As the family get ready for the New Year’s Eve celebration – the second main celebration of three over the festive season in Spain – Benjamin and I take a trip to the jetty where the fishing boats come in with their daily catch.
Benjamin’s mother has already been here earlier this morning to buy the seafood for the family evening meal on December 31st. There are twenty-two family members coming for dinner and Carmen (Benjamin’s mother) insisted on going to the muelle (port) to buy the galeras (mantis prawns) straight from her cousin’s fishing boat. She knows they will still be alive and even fresher than in the market place.
As we roll up at the wharf, there’s a buzz of activity. A man walks out with three large nets of mussels and my taste buds start to kick into action. We walk in and inspect the fish. It’s all in boxes on the floor. The floor is wet and people have their wellies on.
The fish is laid out in polystyrene boxes. It’s been weighed and each box has its label telling us the weight of the fish or seafood in the box, it’s origin and the name of the person who caught it.
We walk around examining the boxes. The fish has just come in off the boats and is so fresh it’s still alive. We find the galeras. They are wriggling around in the box.
Little black eyes like peppercorns on their transparent coating. People come in and marvel at the lubina (sea bass). It’s a good size and would easily feed a family of four on New Year’s Eve.
We wander out on to the harbour. A fishing boat is on its way out. They wave out to me as they see me taking a photo. They have a fantastic day for fishing. The sky is a beautiful blue, the sea is calm and there’s little wind. Another group of fishermen are unpacking their catch, they wash off the fish on board and throw it into a large plastic bucket ready to hand over to be sold.
Benjamin and I wander out of the building and over to the fisherman’s bar La Cantina Marinera. The sun is warm despite the temperature of 13 degrees and the terrace is busy. We walk through the terrace and make our way to the bar. At first, I think I am the only female in this busy bar. Something that years ago would have made me feel shy. On closer inspection, I notice there are more women and one of them I recognise from earlier when I saw her organising fishing nets.
I order some tapas and a couple of beers.
Everything on display is fish or seafood. The colours are amazing. Three generous tapas and two beers come to nine Euros. We sit at a table in the sunshine. The tapas are fresh and mouth-wateringly good. The bar starts to fill up with people coming for lunch. We sit back, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the tapas.
One of the three main celebrations over the Christmas period in Spain is the arrival of Los Reyes Magos, otherwise know as the Three Kings or Three Wise Men.
The Spanish barely have time to recover from the New Year’s Eve celebrations before they start all over again with the preparation for the visit from Los Reyes Magos (The Three Kings or Three Wise Men) on January 6th.
Traditionally, the Reyes Magos deliver presents overnight on January 5th ready to open on January 6th.
Children all over Spain are excited. They finish school around December 22nd and every year I wonder how they cope with the waiting. Spending the school holidays waiting for the Three Kings to arrive with their presents, must be quite a challenge.
By January 5th the levels of excitement have risen. There are last minute Christmas shoppers everywhere and in every city, town and village in Spain on January 5th the Three Kings will make an appearance in a procession.
Around 6.00pm the streets will be lined with people, old and young alike waiting for it all to happen.
The Three Kings and their helpers will throw out sweets and small presents to the onlookers as they go around. There’s a mad scramble to catch them. One year in Burriana, Castellon, they even threw out fresh artichokes, resulting in a tasty supper afterwards, although we had to dodge quite a few as they flew through the air.
Last year I wanted to see the processions in both Ubrique and Benaocaz as I hadn’t seen them there before. So, at around 5.30pm on January 5th, we drove down the mountain from Benaocaz to Ubrique, where people were starting to line the streets in anticipation.
At 6.00pm, the procession started with the Three Kings coming down the main street, each one on a separate float with their helpers. Generous handfuls of sweets came flying over our heads while we dodged them trying not to get hit.
Children and adults alike scramble around on the ground to pick them up. A lady behind me pulled out a carrier bag for her children to put them in. They had come prepared.
Each float was followed by a band playing music. I love this about Ubrique. There’s always a band in every procession. The musicians of the town played for the crowd and the excited children. The atmosphere was electric. When the floats had passed the through the main street and were making their way around the rest of the town, it was time for us to drive back up the mountain to Benaocaz to watch the procession there.
