Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Swine flu, Spanish cuisine, a state visit from France, the Queen emails bloggers, visitors from abroad, a very big party and less social networking

No more kissing due to the swine flu outbreak this week in Mexico.
Hello again,

Today is Tuesday. I normally write on a Sunday but last week and especially the weekend, have been hectic as you will find out if you read on.

My headline starts off with swine flu which is the world hot topic of the moment. It seems it broke out in Mexico this weekend and panic waves have gone round the world as already 80 have died. The first case in Europe was here in Spain and that was big news yesterday. I’m not sure whether it’s a case of panic mongering as with bird flu. Only time will tell. Flu epidemics of different varieties seem to come to a peak every 20 odd years and I heard today on the radio that the famous “Spanish flu” which actually wasn’t Spanish at all, had killed 40 million people in 1918 and 1919.

Who probably won’t be cooking too much pork right now are the 4 Spanish chefs who have been included in the top 10 of the prestigious San Pellegrino 50 world’s best restaurants ranking for this year which was announced last week. Top spot went to Ferran Adriá for the third year running and his El Bulli restaurant. I just checked their website to include their link here and saw what I expected. It is fully booked for quite some time now, plus it only opens from June to December. I wonder if I will ever get to go? So well done for Spanish cuisine, in my view, the best in the world.
The amazing Ferran Adriá, the world's top chef.
Who will be enjoying Spanish cuisine this week will be the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy and his glamorous ex model and singer wife; a sort of modern day JFK and Jacqueline Kennedy who are here on a state visit. The French and Spanish, like the English and French or any neighbour countries have a love hate relationship and one of the countries always considers themselves superior and in this case it is France.

The glamorous French (or French and Italian as Carla Bruni is actually Italian) were received by the King and Queen of Spain.
France though has had to put up with Spain winning the Tour of France or the Roland Garros tennis championships for some time now and I imagine that beating them at cuisine with 4 Spaniards in the top ten versus only two of their countrymen must hurt somewhat.

Any way they are here and causing a lot of media impact. The emphasis so far has been on rather unimportant issues if you consider the crisis we are in. There was comment that Carla Bruni did not curtsy correctly to the Queen of Spain. However what really filled up the newspapers were images of Carla Bruni and Princess Letizia (the wife of the crown prince Felipe and ex TV news commentator) together. The Daily Telegraph coined the encounter as Carla Bruni meeting her fashion match in Spain’s Princess Letizia. They are nearly equally tall, equally thin and wore very similar outfits.
Carla Bruni and Letizia Ortiz, the fashion match!
And in England this week, the Queen, softening in her old age or keeping up with the times, bless her, has sent her first official email to young bloggers to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth. When I read things like this, I wonder if it’s because she’s got a great new PR officer or maybe is influenced by her young and technology savvy grandsons. I suspect it’s the latter as it has been said that she shares video clips with them on You Tube and actually texts them. I’m not sure whether I believe she does this unaided. But, however, she does it, she is definitely keeping up with the times.
The lovely Queen of England. I can hardly imagine her texting or writing e-mails but she does (although it will be done for her:-))
Workwise life was quite hectic last week, mostly because I had two very early mornings. One when I got up at 7 am to get to a 10 o’clock meeting but had to turn back home at around 9 as the traffic was horrendous. The other was for an 8 o’clock conference call with Stockholm. How I hate early mornings, unless they are getting back from a dinner party at the weekend – but more on that later.

I got a feather in my cap or rather good work mileage as I managed an interview with Yoigo on the national TV news of La Cuatro last week. It came out 3 times and the media value is astronomical, plus the fact that you could never buy that time. That actually made my week as it is not often a company, name and logo, are included in the news here. In fact most programmes avoid the mentioning as they consider it advertising. It was all about the price war and Yoigo’s mission since it arrived is to start off that war and continue fuelling it.

This week we launched a great new product, mobile data for pc useage with prepaid cards at a great price and capacity. The news here is that we also used Facebook for the first time as one of our media tools to communicate the new product.

Work this week was made even fun or eventful with a visit of a Finnish delegation who were interested in the Yoigo story. I always love meeting Finns and am very fond of the country as you know from my times with Nokia.

