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Thursday, 6 December 2012

Weekend in Porto

To be honest and to my geographic shame I don't really know exactly where Porto is. It was a cheap Ryanair destination, plucked for a weekend away with little regard for its location. It took about two and a half hours to get there on that bus-ride experience which is the modern day low-cost flight and with no ceremony we disembarked in, well where exactly? Northern Portugal, yes, but could I place it on a map? I'll phone a friend Bob. 

A Jetsons metro - bright blue plastic seats, tall windows and a nose like a wedge of cheese - took us into town through darkened suburbia. At Carolina Michaelis station we got out into the cool night, on a silent street with a huge palm tree flickering its fronds in the breeze. 

I have never been to any city with more graffiti. It spreads like ivy, regardless of whether the wall belongs to an empty shop or a lived-in house.  Just about every other building has been used as a canvas for venting someone's inner something.  Looping tags, wild colours, thoughtful cartoons - like a gloomy Santa pulling his pockets inside out - speak of a city with issues, or perhaps just a different kind of art-appreciation. 

It took ten minutes along deserted, dimly-lit streets to get to the hotel, where we were met with great enthusiasm by a chap who was the very stereotype of a Portuguese hotel desk manager. Thankfully he was the Portuguese hotel desk manager. He had a deep tan, a magnificent dark tufty monobrow, beetle-black hair and a habit of punctuating his comments with a sly conspiratorial wink, as if indicating that he was "onto us" but wouldn't give us away. He didn't. 

We told him we were surprised to see so few people about, which I think he took to be something of a slight against Porto's cafe culture: "It's only ten thirty! People eat at home THEN they go out, maybe eleven, midnight - bars are open until eight am. Not like London eh?" P and I were frankly exhausted and started bleating Englishly about "well maybe tomorrow" but he was pointing out where these bars were on the map and, like the twenty something's we are, we obviously had to go out again, just to show him that even  Londoners are able to stay up late. Sometimes. 

The bar we ended up in was full of long narrow wooden tables with tiny chairs and everyone sitting elbow to elbow, while serious waiters moved with speed and purpose carrying trays of golden beer in slim glasses. We found space and ordered beer and empadas and looked at the people. With their almost universally dark hair and eyes, and dark clothes they were different to a London crowd and better behaved too. They were all animated and lively but no-one was talking too loudly or obviously drunk. A great buzz of smiling conversation filled the space and our waiter tolerated our lack of Portugese with a grin and brought more beer and empadas. The bill when it came was eight euros. 

 When we emerged sometime after midnight, the square was filling up with bright-eyed people coming out for the night. Porto feels like a city in Latin America to me, with its dim street lighting, its palm trees and grand but slightly shabby buildings which smack of past domination by church or state. In the gloomy street lighting we could have been in a Fellini movie. 

Usually when I write "quiet room away from the lift please" on a hotel reservation it's a guarantee that we'll be placed next to the lift and over the bar, but at the Eurostar des Artes we got exactly what we asked for and had a blissfully quiet night, waking to the sound of rain and seagulls. 

Breakfast was vast and unlimited and we went back for thirds, vowing not to have any lunch. The sky looked unpromising and we strode out into the drizzle insisting that it was just a "sea fret" that would soon pass. The sea fret got heavy enough that we dug out hoods and umbrellas but it was gone within minutes. The sun came out and we walked along glistening cobbled streets to see what Porto had to offer. 

It turns out that Porto has quite a lot to offer.  In short, it is fabulous. It is that rare thing:a real place which is beautiful because its full history is on display warts and all - and even the warts are worth looking at and thinking about for a moment. It must rank as one of the cleanest places in Europe with either the hardest working roadsweepers anywhere, or perhaps no need for them ( I suspect the latter). It hasn't been prettied up or Disneyfied for the tourists and people seem to live and work on the same streets they have always lived and worked on. There is a feeling that money may be a bit tight - a story told by the number of decaying buildings on so many streets. A single line of houses may have several that are ancient and unrestored but inhabited, another with new windows and gleaming paintwork and the next with its roof caved in, sprouting rotting black timbers.

