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A sunny Semana Santa!

April 18, 2014 – 6:44 pm
Semana Santa, Seville, Sevilla, Maria Luisa Park, Parque Maria Luisa, Plaza de España

The Christ paso of La Sed in Plaza de España on Palm Sunday.

Semana Santa, Seville, Sevilla, paso, Virgin

The Virgin of Las Aguas at the Puerta del Principe, the main gate of the Cathedral.

This year, for the first time since 2011, all the pasos in Seville’s Semana Santa processions have gone out to do their journeys of penitence.

From Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) to now, Viernes Santo (Good Friday), there haven’t been any cancellations due to bad weather. The sun has shone almost constantly, providing a spectacular backdrop of blue skies for the centuries-old statues of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Semana Santa, Holy Week, Seville, Sevilla, Setas, Mushrooms, Metropol Parasol

Nazarenos from La Sed pass the 'Setas', on Miercoles Santo (Holy Wednesday).

The processions take up to an hour to go past, with hundreds of nazarenos (with tall, pointed hoods) and penitentes (with flat hoods carrying crosses) – both with only eye holes, walking in two single file lines.

Some penitentes and nazarenos are barefoot as part of their penitence, or only wear socks, and many are young people or children. The smallest are monaguillos, or choirboys (and girls), with little baskets of sweets to give out. Many are accompanied in the processions by parents or friends. With the heat of this week, water was a neccessity for those walking considerable distances wearing long, thick, heavy, dark-coloured robes.

Here are some images of pasos (floats) and nazarenos in front of Seville’s best-known monuments, from the Alcazar and Cathedral to Plaza España, as well as the latest architectural marvel, Metropol Parasol.

Semana Santa, Sevilla, cathedral, Giralda

Las Aguas approaching the cathedral, with the Giralda standing proud.

A Semana Santa with superb weather, as we’ve seen throughout Andalucia this year, not only makes for a great experience for participants and audience; it also boosts the economy, with hotel occupancy at 95+% for the holiday weekend here in Seville, and bars and restaurants doing a roaring trade. And for those who head out of town for the festivities, the beach is an inviting option too, to the delight of hotels, apartments and chiriginguitos all along our five coasts. A win-win situation all round.


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Andalucia triumphs in Trip Advisor Travelers’ Choice Awards for Spain

April 11, 2014 – 3:32 pm
Andalucia has half of Spain's top destinations for this year.

Andalucia has half of Spain's top destinations for this year.

If you’re a Trip Advisor user, and many of us who love to travel are, you’ll be interested to hear about the Travelers’ Choice Awards for Spain.

Out of the top 10 destinations which were voted for, including cities and beach resorts, half of them are in Andalucia – five of the ten most popular places to visit in Spain.

So which destinations are they?

**drumroll**

1 and 2 – some cities in the centre and north of Spain which we’ve never heard of ;)

3) Sevilla – the Giralda and tapas

Seville Giralda © Sophie Carefull

The Giralda - Seville is Spain's no 3 destination for Trip Advisor users.

4) Granada – the Alhambra and Lorca

The Patio de los Leones in the Alhambra, Granada. © Fiona Flores Watson

The Patio de los Leones in the Alhambra, Granada.

6) Malaga – museums and Picasso

Malaga's covered market, full of fabulous lcoal produce. © Fiona Flores Watson

Malaga's covered market, full of fabulous local produce.

7) Marbella – beaches and shopping

Marbella © Fiona Flores Watson

Beach club in glamorous Marbella.

9) Cordoba – the Mezquita and flower-filled courtyards

Cordoba © Fiona Flores Watson

Arches in the Mezquita, a mosque now enclosed inside a cathedral.

As you can see, most are historic cities, with three having UNESCO World Heritage Sites-recognised – Seville, Granada and Cordoba.

Now is a great time to visit these cities, with spring bringin blue skies, sunshine and warm temperatures. And next week the streets of these cities will be filled with hooded penitents as one of Andalucia’s most important celebrations: Semana Santa (Holy Week) gets under way – in some cities the pre-processions even start today.

seville, Semana Santa © Fiona Flores Watson

Semana Santa procession in Seville: penitentes with crosses.