And very unusually we got a visit from some “Brits” from the UK, from Manchester, a place or area close to my heart because of my Yorkshire roots. They were here to do a piece for a corporate film and I thoroughly enjoyed their very British banter and wonderful sense of humour.

The visitors from abroad don’t only refer to the Finns and the Brits at work but also to my best friend Amanda and her husband Andy who came to stay on Wednesday. We all go back a long way, to my St. Joseph’s College school days in Bradford. Andy was my Father’s pupil at Bradford Grammar school. I think I have told their story on my blog before but in summary they were young lovers at sweet 16 who split up at University. They married other people and then only a few years ago found each other and now live happily ever after. That is the short version. The longer one is much more romantic.
Andy and Amanda, my dear English friends.
They were here on a mission, to find accommodation and sign up for a Spanish language course in August in the lovely University town of Salamanca. So we housed them for the beginning and end of their trip, the end coinciding with this weekend and Suzy’s 25th birthday party.

We had more visitors too last week who also stayed on for Suzy’s bash. The girls’ cousins, Marta, Laura and Paula and Verónica, Paula’s friend stopped off at our house on their way to and back from Liverpool. My English friends and me too, were quite astonished in the interest in Liverpool. For me it’s a rather depressing industrial town in the north of England. For them, however, it is the fascinating birth town of the Beatles and home to that Football Club, Liverpool United, which has become important to the Spaniards because of Rafa Benitez, the coach and players like Torres (or El niño as he is called).

So on Wednesday night we had an Anglo Spanish dinner for 10 which was great fun.
Dinner for 10 on Wednesday night.
Finally the weekend came and Suzy’s part surprise 25th birthday bash too. Here we were a team of Ana, Juli, Oli and I and we created a whole lot of surprises for Suzy’s Saturday birthday lunch barbecue to which about 50 of her friends came! She was just told to make sure people came and to make the cakes as she’s the specialist in that field. She was also told to keep out of the garage where all the surprises were kept.
Suzy, Oli,Eladio and the cousins during the party.
We surprised her with badges for everyone with their names, helium gas filled balloons, a specially designed t-shirt and even a candy floss machine.
People's badges made for the party.
Frankly a good time was had by all as you can see in these videos. The first one is of the helium gas filled balloon effect (when you take in the air and then talk your voice changes) and the second one is of the birthday cake moment.
A view of the birthday party
The party went on very late, but we adults, getting tired of people half our age, made our way to Madrid to meet Andy’s friend Alexander for dinner at Casa Paco in La Latina. It took us half an hour to drive there and then an hour to find somewhere to park. I won’t go into detail of the forbidden u-turns we had to do to park but suffice it to say, if we hadn’t we might well have started dinner at 11 at night.

Dinner there was great as usual, specially the beef which Alexander boasts is the best in Spain. I would say it’s one of the best. Afterwards he took us to a Flamenco bar on the Cava Baja street as Andy is a lover of Spanish guitar playing. We went into a den of smoke and listened to Flamenco from authentic gypsy men for what turned out to be at least 3 hours. Thus we didn’t get home until 4 in the morning, quite a record for us. I’m afraid I paid for the sin with a heavy headache the next morning.
The flamenco guitar player
Sunday was quiet and filled with lunch making for 9, as the cousins were still here too, as well as a walk with Norah. It was also the day I spent most time talking to my lovely English friends. Their visits are rare but very cherished.

The final note for this blog is about me rationing my social networking. I must admit I was getting heavily addicted to Facebook and Twitter. Sandra commented on Facebook last week “How does Masha find so much time to be on FB and Twitter? There has to be more to life than this!” which of course got me thinking. Then talking to Andy about it he was making fun of Twitter and the banal comments like “I’ve just sneezed” which also got me thinking. I actually posted this comment the day after: “wonders whether people would be interested to know that she has just sneezed. Is this what Twitter and FB are all about, just banal stuff? Since then I have decided to ration myself to one comment a day. So far, I’ve kept my own promise.

