Saturday, 12 November 2011

All the fun of the (Andalusian) fair

Here's my post for this month's Across the Cafe Table: where the Travel Belles ladies (and you, if you like) get together and discuss a travel-related topic over a virtual coffee. This month, the question we're discussing is 'What's your favourite shopping find?'

I'm not the best holiday shopper. A lack of patience and the fact I usually travel with carry-on luggage means that I generally return home from my travels with little more than a pair of earrings (one of which I will invariably lose within two weeks) or something as exciting as a pen. So, this month's topic left me stumped: until I glanced at my wall and saw this poster.

A souvenir from when I lived in Seville, this poster is a daily reminder of the whirl of colour, food, music and fun that is an Andalusian feria. Almost every town in southern Spain, no matter how tiny, has an annual fair: a celebration lasting several days (usually Wednesday to Sunday, but then there's the pre-feria: call it a week). During these days, which fall between April and October, most of the town decamps to the recinto ferial. For 51 weeks of the year, this is a nondescript plot of land on the outskirts. Come feria, it's the town itself: 'streets' are created, lined with marquees known as casetas, food stalls and fairground rides. From noon until the early hours of the morning, the streets fill with locals dressed in their best, enjoying a few days' holiday from work and getting together with friends and family over drinks, dancing and plenty of food.

Welcome to feria

A huge illuminated archway known as the portada marks the entrance to the recinto ferial. At Seville's Feria de Abril (April Fair), Andalusia's largest fair, the design of the portada changes each year, drawing on key elements of sevillano or andaluz culture. Past designs have included a flurry of open fans and a recreation of one of the city's landmarks, the costurero de la reina (Queen's sewing room) in 2008.

My first feria was about as far from the glamour and grandeur of the feria de abril as possible. Keen to introduce me to Andalusian life, the friends I made on my year abroad in Alcala de Guadaira took me to the first local fair of the calendar, in nearby Mairena de Alcor. In fact, they were so keen that they took me to the pre-feria, where just the main caseta is open for drinks and dancing, and the trademark farollilos (lanterns) that line the streets of feria-town hang unlit. This first taste was enough though: sipping the traditional rebujito (a mixture of fino sherry and 7Up that goes down far too easily) and dancing with my friends, I was an instant feria convert. Returning twice during the real feria, the deal was sealed. Feria is an escape; a chance to catch up with friends and family in an exuberant party atmosphere, sampling whatever food takes your fancy, trying out a couple of fairground rides (and regretting that battered fish), moving from caseta to caseta in search of the music that suits you - be it traditional sevillanas or the latest chart hits and dancing all night, before a breakfast of churros con chocolate as the sun comes up.

The warm-up


Better than a kebab at the end of a night out

Friday, 4 November 2011

A Brit abroad in Seoul

After an extended break, Brit abroad guest posts are back. This month's post comes from Ruth Dear, who's currently living and working in Seoul, South Korea.

I think wanderlust is in my genes. It definitely runs in my family. My parents used to take me and my two older brothers on holiday when we were still babies. There are numerous pictures of me in a nappy running around on different beaches, and certainly we didn’t go to run of the mill places either. 25 years ago, Greek islands and Portuguese towns that are now tourist traps were small seaside villages where we could wander around interacting with the local people. I was too young to really remember these places, but I think some of my parents' desire to see new and exotic places was instilled in me and my brothers too. We are now a family spread across the globe: one brother is in Copenhagen and the other is currently in Afghanistan (he’s an RAF officer). This appetite for exploration led me to inter-rail around Western Europe after university and then pack my bag for a British Council teaching job in Suzhou, China about a year later. I wasn’t finished with being an expat after China; despite returning home and managing to find a really good teaching position. I have nomadic itchy feet! So I upped sticks and moved abroad yet again, much to the dismay of my mum. This time I made the move to Seoul, South Korea.

When you’ve made the decision to live aboard, people always seem to ask you ‘Why did you decide to live in ____?’ My answer about China was a simple one: ‘It’s a developing nation, it has a fascinating history, and it’d be cool to speak Chinese!’ I’m afraid my reasons for moving to Seoul weren’t as innocent. I was lured back to Asia because I feel there is so much more to explore and discover. I wanted to see the beaches of Thailand and Bali, float down the Mekong delta, explore the temples of Angkor, dance all night at the full moon parties of Ko Pha Ngan, witness the splendor of Laos’ 4000 Islands. Basically, I wanted to travel more. I came to Korea because of the fantastic public school teaching programme run by the government. Although there are more private language academies in Korea than you can shake a stick at, a teaching job there would have meant only 10 days holiday a year. The public school programme allows me to plan extended travels around Asia for my winter and summer vacation. It also offers me a good salary and rent-free accommodation. Why did I choose South Korea? Because it was too good an opportunity not to.

