Travel: The delights of Alicante

The area around Alicante is said to have been inhabited for over 7000 years. In more recent times it’s become a major tourist destination with serious development in the 1950s and 1960s resulting in large buildings and complexes springing up throughout the city.

This means Alicante is the perfect example of a concrete jungle. High rises dominate the skyline (and not in a particularly attractive way) and on first sight it doesn’t seem like the prettiest of holiday destinations. It would be easy to dismiss the city as place not to visit in Spain. But you’d be wrong. Well, they do say you should never judge a book by its cover and as soon as you start looking a little deeper into the soul of Alicante you’ll be surprised to find many beauties.

While those buildings can’t be unbuilt, a lot of effort has been made to add beauty with the myriad flowers and trees. Jacarandas, bougainvilleas and hibiscus abound (gotta love those exotic names) and there are palm trees everywhere. Of course, as you’re in Spain, the sky is always blue – different colours of blue for different times of day – the sea is warm and clear, the food is wonderful and there’s a warm Spanish welcome. Because this is a truly Spanish city where simple food is perfectly prepared using the best of local ingredients, prices are great value and you’ll need a bit of Spanish to get by.

Alicante’s Playa San Juan

We stayed in the San Juan Beach area. And my first realisation that Alicante wasn’t what it initially seemed was the sight of the stunning beach. I mean really stunning. Huge, with white sand and mountains in the background. And that fabulous Spanish tradition alongside it – the promenade. Lined with restaurants and bars, the beautifully paved area in the shade of palm trees was busy all times of day with families and friends enjoying their daily amble.

Alicante: San Juan Beach

The white sandy beach with blue sea and sky

There are so many restaurants along this stretch of sandy sunniness that it’s hard to choose where to eat. As luck would have it we picked the perfect breakfast spot on our first morning. One of my favourite breakfast treats ever is pan con tomato, lightly toasted bread served with what is basically mashed up tomato and olive oil. It’s amazing how good it tastes. Today’s offering also came with a generous portion of jamon – so that’s even better. And here’s the best thing of all – this delicious breakfast, including a glass of fresh orange juice and a coffee set us back the sum of €1.80 each. No that is not a typo. €3.60 for two filling and deliciously Spanish breakfasts at 100 Montaditos right on the beach. Seriously, does life get better than that? Breakfast certainly doesn’t.

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The best-value breakfast ever, yes ever

Alicante: San Juan promenade

They do know how to do a promenade in Spain

Lunch along the promenade also offered a range of traditional Spanish tapas dishes. Like this Russian salad (ensalada Russa) which crops up on menus everywhere I go in Spain. You can read more about this dish and try out my recipe for it by clicking here. I’ve sampled some different versions recently so think I will be redoing my own recipe soon.

Alicante: Russian salad

The ever-present Russian Salad

Playa San Juan is also the perfect place for sundowners. Especially if you’re a fan of giant gin and tonics like these.

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Huge g&ts beachside while pondering our dinner destination

We meandered the streets absorbing the evening sun and the pleasant babble of Spanish voices, checking out menus while we decided where to go for dinner. One of my favourite ways of spending time! Our choice was Los Charros, a charming-looking establishment on a side street up from the beach. And what a good choice it turned out to be. We started off by sharing this delicious concoction of eggs, prawns and mushrooms with a touch of garlic.

Alicante: egg, prawn and mushroom starter

Scrambled eggs with earthy mushrooms and sweet prawns

For mains we decided on lamb and goat chops respectively – simply served grilled with some lovely wild garlic and more accompaniments than we expected, including a salad, crispy fired potatoes and padron peppers and a large dish of tempura-style vegetables. All served with a smile.

Alicante: goat chops

Tasty little chops with a fresh salad

Alicante: crispy potatoes

Love the sweetness of Spanish potatoes and these were beautifully crisp

We sat outside on the lovely terrace – something we always do when we can. I think it comes from living in the Northern hemisphere. Dining alfresco is always a treat. The tapas bar inside was bustling with locals and filled with laughter.

On our second night in Alicante we were highly tempted to go back to Los Charros. But as we were only there for two nights it seemed boring so instead we chose El Mayoral for dinner, which is on the San Juan promenade. The menu was extensive and we were having decision-making hiccups. Until we saw what the couple on the next table were tucking into, a delicious seafood soup. So we ordered the same – langoustines, prawns, mussels, the softest of calamari and fresh hake in a lovely saffron-flavoured broth.

