Friday, 30 April 2010


For the past couple of weeks I've been thinking seriously about the summer holidays. I wanted something far away and exotic, and as none of my friends are able to do 'far away and exotic' in August, I'm looking at a solo trip. My initial idea was to do do a trip round South Easy Asia; stopping off in Thailand, Laos, Vietnam, Malaysia and maybe even Singapore. I wanted to travel by train, to see how the landscape changed as I travelled and avoiding that feeling of 'just landing' somewhere. However, deterred by the Monsoon and advised by a friend who knows the place well, I decided on a much more relaxed type of break in Bali (which is not in Monsoon at that time of the year). Come to think of it, my recent reading of Eat, Pray, Love encouraged me too, though I have no plans to visit a medicine man or come back with some Brazilian guy on my arm ;-)

I'm really excited about every aspect of the trip. I decided to take an airline I liked the sound of (so that the holiday would start as soon as I board), so I chose Singapore Airlines as I'd heard such good things about them. Much more exciting though is the yoga retreat I've booked to do while I'm out there. So much has happened these past months, and I feel this is just the kind of restorative activity I need. Nestled in the verdant countryside outside Ubud, it has just 10 rooms, so it will certainly be peaceful. There will be yoga and meditation morning and evening, good food, visits to scenic rice terraces, yoga by a volcano, bike rides, massages and spa treatments... Plus, something which kind of terrifies me - a 'purification ritual and blessing ceremony'. From the people emersed in water in the photos, it looks a bit like a baptism. I have mixed feelings about this event; I worry it might be a bit cringeful, a load of westerners doing some sacred Balinese ceremony, but hey, if we're doing yoga, what's the difference? But will people start crying? Worst still, will I start crying?! I'll let you know :-) Whatever happens, I guess it's a new experience so I shouldn't complain.

Aside from the yoga, I have around another week to spend on the island. I could esily go further afield (I'd love to see the Orangutangs on Borneo, Komodo dragons on their name-sake island and numerous other things around Indonesia)... but I'm not sure, there seems to be plenty to do on Bali, friends have told me I can climb an active volcano (!), see temples, visit the Gili islands with their unspoilt beaches, learn to dive... Far from boring it would seem, so I'm still unsure what to do with the rest of my time. Can't wait!

Monday, 26 April 2010

Madrid la nuit

Saturday night was a pretty odd one. We started off on C/Pez, eating tapas in the Pontepez place of my last post and the famed cornflake chicken. The food got even more ‘innovative’ this time; a pear and rocket salad with pansies and mozzarella ice-cream, yes pansies and mozzarella ice-cream. Sometimes such odd combinations work, but for some reason this one didn’t work that well – but at only 3 Euros I’m not complaining, besides everything else we ate was delicious (alioli baked baby potatoes, croquetas and cecina – a type of cured beef from León).

Food was followed by meeting more friends closer to my neighbourhood. One of them had been invited to a party in a squat, yes a squat, by some random girl in the street (this really was a weird weekend) – to which I said NO WAY am I going to a squat. That sort of thing might have had its appeal as a grungy teen, but certainly not now! However, I opened up to the idea more when he told me it was in this palacete (little palace) near my house which had been done up but then left empty for as long as I could remember. I figured it was worth us dropping by and taking a 5-minute look just to see the interior of the building for the first and possibly last time. Drop by we did, and boy was it disappointing, we thought there’d be some sort of secret knock to get into this ‘illegal party', but no, it’s doors were thrown open to the public with huge banners inviting passer bys to come in. Once inside, it was obvious they’d made no effort to make things look nice, there was a makeshift bar selling stuff like calimocho, a hideous coca-cola and red wine mix that Spanish teens drink, and some kid attempting to rap - what was I expecting to be honest? All we really wanted to do was go upstairs and check out the palace, but when we couldn’t find any way up we asked the girl serving at the bar where the stairs were, whos reply was ‘today’s our inauguration, you can't go upstairs’. This kind of shocked me, to see someone who had illegally broken into and taken over a building suddenly getting all high and mighty about who could and could not access different parts of it!

Realising we weren’t going to see anything, we quickly left, ending up in Begin the Beguine on c/Moratín. It seems that Saturday was my official ‘seedy day’, as this little bar is possibly even seedier than a squat – though very, very atmospheric. It wouldn’t be my first choice for a night out, but about once a year I like to go there simply because it’s so different. From the outside you’d barely know there was a bar there as its shutters are completely closed and the door is hard to open – once inside, I can only compare it to what I imagine a 19th century opium den must have looked like! Tiny and smoky, brown wood-panelled walls covered in dusty second hand trombones and other wind instruments, everything has this sort of shiny brown patina of age, velvet couches, glass lamps – dominated by a large circular bar in the centre from where they serve huge caipirinhas in flower-vases. To be fair, there’s absolutely no debauchery going on inside, but it feels like at any moment some Matahari type figure is going to appear, donning a negligee and a cigarette holder and do some sort of exotic dance. Madrid nightlife is certainly never boring or predictable.