Having said that, of course you can’t live somewhere you don’t like. It really is great to live in this part of the world. Seoul has a fantastic amount of different neighbourhoods, perfect for exploring at weekends: trendy Sinsa-dong, posh Gangnam-gu, vibrant university districts like Hongdae and Kongdae, tourist-friendly Insa-dong… and foreigner town Itaewon (where the US military base ensures your fix of all things western). Korea is a country of national parks and a nation of hikers. Even in Seoul, the city is surrounded by mountains. Travelling around the country is simple, quick and cheap so it was convenient for me to visit the friends I had down in the seaside town of Busan; a great place to visit in the summer months.

My favourite experience out here so far happened almost exactly a year ago. A group of us spent the afternoon at Lotteworld, a (mostly) indoor theme park right in the middle of the city. We had a great day on all the rides, even witnessing a rather early Christmas parade. Lotteworld is situated within a wider entertainment complex so after we’d exhausted the rides, we headed down to spend an hour on the ice skating rink; after one too many falls we then headed into the bowling alley. As day swiftly glided into evening we headed to the gangnam area and a BBQ restaurant we’d been regulars at for a while. The proceeding shenanigans saw us become a little bit more than tipsy, taking over the music choices, blasting out ‘Wonderwall’, digging into an ice-cream cake and generally filling the places with much joviality. It was one of those days that just keeps on going, and no one wanted it to end.

Living in Asia can be tough though; along with the homesickness that every person living abroad encounters, this area of the world couldn’t be more different to England. The concept of personal space doesn’t really exist here, as it does in the west. You can quickly and easily become agitated by the amount of pushing and shoving that goes on in Seoul, particularly on the subway. Public transport is incredibly reliable, clean and cheap, but travelling on the bus can be dangerous! Just this morning I had a maniac bus driver, accelerator on the floor one minute and slamming on the brake the next, woe betide any passenger not gripping onto the hand rails! I quickly learnt to hold on for dear life and only relax once both feet have made it safely to the pavement. The weather here is another thing you have to get used to. I never thought that as a Brit abroad, I would actually prefer the weather in England but seriously, I miss it. Korea boasts about its four seasons. Yes, it has four seasons, but spring and autumn both last for about a week each, and are squeezed between 5 and a half months of blistering heat and humidity combined with torrential rainfall, and bitterly cold days full of snow and ice. Korea has a climate of extremes.

Seoul is the largest capital city in the developed world, with a population of 10 million. It is the world’s second largest metropolitan area with the third largest subway in the world. With these statistics in mind it might be impossible to see how living here could be lonely. However, the friends I made during my first two weeks of orientation all live in different parts of this huge city. The availability of transportation makes it easy to see each other, but the journeys can take over an hour sometimes; making popping over to a friend's house for a cup of tea rather a mission. I think this is the biggest hurdle to overcome here in Seoul, and one that I still struggle with. In the heady first 6 months of being here everyone is filled with the energy to travel everywhere and meet up as regularly as possible. But as this desire gives way to the reality of budgeting and burn-out, mid-week outings die out. This is perhaps a natural progression of life abroad, and it forces you to enjoy your own company and explore at your own pace.

I enjoy living in Korea though; in August I re-signed to stay another year. It’s a long commitment, especially for someone whose soles get itchy quickly. But so far second year is moving along smoothly. I’ve pro-actively made a list of things I never got round to doing in my first year: hiking the mountain nearby my house, picnicking in Seoul forest, skiing, volunteering and plenty of eating. I’m more settled in a job than I’ve ever been before. Things have become more mundane as expat life starts to just become normal life, but for now I’ll continue to explore my city at the weekends, plan my next holiday adventure and try to avoid any more bruises on the subway...

Ruth inherited wanderlust from her parents and shortly after graduating from the university of Liverpool embarked on her own travels. They have led her into a career of ESL teaching. She's currently based in an elementary school in Seoul, South Korea, and has previously taught in China and the UK. Originally from a small town in Essex, she plans to explore the world a little more before returning to her homeland. You can follow her journey online at

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Belles abroad: Ladies let loose in Italy

Imagine spending a long weekend in a house with four women you've never met before. The stuff of dreams or nightmares? When I signed up for the Travel Belles first trip to a townhouse in an Italian village, I was crossing my fingers for the former. Established by Margo in early 2010, the Travel Belles has a personal touch that many websites lack, manifested in the fact that its founder wanted to meet her contributors in person. This was no faceless networking event aiming to ascertain what we could all get out of each other in the way of blogger back-scratching, it was a trip designed for a group of women to get to know each other offline, brought together by a shared appreciation of travel (and food).