Traditionally, the Three Kings tour Benaocaz by donkey, but I had been told that they hadn’t done it for the last few years preferring to go around on more modern forms of transport. The atmosphere was buzzing when we arrived. I was worried that if they went around by car, I might miss them, so Benjamin dropped me off while he went to park.
“They’re up by the church,” I heard a man tell a passing family. “What? You mean this way?” I asked him pointing up the steps.
I raced up the steps feeling like a child. I heard the music before I got there.
And then, suddenly, there they were in full tradition.
Each King on a donkey.
Most of the processions I’ve seen over the years involve the Kings passing the crowds, but in Benaocaz just like any other procession in this village, the crowd is part of the procession. Those who weren’t dressed up to entertain the children, walked behind the Kings and their donkeys. The Kings carried sacks full of sweets and threw handfuls out as they went from one end of the village to the other.
Half way round King Baltasar lifted his sack up and the top half of the sack fell plop into the floor in a pile by the donkey’s feet. Baltasar was so convulsed by laughter that for a moment he doubled over and could hardly ride the donkey. He managed to recover and move on, leaving the children free to dive straight into the pile of sweets.
Finally, the procession got to the plaza where a stage had been set up with three thrones. By now, Benjamin had disappeared into the bar for a beer, but I was keen to see what happened next.
The Three Kings stood in front of their thrones on the stage. The children got themselves ready. The excitement was rising. They knew what was coming. First more sweets were thrown out, followed by plastic footballs. The kids scrambled around to catch them. Soft toys were lobbed out next. With a catch that would impress any cricket team, the man next to me caught one as it flew through the air for his toddler.
Eventually, the Kings took their seats on the thrones. The children were asked to line up in order of age. One by one, starting from the youngest baby in the village and working their way up through the age groups, the children of the village, were called up to the Three Kings to receive a present.
I felt emotional. It must be magical as a child in Spain to think that those people who deliver your presents overnight have come to your town or village to hand out presents and sweets before they even get to your house.
As I looked around, most of the villagers I know were there to watch the children receive their presents. It’s a special night all over Spain, but I have to admit that this was one of the loveliest and most fun processions I have seen so far.
So, after a wonderful evening of processions, it was time to go down to the coast to stay with family in Chipiona ready for January 6th.
It’s almost compulsory to get up at dawn on January 6th (luckily dawn is not until around 8.00am at that time of year in the south of Spain) and stuff your face with the traditional ‘Roscon de Reyes’ (The Kings’ Cake) while everyone opens their presents.
Traditionally, the Roscon, a round cake, is freshly made at the baker’s and delivered or collected ready to eat for breakfast on January 6th with coffee or hot chocolate.
Of course, we had been unable to resist taking with us a Roscon cooked in the wood-burning oven at La Panaderia San Anton in Benaocaz. So, there were two enormous cakes on the table, meaning there was no escape from eating cake. What a deliciously sweet start to the twelfth and last day of Christmas.
Five reasons to choose Apartamentos Sierra Alta as a venue for your retreat
Nestled in the beautiful backdrop of the Sierra de Cadiz mountain range in Andalucia, our friends and family have been staying in these wonderful apartments since 2013. Since 2014 we have been hosting our annual writing retreat here. We really love these apartments and not just for the quality of the accommodation – there’s something special about the surroundings too.
Here are five reasons why I think these apartments are special:
If you have read my article about Backwell House, then you will know that when I’m looking for a retreat venue, for me, there must be a wow factor. Something that your guests may not have expected, or even if they were expecting it, it still makes them say “WOW!”.
Here, the location really is a wow factor in itself. Sierra Alta is on the edge of the little village of Benaocaz at almost 800m above sea level. It’s surrounded by mountains and there are amazing views. Some stunning sunsets can be seen from the apartments as the sun goes down behind the mountain known as ‘La Silla’ (The Saddle).
There are six apartments in total making this a small and cosy place to stay.
Each apartment has either a balcony or a terrace giving you a great view and some outdoor space. There are two two-bedroom apartments and two one-bedroom apartments which would comfortably fit ten people on a retreat (if participants share a bedroom, you could take up to 14).
