A sensory experience: la higuera

This fragrant little beauty, on a tree in Benoajan after a 9km hike, made my day.

This fragrant fig tree in Benoajan, spotted at the end of a 9km hike, provided a moment of sheer euphoria.

They say that memories triggered by smell are the most powerful and long-lasting. Familiar odours can bring back, in depth and detail, experiences and places visited many years before.

As one website explains: “When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory. When you encounter the smell again, the link is already there, ready to elicit a memory or a mood.” This is called the olfactory memory. Fascinating stuff, I hear you say (or perhaps not), but so what?

Andalucia is replete with olfactory experiences such as azahar, sweet orange blossom, Seville’s spring smell. But one of the most intense I’ve ever had, seared into my memory, was on the recent Mr Henderson’s Railway gourmet hiking trip: the fig. I’ve never given much attention to this particular fruit – goes well with ham, used by the Victorians to make a dubious pudding. My father’s fig tree is famed locally for its prodigious harvests of the swollen purplish bulbs; but they always remind me of a livid bruise, and the visceral pulp is less than attractive. Visually, and in every other sense.

Walking the dogs in the fields near my house, on a late summer evening a few weeks ago, I became aware of a glorious scent. Warm and sweet, it encapsulated the sun-bathed Spanish countryside – soft and golden. After a while I realised it was coming from the higueras – our route takes us through a field of the huge-leaved fruit trees. None had figs, all having been mercilessly foraged by the crisis-hit locals. But the trees still smelled divine, nonetheless.

Our route from Jimera del Libar to Benoajan.

Our route from Jimera del Libar to Benoajan, following the Guadiaro river.

Back to Mr Henderson’s Railway - on day three of our Algeciras-to-Ronda trip, having eaten like kings in converted stations and cargo sheds along the line, and slept like queens in heavenly hotels (more on those soon), we hiked a 9km trail from Jimera del Libar to Benoajan. The trail runs alongside the historic train line (built by an English Lord, don’t you know) which follows the Guadiaro river. Two hours of full-on walking up and down hills on the hiking trail, with just a few seedy cookies for sustenance (thanks, Lidl), just about did me in. (You see, my idea of exercise is an hour’s gentle padel knock-about with another mum, or a slow ramble with children and aforementioned canine companions. Or, at a push, a bike ride showing tourists around Seville.)

It was hot that morning, though thankfully with ample shade from the trees lining the path, under which I rested my red-faced, sweating, exhausted self. We hardly met another soul, that’s how off-the-beaten-hiking-path this route is. Watching the train pass by, through tunnels and over bridges built by compatriots over a century ago, and the fabulous views of the river, railway and tree-covered slopes from the hillside path, made it all worthwhile. Just.

Deep in the wilds of Andalucia, pretending to be a hiker.

Deep in the wilds of Andalucia, pretending to be a hiker. You can see Mr Henderson’s Railway behind.

Then I felt that joyous little leap of finally glimpsing your destination at the end of an arduous journey (for me, at least) – in this case the village of Benoajan, across the river. As the track led downhill through the outlying houses towards the bridge, I caught a whiff of something sweet, and looked up. Hanging down above my head was a large, luscious, purple fig.

What a moment! The elation of completing the hike (everyone else had already finished – I was the last, but enjoyed indulging in this profoundly personal experience alone); the relief that I had survived without bruises, scratches or sprained joints; the anticipation of yet another fabulous meal just around the corner; the enveloping warmth of a September afternoon in Andalucia; and, dare I say it, the guilty frisson of being away from my children for so long – it was all wrapped up (no parma ham) in that fruit tree and its delectably rich, evocative, sun-drenched aroma.

Fig salad: a late summer classic.

Fig salad: a late summer classic.

And lunch, on the pretty, shady terrace of a converted mill, next to a stream and drenched with pink bouganvillea, vines heavy with grapes, and yet more fragrant fig trees, lived up to its expectations – delicately-flavoured, colourful salads, hearty pasta, and exquisite ice-cream to refuel after all that physical exertion, accompanied by some excellent dry moscatel wine (a recent discovery, well worth trying). And although I didn’t order it myself, I tried a friend’s fig salad. And, reader, I liked it.

Bright bouganvillea against a white wall: so Andalucian.

A burst of colour – bright bouganvillea against a white wall is so Andalucian.

What smell triggers your memory?

El Rocio 2013: La Salida de Sevilla

el rocio

A group of romeros (pilgrims) in the Puerta Jerez. They all wear medallions of their hermandad around their necks.

