A meeting of minds and Moorish magnificence by moonlight

Palacio Carlos V - a recent construction by the Alhambra's standards.

Palacio Carlos V – one of the more recent constructions by the Alhambra’s standards.

The circular interior of Charles V's palace. He was the first Holy Roman emperor and liked to make a statement.

The circular interior of Charles V’s palace – he was the first Holy Roman Emperor.

When you work from home, as I do, Social Media isn’t just for watching hilarious viral videos of animals falling off bicycles, comparing notes about X Factor, and poring over photos of your friends’ kids.

It’s a lifeline to other, like-minded people with the same interests, in the same field of work, often in broadly the same region. Anyone who sits alone in their house, shuttered away in an office/cubbyhole/sitting room/garden shed in front of a computer for a large part of the day, will know what it feels like to operate in a vacuum. Noone else to bounce ideas off, commiserate, celebrate, or just ruminate with.

So, when you’re largely isolated, and you live abroad too, an online forum of people who live in the same country as you, speak the same language as you, and have an enormous collective knowledge base to which you contribute and which you benefit from, is a godsend.

I’m lucky enough to be a member of one such Facebook group. Who’d have thought that Zuckerberg’s beast, great for selling unwanted furniture and stalking ex-boyfriends (plus engaging with customers, as any SM consultant will tell you), would be a launch pad for such a dynamic collaborative meeting of minds. Entrepreneurs, marketers, writers, bloggers, and creative types who live in Spain, and are passionate about the country. The name is WABAS: Writers and Bloggers about Spain.

A view of the Alcazaba, the fortress, from the entrance to the Nasrid palace.

A view of the Alcazaba, the fortress, from the entrance to the Nasrid palace.

Last year I attended the group’s second national annual get-together, in Malaga, which was hugely enjoyable, interesting and constructive. This year the WABAS venue was Granada. Friends, wine, expertise and the Alhambra. Meeting online friends in person (do they look like their photo? Are they what I expected?). It’s a winning combination.

We learned about topics relevant to media-savvy expats in business. We talked. We listened. We agreed. We disagreed. We ate. We drank. We drank some more.

these niches were used for jars of water, a symbol of hospitality, vases flowers or perfume.

These tiled and decorated niches were used for jars of water, a symbol of hospitality, vases flowers or perfume.

And we visited the Alhambra. At night. It was only my second time in this wondrous complex of Moorish and Renaissance palaces, the first having been nine years ago when I was pregnant with my first child. As an occasional tour leader in Seville, I was delighted that we were taken around the Alhambra by an excellent guide, Maria Angustia from Cicerone Tours. As this native granadina informed us, Maria Angustia is the patron saint of Granada.

She also told us that the Alhambra, which dates from the 13th century when this part of Spain was ruled by the Moors – cultured Islamic rulers from north Africa – was self-sufficient; its own independent mini-city. With no natural water source, usually an essential factor in establishing a settlement, the hill above Granada wasn’t an obvious location to build a palace; a river fed by the Sierra Nevada had to be diverted to provide water for the sultan’s new palace. But the Nasrid ruler Muhammed I obviously had a vision in mind. Titbits like these, about how the monument was initially planned, bring history to life.

We started our tour at the Palace of Carlos V, King of Spain and the first Holy Roman Emperor, for whom the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was coined. He also built the Casa Consistorial (original Town Hall) in Seville and held his wedding to Isabel of Portugal in the Alcazar of Seville. This 16th century palace, a few centuries more recent than the Nasrid Palaces which are the main draw of the Alhambra, is unusual in that it was the first building to be square on the outside, and round inside. The Palacio Carlos V is used for concerts and exhibitions.

Arabic calligraphy and tiles.

Arabic calligraphy and tiles in the Mexuar Palace.

 

Arabesque detail of an archway in the Comares Palace.

Arabesque detail on an archway in the Comares Palace.

Painted decoration on a ceiling of mocarabe, modelled after stalactites in a cave where Mohoma took refuge.

Painted mocarabe decoration on a ceiling, modelled after stalactites in a cave where the prophet Mohammed took refuge.

 

Artesonado (decorated painted wood) ceiling in the Mexuar Palace.

Artesonado (decorated painted wood) ceiling in the Mexuar Palace.

Entering the first section of the Nasrid Palaces, the Mexuar Palace, we saw examples of the extraordinarily complex, multi-layered decoration for which the Alhambra is famous as the most perfect example of a Moorish palace in the world. A combination of geometric alicatado tiles, with designs made from tiny pieces of ceramic; the intricate white relief sections, often with plant motifs and Arabic calligraphy inscriptions, called arabesque; the coffered artesonado wood ceilings, with their gold details; and coloured mocarabe decoration (see photo above), and you have a dazzling array of never-ending abstract art, 360 degrees, on every surface. Maria called it “an explosion of imagination”.