Each apartment has a lounge area with a kitchen and a bathroom with a walk-in shower. There’s air-con if all gets a bit too hot in summer and they are centrally heated for cosy winter stays, which, believe me, you will appreciate in the evening if you stay here from November to March. There’s also a fireplace and logs are on sale in the village if you fancy a cosy fire. My experience with log fires here depends very much on the way the wind is blowing! And, unless you are an expert at lighting fires, I would recommend popping up to the restaurant Posada El Parral to enjoy their log fire instead!
The apartments are clean, comfy and equipped with basic cooking equipment. While there’s only a two-ring electric cooker, it’s fine for cooking a simple meal or breakfast when you don’t feel like eating out. If you go away on retreat or holiday to cook like a pro, this probably won’t suit you. As an extra bonus if you are travelling light, a washing machine and ironing facilities are also available if you wish to wash your clothes and dry them off in the sunshine before you go home!
3. Carlos and Maria
This is point number three, but actually, hosts Carlos and Maria are one of the main reasons why your stay at Sierra Alta is so special. Not only are they friendly and welcoming, but they have also put a lot of thought into making your stay comfortable. Their thoughtfulness and personal service shines through and is one of the things I love most about them. If they haven’t got what you need, they’ll do their best to sort it out for you. And while they are never in your way, they are always on hand if you need anything and are quick to spot a way to improve their service. Nothing is ever too much trouble, making this ideal as a retreat venue as you can be sure your guests will be cared for. They pay attention to the little touches that, for me, are so important, yet so often get overlooked.
Carlos and Maria are always making improvements. Last year we arrived to find hairdryers in the bathroom and two newly built barbecues in the garden area. This year we discovered that they now provide pool towels for guests (at no extra cost). After realising that many visitors (particularly those who arrive in Spain by plane with hand luggage only) weren’t bringing pool towels with them, they decided to invest in some for guests’ use. These are the little touches that I believe give added value and comfort to your guests.
4. The Pool and Outdoor area
The natural backdrop in the area is amazing and Carlos and Maria have created an outdoor space that is relaxing and laid back. Sun loungers around a salt water pool, sun shades and a seating area where you can admire the view, use the space for a workshop or watch the sunset with a glass of wine if your not watching it from your balcony.
Carlos maintains the pool and keeps it clean all year round meaning that if you are brave enough to swim in December you can, – the pool is unheated and even in summer, it can sometimes be a challenge to get in – but more importantly it means that it’s aesthetically pleasing all year round. It always looks beautiful whether you are sitting around it or admiring it from your balcony.
We generally go in September to enjoy the good weather (and the pool), but if you are here in December or January the pine tree is light up for Christmas and New Year. At the end of January or beginning of February you might even get to see some snow!
5. The ambience
Thanks to the beauty of the natural surroundings and Carlos and Maria’s efforts and good taste, there’s a very special atmosphere here that’s difficult to beat. It’s not just your normal apartment block. It’s hard to explain, but there’s a sort of magic to the surroundings. It’s generally peaceful although you will probably hear the donkey braying, cockerels crowing and perhaps the church bells, along with the tinker of goats’ bells if they happen to pass by. A few dogs might be barking in the distance, but it all adds to the atmosphere and won’t disturb the peacefulness.
Will we carry on holding retreats here?
We most certainly will! Our guests love it and so do we.
In September 2018, we will be running our fifth retreat here and every year the venue holds its magic. It’s a beautiful location and ideal for taking time out. The mountains are a big wow factor for our guests. Apart from the natural surroundings, one of the other wow factors for me here is that I always feel like I am the first one to use the apartment.
If you decide to hold a retreat here, bear in mind that unless you book the whole venue, you may come across other guests staying at the apartments. This has never bothered us as the type of guests who come here tend to be looking for peace and quiet or are off hiking all day. However, that said, during the school summer holidays it is likely to be a bit nosier (in Spain that includes the whole of July and August).
I think it’s always a good idea for you, or your retreat or event coordinator, to visit any venue before booking to get a feel for the place to make sure that it’s right for you and your guests.
