Friday, 30 May 2008

Spain week five, days five and six

Wednesday May 28th and Thursday May 29th 2008

Hacienda, Villamartin, Spain

Two more days sightseeing in the local villages. Our Wednesday trip is to Arcos, a medium sized town about 35km west of the hacienda and marking the boundary of the "white villages" area. I had passed by it last weekend on the way to Jerez and some of last week's group went there one afternoon. Like so many of these villages, it is perched on the apex of a hill, with a clearly defined centre arranged around the church. We parked at the bottom of the hill and made slow progress up through the streets till we came to the main square. This had a church that was being refurbished and a "mirador" or viewing point with some very dramatic views over the valley below.

The church in the main square that is currently being refurbished

We missed the Tourist Office being open by ten minutes but have discovered that The Rough Guide to Andalucia is actually very good, even including some maps of the white villages. So after a spot of lunch outside a bar, we are off down the south side of the town towards the bigger church.

More narrow streets through the town

Throughout all the white villages, you come across ceramic tiles painted with religious pictures, usually of the Virgin Mary. This was one of the most elaborate.
There were several art gallaries in the town which we had a quick wander round - original oil paintings costing about Euros 40 but usually rather garish colours. But some were much better and I was definitely tempted by one or two.
We eventually made our way round to the main church which was notable for containing a couple of the most unpleasant religious displays that I have ever seen. Under each of the small alters around the main alter was a glass case containing the dessicated remains of a saint who was said to have died in the third century. These had been recovered from a crypt somewhere many years ago and were dessicated rather than decomposed - a sign, apparently, of their purity. They were dress in some sort of outfit and their glass box was filled with all sorts of bits and bobs. Apparently, the display of corpses of saints is quite common in Spain (and indeed in other Catholic countries).
The main entrance to the church - suitably ornate

The lower class case containing the desicated corpse of a Saint - the head is towards the left, garlanded in flowers!

Later on, back at the hacienda, the puppies were out again. Getting bigger by the day, though still rather wobbly!

My favourite puppy - one of the two white ones

Our Thursday trip is to Zahara, perhaps the most photogenic of the white villages, perched on a hill above a reservoir and with a ruined castle at the top of the town. As usual, we arrived in the early afternoon just as the siesta was starting and we had another walk up through the streets from the car park. We are certainly feeling that this is providing another decent work out to go with the yoga each day.

A street in Zahara on the way to the main square and cobbled centre street

Zahara's beautiful main church - close in to the rock face above on which the castle sits

Village rooftops on the way up towards the castle

Poppies on the side of the path up to the castle - the main church behind

As we came up to the top of the hill with the castle on, one of the local vultures was just make a turn over the castle and I was able to get the closest view I have had of one so far. Luckily the camera was at full zoom already. At its closest it was maybe 20 yards away. These birds are just an amazing size - maybe 8 foot wingspan. We saw another half dozen today in the far distance.

Slighly enlarged picture of the vulture that flew past just as I reached the castle

Another staue of Mary, against a wall of ivy, close to the church

We spent about four hours in the town in the end and this is definitely one of the highlights of the local area.

Tonight we decided to watch a movie on Fiona's Apple - the first tv anyone has watched for some while. Our selected movie was "Juno" which I thought was really good. I think the screenplay may have won an Oscar - I wouldn't be surprised if it did. And a great soundtrack - Cat Power, Sonic Youth, Mo Tucker, etc. I loved the final scene when the two lovers were playing their guitars together. Very moving film I thought.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Spain week five, day four

