Come back oh thou Finger Bowl, all is forgiven!

17 Aug


I am not going to name and shame this restaurant in Spain, as it would be unfair, as the practice of providing a ghastly, synthetic wet-wipe instead of a finger bowl is all too common in most modern restaurants. What is the point of the wet-wipe? You cannot use it in the middle of your meal, as it would be used up too early, and it makes your food taste horrible too! Our waitress was also confused that we requested a plate or bowl to put our shellfish debris in! What exactly were we supposed to do with all those shells?!

When I was a child and we went on holiday to Southern Europe, you were given a good honest finger-bowl; a nice bowl of cold water and a slice of lemon, to enable you to rinse your fingers in-between mouthfuls. Nowadays, I not only get through a ridiculous number of napkins, but everything gets mucky, including your wine glass or whatever else you happen to be drinking from. On this particular day in Spain, I was almost tempted to take the lemon from my drink and fill up the ash-tray thoughtfully provided, with water to make our own make-shift bowl.

Does anyone else mourn the demise of the finger bowl? Or maybe the restaurants we are going to are not high-class enough to warrant their use!



A wonderful Villa Retreat near Lousada, Northern Portugal

17 Aug
Sarah and Linda having tapas at Casa Linda

Sarah and Linda having tapas at Casa Linda

This year we are taking our long summer holiday in Spain and Portugal. We spent a week travelling through Galicia in Northern Spain and arrived at our villa destination for a two week stay at Casa Linda. We booked the villa about a year ago,and ever since the misunderstanding with one of Linda’s paintings, which was in our possession for a short while earlier this year, we have been facebook friends. Linda is an artist and runs painting courses from her Pink Buddha Studio,but we just booked the villa as a holiday retreat. We have had the benefit of admiring original artwork in all of the rooms in our villa. Next plan is to have enough money to buy one of them – not that they are astonishingly expensive as art goes!

I am becoming quite an experienced booker of villas in the peak season of the school summer holidays – no-one will ever overcharge me or offer me some inferior deal just because I happen to work in a school! This villa has to be the best one we have booked so far in terms of location and facilities available. For me, the kitchen is so important, as we like to self-cater properly so I need all my home comforts. The kitchen in the villa is excellent and has most utensils that I need; I have also felt relaxed enough to go downstairs to Linda’s studio and beg/borrow anything extra that I have needed. This is a big contrast to our villa in Tuscany four years ago: when I asked if we could have some sharper knives, our host suggested that we could go and buy our own in the village!

The villa is all on the top floor of the house, up some marble steps and is so spacious. There are three bedrooms which are all a good size and two of them have air-conditioning, which has been most welcome. The kitchen is separate from the living/dining room, which is not always the case with Owner’s Direct properties – many just have one main room. The living/dining room also has air-conditioning which has been great. Our first week was particularly hot and humid and we have really appreciated this luxury. We do like to have a bit of a home-from-home and a villa which is more than just a base for days out. I am currently sitting at the breakfast bar in the kitchen, something I would love to have at home. One other luxury has been having both a dishwasher and a washing machine – many properties for holiday lets have either one or the other and I have learnt from bitter experience not to go for the dishwasher-only option. We seem to get through so many clothes on holiday. This villa also has a tumble-dryer, but I am not a fan of these – nothing like drying your clothes in the fresh air.

Apart from all the wonderful facilities, including a big television and a selection of DVDs – so far we have used this once, although our young visitors last week also made use of the wii last week, it is lovely to have such attractive furnishings, adequate space for storage, and as I mentioned before,the original artwork on the walls in every room.

Last of all of course I must mention the swimming pool. For me a pool is an essential part of my holiday, and a private one is the preferred option. With this exceptionally hot weather it has been most welcome, and I had a lot of fun playing silly games in the pool last week with the girls. My daughter and her best friend visited for a week and were made to feel just as welcome as Paul and I have been. Being only about 30 miles from the airport at Porto has been a big advantage too, as it made it possible for the girls to visit without our having to travel too far to the airport. Linda keeps the pool clean and ready for use every day, and is also very relaxed about when we make use of it. I have had experience of being asked not to use the pool too early in the morning or late at night at other properties.

So, what are you waiting for? Come and visit this beautiful part of Portugal and stay in a villa which has all the facilities you could possibly need for a holiday long or short, whether you just want to relax and spend most of your time reading and swimming, or visit some of the beautiful cities and beaches nearby.






