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.

Alicante: harbour

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.

 

 

Savouring Basque delights at Lurra

Today we’re heading into Marylebone in central London. It’s kind of behind Marble Arch (north of Oxford Street) and an easy place to get lost with its labyrinthine streets lined with some of the Capital’s trendiest eateries and bars. Also a good place to get lost – you certainly won’t go hungry or thirsty here.

When I first moved to London I lived very close to the Marylebone Road and soon learned of the trickeries the English language throws at you when it comes to correct pronounciation. And the importance on getting it right! How they laughed when I told new friends I lived off the Mary-la-bone road. It’s nothing to do with Mary – despite the spelling – or la either. I was soon murmuring Mar-lee-bone under my breath until it settled for good in my grey matter. Don’t get me started on the hilarity I caused on telling people I worked in Grosvenor Square (even trickier to pronounce), but that’s another story.

Anyway, back to our actual destination for today, set in the lively streets of Mar-lee-bone. Lurra (which means land in Basque) is the second restaurant from Melody and Nemanja and opened in 2015. Their first was Donostia (which is the Basque word for San Sebastian), which opened in 2012 and is just down the road.

The legend goes that the pair were inspired after an unplanned stop in San Sebastian to leave their City careers and go into the restaurant business, opening establishments offering traditional Basque-style cuisine properly done. Must say I’ve had plenty of similar revelations myself but have never actually got down and done anything about it – so good for them…and for making a success of it.

Lurra is bright and modern with lots of pale wood and glass – and a lovely courtyard off to the side. Love a courtyard – straight on my list for next year’s summer eating.

The menu has happy Spanish familiarity about it, though I’ve never been to San Sebastian – something of a culinary hole for a Spainophile like me. Oh well, I’ve put that on one another of my many lists populating my many notebooks.

Gordal olives have happily become a regular fixture in my foodie life recently. Gordal means fat in Spanish and these plump babies are firm and juicy. Truly the king of olives.

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Fat olives make the perfect start to any meal

And then there’s anchovies, another Spanish star. This dish is called Matrimonio which, fairly obviously, means marriage in Spanish – and a great one it is too, with a mix of salted anchovies and boquerones which are marinated in vinegar, olive oil and garlic. Served up with mango vinaigrette and a pile of the sweetest marinated peppers. The flavours hit your taste buds with a real zing, and the different textures complete a joyful dish.

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Two types of anchovies in a pretty row

There’s a range of tapas dishes and a section called Large Sharing Plates, which includes a yummy-sounding slow-cooked suckling lamb shoulder. Feeling like a good meaty hit we went for the 14-year Rubia Gallega – Galician Blond steak dry aged on the bone. It was served on very medium-rare on a hot iron platter with a sprinkling of salt. Plenty for two to share, it’s rich and served with the bone on the side – a bone I wanted to take home to chew on. And somewhat appropriate that I was eating a bone in Mar-lee-bone. Sorry, couldn’t resist that.

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The aromas leap off this beautiful steak, making your mouth water

Steak and tomato is a dream combo for me. And the Spanish know their tomatoes. This is called peeled Pata Negra tomato salad and is marinated in some kind of magic. Sweet, soft and tangy.

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A tomato salad that brings happiness

We started off with a glass of bubbles. Cava is one of my favourite drinks and looks especially tempting in this stylish glass. Oh and there’s the courtyard in the background.

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Cava to go with the Gordal olives…yum

Another happy Spanish lunch in London Town. So happy I can enjoy those irresistible Basque flavours without the need for EasyJet.

Today’s price point

Lunch for two cost £85.50 without wine. Most of that went on the stunning steak which is £65.

White wine starts from £22 a bottle, rose is £34 and red starts from £24. It’s worth mentioning that the restaurant has a very special selection of one of the most fabulous Spanish wines ever (in my opinion), Vega Sicilia, which you can enjoy for £280 a bottle. I better start saving now!

Lurra is at 9 Seymour Place, Marylebone W1H 5BA.

