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Among many great scenes in Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant Pulp Fiction, one of the most famous features Jules and Vincent, two hitmen, discussing the little differences that Vincent encountered on his recent travels in Europe. Having just spent 2½ weeks in France myself and had a thoroughly good time, here’s a handful or two of little differences that I (mainly) love experiencing every time I cross the Channel…

  • Fresh fruit and veg in the supermarkets (especially down South) is massively superior in quality to the UK. Certainly they have the climate for tomatoes, nectarines, avocados and so on, but the food seems fresher, tastier, more real. It doesn’t have the bizarre uniformity we get in the UK, and actually seems ripe and ready to eat on the day of purchase
  • In all the towns we visited, they still persist with the (ahem) old-fashioned approach of shutting shops at lunchtime; similarly, on-street parking is often free over lunchtime. Most of the supermarkets don’t open on Sundays. How do they cope?
  • Dunking a croissant or pain au chocolat into a bowl of coffee for breakfast
  • Spending £5 every day on bread and croissants. The daily visit to la boulangerie is a real treat, but it needs careful budgeting!
  • I love seeing coloured shutters protecting houses from the heat of a Southern French summer
  • There doesn’t seem to be any great compulsion to compare prices on everything and anything. One petrol station might charge up to 10% more than another only a few hundred yards down the road, something which, in the UK, would probably spell doom and closure for the expensive one
  • The French love a bit of Direct Action. Four years ago we were in Reims when we were treated to the sight of White-Coated (rather than white collar) protests. The local Pharmacists were angry at what they saw as the increasing encroachment of supermarkets onto their traditional areas of specialist advice and expertise. This time, we were in Carcassonne where the workers at a major nearby ice-cream plant were protesting against the proposed closure of this plant by its new venture capitalist owners. Crude hand-drawn cartoons, badly amplified megaphones and trestle tables made up the slightly shabby but very noisy event at the main entrance gateway to this UNESCO World Heritage Site.
  • The broadsheet French newspapers are never knowingly underwritten. Libération was always my favourite when I studied in France 20 years ago, and I still like it now. Take this extract from a recent article commemorating the 30th anniversary of ‘The Thriller in Manila’, between Joe Frazier and Muhammed Ali…

Ali, c’est Achille aux pieds légers et aux bras lourds. Les pieds sont moins légers qu’il y a onze ans, du temps du match contre Sonny Liston, mais le jab est toujours aussi performant, et ces coups sortent comme des jets de lumière, à sa vitesse. Achille a 33 ans, l’âge du Christ. Et il a toujours sa tchatche. Il convaincrait les marchands de vider le Temple pour lui, mais le Temple, c’est lui.

This roughly translates as…

Ali is Achilles, light-footed but with heavy arms. The feet aren’t as light as 11 years ago, when he fought Sonny Liston, but his jab is just as powerful, and these blows flash out like jets of light, and just as fast. Achilles is 33, the same age as Christ. And he still has his chat. He could convince the merchants to empty the Temple for him, but then, he IS the Temple.

When did you last read anything like that in your paper? Achilles and Christ in the same paragraph. Beautiful, overblown, nonsense!

  • When, how, and (more to the point) why do French men grow up thinking that it’s perfectly OK to stop your car at the side of the road, get out, and just take a p**s next to your car, in full view of traffic?
  • Why does France persist with those awful ‘footplate’ toilets? Even at the stunning Viaduc de Millau, only constructed in the last decade and a fairly major tourist attraction, the toilets are primitive holes in the ground, with no paper provided. Near where we were staying in the Pyrenées, the local council had amazingly created a sandy beach next to a small lake, marked out safe bathing areas and provided a lifeguard 6 days a week: but the toilets had no doors or paper, or actual toilets beyond the hole in the floor.
  • On the other hand, I love love love French markets. For the saucissons secs, the fruit and veg, the live animals, odd clothing, poulets fermiers, cheese and so on. We really enjoyed our local Sunday morning crush in Esperaza, walking back laden with food for lunch.

