Sunday, 2 October 2016

Inaugural visit to the house with no name

Cathy and I have owned our place in Blanca for just under two months, and finally the time came for us to head out there and refamiliarise ourselves with the house and to properly investigate our new local area. 

Cathy picked me up at an obscenely early hour of the morning to get us to Gatwick for our 5.50am flight to Alicante. By 10.15, our adventure had begun - we had our hire car and we were on the road from Alicante to Murcia. Given that autumn had arrived in the UK just before we left, it was lovely to head out into blue skies and temperatures in the mid-20s. The satnav did its job and delivered us to the centre of Blanca but then it was a question of whether we could actually find the house by memory, since we didn't have a street address. The house is across the river from the main part of town, in a tiny area called Los Tollos. OK, so memory didn't quite do the trick but a quick squint on Google Earth helped us work out where we'd gone wrong and 5 minutes later we were rounding the bend for our first view of the house in 8 months. 

And there it was, in all its rural stone glory! It looked better and bigger from the outside than we'd remembered. Since we didn't yet have the keys, we were planning to just have a good look around the outside and take some photos before heading to the estate agents office to pick up the keys and the deeds. This plan was scuppered by the fact that we had an unexpected meeting with our lovely Spanish next door neighbours. It was a challenge language-wise as, quite rightly, they speak no English, my Spanish isn't really far above basic these days, and I'm used to the standard Madrid accent. Not much help when faced with a 60-70 year-old lady, missing a few teeth, with a very strong Murcian accent and a knack for speaking at a hundred miles an hour! After a brief chat, a couple of snuggles with their very cute (adopted stray) cat, and a lovely offer of "If you need anything, just ask us" from Pilar and her nameless husband, we went back to the centre of town to meet Tracey, Álvaro and Marina at Casas de España

Two hours later, we had the keys, the insurance documents (no deeds yet as they're still with the registry office) and our newly-issued bank card. We headed back to the house with the agents to go over the house with a fine-toothed comb and come up with a definitive list of required renovations. Tracey, lovely though she is, has the memory of a goldfish and didn't seem to be able to recall any of the details discussed in our multiple recent emails so we were effectively starting from scratch. Fortunately, Alvaro is not only a lawyer but also an architect, and he had the good sense to bring a pen and paper. An hour later, we had our list and Álvaro was ready to start contacting various contractors to sort out a quote (which has yet to materialise).

If things go well, over the next couple of months (and if the quotes are acceptable!), we should have at least the ground floor completely rewired including a new fuse box, the water connection reinstated, a repaired roof, two repaired ceilings, a false insulated wall over some damp, a couple of new beams, a new kitchen worktop, new toilet, repaired bath/shower, new kitchen taps, a water heater and, most importantly, a roof terrace! We are keeping our fingers very tightly crossed on the roof terrace front because there's a public streetlight screwed to one of the exterior walls (a wall which will have to come down!) and Álvaro is going to have to talk to the town hall about repositioning possibilities! There's a somewhat shorter list of "possibles" - replacement door and windows, and the demolition of an interior wall to make the entrance room much bigger - but they'll only get done if it all comes in under budget! Now it's fingers and toes crossed!

Over the next two whirlwind days, and in no particular order, we:
- stocked up on all sorts of cleaning products and implements ready for an assault on the dust and cobwebs;
- tracked down a second-hand furniture shop in Lorquí, haggled for and bought a cute little chest of drawers, and didn't buy the marvellous motorbike leaning near it;
- found another (recommended) furniture shop in Abarán but it was closed due to it being the town fiesta;
- negotiated the ludicrously enormous roundabout on the outskirts of Murcia in order to get to Ikea and bought a coffee table, a chest of drawers, an outside table and chairs, 2 bins, a loo brush (!), a washing-up brush, an uplighter (every house in the world has to have an Ikea NOT uplighter) and, most importantly, two cat-print design cushions;
- struggled from the car into the house with said purchases, very helpfully watched by two blokes on their balcony further down the road, who seemed to find our efforts rather amusing. Always happy to oblige!

- went to the market in Ricote where a very smiley stall-holder was so baffled by the fact that I only wanted one plum, he wouldn't charge me for it, and I bought some hilarious printed trousers for €3;
- walked a long way in Archena (where we were staying) to get to a highly recommended tapas bar only to find it's closed on Monday evenings;
- walked to the same tapas bar the next evening and had a really delicious meal with 6 large tapas, a huge plate of grilled vegetables and 9 beers (!) for just over €30;
- enjoyed a classic cheese and tomato breakfast toastie and fresh orange juice on both mornings at a lovely little bar down the road from our hotel;
- met our immediate next-door neighbour, a youngish guy who lives alone in the L-shaped house that abuts ours, and found his Murcian accent is almost more impenetrable than the older lady in the next house along, but we did get to see his bread oven (ooh er);
- visited the bizarre "Museo de Esparto" in Archena. No, we didn't know what it was either and the English translation "esparto grass" or "halfa grass" didn't help, but it's what espadrilles are made of (hence the name);
- found a dessicated lizard on the kitchen floor, probably the most recent living occupant of the house, who we formally named Des but then unceremoniously swept into a large black rubbish bag;
- swept all the floors downstairs, brushed all the cobwebs off the ceilings and walls downstairs, and discovered just how much better a place can look by simply doing those two things! 
- walked from the house into town to see how long it takes. 25 minutes, if you stop to take photos and cross the river to see the public laundry baths, but 15 minutes (slightly uphill) on the way back if you keep walking! 
- identified the first accessible panadería (bakery), so a lovely early morning walk into town, along the river, to buy bread for breakfast and get back will take about 35 minutes. Lovely!
- were inexplicably called over by a large group of old men near the river in town who (I think) thought we were looking for where to swim! We explained not and when I said we were English, they roared with laughter. OK. Bye then!
- found the Blanca tourist office (shut)

I'm sure we did lots of other things but my memory's not what it used to be!

For me, the best thing about those few days was the reminder of just what it was about the Ricote Valley that impressed us so much back in January. It is a beautiful, verdant valley, a gorgeous green lush landscape amongst the dry, arid mountains all around. 

