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.


10 things I’ve learned I can’t live without

A few weeks ago, I reached an important milestone – both in my life, and in my time lived in Spain: it’s 10 years since I arrived here in Seville. Back in September 2003 I came to this beautiful city – via London and Quito, Ecuador – with no expectations, no idea of what I’d find (I’d never been here before), and a few names as contacts.

A decade later, I have a small, tumbledown house (literally), two dogs and a semi-wild cat, two children and a husband, lots more English-language novels, thousands of leaflets, guidebooks and novels about various aspects of Andalucian and Spain, from the Civil War to flamenco, as well as a decent collection of children’s DVDs. And one of the contacts is still a good friend, and unofficial godmother to my son.

Having read Josh’s reliably excellent post on five things not to forget when moving to Spain (clue: it’s about food, and nursery food at that), it occurred to me that since I’ve been here 10 years, my anniversary would be a great excuse hook for a post on things I’ve learned that I can’t live without. Practical posts aren’t my forte, but this might be of some use or interest to a new, or potential, expat.

So here goes (artwork: Copyright Lola and Zac Flores Watson):


1) Revo internet radio
If I want to dance, I find some pop tunes on Radio 2; hear the news, Radio 4; remember why I left London, Radio London; listen to some quirky tracks, Radio 6 Music. I go off into my own little world when I’m in the kitchen with my radio on. Some British expats refuse to listen to British radio or watch British TV. Balderdash and poppycock. (Confession: I do listen to RAI in the car.)


2) Satellite dish
I rarely watch TV, except for the news – once the kids are finally in bed, I’m either working on the computer, eating, or asleep. We don’t even have one at the moment as our sitting room is a building site. But when we do, the reason I value it so highly is CBeebies. Have you seen Spanish children’s TV? Think, the most moronic, sexist, casual-violence American animated nonsense you can imagine, and that’s it. Brain-rot. At least Ballamory has sound ideas on racial harmony. And its theme tune is far less irritating than Sponge Bob Squarepants, FFS.


3) Girls’ nights out
My best girlfriends are all English. What a cliche, I hear you say. But that cultural familiarity, the unspoken bonds, the mutual understanding of being married to a Spaniard (four of my closest mum mates are) and all the communication challenges that implies. All we need is a bottle of wine (or three) and you can leave us there till the wee hours.


4) The Week
My wonderful, though sadly aging, Dad gets me a subscription every year to this weekly news mag, which distills the most interesting and important stories from British and foreign media into 60-odd pages – perfect loo or bath reading material. And it gets passed on to one of those mentioned in 3).


5) Nice soap
The Spanish don’t seem to do nice soap, unless it’s made of honey and glycerin with oatmeal flakes suspended inside and costs 4 euros. Buy a four-pack of normal scented stuff from any English supermarket and you’ll be fragrant for months.


6) Facebook, especially groups
I don’t understand anyone who doesn’t use Facebook. How else would I know when anyone’s birthday is? Or what their children look like now? Or what embarrassing thing happened to them at work last week? Or which Youtube video’s gone viral? I work at home, so there’s no water-cooler moment, no chat while the kettle boils (do they even have kettles in Spanish offices?) It’s like a mouthy coffee break, getting squiffy cocktail hour, and catch-up chat on the phone, all rolled into one. And the groups are indescribably useful and supportive. I’ve made fantastic contacts, found work, and received (and, I hope, given too) useful advice via Facebook groups.


7) Extra reserves of patience and tolerance
The I-don’t-understand-you grimace, the “you don’t need that form”, “you only need one copy”, “you don’t need the original”. Ignore, push, insist, ask again, request clarification (you did need the form, four copies, and the original). If in doubt, start again from the beginning. Be firm and try to stay calm. Spanish administration is hell, but at least make sure that the bolshy jobsworth funcionario (civil servant) who’s trying to deny you that essential document – because she wants to go and have her coffee break – does her job properly. (Although in my case, I don’t think they get off scot-free either – I need everything explaining at least four times, which must have its less endearing qualities.) And if they’re being really obtuse, officious or offensive, just picture them in their underwear.