Tuesday May 27th 2008

Hacienda, Villamartin, Spain
For our last yoga classes before our rest day, we always try to make things a little harder, so people can feel the work they have done throughout the day and then really benefit from the rest day. So lots of strong standing poses, balancing poses, lots of down dogs, and so on.
At lunchtime, far in the distance way beyond Villamartin, a thunder storm gradually rolled in. We estimated that it was perhaps 25 miles away, but it was enough to persuade us that this afternoon's trip out should be to Ronda rather than Arcos or Jerez. As we drove down, we spotted the turning for one of the prehistoric cave sites in the area. This is privately owned and getting the chance to go round it can be a bit hit and miss, but this is something we'd like to try to see.
The rain has caught up with us by the time we reached Ronda, though no lightning and thunder. Walking down past the famous bull fighting ring (the first in Spain and the "spiritual home" of bullfighting), our first stop was the "new bridge" which connects the newer part of Ronda to the original white village. This is quite a short bridge but it is over 100m high and the sides of the cliffs are virtually vertical. With the bit of rain that had fallen, none of us were keen to go near the railings to get the most extreme pictures!
We continued down towards the Mondragon Palace. This was the residential palace of the Moorish kings which, on the conquest of Ronda by the Christians, was given to a Captain Mondragon. It is now the Municipal Archaelogical museum and, given its relatively small size, it is actually a really good museum, mixing Arab and renaissance history with prehistoric and roman elements. And all housed in a typically beautiful Moorish palace. There was even a music trio (piano, violin and cello) who were really excellent. In all, we spent about two hours there, it was that good.
The inner courtyard by the main entrance

Fiona in the stone-age exhibition

The second courtyard
The gardens from the second courtyard
The second courtyard
Tiling on the courtyard floors

Detail from one of the courtyard doors
From the museum we made our way around the edge of the town to the main square, dominated by the unusual Church of Santa Maria. This was originally the mosque of the town and the bell tower is a Mudejar tower built on the foundations of a minaret and then topped off with a renaissance belfry. The church itself is a mix of Moorish, renaissance, baroque and even gothic. One of our guidebooks described the inside as dull, but we were very impressed.
The standard elaborate main alter, common to many Spanish churches

Some of the religious statues are stunningly beautiful
Downstairs in the crypt was an exhibition of illuminated manuscripts. I am a huge fan of these and the examples were really impressive. One was the "book of hours" belonging to King Philip. They certainly knew how to make books in those days.
Just one of about 30 illuminated manuscripts.
A beautiful wooden statue included in the manuscript exhibition.
Another stunning alter display

By now we had massively exceeded the time we had expected to spend in Ronda. The caves would have to wait for another trip. Instead we walked to the far end of the town to see the original town gates and then back around the top of town. We had hoped to find the ancient Arab baths but took a wrong turn somewhere and ended up back at the New Bridge. But by now it was mid evening and many places would be shutting. So we strolled back along the Carrera Espinel, one of the main shopping roads.
Last picture I took from the New Bridge. 8:30 in the evening and just beginning to get dark. The last sun of the day is shining in exactly the right place for the picture. The drop behind the buildings is over 100m to the river below.

So we missed tonight's scheduled yoga / pilates. But we probably walked enough miles to make up for it. A great day out despite the bit of rain.

Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Spain Week five, day three

Monday May 26th 2008

Hacienda, Villamartin, Spain

As is the recent pattern, the day starts out nice and sunny and clouds over a little as the day goes on. But we are able to do yoga on the front terrace with the great view, rather than be tucked under the side terrace.

Down by the side of one of the farm buildings is a kennel where a dog has just had a litter of puppies. Usually we catch a little peep of the puppies in their kennel (usually asleep). But this morning, Diego, the farm manager has the puppies out of the kennel and is letting them have a wander around on their own a bit. Mum is not too happy about this as she is chained to the kennel and has to just watch as the puppies do some exploring on their own. They totter about looking at things - all very cute.

After today's life coaching class we head off to Villamartin for a walk round and a bite to eat. Our waiter turns out to be from Scotland (via New Zealand) and lives here married to a local Spanish lady. He inspires us to have some of the local specialities and these are very good - especially the grilled swordfish steak.

Villamartin is quite a pretty village in places but doesn't have the dramatic location of many of the other white villages. We do find the nesting storks again and they are pretty amazing, having built their nest on the apex of a sharply pointed roof. Other birds seem to be nesting in the lower branches of the stork's huge nest.

Tomorrow's tentative plan is to visit Ronda - definitely one of the region's highlights.

