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.


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.

The Next Big Thing

Last week, Matthew Hirtes, author of Going Local in Gran Canaria, very kindly mentioned me in his The Next Big Thing post. The idea is that you talk about your latest, or upcoming, project – his own one is writing a blog for Spain Holidays, which is pretty Big. Other people are publishing books, digitally and in print.

Er, well, actually, I don’t really have one – I’ve been trying to land on  a money-making idea (book? website? web-based business?), as I mentioned in my last blog post, which was also about me. (Eurgh, two in a row.)

They say you should write about what you know – well, I know Seville: the city, its quirks and hidden corners; its history; its cultural life and fiestas; its hotels; where to take my kids so they can have fun, while (hopefully) learning something; nearest beaches and places to visit within easy reach… I just need the right outlet to use all that knowledge – website? Book? Small business?

There are some questions I need to answer about My (imaginary, theoretical) Next Big Thing. I’m not going to aim low with a blog post or article; I’m going to aim high – sky-high – with a project which exists only in my head.

What is the working title of your NBT?

The Insider’s Guide to Seville.

Where did the idea come from for the NBT?

Someone asked me to write a blog post about my next project, and as I didn’t have one – my life is busy enough as it is, although I’m always waiting for that “Ding!” genius moment – I came up with this. It wasn’t rocket science – I’ve lived here for years, and there isn’t an alternative, unconventional guide to Seville.

What genre does your NBT fall under?

Travel guide/travelogue.

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your NBT?

See the secret side of Seville.
Will your NBT be self-published or represented by an agency?

Heaven only knows, I haven’t even written it yet.
How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

Give us a chance, I only came up with the idea five minutes ago to write this blog post. Didn’t want to seem like I was totally devoid of ideas, did I?
What other books/websites would you compare this story to within your genre?

It will be in a class of its own. In other words, I haven’t a flippin’ clue.
Who or What inspired you to write this book/website?

The need to find a more commercially viable outlet for all my years of in-depth knowledge and experience than writing blogs and articles.
What else about your NBT might pique the reader’s interest?

The fact that if it ever actually sees the light of day, it will be a bloody miracle. I can’t even find the time to keep my own house tidy, let alone write a book.


Now I need to nominate people to write about their Next Big Thing. My friend Digamama always has interesting things on the go, but never takes up my challenges, so let’s see if she’ll run with this one; Kim, another Sevillana Brit, has been building up her translation business, but I bet she has other dreams – like mine, it doesn’t have to be real. Ladies, it’s the usual story: write a post answering these questions, and then tag some more NBTers.

A design delight in Portugal

When I travel with kids, which is most of the time  except for the odd work freebie in a super-lujo, I stay at self-catering apartments or cottages. We often go to the Algarve, as the beaches there are less built-up and the resorts less commercialised and with much more character.

But when I read about a new rural boutique hotel, Fazenda Nova, being opened by an English couple in the eastern Algarve – designer chic, gourmet food, and all with a Portuguese ambiente – my curiosity was piqued. Reading a (glowing) review in the Guardian which mentioned that the owner’s dad and co-investor was the founder of seminal 1980s and 90s style mag, The Face (which launched Kate Moss’s career when it featured her, aged 16, on the cover), the hugely influential men’s glossy Arena, and music rag Smash Hits, I was intrigued.

Our travel plans are always last-minute, due to my husband’s problems with getting time off work. So, luckily for us, with minimal warning Hallie said we could stay in one of the hotel’s two apartments (bedroom plus sitting room with sofabed and kitchenette) on their opening night.

Naturally, I started getting in a panic about children running about, screaming, bothering other hotel guests and me dying of embarrassment as Hallie looked on disapprovingly. In fact, Hallie was joyously tolerant, and there was only one other couple, who didn’t seem to mind the whirlwinds rushing past them – it was a taste of things to come, as the lady was heavily pregnant.

As we were arriving in the car, we missed the entrance, in the village of Estiramantens – so low-key and discreet we drove straight past – and arrived a little hot and bothered (map-reading couple rows not helping). Tim, Hallie’s husband, immediately charmed my fractious children by professing an interest in dinosaurs to my paleontologically-obsessed son.

In the middle of the day, when we first arrived, the light is blindingly bright, bouncing off all pale surfaces, so we hurried inside – as fast as feasible when weighed down by 18 bags of clothes, swimwear, toys etc. Inside, the cool, grey bar was like a capsule planted in this dry but cultivated landscape (I later realised there are hundreds of trees in their grounds). The windows all face north, avoiding the glare from the sun.

We stumbled into our apartment, a few steps from the main house, and marvelled at the enormous bathroom with a shower big enough to have a party in, and little bottles of REN goodies which smelled divine. After a picnic lunch – fabulous pongy Portuguese cheese and heavenly fresh crispy bread – the husband was soon snoring on the bed, and children enjoying the hanging pod seat in our garden.