Our home for the weekend was a tastefully restored townhouse in the piemontese village of Vogogna, nestling in the Italian Alps. Arriving at 8pm on the Milan to Geneva train, I was already suitably excited by my first glimpse of Lake Maggiore at sunset. Fortunately my housemates for the weekend were no less disappointing: Margo, Katy of Starry-Eyed Travels, Krista of Rambling Tart and Kathy of Food Lover's Odyssey all greeted me warmly and plied me with risotto and wine. Just the kind of welcome I like. As we chatted late into the night, any lingering fears I may have had about holidaying with complete strangers were banished.

I could get used to waking up to that view
Awaking to the complete peace of a Saturday morning in Vogogna, I took a moment to admire the view before scrambling for the shower and piling into the hire car to head for the nearby town of Domodossola. From here, we caught the Lago Maggiore Express through the mountains to Locarno in Switzerland. For once, the idea of a touristy train trip didn't appall me: not when there was scenery like this. The splendour of the Alps might be mere backdrop to seasoned skiiers, but to somebody who ought to stay away from all winter sports for health and safety reasons, the journey into the mountains was a foray into unchartered territory. The scenery as we clanked up impressive gradients, passing through pine forests and clusters of flower-bedecked houses, had almost nothing in common with the sides of Italy I've experienced: the verdant slopes under early autumn skies had far more in common with parts of Austria or France than the gritty, glamorous whirl of Milan, the decadence of Venice and the ancient sprawl of Rome.

Katy and Krista capture Santa Maria Maggiore

Breaking our journey at the town of Santa Maria Maggiore, I noted that we were definitely still in Italy: the fashions in evidence at the town's boutiques were more cosy than chic, but I was reassured to observe that sunglasses were still very much de rigeur. A town whose good looks even Tyra Banks would be loathe to criticize, Santa Maria Maggiore was a photographers' dream: and oh, the Belles are snap-happy. As my companions wandered through the cobbled lanes clicking away at Alpine dwellings, the town church and a variety of street scenes, even I felt the urge to up my game and put my camera to good use.

Even the coffee's pretty in Santa Maria Maggiore

Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Me, museums and stamina

Here's my post for this month's Across the Cafe Table: where the Travel Belles ladies (and you, if you like) get together and discuss a travel-related topic over a virtual coffee. This month, the question we're discussing is 'What's your favourite museum?'

The word 'museum' puts me in mind of a school trip. No matter how many interactive, state-of-the-art spaces I visit, I still imagine that museum visits will invariably involve trailing around some fusty gallery pretending to read the explanations of exhibits I couldn't give a monkeys about while secretly thinking about what's in my packed lunch. As attitudes go, I realise that mine is far from cultured, and fortunately I frequently manage to shelve it: for a while at least.

Travel and museums go hand in hand. Pick up a copy of any guidebook and you're bound to find more than one museum listed as a must-see. Art galleries, museums of national or indeed natural history, science museums... they're all lurking between those glossy pages, waiting to be ticked off like answers in an exam. Perhaps this prescriptive idea that museums simply must be explored otherwise you've failed in the cultured traveller stakes is what brings out the teenage rebel in me: after a guidebook-inspired schlep around a particularly dull maritime museum in Dieppe which failed to stimulate any of my senses other than smell (owing to the pungent presence of dried salt cod among the exhibits), I certainly wanted to stamp my feet and whine 'I don't WANT to go to any more museums'.

It wasn't until I met M that I realised everyone has their own museum visiting style. No, I don't mean putting on your favourite frou-frou frock and accessorising with a cute clutch in the manner of Carrie Bradshaw: it's how you visit a museum that makes all the difference. Some people arrive early; a rucksack full of supplies and plan their way around the space, prioritising which exhibitions to see first. Others might pop in to peruse just one or two rooms, returning at a later date to see more. Me? I aim for speed. The ideal museum visit lasts no longer than 2 hours (and is framed at either end by a tea break). That way, I get to see my personal highlights without reverting to my stroppy teenage years. And believe me, that's a bonus for my fellow visitors.

M at the Biennial. I think she's heading for the exit.