Washington Irving was an American writer and diplomat who lived in the Alhambra in the 1820s.

Washington Irving was an American writer and diplomat who lived in the Alhambra in the 1820s.

We visited the rooms occupied by Washington Irving when he lived in the Alhambra as the US Consul. Most well-known outside Spain as the writer of books such as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra brought the then-largely abandoned, but mercifully still intact, palace to the attention of a worldwide audience, drawing visitors to a then-unknown part of Spain for many years to come. This American author and hispanophile – he wrote several books about the country – is revered in Andalucia, and you can even follow a Washington Irving route across the region.

Two of the 12 marble lions on the Fuente de los Leones.

Two of the 12 marble lions on the Fuente de los Leones.

Courtyard of the Lions, with trees behind. The night sky with shadowy trees was full of mystery, while the courtyard by heaving with other visitors.

Palace of the Lions, with trees behind. The night sky with shadowy trees was full of mystery, while the courtyard was heaving with other visitors.

One of the most celebrated monuments within this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Fountain of the Lions, recently restored. Each of the 12 carved marble animals is different, but the fountain wasn’t lit up at night when we there, so it was difficult to see their faces, with individually modelled eyes and mouths. Maria explained that the water has to be to very carefully controlled to ensure that it flows out of the lions’ mouths at precisely the same speed. As always with such fabled beasts, theories abound as to why there are 12 – signs of the zodiac is one possibility.

Courtyard in the Comares Palace - water was essential to Moorish architecture, for its soothing sound, artistic (reflective) qualities and cooling effects in the sweltering summer.

Courtyard in the Comares Palace – water was essential to Moorish architecture, for its soothing sound, artistic (reflective) qualities and cooling effects in the sweltering summer heat.

The Alhambra was very busy on the night we visited, too much so for my liking, and Maria told us that 50 visitors enter the complex every five minutes – that’s 600 an hour – and that the palaces are open for 14 hours a day. Three million visits per year.

Afterwards, we went out for tapas, as you do, and I exchanged guiding notes with Maria, and reacquainted myself with fellow WABASers, as well as converting virtual online friendships into real ones, over a few bottles of good Spanish white wine from Rueda. Networking in real life and online is a necessity for today’s freelancers, and if you can do it with the surroundings of such a legendary city like Granada, all the better.

For practical information on visiting the Alhambra, see this useful post by fellow WABAS member and resident Granada expert, Molly Sears Piccavey.

 

Game of Thrones Series 5: Twelve things you didn’t know about the Alcazar of Seville

Alzacar, Seville, Games of Thrones

Exquisite arcades of the Patio de las Doncellas, one of the Alcazar’s most famous areas.

 

 

Gallery of kings in the Ambassadors´Hall.

Gallery of kings in the Ambassadors´Hall.

The façade of the Palace of King Pedro, with a mix of architectural styles which inspired the Comares palace of the Alhambra.

The magnificent façade of King Pedro’s Palace, with a mix of architectural styles which is said to have inspired the Comares palace of the Alhambra, built by Mohammed V shortly afterwards.

Seville is abuzz with excitement about the news that series 5 of Game of Thrones will be filmed here in the city – at the Alcazar. The hugely successful HBO fantasy drama, which is inspired by European history and set in a magical medieval-era world, has a massive international fan base and has received widespread critical acclaim. Using the Alcazar as a location will bring Seville’s exquisite royal palace-fortress to global attention. (Personal confession: *whispers* I’ve never watched GOT myself, but will be remedying that situation by ordering some box sets shortly to bring myself up to speed.)

The royal palace – one of my own personal favourite monuments in Seville – has a long and fascinating history starting in Moorish times, passing through Gothic and Mudejar to Renaissance. In case you don’t know the Alcazares Reales, as they’re correctly named, here are some interesting facts about this beautiful complex of buildings. Plus some photos of its wonderful interiors and gardens, of course.

1) The Alcazar (as we’ll refer to it here) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; part of a complex along with the Cathedral and Archive of the Indies, across the same plaza from the palace. The complex won World Heritage status in 1987.

This triple stone arch is one of the Alcazars only remaining Moorish features.

This triple stone arch is one of the Alcazar’s few remaining Moorish features.

 

2) Contrary to popular belief, it is (mostly) not a Moorish palace – the Alcazar has one courtyard which dates from Moorish times, the Patio de los Yesos; three arches at the entrance of the Patio de Monteria; plus the exterior walls were built by the Almohads, who also built the Giralda and Torre del Oro. The rest of the Moorish-looking areas are, in fact, mudejar - made by Moorish craftsmen under Christian rule, adapting their art forms and skills to Christian styles. The mudejar part was finished in 1364.

Peacock in the Carlos Throne Room - animals couldn't be depicted in Arabic art; this is mudejar: by Moorish artesans, for a Christian king.

