Sunday, May 25, 2014

Oli’s birthday, a visit to Huelva, strawberry fields, Doñana, home again, Madrid wins “la décima”, voting day and other stories.

Me happy in the sand dunes at the Doñana National Park
Hi everyone,

Here I am another Sunday writing my blog.  Thursday was Olivia’s 29th birthday which together with our visit to Doñana, were the highlights of this week.

I left off last Tuesday when I should have remembered it was the anniversary of the passing away of my father-in-law Antonio.  We all miss him.  Every year the family gathers for a remembrance mass but this year as we had all been to Montrondo so often we didn’t have one.  In any case, he lives on in our hearts.  He would have been very happy to know that on that day, the rebuilding of the old family house which we have inherited had begun. 
Tuesday saw me in the office for an important meeting.  Later I relaxed at lunch with Marta a communications director like myself but of an insurance company.  We laughed as we left the restaurant when we bumped into another communications director, this time from another telecoms company.  Nice to see you Marta and nice to see you too Juan Carlos.

That night I made dinner for Olivia and Miguel who had come to stay for the week.  It is not often we eat together, so Tuesday night was quite special.  Here is a photo of me cooking for the occasion.
Making dinner on Tuesday night for Oli and Miguel
I have been sleeping worse than usual recently and seem to be awake from about 5 onwards, so on Wednesday morning I was up at 06.30.  It was a very productive day but I felt tired throughout for lack of sleep.  The two walks in wind and light rain felt more difficult than usual.  Of note that day, we, or rather Eladio, gave the dogs their periodic bath.  Here is a photo of Eladio washing Elsa in the tub while Norah looks on after her bath with a towel covering her to stop her from shivering.  I love having clean and shiny dogs that I can stroke, cuddle and kiss and just hate touching a “smelly” dog.  Ours are not smelly I can tell you hahaha.
Bathing the dogs

On Wednesday I found a moment in the morning to have a coffee with a friend, Ana who is very good at interior decoration.  Over coffee I asked her for advice on how to do up our house in Montrondo.  Thanks Ana for your help.  I'm dying for you to come out and see the house just before it's finished or at any time.

That nighty I was too tired to see the end of MasterChef, a programme I love to watch.  The problem is that prime time in Spain is far too late and starts at about 10.30.  There is a movement in favour of making it earlier like in the rest of Europe but the Spanish TV programmes are not for it.  So of course I missed seeing who the participant was who would be expelled from the show that night.  Eladio has no interest in the programme whatsoever as you can imagine, preferring political debates and the like; not my favourite genre I can tell you.

Then Thursday came and brought with it Olivia’s 29th birthday.  Family birthdays are very important in our home and we all look forward to them.  I was up early again and was able to prepare a special breakfast for everyone.  I also went out to buy “chocolate con churros”, Oli’s favourite breakfast.  The only damper that morning was that Suzy couldn’t be with us.  However she had sent a lovely card to her beloved sister; a present too but it still hasn’t arrived, shame on you Royal Mail!
Olivia's birthday breakfast
After breakfast I had to rush around like speedy gonzález as we were leaving for a weekend break in the afternoon.  At Olivia’s special request I made “salmorejo” (sort of thick gazpacho which comes from Córdoba) for her birthday lunch, had to go out and get more tomatoes and pick up her black forest gateau.  I had loads of work to do in between, as well as pack for the long weekend.  Thankfully I managed all my tasks apart from getting in an hour’s walk. 

Just before lunch Olivia had a surprise visit.  Her cousin Alicia, my god daughter, and her boyfriend Chema came to give her a birthday kiss.  Ali, who was studying for her 4th year nursing exams at the UEM University library nearby, coordinated their visit with me via whatsapp so that it would be a surprise for Olivia.  Oli was delighted.  It was just a pity they couldn’t stay for lunch.  Thanks darling Ali for coming.
The surprise visit of Ali and Chema who came to wish Olivia a happy birthday
The birthday lunch was wonderful.  Apart from salmorejo, we had prime fillet steak and chips, followed by the black forest gateau.  The cake moment was the most important of the day and we were all vying to take photos of Olivia blowing out her candles.  This is my photo of the moment.
Oli and the birthday cake moment
We had given Oli our presents in the morning but another parcel had arrived so I saved it for her to open at lunchtime.  It turned out to be an enormous box of exquisite chocolates sent from Bombay by her adored Erasmus fellow student and now lifetime friend Sumit.  This is her and the chocolates.
Olivia delighted with Sumit's brithday present ordered from Bombay
As soon as lunch was over Eladio and I had to rush as we had to be off to catch the 17h AVE (high speed train) to Seville.  We were going for a long weekend to visit the Doñana natural park and staying at the Parador de Mazagón.  We would be staying until Saturday and would be back home just on time for the Champions League final between the two rival Madrid clubs, Real and Atlético.