With any luck, my photos of our trip are HERE. Everything about Picasa seems to have changed since the last time I used it so my editing and sharing might have gone horribly wrong. House pics should be first, both before and after our brief clean, then our tootling about shots. 

A new Spanish adventure

So ... back in January, Cathy and I went to the beautiful region of Murcia in Spain, ostensibly to look for a new house for Cathy to buy once she had sold the gorgeous Étoile de Mer in France. I was delighted to be involved in helping her look around but I readily admit that I was more than a little envious of her plans. We saw five houses, including an odd 2-storey maisonette (complete with contents), a completely destroyed tiny house in a hamlet of only 5 houses, and a house with a garden steeper than Mount Everest.

When we got back, one house of the remaining two kept coming back to us but it was over Cathy's budget. In a moment of madness and, as it turned out, not ill-placed optimism, I asked my mum if she'd like to be part-owner of a house in Spain with Cathy. "No", she said. Ah well, it was worth asking, I thought, not expecting the next words ... "... but if you want to, I'll stump up your half!" Not wishing to look a supremely generous gift horse in the mouth, whilst gaping open-mouthed at the text message in front of my eyes, I digitally stuttered "Oh my god. Are you SERIOUS?!" closely followed by "Yes please!"

There ensued a somewhat protracted period of negotiation, with our first offer being turned down, not on the basis of the price offered, but on the completion date (they wanted to complete in about 3 months but we were looking at more like 6 months). The agents said they would keep in touch about the house just in case it was still on the market a few months later but we assumed it would be snapped up fairly quickly. Just a couple of weeks later, however, they said they were going to contact the sellers and see if they could convince them to accept our offer but with the later completion date. We weren't confident but less than an hour later, we received an email entitled "Great news!" 

A flurry of texts ensued, much along the lines of "Are we sure about this?" but later that day, we confirmed our offer and the ball was well and truly rolling. 

The next few months involved hundreds of emails, signing contracts, signing Power of Attorney paperwork, opening a bank account (13 attachments all to be printed, signed and sent to Spain - not easy when I was in the UK and Cathy was in Doha!)

But on the 4th of August, 2016, it happened. A "Congratulations" email popped into our inboxes, with confirmation that completion had gone through that morning and it was actually ours. Ours. OURS! A six-bedroomed stone-built house in Blanca, in the beautiful Ricote Valley, Murcia. 


THIS is the estate agent's listing for it (we'd only taken 3 photos on our visit so this was all we'd had to go on apart from our memory):
First visit should take place in late September. Can't wait! 

Thursday, 1 January 2015

That Was The Year That Was

Well, having failed dismally to do individual posts for most of the things I did last year, I've decided on a little roundup of 2014. So these are my highlights from the last twelve months (needless to say, another long post. I should study brevity in 2015). 

January 2014

A quiet New Year's Eve at home led me into 2014, during the first week of which I exercised my performance-watching skills, seeing Priscilla - Queen of the Desert on stage at the Theatre Royal and then The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, both very enjoyable. 

Later in the month, I spent a fantastic long weekend at Wilmington Priory with Sid, Cathy and Ed, and Julia and Mike. Staying in the old priory itself was fantastic and we had plenty of walks, table tennis in a freezing cold haunted room, a séance (!), evenings round the fire and a delicious dinner at The Giant's Rest. Great company and gorgeous surroundings. 

And on the final evening of the month, Cathy and I braved torrential rain and a mini-hurricane to go for a Groupon meal deal at The Beachview Greek restaurant on the seafront (I see from the current website that it's now a Spanish restaurant!) Can't go wrong with a few stuffed vine leaves, if you ask me. 

February 2014

My birthday rolled around, as they are wont to do. This year it coincided with the monthly Treason Show, so after a few drinks at the labyrinthine pub The Bee's Mouth and some delicious food at Iydea, we were off to The Brunswick for a couple of hours of hilarity. I spent the next couple of days down at my mum's and she treated me to a delicious birthday meal at Kali Mirchi, And as if I hadn't eaten enough, I was then back at The Giant's Rest in Wilmington for lunch with my dad and stepmum! 

Mid-February saw me fulfil a dream - I went, with Ange, to see Derren Brown on stage. Of course, I'm not allowed to give anything away but suffice to say, it was bleedin' marvellous! 

A clear night later in the month found Dade and me at Woods Mill for a group astronomy evening. Almost as if it had been planned, just as we were all talking about differentiating between planes and satellites, the International Space Station flew over. There were incredible binoculars and telescopes there for us to gaze through which, as always, made my brain hurt when looking at and thinking about infinity! 

My mum came down to stay for a couple of days just after her birthday. We had a wander through town and a drink before heading to Archipelago's for a glorious meal and rather too much wine. The wine was what made us think it was a really good idea to go for a walk along the seafront in a howling gale and the rapidly arriving torrential rain. Oops! The following morning we headed to Carat's for a much-needed brunch before mum headed back home. 

March 2014

Early March found me and Cathy at The Freemasons for our first ever French pub quiz, courtesy of the lovely Carole Jacquet of The Language Guru. It was an interesting experience - I'm not sure how much French we spoke or learnt but it was a good evening and we've been back several times since (and have even roped Ed and Sid in!)

Cathy and I went on a tour of Brighton Dome early one Sunday morning. There's something a little eerie about an empty theatre and we got to nose around the dressing rooms (and see a secret tunnel) but unfortunately we weren't able to go onto the stage because it was being set up for a show. 

Later in the month, I accompanied Cathy on a long-awaited return trip to Etoile de Mer (see this blog post). 

No sooner were we back from France than it was time for Cathy's birthday celebrations - drinks at Paris House and more delicious food at Archipelago's. 

A week later, with Cathy, Sid, Ange and Carol, I enjoyed two hours of karaoke at Lucky Voice, where you get a private booth so that you and your friends can belt out/wail/warble/scream to your heart's content without upsetting anyone! We'd set up our playlist in advance so we didn't waste time choosing songs. The glitterball-lit two hours sped by in a whirlwind of weird and wonderful songs, accompanied by the tambourine they leave in the room and rather a lot of air guitar! 

