Thursday, 31 December 2015

2015 in Travel: The highs... and lows

Despite jaunts to Portugal, France, Croatia and Slovenia, my 2015 travel was mostly in Spain (for a change). I saw in a new year of travel with a work conference Zaragoza, and my final destination of 2015 was another business trip to Murcia. There was plenty of travel for pleasure, though, with long weekends in the Basque Country and Extremadura, and a week touring the Costa Brava on two wheels.

So what were my 2015 travel highs... and lows?

Favourite new destination

I have boomerang tendencies when it comes to travel, bouncing back to destinations I've loved. So in 2015 I tried to branch out, ticking off a few 'new' towns and cities – including Girona, Baiona, San Sebastián and Cáceres – plus a previously unvisited country, Croatia. When it comes to picking a favourite, I was torn between the pretty cities of Girona and San Sebastián. Both beautiful, compact, with buzzing food scenes and lively bars, San Sebastián ultimately swung it thanks to the sandy sweep of La Concha beach. Given its lack of stand-out museums and tourist attractions, San Sebastian is all about the food and drink: the bars in the old town and seafront Gros come alive at night, when pintxos washed down with txacoli steal the show. With nothing more pressing to do than eat, promenade and party, San Sebastián is a fun, fuss-free weekend break destination.

Stunning San Sebastian: My favourite destination of 2016

Most visited destination

This will come as no surprise to regular readers, but I clocked up 5 visits to Barcelona this year. With its cosmopolitan charm, great restaurants and firm grasp on tradition, I'm a sucker for the Catalan capital. I particularly enjoyed learning more about Catalan cuisine with Devour Barcelona, and finally witnessing castellers assemble a human tower during September's Festes de la Mercè. Watching a correfoc (fire run) from the sidelines is one experience I'd be happy not to repeat, though: the flying sparks and booming firecrackers just centimetres away were a bit too much for me.

Castellers in Barcelona (and anonymous selfie snapper)

Favourite hotel

In terms of Instagram-worthy images and a stunning setting, it would hands-down have to be the Parador in Baiona. But when comfort, service and food are thrown into the mix, there's no contest: Hotel Sa Punta in Platja de Pals takes the title. From a room upgrade to friendly but professional service, a gorgeous freshwater pool with spa jets, big balconies and a tranquil location, the scene was set for serious relaxation. My expectations of hotel restaurants are generally low: often overpriced and uninspiring, I tend to avoid them. But the Sa Punta restaurant is no standard hotel dining room: it pre-dates the hotel itself and attracts diners from around Catalunya. And you can see why. With three-course menus drawing on the best of local produce and combining delicious flavours with perfect presentation, it's a real treat. Service is attentive yet discreet, and the wine choices were spot on. I'd return in a heartbeat.

Biggest surprise hit

The first time I visited Palma de Mallorca as a teen, I was so ill I ended up in hospital the following day. With clouded memories, I was unsure what to expect from my second trip years later - but I was blown away. Chic and international with a very Spanish feel, Palma is packed with impressive architecture, interesting sights and top-notch bars and restaurants. I felt so at home there, I didn't want to leave. Watch this space for a return visit in 2016.

Palma de Mallorca: Picture perfect

Best trip

Saturday, 12 December 2015

Festive fun in Madrid: Christmas 2015

Last year's Christmas post proved pretty popular, so here's an updated version for those who'll be in Madrid over the 2015 festive season. In Spain, the holidays last longer than many other European countries, culminating in the traditional present-exchanging on 6 January, or Three Kings Day. If you're around on the 5th, be sure to check out the Cabalgata de Reyes (parade) which runs down Paseo de la Castellana – but only if you don't mind the crowds!

What else can you do in Madrid during the lead-up to Christmas?

Seeing the Christmas lights

Christmas lights seen from the Navibus. Photos from my Instagram feed

Madrid puts on a good show in the evening (until the oddly early hour of 11pm). All around the centre, streets are illuminated with glitzy lights, some of which were dreamed up by top Spanish designers. Most of the conical Christmas trees which pepper the city's plazas are unfortunately sponsored, with the names of multinational companies festooned in lights, but the huge gold tree in Puerta del Sol is sponsorship-free. Sol looks particularly good at Christmas, and Gran Vía and Cibeles to the Puerta de Alcalá are also festively lit. If you want to get a good look at the city's best displays, take the Navibus from Plaza Colón (opposite Calle Serrano 30); an after-dark tour of the city's Christmas lights. Costing €2 for adults and €1.50 for children (under 7s go free), the trip on an open-top bus runs daily from 6–11pm until 6 January. The route takes in Puerta de Alcalá, Cibeles, Calle Alcalá, Gran Vía up to Santo Domingo where it doubles back and follows the same trail in reverse, adding in some of barrio Salamanca on the return journey. The tour lasts about 40 minutes and is fun for kids of all ages.

Christmas shopping: Markets, pop-ups & local brands

If high-street Christmas shopping isn't for you, you might want to check out some of the many markets and pop-up stores on offer in Madrid this month. There's a very comprehensive list (in Spanish) over on Madrid Diferente, but a few highlights include the Mercado de Motores (12 & 13 December) and the  Mercadillo del Gato from 11 December–2 January with vintage goods, jewellery, cosmetics, artisanal products and more. 

The Hovse: Pretty but pricey

On the pop-up front, the much-hyped (and stupidly-named) The Hovse is back for another year. Cute and very Instagram-worthy it may be, but unless you spend triple-figures on Christmas presents, it's best for a browse, a drink and a snack from Olivia te Cuida's pop-up area. All the independently-designed goods are beautifully presented, but their price tags are not within reach for your average mil eurista. If you're looking for similar gift items, clothes and jewellery at a more reasonable price, try boutiques La Intrusa and Nest instead. Nest also sells Christmas cards.

More traditional outdoor markets selling artisanal goods, food and jewellery among other gift items can be found around Plaza Mayor, near the Palace and in Plaza Santo Domingo.

If you're more of an online shopper, check out some homegrown brands such as jewellery label Tartesia (25% off with the code TARTESIAFRIEND) and the cute Mr Wonderful.