The most notable celebrations are in Malaga, when Antonio Banderas will go out in a procession with his hermandad, and in Sevilla, where around one million people will watch thousands of nazarenos walk in long, snaking lines as long as several city blocks.

Cordoba © Fiona Flores Watson

Spectacular floral wall display in Cordoba.

Then, next month it’s time for the Cordoba Patios Festival and the feria season starts. So come and discover the wonders of Andalucia!


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Dolmens of Antequera: UNESCO World Heritage?

April 4, 2014 – 8:17 am
Peña de los Enamorados - Lovers' Rock, part of the Monumental Compex of Anterquera, entered as Spain's application for UNESCO World Heritage Status for 2015. Photograph: Michelle Chaplow

Peña de los Enamorados - Lovers' Leap, part of the Monumental Complex of Antequera, entered as Spain's application for UNESCO World Heritage Status for 2015. Photograph: Michelle Chaplow

Spain has moved a step closer to having another UNESCO World Heritage site, to add to the 42 sites already in the country. A total of six of these are located in Andalucia.

Last week it was announced that the prehistoric Dolmens of Antequera – which include the largest dolmen in Europe, Cueva de la Menga – have been selected as Spain’s only candidate for World Heritage status for 2015, in the category of culture. The decision on the site, which is lcoated in Malaga province, will be announced in June/July 2016.

This megalithic structure consists of a 25-metre-long, four-metre-high corridor with 32 massive stone slabs, and has mystical qualities related to the sun, which make it a highly special place to visit, especially at the summer solstice when the sun shines directly into its entrance. The other two dolmens are smaller but nonetheless impressive; all are around 6,000 years old, and were used for funereal purposes.

The site, which is already a BIC – Bien de Interes Cultural - also includes two mountain formations: the Peña de los Enamorados and the curious limestone rock outcrops of El Torcal. Both of these natural monuments were key in positioning the dolmens, and the site is qualified as a scenic-archaeological complex, with El Torcal a protected Natural Park. Read the official UNESCO description of the Antequera Dolmen Site here.

A museum is planned, with a total budget of eight million euros, due to start in 2015, and scheduled to be completed in 2017. The project was started in 1994.

If the application is successful, a UNESCO grant will be awarded for maintenance of the site, and the added attention and publicity will be great news for the historic town of Antequera, with its Moorish fort and Roman remains, and the surrounding area. Spain has no other megalithic monuments recognised by UNESCO, while the UK has three: Stonehenge, Avebury and Heart of Neolithic Orkney.


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Burladero and Hotel Colon – the rebirth of a classic from Expo 29

March 28, 2014 – 12:47 am
The beautiful glass dome of the Hotel Colon, which opened in 1929.

The beautiful glass dome of the Hotel Colon, which opened in 1929.

This year, indeed this very week, an institution in Seville celebrates its 85th anniversary: the Hotel Colon. When this revered establishment opened on 29 March 1929, as the Hotel Majestic, it was the grandest and most modern hotel in the city, and the only one to boast such luxurious mod-cons as ensuite toilets, lifts and central heating, suitable for accommodating the bigwigs who came to stay in Seville from all over the world for the Universal Exposicion in 1929, celebrating Spain’s former colonies, and its own industrial prowess.

As the Expo 29 was based in Maria Luisa Park, royalty stayed at the magnificent neo-mudejar Alfonso XIII palace next door, built for the eponymous king. The then-called Majestic was further to the north of the city, near the old Estacion de Cordoba train station, the beautiful iron-framed building which is now Plaza de Armas shopping centre. Of all the hotels built for this Expo – which included the Cristina by San Telmo bridge, now a building with shops, apartments and offices – the Colon and Alfonso XIII are the only two which are still used as hotels.

Burladero is the tapas bar at the Hotel Colon, which was built for the 1929 Expo.

