Not all who wander are lost – Part V

Is late always better than never?

What about the christmas cards that arrive after the big day? The guests who turn up at the party at the moment when people are beginning to leave?

There are times when – given the choice – you’d go for never!

So the fact that I’m posting about the last day of our drive through France and Spain to Majorca this summer, with November just round the corner, might feel a bit pointless to some. But one day I will read these posts back and remember what a great time we had. And if I don’t write about the last day I will be sorry. So I’m doing this with my fingers crossed that in this case late is the preferred option.

The last day of our trip is a Sunday. And we’re in Barcelona. Is there anywhere better to spend a Sunday? I really don’t think so.

We start with breakfast at the hotel. If you read my post about our stay at H1868 last year you will know that the breakfasts there are something of a thing.

Breakfast at H1898
Where to start???

Suffice to say they continue to be something of a thing. The only challenge is to keep it reasonable! Because it would be easy to go a bit mad. And we’ve got lunch booked at another of Colin (you remember Colin?)’s recommendations. And experience tells me to hold back in preparation for something special.

So I stay focussed and ignore the siren call of pancakes and muffins and eggs and bacon and waffles and ham and cheese and…. It takes a lot of restraint.

After breakfast we split with our friends who are off to the Sagrada Familia. We’ve been there before so we head for another Gaudi classic, La Pedrera.

What to say about La Pedrera? Except OMG. In very very big letters. It is sensational and extraordinary and completely bloomin’ fantastic. And you just absolutely have to go.

Here’s the thing for me about Gaudi. Before coming to Barcelona – and going to some of the sites of his most famous works, and visiting the museum next to the Cathedral that guides you through his life and work, and beginning to get really interested in him – what I knew about Gaudi was that he was a Spanish architect who had designed some rather weird and mad looking buildings that I wasn’t entirely sure that I liked, I knew that people talked about places being Gaudiesque, and I thought I knew what they were talking about. But I didn’t really get it.

Well, now I do. Now I’m thinking that Gaudi’s buildings might actually make more sense to me than any others. Because he takes his passion for the natural world as his inspiration and uses it to structure his work. So there’s an intriguing reason for everything being the way it is, and when you know that inside and out this particular building is a constant curve with no straight lines, and that the facade is self supporting which means that the floors inside don’t need load bearing walls, which means that the walls can go wherever the owners feel like putting them, and that everything functional on the roof has been turned into sculpture, well you get it and you fall in love.

So we spend a wonderful couple of hours at La Pedrera, and then we jump in a taxi and head off to meet our friends at the Picasso museum. But the queues are long and we have missed them, so we go nearby to the Fundacio Gaspar

And discover Anthony McCall.

Anthony McCall is an English artist who does stuff with light. Intrigued? No. Graham wasn’t either. In the first room we watch a video of a middle aged man in front of an audience pinning sheets of white paper to a wall. He takes a long time choosing each sheet, holds it up, turns it, considers it, pins it alongside the previous sheet. Then he attaches a piece of string coated with black paint/powder? across the entire width of the wall and pings it against the surface of the paper so that it leaves a dusty black line. Fascinated? Graham most definitely isn’t. And at this stage nor am I.

On to the next installation. Another black and white video of people in white boiler suits on a headland throwing flares into holes in the ground. The camera is hand held, the picture shaky, people in white, it’s getting dark. The woosh of the flares as they light is the only sound. Graham has given up and gone.

But  I stay. And as the holes light up I begin to see a pattern. And begin to watch for the next one. And as I watch I’m filling up with a rather pleasant sensation of calm. And I begin to enjoy myself. And find it rather hard to tear myself away.

The next installation is in a dark room. I push through a screen to go in. I’m the only person there. Two lines of light on the floor, an arc and a straight line. At first I think they are white tape stuck down. But as I watch, I realise that very very slowly the lines are moving – towards each other, away from each other, converging, crossing, changing all the time. It’s mesmerising. By now Graham has come back to find me and he gets hooked too. It takes other people pushing in through the door screen to make us move on.

Look out for Anthony McCall. This is a wonderful show. The last room is another blackout space with scrunched up newspapers filling the floor so that you shuffle through, kicking your feet like a child. It’s like walking through fallen leaves in autumn. Mirrors walls reflect dark images of yourself back to you. A screen in the middle shows another black and white film… of the installation in use. You watch people doing what you are doing. It’s absolutely fantastic.

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You have to be there!

There are other installations on our way to the last room but I won’t describe each one. As much as I would like to. I’ve probably lost you already. But when we leave I am filled with peace and calm and happiness. Which is rather wonderful, and the last thing I expected.