Alicante: seafood soup

Seafood soup to share – the perfect start to dinner

A Spanish classic for mains – roast suckling pig served with perfect chips and slivers of crispy fried onions.

 

Alicante: suckling pig

Love the suckling pig in Spain, they know their pork!

We finished our wine after dinner alongside the beach watching the sky develop through stages of blue until it reached this stunning indigo colour with the last light of the day.

Alicante: indigo sky

Post-dinner drinks under an indigo sky

Touring on Alicante’s tram

As hard as it was to drag ourselves away from the comfort and joy of San Juan Beach we decided we had to do some exploring. So we got on the tram heading for the Old Town and the harbour. Such a lovely way to travel and to see more of the city and all for €1.45 for what was about a 35-minute journey. We passed a lot of concrete along the way and emerged into a buzzing metropolis. The main road down from the station, Ramble de Mendoza Lunez, leads down to the beach. If you’re looking for shopping opportunities take a slow walk down as there’s plenty on offer here.

Alicante: the tram

Travelling by tram is such a pleasure

Strolling around Alicante harbour

As you start getting close to the water there’s another palm-lined promenade to stroll along.

Alicante: promenade in town

More promenading opportunities in the shade of palm trees

There’s a sparkling harbour filled with stylish boats – and even a pirate ship.

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More shades of blue in Alicante harbour

Lunch in Alicante’s Old Town

After some waterside strolling we headed into the Old Town for lunch. With the feel of ancient Spain and beautiful old buildings to view, there were also plenty of restaurant choices to explore.

Alicante: Old Town

Alfresco restaurants abound in Alicante’s Old Town

Greetings of hola, buenos días lead us to a table at La Taberna San Pascual where we tucked into delightful albondigas (meatballs) and croquettes, accompanied by some delicious Spanish rose.

Alicante: lunch in Old Town

Lunch in shades of pinks and reds

Alicante: La Taberna San Pascual

The charmingly rustic La Taberna San Pascual

We finished off lunch with a charming mini-mug of the local liquor – all complimentary of course. How I love complimentary local liquor.

Alicante: local liquor

Chilled mini drinks to complete a perfect lunch

So that was Alicante, a place can see myself visiting again and again and one I’d definitely recommend for a Spanish fix. Just make sure you see past the concrete.

We stayed at the Holiday Inn San Juan which was a short walk from the promenade and the beach. Though basic, the hotel was comfortable and welcoming and has a lovely pool area for lazy afternoons.

 

 

Loving the island life: hiking on the Isle of Wight

Today’s journey involves a train and a boat. My two favourite forms of transport so that’s a great  start. We’re heading to the Isle of Wight, the largest island in England which is set in the English Channel four miles off the Hampshire coast.

The ferry from Portsmouth took us across the Solent – a journey of 20 minutes towards island life and a weekend of hiking and relaxing. The island’s been a holiday destination since Victorian times – Queen Victoria built her much-loved summer residence Osborne House here and often came to visit with her family. It was also made popular by poets Swinburne and Tennyson.

In more recent times it’s become famous for hosting music festivals including the Isle of Wight Festival and Bestival. In 1970 Jimi Hendrix headlined and the festival attracted around 700,000 people – truly massive for the island with a population of only around 100,000. I can only imagine the chaos.

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Sailing away from Portsmouth and its striking Spinnaker Tower

It’s amazing how crossing water – even on a short journey – makes you feel like you’ve arrived in a different world. A world that its residents are very proud of. And rightly so, as I soon discovered a beautifully peaceful island with plenty of history to absorb and sights to see.

Our final destination, a scenic drive from Ryde to the westerly side of the island, is Freshwater Bay House, a historic seaside Country House dating from the 1790s. It’s set on the cliff top with great views over the bay it’s named after.

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Looking back across the bay to our home for the weekend

Freshwater Bay House is home to HF Holidays, a leading walking and activity holiday company. They’ve been going for over 100 years, so they really know their stuff and we were soon settled in and ready to find out where our hiking boots could take us.

After dinner (more of which later) our guides took us through the walks available for the next day so we could make our choices. There were three options, divided by difficulty, so you could pick the one just right for you – it is your holiday after all.

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The golden sunrise across the bay

An early start and a hearty breakfast and we were ready to set off.

