Early weekend

Three days of writing as planned – it’s harder than I expected and quite tiring. Also characters went off-plan and started introducing new plot lines and new characters which weren’t in my outline at all. Whether any of it works remains to be seen. I had arranged to meet Natalie and Graham, who have a house in Antequera, in Cordoba on Friday. They would take the train and I’d meet them at the station.

20170511_171018Thursday brought an absolute downpour and the forecast for Friday was dodgy so I sent a message asking if they want to postpone but we decided to risk it anyway. So I set off in blinding rain with the wipers the only things going fast along the windy road through Villanueva de Algaidas to reach the A45 autovia to Cordoba. All was well and I made it to the very modern station with a huge plaza in front of it in good time. But it seems there’s no short-stay, pick up and drop off parking. However two cars were waiting in a slip road in front of the station which had bollards to stop you entering from the obvious direction. No one seemed to be about so I failed to see a No Entry sign, went in did a three-point turn and was ready to receive Natalie and Graham when their train arrived just five minutes late.

All aboard we headed off for the recently opened Gourmet Food Mercado de la Victoria which I’d not visited before. There was one further tour past the station before we found the correct route to the market, parked easily and bought a ticket for €1.70 for the maximum stay of two hours. We walked across to the market but it was only just getting under way so we walked down a little further to a café that offered breakfasts. We asked the waitress if we could have a cloth to wipe our pavement table and chairs before sitting down. She came herself and gave us a dry base but warned us it wouldn’t be for long – rain was coming. And it did before she was even able to bring us our first coffee. So we scuttled inside while the rain lashed down on Cordoba. Natalie had thoughtfully provided two umbrellas so we only got mildly damp as we moved from café to the market. It’s a fun destination in a wrought iron pavilion with lots of small outlets for a wide variety of food and drink inside. It’s modelled on the Mercado de San Miguel in Madrid which Dee and I had discovered by happy accident several years ago. It was by now past midday so time for a beer to dry off, explore the market and then move the car. When I got my next ticket it’s expiry time was 18:02 which came as a surprise until I remembered that they don’t charge during siesta from two o’clock till five-thirty. Plenty of time to explore the old town and the famous mezquita

May is the time for the Festival of the Patios in Cordoba and the first corner we turned led us into one. Spectacular arrays of geraniums in pots rising to the sky through a three-storey courtyard with excellent ground level planting too. The lady standing looking proudly on told me that she looks after the whole thing on her own. We didn’t do the right thing and pick up a plan, visit all 60 of them and vote for the one we liked best. This one if you scroll down the list in the Juderia section was Judios, 6.

After admiring the patio Natalie and Graham led me to one of Cordoba’s most famous bodegas Guzman a proper Spanish place that doesn’t have a website for me to send you to. Three vast barrels dispense Montilla-Moriles – we are in Cordoba not Jerez after all – but the fine dry cold wine accompanied by some excellent goat’s cheese in olive oil made for a pleasant moment or three watching established locals and whizz-in-and-out-tourists explore this iconic bar. A very atmospheric, authentic corner of Cordoba.

When I went in 2010

We then moved on past the queues waiting to enter the main attraction which we had all visited before but were impressed by the cleaning that has been going on revealing colourful Arabic designs on the exterior walls of the building which was started in the 700s and as with so many buildings has changed religions and had bits added over the years.


8A15BAFC-0974-464C-AFC8-CCC380842190To the south, the banks of the Quadalquivir have been opened up and developed and we took the opportunity of a sunny spell to walk across the Roman bridge, even earlier than the mosque dating from the first century BC and rather spoilt by some later concrete balustrades. Time for a visit to a favourite which Natalie had recommended to Dee and me on our visit in 2010 El Churrasco. We just had a drink on this occasion but it is famed – rightly I remember – for the size and quality of the meat it grills. (photos thanks to Natalie, I’m rubbish with phone photos and didn’t have a camera with me).

The place was occupied by a constant stream of diners, often queuing for some time to get a table. We supped up and walked on through the old quarter in which Graham and I looked round at one point to find no sign of Natalie. She had vanished into a favourite jewellery shop, purchased a bracelet and left the umbrellas behind. We decided to wait for her to catch up with us in a bar situated on a corner she would have to pass so we would spot her. They had a delicious looking tapa of chicken liver with a mushroom sauce, which sounded appetising and just had to be tried. And then another had to be ordered once Natalie rejoined us. Then it was time to head back to Mercado Victoria for lunch – a parillada (mixed grill) of steak, sausages, morcilla and chorizo with chips and those delicious pimientos de padron small green peppers blistered in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt. Back to the car for an easy exit from Cordoba and back to La Parilla.