And that my friends, is it for this week, except to say, happy 25th birthday darling Suzy as it is actually today. Here is a picture of Suzy and her cake during the family lunch today.

Till next week
Cheers to you all.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Sarkozy’s boots, Afghan women protest, Indian elections, Imagine never having been kissed at 48? Internet and me, my Danish princess and other stories

A star was born in England last week. Susan Boyle the new world media phenomenon.
Hi again

There has been lots of news this week that caught my attention. This was the week Sakorzy, the modern day Napoleon, put his foot in it and was caught off the air criticising both Barack Obama and the Spanish President Zapatero; the latter as weak and the former as dim. The only leader who came away unscathed was Berlusconi! More than his foot, it seems he is getting too big for his boots and it could take some time to live down this faux pas.

Nicolas Sarkozy, the President of France, a bit too big for his boots
This was also the week Afghan women demonstrated for possibly the first time ever. They may not be able to revoke the unacceptable new Shia family law which gives Shia husbands wide-ranging powers over their wives, who are not allowed to leave the house without their husband's permission or to refuse him sex without a medical excuse. But at least they got their voice heard, which is quite a miracle in this country where life for women is worse than in the dark ages.

Afghan Shia women protesting in Kabul, a very unusual scene.
In a country close to my heart, the sub continent of India, elections started this week and nearly 800 million people will be voting. Not surprisingly the whole process will take as long as a month. Will yet another Gandhi family member and descendent of Jawaharlal Nerhu win for the Congress party again? And if Indira Gandhi’s grandson Rahul gets elected, will he also be assassinated like his grand mother Indira and his Father Rajiv or like the Father of the nation itself, Mahatma Gandhi? Is the price of power worth paying for certain death one day at the hands of his own countrymen?

Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party candidate in the Indian elections.
But above all it was the week a star was born and a dream came true for an unknown frumpy looking and astoundingly charismatic 48 year old Scottish lady called Susan Boyle. She took part in ITV’s Britain’s Got Talent programme last week and literally rocked the audience off its feet despite initial jeering at this plump and unattractive looking middle aged lady who admitted on stage that she was unemployed, unmarried and that no one had ever kissed her. The song she sang, I dreamed a dream from Les Miserables, has now been viewed over 20 million times on You Tube and Susan Boyle has become a world star. I, for one, am truly amazed by this dream come true and hope it all works out for the lovely and very authentic Susan Boyle. Her voice is fantastic, that is true but I wonder whether there would have been so much noise about this participant if she had been young and beautiful. Certainly not. What we all seem to like, to quote one of the judges, is the underdog story she portrays. There is also an element of the Cinderalla fable without the beauty which goes to prove that appearances can be misleading. As my dear Aunty Gloria used to say: never trust a man by his umbrella, it may not be his. Good luck Susan, you more than deserve it.

Another bit of news I have to report this week, is a video news piece that Oli did for RTVE.es with another colleague. It is about young and successful professionals who have to return home because of the credit crunch. I am pleased for her that this turned out to be the most seen video of the week on their website. I am not, however, pleased for those young people. Times are difficult for them.

Talking of websites, that leads me to my next subject which has to be Internet or rather Internet and me. I have to acknowledge I am addicted to quite a degree. It fascinates me and I spend my time on email primarily of course and on news items and the weather for example. My blog is my passion and this week I surpassed 20.000 visitors. That’s a lot of people following someone neither famous nor extraordinary like me. What is news about the visitors is the variety of countries they come from. You just have to click on the cluster map on the right hand side of the blog to see the list. The top 5 countries are Spain, USA, Finland, Mexico and India but boy are there some obscure countries after them.

Of course I am on Facebook and have been for some time and more recently I am on Twitter. I couldn’t believe that I was ranked 458 in the Twitter holic ranking for Madrid – possibly that proves Twitter has not yet taken off in Spain properly. If you don’t know what Twitter is read here. Actually when you update your status in Twitter it updates automatically in Facebook so you don’t waste time.