The many wonders of Catalunya’s Cistercian Route

I was going to call this Spanish story “Eating my way along the Cistercian Route” but decided that sounded rather greedy and most importantly it’s far from the whole truth. Yes, there was a lot of eating going on and very good eating it was, too, but there was so much more to explore and discover in the footsteps of the Cistercians.

The Cistercian Route connects the three monasteries of Santa Creus, Poblet and Vallbona. It’s a beautiful land about an hour’s drive from the region’s vibrant capital, Barcelona. The area’s a hiking paradise with its footpaths of 105 kilometres (the most in Europe) and, as I soon discovered, has amazingly warm and welcoming people, spectacular scenery and some very interesting traditions. Oh and there’s all the amazing food (and wine) of course.

We took to the road ready to explore. First stop Valls, which boasts a unique tradition as the birthplace of the human towers or Castells. The community comes together to rehearse three times a week and there are international competitions with serious rivalry. I was lucky enough to witness a rehearsal and was soon awed by the spectacle as people clamber over each other to create a towering structure. I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such combined speed, flexibility, strength and dedication. Simply marvellous.

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The amazing spectacle of human towers

At the restaurant Test  in the Hotel Class Valls we were served up a range of delightful dishes. Like this colourful pineapple carpaccio topped with melt-in-the-mouth Spanish ham and a zesty dressing.

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Pineapple carpaccio topped with succulent jamon

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Savoury and flavourful broth at its best

Another Catalan tradition involves calcots, which are sort of like a sweet spring onion. Their harvest is celebrated every year when they are cooked over fire and peeled and eaten by hand with a generous helping of romesco sauce. It wasn’t harvest time when we were there but I did tuck into tempura calcots which were tasty, sweet, juicy and crunchy. Worth going back for that big celebration, I reckon.

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The delicate sweetness and crispiness of tempura calcots

On to the first monastery in the puzzle. Santa Creus, which was founded in 1168, is amazingly well-preserved and provides a great insight into Cistercian life. The stories are fascinating and the sheer scale of the place and its grand architecture are entrancing, making it easy to imagine a life very different and somewhat magical.

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The spectacular design of Santa Creus monastery

Just outside the imposing gates of the monastery is the cosy local – Restaurant Catalunya. We ordered our main courses and were then fed plate after plate of local specialities – soft and sweet ham, anchovies, tomato toast, aubergines, they just didn’t seem to stop coming. It was a real feast with the warmest of welcomes and plenty of the local vino – that’s the Catalan way.

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A classic paella with fresh seafood

With all the deliciously tempting food to enjoy it’s great that there are plenty of hiking opportunities. Time to burn off some of those calories. We headed up the mountain from Montblanc up to the abandoned L’Ermita Sant Joan. Rocky, winding pathways through the depths of the forest, made even more beautiful by the swirling mist, led us to what felt a bit like the top of the world.

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Peering through L’Ermita Sant Joan into the misty distance

A meandering descent and we headed for today’s lunchtime venue – Riudabella Castle. Yes, lunch in a real castle – just when you think dining can’t get any better. Riudabella has recently started offering accommodation in the form of large studio-style apartments with fabulous vineyard and forest views – providing the perfect retreat.

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Take in the view from your castle on high

We tucked into an amazing lunch in the huge,magnificent dining room, starting with a beautifully colourful array of canapés. For mains a delectable leg of pork which had been cooking in the medieval oven for 15 hours – so succulent!

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A table loaded with tempting tapas

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The tenderest of slow-cooked pork

For dessert a local treat awaited. This is called Gypsy’s Sleeve – a delightfully light sponge rolled with lashings of cream and topped with sugar. One of the tastiest puddings ever, imagine eating sweetly flavoured fluffy clouds.

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Soft, sugary, creamy…heaven on a plate

Poblet is the largest inhabited Cistercian monastery in Europe, so keep your eyes peeled for one of the resident monks as you wander its corridors. A huge rain storm erupted during our visit providing a dramatic atmosphere for our explorations.

