Saturday, 27 September 2014

Spain Part 2: Walks, weather and Wine

You read the first part and now, it's time for part 2!!  Day 3 came and after some frantic, last-minute work, we headed off for a walk up one of the national park's mountains called Roques de Benet, which give a rather breathtaking 360 degree panorama of the surrounding area.

However, before we arrived it was time for a quick detour to a small town called Bot. Why? It was time to sample some of the local delicacy: wine! Indeed, we pulled into the town's local cooperative which makes and sells wine and other items. It's quite a sight when you walk into these shops and they just have massive vats where you can bring an empty jug (or other container but probably not cupped hands - Ed) and just get wine from a tap in the wall. Thankfully, they had regular bottles as well which makes it slightly easier to get the wine home. 

As we had took the time to get there, we decided to sample a local red called 'Clot' (Disclaimer: I do not recommend ever drinking before a hike, even though it was a fairly small amount) which was a good, everyday wine.  Even better when you realise that it costs 3 euros a bottle. Even better still, you can get some decent cava from the place as well, ranging from 3 to 10 euros a bottle.

Leaving the shop with bulging bags and not much lighter pockets, we headed off for the park to begin the walk. The walk itself isn't too bad, even if it does look a little daunting to begin with.

To begin with, you actually just follow a dirt road for a while, before turning off onto a fairly over-grown and hidden path that leads toward the peak and provides some respite from the glaring sun and heat. Now, I've been up this walk before but this time, we discovered something interesting. It appears that someone had begun to build a shelter by walling off a cave (A fairly robust wall, complete with a door - Architecture ed).

After exploring the cave a bit and speculating why it was being built (The prevailing theory was that some people used it as a base-camp for climbing/walking the area. However, it could well be someone who was just tired of everyday live and had decided to become a hermit in the mountains), we headed on-wards and upwards for the final push and an end-stage scramble up a dry riverbed. After 10 minutes or so of scrambling, it suddenly loomed ahead of us: the view.

As I said before, I've done the walk before but I still think the view from this mountain is spectacular as you can, on a good day, see for miles around the surrounding park and land. Additionally, if you look one way, you can see the extremely mountainous terrain and right beside it, is an area of flat-land: a great example of a rift.

After enjoying the view and our lunch (a sandwich always tastes better with a view), we began the trek back down to the car (with a slight detour down another track). However, as we were heading back, some ominous clouds appeared which then sped up our descent somewhat as it turned into rather icy rain. Finally, day 3 was rounded off with some cheap beers at the local bar (1.50 euros a bottle) whilst chatting under the stars.

Day 4 suddenly appeared and it was time for an earlier start and another walk! Somewhat less uphill (though not completely), this one followed the river Ebro along an 1100 km trail (we did not, obviously, do the entire trail...we did around 1% of it - Ed). The walk was enjoyably, not just for the walk, but because it allowed you to see a lot of the farmland that surrounds the river and gives you an up-close look at the crops they grow in the region.  Mainly olives, oranges and grapes, you can also try and find some of the lesser grown crops as you go along including marrows, apples, hazelnuts and various other plants.  This means, and if you can find some wild trees (don't take them from the farmers trees), that you can get quite the feast if you go in the correct season but alas, we got nothing this time.

After following the river for 12 km or so, and crossing over various dirt paths, we arrived at the town of Miravet, which has an absolutely beautiful Templar castle looming over it, along with some rather medieval houses hanging off the cliff.

As we were getting picked up here, we met my mum at the car, who then suggested we take a short walk to see the river ferry that still operates here, allowing cars to take a shortcut across the river for a small fee. Basically, the ferry is attached to a chain which stretches across the river and this allows the ship to be drawn across by the current.

After our fill of cars crossing, it was time for round two at the beach! Yes, after the rather unsuccessful attempt at the beach on day 2, we headed back to Hospitalet to retry lazing around the beach and as we arrived over the mountain? Dark clouds. Yup.  Instead of turning back though, we checked the area out and despite the clouds and some winds, we decided to give it a chance and have some lunch at the same place we had previously sheltered from the rain. 

After ordering some tapas, I then ended up with the biggest cold meat platter that I have ever seen, that also came with a bowl of tomato bread with it as well. Stuffed to say the least! After the rather filling lunch, we agreed that it was warm and dry enough for us to actually spend some time at the beach, so we wandered across and set up the chairs for the afternoon. I even managed to get a little bit of blogging done. After swimming in the sea, that is.

Ok, I appreciate that the picture isn't me but it would have been silly to try and take photographs of myself in the sea. You'll just have to trust me. After a couple of hours, we then headed back to the flat to prepare for day 5 and 6: Barcelona! But you'll just have to wait until next week for that!