In Facebook you belong to a circle of friends. In Twitter, however, you can find anyone (unless you block them or they block you) and there are many high profile people out there using it like Bill Gates, Barack Obama, Britney Spears or Demi Moore (she tweeted that Susan Boyle had moved her to tears)to name a few. I was happy to find a whole load of old cronies from my Motorola Cycling Team days such as Lance Armstrong himself, Paul Sherwen, Kevin Levingstone, Graham Watson, Jim Ochowich, Rupert Guinness or Johan Bruyneel. Following their tweets brings me right back to the Tour of the Basque Country drinking pacharán with some of them. It’s great to have found them.

To quote the NYT’s article on Twitter above, it unleashes the diarist in you. I have to admit I have been a diarist on and off since the age of 6 so the diarist in me was already unleashed. More than that, these internet tools have made diary writing a joy and easier to be consistent about.

Finally I have my own channel on You Tube where I have some domestic videos of our trip to India and mainly of Norah, our new Beagle puppy I am besotted with. And this week I joined Digg which seems to be the next best thing after sliced bread in the online news world. Try it, it’s great. By the way you can find my You Tube and Twitter profiles added to my blog now (right hand side and quite low down).

On the offline front, yes I mean, here at home, the week began with Anne leaving after a great Easter weekend. On Monday night we went out with Graciela and Eduardo to a nice little tapas place in Boadilla called Vinoteca. Congratulations go to them as they are expecting a baby boy. I wonder who will get their way: Eduardo with Eduardo or Graciela with Mateo? I expect the latter. The four of us are now all ex Nokians so had a great time gossiping about old times as well as new events. I must say the Nokia slogan “connecting people” and the internal one “reuniting colleagues” are both true. The best thing about my nearly 6 year stint as the PR Manager for Nokia Spain was the people I met.

Anne went back to Finland and as we are quite a globe trotting family, I suppose it is no surprise that Suzy went to Denmark on Thursday. She went with Rocío to visit Estefania who is there on an Erasmus University scholarship and they were joined on Friday by two other school friends, Erika and Carolina. Suzy is having a great time. They are riding bikes to go everywhere and are very pleased with the modern Scandinavian style residence they are staying at. Of course Suzy went with her friends to see the Little Mermaid, a fairy tale character she has always equated with ever since she saw the Disney film as a child. Suzy and Ariel and Ariel and Suzy have a strong relationship.
That unique and lovely statue of the Little Mermaid, inspired by Hans Christian Anderson's tale rests by the sea in Copenhagen.
In Copenhagen there lives a real princess, at least for us. I refer here to Pernille, the lovely golden girl who came to live with us in 1991. She was 19 and as she reminded me last night on the phone, I was just 35. The girls were about 6 and 7 and she was to be their au pair. That was the beginning of a life time relationship and of a person who has a permanent place in our hearts. Pernille married her childhood sweetheart, Thomas and they have two little girls called Julia and Alberte. Suzy met them yesterday for the first time and also saw Pernille and Thomas for the first time since their wedding. We all went to that fairy tale wedding in 2000 as you can see here in the photo. Pernille, we miss you. Please come with your family and see us this Summer as you said you would last night.

The girls at Pernille and Thomas' wedding in Copenhagen in 2000.
Suzy will be back tonight and I’m dying to see photos of that encounter. Meanwhile here are some of her in Copenhagen.

Suzy and the Little Mermaid
Suzy on her bike in Copenhagen.
Next week she will be celebrating her 25th birthday and there will be a big party here on Saturday. Andy and Amanda will be her for that as they are coming to Spain to visit Salamanca to look for accommodation for a course in Spanish they will be doing in August. Also Marta and Paula will be here, passing through, on their way to Liverpool (tourism is big there these days. Who would have believed that a few years ago?). So next week we are going to have a full house. What fun. What Suzy doesn’t know about (and she won’t read this so I’m not worried) are the amount of surprises in store for her that day.

We’re going to have fun.

More, next week. Cheers till then,


Monday, April 13, 2009

Semana Santa, women in government, off to Montrondo with Anne and all good things come to an end.

Semana Santa in Spain - a very typical sight, probably in Seville.
Hi again,

Well today is Easter Monday, officially a working day and the end of Semana Santa as Easter is called here. Holy Week in Spain is all about tradition with their world famous processions, such as the ones in Seville. This is what De Brasa y Puchero which has great home made country food on its menu and where they make you feel very welcome.