M and I met in Seville in 2008. We were both keen to see all the city's sights, even going so far as to write a list of everything we wanted to do during our three-month stay. But it wasn't until we visited the Contemporary Art Biennial that I realised we shared more than just a list of priorities. By the time we'd skimmed over most of the exhibits, lingering longer over those that held particular interest for us, our friend R was still in the first room. When she called us several hours later to ask if we were ready to leave, we were shopping in the town centre. Much like a child on a school trip, my attention span is short: I enjoy museum visits as long as I'm in the right frame of mind and able to choose when to leave.
Me outside the Biennial. I've already exited.

It's no surprise that my favourite museum visit was a trip taken with M a couple of years later. In Bilbao for the weekend, we made tracks to the gallery that has transformed the city's fortunes and made it into a top Spanish destination: the Guggenheim. But we didn't go there to admire the art: we went for the food. At €19 for a delicious three-course meal with a bottle of wine, this was the museum's highlight. Yes, the wine-fuelled visit around the gallery afterwards was entertaining, but the restaurant stole the show. Hey, that's my museum visiting style.

You can read the other Travel Belles' posts on this topic (no doubt more cultured than mine) here.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Working that windswept look in Tarifa

By the time my summer holiday rolled around, the whole office knew about it. 'Oh, are you going away somewhere?' they mocked, understandably sick of hearing about my beach break for the hundredth time. Pesada, me? I was so excited about a few days of switching off, sunbathing and worrying about nothing more taxing then where my next meal was coming from to care.

Welcome to Spain, welcome to Tarifa

The gusts of wind that had me frantically clawing the hem of my beach dress southwards as we made our way to the hostal should have been a strong enough indication of what was in store. Of course I'd heard that since Tarifa is the southernmost tip of Europe, straddling both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, it's lucky enough to be besieged by the double whammy of levante and poniente winds. This makes the town popular with surfers, but as we soon learned, it can complicate matters for the average holidaymaker.

All quiet on the beach: how deceptive images can be

After a leisurely lunch at Cafe Central, we made our way to Tarifa's main beach, on the Atlantic side. A wide expanse of sand barely occupied on a Monday afternoon, it seemed ideal for a spot of sunbathing. Sure, it was a bit breezy, but a pair of hardy northerners like me and V would be fine. Plonking our beach towels down, we delved in our bags for the sun cream: mistake #1. Applying the lotion with one hand while desperately attempting to prevent a towel from taking flight requires both patience and dexterity. Just when you think you've mastered it and managed to plaster your white bits with enough cream to prevent epic sunburn, a raging gust of levante whips half a ton of sand onto your body and you're wearing the beach. Sand suits well and truly on, we persevered, valiantly trying to make progress with our holiday reading material. After half an hour, my wind-ruffled book was double its previous size; we looked like a pair of human croquetas who had backcombed their hair and then slept on it for a week. There was only one thing for it: we needed a cup of tea.

Beach abandoned, we spent the rest of the afternoon recovering from our ordeal and people-watching over cups of tea at Bamboo. Time and people move slowly in Tarifa, and the town's laid-back vibe suited us just fine after the beach incident. From our vantage point on the cafe's terrace, we could see the Tangier-bound ferry in the harbour, its klaxon sounding before each departure: in just 35 minutes, you can disembark in another continent. Its coastline visible from Tarifa, Morocco's influence on the town is just as discernible in the North African-infuenced menus, the whitewashed walls, the styles of dress. Added to the cosmopolitan mix of boho types and the town's laid-back ambience, and the reason for Tarifa's popularity is clear. It may not be the ideal beach destination when the levante's blowing unless you're a surfing enthusiast (or enjoy a powerful exfoliation while you sunbathe), but this pretty coastal town has more than enough charm to compensate.

As the afternoon stretched into evening, we traded tea for tinto de verano. After a pre-dinner dinner (my favourite meal of the day) of Greek salad and a veggie burger, we returned to Hostal La Calzada to remove what was left of the beach from our limbs (and bags, and hair). Spruced up, de-sanded and ready to explore, a quick wander of the old town quickly assured us that even on a Monday night, Tarifa is jumping. After a few drinks and tapas, we ended up ensconced in a bar watching an eclectic mixture of customers tango-ing their way into the small hours.

Tanning fuel

On day two, we chose to concentrate on what we decided Tarifa does best: food. After a substantial breakfast of muesli, yoghurt, fruit, coffee and juice, we came up with a creative solution to our tanning dilemma: after all, I couldn't go back to the office as pasty and pale as I'd left it. Half an hour later, we were seated by the harbour watching the comings and goings of the ferry from our very own sand-free beach: a lovely patch of concrete. Tarifa, I loved you, I just didn't want to wear you.