We walk down to the shore. Beautiful Barcelona with its seaside vibe and beach side promenades. We find our friends at Kaiku, (click on this link – it’s a really great website!!) a Colin recommendation and right up there with the others. Sitting looking out towards the water, surrounded by locals, eating terrific seafood, with the Barcelona Sunday crowd out in force, it’s hard to imagine that life could get any better.

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Sunday Barcelona beach

After lunch we wander along the promenade, drinking in the sights and sounds of people enjoying themselves in this unique place.

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Beach style Barcelona

Then it’s back to the hotel, and we pack up our stuff and load it into the car. Up to the roof terrace to chill, read a bit, sit a bit, consider a bit about how much fun we’ve had since we left England. Then we say goodbye to our friends (who have failed to get a cabin on the ferry so are flying to join us in the morning) and we drive to the port.

This year we’re more familiar with the bizarre procedure that goes with taking the ferry to Alcudia, of finding the queue for cars, separating to get on board, and reuniting once we’re there. It still feels a little strange to wave goodbye to Graham and head off on my own in the dark.

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The last leg

But it goes to plan, and we find each other, find our cabin. And we sleep a bit and the boat slides through the sea and we arrive. Our journey is over; our holiday in Majorca is beginning. It’s been the most fun we could have imagined. Nothing we would change about any of it. Would we do it again? You bet we would.

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A Serious Case of PTS…

You know that feeling? When you are so full you literally cannot eat another thing. Until somebody mentions pudding. Which is when PTS (or Pudding Tummy Syndrome) kicks in. It’s been happening to me a lot lately. On the bar crawl in San Sebastian, the following day in Tudela, and then a few days later in Sa Pobla, Majorca.

In San Sebastian it was the basque burnt cheesecake that I wrote about in my last post. Five pintxos bars visited in one evening before we ended up at La Vina, five different places where drink was drunk and food was eaten! And, as my kids used to say, I am full as an egg. No room for anything else. Until you wave a plate of the best cheesecake in the whole world in front of me. And I don’t hesitate.

Bar 6 - the best cheesecake in the world...
Basque Burnt Cheesecake at La Vina

Next stop – Tudela. Which is not the most prepossessing of places. But we’re searching out Restaurante 33. Great reviews on Trip Advisor for its food. And we’ve got a bit of time before heading for Barcelona to catch our ferry to Majorca. (And I’ve got hangover hunger from the night before!) So we settle in and go for their set menu. Which is a masterpiece of eight courses. Yes eight!

Only eight courses?
Only eight courses?

The plates are small and delicious but I’m struggling by five. By seven I’m completely stuffed. But then… Burnt milk! With chocolate delicious thing on the side!

All I can say is that you have simply got to try burnt milk. It’s up there with the basque burnt cheesecake in the list of puddings to bring on a very serious case of PTS.

Heaven is burnt milk and chocolate
Heaven is burnt milk and chocolate

And finally to Mare Nostrum in Sa Pobla, Majorca. Where I had one of the best meals I’ve ever eaten.

Mare Nostrum
The Stunning Mare Nostrum Restaurant

No choice menu. Bread and aioli to start, then six exquisite courses. Each one is small and perfectly formed, and memorable in its own right. But still we’re talking five courses by the time pudding arrives. And, despite evidence to the contrary in the rest of this post, I’m really not the biggest of eaters.

But who’s going to say no to this…?

The Final Flourish
The Final Flourish

So. A marathon of eating. And you want to know what I’m thinking? PTS isn’t a curse; it’s a gift.

The San Sebastian Crawl

Can’t remember the last time I went on a pub crawl. I’m ashamed to admit that I can’t actually remember the last time I went to a pub. So it took visiting San Sebastian last week to reintroduce me to the joys of bar to bar drinking. And I had a ball.

I think…

So what was I doing in San Sebastian? Apart from getting drunk, that is? I was taking the long way round to get to Majorca. After thirty years of airports and queues and being crammed into plane seats that are never quite big enough, 2015 was the year we decided to drive.

We kicked off by spending twenty four hours on a Brittany ferry, experiencing the Bay of Biscay in all its choppy glory. But we were leaving rain drenched Portsmouth for sunnier shores and we weren’t going to let a little bit of bumping around stop us from having a good time.

Goodbye Portsmouth
Goodbye Portsmouth

The sun was shining in Bilbao when we made land. We had an interim night booked at a hotel in San Sebastian, so that’s where we headed, eager to make the most of a town we knew little about apart from the fact that we’d heard that it was the food centre of Spain. Which seemed like a pretty good reason for going there.

