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.

Interview with Paul Read, the Gazpachomonk. #WABAS12

Paul Read - writer, broadcaster and Tai Chi master.

Paul Read – writer, broadcaster and Tai Chi master.

As a blogger and tweeter, I follow and read many other expats here in Spain. One who has intrigued me for some time is the Gazpachomonk. Apart from the obvious appeal of the name, I was delighted on meeting Paul at the recent WABAS weekend in Malaga recently to find that he is different from other expats – he has fresh and fascinating views on living here in Spain, coloured by his experience of Tai Chi, his love of history, and his wonderfully dry humour. I enjoyed Paul’s book, Inside the Tortilla: A Journey In Search of Authenticity, and am avidly watching his series of videos on Spain in the WABAS12 series (12 bloggers-on-Spain each posting a video every day for 12 consecutive days), so I decided to ask him some probing questions about authenticity, gastronomy, and eyewear.

Why are you called the Gazpachomonk?

In a parallel universe I am known as the “teapotmonk” (where I write about Eastern philosophy, teach Tai Chi and spout Taoist nonsense). When I moved to Spain, I wanted to keep something of this identity, but as I was now working in an Iberian context, I exchanged the tea for gazpacho. Critics argue that I still spout the same nonsense, it just has more of a garlic flavour these days.

How long have you lived here in Spain?

In 1994 I spent a year in Seville as part of a degree course I was taking. I returned to Spain in 1996 with my partner, Cherry, and we have been living here since then.

the town of Loja,in Granada province, which Paul brings to life in his book Inside the Tortilla.

The town of Loja,in Granada province, which Paul brings to life in his book Inside the Tortilla.

A previous chapter in Paul's life: working in markets on the Costa Tropical.

A previous chapter in Paul’s life: working in markets on the Costa Tropical.

Where have you lived, and which place(s) have you liked most, and why?

Ohhh, big question. The year in Seville was exciting and it still remains one of my favourite cities in the world. In 1996 we moved to Tarragona, but just for four months. Loved the place and the people, but couldn’t get work, so shifted to Madrid. However, found that too hectic, noisy, expensive and it reminded us too much of London. So we moved to Toledo – atmospheric and medieval and a really convenient place to buy a suit of armour and marzipan. However, it wasn’t too long before we realised it wasn’t so good for getting a pint of milk or a loaf of bread.

After two years without bread and many adventures later, we fled to Castille and Leon. But it was too quiet and too cold, so we headed south and in 1998 found ourselves in the coastal resort of Almuñecar in Granada. We stayed there working the markets for seven years until we couldn’t stand the ebb and flow of so many people – it was a bit like living in a big bus station, just more watery, and so we fled the coast and found ourselves here in Loja, where we’ve been since 2006.

What still frustrates you most about living in Spain?

When I hear people complain about either Spanish bureaucracy, corruption or oily tapas, I tend to want to poke them in the kidneys – not because of what they are saying, but because I find such posturing ultimately disempowering.

If frustrating things happen – and obviously they do to everyone – I’m convinced it’s as much to do with ourselves as our chosen country. Clashes of culture, language, social differences will inevitably lead to misunderstandings. How we respond is the only tool we have – and it comes down to this: how do we wish to play out our life here? Is it going to be an obstacle forever, or will it be a challenge?

What do you think of the expat scene?

Let’s be honest, we are all expats, and we all operate in some circle or another. Some do so on the coast, others in the campo or inland. Some are bound together by their inability to speak or contextualise the affairs of the country, others by their – often misguided – belief that they can actually do so.

Yet we all need to touch base now and then with our past, with people who share our history, our cultural or social reference points, wherever we find ourselves. In a way, I can understand the expat communities of the coastal strip who honestly make no claim about learning the language or integrating into another lifestyle. I may not be in agreement with their aims, but I respect their honesty. On the other hand, a lot of other expats – particularly those who boast of their ability to conjugate an irregular verb or publicly rejoice in shunning the rest of the foreigners in town – are simply hypocritical. It’s pure class politics raising its ugly head once more.