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A fabulous plate of Eggs Benedict

Our first walk (in a group of 10) was guided by Martin. It was a comfortable ramble along wide, grass-cushioned paths, through wooded tracks and winding coastal paths.

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Ready for hiking with my comfy new HiTech boots

Our pace definitely got the blood pumping but I loved that there was always plenty of time to absorb the stunning, ever-changing views of countryside and sea – and to stop and take pictures (or laugh at the cows who posed so beautifully). I must have taken hundreds of them. Here’s a taster of our journey which took us from Freshwater Bay to The Needles and back via the towering Tennyson Monument.

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Charming St Agnes Church is the only thatched church on the island

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Sea views through the silhouetted cows

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Love the signs along the way

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The multicoloured cliffs of Alum Bay

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A perfect view of The Needles through the lookout at The Old Battery

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Perfect forest pathways to amble along

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Shades of blues and greens as we head for home

All that fresh air and energy expended makes me very hungry. So it’s great news that the food at Freshwater Bay House is fantastic. The three courses menu offers dishes made using a lot of local products and with plenty of gluten-free options.

Farming is an important part of Isle of Wight life with plenty of sheep and cows everywhere. And it has a milder climate than the rest of the UK (with more sun) which makes for a longer growing season. Main crops are tomatoes, cucumbers and garlic – and there are even two vineyards.

I always look for Isle of Wight tomatoes in the supermarket – they’re so packed with flavour. So I was delighted with this starter. A colourful array of my favourite of fruits, with the yellow one stuffed with a deliciously silken asparagus mousse. Another thing on my “must learn how to make” list.

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Tomatoes in all shapes and colours

The fish dishes were particularly great, including lobster, mussels and sole.

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Local lobster with a mussel broth

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Sweet sole on a bed of risotto

Always partial to a cheese platter, I did my duty and tried the local delights. And took a particular liking to the Gallybagger (I know, weird name for a cheese) which is cheddar-like and extremely tasty.

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A delightful platter of local cheese to finish

On our second day we decided to do a self-guided walk. All it takes is a visit to the Discovery Room to plan your adventure. Once you’ve chosen your route you take the detailed laminated instructions, complete with photographs, detailed directions and suggestions of what to do along the way. With that and the great signage along the way, it’s impossible to get lost. Very impressive. We headed for the nearby town of Yarmouth.

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All pathways are clearly marked and numbers

Enjoying very different scenery from the day before, we meandered through fields heading inland to the stunning Yar Estuary. I loved the myriad birdlife and peace and serenity on a beautiful, sunny autumn Sunday morning.

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The beautiful Yar Estuary teeming with birdlife

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Finding our way through the forest

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The welcoming sight of boats as we approached the harbour

This was my first visit to the Isle of Wight and it was something of a revelation. More beautiful than I’d imagined with many paths to walk, views to take in and local lore to discuss. We were asked if we were from “the North island”, to which I didn’t know the answer. Turns out the answer’s yes – it’s the rest of the UK – the Isle of Wight is known by locals as the South island.

A fabulous place to get away from it all, live the bucolic lifestyle for a while and recharge the batteries. My new island paradise to escape to.

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Getting back to nature and communing with sheep

I was a guest of HF Holidays on this weekend.

They organise all-in experiences with food and activities included. Breakfasts are hearty and delicious, tasty three-course dinners are made using local ingredients. Every evening you choose your sandwich filling for packed lunch the next day and raid the snack room for extras to keep your energy levels up while you’re walking. The snack room is quite a sight to behold!

Guides are friendly and knowledgable and eat meals with you. It’s very much a communal experience, an easy way to make new friends with plenty of me-time, too.

As well as walking HF Holidays also offer a range of leisure activities and cultural tours around the UK and in Europe.

hfholidays.co.uk

 

Where to stay in Malton, Yorkshire: The Talbot Hotel

Continuing my series on Where to Stay on your travels, today we’re taking a mini break, heading north from London to Malton, Yorkshire.

The Talbot Hotel was originally built in the early 17th century as a hunting lodge and has traded as an inn since 1740. It was completely restored in 2011. Here’s why you should stay there.

The location

Set in the heart of the historic market town of Malton with its myriad shops and great food, it’s also only 10 miles from the North York Moors and 18 miles from the city of York. I love that you get the mix of country living – fresh air, peace and open spaces – as well as a bustling little town with great food shopping and a cookery school. Read more about what I saw in Malton here.

