18.09.21 — Journal

Izzy Visits & More

Once my double whammy of COVID lockdowns was over, I was understandably looking to spend as little time in my flat as possible. Thankfully, I had plenty of ideas of what to do after so much time to think about it, and begun my freedom with the first of many trips around Madrid. This took me up to Las Rozas and to my friend’s house, where we’d arranged to have a dip in the pool and then head out for a bite to eat.

The sun setting over Las Rozas created some lovely autumnal colours.

We had a lovely catch up at his pool before heading out for pizza, and then spent the evening chatting away in the park with a beer. Eventually I’d to get the train home after the sun set, as it was a Sunday night and I was due back in the office the next day.

The next weekend saw me jump on a bike and head off to explore some of the city centre, as I’d to do some reconnaissance for Izzy’s visit and I also fancied visiting some of my favourite spots around the city. On my first bike ride, I headed to Ópera and the area I like to call “Royal Madrid” around the palace and cathedral. There, I stopped for an ice cream, before swinging past the new viewing platform that has just been opened after gosh knows how many years of construction – it was boarded up the first time I visited Madrid in 2015!

My second runaround took me in a huge loop around the city centre, which ended with a descent down to the lake in the huge park in the west of the city. From there, I headed down the length of the river and back to my house, stopping along the way to jump on one of the swings which hangs from an overpass – it’d been years since I last climbed aboard a swing!

A few days later, when I should have been in Oslo (a trip that COVID put a stop to), I decided to finally redeem the theme park ticket that I’d bought back in April and which I couldn’t use back then because my neighbourhood got plunged into a hyper-localised lockdown. Although this meant that I’d have to go alone, I decided to head on down to the Parque de Atracciones as I was running out of time to redeem the thing and I thought it’d be a good distraction from the sadness of not having been able to travel abroad.

The theme park is just a metro ride away from my flat, so I headed down for opening time (midday) and redeemed my ticket. Heading in alone surrounded by groups of people was a bit odd, but after my first ride (where I wound up sat next to Javier, hello if you’re out there), I soon got into the swing of it and began racking up a ride on all of the attractions that I’d noted down as looking interesting.

After a few rollercoasters and a good drenching on the log flume, I sat down for some lunch, which naturally took the form of the usual mediocre theme-park pizza. After that I headed on yet more of the park’s bigger rides, including some flat rides (rides which aren’t rollercoasters) which were also quite a laugh – except one which span us so much I felt like I was about to spray the poor lad next to me with the pepperoni and cheese I’d had earlier!

I took a video of myself on the log flume, but I daren’t upload it.

With the day wearing on and my energy levels low, I stopped again for a cheeky beer and a huge waffle cone filled with chocolate and ice cream. Once I’d devoured all of that, it was then time to re-ride some of my favourites from earlier, which took me back on a few of the rollercoasters and even led me to find a drop tower which wasn’t on my list but which packed quite the punch! Thankfully not too much of a punch, though, and the people below were saved from a light sprinkling of ice cream and bits of waffle.

After another wander around the park, day became night and I became fully exhausted, and so it was time to start winding down and thinking of going home. As the park was open until 10pm, I decided to grab myself one last jug of beer and a sandwich as the sun set, but not before I’d accidentally stumbled across the River Rapids and then Los Fiordos – a fjord-themed water ride.

I jumped on this last ride a few other people and we went around the relatively short course, getting lightly sprinkled with water after the main drop along the way. When we got into the station, however, there was nobody waiting, and so the group of teenagers in front of me asked if we could go around again. The ride operator insisted that anyone who wanted to get off could, but I thought I’d go with the flow and go around again – a decision I paid for with a proper drenching to the skin on this second round!

Being in a theme park past sundown made for some pretty unique sights.

With my long day at the theme park over, I headed back home and fell asleep pretty much instantly. The next day I had made various plans with Sara, including a brunch in the city centre, after which we ended up at my place doing a spot of colouring in and calligraphy – a nice and relaxing afternoon! We then headed back to her flat and met up with her boyfriend and his friends who were visiting, nipping down to a local terrace for a few drinks and some nibbles to end another busy day.

The day after marked Izzy’s arrival, and so I spent a while cleaning my flat before cycling up to Atocha train station to meet her and Alex as they arrived from Barcelona. Our first task was to nip by a clinic so that they could have their PCRs done, and then we headed back home to drop off their suitcases, after which we headed out into the city centre.

That evening we had tacos in Taquería Mi Ciudad, a tiny little Mexican restaurant I took Izzy to the first time she visited and which I haven’t been to for quite a long time. Full on delicious tacos and gringas, we pottered down to La Latina and then Lavapiés for that evening’s drinks, heading home for a relatively early night ready for a long day of activities ahead.

Saturday was one of the most intense days of exploration I’ve ever undertaken in Madrid – we did so much from 8:30am to 11pm that I can’t even begin to list it all here. In between other things we had breakfast at Ojalá, scootered our way around Retiro (the big park), cycled past the Royal Palace, had drinks at the Matadero, cycled down the river, had a picnic and watched the sunset at the Templo de Debod, and wound up back at my favourite local bar for a bite to eat before bed. Quite the day, huh!

The next day was a Sunday, but there was no rest for us, even after the busy day we’d just had. Heading off on the bikes again in the morning, we headed up to the north of the city for some pastries for breakfast before heading down the river back home. With time running out, however, we’d to grab a taxi back to my place so that Izzy and Alex could grab their suitcases and head off to the airport to fly back to London – it was a quick and intense trip!

After I’d seen them off in their taxi, I had a quick nap in order to gain some energy for lunch, as I’d arranged to meet up with Napo for pizza at our favourite haunt in Lavapiés. Lunch consisted of a beer in the square whilst we waited for a table, a delicious pizza at NAP, and then a cheeky G&T back at my place – a great way to finish off an afternoon.

But wait! I wasn’t done yet, my non-stop weekend continued. To celebrate Hugo’s boyfriend’s birthday, we’d arranged to have a meal out that evening in the city centre. I’d to get another nap in before heading out, but we had a lovely time (even if I still don’t have much of a sense of taste) and I enjoyed one of the wildest desserts I’ve had for a long time…

After my busy weekend it was time to get back to work, but that didn’t stop me from taking some photos and enjoying the odd evening out. My first new perspective on Madrid comes from the third floor of my hospital, where I’d gone for a quick scan. As I walked out I caught a glimpse out of the window, and couldn’t resist snapping this shot of the Air Force building behind the Victory Arch.

I also spent a couple of evenings down by the river where I’ve been writing blog posts and just watching the world go by. A little restaurant and bar that I never paid any attention to before has become one of my new favourite haunts, as I can sit down with my iPad and work on whatever I need to whilst enjoying a cheeky beer with lemon and watching the sun set – bliss!

One evening I was invited around to Sara’s, where we had a catch up over a quick bite to eat and a beer – she’d laid out a lovely spread of delicious meats and cheeses from the north of Spain! We then wound up in a local bar, where we finished off our evening with a plate of calamari rings and one last cheeky drink.

With that, I bring my blog almost up-to-date, as I’ve another post pending looking at my first and last international adventure this summer – thanks, COVID! I shan’t reveal where I got off to for now, however – you’ll have to wait for next time…

07.09.21 — Journal

Coronavirus: Buy One, Get One Free

After some ominous foreshadowing in my last post, I’m sure the title of this one leaves little to the imagination as to what happened to me next: I got COVID – and not once, but twice.

Before we delve into how I managed to kill time in my flat by myself, I should address the elephant in the room: how did I manage to get COVID twice? And how, just how, did I manage to get it in as many months?

The sincere answer is that nobody knows. Both my GP and the Madrid COVID helpline have been great during the these two bouts of the virus, ringing me periodically to see how I am getting on and describing the next steps to take. One of these times my GP rang me to clarify the situation, and admitted that even she didn’t know how I managed to give a positive result twice. One theory is that the first time was a false positive, which could well be the case, but we’ll never know.

The important thing is that I’m now COVID-negative and fully recovered – except for my sense of taste and smell, but I’ll leave that story for later on in this post. As mentioned, I’ve to express gratitude to the Madrid health authorities for their constant contact throughout these odd few weeks, and also to my family and friends who kept me entertained during the long evenings alone in my flat.

Now, on with the story. My first bout of the virus came after Cami and Kevin’s visit, after I’d gone to a private testing centre to get a PCR ready to fly back to England to visit my family. I was shocked when I received the positive diagnosis as I’d not a single symptom, but I dutifully locked myself in my flat and began my ten days of quarantine.

Being stuck at home was made less tedious by some mood lighting.

This first bout of quarantine wasn’t all too bad, I was just sad to have missed a chance to visit my family and then get out and enjoy Madrid’s summer activities. I moved some of my holiday days at work in order to work from home to keep myself occupied, and with the idea of then taking these days off when I could enjoy them and get out of the house once again.