It’s quite a challenge spending only one night in a place you don’t know. What to do? How to make the most of the time while you’re there? How to make sure you’re not having dinner in the place next door to the place that when you get home everybody will tell you was the only place to go in San Sebastian?

The answer… we booked a local to guide us. Or more accurately, Graham booked a local to guide us. I have to be honest and tell you that this wasn’t my idea. And I wasn’t entirely sure it was a good one. Did we really want to spend our only night in this supposedly super-special place with a stranger? Would conversation be difficult? Wouldn’t it feel a bit awkward?

The answers to the above questions are Yes, No and Absolutely Not! Because the local turned out to be Esther from San Sebastian Pintxos Tours. Who we met outside the tourist centre in the middle of the old town of San Sebastian. Who took us straight to our first Pintxos bar. Who introduced me to a drink called Tzakoli, (pronounced chakoli), a local Basque slightly fizzy white wine. Who ordered us our first few plates of Pintxos, the Basque equivalent to tapas. Who was smiley and charming and really good company. We were on our way.

Bar 1 - Tzakoli and Pintxos
Bar 1 – Tzakoli and Pintxos

The streets of the old town are lined with Pintxos bars. On a Thursday night in downtown San Sebastian the world and his wife are out to have a good time. There’s a bustle and a buzz and a liveliness that is crying out to be joined. But you need to know which bars amongst all the bars are the best, which Pintxos out of all the plates out on display are the ones to choose, which way to turn when darkness falls and you’ve lost your bearings and, if you’re a lightweight like me, your ability to walk in a straight line!

What you need is an Esther!

San Sebastian Selfie
San Sebastian Selfie

We were booked to spend two hours with her: 7.30 to 9.30. She said goodbye to us at 11. Petite and determined, she threaded us through the crowds and bars and food choices like a tug boat with a couple of liners in tow. We went from the first bar to our next, where I had more wine and we tried a green chillie/olive combination which Esther explained was known as a ‘Hilda’ after the famous film actress.

Famous film actress? Hilda? Hmmm….

Confused? So were we. We couldn’t think of a famous film actress called Hilda either! (Later, after doing a bit of research, we found out that the dish was named for Rita Hayworth. Who was famous for playing the part of the wild and spicy… Gilda. Aha! Something got lost in translation there!)

Bar 2 - The Rita Hayworth Experience
Bar 2 – The Rita Hayworth Experience

Next bar, more food, another drink. Things were loosening up, we were really beginning to enjoy ourselves. I wish I could tell you what we ate. I know it was delicious. But it was all beginning to get a bit blurry.

Bar 3 - beginning to get into the swing
Bar 3 – we’re beginning to get into the swing of things

The one thing I can tell you was that Esther rarely chose from the plates on display. She ordered specials, the dishes you need to know about in order to ask for. Another advantage to being with a local.

Bar 4 - darkness falls!
Outside Bar 4 – darkness falls!
Inside Bar 4
Inside Bar 4

More bars, more food, more drink. We got to the point where Esther and I were both in such a merry state that Graham (who was sober, thank goodness) had to remind us, as we left one bar for the next, that we hadn’t paid.

Bar 5 - Esther clears the way
Bar 5 – Esther shows us the way

Our last bar was one of the best. So good that I can remember it clearly in spite of the state I was in. It was called La Vina and we stopped there for cheesecake. Because one of the things that La Vina is famous for is its cheesecakes. And let me tell you that this is not just any old cheesecake. This is the best cheesecake I’ve ever eaten. Drunk as I was I remember the taste of it like it was yesterday. Even if San Sebastian wasn’t as fantastic as it is, I would go back there to eat this cheesecake.

Bar 6 - the best cheesecake in the world...
Bar 6 – the best cheesecake in the world

So we said goodbye to Esther. And Graham poured me into a taxi. And we went back to the hotel.

And I’m really glad that when I woke up in the morning – with a mouth like the inside of a parrot’s cage and a cracking headache – I could still remember that bar crawling in San Sebastian with Esther for a guide is the only way to travel.

Better late than never…

This morning I came home to this blog. It’s been quite a while. Other people have been visiting. Just not me.

But now I’m back. And the first thing I’m doing is having a tidy up. Because you know how it is when you’ve been away. You see things with a fresh eye. So I’m updating my image and giving this blog a new look. I hope you like it.

