Thursday, December 31, 2009

The rain in Spain falls mostly on the... Costa del Sol, actually

Our view during a rare moment of sunshine

So, as Tea 'n' I were packing for our eight days in Andalucía, she noted that the long-range forecast called for rain every day; I think it even covered the whole trip, or certainly most of it. Now, you have to remember, we're both from the school of "Yeah, right" when it comes to forecasts more than a few days out: on the east coast, and in Ottawa, I don't know how often they're right, but I'd doubt they're batting .500; and, the thing is, they know it. They're purposely vague beyond 24 hours or so. In England, it seems to us anyway, there's something almost supernatural going on: they will forecast rain for 3 p.m. the following day, and be bang on, again and again; within a half hour, it'll rain -- I'm not kidding. That said, though, old habits die hard, and we were hopefully about seeing lots of sun as we left for southern Spain.

U'm, not so much.

We had rain, and hard rain at that, for seven of the eight days there; no word of a lie. Most of Spain had rain and snow for that week, actually, but the south continued to get drenched when things were clearing up in the north. We're talking incredible flooding; it was all over the news -- I had a lot of fun trying to translate the subtitles, actually. During a brief window of sunshine near the end of the trip we were in a restaurant -- in the marina of the beautiful Puerto de la Duquesa -- and we overheard a woman say, “My grandmother is 82, and she said she's never seen a Christmas here like this.” It really was extraordinary.

I mean, I don't want to be all doom and gloom here: Tea and I were both under the weather (in more ways than one, I guess you could say) so the forced relaxation was actually nice, and we still made it out for at least an hour or so most days, between downpours. On Christmas Eve, for example, the sun made a few appearances, and we were lucky enough to be enjoying mussels, prawns 'n' scallops in the Brasserie on the beach during the worst of the rain. We also drove to Gibraltar one day, stopping at a beach near San Roque so that Tea could dip her toes in the Med. And the local Mercadona had this amazing fish counter, so we were eating like kings at the apartment: prawns the size of my hand, and beautiful fillets of hake; Tea made her own paella, salsa, and guacamole; fantastic wines for one and two euros, and Brandy de Jerez for seven. Just incredible. We cooked up a chicken with it all on Christmas, and watched reruns of the Nochebuena shows. (Christmas Eve is a bigger deal than Christmas in Spain.)

At the beach-front Brasserie in San Luis de Sabinillas

Tea on the beach near San Roque


Check out the (not-so) shrimp!

Aside: one final point on the rain: so I brought my copy of The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy "Trilogy in Five Parts," and had to laugh out loud when I got to So long... and thanks for all the fish: at one point a producer is talking to Arthur about this guy, Rob McKenna, he's discovered who's amassed all sorts of data supporting his theory that it always rains, no matter where he goes. This producer goes on to say that this "Rain God" is about to hit it big, and does Arthur realize how much he's being paid by tour operators to stay away from Málaga.

Málaga is just an hour down the road from us. So that's it: the Rain God couldn't resist a Costa del Sol vacation during our week there.

True to form, the day of sun that was forecast for our last full day there came to fruition: we decided to do the Land of the Bandits driving tour out of our Michelin Guide to Andalucía -- great book, by the way. We swung down to Algeciras -- where you can catch a ferry to North Africa -- and then back up to the beautiful fortified city of Castillo de Castellar, on the way to Jimena de la Frontera; from there it was an incredible drive through the mountains, stopping at the picturesque town of Gaucín -- a highlight of the trip for us, with local music and lambs' bleating to accompany our short walk -- on the way to the birthplace of the corrida, Ronda. You can see the best of our pictures, including captions, in my Navidad en España album in Picasa.

In Castillo de Castellar

Tea, with Gaucín in the background

Monday, December 21, 2009

Navidad en España

Our afternoon flight allowed us a nice, leisurely morning; we made it to Bristol with plenty of time to spare, even considering the long check-in line for Ryanair. What Bristol International Airport lacks in size, it makes up for in foot and air traffic; that little airport was simply hoppin' when we went through, and it was all the more chaotic with severe weather conditions closing airports in Northern England and the Netherlands. We were happy that our flight was only delayed an hour and a bit, and that they actually announced it early on (as opposed to the fifteen-minute intervals we were used to with Air Canada).

