Saturday, 31 May 2014

Córdoba in May: Feria de Nuestra Señora de la Salud

With a range of events including the Festival of the Patios and the Cruces de Mayo, May is arguably the best month to visit the andaluz city of Córdoba. It's also the month when Córdoba holds its Feria de Nuestra Señora de la Salud, and it was for this reason I visited last weekend.

The portada is modelled on the city's most famous sight, the Mezquita

Although most ferias run from Wednesday to Sunday, Córdoba's starts at midnight on Friday and runs until the following Sunday. They must have some stamina, those cordobeses. Held at the recinto ferial on the north bank of the Guadalquivir River, the fair is easily accessed by bus (or on foot, for those who don't opt for ridiculously high heels). With 96 casetas, it's smaller in size than the famous Feria de Abril in Sevilla, but Córdoba's feria is more accessible in that all of its casetas are open to the public.

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

A guiri's guide to feria in Andalucia, Spain

Spoiler: This is how much I love feria

So what's feria then? 

Put simply, it's my favourite thing about Spain. Most common in the southern region of Andalucía, it's basically an annual excuse for a party. Although it literally translates as 'fair', feria is much more than an opportunity to bash your way round the dodgems and munch some candyfloss. The majority of towns in Andalucía hold their feria at the same time each year, often in honour of their patron saint. The first ferias were held in the 19th century, and began as livestock fairs. How you can make a party out of selling cattle I don't know, but the Spanish managed it – and I'm glad they did.

An event which lasts several days (usually from Wednesday to Sunday), feria revolves around drinking, dancing and having a good time. But this is nothing like clubbing in Ibiza: it's a traditional, family-friendly affair that's enjoyed by all ages. During the day, the recinto ferial (dedicated area of land used for feria) fills with party-goers decked out in their finest - and with horses. Either ridden by jinetes (male riders) or amazonas (women), or attached to carriages carrying exuberant passengers, equines are a key part of the feria de día. They obviously aren't allowed in the casetas (marquees) though, which is where all the dancing of sevillanas and drinking of rebujito goes on. Yes, even in the day. Come the evening, the horses clip-clop out of the recinto ferial and the music gradually switches over to Spanish pop and reggaeton. The party usually continues until around 4 or 5am, when the neon lights dim, the big wheel stops spinning and the fairground sleeps for a few hours.

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Visiting the Costa Brava: Port de la Selva

'You going anywhere for the puente? 'Yep, the Costa Brava'. 'Oh right, nice. I went to Lloret de Mar once...'

I lost count of the times I had this conversation with my British work colleagues before this year's puente de mayo (bank holiday weekend). But my destination wasn't prime Brit abroad territory Lloret, it was the little town of Port de la Selva. Although Costa Brava is best known among most Brits for the party resort of Lloret, its reputation in Spain is more closely related to natural beauty than beer and bikinis. Stretching from  Blanes all the way to the French border, the rather rugged coastline is dotted with a host of string of beachside towns and resorts.

Port de la Selva: Lloret it's not

Tucked into a bay on the particularly wild Cap de Creus coastline, Port de la Selva is more popular among Catalan, Spanish and French tourists than with my compatriots, which explains why I hadn't heard of it until a couple of months ago. A twenty-minute drive through the mountains from more famous Cadaqués, Port de la Selva is a relaxed resort encompassing a wide sweep of sandy beach, a harbour of bobbing boats and a cluster of coves nestling at the foot of its cliffs. It's a popular spot with fishermen and sporty types; windsurfers were out taking full advantage of the famous tramontana wind over the weekend. But Port de la Selva still appeals to those who wouldn't know how to catch an octopus/stand upright on a windsurf if their lives depended on it (i.e. me). Everything about the town is laid-back and low-key, with a relaxed air that soothes the stress of city life away after a few hours.

Sunday, 18 May 2014

Sunday stroll: Riverside in Bilbao

The Guggenheim museum, Bilbao

Before the arrival of the world-famous Guggenheim museum, Bilbao was definitely not considered a pretty city. Once commonly dubbed industrial, the Basque Country's biggest city had something of a makeover when the glamorous Frank Gehry-designed gallery swept into town.

One of the main areas to benefit from the Guggenheim-sparked regeneration was the city stretch of the once-polluted Nervion River. Bilbao was once a shipping hub, from which locally-mined iron was despatched around the world. By the time the museum was constructed, the glory days of iron exportation were over, but the legacy (and the smell) remained. As the Guggenheim sits on the riverbank around 15 minutes' walk from the city centre, the surrounding area understandably needed sprucing up. 

Thursday, 15 May 2014

On being (almost) a vegetarian in Spain

'But ham isn't meat!' 'Do you eat chicken, though?' 'Are you OK health-wise?' 'But why?'

These are just a handful of standard responses the revelation that I don't eat meat is met with in Spain. I'm actually a pescetarian, meaning that I eat (and enjoy) both fish and seafood. But even this caveat isn't quite enough to soothe most Spaniards: a fair number believe my diet is downright weird.

Vegetarianism is quite literally a foreign concept in Spain. In the UK, it's a fairly common choice, with all restaurants and fast-food outlets catering to non-meat eaters in some way, even if it is only by offering those menu staples of a goat's cheese tart or mushroom risotto. But here in Spain, it's just not the done thing. This, after all, is the land of jamón, where prized pigs are fed a diet of acorns and pampered more than your average princess before ending up on Juan and María's plates. The Mediterranean diet features fish, olive oil, vegetables and fruit in abundance: but it also features meat in all its different forms. Rabo de toro (ox tail) and oreja a la plancha (grilled pigs' ear) are more likely to be found on your average Spanish menu than the aforementioned mushroom risotto.

