Monday, 25 August 2014

Exploring España: San Vicente de la Barquera

Following on from last week's post on Santander for Travel Photo Discovery's Travel Photo Mondays project, today I'm giving you a tour of the second part of that tripa day in a Cantabrian fishing village. My decision to visit San Vicente de la Barquera was based on a single photo. After all, who wouldn't want to visit a picturesque village on the Cantabrian coast set against a backdrop of snow-capped mountains? But I never actually got to see that view...

I got up in plenty of time, but having inadvertently spent too long admiring the sea views on the 2.5 km (1.5 mile) walk into town, I ended up missing the 10:30 bus to San Vicente de la Barquera. No matter, I would buy tickets for the 12:15 Alsa service and then go have a coffee somewhere.

Seeing the long-ish queue, I opted to use the self-service machine. I chose my tickets, inserted a €10 note (£8/US$13) and waited. The machine swallowed the note and refused to spit out either the money or the tickets. I managed to get help from a member of staff – evidently this wasn't the first time the greedy machine had done thisand then, tickets in hand, went to wait for the bus. It turned up ridiculously late and by the time we reached San Vicente, the skies were looking decidedly grey.

Looking across the estuary to San Vicente de la Barquera

Despite the overcast day, I was determined to do some sightseeing. I had no map and I didn't know where the tourist information office was, but I figured that the town was probably too small to get lost in. So I just picked a likely looking street and went wandering. Before long I had reached an old stone arch, which I later learned was the gateway to La Puebla Vieja (the old town). To the left was Torre del Preboste, where taxes where levied in medieval times.

One of the original gateways to the town with Torre del Preboste on the left

Entering La Puebla Vieja

A splash of colour on a grey day

Just beyond this gate is Palacio del Corro (the Palace of Corro), a Renaissance palace built by the family of the inquisitor, Antonio del Corro (1471-1556) whose crests can still be seen on the façade. In the 16th century, the palace was used as a hospital for pilgrims en-route to Santiago de Compostela, and today it is home to the Town Hall.

The former pilgrims' hospital

The inquisitor's crest

Outside the palace were two signs. To the left was the church, and to the right, the castle. I opted for the church. On the short walk uphill I was rewarded with stunning views across the valley below.

Looking down on the valley

Echium vulgare, more commonly known as Viper's Bugloss or Blueweed

Sitting on top of the craggy outlook near the well-preserved remains of the medieval walls is La Iglesia de Santa María de los Ángeles, a Santander Gothic-style church with two Romanesque doors. Building work commenced in the 13th century but continued well into the following century. I walked all around the building and then went to explore the fortifications.

The mighty Iglesia de Santa María de los Ángeles

Well-preserved fortifications

Looking out towards the valley

The perfect picture frame

Stunning views across the valley
But it was the views that grabbed me. I spent quite a while just gazing out across the valley below and trying to capture what I was seeing. If I were an artist, I would paint scenes like those. But I'm not so I had to make do with my trusty-if-a-little-elderly Nikon D80. Having taken countless shots, I went to check out the church interior.

One of the Romanesque doors

The church interior

Looking back towards the organ

A simple shrine

I later learned that I had missed the church's key feature – the tomb of Antonio del Corro. This is where having some kind of tourist information comes in handy! Fortunately, thanks to the power of the world wide web, I can see what I missed out on.
The tomb of Corro (photo ©
The town's other famous site is that of El Puente de la Maza (the Maza Bridge), a bridge that was built in the 15th century during the reign of the Catholic Monarchs, King Fernando II (r. 1479-1516) and Queen Isabel I (r. 1479-1504). Over half a mile long and with 32 arches, the stone bridge stands on the site of a 6th century wooden bridge. It really is quite impressive...

View of the harbour looking towards El Puente de la Maza
Boats at low tide

Boat stuck in the mud

One last look at the mighty bridge

Saturday, 23 August 2014

Intercambio #3: The translator

Just as Spaniards want to learn English from a native English-speaker, I have always wanted to learn Spanish from a native Spanish-speaker. But when I placed an advert on Tus Clases Particulares, I received a reply from an Italian journalist and translator who sounded really nice. So I figured that just this once, I'd break my own rule. And I'm very glad I did.