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The cloister’s courtyard in the pouring rain

From an ancient monastery it was time to take millions more steps back in history to the Espluga Caves. Take a walk through eerie caves with displays explaining Spain’s prehistoric past and the story of the humans who made these caves their home for thousands of years. It’s a ghostly and somewhat spiritual experience.

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Time to step even further back in history

And then to dinner at the Hostal des Disset Fonts in L’Espluga de Francoli. We ambled through the streets of the sleepy town to our destination – another warming experience of great local food and wine.

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The substantial goat’s cheese salad

One of the nicest starters I’ve had in a long time, the sweetness of the chilled melon soup was perfectly complimented by the saltiness of the Serrano ham. A marriage of Spanish flavours made in heaven.

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The perfect mix of saltiness and sweetness

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Simple ingredients perfectly cooked

Montblanc is known as the centre of the Cistercian Route. It was founded in 1163 by King Alfons I and a lot has happened inside its protective medieval walls. The legendary fight between St George (Sant Jordi) and the dragon is alleged to have taken place here and the day is celebrated every year with a festival and the exchange of flowers and books. I could have meandered its cobbled streets for hours – popping into one (or several) of the many bars, cafes and restaurants scattered along them.

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Medieval terraces in Montblanc

And now it’s time for lunch again. My favourite part of this amazing trip with its myriad highlights was soon turning into lunchtime. And today cemented it. We wound our way up narrow mountain roads to the village of Fores where we were welcomed into the Mirador de Fores, another cosy little restaurant with far-reaching views from on high across to the sea.

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The best village restaurant in the world…possibly

The chef’s passion was clear in his descriptions of every dish (even with my limited Spanish I could get that much). He had our whole menu planned and we started with the juiciest of anchovies atop tomato and olive bread. A rustic classic bursting with flavours.

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Anchovies on toast doesn’t get better than this

And then croquettes – described by the restaurant as the best in the world! A huge claim but a fair one, I’ve eaten my share of croquettes and these are definitely up there. Large, and packed with chunks of chicken and luscious sauce.

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The tastiest chicken croquettas

Next course was this clever assembly of black sausage, a vegetable tower of potato and onion and crunchy crackling on the side. One of the nicest things I’ve ever tasted – I’ve got to try to work out how to make it myself. Or go back there soon!

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My top Spanish dish of the year…well one of them certainly

And the good stuff just kept coming. Slow cooked shoulder of lamb that melted in the mouth, sweetly caramelised onions and a crunch of fried aubergine. Ingredients couldn’t get much simpler or produce a tastier result.

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A totally tempting trio for mains

We also sampled a local stew made from rabbit, snails and chicken, traditionally eaten by the workers on the land. Hearty fare designed to give you strength.

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A hearty traditional stew

Dessert was a luscious cheesecake served with nuts, preserves and local honey. Heavenly.

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Finishing off a delightful lunch with a delightful dessert

One of my Spanish colleagues on our trip through Catalonia introduced me to Orujo – basically the local liquor drunk as a digestive after an indulgent lunch. The appropriate way to finish off your feast that definitely helps with the digestion. Thank you Jose, a new Spanish tradition that I’ve embraced.

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Colourful local liquor at Mirador de Fores

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Here’s the team outside their fabulous restaurant

Phew, that was some lunch – I’d go back to Catalonia just to repeat the experience. Seriously.

A new day dawns and it’s hiking time again. Today we took in scenes from the Spanish Civil War – lookout points, foxholes, bunkers cleverly hidden in rolling hills. A sobering sight and reminder of Spain’s recent and somewhat brutal history. Final destination, the monastery in Vallbona de les Monges, the only female monastery in the region and it still houses eight nuns.

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Vallbona de les Monges and its monastery nestle in the valley

And then of course it’s lunchtime, in another sleepy village. Rocallaura Cafe was full of locals on a sunny Saturday and offered simple, tasty fare.