The views

Quintessentially English with green, rolling countryside as far as the eye can see. The hotel is set on a hill so you get a wonderful perspective on your surroundings and the rural world around you.

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Yes, it really was this green, the English countryside at its best

The rooms

The beautifully decorated rooms are generous in size with a large, extremely comfortable bed, desk, separate seating area and lovely ensuite. I particularly loved the huge shower and its striking black and white tiles.

There’s a kettle and a range of coffee and tea including a lot of herbal brews – a refreshing cup of tea in the comfort of your room is always welcome.

Oh and the wi-fi’s really good – fast and reliable.

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The breakfast

One of the absolute best things about staying in a hotel has to be breakfast time. I’m not usually much of a breakfast eater. I know, it’s the most important meal of the day, I just can’t manage it – unless I’m in a hotel, that is, and options are literally presented to me on a plate.

There’s a buffet offering of fruit, cereal and pastries and a menu of delights, too. The first morning I tucked into poached eggs and avocado on toast – heavenly.

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I love the combo of avocado and egg

On morning two I wrestled with my choices, ultimately abandoning one of my favourite breakfast treats – eggs benedict – for the delights of a full English. Thought I’d better sample the local bacon, sausage and black pudding and I wasn’t disappointed. I liked the fact that it wasn’t stupidly huge like they sometimes are and I managed to polish off the whole plate.

Okay, I admit it, I must be a breakfast eater, just not if I’m making it myself.

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The full English Talbot-style

The Cookery School

Not only can you shop for and eat amazing food in Malton, you can learn how to cook it too. The Malton Cookery School is allied to the hotel and is just down the road. We did a Yorkshire lamb workshop, which you can read about here. There’s a wide range of courses all held in a kitchen with fantastic facilities and knowledgeable, professional teachers. A really fun and educational way to spend a morning and you’ll come away inspired with new ideas to try at home. I promise.

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The spacious kitchen is a pleasure to work in

The Wentworth Restaurant

We had a delightful dinner in the hotel’s Wentworth restaurant (there’s also the more informal Malton Brasserie which I didn’t have the chance to try out). The menu showcases local products and offered some intriguing choices.

Like this cheese and pickle starter. Smoked Ribblesdale mousse was served with pickled golden vegetables and mustard granola. One of the prettiest starters in a long time and great in flavour, too, with its soft cheesiness, crispy veg and crunchy granola.

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A different take on a classic English combo

I opted for some local scallops which were served with pork belly, black pudding, carrot and blood orange. I’ve experienced the scallop/black pudding thing before and it’s quite amazingly good. The small slivers of pork belly were tender and flavoursome and the carrot puree sweet and delicious.

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Scallop heaven partnered with black pudding

The fish main course option was roast North Sea halibut which was served with mussels, braised fennel, Jeera (cumin) sauce and coconut. The sweetest of fish with an elegant and subtle cumin-flavoured coconut sauce.

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Fish with a touch of the Asian flavours

As we’d spent the morning cooking and eating lamb I had a rare desire for a vegetarian dinner. Lucky for me there was the perfect dish on the menu. The fried potato gnocchi came with woodland mushrooms, peas and broad beans and a silken truffle cream sauce. The little towers of gnocchi were beautifully browned and slightly crispy – just the way I like them, and the pea, bean and pea shoot added greenness and sweetness. The perfect dinner dish after a meat-filled day.

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A delightful plate of indulgent gnocchi

Tonight we were going big – so dessert was on the cards. The options were too good to resist. The Valrhona Manjari chocolate marquise came with cherries in kirsch, cherry sorbet and pistachios. The perfect pudding in shades of purple.

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Who could resist this chocolate/cherry combination

Being not much of a dessert person I took on the responsibility of trying the local cheeses with this substantial artisan selection served with yummy sloe berry chutney, poached grapes and biscuits. All good stuff – and as for the poached grapes.

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Yorkshire is definitely for cheese lovers

The service 

From the warm and efficient welcome at reception to the friendly greetings and smiles from staff, great dinner service and the chatty barman in the cosy bar, everyone is clearly doing their best to make sure you’re happy. And they seem to be enjoying it too.

I felt at home at The Talbot from the moment I walked through the door. It has a warmth and comfort about it and is the perfect base for exploring this beautiful and delicious part of Yorkshire.

