Friday, 30 August 2013

Teenage kicks

My betting activity on the horses this season has been so frugal as to be insignificant. Consequently the returns have been meagre too. But getting out-punted by my two teenage daughters and their friend at Newmarket recently was still hard to swallow.

I seemed to drift away from the gee-gees about the time that Royal Ascot wrapped up this Summer. I’ve traditionally been an advocate for and disciple of the winter jumps. In years past I had often struggled to maintain a consistent interest in the mediocre fare outside the big flat festivals. More recently, I’ve shaken off such cherry-picking and become much more indiscriminate. Indeed my flat stats bear favourable comparison with their national hunt brothers. …Though there’s no call to hang out the bunting.

That I’ve been distracted by other ‘stuff’ is no real defence. It wouldn’t happen in the jumps season. Never too late, last week’s Ebor meeting jolted me into action. Telescope’s win so full of promise in the Great Voltigeur, Tiger Cliff’s emotional victory in the Ebor and surprises in the Nunthorpe. And now, like an Aiden O’Brien lightly raced three year old, I am primed for an Autumn campaign.

Saturday at Newmarket’s July course would have been an appropriate place to mark my (re)start. Lovely course. Half decent card, including one listed sprint. Only I blew up. Clearly needing the first run after an extended absence, I was feeling the hot pace too early and folded tamely.  I may need my sights lowered and to find a more appropriate target. (Though I’m drawing a line in the sand well before the desperate prospect of Wolverhampton’s artificial surface.)

We counted ourselves mildly fortunate to see any action at all. During the week, weather forecasts had stubbornly predicted heavy rain for southern and eastern England on Saturday. I heard the slap of precipitation against our bedroom window early that morning. For the next few hours I monitored the grey skies leaking moisture that alternated between downpour, stair-rod and bucket.  I kept checking the Racing Post website, but there were no hints of an inspection at Newmarket (though Redcar had already been abandoned).

So we set off, grimly determined. Me, Mrs A, daughters no 1 & 2 and their friends Callum and Zoe, repeating the racing and music trick that we had pulled for the girls in two previous Summers: Kempton and Olly Murs, Sandown and Jessie J. This year McFly would provide the musical port and cigars after a feast of racing.

The M25 was nose to tail and there was so much rain and spray that it resembled driving through a car wash. The M11 was worse. A bad crash on the southbound carriageways had caused a major tailback on our northbound route of rubber necked ambulance chasers slowing down to get a good look at the carnage. We missed the first race, a 2yo maiden. But as we climbed from the trusty Zafira in the car park, the rain had subsided to a drizzle. The atmospheric and metaphorical gloom were both lifting. 

Being a generous sort, I funded the younglings at £2 per race and they could keep their winnings. And that’s what they did. The three girls cleared over £50 between them, backing 7 winners in total. Callum, in many respects my protégé, had brought his own stash to top up my contribution. He loves a day at the races. We discussed jockey bookings, the impact of the rain on the going and some of the finer details of form. He told me that he often didn’t pick a horse just on the name anymore. His plan was to keep some of his stakes back for a big bet on the lucky last. Marvellous stuff. “Mug punting indeed!” I beamed. “Isn’t that the name of your website?” he asked. He went home potless. As did I.

Zoe, on the other hand, was a revelation. There were six runners in the 2.45 nursery handicap, so we did the sensible thing – backing one runner each. Zoe picked Safety Check who held on soundly from Callum’s Ticking Kate. It was as near as he got all afternoon. Zoe was overcome with joy and leapt around the enclosure, bucking and squealing like a yearling . She had never been to a meeting before and expressed surprise that there were so many races. “But when the Grand National is on there’s only one race”, she said. Interesting perception from a teenager about the prominence of the race in a really good three-day meeting.

Though everyone missed out in the next, a valuable class 2 handicap (the kids all wanted to back Mankini – not on form logic, I suspect – and were disappointed to see him declared a non-runner), winners came thick and fast for the girls for the rest of the afternoon.

The best race of the day, a listed  sprint, was savaged by defections as the ground changed. We walked over to the parade ring, decorated with hanging baskets and shadowed by the thatched roof weighing room. Zoe was applying some thought to the afternoon and wanted to make an informed selection based on gait, gleam and girth width. I wanted to look an old friend of mine in the eye and see whether she still had what it takes. Mince was sensationally progressive as a three year old last season but seemingly had not trained on. I was sorry to see she also was a late withdrawal. I didn’t get my heart to heart.

Tropics landed favouritism by a comfortable length and it was daughter no 2 that benefitted this time. I’d been backing outsiders all day and Master Of War was just about the best run I got out of any of them. A decent third and one for the list for the rest of the season.

