Tremendous Castellers Video from Tarragona

Casteller from Mike Randolph on Vimeo.

In the city of Tarragona, Spain, castellers gather every two years to see who can build the highest, most intricate human castles. It requires astonishing strength, finesse, and balance. Not to mention courage.

Thanks so much to Mike for sending me this video. I went to this event, the Concurs de Castells, about 10 years ago (and wrote about it in Errant), and have longed to go back since, it’s one of the most amazing things I’ve ever seen in my life. If you want to go in two years time, get a ticket as soon as they are released, they fly!

Quick Notes from Spain…

Competition time!

Over at Notes in Spanish we are holding a quick competition with a 100 Euro prize for the best Spanish-learning question.

Virtual Business cards!

I was in our local herbolario (health-food store) the other day, when I saw that there were a bunch of cards on the counter belonging to a friend of ours that has opened a yoga studio. How nice for the store owner to advertise this for them for free.

It made me wonder what the online equivalent of ‘leaving a few cards on the counter’ would be. I know the web has ‘link exchanges’ (though we don’t do that), and just plain linking to something one likes (we do do this!), but how would a friend leave a card on the Notes from Spain counter?

Later that day I got an email from Simon at Los Gazquez (where we recorded a great podcast!) sent out to all his friends:

If you believe in sustainable and cultural tourism, if you believe art has the ability to make communities and individuals thrive, if you believe that a house built on profound ecological principles as a means to set an example to the world on how individuals can bring change and reverse the adverse effects of climate change and environmental pollution then become an Amigo de Los Gázquez.
All we ask is that you help out with a little promotion. From time to time we will produce a new graphic image such as those you can see on the blog page (cool, tasteful and entertaining, not spammy) promoting either new residencies by artists, creative courses or eco-holidays.

Well we certainly believe in all those things, so here is Simon’s card, on our counter, from these Amigos de Los Gazquez:

At last, Apple is doing film rentals in Spain

Spain has been way way behind on the on-line rentals thing (no netflix for us!), but according to El Pais, Apple has finally opened up a modern-day video club to the nation. It will be interesting to see how much uptake it has in a country that is rather fond of the bit-torrent option… “According to the United States, Spain has one of the worst file-sharing “problems” in the world.”

Click here to see what movies Apple is offering in iTunes so far in Spain – not much!

Travelling to Spain by Train

Madrid's Train Museum

The Telegraph has a good article about travel to Spain by train – a perfectly good alternative to air travel, if you are coming from the UK or France at least!

During my first 5 years in Spain, I travelled back and forth to the UK exclusively by train (until my temporary fear of flying disappeared), and sitting in the restaurant car of the overnight train speeding from Paris to Madrid, is one of the greatest ‘old-style’ travel pleasures on earth!

But the days of the overnight trains to France are clearly numbered. The Telegraph article states:

Finally, a new way to reach Spain opens for business later this year. On December 12, the first part of the new Perpignan-Barcelona high-speed line enters service, and two daily double-deck TGVs (Train à Grande Vitesse, the 186mph French high-speed train) will link Paris with Figueres, just north of Barcelona and home to the remarkable Salvador Dalí museum.

You’ll be able to leave London on a 10.25am Eurostar, change in Paris onto the 3.20pm TGV for Figueres, arriving at 8.46pm the same day.

So how long before you leave Madrid in the morning and arrive in Paris 5 hours later? Despite the fact it’s bound to do away with the overnight service, it will be a wonderful journey, I can’t wait!

Notes: The photo above is from Madrid’s fine Train Museum.

Flash of Life On The Corner of Calle Atotcha

Life on Calle Atocha, Madrid

I walked round this corner, coming round the building from the left, on my way back from lunch in Lavapies the other day.

There were 5 Sub-Saharan immigrant guys hovering over that big patch of pavement by the blue motorbike, covering the flagstones with their ragged ‘top manta‘ meter-squares of cotton sheets, full of the latest Hollywood Blockbuster DVD copies, idly browsed by the bored tourist trade..

…and the second they came into my view everything exploded into sudden action, as the men reached down to get the stings that attach to all four corners of the cloth laid out before them, and in one smooth movement the cloth had gathered the DVDs, they had turned on their heels, and sprinted through cars across the zebra crossing to sit things out nervously in the middle of the road.

Then I saw the police car that had pulled up just behind them. One of the agentes lazily made a show of pretending to get out, realised he’d achieved his aim of scattering them to the wind, and pulled his foot back into the car while his partner headed back into the traffic. A tourist bent down and picked up 5 of the DVD’s that had been dropped during the escape, and wandered off casually, showing them to his friends.