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Looking up towards the lovely hotel


What to eat and where to shop in Malton, Yorkshire

Today we’re up in beautiful North Yorkshire in what is known as Yorkshire’s food capital – the lovely country town of Malton. It’s famous for its food festival, monthly food market, Malton Cookery School, traditional food shops and Made in Malton artisan producers. It’s also James Martin’s home town. So you can tell there’s a lot of foodie stuff going on here – simply the perfect place for me to visit. You can read about my fantastic Cooking with Yorkshire Lamb workshop by clicking here.

Malton has a population of around 13,000 and is kind of halfway between York and the seaside resort of Scarborough. A pleasant train ride from London and we were ready for some Yorkshire foodie discovery. As we say in South Africa local is lekker (good).

And it’s all certainly all local ingredients at the The Talbot Yard Food Court where the shops produce everything they sell on site.

The fabulous butchery Food2Remember is aptly named – I certainly won’t forget it in a hurry. Especially as I was offered some warm boerewors to try as I stepped through the door – well impressed with his recipe for my favourite South African sausage. In Yorkshire – who’d have thought?! As well as great local meat, there was also a cabinet of delectable pastry snacks.

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Freshly made pies, pasties and scotch eggs

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An amazing array of meat and home-made sausages

Groovy Moo is a cafe and gelataria – heavenly for ice cream lovers with all your favourite flavours and more. I loved the jammy dodger ice cream (how I love those little jammy biscuits).

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Passione Della Pasta makes pasta daily and also had a fabulous array of local fruit vinegars on tap. I bought a bottle of the lovely raspberry and rhubarb – what a simple way to transform any salad.

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Authentic pasta made fresh daily

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Local vinegar in fruity flavours

There’s no shortage of bakeries in Malton, the aroma of baking floods the streets and there are plenty of tempting window displays. It’s a mouth-watering town to walk around.  Costello‘s in the market square is a family-run business with the motto: “We make our own and we do it all by hand”. The family history dates back generations with Fred Costello opening up his first shop after the war in 1945. Costello’s Malton is a more recent addition, having opened in 2014.

The range of pies available in  is mind-blowing!  And there are plenty of sweet treats to choose from and wonderful coffee, too.

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A marvellous selection of pie fillings

After much deliberation I chose this amazing barbecued pulled pork pie – love that there are contemporary options as well as the traditional offers.

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Meaty and luscious barbecue pulled pork

These are my favourite shopping discoveries in this wonderful foodie town. You can read more about it and where to shop at maltonyorkshire.co.uk.

THE LOCAL PUB

Even in these days of pubs closing at way too rapid a rate, Malton has a drinking few options. For dinner we visited The New Malton in the market square. It’s laid out over two rooms with a little bar and a warm welcome. The traditional menu offers plenty of local specialities.

Like the pork and herb sausage toad-in-the-hole with onion gravy. Well, you have to sample the Yorkshire pudding when in Yorkshire, don’t you?

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When in Yorkshire: traditional toad-in-the-hole

I love a good burger and couldn’t resist this steak burger with pancetta, Swiss cheese, dill pickle, coleslaw and home made chips. Made with top quality steak it had all the ingredients I love for a wonderful combination of flavours and textures.

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Or a burger made with best Yorkshire beef

What a wonderful foodie break in such a quintessentially English setting. And the reason I went there was because my recipe for tasty lamb koftas won first prize in the #lovelambchallenge. Click here for my two tasty lamb mince recipes.

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We stayed at The Talbot Hotel in Malton. Read all about it in the next in my series of Where to Stay, coming soon.

Travel: The sights and flavours of Madrid

My love of Spain is well documented and I can never resist the chance to hop on that short flight from London’s often grey chilliness (even in summer) towards azure skies and sunny days. Today’s destination is the Spanish capital.

Madrid is a comparatively new city as its story doesn’t begin until AD852 when the Moors built a fortress near the Manzanares River. Okay that is a way back, but to put it all into some perspective, that was 21 centuries (yes, centuries) after the Phoenicians founded Cadiz (city of my forefathers incidentally) and six centuries after the Romans constructed Italica near Seville. And it was only established the permanent capital in 1561 by Felipe II.