Zoe was back on track with Lancelot Du Lac in the next and after studying the card she observed “That’s the second time that jockey has won on one of my horses today.” She was right. Mikael Barzalaona was in fire. “Also Zoe”, I added, “he won the first race before we got here”. The three girls’ eyes lit up and they scoured the card for his next ride. “Here it is! Greek war!’” she declared.  “I’m following Zoe”, said Daughter no 1. “Me three!” joined in Daughter no 2.  And so it was that Charlie Appleby’s charge was roared down the centre of the final furlong by three teenagers purple in face and hoarse in voice to land their healthy 6-1 spoils. They were delirious.

Mr Barzalona had no mount in the final race, but the girls’ attention was already drifting. No sooner had Peace Seeker crossed the line then they were off to find a pitch front and centre for the McFly boys.

Callum, Mrs A and I wandered over to catch a few numbers from a more modest distance. The band plied a perfectly respectable brand of energetic guitar pop with some catchy vocal hooks and assured delivery. There were plenty of Mums and Dad’s happily foot tapping and shimmying their approval too, though the predominant register when it came to end-of-song screams was definitely high end. Dogs ran screaming. Thankfully the drinks glasses were plastic. If you see what I mean. They were a massive hit with the girls, evidently.

The rain returned only towards the end of the set and it seemed like we had cheated the weather. The Guardian carried photos the next day of extreme flooding in Essex. We had had a lucky escape.

So all that remains is to enact my autumn revival. Starting with Sandown on Saturday.  Definitely.

Tuesday, 27 August 2013

Ashes retained

The first day of an Ashes Test Match always provides a certain sharp thrill. Even in a dead series. We all know there is really no such thing. There is always so much to play for.

Bruv and I picked our way over cool bags and round splayed feet to our seats at The Oval full of keen anticipation. And sausage sandwich.  A welcome café on Kennington Lane, just off the main drag to the ground (and so quieter than expected), had provided a splendid breakfast and coffee to fuel our build up banter in a sun-filled courtyard.

Filling up nicely
Now we awaited the toss. My ideal scenario was England to bat and zip along at a fraction under 4-an-over with a classy century from Root and later in the day a buccaneering 50 from Jonny Bairstow. This was optimistic in the extreme. For a start, Australia won the toss and chose to bat. And for a finish, Bairstow was dropped in favour of debutant Lancastrian spinner, Simon Kerrigan. Chris Woakes from Warwickshire also came in as a batting all-rounder for the injured Tim Bresnan. Bruv wondered if I knew when the last time there had been three Yorkshiremen in an England Test team, as there had been in this series for the second, third and fourth matches. I pondered for some time.

Meanwhile, the action had started. As befits the intensity of the first session, every dot ball from Anderson and Broad was applauded and every delivery flashing passed the bat was oooh-ed. Warner went early to a nick behind and I thought my prediction of 87 for 3 at lunch was in the bag. The first hour or so was tight. That all changed when the two newbies wrapped their twitchy fingers around the cherry. First Woakes felt the muscular welcome of Watson’s broad bat, especially when he dropped short. Then Kerrigan was treated with contempt and disdain. Two overs of nervous long hops and full tosses went for 30 runs. It was excruciating to watch. Watson was in full flow and Bruv’s prediction of 100-1 at lunch ended up being much nearer than mine. Drinks on me then.

Over lunch I also gave best on the three Yorkshire test colleagues question. I got the right era – Gough and Craig White - but forgot Matty Hoggard. Criminal.

The afternoon session was no less intense as Broad and Anderson kept up the assault. Swann pinned down the other end and took the wicket of Chris Rogers. When captain Clarke came to the crease, he was given a serious examination under the short ball from both England’s quicks. For the current number 5 rated batsman in the world, he was surprisingly suspect. His uncomfortable stay was actually brought to an end by a ripper from Anderson that clattered into his stumps. Surely the most thrilling sight for a partisan home crowd and the wicket was greeted with a raucous cheer. With three down for 144 and only Watson doing the scoring, there was a real buzz of expectation around the ground. Dispatching Watson any time then would have been a pivotal moment. Instead it was Watson that did the dispatching. Soon after, he racked up his century and was then dropped by Cook.

After tea, Cook inevitably had to return to Woakes and Kerrigan. Whilst the former improved somewhat on his opening spell, Kerrigan again haemorrhaged runs. Again it was painful to watch. Under a burning sun, Watson and Smith accumulated runs at a good rate and the intensity in England’s attack finally waned. There was nothing to do but smear on sun cream, keep up the refreshment levels and applaud the lengthening beer-glass snakes wriggling around the crowd.

