andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

Caceres – Final Thoughts

It’s a funny old place Caceres. I’m really quite bewitched by it, even as the rains that form the damp tail of Storm Leslie finally reach us here.

The Plaza Mayor. Fiesta de la Hispanidad in full swing. No sign of any bars and restaurants closing. No sign of any locals turning away a drink.

The holiday apartment, in Plaza Santiago, is worth every point of its 9.1 on Booking.com. In fact, I’d pretty much give it the full 10: it’s got original period features yet all mod cons, fantastic location at the edge of the Old Town, and it’s supported by a good local team on the ground.

 

 

That Old Town. What a wow factor it has! I’m still not sure I’ve done it justice with the photos from my phone, but even with Mrs F’s ‘proper’ camera it would probably be a fruitless, and wet, expedition today to get better ones.

Suffice to say that, in all our explorations of many, many, Old Towns in Spanish cities – including the most famous ones like Cuenca, Toledo, and now Segovia – I’ve never come across a place quite like it. There’s something about the narrow streets, the dizzying changes of level up and down quite a tight, concial rocky peak, that make it unique.

One of the ancient gates out of the citadel, originally known as the Water Gate.

A couple of the locals. No, it’s nothing to do with KKK – the religious orders wear the hoodies for processions, especially during Easter, or Semana Santa.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The cuisine. After that initial brush with exotic flavours, the food has been good, but … you gotta like pig. Really. It’s not just the multiple different cuts of jamon; it’s the seven different ways they serve pork. Which is fine for us, but if you’re a vegetarian, you might struggle.

But if you do like pork, you’re in for a treat. Last night we shared Moragas de cerdo (literally, ‘bundles of pork,’ but in reality cubes of the stuff marinated and grilled (probably) with mushrooms, as well as chuletas de cordero, or lamb chops, just to go against trend. Both delicious. Like so much of Spanish cookery, nothing fancy, just good ingredients, cooked well.

The local wine. Still needing more research, but the best of it up there with Ribera del Duero or Rioja, and the rest, well, we haven’t poured any of it away.

I bought a local regional paper today, which confirmed that Caceres, and the region of Extramadura generally, has all the usual problems of a mainly rural economy these days – a struggle to keep people working on the land; reducing budgets for, amongst other things, local services like firefighters; rising property prices making things difficult for the locals. Sound familiar?

Be that as it may, it’s definitely on my list of places I would visit again in Spain.

You just gotta like pig.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to see but adverts down here. Not even a piggie.

 

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The Slow Train to Caceres and the Festival of Spanishness (Thai flavourings optional)

‘Caceres?’ said the taxi driver taking us to the station at Segovia. ‘Why are you going to Caceres?’

I explained patiently that we enjoyed seeing different parts of Spain each time we came.

‘Well, there is so much to see,’ he agreed, as we careened through the narrow side streets, his castellano only slightly less rapid than his driving. ‘There’s Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba…’

‘Yes, of course,’ I said. ‘But we’ve already been to Madrid, Barcelona, Granada, Cordoba…’ I could have added many more, but it was clear your man – who could have been on a retainer from the Segovian tourist association, even though he’d originally come from the Basque country, apparently – clearly thought Caceres was an odd choice. Which, compared to Segovia, it maybe was.

That said, although we’d enjoyed our four nights in the Castilian city of water-carrying infrastructure, we were ready to move on. It was a good choice, and deserves to be seen, don’t get me wrong. But…

Last views of Segovia’s Plaza Mayor, and that acqueduct the Romans did for them

I think, to be honest, it’s both a winner and loser from its closeness to Madrid. It’s a great place for the Madrileños to have a day trip; it serves as a commuter suburb for the bigger city, but equally you could go out there from the Spanish capital at the weekend, maybe even stay the night, and be back for work on Monday.

It’s also (a bit the same way as St Andrews, say, as regards Edinburgh) close enough for the tour buses to include it on their regular itineraries. So the coaches can arrive from Madrid comfortably in time for coffee, the tourists can be funnelled up the spine of rock that connects the acqueduct, the Plaza Mayor and the Alcazar, and be parted from their money for lunch and souvenirs with ruthless efficiency, with time still left in the day to for the tour company to either return them to Madrid or move on somewhere else, like Salamanca, for an overnighter.

Toledo is the other place that springs to mind when thinking about Segovia: the proximity to Madrid, and its airport, means, with the high-speed train connection especially, they don’t have to try too hard to do quite nicely for themselves out of internal and external tourism, thanks very much.

Storm clouds gather over Segovia Guiomar

Anyhoo. As I say, I’m glad we visited, but it was a good day to travel, with the train station at Segovia looking pretty much as dreich as Edinburgh airport had, if offering more in the way of background scenery. The rains had descended on Spain that day, and not solely on the plains, although as we crossed Madrid and took the slow train to Caceres, a landscape emerged that had clearly been praying for rain for some time.

There are basically three paces of Spanish train journey: fast, bloody fast, and quite a lot slower than either. Most of the main lines have now been made high speed, which gives you the option of the AVE (bloody fast) but also other trains like Avant or Alvia which, to be honest, don’t exactly hang around: at one point on the way down our Avant claimed to be topping 200 km/h.

The train to Caceres, on the other hand, was more like your average rail journey in the UK: loping along, stopping everywhere, and not in any hurry at any point. To give an idea of journey time, the train we got left Madrid at 10.25, was scheduled to get into Caceres at 14:19, and eventually rolled in about twenty minutes after that.