It’s a city of grand boulevards, myriad plazas and roundabouts abounding with flowers, statues and fountains. Madrilenos (local Madrid-dwellers) are known for their spirited attitude and their refusal to conform to European hours. This is a city that never seems to sleep and one that buzzes with the constant chatter of a passionate and animated society. It’s the only place I can recall leaving a bar at 12.30 (am) and there being a rush to claim our recently vacated table – and that was on a Sunday night. Life here is lived on a different time zone.

Madrid is also a city of art with plenty of galleries and museums for a real culture fix. The Museo Reina Sofia displays a range of 20th century art including some Salvador Dalis and Picassos. The best of all is the amazing Guernica – Picasso’s famous depiction of the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. And then there’s the Museo del Prado, known as one of the world’s greatest art galleries with a great collection by Velazquez and Goya.

Tabernas are dotted all around the city – little wine bar/restaurants offering delicious Spanish fare. The oldest of which is Restaurante Botin which was established in 1725 and claims to be the oldest restaurant in the world. It’s certainly pretty old and was said to be a favourite of Ernest Hemingway’s. Hemingway is credited with helping the world fall in love with Spain through his novels and he was a local legend in Madrid, spending long nights sipping gin at the Ritz before weaving his way through the winding streets in his quest for dinner.

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One of our local tabernas with a leg of jamon to tempt you in

He certainly had the right idea – the best way to explore the main areas of this lively city is on foot. We walked everywhere, sometimes getting lost which meant we discovered even more. You’re never far from a light refreshment or somewhere cool to sit. In summer Madrid’s a steamy city – it was around 38C when we were there in July, but there are plenty of trees, umbrellas and canopies and a lot of the bars spray a cooling mist over their customers.

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The colours of Madrid delight

So stop when you need to and take time to inhale the spirit (and scents) of Madrid.

Like in the Museo del Jamon (Ham Museum). How can you not love a city that has a Ham Museum? The aromas emanating from this establishment are incredible and there’s jamon hanging from the ceiling and walls as far as the eye can see. All around a long bar which is always (whatever time of day) packed with jamon eaters.

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You simply have to pay a visit to the Museo del Jamon

There was so much ham I had to use the Panorama function on my camera…you get the picture.

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Jamon…delicious jamon…everywhere

In the heart of Old Madrid, you’ll find the Plaza Mayor – the most famous plaza in Madrid. This beautiful 17th century square is filled with cafes and craft shops these days – its history is a bit bloodier with trials by the Inquisition and executions once being held here.

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The Plaza Mayor is packed with shopping and eating opportunities

Just to the side of the Plaza Mayor is the wonderful Mercado de San Miguel – how I love a Spanish food market. There are plenty of eating spots and lots of food to choose from, like these delicious croquetas in different flavours. The market is crazy-busy over weekends, packed with locals catching up on their social lives and has an amazing energy.

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Choose your croquetas and get them fried

Now that we’re on food, in Madrid it’s excellent, good value for money and varied. There are so many eateries to choose from that I didn’t even do any restaurant research, we just wandered the streets checking out our options until we spotted the one we liked the the look of. It worked for us. Like breakfast one morning in a little cafe right in the centre of Old Madrid where two coffees and my favourite Spanish breakfast – pan con tomato – cost us €4.

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Pan con tomate – the Spanish way to start the day

I also loved the way little tapas often appeared with drinks. You could explore the city by tabernas hopping and get your fill of tasty treats.

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Delicious mussel and smoked fish snacks appear

We loved the lively area around the Plaza De La Cebada where we partook of many beverages and watched the world unfold around us. There’s a lovely market just across the road (Mercado Cebada) where I couldn’t resist snapping the amazing fruity displays.

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Spanish cherries that glisten and gleam

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How I wanted to buy some and make gazpacho

The Puerta del Sol, right on the Calle Mayor and at the gateway to the main shopping area is kind of like the Leicester Square of Madrid. If you want tickets for something you’ll find them here. And just four blocks south of it through more winding lanes is the lively Plaza de Santa Ana. It’s all happening here.

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Sangria and Gin & Tonic – perfect drinks for a Madrid summer evening

We chose to have dinner at Ginger Restaurant in the square. A tasty meal, lovely friendly service and another chance to watch Madrid in all its energy unfolding around us. Ginger was also really good value with my delicious Iberian pork fillet mashed potato and curry oil costing €11.52. I loved the crispy spring onions on top.