Amidst all the excitement of Ferias around Andalucia every spring, another major celebration takes place near here: El Rocio. For over 200 years, every Whitsun, pilgrims have walked to this small town in Huelva to worship the adored Virgen del Rocio, popularly known as La Blanca Paloma (the White Dove). El Rocio looks like something out of a Wild West movie, with its clapboard houses and wooden rails outside bars for tethering your horse. It fills up for a few days every May or June, with romeros arriving from all over Spain, and beyond; a large number make the journey from towns across Andalucia.

The El Salvador hermandad crossing the San Telmo bridge to Los Remedios - the first stage of its journey to El Rocio.

The El Salvador hermandad crossing the San Telmo bridge from the centre of Seville to Los Remedios – the first stage of its journey to El Rocio.

The hermandades (brotherhoods, associations attached to churches) from around here – Seville and town in the Aljarafe, the “high area” to the west of the city, where I live – leave over three days, staggered so that the roads don’t come to a complete standstill (the same is also true for their return). As it it is, much traffic is diverted and normal routes closed to make way for the carretas (gypsy wagons) pulled by pairs of bueyes (oxen), carriages pulled by mules or horses, and the romeros (pilgrims) who ride their horses.

There are also tall, bow-topped caravans pulled by 4x4s, but they’re considerably less photogenic; from a comfort point of view, however, they are far superior, with air-con and water tanks; the unusually low temperatures this year have meant heating is more necessary than cooling.

Passing the Plaza de Cuba roundabout with its bright red roses.

Passing the Plaza de Cuba roundabout with its bright red roses.

I walked with one of Seville’s five hermandades, Sevilla El Salvador, which set off from outside the church in Plaza Salvador, on its route out of the city. The procession includes the simpecado, an image of the Virgin carried on its own carreta; family carretas, each decorated with a different colour or colours, each carreta pulled by a pair of oxen, sometimes with a spare beast tied to the wagon’s rear, and their driver (bueyero); men and women on horseback, the ladies in colourful flamenca dresses, riding side-saddle; and many romeros on foot.

el rocio

Always an incongruous sight, the colourful carretas passing modern blocks – these are in Los Remedios, as the procession heads west out of the city.

I chatted to one of the buyeros, who told me there were considerably fewer carretas this year, and that many people had chosen to walk the route, rather than riding their horse. The current economic crisis affects all aspects of Spanish life, even long-standing traditions such as El Rocio. But many people come out to watch the procession of simpecado, oxen, carretas and horses go past, standing in the street to watch as they pass by, or putting a hand out to touch the simpecado.

El Rocio

These women are excited about starting their pilgrimage to El Rocio, the high point of the year for many. The morning was chilly, hence the wraps.

el rocio

The drummer-piper is an essential element of any pilgrimage; you can see the simpecado behind him.

The simpecado, pulled by two oxen, leads the the way.

The simpecado, or image of the Virgin, pulled by two oxen, leads the the way.

Everyone wants to touch the Virgin's cart.

Everyone wants to touch the Virgin’s carreta.

el Rocio

The Virgin simpecado is resplendent with its gleaming silver and bright flowers. Low-key it is not.

One of my favourite sights: a frilly pink flamenca dress-clad romera on her horse.

One of my favourite sights: a frilly pink flamenca dress-clad romera on her horse.

El Rocio

Now heading out of the city into the countryside, friends greet each other on one of the carretas’ frequent stops.

Fewer people went on El Rocio on horseback this year; everyone is having to cut back.

The riders look dashing in their collarless jackets, hats and leather chaps.

This road is little-used, but main roads are closed to allow the romeros to pass through towns and cities.

This road is little-used, but main roads are closed to allow the romeros to pass through towns and cities.

El Rocio

A young ox-driver – they control the huge beasts by leaning back against them to slow them down.

El Rocio

Two friends enjoying puros as they ride their horses.

Crossing the river on an iron bridge which is popular with cyclists as a quiet, safe route to Seville from towns outside the city.

Crossing the river on an iron bridge, as the carretas near the first town on their route.

El Rocio

Fernando wanted to impress on me that the pilgrimage is about Faith, Devotion and the Virgin. (And, of course, we have a few drinks.)

People are often keen to talk to curious outsiders at these joyous, deeply-felt events, so while we were crossing the bridge over the Guadalquivir river, I got talking to a man riding his horse called Fernando. On hearing that I was a foreigner, he was keen to inform me (repeating himself a number of times which led me to conclude his breakfast might have featured an added alcoholic element) that the pilgrimage is about “Fe, Devocion y la Virgen” (Faith, Devotion and the Virgin). And a few copas. “But without the Virgin, we have nothing,” he declaimed, rather superfluously, I thought. But then Andalucians do love stating the obvious, preferably with dramatic flourishes.

Heading for the hills: up to the Aljarafe, the high area to the west of Sevilla.

Heading for the hills: in sight of the Aljarafe, the high area to the west of Sevilla.