I stopped and watched the guys still hovering in the central reservation, sheets clasped tightly in their hands, ready to run again. I walked over to wait at the crossing. Looked into the window of McD’s – some teenagers with mum and dad, eating a burger – lettuce, slab of grey meat, looked like the bun had chocolate chips on top – what?!

Looking down, I saw I was right next to a palid, sad 40-something guy sitting on a scrap of cardboard, his back up against the wall below the burger-eaters window. He had a few coins laid out in front of him, a half-tin of catfood, and a tiny tabby kitten. Every time the kitten made it to the boarders of the cardboard he reached out, grabbed a bit of fur or a limb, and dragged it back. Again, and again, and again, and again.

But something in his half-dead eyes convinced me later that the kitten gave a scrap of meaning to his life, and that the kitten wouldn’t have made it without him either…

Greatest Tapa(s) In Spain – Gros Beach, San Sebastian

We spent a few days in my favourite city on the planet this summer, San Sebastian (how can you not love a city where one of the main forms of transport is the skateboard!), where we discovered the finest tapa known to man. It was just behind surfy-cool Gros beach, which to my mind is far more interesting that it’s posh, famous cousin, La Concha, on the other side of the old town…

Gros Beach, San Sebastian

So to this mighty tapa, so good it has won it’s own award… It’s a sort of crepey/potatoey bacalao (fresh cod) warm, pickled-peppery sandwitch type colllection of several mouthfuls of bliss, covered in a buttery sauce. How’s that for a description!

Taberna Pagadi

I think you’ll just have to go and try it yourself, acutally, at only 2 Euros a go, you can try two! It’s at Pagadi, which is hidden down a little alley with a couple of other wonderful real-Gros-barrio-bars, about two and a half blocks back from the sea just off Birmingham Kalea (it’s marked on this map). If you’re looking for the ‘real’ San Sebastian, this is it!

One small problem, I can’t remember exactly what this tapa was called – but they only have two which involve bacalao, and this is the one that won the award! Try the calamaris too – wow…

This post is in response to Catavinos request for San Sebastian ideas!

The Destruction of the Spanish Coasts…

Gandia Beach, Pedalo, Appartments

There is an important hold-the-mirror-up-to-reality article in El Pais about the well-advanced destruction of the Spanish coasts.

You can read the original here in Spanish or try your luck with Google Translate, which gets things totally the wrong way round sometimes in its English version, e.g. “by 2030 the entire Spanish coast is untouched by human activities.” – Err I think the article actually says that by 2030 the entire Spanish coast will be affected/damaged by human activity – that’s if things continue at the current rate:

More than 50% of the beaches and 70% of the dunes belonging to the Spanish coast have been damaged or seriously altered; 60% of the wetlands that were present in 1950 have disappeared; more than 60% of the land immediately surrounding the beaches on the Mediterranean, southern Atlantic, and island coastlines, has been urbanised.

So by 2030, bye bye to the rest. The concrete necklace that separates Spain from the sea will be complete.

But wasn’t there a ‘Ley de Costas’ (Law of the Coasts) that was passed to protect this fragile ecosystem?

According to the article it is largely steam rolled by all-powerful corporations, with local councils (who need/want the cash) in their back pockets.

What’s the solution?

I suspect it has to be ground-up – people have to choose to look for well-established and/or environmentally conscious holiday locations, rather than booking into the big new resorts that have just landed on the latest bit of ‘pristine’ coastline…

Unfortunately we are due to spend some time before the season is over in one-such new beach urbanización on Spain’s southern Atlantic coast (visiting relatives there), and having read the above article, I don’t feel overly happy about that…

We’ll think more carefully about trips like this in the future, and try to keep to the kind of eco-friendly place we were lucky enough to find in Asturias.

The Joy Of Spanish Intercambios!

If you’ve read Errant in Iberia you’ll know that the whole intercambio (language exchange) process was fairly instrumental in the fact that I planned to only spend one month in Madrid… and have now been here nearly 12 years!

My intercambio lead me to a wife, and a life, in Spain, so you can imagine I am a fairly big fan of the whole idea! So I was really happy when I got an email from Foster Hodge, with an excellent account of his intercambio experiences. I’ve included the whole article here, it’s a great read:

Mi Primer Intercambio – by Foster Hodge

After spending more or less a month in Madrid, working on my Spanish, learning the ropes of the city, and falling in love with a new and exciting culture—I decided it was high time to take the next step. I had received quite a bit of encouragement from friends and professors of mine that I should get myself an intercambio, or a language exchange partner.