Paul's book covers many aspects of life in Spain, from flamenco to

Paul’s book covers many aspects of life in Spain, from siestas to Semana Santa.

Which Spanish dish do you make best? (apart from gazpacho!)

“Sopa de ajo” is my winter favourite right now. Whatever is in season is the base of all my favourite recipes – and of course that changes with the time of year – Ive a section on my website with all my best recipes – if you want to check that out.

Where did you get idea for your series of #WABAS12 videos?

I’d been doing podcasts for the last couple of years and had based them on the concept of trying to understand the foolishness of our present lifestyle choices by looking for explanations in the past. History is not about answering the questions of when or where, but rather why and how? These questions bring history alive, particularly when you can relate universal themes to somewhere as specific as the town you live in. So when the WABAS12 project was born, I decided to try and apply these ideas to the medium of video, and try my best to portray one small town in the most universal of ways. I wanted to show that you don’t need to be living in a major city to see the history of the world in front of your eyes.

Why do you always wear shades in your videos?

There are two possible answers:

1) Robin, Spiderman, Batman, Iron Man – they all hide behind something when publicly fighting injustice, right? Well the Gazpachomonk wears shades.

2) “Uveitis Anterior” is an eye condition that dilates the pupils of the sufferer and makes sunlight almost unbearable.

Why don’t you mention your partner in your book, Inside the Tortilla?

It’s true that my partner, Cherry, was by my side during many of the episodes in the book, and her presence is there if you look for it. But I chose not to include her directly because the emphasis of the book is themes and not characters – hence we never get to know a lot about the narrator, and the Hound has no name. Even the identity of the town is never mentioned, other than by its fictional name of “La Llave.” In this way I hoped the book would not fall into the pit of two bumbling expats “Year in Andalusia, Driving over Figs” home-improvement yarn so prevalent since the last wave of North European immigrants discovered blogging.

Do you have any future book or video ideas/plans? You mention a sequel at the end of Inside the Tortilla: The Labyrinth Years.

The Labyrinth book was co-written by Cherry and I during our Toledo years and sits as an unfinished manuscript at home. Whilst we ponder over its future I’m working on a new book for 2014 called Voices, in which a series of historical characters describe what keeps them sane in an insane world: themes of love, passion, migration, gazpacho, corruption, churros. Meanwhile, I’m still working on my Tai Chi series of books with the teapotmonk – and a selection of videos and podcasts that accompany them (http://teapotmonk.com/).

How and where do you find authenticity?

Authenticity is an endangered species these days. Like people, towns have their authentic voices – at times loud and clear, other times silenced in the rush to embrace the latest expression of modernity ( eco-tourism and Facebook pages come to mind). My search for authenticity arose because I felt myself drowning in this sea of nonsense.

When any place or person engages in the exploitation of people or the land, and tags it as something new and trendy, they suppress its unique voice, its character, and we all lose out. I hope the greed we have seen exposed politically these last few years encourages us to look once more at the uniqueness of where we live and who we are, and not to fall back on the old cycle of unfettered growth in a world with finite means. Have I personally found it? Let’s just say it’s an ongoing project.

What advice would you offer for those thinking of moving to Spain?

If I had to give two piece of advice I’d say…

1. I know this is difficult, but try not to move to Spain without renting for a full year first. Yes, it means paying out cash, but it will give you so many advantages over buying. You can move around and check out the area, the town, the people, the dialect, the weather, the noise, the heat, the health services, the working possibilities etc without committing yourself to a huge investment that would be difficult to change later on.

2. Language – forget the imperfect subjunctive, just get familiar with the basics and let your new world teach you the rest. This of course means that if your new world is composed of satellite TV, internet news and watching rugby in the local Sports Bar, then you may have to make a bit more effort. Think of language as a useful app on your smart phone. It’s a tool that’ll help to contextualise this strange new world, explain it to you and help you explain yourself to others. Moving to Spain without the language is, as I’m often prone to say, akin to taking up golf and then pulling your arms of their sockets just before your first round.