But those streets have such character. Many of the houses - like many of the churches - are decorated with tiles. Some are a plain dark green or brown glaze, others have patterns like faded wallpaper. There are iron street lights from another era, ancient doors thick with paint and window frames which haven't seen a right-angle in centuries. On some streets there is a tiny grocery in a space like a big wardrobe with a single door and no window. They are lit by a bare bulb and crammed with boxes of oranges and cauliflowers, potatoes, hair gel, washing powder, cans of sardines and tomatoes.  They all smell the same - earth and vegetables. 

The Igreja Dos Extintos Carmelitas is a looming stone church, clad on one side  with a vast tiled blue and white mural, and inside with gold. The huge ornate baroque nave is dazzling but with the gory statues and paintings of a bloodied and dying Christ, it all adds up to a slightly oppressive atmosphere, creating a place you want to get out of. We did, dropping coins into the cup of an eager young man with Downs Syndrome who was begging in the porch. 

Next stop, the 18th century  Clerigos tower, which charges a hefty two euro entrance fee (nothing seems to be a rip-off in Porto). It's from the refreshingly straightforward school of take-no-prisoners-tourism, with steep stone steps becoming increasingly narrow, until they open out onto the tiny viewing platform with gaps between the stone balustrades which are exactly toddler sized. The view is sensational, across brick-red roofs to monolithic churches like big stone islands, and down to the river Douro dotted with the barges once used for delivering barrels of port. They have an air of an Arab dhow about them with their fine curving prows like scimitars. 

The church to which the tower is attached was refreshingly gold-free with soft pink and mushroom coloured marble swirling beautifully towards the ceiling. Behind the altar there is what looks like a miniature glass coach with what, in the gloom, seemed to be a skull grinning out. I've found no reference to it anywhere so maybe my eyes were playing tricks on me, but it had that air of ancient Roman Catholic magic about it. 

The buildings below the tower spill untidily down the slope of the city, along narrow streets which curl like thrown string. In places they are little more than alleyways and the buildings seemed to narrow over our heads, leaving just a slit of sky above, creating a gloomy twilight. On one street we stopped for what the Portuguese call a "Pingo" - an espresso with a shot of milk. Outside the heavens opened briefly leaving the cobbles with a gleam like polished pewter. 

We found our way to the Dom Luis  bridge arching high over the river and walked along the tram lines to look up and down the gorge. On our side of the bridge and edging underneath it were stacks of tiny houses, some were patched and neatly swept, others had smashed roof lights and crawling ivy. Still more were just outlines, with the remnants of old walls, still brightly tiled beneath the foliage. From above, you get a better sense of just how narrow the streets are and how difficult it would be to actually get to the houses that need renovation.

I think the purpose of any good weekend break is to use as many different varieties of public transport as possible so to get down to the river we rode the funicular by the bridge which descends so steeply that you can't actually see the rails from the glass front of the car. It was like riding a roller coaster in slow motion. 

The Ribeira is the classic bit of river frontage in Porto with tiny shops and restaurants filling the arches of an ancient stone jetty. Schooners and  sailboats were tied up along the modern key-side and tourists drank beer and looked up at the soaring spans of the bridge over the gorge above. Its a grand spot and P and I decided to follow the Douro through the city towards the sea, three and a half miles away. We took the tram route and every so often a single wooden tramcar clanked past us looking a lot like the cable cars in San Fransisco. They've all been restored with lots of polished wood and brass. 