This romera (pilgrim) wears romero (rosemary) in her hair.

This romera (pilgrim) wears a sprig of romero (rosemary) in her hair.

I’m always intrigued by the Spanish language, and the word romero originated as someone who goes on a pilgrimage to Rome – hence romeria – but romero also means rosemary in Spanish, and many people carry or wear rosemary sprigs as they walk.

This man has rosemary tied to his walking stick.

This man has rosemary tied to his walking stick.

And this carreta has some attached too, with a pink ribbon - pretty touch.

And this carreta has some attached too, with a pink ribbon – pretty touch.

El Rocio

Bursting into song, and clapping, helps the pilgrims on their way on El Rocio.

On arrival at the edge of the first town, by a metro station of the almost-unpronounceable San Juan del Aznalfarache (trips off the tongue after a while), they stopped for a sing-song, which then continued as they walked along the (closed to traffic) main road, past the petrol station and then up the hill towards the centre. The romeros were now closely grouped together, led in their singing by a couple of guys with guitars.

Walking and singing through the streets of San Juan del Aznalfarache (try saying that after a few finos).

Walking and singing through the streets of San Juan del Aznalfarache (try saying that after a few finos).

My last sight of the Seville romeros was this man on his horse.

My last sight of the Seville romeros was this man on his horse.

After a few of these rociero songs, it was time for me to leave the happy gang and reluctantly head home. I passed horse-drawn carts on my way down, as they headed up the hill, loaded up with groups of friends and family, their picnic hampers strapped to the back of their carts. Until I returned to the main road, which was now deserted, apart from one lone rider.

At the end of three days’ ride, their route taking them through Doñana National Park, they will reach their destination, where most hermandades have their own house to stay in, with stables for the animals. On Sunday, the much-adored Virgin comes out of her sanctuary, and visits each hermandad’s house. That is the most important day of the pilgrimage, the climax, the occasion for the most frenzied celebration. Then it’s time to pack up and head home again.

El Rocio this year is on Sunday 19 May; 2104: 8 June ; 2015: 24 May.

A weekend in Costa Ballena: spa, surfing and sherry.

Costa Ballena, Elba Hoteles, pool, view, sea,

Our balcony at the Hotel Elba looked over the pool and palm trees, to the sea beyond.

This car racing driving game was a firm favourite with my kids.

This racing game was a firm favourite with my kids (the green blur on the track is a car!).

Like most families with young children, we tend to book self-catering apartments when we go away. Much more flexible, with our own kitchen and fridge, so we can eat what we want, when we want, where we want; plus the extra space of a separate living room with sofa (essential for collapsing on with a glass of wine when the kids are in bed/depositing them on to chill when knackered after a day out), and an extra bedroom if possible, make for a more relaxed holiday.

However I know that staying in a hotel with full board can be also a delight when, like me, you’re not the world’s most enthusiastic cook, and tending a hot stove detracts from the “getting away from it all” element of a family holiday. Sometimes, worrying about kids making a mess while eating pasta, being overly energetic and enthusiastic, and noisy and potentially bothersome in public, is outweighed by not having to produce said meals. So when we were invited to stay in a hotel for two nights with all meals included, it didn’t take long to decide. I would rather sacrifice space and flexibility if it means I don’t have to cook for two days. End of story.

And so began our Dia de Andalucia puente (bank holiday) last weekend in Costa Ballena. This is a new beach resort on the Costa de la Luz, in Cadiz province, between the seaside towns of Rota (where the US Army base is) and Chipiona, both popular summer resorts for Sevillanos. The forecast (always check before going to the beach – sunhats? wellies? raincoats? thickest fleeces? wetsuits?) said sun/cloud and rain, so we knew some indoor time was inevitable. I was therefore delighted, not to mention relieved, to read that our hotel, the Elba Hotel Costa Ballena, had a Mini-club (like a softplay centre, or bolas as we call them) and a thalassotherapy spa where kids were allowed (at certain times). As long as you know there’s plenty of rainy day entertainment, you can relax.

Elba Hotel Costa Ballena, Cadiz, coast, beach

Our junior suite was a good size, with a long terrace which had one area for table and chairs (outside the bedroom), and another larger section for sunloungers (outside the sitting room). Crucially, for small children, the wall was sensibly high, making it much more challenging (off-putting, ideally) for small people to climb. In fine weather, I can imagine you would open the sliding doors in both rooms, and let the warm air come in. The view was over the pool, which was pretty and free-form with a palm tree on an island, and the golf course – with a glimpse of the sea.

Costa Ballena, Hotel Elba, Elba Costa Ballena, Hoteles Elba

The bedroom had cheery citrus tones of lemon and lime. You can imagine how delightful it would be with the balcony door open and the summer breeze gently blowing.

