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Our friends the Hockeys were once again renting a luxury apartment on the Costa del Sol in Spanish Spain for some of the dreaded UK winter months. Having entertained them on our barge Harmonie for several years we thought it about time for them to reciprocate so invited ourselves down for some winter sun in late January.
Their apartment was at Bahia de Caseres which is a few miles further South from the seaside town of Estepona and about an hours drive from Malaga where we arrived on board a Ryanair flight in the early evening and a temperature of 19°C having left a sleety 3°C a little over two hours earlier in Bristol.
The next morning we awoke to wall to wall sunshine and the view from the balcony that you see above. The enlarged section of this photograph below shows the Rock of Gibraltar which is about half an hours drive away and almost the most southerly point of mainland Europe. On a clear day the North African mountains are clearly visible and if you drive a little further to Tarifa you can visit Tangier in Morocco for a day trip by fast ferry in 45 minutes.
We had last visited Estepona in the early 1990's and there had been much building development since then, most of it ugly, but the whole Costa del Sol was never one of our favourite places. I remember it was cold and wet on that occasion but this time we seemed to have struck lucky with the weather. I blame global warming and as the temperature rose to 20°C we ventured out into the delightful mature and well manicured grounds around the apartment complex which boasted three swimming pools, one of them heated.
Here we are marvelling at a cactus in flower which has the appearance of an elephant's trunk.
Andalusia has a long history and Neanderthals inhabited the region from around 50,000 BC while Cadiz claims to be the oldest European city after the Phonecians founded it around 1100 BC.
Then came Carthaginians and 'yer Romains kicked them out and took over the shop for about 700 years until 'yer Germains came down in the shape of 'yer Visigoths until the Moors arrived in AD 711 and kicked 'yer Christians out. It was not until 1212 during the Reconquest that Christian forces recaptured Seville and it took until 1492 when Granada fell that the Moors were finally defeated.
The Christian conquerers employed Moorish craftsman called Mudéjar (literally - "those invited to stay") to build their churches and palaces who created a unique Andalusian style of architecture.
But I digress. After wandering around Bahia de Caseres we went into Estepona to the Sunday market then sat in the sun and ate Tapas and drank beer before returning exhausted to relax in the afternoon sun on the apartment balcony.
The following day saw Sue and Chris in the heated swimming pool and just to prove it here they both are after Sue had beaten Chris by a country mile swimming a length, she swimming back stroke and Chris crawling, literally!
We had determined to visit Seville during our stay as we had all been to most of the Andalusian towns and cities previously but none of us had been to Seville and we were blown away.
I had managed to find an hotel right in the centre of the city just yards from the Alcazar and the Cathedral and had pre booked it for two nights. The only problem was that the Barrio de Santa Cruz, Seville's old Jewish quarter where the Hotel Palacio Alcázar is situated is a maze of little streets and alleys unsuitable for cars so I found a free car park on the outskirts next to the Blas Infante Metro station just three stops from Puerta de Jerez then it was just a 600m walk to the hotel.
The hotel was originally the home of John Fulton who was a famous bull fighter and was the only one of two Americans to have reached the rank of a full Matador.
After John's death in 1998 the house was completely refurbished and is now a boutique hotel. We had very affordable double rooms with balconies overlooking a street of orange trees. This was fine until the second night when the city authorities picked all the oranges in the middle of the night!
After checking in the hotel we wandered around the corner and selected one of many bars for tapas. I ordered Calamari which was the first of many which, as Chris Hockey would say, was not what I expected. It was like a fish stew and the squid was soft and slimy and definitely not what I expected. I also ordered Patatas Fritas and got a bowl of crisps? Not a good start.
We wandered around the town admiring the monuments and architecture eventually finding ourselves in the Calle Velazquez Tetuan, one of the main shopping streets which brought an abrupt end to any further sightseeing. We did however find an Italian Ice Cream Shop called Amorino which sold us the most expensive ice cream I have ever purchased but one of the best. As you can see from the photo it was also a work of art and was topped with a macaroon which she has eaten. We were forced to make a second visit the next day!