I decided to put my nerves aside and posted an anuncio in, a wonderful website that offers a wide variety of things from renting and buying property, to citas de Internet and intercambios.

To my surprise, a couple days after posting my anuncio my inbox was flooded with responses from young Spaniards who were interested in meeting with me for a language exchange…
Continue reading “The Joy Of Spanish Intercambios!”

Inspiring Asturian Dream – Posada Del Valle

Quick point: we don’t do paid or sponsored hotel reviews, in fact I hardly every write about accommodation, unless it is exceptionally recommendable, as is the case here… With that in mind:

There’s nothing like going on a holiday that leaves you with a feeling not just of relaxation and rejuvenation, but with a renewed sense of inspiration, purpose, and dedication all thrown in.

We’re obviously getting lucky with (or better at selecting) our Spain trips these days, because the last two places we’ve stayed have done just that.

First there was the extremely inspiring art retreat at Cortijada Los Gazquez, that left us convinced of the possibility of living with almost zero environmental impact (and left me better at drawing too!), and now we return particularly inspired from Posada del Valle in Asturias.

Posada del Valle, Asturias

Like Cortijada Los Gazquez, Posada del Valle is the exceptionally well executed realisation of a brilliant dream. The idea is set out clearly in a well-worth-the-read document produced by the British owners Nigel and Joanne Burch, called What We Do And Why (PDF download link here). The “overall philosophy and aims of the hotel” are:

To be a viable business.
To offer an enjoyable high-quality experience for our guests.
To have a low environmental impact.
To co-operate with likeminded producers, especially in the local area.
To integrate our farm into the hotel.
To further our guests understanding and appreciation of biodiversity, nature conservation,
and food production systems.
To share our beliefs and experiences with others.

How many hotels have a philosophy, for a start? And one that aims to leave their guests wiser than when they arrived? Just reading the document above alone leaves you feeling like an expert in how to run an organic vegetable patch and a small, bio-diverse, sustainable organic farm!

And after a few conversations with owner Nigel (at my instigation, no preaching involved here), and strolls around the farm trail, I certainly do have a much greater “understanding and appreciation of biodiversity, nature conservation, and food production systems“. Plus I know all about the environmental dangers of chemical-based mono-cropping, and have lots of ideas about how I can make more simple changes to ‘do my bit’ for the health of the planet.

Philosophies aside, the location itself is also rather exceptional. Perched on the side of a steep valley a few kilometers from Arriondas, it is surrounded on all sides by the Picos de Europa, the Ponga mountains and the Sueve range, making for fairytale views – as I said in another piece about Asturias years ago:

The mountains are so fierce and sit so close to the coast that you imagine them put there by some imaginative storyteller, who would have giants sliding down them each morning for a quick wash in the sea. The foothills behind the cliffs are so green, the cows that graze them so picture-perfect and the woodlands and vegetable patches so ornate, that one would hardly be surprised to stumble across Hansel and Gretel, or houses made of chocolate.

Picos de Europa View

All of this lies before you as you set out each morning from the hotel, or wander the grounds, exploring the farm, accompanied by friendly chickens, with the smell of wild mint under foot.

Our favourite trip was to La Pesanca, deep in the valley above Espinadero.

La Pesanca, Asturias

Travelling with our toddler, we had no chance of following the whole trail up to Les Vizcares, but the starting point of this, one of the hotels many meticulously detailed guided walking routes, was stunning in itself – just a picnic area above a raging mountain stream, beneath a dense forest of trees – pure green nature, of the kind it’s easy to forget exists any more when you live in Madrid.

So why was the stay so inspiring?

It was inspiring to see a business so well run – to be personally helped to choose your days activities over breakfast, and given a wealth of personal notes and guides as you set out each day, to be using hand-made organic soap in the bathroom made with the hotel’s lemon verbana leaves, to be drinking organic apple juice made from the farm’s apple trees, and to be eating delicious organic suppers from the farm’s fields (and to look from the supper table at Nigel chasing his horses away from a delicate tree in the field below the restaurant windows one moment, only to find him seconds later at your side asking what you’d like to drink with your meal!)

Vegetable Patch, Posada Del Valle, Asturias

And it was inspiring to learn so much (to see so much in action) about organic sustainable farming, and to come away with the inspiration to live more ecologically, and to have fallen into deep streams of thought like this, that I scribbled down in my notebook one afternoon as I wandered along one of the farm trails:

If all the world’s great minds and powers turned their attentions to improving the lot of the whole planet, its ecology, ecosystems, species, and biodiversity, instead of just the lot and comfort of humans as the ‘top of the tree’ species, I have no doubt that very quickly the quality of life, and health, of not only the planet, but of all those that inhabit it, would soon improve immeasurably, and not only for the poor, but for the rich too, whose material and spiritual health and conscience would reach new previously unknown states of welll-being in as little as one or two generations.