Monday, 26 May 2008

Spain week five, day two

Sunday May 25th 2008

Hacienda, Villamartin, Spain
Up at 6:30 to see Ellie off. I have really enjoyed her company over the week, and am extremely grateful for her help with everything. In all the years we have worked together, this was perhaps the nicest week. And Ellie's yoga practice was just amazing by the end of the week. I will be sending her hi-res versions of the pictures that we used for this blog and Ellie is intending to frame them and put them up on her wall at home! Ellie may be able to come out again for part of the last week. Fingers crossed we can do something then as well.

Just after Ellie departs at 7:00 it starts to rain really hard! A quick rush round the courtyard to retrieve some drying clothes and then some reading on the terrace as the rain comes down. Even some thunder in the distance. This wasn't quite what the forecast had said! But then around 9:00 it stops and the skies begin to clear and the sun comes out. So maybe it was a one-off storm?

Our group does not make it to yoga, scheduled for 10:00 this morning. Sometimes people just have to let the requirement for sleep take over and get a really good twelves hours. We definitely notice that this often happens when people have come to us. But we are all up and sorted out by lunchtime and decide on a trip through the Grazalema national park.

There is evidence of a recent festival in Grazalema village. Huge amounts of vegetation or stuck in the metal grills that cover windows and are lying in the streets, especially the area around the main church. No idea what this is for but Zahara (another white village we visited later today) was celebrating "Corpus Christi". We have a good look round, taking in some of the souvenir shops, the main viewpoint over the valley and finally some tapas in one of the little bars - calimari, chorizo, patatas, the usual things.

Sign of a recent festival in Grazalema - vegetation like this covered the village today

Grazalema - a classic street view

From there we drive up to the "puerto de las Palomas" - the "pass of the doves" - at around 1100 metres high. The weather has continued to improve all day and by now there is a lot of blue sky around among the fluffy clouds. As before, we are able to see loads of the Griffen vultures (called "Lion vultures" in Spain) which circle around above us.

At the "pass of the doves" with the Sierra de Gaidover valley far below

Looking north-west from the pass showing the twisting road that descends to Zahara

The "Garganta verde" gorge passed on the descent to Zahara

Then the descent down to Zahara - a series of amazing hairpin bends which really test the nerves. As Fiona said this afternoon, she would never do this drive herself, didn't like some of it at the time, but was really pleased she had done it afterwards (when back on flat land!). By the dam of Zahara reservoir, we are able to get some really nice photos of this most picturesque of the many white villages nearby.
Zahara from across the reservoir - the pass we descended is to the left of the village, where the cleft appears in the mountains!

We manage yoga tonight and have a gentle 75 minutes on the side terrace and tomorrow we hope to be back on our regular schedule.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Spain week four, day seven

Friday May 23rd, 2008

Hacienda, Villamartin, Spain

Jonathan's last day with us before he travels on to Cordoba and then Granada. He seems to have had a great time this week and is really pleased with how it has gone and the progress he has made in the areas he wanted to.

So it is our last yoga class as a trio and another really nice class. It is sunny first thing and we can do the class on the main terrace but it does start to cloud over soon afterwards and we have another grey day.

Our last session of the "learn to relax" course is our wrap up summary. Everyone has things to say about what they will do going forward. Ellie is thinking seriously about learning to teach Tai Chi. This is one of her great loves and having the time here to think has really motivated her. Everyone else has their own ideas for the future.

Then its off to Seville with Jonathan. Ellie and Kate have also decided on a short trip to Seville and follow behind us till we lose them in traffic. Our journey goes ok though there are a few moments when we have little idea where we are and we are held up by several accidents on the way. We drove passed the famous Plaza de Espana where I noticed it was quite easy to park. That could be a good thing to know forwhen we want to have a day out there.

Our planned meeting with Eve at Seville station goes surprisingly well and Jonathan is in plenty of time for his train. I have really enjoyed getting to know Jonathan over the week and really hope that things work out for him as he hopes.

Ellie and Kate are back around 6:00 with tales of fine dining in Seville, so they don't want much for tea. Our last yoga class of this week and we are back on the side terrace under cover. Now there are just two class participants as we end the week with a lovely restorative class. Ellie has gained several inches of flexibility over the week and Kate looks great as an expectant mum doing yoga. She has a beautiful strong and straight back which I'm sure will really help as she goes through the next few months.