Pick of the Week

John Oliver Last Week Tonight - If you like your news satirical and humourous, then check out Last Week Tonight.  Hosted by ex-Daily Show regular, John Oliver, the show takes a look at some of the key events from the last week as well as hosting interviews.  Funny and often with a finger on the pulse, this is a decent way to spend half an hour or so whilst allowing you to chuckle and think.

Music of the Week

Time for one that I don't listen to much but always enjoy when I hear it: The Pretty Reckless - Heaven Knows.  Enjoy!

Tune in next week for the finale of Spain!!  See you then.

Spain Part 1: Spouting about Spain

It's finally time for sunny Spain! Woohoo, right?!?  Sun, sand, sangria and waterspouts?!? There is something on that list that doesn't seem quite right but more on that later. As usual, let's go from the start.

So, after a 5am rise (that's what you get with cheap flights - Ed) and a rather misty drive (Cheers Colin!), Derek and I were soon off on our Ryan-Air flights to Reus for a week in Spain, complete with the complementary applause when we landed (something I never quite understood but oh well).

After being met by my parents and an excited, if confused Ollie, at the airport, we drove through some beautiful and mountainous scenery on the way back to the flat in Benisannet, before a lunch and beer overlooking the square (below - Ed).  This necessary respite was then followed by a lazy afternoon wandering around the village, looking at all the different crops that they grow in the region. After a homemade tapas dinner and a few drinks, it was time for bed (after a 5am start, it was necessary).  However, what a dinner!  The parents definitely put on a feast with dish after dish of Spanish food.  Probably worth the flight alone.

So, waking up fresh the next morning and with a lazy breakfast in the heat, we headed off to Hospitalet, a nearby coastal town that holds a relatively large Sunday market with lots of clothes and traditional Spanish foods, as well as the usual daily amenities. As we drove over the mountain and down into the bay, we spotted some dark clouds. Uh oh. However, those were nothing to be concerned about....right?  Starting to wondering back to the waterspout comment, aren't you?  

We pressed on and parked the car by the beach, set off with Ollie and walked along the promenade down to the market. As we continued down the beach, we felt a few spots of rain but as the market was covered, we decided to ignore them.  This was a mistake

That was roughly when I spotted it. A funny looking cloud that was hovering over the ocean. One that looked a little like an elongated triangle.  One that appeared to be growing and spinning a little. Is that some water splashing around directly underneath it? Hmm that's kind of odd but couldn't be. Then, having a look around the area, we suddenly noticed there were lines of people standing along the beach, all pointing in the direction of the ocean. Oh, it is a waterspout forming. That's does not bode well for the weather. 

However, we headed to the market,  as it has begun to rain steadily, and wandered around the stalls for a while, enjoying just perusing the wares for a bit. Then, after going down one half of the market, we were standing discussing whether or not we should head for the shelter of the nearby coffee shop or continue with the market (Okay, so I was talking about finding happy???) when the heavens opened. 

It rained. Ridiculously heavy rain. I've seen heavy rain before but never this suddenly and this heavily. Before, it was a fairly normal strength rain, then it was just a wall of water coming down.  It was the kind of rain that actually sent people running and closed up the market, Within the 10 - 15 seconds it took to  get under the covered walkways, we were soaked through. I could actually wring out my t-shirt. 

Thankfully, and despite the surge in people heading to the various cafes (it's a row of harbour-side cafes, so they can be quite popular at the weekend - Travel Ed), we found seats as my mum had headed in earlier.  After a couple of coffees, and once the rain had calmed down a bit, we headed to the car defeated and wet, and drove back to Benissanet.

There was one upside to this sudden cancellation of our beach/market trip though and that was we had returned to the village in time for the local restaurant's set lunch. Now, in Europe, a lot of places will do a 2 or 3 course menu and a drink for a fairly cheap price e.g. 10 - 20 euros and this was the same. However, in the village, it is particularly amazing value (from my experience but you may know other places, of course) and was, and often is, filled up with the locals eating out.  Generally, a good sign,  For 13 euros, you get:
  • An appetizer
  • A starter
  • A main course
  • A dessert
  • Bread
  • A bottle of water
  • Half a bottle of wine each
  • Tea/coffee afterwards
As we did arrive a little late, the restaurant (a small dining area in the community centre) was filled up but the owner actually set us up a table outside so we could still get food and then served us himself.  Additionally,  the menu had around 5 - 6 items for each course, whereas most I've seen have had 3. That lunch, I once again feasted like a king, with a meal that included of smoked salmon, a good/rough local red wine, rabbit and a berry salad plus the rest. Great value and great taste: always a winning combination. Afterwards, and after half a bottle of wine, it was time for a sleepy Sunday afternoon and evening with a little wander around the town.  Next week, it's wine tasting and hill-walking!