Hasta luego, Tarifa

Saturday, 13 August 2011

Tattoos and tat: My favourite souvenir

In the backlash against our capitalist, consumerist culture, we're forever being hectored about our big spending ways and irrepressible urge to possess. While I wholeheartedly agree with all this in theory, I just can't hide the fact that I love acquiring stuff. Yes, 'stuff': a new dress, another cookbook to add to the pile I peruse once every few months, yet more nail varnish. As you can see, I don't exactly blow megabucks on all this stuff; there are no impulse iPad purchases or flatscreen TVs. I keep it small.

Given how much I love to travel and to acquire items of minimal practical use, you'd think I'd be quite the fan of holiday souvenirs. Yet somehow, tourist tat is my blind spot: novelty pens and T-shirts proudly emblazoned with destination names do nothing for me. I once decided to start a collection of snow globes from my travels; this amounts to one lone dome languishing on my windowsill. As I usually travel with hand luggage only, it seems ridiculous to waste valuable liquid space on a water-filled plastic sphere. So when I saw that the topic for this month's Across the Cafe Table on The Travel Belles was 'my favourite souvenir', I wondered what I could possibly write about. Those lovely Moroccan tea glasses purchased in 2008 and still wrapped up in newspaper, perhaps?

Surprisingly, my favourite souvenir isn't a material object. I don't even have it any more; it only survives in photos. When I visited Singapore and Malaysia in 2010, it was the first time I'd been so far from home, and the first time I'd travelled alone outside of Europe. So I wanted a souvenir that fitted with this theme of firsts: something new and different I'd never experienced before. I chose a henna tattoo.

On my last night in Malaysia, I saw a lady sitting in the street in Kuala Lumpur's Little India. On the plastic table in front of her were photos of intricate, swirling floral designs on the arms and legs of smiling customers. Sitting down, I asked for something small on my left hand. Minutes later, a series of loops and flourishes were working their way up down my fingers and up my forearm: we clearly had different ideas of small. I had no complaints though: as I watched her artistry unfold, I marvelled at her creativity. The floral motifs creeping up my arm weren't based on any design, just her own imagination.

Work in progress

A few minutes later, her work was done. She asked me for 5 Ringgit (one pound). Horrified that such a work of art could cost so little, I paid her double. Walking through the streets of KL with my newly-tattooed arm, I was careful to avoid smudging her handiwork and couldn't stop admiring it for days afterwards. As souvenirs go, it wasn't the most durable, but to me it was worth so much more than any novelty item.

The finished article

You can read about the rest of the Travel Belles' favourite souvenirs here.

Monday, 25 July 2011

My 7 Links: Tales of a Brit Abroad

Jessica of Through My Eyes and Katy of Starry-Eyed Travels nominated me to take part in Tripbase's My 7 Links project, an endeavour designed to bring bloggers from all sectors together in a new way of sharing their work with the world and resurrecting long-forgotten posts.

Since moving back to the UK one year ago this Saturday, I've been trying my sometimes tenuously-linked best to continue Tales of a Brit Abroad, so the chance to peek into the blog's back catalogue and rediscover some of my old posts is a welcome opportunity.

Here are my seven links:

1. Most beautiful: Express Marrakech

My camera's far from the best on the market, but even its humble 8 megapixel powers managed to capture something of the beauty of Marrakech's medina. Spending just 48 hours there was an ideal weekend escape from the grim grey days of an English January, injecting my winter with the non-stop buzz of the city's old town, the colourful whirl of life in the souks and the budget bites on offer in the Djemaa el Fna.
This post was also published on Travel Blog Exchange and in the Manchester Evening News.

2. Most popular post: Bilbao: It ain't grim up north 

My second ever post remains my most popular - perhaps I peaked too soon? A record of a fun weekend spent in the Basque city of Bilbao, reading this post makes me want to explore northern Spain further.

3. Most controversial: Brushing shoulders with Brits abroad on the Costa del Sol

I'm not really in the business of polemical posting, but I think my most fitting post for this heading is this account of my summer 2010 visit to one of Britain's most popular foreign holiday destinations, the Costa del Sol. Part of the original premise of my blog was to uncover a side of Spain that most of my compatriots never witness, yet when re-visiting my teenage holiday destination I found far more unspoilt pockets and cultural fusion than I expected.

4. Most helpful: Madrid: My way or the guide's way?

Based on the idea that expats can sometimes make the best tour guides, this is my itinerary for a weekend in my former home city, the Spanish capital of Madrid.

