How I know it’s spring

So spring started at 6.14am last Tuesday.

Here’s how I know my favourite season of the year here in Seville has arrived.

It’s all about smells, sounds and colour.

Flowers: sweet-scented blossom everywhere – azahar, the orange blossom with pretty white flowers (above and below). When I take the kids to school, we walk along a row of orange trees, treading on a soft carpet of tiny white petals – it’s a scent experience unlike any other, and will last for the next few precious weeks.

Also almond, cherry and plum blossom, fluffy white and candy-pink, and others, are out in full force.

The carpet of yellow flowers in the olivar (olive grove) next to our house is a joy.

The sounds of spring, for me, are animals: frogs croaking to each other in our swimming pool, in (at the risk of coming over all Paul McCartney) a chorus… frogs singing in pool – you’ll need to turn the volume up to get the full effect.

…and mournful Semana Santa music, blaring from cars and in shops, and being played by brass bands in processions.

Later, this switches to the more upbeat Sevillanas, in time for Feria.

This is the best time of year to visit gardens, go to the sierra for some jamon and hiking or take the kids to the beach for a warm day out without having to slap suncream on them every five minutes. It’s also time to get out the barbeque.

And time to bathe in the glow of warm temperatures, before the heat comes.

7 Super Shots

Fellow Sevillana blogger Sunshine and Siestas was kind enough to tag me for Seven Super Shots, as organised by hostelbookers, a while ago. As I’ve had no internet connection for nearly a week, with an unreliable dongle, blogging has become an unnecessary luxury, second to paid work. How I’ve missed it!

Not to mention the challenge of choosing seven photos from nine years of digital shots (eight and a half of those here in Spain) and 33 of analogue. Many photos from my previous life, in London, where I used to take several foreign holidays a year (those cushy globetrotting days are gone now), as well as photo shoots abroad for the magazine I edited, are stored in my parents’ house, so I only have access to photographic records of less than half my travels.

Added, to which, the hard copy photos which I do have here in Spain are not fantastically well organised – there are some albums, lots of envelopes, quite a few loose prints, so I’ve been unearthing boxes and sorting through them…

In short, some of these are photos of prints, as digital cameras weren’t yet around for most of my trips. Let’s just say some of them are more about subject matter than quality.

Apologies and excuses out of the way, here goes:

A shot that makes me think – Potosi, Bolivia

When I was travelling in South America with a group which included Travelwithamate’s Debz Preston, we went down Cerro Rico copper mine in Potosi. Some people opted out of the tour, and while I am claustrophic, I decided to go anyway, partly out of masochism (“I will make myself suffer in order to conquer my fear” etc), and partly out of curiosity – we had heard conditions hadn’t changed much since the Spanish first built the mine to extract silver in the 16th century. We set off suited and booted, with headlamps and helmets, chewing coca leaves for stamina and energy, carrying our water bottles.

Inside, it was extremely hot and dusty, full of asbestos and arsenic, and the conditions were primitive – those Chileans work in luxury by comparison. We’d been asked to take soft drinks for the miners, and it was obvious why. They crouched in tiny caverns, with their explosives, cheeks bulging, half naked because of the heat. Potosi is full of widows – life expectancy for these men is 45 years. It was one of the most terrifying and memorable experiences of my life, but not one I would ever want to repeat. (And no, it didn’t conquer my fear.)

A shot that makes me smile – Laguna Cuicocha, Ecuador

I lived in Ecuador for a year, working in Quito, where met a group of Ecuadorian girls who adopted me and took me along on their weekends away, delighting in showing me their country with its beautiful Andean scenery – this is Cuicocha Lake, next to Cotacachi Volcano. We went horse-riding from haciendas, hiked in the bosque nublado (cloud forests), and danced in salsa clubs. These ecuadorianas were kindness itself, putting up with my lack of Spanish with constant good humour and rescuing me from sticky situations.

A shot that makes me dream – Dubrovnik, Croatia

This is the view from the balcony of the last hotel where we stayed on our island-hopping honeymoon in Croatia. It was just outside the old walled city of Dubrovnik. This view, with the flowers and their resident hummingbird, who used to come and visit us while we had our breakfast, reminds me of carefree times – one of our last pre-pregnancy, child-free holidays

A shot that tells a story – Thar Desert, India

This was my first proper travelling experience, by which I mean outside Europe. I spent six months in India, first of all teaching and then backpacking around the north. This shot is of camel trekking near Jaisalmer in the north-western region of Rajasthan. The guides used to joke they would sell me and my friend to the rebels across the border in Pakistan for two camels each. I was a naïve 18-year-old, and India opened my eyes to the world, toughened me up, turned me into a vegetarian, and gave me a taste for travelling.