Spanish-made Tartesia jewellery

Ice skating

Although you can glide on the ice year-round at Palacio de Hielo, a few outdoor ice rinks pop up in Madrid during winter. They're usually not quite the grand rinks in prime locations that London and New York have to offer, but they're fun for a quick spin, especially for kids. This year however, there's a new offering that could challenge other cities: the Hola! (yes, the magazine) rink at Plaza Colón (until 6 January).You can find another central rink at the normally borderline salubrious Plaza de la Luna, and if you venture a little further out of town, you'll find one at Parque Berlin

Seeing some real snow

Friday, 6 November 2015

A secret garden in the heart of Madrid

It may boast the beautiful oasis that is Retiro Park, but Madrid can't claim to be Europe's greenest city. Now autumn's set in and the leaves have started to darken, the capital's looking far from verdant. But one pocket of greenery remains year round. It's not a public park, nor the Botanic Garden. You wouldn't stumble on it while out for a walk. No, you'd be more likely to find this secret garden while out shopping.

El Jardin Secreto: A haven in central Madrid

On the third floor of the Salvador Bachiller shop on decidedly unglamorous Calle Montera, there's a surprise in store. El Jardín Secreto is an outdoor tearoom where trees grow and flowers bloom. Just a few metres above the city streets, this rooftop cafe is a quiet haven where patrons sip tea with petit fours or indulge in a slice of cake. There's an English air about the place, but the menu features typical Spanish fare too, like ham and cheese plates, plus raciones such as burrata, quinoa salad and tuna tartare. And if tea isn't your thing, you can sip on sangría, cocktails or milkshakes.

If you are a tea fan though, you won't be disappointed by the pages of teas and infusions on offer. Everything is beautifully presented, with glass tea pots and delicate floral cups just inviting you to take their photo. Another photogenic curiosity is the jardín, a dessert that looks exactly like a seedling  nestling in a plantpot. When you look a little closer, the soil turns out to be grated oreo cookies, garnishing a layer of vanilla ice cream which sits atop a layer of carrot cake.

No, that's not a plant: It's dessert

With soft background music and discreet service, El Jardín Secreto is the perfect place to relax and savour a few moments' calm in the centre of the city, even when it's raining. Unlike parks, this secret garden has a retractable roof to keep you dry and cosy if the weather doesn't want to cooperate. When the sun goes down, the candles come out and you can continue sipping your cocktails after dark.

El Jardín Secreto is in the Salvador Bachiller store at Calle Montera 37, Madrid. For opening times and further information, check out their website.

PS You may have noticed it's been pretty quiet on Oh hello, Spain lately. It's not down to a lack of travels and things to share but a lack of time in which to sit down and write. I started a new job in September so my time and energy has been concentrated elsewhere. I'm hoping to find the time to get back to (semi) regular blogging soon, but in the mean time I'd be interested to hear from guest bloggers, especially those living in Spain. If you'd like to write a post for Oh hello, Spain, please send me an email with your idea.

Monday, 14 September 2015

A Different Dinner in Madrid: Dining Withlocals

There's a huge emphasis on 'eating authentic' while travelling. Although we all know you're unlikely to be served home-cooking as grandma intended anywhere which uses photos on its menu, wading through the selection of restaurants in a city can be daunting. And if you want to sample real cuisine as the locals eat it, the best way is obviously to dine with them, at home. But last time I checked, securing an invitation to a stranger's house for a slap-up meal was no mean feat (not to mention risky).

Step in Withlocals. Already hugely successful in Asia, the peer-to-peer site launched earlier this year in Spain. Locals who enjoy meeting travellers and showcasing their regional cuisine can offer themselves as hosts, providing different types of dining experience in their homes. Tourists who are keen to sample real home cooking and meet residents can browse and book experiences via the website. All hosts are thoroughly vetted by Withlocals and previous diners leave reviews, so you can be sure you're booking a genuine experience. Hosts set their own prices, which are reasonable and cheaper than a similar meal in a restaurant - with local knowledge thrown in.

Although I've been to a few supper clubs in England, I'd never tried home dining, so I was curious as my friend and I trotted off to our chosen experience. We'd booked dinner at David's flat in La Elipa, where he offered a choice of a tapas menu or gazpacho and paella according to guests' preferences (and dietary requirements), all arranged in advance by email. As an adopted española, I'm well aware that eating arroz in the evening is almost sacrilegious, but I was willing to give it a go because not only would David serve us dinner, we'd also learn to cook it.

Paella preparation

I can't deny than turning up at a stranger's door was a bit daunting, but David was just as friendly as his emails, and before long we were in the kitchen 'helping' him prepare gazpacho, Spain's most famous cold soup. David's take had a twist: he added beetroot for a change from the traditional tomato flavour. We followed along with the recipe sheets he'd given us to take home, ably assisting with a bit of chopping. As we prepared the starter, David explained that he'd signed up as a Withlocals host after trying a similar experience in India and enjoyed the concept of trying home-cooked food and meeting local residents. Next up came the paella preparation: David's originally from the coastal region of Murcia, and used a family recipe to create a seafood rice. He told us that stock is the key to a good paella, which he prepared with fish stock combined with leftover liquid from cooking the mussels and frying the prawn heads. Sounds grim, but tasted good. In addition to prawns and mussels, David's paella featured squid, red pepper, tomato, garlic and peas. The seafood was purchased from the local market that day, giving it a gorgeous freshness - no rubbery squid here. True to his roots, David used rice from Murcia, explaining the importance of using a round-grain rice for paella as it absorbs more water. 

Thursday, 27 August 2015

Pedal power: Around Catalunya on two wheels

Cycle on holiday? Sure, I once rented a bike in Valencia for a few hours to cycle round the Jardines del Turia. But a cycling holiday? Well, let’s just say I'm more likely to be sporting a sun dress than pulling on padded shorts when on vacation. But when I got the chance to try out UK-based travel company Headwater’s Contrasts of Catalunya trip, a 6-day holiday relying on pedal power, I reconsidered my holiday wardrobe. After all, the yoga and pilates retreat I went on in Morocco turned out to be one of my most relaxing trips ever – could active holidays be the way forward? It was certainly worth finding out: after all, Catalunya is one of my favourite parts of the country, and true to the Contrasts of Catalunya name, the routes took us both along the Costa Brava and through the beautiful (and thankfully relatively flat) countryside of the Empordà.

The Emporda countryside

So before I knew it, my suitcase was packed with the aforementioned padded shorts and a cycling helmet nestling between sun and swimwear. I was Costa Brava-bound to show off my new gear on routes that would take us from Calella de Palafrugell to Platja de Pals, then inland to La Bisbal d' Empordà before returning to Calella. The routes sounded idyllic: apparently we’d ride through rice fields, alongside orchards and through the picturesque medieval villages of Pals, Toroella de Montgrí and Peratallada, pausing at our leisure (or perhaps when we were panting for breath).