5. Surprisingly successful: The story of pizza at La Perla di Napoli

I have no idea wy, but this tale of my 'last supper' at an eccentric Italian restaurant on the eve of my departure from Madrid is the second most popular post on Tales of a Brit Abroad.

6. One that didn't get the attention it deserved: A culinary experience in France's gastronomic capital

Perhaps because I enjoyed this Algerian meal in Lyon so much that over one year on I can still taste it, I hoped that this post would also be enjoyed by many.

7. The post I'm most proud of: Spain's World Cup victory, near hysteria and the goalie's cheekbones

Quite simply, this is my favourite post. Re-reading it always makes me laugh as I remember the night of the Spanish national football team's victory parade in July 2010, when my friend K and I chased their bus through the streets of Madrid as though we were trying to outrun Usain Bolt. One of the most fun nights of my life (and the night I proposed to Sergio Ramos) captured in my most fun post.

Thanks for nominating me and giving me the excuse to wander down blog memory lane, Jessica and Katy!

My nominations for the project are:
Becoming Sevillana (British expat Kim in Sevilla)
The Pea's Kneas (Oxfordshire food blogger Sarah)
Rachael Schofield (Rachael's visual design and travel diary)
Scriptorious Logos (books, films and musings from Gemma)

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

Sevilla Tapas tour: Around Sevilla, one tapas bar at a time

A plate of perfectly-prepared ensaladilla de gambas in a swanky modern gastro bar. A peep at the Corpus Christi preparations in Seville's Plaza de San Francisco. A helping of creamy goat's cheese with caramelised onions served by suited and booted waiters with slicked-back hair. A walk through the former Jewish quarter, the barrio de Santa Cruz, followed by a selection of tuna tapas at a specialist bar-restaurant. This is no ordinary tour: it's a Sevilla Tapas tour.

For the past few years, Canadian-born Shawn Hennessy has put her extensive knowledge of her adopted home city's culinary scene to good use, guiding small groups of visitors around Seville's tapas bars on tours tailored to their own tastes. Staying with my friend Vicki in nearby Utrera for a few days, we presented a double challenge: two pescetarian former residents of the city. Would Shawn be able to cater to our dietary requirements and satisfy our stomachs in previously uncharted tapas territory?

In a word, yes. Meeting by the cathedral for a lunchtime tour, Shawn reeled off a list of four bars we'd never visited, some we'd never even heard of. So far, so shameful on our part. First on the list was Albarama, a recent arrival on the Seville scene serving creative modern morsels, as well as twists on traditional tapas. Settling in with a glass of wine, friendly Shawn talked us through the menu, helping us to select three tapas: those on the tour can select anything they like, but those unfamiliar with Spanish cooking or just keen to sample each restaurant's specialities can learn a lot from her guidance. Our choices of boletus croquettes with a leek sauce, ensaladilla de gambas (a potato, mayonnaise and prawn salad) and the 'envoltini' (squid ribbons with asparagus, served with tartar sauce) were beautifully presented, but style didn't triumph over substance: they tasted as good as they looked. Vegetarian croquetas can be a dull, greasy affair, but the high-quality ingredients and addition of the leek sauce made these a tasty dish even for meat-eaters, while the ensaladilla even won round serial prawn-dodger Vicki.

Croquetas and envoltini

Stomachs suitably warmed up, we moved on to the much more traditional Enrique Becerra, a restaurant and tapas bar so old school it even features pillars looted from the Roman ruins at Italica in the days when pilfering from ancient monuments wasn't frowned upon. As we waited for our tapas to arrive, we chatted easily about food, life in Spain and Seville: Shawn normally talks to visitors about the city, but as we were already familiar with the city, talk naturally wandered wider. Presented to us by a smartly-clad yet super friendly waiter, our saquito de bacalo ('cod-filled parcel of joy' is how any good dictionary should translate it) and portion of goat's cheese served with caramelised onions and fresh bread raised the bar even higher. The saquito's pastry was perfectly crisp; the cod flaky and light. The goat's cheese was creamy and lip-smackingly moreish - and I don't even usually like goat's cheese. We were definitely in no doubt of the quality of ingredients used here.

Saquito de bacalao

By stop number three, participants are usually tiring, their stomachs showing signs of struggle. Not so the two hardy northerners: we were just getting started on Seville's culinary delights. In the heart of the barrio de Santa Cruz, La Sal is a smart restaurant and tapas bar run by Charo, who hails from coastal Zahara de los Atunes in Cadiz, where her family own another restaurant. Both eateries specialise in tuna almadraba, freshly caught and flash-frozen for maximum freshness and taste. We tucked into tuna tataky (a rare cut of tuna soaked in a soy and ginger sauce) and tuna steak roasted with rosemary and served with a red pepper conft, with seaweed tortillitas rounding off the sea-based theme. All of this was washed down by a refreshing glass of Botani wine, produced in Malaga and one of Shawn's favourites for good reason - she certainly has a finely-tuned palate.