For the Love of The Archers: An Unofficial Companion, by Beth Miller: A review of this recently published book

13 Oct

I have been an avid fan of ‘The Archers’ for about 30 years now and have acquired several Archers books over the years. I have to say that this is the most entertaining one to date. Of course it does help that this book is right up to date, and includes some very recent story-lines. That aside, I like the format which Beth Miller has used. There are ‘Meet the Characters’ sections and also ‘Welcome to Ambridge’ the latter which describes in more detail the various dwellings in the village and beyond. There are ‘memorable moments’ sections and also listener portraits; these are from a varied selection and include the scriptwriter Keri Davies and other authors, poets and well-known faces. I particularly enjoyed the ‘Gone but not forgotten’ features including of course Nigel Pargeter, John Archer and Grace Archer.

I should mention here that I am a member of two facebook groups, Ambridge Addicts and Archers Appreciation, the latter of which has a mention in the back of the book as a source of even more information. It is a testament to the popularity of radio today that there are so many fan groups devoted to just one soap/drama series. I would particularly recommend this book to my fellow Addicts/Appreciators. I think they would enjoy the who’s who of the silent characters, a list of all the named animals included and even some of the Christmas Village Productions which have taken place since the arrival of Lynda Snell in the village.

Finally, for Archers meet-ups and families who are addicted, there are 22 different themed quizzes for enjoying a real life ‘Quiz Night at the Bull.’ I strongly recommend that fans past, present and future put this book on their Christmas list, or better still buy it themselves just to be sure of getting a copy!

Why I love the school holidays

26 Aug


I am the mother of one 17 Year old, so I no longer have issues of child-care. However, I have recently gone back to my profession of librarianship and choose to work term-time as a School Librarian. I hear much talk in the media and in my social groups about the curse of having to go on holiday during the school holidays. For me it is the only way! I love going on holiday in August, and what people don’t talk about is the fact that if you work term-time or as a teacher (I hesitate to say that teachers work term-time as I have many teaching colleagues and friends and I know that it is not that simple!) you have the option of long holidays without having to book time off! In what other job could I decide to go on a jolly jaunt to Spain for 3 or 4 weeks? Okay, so for the past 3 years I have had a job in which I could do just that (I worked as a housekeeper with a very flexible employer and did sometimes resort to unpaid leave) but it is relatively unusual. By the way, my husband Paul is self-employed so generally he always brings his work with him. As many of his clients are educational establishments, the need to go to meetings in August is really minimal.

The housekeeping was no longer keeping me mentally active enough, and also my school job is better paid. I have to say that the job of a school librarian is wonderful, but it comes with fewer stresses and pressures than the job of a teacher. My job is truly term-time and I never (well, hardly ever!) take my work home.

School holidays are a time to catch up and do all those tasks which I never otherwise seem to have time for, such as repainting the garden furniture, making bunting (okay, not finished that yet!) and finish my mermaid mosaic. Also it is lovely to have breakfast and lunch in the garden every day, weather permitting, meet friends for lunch and indulge in much retail therapy. I have always enjoyed spending time with my daughter, at all stages of her life. I sometimes think that I should have been a Blue Peter Presenter as I am always finding ways of making things which I could more easily buy in the shops. As for playing board games and helping her to make fantastic creations of out of bricks and lego – who could ever get bored with a child at home? Actually when Jessica was little I did work term-time, but I had to go back to school far sooner than I would have liked to, so I think maybe I am now catching up with some of the craft projects which I did not get round to doing when she was smaller.

The main reason people seem to object to having to take holidays in the school holidays (and by that I mean the actual process of booking a holiday and going away, either home or abroad) is the cost. Well, maybe I am just lucky, maybe I am more patient and diligent in my research, but I do pride myself on finding some amazingly good value deals online. We never book package holidays, and I did once compare our holiday with a typical package to a similar destination, and I do find that most of the packages can be particularly costly in the school holidays. I am in the process of booking next year’s August holiday, and we have decided (after a rather wet August in the UK this year) to have another long break next year, along the lines of our jaunt to Southern Spain last year. The next one is going to be in Portugal. I have a personal minimum requirement of a a comfy bed, a decent kitchen and a private pool. I also find that booking early, quite often our host offers us a good discount. Although we are taking a modest two weeks in the villa, our journey will be long and exciting, starting with the ferry from Portsmouth to Santander and continuing with a long drive through Spain, finding some lovely hotels to stay in along the way.

So all I have to do now is to see how many more exciting things I can do before I sadly have to return to school for the autumn term. Still, I could make quite a long and interesting list of holiday projects and outings undertaken this summer; a two-night trip to Padstow, visiting National Trust Gardens, trips to London with Jess to visit Foyles, Hyde Park, Camden Market and my brother’s flat, preparing for and taking part in an amazing Alice-in-Wonderland party in our garden, cooking lunch for my mother’s birthday for 20 friends and family, finishing (almost!) my mermaid mosaic, baking many cakes, gardening and harvesting a lovely constant supply of courgettes, breakfast out at Stubbings Cafe every Friday morning, sorting out a huge pile of foodie magazines, repainting the  wooden and metal garden furniture, a walk by the river, many lunches out and swimming both in our home pool and at the indoor pool at Newlands Girls’ School. I have also probably written more mindless and possibly amusing anecdotes on facebook than usual, although some may not agree about the nature of the postings! I have also purchased a new camera, which supports my other great hobby. Hopefully the quality of the photos on these postings will vastly improve from now on.