The evening session totally belonged to Australia. However, we were treated to our champagne moment a few minutes before the close. Watson had joked before play began that with Bresnan out of the side he might just avoid an lbw decision and score a few. So it went. He managed to keep his errant front pad well out of the way and had been assertive and uncompromising in stacking up 176 runs. His end came with a tired slap through the leg side off Broad. The ball fizzed through the air towards me and Bruv, jostling to get underneath it. In front of us Kevin Pietersen tensed his legs and his elbows whilst he scanned the sky, momentarily unsure where the ball was. And then he spotted the hurtling object, took two paces to his left and sprang like the eland of his homeland to extend himself full-length.

We were on our feet tracking the ball in its final descent, already half cheering. Pietersen got his hands under the ball a few bare inches from the turf, rolled over a couple of times and stood up, clasping it aloft about 10 feet from us. Wild scenes of celebration were momentarily checked to confirm that Broad had retained a couple of inches of trainer on the bowling crease.

Pietersen was our fielder then. For much of the post-tea session he had been in front of us at long leg, receiving a few verbals, but interacting with humour as well: like when pointing at a police helicopter overhead and directing it to the noisy boys behind us. After his catch he walked back to his position and tried hard to, but could not suppress, a grin that we all registered and cheered.

There’s nothing like a day at the Test Match.

It ended with me buying my Bruv a curry in Clapham to settle my debt in our annual forty jumpers to follow competition. Another bet with him I had lost. He’s giving us all a good hiding in the fantasy cricket this Summer too.

Later, despite my mauling in the bets and quizzes with Bruv, I thought that maybe my one piece of luck had been to buy tickets for the opening day. The following day was half washed out, Friday was a turgid England run-crawl and a potentially big Saturday was completely drizzled and thunderstormed off.

It was not until Day 5, a little late in proceedings, that the test caught fire. An electrifying, compelling sequence of unexpected events that almost produced a result out of nothing and certainly should have done if the farcical bad light rules had not been invoked. Respect to Michael Clarke for being prepared to gamble with a generous declaration. At three down, there was nothing to lose in one sense. But it still takes balls to go through with such an audacious plan.

I liked the edge and sledge that was present in the series by the last day, too. Anderson and Clarke were at each other all day. A sure sign that Australia are feeling more confident. The team has visibly improved this summer. They have belatedly stumbled across an opening partnership in Rogers and Warner, found a home for Watson at three, and settled in two high quality seamers in Harris and Siddle. England have not been at their best and there must remain doubts about the ambition and tactical sharpness of Cook as leader.

Ashes retained. But this all bodes well for a riveting series in Oz this Autumn. 

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Travelogue: Zuheros to Berkhamsted

A change of pace. Not that life had been so speed-spiked as to induce nosebleeds in La Vinuela. Quite the contrary. But the stay at the Los Castillarejos rural apartments immediately induced a sense of inertia and indolence. That had always been the intention for the last three days of our Iberian sojourn. Our host, Poalino offered us the most effusive welcome of our trip and couldn’t do enough to ensure our stay would be exactly what we wanted. He provided taxi numbers, restaurant recommendations and a demonstration of every implement and gadget in the apartment. All with barely a word of English.

With its back to the Subbetican mountains and at an altitude of 1200 feet, the accommodation gave a near 280-degree vista over buff hills cloaked in a green-grey camouflage of olive groves, with the silhouette of more rugged upland on the horizon.

 The panorama setting on my camera took a serious pummelling.

Sometimes it’s the simple things that strike the right chord: we loved the little infinity pool that played an optical illusion of swimming towards the lip of steep valley. And I think the view improved my pool handstand skills, too.

Mind the drop 
Where's me goggles?

Sat on the sun terrace one afternoon, sipping something restorative and completing a hand of rummy, we saw a massive and glorious Bonellis Eagle circling and then swooping low over the hillside as if to pluck small children out of the pool for tea. 

The apartment was situated between two crag-hugging settlements, Luque and Zuheros. We headed out to the former on a scorching evening to find provisions.  Luque appeared to be a small, functional and solid town, devoid of tacky tourist traps. Its traditional character was reflected back from every whitewashed closed-up building. God fearing folk had shut up shops and bars in respect of Saturday mass and we couldn’t find supermercado anywhere. The cicada buzz echoed around empty streets. Tumbleweed blew across deserted plazas.

And then we spied an open doorway under the ‘officio turistico’ sign. Of all things to find here, tourist info had slipped down my list of expectations, let alone an open office. We poked our head inside and a young, smart, hirsute man in a pale blue short-sleeved shirt promptly emerged from the room next door and addressed us in English. After some polite conversation about the town’s attractions poring over the street map, we asked about supermarkets on a Saturday evening. “No.” he said. And then thought, looked to the ceiling and said, Ah…Ah…no.” More hopefully, he added, “One moment. I will ask my wife.” He pulled out his smartphone and texted her. We inspected the map again and made more polite conversation about the dominance of the castle and the squareness of the church bell tower. Then his phone rattled and once again he said “Ah…no. Baena is the nearest”. 

