Category Archives: Spain

The Quirky Side of House Sitting

chicken

(This is a guest post by Nicole of Suitcase Stories)

When I tell people that my husband and I travel the world via house sitting they are amazed by the concept.  And true, it’s definitely a different way to travel but for us it’s been a way to see the world on a much smaller budget than if we were staying in hotels.  When you travel perpetually like we do, you need to find a way to cut the costs down.

People don’t always want to hear about the boring money saving side of our house sitting lifestyle, they want to hear about all the weird and wonderful homes we have looked after.  We are often asked for details on any peculiar requests that have been asked of us or if we have taken care of any strange pets.

Since we started our house sitting travels 16 months ago we have seen some very quirky things.  But the one house sit that we always think about when these questions are asked, is a sit we did in a little town called Sarria in Spain.

We were living in a small farmhouse on the outskirts of a very small village.  For two ‘city slickers’ this was very much out of our comfort zone but we wanted to try something new.  The house was very basic but had everything we needed.

Sarria, Spain

At this time we had only house sat in English speaking countries, but we had travelled through places like France, Iceland and the Netherlands.  We always tried to learn a few words in each country we visit, though, as we were always in tourist areas, between our bad French and their bad English we somehow made it work.

Dog bath

We were soon to find out it was going to be very different in this little Spanish village.

On the day we arrived, we went to the local grocery store, which we thought was going to be a simple task: think again!  After about 10 minutes of looking for chicken breast we gave up and went to the deli counter.

Knowing nothing other than hello, thank you and goodbye in Spanish, Michael tried asking for chicken breast in English, apologizing as he went.  But of course, the butcher couldn’t understand a word he said.

After 3 minutes and getting nowhere, Michael started walking around like a chicken! He had the wings flapping and the head pecking; it was hysterical. But then it got embarrassing – The guy at the counter was nodding and walked away and came back with a whole chicken.

Well at least he knew what we wanted but how to get him to understand ‘chicken breast’. To my sheer embarrassment, Michael pointed at my breasts while still clucking like a chicken! It seemed like the whole shop erupted with laughter while my cheeks burned like never before.  It got the point across because out came the chicken breast… along with a big grin and a wink from the butcher!

Back at the house, we had another issue to deal with: a dog who was a little too fond of my leg.  Max was a 3 year old but he was quite a solid boy.  I am no lightweight but there were times his affections would knock me to the floor.  This of course would get him even more worked up because he thought I was playing: I guess my laughing didn’t help the situation.   It took about two weeks before he realized my leg was not going to return his love and finally he stopped.

SpainIt was summer during our time in Spain and it was so hot! We were inland so nowhere near the beach or a sea breeze.  The house did not have air conditioning, not even a fan.  So how did we cool down? We would sit in the dog bath (which was a kiddies pool) to cool down.  Of course Max thought this was a brilliant idea and all 3 of us sat in a tiny kiddies pool all in the name of cooling down.

So while housesitting is a wonderful way to see the world, it’s not always the perfect situation. However, we wouldn’t have it any other way. This lifestyle of us has given us some great stories, some funny moments and a life time of wonderful memories.

Bio:  Nicole, and her husband Michael, are an Australian couple who gave up their careers, sold their possessions and left their ‘conventional’ life behind for a life of travel. They have been living a nomadic life for 15 months and see no end in sight.

They launched Suitcase Stories to share their stories, travel tips and destination guides.  They hope to inspire others to travel and to show people how long term travel is not only possible but also affordable.  

You can follow their journey on Facebook & Twitter.

10 Christmas Delicacies and Their Traditions

Christmas is a time of traditions seemingly cast in stone and some of them dating from the stone age.

We all indulge in unusual customs that people from elsewhere may mock or jeer. In Sweden, for instance, watching Donald Duck on Christmas Eve is a communal pastime, in the UK we eat sprouts, in Spain they have a defecating nativity figure. And there’s lots more where they came from.