P and I met at La Latina metro at 17:30 and made our way to a nearby plaza for a drink. She launched into conversation immediately, and not only was she easy to talk to, she was easy to understand. Consequently, conversation flowed. And it wasn't the usual 'so, what do you do?' type stuff – it was real conversation, about people we'd met, places we'd been, thoughts on Spain, and on our own countries. I felt completely at ease.

After a while we paid up, and went to another bar. Having spoken nothing but Spanish so far, I thought she might want to switch to English. But she was quite happy speaking Spanish, and so we continued as we were.

By the time we finished up at the second bar, we'd been chatting for THREE hours – all in Spanish. And I'd understood everything and responded with more than a 'Sí, claro', which is MAJOR progress for me. She walked me back to the metro station and promised to WhatsApp me with regards to meeting up again. And I've no doubt that she will. After all, next time we'll be speaking in English...

Meeting P has made me re-think my 'natives only' policy. For a start, being a Spanish-Italian translator, she's fluent or as good as. But rather more importantly, I understood her way better than I understood any of the Spaniards I've spoken to. Perhaps she enunciates things more clearly, or perhaps non-native speakers of a language are just more in tune with each other? Either way, I think I've just found the perfect intercambio partner, and I'll be pretty gutted if we don't see each other again.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Intercambio #2: The mathematician

Last year, I went to quite a few intercambio nights, where I discovered that most of the Spaniards were hungrily opportunistic. They would hone in on the native English-speakers and jabber away in English all night. And what with my Spanish being of a lower level than their Englishfool that I am – I simply succumbed. This year, with a far better grasp of the language, I have decided to become more like them. I am now the hunter, not the hunted.

Hot on the heels of Tuesday's intercambio came another, this time with a mathematician. We met at Callao and ended up in Starbucks (on his suggestion, people, NOT mine).

Having initially wanted an hour of English and then an hour of Spanish, he quickly changed his mind and suggested that we speak Spanish first. I smiled in agreement, although I had no intention of speaking anything but Spanish. Anyway, we soon found ourselves speaking about our reasons for learning other languages, our jobs and all that jazz.

After a while he loosened up sufficiently to be able to speak some English. It took him an impossibly long time to get the words out and I frequently lost track of the conversation. It was like being in the classroom again when a student grabs the floor and then doesn't quite know what to do with it. I smiled encouragingly and nodded at what I thought were appropriate moments in the monologue to indicate that I was listening. It was lucky I wasn't being asked for corrections!

With our iced beverages drunk, he suggested going for a walk. And since he was pleasant enough company, I concurred. We ended up in El Parque de El Buen Retiro where we had a little wander, then found a nice bench and continued chatting.

By now, he had lost his initial shyness and was more than happy to prattle away in English punctuated by paragraphs of Spanish, but his stories lacked cohesion and I couldn't really follow them. In either language. Which makes it all the more worrying that he went on to say that I was the best teacher he'd ever had. That said, it wasn't the language he was interested in me for. It had become all too evident where he thought this might go. I silently cursed myself for not having picked up on it earlier.

The intercambio ended some four-and-a-half hours after it had begun. Relieved, I got up to leave, but he said he'd walk back part of the way with me. He wanted to talk some more, and to ask if I'd be interested in meeting up again. Maybe tomorrow? He looked at me eagerly, all shiny-eyed and childlike. My head was saying no, but I didn't have the heart to actually voice the words. And so I concurred.

The following day he messaged me... to cancel. Since I was picnicking in the park with a friend whom I hadn't seen since June, I wasn't overly concerned. In fact, I was pleased. But I had spoken too soon. The stream of WhatsApp messages told me that he wasn't cancelling-cancelling, he was simply postponing. Maybe we could meet on Friday instead? My heart sank. There was nothing I wanted less.

Say it, just say it. Get it over with.


Go on, say it. Say no.

OK. We'll meet tomorrow.


And of course he contacted me today – a river of WhatsApps in English and Spanish, suggesting that meet for coffee or tapas. I was so NOT in the mood. But you can't just say 'no' to a Spaniard, you can't even say you don't feel like doing something – you have to explain why. Since I was feeling a little under the weather, I told him I was ill. Instantly he tried to phone me. I didn't pick up. The very last thing I wanted to do was have a conversation in Spanish and certainly not with him.

