Sunday, 30 October 2016

Escapes to the country

I promise my long-held silence doesn't mean life has suddenly become boring. In fact, it's been anything but and proof lies in my empty bank account. Dressed in a fresh pair of pyjamas and armed with yet another cup of tea, I've definitely resigned myself to a PJ day and I'm pretty sure it's well-earned today, not just a means of avoiding spending.

One of my favourite things about this Autumn so far has definitely been my country escapes, of which there have been plenty. It all began with a trip to Boxhill in the North Downs in Surrey in the final weekend of September. Provided with several different walks to choose from, we went for the 'Stepping Stones Walk' which I admit I thought sounded sweet so was surely going to be a gentle amble. Needless to say, Boxhill is called Box'hill' for a reason; we definitely walked off our picnic and my time in the gym has not improved my lung capacity. Our longest dog walk to date, it was nevertheless so lovely to spend a day surrounded by green and space as far as the eye could see.

I welcomed October with a visit to Norwich (which probably explains where all my money disappeared to) then the following weekend was spent in Ripe for a glorious weekend of singing interspersed with lots and lots of food, drink and general merriment. This was the second time I had joined the choir for their annual getaway and it was just as wonderful as the year before. Ripe is the sweetest of villages in East Sussex peppered with quaint houses and home to a beautiful little church where we sang in a workshop all day on Saturday for a concert in the evening and then again in the Sunday morning service. I do think being in the countryside really emphasises the changing seasons; for lunch we devoured home-made soups (curried parsnip, tomato and red pepper or broccoli and Stilton) with a cheese board on the side and an endless supply of fruit afterwards (all seriously heart-warming, foods) and of course the surrounding scenery was so picturesque and the country pub so cosy. After the service on Sunday we walked the long lane back to the home of our host and hostess then before lunch we were given a tour of the vegetable garden which was honestly like something straight out of Beatrix Potter's stories. Idyllic doesn't even begin to describe the Ripe weekend.

Two weekends ago I was craving another dose of country air so myself a fellow Norfolk-dweller headed on an Epping Forest adventure. I'm not sure that we would have expected it to be much of an 'adventure' but it saw us getting shamefully lost on our walk which was mostly spent potentially trespassing on farmland and skirting the M11 and M25 when we took one of many wrong turnings. Four hours (advertised as a 2-hour round trip) of fresh air and what can only be described as a proper 'romp' did us good though, even if we did have to back-track multiple times and (oh the shame) set our phones to satellite mode in order to establish our location when faced with fences of a high or electric nature on several occasions. I feel like this country escape was possibly the least relaxing of the few I've had this season and maybe even slightly traumatic but it was nothing that beer and pub food couldn't fix. We'll be back, now we know the way...

Half term arrived and home beckoned so on Thursday I was Norfolk-bound on a super early and surprisingly busy train. As happens every October half term, I've got the cold to rival all colds but I hoped it was nothing that couldn't be fixed by country air, home cooking and love. An early departure meant an early arrival thus we had a whole day on Thursday to get out and about. Our day began in the village of Walsingham, home to fascinating churches for several denominations of Christianity and two beautiful shrines to Mary as well as a tearoom with the tastiest cake and a farm shop with the prettiest produce. From Walsingham we carried on to the coast and Brancaster Staithe. No crab left at the hut in the harbour so we just took a hot drink back to the car to admire the view.

On Friday we first drove to Wolfertoon Woods where we often go for our Christmas day walk. I thought it might be looking particularly pretty at this time of year and I was right. We were met by every shade of golden and red and a plethora of toadstools growing all around. The curly-haired cows were up a lot closer and more personal than usual which was fun and because we're so used to clear paths in winter we actually took a wrong turning and ended up traipsing through bracken to find the path again. From Wolferton we headed again along the coast to grab a crab sandwich to prepare us for Thornham, my favourite beach and the one that I felt Mallorca was reminiscent of with all its pine. Back in the summer we were put off staying by yuppies with rugby balls and enormous picnic hampers but this time we were glad not to encounter too many other people at all as we made the walk along the bank to the pleasingly empty beach.

It sure is reassuring to know that the countryside complete with its air and space is never too far away and is always available, no matter the time of year. I think this month has definitely shown me that country escapes don't have to be so infrequent as they had become.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Pine trees, pastries, Pokémon & Padrón peppers

Always one to make the best of a bad situation, I am taking full advantage today of the fact that the sun seems to have finally disappeared by sitting inside to write all about adventures in Palma. I would have written much sooner but sadly a traumatic flight involved (or perhaps resulted in) me losing my notebook where I had written each evening about the day's events. Thus, I have had to find time to first write again about the whole week before eventually finding time to type it up. It's been a busy but of course absolutely wonderful summer!