The famous flocked to stay here, including Ernest Hemingway, who loved the Feria and watched many bullfights with Ava Gardner and Rita Hayworth, and the hotel has remained a firm favourite with bullfighters coming to strut their stuff in the Real Maestranza, the city’s bullring. Now called the Melia Colon, the hotel retains some of its original glamour, including the neo-classical facade and the famous glass dome in the atrium, plus a new contemporary edge with sensuous red velvet chairs and a rooftop spa.

I had lunch at the hotel’s Burladero restaurant earlier this week, which is in the lower ground floor and also has a pavement terrace area. The restaurant and tapas bar is themed around bullfighting, with a traje de luz (matador’s suit) behind glass, and photos of corridas all over. The restaurant was, some years ago, briefly under the auspices of star chef Dani Garcia, but this venture was not a success; the restaurant has, I was told, “done a 180-degree turn”.

Tartar of almadraba tuna.

Tartar of almadraba tuna (from Cadiz) with avocado.

Luckily I had remembered to advise them of my non-carnivore tendencies, and a fellow diner reckoned my resulting fish and vegetable options were the best of the entire meal. One of these was tartare of almadraba tuna, which is always fabulous. Tender and tasty, the fish is always as soft as it is delicious, this time topped with roe, on a base of avocado.

Poached egg with truffled potato, boletus mushrooms, red pepper and basil pesto.

I also had a poached egg, which came almost cooked so that I had to break it open and swirl the still-liquid white into its hot base of truffled potato and vegetables so it could finish cooking. Listed on their menu as a new tapa, it was divine – a comfort-food combination of tasty egg (free-range, I hope) with meaty mushrooms and soft potato. Our pudding was a new twist on the traditional Semana Santa sweet, torrijas (bread soaked in honey) – with a crispy caramel topping, like creme brulee, and nougat ice-cream. To me, soggy white bread could never be appealing, but the crunchy sweet layer with helado de turron was pretty good.

Wine board at Burladero. Botani is an excellent dry moscatel from Malaga

The prices are not cheap – with the tuna at 6.50 euros and the egg at 5.50 euros, this is out of pocket range for most Sevillanos, although tourists with ampler budgets may well take advantage. Wine costs a more reasonable, though by no means cheap, three to five euros per glass, off the top end of price scales in the city. There’s no doubt that the quality of this food is first class, and the service was excellent too. The menu is largely traditional, with local favourites such as pork carrillada and solomillo, adobo (marinated fish) and tortillita de camaron (little shrimp pancakes), plus their own signature dish, cola de toro (bull’s tail), along with some more experimental or modern dishes like the ones I was fortunate enough to try. The chef, Javier Rico, used to work at the Porta Coeli restaurant in the NH Hesperia hotel in Nervion.

If you’re visiting the city, especially during the upcoming annual madness that is Semana Santa followed closely by the Feria, and you don’t mind paying over the odds for some really excellent tapas, then I’d recommend Burladero.


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Building an open-air theatre in the mountains

March 21, 2014 – 1:12 pm
Anna Kemp, Un Teatro Para Todos

Anna Kemp, director of the Open Air Theatre Project in Laroles, on the threshing-floor stage.

Alpujarras, open-air theatre, Anna Kemp

An idyllic setting for the theatre: olive and almond groves, backed by snow-capped mountains.

During my ten-plus years in Spain, I have met a large number of fellow expats – some working for foreign companies, along with their “trailing spouses” (who are/were here because of their partners’ jobs); many, many English teachers; some yoga teachers; several media types; and a few inspiring, highly-motivated entrepreneurs in various fields: travel, property, technology and food.

One person from this impressive last group whose project stands out for its sheer creativity and vision, is Anna Kemp, founder and director of the Open Air Theatre in the Alpujarras, known as Un Teatro Entre Todos (which translates as “a theatre for all to use/in the midst of everyone”). Anna is a dynamic English script supervisor who has lived in Spain for 20 years. Her plan is to build a theatre on a hillside just outside the remote mountain village where she lives part of the time, Laroles, in Granada province. Sounds mad? Perhaps, but there’s method in her madness – as Anna explains in one of her introductory videos, times are challenging in rural Spain, with many young people leaving their villages for the big cities, and she’s looking for a way to entice the next generation to stay, thereby keeping their communities alive. Anna fell in love with the area when she was filming Al Sur de Granada, based on the book South from Granada, by Gerald Brenan.