Headwater has been offering self-guided cycling, walking and activity holidays for 30 years. Specialising in ‘relaxed activity holidays’, their trips are planned with the less-sporty in mind, making them well suited to very occasional cyclists like me. With holiday options in Europe and further afield, Headwater offers cycling trips in Andalucía and Asturias as well as Catalunya, plus walking holidays throughout Spain. Holidaymakers are provided with extensive route notes, a map and, in this case, GPS files to navigate from hotel to hotel by bike. There’s no group, no guides: you can travel solo, with friends or family and go at your own pace. There’s thankfully no need to pack light either: Headwater transport your suitcases to your next destination while you’re transporting yourself.

First & final stop: Calella de Palafrugell

My friend and I were met at the train station in Flaçà (almost 2 hours north-west of Barcelona) by our Headwater reps, who drove us to our first stop: Hotel Garbi, perched above coastal Calella with a commanding view of the bay. Having already received our route notes and detailed information about all our destinations by post, the reps briefed us on the practicalities of cycling in Catalunya and gave us tips on the towns we’d be visiting. Information absorbed, we were fitted with our transport for the week: two slick silver 21-speed bikes, complete with handy panniers. After a year out of the saddle, I was surprised by how wobbly I felt – how was I going to cycle 24 kilometres the next day? Clinging to the fact that the Headwater brochure describes the Contrasts of Catalunya trip as ‘ideal for first timers’, I tried to relax and enjoy my seafood dinner with a spectacular sea view.

All too soon we were bidding adéu to the Hotel Garbi and hitting the road. For all of two minutes: a few metres down the road, we turned onto a country track. Well-surfaced and wide, we rode side by side and contemplated the views across freshly-harvested fields, admiring hilltop villages in the distance. A few kilometres in, with the town of Palafrugell in sight, we paused for water – and to reassure each other that actually, this cycling lark wasn't so bad. It was certainly relaxed going so far despite the encroaching August heat: the terrain was mostly flat and the scenery stunning. Our confidence had grown: we pushed onwards, guided by the GPS files mapping our route. I greeted fellow cyclists with a breezy ‘Bon dia’, acting as though this was how I spent every Sunday morning. The road cycling was easy too; roads are blissfully quiet out in the country so we barely had to contend with traffic.

Thursday, 20 August 2015

The faded charm of Faro, Portugal

The pace in Portugal is different. Although similar in some ways to its Iberian neighbour, Portugal lacks the frenetic fiesta vibe often associated with Spain. Instead Portugal has an old-school charm I adore, and nowhere is this more evident than Faro.

In addition to being the country's third city, Faro is the capital of the southern Algarve region. It's far from a bustling metropolis though: this seaside town is little and laid-back. In the cidade velha, Faro's partly-pedestrianised old quarter, storks swoop through the skies, settling on church spires. From the vantage points of their nests, they keep watch over Faro's residents as they go about their daily business in the streets below. Tourists mingle with locals, usually taking a break from a resort holiday to do a little shopping and admire Faro's discreet charms.

Faro's storks survey the streets

And they are discreet: Faro has no prime tourist attractions to speak of. Instead, visitors will find tumbledown houses alongside local businesses, sunbleached stone next to intricately-worked tiles. Local businesses mix with high-street chains, family-run restaurants nestle next to boutiques. Faro has a decadent air to it that's far-removed from the flashiness of some resorts. This is the Algarve at its purest.

In recent years, restoration work has been carried out gradually, bringing some of Faro's facades back to full glory. A few new businesses have opened up too, with high-end boutiques alongside chain stores. But in true Faro fashion, this development is low-key and slow-paced, a gentle polish rather than gentrification.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

How (not) to do Ibiza

A summer playground for the global jet-set. A boho paradise of sandy beaches and yoga retreats. A raucous party destination beloved of inebriated Europeans. Whichever tagline you go with, Ibiza certainly has more alternative personalities than your average holiday hotspot.

Growing up in the 90s and noughties, I was used to seeing San Antonio antics hit the headlines every year when summer rolled round. I saw the headlines change as Ibiza welcomed more of the celebrity crowd and became a boutique, luxury destination. For some reason, the White Isle had always intrigued me with its chameleon character. So I decided, for means of deadline setting rather than a genuine sell-by date concern, that I had to 'do' Ibiza before a certain significant birthday.

As someone who travels fairly err, frequently, the prospect of a holiday can lose the shine it should have. Not so with Ibiza. Flights for the August trip were booked in February, accommodation in March, club tickets in a fit of excitement in June. By the time the departure date rolled around, I'd read reams of Ibiza info – where to wine and dine, the best beaches, what to wear, the lowdown on the club scene. My suitcase was packed with more fringed items, flat sandals, bikinis and beach cover ups than were strictly necessary for a one-week break. I was ready.

Or so I thought.

All the Ibiza advice in the world couldn't account for the fact that when it comes to a party holiday, I was an extreme novice. From cereal bars in my handbag to overestimating what to wear to a beach party, I made all the Ibiza mistakes so you don't have to.

This actually happened. Don't make the same mistake.

The Don'ts

DON'T book all your club tickets in advance. My friend and I got a little over-excited and paid for four nights' entertainment before we arrived, based on which acts we liked rather than other factors like timing and venue. As a result, we went to Ibiza Rocks twice and missed out on iconic Pacha and Space, and did most of our partying in the afternoon/evening rather than all night in classic Spanish style. By all means, have a look online before you jet off (we managed to save €5 on Ellie Goulding tickets by booking in advance), but don't plan everything before you leave. Instead, listen to travellers' tips on the ground – you're likely to bump into a few island veterans who can advise you on where to go. And you're on holiday, be spontaneous.

DON'T dismiss package holidays. We booked our flights and an apartment separately, which gave us more independence, the ability to self-cater and a great choice of location. We ended up in Figueretas, a more Spanish area which is home to one of the closest beaches to Ibiza Town. We didn't want to be in the thick of the party action, so this suited us perfectly, but I'm not sure how much we saved in the long run. Apartment rental prices soar in summer, so it might be worth checking out package deals to see if you can save a little on travel costs.

DON'T arrive at clubs when the doors open. We attended a few events at Ibiza Rocks and Ushuaia with an early-evening kick off and, wanting to get value for money, turned up to the first one at the time specified on the ticket. This was a rookie mistake which gave us no alternative but to people watch until the warm-up DJ arrived. Yes, we arrived before the warm-up DJ.