We kept vowing to turn around at the next tram stop but somehow never quite did and after ninety minutes or so we were watching huge waves pounding the breakwater where the river meets the sea. Having stuck by our breakfast pledge not to have lunch, we were famished, and providence directed us to what seemed to be the only cafe in the area, right on the beach, where we had a couple of beers and a white plateful of cheese and olives. We watched the surf as dusk fell and then ran for the last tram. As we rattled back into the centre of the city, the last traces of sunset drained from the sky and the pink, blue and yellow lights of Porto twinkled across the river becoming a soft glow settling over us.

On the way back to the hotel we stopped at Porto's most famous bookshop, the Livraria Lello. With its stained glass ceiling, wood paneling and intricate curving central staircase and crimson carpets it feels like the Pope's private library. It was perhaps the only bookshop I have been to where there was a queue to get in and "no photos" signs inside.

The restaurant O Paparico is a taxi ride from the centre and like so much in Porto, it has a sense of the theatrical about it. There is no sign. On the door is  a small silver knocker shaped like a hand, and after we tapped on it the owner ushered us in with a smile. A former stable, it now feels like an exclusive club, with dark stone walls, leather sofas and intimate lighting. The TV showing Laurel and Hardy in the bar area was a slightly incongruous touch, but the rest of the place was pitch perfect. From the candles and the white linen table cloths to the antiques on the mantelpieces, it's a restaurant that tries very hard to ensure that you feel like you are having a special evening. There was a selection of tapas-style starters already on the table which the owner assured us could be replaced or removed as we wished and were we happy with the table? Yes. All the dishes are served for two people and all were modestly sized and beautifully presented. It's a gem of a place. 

And that goes for Porto as well. In some ways it's a modest city. Its not laden with world-class, can't-miss, show-off, tourist-spectacles, but its charm is in its ambiance; the sweep of its curves along the river, the drama of its high bridges and the human scale of its neighbourhoods with their tottering but beautiful houses. There is a sense that because it doesn't blow its own trumpet, every picturesque little street you come across, every mysterious church, every perfect Pingo place is your own discovery and that makes Porto special. It's like being let in on someone else's secret. 

Monday, 5 November 2012

In the High Alpujarras

Atalbeitar - August 2012

The road to Atalbeitar is a single track of tarmac, four thousand feet up in the High Alpujarras of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It zigzags steeply down through terraces of olive and almond trees, before narrowing into a scatter of parked cars.  They can't get much further into this tiny whitewashed village of alleyways and even if they could there is  no road on the other side. Thick walled houses, squint through deep set windows, their flat roofs sprouting chimneys topped with little white witches hats or Moorish arches and the whole place feels to have kept the modern world at bay for a thousand years. 

The village and those around it - the Taha villages they are called - are remnants of the Berber's rule over the region and on a clear day from the right ridges, you can see the North African hills they left behind.  They built the villages in their traditional style, linked by a network of paths which is still in use today. They established mosques and used their skills with irrigation to cultivate the region. It would never last of course. After being forced to convert to Christianity they rose up and were crushed. The Taha (Arabic for "obedience") was their last bastion before they were expelled from Spain in the sixteenth century. Then, Christians were brought south from from the wet Atlantic coast in Galicia and Asturias to live in these houses and farm the arid land. In each village, two Moorish families were forced to stay on to maintain the sophisticated system of water courses they had built and the water still flows through them today, running through ancient stone-lined channels past fields, into cool stone reservoirs, under houses and into drinking troughs and wash houses. The fortified watchtowers built by the Moors have been absorbed into churches and the people that smile and watch from plastic chairs grouped in the tiny village squares are white, not brown. There are no veils here any more, but this still feels closer to Marrakesh than Malaga. 

Like all of these "white villages" Atalbeitar grips the hillside on the south-facing flank of Poqueira gorge, baking in the sunshine. From each village you can usually see one or two others, a startling splash of white, off in the distance. Each has a church with a square bell tower and some villages are bigger than others but they follow much the same pattern - a tight jumble of squat houses built against the slope, threaded by alleyways which go between and sometimes under them. All the stonework is white though the doorways are often covered with cloth woven in bright stripes. Occasionally there is a vine trellis laden with grapes , or an explosion of purple bougainvilleas . The sound of running water is never far away and every village has at least one open cistern fed by a spout of clear clean water, usually decorated with bright tiling and religious inscriptions. Some of it is naturally fizzy. 

