'When it's Spring again, I'll bring again tulips from Amsterdam.'

When it’s Spring again I’ll bring again
Tulips from Amsterdam
With a heart that’s true I’ll give to you
Tulips from Amsterdam
I can’t wait until the day you fill
These eager arms of mine
Like the windmill keeps on turning
That’s how my heart keeps on yearning
For the day I know we can
Share these tulips from Amsterdam
Ah……  Max Bygraves knew the way to a woman’s heart!
Tulips…….they herald the spring time  like no other flower – with their beautiful forms and colours, unmistakeable bowl shaped petals and bright primary colours.
These days growers have developed so many varieties the choice is dizzying, and even the ‘not very horticulturally minded’ recognise a tulip! It has become a favourite in English gardens, parks and floral displays up and down the land. Of course, tulips are synonymous with Holland and horticulture there is big business:
A few wikifacts:

  • Holland has a 44% share of the worldwide trade in floricultural products, making it the dominant global supplier of flowers and flower products. Some 77% of all flower bulbs traded worldwide come from the Netherlands, the majority of which are tulips. 40% of the trade in 2015 was cut flowers and flower buds.
  • The sector is the number 1 exporter to the world for live trees, plants, bulbs, roots and cut flowers.
  • The sector is the number 3 exporter in nutritional horticulture products.
  • Of the approximately 1,800 new plant varieties that enter the European market each year, 65% originate in the Netherlands. In addition, Dutch breeders account for more than 35% of all applications for community plant variety rights.
  • The Dutch are one of the world’s largest exporter of seeds: the exports of seeds amounted to € 3.1 billion in 2014.
  • In 2014 the Netherlands was the world’s second largest exporter (in value) of fresh vegetables. The Netherlands exported vegetables with a market value of € 7 billion.


       


The Keukenhof gardens in the Netherlands are a paradise for tulip  lovers – as their website boasts: ‘Keukenhof, the best day out among the flowers! There are more than 7 million bulbs in bloom this spring, with a total of 800 varieties of tulips. A unique and unforgettable experience!
Besides the spacious 32 hectares of flowers you can enjoy the spectacular flower shows, surprising inspirational gardens, unique artwork and wonderful events. Do not miss the Tulpomania exhibition in the Juliana Pavilion.’
At Keukenhof they recognise the importance of engaging with the next generation. Their website states:
‘Keukenhof is also one big party for children. They will have a blast with the treasure hunt, petting farm, maze and the playground.’
Who can resist? Don’t forget your camera!




Christmas in Madrid

This year my sons  and I decided to spend a few days in Madrid over Christmas. Madrid is their home town so not such a random destination! Of course, the Spanish do the giving and receiving of presents part on January 6th, el Día de Reyes,  so whilst all my English relatives are busy playing Santa on December 25th, all my Spanish relatives have to wait another 12 days – in other words, we English celebrate on the first day of Christmastide and they celebrate on the last.
Barajas, Madrid’s airport,  has expanded since I was last there and we arrived at the newest terminal, 4, late in the  evening to see the unusual tubular design at its illuminated best!



We had so many relatives to catch up with that our stay turned into a bit of a culinary marathon. We arrived on December 28 so we got TWO Christmases in – first ours in the UK and then theirs!  The first big Spanish family feast we attended was on New Year’s Eve, (I had originally written New Fear’s Eve here before I proof read – which could be more accurate, actually – fear that we were going to explode with all this food!)  Anyway, in for a penny, in for a pound!
At my oldest sister-in-law’s we kicked off with a glass of cava and the customary toast and then started off gently with a consommé, quickly followed by the tenderest cutlet of hake you can imagine, served with shellfish and washed down with wine or more cava. This was a night time meal so fish was the star of the show. We also polished off platefuls of ‘gulas’ (‘angulas’ to give them their official name – elvers, or baby eel)

and to tell the truth I don’t rightly remember what pud was! It’s all a bit of a blur now but the meal would have been rounded off by the ubiquitous ‘roscón de reyes’ (kings’ cake) – a sort of giant doughnut – some are filled with cream, some not, and traditionally they contain a trinket and an ‘haba’,  a bean, which these days are made of plastic – if you are unlucky enough to break a tooth or choke on either of these it’s meant to bring good luck !! The ‘roscón’ serves the same purpose as our English Christmas cake – everyone has some tucked away in the larder in case unexpected guests drop in.
Obviously, you have to leave a bit out for the Three Kings too when they drop in on their camels with the presents on the eve of January 6th.

The next spread was the very next day – New Year’s Day. In between, the younger element went into town to La Puerta del Sol to celebrate New Year’s Eve in the traditional way, by drinking too much and falling into the fountain – much the same as Trafalgar Square in London, really. So back to the dinner table – my middle sister-in law was in charge this time (there are three of them so they spread the load!) First seafood soup, and for the main course,  ‘cochinillo asado’ (suckling pig – this family does not cater for vegetarians!!) Apart from ‘roscón’, the other traditional Christmas sweet in Spain is ‘turrón’, which these days you see made of all sorts of ingredients – chocolate, coconut, crystallised fruit – though still the most popular (and some say the ‘only authentic’ ) is the original one made traditionally from honey and almonds. They’re all delicious – so I say ‘Bring it on!’! She then brought in the most enormous pot of coffee  to finish off – or to finish us off!