So early, there isn't even a queue

DON'T go to Amnesia. Unless you like crowds so dense it takes you half an hour to elbow through them to get to the loo, music you have to be out of your head to enjoy, people smoking indoors and  suspecting the capacity rules have been totally ignored. It felt like an accident waiting to happen, so we left before it did. Es Paradis was a much nicer 'super club' experience: supposedly the most beautiful disco on the island, it's well decorated, numbers are controlled and the music was much better (ie had lyrics). It's not all about the super clubs either: I wish we'd tried some of the beachside chiringuitos with afternoon DJ sessions for something more chilled. I think this was what I was hoping for when we ventured to Bora Bora in Playa d'en Bossa: roll in off the beach, into the bar and have a bit of a boogie. What we found was roaring drunk revellers in full-on rave mode wearing scanty swimwear you definitely wouldn't want to attempt a front crawl in. Not really our scene, to put it mildly.

DON'T feel like you've got to go out clubbing every night. Two of the nights I enjoyed the most were the ones when we went for a long, leisurely dinner and enjoyed a wander round Ibiza Town followed by a couple of cocktails. For delicious French food by the water's edge, try Soleado on the Figueretas beach front, and for something more traditional in town, La Brasa has great Mediterranean cooking and a gorgeous garden.

The garden at La Brasa restaurant in Ibiza Town

DON'T go to Ibiza in high season if you aren't interested in clubbing. We were restricted by school holidays so visited in August, but clubs stay open into autumn, so for slightly better value visit in September. If you aren't interested in the party scene, skip summer and head to Ibiza any other time of year – the weather is decent all year round, and with a beautiful landscape, photogenic villages and great food, it's a top destination in any season.

Now, to prove I'm not a complete dimwit, here's what we got right in Ibiza.

The Do's

Saturday, 18 July 2015

10 things I learnt about Catalan cuisine with Devour Barcelona

Just like Spain's geography, its cuisine is diverse. So when I visited Barcelona recently, I was excited to learn more about Catalan gastronomy with Devour Barcelona. The second city to hold a Devour Spain food tour, the Barcelona route focuses on the Gràcia neighbourhood north of key city artery Passeig de Gràcia. Unlike this busy boulevard flanked by designer stores, Gracia is best-known for its local vibe – so much so that it's often referred to as a 'village in the middle of Barcelona'. Knowing how crowded the Catalan capital can get, I was sceptical of this claim: disproving it wasn't the only surprise I had in store that morning.

Founded by food and travel blogger Lauren Aloise of Spanish Sabores, Devour Spain began life as Madrid Food Tour. I was lucky enough to try out their Tapas, Taverns and History tour last year, so when they expanded to Barcelona in 2014, I couldn't wait to try their food tour. Running every morning from Tuesday to Saturday, the Barcelona tour takes you all the way from breakfast through to post-lunch coffee & cake, with 9 stops dotted around gorgeous Gràcia. I met friendly tour guide Renée on Passeig de Gràcia, and our group headed up to the barrio of the same name. En route, Renée explained that Gràcia actually once was a village, cut off from the city itself, which at the time centred around Barceloneta and El Born. Passeig de Gràcia was built to link the two, and the rest is history. In my opinion, this pretty barrio is perfect food tour territory: it's still largely off the tourist itinerary, and is home to plenty of family-run businesses which Devour Spain likes to support.

But enough about Gràcia: my mission was to eat. So, here's what I learnt during one food-packed morning with Devour Barcelona.

1) Drinking cava for breakfast is encouraged

Feeling decadent with cava for brekfast

At stop number one, wood-panelled, family photo-bedecked Can Tosca, I tucked into a green garlic omelette sandwich washed down with a glass of the sparkling stuff. At 10am, No, I'm not a secret daytime drinker or a decadent type – Renée reassured us that quaffing cava with your breakfast is totally normal in Catalunya. The Spanish version of more famous sparkling wine champagne, cava is made with different grapes to its French cousin, but the process used is the same (unlike Italian prosecco). Its price tag is lower than champagne as the conditions in Catalunya are more favourable, so a higher volume can be produced. If that means cava from 85 cents a glass, I'm not complaining. It made quite a change from my usual coffee or tea, and got the tour off to a great start. Can Tosca has been run by the same family since it opened in 1961, and the friendly crew certainly know how to cook – my omelette (butifarra sausage for the meat-eaters) was flavoursome and served on fresh, crusty bread. 

2) The Mercat de la Boqueria isn't the only Barcelona market worth a visit

Taking a bite out of Barcelona

Tour founder Lauren is of the opinion that the best way to get a flavour for a city is through its markets. Entering Gràcia's market, the Mercat de l'Abaceria Central, I could see why: locals thronged the aisles picking up daily groceries, selecting the best produce. We made our way to Josep's olive stall (aka Selecció d'Olives i Conserves Glória) where the owner sells olives and marinated vegetables to take away, as well as serving up tasty skewers loaded with different flavour combinations – apparently inspired by Madrid's own Mercado de San Miguel. We polished off a huge mouthful of green olive, pepper and salt cod before making our way to cheese stall La Trobada del Gourmet, where we sampled three varieties of Spanish and Catalan cheese accompanied by membrillo, or quince jelly. La Boqueria may be impressive, but if you'd rather see a snapshot of regular city life, the Mercat de l'Abaceria is a great spot to try.

Monday, 6 July 2015

The Spanish Costas, revisited - It's not all suncream & sangria

If you're British, chances are your childhood will have featured at least one bucket-and-spade holiday on one of the Spanish costas. There's no denying that despite the travel trends that come and go, Spain is a national favourite holiday destination for us, with breaks on the Costa del Sol, Costa Blanca and Costa Brava remaining popular. But how well do we really know the Spanish costas?

For those who shudder at the thought of holidaying on the Spanish coast, automatically thinking of the high-rise hotels of Benidorm and crowded beaches thronged with fellow Brits, think again. Like the rest of the country, Spain's coastline is incredibly diverse, with both rugged, wild stretches dotted with rocky coves and sweeps of sandy beach. Temperatures vary too, with the north a more temperate option at any time of year.

So if you haven't sorted a summer holiday yet, it's time to revisit the costas.

The lesser-known costas

If you're more into verdant landscapes than sunbleached beaches, the Costa Verde in north-eastern Asturias may be for you. More commonly associated with cider and its mountainous interior, Asturias has 350 kilometres of coastline. Key coastal towns include Cudillero and Llastres, where the Spanish equivalent of Doc Martin was filmed. If you're into more active pursuits than just sunbathing, the Costa Verde won't disappoint  it's a perfect location for rafting and hiking thanks to milder temperatures. 