Laroles, theatre, Alpujarras, Granada

The hand-made stone seats of the open-air theatre in Laroles.

Anna’s project started in 2013, and the theatre now has five curved rows of stone seating, following the contours of the hillside, hand-built by local artesans using traditional methods, as well as walls, all using recycled materials from the area. The theatre is based around three old cobbled eras (corn-threshing circles), the lowest of which they uncovered and restored thanks to a grant from the Junta de Andalucia; it will be the stage. The plan is to have 300 seats, with 150 already funded by the village’s mayor. The threshing floors are terraced into the mountainside, and form an integral part of the village’s socio-agricultural history, and so lend themselves perfectly to an inclusive activity such as theatre with its story-telling and music. The view itelf is astonishing – what a spectacular backdrop for a theatre – Anna was inspired by the famous Minack Theatre in Cornwall, which is built into the cliffside overlooking the sea.

These traditional stone threshing floors were restored for the project; they had been buried under the earth for years.

This traditional corn-threshing floor was restored for the project - it had been buried under earth for years. What a fabuous view!

The theatre is scheduled to be finished by this August, with the first performances that month. Check out the website at Un Teatro Entre Todos, while the Facebook page has daily updates with videos showing the progress of the theatre’s construction – Social Media at its most effective. Many villagers are involved with this bold and ambitious project, which has the full support of the village’s mayor.

“The response from the local community has been amazing. The older generations are thrilled to see the threshing circle brought back to life and I think the younger people see the opportunites the theatre will bring them,” Anna tells me.

Anna has just launched a crowdfunding campaign, which has already raised 2,500 euros – out of an eventual target of 60,000 euros – in two weeks; she needs 10,000 euros to finish building the theatre, which seems an incredibly small amount. The plan is to have a cafe-bar to complete the venue, with a festival scheduled in 2015. Ingeniously, Anna is targetting celebrities with a connection to the project, and Russell Crowe (Gladiator - amphitheatre) has already responded.

The Open Air Theatre will be a superb new attraction for the area, an organic structure which blends in naturally with its surroundings, pulling in visitors, benefiting the local economy, providing a valuable cultural resource, and bringing a fresh lease of life to a very beautiful but little-known area of Andalucia.


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Spring, Seville and Semana Santa

March 16, 2014 – 2:37 pm
azahar, orange blossom, spring

Orange blossom, which gives Seville its deliciously unmistakeable sweet spring-time scent.

This is a very special time of year in southern Spain: spring.

As the skies finally clear after what seems like months of rain (actually, they were), through the warm spring air wafts the sweet, delectable fragrance of orange blossom – its exotic Spanish name is “azahar“, a favourite word of many here in Andalucia as it heralds a welcome change in season.

Nazarenos in a procession along a street in Seville.

Nazarenos in a Holy Week procession along a street in Seville.

Lent (Cuaresma in Spanish, for 40 days) started last week, which means we’re now in the countdown to Semana Santa - Holy Week. This year it is later than usual, on 13 – 20 April.

Semana Santa is one of the most important celebrations in Spain, and takes place all over the country. Especially renowned for their pageantry and drama are the processions in the cities of Seville, Malaga and Granada.

Virgin, paso, float, Holy Week, Semana Santa, Seville, Sevilla

A Virgin paso from Semana Santa in Seville.

Statues of the Virgin Mary and Christ Jesus are carried through the streets on flower-decked floats, while bands play mournful music and incense is swung in silver containers. It is an extraordinary sight which everyone should witness at least once in their life. All cities take on a distinct, almost mystical air, as the candles are lit at dusk. Bars stay open all hours to cater for the hundreds of thousands of hungry people enjoying these strange and fascinating sights.