Food is important at times of communal festivity and the choice of food can sometimes be thought-provoking. And of course the traditions attached to that food can sometimes be even more interesting that the grub itself …

Mince pies

Mince pies (telegraph.co.uk)

UK – Mince Pies

These I’m a big fan of but didn’t realise until researching this post the superstitions associated with them. Originally there was real meat in a mince pie and the idea of sweetening the meat idea was brought back from the Middle East by returning crusaders. Not surprising as meat dishes sweetened with icing sugar are still a part Middle Eastern cooking. There are some great traditions that we forget about when pigging out on them at Christmas time (or maybe that’s just me):

  • Superstition number 1: If you eat one mince pie a day between Christmas and 6th January you’ll have happiness for the next 12 months. This is an excellent excuse to eat mince pies.
  • Superstition 2: Always eat them in silence…(?)
  • Superstition number 3: Stir the mixture clockwise because obviously stirring it anticlockwise is as unlucky as tripping over a black cat.
  • Superstition number 4: The cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves represent the gifts bought by the three kings.
  • More a fact than a superstition number 5: Eating mince pies and puddings and generally behaving in a festive way was banned by king of the killjoys, Oliver Cromwell.
KFC Christmas

KFC at Christmas (http://turtlepack.blogspot.co.uk)

Japan – KFC

Even though Japan isn’t a Christian country they love their celebrations and Christmas is one they’ve taken on board: ‘Christmas chicken’ is their Christmas dinner of choice.

Partly because of a lack of ovens big enough to cook turkeys in and partly because of devious marketing efforts by Kentucky Fried Chicken, their branches on Christmas Eve are chock full of revellers and there are often queues out the door.

Chile – Ponche a la romana

An eggnog-style concoction, this consists of champagne and pineapple ice cream. Basically a more expensive ice cream soda and served during the summer months as well as being a Christmas and New Year’s Eve treat. The only reason I’ve added it in here is that I wouldn’t mind trying it.

Romania – Piftie

While a traditional Romanian main course at Christmas consists of standard fare such as pork chops and baked gammon, their appetisers are a tad heart attack-inducing. The piftie is a prime example.

Piftie - pork in aspic

Piftie – pork offal in aspic (http://foodlorists.blogspot.co.uk)

Pigs feet are boiled to make the piftie as there’s a lot of gelatin in the foot. Then garlic and pig offal (head and feet) and sometimes vegetables are added to the liquid in moulds. What you’re left with is a scrummy gelatiny mass of yuck. (Sorry – I’ve a thing about gelatin – can’t eat panna cotta because of it).

Iceland – Fermented Skate

Thorláksmessa (Mass of St Thorlac) falls on 23rd December and it is on this day that the whole of Reykjavík is alive with the smell of ammonia.

Eating fermented skate was traditional in the Western part of the island but has become common throughout Iceland these days. Cooking it with smoked lamb gets rid of some of the smell and it’s served with sheep fat and potatoes to counteract the taste a bit …

The tradition of eating this tasty meal came about as a result of Catholic non-eat-meating in the period coming up to Christmas. And as some parts of the skate are poisonous, fermenting the fish for a while is said to make it less dangerous.

Slovakia – Bread Throwing

A Slovakian Christmas Eve meal is a solemn occasion full of symbolism and superstition. As in many Eastern European Catholic countries, a 12 course vegetarian banquet is eaten which harks back to the 12 apostles.

One course in this Slovakian feast is a tart soup as a reminder of the bitterness of slavery (in the exodus from Egypt bible story); poppy seeds are included in lots of dishes as they’re believed to bring luck; and walnuts are thrown in the corner for the same reason.

My favourite, however, is the custom of soaking local breads or a wheat based dessert called kutia in water, forming it into little balls and chucking it at the ceiling. The more that sticks, the better their crop will be next year. That must take a bit of cleaning up afterwards and presumably it’s only done by people with crops.