So he messaged me: What's happened? Do you need anything? Do you want me to come over? Ummmm... no. I have a cold. I am going to stay at home. He must have messaged me twenty times or so, but beyond thanking him for his kindness and assuring him I had everything I needed, I ignored him. Some time later he messaged again, this time to see if we could meet up tomorrow. Then a couple of hours later he messaged AGAIN to see if I was feeling better. FML.

Yes, I know, I do it to myself. I saw the way he was acting around me and I didn't call time on the intercambio. Not only did I not end that one, but I gave him false hope that there'd be another. By ignoring his messages, I'm just postponing the inevitable – we are not going to be meeting up again so why can't I just tell him that already? Sigh. Only I could get my knickers in a twist over a freaking intercambio!

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Intercambio #1: The nurse

With time on my hands and keen to do something about my Spanish, last Tuesday I published an ad on Tus Clases Particulares looking for an intercambio. Within mere minutes of it going live, I received five replies. The following day I received another 48! Since then I've had another 30 bringing me to a grand total of 78! Then, I finally wised up and removed the ad.

Obviously having 78 intercambios is not possible, so I began sifting through them, eliminating those who had sent me nothing more than 'Estoy interesado/a...', aka the auto-reply. Next to get deleted were those asking for the moon – actual classes. For free. Ummm, that would be a big fat NO. And then it was just a case of sorting through the rest and choosing a couple.

I emailed a few and set up an intercambio with a Spanish-speaking Egyptian for that weekend... And instantly regretted my decision when he rang me and spoke too fast for me to understand, then WhatsApped me to send his photo and to ask me if I was 'of legal age' (Ummmm, what the what now? I thought we were exchanging languages not bodily fluids!). He then rang me AGAIN to double-check that I definitely was over 18, and then WhatsApped me AGAIN to change the agreed meeting time. FML.

Now if there's one thing I can't stand, it's being harassed via phone/email/text/WhatsApp/anything, and his neediness just p*ssed me right off. And on the day of the meeting, I decided I couldn't actually be bothered (my bad, I know), so I called it off. And silently resolved never to contact him again. I hadn't banked on him trying to add me on Facebook. Request deleted. Goodbye!

But that left me intercambio-less. So I set about organising another meet up with someone else, a nurse looking to work and study in the UK. We agreed to meet on Monday evening, but then he contacted me to cancel. Some might say it was karma. Fortunately, it was more of a postponement than a straight cancellation and we re-scheduled the meeting for this evening.

R and I met outside McDonald's on Gran Vía. My first impressions were nice but nervous. Like most Spaniards he categorically DID NOT WANT to speak English in front of a real live native English-speaker. Which sort of defeats the purpose of the intercambio, not to mention puts his goal of working in the UK next year back several hundred steps. But no matter. At least one of us was going to get some practice...

We wandered towards Plaza de Santa Ana, took a seat at one of the outdoor cafés and got down to chatting. En español. After a while he shakily attempted some English. I stuck to speaking Spanish, determined to squeeze in every scrap of practice I could. We spoke about jobs and the crisis (of course), living and working in Spain, and in the UK – all standard stuff. An hour-and-forty-five minutes later, we called it a day as he was meeting a friend for dinner. He seemed relieved to be off the hook, although he assured me he'd like to meet up again. Whether we do remains to be seen, but I walked home happy that I had spoken Spanish for almost two hours. Yay me!

Monday, 18 August 2014

Exploring España: Santander

Having finally gotten a chance to sort through (some of) the thousands of photos I took in June, I can now rejoin Travel Photo Discovery's Travel Photo Mondays project. This year, having discovered a new-found love of Spain, I set about discovering more of the country. And as well as taking a few day trips from Madrid, I found myself enjoying weekend trips to Valencia, Andalucía and Galicia. For my final trip of the 2013/14 academic year, I went to Cantabria.

As the capital of the autonomous community of Cantabria, Santander is surprisingly small. It's really only known for its beautiful beaches, there being little else to do there. But, after a busy year, a quiet, seaside town was exactly what I was after. The town itself was fairly unremarkable, but I was mesmerised by the Bay of Santander and the breathtakingly beautiful beaches...