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No room at the inn!
At any other time of year when we visit Madrid we stay with relatives, but as everyone had lots of their other relatives staying because it was Christmas,  we rented an apartment which was bang in the middle of the  old quarter of the city in La Latina, a stone’s throw from La Plaza Mayor. To work off a few calories, over the next few days we explored the area around our apartment, starting with the Plaza Mayor – the  beautiful, historic and atmospheric main square of Madrid – if it ain’t happenin’ around here – it ain’t happenin’!!
The Segway seems to have become the transport of choice for the more intrepid tourist.  The Tourist Information Office in the La Plaza Mayor is one of the departure points for these tours and and now that a lot of Madrid’s central streets have been pedestrianized it’s the ideal way to go  – plenty of ramps and flat surfaces to whizz down – you can be outside the Royal Palace or the Prado Museum in no time!
segway
Wherever there are visitors, there are street artists and La Plaza Mayor is no exception – very interesting to watch them work, although they usually have a zealous ‘minder’ hanging around to stop you photographing their creations – except for one here, who had left a phone number and a note saying ‘Call me if you want to buy something’ !!
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The Plaza Mayor is an architectural gem, a beautiful part of the old city, but it’s a typical tourist trap – they lure you in and are quite happy to charge 3 or 4 times the going rate even for a beer or a coffee. But you’re paying for the surroundings and to watch the world go by – this is true winter or summer.
plaza
At Christmas time, as in any big city, the square fills up with the weird and the wonderful – like Merlin here, who didn’t seem entirely sure of what he was doing!
merlin
Or would you miss this photo opportunity?
The square is lined with great shops – natty headgear – suits you, sir!

or some Toledo steel – Toledo is a town just south of Madrid famous for two things – one is the painter, El Greco,  born in Crete, but who settled in Toledo and worked there for over thirty years till his death in 1614; and the other is the production of steel, dating back to 500 BC – lots of daggers, and swords etc but since knights are a bit thin on the ground now they have taken to selling these weapons to tourists and collectors.

Below is a traditional Belén, the Nativity scene you see depicted all over Spain at Christmas in homes and public places. This particularly detailed one   was on display in a glass cabinet in the Plaza Mayor, but all the churches have one,  some much more elaborate than others – some life size, others more modest, some with moving parts, and, although younger Spaniards are not church goers, a lot take their children to see a Belén or indeed help them to build one at home.  Of course, some families have a Christmas tree instead or as well – I prefer the Belén.

The Plaza mayor was the perfect place on the way home from the hubbub in town to chill with a glass of wine or a beer  – they even put on a nightly light show and a jazz trio up in one of the balconies.


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jazz
The main shopping areas around Calle Mayor, Preciados and Gran Via were building up nicely to a last minute pre – Christmas buying frenzy, with people snapping up those last few items  – funny, this was all over and done with in the UK but here we were again – Christmas lights, wrapping paper, street stalls with seasonal food to sample, choirs singing carols, cash tills pinging – it all felt a bit Ground Hog! One of the main streets, the Gran Vía has some very swish shops – fancy some jewellery ?-  the Spanish are nothing if not ostentatious!
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or some shoes ? These were beautiful quality.
shoes
or at the other end of the scale, despite being housed in this very grand building, I am told  you can bag a bargain here in the Mercadillo del Gato,

Or when you tire of shopping you can just admire the contours and lines of the city’s apartment buildings and urban architecture.
shutters
sanmiguel          lights2           chocychurros
calletoledo aptblock
apt    santacoke
sunlit
Although it gets bitterly cold in Madrid in the winter, most of the time you can be assured of a brilliant blue sky which really lifts your spirits. This means, of course, that you also get a beautiful sunset, and one of the best places to appreciate it is from the Parque del Oeste, just up from the Royal Place, where you will also find El Templo de Debod (or Debod’s Temple) which was gifted to the Spanish by Egypt in the late 1960s. With the sunset as a backdrop and the strategically placed floor lights, it’s a dramatic sight and very popular with visitors – in fact, we were being elbowed out of the way by people wanting selfies or just nice pictures – but at any other time of year it’s a beautiful spot to look across to the Royal Palace and the Almudena Cathedral, which take on a fairytale quality when they are lit up at twilight.
 

       almudena
as does the esplanade in front of the Palace, where we came across this wonderful old carousel, and a very enterprising ‘musician’ getting a tune out of some wine glasses!

Of course, Christmas is all about children! I don’t have any small children of my own now as mine are grown up but that didn’t stop me going to see a brilliant exhibition of Comic Book Superheroes, all made from Lego! You have to admire the ingenuity of the exhibits.
See if you recognise anyone!
     lego13
lego11
lego10 lego7
         



I will finish with a bizarre sight that met us on our way home from the cinema on our last night there – two science bods (unless they were just two geezers who had stolen a very expensive piece of equipment!) had placed a big telescope

out in the street near Opera so that,  for a small donation obviously,  you could gaze up at the moon! And the donations disappeared into here!