As mentioned, I was completely fine, except perhaps for a bit of a light cough, and so I kept myself occupied and entertained by cooking and setting up spa evenings at home to pamper myself. One day I even made banana bread for the first time, which I didn’t expect to be so tasty nor so big – it took me a good while to get through the entire thing!

I’d to make banana bread in a cake molde thanks to my temporary imprisonment.

One evening I was in bed and noticed that I felt a little feverish, and so I took my temperature to discover that it was slightly elevated. I wasn’t too concerned, as I’d had some out-of-date salmorejo (a cold tomato and garlic soup) earlier in the day, and so resolved that my body must just be reacting to that. It was an easy conclusion to jump to seeing as I’d had COVID just weeks before – I assumed that it’d be impossible to get infected again so soon.

With my light cough gone and the ten days of quarantine over, I was eventually allowed back out, and my life returned to normal for a while. After the excitement of my trip to Sweden, however, things got a little heated – literally.

As a precaution, however, I stayed put at home, popping a paracetamol the next day and carrying on working. The day after this, however, I awoke with very little sense of smell or taste, and by noon it had disappeared completely. Knowing that this was a telltale sign of COVID, I rang my GP and arranged to be tested that very afternoon.

In a surprise to nobody except myself at the time (and perhaps those of you that didn’t read the title of this post properly), the test came back positive. Plunged into another ten-day quarantine, I was forced to find other ways to occupy myself that didn’t involve making delicious food. I played with the lighting in my flat for a while, practiced my calligraphy, and began fun experiments involving making and eating most disgusting culinary combinations that I could possibly imagine.

With two trips cancelled, which would have seen me back to Oslo to see Heidi and back to Tenerife to see Cami, this second quarantine was a little more disheartening than the first. This, coupled with the fact that I was feeling under the weather, unable to enjoy food, and stuck inside again for the second half of my summer holidays, made this second round particularly tough.

After a few days of me living off paracetamol, my GP rang me to see if I was fit to be let back out. Thanks to a lingering bit of a cough, she instructed me to stay inside for another three days, and so I found my imprisonment extended into the second week of my summer holidays.

This extension of the quarantine was a nuisance, but at least it didn’t ruin the last of the three plans that I had for my summer holiday: acting as host for Izzy and her boyfriend Alex who were to come and visit me in Madrid! That, however, will have to wait for a future post.

We thus come to the conclusion of this perhaps somewhat dull post, but I’d like to end on a more optimistic note. Since the second round of COVID I’ve had a great few days with Izzy and Alex, and there’s more to come in this month of September and the next, as I’ve got plenty of visits and other short adventures lined up! You can be sure that I’ll be back just as soon as I can to report on all of the goings on – until then!

29.08.21 — Travel

Båstad

With my website back up after an error caused by my questionable WordPress coding, today’s blog post deviates somewhat from the usual updates from Madrid thanks to an impromptu work-related trip to Sweden!

The week before this trip, one of our current clients got in contact to ask that I head over to an event they were hosting in Sweden to present a preview of their new brand to their stakeholders. This event was to take place in the coastal city of Båstad, which is much closer to the Danish capital of Copenhagen (which I’ve visited a couple of times in the past) than the Swedish capital, Stockholm.

All this meant for a somewhat convoluted journey, with a flight from Madrid to Copenhagen followed by a two hour train journey from Copenhagen, through Malmö, and up the Swedish coast to Båstad, where a taxi would pick me up and take me to the hotel. With COVID still ravaging Europe, the main nuisance caused by this complicated journey was the different paperwork needed with the three countries involved: Denmark, Sweden, and Spain.

Once through the health checks in Copenhagen, I grabbed some lunch before hopping on the train headed to Sweden. The first part of the journey involved hopping under then over the sea, passing through a tunnel from Copenhagen to Peberholm (a little artificial island) and then over the Øresund Bridge. I was too awestruck to grab any decent photos, but it’s definitely worth a Google!

On the train I was struck by the lack of mask use, and some quick online research (courtesy of the free WiFi – the Scandinavians know how to do public infrastructure right) revealed that there’s no mask mandate in Sweden. I left mine on, working on some last-minute adjustments to the presentation that I was to give that very evening, before rocking up in Båstad a mere hour before I was set to appear at the gala dinner and give my presentation.

I’d been told that a taxi would be waiting for me at Båstad station, so I hopped off at this train station in the middle of nowhere and wondered how I was to identify the taxi driver. I wandered over to the only guy I could see waiting next to a car, and was greeted in Swedish – a language I really don’t understand. I thought I recognised the name of the hotel in there, and so hopped into the taxi without a second thought – I’d no time to spare!

Following our journey on Google Maps – I still wasn’t sure I’d gotten in the right taxi – I saw that we were on the right track and relaxed a bit, taking in the views of the quaint little village and the coast before arriving at my destination, Hotel Skansen. I’d then to check in and find my room as quickly as possible, as I’d a mere half an hour to unpack, run through the presentation one last time, get changed, and be back down at reception in order to attend the dinner.

I should here mention that the hotel and the town were absolutely gorgeous – the town hosts the Swedish Open, Sweden’s main annual tennis tournament, and my hotel room was located in a building joined to the main court. This meant that I could look out into the tennis court and the sea beyond by just walking out of my (rather lovely) hotel room. Bliss!

There wasn’t much time to take all of this in or enjoy the views, however, as I’d now 25 minutes to be ready and back at reception in the main building. My unpacking consisted of turning my bag upside down and distributing my things on the bed, and I’d to rehearse my presentation out loud to the bare room whilst I struggled to change into some very fitted boots and the one and only formal shirt that I own. It was all a big rush which passed in a flash!

Arriving back at reception in the nick of time, I found myself surrounded by lots of people speaking Swedish and a series of coaches that had arrived to take us to dinner. I had assumed that the event would be taking place within the hotel itself, but the presence of the coaches suggested otherwise. I eventually found someone I recognised, and we were all instructed (in English, gracefully) to board the coaches.

The journey to the mysterious dinner location took us further up the gorgeous coastline.

We soon arrived in a rather grandiose car park, flanked by the sea on one side and a lovely collection of buildings which formed the entrance gate to an expansive garden beyond on the other side. It began to dawn on me that this was to be quite the evening, a sensation consolidated as we were marched through the gardens and towards what looked like a stately home set behind a pond and a series of perfectly trimmed hedges.

It turns out that we were to be eating at the Orangeriet Restaurant at Norrviken Båstad, a villa and gardens which were once owned by a private family but which are now open to the public. The restaurant had been rented out for the evening to us, and so we headed in for a drink and to find our assigned seat ready for the evening’s presentations to begin.

Once we were all seated at our tables, the evening began with a starter and its accompanying wine pairing. Over a bowl of creamy seafood soup, I got chatting to the rest of the people on my table, who included one of the best tennis players in Sweden, one of the organisers of the event, and the owners of various tennis and padel clubs in both Sweden and Norway. I’ve played padel once in my entire life, so I was a bit out of my comfort zone!

The presentations then began, and I’d still no idea exactly when it would be my turn to take the stage. When the event’s technician came by and told me to set up my Mac, I thought it was time to go, but it turned out that the main course was to be served before then, so I returned to chatting with my new mates at the table for a while.

The main – roast lamb – then arrived, accompanied by yet another glass of wine and a side of Swedish potatoes, which promptly ignited an argument between the Swedes and the Norwegians of my table over which country had the best gastronomy. They were very good potatoes, I must admit, and the wine (a Spanish wine) was even better – but I was going easy on the alcohol until after my presentation.

With the main course over, it was then my turn to present, and I hopped up onto stage and cracked a couple of jokes before presenting the sneak peek of the clients’ new brand to an audience of 200+ of their partners. I’ve always enjoyed presenting, and this time was no different – especially as I had a great audience thanks to the few rounds of wine pairings that everyone had already worked their way through!

Once I’d finished, I made my way back to the table and promptly polished off the wine I’d been saving before dessert arrived. Even through I do have quite the sweet tooth, I must say that the dessert was the highlight of the meal, with a delicious chocolate tart with meringue and a homemade ice cream flavoured with hjortron, a local berry.

With that polished off, helped down by a glass of port, it was time to head back to the hotel. We hopped back on the coach and headed back, with everyone resolving to carry on the evening at the hotel’s bar. I wasn’t having any of that though, as I’d booked an early breakfast slot in order to try and visit the outdoor “cold spa”, an experience involving jumping into the freezing waters of the North Sea.

I woke up the next day with a somewhat heavy head – the variety of wines obviously didn’t sit well with my post-quarantine body – and headed down for breakfast. I loaded up on bacon, sausages, eggs, and even some salmon – when in Rome and all that. I finished off my breakfast feast with some pancakes with cream and maple syrup, and headed back to my room to pack and then check out.

There’s nothing like a hearty breakfast and some fresh air to cure a hangover.