That said, even this more basic train – leaving from the commuter part of Atocha, which mainly hosts the Cercania network of commuter trains, but also those described as being of media/larga distancia, was comfortable, with a sight more legroom for the vertically enabled than most of the boneshaker rolling stock you get in Scotland. Which, given the relative amount of Viking genes in both countries, doesn’t really add up.

The taxi driver in Caceres (hot tip: they tend not to hang around in numbers at the railway station, so you may have to call them from the numbers on the sign if it’s a busy train) seemed a lot more laid back than his Segovian counterpart. Avoiding the standard conversational gambits for taxi drivers (thank you, Peter Kay) of ‘You been busy?’ and ‘What time do you finish?’ I went for the only slightly less predictable British gambit of the weather.

However, your man wasn’t concerned by the black clouds carpeting the country. ‘Ach, there’ll be a bit of rain, and then the sun’ll come back,’ he said confidently, and so it turned out to be. In the meantime, we were met at our apartment by the charming lady from BeHoliday, and initial impressions were (and remain) that we’d made a good choice: very comfortable and well located, the place had been a renovation of an 18th/19th century town house, retaining some original features but with all mod cons.

The apartment

Caceres may not be Segovia, but I’m not sure it’s any the worse for it. That distance from Madrid maybe means it has to try a bit harder: although, to be frank with you, on the basis of a couple of very brief walks around town so far, its Old Town beats that of the more famous city into a cocked hat. Comparisons are invidious, of course, but the casco antiguo is really quite a fantastic, steepling thing, of churches, towers, and tiny side streets and alleys. Like Segovia, it’s a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Some views. Better photos once Mrs F gets going with her camera

Calle del Mono, or Monkey Street. I’m sure there’s an explanation

The tourist office was a bit weird, mind. We arrived the day before October 12, which is the Fiesta de la Hispanidad throughout Spain. Crudely translated, that means ‘Festival of Spanishness,’ or maybe ‘Festival of the State of Mind of Being Spanish.’ The Segovian taxi driver had warned us that everything would be very busy: his Caceres counterpart had, typically, been more relaxed about it: the lady in the tourist office, on the other hand, was certain that everything in Caceres – shops, restaurants, everything – would be closed.

This certainty might have been related to her keenness that we take a free bus to the Feria Europea del Queso or European Cheese Fair, which was to take place in Casar de Caceres on the 12, 13th and 14th. Casar de Caceres iis a village some distance from the town of Caceres. This, apparently, was the place to be on the morrow if you were a cheese fan.

As the day of the Festival of Spanishness dawned, however, or more accurately when we emerged from the apartment as the morning reached its late middle age, it became clear that rumours of the town of Caceres closing up for the day had been, er, wildly exaggerated. Indeed, the locals appeared to be quite determined to settle in for a day of celebrating their Spanishness, loudly, right here in the Plaza Mayor, and with some relish: we were just starting breakfast when a sizeable amount of the locals were getting stuck into their first beer of the day.

Caceres, at least on the evidence so far, seems a jolly sort of place. There have been a few miscommunications – it’s fair to say the accent is stronger here than in the Castilian heartland of Segovia – but they do appear to be trying to market themselves as something worth a visit. Apart from the stunning Old Town architecture, they’re also pushing gastronomy, and given that the region of Extremadura is famed for the jamón that comes from the pata negra, or black pig, as well as Pimentón de la Vera, the smoked paprika that informs so much of Spanish cooking, they have the raw ingredients to do that.

Their wines, too, on the limited research I’ve been able to manage so far, are rich, full, and satisfyingly different from either Ribera del Duero or Rioja, the staples of most bars in most parts of Spain. More research will be undertaken.

One thing we hadn’t expected was the willingness on the part of local chefs to try something beyond the usual Spanish flavours. A leaflet we picked up at the tourist office from the Cheese Fair-promoting lady had claimed this, but I was dubious until, returning from our midday walk, we were to find a whole new café that hadn’t been there yesterday had sprung up, on the day everything was meant to be closed.

Spanish chicken kebabs with satay sauce. With patatas bravas: a killer combination

I lay before you, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Exhibit A: brochetas de pollo con salsa thai de satay. Chicken kebabs, or brochetas, are a staple of Spanish cookery, especially in the South, where the Moorish influence encourages use of Middle Eastern spices like cumin. But Thai flavours and a satay sauce? On the day of celebrating the state of mind of being Spanish, this was a whole new twist!

More from the culinary – and oenological – front line soon…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just adverts there be down here

What the Romans did for Segovia: and how to get the best table in Spain

Ok. For those of you benighted enough not to get the cultural reference, I’m talking Python here, and not the computer language neither. In Life of Brian, the leader of a revolutionary group determined to overthrow the Roman occupation of the Holy Land asks them, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’

There’s an awkward silence, before one of the group offers, ‘the acqueduct?’ There’s then a list from the others of a whole lot of other improvements, such as improved sanitation, roads, lower crime rates…

Well, I don’t know about the other stuff, but the Romans certainly did a good acqueduct for the natives of Segovia. It’s humungous! And, being one of the biggest tourist draws (interesting cultural note: this is the first time I’ve seen signs in Spanish, English and Chinese – sign of the times, or indeed the new world order) it’s encircled by restaurants and cafes.

Which brings me to a bit of advice on Spanish restaurants and bars in general, and how to get the good stuff, eats and drinks wise.

Ok, so basic build philosophy for your average Spanish city – perhaps not so much Madrid and Barcelona, although the overall principles are the same. They were, originally, built in defensive positions, close to a river. They will generally be on a hill (castles built in a valley tended not to last very long, as the invaders were able to stand on the hills and lob stuff in). This initial settlement will be known as the Old Town, or casco viejo.