Two days later, Julia and I ran the Dr Hadwen Trust stall at Vegfest Brighton. It was a tiring but very rewarding day - we were both surprised at how few people had heard of the charity, given the general demographic of attendees. So we were happy to be spreading the word about its fantastic (and cruelty-free) work. 

April 2014

The month started fairly quietly (Cathy having gone to work abroad by this point and of course no social events happen when she's away ... ahem, Cathy, you'll need to skip to July in order to remain certain of that fact!). 

Sid and I had a giggle-filled early evening on the pétanque piste on Hove seafront. Who knew so much laughter could be induced by throwing six heavy metal balls at a small wooden one? 

The lovely Kim popped over from Spain to her old home town and I spent a fine afternoon and evening bar-hopping with her and some of her oldest friends. 

A fine day was spent with my mum and my aunt at Monkey World, where they both still have an adopted rescued ape. For me, though, the highlight here is always the lemur enclosure because the animals choose to get so close to you! 

May 2014

Early May saw Dade, my friend and flatmate, turn 40 (yup, sorry, it's out there!) and knowing how rubbish men are at treating themselves to anything nice, I whisked him off to deepest Dorset for a couple of days on the Jurassic Coast, a trip to Corfe Castle, some messing around at Durdle Door and a very large bottle of champagne!

By now, it was time for the second foreign sojourn of the year so it was off to southern Spain with Sid for a week's R&R. If you haven't fallen asleep by now, and missed it the first time, you can read about that here.

Later in the month, Dade managed to secure some free tickets to The Ladyboys of Bangkok show (thanks to his marvellous promotional photos of them) - very entertaining, some serious talent and I still find it hard to believe that most of them are male. 

June 2014

A quiet start to the month led up to Sid's birthday celebrations, including a splendid meal out with friends, brunch at Iydea, a day on the beach (yes, we had a decent summer!) and nibbles and fizz on the roof terrace. 

Later in the month, we were still enjoying good weather so Cathy and I joined Sid on her roof terrace again for a BBQ (and some jousting with halloumi kebabs!)

INTERVAL! Yes, we're halfway through the year. Go get a cup of tea and a biscuit!

July 2014

The month started with another trip to Paris House and an evening at Archipelago's to celebrate Cathy's return from her 3-month stint abroad. And very lovely to have her back it was too. 

A sunny Saturday afternoon found me heading to Kent to celebrate the engagement of my gorgeous cousin Joe to the wonderful Leanne. It was a lovely day, tables groaning with delicious food and the fun of using the actual bar they have in their garden shed (which is bigger than my flat, I would like to point out). Most of my family made it so it was good to meet Leanne's family too (and warn them that she was marrying into a bunch of nutters). 

Sid and I went to the Queens Park Royal Spa to see a performance of Macbeth by the wonderful outdoor Shakespeare company, Illyria. And later in the month, we went to a show by the amazing octogenarian raconteuse, Lynn Ruth Miller. For reasons which now escape me, some of the show entailed her throwing Tena Lady pads around the audience. If you get a chance to see her live, take it!

In mid-July I took a rare trip to London for a reunion of the staff I used to work with at Waterloo International (god, that was a long time ago). It was 10 years since the closure of the office. I met Malcolm early evening and we lined our stomachs at Wahaca near London Bridge, before heading to The Stage Door at Waterloo. We were a bit late to the party though as it turned out the majority of attendees had got there at midday so were long gone. But it was good to catch up with those who were still there! Real blasts from the past. 

For my birthday, I had received a voucher for a cookery course from Titbits Catering so in the middle of July I walked round to a flat not far from mine, and joined five other people learning how to make a delicious three-course vegan meal (in the tiniest kitchen I've ever seen!) 

The following evening, Cathy, Ed and I joined a local group for a Glow-worm Hunt at Steyning Downland Scheme. We learned plenty - they're not worms, it's only the females who glow, they only glow when they're trying to attract a mate and they don't eat! Hunting across a vast expanse of hillside in the dark looking for that tiny pinprick of light really is like looking for a needle in a haystack but ... we found some! I had the proud pleasure of spotting one really well hidden in the grass which, upon inspection, turned out to be the smallest/youngest one the walk leader had ever seen. 

Another sunny Sunday was spent firstly at a BBQ on The Level with Richi (the tallest man I've ever met) and some of his friends and family, and then at Pebbles on the Port with Cathy, Ed and Cathy's nephews watching the splendid Abba tribute band and enjoying cold beers and late afternoon sunshine.

August 2014

Early August saw my mum and I heading to the depths of Kent to help an ex-relative (!) celebrate his 60th birthday. The 100 or so guests enjoyed gorgeous food, never-ending drinks, croquet, pétanque and lots of socialising in the huge garden of the even huger house. I'm sure, one day, it'll be featured in magazines. 

The following day I had a rare opportunity to see my Norfolk-based cousins (normally only encountered at weddings and funerals) when they came down to visit their mum who lives round the corner from mine. I do love the fact that it doesn't matter how long it is between meet-ups, our family members just slip into lovely comfortable chat and nonsense as if we had seen each other only yesterday. 

Yet another sunny Sunday (are we sure this is the UK?) found me and Cathy heading off very early in the morning to the Isle of Wight for the Jack Up The 80s music festival. It was a marathon journey there and back in one day but well worth it. Dr and the Medics were an absolute revelation - the hit of the day! 

A mid-August evening was the opportunity for me and Cathy to go hunting for more glow-worms - this time, it was glow-worms, bats and meteors we were looking for. We had roaring success with the bats, even more glow-worms than the previous trip but sadly, due to cloud cover, no meteors. 

Our vocal cords were feeling unappreciated, so we organised another karaoke bash, this time preceded by divine food at the Curry Leaf Cafe. A few songs made a reappearance but mostly we found new tunes to massacre!

Cathy and I went to the Duke of York's to see a Belgian film (in French) - Two Days, One Night. It's a very good film, see it if you get the chance. 