In the end I didn’t have the time nor the correct attire to visit the spa, as I’d stupidly forgotten to pack some swimming shorts, and the options they had at the spa shop were all way too expensive for a quick dip in the sea. I also had to work my way around another crisis, as the two taxi companies in the small town were all booked up, and so I had to decide whether to grab a bus to the train station or head there on foot.

I eventually decided to head back to the train station on foot, as the bus would have me waiting for almost an hour before the train was scheduled to arrive, and I reasoned that a walk through the town would give me chance to see a bit more of Båstad and take a few photos. With my backpack weighing me down somewhat, I first headed down to the beach next to the hotel to check out the cold spa that I hadn’t had time to visit.

After a quick call to my parents to let them know how the trip was going, I noticed that I’d only an hour and a bit left to complete the rest of the journey which Google informed me would take 50 minutes. Not wanting to end up having to run the last leg of the trip to the train station, I began to head through the centre of Båstad, taking a few photos along the way.

The pastel colours and the grey skies made for some lovely moody shots.

I eventually passed by a supermarket, and resolved that since I was going at a good pace, I had time to nip in and pick up some treats for my colleagues and for myself in order to get me through the rest of the trip back to Madrid. I didn’t take into account the fact that I always get wildly distracted in foreign supermarkets, however, and so had to pick up the pace once I was back out and on my way to the train station.

With my KEX chocolate bar in hand (thanks to Danni for the recommendation), I sped onwards to the train station, passing by some beautiful houses and architecture along the way. I arrived at the station with just a few minutes to spare, hopping on the very punctual train back through the Swedish countryside and on to Copenhagen Airport.

It’d be lovely to stay in one of these places overlooking the sea.

At the airport I’d to take another COVID test, but it the process was quick and efficient, and I was soon boarding my plane back to Madrid a mere 24 hours after I’d first landed in Copenhagen the day before. In the airport, the KEX bar proved to be a great dessert after I’d half-enjoyed one of the most expensive sandwiches I think I’ve ever bought.

Once back in Madrid, I grabbed a taxi back to my place and had an early night, as I was straight back to work the next day. I’d been offered a longer stay up in Båstad, but I’d turned it down as I needed to get on with some work before a key deadline in September – there’s no rest for the wicked!

Well, as I’m sure you can tell by the amount of blog post which covers a mere 24 hours, the whole trip to Båstad went by in the blink of an eye. I had a great time, met some great people, and lived plenty of interesting experiences, but everything happened so fast that I had no time to process what was going on around me – it was all a blur!

Nevertheless, I’m really grateful to have been invited to join the event, which was like a quick two-day holiday even though I was connected and working for the majority of it. Båstad is a lovely place – despite its dodgy-sounding name – and I’ll definitely have it at the back of my mind if I ever fancy an escape from the heat of Madrid in the future.

Before I finish this blog post, I’ll give a very subtle hint about the subject of the next one, and to do so I’ll just leave you with this cryptic comment: there’s a line within this blog post which somewhat ominously foreshadows what’s to come…

15.08.21 — Journal

Cami & Kevin in Madrid

I pick things up here where we left off in my last post, when Kevin, Cami, and I were headed for a couple of days in Madrid after our big Asturian reunion in Oviedo! After having such good fun canoeing down the River Sella and eating the delicious food that Asturias has to offer, I was somewhat apprehensive to ensure that Cami and Kevin had a good time in Madrid, but we sure packed plenty in…

After another ridiculously short flight from Oviedo to the capital, the three of us hopped on what was supposed to be a direct train line to my neighbourhood to head out early for some drinks and food at my favourite local bar. As my blatant foreshadowing revealed, however, this was not to be the case, and we wound up changing trains twice in order to get to my house.

Once at base the three of us left our bags, had a quick freshen up, and then headed down to Bar El Ferrocarril to have a few cheeky drinks and enjoy some of the best (according to me) huevos rotos (chips topped with fried eggs and cured ham) in Madrid. Once we were merrily full, I suggested we grab some churros for dessert, and so we headed off towards the river to pick up a fresh bag.

Disaster struck, though, when the churrería that I was hoping to go to turned out to be closed. As an alternative, I remembered that just fifteen minutes down the road there was an Italian ice cream parlour that I’d been meaning to visit, and so we headed down to try out some of the gelato that I’d previously seen people queuing out the door to get their hands on.

We spent a good while down by the river enjoying our ice cream, and then had to traipse back uphill and to my flat to rest before our first day of adventures: I had, of course, created a plan of what we could get up to, and we’d to be at Ojalá early in order to snag a table for brunch!

Alternative text.

At this iconic breakfast spot in Malasaña, the three of us devoured our delicious brunch, complete with all kinds of food, teas, coffees, and juices to keep us hydrated in the Madrid heat. It’s a place I’ve been taking people to since the first time moved to the city all those years ago, and it never disappoints!

We held a little photo shoot in the basement beach bar.

In order to digest a little, we then headed for a wander around the lovely streets of Malasaña, but we soon found ourselves inside a bar and snacking and drinking once again. This time we landed in La Bodega de la Ardosa, an iconic spot for a pincho de tortilla (slice of Spanish omelette) and a vermouth.

The tortilla and a cheeky drink went down splendidly in the vintage interior.

From there, we headed on towards Chueca, Madrid’s gay district, where we managed to grab a table in the central square to enjoy a cocktail – although mine was a mocktail thanks to those pesky antibiotics. We couldn’t stick around for too long, however, as I’d more things planned before lunch!

After paying the bill, the three of us then waltzed down through the city centre, passing through the typical tourist spots such as La Puerta del Sol, Plaza Mayor, and past the Royal Palace and Cathedral. This long walk in the midday heat had us ready and rearing for some drinks and a spot of lunch, and I’d booked a table at just the place…

The beach bar at Café del Rey, where I spent many a Thursday afternoon when Erretres was based in Calle Cadarso, was the chosen spot for our meal. We made good and proper use of the menú del día (daily set menu) and had a couple of drinks before heading off to our next spot, the lake, where I’d decided we could take a nap in the shade.

I did manage to get half an hour of shuteye whilst down there, but I then awoke with a heavy head and dry throat thanks to the oppressive heat of the Madrid summer. There was only one way to solve this, we decided, and sauntered down to a lakeside terrace to have yet another drink before heading home for a proper nap.

Once we’d recovered some energy we hopped back on the metro and made our way up to one of the best spots – in my humble opinion – to see the sunset: the Templo de Debod. We arrived just in time to catch the last few moments of daylight, and the sky put on a spectacular show of rays of light marking the sun’s swan song for the night.

Once the light had faded and we were in need of yet another thirst-quenching beverage, we found ourselves a spot of grass and rolled our the picnic blanket, grabbing some beers and opening the snacks we’d brought with us. I then let Sara know that we were around, and she joined us in our picnic for her reunion with Kevin after the same three years!

Our original plan had been to then head down to the Lavapiés district for a final few drinks before tottering home on foot, but we’d completely lost track of time and space, and so decided instead to have a few drinks and a bite to eat at a bar near the temple. We were welcomed in by a lovely bar owner, who allowed us to have some drinks at his bar whilst ordering food from the restaurant across the way.

Once closing time came around, the four of us hopped back on the metro and off home, where I had the idea to hold a little spa evening of pampering to unwind and relax after quite a hectic day out in the city. I dragged out the face masks, body scrubs, and other lotions and potions, and Kevin, Cami, and I settled down with some relaxing music to wind down before bed.

The next day had us back on the move, as Cami and Kevin had mentioned that they fancied a snoop around Uniqlo (where I buy all my clothes, I have simple tastes). After a quick gander, we then headed to Retiro on foot, stopping for a photo opportunity by the Puerta de Alcalá.

The flowers were almost as resplendent as Cami was in the summer sun.

We then grabbed ourselves some of the city bikes for the next adventure of the day. The first leg of our journey took us around Retiro, Madrid’s main park, and past all the many sights it has to offer. The park has just recently been named as Unesco World Heritage Site, and its gorgeous promenades and numerous beauty spots such as the Palacio de Cristal (Crystal Palace) make it evident as to why.

This still has to be one of my favourite sights in all of Madrid.

With everyone to be seen having been seen, we then headed onto the city streets on our bikes, whizzing downhill to the river for another stop at the Matadero for a few drinks and another quick snack before lunch. This didn’t go without it’s fair share of hiccups, however, as I had to change my bike as it was wobbling all over the shop and then we managed to get a little lost after crossing one of the iconic bridges over the river.

Never mind, though, as we were soon in a local Italian restaurant and tucking into delicious salads, pastas, and a delicious profiterole dessert. This left us very full and very sleepy, and so Cami and I headed up back to my flat to relax whilst Kevin nipped across the way to get his PCR done to travel back to the US a few days later.

After a nap at home to recover, we were once again back on a bike and headed up to Madrid’s second new Unesco World Heritage site: El Paseo del Prado. This one’s a little more difficult to define, as really it’s the name of a street, but the recognition takes into account the fabulous sites which can be found along the way, from amazing architecture to a selection of grand fountains to the world-renowned Prado Museum.