Friday 12th August

An interesting arrival into Palma as we declined one ant-infested hire car, got ambushed by all the one-way streets, found ourselves stuck down an alley-way in the enormous replacement car with no idea how to put it into reverse then paid 30 cents to decide whether or not to park in a carpark before finally taking our Airbnb host for a ride to find an appropriate place to park. All settled in we took to Trip Advisor which recommended a tapas bar not too far away. Down another alley-way (slightly dodgy looking this time) we ventured to discover very yummy tapas and our first bottle of Cava; soothing the nerves after all the trauma that had come before.

Saturday 13th August

Feeling much more relaxed after the previous day, along we walked to where the car was parked. Admired a few market stalls on the way, came to the end of the market and paused... struck by the realisation that the car had been replaced by said market stalls. The morning of our first full day was thus spent chasing local police, our oh-so helpful host and a taxi to take us to the car itself which looked a sorry sight indeed chained up in some far away 'aparcament'. Huge fine paid, off we drove to make the most of the rest of our day (not before checking where we actually were allowed to park to avoid a repeat performance) in Pollença, a coastal town in the North of the island. Stopped a while to enjoy lunch on our first Mallorcan beach before taking a 'pine walk' along to the end of the bay. Fortunately the car was still there upon our return so we could all breathe a sigh of relief. Found safe parking back in Palma so headed out for food at a pizzeria with a huge selection of film-themed pizza toppings and some tasty Sangria.

Sunday 14th August

Relieved to find the car exactly where we had left it, we took a drive to a beach recommended as a point of historic interest. After a very touristy experience the previous day, it felt very promising to park up in a field in the middle of nowhere. A hike through more pine (this time a whole forest of it) led us to the most stunning beach. Here we thoroughly enjoyed a full day of sea, sand and funny grass-balls before we headed back through the pine where we stopped a while to pet some Iberian piglets, a realisation that was all too shocking as I enjoyed Iberico ham, eggs and chips for my dinner...

Monday 15th August

Drove to Sóller to enjoy the freshly-squeezed orange juice (and ice-cream) it's famed for. Could have quite happily spent the day café-crawling around the main square but as the trams kept tooting their horns as they trundled past, we thought we'd better have a ride. The tram took us to the port of Sóller where we enjoyed remarkable views, the tastiest seafood (I had squid-ink spaghetti topped with calamari, prawns, mussels and clams) and a paddle before heading back into the mountains where the town stood which were now beautifully lined with low-lying cloud as the evening drew in. After a longer day and plenty of food to see us through we decided to have an evening in with cards, guessing games and pre-made Sangria.

Tuesday 16th August

Began a rainy day in Alcudia for the market set in the pretty old town. Enjoyed lunch and Mallorcan beers at a tapas place (of course) before making our way to Fornalutx, a mountainous village once voted Spain's prettiest. Wandered aimlesssly, hypnotised by beautiful streets, architecture and countryside, relishing the peace brought by drizzle and precarious roads. Back in Palma we tried a tapas bar with a twist; Padrón peppers (of course), avocado and strawberry tartar, Spanish omelette with 'crystal bread', a zucchini, rocket and mango salad and more Iberico ham, eggs and fried potatoes, all washed down with another bottle of Cava.

Wednesday 17th August

Our final day with the dear car, we opted for another beach day, this time in the South of the island. Walked along the shore until we found a quiet beach spot where we sat to enjoy our lunch and a spot of relaxation... all well and good until a highly persistent wasp (or it could have been multiple wasps) decided to harass us. Moved to a slightly busier spot in the hope that other beach-goers might have picnics of greater interest. Finally relaxed it was a struggle to tear ourselves away but there was definitely a big sigh of relief from all as the car was delivered back to the hire company (not before we had to make way for a Paella coming at us along the road). Took a taxi back into Palma and made a return visit to the restaurant from the night before (it was just so good)!