San Sebastian, the stunner of the Basque coast

Also in the north, the Costa Vasca has on old-school glamour reminiscent of the south of France - but without the hefty price tag. The cities of Bilbao and San Sebastián are key Basque Country attractions, meaning that this coastline of the Basque Country is ideal for combining a city break with some beach time. San Sebastián offers both in the same gorgeous package: the wide sweep of La Concha beach is one of the country's most photographed, while the laid-back little city is renowned for its gastronomy, particularly its pintxos (tapas). With little to tick off on the museum front, you won't feel guilty moving from beach towel to pintxo bar.

The Costa del Sol isn't the only stretch of coastline in Andalucía  Spain's southernmost region is also home to the Costa de la Luz, Costa Tropical and Costa de Almería. These three areas are better known among Spanish than British tourists, so if you're looking to blend in while still enjoying some tanning time, try one of these costas. Stretching from Cádiz to Huelva, the province which shares a border with Portugal, the Costa de la Luz is on the Atlantic coast. It's home to wide sandy beaches ideal for sunbathing – or if one of the famous levante winds hits town, for windsurfing or kite-surfing too. Laid-back Tarifa has a surfer vibe all year round, and is this coast's jumping-off point for Morocco, as the ferry to Tangier departs from here.

View of Africa: Tarifa is the southernmost point of Spain

The province of Granada may be best known for the Alhambra, but its also home to the Costa Tropical, a short stretch of coast where the main beach towns are Motril, Almuñécar and Salobreña. If you're looking for more dramatic landscapes, try Almería: the Cabo de Gata has some impressive rock formations as well as some quieter beaches.

The costas you think you know, revisited

Home to the renowned resort of Benidorm, the Costa Blanca has more to offer than English breakfasts in the sun. 2800 hours of sunshine and warm temperatures year-round make this coastline popular with Spanish visitors too – the city of Alicante and neighbouring resort Playa San Juan are favourites among Madrileños who escape the city heat in August. Pretty Jávea and Altea have well-preserved old towns, while laid-back Calpe's mountain backdrop means that a quiet retreat from the beach is an easy option.

Stunning Cadaques

Perhaps best known among Brits for gay tourism in Sitges and the party resort of Lloret de Mar, the Spanish associate the Costa Brava with its rugged coastline and great seafood. Stretching up to the French border, this area of Catalan coast is studded with rocky coves and harbours, making it ideal for those who like to explore different towns. Soak up some culture and cuisine in stunning Cadaqués: artist Salvador Dalí's former home is just a few kilometres away in Portlligat, while a group of graduates from El Bulli are cooking up a storm at Compartir

No article on the Spanish costas would be complete without a mention of the grande dame of coastlines, the Costa del Sol. Beloved of Brits for decades, it isn't just home to the party town of 'Marbs' (or more accurately Puerto Banús, not much of the partying goes on in Marbella itself) and family-friendly resorts like Torremolinos, you can also find low-key beach towns like pretty little Estepona. Visiting last year, I was surprised at my misconceptions of the Costa del Sol: I spent a long weekend in Fuengirola, fully expecting to find fishbowl cocktails being slurped by rowdy teens, but instead encountered a very Spanish town centre blended with a touch of that British home-from-home on the beach front. Any place where I can enjoy a morning cup of tea with a sea view followed by pescaíto frito for lunch is just fine by me. 

Need more information on the costas? This fun infographic gives the lowdown on the Spanish coastline's top picks. You can also find information on every stretch of Spanish sand here.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Fritanga-free zone: 6 Madrid restaurants for light summer dining

The Mediterranean diet is renowned for being one of the healthiest in the world. I beg to differ. Show me a Spanish restaurant menu that doesn't feature deep-fried croquetas, patatas bravas smothered in sauce, plates of fatty jamón and a vegetable that isn't an oily pimiento de padrón, and I'm there.

I wish the Mediterranean diet in Spain looked like this

Don't get me wrong, I like Spanish food. But I also like variety. And even more than that, I like eating healthily rather than consuming daily doses of fritanga (deep-fried food) when I dine out. This is particularly the case during the heat of the summer months, when greasy grub doesn't exactly sit well in the stomach. Of course, restaurants here do offer grilled fish, gazpacho and salad; but while choosing lighter options on a lunchtime menu del dia might be reasonably easy, finding a restaurant with healthy raciones for dinner is more of a challenge. Even the latest wave of identikit rustic chic eateries' menus are peppered with traditional Spanish dishes with a 'modern twist': read, croquetas with unusual ingredients.

So, if like me you're looking for some lighter dining options this summer, read on to find a few fritanga-free restaurants in Madrid.


Xanacuk – This Australian-owned lunch spot in Chueca is the place to go if you're craving quinoa salads, tabbouleh, juices and healthy snacks. The Augusto Figueroa branch has a few tables (including a terraza), but you can also take away and even order online for home delivery. Great value and bound to leave you feeling virtuous. Note that they haven't yet updated their website, but the Calle Orense branch closed last year. Xanacuk, Calle Augusto Figueroa 13. Open for lunch Monday-Friday.

Vegetarian moussaka at Health & Go

Health & Go – Since the closure of Xanacuk Orense, this little place in Moda Shopping Centre is my lunchtime saviour. With a daily choice of 6 or more primeros and segundos, with ingredients and health benefits clearly explained, you can get your fill for €7.95 for 2 courses or order just one course. There are always vegan and vegetarian options, plus freshly-made juices. My favourites are the aduki bean salad, the tofu red curry and the pez mantequilla served with wholegrain rice. You can order online & collect in-store. The only downside is that even if you eat in (a few tables are available), you're given disposable packaging and cutlery. Health & Go, Moda Shopping (Calle General Peron). Open Monday-Friday until 6.30pm, weekends until 2pm.

Viva Burger – The long-standing vegetarian buffet restaurant Viva la Vida is now Viva Burger, a vegetarian burger place. I know, burgers aren't exactly light, but they still offer a range of meat-free dishes in addition to a huge selection of burgers. The location in pretty Plaza de la Paja in the heart of La Latina is also part of the charm – get there early to grab a spot on the terraza. Viva Burger, Costanilla de San Andres 16. Open daily from 11am until midnight (2am weekends).


El Huerto de Lucas – This airy interior patio in Chueca is ringed by 'stalls' selling juices, drinks, bread and more, but take a seat in the centre for table service from La Cantina. The menu at El Huerto de Lucas is based around market-fresh produce, and is full of light options suitable for both vegetarians and meat eaters. Try the quinoa and amaranth tabbouleh with citrus dressing, the Sicilian caponata with free-range eggs or one of the organic steaks. Vegan, dairy free and gluten free options are clearly indicated on the menu. El Huerto de Lucas, Calle San Lucas 13. Open Monday to Saturday until 10pm.