It goes without saying that this a very popular time of year to visit southern Spain, and all accommodation in cities gets very booked up, so if you want to come and stay to experience Holy Week in Andalucia, we’d recommend that you find a room or apartment as soon as possible – don’t delay!


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No more unlabelled refillable olive oil bottles

March 11, 2014 – 4:46 pm
Olive oil bottles like these are no longer allowed. Photo credit: Michelle Chaplow

Unmarked, refillable olive oil bottles like these are no longer allowed in bars and restaurants. © Michelle Chaplow

As of 1 March 2014, restaurants are not allowed to have aceiteras - the typical bottles of olive oil we’re all so used to seeing on the table, as used for the classic Andalucian breakfast – tostada con aceite, tomate y jamon (toast with olive oil, tomato and jamon - iberico, naturally).

The new law actually came into effect on 1 January 2014, but there was a two-month period of grace, for all establishments to make necessary preparations to comply with the new regulations, which is now over. As of last week, restaurants and bars must use olive oil bottles which cannot be refilled or reused, and which clearly show branding and labelling to indicate the origin of the oil. The aim of this new legislation to protect customers from being defrauded by restaurants using inferior quality oils.

Similar measures are already in place in Portugal and Italy. Restaurants which fail to comply with this new law will be fined: 600 to 15,000 euros for serious offences, and 15,000 to 60,000 euros for very grave infractions. The environmental effects are bound to be severe, with many more small glass bottles being thrown away (or recycled, at least, one hopes) after use, as well increased costs for consumers.


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Happy Dia de Andalucia, and farewell to Paco de Lucia

February 28, 2014 – 8:30 pm
Legendary guitarist, Paco de Lucia, who died this week.

Legendary guitarist, Paco de Lucia, who died this week. © Tony Bryant.

Today is Andalucia’s regional holiday, Dia de Andalucia, 28 February, when green and white flags are proudly flown from Huelva to Almeria.

But today’s celebrations have been tinged with sadness by the death this week of one of the region’s most famous and respected musicians: flamenco guitarist Paco de Lucia, who came from Algeciras.

He was a hugely influential man who brought flamenco to a massive global audience, but who also introduced his own interpretations and styles to this art form, merging it with other genres of music to create a new type of flamenco.

For my own part, one of his pieces was played at my wedding (in England) by a talented young guitarist called David Buckingham. The piece of music is a rumba called Entre Dos Aguas, and is one of his most famous compositions – you’re sure to recognise it. David played this tune so beautifully, in the high-ceiled hall of the Norman keep where we had the wedding, that my husband’s (Spanish) aunt was reduced to tears. Still gives me the shivers.

RIP Paco de Lucia


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Orange Days are here again!

February 20, 2014 – 5:19 pm
A feast of orangey tapas in Sevilla, until this Sunday.

A feast of orangey tapas at over 30 bars and restaurants in Sevilla, until this Sunday.

Every year around this time – January and February – the newspapers are full of recipes featuring Seville oranges, the small, bitter fruit so highly valued by the British for making their beloved marmalade – on toast, for the classic English breakfast. Of course, it’s a fruit which is closely associated with the city – not surprising, considering there are 40,000 orange trees in Seville. And at this time of year, they are covered in bright orbs, which stand out against the dark green leaves and azure sky.

Here, the orange season is celebrated in a more typically Spanish fashion – with a tapas festival, called Jornadas Gastronomicas Naranja de Sevilla, or Seville Orange Days. This is now in its third year – I wrote about the first such festival, back in 2012. The festival is on until 23 February – this Sunday.

This year, there are just over 30 restaurants and tapas bars taking part; you pay either 2,80 or 4,00 euros for a tapa with a drink. I tried some of the dishes out yesterday, accompanying one of the judges – since, like all the other tapas events in Seville, this is also a competition. As I’m a fish-only eater (no meat), we were slightly limited – bacalao was ubiquitous. Not that I’m complaining, as cod is a good, firm-textured tasty fish, but a little variety would be most welcome.

Cod croquette with caviar of orange. Beautifully presented, but short on taste.