We have one last fire in the main lounge and play a card game called "Uno" that Kate knows and teaches us all. A gentle end to the week it seems.

Then Kate discovers very late that she is actually on a plane at 9:30am not 2:30pm and so our plans for tomorrow will be redically changed. Only a tiny last minute hiccup!

Spain, week five, day one

Saturday May 24th 2008

Hacienda, Villamartin, Spain

So our first week at the hacienda ends with Kate managing to get away for her earlier-than-expected flight first thing. I have really enjoyed sharing the last week with Kate. She is really beginning to blossom as a mum-to-be, even if, at times, it still feels such a big change to her. Her yoga practice was really excellent. She has done a lot of fitness related stuff in the past and it really showed through her strong and straight back. We are definitely hoping to stay in touch and find out how it all works out over the year.

Elle and I went to Jerez this morning in two missions. Firstly to see if there was a hypermarket there and then to try and track down the small bar where the prospective mother-in-law to Ellie's brother works. The hypermarket was pretty easy to find in the end - a Carrefour just as we entered the city. Ellie and I had a short trip round picking up most the the things that we are missing more locally. Ellie also bought herself a few items to take home.

Our plan for finding the bar consisted only of the name (Estella) and rough location (near the Hotel Jerez). We found the hotel easily enough and after one or two other stops for directions, we finally managed to find the bar and, as luck would have it, Ellie's friend was there. Moreover the barmaid spoke English so they were able to communicate to some degree. For Ellie, this was one of those memorable experiences that are so important in life. To make the effort to visit, even though we don't know the location - the delight for each other of the meeting. All very good. And I managed a beer and a plate of potatoes, chorizo and pepper!

A nice drive back as well as we talked about how the week had gone

Back to the hacienda and enough sun to make it worth while sitting by the pool. Quite a lot of cloud still though and a bit breezy. But Ellie was determined to sit out some more. I had a chat with Linda. She and Emma have had a good few days together (including seeing Indiana Jones which I would really like to see) and Emma is returning to college tomorrow.

Then a couple of calls from our guest, Fiona, who has been delayed and is having problems with her hire car. We had hoped to maybe have one more yoga class today - Ellie has become a huge fan of yoga and has really made some great leaps in form over the 10 classes we have had. But in the end we don't quite manage it. Elle has to pack for her journey home tomorrow. I am really hoping she might be able to come out for a few days next week as well.

Fiona arrives just after 7:00. She is an Australian girl though lives prety much permanently in London now and she seems full of life. She has just quit her job and is really excited about what she might do next. She has been in Seville for the last few days and will be going to Cordoba after her visit with us. And she hopes to do quite a bit of sight seeing as well. We have a nice first meal together - Ellie's last for this visit due to her early start tomorrow.

She has also arrived with a huge pile of books and is clearly an avid reader. She has a root through the boxes of books we have with us and selects nine books from our collection to have a look at while she is here. We stay up quite late talking about books and various other things. I already think Fiona will be really fun to be with this week.

Spain week four, day six

Thursday May 22nd, 2008
Hacienda, Villamartin, Spain
At last we wake to a day of clear blue skies and sunshine. The owner of the hacienda came visiting yesterday and says it has been the least sunny May for twenty years. But maybe our luck is changing now (though the forecast isn't great for the next few days).
So yoga this morning is on the front terrace in the early morning sunshine. After our rest day yesterday, everyone is feeling really good and there are some great postures done today. Even Jonathan, who has a very tight back (after years of bending over tables working as a teacher) is moving far more freely. It never fails to amaze me how a few days yoga can begin the transform people's posture and the way they feel. Today's classes were really amazing.
Ellie, Jonathan and Kate in downward dog

Trikonasana (Triangle)

Three great Warriors (Jonathan's tight back stops him keeping his back straight - but he is improving fast!)

An intense side angle pose - one of Ellie's best

Three sturdy trees (one of the few posture that shows Kate's baby bump!)