The Modernist style Palacete del Embarcadero, a former customs house dating from the early 20th century

Looking across the Bay of Santander

Boats on the bay

Los Raqueros – bronze statues of typical Santanderinos during the 19th and 20th century

Close up of one of the bronze figures

My wanderings took me past the marina and on to the first of the beaches, La Playa de los Peligros. Walking along the fringes, suitcase in tow, I reached the next oneLa Playa de la Magdalena. With soft, white sand and expansive views across the Bay of Santander, it was absolutely stunning.

La Playa de los Peligros

The stunning Playa de la Magdalena

Wooden walkway linking La Playa de la Magdalena to the aptly named Playa de Bikini

I was in beach heaven... Until I saw the next one. Then I was blown away! But the best was yet to come. A stone's throw from my hotel, facing the Bay of Biscay, was one of the loveliest stretches of seaside I'd ever seen – Las Playas de El Sardinero. Being so close to such perfection reinforced my desire to one day live by the sea.

La Playa del Camello, the first of four amazing beaches in Sardinero Cove

A hint of what's to come...

La Primera Playa de El Sardinero

Looking out across the Bay of Biscay

When not taking day trips, I spent my time in Santander walking along the many beaches or simply admiring the ever-changing skies and sea views from a conveniently-located outdoor balcony. I could have stayed there forever, just gazing out to sea. It was the perfect way to end my second academic year in Spain.

A study in white and blue

My viewing platform

Dusk draws in

The beach in the early evening


Friday, 15 August 2014

Discover Britain: Brighton

If I ever moved back to the UK, I'd move to the (sometimes) sunny south coast, and more specifically, to Brighton. Effortlessly combining faded seaside glamour with 21st century living, Brighton is without doubt my favourite British city.

The town, then known as Bristelmestune, was founded by the Saxons, and the earliest reference to its existence is in the Domesday book of 1086. From Norman times onwards it grew in importance and by 1730, Brighthelmstone (as it was now called) was a thriving fishing and agricultural town. Its fortunes changed in the 18th century with the contemporary fad for drinking and bathing in seawater as a cure for ills. The increase in visitors led to much development and the former fishing town became a fashionable seaside resort.

In 1783, the Prince Regent, George IV, later King of England (r. 1820-1830), visited Brighthelmstone for the first time. He enjoyed his visit so much that he became a regular patron and, in 1797, he commissioned the building of the Royal Pavilion so that he would have somewhere to stay on his weekend breaks. Shortly thereafter, the town became known by its modern name of Brighton.

Brighton's future as a weekend getaway was sealed in 1841 when the railway reached the town and the town was flooded with day-trippers from London. It has continued to grow in popularity, and in 2000 it was granted city status by Queen Elizabeth II (r. 1952- ).

Brighton beach and the remains of the Grade I listed West Pier, which was built in 1866

I have always wanted to live by the sea, so no matter what the weather, my first stop-off is always the pebble beach. I could sit there and watch the waves for hours, although this is undoubtedly more fun on sunny days.

Further along the beach is The Brighton Marine Palace and Pier, more commonly known as Palace Pier, which opened in 1899. In 2000, it was informally renamed 'Brighton Pier' by its owners on the grounds that it's now the city's only non-derelict pier. I wonder what will happen when West Pier is rebuilt...

Normally, I hate the tackiness associated with British seaside towns, but there's something about Brighton Pier that just gets me. I love strolling along the wooden walkways gazing out to sea, ever-mindful of the squawking seagulls waiting and watching, ready to dive-bomb unsuspecting diners. I have lost an ice-cream to a hungry gull on more than one occasion.

The pier from the beach

The only non-derelict pier in Brighton

Standing on the pier looking towards West Pier

One of the city's must-sees is The Lanes, a warren of narrow alleyways crammed with unique boutiques, quaint teashops and everything in between. Although I like The Lanes, as I discover more of Brighton, I frequent them less and less. I can't stand getting stuck behind slow-walking, camera-toting tourists who seem oblivious to the fact that other people exist!

Jubilee arch leading to the Lanes

Colourful bunting strung across Meeting House Lane

Meeting House Lane (pictured) is one of the wider alleywayssome of the others are so narrow they are claustrophobic!and I use it as a short-cut to get to my favourite restaurant, Food for Friends, the original vegetarian restaurant in Brighton.