We headed back to the car in preparation for a reluctant trip to the nearest big town. Crossing the vacant square, he called after us and ran over clutching his phone. His wife had remembered a supermarket over the other side of town that just might be open. In giving us vague directions and imprecise opening times, he apologised and explained that this was not the nature of questions he was usually asked. We were extra-ordinarily grateful to him and his wife, and made smartly for the shop, departing a scene that just may have been the most exciting thing to have happened on a Saturday night in Luque for some time.

We visited Zuheros more often and for longer. A couple of kilometres in the opposite direction, the village attracts a compelling introduction from the official guide to Cordoba province: 
“The white-washed village of Zuheros lies at the foot of rough, ashen, rocky ravines. It appears to have arisen at the end of the 9th century, when Banu Himsi soldiers erected a castle on inexpungable rocks and settled in the area.
From the viewpoint, the village appears as a disordered stack of dice, formed by houses with ochre rooftops and darkened windows that appear like sleepy, half-closed eyes.” 
Great stuff. And I thought I could do flowery. Properly gorgeous village, though. 

Apart from a few shops randomly dotted around the place, we also spied a castle, a church, two museums, a hotel, three restaurants and four bars. Despite them all being open at varying times and on different days, we made a fair stab at working our way through all of them. The Museum of Customs and Popular Art was a scream. Antonio, in pretty good English (better than my Spanish), gave us an enthusiastic and sweet guided tour round an eclectic collection that embraced furniture, medical and pharmacological artefacts, ploughs, hoes and olive oil machinery, and reproduction 19th century bedrooms. All housed in a splendid 19th century mansion erected in the colonial style – totally out of keeping with anything else in the village – by a rich Venezuelan ex-pat.

Outside Antonio's museum
Dead opposite was a fantastic restaurant, Meson Atalya, where we passed a couple of happy hours in the care of friendly and knowledgable proprietors who explained every dish and even plucked a solitary lemon from a tree in the courtyard for our neighbours. Mrs A methodically tackled an intimidating plateful of local cheeses, including goats milk cheese contributed to, no doubt, by the herd we had seen cajoled through the lanes below the castle an hour earlier. I attacked a bowl of rabo de toro – stewed bulls tail  - and we shared dishes of (more) baked cheese, iberico ham, croquettas and enselada.  

Goat's cheese anyone?
The half hour walk back along quiet roads was canopied by a sky deep with drifts of stars that became a canvass for a spectacular meteor shower. I had never seen a single shooting star before that night, but was rewarded by four or five orange, white and blue tailed comets, blazing their trail (apologies to Mike Scott) across the sky; and a similar number the night after. The pool back at the apartments was equally as deserted as the roads. So another hour was spent in or on the margins of the pool gazing into the freckled heavens.

The restorative powers of the salt water pool were particularly welcomed by Mrs A. On our return from the village that evening, we were unable to open the metal sliding gate to the driveway.  No amount of joggling, jostling and general agitating of key and lock made any difference. We all had a go, in between standing around and looking foolish. I was eyeing the adjacent fence and said “We’ll be able to get over that. Easily.” Mrs A had clearly been thinking the same. She dropped her handbag, leapt up on the wall and began slinging an athletic leg over the top of the metal fence. I had meant to go first, but was beaten to the call. Impressively, she was over the other side in a mere jiffy.

Just then our curious gathering became illuminated by the car headlights of fellow guests also returning from Zuheros. Meanwhile Helen had jumped off the little wall on the other side and had fallen. She was sprawled on the floor, limbs scattered like ten-pins and was uttering a few well chosen expletives jostling with the odd painful groan.

The drop on the other side was much deeper than on ours and in the dark had caused a misjudgement. She had staggered awkwardly to her feet as the lady passenger of the car emerged. She surveyed the scene with unruffled élan and undid the gate in a trice. I was shrugging my shoulders and wagging the key in the air to indicate my difficulties. She made a few sympathetic ‘pfft’ and ‘tt-tt-tt’ noises (French, n’est-ce pas) before getting back into her Audi and passing through the gate. Any reaction she had to seeing the fourth member of our party on the other side was not noted.

Mrs A was not in the best of shape. Cut elbow, bruised hip and dented pride. The dip in the pool was sorely needed. Next day we saw what a lucky escape she had had. Close to the scene of the tumult were metal sprinkler heads and any number of sharp limestone boulders that could have done some serious damage. Evenso, the incident was enough to challenge all-time family record holder, Aunty Sue in the falling over stakes. At least for this week.

Daughter No 1 was beginning to feel that her Mother had developed a self-harming trait. Next day, observing her attempts to prise a recalcitrant cork from the corkscrew with a distant cousin of a meat cleaver, Daughter No 1 remarked, “If you slice your hand open with that you will have to drive yourself to hospital, you know!”  