Ellie's lovely pigeon pose

A nice open twist towards the end of the class. The view is towards Villamartin

We all have brunch outside and decide that a slight change in our usual day's plan is in order so we can all take advantage of the sun. So we are all soon settle out by the pool for several hours of dozing and reading (even a bit of swimming). As a result of taking maximum advantage of the sun, there are a few pink limbs later on but no one is really badly burnt. And Ellie has gone very brown really quickly.

This evening's yoga is slow and restorative on the terrace in the sun. More beautiful postures from everyone and we are all feeling very relaxed.
Kate had a small craving for steak tonight (so many changes occur when pregnant!) so we have that with a Moroccan dish of vegetable tagine. We are able to sit out on the terrace and watch the sun go down - just like seeing the sunset over the ocean with few clouds in view.
A lovely day.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Spain week four, day five

Wednesday May 21st 2008

Tangiers, Morocco, Africa

Hi everyone. It's Ellie here and I'm going to tell you all about our trip to Tangiers in Morocco. As it says on the Well Being Breaks website, this is a long day out from the hacienda but is well worth it. We had a great adventure.

We decided to aim for the 1:00pm ferry from Tarifa (on the southern tip of Spain) which gets into Tangiers at 11:30am (there is a minus-two-hour time difference between Spain and Morocco!). This meant that we had plenty of time for the drive down and could go a more scenic route rather than stick to the dual carriageways. Our route took us down to Jerez and through a most amazing valley which was covered in wind turbines

We got to Tarifa about after a drive of about two hours. We decided we would take the Tangier tour organised by the ferry company as we thought this would be the best way to spend a relatively short visit to the city. This was absolutely the right thing to do, and was only about 5 euros more than the cost of the ferry (55 euros in total for the trip) You simply ask for the day trip when you buy your ferry ticket and then you are met at the ferry port in Tangiers. You do have to get your passport stamped on the ferry, which can involve a little bit of queueing. Oh, and you shouldn't take photos of the port as you could get arrested!

The crossing took about 40 minutes and we were met at Tangiers by Ahmed, who escourted us to our tour minibus along with the various other groups of day tourers. Our first stop was in one of the residential areas on the way to the centre of town where there were a number of really beautiful villas. There were also some camels (aahh) which you could pay one euro for a short ride on (we declined) .

From there we were taken to a local restaurant for a meal of kebabs, vegetable tagine and couscous. This was really good, and was included in the price of the trip, though you did have to pay seperately for any drinks you wanted.

Next stop was a carpet shops with a wide range of carpets on offer - some really beautiful, some not so. Lots of haggling went on and some of the tour group (not us) actually did but something. Then to a spice shop. It was really easy to get swept along with the excitement of it all and end up spending more than perhaps you had intended. We did buy a few things and were happy with what we got. You can also pay in euros, so you don't need the local dirams.

We stayed in Tangiers till late afternoon (local time), about five or six hours there in total. Overall, this was a fabulous trip out and we would recommend it highly - a great adventure. I can't believe we've all been to Africa! Love Ellie

Back at the hacienda

A change in the weather this evening as the sun finally breaks through and we have three hours of sunshine in the evening. The forecast for tomorrow is pretty good as well.

The Tangiers expedition is back in by 10:00 or so in time to see the extra time in the Manchester United / Chelsea champions league final (on local Spanish tv). Most people are supporting Chelsea so it is a slightly disappointing end to the day.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Spain week four, day four

Tuesday May 20th 2008

Hacienda, Villamartin, Spain

Grey skies at first but then some blue patches and for a short time we were all quite optimistic that today would be the day we could bake in the sun. Unfortunately, our hopes were dashed by late morning as the cloud thickened again. Kate logged onto some weather satelite sites which showed the growth of the cloud sitting over us and suggested it was being trapped by the mountains nearby. The forecast for later in the week is better again.

But at least it is warm and there was no problem with having yoga outside again. Today is Lou and Nicky's last day of their short break and so we wanted to make the yoga a little more challenging prior to their departure and the other's rest day. So I chose a series of short vinyasa sequences that would give a really good work out to those who wanted it while allowing the others to go at their own pace with a smaller number of postures. This is not a style of yoga that I have taught a lot but it was nice to do.