The children’s beds were set up in the sitting room, which also had two armchairs, and sliding doors leading onto the balcony (which remained closed due to the unclement weather). The suite was well supplied with lamps – on the floor, tables, wall, and even great little bendy reading lights by our bedside. And the bath was a hydrotherapy one – underwater jet massage. Heaven.

Hoteles Elba, Elba Hotel Costa Ballena, Costa Ballena

At lunch on our first day, the buffet was a little depleted due to a large, unscheduled group of US servicemen and their families. We were also quite late (it’s from 2-3pm), a lesson we took on board for our future meals. As well as salad, dishes on offer included fried fish fillets, pork with mushrooms, pasta, and a spread of Spanish puddings. We left that first meal feeling somewhat underwhelmed – especially by the lack of local and seasonal produce: specifically seafood (Cadiz coast is famous for its prawns and other shellfish, as we found out recently at Carnaval) and fresh fruit (strawberries from neighbouring Huelva province), hoping that dinner would reinspire our confidence (it did).

Playa Ballena, Costa Ballena

The closest hotel to the beach: Playa Ballena

Playa Ballena, Costa Ballena, surfers, surf, surfing

Surfers at Playa Ballena – not the easiest subject to photograph.

Although the weather was looking iffy, I insisted on checking out the nearest beach to the hotel, which was called Playa Ballena and was a short walk away. It was backed by grassy dunes with some pretty wild flowers, and the kids were delighted to be befriended by two dogs which happily ran around fetching sticks for them, while I realised that those black dots bobbing about on the waves were actually surfers. From that moment on, I concentrated on trying to get a decent photo of some surf action. Damn hard to catch on camera- blink and they’ve fallen over.

Rota, Costa Ballena, Cadiz, boats, harbour, dock,

Boats in Rota harbour – which one’s got your name on it?

Then we headed off to the nearby fishing village of Rota, a typical combination of sprawling streets of new-build apartments, and a pretty historic centre. With the sky now a pure Andalucian azure, we walked along the jetty of the walled harbour in the sunshine, looking at the fish darting about in the clear blue water, checking out the boats moored in rows (“Which one would you choose?” is always a favourite game), and then had a runabout on the beach. The US warships are right opposite, and their massive grey bulks loom large on the horizon. After poking around on the sand, we went into the old town, where as luck would have it, there was a medieval market.

The Castillo La Luna in Rota added the perfect medieval ambiente for the market.

The Castillo La Luna in Rota provided the perfect medieval ambiente for the market.

This "chopsticks" game, part of the medieval fair in Rota, was a feat of co-ordination for both young and old!

This “chopsticks” game, part of the medieval fair in Rota, was a feat of co-ordination for both young and old!

The usual overpriced super-empanadas, cheese, meat, olive oil and handicrafts were complemented by some excellent games which were free to use – wooden, hand-to-eye coordination ones involving using sticks and loops of rope to catch things, and move things. All wonderfully traditional stuff – the original, manual version of now-ubiquitous video games. The board games, feats of dexterity, were placed in the street, in front of a medieval castle, now used as Rota’s ayuntamiento (town hall), which set the scene perfectly.

Arroz negro, rice with black squid ink, at dinner.

Arroz negro, rice with black squid ink, at dinner.

food, red peppers, hotel, Elba Hotel, Costa Ballena

Colourful red pepper salads – part of the buffet spread.

Back at the ranch, having learned our lesson at lunchtime, we arrived as dinner was starting, and I was most relieved to find an impressive spread: arroz negro (rice with black squid ink); a decent salad bar (not an area where Spanish cuisine excels, in my experience); pasta with a choice of sauces; and a choice of fillets cooked to order: gallineta (a type of bream) and tuna, as well as chuletas (pork chops). My daughter loved the buñuelos de bacalao (battered cod balls), the closest to fishfingers, while my son chose a meat dish.

Hotel Elba Costa Ballena, Hoteles Elba, Costa Ballena

Puddings were the usual Spanish fare of creaminess topped with biscuits, or little sponge cakes. The sliced fresh fruit (melon, pineapple) and yoghurts were my choice, while Lola opted for ice-cream topped with sauce and sprinkles (all chocolate, of course).

After dinner the kids tried out the hydrotherapy (jacuzzi) bath in our room. Lots of bubbles, lots of shrieks of excitement, then boomba – flat-out asleep!

The cheese section of the breakfast buffet.

The cheese section of the breakfast buffet, with membrillo (quince paste) too – on the right.

The next day, breakfast was a magnificent spread: cold meat (chorizo, jamon iberico) and cheese; hot breakfast – tomatoes, sausages, bacon; eggs cooked to order, with ham, cheese, or peppers; cereal; pastries; fresh and dried fruits; and yoghurts. Plus, of course, the typical Andalucian breakfast: toast with olive oil and tomatoes and ham, or mantecado (pork lard).