The corkscrew incident was safely negotiated and rather than the medical centre, Mrs A drove us back to Madrid. Strange how the plains seemed flatter and the views less interesting on the return leg. Was it only a fortnight ago?

Friday, 9 August 2013

Travelogue: La Vinuela

On checking out of the Hotel Ayre (pronounced aye-ree, I discovered from a chuckling taxi driver, speeding us northwards at impossible speeds through skinny alleyways) I became convinced that the hotel manageress had the hots for me. Understandable of course. Overly smiley eyes catching mine unnecessarily and keen attention to my needs. Classic signs. I’d noticed these traits on checking in and had been trying to convince Mrs A about her designs throughout our stay.

We planned to leave Cordoba by mid-afternoon after a second rendezvous with Daughter No 1’s Spanish exchange counterpart, Ana and her Mum. This involved spreading out under cedar trees, revising our Spanglish of the previous evening and eating ice cream. The Hotel Manageress came out to the pool bar regularly and I was disgusted to see that she had a furtive smile, wave and wink for nearly every cluster of sun-lounging guests. Tart.

Driving to Vinuela took just under two hours through much more undulating countryside than north of Cordoba. The peaks and troughs were mostly cultivated with olive groves or vines. The land was so hilly that irrigation seemed to be through a network of sprinkler tubes on the ground, rather then the tubular, wheeled rigs we had seen up country.  

We immediately noticed the temperature difference nearer the coast. It was less suffocatingly hot and muggy here, in the foothills of the sierras. Cordoba felt like (even if it actually wasn’t) about the hottest place I’d ever been. I’ll never forget the sight of people picnicking in the parks at 1.30am in the morning as if it was the middle of the day. Extended Cordoban families on fold-up chairs, gathered around towering cool boxes whilst their children played on swings and booted footballs around. The only time of day that such activity was possible.

Our apartment was situated about twenty miles from the coast between two very different villages. The nearest, Puente de Salia was a mixed community of mainly Spanish but with a significant English presence and a sprinkling of Germans. The village had a core knot of Spanish houses and a few shops, but most of the development was new and in the typical urbanization style of small villas and houses with pools clustered into small on cul de sacs. Costa De Sol-ism had been creeping up into the hills of the hitherto untouristy Axarquia region for some time, propelled by the noughties property boom and the fact that pretty much everywhere else near the coast had been swamped. The invasion had halted rapidly with the property crash a few years ago. The straggling village had at least half a dozen unfinished developments around the place.

La Vinuela was the opposite. The village had maintained its Spanish feel and consisted of one main road dropping down a steep gradient with the now familiar Moorish twists, turns and deviations. Many of the houses dated from the last century and the main inn of the village, La Venta La Vina, was originally a calling point on the coast to Granada route. There was no sign of urbanization boom-and-bust here at all. Indeed the village seemed quite affluent. Well kept two- and three-storey houses tumbled down the hill. Scattered in between – in typical Spanish style – was the bakery, the grocer, the supermarket, butcher, chemist, post office, bars and restaurants. Not much crowding around a village centre as we are used to in England, but straggling the entire length of the road.  

The apartment itself was pretty good – private-ish and quiet-ish. The qualifications revolved around the proprietors of the apartment who lived upstairs. Although our abode was self-contained, Steph did like to pop down and say hello from time to time. On one occasion wrapping an orange polystyrene tube around her middle, tip-toeing in to the pool and saying, “you don’t mind if I have a float do you”. I hate floaters in my pools. 

She evidently didn’t like the Spanish or their culture very much. We were recommended all the English supermarkets and bars in the area, including a curry house and chip shop. Her intrusions, to be fair, were mercifully isolated and brief. The pool was fantastic and the non-English tapas bars and restaurants were plentiful and excellent. In one place, Daughter no 1 demolished a huge dish described as ‘plate of the mountains’ which included at least four different pig-based products, one of which was a delicious distant relative of the humble black pudding. 

The noise of the cicadas was curious. We noticed strolling around the lanes how their volume ratcheted up several notches the moment the sun dipped behind a rare and threatening cloud, as if they were anticipating the onset of evening. Only to fall near silent when the sun cranked up to Regulo 11 again once it had burnt off the cloud. Later, by the pool, Daughter No 1 thought she had discovered an unsuspecting cicada in a plant pot and went for a closer inspection. It was, in fact, the more prosaic sound of a garden sprinkler. Maybe we should get her ears tested. The next day she claimed to be hearing a game of table tennis nearby. It was the ticking of the kitchen clock.

Meanwhile daughter no 2 was almost overcome by the cheap Chinese bazaar up the road. Not only did she indulge in bargain basement bikinis, sunglasses and bracelets, but spent many long moments deciding how many and which flavour combinations of 5-cent chewing gum she could purchase with the sorry remnants of her holiday stash.