As far as I am concerned, I’d not have done of all these things or had such a relaxing time if I did not have this long summer break. So although it may be ten years before it will be feasible to visit friends in America and Australia (August not the best weather months for these trips really) at least I know that on returning to school I’ll only have to wait about 6 weeks until my next holiday!

Why we love holidaying in Spain

13 Apr

A view from Lo Tast Pati de Menjars

This is our third holiday in Spain together, although the first one on our own with no offspring. Jessica made the decision during last year’s four-week jaunt to Spain that she no longer wanted to come on holiday with us. As we decided to try a different season and take a shorter, two-week break this year at Easter, it was probably a good thing that she wanted to stay at home, with the pressure of AS exams looming on the horizon.

I run a school library and so am tied to school holidays, despite no longer having young children. This suits me fine, as it is the only way I can see of having regular holidays and longer ones if we wish to. It also means that some holidays can just be spent lazing around at home without rushing off on a holiday as such. Add to that the prospect of not having to bring any work home or do any marking, and I think that I have the perfect job; okay, I’d be better paid as a teacher, but who wants all that stress? Twelve weeks holiday a year, with eight of them unpaid, suits me well! I am also good at finding good deals on holiday accommodation without it costing a ridiculous amount of money! My main source is ‘Owners Direct’ which we have come back to again this year, having not used their website last year.

Spain has so many advantages, and once we have brushed up our Spanish it will be even more fun! We are at the stage of being able to read menus, road signs and information boards to a reasonable level – reading is so much easier than understanding locals! We can say a few words, but we really need to study that language course. Now that we are in Catalonia, Paul is also trying to learn Catalan too, as not all Spanish people in Catalonia have Castillian as their first language. The language is actually easy to learn; it would have been easier when we were younger though! I passed ‘O’ Level at school and then seriously neglected it.

So, to the advantages of this wonderful country. Well, it has an agreeable climate, and if one owned a property in the South it would be pleasant all year round. This is something to consider if one is considering buying property in Europe – more letting months available. Visiting in August it was as hot as we expected, if not hotter! You just have to accept this and pace yourself in a sensible way. April is a good month to visit as it is warm enough to walk around in shirt sleeves, but you do not tire out as much when walking over the hills or round Roman or Iberian ruins. For me, the one disadvantage of April is that the water is not really as warm as I’d like it to be, and I do love to swim! August is fantastic, as you arrive home hot and sweaty and there is nothing better than immersing yourself in cool water. This year we have a property with a pool, and I have been swimming, but it does not have quite the appeal that it would later in the year. May and June would be perfect, so that will have to wait until retirement…..

Everything is so cheap here, especially the food and drink. Eating out is a pleasure, and is not something we do very often back in England. Why eat out, when the food at home is so much better and better value too? On holiday we have many lunches out, and this time we have found some really fabulous places for tapas, paella and so on. I still do not find that the Spanish are great at making a salad or providing a wholesome plate of vegetables to accompany your meal; however, the food is good value and we can always eat copious amounts of vegetables and salad back at the villa.

This time we have also found that the petrol is ridiculously cheap; the cheapest so far has been 117 euros, which at the current exchange rate works out at 87.75p! Now if only there were some way of bringing some home with us…….

We love the environment and scenery; there are mountains all over Spain, and if you have a willing chauffeur husband to drive you round them (as I do) or you like driving, then you are in seventh heaven in my opinion. There is something uplifting about being able to see the sea and the mountains at the same time. Roman and Iberian Spain is also fascinating and there are so many ruins and old city walls to enthrall a historian like Paul, and an amateur enthusiast such as myself.

The best thing about Spain is that it is not too far away. As I have mentioned in my other postings, we have a serious loathing of aeroplanes and flying, so at the moment are enjoying Europe – travelling by sea and land. Future holidays could involve some long rail travel, and we have dreams of going to New York by boat. Paul is not quite so sure about trying to get to Australia by boat….. This year we travelled by the 24-hour ferry from Portsmouth to Bilbao. To be honest, with all the hanging around and delays at airports, I can imagine that on occasions it could take as long to fly to Spain! With the boat, you have a lovely cabin with proper beds, a choice of restaurants and menus, and it is all so spacious. We had the same seats by a window for the whole journey; we spread out and played Blokus, as well as having time to read and do crosswords. It was not crowded though, and we did not feel the need to save the seats, as there were plenty of others available.