Thursday 18th August

Until now our exploration of Palma itself had revolved around restaurants, wherever the car was parked (or not parked, as the case may be) and 'Spermacat' (we mis-read the sign for the 'Supermercat). Our penultimate day began with a hearty brunch in one of the main squares. From there we wandered semi-aimlessly around the old town until we came to the cathedral. Tempted by a look inside but not really fancying the queuing, we headed instead around the bay and a way out of the city, up into the hills to find a Gothic style castle. I think we all thought we were genuinely close to death (or at least a collapse) as we dragged our way up the never-ending steps in the heat of the day. Stopped a couple of times to admire the view (well, and to down drinks and catch our breath) back across the city. I do love a good castle! Jelly legs from the walk back down again, we decided to call it a day and headed off to the beach to spend our last full evening enjoyed baked goods, Cava and the sunset.

Friday 19th August

With our flight not until the evening, we decided to spend the morning back on the beach before facing the reality of end-of-holiday joys like packing. Checked out, we ventured into the Arab Quarter to admire more architecture and to take refuge in the shade now bikinis were packed and a quick shower was no longer a possibility. Visited the oldest café in Palma for one last Ensaimada as a very fitting bid farewell to Mallorca. 

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Postcards from Santorini

Tuesday 2nd August

Hairy drive to the hotel (taxi for Samanth a Graham - new Greek name?) along lots of bendy roads. Warm welcome and super cute beachy decor; lots of driftwood art. Stumbled our way along in the pitch black to find a supermarket. Poolside picnic and a foot dip before bed.

Wednesday 3rd August

Body clocks not yet adjusted to Santorini time, waking up was a struggle. Only 18 rooms in our hotel so breakfast buffet was very civilised and we had our pick of shady tables on the pool terrace to eat. Rest of the day spent between lounger, pool and lilo basking and admiring the surrounding scenery. Dinner along the beach; Greek salad, Gyros and Baklava accompanied by smoothie cocktails and odd Grecian remakes of classical pieces.

Thursday 4th August

Spent the day on volcanic sands (although strictly not sand but tiny little smooth pebbles which are a dream compared to sand), taking the occasional dip in crystal clear sea. Enjoyed an elevenses cocktail (another of the smoothie variety; feels less naughty) and later lunch on the beach; 'spaghetti with butter'. Embraced a 'Greek Night' for the evening involving a huge tasting platter of traditional dishes, wine by the litre, plate smashing and lots of 'opa!'

Friday 5th August

Took a boat trip around some of the islands of Santorini. First stop was the dormant volcano at the centre of them all. Glad to have spent so much time on the crosstrainer lately as we huffed and puffed our way to the top for a spectacular view and sulphuric smells. Stopped for a while at some thermal springs and then again at a traditional village where we spent most of our time stuck on the boat (of course everyone else managed to get off in time) while 'a ferry making huge waves' passed us by. Had a 'quiet night in' with some nibbly bits and wine from Carrefour. After smashing the bottle of red (literally), the rest of the night went quite smoothly...

Saturday 6th August

Began the day by the pool again. Partook in a lunch of leftover meat and cheese from the night before in bread stolen from breakfast. Made our way to the capital of Santorini, Fira (no, not the same as Thira) for the afternoon and evening. Wandered up and down precarious paths on the cliff edge, stopped a while for cocktails with a view to recover from the shock and heat, enjoyed a glorious sunset from a wall with a view of a traditional blue dome, bell tower and the sea before returning to the cliff path to dine at a table that began with no candles and ended up with three to keep us warm from the sea breeze.

Sunday 7th August

Struck down by prickly heat of epic, swollen proportions (apparently my elbows (and I quote) resemble sock puppets or a granny without her false teeth) so I was a good girl and had a shady beach day. After an incredibly sleepless night of forced starfishing to avoid contact with anything, had a good snooze on my lounger. First experience of a club sandwich (apparently a holiday favourite) for lunch was washed down with an incredibly potent Margarita (all in the name of pain-killing). Food settled, we had a long swim and splash about in the sea before I was finally able to emerge from my shady nook to enjoy some evening sun. Found a lovely restaurant offering a complimentary fish soup starter and watermelon dessert for dinner. Had haloumi andk zucchini balls followed (for me, anyway) by a feta stuffed burger too. A pretty setting and delicious food was a choice well made for spending our final evening in Perissa.

Monday 8th August

Another morning begun by the pool before we ventured into Oia to spend our final evening. Wandering the cobbled streets we were even hotter than in Fira and I had to buy some Greek sandals when my own Primark specials snapped along the way. Sat for a while to cool down with icy cold drinks before. Energy regained we trekked down the many steps leading to the bay below, narrowly avoiding donkey poop (and the donkeys themselves as they clattered up and down), for a view of the town in the setting sun. Having enjoyed the sunset for a final time we found a little jazz bar for more Santorini wine and pittas.