The "learn to relax" course also had to accommodate Lou and Nicky's departure and so I picked out a few of the sessions from the next three sessions, ensuring that I could produce some sort of conclusion even though it was only day two of the four day course. Most of the participants got the key insight that there are often no "black or white" answers to these questions and that change does require some effort. Both Lou and Nicky said they would be certainly trying to incorporate yoga and pilates into their lives going forward.

After much deliberation, the afternoon is spent in Arcos de la Frontera, the last "white village" before Jerez and perched on the top of a hillside as most are. This is larger than most in the area and has a lot of very attractive shops in the old part of town. Plus a rather odd uniform shop that a couple of the group went round. More complex driving to exit the town as the one way system takes everyone out to the edge of town.

As we were back a bit later than planned and had booked an evening out, yoga / Pilates is reduced to 45 mins but also aims at a slightly higher level that previous days, prior to the rest day. I took quite a few photos of this session as everyone is beginning to look very good at the postures we have been practising the last few days.
Some nice downward dogs
Everyone has done some excellent Tree poses this week

For some reason this posture seemed to reduce everyone to fits of giggles everytime they did it
. . . . . and a nice strong crescent moon pose near the end of the sequence

Dinner tonight was at the Hacienda Buena Suerte which is next door to us across the fields. This is a riding school and has about 30 horses, all of which Ellie loves. The guests seem to be mostly French and German. They serve a simple buffett dinner which was salmon tonight and very good. Everyone had a very good time, though Kate is ultra-sensitive to smells at the moment - a side effect of her pregnancy - and found the slightly smoky atmosphere a little difficult. So hopefully Luigina and Nicky had a good last night.

Jonathan and Luigina at the Hacienda Buena Suerte

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Spain week four, day three

Monday May 19th 2008

Hacienda, Villamartin, Spain

Still cloudy this morning but at least the wind has dropped. So yoga is still on the side terrace this morning and brunch is inside. Ellie hurried round with setting up breakfast and so was able to attend this morning's yoga class (she can always do the evening one).

It is also the first day of our second "learn to relax" course. I have been thinking about the structure of this over the last week and trying to take on board some ideas that we had after Eve's week. As always, we have an interesting group, with lots of different issues. Interestingly, the general test we do at the start - "how stress prone are you?" - threw out some genuine surprises for several participants. As always, however, we don't go into the detail of such things in this blog.

We were able just about to stay on the front terrace for the first meditation session, though everyone had to make sure they were warm enough before we really got started.

Everyone fancied a trip to the supermarket afterwards and Ellie and I did the next house shop including lots of new things that she thought it would be good to have. Our main problem is the lack of wholemeal bread and fresh herbs in Spain. Then Luigina, Nicky and Jonathan went off for a drive in the direction of Ronda, while Ellie and Kate went on a trip nearby, checking out a nearby hacienda that does evening meals and might be available for dinner one night this week, and then Villamartin for a wander round.

So I had an afternoon in at the hacienda catching up on admin and having a bit of time to think about things. I am rather missing Linda and Emma at the moment, especially after I had a quick call to Emma this afternoon. She is returning home on Wednesday for a few days revision. It seems ages since I last saw her.

Tonight's class included some harder Pilates exercises for Lou and Nicky who particularly want to do these. Then the highlight of the day - Jonathan's (the guest, not me) paella night. We just did one - chicken and seafood - and it was a total triumph I thought. He seemed very pleased to be the centre of a bit of attention and everyone seems to really likes him. I was a little nervous about having a gues who has suffered from stress related illnesses in the past, but I think it is going fine so far and he seems very pleased with his break
Our guest Jonathan busy cooking paella

His dish is unveiled to the group

. . . . . . and gets a great reception

Ellie did dessert tonight - our baked bananas, with orange zest and ice cream recipe - and we had another evening with a fire which was very nice again. But the weather doesn't look like improving much at the moment, which is bound to be a bit disheartening for everyone, even if it is just 5 degrees back home in the UK.

A nice chat to Linda tonight before bed. Things seem to be ok so far with everything.