Meat-free Spanish omelette

Despite the lack of understanding, being a pescetarian in Spain isn't that much of a challenge. Yes, I have to study menus a bit more carefully than I would in my home country, but I'll usually find a fish option that suits me. Choices are more limited for me than for meat eaters, and I can't vouch for the contents of the stock used in some of the dishes, but in general, life as a pescetarian is pretty easy. When I first arrived in Spain aged 20, it's fair to say that my fish consumption went as far as fish fingers and the occasional piece of skinless cod. Being presented with a whole fish, all glassy-eyed and shimmering in its skin, was a learning curve. I admit I'm still not adept in slicing fish efficiently and often end up with a mouthful of bones, but I'm much less phased by having something on my plate that actually resembles a sea creature. Pescetarian visitors to Spain who are prepared to get involved with their dinner and do a bit of head-removing and shell-cracking will be just fine. It's their vegetarian cousins I worry about more.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Semana Santa 2014: Saturday in Seville

If Semana Santa in Andalucia is famous, Semana Santa in Sevilla is right at the top of the A-list. And for this reason, during Holy Week the city's streets are swamped with both locals and tourists all eager to get the best view of the Virgins as they sway by. I'd heard so much about the famous bulla (the pushing and shoving of the crowd), the footsore hours of waiting to witness a half-hour procession, the pickpocketing risks. But after four days of touring the region's towns to find out more about their Holy Week traditions, I had to see how it's done in the big city.

You're either a Semana Santa fan or you get out of town every time it rolls round. Luckily for me, my friend Kim of Becoming Sevillana is a fan. And even more fortunately, she had managed to find herself a crew of capillita boys to guide her around the 2014 processions. It turns out there are fans, and there capillitas. A capillita is a Semana Santa devotee, someone who considers this their favourite week of the year, and in this case, someone whose knowledge of Holy Week is almost encyclopaedic. A group of smart young gents who had clearly absorbed every detail printed in El Llamador (the guide to Semana Santa in Sevilla), these guys didn't just know the best places to see the processions, they knew the shortcuts between them, the sculptors of the figures, the number of members of each of the hermandades, and the inside leg measurements of the costaleros. OK, I lied about the last one.

During an evening's procession watching (and marvelling at the capillitas' knowledge), I realized that Sevilla does Semana Santa on a different scale. Not surprising, when you consider that there are over 60 cofradías in Sevilla, with thousands of members between them. Given the huge numbers of nazarenos, it can take over an hour from seeing the cruz de guía at the start of the procession for the entire thing to pass by. Then there's the pasos themselves: some were on a par with those I'd seen in towns around the region, but others were so much grander, more opulent, more magnificent.

After more than five hours of dashing from procession to procession, I was about ready to call it a night. But the boys assured us that there was one moment we simply couldn't miss: the entrada of the Virgen de la Soledad into the Iglesia de San Lorenzo. In Sevilla, each procession leaves from its church to make its way to the cathedral, where the pasos are blessed, before making its way back 'home'. During the week, I had seen expectations mount and emotions run high at numerous salidas, but I hadn't seen any processions return to the church. The return of La Soledad has a great significance in Seville's Semana Santa: it marks the symbolic end of Holy Week before Resurrection Sunday (Easter Sunday). Hundreds of people turn out at midnight to see the procession make its way back home for another year. We secured a spot close to the door of the church and waited. The first flames of the nazarenos' candles floated into view, and the procession gradually wove its way through the darkness towards us.

La Soledad de San Lorenzo approaches the church

Saturday, 3 May 2014

Brunch in Madrid: Café Oliver

In the third part of #BrunchChallenge, I visit a Madrid classic, Café Oliver in Chueca.

Sunday at 2pm. Every table is full, waiters whirl through the packed restaurant wielding plates of pancakes and scrambled eggs. There's a Spanish version of a queue clustered round the bar. E and I aren't phased by the scene in front of us though: we had a reservation. Five minutes and not even a nod of acknowledgment from a waiter later, we started to lose confidence. And when we finally were acknowledged, we were informed that no we didn't have a reservation, because you can't book for brunch. All this despite Café Oliver's website taking reservations for the brunch time period, and E having the email confirmation to prove it.

Good start somewhat soured, we were eventually seated and handed the brunch menu. Like many other venues that serve brunch in Madrid, French-style Café Oliver follows the 'set formula' approach, which costs €25 for three 'courses': a selection of pastries, a choice of eggs and a main dish, with a juice, a choice of hot drink and, rather oddly, a bottle of Actimel. With Sunday brunch on offer there since 2002, it's the city's most famous place to have brunch. But would it live up to high expectations?

A waiter soon brought over two jugs of juice, one containing orange, and the other melon and watermelon. I chose a glass of the latter, which tasted homemade. We were also presented with our 'first course', a basket containing a croissant and a pain au chocolat, plus two bread rolls, some butter and jam. I passed on the rather average-looking bread but tried both the croissant and its chocolatey counterpart; both were flaky, buttery and decidedly tasty, unlike the sugary versions often served in Spain. I followed this with scrambled eggs with cheese, herbs and a few pieces of toasted baguette, while E opted for Eggs Benedict (also on offer was fried eggs with bacon). I'm not the world's biggest fan of all things egg, but Café Oliver's scrambled version was well-cooked: clearly freshly-made and neither runny nor dry. E's Eggs Benedict were appetizing enough, but not the best she's ever eaten: the sauce in Spain often isn't quite right, so I'm informed.

Scrambled eggs with cheese and herbs

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