We headed along the route of the Paseo del Prado, turning around at Cibeles, another one of Madrid’s most beautiful sights. We then left our bikes and headed through the lovely Writer’s Quarter (El Barrio de las Letras) on foot. There we found a terrace and settled down for our last drinks to celebrate Kevin and Cami’s last evening in Madrid.

The streets of the Writer’s Quarter were bathed in the evening sun as we explored.

With our drinks finished, the three of us then headed back home, where we ordered some Chinese food and watched a couple of episodes of Derry Girls before an early night – Kevin and Cami were up in the early hours in order to catch their flights: Kevin back up to Asturias for his last couple of days in Spain, and Cami back home to Tenerife.

The emotional farewell the following morning was made somewhat easier by the state of the three of us – we were way too tired to know exactly what was going on! I saw Kevin and Cami off with a big hug, promising that I’d soon be over to Tenerife and that I’d try to get into the US to see Kevin just as soon as they accept travel from the EU. Here’s hoping it’s sooner rather than later!

As mentioned in my last post, it was an absolute blast to be reunited with Kevin and Cami once more, and I just hope that the world starts pulling itself together soon so that we don’t have to wait three more years before we’re all back together for some more raucous mischief!

31.07.21 — Travel

Return to Asturias: El Descenso del Sella

As I was excited to mention at the end of my last blog post, I was soon to travel up to the gorgeous region of Asturias in the north of Spain to be reunited with Kevin and Cami, two friends who once lived in the area. I’ve seen Cami when she made a quick visit to Madrid and then again during a couple of trips I made over to her new home of Tenerife, but it’s been nearly three whole years since I last saw Kevin in person – in no small thanks to him being all the way over in the USA and then the ensuing pandemic!

Anyway, preamble over, let’s get to the juicy details. After recovering from a horrific stomach infection, I was thankfully well enough to drag myself up to the airport and onto the shortest (40 minute) flight I have ever been on. It really was a case of taking off, perusing out of the window for a few minutes, and then starting the descent!

I’d set off on this flight without a real solid plan of how I was then to get from Asturias Airport in the north of the region down to the city of Oviedo where I was to be reunited with Kevin and Cami. Relying completely on the accuracy of Google Maps, I practically sprinted from the plane out to the parking lot and then to the small bus shelter, as the bus was scheduled to leave at 21:15 and I was still on the bridge from the plane to the airport at 21:10.

The weather was typical of Asturias; grey, cool, and threatening to rain.

I had seemingly forgotten, then, that I was in Spain, and that things will go at their own pace whether it suited me or not. In this case it actually suited me perfectly well, as I had the opportunity to rest from my cross-airport sprint for a few minutes before boarding the bus and heading on my merry way as it began to rain.

As I approached the familiar Oviedo Bus Station, where I arrived for my first ever trip to the city back in 2017, I began to pass by many familiar streets along the way. The sight of the familiar buildings and even the unique overly-gothic style of Oviedo’s streetlights made me quite emotional, but I was soon snapped out of that one by the reality of the cold evening air as I stepped off the bus.

I then had a ten minute walk ahead of me to Calle Gascona, a street running through Oviedo’s centre which is famous for it’s many sidrerías (local cider restaurants). Kevin and many of his friends, Cami included, awaited me there, where I was met with many hugs and a plate full of pastel de cabracho, a light fish paté which went down a treat after such a journey!

Once we’d eaten, we headed back out onto Gascona, whose generalised stench of cider always makes me feel right at home. There we found a place to sit down for the evening and have a few more drinks, where I had a wonderful few hours catching up with old friends who I hadn’t seen since Kevin’s departure for the US.

As the bars began to close as per curfew rules, the group of us headed back to a friend’s car, who graciously gave us a lift back to Kevin’s flat out in the outskirts of the city. There, we were sure not to stay up too late, as we’d a rather unique and somewhat demanding plan for the day ahead…

That Saturday, it was time to bajar el Sella, or “go down the river Sella”.

The plan, as outlined above and hinted at in the title of this blog post, was to undertake an iconic Asturian tradition. The Descenso del Sella (literally, “the descent of the River Sella”) is exactly what it sounds like, consisting of a 15km kayak ride down the waters of the beautiful river.

It isn’t as demanding as it seems, however, as any given day in summer there are hundreds – if not thousands – of people joining you along the river. They’re all there for the excitement of the kayak journey, of course, but also because the entire route is peppered with chiringuitos, bars in fields which will sell you beer and cider and all manner of greasy sandwiches. Kevin sold me said plan by describing it as “kayaking, but drunk”. I was in.

The day begun with a somewhat rocky start, however, as I’d not bothered to kill a mosquito that was circling around the room I was staying in at Kevin’s flat. I’d thought that, because I’d covered up all of my body, the little bugger wouldn’t bother attacking my face so much. I was much mistaken, and woke up with bites on both eyelids which had left them massively inflamed.

I wasn’t about to miss the drunken kayaking, though, and so popped an antihistamine and headed downstairs, where we had a bite to eat before being picked up by Kevin’s friend Raquel. We managed to miss our exit on the car ride to Arriondas, the town representing the start of the route, but we were soon suited and booted (in some strange escarpines, a kind of pump designed for water sports) and ready to go.

Our first shock came with the way in which we were expected to enter the water in our canoes: down a rickety wooden slide! We thought it was a joke at first, but lo and behold, Kevin was soon sent flying down the ramp and into the waters of the River Sella. Me and Cami were up next in our double canoe, landing with an almighty splash which nearly capsized us!

After emptying the water from our canoe and having to hop out to drag the thing over a particularly shallow spot, we found ourselves being dragged downstream by the current, and soon managed to lose sight of everyone else in our party. We pulled over at a particularly busy mooring spot, opened a bag of sweets that we’d brought along for the energy, and waited for everyone else to show up.

This wasn’t an official stop along the way, but there was cider up for grabs, so it might as well have been.

When the others arrived, they headed off to grab a couple of bottles of cider, and Kevin opened a beer. I was still on antibiotics after a rough time with my stomach infection the week before, so I had to stick to a bottle of water, but we had a great time chatting and laughing and watching the world go by. A particular highlight was when a train passed by pipping its horn, to which everyone in the river and along the shore went absolutely wild – there was such a great buzz!

After a good while chatting on the shore, we headed back to our canoes as the clock ticked on. There wasn’t any huge rush, but everyone had to be out of the river by 6pm, so we’d to hit the 10km mark at least before 5pm in order to be allowed to carry on.

As we rowed our way along to the first official stop along the route, the sun made a rare appearance, and I dared to take my phone out of the watertight barrel that we’d been provided with to keep our phones, snacks, and beers in during the trip. This meant we could take some photos and videos as we went along – here’s a snippet of me rowing my way down the river!

A while later, and thanks to him going it alone whilst the rest of us headed along in pairs, we managed to lose Kevin. Me and Cami pulled up on the shore once again, waiting for the others to catch up, and we managed to contact Kevin via WhatsApp and let him know where we were waiting.

The views of the landscape along the way were as breathtaking as the journey was fun.

Once he arrived, drink in hand, we decided to have a quick rest, and got talking to the groom-to-be from a stag do that had him dressed up as Ariel from the Little Mermaid. After Kevin traded a couple of cigarettes for another can of beer, we headed back on our way and to the first official stop – yes, we still hadn’t got to that first checkpoint!

We eventually arrived at that first stop at 8km, where we dismounted as it was about 3pm and so time to grab something to eat. Cami and I headed to the chiringuito, grabbing some sugar-filled fizzy drinks and a sandwich each (bacon and cheese for me – I needed the energy!) before heading back down to the riverside.

Even the views from this little makeshift bar in a field were pretty captivating.

With everyone wined (well, cider-ed) and dined, we headed back off again for it was now getting late and we’d still another 2km to make in just under an hour. The weather had also started to turn again, so me and Cami decided to try to paddle full-steam ahead in order to make the penultimate stop in time to be allowed to continue and finish the full 15km.

After navigating some rather perilous rapids, we waited for Kevin to catch up as he’d fallen behind once again. He eventually floated by with his freshly acquired beer in hand – he was truly living the life!

Another patch of rapids soon followed, but then the river began to ease out into a much calmer section. As most people had sped ahead or given up at the first checkpoint, the journey then became much more tranquil, and we found ourselves surrounded by fewer and fewer boats as we powered ahead.

Just under an hour after leaving the first checkpoint, we arrived at the second and penultimate, where we made the executive decision to end our trip down the River Sella. The weather was looking a bit unpredictable, our arms were aching nicely after so much rowing in the latter section, and we’d seen on the group chat that the girls in front of us had also made the same decision.

Swerving over to the shore, we hauled our canoes up onto the shore, took off our life vests, and waited for the last person in our party to show up. Three guesses who it was who was lagging behind…

Our trip down the River Sella ended here, amongst the green mountains of Asturias.