Esperaza Market

  • Similarly, motorway service stations are very different in France. Probably because of the distances between major towns and cities, there are hundreds of aires dotted around the motorway network at regular intervals, ranging from landscaped picnic areas to full-blown affairs. But even these larger things aren’t much like those in the UK. When we returned home, we experienced Reading Services on the M4 on a Friday evening; a huge carpark rammed full with vehicles disgorging hundreds of people inside, swarming around fast food outlets. In France, far more people seem to travel with their own food; bread, ham, fruit, cheese. The service stations have more expansive grounds and outdoor seating. They feel less like a commercial conveyor belt for you to refuel on calories and caffeine, more like somewhere to stop and relax, recharge for a while.
  • But then when French motorists get back in their car, they have a very strange way of driving (especially further North in the country). Most motorways are two-lane, and if you’re overtaking, God help you to be going more slowly than someone behind you. The standard plan is (rather than slow slightly to retain a safe gap) accelerate right up to the back of the car in front, wait two seconds, and flash your lights impatiently.
  • Avenues of plane trees towering over long straight roads, with fields of vines or sunflowers alongside.
  • Stargazing in Espereza is something wonderful. No light pollution, clear skies. Thousands of pinpricks across the night sky, with the Milky Way scattered through the middle.
  • The city centre of Orléans is unlike most in the UK. The Medieval Quarter is full of restaurants, bars and cafés, packed with tourists and locals, students and families. It was often noisy, with music playing out across the terraces and streets, but nowhere did I see people drinking in packs, maurauding from bar to bar.

Orleans Rue de Bourgogne

Vive la différence!

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It’s almost exactly 19 months since I opened this WordPress account and started blogging. Recently I suggested to another blogger that for his 100th post he should list 100 things he had learnt since starting his blog. He gamely accepted the challenge, so some similar list is the least I can do…

So, looking back so far, a ‘York Notes’ version of What I Reckon (May 2009 – December 2010)