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Love colourful signage, a great welcome

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Onion bread has never tasted so good

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Sausage, potato, aubergine and jamon, Spanish simplicity at its best

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The joy of the menu del dia

Final stop on our Catalonian odyssey is Verdu. Famous for its handmade ceramics (love a Spanish ceramico), imposing castle and the Miro a la Taula.

Views from on high in the shadow of Verdu castle

Views from on high in the shadow of Verdu castle

What better way to encapsulate Catalonia’s many treasures than a last-night dinner celebrating the art, food and wine of Spain. At Miro a Taula you’re guided through two tastings. The art of Miro and his contemporaries, including Dali, Picasso, Calder, Chillida and Barcelo and the food they ate.

Fabulous tapas, great art and the opportunity to absorb it all in peace and without crowds, a truly unique experience. Followed by a delicious dinner in the gallery.

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Some of my favourite Spanish ingredients on a platter

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The zesty fig and pomegranate starter

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Melt-in-the-mouth lamb with apricots

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The dining area in the centre of the gallery

I think this is the longest blog story I’ve ever written. And that’s because there’s just so much to share with you about this party of beautiful Catalonia. What a journey it was.

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The Catalonian flag against the blue Spanish sky

I was a guest of the Catalan Tourist Board on this trip.

I flew to Barcelona on Vueling.com

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

 

The joys of 2015: the experiences that made my year

Travel adventures abounded for me in 2015. Yes, I know how fortunate I am. It was a year full of amazing journeys, discovering new countries and revisiting old ones on three continents. Here are some of my favourite bits.

March

My Blue Train odyssey

It’s always been my dream to experience one of the world’s great train journeys. And this trip from Cape Town to Pretoria lived up to every expectation. Top quality service, amazing food, the comfiest of cabins and of course the ever-changing scenery on a journey through the majesty of South Africa. 27-hours of pure magic.

Find out more about The Blue Train by clicking here.

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The stylish Blue Train leaves the Mother City, heading north

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The Blue Train has arguably the best breakfast menu in the world…and also the best eggs Benedict

June

A spontaneous short break to Barcelona

One of my favourite cities in the world, Barcelona has everything going for it. Amazing architecture, friendly people, great shopping, a huge beach, endless bars and restaurants serving amazing food and wine. And this trip was even better as it was a last-minute booking, an escape from a chilly grey London to the energy and blueness of a fabulous Spanish city.

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Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, the most stunning unfinished building in the world

And of course there’s the Boqueria, probably the best food market in the world – I know I should calm down with the superlatives. I reckon I could spend a whole holiday in here alone, with the mission of tasting something from every stall – a challenge I’d embrace whole heartedly.

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One of the tempting tapas bars in La Boqueria

July

I embarked on a cruise around Northern Europe with my brother Ray, nephew Zak and niece Maxi. And our mascot Sigmund (the toy baboon, reflecting our African roots) who we took everywhere with us. It was a real adventure, visiting new countries like Estonia and Finland and starting off in wonderful Copenhagen where we spent a few days. There were three real standout experiences in a wonderful fortnight where we made new friends and discovered new lands.

Discovering the beauty of Copenhagen

This charming Scandinavian city was a revelation. Truly fabulous restaurants – we devoured course after course at the Michelin-starred Studio. We also shopped up a storm, caught up with old friends, ambled around picturesque Nyhaven and took in all the tourist sights. And the cherry on the top was that Elton John was playing in the world-famous Tivoli Gardens – and we got tickets. What more can I say?

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One of many amazing and delicious courses we tucked into at Studio

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The very little mermaid (she’s very beautiful, too), with our travelling companion Sigmund

Marvelling at St Petersburg

I hate the phrase bucket list – maybe it’s because (if I had one) I’m sure it would go on forever and be way too intimidating to tackle. Having said that I think St Petersburg should on everyone’s…from the grandeur of the Hermitage, the sheer scale and amazing design of the city, the majestic buildings and the somewhat brutal history. Oh and the caviar. When in Russia!