September 2014

How best to follow a really nice sunny summer in the UK? Head back to southern Spain for another week of beaching, reading, lazing, eating and drinking. Sid and I had enjoyed our trip in May so much that we went back to the same little town, though staying in a different property this time. Our lovely little whitewashed house, Avda 222, was surrounded by bougainvillea and had an enormous (and very hot) roof terrace. If we thought we'd been lazy in May, we outdid ourselves this time. We drove to a few little local villages and went caving, but for most of the week, we worked our way round the multiple coves and beaches, sunbathing, swimming and reading. A properly relaxing week! 

Carol's birthday was celebrated with a tasty meal at Macara's in Hove, an interesting evening given that I only knew 3 of the 12 people at the table! 

The following night, Sid and I went to one of those random things that always make me think "Only in Brighton!" Or in this case, in Shoreham. After a delicious meal at Tosca, we headed to one of the houseboats on the river, Verda, to listen to The Shakespeare Heptet - a bizarre group of musicians who put Shakespeare sonnets to music. They're very talented and it was a weird and wonderful evening, only slightly tainted by the rather eccentric owner of the houseboat stopping the gig halfway through the second half to try to clear a space for dancing, even though it was quite clear that he was the only person interested in dancing! 

And the night after that, Dade and I went to The Greys pub to see Porchlight Smoker play. I'd spotted the listing and booked without really knowing anything about them but my dad told me he'd seen them before and that they were fantastic. He wasn't wrong. It was a rip-roaring, foot-stomping evening of whoopiness (you might recognise a version of those words on their website. I posted a review and they asked if they could use my words for their tagline!)

October 2014

Early autumn brought about another evening of nature with a MeetUp group someone I know runs - School of the Wild. This was only their third get-together but it was well worth going to. It was called a "Bat and Owl Prowl" and although we did hear/see a few bats, the owls were the stars. We headed deep into the woods at Stanmer Park and the leader played owl calls over her iPod speakers, drawing two or three owls to the vicinity. Standing in the pitch dark, listening to their calls getting closer and closer was eerie but very exciting, and the sudden sight of one swooping out of a nearby tree and zooming straight over our heads was wonderful. I truly could have stayed there all night! 

Later in the month, I joined Ange, Sid, Catherine and Lois for food at the Curry Leaf Café again, followed by a gig by Caro Emerald. It had been postponed from the previous March so it had been a long time coming! If I'm honest, I wasn't particularly excited about it - I knew one song by her, and liked it, but after booking the tickets I'd heard more of her music and it wasn't really my cup of tea. Still, I had been looking forward to an evening out with friends so I went - and enjoyed it. Not enough to go again but enough to be up and dancing by the encore. 

Two days later, I joined Sid at Union Music, a tiny country music store in Lewes for one of their occasional free gigs. This was by Ward Thomas, Home Counties-raised twins who have absolutely found their niche as a country music duo. The shop holds about 35 people, crammed around the racks of CDs and albums, and surrounded by the instruments hung on the walls, and the two girls and their backing singer/guitarist/percussionist were simply standing in the window area at the end of the shop. They played about 6 songs over half an hour (it was free!) and they blew our socks off. Their lyrics are really clever and the harmonies are beautiful. Another recommendation - see them if you get the chance. 

On a less cheerful note, October also saw the funeral of my great-uncle Brian, the last remaining member of my grandfather's generation of the family. I was very glad to have had one last chance to see him a couple of months earlier at the care home he had moved into. Even at his advanced age and clearly having serious medical issues, he was still eloquent, erudite and quite cheeky at that visit. 

An afterthought - I spent October sober. I realise that makes me sound like a complete lush but basically, I simply decided not to have an alcoholic drink for the whole month. I felt a lot better for it too! 

November 2014

The main event of this month was my four-day trip to Istanbul to visit Cathy during her posting. She was on her 4th posting abroad and this was the first time that practicalities had allowed me to organise a visit. I'd heard wonderful things about it in the past but had never been - not even to Turkey. Having got over the panic of discovering I needed to get my passport renewed just three weeks before my trip (it came back in time), I packed my bag to go to a country I'd never been to before. That doesn't happen very often. I should have got around to writing the blog about that trip by now but I haven't - however, I still plan to so all I'll say now is that I fell totally and completely in love with the city within the first couple of hours. Cathy was a marvellous host and it was great to have someone who knew where to go and what to do. We tried to do things she hadn't done with her other visitors so that she didn't have to keep duplicating excursions - on the Monday, I had the day alone anyway because she was at work, so on that day I did the things she'd done already. If I go back, I will happily spend a lot of the time crossing the Bosphorus on the little ferry over to the Asian side and just wandering through the foodstall-lined streets. 

I spent most of the second half of the month down with the unpleasant winter lurgy so my social activities were somewhat depleted! 

December 2014

Having shaken off the nastiness, the obvious thing to do was go to a ceilidh! It was organised by another MeetUp group, The Rant. I'd been to one ceilidh before, nearly two decades ago and I'd enjoyed it but you never know with these things. I needn't have worried - Cathy and I headed in, got our mulled wine and mince pie (it was the Xmas get-together, after all) and joined in. They're a really friendly bunch, there's no pretensions or frustration with the beginners, and we had a real laugh. I think a return visit is on the cards soon. 

The following day, Cathy and I joined a walk and lunch organised by a Sussex Wildlife Trust sub-group. We met our walking companions at The Black Horse, Findon, and set off on a walk to Cissbury Ring. It was a nice, easy dawdle, ending with great views over Sussex - hills and sea. I had a long chat with the organiser while we were walking - he completes and compiles the hardest cryptic crossword in the country (The Listener in The Times on Saturday) and he was trying to explain the thinking behind the clues. I'm a fairly good cryptic crossword solver but he lost me pretty fast! We wended our way back to the pub where the group had a tasty meal, completed a cryptic quiz and embarrassed ourselves on the skittle alley. The people were very friendly and welcoming to us newcomers and we plan to go on some of their other monthly walks in the coming year. 