You can find out more about Paul’s Spain-related books, ebooks, podcasts and videos at his website, Speaking of Spain: Resources on Living, Working and Sweating in Spain. (Paul has a great line in subtitles, as you can see.)
Watch his WABAS12 videos on his YouTube channel.
Other links: Paul’s books and his blog about Tai Chi.

Torrijos 2013: a picture post

Devotees (or the merely curious, like us), head for the chapel to see the visiting Virgin, and the Christ statue.

Devotees (or the merely curious, like us), head for the Hacienda’s chapel to see the visiting Virgin, and the Christ statue.

Another year, another Romeria de Torrijos in the village where we live. For weeks beforehand, the horses and oxen are trained and prepared in the fields around our house, carriages practise-driven, carretas decorated in brightly coloured tissue paper, and of course flamenca dresses and accessories sought out, examined and donned.

This year was perfect weather – blue skies, but not too hot. We missed the procession of ox-carts due to a prior social engagement, but stayed later to make up for it. I’m always intrigued by the chapel of the Hacienda de Torrijos, the Arab-era estate where the romeria takes place.

An image of Jesus was supposedly discovered 400 years ago by a hen pecking near the chapel wall, a dubious event related in a tiled niche. But enough to convince the faithful/supersitious/gullible (delete as appropriate) creyentes, who leave small silver offerings – arms, legs, cows, horses - to ask the Son of God to cure their, and their livestock’s, ailments – as well as messages of thanks.

I will leave the rest of the photos (and captions) to speak for themselves. Hasta la proxima!

Clapping hands in time to the song, as men play the guitar. Romerias are about friendship, feasting and flamenca.

Clapping and singing, as men play the guitar. Romerias are about friendship, feasting and flamencas.

A typically animated group enjoying their lunch, with the Hacienda de Torrijos behind them.

A tableau of romeros enjoying their lunch, with the Hacienda de Torrijos behind them.

This way you can't lose your glass when you move around visiting groups of friends, while at the same time displaying your football allegiance.

This way you can’t lose your glass when you move around visiting groups of friends, while at the same time displaying your football allegiance.

Horsemanship starts young in Valencina, and obviously he has to look the part, in his traje corto and Cordobes hat.

Horsemanship starts young in Valencina, and obviously he has to look the part, in his beautiful traje corto and Cordobes hat.

When my daughter lost her new balloon (dalmatian with turqoise collar), only candy floss could cushion the blow.

When my daughter lost her new helium balloon (dalmatian with turqoise collar) to gravity, only candy floss could cushion such a terrible blow. My son’s bubble gun was more grounded, thankfully.

I love the way the sunlight falls on these horses' arses (so to speak).

I love the way the sunlight falls on these horses’ arses (so to speak).

A horse-drawn cart kicks up dust crossing a field.

A horse-drawn cart kicks up dust crossing a field.

My daughter Lola poses with some romeros - pilgrims (Chaucer overtones make that word sound so wrong in English).

My daughter Lola poses with some romeros – pilgrims (the medieval overtones make that word sound so wrong in English).

This hibiscus flower is the new fashion for flamenca hair accessories.

This hibiscus-style flower is the new fashion for flamenca hair accessories.

Entrance through the left arch, exit on the right - the chapel of Hacienda de Torrijos

Entrance through the left arch, exit on the right – the chapel of Hacienda de Torrijos

Huge exotic shell looks incongruous against the azulejos of the chapel entrance.

Huge exotic seashell looks incongruous against the azulejos of the chapel entrance.

Little silver ofrendas to give thanks to Cristo de Torrijos for curing feet, legs and hands.

Little silver ofrendas to give thanks to Cristo de Torrijos for curing limbs and extremities.

The story of how the image of Cristo de Torrijos was found - by a hen!

The story of how the image of Cristo de Torrijos was found insde this very wall - by a hen!