The hamlet where I’m staying has two bars and of course we had to pay them both a visit. I deposited my guests in the first and took the car back to the villa, just in case. We met up here with Paul and Tamsin who look after the house for its owners and live here all the time. They had to leave, so we walked up to the other bar where a little hunger was returning and tapas were available. Excellent morcilla de Burgos, which is black pudding with added rice, topped by a quail’s egg at Graham’s special request – he is extremely fond, some might say excessively fond, of fried eggs in all sizes. I’m going to fry him an ostrich egg one of these days! Also there were some very good homemade ham croquetas – a staple of Spanish tapas which can often disappoint. These were crunchy outside and creamy and tasty within. The bar is run by a charming young couple who have a six month old baby whom we could see and hear on the baby monitor sitting on the bar. Lucia is lovely. He’s from Catalunya, came for a holiday, met, married and stayed.

It was just as well we’d been eating steadily all day because despite inviting them to stay the night I hadn’t really thought about food to offer them. As it happened all we needed was a bottle or two of a stupidly good for its €2.75 price Ribera de Duero and then to bed around 2 am in proper Spanish style. And I didn’t have to listen to or watch our plucky defeat at Everton or Hampshire contrive to lose to Glamorgan after scoring 330+.

On Saturday I did provide homemade tostadas con tomate y ajo and coffee out on the terrace where we are promised another changeable day before it brightens up on Sunday and soars to 30 degrees all week next week. We then set off to return Natalie and Graham to Antequera where I can’t leave without a visit to their local – and oft-visited by us too – La Socorilla.

On several previous visits we had been promised a trip to the rabbit restaurant – Venta El Conejo on the outskirts of Antequera. It’s a bit erratic serving only rabbit and opening when they are available. So we’d never made it together. We walked through the former textile factory district of Antequera of which I was completely ignorant but there’s a river valley with lots of buildings of increasing dereliction which were once a thriving industrial hub with 13 factories making woollen goods and blankets along the course of the Villa river, now dammed and diverted so it’s a trickle until it dries up completely in July. It seems they developed from the mid-1800s  and died out early in the twentieth century. We reached the rabbit restaurant and ordered a plate and a half of rabbit and a platter of chips with a side salad of tomato, onions and garlic. All were huge, all were delicious. Following yesterday’s offal tapas I enjoyed rabbit liver and kidneys but drew the line at its tongue which may have been a mistake given how tasty all the rest was. Oh and of course there was a perfectly fried trio of eggs to round it all off. Then back through the town and a small shower for a final coffee at La Socorilla before driving back to La Parilla. On Sunday true to promise the skies are blue the temperature is rising and the week ahead looks good. Washing’s on the line – dry within an hour – I’ve swept storm debris off the patio and am listening to a distant hoopoe call – I saw one yesterday with a great flash of pink, black and white – the wonderful odour of ripening figs and these trees with their pretty pinky mauve flowers and yellow seed pods. I’ve never seen them in bloom before. I think they are a kind of acacia but will ask Paul when I see him.

Time to get back to the real work now listening to Semele which I only know from  extracts in preparation for the whole thing in two week’s time at Garsington Opera. It’s great Handel, good tunes, lots of drama and as usual the Gods meddling with mortals. Precursors of politicians, I’d say. Looking forward to it very much.

Anniversary blog and the day that history was rewritten

41 sushi pink  Can it really be 

          a whole year since we boarded

          B A 0 0 5?

I started writing this on 9 April the anniversary of our departure on the trip to Japan last year which has been described in this blog. 
However life, work and extraneous factors intervened. It's now July 3 and we're in Boston, MA about which more a little later.

9 April 2013 was indeed the day we flew from Heathrow for our eventful, amazing and never-to-be-forgotten trip to Japan. How we wish we were going again but the exigencies of budget and work will keep us here this year. My long absence from the blog has been due to a number of circumstances including  limited social life and lots of writing for others rather than me or you.

However with spring in the air at last after the direst start to any year – ultra low return from our solar panels prove how grey it has been – it feels like time to take up my pen again. And then I got another urgent job for which I had to complete the first part of this week. The year has been so strange we’ve hardly been to any Watford matches relying instead on our friend Fran’s excellent blogs to keep us up to date with our team’s progress. No playoff excitement this year but some promising developments.

We did manage to go to our away game in Bournemouth back in January when we were excited by the prospect of the Japanese exhibits in the Russell Cotes Art Gallery and Museum. It’s a lovely eclectic collection assembled by one of the last great entrepreneur-travellers who gathered object that took his and his wife’s fancy from wherever the went – mostly in the Far East. The Japanese room had hundreds of objects but contained behind a perspex corridor along which you could inch your way and peer form side to side. Not ideal but with some glimpses of very interesting artefacts and scrolls.