Peacock in the Phillip II Ceiling Room – animals couldn’t be depicted in Arabic art; this is mudejar: by Moorish artesans, for a Christian king.

For example, Islamic art cannot feature representations of people or animals, only geometric and naturalistic shapes and patterns. Mudejar art, on the other hand, has people, animals and fantastical creatures – for example, look out for the peacocks in the Phillip II Ceiling Room, above the triple arch, and the tiny heads on pillars in the Patio de las Muñecas. The legend goes that if you manage to spot them all, you’re either very lucky, or pregnant!

Seville, alcazar, Game of Thrones

An Arabic philosopher in the Patio del Yeso, the oldest part of the Alcazar – part of a dramatized night-time visit.

3) The oldest part of the Alcazar, the Patio del Yeso, dates from 1170-90. It was built by the Almohads, the last Moorish dynasty to rule Seville.

4) Archaeological excavations in the Patio de Banderas, the plaza you walk through when you leave the Alcazar, revealed Moorish, Roman and prehistoric remains – the earliest was a kitchen from the 8th century BC. Plans to preserve these historic gems for public view have been put on hold. If funds are the issue, then presumably the revenue from filming should remedy that problem, .

5) The Alcazar is the one of the oldest continuously inhabited royal palaces in Europe. The Royal Family stays in the Upper Palace apartments when they’re in Seville. This part of the palace was expanded by the Catholic Monarchs – they lived there in winter, as it was more protected from the cold and damp of the ground.

The Baths of Maria Padilla, a secret hideaway under the palace.

The Baths of Maria Padilla, a secret hideaway under the palace.

6) The Baths of Maria Padilla, with a hidden entrance in the Dance Garden, are so-called because this was the preferred place of King Pedro’s mistress Maria, who was declared Queen when she died.

Mudejar architecture: Islamic-Christian co-existence. Arabic characters spell out the phrase "Nobody is victorious but Allah", surrounded by Castillian Spanish "... conquering Don Pedro...".

Mudejar architecture: an example of Islamic-Christian co-existence. Arabic characters spell out the phrase “Nobody is victorious but Allah”, surrounded by Castillian Spanish “…conquering Don Pedro by the grace of God…”.

7) There is a bilingual/bi-religious dedication on the façade of King Pedro’s Palace – in Arabic and Castillian Spanish – as well as many other dedications around the palace which mix cultures, such as “Glory to our Sultan Peter!”

Artesonado door made by mudejar craftsmen.

Detail of artesonado door made by mudejar craftsmen.

8) The finest mudejar craftsmen worked on the Alcazar, as sent by Mohammed V of Granada who was repaying a favour which the Moorish king owed to King Pedro for lending him troops to quash a rebellion.

seville, alcazar, game of thrones

The Admiral’s Quarters, where the House of Trade was located.

9) Christopher Columbus met his royal patron Queen Isabella – of the Catholic Kings – here, to discuss the details of second voyage, in 1496. Part of the palace was used as the Casa de Comercio (House of Trade).

 

 

Alcazar, Seville, Game of Thrones

Ridley Scott’s Kingdom of Heaven was filmed in the Alcazar.

 

10) A number of movies have been filmed in the Alcazar, including Lawrence of Arabia, Reds, 1492: The Conquest of Paradise (including scenes of Columbus and Queen Isabella), and Kingdom of Heaven. The most popular part of the palace for shooting is the Patio de las Doncellas.

King Pedro and Maria de Padilla in the Patio de las Doncellas.

King Pedro and Maria de Padilla in the Patio de las Doncellas, in a dramatized night-time visit to the Alcazar.

11) You can visit the Alcazar at night: as part of the theatrical visits, where actors play roles of important people in the palace’s history (Columbus, Queen Isabella); and to hear a concert, as part of the summer concert season June-September.

Alcazar, Seville, Games of Thrones

Sunken garden with orange trees in the Patio de Doncellas; it was only uncovered ten years ago, having been paved over for four centuries.

12) The Patio de las Doncellas (Maidens) was restored to its original form in 2005, with orange trees planted in a lower patio by those clever Moors (who knew a trick or two about both gardening and irrigation) so the fruit could be picked easily from ground level, without having to reach up.

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It is believed that the Alcazar will represent the kingdom of Dorne in Game of Thrones season 5, not yet featured in the series, while Osuna, a town in Seville province 90km east of the capital, will be Westeros and Essos. The TV series is based on the series of books A Kingdom of Ice and Fire, by George RR Martin.

Game of Thrones series 5 will start filming in Belfast later this month – the production is based in Northern Ireland – with shooting in Andalucia expected to begin after the summer. The latest series, which was the fourth, finished airing in June. Average gross audience was 18.4 million, according to HBO’s figures.