Once in Seville where the temperature was lower than usual (just 21ºc) we picked up our hired car and drove the 120km or so to Mazagón in the province of Huelva, the southwestern tip of Spain near the border of Portugal on the Atlantic Coast.

We didn’t check into the Parador till past 21h when it was beginning to get dark and was too late for a walk.  We loved our room with partial views of the sea. We had a late and light dinner as we were just not hungry after the birthday lunch.

We were in the southwest of Spain where at this time of year it should have been warmer.  This last week in Spain the temperatures have plummeted and I was amazed to see a photo on Facebook that day of snow on the mountains in Montrondo.  If it was 20ºc in Huelva it must have been about 5ºc or less in our village.
There was snow in Montrondo on Tuesday!!!!
In the morning I was awake early as usual, so took the chance to go for a long walk on the beach whilst Eladio was asleep.  To get to the beach I had to walk down 186 wooden steps from the cliff where the Parador sits over the wonderful “Castilla beach”. 
Climbing up the 186 steps from the Castilla beach to the parador
The beach is 20km long but if you include all the other beaches together along that coast it is about 70km long.  We were told it is the longest beach in Europe and the place where the sun sets at the latest time in Europe.  We were to witness that later.

The beach below the parador is unspoiled and wild with no buildings, just the cliff and dunes.  I decided to walk towards Mazagón the little beach town which we actually never visited but was recommended to me by a friend of Olivia’s who is from Huelva.  Here is a photo of what the beach looked like that morning.  The only people I saw on my way were fishermen.
The Castilla beach in the morning
Eladio came to find me, walking down the dreaded steps and when I had finished my walk we went up them together.  This is a photo of Eladio at the top of the steps overlooking the Castilla Beach.
Eladio at the top of the steps after the climb up from the beach
We spent the day visiting the area and fell in love with Huelva and its beaches.  What struck us most were all the strawberry fields, many of the berries being cultivated under plastic.  They were everywhere.  Of course I knew that in Spain strawberries come from Huelva as we love and eat strawberries which you start to see in the shops in Madrid from February to June.  I was told later that Spain is the largest exporter of the fruit in the world, shipping annually some 285.000 tons to Europe and beyond.  It is the second or third largest producer after the US; the second place being rivalled with Turkey.  I was not surprised to learn that 85% of all production in Spain of what is known in Huelva as “red gold” comes from this southwestern province.
Me by one of the strawberry fields in Huelva
We also learned that the main strawberry pickers are women from Morocco, Bulgaria and Romania, mostly from the latter.  Apparently these beautiful blonde Rumanian women have caused something of a sensation marrying the local men or stealing them from their Spanish wives!

That night I took Eladio for a walk on the Castilla beach just before sunset.  I was told but don’t know if it is true that this is where the sun sets the latest in Europe.  It was nearly 10pm when the sun started to disappear and I captured its setting on my iPhone with this little picture.
Sunset on the Castilla Beach
I so enjoyed that bracing walk in the wind with Eladio.  He leant me his jumper for the occasion. It was 20ºc at that time of night but there was a lot of wind which made it feel colder.
Walk on the beach just before sunset.
I soon felt warm climbing up the 186 steps back to the Parador, satisfied that day with the statistics my fitbit displayed of all the walking I had done that day.  Thus dinner was a slightly larger affair than the night before.

Saturday was to be the piece de resistance of our short break.  We were to be visiting Doñana, the wonderful national park nearby.  I was up early, on time for another walk on the beach before I joined Eladio for our last breakfast at the Parador. By 9 o’clock we were leaving the Parador with our luggage and on our way to the visitors’ centre at Acebuche near the Matalascaña’s beach.
Visiting Doñana in this jeep was a unique experience
It has long been a dream of ours to visit the park.  If you have never heard of it, let me describe it to you.  The Doñana National Park also known as Coto de Doñana is a national park and wildlife refuge in Huelva that covers 543km2.  Refuge to the Iberian lynx it is a bird sanctuary with a biodiversity that is unique in Europe.  There is a great variety of ecosystems and Doñana shelters wildlife including thousands of European and African birds, deer, wild boars, badgers as well as the endangered species such as the Spanish imperial eagle and of course the lynx, neither of which we saw.