  1. Aiming to post 2-3 times a week is a noble aim, but not at 600 words a time.
  2. It’s about people (not data segments or clusters or whatever).
  3. Don’t try and surf if you can’t easily and smoothly stand up from lying prone on solid ground.
  4. Fish are friends, not food.
  5. Sometimes sitting down with an icecream is more fun than flying a kite.
  6. I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.
  7. The smell of Birds’ Custard makes me think of Sunday lunch when I was a child.
  8. Businesses should stop centralising and get closer to their local communities.
  9. Dr John Mislow was a friend of mine a long time ago. His death at 39 is a tragedy.
  10. Arthur Honnegger’s ‘Pacific 231’ is a brilliant evocation of the power of the steam train.
  11. I really don’t want the BBC to tell me what other people reckon about the news. I want the BBC to tell me the news.
  12. Advertising can sometimes produce very moving, powerful campaigns for good.
  13. There’s skint, and there’s middle class skint. I know which I am, and I am grateful.
  14. The Wire is the best TV series I’ve ever seen, even better than Mad Men.
  15. The menu découvert at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons is expensive, but astonishingly good value.
  16. I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.
  17. Man on Wire is a fantastic biopic, documentary and heist movie all at once.
  18. The Merlin Entertainments London Eye is a stunning way to see London, but it was also a soulless corporate experience for me.
  19. Stuff takes longer when you’re camping, but in a good way.
  20. Marketing is usually the application of common sense.
  21. U2 are a brilliant band, and their live shows are tremendous.
  22. One of the best things about my week is listening to Filmspotting.
  23. Most products can be easily and almost instantly substituted for a functionally identical alternative. The difference is in design, experience and how it makes you feel.
  24. Margaret Thatcher was wrong. There is such a thing as society, and it’s not David Cameron’s ‘Big’ version either.
  25. This American Life, presented by the peerless Ira Glass, is a marvellous radio show.
  26. Queen were a terrific band, and Freddie Mercury the greatest front man of all-time.
  27. The mound above Tarn Hows is a wonderful spot to have lunch, looking across to the Langdale Pikes.
  28. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road is a masterpiece.
  29. Social Media isn’t complicated. It’s a conversation. Be interesting, and listen to what other people are saying.
  30. Revolutionary Road has much to praise, but ultimately I found it hollow, considerably less than the sum of its parts.
  31. The problem with most brands is that they want to talk about themselves all the time.
  32. Andy Goldsworthy is a tremendous ‘natural artist’.
  33. Sometimes my iPod shuffle command seems to know what it’s doing, and creates playlists of real beauty.
  34. The PCC  seems pretty toothless to me.
  35. Watching a film on a train can be dangerous. It can leave you utterly unprepared for the real world at the end of the journey.
  36. Orange seems to take me for granted. And yet I stay with them. What does that say about #23?
  37. The end of The Graduate is the least triumphant happy ending in cinema.
  38. A Gary Larson cartoon and a Jack Johnson quote have driven more traffic to my blog than any other post…
  39. Real mail is at least as important as email.
  40. I wish I was half as cool as Christopher Walken.
  41. If you want me to care about you’re supposedly trying to sell, at least pretend like you care about me.
  42. There’s something very empty about the same sort of people drinking the same drinks sat at the same tables listening to the same music in ‘chain bars’ all over the country.
  43. Did I mention that The Wire is the best TV ever made? Ever.
  44. The opening paragraph of Jim Crace’s Quarantine is as good as anything I’ve read in years. The rest of the book is pretty darn great too.
  45. Bono learnt a lot of what he knows from Freddie Mercury, except the bit about not taking himself too seriously.
  46. ‘Company Policy’ is usually the death-knell to allowing staff to treat customers decently
  47. Men, as a rule, hate indiscriminate shopping.
  48. Anyone who thinks It’s a Wonderful Life is schmaltzy sentimentality run riot hasn’t been paying attention.
  49. In Rainbows is as close to a perfect album as pretty much anything I’ve heard.
  50. Everyone wants to be where someone loves them best of all…
  51. I got tired of writing about poor customer service, because it doesn’t seem to change anything.
  52. Corporate car adverts need to be less boastful about how good their cars are, and pay attention to #41 above…
  53. Let us all be Dinosaurs and Lovely Other Dinosaurs together. For the sun is warm. And the world is a beautiful place.
  54. The Cluetrain Manifesto is as relevant now as when it was written 11 years ago.
  55. I need to review my old posts more often – several video embeds are now defunct…
  56. PT Anderson is a brilliant director, probably the best around.
  57. I laugh more in an episode of Green Wing than in a whole series of most comedy shows.
  58. John Hillcoat’s adaptation of The Road is a fine film, but not quite a masterpiece.
  59. Keeping a written record of significant experiences is a lovely way to remind myself that my life is pretty darn fine, actually.
  60. Many businesses swing wildly between a plan based on pie-in-the-sky assumptions with no foundation, and analysis-paralysis.
  61. BBC 6Music packs in more variety in a day than most commercial stations do in a month.
  62. I hoped the UK General Election in May 2010 would lead to positive change. I was half-right.
  63. Devon and Cornwall have beaches to rival anywhere in Europe.
  64. Many of my favourite songs are under 3 minutes long; perfectly-formed pieces of beautiful art.
  65. I truly hoped the Conservative / Lib-Dem coalition would be a progressive force for change in UK politics. I was naive.
  66. 2 of my Top 3 films of the last decade are not in English (City of God and The Lives of Others).
  67. Sometimes traffic to my blog comes from the most unlikely sources (Lady Gaga?!).
  68. Cate Blanchett is one of the most interesting actresses working today.
  69. Companies need to care more about their agencies.
  70. Uncovering decades-old diaries can be both uplifting and uncomfortable.
  71. When you are dancing and laughing and finally living, hear my voice in your head and think of me kindly.
  72. Usain Bolt is a greater role-model and champion than any English footballer.
  73. The salaries of the 24 players in England’s dismal World Cup squad would pay for over 3,300 British Soldiers.
  74. Martin Luther King never spoke in terms of SMART objectives.
  75. Childhood is measured out by sounds and smells and sights, before the dark hour of reason grows…
  76. Volunteering for The National Trust enables me to meet great people and do some good. Nice.
  77. (Despite the doping scandals) The Tour de France is a sporting spectacle like nothing else.
  78. There is no political violence, only criminal violence. But this can be state-sanctioned too.
  79. Natwest Bank’s ‘Helpful Banking’ campaign is depressingly cautious and underwhelming.
  80. Gifford’s Circus is brilliant old-school entertainment.
  81. I am incredibly proud of the way my 5-year-old daughter deals with her  nut allergy
  82. Anvil! The story of Anvil is as wonderful a love story as you’ll ever see.
  83. There is nothing worse in life than being blind in Granada…
  84. Roald Dahl is my favourite author for children.
  85. Does our ability to overcome nature make us immune to its danger and challenges?
  86. It’s really important to believe in your own abilities: you can be better than you’re currently allowed to be.
  87. The 24-hour-news cycle means we make mountains out of molehills and forget very quickly.
  88. Easyjet are not as bad as they’re made out to be.
  89. The Bugle is the perfect antidote to the 24-hour-news-cycle
  90. The shared experience of the Twitterati watching Strictly Come Dancing or X-Factor proves that appointment TV viewing is not dead.
  91. The Cove is a brilliant and shocking documentary that does for (part of) the Japanese fishing industry what Jamie Oliver has tried to do for battery chicken farming in the UK
  92. There is such a thing as too much choice.
  93. Long live Jesse Smith’s Butcher in Tetbury and all those like it.
  94. Movember is a terrific charity, and it brought our team at work closer together. The power of the Mo is real…
  95. Born to Run by Bruce Springsteen is another near-perfect album.
  96. I grew a moustache and I liked it (for a month anyway)
  97. I’m a French Horn player and proud of it.
  98. I’m also proud of this blog. Thanks for reading.
  99. Struggling now… as it’s nearly Christmas, can I point you in the direction of my recipe for a lovely festive season?
  100. Trying to plan ahead with posts, especially when my blog is reasonably wide-ranging in scope, is important. I get distracted easily and lose focus. Outlining is important, and writer’s block is real.