Previous shooting locations for GOT have included Iceland, Croatia, Malta and Morocco. Tourism organizations in such filming locations have reported considerable increases in bookings after their locations appeared in Game of Thrones – one website saw increases of 13% in Iceland and 28% in Dubrovnik (Croatia). In 2013, bookings increased by 100% in Ouarzazate, Morocco, where season 3 scenes were filmed. It is estimated that filming in Andalucia will bring in around 80 million euros. Hopefully plenty of that will go into families’ mouths, rather than politicians’ pockets.

A trip to Tangiers: first impressions

One of the most beautiful sights in Tangiers: a public fountain in the Kasbah with Islamic tiles, exquisite plasterwork and carved wooden roof .

One of the most beautiful sights in Tangiers: not a palace, or a mosque, but a public fountain in the Kasbah with colourful tiles, exquisite plasterwork and carved wooden roof.

Tangiers, port, Morocco

First stormy view of Tangiers from the ferry – terminal with red flag for the king’s visit, medina, and on the skyline two towers: a minaret (right) and the bell tower of St Andrew’s church.

 

A snatch of plaintive Arabic music, small children playing marbles in the street, a Berber woman covering her face with a scarf… narrow alleyways dotted with rubbish, houses painted azure blue, canary yellow, terracotta pink; ancient, exquisite carved wooden doors; piles of gleaming fresh aubergines, tomatoes and strawberries stacked high in a market stall; figures wearing the djellabah, a long, medieval robe with pointed hood; young men glued to a Spanish football match on TV in a bar, with the sweet aroma of hashish swirling around. Snapshots of a brief but intense experience.

Readers who follow my blog’s Facebook page (see Like box on right, part of snazzy new self-hosted look) will know that I recently went to Tangiers.

This was my first ever trip to Africa – a new continent, and a new country: Morocco. Separated from Europe at Spain’s nearly southernmost point by just a few kilometres, the two continents pushed apart by Hercules, so the legend goes. After 10 years, finally I got around to making the short, easy trip. Having been warned to expect hassle I was apprehensive, being out of practice at coping with third-world countries (trips to Europe, Asia and South America from my late teens to my mid-thirties seem like a lifetime ago), while at the same time being more excited about visiting a new place than I have been for years.

Morocco, Tarifa, ferry, Tangiers

Between two continents: crossing the Straits of Gibraltar – Africa (Morocco) to the right, Europe (Spain) to the left.

The ferry takes a smooth hour from Tarifa, with a modern, efficient system where your passport number is printed on your ticket – and the return is open, so you can always decide to delay coming back (it’s tempting, believe me). At the other end, few touts were waiting as the ferry terminal disgorged the latest batch of arrivals, mostly day-trippers. Driving away from the port towards the Kasbah, the fortified area at the top of the medina (old town), what struck me most was that the city looked remarkably like Spain – a wide avenue lined with palm trees and a variety of glass-fronted, first-world shops.

But then, but then… we climbed a hill and turned right through a series of low, narrow arches, the horseshoe shapes found all over my beloved Andalucia – and we stepped back in time. This was Bab Kasbah, the gate to Tangiers’ medieval fortified area, high up above the rest of the medina. Once inside, we saw tables and chairs set out under an ancient tree, old men whiling away the day – and then our riad. These are traditional Moroccan houses built around a central patio – just like in Andalucia, I hear you say. Not surprising, considering that north Africans, known in Spain as the Moors, occupied Andalucia for 800 years. Their architectural legacy is highly visible, providing some of the region’s most famous and beautiful monuments – Granada’s Alhambra, the Mezquita of Cordoba, the Giralda in Seville. So I suppose it wasn’t surprising, then, that in many ways, Tangiers felt familiar – like a place whose features are already so well-known, it’s as if I’d dreamed about them. This is where so much of the literature, culture and gastronomy of Andalucia came from – pomegranates (granadas in Spanish), oranges, rice, almonds.

Hotel La Maison Blanche, Tangiers, Kasbah,, Morocco

The hotel’s patio with the glow from its welcoming fireplace – a cosy spot on a cold day.

hotel, La Maison Blanche, Kasbah, Tangiers, Morocco

The fountain, with its hand-laid mosaic tiles, is the centrepiece of the hotel’s patio. Fresh flower petals add a pretty, romantic touch.

La Maison blanche, Tangiers, Morocco, Kasbah

Our red room at the hotel, with handpainted walls and moody lighting.