That evening, we had a nostalgia trip, along with Carol, seeing Madness at the Brighton Centre. I'd seen them a few times before and they never disappoint. There was much singing along and even some pogo-ing. 

A chilly Wednesday evening found our same little group, plus Ange and Ann, hitting the Theatre Royal for the stage show of The Full Monty. It was really good fun, well staged, well acted, funny in the right places, sad in the others and with all the "bits" you'd expect (sort of)! 

Cathy's annual Christmas get-together was my next social engagement. As always, it was a marvellous evening of chat, laughter, nibbles, drink and, more importantly, sprout racing - and a new addition this year - penguin racing. There were even some genuinely funny (and new) cracker jokes - unheard of! The evening always provides that proper festive feeling that's needed a couple of weeks before Christmas. 

Our work Christmas do went ahead a few days later with cocktails at Misty's followed by food at Modelo Lounge. Sadly, the Lounge didn't live up to expectations for which I take some responsibility. I had been to the Alcampo Lounge near my flat and enjoyed really good food and ambience, and also visited the Santo Lounge in Southampton, which is why I recommended the Modelo Lounge for the Xmas do. The food was surprisingly disappointing - not awful, just nothing-y. Still, the vast quantities of wine seemed to help temper our disappointment and we still had a splendid evening! 

Four days before the big day, I was invited to my stepsister's house for a Xmas get-together with my stepfamily. Jane had really challenged herself - 16 of us for lunch in a living/dining room you would swear could hold maybe 10. Doors were taken off hinges, tables were built in the spaces left once people had taken their seats and Jane and Alan dished up a delicious full Christmas dinner, all ready at the same time and all hot! I have no idea how they did it. It was a lovely afternoon of food, chat, new people, fizz and silly hats! 

The following day I met Ange for lunch at Silo for our Christmas meetup and chat. I'd been introduced to Silo earlier in the year by Dade and it's a real find. It's a zero-waste restaurant - instead of me trying to explain that, have a good read of the website. It's a very clever setup. 

The Christmas social whirl continued that evening with mulled wine and nibbles at Sid's with Cathy. Another lovely evening full of wine, cheese and crackers! You may have noticed a pattern to December!

Once I'd finally finished work at 4pm, Dade and I had a sneaky Christmas Eve drink at The Jolly Poacher down the road and then had a very quiet, chilled Christmas Day at the flat. Silly Christmas films and present opening was followed, eventually, by a gigantic roast dinner, leading into a lazy evening of more TV and Baileys. It was the first time I had spent an entire Christmas Day in my own home for about 30 years, I think! 

On Boxing Day morning, I headed to my mum's and from there we went to my aunt's for Christmas Day #2, with my uncle's two kids and their other halves. It was a very convivial meal, followed by an impromptu party which came about simply because lots of their friends started popping round to say hello and then stayed! It was a lot of fun - very loud, very funny and very sociable. 

The 29th brought me, Cathy, Sid, Carol and Kim to dinner at the Curry Leaf Café and then The Treason Show End of the Year Show. This has become a staple of our Christmas/New Year entertainment - it's a two-hour roundup of the best sketches from the monthly Treason Show from the preceding 12 months. It's always hilarious and this year didn't disappoint. At times, we were crying and clutching our sides. They're a disgracefully talented bunch and I'm looking forward to seeing them at their new venue, The Rialto Theatre

And finally (you'll be pleased to know!) we reach New Year's Eve. A surprisingly busy day at work was followed by a lovely evening at Sid's. We ate far too much food, drank less than expected, chatted about anything and everything, sneakily watched other people's fireworks from the roof terrace, and ditched Jools Holland to watch Adam Lambert and Queen. If you've never heard of Adam Lambert, you're not alone. I hadn't a clue who he was until last night but the remaining members of Queen have, quite rightly, seen something in him that has allowed him to take on that hallowed position once held by Freddie Mercury. The obligatory countdown led to Big Ben bonging in the New Year and a quite startling firework display over The Thames. Cheers and good wishes were passed in person and online before Jools Holland finally got a look in with the rest of his Hootenanny to take us through till the early hours of the morning. 

Throughout 2014, Cathy and I continued to work on Write Me A Murder plots, receiving some really positive feedback from several groups. There have also been walks in various pretty parts of Sussex, others in Hampshire, sunny and blowy walks on the seafront, duvet days, TV series marathons, and a fairly human proportion of love, laughter, tears and nonsense! 

So thank you to everyone involved in my 2014 for making it the year it was! 

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Sun, sea, sand but no sangria - Spring sojourn to Spain

The basics

San Juan de los Terreros, a small town in Almería (Andalucia), not far from the border with Murcia. A Facebook friend (one of those FB friends I've never actually met) let slip that he owns an apartment in San Juan and that was it. My yearning for some sunshine after the long, grey, wet winter had its solution. A week in May was available and so was Sid. Within a couple of days of our conversation, the apartment was booked and so were the flights and car hire. 

Finally, departure day came around and an uneventful flight from Gatwick to Murcia delivered us to warm, lovely southern Spain. The hour's drive from the airport to the town was fast and unbelievably quiet. Ian had told me the roads would be quiet but I didn't expect us to have kilometre upon kilometre of toll motorway to ourselves.

We met up with Ava, who handles meet and greet on Ian's behalf, she took us to the apartment and off she went. A bit of unpacking and it was time for a trip to the supermarket and a little look round. 

The accommodation

Milenio 1 is a two-bedroom, two-bathroom, ground floor apartment in a block of nine apartments. It's clean, airy, bright and nicely decorated, has WiFi, a fully equipped kitchen (including a washing machine) and a spacious patio. There's a communal swimming pool (not heated) surrounded by a small area of interestingly springy grass! With so many beaches to choose from every day, I only used the pool twice but it's a good facility to have.

The location

San Juan de los Terreros is very much a holiday development without being a huge area of high-rises and hotels. There are small, narrow original streets closer to the beach but the new development starts about half a mile back from the beach. The rows of houses reminded me of Portmeirion, with their pastel colours. The town is surrounded by mountains, behind which the sun sets quite spectacularly. And they do like a roundabout!

