Saturday, 31 December 2016

Traditions old & new

It's my favourite time of year again and I'm feeling incredibly festive. Lots of musical occasions, beautiful lights and displays and a good amount of time spent at home have definitely got me in the mood this year. Today I'm left wrestling with a glum sensation knowing that it will soon all be over and eager anticipation at what the year ahead might bring.

Tradition is always an important part of the festive season, comforting in many ways, and this year seems to have welcomed in quite a few new ones; although I am, however, unsure as to whether or not they can yet be referred to as 'tradition' or whether one waits for at least a year or two more to see if they stick...

It all began this year when I was accompanied by a selection of kind and willing members of CCC (City Chamber Choir) in leading some carol singing at school. We sang last year too and the children loved it then but knew no carols. This year then I decided to teach them a few in the lead up to our singing together and the difference was remarkable; words can't quite describe the atmosphere but needless to say, it was not replicated by any of our audiences for other carol singing around the city. As always, carols at Leadenhall Market and St Katharine Dock were freezing but festive!

We have been denied our full two week's holiday this year which has felt a little distressing, especially when being at home for a mere 5 days meant I only had a week left until the return to work. The day before heading home I had decided I would do another one of my Christmas Tree Crawls; a 'tradition' I began last year. I was not, however, anticipating that so much of my day would be taken up getting a spare cat-sitting key cut. Three keys and four trips to varying Timpsons later and I finally had one that worked. In an attempt to make the best of a bad situation, after my initial visits to my nearest branch I decided that my next visit would be to one in the vicinity of trees. So I headed to Holborn where I then also stopped to admire the trees at Rosewood London, Somerset House and the Savoy Hotel; each of them, truly worth the detour.

At last I was on a train home and on Christmas Eve the first of the new traditions appeared in the form of a fry-up for brunch. I'm calling this a tradition in the hope that my mum does it again because it was truly tasty and there's something quite fun about sharing Christmas crackers over bacon and egg. Brunch set me up well for an old tradition, a walk with close friends around Wolferton before exchanging presents and playing silly games (this year, we leapt on the bandwagon at had a go at Speak Out).

Christmas Day brought yet more new tradition as a little while after our breakfast muffin to accompany stocking opening, we were then treated to cooked ham on toast. Two breakfasts down, novelty then ensued as we headed to a neighbour for cocktails and canapés before returning home for roast. We seem to manage to stretch the day out more and more each year but finally, at about half past 6 in the evening, we'd opened everything under the tree and were indulging in the thousandth round of food and hot drinks.

Upon writing this I'm realising that most festive traditions involve food and that theme continues as 'Boxing Day Baguettes' are up next. A while ago in Norwich I had lunch with Mum and Dad at Logan's Good Food Shop. My choice was a Brussels sprout baguette which I enjoyed so much that I decided I'd have a go at making my own over Christmas. I was of course worried that I wouldn't do them justice at all but I have to say, they were just as delicious homemade and went down incredibly well. 

As well as a total abundance of food, home also saw plenty of walks both beach and woodland, a plethora of games and jigsaws and lots of tinkling on the piano. It's always a must to have things back in London to look forward to when I'm torn away from sky, fresh air, peace and tranquillity...

It's now New Year's Eve and while yesterday evening we completed this year's Christmas Tree Crawl from the Tate Britain all the way to Claridge's, tonight we'll be hibernating with good beer and something of the homemade food variety (I'm going to rifle through Nigella (which doesn't sound great) in a minute and see what catches my eye...) to see in the new year before hopefully taking a walk tomorrow; starting as we mean to go on. It's been so long since I've written and I really hope I don't go for this long again any time soon. Expect a resolutions post on the other side when I eventually figure out what on earth they might be.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Escapes to the country

I promise my long-held silence doesn't mean life has suddenly become boring. In fact, it's been anything but and proof lies in my empty bank account. Dressed in a fresh pair of pyjamas and armed with yet another cup of tea, I've definitely resigned myself to a PJ day and I'm pretty sure it's well-earned today, not just a means of avoiding spending.

One of my favourite things about this Autumn so far has definitely been my country escapes, of which there have been plenty. It all began with a trip to Boxhill in the North Downs in Surrey in the final weekend of September. Provided with several different walks to choose from, we went for the 'Stepping Stones Walk' which I admit I thought sounded sweet so was surely going to be a gentle amble. Needless to say, Boxhill is called Box'hill' for a reason; we definitely walked off our picnic and my time in the gym has not improved my lung capacity. Our longest dog walk to date, it was nevertheless so lovely to spend a day surrounded by green and space as far as the eye could see.