Opened in 1981, Food for Friends creates amazing dishes using fresh, good quality locally-sourced ingredients. The beautifully-presented food tastes every bit as good as it looks, and many of the dishes come with nut-free, gluten-free or vegan options, so there really is something to suit everyone. Oh, and in case you weren't sold already, Food for Friends was crowned 'Best Restaurant' at the Brighton & Hove Foodie Awards 2012, and has won a place in the Good Food Guide 2014.

A must for lovers of vegetarian/vegan food

My go-to drinkchampagne cider

Baked goat's cheese, apple and roasted walnut salad with garlic croutons, mizuna leaves and watercress in a honey mustard dressing

Not far from the restaurant is the Royal Pavilion, a former royal residence built as a seaside retreat for George IV, Prince of Wales and later King of England (r. 1820-1830).

In 1797, George IV commissioned the architect Henry Holland (1745-1806) to turn an existing farmhouse into a weekend getaway. The result was a Neo-classical building, then known as Marine Pavilion. But, some years later, having built an Indian-style stable for his horses that dwarfed the Marine Pavilion in grandeur, George IV decided to redesign his home.

The architect John Nash (1752-1835), who designed Buckingham Palace, was chosen to create a new palace in the Indian style that would match the stables. Work commenced in 1815 and took seven years to complete. Designed in the Indo-Saracenic style, complete with onion-shaped domes, towers and minarets, this extraordinary creation has been dubbed "Brighton's answer to the Taj Mahal".

Thanks to the ridiculous queues to get in, not to mention the rather steep £11 (€14/US$18) entrance fee, I've never actually been inside. However, the stunning gardens are more than enough to keep me happy.

Once controversial, now the symbol of the city

Ornate carvings

One of the covered walkways

Hidden behind extensive gardens

Corner detail

Summer flowers

Separate from The Lanes, but also a worth a visit, is the area known as North Laine. Once a run-down slum, it's now the city's bohemian and cultural quarter. Today, it's full of quirky shops, cute cafés and beautiful (and pricey!) homes. The more I explore this area, the further up my list of favourites it climbs.

Eye-catching shopfront

Wedding-y window display

One of the many little boutiques

Little farm shop down an alleyway

The opposite wall of the alleyway farm shop

No garden? No problem!

Close up of the pavement garden

Rarely visited by tourists, Kemptown is the lesser-known side of Brighton. I only discovered it because I had a dentist's appointment in the area. While waiting for the appointment time to come round, I had a little wander, and thus I came across Metrodeco, a 1930s-style tearoom with almost as much choice in chairs as there was in tea! I made a note to return, which I duly did the following week.

Tea in an old-fashioned china cup

Eclectic furniture

Refreshed, having treated myself to a pot of Lapsang Souchong, I went out to explore. Sadly, I have very few even semi-decent photos from my explorations and certainly nothing that does justice to the area. I guess that means that the next time I'm in Brighton, I'll have to go back!

Dog in the door of a barbershop
Dog-related thought of the day outside a pub
One of the main streets

Nice-looking restaurant with not-so-nice-looking apartment blocks reflected in the window

Looking towards Marine Parade

On a good day, it's a nice walk along Marine Parade from Kemptown back into the centre. On one side you have beautiful Regency-style buildings while on the other, the sea. Running along the seafront are the historic Grade II listed moulded cast iron and teak railings dating from 1880!

Marine Parade with its Grade II listed railings

Brighton Pier from Marine Parade

The Brighton Wheel is something of an international traveller, having been manufactured in Germany and then transported to South Africa for the FIFA World Cup in 2010. It came to England in September 2011 and was opened to the public the following month. It has planning permission to remain in place until 2016.

I'd often passed it and thought about giving it a whirl. This summer I finally did and £8 (€10/US$13) got me a 12-minute ride complete with commentary and views right across the city.

The Brighton Wheel

Looking down on the pier from the wheel...

...and across the beach

After the ride

Whether I do ever get to live in Brighton remains to be seen, but it will always have a special place in my heart. I've spent three summers teaching in the UK, and my days off have almost always been spent in Brighton basking on the beach, getting lost in The Lanes and feasting with friends...

One last shot of the beach and the skeletal West Pier