Atalbeitar has a year round population of 12 although a few more people stay in their family's  houses over the summer. There is no shop, and no bar though the woman who owns this house says there is a "village club" which sells cheap beer. You get the sense that this is not entirely official.  In the evening the entire adult population bring lawn chairs to the central square and sits in a circle on what is the main route through Atalbeitar. On our first evening we arrived in the square, puzzled as to how to keep going on the path though the village and they beckoned us through their circle, smiling, through an archway beneath one of the houses which took us out into terraced fields. 

The house we are staying in is at the top edge of the village, built into the bottom of a small cliff. The jagged brown stone forms the back wall of the ground floor. The flat roof is made in the traditional way with chestnut beams supporting flat stones which are then packed on top with mud. Looking up at the roof from inside is briefly alarming, as if there has been a landslide and the house has been buried under tons of rubble. The steep walk to the house from the road takes us past the church and through almond and fig trees and prickly pear cacti. The prickly pears are getting ripe, the green giving way to an apricot coloured blush. When one fell off the other day I split it open and dug out the brilliant orange flesh with a spoon. They taste like passion fruit though you have to be careful handling them as the little hairs on the outside dig into your skin and take an age to pull out. 

The church bell clanked for a while on Sunday but otherwise the building is silent and locked. The bell though is the only mechanical sound in this village. There are no cars, no buzz of a moped, no sirens, no dogs barking, no squeal of metal shutters being raised, no trucks, no buses. Early mornings are quiet as a hillside.  We open the shuttered windows when our brains tell us that we are more awake than asleep. Cool air pours in and the sun stretches across the other side of the valley, reaching across shadowed ridges and over dry brown slopes. Below us, it picks out the chimney tops, lighting them like beacons over the village. Unfamiliar birds peep and whoople outside. Its a bit like waking up in a campsite in that, eventually, you hear other people doing the same. Quiet murmours, the chink of a plate, a cough over a cigarette, soft laughter. The sounds drift  up to our house. No-one gets up early here and everything is muted until perhaps 9.30 or 10 when there is a change of tone to mark daytime. Neighbours greet one another "Bon dia!  Bon dia!". Then the first children's voices; shouts, laughter, tears and eventually there is a low buzz of conversation floating over the flat roofs. On Wednesday mornings the quiet is rudely shattered by the blast of a car horn for twenty or thirty seconds. I went down to see what it was and found a blue van, it's back doors open with a cluster of women around it. Inside were white plastic trays full of fish and the fishman was in an animated conversation with the village ladies as he showed them what he had. These women become strangely identikit as they age, they become stocky in their print dresses with faded colours, hair cut short. Its as if at a certain point they suddenly become figures of the 1950s. Gathered at the fish van, one or two glanced in my direction and then looked away. I had the slight feeling of intruding in something and walked on, into a one of the alleys I hadn't been into before. It narrowed to a dead end between grey-white houses with rough brown doors, ancient and ill-fitting. Behind them in the gloom visible between the doors and their frames, I could hear a rumble of conversation. 

The early part of the day is the only time you see any local people out walking. Old men with hats,  pressed trousers and long sleeved shirts walk slowly up and down the roads in the cool of the morning. Often they look at our rental car as if it is the most extraordinary thing they can imagine and will stop to watch us pass. You meet the women on the paths between the villages, often with a plastic shopping bag and a reserved Bon dia. The heat builds slowly through the morning, the birds quieten down and one by one the people retreat behind their doors again for lunch and then a siesta. In the mid afternoon the village bakes silently in the heat; the stone walls soaking up the sunshine.  A hot wind sends dry leaves skittering through the alleys. The ratchet of crickets and cicadas rises and falls with the temperature and Atalbeitar seems deserted, ready to come alive again when the heat begins to wane. 