Last week was a short working week and the pace was very slow. Perhaps that’s why Zapatero, Spain’s premiere, chose that time to announce the reshuffle in his cabinet. Unfortunately for him some of the changes had filtered to the press the week before during his highly awaited for meeting with Obama in Prague which overshadowed the news of the meeting itself. In any case, whatever the timing, the changes are quite significant as is the fact that over half of the cabinet are now women and in some of the most important posts such as Finance a big issue in Spain due to the financial crisis.

I, for one, am all for more women in top government positions and in politics in general as well as in other walks of life. No one ever made a commen when the governments were all male. Will there ever be a day when cabinets are all female? I understand some people’s thinking that it should be the best person for the job irrespective of their sex. However if example is not made, change will probably never happen. Things like this take time in a highly male dominated society like Spain.
Zapatero and his new cabinet, more than 50% are women.
Where they are second nature is in Finland, the opposite end of Spain in Europe, where my dear friend Anne is from. Anne who came to stay with us for Easter and is a great fan of Spain would be happy to know that there are now more women in the Spanish government.

Anne came on Wednesday night for her half yearly jab of Spain (sun, friends, jamón, wine, shopping,…)and we took her with us to Montrondo, my husband’s family village and to see the one part of my life she was not familiar with.

On our way we made the usual stop at the Palacio de Bornos wine cellar in Rueda and here we enjoyed a glass of great wine wine (Colagón) and plate of ham and chorizo. In case I haven’t told you before, Rueda is where the best white wine comes from in the world. Anne was duly impressed as we expected her to be. We stopped too on the way back to load 2 crates of the lovely liquid in the car.

Anne in Rueda
As we left Madrid and drove north the weather got worse but then that was to be expected as the weather is always bad in Spain in Semana Santa, although no one ever learns that.

We were the first to arrive in Montrondo as the rest of the family was arriving on Friday. We arrived on Thursday afternoon and settled in to the very cold and unkempt house which we never really got warm until the next day. As I had told Anne in my Facebook message: “there is no central heating but there are great views”!

Eladio stoking the fire in the aga cooking range in the kitchen in Montrondo
Despite these obstacles we enjoyed our time and went for a very long walk up the mountains and through snow to reach an area called “la solapaña”. Every stone, hill, path, fountain, rock or valley has a name in Montrondo and if you were not born there they are not easy to learn.

Anne and on the walk to La solapeña. We got drenched
We slept in extremely cold beds with hot water bottles and a building brick heated in the kitchen fire which was covered in newspaper. They certainly helped to keep the cold away. Breakfast was a quiet affair in the big family kitchen.

Anne and I enjoying breakfast before everyone arrived
After that I started on the cooking as I had offered to make “cocido madrileño” for lunch on Friday. This is a very typical winter Spanish dish consisting of chickpeas, potatoes, cabbage and many different sorts of meats and bones, the first course being the broth it’s all cooked in. We were to be 26 people so calculating quantities was quite difficult.

Me making the cocido in the kitchen in Montrondo.
Very soon the family arrived as they had travelled together. It was amazing how the peace and quiet turned into total mayhem, but happy mayhem. The member of the family I was most pleased to see was Lian, the latest addition and the very youngest member. He is the first great grandson in the family and was the centre of attention. In fact there were queues to hold him and I never got a chance. Here is a video I took after lunch where you can see him close up, as well as his proud Mother, Bea, and grand father, Alejandro who is Eladio's brother.

Ernestina, the great grandmother of Lian.
To work off the cocido a lot of us made our way up the mountains again and stopped many times for impromptu snow ball fights or group photos.

The group walk to La Solapeña to work off the cocido and enjoy the mountains of Montrondo. There was also time to catch up with each other's news.
On Saturday morning I showed Anne the village and we walked to Murias de Paredes the next village to get bread at the local bakery. It was also an excuse for another walk and more photography. Montrondo is really off the beaten track and a very authentic rural and remote village in the north west of Spain, in the province of León. It has just 15 or so permanent inhabitants but many more in the holidays as ex residents return.