Tortillitas  and tataky

With an extra stop thrown in out of generosity for a fellow blogger, Shawn saved the best until last. By the time the three of us rolled into Vineria San Telmo at 4pm, our stomachs were reserving just a sliver of space. But once Vicki and I saw the menu, our capacity to eat increased: squid ink spaghetti served with scallops, bulgur wheat with mushrooms and truffle oil and panko prawns with a courgette stack were all as delicious as they sounded, and worth the waistband strain. I couldn't even play favourites; every dish was full of flavour and immaculately presented. The gorgeous tapas, boho-chic interior and friendly international staff made Vineria San Telmo a winner in our books - so much so that we somehow managed to make room for a dessert of three-chocolate flan.

Panko prawns, squid ink spaghetti & bulgur wheat with mushrooms

Our afternoon spent in Seville in Shawn's company was quite simply one of the best I've had in a long time. The tour was unhurried, fun and full of expert advice. If you're a food lover looking to get the most out of a trip to the city, a Sevilla Tapas tour is the perfect place to start. Just make sure to wear something with an elasticated waistband: it wouldn't do to restrict your eating abilities with so many tapa treats to be had.

To find out more about Sevilla Tapas tours, visit Shawn's website, which also features comprehensive listings of tapas bars all over Seville.

Monday, 4 July 2011

An overnight stop at Yotel Gatwick

I envy people who can fall asleep on public transport. Not so much my friend who regularly used to nod off on Madrid's circle line, waking up at the same stop on every lap, but the ability to lay your head anywhere certainly comes into its own when travelling. I've lost count of the number of times I've stared wide-eyed and wide awake around a coachload of faintly snoring passengers at an hour when we all should have been tucked up in our respective beds. Journeys to airports to catch a red-eye flight are the worst provokers of jealousy: never have I been so envious of open-mouthed drooling in public as I have at 3am on the way to Gatwick.

Before a recent 6am flight to Seville, I decided enough was enough: I couldn't face the 2am bus journey. Spending the night at Gatwick was an obvious solution, but given my inability to sleep anywhere other than the most logical of places and my need for a bit of comfort, the check-in area floor was never going to be an option. A hotel stay was definitely required, but I didn't really want to rise at 3am to get a connecting bus from a hotel to the terminal.

The solution to my conundrum came in the form Yotel, the 'cabin hotel' handily located in Gatwick's South Terminal arrivals area (and just a few steps away from departures). Founded by the people behind Yo Sushi, this smart little spot offers weary travellers the chance to bed down in a private ensuite room of petite proportions before or after their flights. With cabins available for a minimum of 4 hours (and a minimum cost of £26), it's the perfect place to get some shut-eye in comfort.

Arriving on Friday at 9.30pm, the lift whisked me away from the throng outside arrivals and into a pocket of low-lit serenity in the underbelly of the airport. I attempted to check in using the machines outside the door, but seeing me faffing around in a quest to find my reservation confirmation, the friendly receptionist waved me inside and did the honours, talking me through the cabin's features and even offering me an alarm clock and a pair of earplugs.

Stepping inside the corridor to the cabins, the sense of calm increased. This place was clearly designed with nothing but rest in mind. Opening the door to my premium cabin, I found a 4 star hotel room in miniature: a double bed in a semi-upright position, ready to go horizontal at the touch of a button; a wall-mounted flat screen TV; a drop-down desk; clothes hanging space; a full-length mirror and a bathroom which ran the entire length of the room, featuring a waterfall shower. The cabins might feel a little snug for 2 people, but for a few hours' rest you certainly couldn't complain, and the galley-style bathroom was far better than some I've encountered in bigger hotels.

A premium cabin

Too tired to take advantage of the free Wifi and tens of TV channels, I got ready for bed immediately. Settling back for a night's sleep, I lowered the bed (in standard cabins guests unfold them from the walls themselves) and dimmed the lights to a soft purple glow. With a choice of light settings by the side of your bed, you'll have no problem winding down or waking yourself back up again. The mattress was firm but comfortable and there was a stack of fluffy pillows for maximum comfort. As I switched the lights off entirely, I didn't envy those crashed out on the coach one little bit.