We just missed the fiesta in Atalbeitar; two men were removing the rope of coloured lights across the street at the entrance to the village when we arrived. One standing precariously on the roof of a house held the undone string tight while the other undid the other end and they gently lowered the whole thing to the ground. But that night the fiesta spirit continued with great roars of laughter from the square and children laughing and squealing until the small hours. But for the fact that Tom was sleeping contentedly in his room we would have given up on sleep and gone to see what was going on. 

The second night, all was peaceful in Atalbeitar. Not so in the next village Ferreirola a couple of miles down the valley. It was their turn for a fiesta and at eleven pm, accompanied by firecrackers, the band started up. It sounded like a Mexican revolution. Eventually the trumpets and oompah and bass drum were joined by a singer for a vigorous rendition of what seemed to be roughly the same song, for the next five hours. The combination of instruments and tempo sounded to my foreign ear like the music played at the circus when the clowns come in. With the sound bouncing eerily across the valley, P and I gave up on sleep and read, grimly, until about four, when cheer and applause marked the end of the fiesta. T, again, slept through the whole thing.

One night we were treated to music of a different kind though. Every year a group of classical musicians goes from one village to the next over the course of a week or so, staging outdoor evening concerts. We came back from supper just after ten - still early by local standards - and struggled to find a place to park. Knots of people were heading into the village and with stars sparkling overhead and the alleys lit by creamy yellow street lights we made for the square. It was ringed by perhaps sixty people, all watching three musicians. A flautist, a pianist and a clarinetist played a beautiful selection of music, to warm applause. Dogs stopped on the edge of the crowd and watched, puzzled. Children ran through the square self-consciously and others brought their grandparents out to see. It felt more than ever as if this corner of Spain doesn't quite live in the same time as the rest of the modern world. 

Walking through the hills, the history of the region is all around you, in the spiders web of trails and the ruins of countless buildings.  On every flank of every hill there is a path; sometimes following the contour around, sometimes zigzagging steeply across it. They pass small stone crofts, most now empty, with a skeletal roof of grey chestnut beams. The  foot-thick walls were built to last and they have. There are at least four old mills within walking distance of Atalbeitar. All are now ruined but were all clearly substantial structures once, with several rooms and carefully engineered sluices to channel the streams over waterwheels. More than once we saw ridged grinding wheels lying half buried in the undergrowth. One old mill on a ridge overlooking Atalbeitar dates back perhaps a thousand years. Until we had walked to it we never noticed it from the village, so exactly does it blend  in with the landscape. It sits behind a large round threshing circle built with flat stones into the hillside. We came across these circles several times in places which are now empty of people and remote, but were clearly once in the heart of things. They look like ancient helicopter landing pads and were built in windy places to make it easier to separate wheat from chaff. You don't see too much wheat on the terraces now - it can't be economic as a cash crop on such a small scale and people buy the bread they once had to make. Other crops are still grown though and the irrigation systems support tremendous crops of apples and pears, apricots figs, olives, almonds, peppers and sweetcorn. There are plenty of goats too, tonkelling about the hillside. Catching my breath in the rubble of an abandoned cortijo after a steep climb I was startled by an elderly goatherd who appeared next to me out of nowhere with a thick walking stick. His skin was burnt almost black and a clear plastic jug of water swung from his belt. We smiled and Bon dia'd and agreed that it was nice that the sun hadn't yet reached the slope where we were both standing. Eventually I pressed on and up the ridge and twenty minutes later I looked down to the spot where we had been to see him directing a little black dog around the goats, which flowed down through the terraces like poured water. 