In most Spanish cities, there will be two or three major buildings or places of interest. Almost always a cathedral, which will be Romanesque, or Gothic, or sometimes a mixture of both, if that’s your bag. Something else, like an acqueduct (Segovia) a mosque (Cordoba) or a castle (various). The central square, or plaza mayor, will be often quite grand (Salamanca). And clustered around, or in, these major draws will be bars, restaurants, and dozens of shops selling the local speciality souvenirs.

Now, these places won’t always be massively overpriced tourist traps which don’t offer good value food and drink, right? Right. You might decide, for example, it’s worth shelling a couple of extra euros for a beer, sitting in the sunshine in the plaza mayor, watching the world go by. But for eats? General rule – the closer to these major draws, and the more multilingual the menus, the less good value you get.

So where to go? Stretching out from these major draws, and often stretching between them, the streets will have been widened. They might even resemble avenues, and here you’ll find the commercial sector of the city – the fancy clothes shops, scary-looking high end chemists, lawyers’ offices, and banks. There may well be restaurants and bakeries, too, along these avenues, which will almost always be pricy, too. So where to go for the good stuff?

In my experience, you’ve generally got two options. Head out of the Old Town, outwith the original city walls, across a bridge, perhaps, to where the locals can actually afford to live – and eat. Or, in the Old Town itself, lose yourself in the back streets.

Segovia’s Old Town

Often the latter option will take you into the Jewish Quarter, where the people of that faith lived centuries ago before the Christians kicked them out as part of one or other ethnic cleansing (don’t worry, this was a long time ago – the Spanish are, in general, pretty tolerant these days, although the current refugee crisis is causing some strain). In these narrow, corkscrewing alleys, there might well be the best restaurant or tapas bar in town – far enough off the beaten track to be able to have lower overheads, but not so far off that the locals don’t know about it.

And it was a combination of those options that led us to Calle Hermanos Barral, and two restaurants well worth recommending. Down the hill from the Acqueduct, not far from the bus station, we reached it via a couple of flights of stone steps and some unpromising side streets that held little in the way of anything. It was in the lee of the city walls, but not so far out of town as to be completely unreachable.

Praying for wine

The first day we went to the restaurant attached to the Hotel Ayala Berganza, and had an excellently priced menu del dia in a patio courtyard that was just about warm enough to sit out in at this time of year. This showed up all the strengths and weaknesses of the menu del dia concept, which most Spanish eateries worth their salt will have: it had local dishes (the Segovians go big on their local white beans, for example) but a limited selection, and the price included a drink which, in the case of my wine, wasn’t the best wine ever, but wasn’t at all bad. The service was great, although the menu was delivered verbally at some pace, so had to be slowed down while I translated.

Really? You’re leaving the entire bottle? You know he’s Scottish, right?

I had a beef stew which, I have to say, was the best beef stew ever, and that includes the ones I’ve slow cooked myself. The meat was tender, the sauce was rich, and it was accompanied by nothing more complicated than little circles of potatoes, deep fried. In terms of value, the meal was at least 50% cheaper than the menus del dia on the main drags in town, only 5 or 10 minutes’ walk away, and I guarantee you as good, if not better, quality.

 

 

 

The next day, after seeing the Alcazar (the castle that apparently inspired Disney’s one) and having a general poke around town, we found nowhere better than the other restaurant in Calle Hermanos Barral, La Codorniz. This time, we took a different tack with the menu options, and choice of drink for that matter. Suitably fortified by a bottle of Estrella Galicia (great beer, unfortunately very rarely on draft) I asked a local whom I’d heard discussing the wines with another table what he’d recommend, and he then took upon himself to order for us. A man of exquisite taste, as it turned out!

For eats, as the restaurant advertised itself as an asador, we tried two of the roasts on offer: the local speciality, cochinillo, or suckling pig, and lamb, another favourite in this area.  So far as the former’s concerned, don’t be put off by the pictures in the restaurants that show an entire baby piggie being served up: for individual portions, at least, you only get a bit of the rib cage, so you don’t have to look the poor beast in the eye when you’re eating it.

For afters, we tried the local delicacy Ponche Segoviano, a sort of orangey, creamy, custardy thing which probably had some booze in it. By then, suitably fortified by the Estrella and your man’s Ribera del Duero recommendation, I’d got into a lengthy conversation with a lovely Argentinian couple at the next table, so I wasn’t paying much attention to it. To be honest, it was hard put to follow the roast meats, both of which were absolutely delicious.

So that’s it, really. Segovia, like most, if not all Spanish cities, is full of hidden gems of restaurants, but often they’re not the first ones you come to. Head for the narrow side streets, or the newer part of town where the non-tourists eat. The menu del dia can be a good option, but not always: and eating off the main menu might be more expensive, but can bring its own rewards.

And if in doubt, have a beer and chat up a local.

P.S. Other places of note in Segovia –

Hotel Spa La Casa Mudejar turned out to be an excellent choice. Located just off the Plaza Mayor, we had asked for a room that looked out to the internal courtyard, and it was extremely quiet, and comfortable. Not the biggest room ever, but nicely done out and clean. Very, very, good value. Don’t know about the spa bit, as we ran out of time to try it – make sure you check its opening times. It’s definitely a spa rather than a swimming pool though.

Cafe Colonial, Plaza del Corpus – just down the street from the hotel – great traditional style cafe for breakfasts and more.

Diablo Cojuelo, Calle Juan Bravo – a bit further down the street that connects the Plaza Mayor with the Acqueduct, this is a deli with tables which has a whole lot going for it: lots of local produce, and not just the big white beans which, frankly, can lead to high winds later on; they produce their own off-denominacion Ribera del Duero, and the Diablo Cojuelo Rojo (there’s a younger black label, which we didn’t try) was the best wine we had in town. And the rest of them weren’t too shoddy.