Yes, our garden – our own space outside the apartment (whose door stayed open the whole time we were there, so the kids could come and go as they pleased – such is the feeling of security) which had colourful wooden chairs made from old boat timbers (husband’s smoking spot), a shady carob tree (pudding – read on) and the swinging pod, which is a child’s dream (and the WIFI works outside, so they can watch Peppa Pig on the iPhone). Each garden is fenced off by a neat row of eucalyptus stakes in the ground, and the view is of their olive trees and the countryside beyond.

The next logical step was to test the infinity pool, which was just next to our apartment – the sound of running water was as lulling as a babbling brook. By now it was later in the day, and the sun had lost some of its strength. With no other guests to disturb, splash or jump on, I didn’t have to worry and my two had a wonderful time. The soft breeze, gentle warmth and rustling olive trees made for a supremely relaxing setting.

The pool is perfect for mooching – it has a shallow part with wide steps, and then tapers into the deep end. My three-year-old swam happily without flotation devices while I perched on the edge or watched them from my ergonomic wooden sunlounger, complete with pillow. A high point – happy children expending energy without bothering anyone, while I chilled out.

When the sleeping beast arose from its lair, it expressed a desire to go into town (in other words, have the essential post-siesta coffee to avoid biting everyone’s heads off). So we piled back into the car, and managed to get to Fuzeta, the nearest coastal village, without getting lost. One of the Algarve’s small, delightfully unspoiled fishing ports (take note, Costa del Sol – this is where you went wrong), its beach has a couple of little cafes, so parents can dose up on caffeine and hot chocolate, while kids play metres away in the sand. We were lucky enough to catch the start of a capoeira party, led by a charismatic Brazilian master – more of that, and the beaches we visited, in my next post, but here’s a taster.

Back at the ranch, a pre-dinner drink was sacrificed for a sand-removing shower and we arrived late and red-faced to the dining room. I only wish I could have fully appreciated the food, but an exhausted/bolshy/whinging/sleepy child in my lap tends to distract me from the finest of gastronomy. I can tell you that the hors d’oeuvres were exqusitely tasty – two were sundried tomato, and soft white cheese with coriander and parsley – while my salad starter was a symphony of flavours: orange, carrot and sweet potato, with onion and black olive – sweet and tangy (note to self: be more adventurous with salad ingredients). The hotel’s chef is Portuguese, but has worked in Morocco and likes to experiment with Asian flavours; guests are encouraged to go into the kitchen (I didn’t – next time).

I had been looking forward to the main course since the day before, having emailed my order while we sat on another beach (they always take orders after breakfast, so the chef knows exactly what to buy at the market). Mine was tuna, red in the middle, with fine ribbons of carrot, pepper and courgette. Melt-in-the-mouth and perfectly cooked.

The beast had shoulder of black pork with clams, which he declared was fabulous. Our wine (dry white) was Portuguese, from the Alentejo, and the olive oil which came with our starters hailed  from the next town, Moncarapacho (I bought some to take home). Pudding was carob tart –  a healthier, less sweet version of chocolate, which is the one of the many fruits (pod pictured below, tree above) cultivated at the Fazenda. (Blurred food photos=well-lubricated-mother-whose-kids-are-asleep. And has had a few glasses of celebratory cava.)

Throughout the meal I fired an endless stream of questions at Tim about the hotel’s design, history and the building project, and his memory for detail was amazing – he knew exactly where and when everything was acquired or found. He and Hallie like to move the furniture and objects around – a red African feathered headdress above the fireplace (top photo) was a recent replacement for a similar white number.

So how did they get here? There’s always a story, and this is theirs: Hallie was a high-powered London PR, and Tim had his own logistics company. Eight years ago, they had the idea to open a hotel. But it wasn’t until a life-changing moment a few years later, when Tim suffered a heart attack, that they acted on their desires. Hallie already knew the Algarve well, having spent family holidays there with her ex-magazine editor father, who has a house nearby.

They found the house, fighting off other interested parties – it’s a big piece of land, but not too big: 10 hectares, or 24 acres; and perfectly located: close to a motorway exit (25 minutes from Faro airport) and only 15 minutes from the beach, while being private and peaceful. Fazenda Nova is a well-known estate locally, having played an important role in Portugal’s history, especially in founding the Republic. While Tim and Hallie wanted to convert the buildings, keeping their traditional architecture, this proved impossible and they had to start again from scratch, rebuilding the facade using old photos, with a modern interior of polished concrete and glass.

Our apartment is where the olive press was, while other rooms replaced the stables (there are 10 rooms in total); the bread oven, however, remains, and is still in use. The hotel’s furniture is a combination of Balinese teak (made to order and shipped over); salvage/recycling – old doors have become tables, packing crates are now wall panels, bricks rescued from a field were used as a floor; and pieces they’ve collected from all over the world – South Africa, the US, Spain and Morocco. Hallie is also a flea market buff, and has many quirky delights picked up locally and further afield.