On the walk to Murias. I love the sign of Montrondo.
If you have been born in Montrondo it is in your blood as I have learned over the years. There is a saying there which they all firmly believe and which goes like this: “Londres, Paris, Granada, como Montrondo, no hay nada”. I can’t equate with this as I was born in Cambridge and not Montrondo. But I have really grown to love the place.

We drove back to Madrid on Saturday, in part to escape the holiday traffic but also the cold. We also wanted to get back to check on my Father and, of course, our animals, our cats Phoebe and Joe and darling Norah. Thankfully all were safe and sound and had survived our absence uneventfully.

The girls came back yesterday, just in time for a family lunch to celebrate Easter day. And as an end to the holiday, Anne, Eladio and I went to see the Clint Eastwood film everyone was recommending me, The Gran Torino. Anne and I loved it but Eladio had his doubts.

Anne relaxing with Norah by the pool on Easter day. There were a few rays of sunshine my Finnish friend could not resist.
And now it’s all over. You spend so much time planning and looking forward to events and all you are left with so soon after are the memories. As they say in England “all good things come to an end”. So thank God for the photos (here is the full album of our trip to Montrondo on Facebook) and for the new events coming up. But then that’s life, one event or activity rolls into another as one ends and another one starts.

So yes, all good things come to an end, but a good time was had by all.

Until next week

Tuesday, April 07, 2009

A holiday in Extramadura, world politics – the Queen meets the Obamas, royal protocol is broken, Obama meets Zapatero and an earthquake in Italy.

A sign of a change in the times maybe? Michelle Obama puts her arm round the Queen at Buckingham Palace last weekend. It's not done to touch the Queen and is a complete break in protocol. However, the Queen, perhaps softening as she gets older, returned the gesture and here is the photo to commemorate that unique moment.

Hi again,

This post was supposed to be all about our holiday in Extremadura last week but world politics must have their part as it’s not every day the Queen (of England) receives the leaders of the G20 in Buckingham Palace. Nor is it every day that she (the royal she!) breaks with protocol to have a private meeting with Barack and Michelle Obama.

The Queen and Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, receive Michelle and Barack Obama in Buckingham Palace on the occasion of the G20 summit in London.
As you will have read, they got on so well that later Michelle broke with protocol once again and charmed her Majesty by putting an arm around her. Her Majesty promptly responded with the same gesture; a gesture never before seen in all her reign. As usual Prince Philip put his foot in it when he jokingly asked Obama how he could tell who was who in the G20.

The G20 was not only about tea at Buckingham Palace. The subjects at stake are of such importance to the world, immerse in the biggest financial crisis since the Wall Street Crack in 1929, that it attracted many disgruntled people whose protests were aimed mostly at the banking world. In fact they brought the city to a halt with their riots and banking personnel were even warned not to wear ties to work so as to avoid being targeted by the ferocious protestors.

Riots in London at the G20 summit.
As we were travelling through Extremadura, that off the beaten track region of Spain where the best ham comes from, the world’s most important politicians were meeting in London to find a common solution to the financial crisis. They then met in Strasbourg to commemorate the 60th anniversary of NATO and yesterday in Prague for the US EU summit.

The Nato 60th anniversary meeting
Obama was cheered everywhere he went and his presence and charisma left the likes of Sarkozy looking very normal next to him; the difference in their heights not being of help to the latter. The same could not be said of Michelle Obama and Carla Bruni, the two first ladies of the US and of Europe, I would say. They met as equals in glamour and fame and in stature unlike their powerful husbands.

The Summit in Prague this weekend was of special significance for Spain as it was here that Obama met Spain’s President, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, thus putting an end to 5 years of distance between the two countries.

Zapatero finally got to meet Obama. He never met George Bush though!
And today, Monday, as I am beginning this post, I must sadly record the eruption of a devastating earthquake in L’Aquila in central Italy, some 90km from Rome. The toll so far of this 6.3 scale quake has been 179 dead, 34 missing, 1,500 injured, 10.000 buildings destroyed and thousands homeless. Italy is in a state of shock and the tragedy is enormous.