Our return journey will be via France, so more hotel stops and lovely scenery, returning on the boat from Caen to Portsmouth. Just a shame that I’ll be back to school on Monday, the day after our return…..

The Gastronomic Delights of Spain – Part 2

13 Apr

The Hotel Marques de Riscal designed by Frank GehryMy Deer and Chestnut main course at the Hotel Marques de RiscalPudding at Restauant Pepo in Benifallet Veal Casserole with olives and Dijon mustard with spinach and mash

Our visit to Fort Bravo, part of Mini-Hollywood in Almeria

19 Aug

I am not a fan of Spaghetti Westerns, but Paul enjoys them. I tend to fall asleep with boredom but quite enjoy watching the inevitable scene in the Saloon Bar, which always ends with chairs being thrown around after a rowdy drinking session and game of poker. However, when he explained that they were filmed in Spain’s only desert in Almeria, within driving distance of where we were  staying in the Alpujarras, I liked the sound of visiting one of the film sets as a day out.

There are three sites to visit, and we chose Fort Bravo, which is probably in between the other two in terms of size and variety of activities. Naturally in August anywhere in a desert is going to be hot, so we would have to leave early and pace ourselves. I was also attracted by the fact that there is a swimming pool on the site; nothing to do with Spaghetti Westerns but an excellent idea for a hot day out in the desert! The largest site, Oasys, we were put off from visiting as we read reviews on ‘Trip Adviser’ from visitors who were distressed by the large number of animals who seemed to be kept in hot cages with little shade or roaming space.

I was absolutely bowled over by the film set. Most of the films were made in the 60s and 70s; for instance ‘Once upon a time in the West’ was made here. Given then that the set is now at least 50 years old, it is in remarkably good shape. Most of the buildings I should imagine would be used just for the outside shots, and some of them you cannot go into, but there are many buildings which you can still enter and walk around. For instance the Saloon Bar is still used as a bar for visitors; it is also the scene for one of the re-enactment shows which run throughout the day. All of the bar maids were dressed in grisette-type costumes and after serving drinks to the public they also took part in the show. Their main role was to dance the can-can. We assume that actors were employed to take part in the show. Some of them, particularly the dancers, were not very good. They were out of time with the music, and one poor girl nearly fell into us as she tripped and we were standing at the side of the stage. However, given that Spaghetti Westerns are a spoof and not to be taken seriously, this all seemed in keeping with the general feel of the event. Most of the visitors were Spanish and enjoyed the bar scene, which included some shooting and I believe some minor chair-throwing (although we did go out for a breath of air and to wait for the restaurant to open and did not actually see the latter).

Later on there was a wonderful show outside, mainly with cowboys on horseback. This was superb, and we really did feel as if we were extras in a Spaghetti Western film. What I really liked about the whole experience was that it was almost a community event. When the shows were taking place, you could not buy lunch or get a drink at the bar; nearly all of the day’s visitors were standing around watching at the same time. laughing and clapping. It had a really good atmosphere and feeling that everyone was enjoying the show together. Despite our Spanish language skills being very limited, we could still enter into the spirit of it. There are some amusing touches on the set too, such as a building named ‘Sky Sports.’ You could also go and pretend to hang yourself on the noose and stand behind bars in the jail. I did consider dressing up in a costume and having a ‘Wanted’ poster made of myself, but in the end resisted, because of the cost and the thought of dressing up in temperatures of about 90 degrees!

The buffet lunch was not available until after the midday show was over, and that was perfectly acceptable, and as always in Spain, a very reasonable cost at 10 euros a head for three courses. After that I went for a swim in the very welcoming cool water of the pool. Next to the pool area are some bungalows which you can stay in over-night, if you are really keen to spend maximum time at the site. I’d say that the experience is really suitable for all ages. We went with a 16 year old, but it would be great for young children too. The only activity we did not take part in which I should have quite enjoyed, was having a ride around the site on a horse-drawn carriage. We were too late for an early afternoon ride, as the afternoon, outdoor show started at 2:30 and there would be no more rides until 3:00; of course we are talking Spanish time here, where everything is relaxed and ‘manana’ and it was getting exceedingly hot, so we headed off before the end of the show. It was a very impressive affair, with wonderfully evocative music and extremely skilled horsemen riding across the desert sand. In fact there was a lot of music played during the day and particularly for the shows; even as a non Western fan, I have to admit that the music is very atmospheric.

This is a place worth visiting if you are in Almeria in Southern Spain, and want a change from swimming, beaches and visiting the fantastic city of Granada and the beautiful mountain villages.