The town itself is small, easy to navigate and, in May, like a ghost town! There is a relatively new wide, palm-lined boulevard which runs from the central fountain, out along the back of the beach for a couple of kilometres, which then turns inland for another couple. To the back of the boulevard are several chiringuitas - cafe/bar structures, great for a drink or a snack when it gets too hot on the beach. 

The beaches

There are plenty of beaches within walking/driving distance of San Juan. The town itself has a huge long stretch of beach starting at the centre of town and running along in front of the boulevard. On the first day, we plonked ourselves down on Playa Mar Serena, the longest and widest stretch in town. It was clear that it was very early in the season - in fact, it turned out it is considered to be pre-season. It looks like no-one is employed to clean the beaches before July and even without many visitors, the detritus in some stretches is quite obvious.

Our favourite haunts, though, were Cuatro Calas (Four Coves), about a five-minute drive outside town. The beaches are La Carolina, Los Cocedores, La Higuérica and Calarreona. Ian had recommended them but didn't say which one specifically was his favourite. It was good to learn that ours (Los Cocedores) was also his. Each cove is sheltered with gently sloping sand into shallow, blue, warm water. (Well, I think Sid might argue with the "warm" description!) And to add to the excitement, there are loads of fish in the shallows so as you walk into the sea, you're surrounded on all sides by them. At the weekend, the beaches got much busier with the temporary visitors but during the week, we had pretty much any one of them to ourselves. With the exception of Los Cocedores, there are no facilities at all, so you have to make sure you take everything you need with you - plenty of water, sunscreen etc. 

We also spent a day in the Cabo de Gata National Park, which has some of the most well-known "best beaches" in the south of Spain. Now call me picky, but I probably preferred the ones local to town. Our first port of call was Los Genoveses, a rough drive down a dirt road. The beach stretches round a long arc of slightly crunchy sand and when we arrived, there was no-one else there. I went for a dip and we settled ourselves on our towels. And then the tornado arrived! That might be a bit of an exaggeration but it certainly was windy. We stuck it out for about 20 minutes, being whipped by flying sand, and with it finding its way into our noses and mouths before admitting defeat and fleeing to the car. We headed to Playa Playazo next where we found ourselves a little alcove created by rocks and settled down for a very nice few hours in the sun. 

We stopped off one day at the small town of Las Negras which has a small but sweet beach, dotted with fishing boats and a wonderfully old man who spent a long time rearranging some of them, to the chagrin of the group of older ladies who had set themselves and their umbrella up inches from the biggest boat. 

On our last day, we went to a small town called Bolnuevo which turned out to have a gorgeous, long, white-sanded (empty) beach and is definitely deserving of a return visit. And finally, before heading to the airport, we stopped at Santiago de la Ribera, which also had an unexpectedly nice beach. 

All in all, there is no way you could be short of gorgeous sunbathing spots in this part of Almería/Murcia.

The food and drink

The important stuff! Despite having lived in Madrid and shopped at Mercadona regularly, I still love a wander round a "foreign" supermarket. On our first evening, we stocked up on goodies (OK, mostly alcohol!), but we did eat somewhere other than the apartment patio occasionally, although breakfast at home every day was a lovely mix of bread, cheese, yoghurt and melon! And we ate chickpea stew and tortilla (handmade by Sid) on a couple of evenings, when we felt like just eating in the apartment (and watching the Eurovision Song Contest!)

Our introduction to San Juan's lunchtime offerings was at one of the chiringuitas at the back of the main beach. We ordered a media ración (half portion) of both patatas bravas and patatas ajo. When they turned up, we wondered if perhaps he hadn't heard the request for only a half portion. Both were huge! And very tasty. The questionable highlight of our meal though was being very badly chatted up by one of five Belgian golfers sitting at the table behind us. I don't know who they normally encounter but throwing "My ex-wife was Australian ... And she was a bitch" into the first thirty seconds of a conversation doesn't generally make me go weak at the knees! 

The chiringuita on Playa Los Cocedores was very helpful and twice made us a huge salad but without the tuna which normally comes as standard. 

In Las Negras, we stopped for lunch at Los Barcos, a nice little place overlooking the sea. We had queso manchego (delicious, served with sweet, salted almonds), and they served up probably the best plate of grilled vegetables I have ever tasted. The combination of courgette, aubergine, pepper, onion and tomato just melted in the mouth. Needless to say, the use of copious amounts of olive oil and a ton of salt in the cooking process just served to make them even tastier. We were joined by an inquisitive cat who seemed to forgive our lack of meat and fish upon being thrown small scraps of cheese. 

In Mojácar, we ate at two Italian restaurants! The first - Pizzeria de Muralla, was a lunchtime stop, delivering a delicious, huge veggie feast pizza for 2. On our final night, we ate at Ristorante Pulcinella, right up on their top terrace, overlooking the huge plain that stretches as far as the eye can see. The restaurant has won awards apparently, and you can see why. The food was delicious, the service impeccable and the location is stunning. We shared a gigantic pizza bread, and mozzarella and tomato for starter, followed by veggie lasagna for Sid and cream cheese and spinach riglione for m. 

We tested out almost every eatery in San Juan de Los Terreros during our stay, although we didn't eat at La Venta, just had post-dinner drinks there (huge and cheap!) Lunch on our final day was at El Mesón and we just might have over-ordered. We had pimientos picantes (which weren't spicy), tortilla española, another plate of grilled vegetables (the second best I've had) and patatas a lo pobre (soft slices of potato, with peppers, onion and oil). 

We shared a huge veggie paella at L'Escala, which is clearly a popular hangout with the locals. It was full of chatty Spaniards, eating, drinking, watching the news on the huge screen and ignoring (in a good way) their children who were playing football outside the shop next door. The food was tasty but I felt that using tinned vegetables in a "made-to-order" paella that we had to wait 45 minutes for was cheating just a bit. 