 

Istria – or Slovenia and Croatia to you and me.

I’ve just returned from a trip to the Istrian Peninsula – and learnt a lot!  The Peninsula looks like a triangular pennant suspended in the Adriatic just below Trieste.  A horizontal strip of land at the top of the triangle now forms part of Slovenia and the rest belongs to Croatia. Our visit included some of the towns along the West coast of Istria from  Portorož down to Pula, with its stunning amphitheatre,  at the southern tip of the triangle.
istriamap
So first  stop – Portorož (Port of Roses) This turned out to be an attractive strip of  hotels stretching in a ribbon along the seafront – no ‘beach’ as such, more pebbles and ladders straight down into the water – would bathers disappear without trace?  Well, no, the water only seemed to be waist deep in most places so perfectly safe, if a bit chilly!
Portorož has been established as a health spa since the late 19th century and boasts some fine architecture – one example of this is the Palace Hotel, built around 1912 in what was known then as the Austrian Riviera. It was extensively renovated around 2008 but retains its magnificent facade and is testimony to the popularity of the area as a health resort back in the day.  There is a real Art Deco vibe about the place and lots of magnificent black and white photographs on the hotel walls illustrate the grandeur of a bygone era, which inspired me to take some sepia photos on my walk along the sea front towards Piran.





Every hotel in Istria has a Wellness Centre, indeed Slovenians and Croatians place a lot of emphasis on healthy living. On our tour I struck lucky every time – my room was right next door to the Wellness Centre! This meant that, unlike other guests who had to make their way along endless hotel corridors and into and out of lifts dressed in their fluffy white hotel robes to get to these facilities, I only had to pop out of my room and round the corner and there it all was – the plunge pool, the sun terrace, the jacuzzi, the  salt water swimming pool and all the wondrous treatments on offer – like mud baths, Thai massage with myriad combinations of lovely infused oils, facials – etc!!
As a linguist I was also interested in trying to pick up some phrases in Slovenian and Croatian – and was encouraged by the fact that all the road signs were in Slovenian or Croatian first and then Italian, and sometimes German too.  As I speak Spanish, the hop over to Italian is not so far – but the next hop over to Slovenian proved more of a chasm – didn’t get much of a toe hold, although the girl welcoming us in to dinner tried to teach me a few things – ‘dobro jutro’ (good morning) ‘dobra večer’ (good evening) ‘volim te’ (I love you !! – that should come in handy!) ‘hvala ti’ (thank you)  ‘molim’ (please) ‘račun molim’ (the bill please) and on the hotel television I even caught an episode of Gardeners’ World with Monty Don dubbed in Croatian.  Even so, progress was slow!!
Back to being a tourist.
Piran is a small town at the top of the Istrian Peninsula. Its links with Italy through the salt trade are evident. On the walk into the town we came across some curious buildings which turned out to be disused salt warehouses, now being used as exhibition spaces and the like.  
Views out to sea from the city walls were beautiful and the town itself is very picturesque.

 
 
 
 
 


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We were taken on a trip to the salt pans and a museum where we learnt how the salt panners lived and worked.
           
         


Our next trip was to Groznjan, which is inland. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t very good but we could still appreciate the beauty of the countryside and sample some delicious truffles and mistletoe brandy – not sure about the brandy! We also learned that Istria has several symbols – one is the goat, one is the dolphin and ……the other will come to me in a second!
 



The climate as you go further south turns more Mediterranean, with lots of vineyards and olive trees and for the first week of our holiday the weather was pleasantly warm – around 25º. But things changed dramatically en route to our second destination of Poreč – in fact, there was a terrific storm and when we got to the hotel they were busy mopping up – leaks had sprung everywhere – outside the main entrance a little man in waterproofs was standing knee deep in water, pumping out and inside they were juggling guests whose rooms had water running down the walls – mops and buckets everywhere!
Built along the lines of a giant Butlins holiday camp – I don’t think these hotels will stand the test of time – more ‘Lego’ in construction – definitely the cheap and cheerful end of the market.  This conglomeration was built around several lagoons just outside the town of Poreč, which, once the hordes of weekend visitors had died down, felt much more welcoming. As luck would have it, the storm (which was bad enough to make the national television news) had abated by the next day and we were able to see a  medieval fair which they had postponed – so ‘every cloud has a silver lining’ as they say.

Pula, in the far south of the peninsula, boasts a magnificent amphitheatre, with the usual gruesome history of gladiators and blood and gore. Nowadays, the arena is used as an open air concert venue, attracting the greats of the musical world such as Andrea Bocelli, Norah Jones, Tom Jones and José Carreras.  Personally, I found the Roman artifacts in the museum below the arena every bit as interesting as the arena itself.
We barely had time to see Pula and even in late September, towards the end of the holiday season it was very busy. The Venetian influence is evident in its buildings and I loved the little alley ways down to the water’s edge which seemed to drop straight into the sea. Definitely a place to go back to.