If you’ve been with me from the start, you might remember that in the early days I wrote a post about William Robinson. Until I embarked on my garden design course I had never heard of William Robinson. So I had no idea that he was one of the founding fathers of the ‘right plant, right place’ philosophy which has had such an impact on the way we garden today. And I had no idea that the place where he put his philosophy into practice was Gravetye Manor.

Gravetye Manor
Glorious Gravetye

Gravetye Manor happens to be just up the road from where I live. It happens to be where I spent the first night of my honeymoon. It happens to be where Tom Coward presides over the garden. Tom Coward happens to have come from Great Dixter. Which happens to be one of my favourite gardens.

So loads of reasons to visit. And I can’t for the life of me think why it’s taken so long  to get round to going back there.

I finally went last week. And you know what I discovered? Big mistake leaving it so long.

Because it’s fabulous.

Gravetye Manor
Hidden Spaces

The day was overcast. But this didn’t stop the garden from looking completely stunning. In fact if anything it helped. The textures, the form, the colours – all appeared at their spectacular best in the gentle light.

Grasses and perovskia at Gravetye
Stunning mix of grasses, salvia and perovskia
Stunning texture and form using euphorbias and grasses
How to do texture and Form
The Garden at Gravetye Manor
Another stunning combination

It was a masterclass in how to combine plants for stunning late summer effect. And all I can say is go there. Now. It’s nothing short of inspirational.

Long Barn magic ….

Last week I went back to Long Barn. It was one of those autumn days that start out grey and gloomy but slip quietly into fabulousness while your back is turned. This is the time of year when you need to be paying close attention. Because while you are looking in the other direction invariably something wonderful is happening behind you.

It was raining as we started out cutting back the daisies – erigeron karvinskianus, the Mexican daisy. This innocuous little sparkler has been an unexpected star for me this year. It caught my eye in the nursery at Beth Chatto’s garden when I visited in May and I bought three pots of it for my own garden. There it was again in Majorca in June, planted in drifts under olive trees in the garden of one of the newly restored villas on Pine Walk, looking effortlessly gorgeous. And when I went to Long Barn in August for my week of work experience it was everywhere, softening the paths and steps, flowing across the terrace.

But last week, under the instruction of Richard, the head gardener, Anne and I were putting it to bed for the winter.Erigeron karvanskianus I felt rather cruel, the little daisy was still looking sprightly after a long hot summer of hard work. But it had to be done, so that it could take a breather before doing its thing again next year.

So we were outside in the rain…. And at one point we had to take shelter in the greenhouse, where Richard gave us a quick lesson in propagating plants from non-flowering shoots. And then back outside and on with the daisies. And while we were working the sun came out.

Suddenly the garden was vibrant and glowing. IMG_0540The penstemons in particular were jewel-like.

IMG_0544So Richard allowed me to take some cuttings, and following his instructions I potted up some babies of my own.

IMG_0545They’re on my window sill now.

It’s a wonderful thought that next year I might be able to have a sprinkling of Long Barn magic in my own garden.

Just call me Vita….

Work experience…..

Isn’t it that thing that teenagers do in the summer holidays? Go and spend a couple of weeks in an office, filing and photocopying and watching the clock until the end of the day. At my age it it’s the last thing I expect to be doing….

The year’s course at KLC requires us to spend time during the summer break working in a garden or a nursery for a couple of weeks. It’s viewed as an essential part of the experience. I had been allocated two weeks at Great Dixter in July, which I had pulled out of at the last minute when my father in law died. And a week at Long Barn at the beginning of August.

Long Barn is the house that Vita Sackville-West and Harold Nicholson moved to when they were first married. They bought it for £2,500 in 1915. It was Vita’s first home after Knole and, with the help of their friend Lutyens, she and Harold created a garden that would be the precursor to Sissinghurst.

It’s a house with an amazing guest list – visitors included Virginia Woolf, Stephen Spender, Clive Bell, Lytton Strachey, E.M. Forster, Hugh Walpole, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks. Oh and Jane King of course….

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The current owners had been kind enough to offer the opportunity for a couple of us to come and spend some time in the garden, so I went to there to make the arrangements earlier in the summer. And was blown away.

Steps and Terraces

But being blown away by a garden and doing hard labour in it are two very different things. And on that Monday morning in early August, having undertaken the eleven hour drive back from Ullapool the previous day, and with my own garden in sore need of some serious attention, I wasn’t exactly champing at the bit to get started.

Shows how wrong you can be.