I welcomed October with a visit to Norwich (which probably explains where all my money disappeared to) then the following weekend was spent in Ripe for a glorious weekend of singing interspersed with lots and lots of food, drink and general merriment. This was the second time I had joined the choir for their annual getaway and it was just as wonderful as the year before. Ripe is the sweetest of villages in East Sussex peppered with quaint houses and home to a beautiful little church where we sang in a workshop all day on Saturday for a concert in the evening and then again in the Sunday morning service. I do think being in the countryside really emphasises the changing seasons; for lunch we devoured home-made soups (curried parsnip, tomato and red pepper or broccoli and Stilton) with a cheese board on the side and an endless supply of fruit afterwards (all seriously heart-warming, foods) and of course the surrounding scenery was so picturesque and the country pub so cosy. After the service on Sunday we walked the long lane back to the home of our host and hostess then before lunch we were given a tour of the vegetable garden which was honestly like something straight out of Beatrix Potter's stories. Idyllic doesn't even begin to describe the Ripe weekend.

Two weekends ago I was craving another dose of country air so myself a fellow Norfolk-dweller headed on an Epping Forest adventure. I'm not sure that we would have expected it to be much of an 'adventure' but it saw us getting shamefully lost on our walk which was mostly spent potentially trespassing on farmland and skirting the M11 and M25 when we took one of many wrong turnings. Four hours (advertised as a 2-hour round trip) of fresh air and what can only be described as a proper 'romp' did us good though, even if we did have to back-track multiple times and (oh the shame) set our phones to satellite mode in order to establish our location when faced with fences of a high or electric nature on several occasions. I feel like this country escape was possibly the least relaxing of the few I've had this season and maybe even slightly traumatic but it was nothing that beer and pub food couldn't fix. We'll be back, now we know the way...

Half term arrived and home beckoned so on Thursday I was Norfolk-bound on a super early and surprisingly busy train. As happens every October half term, I've got the cold to rival all colds but I hoped it was nothing that couldn't be fixed by country air, home cooking and love. An early departure meant an early arrival thus we had a whole day on Thursday to get out and about. Our day began in the village of Walsingham, home to fascinating churches for several denominations of Christianity and two beautiful shrines to Mary as well as a tearoom with the tastiest cake and a farm shop with the prettiest produce. From Walsingham we carried on to the coast and Brancaster Staithe. No crab left at the hut in the harbour so we just took a hot drink back to the car to admire the view.

On Friday we first drove to Wolfertoon Woods where we often go for our Christmas day walk. I thought it might be looking particularly pretty at this time of year and I was right. We were met by every shade of golden and red and a plethora of toadstools growing all around. The curly-haired cows were up a lot closer and more personal than usual which was fun and because we're so used to clear paths in winter we actually took a wrong turning and ended up traipsing through bracken to find the path again. From Wolferton we headed again along the coast to grab a crab sandwich to prepare us for Thornham, my favourite beach and the one that I felt Mallorca was reminiscent of with all its pine. Back in the summer we were put off staying by yuppies with rugby balls and enormous picnic hampers but this time we were glad not to encounter too many other people at all as we made the walk along the bank to the pleasingly empty beach.

It sure is reassuring to know that the countryside complete with its air and space is never too far away and is always available, no matter the time of year. I think this month has definitely shown me that country escapes don't have to be so infrequent as they had become.

Saturday, 3 September 2016

Pine trees, pastries, Pokémon & Padrón peppers

Always one to make the best of a bad situation, I am taking full advantage today of the fact that the sun seems to have finally disappeared by sitting inside to write all about adventures in Palma. I would have written much sooner but sadly a traumatic flight involved (or perhaps resulted in) me losing my notebook where I had written each evening about the day's events. Thus, I have had to find time to first write again about the whole week before eventually finding time to type it up. It's been a busy but of course absolutely wonderful summer!

Friday 12th August

An interesting arrival into Palma as we declined one ant-infested hire car, got ambushed by all the one-way streets, found ourselves stuck down an alley-way in the enormous replacement car with no idea how to put it into reverse then paid 30 cents to decide whether or not to park in a carpark before finally taking our Airbnb host for a ride to find an appropriate place to park. All settled in we took to Trip Advisor which recommended a tapas bar not too far away. Down another alley-way (slightly dodgy looking this time) we ventured to discover very yummy tapas and our first bottle of Cava; soothing the nerves after all the trauma that had come before.