Friday, 23 April 2010

Chicken nuggets with a twist

This isn't a review, more of a quick mention. The other night I was introduced to Cervecería Pontepez, on Calle Pez in Malasaña. There wasn't time to do much sampling, but I have to give a nod of recognition to the 'Pollo con krispies con salsa de curry y helado de coco' - basically cornflake-breaded chicken goujons with curry sauce (one as deliciously cloying as the Macdonald's sauce, which I love, no joke) served with a ball of coconut ice-cream. Surprisingly, it was pretty delicious. I can't say the same for the hummus, which was ok, but by no means great. In fact I can't remember the last time I had good hummus in Spain, restaurants seem to think if they jusy whizz up a jar of chickpeas and add a bit of cumin that's enough - but it isn't if you grew up on the real thing :-) Anyway, Pontepez is definitely worth returning to, as I'm keen to try out the other innovative stuff they have on their menu.

The other reason I've chosen to post on it is that I'm pretty sure that this is one of the bars I checked out about 5 years ago when I was about to give it all up to start my own cafe and spend all day slaving over a hot stove. Seeing how the former owners had been bankrupted by their business (or maybe the business had been bankrupted by them?) was perhaps a deciding factor in me not going down that route.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Yoga and other stuff

I’ve just had my second yoga class in Yogam, and have to say I’m pretty pleased. The studio is in a traditional Madrid apartment block bang in the middle of Calle Huertas, in the super-old neighbourhood, El barrio de las letras (arts neighbourhood), so named because it was a haunt of many Spanish literary luminaries like Quevedo and Lope de Vega and is now an atmospheric little area, home to quaint little bars and shops selling all sorts of stuff from antique maps to hand-blown glass. This district is just a 10 minute walk from where I live but for some reason I don’t go there much any more and had forgotten how pleasant it was. Well, all that’s about to change, as I’m going to be frequenting it for my yoga classes on a weekly basis. It’ll be the perfect excuse to explore a little further – I’ve even spotted a really nice ice-cream parlour right next to the yoga place – so I can see that my attempts at healthy living are going to be in constant risk of collapse! I took some photos of some shops and shopfronts while I was there as I'm kind of fascinated by Madrid shopfronts. I've posted them, though unfortunately I still have no idea of how to take decent pics, despite the new camera. Practise, practice.

Possible the prettiest garde centre in Spain

You've got to love 'alimentación' shops - floor-to-ceiling tins of tuna, lentils and crisps.
Pretty, pretty glass

Anyway, back to the yoga. The teacher, Estela, is one of those people that just ‘look’ like they do yoga – she’s all lean and willowy with flowing grey-blonde locks and amazing posture. She’s also a psychologist, and I’m surprised at some of the insights she’s been able to make in just a couple of classes. ‘Coge espacio, que no tengas miedo’ is one of the things she keeps saying to me (take up some space, don’t be afraid), and she means this in both the physical sense (in the classes but also elsewhere, let’s just say that even sleeping alone in my huge bed, I barely occupy more than a quarter of it!) and in the metaphorical sense. She was quick to be aware of how I sometimes try not to bother people or tread on their toes. Something which sounds like quite a good personal quality, but which has actually been detrimental to me on many occasions, as it can make me tend to put other people’s needs before my own. Interesting stuff.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

I'm reading...

For someone who hopes to one day write a fiction bestseller and retire on the proceeds ;-) I sometimes read awfully little fiction. The latest non-fiction goodie to find its way onto my bedside table, courtesy of my friend C, is Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. It tells the story of veteran travel writer and ex-resident of Malawi, Paul Theroux, traversing Africa from north to south by means of pretty much anything other than planes (dugouts, rickety trains, you name it) and it makes a really interesting read. However, if you're looking for the romantic 'out of Africa' experience, forget it, this book is pretty gritty and the author does not mince his words when chucking bucketloads of disdain at all the do-gooder aid companies who think they're helping the continent, but who he actually accuses of throwing it further into despair and dependence on charity. You'll never look at Bono in the same way again ;-) He also sneers quite a bit at safari-goers and their privelaged somewhat unreal view of Africa - still, no amount of sneering is going to make me chalk going on safari off my '100 things to do before I die list'.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Tomorrow yoga

What with one thing and another, these past couple of months, my efforts to be fit and flexible have gone completely out of the window, and I feel I've lost any of the progress I had made. Well, tomorrow I plan to get back into it and have a yoga class, at Yogam, not far from my house. It looks like a pretty simple little centre, just a room really, but I'm looking forward to exercising again, to the sense of control I remember it giving me over my life and body. I'll let you know how I get on.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Wonderful Marrakech