Elba Hotel Costa Ballena

The “bolas” – kids love throwing themselves about in a ball pit.

After a filling and tasty breakfast, we had some time to kill before the spa opened, so we visited the Mini-club, which was a small version of softplay, with a slide, ballpit, swing, and games such as (soft) darts, boules and coits. The games room also proved popular, with snooker, pinball, table tennis, table hockey, and the car-racing game, with steering wheels and pedals.

spa, pool, thalasso, thalassotherapy, Costa Ballena, Hoteles Elba, Hotel Elba Costa Ballena

The salt-water thalasso pool is part of the “thermal circuit”, along with the hammam and sauna.

Then it was for the three of us time to test out the thalassotherapy pool – me and the kids. A delightful lady called Julia met us in the spa reception and explained to us about the sea-water pool with its various sprays and jets, the counter-current channel and the jacuzzi. My son, who is six, was happy to swim around on his own, trying out the various spots – sitting, lying, standing with water of varying force pummelling him; my daughter stayed with me. Sometimes we sat like kings, all three in a row, revelling in the deep relaxation and indulgence as our bodies were massaged into oblivion.

You could sit under the showers – narrow jets, like pin-points, wide horizontal ones, circular ones like mushrooms, or on seats and beds, where legs, feet and arms were also subject to the force of the sea water. We also tried the heated wooden beds, and the terma romana (Roman bath), which was pleasantly warm, but not the hamman (steam bath) or sauna, as I thought they’d be too hot, especially for my daughter who turns an enbecomign shade of beetroot-pink in extreme heat, like her mother.

Osborne, sherry, bodega, El Puerto de Santa Maria, Cadiz

Osborne is the best-known sherry bodega in El Puerto; its roadside bull signs have become a national symbol of Spain.

La Galera, sherry, El Puerto de Santa Maria, Cadiz

One of the many other local sherry producers.

Lunch featured salmorejo (a creamy tomato soup), one of my favourite Andalucian dishes, and then we set off for El Puerto de Santa Maria. This fishing port, on the Bay of Cadiz, is part of the “Sherry Triangle”, the three towns which produce the famous fortified wine currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Although we didn’t partake of fino or palo cortado, we passed the mighty bodegas where they’re produced (many are open for tours Monday to Saturday). After walking along the riverfront where the wind was bitingly cold, and soon retreated to the landward streets.

Castillo San Marcos, castle, medieval, El Puerto de Santa Maria, Cadiz

Castillo San Marcos in El Puerto, which dates back to Moorish times.

Castillo San Marcos, castle, tower, El Puerto de Santa Maria, Cadiz

Heraldic symbols and lettering on the castle tower.

Moorish, door, wooden, castle, Castillo San Marcos, el Puerto de Santa Maria, history, Cadiz

The main entrance of the castle, with a Moorish arch – a storybook door, fascinating for kids.

I loved the Castillo San Marcos, a magnificent structure with origins in Moorish times, around the 10th century, with heraldic friezes on its towers and an exquisite carved wooden door with Moorish horseshoe arch designs. My childish fascination with castles – their high walls, towers, gates, crenellations… so romantic, so fairytale-ish, so resonant of exciting adventures, brave knights and beautiful princesses – may be partly because my wedding took place in one: a Norman keep in Essex. Anyway, I had to rely on my imagination as we missed out on seeing the inside; you can visit from Tuesday (when it’s free) to Saturday.

El Puerto has many grand mansions with huge stone entrances and mighty wooden doors; we’ll be back to explore it further. Its a historical town for many reasons, including that one of Columbus’ three ships was named after the town. At one point, we snuck into a cafe to warm up, and found it sold Death by Chocolate and blackberry and apple tart. Time to fess up: it was Ben&Jerrys. Heavenly cakes – on Avenida Caela Aramburu.

Back at the hotel for our second, and final, dinner and night, the stand-out dishes were choco con patatas (a cuttlefish and potato stew) and a superb spinach bechamel (so nutritious!); fillets of salmon and mackerel were cooked to order, while the children loves the palitos de merluza (battered hake fingers) and, er, pizza – a surefire winner with kids.

Hotel Elba Costa Ballena, Hoteles Elba

Stained glass window in the hotel reception.

The next day, it was time to leave – noone wanted to, needless to say, and there were repeated requests to go back to the pool, and the Mini-Club, but with the rain tipping down we wanted to get the journey home as soon as possible – luckily the car park is underneath the hotel, so we didn’t get soaked loading up.