Netherlands – Gourmetten

Dutch gourmet cooking

Dutch gourmet cooking (yummydutch.com)

Gourmet at Christmas isn’t the posh food that we would normally associate with it. The host provides meat and vegetables which the guests cook in little frying pans, stove set or grill (the ‘gourmet set’) on the table between them. Pancakes are also made at the table and fruit is provided for dessert.

Greece – Christopsomo

Christopsomo bread

Christopsomo bread (http://roundthetable.net)

Christopsomo (Christ’s bread) is a sweet, buttery bread made carefully and with only the best ingredients. It’s decorated with a Byzantine cross or with symbols representing the cook’s family life, like animals or a family crest. The cross is flavoured with aniseed and the ends of it encircle walnuts. A variation is the Zakinthos version with dried fruits.

Worldwide – Candy canes

Candy canes

Candy canes image (Wikipedia)

The tradition of selling candy canes and decorating trees with them is popular throughout Europe and common in the US. It never featured much in the cornucopia of UK sweet treats but it seems to be appearing more often here as well.

The custom is said to have come about in 1670 when a German choirmaster created these particularly shaped sweets to keep children quiet during long church services. He had the bright idea of asking the local confectioner to shape the candy like a shepherd’s crook to remind the kids of the nativity story.

2 Very Excellent Reasons For You to Go to Lanzarote

Timanfaya diablo sign

Timanfaya National Park (desmetjes on Flickr)

The Canary Islands weren’t somewhere I had any intention of going to. I’d always had the impression that it was a Brits in the sun island with a lack of home-grown Spanish culture and lots of all day English breakfasts. I was wrong, however.

Practicalities

One of the benefits of a holiday in Lanzarote is that heading to the most Eastern of the Canaries, not far off the  coast of Africa, is relatively inexpensive as there are a choice of carriers plus of course you get the sun just about all year round – the average temperature in December is 17°C, for goodness sake. Distances from Lanzarote Airport are nothing – Playa Blanca’s way down south but it’s only 30 minutes away by car.

Enough of that. Let’s get down to the quirky.

Timanfaya National Park

This should be your number one reason for visiting Lanzarote. As with all the Canaries, this island was formed as a result of volcanic activity (there’s actually a possible new one in the making according to this Telegraph article)

And it was created by the eruptions that occurred between 1730 and 1736, creating 100 new volcanoes over a 50km² area and destroying villages and livelihoods into the bargain. It’s one of the newest places on earth. And one of the most beautiful.

Most people take a bus tour round the park, either by coming in on a coach or parking up and jumping on one of the buses run by the park itself. Apparently you’ll be treated to experiments that demonstrate the intense heat just under the ground you’re standing on. And you’ll be taken to a Manrique-designed restaurant (more below) where meat is cooked on the volcanic heat.

However, a wonderful way to visit the park that not everyone seems to know about (according to TripAdvisor, anyway)  is to take a free English or Spanish language guided walk. It takes a bit of planning but is well worth it. There are two routes around the park (you can’t walk round on your own – it’s a fragile and protected area with flora reappearing on the lava flows.)

Guided walk, Timanfaya National Park, Lanzarote

Book well in advance as numbers are severely restricted (which means you’re part of a small group) by ringing the number on the Timfanfaya website And then you’ll need to ring again 48 hours in advance to reconfirm. This caused us a bit of a panic because we didn’t realise we were trying to ring on a National Holiday. They took our confirmation the next day, thank goodness.

The walk’s easy and memorable. There’s a lot of information on the different lava formations you’ll be seeing and the wildlife that makes its home there. The landscape is spectacular and regularly compared to that on Mars.

Here’s a lovely guide to the Timanfaya area by the way.

If you’re coming in by car, try early in the morning before the coach parties arrive, or later in the afternoon – after 4pm should see smaller queues. And staying in Playa Blanca, as we did, will mean that you get to see lots of volcanoes as you drive up and down the coast visiting other resorts. Volcano heaven!