What you need to know
Prices: start from 60 Euros per night for a 1-bed apartment for 2 people
Nearest airport: 1 hour 20 minutes from Jerez airport / 2 hours from Malaga airport / approximately 1.5 hour from Seville airport / 2.5 hours from Gibraltar
Public transport: a bus runs twice a day to Ronda, Malaga and nearby Ubrique
The white village of Trebujena is perched on the top of a hill overlooking the estuary and surrounded by marshes. It’s not generally on the tourist path, but if, like me, you enjoy excellent tapas, then I recommend adding Trebujena to your go-to-list when eating out in the province of Cadiz.
About 30 minutes from Jerez de la Frontera and 20 minutes’ drive from Sanlucar de Barrameda, Trebujena is a quiet, unassuming and friendly village. If you are in the area in the summer, it’s best to go in the evening as it can get incredibly hot here during the day.
So, where should you go when you get there?
One of the great things about Trebujena is that each bar has its own range of tapas and by that, I mean you won’t find the same standard menu in each one. They all have their own charm and delicious tapas. Whether you choose Bar El Litri, La Escalerita de Ana or Bar El Cura, you won’t be disappointed. While I recommend all three for their excellent tapas and service, in this post I’m going to tell you about my latest experience in Bar El Cura, which you’ll find in the plaza Antonio Cañada.
What we chose
We came here on the Sunday evening of a busy weekend during the Trebufest; Trebujena’s annual music festival. Knowing how busy they had been all weekend, I was half expecting the kitchen to be closed and the tapas to be of a lower standard than normal. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
The selection of tapas in Bar El Cura is varied and elegant. Whilst most bars in and around Cadiz serve the traditional pescaito frito, (fried fish) El Cura has a menu of original tapas at very reasonable prices. We started the evening with a cold tapa of ‘salpicon’ a seafood salad with tomatoes, pepper, onion and a dressing. Salpicon varies from place to place and the amount of seafood you get can sometimes be outweighed by the salad, but fortunately, El Cura is generous with the seafood.
Next came the exquisite Taleguitas de alcauciles y patanegra; beautifully wrapped parcels with artichokes and cured ham wrapped in filo pastry and deep fried. Artichokes are commonly known as ‘alcafchofas’ in most parts of Spain, but here in Cadiz they are known by their other name ‘alcauciles’. A deliciously warm mixture of textures and flavours, this tapa won my vote immediately.
We followed this with a dish that still makes my mouth water every time I see the photo. Milhojas de mango, queso de cabra y jamon from the specials board was a tapa I had never tried before. Filo pastry topped with a layer of mango and goats cheese, a slice of cured ham and a tiny drizzle of olive oil on the top. Biting into this was like disappearing into food paradise.
Next came the other half’s choice which, of course, being the more carnivore of the two had to include meat. He ordered magret de pato sobre timbal de patata – duck on a bed of potato. The duck was moist, and the potato melted in my mouth bringing out the wonderful flavour of the duck.
We finished the savoury dishes with another one from the specials board ‘pulpo al horno’ – oven baked octopus. I am not exaggerating when I say that every mouthful of this dish was accompanied by an ‘ooh’ or an ‘mmm’. The dish was served hot and with papas panaderas (potatoes fried and then baked in the oven)and roast peppers.
El Cura also has a great selection of wines and local sherries to choose from. It was impossible to leave without a homemade chocolate dessert, a café bombon (coffee with condensed milk) and a peppermint tea.
Two of us ate and drank for around 22 Euros. This bar gets a sobresaliente (ten out of ten) from me for its original selection of tapas, taste and excellent value for money. The service is great and the professional dedication from the owner is amazing. As a family run business Bar El Cura closes on a Tuesday, so remember to choose another day if you want to go here.
Top tip A tapa will give you a saucer size dish while aracion will give you a larger portion. Tapas vary in size from restaurant to restaurant. If you have never been to a particular restaurant before and you aren’t sure whether to order a tapa or a racion, start with a tapa to judge the size of their portions. Some tapas are extremely generous and are great for sharing, whilst in other places you will need to order a racion (a large portion roughly about a plateful) or media racion (half a portion ) for sharing. As tapas and raciones can be ordered as you go and don’t need to be ordered all at once, you can judge the size on your first order and take it from there. Buen provecho – enjoy your meal!