Saturday 13th August

Feeling much more relaxed after the previous day, along we walked to where the car was parked. Admired a few market stalls on the way, came to the end of the market and paused... struck by the realisation that the car had been replaced by said market stalls. The morning of our first full day was thus spent chasing local police, our oh-so helpful host and a taxi to take us to the car itself which looked a sorry sight indeed chained up in some far away 'aparcament'. Huge fine paid, off we drove to make the most of the rest of our day (not before checking where we actually were allowed to park to avoid a repeat performance) in Pollença, a coastal town in the North of the island. Stopped a while to enjoy lunch on our first Mallorcan beach before taking a 'pine walk' along to the end of the bay. Fortunately the car was still there upon our return so we could all breathe a sigh of relief. Found safe parking back in Palma so headed out for food at a pizzeria with a huge selection of film-themed pizza toppings and some tasty Sangria.

Sunday 14th August

Relieved to find the car exactly where we had left it, we took a drive to a beach recommended as a point of historic interest. After a very touristy experience the previous day, it felt very promising to park up in a field in the middle of nowhere. A hike through more pine (this time a whole forest of it) led us to the most stunning beach. Here we thoroughly enjoyed a full day of sea, sand and funny grass-balls before we headed back through the pine where we stopped a while to pet some Iberian piglets, a realisation that was all too shocking as I enjoyed Iberico ham, eggs and chips for my dinner...

Monday 15th August

Drove to Sóller to enjoy the freshly-squeezed orange juice (and ice-cream) it's famed for. Could have quite happily spent the day café-crawling around the main square but as the trams kept tooting their horns as they trundled past, we thought we'd better have a ride. The tram took us to the port of Sóller where we enjoyed remarkable views, the tastiest seafood (I had squid-ink spaghetti topped with calamari, prawns, mussels and clams) and a paddle before heading back into the mountains where the town stood which were now beautifully lined with low-lying cloud as the evening drew in. After a longer day and plenty of food to see us through we decided to have an evening in with cards, guessing games and pre-made Sangria.

Tuesday 16th August

Began a rainy day in Alcudia for the market set in the pretty old town. Enjoyed lunch and Mallorcan beers at a tapas place (of course) before making our way to Fornalutx, a mountainous village once voted Spain's prettiest. Wandered aimlesssly, hypnotised by beautiful streets, architecture and countryside, relishing the peace brought by drizzle and precarious roads. Back in Palma we tried a tapas bar with a twist; Padrón peppers (of course), avocado and strawberry tartar, Spanish omelette with 'crystal bread', a zucchini, rocket and mango salad and more Iberico ham, eggs and fried potatoes, all washed down with another bottle of Cava.

Wednesday 17th August

Our final day with the dear car, we opted for another beach day, this time in the South of the island. Walked along the shore until we found a quiet beach spot where we sat to enjoy our lunch and a spot of relaxation... all well and good until a highly persistent wasp (or it could have been multiple wasps) decided to harass us. Moved to a slightly busier spot in the hope that other beach-goers might have picnics of greater interest. Finally relaxed it was a struggle to tear ourselves away but there was definitely a big sigh of relief from all as the car was delivered back to the hire company (not before we had to make way for a Paella coming at us along the road). Took a taxi back into Palma and made a return visit to the restaurant from the night before (it was just so good)!

Thursday 18th August

Until now our exploration of Palma itself had revolved around restaurants, wherever the car was parked (or not parked, as the case may be) and 'Spermacat' (we mis-read the sign for the 'Supermercat). Our penultimate day began with a hearty brunch in one of the main squares. From there we wandered semi-aimlessly around the old town until we came to the cathedral. Tempted by a look inside but not really fancying the queuing, we headed instead around the bay and a way out of the city, up into the hills to find a Gothic style castle. I think we all thought we were genuinely close to death (or at least a collapse) as we dragged our way up the never-ending steps in the heat of the day. Stopped a couple of times to admire the view (well, and to down drinks and catch our breath) back across the city. I do love a good castle! Jelly legs from the walk back down again, we decided to call it a day and headed off to the beach to spend our last full evening enjoyed baked goods, Cava and the sunset.