The hotel staff were obliging and friendly throughout our stay, from reception to dining room to spa, the room was comfortable, the food was tasty and plentiful, and the spa was a revelation. I can recommend the Elba Costa Ballena as a relaxing place for family holiday, with plenty of interesting places to visit nearby – and we didn’t even use the outdoor pools and bar, padel courts, gym, or golf course!

* Disclaimer: me and my family stayed as guests of the Elba Hotel Costa Ballena. However, as always, the opinions expressed are my own, and are not affected by this. It’s fairly obvious by the fact that I’m objective, anyway, isn’t it?

The Andalucia Show: from Almeria to Seville

Flag, fan and pennant in the regional green and white to celebrate Dia de Andalucia, 28 February.

My children with their flag, fan and pennant in the regional verde y blanco to celebrate Dia de Andalucia, 28 February. My daughter is proudly showing off her mixed heritage.

Children here in Andalucia are inculcated with a strong sense of regional pride right from the word go – they are Andaluces first, Spanish second (which leads to a sense of confusion about their identity, in the case of my Anglo-Andalusi children). They learn all about the culture, history, fiestas, famous figures, cuisine and geography of their region, which varies from desert to snow-covered mountains, from cork-oak forests to olive groves, from tidal marshes to sandy beaches, via Moorish cities and ancient sea ports.

This year, to celebrate Dia de Andalucia (28 February), my children’s school put on an exhibition about the entire region, province by province. Sections of corridors were magically transformed into colourful casetas in the Feria de Abril, patios in Cordoba, Cadiz beaches and Almerian hothouses.

Here, in alphabetical order, are the eight provinces of Andalucia as represented by three to 12-year-old Andaluzes, in products and pictures.

I haven’t captioned each photo – partly through sheer laziness and Alt Tag burnout; but also it means that you can try to guess each one’s contents (or, if you live here, ask your kids to) before reading the text for that province, which comes below its corresponding set of pictures. First up: Almeria.

Almeria invernadero

Almeria veg

Almeria skeletons kids

ALMERIA: Polytunnels, vegetables, spaghetti westerns and one of Spain’s most important archaeological sites.

Cadiz - atun de almadraba

Cadiz carnaval

CAdiz carnaval table

Cadiz entrance

Cadiz food 2

Cadiz piconeras

Cadiz playa

CADIZ: blue-fin tuna caught in the Atlantic and Mediterranean using the traditional almadraba system of nets and boats; the Teatro de Falla and the Carnaval in Cadiz city (a masks and two kazoo: the one on the left is my son’s, from our recent trip); sherry, seafood and cheese; fishing nets; piconero/as (coalmen and women – new to me, that one) and, of course, La Playa (yes, that’s real sand)!

Cordoba -cruces, patio ,feria

CORDOBA: Las Cruces de Mayo (the cross of red flowers) and the Patios Festival (the little pots with their blooms on the wall).

Malaga food


Granada  Lorca

Granada Arabic stuff

Granada food

GRANADA: The Patio de los Leones in the Alhambra; bit foxed myself as to the second picture – possibly Conquest Day, commemorating when the Reyes Catolicos recaptured the city from the Moors, and the royal banner of Castille is carried through the city; Federico Garcia Lorca, with some books by the poet and playwright; Arabic clothes and objects; Granadan pastries.


zHuelva- El Rocio

HUELVA: A jamon (don’t miss the piggies on the front of the table); fish, prawns and other shellfish; El Rocio: dress, tambor (drum), mini-carreta, leather chaps, and the all-important leather riding boots to protect from mud, dust and wading through river fords.


JAEN: Land of liquid gold – olives, olives, and more olives.

Malaga food (2)


Malaga people  Banderas

Malaga sardinas

MALAGA: Pastries, olive oil and sweet wine; famous people, including Picasso and, the “Father of Andalucia”, Blas Infante, bottom left (but not Antonio Banderas, strangely); sardines on sticks.

Cordoba Sevilla

Sevilla Feria

Sev Feria table

Sev Betis baby

Sev cathedral model

Sev incense


Sev paso

Sev tapas list

SEVILLA: Inevitably, our provincial capital takes a starring role, both in the exhibition itself, and in this blog post. First we have the Feria caseta, complete with entrance (each one has its own name, number and design); the traditional painted table and chairs, plus jewellery, castanets and dress; a creepy-looking Betis baby, for the youngest football supporters; the cathedral; then we’re into Semana Santa, coming up in a few weeks: incense (smells very strong; my daughter hated it), nazarenos with a small cardboard DIY model of the Setas in front of them: more nazarenos, with their paso (float with statue of Jesus); and finally a list of tapas on a blackboard.

I never fail to be astonished and humbled by the huge amount of work which goes into these school shows, projects and exhibitions. The teachers and children obviously spent many hours preparing, assembling and presenting it (we had been asked to provide items from Seville and Cadiz provinces, hence the kazoo) and the finished effect looked quite spectacular.