I'm back from Marrakech, and putting aside catching the flu and a 6 hour flight delay, I had an amazing time and I'm much better company than I thought I was :-) So much struck me as unique and exciting about the city - the colours, the food, the music, the people. I ate pastilla till I never wanted to see pastilla again, I got lost in the medina then found my way again, haggled for tie-backs in the souk and simply wandered about, taking it all in. Like my trips to Istanbul last year, I can honestly say Marrakech is a city that lives up to its hype, and I think that is partly due to the fact it has this arab feel, but unlike other north African cities like Cairo or Tunis, for me it has this sort of African 'underbeat' that literally gets under your skin. Hard to desribe. I was also surprised at how charming everyone was, I'd heard dodgy stories about bottom-pinching and hustlers thrusting their pet monkeys on you then demanding money for a photo, but I have to say my experience with the people was really positive. Yes the men did cat call (but no more than they do in my Madrileño barrio, Lavapiés) but no touching or serious hassle and taxi drivers and market stall holders generally agreed to come down to a reasonable price. That said, I'm guessing that looking pretty much arab/north african and speaking some Arabic may have had something to do with that. The riad I stayed in was also very cool and was one of the best things about my stay, not so much because of the aesthetics of the place but because the 4 guys than ran it (one French and 3 Morrocans) were so sweet and did everything to make sure my stay was as pleasant as possible from escorting me to the Jemaa al Fna on my first day, to greeting me at the door with a fresh OJ every time I walked in the riad to just generally taking an interest and taking the time out to have a chat with me as I was travelling alone. I really haven't experienced such hospitality in the hospitality industry for a long time :-) Even the taxi driver was lovely and we had an interesting little exchange (quite typical of that part of the wolrd) - 'Are you married?', ', er..not yet', 'Maybe in Marrakech...?', 'What, find a husband in 2 days?'.... 'No, not find a husband here, but inshallah Marrakech is the muftah, the key, that might make other things happen, that take you to him'. Very sweet :-) Sweet, because in that part of the world it's perfectly normal for everyone to assume you want to get married and for you to admit it openly.

I won't go into the sightseeing bit here, as the holiday wasn't really about that for me, though I will say that some of the highlights were Yves Sant Laurent's former abode - the Majorelle Gardens, the Jemaa el Fna square by night and wandering round the kasbah. Instead, I wanted to talk a bit about the experience of travellling alone for the first time. Perhaps I wouldn't take a long trip alone (or maybe I would?), but for a few days it was excellent. It was nice to wake up when I wanted, to eat where I wanted, to stop off and read or write for half an hour whenever I felt like it. But maybe more importantly I learnt that I could be brave, that I could look after myself, that I could prevent people from taking advantage of me (common perils when travelling as a lone woman in an unknown country) - all stuff that I guess I knew but that I sometimes doubted. And I suppose, I learnt that if you don't want to be, you're never actually that alone - the riad guys invited me to watch the Barca match, I met up with a relative of my cousin's wife, I chatted with people I would never have spoken to if travelling with someone else. Overall, a really positive and affirming experience :-)

Sunday, 4 April 2010

Sisters, Easter and a foodie break in Madrid

So it's Easter and my sisters are over from the UK :-) There they are above in the Plaza Mayor. We've had a pretty laid-back few days, and as usual with us, our time has been entirely arranged around the places we've wanted to go to eat. On the first day we had lunch in the Mercado de San Miguel, a place which I've blogged before. We did a little 'stall crawl' here, first a bar serving small flatbreads (I think they are Basque but I don't know their name) topped with jamon and butifarra sausage, then a croquetas kiosk where we had prawn, squid (with its ink), jamon and chorizo croquettes. The next day we went to one of my old favourites for pinxtos - Txirimiri in La Latina - wild mushroom and truffle croquettes, baby fava beans with foie and a goat's cheese and tomoto confit salad - followed by a kind of chocolate fondant cake and, best of all a tarte tatin with a toffee ice-cream which was almost salty - very very good and service with a smile. Today we were thinking about having a bit of a cultural diversion (as this is Mimi's third time in Spain and she hasn't been to the Prado museum yet), but after a very late night yesterday we were fit for little other than lying in this morning... The evening started out with some dear friends of mine at Eucalipto, a cosy Cuban place at C/Argumosa 2 where they serve great South American and Caribbean cocktails and delicious tropical juices. Next was a midnight dinner at Melos - a scruffy, loud Galician stand up bar near my house where you get the creamiest, most bechamel-liquidy croquettes (these little deep fired balls of delight have played something of a starring role this Easter) and really good pimientos de padron (griddled slightly spicy baby green peppers with sea salt) plus Galician Ribeiro wine served in little white bowls. This was followed, rather embarrassingly, by dancing to Black Eyed Peas in my flat - and there is an unfortunate video documenting this event which is not going to get posted here! Tomorrow, and weather permitting, we will have a picnic in the Retiro park - we're thinking baguettes, pate, cured meats and cheeses, olives and something sweet for afters - can't wait :-)
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