8) Chutney
Cebolla caramelizada doesn’t quite cut it. In fact, Spanish jams in general are sub-standard. English fruit and vegetable chutneys, however, especially spicy ones, have this strange power of making an ordinary cheese sandwich into a thing of wonder.


9) Regular trips back to the motherland
We go about twice a year – I need to be among people who speak my language, literally, and may not be as warm or friendly as the Spanish, but who won’t frown at me when I mumble because I’m too knackered to en-un-ci-ate clear-ly. Where supermarket shelves overflow with a heavenly array of cakes, biscuits and naughty puds, and crisps and chutneys (see 8) come in 359 flavours. Where friends who’ve known me for years can tell me what I need to be told. And where I, and especially my children, can spend precious time with aforementioned aging parents.


10) My family
Well, obviously. I’m hardly going to dump them by the roadside and go gallivanting off to the Algarve for a week on my own, now, am I? (Well, actually, there was talk of a girls’ weekend away – see 3) The biggest change for me since arriving in Seville, apart from giving up smoking, designer clothes and poncy cocktail bars, has been having my children. They’re half-Spanish, or half-Andalucian as their Dad would say, bilingual, and comfortable in both cultures, thanks to 2 and 9; and 1 helps too. My husband, for his part, keeps our shoddily-built bungalow standing, tending to plumbing, electrical, structural and countless other problems, and is a bear-ish sort of bloke who is useful around the house and garden (great veg patch) – just as well, since he doesn’t have a job. Anyway, they’re the bees’ knees and I love them to bits. I managed without them for three days recently, on a very nice trip in Andalucia, but that was quite long enough, thank you. I can’t go without hugs for more than three days. Ni pensar.

What can’t you live without?


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The past recreated: seeing Seville’s history through new eyes

Your blogger ready to travel to the past, with video glasses, earphones and iPhone

Your blogger ready to travel to the past, with video glasses, earphones and iPhone

As any of you who either live here in Seville, or have ever visited the city, will know, there’s layer upon layer of history right under your feet: Roman, Arab, medieval, renaissance…

But in visual terms, the city’s rich past is not always as visible: the Giralda is all that’s left of the once-famous mosque where the cathedral now stands – and the city’s emblematic tower was modified, with extra sections being added on top. Other alminares, or minarets, around the city, pay testament to the Muslim places of worship reutilised by the Christians after Seville was recaptured from the Moors in 1248. Roman buildings are hidden under centuries of later structures, with just a few traces still visible.
It’s one thing to read all this history on screen in a blog or on the pages of a guidebook; it’s quite another to see it acted out virtually before your very eyes, by people in period dress with the surroundings of the city as it was centuries ago. A new venture, Past View Sevilla, takes you back in time, right into the action, using the latest technology. Equipped with an iPhone with battery pack, special video glasses and headphones, you’re transported to Roman, Moorish and Golden Age Seville. It’s said to be the first audio-visual tour of its kind in the world, and only launched last month. (Don’t say I don’t bring you the hottest news from my city!)
The plaques tell you where the geo-positioning points are, to see and hear the information on your iPhone.

The plaques tell you where the geo-positioning points on your route are, to access audio-visuals for each spot on your iPhone. This is the first one: Plaza de Encarnacion.

On the day when I tried it out, along with a couple from Madrid, the weather was a bit grim – grey skies, spitting with rain. Unperturbed, our guide Anna produced umbrellas complete with logo. Our first stop was in Plaza Encarnacion, next to Metropol Parasol, where Anna pointed out the plaques on the floor to look out for. I could kick myself for not having asked her to document my tour – taking a photo of me wearing the glasses in each location. But between their iPhone and glasses, listening and watching, and taking notes (by hand) and tweeting on my iPhone, I clean forgot to use the damn thing for another of its many functions – taking photos.

