Thursday, 23 February 2017

#ThrowbackThursday - where we were on this date in Februarys past

Georgette Heyer audiobook 
I have an especially timely start to this month's ThrowbackThursday post. Exactly four years ago, the 23rd of February 2013, I wrote and published my very first Stephanie Jane post. It's my 4th Blogoversary today!
I was already committed to daily blogging of Eastbourne cultural events on Theatrical Eastbourne, but felt I wanted a more personal space too and was excitedly anticipating the wider range of posts I would 'pen'. I had recently listened to a seriously swoon-worthy audiobook so the second half of the post is a breathless recommendation of The Convenient Marriage by Georgette Heyer, deliciously narrated by Richard Armitage!

Alhambra courtyard 
The 22nd February 2014 was a very busy post from Humilladero in Spain. In the previous week we had been walking in the Sierra Nevada national park and the amazing El Torcal park, had stood in a 6000 year old dolmen, and visited the Alhambra in Granada. The Alhambra is absolutely worth every word sung in its praises and we were both blown away by our time there. It was one place that had been on my bucket list to visit for years and I was so excited when we bought our tickets. I loved the intricate plasterwork, the mazes of rooms in the palace and the serene courtyards. Obviously being there in February meant we avoided insane crowd levels, but the site was still surprisingly busy. Fortunately there is plenty of room for everyone to spread out and the palace itself had a strict timed visit policy. We got to the front of the queue for our slot!

Mulberry trees at Cullera 
One year later and we were back in Spain, this time having just arrived at Cullera. I wasn't too enamoured with the campsite when we first arrived, but it grew on me as our stay progressed. Until revisiting my original post in order to write this one I had forgotten about the giant rock, La Roca de los Pensiamentos, which sits right in the middle of numerous chalet pitches. Cullera had its own attractions including good cycling along the seafront as well as inland, but we mainly chose it as being handy for the train into Valencia where we planned to meet up with our friends Andy and Barbara.

Barraca at Montroig del Camp 
Perhaps unsurprisingly, on the 23rd February 2016 we were in ... Spain! (We do visit other countries, just not in February!) 2016 saw us at Cambrils where we had just spent a walking day exploring the barracas of Montroig del Camp. These small structures are traditionally dry stone built huts that provided shelter for shepherds and agricultural workers. Now they are mostly renovated and maintained as a tourist attraction. It is interesting to see close-up the skill that goes into building a barraca and the variety of designs employed.

One of the valuable aspects of our caravan travels for me is that, although we might return to the same country for four years running, being able to pitch up in different placers mean we get a wonderfully varied view of everything on offer. It has taken four winters for us to start to think that maybe we have now comprehensively covered the southern Spanish coast. Next year we must decide whether to start repeating places or whether to try something completely new.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

#TreatYourself - special offers that caught my eye

A new look to this TreatYourself post for February! Click on the posters to visit each of these websites!

Multi-award winning director Sam Mendes returns to the West End, directing Jez Butterworth's brand new play The Ferryman. The play will be designed by Rob Howell and developed by and co-produced with Sonia Friedman Productions. Casting for The Ferryman will include Paddy Considine, who will be joined by Laura Donnelly (The River at the Royal Court) and Irish actress Genevieve O'Reilly (Mon Mothma - Star Wars).
Performance dates: 20 June 2017 – 7 October 2017. Monday to Saturday 7.00pm, Wednesday and Saturday matinees 1.30pm. Plus 1.30pm matinee on Tuesday 27 June.
Book your tickets well in advance to avoid disappointment!

Sue Roche, one of my favourite illustrators, has a generous offer on her whimsically decorated cotton tote bags throughout February. They usually retail at £10 each, but by using the discount code FREEBAG2 at the checkout in Sue's Shopify store you can get yourself two for the price of one. That's two tote bags for just £5 each. I love this rather dippy looking owl! Other designs from which you can choose include unicorns, cakes, a VW campervan, foxes under a rainbow umbrella, sewing machines, and a beautiful hummingbird. The bags are ideal to roll up in your handbag for unexpected shopping, as book bags, craft bags, or even for school PE kits.

Love hot chocolate, but wish it was a little lighter on the calories? Whittard's were listening and have set to work creating a version of their Luxury Hot Chocolate which has 60% less fat – with a smooth, light texture and a lusciously chocolatey taste, it’s sure to put a spring in your step.
Whittard's Lighter hot chocolate is specially blended to be made with water rather than milk, so it’s extra convenient when you’re on the go. (Hot chocolate hiking, anyone?) And it’s also pretty delicious as an iced drink – just blend up 160 ml of milk, 180 g of ice and 50 g of Lighter Luxury Hot Chocolate powder for half a minute or so, and bingo. Choco-FrappĂ©.

Great bookish discounts are always available as a matter of course at The Book Depository, their delivery is generally very efficient and postage to most countries is free so the price you see on each book's page is what you actually pay. I noticed The Book Depository Bargain Box currently has The Quality Of Silence by Rosamund Lupton at half price and Ross Poldark by Winston Graham at a third off, while the Clearance section has The Carrot Principle at 60% off and the Ladybird Classic Nursery Rhymes Collection at 56% off.