Cod croquette with caviar of orange. Beautifully presented, but short on taste.

wine, Huelva

A little underwhelmed by this ´fruity dry´ white wine from neighbouring Huelva province.

First we visited one of the raft of new tapas bars in Seville, situated on the site of the old Irish bar, Flahertys, opposite the Puerta del Perdon of the Cathedral. Don Juan de Alemanes has a beautiful, light patio, decorated with shabby chic mismatched chairs. Their Orange Days special was a croquette (yes, just one) of cod and orange with its caviar. Full marks for presentation and visual impact, but the taste was disappointing. This was one croqueta with a smidgeon of pretty orange-ness on the side, plus a glass of sub-standard white wine (a seco afrutado – fruity dry – from Huelva), for 4,00 euros. Not good value, my companion and I decided. Service was reasonable, but the muzak was dire (Could it be I’m falling in love? )

Orange on the bar at Casa Robles, one of the three bars where I sampled the Orange Days tapa yesterday.

Orange on the bar at Casa Robles, one of the three bars where I sampled the Orange Days tapa yesterday.

Perfecto de pescado -  a piece of fish bake.

Perfecto de pez limon - baked fish.

Then we went round the corner to Casa Robles, one of the most well-established dining options in the city. A warm welcome with smooth, professional service, not to mention one of the best seafood displays in the city: cigalas, carabineros, cañaillillas - from the most enormous prawn-family crustaceans to little curly, spiky whelks. Their tapa was a pastel - a small baked egg-based dish, it’s hard to translate. But the pez limon was light and tasty, and its mousseline was delicious.

orange

This was the favourite of the three - cod with a tangy orange sauce.

After this, we walked through barrio Santa Cruz – always a delight – to a street just off the Plaza de los Venerables, where we ate at a table in the street. This tapa was another cod one, but this time it was confitado – stewed – in orange juice, with a creamy sauce. The bright yellow colour put me off, but the flavour was the most orangey of the three – with a sharp tang of bitter orange. It was unapologetically citrussy, but not in an unpleasant way; quite the opposite, in fact. And the crispy, sweet onion bits were the perfect foil. Not a fan of balsamic drizzled all over my plate – so 2010, my dear – but this was a properly orangey tapas. We had an excellent albariño to accompany it. Well done, El Jardin de las Tapas!

There are 28 other bars taking part in the Jornadas Gastronomicas Naranja de Sevilla, so you can find them all over the centre of Seville. Here is a list of the participating restaurants, with the tapa each is offering, so you can plan ahead according to your meat/fish preference, where appropriate.


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Spain is top wine producer in the world: up over 40% in 2013

February 13, 2014 – 4:40 pm
Spain - now the biggest wine producer in the world!

Spain - now the biggest wine producer in the world!

Spain has taken over from France and Italy as the world’s top wine-producing country, with its production increasing by over 40% in 2013. This is just a few weeks after the news that Spain is now the third-most visited country for tourism.

Spain has moved into first place in terms of world wine production for the first time ever, with a 41.4% increase in wine production since 2012, and a total of 50.6 million hectoliters of wine produced in 2013. Andalucia’s production rose by more than 20% in 2013.

A wine bodega, stacked with barrels.

A Spanish wine bodega, stacked with barrels.

According to information published by the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Food and the Environment, and gathered by the Spanish Wine Market Observatory, Spain has become the world’s number one producer of wine.

Usually France and Italy have taken turns as numbers one and two, while Spain has been top in terms of total surface area covered by vines. In 2013, Italy produced 48 hectolitres, and France 42.3 hectolitres.

According to one source, “Spain’s newly established position at the top of world wine production is due to the investments and improvements implemented in this sector in Spain, as well as this country’s favourable climate and growing conditions over the past year.”

In particular, the regions of Castile-La Mancha (up 64%), Extremadura (up 28%) and Catalonia (up 25%) were responsible for much of this production growth, while Andalucia’s production rose by a very respectable 22.6%, to 1.4 million hectolitres.


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