Thanks to careful packing, our checked luggage was under 15 kilograms and our two carry-ons were under 10 kg each, thereby avoiding a number of Ryanair's many surcharges. Once we boarded the plane, it was easy to see why they have to limit the size of carry-on luggage: it was as cramped as I've ever seen a plane – they don't even have pouches on the backs of their seats, 'cause there'd be no room for your knees! – and, with the free-for-all seating (198 seats!), it was even more chaotic than the terminal. At one point, Tea and I were thinking about offering our seats to a family of four, as the youngest son was terribly upset that he couldn't sit near his mom, who was across the aisle from us; however, eventually they sat him across the aisle from his older brother, which he seemed quite happy with.

I mean, don't get me wrong: the flight was fine; it's just that I'm not a big fan of air travel to begin with. And the prices really are worthy of all the talk they generate, particularly if you can take advantage of their deals. One final point: what's with the colour scheme, Ryanair? Honest to goodness, I felt like I was on an enormous life-raft for the entire flight; a sensation that's no doubt enhanced by the emergency information that's printed on the back of the seat rest, which, thanks to the cramped quarters, always takes up a large portion of your field of vision at any time. That said, it was a smooth flight, and we even managed to make up some time in the air.

Aside: O.K., I lied; one additional point: smokeless cigarettes. The image of a smiling stewardess walking down the aisle, asking, “Cigarettes?” as she offers the tray of glossy packs in her hands was one that I thought was relegated to the movies of my parents' day. I gather they contain some nicotine, but I can't imagine it's very satisfying; first of all, how do you know when you're done? And while I'm on the subject, the catalogue in Ryanair's magazine includes a USB-charged, smokeless cigarette. Have you seen this thing? Apparently, while the charge lasts, it produces a 'harmless' vapour – that allows you to blow authentic smoke rings, the ad highlights – that simulates the real experience; can't remember if they contain any nicotine. The charger was the best bit: it looked like a cigarette holder for your computer, and, hey, those jokes just write themselves.

The car rental went smoothly as well, considering we booked it the night before and required an automatic. (It's bigger than we would've liked – an Opel Astra – and semi-automatic, which means it drives much heavier than we're used to, but I think that, second only to our fantastic apartment, it, and the freedom it gives us, will really make this vacation.) It was well after dark by the time we got on the road, but since we took the A-7 all the way from Málaga to San Luis de Sabinillas, Tea had no problem with the drive. (They also drive on the right in Spain, which no doubt helped.)

The final leg of our journey, however, was anything but smooth. We found our way through Sabinillas with little difficulty, but quickly realized that we'd failed to grasp the extent of the construction going on around our apartment complex, Arenal Duquesa: nobody, and I mean no one, was about, and most of the windows were dark; metal fences abounded; and there was little street lighting. Combined with the heavy rain, it was very eerie, to be honest. Worse still, there were many blocks of identical complexes, all gated, with no signs and few numbers to speak of. We really had no idea which complex was ours, and eventually decided to try our electronic fob on a random gate.

While I got a green light from the panel, the gate remained locked. Having driven around aimlessly for some time at that point, we decided to park the car on the road and see about exploring on foot. The pedestrian entrance associated with that gate didn't seem to work, but we found one further down the road that seemed to have a working keypad that accepted the code we were given. I should really pause here and note that it didn't look like more than five to ten percent of the apartments were occupied yet; the whole area felt like it was months from being ready for occupancy, to be honest, but we pressed on, in bull-headed fashion, really (upon reflection).