I hope I can continue to feel proud of this for another 100 posts, and that you can continue to find it interesting. Thanks for reading and supporting my little blog.

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To see the butcher slap the steak before he laid it on the block, and give his knife a sharpening, was to forget breakfast instantly. It was agreeable too – it really was – to see him cut it off so smooth and juicy. There was nothing savage in the act, although the knife was large and keen; it was a piece of art, high art; there was delicacy of touch, clearness of tone, skilful handling of the subject, fine shading. It was the triumph of mind over matter; quite.
Charles Dickens – ‘Martin Chuzzlewit’

Apologies to any vegetarian readers, but I love going into a ‘proper’ butcher’s shop. Indeed, (and apologies also to Jane Austen!) it is a truth universally acknowledged that Chris Moody, in possession of a few minutes to spare on a Saturday morning, must be in want of a nearby butcher’s… where I can sample a nugget of cheddar or a new variety of sausage, I can ogle the pork pies or scratchings, and marvel at the staff’s dexterity with some very sharp knives.

Jesse Smith Butchers in Tetbury is my favourite butcher’s. John and his excellent team are wonderful ambassadors for the town, for their craft and trade, and for all-round customer service. They welcome customers like friends: I’m often greeted with the not-at-all ironic salutation “Good day, young man!”. They’ll advise about cuts and joints, cooking tips, offer up bones for your dog, offer sweets for the kids, and their sausage rolls are amazing.

They play a central role in Tetbury’s community. The store is located right in the heart of the town, and on alternate Saturdays they operate the ‘Big Pan’. You can smell can smell the sausages and burgers and onions cooking from down the street, and it’s a terrible burden to walk past without indulging. More significantly, the proceeds from all of these ‘Big Pan’ mornings are donated to local charities and community groups. They supply burgers etc to local schools and the like for their own fundraisers at discounted prices.

Probably as a result of all this, on ‘Christmas Lights’ evening, when many stores open late in Tetbury, Jesse Smith is always packed with laughter and buzzing conversations, as customers and staff share mulled wine and sausage rolls. In the days leading up to Christmas there are queues down the street.

Long live Jesse Smith and all those like it. I hope you are as lucky as Tetbury is to have somewhere like it.

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…(according to Wikiquote) The poet Francisco Alarcón said this to a girl who did not give a blind beggar charity and regretted that the blind could not enjoy the beauty of the city of Granada.

Friday 27th August has been logged in my memory as a pretty near-perfect day. It was the mid-point of our holiday in Andalucia, and possibly the hottest day of the week. We spent the morning mostly doing not very much; reading, writing postcards home with the girls, playing UNO, and in the swimming pool, where every day was a joy to me to see Hannah & Eleanor jumping, playing, splashing and swimming with such confidence and enthusiasm.

After a terrific late lunch of crusty bread with fresh beefsteak and plum tomato salad, serrano ham, avocado and manchego cheese, we got ourselves ready to go to Granada to visit the Alhambra. We’d booked tickets online in advance, hoping to avoid the worst heat of the day and queues of visitors.

The A7 Autovia del Mediterraneo is a masterpiece of engineering. The whole thing stretches from Algeciras at the Southern tip of Spain over 1,300km practically to the French border. It makes for an amazing drive along, or rather through and over the rocky Andalucian coastline. Large sections of the road from Nerja to Motril are either viaducts over gorges or tunnels through the mountainous terrain. As you turn inland to head North towards Granada, the drive gets even more spectacular. Alongside the roads of the Lake District and the French Autoroute over the Millau Viaduct and South towards the Mediterranean, this is one of my favourite drives…

In barely 30 miles the road travels from sea level to 860m over the Puerto del Suspiro del Moro (Pass of the Moor’s Sigh), so named after Muhammad XII, the last Moorish sultan of Granada, crossed the pass in 1492 after being ejected from the city and loudly sighed while looking back and longing for his palaces; an act which moved his mother to whip him with the famous “Now you weep like a woman over what you could not defend as a man” (ouch!).