César Manrique

César Manrique (http://www.fcmanrique.org)

César Manrique

One thing you’ll see a lot of around Timanfaya are the devil sign (one’s in the picture at the beginning of this post). “El Diablo” was designed by the person responsible for our next reason to visit Lanzarote – the artist and architect César Manrique.

Manrique was born on the island in 1919 and had a huge impact on the way in which it developed. Instead of the soulless high rises blighting other Spanish resorts, there are few on the island because he had the local council dictate that houses should be no higher than a palm tree. There is one high-rise development, but that happened when he was away from the island.

He also recommended that locals paint their houses only in white or green, or blue on the coast. Because of him, electrical cables were laid underground and  roadside signs were banned. Importantly, the ecology and landscape of the island was protected and respected largely because of his efforts and he received some major awards for conservation.

He left behind a series of public works and buildings around the island and it’s well worth your time driving around Manrique-spotting.

You can see the works of Manrique in the following places:

Fundación César Manrique

The artist’s self-designed home was built overlooking the 18th century lava flows and it’s fully in keeping with its landscape.  Part of a flow of lava even appears to flow through a window into his house.

Manrique mural, Jameos del Agua

It’s a beautiful development that makes use of five large bubbles in the lava, with corridors linking them all and gorgeous 1970s furnishings, fountains and extensive sunken gardens.

The above ground level part houses his works (think Picasso or Miro) as well as paintings by the two aforementioned artists. Manrique himself set up the Foundation in 1982 but it officially opened to tourists in 1992. It’s a magical place well worth a visit.

Jameos del Agua, Lanzarote

Jameos del Agua

The Jameos del Agua are to be found at the foot of the volcano Monte de la Corona in the north of the island.  This is another development made from bubbles in the Lanzarotean lava – it consists of an open-roofed bubble with swimming pool and a gorgeous garden and cave where musical events are held due to the fantastic acoustics. If you find a way to bribe an official to let you see the place alone, do it – it was very busy when we visited so it’s probably worth going early or late in the day.

Mirador del Rio, Lanzarote

Mirador del Rio (Wikipedia)

Mirador del Rio

The Mirador is a viewpoint looking out over the strait of Rio towards the island of La Graciosa. It, along with Timanfaya featured in the 1983 series of Dr Who disguised as Sarn, the “Planet of Fire”. You’ll find a 70’s style futuristic sci-fi type cafe, shop and balcony with a beautiful view.

Cacti, Jardin de Cactus, Lanzarote

Jardin de Cactus

There was no stopping this man. He went to bed early and got up at dawn and packed in a lot! Another project he oversaw was this cactus garden – 10,000 plants in a former quarry. It’s a very impressive place to visit and you’ll come away with a million photographs of weird and wonderful cacti. There’s even a windmill and a giant metallic cactus to gawp at.

Monumento al Campesino, Lanzarote

Monumento al Campesino (Fecundidad) and Casa Museum

The monument is in memory of the agricultural workers of Lanzarote and is also dedicated to fertility – it’s made out of old water tanks. (You could’ve guessed that, couldn’t you..?) It sits on a volcanic outcrop that has been left as a reminder of the landscape before the surrounding area was developed. There’s a nearby museum with artisan workshops and a tapas restaurant that serves tapas at 4 euros a plate.

Other Works by Manrique

  • Taro de Tahíche (his house near Teguise).
  • Museo Internacional de Arte Contemporaneo (International Museum of Contemporary Arts in Castillo de San José – houses works by Miró, Manrique and more).
  • El Almacé (cultural centre, Arrecife).
  • Garden and swimming pools of the Las Salinas hotel in Costa Teguise.
  • El triunfador (sculpture near the Fundacion César Manrique).
  • Juguetes del viento (a windmill Arrieta).

So, why are you sitting there? Get yourself to Lanzarote!

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