The fazenda has an extraordinary range of fruit trees – 550 in total; almond, carob and olive were already part of the estate, and Tim has added apple, pear, lemon, plum, quince, pomegranate (below), nectarine, passion fruit, mango, fig, grape; even raspberry and blackberry. All are used in the cooking, as well as to make jams.

The garden is planted with soft, swaying grasses and mostly “dry” plants, which don’t need much water but provide colour – oleander, rosemary and lavender, as well as jasmine; these work to soften the hard edges of the concrete. They’ve also planted a herb garden, which is near the firepit – designed to be sat around on a winter’s evening with a glass of full-bodied red. Hot water is heated by solar panels, and their own 250-metre bore hole is used to water the garden; there are plans for a natural swimming lake.

Of all the impressions I came away with from our brief stay at this stylish Anglo-Portuguese retreat, these were the main two: the sense of peace and tranquility; and the kindness of our hosts. Tim was unfailingingly generous with his time, and patient with the kids (and two of his played happily with mine, giving a few minutes’ precious free time). Hallie proved a life-saver: when my exhausted children requested fruit juice (the available orange was not to their liking), she went and made them some fresh apple juice. And brought it in colour-coded mugs – pink for the girl, blue for the boy, complete with straws. It was such a thoughtful gesture, I nearly hugged her. That’s my idea of a good hotel.

Fazenda Nova is a wonderful place to be pampered and recharge your batteries – chic but with plenty of personality, with delicious food, and numerous spots to chill out and flick through an old copy of The Face (I haven’t even mentioned the library!). And if you don’t have kids, don’t worry; being a PR, Hallie is an expert at planning and managing, and is careful to keep families and couples apart in separate weeks. Luckily, we managed to co-exist happily with our fellow first official guests. My worst fears weren’t realised, and it was a blissful pre-return-to-school-and-work break (from reality). We’ll be back.

Friday’s main event (sadly, not the BIBS)

As I mentioned in a recent post (recent in terms of my characteristically unprolific output, rather than time-wise ), I’m a finalist in the BIB awards, organised by Brit Mums, a wonderful website which brings British (and Britain-dwelling) blogging mums together to give them a voice, offer inspiration, and provide support and a sense of community.

I am incredibly happy to have made it into the final of the travel section, along with seven other brilliant mummy travel bloggers (I’m not bigging myself up here – BIB stands for brilliance in blogging). The awards are being given out this very Friday – cleverly timed to avoid any England Euro 2012 matches.

However since I live here in Spain, and the Brit Mums Live event, which includes the award ceremony, is in London, I can’t go. We’ve just been over for the Jubilee, and will be back again in a month for our long summer visit, so it wasn’t feasible to hop on yet another super-luxe, all-the-hand-luggage-you-can-carry budget flight to London, much as I’d have loved to.

So this is my I-hope-I-win-but-won’t-be-surprised-if-I-don’t blog post. I wasn’t even going to do one, but a Spanish friend and blog-reader insisted that I acknowledge/reiterate that the awards are in a few days, I can’t attend, etc etc. They’re all for blowing your own trumpet out here. I think it’s an English trait, avoiding that. An English travel blogger friend recently “confessed” to being listed as Essential Reading in a respected travel magazine. I bet she didn’t feel guilty.

Getting nominated, and then shortlisted, and then becoming a finalist, for a blogging award was a very pleasant experience. I have to admit, my heart was racing as I clicked on the link to the finalists and scrolled down the lists of blog names – and yelped when I saw mine.

Sneak preview of son’s “graduation” T shirt, to be worn at tomorrow’s ceremony.

I’ll be following Twitter very closely this Friday, though I will have to be discreet, since the other reason I can’t go is because it’s my son’s end of school year (and educational era) show and party – he’s moving up from Infantil (3-5 years) to Primaria (6-12 years). Tomorrow is his year’s graduation ceremony, complete with outfits and two special songs. It’s a big week when you’re a five-year-old in Spain.

Not to mention the fact that his class is performing the Beatles’ Twist and Shout on Friday. Much more fun for me when I know all the words – at last, an advantage to being the only freak English mum. My anglo-andaluz boy hates dressing up, although it’s an easy outfit, so as a bribe, he’s been allowed to play the keyboard (yes, I know there wasn’t one. Artistic licence). And I have to be there to remind him not to sing in Eeeengleesh: “Tweeest and shout! (Tweeest and shout!)”. The three-year-old has it taped too now. And, of course, to immortalise the event for posterity and grandparents – between myself and my husband, we’ll shooting video and still images. I couldn’t rely on him to do it, could I?

Good luck to all the BIBS finalists for this Friday – I’ll be with you in spirit, if not in body. At least I get to wear a nice frock for the show; you’re not allowed to dress down at your child’s end-of-term performance in Spain. All the mums look super-guapa, so you have to make the effort. Time to start browsing in the wardrobe…