Each time we have visited Spain I have always eaten loads of Gambas Fritos which are prawns either deep fried in their shell or shallow fried in a pan with garlic butter. I failed to find then at all on this trip and each time I ordered Gambas they were not what I expected! Over cooked frozen off the shell jobs as tough as old Harry's nutting bag floating in a deep garlic oil like soup seemed to be the order of the day in this neck of the woods.
From the rooftop terrace of our hotel we had a fine view of La Giralda, the clock tower of the nearby Cathedral. The tower is named after the bronze weather vane atop the tower which depicts faith.
The fortified palace of Real Alacazar was originally built by the Almoravids, tribesmen from North Africa. In 1364 the Christian monarch Pedro 1 employed Mudéjar craftsmen from Granada and Toledo to build a new palace within the Alcazar's walls.
They created a series of patios, fountains and richly decorated halls which later monarchs added to what became known as Palicio Pedro 1. Below is a slide show of some of the many photographs I took in the Real Alcazar. Hover your mouse over the slide show to pause the picture.
We discovered it was best to pre-book tickets to the Alcazar on-line which for seniors was only €3 plus €1 booking fee and that avoided the queue for tickets at the box office.
A pre-booking was not possible for a visit to the Cathedral despite their web site saying you could. There was only a short queue however and once again the price was only €4 for us seniors. This contrasts sharply with the £16 required to visit St. Pauls in London.
Seville Cathedral is the largest Gothic Cathedral in the world and the third largest of any after St Peters in Rome and St Pauls in London. Below is a slide show of some of the many photographs I took including the city view from the top of the Giralda Bell Tower which is 96m high.
Climbing the Giralda was not what I expected because instead of hundreds of steps there was a gentle ramp which climbed up to 36 landings before a short staircase at the top. There were fine views across the city as you would expect so it was well worth the climb and even Mr Hockey managed it but our two ladies chickened out.
The architecture around the city was always varied and interesting as you can see from the photographs below.
Once again we found ourselves in a shopping street but managed to steer the ladies past temptation although Sue did buy a very expensive scarf. We eventually arrived at the ultra modern Metropol Parasol which is also referred to by Sevillians as "Las Setas" (The Mushroom) and you can see why below.
There is a walkway and observation deck over the top which for some reason was closed. Underneath is a food market while in the basement is an archeological museum with the remains of a moorish house and Roman ruins from 14 AD.
I forgot to mention that we did manage to see some flamenco the previous night after we had eaten. Seville claims to be the home of flamenco and we found the show on t'internet at Casa de la Guitarra just around the corner from our hotel. It was an excellent show with Guitar, Singer and Dancer, the latter being Father and Daughter from a family who had been performing Flamenco for six generations. Us seniors only paid €15 and the show lasted just over an hour.
Back in the Calle Velazquez Tetuan (avoiding the shops) is this splendid tiled 1924 advert below for a Studebaker motor car. They don't make them like that anymore, neither car or advert.
Our final night in Seville was the night of the oranges. Not what we expected as they began to shake down all the oranges from the trees outside our hotel at just after midnight and the noise continued through the night.
Breakfast was taken each day at Taberna Belmonte where a full Spanish consisting of two fried eggs, three rashers of bacon, a heap of chips, toast and coffee will set you back €6.50 but the treat was to watch Raoul serve the whole bar, make the coffee and toast at a death defying speed keeping all orders in his head when we came to pay. A-maze-ing. The Taberna is named after a famous matador who was a mate of John Fulton. It is full of old pictures of Sevilla including bull fights and stuffed bulls heads all around the walls. Not a place for vegans or lovers of Bulls!
Then it was off back down the motorway to Jerez de la Frontera where the sherry comes from.