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Spanish pork is world-class

Of course, all great cities have great parks and Madrid is no exception. And what could be more perfect than to stock up with delicacies at your local market before heading to Parque del Retiro for a picnic? The park which was once home to Felipe IV’s palace is now a large public oasis (since 1869) with majestic trees, impressively manicured areas and a lake which you can row on. It’s the perfect spot to get away from the busy-ness of the city should you feel the need.

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Meander through the tree-lined avenues of Parque del Retiro

On our way back to Old Madrid after our park-life sojourn we wandered through the trendy Chueca area – suddenly it was time for lunch. We stopped at a pavement cafe called Toma Jamon Tabernas and ordered two deliciously simple dishes. The best of tuna served with the reddest and juiciest of tomatoes and a superb dish of broken eggs and jamon, served on a bed of beautifully cooked potatoes. Wow! Such simple ingredients all bursting with flavour.

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Keeping it simple and delicious

The Palacio Real is on the other side of the Plaza Mayor. This vast and lavish Royal Palace was built to impress, set up on high overlooking the Rio Manzanares. It’s open to the public now as the current Royal family live in the more modest Zarzuela Palace outside Madrid.

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The beautiful palace looks regal against blue skies

Take a view of the palace from the other side – literally and metaphorically. When Joseph (Jose I) Bonaparte was King of Spain he carved out the stirrup-shaped Plaza de Oriente which provides a fabulous view of the vastness of this magnificent building. The square was once an important meeting place for state occasions and kings, queens and dictators all made public appearances on the palace balcony facing the plaza. The surrounding park area is filled with statues of monarchs and dignitaries from way back and you can feel the power the rulers were commanding from up on high.

In the south-west corner is the Cafe de Oriente which has outside tables where you partake of more Spanish deliciousness and ponder history.

Because there’s a lot to ponder when you’re in Madrid. And you feel like you don’t want to sleep because there’s so much Madrid energy to absorb. It’s a fascinating city with a unique spirit and a magnetic draw – I feel I’ll be back many times.

Salud from Madrid, a city to celebrate.

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Late-night brandies in La Latino

We stayed at the HRC Hotel in the La Latina district. A basic but comfortable hotel with good air conditioning (vital in the heat of a Madrid summer), set on a quiet street. And best of all easy walking distance to all the main sights and plenty of bars and restaurants.

Find out more at www.hrc-hotel.com

 

Food market: Alchemy Festival at Southbank Centre

I love a food market. My sister recently sent me a feature listing the best food markets in the world and I thought: What a good way to spend a year (or however long it might take) – flying around the world testing and rating food markets. Well, I can dream, can’t I? Luckily there are plenty of delicious foodie shopping opportunities right on my doorstep here in London. Like the Alchemy Festival which has just popped up on the Southbank.

This is a 12-day celebration from London street food specialists KERB exploring the cuisines of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan. And what a celebration it is with plenty of brilliantly colourful stalls to shop from and the aroma of spices filling the air.

How about some curry from the Peckish Peacock?

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Love the style of this food truck

Or something from the perfect pinkness (and blueness) of Dosa?

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How can you resist such a beautiful decorated stall?

I couldn’t decide and meandered around and around before choosing something from a country I’d never experienced the cuisine of – Afghanistan. YumAfghan’s menu looked tempting and I opted for some Afghan-style BBQ – one marinated lamb skewer coming up.

While I waited for the chef to cook it I spotted another Afghan speciality called Mantu. A delicious-looking (and sounding) dish of steamed dumplings. Next time?

The tempting Afghan menu

The tempting Afghan menu

My skewer was wonderful. Perfectly tender, tasty lamb cooked medium-rare and served with a spicy green sauce and yogurt.

Close up to my tasty Afghan treat

Close up to my tasty Afghan treat

There are also plenty of drinking options, from coffee to cocktails, custom-made sodas to lassis, plus a full bar. And some more exotic choices. How’s this for a drinks list with a difference?

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And just around the corner you’ll find The Bloody Oyster. A traditional red London bus where you can indulge in a bloody Mary and oyster feast. Who can resist that?

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All aboard for oysters and bloody Marys

Alchemy Festival started yesterday (May 19th) and runs until May 30th 2016.

You’ll find it at Southbank Square, Belvedere Road, London SE1, a few minutes walk from Waterloo Station.

Opening times

Monday – Thursday 12pm to 8pm

Friday 12pm to 9pm

Saturday 11am to 9pm

Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday 12pm to 8pm