The only thing that let this place down was the crammed cafe bit and substandard tapas. But still worth a visit for a copa of that wine.

 

Rip It Up – And Start Again?

Just while I work up the next travel blog, here’s something else I started on earlier…

Rip It Up Poster illuminates the douce museum decor

To the National Museum of Scotland, then, for ‘Rip It Up: The Story of Scottish Pop,’ an exhibition running now until 25th November. Well worth a visit, although bring your piggy bank, because it’s £10/£8 to get in. I suppose it’s been a while since I paid to get into an exhibition, and there’s one hell of a lot of Scottish musical history crammed in, to be sure.

For anyone put off by the ‘Pop’ term, rest assured the displays range from out and out pop stars like Lulu and Bay City Rollers through rock in its various levels of heaviness, to the indie of Goodbye Mr Mackenzie et al and the post rock of Mogwai. There’s even more modern formats such as hip hop represented by Edinburgh’s Young Fathers.

Now, let’s get one thing out of the way right off. Not everyone that everyone would want represented as key Scottish pop/rock whatever icons is in there. Indeed, my mate Harky, who worked on the exhibition as part of his job at the Museum, told me that significant parts of his time at the ticket desk has been spent explaining to bolshie musos why so and so, or such and such a band, aren’t represented when they were so integral/important/influential etc. Lay off him, musos! There are any number of reasons why folk aren’t in there, including because they asked not to be. So there.

Of those that are, I didn’t really see any major omissions: but then I’m not a muso.  Some people might claim, indeed, that the likes of Rod Stewart (Scottish Dad and well-known predilection to act Scottish) and AC/DC (mostly emigrated to Oz at an early age) aren’t, well, Scottish enough, but, hell,  I’ll take ’em. Many of the others scarpered over the Border as soon as they could and never looked back, although that was very often because it was the only place you could land a decent record deal back in the day.

One band I would love to have seen in there, simply because they produced such great stuff before, it would appear, disappearing almost without trace, was all-girl Glasgow band His Latest Flame, but as I say, I’m not complaining. Here they are in full flow, in case you’ve never heard of them.

To be honest, I’ve always thought that Scotland was distinctly under-represented in the broader rock n’ roll world, and it was actually kind of emotional for me to see just how much great talent there was, and continues to be, from my home patch. Definitely an exhibition worth seeing if you’re in town. Fay Fife’s dress (lead singer/songwriter/theremin player with punk band the Rezillos, and with post punk band the Revillos, she assumed her nom de guerre because she was, er, fae Fife) is worth the admission money alone!

One could go on about the many Scottish musicians that have made their appointment with the Grim Reaper all too early. However, I’m not sure that, statistically, it’s any worse than pop and rock musicians generally. We certainly have some noticeable survivors, including the aforesaid Sir Rodney, and others such as Annie Lennox.

It was strange, emerging from the visual and aural assault of this exhibition, to the calm contemplation and glass-case living death of the regular museum exhibits. I plan to do my level best to ensure that the story of Scottish rock and roll is only just beginning, and it’s not just something for the archaeologists.

So, is there a definitive Scottish sound? It’s more an attitude of mind, for me, one that embraces the miracle of life and love, although at the same time, the melancholy. There’s a darkness which is never far away, even from the poppiest moments. And humour. Although sometimes the humour’s so dark you can’t see your hand in front of your face.

Daughter and Heiress at the Museum. Not an exhibit yet.

I don’t know there’s a single song that represents all of that. However, since I mentioned this exhibition to a couple of non-Scottish people, the same name came back as the first one they thought of: and although they may not do it for everyone, they were a fine band in their time: the Blue Nile.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just adverts down here. Go see the exhibition and get off your phone!

Segovia – how to get there from Madrid

Edinburgh airport. A picture may say a thousand words, but most of them for this one would be dreich.

The Spanish national railway website, renfe.com, may be many things. However, model of clarity isn’t the first thing that springs to mind.

Take, for a non-random example, getting a train from Madrid to Segovia. No problem, it says: you can get one straight from Barajas T4, which, to the uninitiated, is Terminal 4 at the airport (known as Barajas, although also, confusingly, as Adolfo Suarez sometimes, after the first post-Franco prime minister).

Which is sort of true. It just doesn’t tell you there are intermediate steps.

So. If you’re coming from the UK on a budget flight, you almost definitely won’t arrive at T4, which is the multi-award winning, Richard Rogers designed modern one. Not for the likes of you, Easyjet punter!

However, you can get there via a free shuttle bus which goes between Terminals 1, 2 and 4 (if you arrive at 3, you’re not completely stuffed – fairly sure you’d just walk to T2). Once at T4,  if you have time, take a moment to savour the architecture and design – it really is impressive – and then get the lift to the basement level, and the Renfe station.

Once there, you’ll find the barcode on your ticket – which, confusingly, says you’re going from Chamartin, one of the main Madrid stations, not T4 – lets you through the electronic barrier. After a couple of goes, probably. Don’t panic!

Pic: RHSP. You can read more about it here. Nuns optional.

You then arrive at a couple of platforms, with trains arriving fairly regularly and then setting off again for places like Recoletos and Principe Pio. You may never have heard of these places, but don’t worry: T4 is the end of the line for a couple of overground/underground train lines – Cercanias – that serve Madrid and its outskirts. Most, or indeed all, of these trains will take you to Chamartin. If in doubt, ask a local.

Once on the train, the ticket lady will check your ticket – again, don’t panic: there is, in tiny writing, the script that says this connection to the main station is included in the price. The journey to Chamartin takes ten minutes or so, with a couple of stops in Madrid’s graffiti-strewn hinterland on the way.