When we could forcibly eject the girls (and ourselves) from the pool, we got out to explore a few of the other villages and towns in the foothills of Mount Maroma and the Tajeda, Almijara and Alhama hills. 

Mount Maroma
Alcaucin, the nearest to us is one of the many ‘pueblo blancos’ that the guidebooks speak heartily of. Whitwashed villages, nearly all of Moorish origin, that cling to the hillsides as if grafted on. They feature dense, tiny streets at their core where house windows and walls are hung with iron boxes of geraniums and nasturtiums. Despite the alleys being clogged with tourists and cars, where the main game is to avoid the mopeds buzzing around them like supercharged mosquitos, the villages retain a charm and beauty against stunning and rugged backdrops. Competa was amongst the finest we visited and had a real multinational feel. Its original wealth was built around the silk trade, apparently, which is hard to conceive this far up the sheer limestone cliff-face. But if that’s what the guide book says…

Hanging houses at Competa
Driving through the chunky scenery I was reminded of spaghetti westerns, many of which were filmed in the Spanish sierras. With my healthy five-day growth of facial hair, I turned to daughter no 1 and remarked how much like a tough cowboy I must look in this environment. “Hmm. More like a homeless person”, she said, without a second’s thought.

Most of the pueblo blancos have ornate and attractive public fountains drawing icy water direct from the mountains. Those in Alcaucin are the centrepiece of the tiny main street. Whilst munching on tuna tostas we saw a van draw up and two blokes fill up about 30 five-litre bottles from the fonts. Later to be labeled and sold on as mineral water, Del Trotter Peckham Spring-style, I wagered.

Del Girl liberating the mountain water
Chapel at Alcaucin
Alcaucin looking west
Periana has some Roman baths sourced from the mountain that are currently being restored. That town has an incredible view of Lake Vinuela, the reservoir that lies only an easily-skimmed stone from our apartment. We didn’t time our visit there particularly well, in the searing afternoon heat, but it was still surprising that there were few public facilities and no bathers, boaters or windsurfers. The lake is in a magnificent natural setting and the colour of the water reflects a translucent turquoise. Before we arrived I’d read some unsubstantiated stories about pollution here and so maybe the rumours have done their worst. Compared to the state of the Med just down the road, I would have thought this was a much more attractive opportunity.
Lake Vinuela from Periana
We ventured to that coast at least twice. The first trip was by accident on the first day when we missed the turning for the village centre and Mrs A didn’t fancy turning round on the windy old road. “Let’s go to Torre”, she said. “What? Really?” I exclaimed. I didn’t have a single one of my many maps or guide books about my person, let alone a detailed and annoted google earth route-plan print out. “Madness!” I declared, feeling naked and vulnerable.

By luck and good judgement, we found our way to Torre and eventually to a car park. The beach was horrendous. The frothy, yeasty sea gave way to black sharp-sand, forested with impenetrable rows of gaudy umbrellas and towels. The beach was backed by the well-documented high rise holiday hell of hotels and apartment blocks right into Malaga and beyond. Looking east, the horizon was a bit lower profile and over a salad drowning in cheap vinegar, we resolved to explore that way at some later stage.  

Guide books do lie, after all. The coastal strip east of Torre Del Mar was still pretty rubbish, despite claims that there existed quiet coves with just the odd restaurant and bar. To be fair, some of the development was fairly new and if I’d not been such a cheapskate as to buy an out-of date guide from a second hand book shop, I might have known.

We persevered and found a half decent spot to ourselves under some palm trees. Daughter no 1 and I did a sterling hour’s battle with a frisky Mediterranean surf in which I lost my sunglasses and found hers. And we both fell over lots.

Beach bums
The decent coastline was finally located at Nerja, a gorgeous town at the end of a green, hilly promontory with rocky coves, better sand and good solid geography all round (Rah! Rah!). Ice creams on the gloriously monickered Balcon De Europa were a fine end to the day.

 We are packing up now, rested and chilled, for the final part of our Spanish trip back inland again to the Sierra Subbeticas National Park. I’ll see if anyone there can relieve me of my 'best pool handstand' award (self-certified).

pool king

Monday, 5 August 2013

Travelogue: Berkhamsted to Cordoba

I can't remember seeing daughter no 2 so excited for a long time. At least since Christmas. She insisted on daughter no 1 sleeping in her room so that they could talk all night. We're off on holiday. That's all. But great to see such enthusiasm all the same.

Her list of holiday items to pack has been ready for some time. Flip flops and nail varnish featured heavily. She piled up those and the rest of her holiday clobber in double quick time before offering her packing services to daughter no 1. The latter has done well on the travelling front this year and has only recently returned from a music tour to the Netherlands and Germany. Daughter no 2 helpfully attempted to repeat the list-trick to speedy things along. Instead, her sister just lay face down on the floor moaning that "Gawd I hate packing".

