Category Archives: Traditions

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!
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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.
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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!
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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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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.
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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.
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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.
 

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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!
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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!

 

Another year, another River Carnival on the Wye.

The stretch of river that runs between Hereford Rowing Club and the Victoria Footbridge was once again the setting for the main attraction of the Hereford River Carnival –  the parade of a dozen or so colourful floats.  For reasons I am not privy to – but probably to do with access points along the bank – the floats first have to be towed upstream along the same stretch of river before they set off downstream again. There was nothing for it! The crews had to brave the water and it looked pretty cold!!  Then it was a case of just pulling against the current – and let’s face it – carnival floats aren’t usually built with good handling in mind! The more unwieldy the craft the more resistance it put up,  but the crews were having none of it! The river was not particularly high, but weather conditions weren’t ideal –  a wind had got up and rain clouds were gathering – again.
Amongst those organisations represented  were the Alzameimers Society (I’ve forgotten how to spell that) , Aspire, Harrison Clark Rickerbys, Hereford Food Bank, Hereford MIND, Newton Farm Community Association, the Sea Cadets, Strong Young Minds, Horizon Training, local health food shop, Fodders, Sheila’s Wheels,  and two local pubs, the Barrels (representing aforementioned Wye Valley Brewery) and the Vaga Tavern.
I positioned myself on the footbridge and watched as our water babies slogged slowly upstream to take their starting positions. It looked like hard work!
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The support dinghies and canoes were manned by members of CHAR (the River Wye Charity Raft Race organization) and local sea cadets  (always seems strange to me that a landlocked Midlands county, as far away from the sea as you can get in the UK, should have a unit of the sea cadets, but we do – I suppose water is water!) Anyway, they were out in force, expertly manoeuvering their kayaks and dinghies to escort, aid, and lend support and encouragement where needed.
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Ever get that sinking feeling?  A few sticky moments here for the castle.

The green and yellow craft below looked tiny in comparison with some, but maybe small is beautiful in these conditions.

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She hugged the bank and made her way quietly up to the start.

Then came  ‘the Fried Egg   (I’m assuming this was Hereford Food Bank)

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All the crews did whatever it took – towing, pushing, pulling, wading through the water tmentalHealthogether.shirleysWheelsThe efforts of the Wye Valley Brewery crew were nothing short of heroic  – I have to say the design of their float didn’t exactly help – It looked heavy with 4 barrels on a square platform – it was always going to be a handful!  barrels8Eventually they towed it under the footbridge on the first part of its journey upstream – our hero had hold of the rope attached to the support boat and manfully hung on!
Only a mile to go!
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Eventually he could hold on no longer and decided to attach the rope under the raft. Success! And applause from the crowd above! Away they went. Further upstream another snag – the brolly started to catch the breeze so they jettisoned that and at last disappeared into the distance.
barrels5When the floats finally started to reappear on their way back, as I looked down the length of the river it struck me that they were bunched a bit like horses in a  race – some hugging the near bank,
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some the opposite bank
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and some coming straight down the middle.
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Whether they were following instructions, or just being carried along by the current I don’t know. As they moved falteringly along, the escorts were still doing a grand job, weaving through the water, ever watchful, ever ready to move in , and giving much needed reassurance to our wobbly wayfarers.
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It was easy to see that coming downstream is a doddle compared to going up!
castle4 And relax!
cygnet2A cygnet in tow! Cute!
downstreamTime to tip our toes in!
downstream2 This is more like it!  Shame the sun’s not out! Could work on my tan!
swan I’m gonna get there first!
Now, you see that? It’s a stone pillar! Paddle round it! bridgeInSight Okay, boss!
intheWaterNot sure what’s happening here but I bet he’s glad of that wetsuit.
And – under we go……….
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All using the same technique – no collisions – and the end is in sight.
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For the trip back downstream the ‘Fried Egg’ has acquired a sharply dressed captain!underBridge
This wasn’t a race, but I believe there was a prize for the best float. I don’t know who won.  You be the judge. Here’s a reminder of the gallant participants in the 2016 Hereford River Carnival Parade.bananaMan
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Hark, when the night is falling, Hear, hear, the pipes are calling……..

We all have preconceptions of a place and its people before we go there, based on things we learned at school, television programmes, books we’ve read, sports we follow or even films we’ve watched.
Take Scotland. I’ve never been there but I know all about it ! How?
Well……………………………
at every New Year’s Eve party – even south of the border- I’ve linked hands with people and belted out a rousing chorus of ‘Auld Lang Syne , penned originally by Scottish poet Rabbie Burns, who died quite young but not before writing some of our best loved poems.
I’ve watched the film ‘Braveheart’ (three times!) It stars Mel Gibson. Who can forget his blue warpaint as he galloped across the Scottish countryside as William Wallace, the fearless leader of the Wars of Scottish Independence.

The real Wallace met a grisly end of course, hanged, drawn and quartered as he was, but let’s not dwell on that.
 