Anna explained that the tour works by geo-positioning – when you get to each point, you press a button on your iPhone and it comes up with the relevant content – both audio and audio-visual. It was all very straightforward to operate. The glasses were comfortable, even over my own specs, with rubber goggle-type shades to give a cinematic experience, although I suspect that on sunnier days, the bright light would creep in the sides. Audio comes in three languages: English, French and Spanish. The English was, to my utter delight, perfect: unaccented, idiomatic and not-too-cheesy (a light sprinkling is acceptable in recreations).
Laters of history: he minaret tower of El Salvador church - on top of the original Arab alminar (to curves of arches) you can see Gothic and then Renaissance layers

Layers of history: the minaret tower of El Salvador church. On top of the original Arab alminar, you can see Gothic (stone arches) and Renaissance (fancy carvings) additions.

Our first stop was a mini-detour into the side entrance of the Iglesia del Salvador, on Calle Cordoba, in the heart of the city’s main shopping area. This boasts a minaret which has been topped by successive architectural additions, and now has three “layers”. Inside the patio, you can see the arches of the former patio de naranjas, where the Moors performed their ritual Islamic ablutions before prayer.

Like many other such structures around Seville (the Atarazanas, the Muralla) their columns look curiously short and out of proportion. This is because half of them – the lower part of the pillars – is still buried underground, with successive layers of construction on top.

Patio de Naranjas of El Salvador church, with Moorish arches - can you spot the oranges in the trees?

Patio de Naranjas of El Salvador church, with Moorish arches – can you spot the oranges in the trees?

We walked through a newly-reopened passageway leading from this patio to the main Plaza del Salvador. There, we listened to an audio introduction to the church’s history; the red-and-white facade of the city’s second-largest basilica, after the cathedral, was hidden behind scaffolding for years and is now resplendent after its restoration, and El Salvador home to various hermandades (brotherhoods) whose Semana Santa (Holy Week) processions leave from here, as well as on El Rocio pilgrimage.
The Ayuntamiento features in the first dramatic recreation, in the time of Cervantes.

The Ayuntamiento’s rear facade features in the first dramatic recreation, of Plaza San Francisco in the time of Cervantes.

Our next stop was Plaza San Francisco, home to the Ayuntamiento (Town Hall). Opposite is a magnificent building, now home to a bank (boo, hiss) which was formerly the Royal Court, with the jail attached. This prison had one extremely famous inmate: Cervantes, who is said to have started writing Don Quixote while incarcerated. The first dramatic “infographic recreation” (dated as 1597, on the very day when Cervantes is banged up) seen with the video glasses is set around this real event. You’re made to feel part of the action, as the protagonist addresses you as “an old Christian of pure blood” wearing “rich apparel”, before you’re witness to people discovering the writer’s fate.
The buildings shown aren’t that different from how they are today; the prison no longer exists, but its memory lingers on thanks to Calle Entre Carceles (between jails). The three highly atmospheric and entertaining scenes, of which this was the first, and the novel, high-tech means of viewing them, are the tour’s main selling point. But I also found out other fascinating nuggets of information in the extra background video: Genoa, which was another major trading port and economic powerhouse at the time, had its consulate in the Banco de España building. Avenida de la Constitucion was called Calle Genova – I wonder if the Italian port city returned the favour?
Christian relief above Moorish arch - the Puerta del Perdon, which leads of the Patio de Naranjos of the former mosque.

Christian relief above Moorish arch – the Puerta del Perdon, part of the Cathedral.

Our next stop was one of my favourite monuments of Seville: the Puerta del Perdon, which leads off the Patio de Naranjos of the former mosque. This was the only point where the audio was drowned out by passing traffic, since all the other points well-located are away from roads. We learned about the carvings above the gate: the merchants being expelled from the temple, a reference to bishops being fed up with mercantile business being conducted in the Cathedral, which was used as a shelter and meeting place before the Archivo de Indias was built.

We then moved to other side of the Cathedral, next to the Alcazar (royal palace), for the second recreation. We’ve gone back in time to Almohad-era Seville (Isbyllia) – now the capital city of Al-Andalus (previously Cordoba).

The Giralda - in Moorish times a minaret, or "Alminar".

We’re introduced to the Giralda – in Moorish times a minaret, or alminar – by its architect.

The Giralda today - Seville's most famous building.

The Giralda today – the cathedral’s belltower, and Seville’s most famous landmark.