The taxi pulled up outside John The Greek's house, two doors down under a sky leaking warm, fat, heavy drops of rain. I was already soaked by the time I'd heaved the bulkiest suitcase into the boot. John's garage door rose slowly and revealed his rotund, ageing frame in proprietorial posture. Hands on hips, beady eyes scanning the car. In a moment he would have been over to tell the driver to clear off his land. But he saw and recognised us and instead gave a hearty smile and cheery wave. "Hey Tony, my main man! You have good holiday, no. Yeah?"

We've known John for 15 years. I don't know why he calls me Tony. Many times I've told him. "It's Dave", I say. "Dave. Not Tony." Oh sure, sure he says. Sometimes with slap on the back. Then next time it's the same. I was walking past him with the girls one time and I said, " Watch this. John will call me Tony". "What? Why?" they demanded. But thus prepared they could not keep straight faces. "Morning Tony. S'beautiful day, no?" he said, slightly distracted by the uncontrollable spluttering and giggling of the two young ladies with me. I've given up now. Tony is a perfectly acceptable name. I have no problems.

The heavy suitcase was overweight. I blame the surfeit of flip flops. But no penalty charge was levied on this occasion.

Mrs A was a bit wobbly as we got off the flight. Bumpy air on the approach was mostly to blame. The eternal taxiing to the bargain basement berths of our low cost airline of choice didn’t help either. Past the main terminal, skirting round cargo loaders, skimming the burnt-out jumbos used for fire training and to over the farthest flung weed-infested outer apron of Barajas airport. We were finally allowed to disembark, possibly nearer to London than on our departure.

Jumping in to a hire car and whizzing down to Toledo was not Mrs A’s ideal scenario right then. Thankfully a protracted debate with the automaton behind the Avis counter about coughing up for an unnecessary upgrade and/or needless extra insurance at a staggering 23 euros a day cured any lingering stomach upset and replaced it with bile.

But only briefly. Once on the road to Toledo, spirits were easily lifted. The trip, in truth, was a little uninspiring. Miles of bathroom emporia and furniture stores interspersed with light industrial units. Maybe we were in Milton Keynes...? 

Uninspiring is not the word to describe the old town of Toledo however. Nor the restorative and life affirming dip in the pool (even if a bit on the small side) that preceded it.

Stepping out of the hotel and into the evening city heat of Toledo was like walking into furnace. No southern England mini-heat wave can acclimatise four white-skinned northern Europeans for such a wall of humidity and fire. Hard to comprehend that this was 8pm.

Toledo is a former capital of the country and is stuffed with fine and important buildings. Once inside its Moorish defensive city walls, we climbed a dense network of twisting streets that seemed to sheepishly give up secretive mansions, churches and public buildings. Each of which deserved their own gardens or square to afford the appropriate context. But not here. History tricked down the steep alleys like water escaping from a damaged drain. 

By luck and guesstimation we emerged onto Zocodover Square. Room to breath. The first tapas of the holiday was a joy, overlooking the busy square, which, sad to say, had been infiltrated by a McDonalds at one corner. Daughter No 2 started a grading system for chorizo. Tonight’s offering was awarded a big old nine out of ten, which seemed a little previous to me, but we would see.

After a circuit of the magnificent Alcazar fortress, I began to see why some of the other monuments were tucked away in side streets, as if cowering from this immense and dominating hulk. It covered the entire summit of the Toledo’s outcrop and was visible for miles around. The city is no living museum, however. We perambulated down the other side of the hill and accidentally found and explored the outside public spaces of the El Greco Congress Centre, completed last year in honour of one of the city’s more notable sons. Its modern, marbled, streamlined face seemed to spring out of the very crevices of the old hill. High level walkways, escalators and footbridges cut a busy network across the vertiginous cliff with views over the neon-lit newer part of the city. The girls were more animated here than at any other point in the evening.

Toledo skyline: Alcazar (left) and Cathedral (right)
tierra roja
We breakfasted leisurely and then hit the autovia for the best part of a 3 ½ hour run to Cordoba. Very different scenery throughout the Castilla – La Mancha region. Vast acreage of flat earth under cultivation – firstly olive groves, then vineyards and then grain fields irrigated by elongated, metal-framed, wheeled devises, anchored at one end to a water source. The earth became progressively more red the further south we went. All this punctuated by frequent and rugged hills that were crested either by gothic castles, traditional white windmills or sleek modern wind farms. Never together, thankfully.