Chamartin doesn’t have the old-world charm of Madrid’s other main station, Atocha, but it’s modern and has plenty of places to refuel. I should have said at the start that you want to get a train to what the Renfe website calls ‘Segovia AV,’ also confusingly known once you’re on the train as ‘Segovia Guiomar.’ This is on the high speed line, which means you get there quickly, but do have a further journey from there into the city.

Madrid to Segovia. Scenery passing at speed.

 

You can get a number 11 bus from the station and it takes you to the Acqueduct, but frankly, having been on the go from about 9 in the morning and this now being half six at night, we’d had enough planes and trains and took a taxi (about 13 euros).

All very efficient, by the way, and the connections went like a dream. Knowing about the in between bits in advance, we allowed a couple of hours to change terminals and take the cercania into Chamartin, but that left us plenty of time.

Which takes us, literally, to Segovia: on which more later, but the initial signs are good!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

just advertising stuff below here

The Worst Hotel In Madrid (Nearly) (Nearly In It, I Mean)

Atocha Railway Station, Madrid. We’re not going to stay in Madrid this trip – couldn’t find the right hotel in the right place at the right price – but as we head off to Segovia and Caceres instead, I thought I’d start with this piece about our usual port of entry to Spain, and where not to stay.

If the path to hell is paved with good intentions, the path to hell in a hotel is pretty close to it. Maybe like one of those cycleway/pedestrian routes that are becoming quite the thing these days: they run alongside each other for most of the way, then at some key point they diverge for one reason or another, and you end up, not in hell as such, but in a hotel that bears a distinct resemblance to one of the entry-level circles of the Inferno you might have read about if you’re a Dante fan.

What on earth am I talking about? Okay, so here goes. By a couple of years ago, we’d stayed in a lot of hotels, hostals, and apartments in Madrid. We knew the options, but on this particular occasion, we needed a one-night stopover before our flight home. And the train from up north didn’t get in till mid-afternoon.

You know how it is. You work hard all year, so you want to wring the last drop of leisure and pleasure out of your holiday. You’re determined that you’re not going to spend the last 24 hours packing, repacking, sitting waiting for the train/bus/taxi to the airport, then arriving there early, and wandering round the duty free (another infernal circle Dante didn’t get around to) wishing you could speed up the clock and just get on the damn plane and clear customs and the baggage carousel (speaking again of infernal circles) and get home and get a brew on.

I know, right? So, given the very limited time we’d have, we came up with a plan.

‘How about,’ the Redoubtable Mrs F said, ‘an airport hotel with a pool? Then we could just relax and enjoy ourselves, and be right at the hotel in the morning.’

And so it began. It seemed like a straightforward search on hotelsdotwhatever – ‘Madrid/near to airport’ with an added filter for swimming pools. Simples.

However. As you’ve probably found out for yourselves, these sites ain’t as smart as they think they are. In fact, they’re quite a lot dumber than they think they are. It took an hour of searching and swearing to find Tryp Madrid Airport Suites.

It was near to the airport, it said. It had a swimming pool. It was not outrageously expensive. We were to discover that two out of these three statements were, at the least, factually correct. As Meatloaf sang, two out of three ain’t bad, but then he was singing it in the pre-internet age, so it just doesn’t count. And he was also singing about love and desire rather than hotel accommodation, if I remember rightly.

Suspicious of the ‘near to the airport,’ assertion, I googled it on the map function. It seemed to be in the middle of nowhere; but then, so too is the airport, and scrolling between the two gave me no concept of distance. I was like an ant, sucked suddenly into the upper atmosphere, peering down at distant anthills and the paths between them. I should probably learn how to use the map function better.

‘It looks like it might be near the airport I said, blind optimism triumphing over inner belief.

As it turned out, it was as far from the airport as it was from Madrid, which in turn was about the same distance away from the airport. In other words, the hotel, the airport and Madrid all formed an isosceles triangle on the huge central plain that, apart from the capital city itself, houses little in the way of human habitation. We were unaware of the full extent of my research failings until, taking a taxi from the station, we found ourselves on a €25 journey – about the same cost as if we’d gone to the airport from a hotel in the centre of the city.

Madrid airport. Part of an infernal triangle

‘Well,’ I said, still seeing the positive side (it had been a great holiday, after all). ‘At least we’re close to the airport now, for the trip in the morning.’

As explained above, we weren’t, but we didn’t know that yet. The hotel, once we had turned off the last featureless motorway intersection, was located in what appeared to be an industrial estate, although the looming shapes of other hotels suggested the main industry was parting tourists from their money.

It’s frankly an understatement to say the exterior looked unpromising: perhaps the architect was going for some ironic post-structuralist Eastern Bloc in-joke, but you probably had to be another architect or a former KGB member to be in on it. Inside, though, things cheered up considerably: there was a lot of modern wood panelling, and groovy lamps, and sculpture type things, littering the reception area. Things got even better when we got to our room, which was actually a suite of rooms, with cool furniture and the same modernistic vibe. Nice.

Daughter and Heiress was hungry. ‘No problem,’ I said confidently. ‘The restaurant opens at four, and it’s already half four.’

The restaurant, it transpired, was reached along the inside wall of the massive internal quadrangle the hotel’s foursquare construction had left. Kind of like a neo-brutalist hommage to the traditional Andalucian internal patio, I mused.

Before we went to eat, we crossed the quadrangle to check out the swimming pool. We would have a snack, we thought, and then get our cossies from the room and go for a swim before dinner.