The earthquake in Italy

But this blog is about my life and thankfully we have suffered no earthquakes nor are we affected greatly by the credit crunch. Instead we have been in the quiet and peaceful region of Extremadura in the mid western area of Spain that borders with Portugal. Extremadura which takes its name from the river Duero (or Douro in Portuguese), is a region or “comunidad” of two provinces, Cáceres and Badajoz. Funnily enough the regional capital is the smaller town of Mérida in the province of Cáceres. Mérida was, however, in Roman times, the Iberian capital and there are many signs of its Roman past, some of them quite intact.

This was one area of Spain we were not very familiar with and as we had some spare Parador points we decided to use them on this trip a week before Easter so as to avoid the traffic and general congestion. Our first port of call was Cáceres where we stayed at the slightly run down Parador in the old city. As soon as we had checked in we made our way to the famous Atrio restaurant, the only 2 star Michelin guide restaurant in the area. It was as good as I had expected but the portions somewhat mean and very expensive. It’s amazing to think it cost three times more than Arzak in San Sebastián for example.

We visited the historic centre of Cáceres in the afternoon and it was like walking into another era, a medieval era of course. It’s all stone and palaces and churches and beautiful squares, specially the Plaza de España, a somewhat unique rectangular shaped square – probably not a correct mathematical description but that’s what it is.

Cáceres, the medieval town.
You could see preparations for Spain’s still and ever important Easter celebrations or Semana Santa as it is called here. In fact we were to see them throughout our trip.

Wooden crosses to be used in the Easter processions of the Holy Week or Semana Santa which is still so important in Spain despite increased laicism. It's the tradition that seems to count.
From Cáceres we made our way to Guadalupe. Had we done our geography correctly we should actually have started in Guadalupe and then worked our way south as we ended up driving more kilometres than necessary. To get to Guadalupe we drove past Trujillo which was a must to visit. Trujillo, equally steeped in history and similar in architecture to Cáceres, is the home of some of Spain’s most famous “conquistadores” or discoverers of América, such as the Pizarro brothers who discovered Peru or Orellano who discovered the Amazon. The city or town is breathtaking in its beautiful buildings and castles. Here we visited the Plaza de España, another splendid medieval square, Pizarro’s house and the tenth century castle with great views of the city. Here too we purchased some lovely local pottery.

Trujillo, the cradle of the Spanish "conquistadores"
The drive from Trujillo through country roads to Guadalupe took us past some very different scenery, from solar panel “farms” and orange trees to evergreen oak fields dotted with merino sheep or white horses and black pigs, to mountainous roads and gorges; all of which led us to the enchanting enclave of Guadalupe, a Unesco Heritage site, better known as the Royal Monastery of Santa María de Guadalupe

The Monastery in the background and the Parador in the foreground. Truly one of the best located paradors in Spain.
The monastery has its origins in the 12th or 13th century, when a shepherd called Gil Cordero, discovered a statue of Mary by the Guadalupe River which had been apparently hidden by local inhabitants from Moorish invaders in 714. It is on this site that the church and monastery were built. The place is quite unique and very beautiful and has become something of a pilgrim destination for many Catholics from Spain of course, but also abroad. I think there is a story of Mary appearing to Gil Cordero and a possible miracle. Even today you can read that the statue’s eyes move or close and open. We saw it close up, showed to us by one of the 10 Franciscan monks left. I kissed it, as did the other visitors, more out of respect than anything else and I certainly did not see any eye movement.

We stayed at the much nicer Parador with its charming orange and lemon tree patio and got upgraded to room number 1 which was actually a suite. As we opened our balcony doors there was the monastery right in front of us. We also visited the tiny little town with its upper and lower streets. As we climbed the very steep streets to the top of the village we happened upon Daniel, a local villager who actually invited us into his house which he claimed had the best view of the Monastery in all of Guadalupe. Well here is the result, so you can judge for yourselves.