Tuesday 9th August

The hotel were kind enough to let us keep our room until the taxi transfer picked us up for an evening flight so we spent our final day saying goodbye to black sand and sea that isn't murky brown. Volcanic beaches are officially my favourite - enjoying all the perks of a beach without getting sand in all the wrong places is pure bliss. General impressions of Santorini? I've loved it! The climate, the scenery, the people, the wine, the food (oh, the food)! Would love to come back one day. Think we left just enough places undiscovered to warrant a return visit.

Sunday, 31 July 2016

Un comiat a Barcelona

I think it's safe to say, now having been twice to Barcelona that it does not disappoint on food. Over the past few days we have done many wonderful things but ultimately as I walked back to the Plaza España to catch my bus to the airport, all I kept thinking was 'my goodness, we've eaten well.' I'm writing this at the airport (far too early as usual) sitting by a window watching planes take off and land with a tummy full of Iberico ham sandwich - bliss. Tempting as it is, I won't just write a food blog because actually, there are so many other lovely things to write about too.

Stranded in Bruges not so long ago when I forgot that mobile data isn't just available when abroad, this time I'd been smart and printed off directions to the accommodation. With Barcelona being made up of lots of long streets and blocks, I found it easily enough and was soon settled in and headed out for lunch (and Sangria).

The Hen Party was a jolly bunch, all distinguished by our sweet home-made 'Hen Party' badges. Once we were all safely gathered together, we ventured out for a glimpse at some of the sights; an introductory walking tour with our very own personal guide.

With the heat as intense as it was, we took a nice, leisurely stroll around the Gothic Quarter, along Las Ramblas and into the food market where we all cooled down with fresh fruit juices (I went for watermelon). Soon we found our way into the Plaça Reial where we enjoyed more Sangria in a stunning setting.

For dinner we decided to try a Tapas bar recommended by the hostess of the apartment we were renting. Sadly once we got there, the wait for a table was longer than any of us cared for but fortunately we found a very happy alternative not far away where we enjoyed a plethora of dishes and lashings of red wine.

Friday came around all too soon. Having had a whale of a time in Carrefour the previous evening, we were able to kick-start the day with a hearty breakfast of Nutella and banana on toast with a side of watermelon. We had decided to have a beach day so moved at a leisurely pace although still decided to take the scenic route to get there.

First we passed Gaudi's House which last time I had only seen briefly from an open-top bus tour (I absolutely love the skull-like balconies). Next we made our way to the Spanish Arc de Triomf which I must admit I preferred aesthetically to the one in Paris. From the Arc, we strolled along the avenue behind it and into thParc de la Ciutadella where we were greeted by the most beautiful fountain. Here we stayed a while, oohing and aahing at the base before ascending its steps to the top and back down the other side.

Just before we reached the beach, we stumbled upon an ice cream parlour offering lots of tasty flavours. I was a bit strange (as always) and just went for two flavours that I'd never tried before; licorice ice cream and pear sorbet; both seriously yum but not necessarily the cleverest combination, I admit. The beach was much busier than it had been when I visited before but we still found room for ten towels right on the water's edge. Sun, sea and sand. There really is nothing better.

Luckily we had made a dinner reservation at the restaurant next to the ice cream parlour so we had motivation to eventually tear ourselves away. We chose seafood and between us we really did try it all; padron peppers, cuttlefish, razor clams, fried fish (ie giant whitebait), calamari and anchovies to start before Arròs Negre of gigantic proportions.

After such a lot of food, we decided to walk it off and wandered home via the marina and along Las Ramblas again. The evening was spent in true style... well, admiring the all singing, all dancing Font Màgica while we enjoyed a few glasses of Cava (one of our Carrefour purchases at €2.60). There really is nothing more luxurious than sitting outside for the entirety of an evening when it's so blissfully warm.

The whole trip was over all too soon but we definitely made the most of the last morning. We kicked it off with the most amazing brunch ever at a little café out in the sunshine before we then made a visit to Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's masterpiece and another landmark I'd only seen from the atop the tour-bus before. I'm so glad that we decided to go in this time as it absolutely took my breath away. It had me oohing and aahing all over again; a seriously good way to bid farewell to Barcelona.

One more refreshing ice lolly and it was time for me to head home. I'm so glad to have been back to Barcelona as it's left a very different impression on me and definitely left me wanting more. I must say that it was an absolutely beautiful trip for an absolutely beautiful bride.