Kevin finally showed up just before the 5pm cutoff point, and we noticed that he was drenched to the skin – it turns out that he’d managed to capsize in a section of rapids! After having a good laugh at his expense, we then hauled our tired bodies into a minivan and were driven back to the start point of the whole trip.

After changing back into our clothes and buying some souvenir photos – which I’ll scan and post on here just as soon as I can – we headed back to Raquel’s car and left for Oviedo once again, where we were keen to take a nap after such a long day. We arrived completely knackered but in great spirits, having decided to reconvene later and have a traditional Asturian meal at a new restaurant just down the road from Kevin’s flat.

The Descenso del Sella, as I’m sure I don’t need to reiterate after such stories as told above, was an absolutely great experience that I would urge anyone to have a go at if they ever get the chance! There’s tonnes of operators who will provide the complete package – canoe, life jacket, hermetically-sealed barrel, transport, and a mini introduction on how to row – for just 30€ for a double canoe or 20€ for a single.

The Descenso del Sella is a local tradition and an absolute blast no matter how good (or bad) you think you are at rowing!

Anyway, back to Oviedo, where we woke up revived but still half asleep and champing at the bit for a proper heavy meal which would send us back to sleep again for the night. We tottered down to the restaurant that we’d arranged to meat at, and tucked into an absolutely divine series of dishes after having to ask for the bread to be delivered as quickly as possible as we were practically gnawing the edges of the table with hunger after such a busy day!

The meal included a series of my favourite Asturian plates, from cachopo (a classic from the region consisting of a fried mass of beef, cured ham, and cheese) to tortos con picadillo y huevo (a fried maize bread topped with spiced minced pork and fried egg), and with little bites including chipirones a la plancha (little squids in a garlic sauce) and croquetas de jamón (cured ham croquettes). This was all finished off with a selection of desserts which we nearly didn’t manage to finish!

Needless to say that we all had the best night’s sleep of our lives that night, with the physical exertion of the descenso and the heavy local food sending us off to dreamland mere minutes after arriving back home.

The next day, Cami and I were awake before Kevin, who’s alarm had been going off for ten minutes with no signs of life. We decided to head out for a spot of breakfast whilst he had a well-deserved lie-in (10km rowed by himself!), and Cami knew just the spot. She took me to a local bakery which had a selection of pastries and fancy fruit juices, and we enjoyed a lovely relaxed breakfast outside on a terrace.

Whilst there, Cami mentioned that a friend of hers lived nearby, and so we headed off to meet her and her lovely dog Newton, who was very excited to see Cami after not having seen her for quite some time! The three of us got chatting, eventually perching ourselves on a terrace for a quick drink.

Once we’d heard from Kevin, we headed back to his flat, and packed our bags ready to leave Asturias whilst he headed off to grab some lunch to accompany a Chilean wine that Cami had brought as a gift from her dad who’d recently visited Chile. As I learned in Tenerife, you can’t beat an authentic Chilean wine!

The three of us enjoyed a relaxed lunch at home before grabbing our bags, closing the flat up, and heading off to the centre of Oviedo to have one last cheeky drink in the city before boarding a bus back up to the airport. “And just why were the three of us headed to the airport?” I hear you ask – and I can now reveal that my return to Asturias was only part one of this little reunion trip, as Cami and Kevin were then to spend a couple of days with me in Madrid before Kevin headed back off to the US and Cami back to Tenerife!

Once we’d finished our last beer up north, the three of us were then whisked off to the airport and, no sooner had we arrived, we were at our gate and being called to board – Asturias’ airport is only a small affair!

And with that, I’ve to cut the story short, as I’m going to have to leave the second part of the trip – our two days exploring in Madrid – for the next blog post. I’m sure there’s no need to mention again that I had an absolute blast in Asturias after so many years without seeing Kevin and without returning to these lush lands where I feel so at home. I couldn’t have had any more fun or had better company – it really was a much needed high after a year and a half of pandemic-related doom and gloom!

Stay tuned for the next post!


This post represents the first time I’ve experimented with embedding videos as well as photos. If you have any feedback or you’re having trouble viewing the videos, let me know!

18.07.21 — Journal

Outside to Inside

Today’s blog post, although covering the last there weeks of mischief here in Madrid, is a rather short one. This is because I write to you after nearly two weeks of illness form which I’m just beginning to recover, but I’ll get into that at the end of the post.

For now, we begin up in the city centre, where Sara and I had arranged to meet up for a Mexican meal at Gracias Padre, a spot which I’ve visited a good few times in the past and which I always enjoy. We over-faced ourselves somewhat with our order, including a melted cheese and chorizo starter and then quesadillas and pulled chicken flutes – but it was all delicious!

A Saturday of lovely food with great company in fabulous surroundings.

The next day saw me out in the city for a spot of rare clothes shopping. After nipping by Uniqlo to pick up a few new goodies, I wandered up to Chueca, where I had a spot of lunch and nipped into Lush before cycling through the city and back home to spend an evening sunbathing and relaxing by the river.

Well, that was the plan, until I got a message off Laura, a friend who moved to Miami a couple of years back, saying that she was back in Madrid for a month! Seizing the opportunity to spend a few hours with her that evening, I cycled up to the Templo de Debod, one of the best spots to watch the sun set over the mountains in the west, and we spent the evening catching up with another friend of hers.

After work the next day, I headed back down to the river, as I’d enjoyed the summer ambience down there the day before. I spent a few hours catching some rays, chatting to my family over the phone, and having a cheeky drink whilst I watched a group of dogs playing. All but one of them left with their owner after a while, so I snuck in to take a photo of its blond hair in the golden rays of the evening sun.

With the heat rising in the city, the rest of the week was spent mainly indoors, where I enjoyed the sunset one evening before adjusting the colours of my lighting to create a series of coloured indoor gradients. These were, however, interrupted for an evening after England got through to the final of the Euros – I had a little celebration at home after Ellie called me to share the atmosphere of the pub she was in!

Shortly thereafter, however, I fell ill with a mystery stomach bug. After a while trying to sort it out at home, I eventually ended up in urgent care with severe stomach pain whilst I should have been watching the final of the Euros. This marked just the start of a rough week, which has included a scare with the possibility of it being coronavirus.

After various phone calls with my GP and another trip to urgent care which nearly turned into an overnight stay, I’ve finally had a concrete diagnosis and have started a round of antibiotics, so I’m now on the mend and hoping to be back at work and out and about as soon as possible. It can’t come soon enough, as next weekend I’m hoping to escape Madrid for a few days and be reunited with Kevin and Cami back up in Asturias after nearly three years!

I’d like to end this post thanking my friends, family, and colleagues who have been very supportive and have helped me out through a rather rough week with this illness. My endless admiration and respect also goes to the healthcare professionals here in Spain who attended me – they were as compassionate as they were speedy in getting me diagnosed and on the mend. Public healthcare is a marvellous thing, and we should fight to protect it whilst we’ve politicians doing their best to undermine it.

I’ve a few days of rest and recovery ahead of me, but I’ll be back soon with whatever I manage to get up to – I hope not to disappoint!

04.07.21 — Journal

Between Times

With the rush to get out my posts on both my trip up to the north of Spain with Jhosef and my visit to Murcia to visit my auntie and uncle, I wound up leaving out a few bits and bats that I got up to between times whilst in Madrid. No fear, however, for I’m here today to put right this oversight and also share some more recent updates.

We kick things off in Madrid’s best neighbourhood, Delicias (where I live, naturally). Me and Luis had decided to brave the threatening weather forecast for a trip up to Lavapiés, another of the city’s barrios, and enjoy some pizza before heading to an exhibition and bookshop that Luis had heard about.

The walk up to the pizzeria was quite the experience, with a torrential downpour threatening to soak us to the skin should my umbrella give way. At one point, we’d to take a respite stop along with a throng of others in the entrance to a supermarket whilst the worst of the storm passed over. From there, we skirted around huge puddles in our already damp trousers and managed to make it to NAP Pizza without – thankfully – any further meteorological incidents.

After some delicious pizza, we strolled down to the bookshop in question, where I picked up a couple of gifts and we ventured into their basement exhibition space, where there was a fun series of paintings on display. We didn’t stay too long, but I did enjoy the neon colours and smiley faces.

From there we then headed across the road to the Tabacalera, another exhibition space run by the city council. Here – I’m not going to lie – I didn’t really understand the art on offer, but I was fascinated by the space itself. I took lots of photos of lots of things, but I’ll leave you with a little teaser of what I saw – piece of art included because I found a lightbulb hidden away in it.

I also engaged in a spot of redecoration before grabbing my train down to Murcia, which involved rearranging my flat in order to better reflect my new routine which involves much more time spent in the office than working from home. I pulled my lovely marble dining table out of storage and reinstated it in the living room, and bought myself a lovely, slightly less overbearing new desk which I have installed in my rearranged bedroom.