Our small hotel, La Maison Blanche, a newly-restored riad with just nine rooms, was decorated only with Moroccan artesan pieces – from the most gorgeous lamps, to carved cedar-wood doors, to metalwork bins (no plastic or IKEA here). Everything felt authentic and of its place; the heavy print fabrics weren’t all to my taste, although our boudoir-ish red room was heavenly; one upstairs room, with north African light drenching its antique metal four-poster bed and white furnishings, was right up my alley. They haven’t used wallpaper; just fabric hung on the wall, or hand-painted designs. Yes, it’s that classy. The interior designer was French, and the owners are a Moroccan-Spanish couple, Aziz (Tangerino) and Pilar (Malagueña), so it’s a hotel with French sophistication, Spanish warmth and Moroccan style.

tangiers, kasbah

Tangiers is full of stunning multi-layered doorways like this one in the Kasbah.

Kasbah, tile, tiles,

Craftsman working on a tile – the glaze is chipped away to make the design.

kasbah, tangiers, museum

The museum, housed in a former sultan’s palace – for another visit.

When we arrived in Tangiers it was wet and cold, and by the time we got to the hotel I was freezing (yes, I had dressed warmly: a fleece and hiking jacket, FFS), so we had a hearty Moroccan breakfast of flatbreat with goat’s cheese and pain au chocolate by the open fire, sitting in plush rich-red chairs. I was itching to explore the city, so Aziz, who is a professional guide – American travel writer Rick Steves (his word is gospel for many US visitors) is a big fan – took us on a walk around town. That’s the only way to get around these streets – few of them are wide enough for cars.

We walked down to the main square of the Kasbah, past the 13th-century mosque, the madrasa (school), the museum (a former palace), and the house where the Rolling Stones recorded Continental Drift from the Steel Wheels album with a Berber group called Jajouka in 1989, and through another arch to look out to sea. We saw a craftsman in his workshop, meticulously chipping glaze off a tile to create a classic geometric shape, as seen on azulejos all over Andalucia.

Bab Bhar, the gate which looks out from the Place du Kasbak to the sea.

Bab Bhar, the gate which looks out from the Place du Kasbah to the sea.

Kasbah, Tangiers, Morocco

A detail of that fountain. Islamic art is astonishing.

As it turns out, my first impression had some logic to it: as Aziz told us, they’re building a new multi-million-euro marina in Tangiers bay, supported by King Mohammed VI, who is keen to see the city develop economically – he was visiting while we were there, and red Moroccan national flags were everywhere to honour his presence. In parallel, monuments in the Kasbah, such as the mosque’s minaret and the old city walls, are being restored, and illegal houses built along the outside of the walls will be knocked down. The horseshoe arch which looks out to sea from the Place du Kasbah’s archway, Bab Bhar (in the photo above), has been shored up with ugly concrete, blocking out the horseshoe form – luckily you can still make out the original stone shape. Let’s hope it can be restored to its original glory as part of these plans.

Those were my first few hours in Tangiers; I will be writing more about this African adventure soon: markets, carpets, movies, artists, and our gorgeous hotel.

Foodie heaven: fishy business and FAB sherry in Vejer with Annie B

A typical street in Vejer, with its white walls, tield rooves, balconies and potted flowers.

The picture-postcard pretty pueblo blanco of Vejer, with its flower-lined white walls, tiled rooves and iron balconies.

Annie Manson, Annie B's Spanish kitchen

Annie with the besugo (sea bream) we bought at Barbate market..

I often mention on this blog how I find cooking a drag. I don’t mean baking cakes, and creating salads and puddings – the fun stuff – but nutritious everyday meals for the family. You know how when you get older, you hear yourself starting to sound like your dear mum? Well, mine loathes cooking; creative flair is a foreign concept to her. She eats healthily, but her repertoire is limited and she’s terrified of trying anything new. I wouldn’t quite put myself in that bracket, but I need some inspiration to rediscover (or just discover) my cooking mojo.

So I was delighted to be invited to Annie B’s Spanish Kitchen in Vejer de la Frontera. Annie is an ebullient Scottish chef with an infectious smile and a zest for life, who has lived in the gorgeous white hill town of Vejer, near Tarifa, for 11 years. She is a huge fan of the local seafood – Vejer is just inland from the coast – and wine, especially sherry, made in nearby Jerez. Anne is one of a sizeable group of interesting foreigners, including sundry media and movie folk, who have inhabited this exquisite town with its medieval fortified area, pretty cobbled square with steep, narrow flower-filled streets and new gourmet market, stunningly located atop its hill looking over the sea to Africa.

A prett way of displaying sardines.

Sardina arenques (herrings), cousin of the sardine, at Barbate market.

A Ray, complete with tackle. One of the strangest-looking fish I've ever seen.

A ray, complete with tackle. One of the strangest-looking fish I’ve ever seen.

Our cooking day started off with a trip to the fishing town of Barbate, a few kilometres south on the Costa de la Luz, to visit the famous fish market. The morning’s shopping activities were made more intriguing by a performance event involving a group of local people dancing around the centre of the lonja. No one seemed to be quite sure why they were there, or what they were doing, but they added to the surreal atmosphere provided by fish that were so fresh they were still breathing, their gills opening and closing in an alarming manner, and a huge ray hanging up with his tackle on show, so to speak – their reproductive organs are external. (Too much information?)