When we arrived in Granada around 4pm, the car thermometer was reading 38.5º Celsius (in the shade). Despite having acclimatised to temperatures in the low-mid 30s over the previous few days, getting out of our air-conditioned car was like stepping into a sauna: dry, intense, soul-sapping heat.

Thankfully, the clever Moorish architects and designers (and indeed the current Alhambra management) thought to build shaded courtyards, paths and gardens which help reduce the searing heat of the full sun.To be honest, it’s a minor miracle that the gardeners could keep so many flowering plants alive in such heat.

The Generalife Gardens (as indeed is the whole palace) were designed to recreate ‘paradise on earth’, with column arcades, birdsong, flowers and the sound of running water. Even on a scorching August afternoon among thousands of visitors, I was astonished at the peacefulness, the silence and the greenery on such a bleached hillside above such a bustling city.

At the other end of the complex, the Alcazaba was like an open-air oven. Perched on the end of the promontory above Granada, this 10th Century fortress is forbidding indeed. Thick, thick walls, indeed layers of unforgiving walls and monolithic towers give amazing viewpoints over the surrounding plateau. Hannah and I climbed the Torre de la Vela. It was cooler inside the walls, but the stairs were steep and high. By the time we reached the top, she was almost literally melting into collapse, and I was worried about having to carry her down. But the overview of both the city and the palaces was terrific.

Alhambra Granada Alcazba Nasrid Palaces

But while this is all mightily impressive, the real joy, the uplifting inspiration of The Alhambra that elevates it above other places I’ve visited comes within the Nasrid Palaces. We had timed our tickets so we had the last entry slot of the afternoon at 7pm. By now it was gradually beginning to cool, and the shade within the courtyards made it almost pleasant!

I’ll try not to go completely overboard with my adjectives in recalling my reactions and response to these Palaces. The precision and simplicity of design is amazing. The quality of work and detailing is astonishing. The display of wealth and power is in every arch, every ceiling, every niche, but so too is the dedication to Allah.

My ‘left brain’ loved the tessellating tiles, the repetitiveness of patterns and motifs, the extraordinarily clean lines and symmetry in the design of arches, doorways, and courtyards.

My ‘right’ brain was constantly dazzled by the colours, the intricacy, the beauty of the workmanship way beyond the functional requirements; the detailing and ‘over-specification’ of the ornaments. Every door, every arch, every niche, every ceiling is stunningly conceived and decorated. It’s mindblowing. And over 600 years old.

When the Christian monarchs overthrew the Moors in 1492, they evidently recognised the tremendous value of the Alhambra, both as a fortress and symbol of power, but also its artistic brilliance, and they preserved its heritage, including the never-ending devotion to Allah. I’d seen this before in Istanbul, where Muslem and Christian ‘conquerors’ recognised the beauty and intrinsic value of the other religion’s artefacts, and did not destroy them, nor seek to impose their will and values over them. Hmmmm…

And after all that, we didn’t even have time to explore the wonderful Albaicin,  the old Moorish Quarter of Granada, that spreads over the hillside facing the Alhambra.

Instead, we ate at Cafe Central, just a few yards from the Plaza Nueva in the centre of the city. The food and service was fantastic, and we enjoyed terrific Salmorejo soup (similar to Gazpacho), a sausage of black pudding wrapped in filo pastry and deep-fried, wonderful cod steaks and arroz con leche with amazing almond icecream.

We also had a terrific time watching the tapeadors sampling the delights of Granada’s bars. As we left around 11pm, the city was truly alive, and there were families with children everywhere. Toddlers were snoozing in their buggies while their parents grazed or walked with friends. The heat was finally dissipating (it was still around 80º), and it was the end of a brilliant day.

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We have just returned from a fantastic 9 days in Nerja in Andalucia. I’ve already posted (quite a few) pictures on my Facebook page, and will certainly be blogging about the Alhambra Palace in Granada in more detail (because it’s simply one of the most astonishing places I’ve visited), as well as a couple of other things that struck chords while we were there.