Friday 19th August

With our flight not until the evening, we decided to spend the morning back on the beach before facing the reality of end-of-holiday joys like packing. Checked out, we ventured into the Arab Quarter to admire more architecture and to take refuge in the shade now bikinis were packed and a quick shower was no longer a possibility. Visited the oldest café in Palma for one last Ensaimada as a very fitting bid farewell to Mallorca. 

Wednesday, 10 August 2016

Postcards from Santorini

Tuesday 2nd August

Hairy drive to the hotel (taxi for Samanth a Graham - new Greek name?) along lots of bendy roads. Warm welcome and super cute beachy decor; lots of driftwood art. Stumbled our way along in the pitch black to find a supermarket. Poolside picnic and a foot dip before bed.

Wednesday 3rd August

Body clocks not yet adjusted to Santorini time, waking up was a struggle. Only 18 rooms in our hotel so breakfast buffet was very civilised and we had our pick of shady tables on the pool terrace to eat. Rest of the day spent between lounger, pool and lilo basking and admiring the surrounding scenery. Dinner along the beach; Greek salad, Gyros and Baklava accompanied by smoothie cocktails and odd Grecian remakes of classical pieces.

Thursday 4th August

Spent the day on volcanic sands (although strictly not sand but tiny little smooth pebbles which are a dream compared to sand), taking the occasional dip in crystal clear sea. Enjoyed an elevenses cocktail (another of the smoothie variety; feels less naughty) and later lunch on the beach; 'spaghetti with butter'. Embraced a 'Greek Night' for the evening involving a huge tasting platter of traditional dishes, wine by the litre, plate smashing and lots of 'opa!'

Friday 5th August

Took a boat trip around some of the islands of Santorini. First stop was the dormant volcano at the centre of them all. Glad to have spent so much time on the crosstrainer lately as we huffed and puffed our way to the top for a spectacular view and sulphuric smells. Stopped for a while at some thermal springs and then again at a traditional village where we spent most of our time stuck on the boat (of course everyone else managed to get off in time) while 'a ferry making huge waves' passed us by. Had a 'quiet night in' with some nibbly bits and wine from Carrefour. After smashing the bottle of red (literally), the rest of the night went quite smoothly...

Saturday 6th August

Began the day by the pool again. Partook in a lunch of leftover meat and cheese from the night before in bread stolen from breakfast. Made our way to the capital of Santorini, Fira (no, not the same as Thira) for the afternoon and evening. Wandered up and down precarious paths on the cliff edge, stopped a while for cocktails with a view to recover from the shock and heat, enjoyed a glorious sunset from a wall with a view of a traditional blue dome, bell tower and the sea before returning to the cliff path to dine at a table that began with no candles and ended up with three to keep us warm from the sea breeze.

Sunday 7th August

Struck down by prickly heat of epic, swollen proportions (apparently my elbows (and I quote) resemble sock puppets or a granny without her false teeth) so I was a good girl and had a shady beach day. After an incredibly sleepless night of forced starfishing to avoid contact with anything, had a good snooze on my lounger. First experience of a club sandwich (apparently a holiday favourite) for lunch was washed down with an incredibly potent Margarita (all in the name of pain-killing). Food settled, we had a long swim and splash about in the sea before I was finally able to emerge from my shady nook to enjoy some evening sun. Found a lovely restaurant offering a complimentary fish soup starter and watermelon dessert for dinner. Had haloumi andk zucchini balls followed (for me, anyway) by a feta stuffed burger too. A pretty setting and delicious food was a choice well made for spending our final evening in Perissa.

Monday 8th August

Another morning begun by the pool before we ventured into Oia to spend our final evening. Wandering the cobbled streets we were even hotter than in Fira and I had to buy some Greek sandals when my own Primark specials snapped along the way. Sat for a while to cool down with icy cold drinks before. Energy regained we trekked down the many steps leading to the bay below, narrowly avoiding donkey poop (and the donkeys themselves as they clattered up and down), for a view of the town in the setting sun. Having enjoyed the sunset for a final time we found a little jazz bar for more Santorini wine and pittas.

Tuesday 9th August

The hotel were kind enough to let us keep our room until the taxi transfer picked us up for an evening flight so we spent our final day saying goodbye to black sand and sea that isn't murky brown. Volcanic beaches are officially my favourite - enjoying all the perks of a beach without getting sand in all the wrong places is pure bliss. General impressions of Santorini? I've loved it! The climate, the scenery, the people, the wine, the food (oh, the food)! Would love to come back one day. Think we left just enough places undiscovered to warrant a return visit.