Barbate, dorada, gilt-head bream, Costa de la Luz, fish, Spain, Andalucia

A dorada, or gilt-head bream – so-called from the gold band you can see between its eyes – in Barbate’s famous market.

Choosing fish seemed quite a pedestrian affair against this background drama of life, death and sex. But choose we did, a pargo (sea bream) and a lubina (sea bass). We also saw dorada (gilt-head bream) – you could clearly make out the gold markings on their heads – which are fab on the barbeque. It was amazing how different these specimens were from those at your local supermarket fish counter – their scales were positively gleaming, as well as slimy (a good thing, Annie assured us; you need to touch them to ensure they’re naturally moist), their eyes were bright, and the gills, opened by the stallholder to show how fresh they were, a fierce bloody red.

almadraba tuna, tuna, Cadiz

Almadraba tuna cuts (wild red tuna from the Cadiz coast) – one of the best, although notoriously difficult to obtain, is the morrillo, or neck (left of picture).

Then it was off to the shops of the local tuna companies – La Chanca, Gadira and Herpac, all a stone’s throw from the market. Barbate is famous for its revered almadraba tuna, which is caught in an ingenious system of tunnels and nets invented by the Phoenicians, every spring along this part of the Costa de la Luz. These fish are fat and juicy, having spent the cold winter months in the Atlantic building up blubber, and so by the time they’re pootling past here on their way to the Mediterranean, they’re in prime condition for being caught and turned into sushi – much of the meat is flown off to Japan within hours. But if you’re lucky enough to taste it, you will never forget that soft, melting texture. I tried almadraba tuna on my hiking trip last autumn, and I can confirm it was to die for. I go misty-eyed just thinking about it.

Ijada, no 7, is the best cut for preserving tuna, while fresh lomo (5) is good for sashimi and ventresca (6) for cooking.

Ijada, no 7, is the best cut for preserving tuna, while fresh lomo (5) is good for sashimi and ventresca (6) for cooking.

In Gadira and other shops, we saw tins of almadraba tuna, a cut above your normal canned fish. The tuna industry is such an integral part of life in this fishing town – the factories are just outside – that many local families live off it. Environmentalists say the area is being over-fished; locals say the quotas are fine, and anyway it’s in their interest to stick to them. In an area with little other industry or agriculture to speak of, and endemic drug problems, their livelihoods depend on being allowed to take their boats out into the waters of the Straits of Gibraltar.

Preserved almadraba tuna flank - works out as 108 euros per kilo.

Preserved almadraba tuna flank – works out as 108 euros per kilo.

Annie told us about the finest cuts of tuna – morrillo (neck), although this is hard to get hold of; ventresco (belly) for cooking; lomo (loin) for making sashimi; ijada (flank) for preserving. In another shop we spotted smoked tuna, and tuna in PX sherry. She explained that there are four almadraba traps along the coast – Barbate, Conil, Zahara and Tarifa – each marked by orange buoys. When she sees those buoys, she gets excited as it means the nets are out, and the tuna will be dished up soon. Barbate also has a tuna festival every year in May, when you can get a tapa with drink for as little as 3 euros.

Vejer, Vejer de la Frontera

The view across Vejer’s old town from Annie’s roof terrace; on a clear day, you can see across to Africa.

Vejer, Vejer de la Frontera

Annie’s fabulous roof terrace, where you eat, drink and experience the sun-soaked Andalucian lifestyle.

Annie B's Spanish Kitchen

Fellow blogger Marianne, me and Michael, Marianne’s husband Michael.

Back at Annie’s gorgeous house in a tiny street in the highest part of Vejer, with a swimming pool, roof terrace with stunning views, and of course a wonderful kitchen for learning, cooking and chatting, we donned our snazzy green aprons and set to work on a gastronomic feast which was to extend from lunch through to supper, in true Spanish style. Marianne, whose excellent blog East of Malaga is a must-read for everything from gardening to quirky local history, and her husband, both former police officers, completed the group. They were great company, telling us how at dinner parties with work colleagues, the favourite topic of discussion would be how to pull off the perfect murder.

Annie B's Spanish Kitchen, Vejer de la Frontera

Tuna salad in a Moroccan bowl. A colourful, easy storecupboard staple.