Inside El Huerto de Lucas

Thursday, 4 June 2015

My May in -ings: Watching flamenco in Seville, devouring Barcelona & shopping in Girona

As usual, my recent online low profile isn't due to a lack of subject matter: quite the opposite. As I've been too busy to blog regularly, I thought I'd update you on what I've been up to and give a preview of upcoming posts, plus a few tips that probably wouldn't have made it onto the blog otherwise.

So, in May, I've been...


Seeing La Giralda from a different angle

  • Seville. For this year's Puente de Mayo, I hopped on the AVE to my favourite southern city for a weekend of sun, tapas and good times with fellow blogger Becoming Sevillana. We had some top-notch bites to eat (and good service) at modern tapas bars La Pepona and La Chunga, with breakfast at characterful old-school Casa Moreno thrown into the mix. We also toured the rooftops of Seville's Cathedral, a badly-advertised visit that proved to be a brilliant way to see this incredible building from some very different angles. We learnt much more about the construction and history of the cathedral than you would on an unguided visit, plus we got to wander the interior at our leisure after the tour. Visits now seem to have ended for the season (due to the summer heat), but you can book them (in Spanish only unless you can fill a tour) through Conocer Sevilla. Another 'typical sevillano' moment which made me question why I no longer live here was an evening of flamenco en estado puro at Bodeguita Fabiola. By en estado puro, I mean the real deal: although clearly aimed to draw in the tourists, there were no unbuttoned white shirts or slicked back hair here; just 4 blokes with earrings, tattoos and rhythm. One wiry young lad turned out to be a mesmerizing dancer, while the singer had a captivating voice. There's no entry charge, just (cheap) drinks, so it's well worth dropping in.

  • Barcelona. A quick work trip ended with a rare day to myself in the city: I decided to skip San Isidro in Madrid and spend the weekend in Catalunya. Before moving on to my next destination, I spent the morning eating my way around the Gràcia neighbourhood with Devour Barcelona (see below).

  • Girona. After being won over by this colourful city in March, I returned for a long weekend in May. This time, my visit coincided with the Temps de Flors festival, but even outside this event Girona has lots to offer: a relaxed environment, great food and a casco antiguo so beautiful you'll be reaching for your camera at every turn. Saturday afternoon at Temps de Flors proved a bit overcrowded and saw my friend and I retreat to the shops, where we discovered beautiful boutique Maison Marina. Their own designs are made in the shop itself; the soundtrack to your browsing is the whir and clack of a sewing machine. The advantage of this proved to be easy alterations: I fell in love with a daisy-trimmed top that was too big, so I was measured up and returned in 20 minutes to pick up a perfectly fitting version.

Gorgeous Girona


Monday, 25 May 2015

Temps de Flors: Girona's Flower Festival

For me, the term 'flower festival' conjures up images of posh middle-aged ladies in fussy blouses and pearls, primping their prize hydrangeas before the judges pass by. Thankfully, Girona and Chelsea couldn't be further apart: Temps de Flors is a city-wide event that appeals to a much broader demographic. And best of all? It's free.

Located north-east of Barcelona, the petite city of Girona is photogenic at any time of year. Its Barri Vell (old quarter) has a definite French feel, its winding alleyways opening out onto unexpected placas ideal for a leisurely drink. It's a colourful place at any time of year: its riverside is flanked by multicoloured houses, representing every shade in an artist's palette. For eight days each May however, Girona takes on an even greater charm when spaces around the city are decked with floral exhibitions for Temps de Flors.

Gorgeous Girona from its Eiffel-designed bridge

Celebrating its 60th anniversary in 2015, Temps de Flors is no fusty flower festival; it's a vibrant event that appeals to all ages. Both public and private buildings can put on floral exhibitions and invite visitors inside to admire their creativity – this year, there were over 100 spaces listed on the Temps de Flors map. Some of the most impressive entries are outdoors, such as the floral carpet covering an alleyway leading to the Cathedral, or the flower-bedecked steps leading to the Cathedral itself. Others are tucked away in private patios, opened to public eyes for the duration of the festival.

Look a bit closer at those flowers...

Let's be clear, we aren't just talking about a few bouquets or floral tributes adding a splash of colour. Some of the Temps de Flors exhibits are on a seriously grand scale, enlivening a whole street, while others are enticingly creative. Stepping closer to view a patio wreathed in a wave of white flowers, I realised that said flowers were actually plastic cups – it's certainly one way of avoiding the wilted look of some exhibitions come the final day. Non-horticultural items are often integrated into exhibits at Temps de Flors: one popular entry featured orange bicycles, while another placed wire sculptures of animals alongside floral tributes.

Don't forget to look up

Girona goes all out for Temps de Flors, with a gastronomic strand completing the offer. As part of Gastroflors, a range of restaurants around the city offer set menus, often with a floral twist (although this isn't universal). What is universal though is the fact that they're better value than eating à la carte: 4 tapa-sized courses at divine cheese and wine bar La Simfonia set us back €18 each, while El Boira's €20 three-course menu proved a much bigger lunch than we'd bargained for. If you fancy something a little lighter, other restaurants and bars offer a special tapa during Temps de Flors. In addition to gastronomic treats, there are also free concerts which pop up at venues around the city.

Unfortunately the festival's now over for this year, but if you fancy visiting in 2016 I'd highly recommend it. It's a fresh way to see beautiful Girona, with the bonus of free entry to sights that would normally be closed to the public.

Wilted, but still pretty

Top tips for visiting Temps de Flors

  • Visit early in the week. Temps de Flors spans two weekends, so if possible plan yours for the first – some of the flowers were looking decidedly sad by Sunday 16 May. Even better, visit mid-week - Saturdays in particular can be crowded, with queues to visit popular exhibits such as the Arab baths.
  • Pick up a map. All participating venues offer a free A3-sized map with the 100-plus entries marked. There's also a summary of their 10 top picks, which this year included the Cathedral, Sant Martí church, the Arab baths and Casa Lleó Avinay. If you're more digital than print, you can download an audioguide app. 
  • Take the train. During Temps de Flors, Renfe offers a discount on return tickets between Girona and Barcelona – this year it was 35%.
  • Stay overnight. Days can be overwhelmed by coach trips, and with exhibitions open until 10pm (midnight on Wednesday and Saturdays), it's worth staying over to see Temps de Flors crowd-free – and to take advantage of Gastroflors, of course. This year, the river lit up at night with illuminated floral decorations twinkling like jewels on the water.
Have you visited Temps de Flors? What's your favourite spring festival in Spain?