The pièce de résistance (or el plato fuerte) came from Mi Cortijo, on the main street in San Juan. It had great Trip Advisor reviews and we'd already called in to check out the menu and had a chat with the owner. We arrived at 9pm on Saturday evening, assuming it would be quite busy but we were the only customers. Undaunted as ever, we started chatting again with the owner, Alain (French, and lived in France for the first 30 years of his life). He assured us that his wife (Belgian) could turn her hand to anything so we invented a vegetarian dish, ordered starters and Sid's main of fish and drinks, a large red wine and a gin and tonic.
The starter, cauliflower soup, turned out to be a hundred times tastier than it sounds and came with a happy message written in cream! The invented veggie dish was buffalo mozzarella in a leek bechamel sauce with roasted vegetables and it was gorgeous! We also shared a side salad and a huge bowl of homemade fries. At the end of the meal, we were treated to a new (to us) liqueur - Guajiro or Ronmiel (rum and honey). Yum. 
We were pleased to see that we weren't the only customers of the night. At 10.30, a large family of 8 turned up to eat (I still forget how late the Spanish eat), followed by a few more people coming in for drinks. 

For one of us, at least, the best food in town was to be found at Luz Azul - an artisan ice-cream place on the main street. Twice we treated ourselves to dessert there before we'd even had dinner. Their Ferrero Rocher and pistachio combo was a winner, but the cheesecake and cherry cream came a close second. 

Other things to do

Tempting though it was to spend all day every day on a beach, we had hired a car for the week and there were things to do and places to see! 
The castle overlooking the town is reached via a long, hairpin-bend road which we considered walking up but ended up driving. It's a small fort which appears to be open to the public in the summer, but there are great views over San Juan, over Águilas and out to sea, making it worth the climb (or the drive). 

Águilas itself is a cute town, with two or three beaches, plenty of shops and eating places, and a classic square (called, of course, Plaza de España). We spent our final morning in the town, just wandering round and stopping for a drink and a cake from La Pastelería Katy in the square. It feels properly Spanish, at this time of year, at least. Every Saturday morning, there's a large market just by the bypass which goes round the back of the town. Loads of fresh fruit, veg, meat, fish, snails (!) and the usual range of household goods and clothes are on offer. It was teeming with fierce-looking Spanish housewives, filling their wheelie baskets to overflowing with goodies, and vying with each other to shout louder than the stall holders! 

We spent a morning investigating the small nearby fishing villages of Villaricos and and Garrucha, both deserted but sweet. There is a definite feel to the beach towns of Almería - they seem to like the long wide boulevards and I'm sure in the summer, both the locals and the tourists can be found having a leisurely stroll in the evening sun. 

Our day in and around the Cabo de Gata National Park simply wasn't long enough. It deserves a more thorough investigation at some point. Our best find that day was the small town of Nijar, right on the edge of the National Park. It's a small town with a few streets of shops, a much older residential area with steep, winding cobbled streets to the back and its a centre of arts and crafts, particularly pottery, weaving and rug-making. We could have spent hours in the pottery shops and if our luggage allowance had permitted it, I'm sure we'd have come back with a million terracotta dishes! We spent a rather hot 45 minutes in the old part of the town following signs uphill to a water mill but it eluded us! I liked Nijar. A lot. To the extent that I looked at properties for sale there when I got home! 

Along similar lines, being a Moorish whitewashed village, is Mojácar Pueblo. Not to be confused with Mojácar Playa which is the new, purpose-built tourist resort stretching along the sea to the south of the hilltop pueblo. Another long, winding drive takes you up towards Mojácar, with the car park based just at the bottom of the village. It's very pretty, and the Moorish influences are clear. However, much of it is not as old as it first appears, given that it was gradually abandoned over several centuries, with its resurgence beginning in the 1960s. That explains why some of the buildings look as if they'd be happier in Croydon! It's where we had our first glimpse of the Indalo - an ancient symbol now considered a lucky charm and which can now be found painted, daubed and for sale all over Andalucia. I'm glad we went in May as I imagine in July and August it's very crowded and the road up to it is probably one long line of cars and coaches. It was in Mojácar that we treated ourselves to some local goodies from an artisan shop - some local olive oil, a bottle of Spanish amaretto and a bar of cinnamon chocolate. 

On our last day, we visited Las Erosiones de Bolnuevo, a very strange group of wind-eroded sand "sculptures" behind the beach and in the middle of a town! 


What? You didn't think I'd finished, did you?! Randomness that didn't fit anywhere else. 

I was very happy to discover that much of my Spanish came back to me. Very few people in the area speak English (good) and I was mostly understood and I don't think I made a complete tit of myself. 
In Andalucia, they don't pronounce the final "s" on any words. 
Property is really cheap down there at the moment. 
There are lots of cats, dogs and caged birds (sadly) in the town.
The vans for Pastelería KATY in Águilas have a picture of a man on them. Is he Katy?
The cheesy pooooofs here are almost as good as the ones in Madrid.
We didn't see a single golf course the whole time we were there, despite this being a huge golfing area.
Sid had never driven abroad before this trip. Well done, especially for driving back from Mojácar on winding roads in the dark! 

That's it. Honest. Except ...

My photos of the week can be found HERE

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Cute spring lambs

Yay! March is (was) here which means it's time for the cuteness of lambs. I took myself off to the Seven Sisters Sheep Centre for an afternoon of loveliness.

I'll make it a short blog post - I can hear the sigh of relief from here. I went on a weekday, fairly certain that there wouldn't be too many kids there. And I was right. I had the place practically to myself for a couple of hours. Suffice to say, the pens was teeming with tiny orphans, happy newborns and gambolling balls of fluff just a few days old. This year, I didn't see any actually being born but that's fine. I spent more than my fair share of happy minutes at the orphan pen while a 2-day old male attempted to suckle my finger.

But since a picture is worth a thousand words:

My photos can be found HERE

Friday, 4 April 2014

36-hour flying visit to France

After nearly two years, it was finally time for me to go back to Cathy's house in Magnac-Laval in the Limousin. Cathy had already booked a quick trip to check on the house before the start of the summer rental season but it had initially looked like I wouldn't be able to join her due to work commitments. That turned out not to be the case so I grabbed myself some cheapy Ryanair flights and looked forward to a brief sojourn one of my favourite places in the world.