Rising at 4am, I showered, repacked my overnight bag and checked out, pleasantly surprised by how awake I felt at such an unearthly hour. Almost bouncing into the flight check-in queue, I felt fresh and ready for the journey and a day of sightseeing in the Seville heat. Looking around at my weary-eyed, crumple-clothed fellow passengers, I couldn't say the same for them. Yotel, I salute you: you're the perfect solution to my early flight dilemma. No more wakeful nights on a bus for me - I'll be soundly asleep in my little cabin.

Yotel also has branches at Heathrow Terminal 4, Amsterdam Schipol and a new city hotel in New York. I was a guest of Yotel.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

Rocky times in Lagos

After almost two weeks hauling our luggage on and off Portuguese public transport, Rachael and I arrived in Lagos. Confronted with a coastal resort where you're just as likely to hear English or German on the streets as you are to catch a snippet of the native language, where happy hour cocktail signs abound and sunning yourself is one of the key preoccupations, we instantly felt 'on holiday' from what had become our daily routine. The sun had finally put in more than a teasingly cruel appearance after a week of grey skies, drizzle and the odd storm. There was no denying it: Lagos was looking good.

Lagos marina

In the western Algarve, this popular holiday destination has more appeal than the nearby overdeveloped resort towns of Portimao and Praia da Rocha. The walled old town has a choice of pretty squares, perfect for relaxing with a drink; there's a modern yacht-filled marina and a selection of beaches, from cosy coves to the larger sweep of surfers' favourite Meia Praia. Now that we were in holiday mode, surfing sounded far too energetic, so we opted instead for a boat trip down the Lagos coastline. A stunning series of rocky outcrops and caves, some of the curious formations are named after the shapes they represent: the camel proved a fairly accurate description, but I was unconvinced by the idea of a grotto resembling a living room. That's certainly not an idea my mother would be on board with, anyway.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Reading slowly at Lisbon's LX Factory

On the site of a former factory in western Lisbon, there's a quiet revolution against the advent of e-books. Hip bookshop Ler Devagar (Read Slowly) encourages customers to put aside technology for long enough to enjoy the pleasures of the printed word on the page.

Occupying a multi-storey space in LX Factory, Lisbon's newest creative space, Ler Devagar is a work of art in itself. Piles of Portuguese and international paperbacks on subjects from architecture to politics to travel line artistically laid-out shelves, a bicycle with wings takes flight in the centre of the shop and a retired printing press has found new life as a cocktail bar. Selling both new and secondhand works, Ler Devagar features a cafe where customers can linger, enjoying a good read in a light, airy space. The calm atmosphere encourages you to linger and wander, perusing the shelves and flicking through tomes in tongues you don't understand. At Ler Devagar, the book is celebrated as an object, attaining a beauty and tangibility that words on a screen will never have.

Sit down, sip a cup of tea, stay a while.

You may be interested to read my other posts on Portugal here.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Across the cafe table #1: My secret travel indulgence

Once a month, The Travel Belles founder Margo and the site's contributors will be pulling up a pew around a virtual cafe table to discuss a travel-related question, with the answers displayed both on the site and on our own blogs. Starting proceedings with a confession, this month's question is what's your secret travel indulgence?

A cashmere blanket on the plane perhaps? Very Victoria Beckham. Or a silk pillowcase I take everywhere with me? Oh no. My secret travel indulgence is nothing so glamorous. For here I must hold my hand up and confess to buying trashy gossip magazines.

My in-flight reading material of choice, from a recent trip to Barcelona

Some people find airports stressful: not me. Once I arrive, my holiday has begun. I browse the duty free section unhurriedly, try on sunglasses, perhaps treat myself to a new lipstick, people watch over a coffee. I also indulge in behaviour I wouldn't necessarily risk at home: I go into WH Smith and stock up on a few issues of such quality publications as Heat, Now and Closer. There's something about a holiday - or even just a plane journey, as a recent business trip proved no exception - that makes me want to leave my novel in my carry-on and pore over the lives of the rich and 'famous' instead. Jennifer Aniston has yet another new haircut that looks pretty much the same as the last one? Fascinating! A former Big Brother contestant was in a nightclub brawl? Terrible. One of the girls from The Only Way is Essex bought a new handbag? OK, I'll skip that story until at least half an hour into the flight.

You can see why I kept this indulgence a secret until now, can't you? But hey, my reading taste deserves a little holiday too... doesn't it?

You can find the other Belles' secret indulgences here. Many are no doubt more glamorous than my guilty gossip magazine pleasure.
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