I was picking up the lingo too. Mrs A was able to help. I learned to pronounce soft ‘d’s on the back of my teeth and that ‘grathias’ was Madrid dialect and ‘grassia’ (silent ‘s’) would be Cordoban. We passed a sign for Valdepeñas that we both recognised from wine bottles. Easy I thought. Valley of the Penis. I was getting the hang of this.

Nearer Cordoba the scenery became wilder. We broke for a late lunch in the spectacular  Parque Natural de Despeñaperros: verdant spruce vegetation hiding near-white limestone rock plunging into deep valleys. Travelling through them on one twisting viaduct after another felt like a ‘Go Ape’ adventure on steroids.

Navigating through Cordoba was a wholly different funfair experience. Google may be taking over the world, but its routefinding applications are sorely lacking. So it was fantastic to chill – eventually – by and in the hotel pool for a few hours, and then dine under the stars on a mixed grill buffet of tender pork, succulent chicken, flakey sardines and rich salmon.
Daughter No 1 had had a successful Spanish exchange trip to Cordoba in February and we had welcomed Ana to Berko last June. They had both enjoyed the experience so much that we had loosely planned to meet the host family on this trip. Loosely being a good word. Trying to pin down a time and place with the vagaries of Google Translate and sketchy Spanish/English knowledge was fun. I’m not sure that the intermittent wifi helped much, nor the hint of mañana mañana amongst our quarry.

We set off to explore this great Moorish urbanization not quite sure how or when we would be hooking up. Breakfast in a street café under the giant old city walls was the perfect way to start the day. Simple fare of tostadas, marmalada, café con leche and zumos were given extra zest by the location, the weather and the prospect of a good day ahead.

Next to lingering over frothy coffees, my other favourite pastime is pottering. I’m an expert and Cordoba’s Juderia district provides Grade 1 mooching potential. There are miles of undulating, intertwining streets and alleys of Arabesque origin. Tiny gateways give on to North African style courtyards of cool marble, vegetation and fountains. Nearer the Mezquita, the routes became more clogged with tourists and associated shops to slake every conceivable souvenir thirst. My girls included.

The Mezquita itself was worth the trip. Apparently the Moorish world’s most ambitious project, this massive rectangular mosque impresses with its scale. Double arches of red and white stone atop marble pillars create endless avenues displaying early Islamic treasures. My mate Nev told me from Charlton in real-time via facebook, that the red colouring of the arches had originally been achieved using bulls’ blood. No mention of that in my Baedecker’s.

blood red bricks
In a neat encapsulation of Spain’s convoluted history, the very centre of the mosque had been carved out and replaced with an opulent Catholic cathedral begun in the 13th Century after the reconquest. Its bright, open and spectacular central tower, its ostentatious organ mounted on both sides of the choir, its ornate wood carvings, sculpures, statues and relief work all contrasted with the clean lines and simple structure of the mosque that surrounds it. All very impressive. So much so that in a weak moment of unguarded wonder, Mrs A involuntarily and quite loudly broke wind. This is seen as a compliment in many cultures.

Plaza de la Corederra

Having shopped, visited and pottered to the max, and with the mercury nudging 40 in the confines of the centre, we headed back to the airy hotel grounds and the comfort of the pool and bar.

The chances of meeting Ana and her family were receding with every hour. Unanswered texts and ponderous miscommunication abounded. We were heading out for some dinner when we literally bumped into her and her family in the hotel foyer. Serendipity. Five minutes either way and we would have missed them. Loud scenes of introductions and reacquaintance amid hugging and smiles unfolded before an impassive reception staff. Clearly seen it many times before.

We adjourned to the pool bar and waded through the most hysterical Spanglish for a couple of hours. Only Ana could claim to be in any way bilingual and the burdens of translation saw her holding her head in her hands every few minutes. We pressed on regardless: sign language and made up words did just as well. Ana’s brother Rafa was a big football fan and we swapped our list of favourite players. The whole family were music fans and had been to a Green Day gig in Bilbao. The next day when we met again by the pool I played Ana and her Mum some Rammstein with whom they were seriously impressed. Daughter No 1 was appalled and said that Mr Ortensi, her RE teacher, no less, had played the class some Rammstein when he thought there exam stress was getting too high.

Through a complicated series of gestures and phone calls, the decision was made to taxi into Cordoba and eat tapas at a bar where Ana’s Uncle used to work. The Restaurante El Mirador was on the south bank and, as the name implied, offered great views of the illuminated medieval centre. 

There were no tourists here and very little English was spoken. We were in the hands of our hosts who whistled up dishes we would never have dreamt of ordering. A local stuffed meat delicacy called flamenkin stood out. The conversation seemed to flow more readily with good food and ale. The night wore on in traditional Cordobian fashion and we parted the best of friends in the small hours. Daughter No 2 had gained a real affection for this family whilst staying here and was keen for us to meet them. I can see why.

If tomorrow is Saturday, its on to Vinuela.