Temps de Flors 2016 runs from 715 May.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Local travel: Seeing the best of Madrid with Trip4Real

Here's a preview of my latest piece for Flush the Fashion...

If you’re an independent traveller, the phrase ‘guided tour’ probably conjures up images of a busload of backpack-wearing, camera-toting tourists being shepherded round a city’s top five sights. And the guide themselves? No doubt a strident umbrella-waver feeing their flock with facts. You’ve likely observed many such scenes around the world as you sloped past, preferring to retreat to a nearby café.

Locals can show you where to take the best photos...

But by opting out of tours, are we missing out? Guide books, blogs and websites can give us pointers, but their inanimate nature can’t make up for the human touch. What if the guide wasn’t a shouty tourist board official, but a friendly local – maybe someone you’d be friends with if you met them back home? And what if they offered the tour in a group that’s less-than-bus-size – maybe even private?  Well, not only does such a tour sound highly unlikely, it also sounds expensive.
Step in Trip4Real. This Barcelona-based business counts Catalan chef Ferran Adrià s one of its investors, and connects savvy European locals with travellers who expect more from a tour. Research can tell you where those top five sights are, but it can’t necessarily show you the city’s quirkiest street art, its most Instagram-worthy angles or its coolest cafés. Residents with a particular expertise or just a desire to show off their city at its best can offer tours and experiences via the Trip4Real website: from photo walks to cooking classes to country hikes. The range of activities varies from place to place but is ever-expanding, as is Trip4Real’s list of cities. And what do they all have in common? Invaluable local knowledge at a reasonable price.

For my first Trip4Real experience, I thought I’d put this local knowledge idea to the test and see what difference a personal insight makes. I skipped the tapas tours and personal shopping services in favour of a walk around my current home city, Madrid. The ‘From Madrid to Heaven’ experience is offered by lifelong resident Montse, and takes the popular local saying 'De Madrid al cielo' as a starting point for showing you what she believes to be the best of the capital city. But would her ideas teach a resident of three years anything new?

You can find the rest of the article, including the best views of Madrid and a surprisingly good tapas spot on the Plaza Mayor here

Monday, 27 April 2015

Visiting Spain in Spring: Where to go, What to do

If you take one trip to Spain, take it in spring. From the confetti-like petals of almond blossom in early spring to the beach-ready temperatures towards the end of the season, spring can do almost no wrong in Spain. Not withstanding the odd April shower, we are often blessed with warm, bright days at this time of year. And as if that wasn't enough, there's also a packed calendar of festivities to keep you entertained.

Where to go in Spring


Welcome to La Malagueta, Malaga's city beach


In short, anywhere you like. Those chilly cities in Spain's heartland have shaken off their winter frosts and their trees spring back to life; interior cities like Madrid and Seville that broil in summer languish at almost ideal temperatures. If you prefer to escape the coastal crowds, it's a good time of year to hit the beaches of the Canary Islands, the Balearics, Málaga and around Valencia. Beach weather's not always guaranteed on the peninsula, and you may not be brave enough for a dip off the Costa Brava unless you like things icy. If you're planning on taking an active holiday involving walking, cycling or horse riding, spring's a great time to do it: generally warm enough to be pleasant, but little risk of sweating buckets.

The Costa Brava is a good choice for spring breaks

Although the whole country's a good bet in spring, a few areas in Spain stand out for their festivities, notably Córdoba in May (see below) and Andalucía in general for its Semana Santa celebrations closely followed by all the fun of the fair.

Spring fiestas

Falla ready to go up in flames

Spring is a fine time to shake off the winter slump with some Spanish-style festivities. One of the first is Las Fallas, Valencia's fire-cracking, sculpture burning festival which takes place from 15–19 March each year. Fallero groups construct huge multi-coloured papier-maché figures, nowadays often representing politicians or other contemporary figures of fun. For several days these are displayed around Valencia, as locals and visitors alike tuck into paella, enjoy street parties and gawp at fire works. On the final night of the fiesta, all but the winning falla is set alight. It's an intense festival I've yet to experience: the constant noise of firecrackers and the idea of burning these elaborate works of art has so far put me off.

Semana Santa usually falls after fallas. Holy Week is celebrated around the country, with particular fervour around Andalucia and in Toledo, Valladolid and Zamora. Visiting the Caminos de Pasion towns in 2014, I was surprised to find Semana Santa a much less religious affair than I'd imagined  for most capillitas and costaleros I encountered, the celebration was far more about culture and tradition than Christianity. Obviously this is not always the case, but it certainly makes Semana Santa more accessible for those who don't consider themselves religious.

Spring means feria time

After any Semana Santa solemnity is shaken off, feria season begins. The first of these huge Andaluz parties filled with flamenco frills, sleekly-groomed horses, jugs of rebujito and fairground rides is Seville's Feria de Abril. This is also the most exclusive, with most of its casetas (marquees providing food, drink & dancing opportunities) open to members only. It's worth a visit to marvel at its grand scale, but for guiris other ferias are more welcoming. Other notable spring fairs include the Feria del Caballo in Jerez de la Frontera and the Feria de Nuestra Señora del Salud in Córdoba, both in May.  I'm also a big fan of small-town affairs: they can often be less commercial and more welcoming. You can find a full calendar of ferias here.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Catalan-speaking cities: Girona, Barcelona & Palma

The month of March took me to Girona, Barcelona and Palma de Mallorca. These three cities on Spanish soil have one thing in common: an additional language. Although castellano is the most common language in Spain, there are several regional tongues spoken in different areas. These include Gallego (spoken in Galicia) and Euskadi or Basque, but the most widely-used is Català, or Catalan.

Catalunya is the region in the north-east of Spain which runs down from the French border to Alcanar, just above the Valencian Community. Currently hitting the headlines on an almost daily basis thanks to the independence dreams of its regional president Artur Mas, Catalunya has long had a stronger identity than some other areas of Spain. This could be partly down to linguistic reasons: Catalan and other regional languages were banned during Franco's regime, and have come to the fore again in recent years. Cultural activities in Catalan have increased, and there's now a bilingual Castilian-Catalan education system in Catalunya. But Catalan isn't just spoken here: regional variants Valenciano and Mallorquín are used to communicate in the Valencia region and on the Balearic islands. There's some controversy over naming and difference, but essentially a Catalan speaker and a Valenciano or Mallorquín speaker can understand each other without any problem.