* I have been to this restaurant more than once and I love it. Every time both the food and service has been excellent. Bar El Cura had no idea that I am reviewing them and all opinions are my own (and of those who shared the meal with me!).
As I sit here writing this I am looking out at the mountain range. A cool breeze is blowing in through the open window. The fig tree below is slowly growing up towards the second floor of the house. I hear the background noise of people on their way home for lunch, a car stopping to drop someone off, a door closing, a voice across the road. And then, it’s back to silence.
This quiet village is where Isabel Garcia and Jose Luis Bazan, otherwise known as Pepe, make magic out of leather. From the narrow, cobbled street you would never know that behind the big wooden door of the white washed building two artists are busy creating works of art with leather. Their taste for something a little different is obvious in the pieces they produce. Their eye for quality is reflected in their designs. A lamp, a wall hanging, a colourful bowl; elegantly designed products that any table or shelf would be proud to display.
I love to take guests here during the writing retreats. The element of surprise as they walk into the entrance to find a leather workshop reminds of the first time I visited the May Patios in El Puerto de Santa Maria. You would just never expect a workshop to be here. There’s no sign post, no neon advertising light, not even a name outside the door. The surprise as you cross the threshold into a world you’d never expect was there.
There’s also the pleasure the guests experience as they pick up the leather goods, run their hands over a beautifully crafted bowl that looks like it could be made out of wood, and communicate with Isabel. They ask questions, warming immediately to Isabel’s lovely nature. Isabel has English lessons twice a week in the village and each time we visit her, she understands more. She looks at me for clarification when she hasn’t understood something. And then the communication is like a tennis match with each side looking from me to the person who has spoken and back to the person who receives the message as I translate.
Pepe sits in the background tapping away on his next creation, always ready to answer a question about the leather or how he has made something. Apart from the fact that the products are designed and handmade locally by this husband and wife team, there’s something special about their work. Yes, each one is unique, beautiful and of high quality but it’s more than that. They have a love of nature which is reflected in their work but their work also carries their personality. It holds their passion for their art.
Last time we visited with guests, Sheryl brought her own bag as it needed repairing. She discussed it with Isabel.
“This part needs stitching. Can you do it?” she asked.
Isabel ran her expert eye over it. She pulled it this way and that way examining it carefully.
“Yes, of course. It won’t take long.”
Isabel didn’t want to charge Sheryl for the repair. “It’s nothing,” she said. “It will take me five minutes.”
Sheryl attempted to convince Isabel of the value of her time and experience. Isabel shook her head dismissing Sheryl’s protests. These small acts of generosity are a natural part of Spanish business.
Whenever we bring guests here, inevitably, someone leaves with something. It’s difficult not to. A unique, handmade leather bracelet as a present for someone special, an eye glass case or an exclusive handbag in a colour bold enough to brighten up the winter days back in the U.K. Often the writers buy something as a thank you present to themselves. Time has been well spent in coming on the retreat.
Isabel looked around for a box to put the goods in. Soon they will be going to the Christmas Fair in Sevilla with their leather goods and most of their work has already been individually boxed ready to sell. Despite the protests she insisted that each item has its own box. I smile. It’s a sign of their dedication to quality. She then carefully wraps the gifts up in paper. Another delight of Spanish shopping, having your parcels individually wrapped as part of the service.
Over the years Pepe and Isabel’s company, Artenazari (now renamed Jose Luis Bazan), has won many awards for their work and prizes for their unique pieces. Recently they were awarded the opportunity to work with the prestigious company Loewe who make luxury leather goods. As a result, their work has been displayed in many places including Paris, Milan and Tokyo. You can see more of their beautiful handmade leather goods here.
In the afternoon I got a message from Isabel to say Sheryl’s bag has been repaired and I can collect it after her English class. If only I’d managed to get a photo of the look of delight on Sheryl’s face as I returned her bag to her. Isabel would have loved to have seen it.
As a retreat host in Spain, I provide a welcome pack for my guests. In reality, it’s not just a welcome pack. It’s a lovingly thought-out and carefully planned display of fresh and scrumptious goodies waiting to be tucked into. It adds a wow factor for the guest and provides me with an inadvertent opportunity to build relationships.