Our guide, Manuel, an expert in environmental studies told us that “in Doñana writing happens at night and reading happens in the morning”.  We only understood what he meant when we saw different fauna’s footprints in the sand.  He, of course, could identify every print.  We couldn’t. 
In Doñana "writing happens at night and reading happens in the morning"
The best part of the tour was the beginning, along the beach and to the dunes where pine trees try to grow.  Driving over the dunes felt a bit like our visit to the Wadi Rum desert in Jordan of Lawrence of Arabia fame, except that we had a more experienced driver at the wheel.
At the sand dunes in Doñana, Eladio with our guides Miguel and Manuel (sunglasses)
Unfortunately the wetlands were not wet because of the time of year, but we were happy enough when we saw wild boar in the distance.  We went past the El Rocío pilgrimage path and through pine woods with plants whose names I will not remember but which smelled fantastic until we came to an area where there was a group of thatch roofed huts.  These were occupied by workers who felled the wood in the past and some still live in them today. However they cannot be inherited.  Here our host Miguel and our guide prepared a little picnic for us.
The thatched roofed huts at Doñana
We also went past the President’s palace, a sort of English looking mansion where heads of state come to stay. John Major the ex PM of the UK had been there on holiday many times and Tony Blair used to go invited by Aznar.  No one else can stay in Doñana, it is so protected.  The only way to visit is in official Park cars, so no picnicking or hiking, apart from on the beach.

I’m not sure what end of the park we came out at after our three hour visit but I was surprised that we found ourselves on the beach again, the continuation of the Castilla beach.  And there right across the water was the legendary town of Sanlucar de Barrameda, famous for sherry but also for a horse race on the beach.  Sanlucar belongs to another province, Cádiz.  No bridge has been built across this small stretch of water where the River Guadalquivir is born, so as to protect Doñana. Thus you have to cross it by boat which is what we did. In order to get on I had to take my shoes off and pull up my trousers which I was more than happy to do.
Coming off the boat at Sanlucar de Barrameda
Being a Saturday morning the town was full of people.  We only had time to walk along the promenade and have lunch before heading back to Seville to catch our train.  Lunch was at a very famous restaurant called El Bigote where we tried the local prawns which are very well known in Spain.

At 5pm we were on the AVE which seemed pretty empty but I suppose that’s because it was a Saturday.  We were eager to be home on time for the big match. We arrived to a very full house and the aftermath of Olivia’s bbq birthday party, i.e. most of the “manada” (the girls’ group of friends – meaning herd).  They were all in the lounge including my Father and the match had just begun.
Watching the Champions League final at home with "la manada"
Before I continue about the match I just must include a photo of Olivia with Miguel and the amazing carrot cake Ana, her friend, had made for her birthday party that day.  It is a masterpiece.
A wonderful cake (carrot cake) made by Anita for Oli's birthday party
I should also mention that that morning Oli and Miguel had run in a local 10km race in Majadahonda.  Here is a photo of Olivia all ready to run. 
Olivia about to take part in a 10km race in Majadahonda yesterday
Now back to the match. The first 90 odd minutes were awful for us as Atlético de Madrid scored a goal right at the beginning so it looked like they were going to win their first Champions League cup.  But in the last minute Sergio Ramos scored the equalizing goal with an apparently amazing header.  Of course that meant there would be a 30 minute prologue and I anticipated a penalty shootout which thankfully didn’t happen.  Then Gareth Bale, who until then had been named “Gareth Fail” on twitter, scored the decisive goal towards the end of the prologue and the score was now 2-1 in Real Madrid’s favour.  We were so close to getting “la décima” (Madrid’s coveted 10th cup). In the end Real Madrid’s players won because they were physically stronger.  A few minutes later Marcelo increased the score to 3-1 in favour of Madrid.  That was right at the end.  But then came the finishing touch; a penalty in favour of Real.  Of course it was to be Ronaldo, the Portuguese who would kick the ball in the Lisbon stadium in his own country.  Even if he hadn’t scored Real Madrid would have won but it would have dampened the victory.  To the delight of all the “blancos’” fans, he did it, took off his shirt and showed the world his torso.  Then the football fans went wild, Real Madrid had garnered the “décima” and their first victory in this league of leagues since 2002.  The atmosphere in our lounge was one of great joy, except for Olivia, Eladio and Anita who wanted the underdogs to win.  I went to bed happy that we were the champions.
Real Madrid players delirious yesterday with their "décima" cup in Lisbon
Suzy meanwhile, not interested in football and immersed in life in London, was having her own little party at their new home with her boyfriend Gabor and Italian flat mate Stefania.  She posted pictures of cocktails she had made as well as tiramisu made of strawberries which, no doubt, come from Huelva.
Suzy drinking home made cocktails yesterday in London
And today Sunday is the voting day for the European Parliament.  After a leisurely breakfast and clearing up of Olivia’s party remains, we went off to vote; Olivia, Miguel, Eladio and I.  Here is a photo of me voting.  Not sure it’s going to make much difference.  We’ll see.
Doing my duty and voting this morning
There is not much else to tell you now I have reached Sunday.  After posting this I shall be going on two walks, tomorrow will be Monday and another week will have begun. I wish you all a great week ahead.  Mine, I know, will be busy as usual.

Cheers till next week


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