This holiday was our first foreign trip since our Grand Tour de France in May/June 2008, and we deliberately chose to go to Spain in August because we wanted ‘guaranteed sunshine’. We certainly got it, and a few other things besides…

  1. It was a real thrill to see Hannah & Eleanor spend hours (and hours) in the swimming pool. Rachel has recently bought them Swimfins for them both, and they proved absolutely brilliant at enabling the girls to swim confidently in water way too deep for them to stand up. We had a whale of a time, and their swimming came hugely – Hannah even learnt to use a snorkel.
  2. We had dinner at the various restaurants on Burriana Beach three times during the week. Of course these were popular with the tourists but also seemed to have a large local clientele; probably because of the quality and value. The Montemar was probably our favourite, mostly for its fantastic barbacoa and the fresh fish on offer.

    Merendero Montemar, Nerja, Burriana Beach

  3. The Siesta approach to living with the heat is very relaxing! On all but one day we had cloudless skies and temperatures in the mid-90s. It really was too hot to do very much outside of the pool or the sea; so we didn’t. Indeed, as our balcony was shaded for the afternoons, we started a new family holiday tradition…
  4. …playing UNO! This simple card game brought out some memorable moments, notably the refrain “it’s not about love, it’s about WINNING”, which was started by Rachel, but willingly taken up by both Hannah and Eleanor whenever they played a wild card or scuppered someone else’s plans. “I cannot go, said the Big Bells of Bow” was a cheery jingle started by Hannah and adopted by the rest of us. In the end we scored a running total over a few days, and with (almost) no quarter given by the grown-ups, it woz the kids wot won it, with Eleanor (4) and Hannah (8) outscoring Rachel (ahem) and I (41) pretty comprehensively.
  5. We stayed in a small complex of around a dozen apartments around a shared pool. Most of the people were Brits, and I experienced the ‘towels on sunbeds‘ mentality for the first time in years. Every morning, the sun was barely peeping out over the mountains, but there was a row of sun loungers, aligned with towels and parasols at the ready. It all seemed rather childish (“you can’t sit there, it’s saved“), but then I found myself at least partly entering into the mentality. We usually went down much later, but even then I would guard ‘our’ territory jealously. These other families left before us, so at the end of our holiday I would look down from our balcony to see empty loungers, lonely beside the pool; and I almost felt cheated, no longer able to scoff at the playground behaviour.
  6. The proximity of mountains and sea in Andalucia is fantastic. I sometimes wonder which I prefer (the Lake District or the Cornish Coast), but here you can have both.
    Nerja

    The view from our apartment balcony. The other way was the Mediterranean.

    In just a few miles from Nerja you can be in  amazing countryside. Precipitous valleys and winding mountain roads take you to places like Competa or Frigiliana, where you can marvel at the impossibly steep olive terraces, the avocado trees and prickly pears at the roadside, and the countless villas and houses built on ridges and hilltops.
    The astounding drive from the coast near Motril to Granada is barely 40 miles but takes you over 850m above sea level. A further 20 miles and you’re at the Sierra Nevada ski station at Pradollano, 2,100m above sea level and with skiing above 3,000m…

  7. The entertainment at Burriana Beach was fantastic. The Ayo restaurant has regular Flamenco evenings which are massively popular with locals, Spanish and foreign tourists. Even more “impressive” was the other act. After the Flamenco group had finished their first set, before the seated group of children had a chance to move from their places in front of the stage, a cheer went up as a lone man approached the stage.
    He must have been in his late 40s or early 50s, looked fit (Spanish tan, quite lean), with a white shirt open to the waist. He started a dance routine to a tape of disco music. He looked like a camp ex-matador, twirling capes and cloths around him like a kind of middle-aged Rhythmic Gymnast. The tourists seemed to look at each other, partly in disbelief, partly in apprehension at what might happen next.
    We were right to be nervous. After much bowing and blown kisses, he disappeared and returned in a long coat, apparently without his shirt or trousers. A few more twirls later and the coat was gone. Now he was shimmying, gyrating and thrusting in cut-off denim hotpants. A few moments later and his shuddering hips caused the shorts to fall, revealing a rainbow thong. All of this to loud disco tunes and barely 6 feet in front of the row of young children, sat cross-legged on the sand. It was like you’d booked the VERY wrong entertainer for your child’s birthday party. The crowd laughed and cheered. Lord knows what the kids thought.
  8. On Sunday evening we went to Church in Nerja. The congregation was fairly elderly, and most of the women came armed with fans. Throughout the service (fairly swiftly done, the Priest looked pretty hot in his robes) we could hear the sound of fans flicking open and shut, like the swoosh of primitive light sabres. There were many different techniques to admire – subtle, flamboyant, and even a ‘his-and-hers’ where the woman fanned her partner as well with a larger action of the wrist…
  9. Did I mention the Alhambra? (more of that later…)Alhambra, Patio de los Arrayanes, Granada