The pool was located in its own building, which echoed the same Cold War ethic our architect had striven so hard for. It was a full 25 metres of beautiful blue, and the whole place was empty, apart from a very bored-looking lifeguard in tight-fitting shorts.

La piscina esta abierta?‘ [the pool’s open?] I essayed.

‘Yes,’ he said dubiously.

I was on the way out of the country, so I gave up on the Spanish charm offensive. It didn’t feel like it was working anyway. ‘Do we need to bring the towels from the room?’

‘Yes, and you need a bathing cap.’

‘A bathing cap?’

‘Yes. You can buy one from the shop.’

‘Oh,’ I said. I looked around for some sign of a shop.

‘It’s out there on the left,’ he added, not unhelpfully.

‘Ah,’ I said. ‘And where do you get changed?’

He looked at me as if I wasn’t grasping things quite as firmly as he thought I should. ‘The changing rooms are out there too.’

Having located the spartan, concrete, changing rooms and, in a separate concrete building, the shop, we decided to give the restaurant a go. Which is where things really started to get weird.

By this time, it was about a quarter to five. I rattled the door of the restaurant, but it seemed stuck. After a pause, a pleasant-faced waitress appeared and unlocked the door.

Hola?’ she said, inquiringly.

‘We’d like something to eat,’ I said, trying the Spanish tack again. ‘Is the restaurant open? It says it’s open at four.’

‘Does it?’ This seemed like new information to her. She wandered off, and we wandered in, to find a vast, empty restaurant, about the size of a football pitch. At one end, a cook hovered near an open serving hatch. At the other, a man sat talking animatedly into a mobile phone. The waitress went to him, pointed to us, and he nodded. She drifted back towards us. ‘Where would you like to sit?’ she asked, pleasantly.

We chose a table roughly on the half way line between the underemployed cook and the man barking into his mobile, who seemed to be in some sort of supervisory role.

The waitress, with whom I felt we now had a reasonable rapport, after all we’d been through together, produced menus with pictures on them and text in Spanglish. Daughter and Heiress ordered nachos with chicken and cheese; I ordered something or other.

In due course, D & H’s nachos arrived. I called the waitress back, smiling to indicate I understood this really wasn’t a big deal.

Phrases you won’t find in the phrasebook, lesson 1: ‘Los nachos con pollo y queso? No hay pollo ni queso.‘ ‘The nachos with chicken and cheese? There isn’t any chicken. Or cheese.’

The waitress took the lonesome nachos back to the cook. Minutes passed. There was a debate between the cook and the waitress. I found myself checking the menu, to be sure we hadn’t hallucinated the promise of chicken and cheese. The manager at the far end carried on with his phone conversation.

Eventually, the nachos reappeared, with chicken, but without cheese. Daughter and Heiress, sensing this was as good as it was going to get, ate them, another part of her childhood faith in her father to fix everything eroded. We paid and left, and silence, save for the manager’s barking, descended on the place again, along with a sense of peace restored.

Later, after our swim (some fellow residents, a youngish family, also appeared, and splashed about half-heartedly under the thousand yard stare of the lifeguard) we went for dinner and things, if possible, got even weirder: in a by now half-filled restaurant, you had to queue at the door, decide then and there what you wanted to eat and drink, and then pay for it, before you were shown to your table. It was like an engineer accustomed to developing air conditioning systems had been asked to design the most logistically efficient way of combining customers with their food and drink.

In the morning, we took another €25 taxi ride to the airport, in an emotional state best described as nonplussed. It was the weirdest hotel I’ve ever stayed in, and bear in mind this is from someone whose Seventies childhood involved being taken on holiday to Highland hotels and guest houses so bizarre it looked like they were treating Fawlty Towers as a training video.

Fortunately, this is very much the exception in relation to Madrid’s accommodation offer. In future instalments, I’ll tell you where you really want to stay.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nothing to see below here. Except adverts for hotels, probably, if the cyberbots are doing their job.

 

Leith Depot – Object Now to its Demolition!

As some of you will know, there’s currently a planning application to develop a part of Leith Walk, viz:

18/04332/FUL | Demolition of existing buildings and erection of a mixed use development including 53 affordable housing flats, student accommodation (523 bedrooms), hotel with 56 rooms (Class 7), restaurant(s) (Class 3) and space for potential community and live music venue (Class 10 & 11), retail (Class 1), public house (sui generis) or commercial uses (Class 2 & 4). Includes associated infrastructure, landscaping and car parking. | 106 – 162 Leith Walk Edinburgh EH6 5DX

What all that means is that a really good bit of Leith Walk will disappear under some bland, commercial buildings with, no doubt, little in the way of any sort of tie in with the rest of the area. One thing which will disappear is the Leith Depot, a brilliant pub and music venue which should be protected, and probably would be in other cities like, oh, I don’t know, Glasgow?

Unfortunately I’ve left it too late to spend time going over the planning policies and using my knowledge of the planning system to produce some killer policy-based arguments against the proposal. So I’ve gone for the gut feeling instead. By all means use it – or some of it – for your own submission, but the closing date is tomorrow, 28th September.

You can object here.

My objection:

I urge members of the planning committee to reject this proposal, which will rip out an integral part of what made Leith voted recently one of the funkiest areas in the UK.

My primary connection with this area is as a musician who has played twice at the Leith Depot. Closure of this is another nail in the coffin of the Edinburgh live music scene, and we might as well keep the current exhibition of Scottish Pop and Rock at the Museum of Scotland, ‘Rip It Up,’ as just that – a museum exhibit, because the places for young bands to learn their trade live are fast disappearing.

The suggestion in the application of ‘space for community and live music venue’ should fool nobody – that just won’t happen, because of the basic economics of such a thing being a newbuild.