Happy Andalucia Day, and congratulation to the staff and students!

Ship of Dreams – Titanic The Exhibition comes to Seville

Boarding the “Ship of Dreams”.

It’s already been travelling around Spain for years, spending up to one year in cities such as Valencia, Barcelona and Bilbao, as well as across Europe – Berlin, Stockholm and Amsterdam. It takes around three weeks to disassemble and set up again, and is carried in seven trailers. It has 200 original objects, from letters to clothing. And now, in the centenary year of the disaster, Titanic the Exhibition is here in Seville, at the Pabellon de Navegacion on Isla Cartuja, where it will remain until April 2013.

Everyone knows something about the story of the Titanic, from the James Cameron mega-movie, to the aesthetic and financial disaster Raise the Titanic. Stories of feisty Molly Brown, the brave orchestra, stalwart Captain Smith, not enough lifeboats, the Carpathia. First class luxury, third-class dreams.

So seeing it all brought to life with personal possessions of passengers on the ship – both those who survived, and those who perished – is a moving experience. This exhibition traces the history of the ship, from its conception, design, building in Belfast shipyards and launch, to the fateful night of 14 April 1912 when the ship hit an iceberg in the Atlantic and sank, with the loss of more than 1500 lives (out of 2,207 on board).

The whole Titanic story is one of high emotion and drama – it’s called “the Ship of Dreams” and “the World’s Greatest Steamer”, “A Floating Palace”. This exhibition starts with the birth of “the most legendary ship in history” (for all the wrong reasons, clearly). White Star Shipping Line wanted to compete with Cunard, by building vessels far bigger than any which had sailed before.

Postcard illustrating the length of the ship compared to the tallest buildings of the day – it was 269m.

Construction began in 1909 and took 27 months, with 3000 men working at the shipyard in Belfast. Some of the memorabilia includes part of the ship wall, to show the screws – welding wasn’t used then; a photo of a propeller next to a bus, to show its massive scale; and information about the ship’s designer, who was so meticulous that he supervised all the work himself and wanted to be on the maiden voyage to make sure everything worked correctly, and take notes on any possible improvements. Yes, it’s all steeped in anticipation of the tragedy-that-we-know-is-to-come.

Plans show the 15 water-tight compartments – if one floods, the others will be closed off, up to a maximum of five; lifeboat drills were deemed unnecessary, as the Titanic was “unsinkable”. The original passenger list, showing name, surname, age, nationality and class of each, sent shivers down my spine. Poor bastards.

You follow the ship’s course after it leaves Southampton on 10 April 1912 on its maiden voyage, to its first two scheduled ports of call Cherbourg, where Molly Brown boarded, and Cork, where mostly 3rd class passengers join those already on board.

The salon of a first-class stateroom – as luxurious as any hotel suite.

You see a massive scale replica, complete with little figures and doll’s house furniture in the cabins; you hear a recording of the echoing sound of the ship’s horn, and see the actual horn itself, rescued from the sea; chairs and dishes from the dining room; reconstructions of third-class (bunks, room service, lights out at 10pm) and first-class cabins with brocade walls, and sofa and desk in the salon; one of my favourites was the deck chair (yes, used on deck) with White Star Line logo and logo-ed blanket.

Third-class cabin, which slept four in bunk beds.

But what pulls at your heartstrings are all the hand-written notes, postcards, letters from Irish, English, American, Swedish and other passengers to their families which show snapshots of their lives. Many are leaving their own countries in search of a better life in the Promised Land – the United States of America; they plan to make their fortune, and then return home. The writers of these missives never dreamed this voyage would put such an abrupt and brutal end to their plans, or a delay in the case of the lucky ones. You can see wallets, coins and watches recovered from bodies, as well as those contributed by survivors and their families.

Kate Phillips’ pendant, presented to her on board by her lover. She survived; he didn’t. Their story was the inspiration for Jack and Rose in the movie.

Kate with her daughter Ellen, born nine months after the Titanic’s sinking.

There were three stories which really caught my imagination. The first is of the couple who were having an affair, called Harry and Kate. They bought tickets under false names – he was married; he gave her a pendant as a token of his love. Kate took the necklace when she left the ship. Harry didn’t survive, and Kate gave birth to a child on 11 January 1913 – the baby, Ellen, was probably conceived on the Titanic. The pendant Harry gave to Kate was the inspiration for Rose’s Heart of the Ocean jewel in the movie.

The suit of Spanish Titanic victim Victor Peñasco.