In the midst of this drama, first we made a tuna salad, which was so simple even I could do it, and so delicious and brightly coloured my children will eat it – and nutritious too. Yes. They. Will. Tuna, boiled eggs, red peppers, red onion (reduce the amount, or remove altogether, when cooking for kids), and a few secret ingredients. It’s a must for barbeques, picnics, or a last-minute lunch for unexpected guests, and would be heavenly heaped into a baguette. We also whipped up a supremely easy chocolate and almond cake, using a blender – no kitchen should be without one, as they take out the slog of beating batter by hand, making the whole process quicker, simpler and more fun.

raisins, sherry, PX, Pedro Ximenez, Annie Manson, Annie B's Spanish Kitchen

Raisins soaked in PX sherry – the easiest and most delicious dessert, or DIY tipsy cake-maker – just pour over and allow to soak in.

Annie imparted many tips, most of which I shall not reveal here, but one was how to chop herbs properly – the correct angle, motion and speed of the knife are essential for minimal effort, maximum effect, and to avoid squashing your parsley and losing the nutrients. Let’s just say, my herbs have never been more evenly or professionally diced.

Another tip I will share with you, lucky reader, is raisins soaked in PX (Pedro Ximenez, sweet sherry). I tried this at home with a mix of dried berries, and it is divine. Leave them to soak together in a preserving jar in the fridge for at least a week, pour over a cake, add some creme fraiche, and there’s a no-effort, gorgeous, boozy pudding (I tried it on little bizcocho squares from el super; thumbs up). Divine with ice-cream, too. My own tip is to be careful when taking the jar out of the fridge; it will be damp from the cold – my first attempt ended up with an ugly mess of sherry, broken glass and semi-rehydrated fruit all over the kitchen floor after it slipped out of my hand.

Then Annie introduced us to one of her favourite aspects of Spanish gastronomy: sherry. She is passionate about this much-misunderstood fortified wine, and is a Qualified Sherry Educator, which means the Top Brass in Jerez have confirmed that she knows her stuff. The grapes used to make this uniquely Andalucian and increasingly trendy wine can only be grown in certain areas. Sherry must be made (FAB, explained Annie: fortified, aged and blended) within one of three towns – Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria. The sherry is aged in oak barrels stacked in “cathedrals” (Tio Pepe’s in the Gonzalez Byass bodega in Jerez is an architectural wonder, designed by Eiffel), and the method of blending proportions of differently aged wines, called solera, is like none other. And so is the result. Sherry tastes quite unlike all other types of wine, and its wide range of flavours, from dry fino to sweet PX, means it is especially good for pairing with different types of food.

Prawns, Sanlucar prawns, gambas

Sanlucar prawns with spicy chilli dip.

Annie B's Spanish Kitchen, Vejer, Spain, Andalucia, cooking classes

The fish covered in salt, ready to be baked in the oven.

We tasted a bone-dry fino sherry and a manzanilla (a kind of fino only made in Sanlucar), which have a subtle difference in taste; I couldn’t say which I prefer, as any dry sherry is my bag so I’m partial to both. Then we had my favourite dish of all: Sanlucar prawns with a spicy dipping sauce. You usually boil these delectable little gambas to eat them, but we also tried some sushi-style, in other words raw, and they were a revelation. Uncooked shellfish is always a risk, but they were worth it, with the element of danger adding an extra frisson. We packed the fish in coarse salt, then baked it, in the traditional Spanish way, cracking open the rock-hard case to eat the soft, moist flesh inside. This was an endless gourmet feast – great food, great wine, great company, in a beautiful house, in a beautiful town. You get the picture.

Menu at the excellent Los Cuatro Gatos in Vejer.

One section of the menu at the excellent Los Cuatro Gatos in Vejer.

Chupitos (shots) at Los Cuatro Gatos: cod with (left) and mussel with red pepper. Tasted as good as they looked.

Chupitos (shots) at Los Cuatro Gatos: cod with potato and pearls of orange (left) and mussel with mascarpone and red pepper. Tasted as good as they looked.

gourmet market, Vejer, Vejer de la Frontera

Artistic squid pintxos, with trails of their own black ink, at the new gourmet market in Vejer.

Annie proudly guided us around her vibrant Moorish adopted home town, bursting at the seams with trendy gastro-bars serving groovy tapas shots and purple bread; bakeries, artesan shops, boutique hotels; a beautiful tiled gourmet market full of exquisite pintxos; a buzzing monthly street market full of quirky crafts (knitted doggy pencil toppers made great presents for my kids).

Even the doors in Vejer have character.

Even the doors in Vejer have character.

This star of David on a church in Vejer shows how the building was shared by different religions for their ceremonies and rituals.

This Star of David on a church in Vejer shows that centuries ago, religious buildings were shared by different faiths.

Washing hangs on the ancient walls of Vejer's fortress.

Washing hangs on the ancient walls of Vejer’s fortified area.

_Vejer, Vejer de la Frontera

Until the 1930s women in Vejer wore the cobizada, a full body covering.