Planning committee members, please do what you were voted in for and save a bit of this city’s cultural heritage.

Isaac Brutal at the Leith Depot. Pic: Karl Lewis

Falling Between 4 Stools: Auntie NHS and her Ultra-Super New Poo Test

Swedish Glace Dairy Free Heavenly Chocolate

If you don’t appreciate your humour on the scatological side, this isn’t the post for you. If you’ve never been sure what ‘scatological’ means, safer to look it up first…

As some of you will know, I turned 56 recently. I know! Well, I’ve had an easy life, that’s the secret of those boyish good looks. The National Health Service, incidentally, turned 70 this year, which means it’s 14 years older than me, and, of course, that I’ve lived with its benefits all of my life.

14 years. That makes the NHS like a  youngish auntie to me  (I don’t know why I’ve assigned her a female gender, really, apart from the obvious one of all that caring and nurturing being, well, something more commonly associated with the distaff side).

Fortunately, even though I’ve rarely paid my auntie much attention, having visited her as little as possible over the years, she still remembers me, and is there for me when I need her. More, since I turned 50, she’s been sending me some quirky but useful presents on my birthday. Only once every two years, mind, but nevertheless, thoughtful of her. Well, she’s getting on a bit.

Anyone in the Scotland of a certain age will know what I’m talking about: the bowel cancer screening kit you get sent on your 50th birthday, and then every two years until you’re 74 (after that, you need to have enough mental furniture to contact them and ask for another one).

And here’s the good news: auntie’s biennial present just got a whole lot less difficult to use.

The kit used to be a more elaborate affair: you had to collect samples on four different visits  to the loo for a Number 2, apply them, by means of little cardboard sticks, to little windows in the kit (itself a piece of cardboard, a bit like a cut-down advent calendar). In other words, it was kind of like paint by numbers. Except you only had one kind of paint, and it was pretty lumpy.

Let’s be honest here. Doing this test pretty much breaks some of the most fundamental social conditioning we’ve all got, at least in the so-called developed world. From the earliest session of potty training, we’ve all been taught that what comes out of our back botty is the dirtiest thing in the world, which we should never ever touch, except via the medium of toilet paper, and which should be flushed down the china receptacle in our bathrooms (the toilet, obviously, not the other china receptacles) as quickly as possible.

With this test, though, you not only didn’t flush it straight away: you retained it long enough for you to get up close and personal enough to create a little advent calendar out of your poo. On four separate visits to the china shrine. You could, in theory, line the toilet bowl with paper to catch the, er, raw material for this, but frankly I never trusted the paper to keep it clear of the water, which, the leaflet advised, would contaminate the sample. So my method was – and remains – catching it in an ice cream box. A used one, obviously, which I’d eaten the ice cream out of first. It is the most counter-intuitive thing I’ve ever done. Pooing in a box, I mean. The ice cream eating’s pretty much hard wired in.

One reason the test was previously difficult was that thing of the four samples. That meant you had to keep the kit for at least a few days; I kept the advent calendar out in the garage while it was a work in progress. I certainly wasn’t going to re-use the ice cream box, so you needed a supply of them, bagging up each one and disposing of them every time.

However. This year’s present from Auntie was much less of an ordeal. A gizmo shaped like a USB stick opens up to reveal a little plastic dipstick, which, well, you’ve guessed it, you use to dip. Then it’s a simple task to replace it in the rest of the USB stick, screw it up again, and shove it in the reassuringly easy-seal envelope provided. Crucially, you have only to do this once.

Why am I writing a blog about poo? Because, dear reader, there’s a very serious intent to Auntie’s little pressie. The leaflet this year tells you that, if caught and treated in time, bowel cancer has a 90% survival rate. The leaflet doesn’t hit you with the sucker punch that I also read recently: that if it’s not caught in time, that rate drops to 5%.

No brainer, huh? Well, you’d think. But at least one colleague of mine has said she doesn’t take the test because it’s just ‘too disgusting to do.’ So, if you’re over 50 in the UK and feel the same way, here’s a wake up call. Your poo is your friend. The test can detect, in time for treatment, if you have the beginnings of bowel cancer. And it just got a whole lot easier.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below here, there may be some adverts. Almost definitely not related to the post.

 

Speed Trap Town, Songs and other Flash Fiction

What a great first line: ‘She said, it’s none of my business, but it breaks my heart.’ It could be the first line of a Raymond Carver short story, or an Ian McEwan novel. It’s only when you hear that the second line is ‘dropped a  dozen cheap roses in a shopping cart,’ that the rhyme gives it away as a poem, or a song.

Since splitting away from Drive By Truckers to plough his own furrow as a singer-songwriter, many of Jason Isbell’s best-known songs have a definite autobiographical air: ’24 Frames,’ or ‘Cover Me Up,’ where the line about swearing off that stuff always attracts a cheer from the gig crowd, which is ironic, really, since most of us haven’t actually sworn off that stuff. But he has, and we’re glad it’s working for him.

On the other hand, some of Isbell’s finest work is a narrative about someone else. ‘Hudson Commodore,’ for example, has a female protagonist, the story of how she’s making her own way amongst men who want to own her told in the third person. In ‘Speed Trap Town,’ however, he uses the first person to tell the tale.

The first verse is actually a superb example of what Robert McKee, probably the best known modern exponent of storycraft, calls ‘the inciting incident‘: the woman at the supermarket, with her kindly meant gesture, throws the narrator’s life out of balance in the sense that, up till then, he’s been going along, surviving, drinking a bit too much, visiting his Dad in the ICU; but that bunch of flowers tips him into making a decision.