We arrived at Limoges airport at 4pm on Sunday and went to pick up the hire car. Because it was such a short trip, we had decided not to fork out for an extra driver but the very sweet lady behind the counter heard us talking about that, peered at Cathy's driving licence and said "It's your birthday in a few days. I offer you a present - the extra driver for no extra money"! Fortunately, I'd taken my driving licence so I was added to the paperwork and we were off, in a very shiny new Renault Clio. Well, we were off after we'd worked out how to actually start it. It was so new that it had a smartcard and a Start/Stop button instead of a key. However, it took us a while to work out that it was impossible to start the engine unless the car was in neutral and the footbrake was depressed!

By 6pm we were at the lovely Étoile de Mer. The village was completely silent and deserted, just as we expected on a Sunday. We sorted out a few things in the house and then went for our requisite constitutional round the village. Very little, if anything, had changed. All was quiet which backed up our suspicion that we would have to go further afield to find any dinner. We drove to Le Dorat where a restaurant we had been to before was open but seemed to have doubled its prices so we carried on to Bellac, convinced that even on a Sunday evening in March, there would be somewhere open for food! We were wrong. Well, almost wrong. Seemingly, the youth of Bellac are responsible for just one place staying open on a Sunday evening - a kebab shop (Matine Kebab, 9 Place de Palais, Bellac)! Until now, I had managed to avoid crossing the threshold of a kebab shop even once in my entire life but I have now broken my duck. Back home, we tucked into our enormous toasted feta panini and chips, washed down with the only alcohol in the house - vodka! It was, given our long day of travelling and what felt like an even longer search for food, absolutely delicious!

Tuesday dawned bright and sunny, neither of us having been awoken by the 7am church bells. We wandered to the supermarket to stock up on the small amount of food (yet alarmingly large amount of alcohol) we needed for the next 24 hours, then headed to Chez NouNou for breakfast and WiFi. Well, in my case, just breakfast. I have to say it does frustrate me that my (by no means cheap) iPhone regularly fails dismally to connect with free WiFi, especially abroad. Anyway, a lovely croissant, butter and jam filled a hole and we headed back to the house for a few housekeeping jobs and then off we went into the sunshine. First we went to the lovely Pont Gothique, between Le Dorat and Bellac, which was one of our early discoveries on our very first trip in 2004. Our standard delicious picnic lunch of Emmenthal-stuffed baguette moulée and (perfect) cheap greasy crisps set us up very nicely for the next part of our afternoon.

We drove to Roumilhac, a tiny winding village where the only people we encountered were a small group of farmers standing in the road staring at us as if we had just landed from outer space. The ensuing 7km walk made for one of the nicest days I've had for a long time. We had struck gold with the weather. We had blue sky and 25 degrees all day, with not a cloud to be seen. Our walk took us through tiny villages, along the banks of the Gartempe, over wooden and stone bridges, under a huge but now unused viaduct, up hills, down slopes, past a disused railway station and finally, back to Roumilhac. It was a wonderful, relaxing three hours during which the only sounds were birdsong, the rushing of the river, the snort of a wild boar (or so we thought - it turned out to be a crow!), the occasional dog barking and the sound of our own voices. I forget just how tranquil this part of the world is until I get back there.

Once we'd finished our walk, we had planned to head to a local lake to lounge on the sand in the evening sun. However, just a couple of miles outside Roumilhac, at Balledent, we stumbled across an enticing little café, Chez Isa - the front was fairly unprepossessing, it just faced the small track we had driven up. However, sneaking a peek round the side of the building revealed a rear terrace on stilts which was flooded with sunlight and overlooked the river. The lake idea was discarded and we ventured in to the café and out onto the terrace. It was such a beautiful spot, a real sun trap and, for a little while, we were the only customers. A cold drink, comfy outdoor seating and a chat with the very friendly owners made the next hour or so fly by. Eventually, we had to concede that it was time to head home and make some dinner. Magnac-Laval on a Monday evening is no busier than a Sunday! We rustled up a ginormous pan of pasta and veggie sauce and then opened a bottle of fizz to celebrate the fact that Cathy has owned this little slice of paradise for ten years!!! The first couple of Kir Royales slipped down far too easily so we moved on to normal fizz and then (!) on to 2 bottles of wine! It was probably just as well that we had enough pasta for half a dozen people to soak up all that booze. We played very silly board games, giggled a lot and sang along with the well-used 80s CDs (whilst noting which would go well for a forthcoming karaoke night in Brighton). At just gone midnight, despite the fact that we had learnt on our day of arrival that there had been a murder just down the road in January, and no-one had been caught, we decided to go stargazing. It was a beautifully clear night and we wandered over towards the very dark streets at the back of the hospital. We had our fill of constellations (no shooting stars though) and wended our way back home, just possibly singing a few 80s numbers a little too loud - bloody Brits abroad, eh?!

We crashed out as soon as we got home and were rudely awakened by our alarms the next morning, a bit too early! We completed the rest of the tidying and cleaning of the house, popped out to grab a couple of little pressies, dropped the recycling off and then drove over to see a friend of Cathy's. She lives in a lovely house with a huge garden and we spent a nice hour or so there, chatting and drinking tea before having to face the fact that it was time to head to the airport and go home. We had a brief fright when Cathy's sister texted her to say she hoped that the French Air Traffic Control strike wasn't causing any problems with our return. Er, strike?! What strike?! It was true, but fortunately, it was only hitting Paris, Marseilles and a couple of airports on the south coast apparently. So we headed off to Poitiers airport which, should you ever go there, has pretty dreadful signposting both to the airport and to the car hire dropoff. Still, we made it in time and before we knew it, we were back at Stansted and heading home.

It felt like we'd been away for a week. It's amazing how relaxing just a couple of days away from home can be, and how much we always manage to fit in to such a short space of time. I'm looking forward to my next visit, whenever that might be.

My photos are HERE