Pick of the Week

Chorizo - Sticking with the Spanish theme, I wholeheartedly recommend this sausage.  It's delicious and versatile.  Add it it to stew.  Marinade it in cider.  Eat it straight,  Go on, give it a try if you haven't!

Music of the Week

This week's song is a bit different from what I normally post but I still enjoy it. From the past, it's time for REM – Everybody Hurts. Pretty sure you know the song.

See you next week!

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Castles and Chickens

So, I've been on holiday to the sunny and several times stormy sands of Spain, which is why there wasn't a post last week. However, I'm not going to talk about that this week. Nope, instead I'm going to talk about my weekend trip with Alison, as promised in the perhaps forgotten about last post (and there will be chicken as promised).

So after a rather long drive, we went ended up basically overlooking Arthur's Peak, which we could have done with a 10 minute bus trip in a slightly different direction. However, we hadn't come to look at the view! Nope, we instead had come to explore Craigmiller Castle, where Mary Queen of Scots was when she found out about her husband had been killed. Yup, that's what it is famous for, I don't think there are any castles without a morbid history (and let's face it, no-one would visit them if they didn't either).  The castle itself was built in the 14th century and then extended over the next couple of centuries and was closely associated with Mary, Queen of Scots.

The castle itself is well-preserved for the most part and has some information dotted around the place to give you an idea about it, but there was not masses of information, so if you're expecting a reading session, then you may want to google it first. However, it is fairly easy to work out what the different rooms are due to small items such as fireplaces or lavatory cupboards.

What always interests me about castles, and particularly with cellars and basements, are that they are fairly well insulated and can be really warm. Well, I suppose that's what two feet of solid stone will do for you. I can only imagine how warm they are in winter when there is a roaring fire and a roasting pig. Bliss.  It makes you appreciate the skill that went into the building and how they survived without central heating.  As you might have imagined, you get to explore the cellars, wine cellars and old kitchens within this labyrinth like castle, and it's fun trying to work out what some of the rooms might have been used for, and what certain bits were for, then seeing if you're right when you find a name plaque.

One thing that I really liked about the castle is that once you paid your entrance fee (and to be honest, I wouldn't be surprised if you could walk right in - we almost did.  Pay though!!!), that's it. You're free to roam and explore the castles as much as you like. There are no set paths, no locked off rooms and no exhibits behind ropes. It's a really refreshing place just to wander around and explore from the basements to the battlements, in any order. It's an added bonus that you have a great view from the towers as well.

After exploring the castle and perhaps pretending to be a knight for a while, we headed back to the modern day and into Livingstone shopping centre, where we had the fun of trawling all the different stores for some last minute swimming shorts and sunglasses (though it turned out I actually had some in Spain already...idiot that I am). Pro-tip: do not expect lots of shops to have either in September. 

However, after surviving the hells of shopping, we then headed to a place I had never been to: Nandos! Yes, I appear to be slightly behind the times having not visited this South African chain of restaurants but I certainly did enjoy the experience with my chicken burger. It's quite nice that you can have a variety of different sauces and levels of spiciness on your food, though their garlic sauce isn't exactly garlicy.

After the meal and then picking up my shopping, it was then time for the nice meal that I promised Alison, as I was heading off gallivanting. Except that:
  • I didn't have the correct cooking utensils for her number 1 choice
  • I bought the wrong type of ginger that was unusable
  • We had the wrong type of flour
  • I then let the cream and chocolate split (something I've never done before)
Whoops, so much for a suave and romantic goodbye dinner and hello to scrambled eggs on toast!  Better be prepared next time!

Pick of the Week

Crumpets with fruit and honey - Yes, you might be thinking to yourself 'why are you recommending a food, Robbie?' and I will admit that it's pretty unusual. However, it's actually a really nice breakfast. Toast some crumpets, get some fruit (slice kiwi/apple, grapes, berries etc) and dry fry the fruit for a couple of minutes with a bit of cinnamon (it brings out the sweetness). Once done, serve with some honey and/or yoghurt. Stolen from the Hairy Bikers but absolutely delicious and easy to make.

Music of the Week

Another favourite and one that has been covered by Johnny Cash.  However, it's time for the original by Nine Inch Nails - Hurt.

That's it from me this week!  I've actually got the next three weeks of blogs written up already, so will be able to ensure that I can keep blogging even when abroad!  See you next week.