My return to Madrid after Murcia did not, however, mark the end of my traveling during the month of June. I had one last place to visit, and that was Cuenca. This was actually a super quick one-day work trip to visit a client in the lovely old city famous for its casas colgadas, houses which hang perilously over the edge of a series of cliffs.

The trip was made extra special by the opportunity to, albeit briefly, enter some of the most famous examples of these “hanging houses”, from which absolutely spectacular views over the surrounding hillsides could be seen.

Once back in Madrid, another weekend signaled another round of drinks to be had with Sara in the centre. Heading back up to El barrio de las letras, Madrid’s literary quarter, the two of us stopped for some delicious cocktails in a pretty little square along one of the side streets.

With a clear head the day after, I spent the Sunday rewiring and reprogramming the lighting in my flat – something which is no small feat – before starting another week at work. With our move to jornada intensiva (literally “intensive working hours”) for summer, I now leave work at 3pm every day, and so one evening I arranged to meet up with Bogar, Hugo, Sergei, and Jhosef to enjoy some tasty dishes at a local Italian restaurant.

An evening of great company and lovely food served by the hilarious owner.

The following weekend was spent, as ever, out and about in the city. On Saturday I met up with Soyoung – who I hadn’t seen since we last had brunch together just before lockdown last year – and we headed to a spot to once again enjoy a breakfast-cum-lunch on a terrace in the north of the city. It was lovely to see her again and finally get around to catching up on all the events of the last fourteen months or so – how time flies!

The Puerta de Alcalá looks resplendent as I cycled past on my way home.

On the Sunday I met up with Jhosef for a wander around the neighbourhood, and before long his sister, Ximena, had joined us. The three of us then decided to have a drink in the Matadero, a cultural centre a stone’s throw from our houses, and this then turned into ordering some food for lunch too. We had great weather, great company, and a great terrace to sit at – the perfect combination for the best impromptu plans to develop on the fly!

With this chaotic series of updates I bring you all more or less up to date on all the shenanigans from the past few weeks in between my trips north and then south. I say more or less because, as the summer months of July and August arrive, I’ve a little more time to explore and head out more, and so you can be sure that there’ll be plenty of nonsense to come…

22.06.21 — Travel

A Long Murcian Weekend

A mere two weeks after my trip up to Bilbao with Jhosef, it was time for me to grab a train southwards and to the now very familiar lands of Murcia. I was once again traversing the Iberian peninsula, and I was once again bound for the Mediterranean coast in order to spend a few days with my auntie and uncle after I last saw them last summer.

The trip started with a near miss, as I arrived running into the station and boarding my train a mere two minutes before it left on its way. This was thanks to me getting quite distracted in a rather fancy supermarket, where I’d nipped in for a bottle of water and left with a bag full of snacks and a bottle of vermouth.

Relieved, and with the rare luck of having a whole two seats to myself, I spread out and took the time to work on my website on my laptop during the journey down. This, combined with aforementioned bag of delicious treats, made the five hours fly by; before I knew it I was stepping off at the station of Balsicas to be greeted by my aunt and uncle.

From there, the three of us headed to a local bar that they’d found, where we ordered a selection of dishes and a beer each to make the most of that Friday evening. Once full of garlic prawns and chopitos (little fried squids), we headed back to theirs to rest for the night before a busy Saturday begun.

A brisk morning walk to grab some bread was the perfect start to the weekend.

Me and my auntie kicked off the weekend with a walk up to the local shop to grab some supplies for breakfast, after which the three of us jumped in the car and down to the coast to visit a restaurant and seafront bar. There we were in luck, as the place was pretty quiet and they were sound testing for a dinner the following evening, which involved being serenaded to some of our favourite songs whilst enjoying a drink overlooking the water. It was pure holiday bliss!

From there we then headed further down the coast and to the mud baths, where I once again took the plunge and covered myself in the rather whiffy sulphur-rich goo. As I struggled to get the stuff to stick, I got chatting to two locals, who wound up talking to me for a good while – so long that my auntie had to come and drag me away so that we wouldn’t be late for lunch!

We dined down at a harbour that I’d never visited, which involved a journey winding through the nearby salt flats in order to reach the place. I figured that when in a harbour, I should probably order some seafood, and so my lunch was a delicious combination of seafood soup and fried dorada (a kind of fish which I have never heard of in English but who’s name is apparently the same as Spanish, where it means “golden”).

The sky looked threatening but held out for the most part.

With the day drawing to a close and having packed quite a lot into the morning, we spent the evening at the apartment, where I introduced my auntie to the wonders of those peeling face masks which don’t seem to do much for the skin but are a whole lot of satisfying fun to remove!

The next day began, once again, with a wander around the golf complex where my auntie and uncle live. We decided to stick around the place for the day, where I spent a good while in the pool and a little while reading my new book. I’d headed down to the poolside without a hat, however, and so some quick improvisation was called for…

Once the sun had begun to fade and I was all pool-ed out, we showered and prepared ourselves for an evening out. We’d decided to visit a place that my auntie and uncle had heard good things about down by the coast, and so headed back down to the Mar Menor to seek out the restaurant in question.

The meal we had certainly didn’t disappoint, from the small bites for starters to the delicious plate of pork in a creamy mushroom sauce that we ended with. I even got myself hooked on their buñuelos de bacalao, fried balls of cod with some other delicious stuff thrown in, and ended up ordering more!

Once I was quite merry after a couple of glasses of vermouth, we paid up and headed back for the car, stopping on the way to pick up a bag full of that staple of Spanish cuisine, freshly fried churros with a cup of gooey, thick hot chocolate. We sat down on a wall to eat these whilst overlooking the sea: the perfect end to another lovely day.

The next day saw us once again head out for lunch, stopping by an ancient spot in a little old town that served us a series of local dishes as part of their daily menu. From there, we headed out shopping, as I was keen to grab a few bits from the British supermarket to share with my friends and colleagues here in Madrid. I do think my taste is now changing however, as the Kettle crisps that I used to laud so readily now seem a bit greasy and cheap to me…

That evening, a couple of my auntie and uncle’s friends nipped over for a drink, and we had a lovely evening chatting away until late as I finished off that bottle of vermouth that I’d brought down with me and which had nearly cost me my train journey!

Through sheer damn luck and the willpower to down two pints of water before heading off to bed, I awoke to spend my last day without any kind of heavy head. Not wanting this last day to be spent faffing around until my train left at 4:30pm, me and my auntie headed down to La Encarnación, a lovely hotel and restaurant down by the seafront. There we had a quick breakfast before heading back into the town of Los Alcázares, where I picked up a few last minute bits and bobs before heading back to the apartment to pack.

Before bundling myself onto the train back up to Madrid, however, there was one last tradition to be honoured. Before heading for the station, we seemingly always stop for lunch beforehand in a little town called Roldán, and this time was no different. Meeting up with more of my auntie and uncle’s friends, we enjoyed a very filling meal which always keeps me very satisfied and very dozy during the long journey back home.

This wasn’t the last highlight of my trip down to Murcia, however, as I had quite the surprise on the train back to Madrid. As the train crawled out of Murcia’s train station, I suddenly felt someone grab my neck, and turned around to find myself face-to-face with Borja, an ex colleague from back from when I first started at Erretres! What are the chances?

My journey down south concluded with this lovely surprise and a quick catch up with Borja on the way out of the train station, the cherry on the cake after four days of relaxation and catching up with my auntie and uncle. Needless to say that, as ever, my little holiday was great fun, and I’ve to extend many thanks to my auntie and uncle for putting up with me and my every whim during the time I spent with them.

I now look forward to being able to nip down to visit Murcian shores once again, most probably once I’m all vaccinated up to the nines. Until then, ¡chau!

06.06.21 — Travel

Bilbao With Jhosef

Today’s update comes from the place I actually sat down and wrote the entirety of my last blog post – Bilbao. This isn’t the first or even the second time that I’ve visited this lovely city in the north of Spain, but it felt like a whole new experience as we had a full four days to explore and tickets booked to visit the Guggenheim – but we shall get to that in due course. For now, let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…

Our journey began with a somewhat lengthy five-hour bus journey which had us land in the Basque Country’s largest city at around 9pm. From there, we headed straight for our hotel in order to drop off our stuff and having a quick shower. As our trip had been a last-minute decision, however, we hadn’t even thought to check what the local coronavirus restrictions were like, so I checked that there wasn’t a curfew in place before heading out.

Thankfully there was no curfew in place, but to our great dismay we discovered that all restaurants and bars had to close at 10pm. Regardless, we thought we would still be able to bag something to eat, and headed out just after this cut-off time.

Well, this turned out to be a rather optimistic assessment, as we were faced with shutter after closed shutter. Thankfully though, a lady I spoke to on the street gave us a tip, telling us to knock on the shutters of one of the kebab shops. To our surprise, the shutter opened, a guy took our order, and we were then told to wait around the corner in order to draw attention from the slightly illegal sale of kebabs after 10pm. Me and Jhosef were quite giddy as we waited for our evening meal – of all the naughty kebabs I’ve ever had, this was by far the naughtiest!