It’s 1198, and the alminar (minaret) of the mosque is being inaugurated – our host this time is the tower’s architect. The alminar is crowned by three golden balls and hung with green and white banners, colours which were adopted centuries later for the Andalucian flag (and Betis football team strip). We’re told about a sabat, a private tunnel which the Caliph uses to move freely  from the mosque to the Alcazar, so he can pray in the Mihrab when he chooses.

This one really grabbed me – seeing the wall of the mezquita as it would have been over 1000 years ago was a tantalising taster, and I was left craving more. I’m reliably informed that another dramatised scene, from inside the Alcazar, is on its way. With the palace’s gardens, patios and exquisite rooms as a background, this is sure to be stunning. Also coming soon is “augmented reality”, where you hold up the iPhone in front of a building, and an image appears on screen of how it looked in times past.
We stood next to the Archivo de Indias, the least-known part of the UNESCO World Heritage trio (the others are the cathdral and Alcazar), to hear about this building where thousands of documents detailing trade with the Indies are still stored.
Walking towards the river, we passed the Atarazanas, peering through the windows to look at these former royal shipyards. Currently closed to the public, they’re at the centre of a major political row over a planned CaixaForum cultural centre, now relocated to the controversial Torre Pelli. This skyscraper is being built cross the river on Isla Cartuja, and its incongruous presence – more specifically, its height which makes it visible from all over the old centre –  is threatening the city’s World Heritage status. They would lend themselves perfectly to this tour.
The Torre del Oro in the Arenal, the port for New World ships, which brought back gold, silver and gold.

The Arenal was the port for New World ships, which brought back gold, silver and gold.

Torre del Oro seen from Triana.

Torre del Oro as it is today.

Our final port of call (!) was the river Guadalquivir – after over two hours of walking and standing, my back hurt so I sat down on the steps leading down from the road to the riverside walk. Looking across towards Triana, with the Torre del Oro (also Almohad) on our left, we donned our video glasses for the last time to meet a student of the painter Morillo in 1658. He has come to collect some lapis lazuli for a vivid blue tone needed for his master’s current work in progress. We see all the ships docked at the port of the Arenal, as well as coming across the seedier inhabitants of the port – thieves, conmen and beggars.
The view from Metropol Parasol's mirador is truly panoramic, with monuments at 360 degrees. Videos introduce you to them, to Expo 92 (towers visiblein distance), and to Roman Seville.

The view from Metropol Parasol’s walkway is truly panoramic, with monuments at all 360 degrees. Videos on the tour  introduce you to them, to Expo 92 (towers visible in distance) and…

Hispalis - Seville in Roman times.

Hispalis – Seville in Roman times.

The next day, I did Past View’s Metropol Parasol tour. We took the lift up to the top, and walked along the walkway up to the mirador – the viewing platform at the top of Seville’s contemporary architecture star. We watched a video of Expo 92; learned about the main monuments visible from the “Mushrooms”, including Plaza de España; Palacio de las Dueñas, home of the Duquesa de Alba; and several churches.
But what I loved most was the video reconstruction of 2nd century AD Roman Seville (Hispalis) – partly guesswork, but thought-provoking all the same – with forums, temples, amphitheatre, blocks of houses and apartments, and a look at a typical Roman home, with central patio and tank to catch rainwater. The river ran through the centre of the city at that time, along with many smaller channels. All the more fascinating when there are real Roman ruins to see in the basement of the same structure – Antiquarium museum, which you can see behind me in the first photo of this post.
Past View is based next to Antiquarium , in the basement of the Setas (Metropol Parasol). This is where you get kitted out with the necessary gear. Staff are knowledgable, friendly and super-efficient, dealing with any technical problems quick as a flash. The comparison, in terms of both product and service, with other tourist companies in Seville, was astonishing. These people are highly professional: they’ve got an innovative product, and they know how to operate it efficiently. Interest has been expressed in the product by many cities around the world: London, Barcelona, Cairo and Panama City. I absolutely loved it – it was fun, different, and taught me things I didn’t know. Seeing your city as it was over different historical eras is a rare thrill, carrying you back through the centuries. It fired up my imagination no end, and left me hungry for more.
The two Past View tours are both suitable for children aged six years and up, and take around 1.5-2 hours and 45 minutes respectively (entrance to the walkway is included).