Of course, I could just pop into a large supermarket, saving myself time and effort. I’d do the shop all in one go, picking up things off the shelf and throwing it heartlessly into a trolley. I’d walk around under the artificial lighting, feeling tired, while I breathe in the particles from the air-con. I’d rummage around in the fruit section trying to find stuff that’s not rock hard and won’t go off as soon as I leave the store. I’d maybe exchange a word or two with the checkout staff, jump into my car and be on my way. Easy.
But would I enjoy it? Would I build relationships?
The answer to that is no. My clients would miss out on the best possible fresh food, thus dampening the wow factor. And, I would miss out on the local shopping experience.
Shopping Local – Pain or Pleasure?
For me, one of the pleasures of food shopping for the retreats in Spain is the effect it has on the senses. Going to the fruit market is a feast of colour, smell, taste and entertainment. Smelling the fruit and selecting the fresh pieces you want is just no comparison to picking up a plastic-wrapped product that will go off in your fridge not long after you get it home. In the market apples smell of apples. Freshly picked oranges and lemons get sold by the kilo
When we get to our favourite stall, Bella and her brother give us a hearty welcome. They ask us how we are getting on as they haven’t seen us for a while. When I explain about the retreats, they tell me about a company in their village who do cycling tours. I immediately see a connection. They promise to get the name and phone number. When it’s my turn, I check my list and Bella starts to fill up our bags. Local plums, soft and juicy, get passed out to us to taste.
I ask for some watermelon.
Bella quickly picks one up from the table behind the stall. She chops it up and offers us a taster. She moves onto the other variety, slices it and offers it to us to compare with the first one. By now, my mouth is watering with the fresh goodness.
I choose the one I think my guests will like. It’s a lovely red colour and refreshing in the heat.
I’m inspired by the display and warm to the array of colour. A lot of work and thought goes into setting up each day. I’m under no pressure to buy any of the things I’ve tried. I’ve been asked to enjoy the fruit, to taste how good it is. And, then the decision to buy or not is mine.
I can’t see the type of lettuce I’m looking for.
“Don’t worry, we have some in the store room.” Bella asks her brother to get some.
“This is from Ubrique and these are organic,” she tells me.
I’m touched that she remembers my taste for organic. She hasn’t forgotten I like to buy local products and that I appreciate organic food. I ask her how much the tomatoes are. The organic ones are better value than the mass-produced ones. I’m pleasantly surprised and order two kilos. A kilo of lemons goes into my bag next. They are fresh off the tree and smell incredible. No wax in sight.
Someone new arrives in the queue and asks about the plums.
“Are they ripe? Do they taste sweet like the ones I bought last week?”
I tell her that I’ve just tried one and it was wonderful. Bella passes one out for the client to try. The lady smiles at me and nods in agreement as she savours the sweetness. She asks me where I come from and then tells me her nephew works in London. We have a short conversation. She’s interested in what I do. Bella joins in.
I have so many bags by now that even with the help of the other half, it’s going to be hard work carrying them back to the car. Bella asks me where we’ve parked.
“That’s too far to walk. Bring your car to the door and when you arrive we’ll come out with the bags.”
I shower ‘gracias’ on her. She waves me away with a cheery ‘de nada’ (you’re welcome).
She has customers who shop there every day. She treats me like one of them. In all fairness, I might have been asked if I needed help packing my bags in the supermarket, but nothing quite beats this personal touch, taking my car to the door and having the bags loaded into the boot.
Bella’s brother has been talking on the phone whilst Bella was serving me. He hangs up and passes me a slip of paper with a name and number. It’s the cycling company. He has called a friend to find out the name for me. Fruit shopping-cum-networking.
I have spent a large chunk of the morning getting to the market, parking and talking to people. But, I wouldn’t swop it for the world. I have been served by a person who has taken an interest in me and not tried to rush me through the queue as quickly as possible. I’ve eaten fruit and had five-star treatment. They have even worried about how I would get my shopping to the car. I have some pesticide and wax free fruit. I have built relationships without even realising. These people are a generous source of information. They have passed on a name and number to me with no strings attached. Who knows? Perhaps one day they’ll pass mine on to someone else. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve done business whilst out shopping in the community. Last time that happened, I was at the butcher’s. But, that’s another story.