A shot that makes my mouth water – Casa Flores Watson, Spain

I love vegetables, I love fish, and I’m not massively keen on cooking, especially in the heat of summer – so barbeques are a winner in my book, as you can have a bit of everything. The fresh fish you can get here in southern Spain includes delicious, dirt-cheap sardines and mackerel (right of photo), and more expensive dorada (gilt-head bream) and prawns, and of course fabulous vegetables. We barbeque about three times a week in summer, in the cool of the evening. (Well, my husband does, while I sit and drink my tinto con blanca.)

A shot that takes my breath away – up a mountain in darkest Peru

Walking the Inca trail to Macchu Picchu, this was one of our camps. We were up in the mountains, it was cold, and we had to walk through a bog to get to the loo. But when you wake up to a scene like this outside your tent, you forget about all that.

A shot that makes me proud – Galapagos Islands

In the Galapagos you’re constantly surrounded by wildlife, and if you can’t get a half-decent shot, you should just go home. In my case, I managed to *whisper* forget my camera (blame an all-nighter) and had to buy a disposable. But hey – at least I got the essential blue-footed booby shot.

My nominated Seven Super Shots-ers are:

Bibsey Mama

Michi

Julie Dawn Fox

Better late than never

I have a blogger friend called Bibsey Mama, whom I have mentioned before, as she always makes me laugh, and has a rather fine turn of phrase about being a mum, and stuff like that.

A few days ago, she did a post for Mother’s Day, which was on Sunday if you happen to be as clueless about these things as I am. She tagged me for something called a meme, whereby you answer some questions and then pass the idea onto other bloggers.

Needless to say, I didn’t manage to do this in time for Mother’s Day, largely because I was out and about, but also because I, er, forgot. To be fair, Bibsey did acknowledge that there wasn’t much time left before Mother’s Day to write the post. So I’m sure she won’t mind that I’m a couple of days late.

I don’t tend to write much about being a mum, as I’m not sure I’d know where to start, so I don’t know many mummy bloggers. Which is why I haven’t tagged that many other mums below. Anyway, now that the big day has passed, the post is just a general one about parent/motherhood, which is always a good subject for what it tells us about people and their attitudes.

Describe motherhood in three words
Exhausting, challenging, rewarding.

Does your experience differ from your mother’s – how?
It does and it doesn’t. My mum was a SAHM (called a housewife in those days), who didn’t much like cooking and hating being bombarded with questions about anything and everything.  Her mother lived in Scotland and my other grandmother had died, so she didn’t have any family around. I’m a journalist and I work from home, often with the kids around, with ample help from my mother-in-law when I need peace. I sometimes enjoy cooking, but always love my kids asking me questions. Explaining things to them is a joy. That’s the journalist in me – being  careful to choose the right words in order to get my point across to the audience, even if they are three years old.

What’s the hardest thing about being a mum?
Trying not to lose my rag, which I usually fail at. I’ve got a short temper which I know I need to control better, and my tongue tends to run away with me. And I don’t have a good handle on the work/life balance – too much of me glued to the computer in the afternoon while the kids are glued to the TV, when we should be doing artsy crafty stuff or baking cookies.

What’s the best thing?
Seeing my children hug each other, and play their complicated, imaginative role-playing games together, and hearing their involved, surreal conversations. And lots and lots of hugs.

How has it changed you?
It has made me suffer fools less gladly and be more protective, though less able to switch off. My liver is thanking me; I used to like my drinkies.

What do you hope for your children?
Happiness, good health and a realistic sense of what life is about. I fear I had it much easier than they’re going to.

What do you fear for them?
Anything bad, from illness to relationships (I’ve had a few of the latter).

What makes it all worthwhile?
Laughter and hugs. Drawings and off-the-wall comments. Reading stories and singing songs together. Family rambles in the countryside. More things than I could name. And there’s so much more to come. How incredibly bloody lucky we mums are (see – that foul mouth).

Here are the fellow mummy bloggers to whom I am passing the baton – run with it, chicas!

Digamama

Victoria Wallop

Quiero milk

Updating a classic

This week, the Alfonso XIII hotel in Seville reopened after a major refurbishment. This landmark luxury hotel, one of the most famous in Spain, had been closed since the end of May last year.

When I first heard about the refit, I wondered if they would go all designer minimalist, with bare rooms accented by statement lamps and crazy artwork. Many hotels with old facades here in Seville – the EME and Fontecruz in Seville, for example – have chosen to go down the largely monochrome with jewel-coloured velvet sofas, metallic lamps and bold patterns road, with mixed success.

The Alfonso XIII has trod a careful path – the majority of their clients are people who prefer traditional decor and comfortable rooms, rather than a rustic wooden four-poster and a clothes rail.

All the famous tiles of the public areas remain – notably, the entrance hall and public areas on the ground floor, and the staircase.

As you can see, the colour palette is neutral, but with modern accents such as the square lamp, graphic rug and studded square leather pouffes. The studded theme is repeated throughout the hotel, a nod to Seville’s medieval era as seen in the Alcazar.

Some fabrics are a little more interesting print-wise – among the fabrics used are Ralph Lauren. Quite bold, but in a conservative way, if you know what I mean. Classic contemporary.