The founder of Macy’s and his wife were some of the more high-profile victims, while especially poignanct here in Spain were Victor and Josefa Peñasco, a wealthy young couple from Madrid who were on a one-year honeymoon. While in Paris, they decided to buy first-class tickets to New York, pre-writing postcards from the city for their butler to send to her mother so she wouldn’t worry – she was scared of boats. Victor ceded his place in a lifeboat to a woman and her child who, along with Josefa, survived. You can see Victor’s dinner jacket laid out. He was one of ten Spanish passengers on the Titanic, of whom three died.

Luise Kink shown in New York, wearing her leather boots.

The boots worn by Luise when she escaped from the Titanic.

The third story is of a third-class passenger – 75 per cent of these died, including many Scandinavians – I had no idea there were so many Norwegian and Swedish passengers on the Titanic. Four-year-old Luise Kink was travelling with her parents and aunt, and all were rescued. Luise’s little leather boots which she was wearing at the time can be seen, along with a photo of her still wearing them when she arrived in New York.

At 11.40pm the iceberg was sighted; engines were put into reverse and ship turned to port, but it was too late. The moment when the ship struck the iceberg, at 11.50pm, is described as “a slight bump, like a train pulling into a station – just a slight jerk”. Someone else tells of the ice – you can “smell a keenness in the air”. The rivets holding the plaques in the ship’s carefully designed compartments broke, and five compartments flooded. The order to abandon ship was given, SOS signals sent out by Morse code. But there weren’t enough lifeboats, and many jumped into the icy Atlantic, where survival time was 20 minutes. Most victims died of freezing rather than drowning. There’s a big chunk of ice for you to touch, to remind you how cold the water would have been.

Front page of Mundo newspaper from 24 April about the sinking of the Titanic.

Captain Smith stayed on the ship, as did the orchestra in first class, who carried on playing till 2.10am, to calm the panicked passengers. Regaling their audience with “Nearer My God To Thee”, they didn’t even try to escape, and the eight musicians “died at their posts”.

One of the last items of this exhibition is a list of all the dead on huge boards, so you can see the 1500-odd names. In the hundreds of third class, there are long lists with the same surname: families travelling with their children to seek a new life – many adults in their 20s, 30s and 40s with children of all ages. In first and second class, they tend to be older, aged 50 and 60-something – established, prosperous either by their own means, or through successful careers, making the journey for pleasure, in the smartest, most high-tech ship available – its most expensive staterooms, the presidential suites, cost £512 (the equivalent of 80,000 euros in today’s money).

I hope I’ve told you just enough to either pique your interest and make you go, if you can, but without revealing too much; or to entertain you, if you can’t. There are many, many more fascinating tales of the ill-fated passengers of this famous ship, as well as those who survived that fateful night. It is well worth experiencing this exhibition, which brings it so vividly to life, at first hand – I spent nearly three hours there. It made quite an impression on me, as I’m sure it will on you.

The Pabellon de Navegacion, on the river, where the exhibition is being held.

Some practical information

The audioguide (included in the entry fee) is an essential part of the exhibition, with a clearly-explained exhibit-by-exhibit commentary. It’s a little melodramatic and cliched, with the inevitable soaring orchestral music – the ship “carried the hopes and dreams of more than 2,200 people” – but then this story is all about human drama on a massive scale. I found the MP3 machines themselves a little unreliable and difficult to operate. Each display box has an information panel in both Spanish and English.

The Titanic exhibition is in the Pabellon de Navegacion, although it operates separately from the pabellon’s own permanent exhibit space, with its own entrance at the front of the building, facing the river. The exhibit is open seven days a week, from 10am to 8pm, and you can either buy tickets on the day, or – to avoid queues, especially at weekends – book online, where you get a choice of two sessions: either 10am-3pm or 4pm-8pm.

Entry costs 10 euros including audioguide (Mondays 5 euros, except holidays); 8 euros for students under 25, children aged 7-14, the unemployed and over-65s; 3 euros for children aged under 7 with audioguide, or free without audioguide. See the exhibition website for more information or to book your ticket.

This website is an excellent resource for information on all those who sailed on the Titanic, with lists of survivors and victims including their ages, professions, the fare they paid, and even which cabin they were travelling in.

Sleek decor and period uniforms at the Cafeteria Americana.

There’s a cafe, in a refreshingly contemporary style with white leather-effect furniture and huge windows, and staff wearing Titanic-era white uniforms. I didn’t try the food, so I can’t vouch for it, but they have tapas and montaditos for 2.50 euros. To get to the cafe, which is at the front of the pabellon overlooking the river, you have to go up some stairs outside – not ideal if it’s raining.

In the shop you can buy all the usual kick-knacks – keyrings, Tshirts, reproduction plates; on the way into the exhibition, they take a photo of you on the gangplank (mine’s at the top of this post), which you can choose whether or not to buy when you leave – it costs 5 euros mounted in a mock-up newspaper folder. A fun, if pricey, souvenir.