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

Sunshine and Showers - Mistley Thorn Hotel

When I was a child, the English summer was a perpetual gleam of bright sunny days; puffy clouds drifting through soaring blue skies and a warm breeze nodding the grasses in our garden. It wasn't really of course but I do remember that sometimes there was sun. Not so this year. Our summer so far this year was a day in early March. Since then, it has rained and rained some more and then rained for a bit longer. Arks are making a comeback. In such dreary weather you have to make summer up as you go along and I have always found one solution is to bolt off to some rural hidey-hole with the promise of an ambitious chef and a high thread count. So hi then to Mistley, on the muddy banks of the Stour Estuary in Essex and as we set off, there was a minor miracle. The rain stopped and the sun came out and we put the top down on the car. Dazzled like damp moles by the unaccustomed brightness, we splashed through drenched roads and dripping trees until we emerged at Mistley an hour or so from London.

Once it was a busy quay with squat sailing barges landing coal from Newcastle and horse manure from London (a city which in 1900 was clearing a thousand tonnes of the stuff from its streets every day*). Today it is largely retired, mostly due to the rail lines to the ports of Harwich and Felixtowe either side of the mouth of the estuary to the east. Apart from what looks like a small gravel dock a little further along the bank, the quayside is now an empty concrete space fringed with disused warehouses and partly subsumed by a building supply firm. The Georgian merchant's houses have been prettied up in pastel colours and the extraordinary swan fountain, which was to be the heart of a grand scheme for an eighteenth century saltwater spa, survives like the last remnant of a long-forgotten fairground.

I have never seen so many swans in one place. Mistley has always attracted them; first because of the grasses they like to eat along the River Stour, and later because of the barley brought to the maltings which set up in business here. After a couple of questions to that nice Mr Google though I found another reason that they like to gather in Mistley. Apparently the leader of the local "Swanwatch" group has been feeding them grain three times a day, to the dismay of many in the village who are fed up of the mess and the hazard to drivers (and the swans themselves). In the first four months of this year thirteen had been hit and killed by cars.  

Overlooking the fountain is the Mistley Thorn Hotel; eight bedrooms and a restaurant in a building dating from 1723. An earlier inn on the site was owned by Matthew Hopkins, the self-proclaimed Witchfinder General of the 17th Century and surely one of the most appalling figures in English history. Its a shame he wasn't still lurking about the place, as after reading the accounts of his murderous life, I would have liked to have had words with him.

The Mistley Thorn Hotel seems to have been designed with the needs of the fleeing Londoner in mind. It is a two minute walk from the railway station, in a place with character but few tourists. Perfect for those of us pretentious enough to think we have "discovered" a place. Inside, it has been painted in those muted colours which lifestyle magazines tend to gush over as being "Farrow and Ball", though these days could just as easily be Dulux to be honest. The rooms have welcoming beds with creamy linen and piles of pillows, modern bathrooms with shiny fixtures, new tiling and gleaming grouting. Crisp white robes hang in the closet and there is tea, coffee and delicious little shortbreads in a kilner jar. Yes, this is what we shallow London weekend holidaymakers want; everything just like it is at home - or rather the stylised version of home as promoted by "Homes and Property".

So, tick tick tick then and the restaurant too has that sense of an unexpected oasis about it - fresh paint, lots of glassware, discreet lighting, and a happy buzz from its diners - local and visitors alike. Ticks all around again. The menu also makes all the right noises with lots of locally sourced fish and seafood - oysters, mussels, scallops, squid. And plenty of wine. I could pretend to critique the wine list, but I'd be rubbish at it. Suffice to say what we had was very drinkable. It was white.