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The Church on the Spilled Blood has to be the most stunning church I’ve ever visited

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Sampling caviar with Zak and Maxine, and Sigmund of course

Sailing down the Thames through Tower Bridge

The cruise ended in London, I mean right in the centre of London – we sailed down the Thames with the city’s landmarks getting closer and closer until Tower Bridge opened up to let us through. I’ve lived in London most of my life and truly love the place. When the crowds lining the river cheered us through I had tears in my eyes. We spent our final night on the river overlooking Tower Bridge, The Shard and the Tower of London. Just perfect.

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The unique view of London’s landmarks from the River Thames

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The beautiful lights of Tower Bridge at night seen from our ship

August

Loving the beachlife (and everything else) in sun-drenched Spain.

I visit La Manga in Spain every year and explore more and more of this versatile region each time. It seems there’s always something new to discover. The markets with their fabulous fresh produce and bargainous clothes, bags, shoes and jewellery, the many beaches lined with restaurants and bars serving delicious Spanish fare, the welcoming people and the sunshine and blue skies, how I love those Spanish skies.

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Early morning on the beach in Cabo de Palos, heavenly!

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A break from sun worshipping and swimming for a chilled Rose

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The purple light of a summer night in Spain

September

At the end of September I embarked on another cruise. This time starting in Rhodes in Greece and sailing around the island of Symi before heading into Turkey. Our eight-berth Turkish gulet, the Muhtesem A was a joy to live on for a week in harmony with nature with endless seas and skies of blue. There were two highlights in a week of chilled-out happiness.

Our beautiful boat in the blues of Greece

Our beautiful boat in the blues of Greece

Absorbing the delights of  dreamlike Symi Harbour

My love affair with Greece continues. On the island of Symi you inhale the wild herbs at every step and the panoramas are endless. A hike to the top of the hill at sunset finished with my first taste of Retsina, a trip to the local herb man to stock up (of course) and a feeling of joy at this picturesque town.

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Our boat berthed in Symi Harbour, picture perfect

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I couldn’t leave Symi without buying plenty of herbs from the charming Stavros

Sleeping under the Turkish stars.

Our idyllic days began with yoga and continued with absorbing the ever-changing landscapes, swimming in the crystal clear sea and eating delicious local food. They turned into starlit nights where I clambered on top of the boat, wrapped in a fluffy blanket and slept tight under the stars, waking to the sunrise, the bleating goats on shore and the early morning bread delivery by boat. A once-in-a-lifetime experience – one I hope to repeat!

You can find out more about Mediterranean Fitness Voyages by clicking here.

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Perfect pinks and blues get the day off to the best start

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The bread man turns up just after dawn with freshly baked goods

October

Living the beach life Thai-style in Koh Samui

Another of my favourite places, the islands of Thailand call me back again and again – well I am a beach baby, after all. The Land of Smiles is the ultimate place to re-energise with warm, crystal-clear waters, laid back shopping days, beautiful scenery wherever you look, the myriad of fruit shakes and cocktails and all those tasty Thai dishes…I ate seafood every day in many different styles and it’s all such great value. Thailand rocks.

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Welcome to Koh Samui with a cocktail on the beach

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My favourite Thai salad – spicy green papaya with prawns. Yum!

Well, what a year. Happy new year to you all, wishing you lots of adventures in 2016. As one of my favourite sayings goes: “Travel is the only thing you pay for that makes you richer.” How true is that?

Where is the best place you went in 2015? Where should I go next? I’d love you to inspire me with your travelling tales.

Book review: A Modern Guide to the Wine World’s Best-Kept Secret: Sherry

I’m always inspired by Spain which was one of the reasons I couldn’t wait to get my teeth into this beautiful book telling the story of one of the country’s most important products – Sherry.  I had no idea what a huge subject it was and all lyrically explained here by author Talia Baiocchi whose love for this much misunderstood beverage and its history came shining through.