One night we went to a caverny bar to hear an excellent, haunting Arabic-Andalusi band; Vejer is part of the long history of Moors and Christians in Andalucia (hence the name, de la Frontera, as it was on the border between the two kingdoms). Vejer was one of the first Moorish outposts after the Arabic invasion from North Africa against the Visigoths in the early 8th century; the town remained under their control until 1250, when it was captured by Fernando III; the fortified stone walls date from the 15th century. An interesting fact: until last century, women wore a traditional full-body covering called the cobijada, which was banned under Franco, as men used it to disguise themselves and thereby escape capture (although hopefully it also made them appreciate how hot and uncomfortable these burka-type garments were for women to wear).  I didn’t have time to investigate the history further, but this is a good website with more detailed information, while this blog has a weekly events listing.

Annie’s cooking courses provide an excellent opportunity to learn about Mediterranean cooking – she offers sherry, fish, and Moroccan-themed experiences – in one of Andalucia’s most beautiful hilltowns. As well as learning about food, you taste the wines, and discover the culture – gastronomy, history and music are all intertwined in Andalucia. And I haven’t even mentioned the fabulous beaches which are ten minutes’ drive away.

Her courses have been featured in top foodie holiday listings in both the Telegraph and the Times – and Vejer has now become a favoured destination for gourmets in the know. And I actually don’t mind cooking (most of the time) – I just have to remember Annie’s assertion that “There’s no excuse for mundane food, is there?” How true, and even more so here in Andalucia, with all its amazing local produce from land and sea. It is Annie’s extraordinary warmth and enthusiasm which make these courses (she does days ones, too) such an enjoyable experience. You don’t even realise how much you’ve learned till afterwards. Why can’t all classes be this much fun?

This short video offers a good overview of Vejer – the aerial shots are wonderful.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=arCeZkBhePM&w=560&h=315]

My most popular posts of 2013, plus a mini-review

Colourful Spanish wear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

Spanish swear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

You lot seem to think I’m quite amusing. What am I, funny like a clown?

En serio – my most popular new posts, published last year, are mostly silly ones. Well, not silly – highly intelligent, witty and astute, of course.

Plus a bit of culture – phew! I wouldn’t like to think you come to my refined blog just for some light entertainment. Por favor!

So what can’t you get enough of? Let’s find out.

The top five most-viewed Scribbler in Seville blog posts of 2013 are (drum roll):

1) Five Things Spanish People Say (And What they Really Mean) 

This is also my all-time most popular post. A controversial look (see comments) at how to know when someone means something totally different from what you think they’re saying. OK, so it’s actually about swearing, exaggeration/fibbing – and jamón. The stuff of real-conversations life here in Spain.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers' interpretations of Zurbaran's saints.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers do Zurbaran’s saints.

2) Art+fashion+religion=a richly-textured show in Seville

Frocks by contemporary designers reinterpreting famous paintings of saints by 17th-century Sevillano artist Zurbaran. Dead clever. This one was “Freshly Pressed” (as in the badge, top right), which means it’s one of only eight posts chosen by the kind folks at WordPress to feature each day from the tens of thousands posted daily. Which was nice. So if you found my blog through Freshly Pressed, a special hello – it’s good to have you.

3) False Friends and other Fine Messes

We’ve all made an arse of ourselves by mixing up two similar-sounding words in a foriegn language – one innocuous, the other devastatingly embarrassing or offensive. If you haven’t let us in on your experience yet (the comments are much more entertaining than the post, believe me; careful you don’t spill your tea on your PC or tablet as you chortle), then come on over and join the group therapy session – it’s time to spill.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

4) Celebrating Seville’s azulejo heritage: a sneak preview of Centro Ceramica Triana

Ah, some more history and culture *breathes a sigh of relief*. This museum of tiles, with a winning mix of groovy contemporary architecture, original Moorish brick kilns and some exquisite antique azulejos, was scheduled to open in September 2013, then October, then November, then December, and it’s still not open in January 2014… you get the picture. Well, what do you expect? We’re in Spain, people! Which makes this post even more valuable, as it’s all you can see of it for now.

cadiz, carnaval

The Queen with her Beefeaters. Sort of.

5) Carnaval de Cadiz, family style

Where can you find sea urchins, sand architecture, man-sized bumble bees, and the Queen in drag? At Spain’s craziest carnival, of course. Probably our best daytrip of the year, out of many. And we even dressed up, sort of.

I know I’m also supposed to say Where I Went and What I Did last year in the round-up, so here goes with my new discoveries: Doñana National Park; Ubeda, Baeza, and picual olive oil; Paul Read; Latin-American belenes; the Feria de Jerez; Mr Henderson’s Railway; Costa Ballena, and a cooking class. As you can see, an international jetsetter I am not (used to be, many years ago). National neither; daytrips in Andalucia, often with the family, is more my thing.

I hope you enjoy reading these posts. As long as at least one of them raises a smile, I’m doing my job.