The whole song is, at 271 words, an almost perfect example of what would without the rhyming scheme be called flash fiction. The narrator goes from the supermarket to a High School football game, a bottle of booze under his coat: but that only serves to remind him of how far, and how little, he’s come, since he left school himself. As the protagonist in this story, he has to protag. But the real story, as the twist reveals, is about how Daddy got in the ICU in the first place.

Anyhoo, I could witter on more about storycraft in songwriting, but since the real purpose of this is to get you to listen to my cover of the song, I’ll stop there and tell you instead a bit about it instead. I don’t generally do cover versions these days: too busy trying to bottle what’s coming out of my own head musically in the limited time available. However, Isaac Brutal is working on what promises to be a very interesting covers project, and was kind enough to ask me to supply some guitar for a couple of tracks. We kicked around two possible Isbell songs for him, I recorded the backing for both, and got to keep ‘Speed Trap Town’ for myself. I’ll let Mr Brutal reveal his own choice in good time.

The Isbell original is beautifully spare, with just him and his Martin acoustic, some fine electric slide guitar, and a bit of piano. The best covers for me do something different from the original: but I felt throwing more instrumentation at it would just distract from that brilliant bit of storytelling. So, instead, apart from my Lag and a bit of acoustic slide on my Freshman 12 string, I opted for sound effects. It was easy enough to find a hospital machine bleep on Freesound: but where I really got lucky was the police radio clip.

Some may feel I’ve over-egged that by keeping it going, albeit at a reduced level, under the vocals. However, it just fit the narrative so well: the way the female dispatcher and the cop interact. They’re not flirting, exactly, but there’s a relationship there, I think, as the terse information is relayed back and forth with a smile in the voice.

Incidentally, if you like the track enough to want to download it, sling me an email address at venus [dot] carmichael [at] gmail [dot] com and I’ll sign you up for the Inner Circle of my mailing list. This is not an onerous thing: you’ll get an email from me once a month or less about my various creative activities, and much less frequently, something like this with a download code.

But hurry – you’ve got until the end of September to download this particular dragonfly!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Below here, only adverts – and Jason Isbell’s brilliant original…

 

 

 

Never Forget – Someone Up There Likes You

I haven’t an idea how to promote myself via social media. No clue. When something I do works, I can’t work out why: when it doesn’t, the same.

I could, of course, turn to a thousand digital marketing consultants for a fee, but I tend to think that, as William Goldman says in Adventures in the Screen Trade, no one knows anything. He was talking about what it takes to make a hit movie, but, frankly, when it comes to making yourself a shining beacon in the dense jungle of the interweb, I reckon same rules apply.

However, at least now I know someone up there likes me.

Now, when I say ‘up there,’ I should explain I’m not talking about Him, or more likely Her, Up There. I’m talking about Mountain View, California, which Soundcloud tells me was the home town of someone who downloaded one of the tracks from my first album, ‘Never Forget,’ recently.

Mountain View, Wikipedia tells me, is a town of around 81,000 souls, with many Silicon Valley employers, including Mozilla, maker of my favourite browser, Firefox. However, it’s probably best known for being the HQ of Google.

Comparisons between God and Google are invidious, of course. They do start their names with the same first two letters (coincidence? You decide) and both have a motto ‘don’t be evil’ (to paraphrase). However, only one of them can lay claim to being all-seeing and all-knowing. So far.

Anyhoo, man (or woman) from Mountain View, whether or not you work for Google, Mozilla, or the local coffee shop, thanks for listening, and especially, in this age when everyone streams everything, downloading. You have exquisite taste, and keep tuning in, because I have a bunch of new stuff coming up in the next few months that I think will knock your socks off.

 

Never Forget

When the hatred is high, and injustice is flowing

We must never forget who we are.

When the lies, and the fear, and the prejudice is growing,

We must never forget who we are.

 

We are very far from perfect, and we must keep going forward

But we are better than this. We must never forget who we are.

 

We have come a long way, out of shadows, out of ignorance,

Out of our own prejudice and unreason

But we must never forget who we are.

 

For we have become more tolerant, we have become more peaceful

We have welcomed our neighbours; we have sheltered strangers

We must never forget who we are.

 

And though it feels like night has fallen, there is a light

Shining within us, enlightenment in the darkness;

We have a history of this

We must never forget who we are.

 

Where we have reached out, and helped, and stood for

Fairness, equality, freedom and brotherhood

We must never forget who we are.

 

Where tolerance and understanding have lost their currency,

Where scoundrels wrap themselves in flags, wolves in sheep’s clothing

We must never forget who we are.

 

We are very far from perfect, and we must keep going forward

But we are better than this. We must never forget who we are.

 

We have come a long way, out of shadows, out of ignorance,

Out of our own prejudice and unreason

But we must never forget who we are.

 

For we have become more tolerant, we have become more peaceful

We have welcomed our neighbours; we have sheltered strangers

We must never forget who we are.

 

And though it feels like night has fallen, there is a light

Shining within us, enlightenment in the darkness;

We have a history of this

We must never forget who we are.

 

When our values, our beliefs,

when everything we hold dear is under threat,

We must never forget who we are.

 

Where there are refugees, where there are dispossessed,

Where there is shelter to be given,

Where there are children of every nation crying,

We must never forget who we are.

 

And where we believe we are in the early years of a better nation,

We must never forget who we are.

 

For if the eyes of the world are on us,

And we want to look them in the eye,

We must never forget who we are.

 

PS – Although the track uses my own music now, I originally wrote it to go with this Mogwai track, Special N, so feel free to read it with that playing if you prefer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking for ads about Mogwai? They’re probably not below here. More likely car insurance or some such.