The new tapas bar, formerly the  Bar Alfonso, has a bold red theme (popular with hotel tapas bars, as it’s such an Andalucian colour – passionate and fiery: the EME’s is similar).

With the imposing portraits it feels appropriately regal. While the serious-looking aristocratic gentlemen (when your hotel is named after a king, you can’t very well not have a likeness of hhim) were not to my personal taste, I loved the oak bar, embroidered leather sofa – made in Spain – hurrah! – and the studded wooden panel down one edge of the bar.

The outside terrace is one of my favourite spots (until the much-anticipated new American Bar – turquoise Art Deco, no less – opens), with its gauzy curtains and shady hideaways.

But of course the most important feature for most guests is their own personal space – the bedrooms. These come in three themes: Andalucian, Castillian and Moorish. The first is the photo shown at the top of this post. Here is the Castillian.

What stood out most in these newly decorated rooms, for me, where the shaped headboards, and the white walls, which replace the fancy silk wallpaper and give a much more clean, modern look. Furniture is either specially commissioned for the hotel, or reconditioned antique, with original wood and new leather, such as this chair.

Walls are hung with black and white historic photographic prints, and contemporary art. But they also have chandeliers, which I thought looked totally out of place.

The Moroccan ceiling lamps were much more in keeping.

Most interesting, for me, were the Mudejar rooms, which have retained their elaborate plasterwork mouldings around the beds, and have brass Moroccan wall lamps on either side. Mudejar is the Arabic style which was employed by Moors who stayed behind in Spain after the Inquisition, outwardly coverting to Christianity, and using their traditional skills to create countless beautiful structures around Spain.

These, along with the inlaid tables and mirrors have the Mudejar rooms a much more tangible character, although I wasn’t too keen on the upholstery fabrics.

Other details I liked included the wardrobes, which are fitted out in black and red with handy (studded) drawers, and look (to my mind) like Louis Vuitton trunks – of which I have 15, naturally. They’re also inspired by Morocco, the hotel group’s regional president told me.

The bathrooms are the same as ever, with the metallic tiles, but with new taps.

All in all, I think the design company, Hirsch Bedner, which did the Landmark in London and Mandarin Oriental in New York, have successfully updated the Alfonso XIII’s look, giving it a fresher feel but without putting off the purists.

Personally I had hoped to be rather more blown away, but then it doesn’t cater to my taste. I’ll leave you with one of my favourite touches; those studded leather pouffes and gorgeous wool rugs.

Ups and downs

Lately, my life seems to be a series of peaks and troughs. Nothing dramatic, thankfully – no deaths or major illnesses, or serious disasters. Just one of those times when a week without anything going wrong represents an unusual, and welcome, period of calm.

Last week, I was staying in one of the best hotels in Spain, according to Conde Nast Traveller among others. I’ll be blogging about it in detail soon.

This week, there wasn’t enough money in the bank account to pay the mobile phone bill, and our (other, thankfully) car died. It was a 20-year-old Volvo kindly donated to us, which lasted for a year and was extremely useful for my husband as a second means of fanily transport, especially for ferrying children around and leaving me free, occasionally, to get out and about without my carriage turning into a pumpkin, Cinderella-style, at 2pm when school finishes for the day.

Living half one’s life in a dreamworld can be confusing. When I am lucky enough to be invited to stay in such places, I try to make sure my car isn’t too dirty (failed this time, both inside and out); my suitcase is not too scruffy (oops, handle broken); and my clothes are appropriate (almost, though too plain. Forgot jewellery. No holes, creases or fallen hems, at least).

My knackered laptop looked completely out of place in my huge sea-view suite (I wish now I’d taken a photo of it in situ – at the time, it didn’t occur to me). When my host asked what my husband did, it’s hard to dodge the fact that, rather than being some dashing entrepreneur or successful lawyer, he’s an out-of-work engineer who’s been on the dole for two years. The bubble of our luxe-surroundings conversation bursts, and we come back down to earth with a bump.

All this isn’t to say I’m not happy with my life. I have two gorgeous, healthy children, who are as creative and bilingual and affectionate as I could hope them to be; we live in a small house which belongs to us, not the bank; I have a loving, if not overly industrious husband; an endlessly supportive and helpful mother-in-law; and a group of fantastic friends; and I love my work – well, who wouldn’t? I write for a living.

Swinging between wordly, confident journalist and competent, organised mother isn’t easy for anyone, and nor is being the sole wage-earner, though obviously it’s vastly preferable to both of us being without an income. But please don’t think I’m whinging, because I’m not; I’m just describing my topsy-turvy life.

Tomorrow I’m going to the reopening of a palace-hotel, built as Spain’s most luxurious by the then-king. I’ve already laid out my clothes, just to make sure I don’t inadvertently wear something which will embarrass me (it’s happened before). I’m looking forward to it, though I know I’ll have to do my Wonder Woman role-change spin before I leave the house.

What are you thankful for?