And finally, Waitrose have a superb offer for new online shopping customers at the moment! Get £100 off your first five online grocery orders at - effectively £20 per shop. Your first order must be placed for delivery by 26 February 2017 so hurry! All subsequent orders must be placed for delivery by 31 March 2017 to qualify for this offer and a minimum spend of £100 is required on each order to qualify for this offer.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Oropesa to Benicassim - cycling the Via Verde

Me in front of the Mount Bovalar tunnel 
One of my favourite excursions during our stay in Oropesa was the day we decided to cycle from our Marina d'Or campsite to go and see the beautiful Victorian villas on Benicassim seafront. The two towns are separated by smallish mountains, but fortunately for us, a disused railway line that linked them has now been given a second lease of life as a Via Verde. The same idea as the Voies Vertes network in France, these green routes are only for pedestrians and cyclists and this one was perfect for our journey. It is only about five and a half kilometres long but the distance from the campsite easily doubled that so we ended up with over twenty kilometres cycled altogether.

La Corda or La Colomera 
The Via Verde passes the sixteenth century watchtowers of La Corda and La Colomera as well as going through pretty impressive deep cuttings and through the 570m Mount Bovalar tunnel. We had prepared for the tunnel by making sure our lights worked and carrying an extra head torch but this turned out to be overkill. It was helpful to be able to see other bike lights (and know that we too could be seen) as several groups were whizzing past, but the tunnel's own lighting was perfectly adequate to cycle by and the road surface was surprisingly smooth.

Villa Victoria 
Once in Benicassim, we slowly cycled along the seafront promenade, stopping frequently to read a number of information signs about the villas en route. Mostly built in the late 1800s and early 1900s and in an array of architectural styles, these villas were grouped into districts known as either Heaven or Hell depending on the type of parties that were held there! Several are now owned by Benicassim Town Hall and can be rented out for social functions. Other are still in private hands and it was good to see that only a couple looked in need of serious renovations. Tower blocks do stand between groups of villas which does somewhat ruin the overall effect, but it was still fun to imagine bright young things flocking to the town in its heyday. Our favourites were Villa Victoria which was built in 1911 and Villa Amparo where apparently Ernest Hemingway stayed for a while during the Civil War.

Villa Amparo 

Having seen a whole promenade's worth of gorgeous architecture, our thoughts turned to lunch! We chose to visit Torreon, a seafront restaurant with lots of outdoor tables in the sunshine. They do offer a menu del dia, but we just had burgers - the Chicago Burguer for Dave and a Veggie Burguer for me. Dave wasn't completely overwhelmed(!), but I enjoyed my tasty bean burger which had a slice of tofu in lieu of cheese and was served, saladed up, in a wholemeal bap and with nachos and guacamole.

I'm zooming ahead now! 
On the return cycle we paused to get a closer a look at one of the watchtowers. I can't remember now which one it was and there wasn't much to see close up because the lowest windows and doorway were a good ten feet above ground level. Good defensive strategy, but irritating to tourists!

I liked how busy the Via Verde was even on a weekday afternoon. I know it looks like we had it to ourselves in these photos, but in reality there were plenty of other cyclists, walkers and joggers making use of the car-free space. And a big thanks to Dave for being our official photographer! I had failed to charge my phone so couldn't use its camera. D'oh!

And now I'm so far ahead you can hardly see me! 

Saturday, 18 February 2017

Onda's must see attraction: The Tile Museum

Tiles by Francisco Dasi 
I would highly recommend a visit to the Tile Museum (Museo del Azulejo / Museu del Taulell) in Onda for anyone who has a passing interest or more in history, art or local culture. There are over 20,000 tiles in the collection - although not all are on show at once! - which gives a fascinating illustration of technological advances and changes fashions in this region since Roman times. We learned that the combination of the right type of earth for firing, dense forests to provide firewood and the proximity of the ocean trade routes meant that this area, and Onda in particular, was perfectly suited for tile manufacture. Therefore this has been one of the main industries here for over two millennia. The Tile Museum does have examples of very early Roman and Visigoth tiles on display.

The Ayuntamiento (Town Hall) of Onda has recognised this history and its importance to tourism by building a fantastic new museum-conservation facility not far from the centre of Onda. Amazingly it is absolutely free to enter and we also received a nicely printed guide. Items in the gift shop are very reasonably priced too! Opened in 2004 I think, the museum not only displays important historic tiles and works by significant local and national artists, but also engages in conservation and restoration work, as well as holding workshops and events.

I loved walking through the aisles of tiles in the large permanent exhibition space. They are all arranged by age so we could easily see the evolution from pink sandstone coloured Roman tiles to brightly decorated 1970s to present day examples. We both loved the musicians tile mural pictured above, but I completely forgot to take a note of the artist's name. Please comment if you know!