Our taste for things Japanese was also fuelled by the mention of a Japanese garden on Margaret Island in Budapest where we went for a three night break on a very good deal from Groupon. The garden itself was a disappointment but not so Budapest although we did find cherry blossom. After an unpromising start with the first sign we saw emerging from the airport being a Tesco hypermarket,

Entrance to the Museum of Applied Arts
Entrance to the Museum of Applied Arts

Budapest proved to be a delightful place to spend a few days. We made a concert with the Hilliard ensemble still in good voice all those years after their chart appearance with Jan Garbarek’s saxophone accompaniment in the incredible Vigado Concert Hall which re-opened two days before we arrived. It’s all gilt and marble and pillars and a total contrast to the Erkel theatre where we caught an excellent ballet programme the next night. Built as the People’s Opera during the communist era its clean lines and lack of adornment made it a very pleasant place to watch great performances of three Jiri Kylian works.

The highspot was a visit to the Szechenyi Baths a massive complex of thermal baths where we sat in a grand open air pool with water temperatures of 35 degrees and the air at 24 – fabulous.

Dee about to enter Szechenyi Baths
Dee about to enter Szechenyi Baths
By the Chain Bridge
By the Chain Bridge

Architectural and culinary treasures abound and it’s definitely on the list for a return visit. Any of you who watch Drama on ITV sponsored by Viking River Cruises have seen the spotlit Chain Bridge, Buda Castle and Parliament Building modelled on the HP in London but with even more filigree.

Parliament from bus

We’ve been to more discussions and book launches at the Japan Foundation, entered a competition to win flights to Japan at the Japan Centre and discovered the joys – shared by grandchildren – of curry flavoured rice crackers.

Dee in the Garsington Garden
Dee in the Garsington Garden

I’d heard of an opera in a country house in Oxfordshire some years ago but when a friend of ours Susanna told us she was its musical director we just had to go. Garsington Opera is very much Glyndebourne for the northern home counties but more bohemian in approach and audience. It’s now based on the Getty family’s Wormsley Estate just off the M40 past High Wycombe. The estate is also home to a fabulous cricket oval on which England women beat Australia last year in the first match of the Ashes. The extensive grounds are lined with picnic spots and restaurant marquees bringing a medieval feel to the whole thing. We were blessed with a fine day although it did get a bit breezy so we were glad we’d opted for in-marquee dining at the interval.The opera takes place in a glass pavilion which makes for a unique viewing experience in that performances start in broad daylight and then it gradually gets darker as the evening progresses. We saw Fidelio and in a great piece of theatre the released prisoners in Act 1 actually walk straight out of the auditorium and lounge about in the garden outside. Susanna was able to join us for dinner after warming up the chorus at the start of the interval so we had a great opportunity to catch up with her.

Mike by the cricket ground
The Opera Pavilion
The Opera Pavilion
Field of feasting tents
Field of feasting tents

I’ve been doing quite a bit of work for a Dutch publishing agency so took a day trip to Utrecht to meet them and an end-client. I flew from Southend airport which I scarcely knew existed but which was obviously very popular with a certain set. My thinking that there would be nobody there and I’d whizz through security after the hour’s drive from home was abruptly punctured by the sight of a bride and a retinue of bridesmaids; eight men in tiger onesies and a gaggle of guys with cork-trimmed hats. Then a look at the departure board for the three morning flights – Amsterdam, Krakow and Mallorca – and I knew I was in the stag and hen departure capital of Essex.

The flight was quick and the train connection from Schipol to Utrecht couldn’t have been easier. Clean, smooth and on time, I thought I was back in Japan. I had a few moments to stroll with my agency contact through the streets of Utrecht which is a cobbled, canal-threaded city with a vibrant street life. Tekst 2000 enjoy canalside offices in a vaulted cellar with a long hot desk for their colleagues and people like me. We went off to visit the client in Culemborg via a chain ferry so it was a day of just about every mode of transport.

20 years ago I was derided by newly made US friends for flying back to the UK on July 4 after my preliminary recce visit for what was to become Direct English. “Don’t you know we have the best fireworks show in the world on July 4?” Oops. So deciding to celebrate the Fourth of July properly this year we arrived in Boston as planned only to find that the firework display has been moved to July 3 to avoid being washed out by Hurricane Arthur. So history is rewritten and the War of Independence ended a day early – at least this year in Boston.

More about the trip to follow.