I realise this reads like ‘what a great holiday I had’, but we truly did. And I was resolute in not tweeting about it while we were there etc. In fact, I’m delighted to have found that the Twitterati and Interweb seemed to get along just fine without me. All the time I spent playing with the girls, chatting to my very lovely wife, swimming or reading or just doing nothing instead of checking Facebook et al was extremely well spent.

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My younger daughter has a nut allergy. In clinical terms it’s not severe, but that doesn’t mean it’s not alarming and sometimes difficult. 2 years ago, when she wasn’t yet 3 years old, we gave her a biscuit containing chunks of Brazil nut. We hadn’t consciously thought about it; she had eaten peanut butter once before (and not liked it), but it hadn’t affected her in any other way. She suffers from eczema (a genetic inheritance from me), and some foods do cause it to flare up, but nothing like this.

When it happened we were fortunate that we were able to get her to the local GP surgery within a few minutes, and get her anti-histamine and steroids. She came out in a vivid red flush over her throat, face, neck and torso, including angry raised hives. Her airways weren’t affected, and by the next morning she was mostly recovered, although it took a couple of weeks for her eczema to return ‘to normal’.

From that day on, our life changed: we scrutinise food labelling; we ask bakeries and restaurants about their policies and ingredients. Some food brands are very good while others seem to abdicate responsibility. There might be a long list of products buried within a website, or (like Walls/Unilever) they seem to ignore the presence of allergies and hope that no one complains (or is taken ill).

Only a few weeks after Ella’s initial (and thankfully only) reaction, we went on a month-long trip around France. It’s a stereotype with some justification that France is a barren place for vegetarians, but our early fears were utterly unfounded. Boulangers were understanding and sympathetic, food labelling seemed good, and many restaurateurs were terrific. One chef-patron in St Emilion even came out of the kitchen and asked her in English what she would like, and what he could make for her off-menu.

UK restaurants have been less consistent. Wagamama and Nando’s are good. They have comprehensive booklets that are available to staff and customers, so you can check the recipes, ingredients and preparation methods. On the other hand, Pizza Express were rubbish, so we don’t eat there any longer, just as we no longer buy Walls icecreams or many Cadbury’s chocolate bars. It’s easy to vote with our feet when Ella’s health is the issue.

Icecream and Easter Eggs are by far the toughest products to find that are both suitable and properly-labelled, but we’ve been delighted that Winstones Ice Cream and Kinnerton Chocolate are exceptions proving the general rule. The other main area for concern relates to ‘Other Places’ or ‘Other People’, especially birthday parties. We usually provide a supply of ‘alternative’ biscuits or treats. Commercially-made cakes are almost never any good, and so many chocolate brands ‘may contain traces of nuts’ that even home-made chocolate cakes are a non-starter.

In short, we take responsibility. We appreciate all the help and understanding of her Playgroup leaders, and indeed she starts school next month, and we’re providing them with full precautions and instructions, including specific things to avoid. We do expect the school to ensure she’s not put at risk, but there’s only so much they can do.

Sorry to be churlish, but when well-meaning friends say things like “Oh I’m sure this would be OK” it really gets on my nerves. How sure are you, exactly? What understanding do you have of Eleanor’s condition? Have you actually checked all the food labelling and ingredients? Please don’t take offence if I choose not to offer Eleanor something if I don’t have complete confidence. Please let me take the decision over what’s OK.

Ella has so far showed herself to be mature way beyond her age (she’s still only 4), being remarkably proactive in checking if foods are ‘alright for her’ and at being swift to ask for alternatives (lollies instead of icecream, jelly babies instead of chocolate). On occasions when there is no alternative, she’s usually pretty pragmatic, much better than other children. She takes responsibility for herself, and it often winds me up when others don’t do the same.

We’re going to Spain next week and are busily swotting up on the relevant vocabulary. How do I say ‘groundnut oil’ in Spanish…?

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When I lived in London my friends divided pretty firmly between North & South. Some of us liked Camden, Hampstead, Highgate, Islington. Others (oh so wrongly) preferred Putney, Clapham, Wimbledon. And never the twain shall meet.