Modernist tiles from the early 20th century 
A second permanent exhibition area is dedicated to tile manufacture. It includes various vintage machines and tools as well as a wonderful collection of black and white photographs of former tile factory workers. A nice touch is that as many as possible of these workers have actually been identified and their names are shown alongside each picture. I was fascinated to learn how tiles are both made and decorated. I was already aware that unique tile pictures would be artist-painted by hand, but had never given much thought to early methods of mass production. It turned out that the firing of blank tiles was a man's job, whereas women were employed as stencil painters. Several of the old photos shows rooms seating a couple of dozen women, each with a high stack of tiles, a paper stencil and a wide brush to paint a single colour. The photo below hows a series of tiles illustrating how these stencilled shapes build up to the finished design.

Finally we took a short walk outside, down the side of the museum building, to where a number of antique tiled public benches are on display. Designs ranged from a simple maroon and white check pattern to ornate pictures and I especially liked this yellow and green example with its repeating owl motif.

Friday, 17 February 2017

Our Valentine's Day in historic Onda

Almudin's Square 
Did we do something stupendously romantic for Valentine's Day this year? Well, er, no actually. For the first time we didn't even get each other a card although, to be fair, the Spanish don't go in for greetings cards in the same way Brits do so finding decent designs is a nightmare over here. We decided to put that cash towards a nice lunch out instead to celebrate our fourteenth Valentine's Day together (and Dave's eleventh anniversary of quitting smoking!)

A very nice lady at Oropesa Tourist Office told us about Onda, whetting our appetite to visit. We began by struggling to find somewhere to park in its maze of a one-way system and, that finally achieved, walked steeply uphill through the narrow streets of the old town towards the Moorish castle on the hill.

View from Onda Castle 
Onda's Castle 
Onda's Castle was first built in the 10th century and covers a large site overlooking the town. It has three distinct areas, the central one of which was the Alcazaba fortress-palace from the 11th century. The castle was once said to have a tower for each day of the year and although that wasn't quite true, its towers did number over three hundred in the castle's heyday. Now it is mostly ruins and an archaeological site with a few towers and walls renovated to give an idea of its former glory. Onda's castle is free to enter and there is also a small artefacts museum onsite although this wasn't open on the day we visited. It was still an interesting place to wander around. Informative placards explained the significance of much of what we saw and the views out over the surrounding town and countryside are breathtaking.

St Vincent Ferrer's Chapel 
We were given a small Onda map at the castle which included a suggested route through the oldest part of the medieval town taking in the old Muslim and Jewish quarters. Onda still retains a picturesque sense of its history in this area and we enjoyed a coffee in the arcaded Almudin Square (pictured above). Nearby streets retain a few heavy medieval wood doorways. The Muslim community lived in some 50 houses, an area known as the Moreria, until their expulsion in 1609. The pictured St Vincent Ferrer's Chapel was built on the site of the former mosque. The Moreria neighboured the Aljama, the Jewish community, until Jews were expelled in 1492. Nowadays only the remnants of a gate jamb remain to mark the old Synagogue Gate in the town walls. No one is exactly sure where the synagogue stood.

We got lucky with our lunch spot after a good walk around. I loved the decoration of buildings which includes painting and tiled frescos. Several of the restaurants were closed for the season and we didn't fancy resorting to pizza, but eventually stumbled upon La Taperia de Nati. This functional bar-restaurant was advertising a three course Menu Del Dia, but we had no idea what we would get! Unexpected lunch is what passes for excitement in my world! After some understanding of what we were being offered and some complete lack of comprehension, we ended up with two shared starters - Potatoes And Beans and Broad Beans With Bacon - two main courses - Bacalao for me and Pork for Dave - two desserts - coffee flan for me and chocolate cake for Dave - plus salad and bread, beer and wine, and coffees, for the grand total of €8.50 each. Incredibly good value and very good food!

Then after lunch we retrieved our car which, by accident rather than design, was just around the corner, and drove a little way out of town to the Tile Museum. Like the views from castle, I think this Museum should be an essential part of any visit to Onda - and I will blog about it tomorrow!

Thursday, 16 February 2017

The Roman Arch at Cabanes

The Roman Arch at Cabanes 
We spent our fourteenth Valentine's Day together visiting the historic town of Onda. I will blog about that tomorrow, but for today I want to talk about the diversion we took on our way home to see the Roman Arch at Cabanes. The Arch was built in the 2nd century AD and was probably originally a funerary monument connected to a (then) nearby villa. It stood on the Via Augusta, a famous Roman highway, and today is still positioned at the end of a long straight road from Cabanes so, driving towards it, we got a sense of how it would have appeared 1800 years ago. The road is now routed on a roundabout around the monument though. No one has driven under it since the 1800s.

How the arch originally looked 
The Arch is no longer complete however. This reproduction of a medieval engraving shows further blocks rising to a height of nearly six metres. These blocks had vanished by the 1600s when contemporary artworks show the Arch as it currently stands. The information placard on site claims that some of the missing blocks can be spotted forming part of buildings in Cabanes - if you know where to look! Interesting architectural notes are that the Arch is made from limestone on a base of granite blocks and that it retains its curve without the use of a keystone.

We drove about 2km outside of Cabanes village to get here. There is a good cycle path from the village too, but as we drove back over the hills to get to our campsite we were glad we had not attempted to cycle there. The CV146 is too steep and narrow for our abilities!

Looking back along the Via Augusta