For a preview of the recreations, and for more general information, see Past View‘s website.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/42755122]

Want: 9 things I’d quite like, er, please

I’m not that active in the mummy blogging sphere, although there are a few Spanish or travel-themed ones which I read regularly.

So when I saw that fellow ex-Londoner, adoptive-Andalucian Bibsey Mama had tagged me in a meme, under her section heading of “Arse Posts”, I rubbed my hands with glee – her memes are always good, clean(ish), self-indulgent fun. Like a big slice of chocolate cake.

However she’s also one of the funniest bloggers I know, if not as appreciated as she should be (in my opinion), so while I cackled with delight when reading her “Wants”, I knew I she had set the bar high, as always. Bibsey’s a hard act to follow.

Anyway, here goes with my own Wants, jotted down earlier today in the bath on my iPhone straight after I read hers – it’s either do it on the spot, or forget about it for the next month.

1. World Peace – let’s start with the little things. A safe future for our children, etc.

2. Patience, especially with my children. By 8.30pm I’m usually at breaking point, especially if my angelic-looking-diabolical-personality three-year-old has yet again refused to eat her dinner. Gah. I’ve signed up for a parenting course (in Spanish) in our local town, so that’ll be interesting. If I can understand it.

3. An iPad. I coveted an iPhone for some years, before finally being offered a free one. If I do ever get one of these beauties (I had a taste with my Mum’s over the summer), prizing it out of the diabolical one’s iron grip while she’s watching Peppa Pig for the 89th time will be fun. I can’t count the number of times my son’s asked me to buy him an iPad. “I’m getting one before you, mate.” is my usual response. Also, I’ve spent the last few months writing about iPad cases and stands made of eco-gorgeous leather offcuts, reclaimed wood and recycled wetsuits, all the while drooling helplessly over the damn things.

4. Green fingers. We’re finally planting our huerta - vegetable patch – and I’ve never had much luck with plants, so I’m hoping that will change and we’ll have rows and rows of lovely organic carrots which the kids dig up themselves. I’ll be looking to Andalucian kitchen garden expert Chica Andaluza for tips.

5. Housepride. I’m not one of those people whose house looks like something from the pages of an interiors magazine. At all. To give you an idea, one friend who came to visit said, looking aghast at my bedroom with its heaps of children’s clothes on every surface, “But how can you live like this?”. I’m not remotely bothered about paint colours or fabrics either, but I can’t help feeling I should be. My house looks like a cross between a student pad and a garage sale where a gang of out-of-control children has been running rampage, scattering toys in their wake. (Er, the last bit’s true.)

6. A magic wand to tidy up all my unfiled, but terribly important, piles of paper which will be essential research material for an article one day, and cannot possibly be thrown away (as I tell me husband when he brandishes the bin in a threatening fashion, again). But getting around to sorting them out myself, well…

7. More controllable hair – curly hair is a curse – unstyleable, an impossible challenge for Spanish hairdressers, and please don’t mention straighteners. I’ve tried a couple of times and my son is still traumatized. “Mum, you’re never going to have straight hair again, are you?” he asks me, with trepidation, nearly a year later.

8.  Home-delivery sushi I love raw fish nearly as much as I love my own children, but as we live down a dirt track, it’s unlikely anyone’s going to be nipping along on their moped with some nigiri in a chiller bag from the hippest Japanese restaurant in town. Arse.

9. A brilliant business plan/money-making idea – I’m sure there are loads out there, just waiting to be grabbed. Still waiting for my lightbulb moment. I’ll keep you posted.

I’m going to be somewhat unoriginal with my tags for this meme – my much-tagged Sevillana friend, who will hopefully have some truly weird desires (please don’t let me down, Em!) Digamama, and Quiero Milk, a Seville-based Anglo-Spanish blog (it means “I want milk” – that’s the first one sorted, then). Go guys!

Sail the high seas, high-tech style

On 2 January, Seville got another new museum. The Pabellon de la Navegacion was originally built for Expo 92; outside were moored the replicas of Columbus’ three boats, the Pinta, Niña and Santa Maria (now in a special dock at La Rabida in Huelva – due a blog post from a visit I made last year).