Apparently the same is often true when people talk about the Southwest of England. Friends talk about ‘their corner’ of Devon or Cornwall, where they return regularly, some to family-owned properties, others to well-trusted cottages.

My problem is that I love all of it. We’ve visited the peninsula for the past 5 years, staying near Ilfracombe, Falmouth, Kingsbridge, Fowey, Bodmin & Launceston. All of these areas have their attractions that each exert a serious pull on me to come back.

My main confession would be that we’ve barely made it down to the far South of Cornwall (St Ives, Penzance, The Lizard), but that’s partly because we love the rest of the region so much it seems a shame to stay in the car for an extra hour and a half…

Anyway, what I love about the South West

  1. The Beaches – Croyde, Harlyn Bay, Constantine Bay, Crackington Haven, Hemmick Bay, Bantham Sands/Bigbury (and I’ve not even been to Watergate, Newquay et al). Rockpools to explore, acres of sand to discover your child-within, sandcastles to build and destroy…
  2. The cliffs – the South West Coast is stunning. Shorter walks around headlands, or 640 miles during which you climb over 80,000 feet.
  3. Precipitous, impossibly narrow lanes – around Combe Martin and Berrynarbour, through the villages on Dartmoor. The 3 mile lane to Bantham Sands is mostly a single-track lane, and navigating through the Chelsea Tractors that populate it can be hazardous. The descent to Hemmick Bay feels like driving down a drainpipe. The walls and hedges tower over the car, there is about 18 inches clearance on either side of the car, and absolutely nowhere to pass.
  4. Helpful Holidays – lovely staff, loads of terrific properties, a very useful website, and their great attitude seems to attract lovely owners who love the area, and who really care about the houses they rent out.
  5. The coastal villages. Now it’s true that places like Fowey, Salcombe & Padstow have been gentrified, and I’ve heard more than one of these described as Richmond-on-Sea. But it’s not all a bad thing: smaller places like Boscastle & Port Isaac have welcomed tourism in a more limited way, as their geography is so restrictive. The main car park in Port Isaac is the harbour beach at low tide. Clamping is the least of your worries if you overstay the ticket time.
  6. The Moors – Dartmoor is beautiful, rugged, bleak, almost unforgiving: but it’s where I proposed to Rachel. Our latest discovery on its Western edge is Lydford Gorge, with the wonderful White Lady Waterfall.

    Many thanks to Rachel Slater for permission to use her tremendous photo. You can see more of her work at http://www.redbubble.com/people/fensnapz

    Exmoor seems like a smaller sibling, but can feel even more remote with its tiny lanes with walled sides that tower over your car. Bodmin also seems greener, less imposing, but boasts the highest points in Cornwall.

  7. The Gardens – the mild and wet climate means the gardens are tremendous. We tend to visit in the Spring, and never cease to be amazed at the displays of spring bulbs, Camelias, Azaleas, Magnolias and Rhodedendrons. The steep-sided valleys at Cotehele, Trelissick, Glendurgan are wonderful. The Lost Gardens of Heligan are stunning, and their history almost defies description. Did I forget to mention The Eden Project…?
  8. The Houses – the National Trust has done well in the South West. We’ve visited Arlington Court, Lanhydrock (amazingly preserved ‘Upstairs/Downstairs’ experience and astonishing gardens), Overbeck’s (beautiful gardens and stunning sea views) and Cotehele (wonderful valley gardens and a working mill). Perhaps my favourite is the grande folie of Castle Drogo on the Northern edge of Dartmoor. Its design by Lutyens is a thing of wonder and beauty. Its location on a precipice above the River Teign gorge is awesome.
  9. The Food – just like salads taste better in France, so do cream teas and pasties down here. There may be pasty shops in every high street, but they are just better down here, like PW Coleman in Salcombe or Nicki B’s Deli in Port Isaac. The seafood can be wonderful – I recommend Denis Knight in Port Isaac for fresh crab, sole & homemade fishcakes. Rick Stein’s Fish & Chips are an expensive treat, although The Codfather in Launceston is a much cheaper and no less delicious alternative! And we’ve loved discovering two excellent vineyards too, at Camel Valley near Bodmin and Sharpham near Totnes.
  10. The people – from the supermarket checkout staff to restaurateurs, the people we’ve met have been friendly and open. They seem to genuinely care that we have a good time during our time ‘down here’. They seem ‘bien dans sa peau’, at ease with themselves…

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