Us Brits have been in the sherry business for centuries and names like Harveys Brissle Cream and Sandeman are everywhere. We found our way to Gonzalez Byass bodega and then found they wanted to charge us €15 each for a tour and a taste so we contented ourselves with glasses of four different sherries and a plate of sausage tapas at a little bar around the corner for €5 the lot! The important thing according to Hockey was that we drank sherry in Jerez.
There is a fast Cat from nearby El Puerto de Santa Maria that takes you to Cadiz in 30 minutes but by the time we arrived it was late afternoon and starting to rain so we headed back to Bahia de Caseres.
It was January 25th which most educated people will know is Burns night and we had thoughtfully purchased a MacSweens haggis in Cheltenham to bring out.
Chris and I were despatched to the local Supermercado to try and find Neaps which we English call Swedes but which we discovered are unobtainable in Spain so we made do with Butternut Squash.
We were also instructed to get creme fraiche to mash the tatties with but a very nice Spanish lady who saw us wandering about aimlessly came to our aid, explained there was no fresh cream in Spain and found us some cheesy concoction which she said would do the trick and it did.
I explained we were having a supper in memory of the death of a Scottish poet and she was dead impressed. Anyway the Haggis was cooked and duly addressed, the Selkirk grace was said, a toast was made to the immortal memory of Robert Burns and Chris and I drank half a bottle of whisky. Actually the mean bastard only bought half a bottle, not even a straight malt and he drank most of it!
The next day we drove up into the hills to Caseres, one of the Pueblos Blancos villages around these parts.
We climbed up to the top of the hill where there was great views down the coast to Gibraltar, spoilt only by a bloody great wind farm right across the ridge in front. Regular readers will know my thoughts on such monstrosities. Strikes me that with all this sun in these latitudes the authorities should be concentrating on solar farms which can be hidden away on south facing locations so they are less of a blot on the landscape.
Looking over the parapet at the top was a wire rope and a load of rungs descending the vertical cliff face and I realised it was a newly constructed "Via Ferrata" (Iron Way). It would seem that anything the Italians can do...
Not having a climbing harness, waist lengths or karibiners about my person I took note of the sign at the top which said "Descender por una Via Ferrata puede causer un accidente fatal" which I would have thought was fairly obvious.
There were a lot of vultures circling around and nesting in the cliffs below. They have been known to carry away newborn goats, sheep and the odd via ferrata climber!
We stopped at a viewing point further up the mountain from Caseres where there was an information board. It told us that there were about 50 pairs of these big Griffin Vultures nesting in the surrounding cliffs and they can have a wingspan of up to 2.8 metres. They feed off dead cattle and other carrion round about and are the highest known concentration of such birds.
There was a church at the top of the hill and a cemetery. Necro-tourism is becoming very popular and my daughter did her thesis on that subject for her tourism degree so Chris and I spent a pleasant few minutes wandering round the picturesque site full of colourful silk flowers before descending back to the village square.
We had never visited Malaga apart from its airport and it was not what I expected. I was pleasantly surprised.
We parked at the port and walked into the historic area where we found Bodego El Patio and were impressed once again. We had Arroz Trasmallo which came in a big cauldron and was rice in a fish soup with langoustine, monkfish, onions, leeks, mushrooms, cayenne and perhaps some sherry but it tasted like a more subtle bouillabaisse and was quite delicious.
Sue and I then climbed up to the top level of the Alcazabar, a bit like a mini Granada Alhambra and quite pretty. They charged us seniors an extortionate €0.60 each to get in. Not what we expected.
The Hoks dropped us off at the Aeroporte and Ryanair took us back to Brissle. It was a bumpy journey blowing a hooley and thick fog when we landed so the pilot did well to get us down.
After arriving home Chris sent a photograph taken from that same balcony I took the photo from when we arrived. As you can see we picked the right week and that weather is set in for the rest of the week. Hoks is complaining he can't see Gibraltar and is fed up of eating left over haggis!