Now the pavilion has been refurbished, and reopened as a museum (although that term for me has fusty overtones – discovery centre is more like it) of Atlantic exploration – about the ships which sailed from Spain (indeed, many from Seville itself) in search of the New World, carrying missionaries, merchants and explorers – from the late 15th century onwards.

The "sea of lights", which illuminates section by section, creating a wave effect - much more wow than it sounds (or, indeed, looks in this photo).

The first thing you notice is the sea of lights, which you walk into as soon as you arrive.  It’s an extraordinary sight – an undulating mass of black stems, with LED bulbs at their tips, which light up and then go dark in swathes, creating an effect of constantly moving swells, waves forming – so you feel as it you’re surrounded – enveloped – by the ocean.

These form the basis of the first part of the space (Sala 1), which has a curved, wood-beamed ceiling, like a ship. Among the sweeping lights, you can find tales of various voyagers, based on actual people who travelled the oceans centuries ago.

Dominican missionary Fray Tomas, who set sail for the New World in 1544, complains about the mistreatment and lack of respect shown to him and his fellow brothers by the sailors - it was so hot, dirty and uncomfortable, and with such little food, that it was "like hell". Not sure the natives they tried to convert, burning them at the stake if they refused, would have agreed.

These stories are told in delightful animated versions (so much better than cheesy reconstructions using actors), on large screens hanging from the ceiling, which look like they’re floating above the sea of lights (see photo, third above). Every audio feature, and information panel, is available in both English and Spanish.

"Raise the mainsail!" My son experiences life as a cabin boy.

Some are accompanied by typical ship’s features which you have to operate to get the film to start (I had a willing participant, which saved me the bother).

Zac listens to marine adventures - through an illuminated bottle.

You can also listen to modern-day seagoers, (fictional, including a cruise-ship passenger, and a man who travelled in a patera from Africa) whose tales are heard through bottles. You hold them to your ear to hear their voices – a wonderfully simple (and nautical) but effective idea, even if the glass is a bit heavy for younger children to hold onto for too long.

"Poo - yucky, Mum!" - Zac smells the stinky bodies of the captain's cabin.

As well as watching and listening to shipboard tales, other sense are stimulated, with boxes (at child height – it’s been very well thought-out) offering olefactory experiences such as tar, and the captain’s cabin (men unwashed for months).

The model ships you can see were also in the Pabellon in its first encarnation, during Expo 92, which lends a pleasing sense of continuity, as many pavilions were demolished, or left to ruin.

The screens of the historical maritime-themed video games (with benches for you sit down and watch).

But the most popular area with my son was the video games. On a huge panel at the far end of the space, along the back wall (Sala 3: Life on Board), are five screens.

The bilge-pump game - use some muscle to get the water out of the ship as fast as you can.

Each has a ship-themed game, operated by a shipboard device: the (steering) wheel, the bilge pump, the falconete (gun – operated by a button, rather than trigger), the rigging, and the capstan – a winding device used to lift heavy loads, such as the ship’s anchor.

"Hard aport!" My daughter tries out her navigations skills - the corresponding screen wasn't working, but that didn't bother her. (Bet that game is great.)

Sadly, the first screen, with the wheel, wasn’t operational when we visited – this was only the third day of the pavilion being open, so it’s normal to have some hiccups. I noticed a staff member walking around, checking how all the exhibits were running, and making notes on his iPad. The impression was of people who take their job seriously, not necessarily a given here in Andalucia.

Zac takes out some pirates - "Toma ya!"

No prizes for guessing which one my small tester made a beeline for – what little boy doesn’t want to shoot pirates? Each game has a timer and score, so you can see how you’re doing, as well as – thoughtful touch this, a bench for siblings or friends waiting to take a go, or parents wanting to take a load off.

The last area, Sala 4, entitled “Historic Views of Seville”, with two screens, was not operating when we visited.

After  leaving the pavilion, you head to the river to go up the tower, which offers amazing views up and down the river, and over the city. More in my next blog post.