Catalan is most widely spoken outside big city centres, but even in the heart of Barcelona you'll hear plenty of passers-by chatting away in the local language, and all street signs are written in Catalan. Once you reach the regions' smaller cities, towns and the countryside, you'll usually find that Catalan predominates over castellano. As a tourist, you'll still be fine with Spanish, as the vast majority of people are bilingual. Arriving in Girona, I was pleased to be momentarily mistaken for a local and managed a few transactions in Catalan, a language I've been studying since late 2014. Just 40 minutes by high-speed train from Barcelona, Girona's a stunningly photogenic little city, perfectly placed between the mountains and the sea.

Girona Cathedral, in the heart of the old town

Having seen multiple pictures of Girona's rainbow-coloured riverside houses, heard about its world-class cuisine and imagined wandering its beautifully-preserved old town, it was a wonder it took me so long to visit. The brief introduction offered by this work trip didn't disappoint: Girona is petite enough to explore in a day, but its good looks and tempting-looking restaurants showed me it merits further exploration, so a return trip has been booked.

La Pedrera: One of Gaudi's most famous designs

Catalan city number two was Barcelona, a destination that needs no introduction. A city that's as cosmopolitan as it is Catalan, Barcelona boasts gorgeous Gaudí-designed architecture, sights aplenty, a food scene that's strong on both local and world offerings – and a beach. The vibe here is much busier and more dynamic than laid-back little Girona, and its big city status has linguistic effects too. In Barcelona, Catalan and Castilian co-exist comfortably, with speakers often changing languages mid-conversation. Here, my practice was limited to listening and reading, as I interpreted the menu in cosy Bar del Pla in trendy El Born.

Monday, 6 April 2015

5 Years of Travel Blogging: Lessons Learnt

I can't quite believe it's now been 5 years since the Sunday night when I sat down, decided to start a blog and didn't stand up again until the first post was online. Of course, this impulsive decision is how I ended up with the name Tales of a Brit Abroad, but that's been remedied now. Back then I certainly didn't think I'd still be putting fingers to keyboard in five years' time; I wasn't even thinking beyond post number two.

So what's changed since then? On the face of it, little apart from my blog's name and design. Oh, and I don't try and embed photos within the text of the post. Not sure what that phase was about. But in the past five years of blogging and four years of living in Spain (not concurrently), I've learnt plenty about being a blogger and about being an expat.

But before we get down to my lessons learnt, I'd like to say a heartfelt thank you to everyone who has ever read this blog, shared a post, subscribed or commented. I do this for the love of writing and sharing my experiences with everyone in the hope that someone somewhere will find it useful, amusing or entertaining. I really appreciate all the support my readers have shown me since 2010, and I hope you keep returning to Oh hello, Spain for many years to come!

Then: Posing with Madrid monuments

Lessons learnt: Blogging

1) Consider your reader

When you read blogs, do you want a thousand-word waffle peppered with pictures or a post that gets to the point, with useful information or a carefully-considered idea? Yep, the latter. At the beginning I definitely tried to do too much; now I attempt to keep to the essentials. It's still easier with some topics than others, though. As a general rule, I find that posts that range from 500–700 words are the most successful. 

2) Aesthetics matter

Bright, well-lit photos of an interesting subject draw the eye in. Which means people stick around to read the words. When it comes to blogging, images are practically as important as the text. It took me a long time to grasp this one, and it's still a bit of a work in progress. Even if you don't have a swish DSLR camera, these days you can do a lot with a simple smartphone. I edit my Instagram images with free app Snapseed, and my blog photos with Picasa. Picmonkey's great for adding effects and making collages.
It's not just photos that count, though: design is key. Since I switched to a simple, clean blog design my readership has increased. If people see a cluttered page drowning in sidebar widgets and a dodgy font fighting through a coloured background, they're going to click away. I don't have the time or inclination to get involved with Wordpress at this stage in the game, so I purchased a blog template from Etsy. Minimal outlay, maximum result. If you do want to pimp up your posts or shake up your design with some DIY, this site is really helpful.

Now: Still posing with Madrid monuments

3) Do what you feel comfortable with

Monday, 30 March 2015

Semana Santa in Madrid: What to do

Madrid is known for many things: its art galleries, its nighlife, its football teams. It is not, however, known for its Semana Santa. While parts of the rest of the country spend this week gripped by procession-watching fever, Madrid carries on doing its own thing.

If you're in Madrid this week and hoping to catch a paso or two though, fear not: a few processions do pass through the city centre. And if you're enjoying a week's holiday in the capital, there are plenty of other things going on to keep you amused.

Staying in the city


See a procession

The paparazzi couldn't get enough of Mary

If you've never experienced Semana Santa (Holy Week) in Spain before, it's worth making the effort to see a procession. It's also worth securing a spot early: make as the Spanish do and stock up on drinks and snacks. During the week, there are 13 processions in Madrid's city centre, most notably on Thursday (Jueves Santo) and Friday (Viernes Santo) evenings. Note that processions move very slowly and take several hours: this website has maps of the routes of each one so you can try to calculate the best time to arrive at your chosen spot. To find out more about Semana Santa in general, read this post. The Madrid Town Hall has set up a website specifically for Semana Santa, so if you fancy trying any more traditional activities such as concerts and exhibitions, check it out (Spanish only).

Eat torrijas

Honey-soaked torrijas with ice cream: Hello, heart attack!

During Semana Santa, it's traditional to eat torrijas, a sugar-high inducing dessert that marks the end of Lent (cuaresma). Made with bread, milk, eggs, cinnamon, honey and plenty of azúcar, this recipe came about as a way to use up hardening bread. Nowadays, you'll find torrijas on offer in cafés,  pastelerias and restaurants all over the city during Semana Santa. The most famous place to tuck into torrijas is La Casa de las Torrijas (Calle Paz 4), which has been cooking up these treats since 1904. They're hearty and delicious – perfect procession-watching fuel. Other typical Semana Santa sweets include pastry flores and pestiños, although these are more common in Andalucía.

Go sightseeing


If you're a Madrid resident who's staying put for the week, use this opportunity to sightsee and visit those places that are closed at the weekend, such as the Real Fábrica de las Tapices, or those with limited opening on Saturdays and Sundays. If you're on a budget, you can find a list of museums with free entry here. It's worth bearing in mind that Patrimonio Nacional sights like the Royal Palace and Convento de las Descalzas Reales offer limited free opening times on Wednesdays, so if you usually work during the week, now's the time to visit.

Getting out of town


If the idea of staying in Madrid for the whole week is too much to contemplate, plan an easy day trip.

Traditional: Alcalá de Henares


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