This garden is pretty close to my idea of perfection. But it’s not open to the public. So to spend a week there in perfect weather, sun shining but not too hot, working from one area to the next, pruning and cutting back, sometimes talking with fellow student Ann and head gardener Richard as we worked, sometimes quietly getting on with it…. let me tell you it doesn’t get much better.

We pruned roses.

Before pruning....
Before pruning….
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During pruning….
After pruning...
After pruning…

We worked in the vegetable garden.

Before....
First you see it….
After....
Now you don’t….

We got up close and personal with some onions.

Before....
Before….
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I could swear there were onions here when I last looked …..
There they are....
There they are….
And finally.... Onion Art
And finally…. Onion Art

And made a lot of trips to the compost heap.

Taking a breather!
I need a break!

There were unexpected bonuses. I got to spend time with lovely Ann, a kindred spirit in the making. And Richard, the head gardener, was friendly and patient and very kind to us novices.

And then of course there was Vita.Vita-Sackville-West3

Yew Trees and StatueI followed her ghost along the side of the majestic yews planted by her husband.

The OrchardWalked beside her through the orchard.

IMG_1157Gazed out with her across the fields and wooded slopes of the Weald.

Trying to see the garden through her eyes – and influenced no doubt by the photos I’d seen from the days when she lived here

Long Barn– I had a moment when I saw the world in black and white.

Glorious TechnicolourSo that when I snapped back into the present it seemed almost unnaturally colourful and bright.

How lucky were we? Ann and I? To spend time in that special place. To work in that unique garden. No doubt I will visit many more wonderful gardens in years to come. But I can’t imagine I will find one to live up to Long Barn.

Where would you be… part II

You know those places…. the where would you rather be places? Well I’ve got another one for you. And of all the where would you rather be places in the world this one is my favourite.

I’ve been going to this particular place every year since I was fifteen. That’s forty years, with only a few missed here and there. Kind of tells you something, doesn’t it.

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At the end of July the King family heads north. We pack the car with dogs and children, wellington boots and picnic hampers, fishing rods and golf clubs. And we set off around the dreaded M25, along the M40 and onto the M6. If we’re lucky, as we get up beyond Manchester, the traffic begins to thin. When we get to the stretch of the motorway that runs through the sweeping hills and valleys of the Lake District I begin to feel like I’m on holiday.

We cross the border into Scotland, pass the sign to Gretna Green, where in 1928 my grandfather took my grandmother on the back of his motorbike to become one of the last couples to marry over the anvil. On up to Glasgow and beyond. We stopover for the night in Pitlochry. Then back into the car the next morning for the last stretch. Up through the Cairngorms, onto Inverness, and we drive across the bridge over the Moray Firth, and take the road heading north west to Ullapool.

Because this is where we are heading. Inverbroom Lodge, a sprawling white house on the southern edge of Loch Broom, seven miles from Ullapool on the west coast of the Highlands. It’s an old fishing lodge, rambling and comfortable. Sleeps 20, and we’ve had years where we’ve been 20 and more, with a caravan in the garden to take the overflow. But this year the ‘children’ are all working, getting married, gap yearing. So it’s just ten of us ‘grownups’.

I start the week the way I always do. Wake up early on the first morning. Dress quietly, creep downstairs, trying not to disturb the rest of the house, put on my boots, take my fishing rod and head down to the river. The sun is just beginning to touch the tops of the hills.

IMG_0486It’s quiet and still as anything, just the gentle sound of the river tumbling past. I go to the bridge pool, wade out a little way and cast my first line.

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If you don’t fish you might be wondering what all the fuss is about. And it’s hard to explain. It’s kind of meditation and relaxation and thinking time, all tied up with excitement and anticipation and breathlessness. Because who knows, maybe the next cast…. and to catch a salmon on the first morning would be nice. It’s happened before.

This year there were no fish before breakfast. But much peacefulness and ‘glad to be here-ness’. And after a couple of hours it’s back to the house for porridge, and eggs and bacon and sausages and tomatoes and…. Planning the day ahead. Maybe the beach, Inverewe Gardens, golf, a trip into Ullapool to potter about the shops and stop for coffee at The Ceilidh Place. Maybe someone will do the the steep walk up the hill above the lodge to the ruins of the minister’s house. Maybe someone else will decide that this is the year for climbing Stac Pollaidh.

One of the best things to do is drive along the coast road towards Gairloch. We peel off at the wonderfully named Mellon Udrigle, park the cars, take the dogs and follow the path to the coast. If you want views you won’t find better than these. Three hundred and sixty five degrees of …. well actually words fail me. You kind of have to be there….

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So I don’t know about you. But I know where I’m going….