After inhaling our kebabs in the hotel room, we headed off to sleep, waking up with plenty of energy to explore the day after. Our outing began with breakfast in a local bar, where we had our first taste of pintxos (also spelled pinchos elsewhere in Spain), which are little portions of food which are usually served atop a little piece of bread. These are a staple of Basque cuisine, and can be found in every bar that you may happen across in Bilbao.

The Txabarri Jauregia palace looked lovely even under grey skies.

We then headed to the historical centre of the city, which took us across the river, where we stopped to snap some photos of the central train station and the waterside basement below. In order to bag some photographs at interesting angles, we then snuck down one of the perilously slippy concrete staircases which lead to the water’s edge, taking care not to be hurtled headfirst into its murky depths by the green slime that covered the lower half of the descent.

The concrete stairs were the perfect place for a grungy photo shoot.

Once firmly in the centre of the oldest part of the city, we stopped for a couple more pintxos and a drink at a little bar. Freshly energized, we crossed the river once again, exploring another area of the city that we stumbled across by pure chance whilst looking for somewhere to eat something more substantial for lunch.

This quest for a restaurant wasn’t all that fruitful, however, and we wound up accidentally looping back on ourselves and back near the hotel. The abundance of 1.50€ pintxos had our back though, and we grazed on a few more of them in another bar before heading back to the hotel via a nearby park for a nap before our evening’s travels.

After our siesta we headed down to a nearby riverside spot that Jhosef had stumbled across on his morning jog which is famous for its huge red crane. From there we followed the river’s meandering all the way to the infamous architecture of the Guggenheim, where we headed back into the centre to scout out something to eat.

Before we even stepped foot in our chosen restaurant, we had a cheeky couple of pintxos at a neighboring bar, where we got chatting to the lady at the bar about life in Bilbao. By this point, the two of us had settled into the rhythm of the city quite nicely, and this only continued as we headed to our evening’s restaurant and dined on bao and a delicious duck and mushroom dish.

After rushing out of the restaurant in order to squeeze in one last drink at another bar before the 10pm closing time, we sauntered back to the hotel full of good food and even better patxaran (also spelled pacharán, a delicious alcohol made from sloe berries). On the way, however, we stumbled across something that had me all excited and took me back to my childhood: an artwork made of various different models of streetlight.

I should explain, for those who don’t know me, that I have been obsessed with lights from the moment I began speaking (my first word was light thanks to my grandma). Here it’s also worth noting that as a young child, when presented with a painting kit, the first thing I painted was a motorway in order to then carefully paint its accompanying streetlights. I was also once gifted a plastic train set, and managed to lose every piece except the precious three streetlights that it came with… I think you get the idea.

Me and Jhosef lay down in the grass looking up at the lights and resting off some of the food for a good while, before returning to the hotel in preparation for our second day’s main activity: a visit to the Guggenheim.

The morning began, as was quickly becoming habit, with a coffee and a round of pintxos. We then made the short direct journey to the world renowned art museum, grabbing our tickets and heading into the central atrium of the Frank Ghery masterpiece for the first time. As I said, I’ve been in Bilbao twice before, and I’d visited the museum’s gift shop on both occasions, but I’d never actually had the chance to see the art within.

The museum was absolutely fascinating, with various works catching my eye, but I shan’t go into too much detail. I’ll just leave it at this: it’s very much worth a visit, no matter what kind of art interests you. Hell, even if you think that art isn’t for you, there’s some really interesting and beautiful sights to be appreciated within. To prove this, I’ll leave a few pictures that I took during our visit:

Leaving the museum behind after a good while snooping around the gift shop (I do love a good gift shop), we headed back into the city and to a restaurant that we’d booked to have lunch, Monocromo. The quirky little restaurant with it’s open kitchen and specialty vermouths (one of my favourite tipples) was a hit with the two of us, and we thoroughly enjoyed the seafood, drinks, and huge dessert that were placed before us.

We left the place absolutely stuffed, and so headed back to the hotel to sleep it all off. Jhosef was particularly exhausted, and so whilst he slept I headed off for a solitary wander and to buy some snacks lest we be caught out again by the 10pm closing time.

I’m not a fan of this skyscraper which towers over the city, but this couple didn’t mind.

As I returned to the hotel with my bag full of edible goodies, I noticed that the night sky was fading into a particularly beautiful sunset, and so made a substantial detour in order to witness it from the banks of the river. This didn’t disappoint at all, as I was treated to a view over the infamous red crane and the silhouetted by a gorgeous celestial explosion of pink and orange.

The sunset was particularly striking behind the big red crane.

After spending that evening munching on crisps and watching the second half of a Batman film in the hotel room, we were once again on the move the day after. For breakfast, we’d arranged to meet up with Jhosef’s friend, Sergio. We headed to a local bakery for some pastries, chatted for a good while over coffee, and I thanked him for the restaurant recommendation from the day before.

When Sergio had to dash off to work, Jhosef and I then made our first descent into the tunnels of Bilbao’s metro system, catching the (wrong) train to the coast to spend a day in Getxo. After switching trains to one that was actually going where we wanted to go, we arrived in Algorta, a lovely coastal town which we’d been told was famed for its beautiful old port.

A quick wander round in the intense sun (an odd occurrence in the north of Spain) was all it took to tire us out, and so we perched ourselves on the terrace of a tiny bar and ordered some drinks and a bite to eat. The food came in the form of gildas, little cocktail sticks holding delicious combinations of fish, olives, and pickled vegetables, amongst other ingredients. Jhosef was a big fan of these little sticks of goodness, and so we grabbed ourselves another round before heading down to the old port area of the town.

The old port was absolutely beautiful, with quirky little houses lining the sloped streets which led to the waterfront. On the way down to the port itself, we passed by a restaurant with a gorgeous open terrace shaded by a smattering of trees, and decided that we’d return there for some lunch after catching a glimpse of the sea.

The port itself was lovely, but rather small, and so we didn’t spend too long exploring the area – a decision made easier by the fact that the sun was now directly above us and threatening to burn my poor English skin. I avoided the otherwise guaranteed sunburn with the aid of an umbrella – I must have been a right sight to behold…

After a spot of crab spotting we began to make our way back to the quaint little terrace I mentioned, where we sat down for one of the most drawn-out lunches I’ve ever experienced. In this little village time seemed to slow, and we probably spent about four hours eating, drinking, and chatting, both to each other and the friendly waitress who served us a series of delicious local dishes.

Eventually we finally decided to move on with the rest of our plans, prompted to do so partly by the breeze that had picked up and the smattering of clouds that had begun rolling in. Not wanting to miss our only opportunity to stroll along the shoreline, we headed down to the neighbouring beach and spent a good half hour crossing its entire width. Whilst Jhosef dipped his feet in the surf, I engaged in a spot of beach combing, bagging myself a couple of shells which I now have accompanying my many plants in my flat.

Once we’d reached the other end of the beach and after a failed attempt at catching a bus, we resigned to walk the rest of the path down to the estuary of the river that winds inland and through Bilbao. Here I wanted to get up close and personal with the Bizkaia Bridge, the world’s first suspension bridge which is still in operation, spanning the width of the Nerbioi River just before it reaches the sea.

To get a better view of the bridge, Jhosef and I crept down yet another concrete stairwell which led straight into the choppy waters of the estuary. After a near miss involving the wake of a passing boat, we climbed back up to safety and headed to the bridge’s viewing platform, taking a few more photos before heading back to the metro bound back to Bilbao – stopping along the way for a couple of pintxos and a glass of wine, of course.

That evening, our last in this great city, was rather eventful. After a day on our feet we weren’t up for an evening searching out a restaurant, and so nipped into a bar next door to the hotel to dine on some more pintxos. Having neglected to check the weather forecast beforehand, we decided to sit outside on the roadside terrace – and I’m sure you can imagine what happened next.

After being blessed with such a sunny day up to that point, it was high time that the Basque weather pulled one of its usual tricks and changed within a blink of an eye. In an instant the evening heat gave way to a raging thunderstorm, with the downpour soaking us to the skin but doing very little to dampen our spirits: rather than run back inside, we decided to enjoy the rain, going so far as to film a parody of the music video from that early 2000’s classic “All The Things She Said”!

Now absolutely drenched, we headed up to our room after paying the very bemused owner of the restaurant who had observed our antics, and all too soon our last day in the city came around. With our bus back to Madrid scheduled to leave at 4pm, it was a bit of an odd day to go out and do too much for fear of arriving late at the bus station, but we managed to make the most of the time we had anyway.

Our morning began with a walk down the other side of the river, passing behind the contorted architecture of the Guggenheim and taking us all the way back to the old town. Once there, we explored some of the streets which we hadn’t seen during our first quick visit, and nipped in a sweet shop in order to buy some treats for friends, colleagues, and family back in Madrid.