Since we'd been given directions to the apartment from the parking garage – it had been assumed that we'd find the appropriate gate and drive in – we went in search of the garage associated with the gate we'd just entered. The inner vehicle gate was down and locked, but the door off to one side was open, so in we went. The first thing that struck me was the lack of cars – none, to be precise – quickly followed by the few lights. As we explored, looking for the appropriate parking spot number, we passed all sorts of construction equipment, our footsteps echoing in the distance. We were out of sight of the door when we heard an enormous bang; it sounded like the wind might've caught it, but those few moments of doubt, surrounded by all those dark doorways (that would lead to the elevators at some point, but were just yawning empty then), had our hearts racing.

As we headed back to the first gate we'd tried – now inside the series of walled, attached complexes – we noted that the keypad on the pedestrian entrance was emitting a piercing alarm – and had been for some time, we realized – and the associated vehicle gate was now open to the street! Had we failed to wait long enough earlier? We had no idea, and were even more spooked to be standing around listening to this alarm that no one was paying attention to. Either way, we knew that even if this did turn out to be the right parking garage, this inner vehicle gate was still locked, and, unlike the other garage, we couldn't find another way in to explore.

Eventually, after we'd been wandering blindly in the rain for a good forty minutes, we spotted a man leaving his apartment to walk his dog. Luckily he had an excellent ear for English – and was even able to say a few words – such that we could confirm that we were in the right general area. However, the letters and numbers on our keyring were as foreign to him as they were to us (still are, in fact; they seem to bear no resemblance to the few numbers on the outside of the building).

We were a few minutes away from calling the owner of the apartment when we stumbled upon a vehicle gate leading to two separate parking garages. Like something out of an Indiana Jones or Mummy movie, Tea and I looked at each other and said, simultaneously, “A gate leading to two parkades!” – honestly, it's like our page of written instructions had become an ancient map to a long-buried treasure, and now, almost upon it, we were able to decipher the previously-cryptic direction markers. In all the confusion, we'd forgotten this key piece of information; all the outer vehicle gates to this point had led to one parking garage.

When we tried the fob on the outer gate, we got a green light again, but it also began to open. We ran down the ramp, sensing that we might soon be warm and dry, and quickly found our parking spot. From there we were able to locate the elevator, fumbling for the keyhole in the dark, thanks to poor lighting again, and finally, to the apartment itself.

There were other difficulties – the heating took a long time to kick in, which meant that the marble floors were unbearably cold, and, now getting on for 11 p.m., we couldn't get any groceries – but the worst was behind us. We couldn't help but laugh and shake our heads as we snacked on what food Tea had squirreled away in her carry-on throughout the day; as the kind gentleman who'd helped us said, we really set ourselves up for quite the first evening in Spain.

Up next: the rain in Spain...

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Forest of Dean: the Sculpture Trail

We started Sunday in style with chocolates from Black Peter – yup, he managed to find Tea's shoes all the way across the pond – and pancakes made with Aunt Jemima's mix – Thanks, Michelle! Unfortunately we discovered that the washer wasn't working, but when I suggested that we might hit a laundromat, Tea snorted and began bandying about day-trip ideas. Given the nice day over our heads – have I mentioned how much I love our windowed 'conservatory' lately? ;-) – we quickly settled on the Sculpture Trail in the Forest of Dean.

The Forest of Dean is just a short half-hour drive from us, through some truly picturesque countryside. The small town of Cinderford, in particular, just calls you to pull over and explore (which we did on the way back – but I'm getting ahead of myself, as usual). The information centre sells a nice map of the Sculpture Trail with pictures and descriptions for £1, so we picked up one – as three excited dogs competed for our attention (we love this dog culture) – and hit the trail!

The first sculpture is tough to miss – I think they want to get your confidence up: the chair is enormous, with a fantastic view of the surrounding forest. Any worries that I had about the trail being hokey were quickly dispelled by the second sculpture: Dead Wood really spoke to me; while it wasn't cold, the stark stumps and blanket of pale needles reminded me of those horrific scenes from the Battle of the Bulge in Band of Brothers.