The monastery as seen from Daniel Merino's house high at the top of the village of Guadalupe. I promised to send him the photos and I will.
From Guadalupe we made our way to Mérida, some 130km away and checked into the lovely old Parador which in the past had been both a convent and hospital. Having got a taste for the suites, we upgraded again but paid the difference and got given room 122 with one big lounge and an even bigger bedroom. It was so good I could have moved in!

Here we visited many of the Roman landmarks such as the Trajan arch, the splendid and intact Roman bridge as well as the famous amphitheatre and theatre.

The superb Roman bridge that crosses the River Guadiana in Mérida. Perhaps the best of all the photos.
I fell in love with the Plaza de España once again. This one had many buildings of the typical colonial style architecture, the sort the Spanish “conquistadores” exported to many cities in Latin America, such as Hernán Cortés from Medellín. In other cities, such as Badajoz, you would see the colonial style next to the Arab style, fitting perfectly together.

The Plaza de España in Mérida.
From Mérida we visited Badajoz which is just 5km from the Portuguese border. Here we visited the Moorish Citadel (or Alcazaba – the biggest of its kind still standing in Spain) and drove through the famous Puerta de Palmas archway into the old town. Badajoz is not a thriving tourist destination, is rather sleepy and in great need of a lot of renovation if it is ever to become so.

The famous Puerta de Palmas of Badajoz, the gate or archway into the old town.
It does, however, boast the excellent restaurant, Aldebarán, highly recommended by my trustworthy travel book companions, the Michelin and Campsa guides. It is of a similar standard to Atrio in Cáceres but a third of the price.

The final leg of our tour was to be in La Parra, a small village in the province of Badajoz. We were to stay at the Hospedería Convento de la Parra which had been recommended to me by a Facebook acquaintance and which had rave reviews in Trip Advisor, my other great source of information when preparing our trips.

The hotel Hospedería Convento La Parra from the outside.
The old convent, turned hotel, is a 17th century white washed building with an orange tree patio in the centre of the cloisters. It supposedly maintains the spirit of a convent in that it is a haven of peace and place to get away from it all. They stick to that claim and purposefully do not offer television or internet connection. As I cannot live without the latter and was not a burnt out case as such, of course I brought my own connection. Thanks Yoigo!

Eladio in the orange tree patio in the centre of the cloister at the Hospedería.
The rooms and style are true too to that original spirit. Thus the décor is basically white washed and stone walls, flagstone floors and white is the colour used for all drapery and bedclothes. The only note of colour in the whole place comes from the green plants and oranges from the trees in the patios. Whilst everything is supposed to be quite sparten, the same cannot be said of the food which is top quality whilst retaining village recipes. I found the whole place truly beautiful and could quite happily have moved in there too.

Again we indulged in a suite, room number 23 and enjoyed our fire place. Eladio found it a bit dark but I loved it.

From La Parra we could have visited a host of pretty places such as Olivenza, Jérez de los Caballeros, Feria or nearby Zafra but instead decided to enjoy the installations and do what the hotel recommended, read, rest and enjoy the countryside with beautiful walks. We did all of these things and also discovered that the village of La Parra itself without boasting any great tourist interest was one of the loveliest white washed villages we had ever seen. I would have appointed it the best kept village in Spain.

A 90 year old villager from La Parra, José, making friends with my Father aged nearly 90 too. We all had a good laugh at the encounter.

We loved it so much that I wrote in the guest book that we would return again and again and again. If any of you are need of a rest or want to get away from it all, this is the place.

Our two days at La Parra were very soon up and Saturday was the day for our return. We packed leisurely to make our way back to Madrid but not before purchasing two wonderful jamón ibéricos (Spanish cured ham). Supposedly Extremadura is the area of Spain where the best ham comes from. Well we certainly saw lots of pigs (dark coloured ones) along on our walks in La Parra as this video proves here.

We came home on Saturday to find the girls had had a great time too, entertaining their friends. But soon we will be parted again as on Thursday they will be off to Santa Pola and we will be going to Montrondo to join Eladio’s family for Easter.

And that’s my post on Extremadura. It was a great trip as you can see here from my photo album in Facebook, but there are more to come this year. I always love having things, generally trips, to look forward to and the next big one will be to Yorkshire in July.

But that’s it for now.