I’ve seen documentaries about the breathtaking Scottish landscape. Scotland is divided diagonally NE to SW into the Highlands and Lowlands. The Highlands lay claim to Britain’s highest mountain, Ben Nevis – standing at 1,344 metres above sea level –  in global terms not much more than a hill – after all,  Mount Everest is 8,848 metres high , Mount Toubkal in the Atlas range measures 4,165, and even Spain easily beats it with Torre de Cerredo in the Picos de Europa at 2,650 metres  and Aneto in the Pyrennes at 3, 404 metres.

But what mountains anywhere all have in common is the exciting (not to say hare-brained!) range of winter sports that have grown up around them and Scotland has its fair share of those, and also the more sedate sport of curling – and they’re not half bad at it -remember the 2014 Winter Olympics ?  Eve Muirhead captained the Great Britain team to a bronze medal.
Highland Games – one of my earliest memories of anything Scottish is watching a TV programme (I was about 8 at the time). I was flabbergasted to see a huge bear of a man dressed in a skirt and vest, every muscle straining and every vein bulging as he hoisted the end of a tree trunk skyward and it fell with a crash – he was obviously delighted at the outcome but what was he doing?    I later learned that he was ‘tossing the caber’ – this was one of the Herculean tasks participants of the Highland Games were required to perform; at least this particular task was not just to show off the contestants’ strength – in lumber jacking they sometimes needed to toss logs across narrow chasms to cross them.
I’ve read that ……there’s lots of incredible wildlife up there – 70 % of Scotland’s population live in the Lowlands, leaving the Highlands to creatures like grouse (the capercaillie being the largest of them) red deer, which no longer have any natural predators and so numbers now require ‘managing’ by us humans (oh, no!) and all manner of sea birds such as gannet, puffin and the majestic white tailed eagle  – Mull is a good place to see those, I’m told.
 

And if you venture out onto the water you might see dolphins, seals, even basking sharks – and if you’re really lucky – there’s Nessie – the Loch Ness Monster.

I’ve worn a tartan kilt  and  – who hasn’t heard a rousing band of Scottish pipers at a military tattoo?   Immaculate down to the last detail, marching resolutely  in perfect time or marking time outside the gates to some castle or other, tartan kilts swaying, and sooner or later you know they’ll play the evocative  ‘Scotland the Brave’ whose stirring lyrics and haunting pipes would reduce anyone to tears, Scottish or not.

 
Scottish gastronomy – well, for me it’s porridge, haggis and whisky! I love porridge, can pass on the haggis, though I’m not averse to a bit of offal, but I don’t like whisky  – or know anything about it, even though it is legendary north of the border. I understand there are literally hundreds of distilleries in Scotland, although I’m not sure how many are still Scottish owned (like every other industry on these islands some distillery owners have been forced to close or sell out to foreign companies  –  I believe Bacardi has taken over some distilleries – is nothing sacred!!) I’m sure there’s more to Scottish cuisine than this (Italian fish ‘n’ chips, for example, if you see what I mean!) but nothing comes to mind.
But famous Scots, well, that’s a different story. I’ve already mentioned two – Rabbie Burns and William Wallace, but what about other popular heroes? There’s Stephen Hendry, snooker ace, Billy Connolly AKA The Big Yin, who played John Brown in the film Mrs. Brown opposite Judi Dench’s Queen Victoria.  The story goes that John Brown, who started off as a humble gillie and servant on the Balmoral estate, became a  source of great comfort to the Queen whilst she was grieving for her dear departed, Prince Albert. And a source of great DIScomfort to those around her as they deemed his friendship inappropriate. Connolly proved his worth as an actor in that film. Another literary figure was Sir Walter Scott, the historical novelist, who was a contemporary of Rabbie Burns, a few years younger. His works include ‘Ivanhoe’ – ring a bell? Set in the Middle Ages – knights, crusades and all that,  you know.
And what of the Scottish character. Anecdotally,  the Scots are said to be ‘careful with their money’. It’s also said that the Scottish accent is one of the most popular and that people more readily trust a Scot in business negotiations.  I don’t know enough Scots well enough to comment. My Spanish husband worked with lots and their accent proved impenetrable to him. On the occasions he could get someone else to interpret he said they had a great sense of humour.
My favourite Scot?  Well, at the moment I think it’s Paolo Nutini –

 

obviously, descended from Italian immigrants and didn’t fancy going into the family business. I’m assuming that’s his real name, of course, it could be Alistair Stewart, but that wouldn’t matter – I’d still like his songs.

For me it would be a shame if Scotland became independent, not for any clearly defined political reason – simply because I ascribe to the ‘United we stand, divided we fall’ philosophy – if the U.K. fragments into 4 small states it would be like a family of 4 separating  and not seeing each other again – all four members would be weaker and poorer in every way.
I’m looking forward to my trip to Scotland – I feel my education is sadly lacking !! Time to make amends.