It started to rain partway through, but seasoned as we are now to English weather, we simply pulled our raincoats out of the backpack and continued on; with proper gear, you don't even notice it. Some of our favourite sculptures were the House, Raw – this block looked like something out of a horror flick; I was happy that the sunset was still many hours off, even though I had a flashlight – Echo, and Hanging Fire (see my Best of December 2009 album for pictures of them); but we both agreed that the Cathedral was the most impressive by a good margin; particularly the way the light hit it at that hour of the afternoon. It was truly breath-taking!

On the way home, we decided to stop at the White Hart Inn in Cinderford for a pick-me-up. This was a whim – yes, I do leave the house without the Good Beer Guide on occasion! – but as soon as we stepped inside the cozy front room, we knew we had a winner. The bartender got up from the table of folks she'd been chatting with and served me a pint of Butcombe Bitter and Tea... well, some tea. :-) We sat back by the fireplace beside the other full table, and at one point Tea and I shared a look and laughed out loud: I don't know where they were from, but we both felt we could've been in any Mom 'n' Pop shop in Newfoundland. It was great!

Once home, we decided to clean up and walk over to Zizzi's for a bit of a treat; an Italian restaurant inside a converted church, the atmosphere can't be beat – well, maybe by their delicious breads and pastas. A tasty end to the weekend!

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Christmas in Bath

Pub planning 101
Tea's been talking about Christmas markets -- and all the wonderful childhood memories she has tied up with them -- since we arrived, and after seeing some of the stuff in Cardiff and in town -- not to mention the Good Food Show in Birmingham, although I didn't go with her for that -- it was time to head out for our first one... in Bath. We'd heard that parking was extremely scarce, so, much like our trip to Wales, we packed a backpack and jumped on a train. (We even threw in our swimsuits in the hopes of spending a bit of time in the Roman baths, but, being the last weekend of the Christmas market, it was far too busy.)

Unlike some of our other day trips, we got started nice 'n' early, arriving just after the market opened at 10 a.m. Before long we were snacking on banana and caramel crepes and sipping mulled wine -- it was almost noon, Mom, honest! -- taking in all the festive sights, sounds and smells. Somewhere between the curried parsnip soup and the bratwurst I realized that I was already close to topping out my short-term memory, and fished out my notebook. As I'm scratching down some key details, I hear this older lady's voice from somewhere in front of me say, "Would you like my number? Or am I too old for you?" Awesome! (My little black Moleskine does look like an address book, although I hadn't noticed it before.) There were also stalls that didn't serve food or drink, of course, and I'd be remiss if I didn't highlight the Wooden Ties one: I'll have to put something up on YouTube demonstrating the fantastic tie I picked up; it was quite a hit at work.

Bath is absolutely amazing to walk around, but we decided that we'd focus on the market areas this time, knowing we'd be back again soon. We had some great chats with folks, like the guy who'd set up an enormous Christmas card for passers-by to sign that'd be sent to British soldiers serving overseas. He got really excited when we found out we were Canadian, talking about how much he liked the idea of the Highway of Heroes, and how folks were trying to get a similar designation for the M5 over here. Then there was the local in the Old Green Tree pub who was still up 'n' at it from the night before! He felt so bad about mistaking us for Americans; he kept offering to buy our round, but I knew we were only stopping for a quick one. (At some point, early in the conversation, he leaned over all conspiratorially and said, "Do you realize there's a lady rootin' around in your pack?" He was just tickled that she ordered a full pint too.) It was such a beautiful find -- that Good Beer Guide is worth its substantial weight in gold! -- with a great selection: Tea had Butcombe's Christmas Steps and I had a Keystone Porter. Don't miss this gem of a pub if you're in Bath!

Tea with our new friend
in the Old Green Tree

PS: I'm experimenting with some new features in Blogger, so let me know if you notice any changes in the layout, etc. that you like (or don't like). Thanks.

Update: One thing I've already noticed is that Blogger copies over the pictures, as opposed to linking to Picasa. You can always go there to see all the other pictures associated with any of our adventures (i.e., Best of December 2009 in this case); plus, the slide-show to the right pulls them from there as well (and may even show you ones that I haven't got around to posting about yet.)