I’ll leave my further expanded thoughts on this for myself (or for a later date), but I certainly do like holidays that make me think, that inspire me in areas of thought that I’d long meant to investigate.

I’m also pretty sure that you can go to Posade del Valle to simply do some exceptional walking, and some extremely easy relaxing, and I highly recommend that if you have Asturias in mind, you do just that.

Siesta-Shafting Supermarket Showdown

It’s one of those airless, heat-wave-hot Madrid days when the pavements empty at 3pm and the air coming up off the street burns…

Baby wouldn’t cooperate with his parents desperately needed siesta plan, so I take him for a walk around the neighbourhood, hoping some pram-(stroller)-time will send him to sleep…

…but it’s 38 degrees outside… and there’s only so much hill I’m willing to push him up and down in this heat… only 6 hours sleep last night… god I needed this siesta – we’ve partly gone out of the flat so Marina can get hers at least, and if baby sleeps from all this walking, well, that’s great too, I’ll deal with my rest-deficit later…

…too hot pushing him up and down this hill (even on the shady side of the street) though, so we dive into the local supermarket to get 2 bottles of water – it’ll be air-con at least, and we’ll kill 5 minutes.

So we get the water, and head to the front to pay… but something weird is going on… just as we approach the checkout, I see a female member of staff telling a male colleague to follow her ‘right now‘…

…they overtake us just as we reach the back of the short queue, and the male Supermarket guy goes straight up one of the two tall, young, barrio 20-somethings standing just in front of me, my pram and my baby…

Supermarket Guy to Young Guy 1: “Show me what you’ve got stuffed in your pocket…”

Young Barrio Guy 1 (moving to within an inch of Supermarket guy’s nose): “You want me to smash your face in?”

Me to Baby (reversing rapidly): “Let’s go and have a look at what’s at the back of the store…” (This was shaping up to be one PG scene I thought baby probably didn’t need to witness…)

So we head to the furthest corner of the store, as all the other male supermarket guys rush past us heading to the front following an emergency call from reception, and we spend the next five minutes at the back of the shop with me nonchalantly pointing out interesting hams and packets of milk and different kinds of butter to the baby, as all hell breaks loose at the front…

…how long till the police get here?! A few mums and young teenage girls are playing the ‘let’s see what’s at the back of the store’ game with me, until at last the commotion dies down, we give it a minute for safety, and I head back to the checkout, hoping to pay and get out before the bad guys come back… which, according to the scared-looking and 8 months pregnant checkout girl, is exactly what they have promised to do later.

Meanwhile the entire male staff of the store, and a couple of their female colleagues, are piling back in from the street, after the bad-guys made their get away.

A young supermarket girl: “They punched Juan in the face, and opened up his mouth.”

Juan then appears, looking pretty boosted on adrenalin, and shows everyone his split lip: everyone agrees ice in a plastic bag is in order.

Finally, just as we get our change, two young cops turn up, and the staff start telling them how the bad guys just left on a motorbike. The 3 more cop cars that turn up as we are on our way out, head off in search of the baddies.

Baby and I give up on the siesta and the stroll, and head home to wake mum up.


– You know when you’ve had enough city for one year, and it’s time to get out for a holiday. Even if you weren’t sure, suffocating 38º heat and street fighting certainly drives the point home.

– Why on earth do supermarket staff have to challenge shoplifters – is the shelf-stacking supermarket guy’s split lip (and obviously the result could have been a LOT worse) – really worth the price of whatever can be stuffed into a stupid barrio kids pocket? Hey management, either put security in, or let the barrio guys get away with it, but don’t put your staff in the punching line (note: pregnant checkout girl said “those guys WILL come back later, this sort of thing happens here all the time, and I know when they mean it, those two were seriously crazy…”)

– One of the barrio guys apparently said he’d also bring his girlfriend when they came back later, so she could punch one of the supermarket girls for him. Nice couple. Honourable behaviour and all that.

– If this is meant to be a pretty nice barrio, and “this sort of thing happens all the time”, what’s going wrong?

– Happy Summer Holidays… We’re out of here soon, so this may be my last post for a few weeks.

– You never get a siesta when you really, really, really need it. When you want a siesta as badly as I wanted one today, it generally gets seriously shafted!