranda I’m SO glad he did! In the first place, the food was marvellous, and in the second, the irrepressible Ramon did it with such charm and good humor it didn’t feel like I was being PR-ed : Tenerife bars do you note? Jacaranda is one of those tiny, “hole-in-the-wall” bars, where we perched on stools at trendy tables outside. Passing through this little square late at night it was so quiet and deserted that you would have no idea that there was even a bar there. Their meatballs were quite simply the best I ever had, rich and flavoured with cumin (Moorish leftover I guess?) to give them that extra umpff, the tuna salad was ample, with a dressing much less acidic than I’m used to,and, well the goats’ cheese drizzled with a caramel sauce – don’t get me started! and after,  Ramon lived up to his promise by giving us shots of yummy caramel vodka to finish.

Wandering Sevilla’s narrow and ever-surprising streets night and day, we were assailed by the irresistible smell of fish and batter each time we returned to our hostel. To nostrils educated in the north of England there is no more tempting aroma I can tell you, and the day we popped into its source, a corner shop, decorated inside and out with traditional and spotless tiles of blue and white, and came out with paper cones full of fried fish and seafood was another “not-disappointed” occasion. We took them to the park and picnicked in a wee garden surrounded by more of Andalucia’s iconic tiling.



However, I leave the best for last, as one should. You can’t visit Sevilla without experiencing flamenco, and we spent time selecting the venue we thought best suited our budget and seemed least touristy, Bar Huelva Ocho in Calle Huelva, Alfalfa….. more about that another post. The utter and unexpected delight was that the small bar we chose had tapas to-die-for. We sussed out the location during the day, and left with the impression that, well, there were a few tapas, but Sunday was a quiet night, so maybe not so much. Okay with us, we wanted to experience flamenco, we weren’t especially going for the food, but we did decide to eat there because we were advised to go early to get the best places. All I can say is, if these were tapas on a slow night then I must go back on a busy one! There was goats’ cheese with apple jam, delicate crêpes filled with cod and slices of pork in a sauce I can’t remember (*slaps hand* – too busy scoffing to make notes!). So good was it that we returned the next night just for the food, and on a visit where you want to experience as much as possible that’s the ultimate praise I think.

Since we walked everywhere it was a treat to wash down all this wonderful food with wine without fear or guilt. We quaffed tinto de verano, red wine mixed with sparkling lemonade (ok, so technically it wasn’t verano/summer, but refreshment was needed at Fall temperatures of over 35ºC!), and Maria introduced me to rebujito which is manzanilla (an Andalucian wine like dry sherry) topped up with fizzy lemonade too, refreshing without being sweet.

As a footnote, we spent each day searching for pringá, which, we had been advised, was a must-try local dish, but though we asked in every bar we entered (including some in which we didn’t eat) we couldn’t find hide nor hair of it. Looking back, it strikes me that maybe this traditional, Andalucian dish is being by-passed in favour of more sophisticated cuisine, which is, of course, a shame. It was described to us in one bar as being a left-over dish, something like bubble & squeak is to the English, and that’s not something you often find on a menu either. Wikipedia, however, doesn’t describe it that way. All I can say is, I simply have to go back to Sevilla to take up the search again!

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