We then headed back to the hotel after one last cheeky vermouth, having decided that it was a good idea to have lunch in the restaurant by the hotel as we could pick up our bags from next door and make the short journey up to the bus station when the time came. We were treated to a delicious full menú del día on the same terrace where we had been drenched the night before, topped off with a glass of wine and some lovely ice cream to keep us satisfied through the long journey back to Madrid.

With the last bill paid and our bags recovered from the hotel’s storeroom, the two of us then had to speed our way up to the bus station, arriving just in time to be two of the last people to board the bus. Our sizable lunch worked just perfectly to put us to sleep during the journey back, and so we were back in the capital before you can say pintxo – which, if you’ve been wondering all this time, is pronounced pin-cho.

All that’s left to say is that I had an absolutely lovely time in Bilbao – but I think that my admiration for the place has been pretty evident throughout this post. Thanks to Jhosef for suggesting the idea of a city break and then putting up with me for the four days that we travelled together, and also to my colleague María, a native of the region without whose recommendations we wouldn’t have thought to do half the amazing things we did nor order some of the delicious local dishes that we sampled.

Bilbao – I will be back. Until then, agur!

01.06.21 — Journal

Plenty of Pampering

At the end of my last post, I speculated whether I’d be able to travel around a little bit this summer now that Spain is lifting restrictions after the central government deactivated the state of emergency a couple of weeks ago. Well, it would seem that my prayers have been answered, as I start writing this blog post sat at a desk in a lovely hotel room in Bilbao, where the grey clouds have finally parted and it looks like we’re going to be treated to a day of sun.

Stories from my current trip up to the north of Spain will, however, have to wait until the next blog post, as we’ve some catching up to do — or should I say I do, as I’ve had my blog somewhat abandoned for the last few weeks…

We pick things up after my week of little birthday celebrations, and another week at work which was punctuated by some lovely evenings with friends. One evening I met up with Sara and Jhosef at a lovely little terrace near my house, where we were treated to a generous selection of tapas before ordering two huge plates of delicious grub to share — calamares (calamari rings) and huevos rotos con jamón (chips with cured ham and fried eggs).

Another evening brought with it another birthday celebration, this time for Hugo. For this, four of us headed to an Italian restaurant that I knew Hugo was a fan of, and tucked into some delicious courses (including a dessert that came recommended by a colleague) in between lots of laughs and some particularly lovely white wine. 

I’ve always been a big fan of prawns with spicy tomato sauce.

With my belly full of a rich and spicy tomato and prawn pasta, I hopped on one of the city bikes to head back home, passing by some of the places that I had first gawked at when I first stepped foot in Madrid all the way back in 2015. I passed by the Instituto Cervantes, the Banco de España (Spain’s national bank), Cibeles, and the southern train station, Atocha. Upon arriving home, I set the lights to a relaxing purple colour combination and unwinded for the evening with a book.

I mention the book because I’ve recently gotten back into reading in a big way, having finished three books in the past couple of weeks. Without wanting to turn this post into a book review (I used to hate having to write those in primary school), I’ll quickly detail the experience as I think they are three very interesting pieces:

The first took the form of a novel I received through the post as part of an anonymous book exchange I participated in on Instagram. I’d done this on a whim, doubting that much would come of it, but I actually received two novels in the end! The first of these was this one, Los renglones torcidos De Dios by Torcuato Luca de Tena. As you can tell by the title, this was a Spanish novel, and represented the first time that I’d ever read a full novel in my second language. It wasn’t an easy read, both because of the need for constant pauses to look up unfamiliar flowery terminology and because of the subject matter: life inside an old psychiatric hospital. The hauntingly beautiful title, which translates roughly as “God’s twisted lines of text”, is a great window into the contents of the novel, for which Luca de Tena himself feigned mental illness in order to live an unfiltered, first-hand experience within a psychiatric hospital. This exposure shines through in Luca de Tena’s ability to captivate and maintain dramatic suspense until the very last page. Unfortunately there’s no English version, but I’d highly recommend it to any hispanohablantes out there.

The second book took the form of a biography. I’m not usually too fond of biographical works, but I made an exception here after watching a short documentary on YouTube on the life of this extraordinary woman. The Trauma Cleaner: One Woman’s Extraordinary Life in the Business of Death, Decay, and Disaster by Sarah Krasnostein documents the turbulent and often heart-wrenchingly sad life of Sandra Pankhurst. The book explores — with often blurry or incomplete details thanks to Pankhurt’s possibly trauma-induced amnesia — her early years as a mistreated adopted child, her subsequent transition to a woman, and then her eventual role as the founder of a company dedicated to trauma cleaning. Trauma cleaning, for those in the dark, involves cleaning up places where trauma has occurred, such as the scenes of a murder, suicide, or the homes of hoarders. Although this book again details with a subject matter which makes for little easy reading, it was refreshing to learn about something which is often readily overlooked by society and the compassion —born surely of an ability to empathise due to her personal experience of trauma— with which Pankhurst handles each client and case.

Lastly we have the third book, and this time we find ourselves dealing with an equally obscure but much more light-hearted topic: grammar and punctuation. Written by an ex-proofreader from The New Yorker, Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris was a lovely light-hearted deep dive into the use of language and the punctuation with which we pepper our sentences in a manner which — as Norris would probably attest to — is often rather slapdash. I was seduced into picking up this gem of a book by the “Comma Queen” part of its title, as I’m often lauded by friends as being quite the fusspot with the use of commas. Needless to say, Norris didn’t disappoint, delving into the mechanisms of the English language (albeit in American English, which I’m not a huge fan of) in a light-hearted yet often very informative manner.

I’m now on another book, but I shall conclude this little book-club-esque section for now for fear of boring any of you who may not be interested. If you are, however, be sure to let me know. Maybe it could become something I write more about on here.

Anyway, let’s get back to more mischief from Madrid. Just one day after our evening out for Hugo’s birthday, I found myself cycling down to Luis’ flat with an unopened bottle of vermouth for some drinks and nibbles with him and a couple of friends. Sitting on his lovely private terrace, the four of us shared anecdotes and laughs over some delicious plates of jamón (cured ham) and cecina (cured beef), all before a quick dance to burn off some of the alcohol which was flowing freely.

Just 48 hours later and I was back with Luis again, this time taking the metro up to the north of the city and to Sunday Service, an event organised by my colleague Blanca to launch her line of custom handmade jewellery. The inauguration of Tony Blanco Jewelry took place in a photography studio, where we enjoyed pizza and beers and caught up with both old friends and new, as well as having the change to have our photo taken or bag ourselves a new tattoo – both of which I passed on for now.

After Sunday Service, me and Luis were joined by my colleague Maria for a couple more cheeky drinks and a spot of lunch in the city centre. After being joined by a couple more of Luis’ friends, Maria headed off and the rest of us sauntered down to Chueca, where we continued our afternoon of drinks with some gin and tonics.

This afternoon of drinks would have been all fun and games if it weren’t — as eagle-eyed readers amongst you will have already deduced from the name of the Tony Blanco event — on a Sunday. The shenanigans left me with a heavy head on Monday morning, but that had cleared up by the evening, when I dragged Jhosef out for a bike ride up through a green corridor in the north-west of the city.

Grabbing two of the motor-assisted BiciMad city bikes, the two of us followed the western length of Río Manzaneres, the river that runs through Madrid. This led us to a spot that I’d discovered by myself a while back, where we stopped for a moment before heading further onward, eventually arriving at a bridge which spans the main northern motorway out of the city. Here we stopped for a while, taking in the views of the city and the sunset over to the west, before turning back for home.

At home I had a random nostalgia trip and craving for — of all things — a hot chocolate from Costa Coffee. Although Costa may not be the height of the UK’s culinary offerings, I set about whipping myself up a concoction from pure cocoa powder, milk, sugar, squirty cream (which probably has a technical name but I’ve always called it that), and a sprinkling of cinnamon powder. Between my hot chocolate, the mood lighting that I’ve wired my flat up with, and a face mask kit from Lush, I had myself quite the evening of pampering.

Last weekend saw me continue with this theme of pampering, as me and Bogar headed back to Hammam after we’d last gone just before the pandemic erupted here in Spain. We returned to these Arab-style baths to take a dip in the thermal pools, sweat out our woes in the steam room, and have our stresses rubbed away during a relaxing massage. Once we’d been thoroughly revived, we cycled back to our neighbourhood, where we stopped at our favourite local bar for a delicious meal. Never was there a more perfect way to end a weekend!

All this brings us to just last week, which passed by relatively quickly, thanks to the combination of a few busy days in the office with the knowledge that I had a four-day weekend ahead to travel up to Bilbao in northern Spain with Jhosef. As I said at the beginning of the post, I’m still here in the hotel as I write this, although I’m sure I won’t muster up the energy to edit and upload the photos until I’m back in Madrid.

For now, I’m going to enjoy the two days I’ve got left here in this lovely city, and you just know that I’ll be back as soon as possible with some stories from the trip and a generous smattering of photos that I’ve taken around this quirky place. Until then!