Sherry is a fortified wine that is aged in above-ground cellars called bodegas and includes in its spectrum the sweetest and driest wines in the world. How’s that for confusing? Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria in Andalusia form the 11,000 hectare Marco de Jerez where it is produced – otherwise known as the Sherry Triangle. And having taken a backseat for decades in the world of wine, its popularity is now hugely on the up.

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The book takes you through the history, different types, how it’s made and a tour through the sherry region, including detailed descriptions of all the bodegas to visit. Now there’s a good route to base my next holiday itinerary on.

It’s a fascinating tale and then of course there’s the sherry itself. My first taste of sherry was as an 18-year-old student in South Africa, sitting around the campfire playing drinking games with OB’s (Old Brown Sherry). It was sickly sweet, alcoholic and, most importantly (for us students) cheap. Oh and caused horrendous hangovers all round! I think everyone has their dodgy sherry story but that is not what the stunning sherries of Spain are about. The total opposite, in fact.

They taste surprisingly good and are extremely versatile, so go surprisingly well with a wide range of food. And there are a surprising amount of them. Well, I was surprised anyway. And they’re also fantastic for making cocktails and to cook with.

The book includes sections on these, too and I tested out several of the recipes. One of my favourite Spanish dishes is albondigas – tasty little meatballs served in a vibrant, silky sauce. I’ve eaten it many, many times and cooked several versions of it myself, too. But this one is the best one ever, the sauce is quick and easy to make and tastes heavenly. It’s a real wow dish, so I had to share the recipe with you.

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The meatballs bubble away in the silken sauce

Albondigas al Jerez

Serves 6

For the meatballs

340g beef mince

340g pork mince

1 clove garlic, minced

4 tbsps chopped parsley

120g fine breadcrumbs

1 egg

2 tsps salt

1 tsp sweet Spanish paprika

1/2 tsp hot Spanish paprika

A few grinds of black pepper

For the sauce

4 tbsps olive oil

235g onion, grated

1 garlic clove, minced

1 tsp sweet Spanish paprika

1 tbsp plain flour

120ml dry amontillado sherry

240ml chicken stock

1/2 tsp salt

Combine all the meatball ingredients, except the olive oil in a bowl and mix thoroughly. Prepare a baking sheet covered with baking parchment. Shape the meat mixture into 18-20 meatballs the size of golf balls, placing them on the prepared sheet as you shape them.

In a large frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the meatballs to the pan in batches and brown all over to create a crust – about 6 mins. Remove and place them on a plate lined with kitchen paper to soak up the excess oil while you make the sauce.

In a medium pan over medium heat, heat 2 tbsps of the olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and sweat until they are translucent, about 5 mins.

Add the paprika, flour and remaining 2 tbsps olive oil and stir well to combine. Let it simmer for 2 mins, the sauce should have the consistency of a roux. Stir in the sherry and the chicken stock and bring to a simmer, then turn the heat to low and simmer for 10 mins. Season with salt to taste.

Add the meatballs and stir gently to coat them in the sauce. Cook for a further 10 mins over a low heat, adjusting the heat to maintain a rolling simmer. If the sauce gets too dry, stir in a bit more chicken stock.

Serve with cocktail sticks for spearing as a tapas dish or with vegetables as a complete meal.

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I loved this book, it’s comprehensive, entertaining, extremely informative and captures both sherry and the spirit of Spain so perfectly I wanted to head straight for the airport! And the photography is beautiful, too.

Bring on some sherry-based trips, I say, oh and I really must try out some of those cocktails, too.

 As a reader of EatingCoventGarden you can get your very own copy for a special price. To orderSherry at the discounted price of £16 including p&p* (RRP £20), telephone 01903 828503 or email mailorders@lbsltd.co.uk and quote the offer code APG347. *UK only, please add £2.50 if ordering from overseas.
Recipe extracted from Sherry: A Modern Guide to the Wine World’s Best-Kept Secret, with Cocktails and Recipes by Talia Baiocchi. Photography by Ed Anderson. Published by Jacqui Small (£20).