The Executive Chef is a Californian and you can sense it in the menu and the service (and perhaps the title). She brings a cheery air of efficiency to the place. The staff are lovely - everyone anxious to please and the emphasis is on friendly rather than slick. The portions are generous. Rather too generous in fact. I had the crayfish salad and there were plenty of them, fresh and moist, piled on crispy lettuce with a lemony vinaigrette (which could have been a little more zesty). P had big pile of samphire and crab salad and by the time we had finished our starters we were both full. And that is a disappointment when you are out for a meal. If the menu is halfway good you want to have a go with three courses, and each should leave you enjoyably anticipating the next rather than shifting uneasily and hoping you will have room for it. You can always leave some of course, but having been raised to Finish What's On The Plate, I now have a knee-jerk antithesis to leaving anything. And if you do, you have the embarrassment of dealing with the concerned enquiry from the waitress about whether there was a problem with the food. "No no!" you gush but then there isn't really a good second part to the sentence. "There was too much" is another criticism of the kitchen, "I am full" suggests you don't want dessert, and "I left this because I wanted room for dessert" smacks of hideous over-consumption. There's a whole Seinfeld episode there.

I had ordered the Dover sole hoping it would be a smallish dish, but it was a big fish with too many potatoes and a heap of samphire. Samphire is an exotic treat for us townies though and great with fish: I like the squeaky crunch as you bite into it and the slow saltiness which suddenly spreads through your mouth apparently out of nowhere. The fish was cooked to creamy perfection but I wanted a bit less of it. P had ordered the bream and again it was well cooked on a huge bed of lentils, but she could only manage one of the two large fillets and really, one is enough. As we had a three course meal included in the price of the room, we felt obliged to get dessert. Well, rude not to really. I had a chocolate affogato simply because I couldn't really remember what "affogato" was. It turned out to be a solid wedge of chocolate fondant and while about two forkfuls was delicious, the rest was just too much for the end of a meal. Needless to say, with the ingrained mental image of my parents hovering over me, I finished it.

And so to bed, and I would say this to anyone planning a stay: room 4 is going to be noisy. Its right over the restaurant and the kitchen, and the braying table of five below us outstayed their welcome, and somehow forgot that there were other people staying as they laughed and shouted their way to bed.  There was also the usual stamping about above us and in the corridor which is just going to be a problem in an old building but it added up to a rather broken night and no chance of a lie-in. The next day we investigated the other rooms and realised that the three (6,7,8) on the top floor would all have been much quieter, as would room 5 at the back, so we were unlucky.

Breakfast was typically generous and as much or as little as we wanted. From boiled eggs and soldiers, porridge and honey to the Full English with sausage and treacle and ale-cured back-bacon. I have to say that good bacon in my book is just that and doesn't really need dressing up, but it looked good and although with my stomach still groaning I resisted the Full English, I still hankered for it. My croissants were buttery and flaky but had been heated in a microwave which tends to make them go hard in the middle. The coffee and orange juice - the litmus tests of any breakfast - were both excellent. P's vegetarian Full English had haloumi cheese and perfect poached eggs. The Mistley Thorn's website says "We strive for a balance in offering high quality food, excellent wine at reasonable prices and friendly service in a relaxed, fun and inviting atmosphere."

I'd say that's about right. We rolled out into the inevitable deluge knowing we would come back. Next time we will be a bit more specific about the room we want and approach the menu a little more carefully - perhaps by skipping lunch. For a couple of days. The Mistley Thorn Hotel though really is a treat with a lovely atmosphere - despite the niggles. More sunshine than showers.

*all statistics to be taken with a pinch of salt. Or a mouthful of samphire.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Sunshine, the Blue Lagoon and home...

Dark mornings are a feature of a British winter of course, but in Iceland at this time of year it doesn't really get light until after ten thirty and that takes some getting used to. You can wake up, have a lie in, then get breakfast, and its still dark! This morning though the milky blue dawn revealed a perfectly clear sky and the prospect that we might even see the sun for the first time here. We packed up and made off through Reykjavik's silent grey streets, heading for the airport. Our day snowed-in at Hengill meant we didn't see as much of the city as we would have liked - the Cathedral tower will have to remain unclimbed (by us anyway). As we drove out through the snow-covered lava fields, the sun hid behind the hills, casting a glow over the low clouds offshore before finally climbing above the horizon, impossibly bright. We pulled off the road before the airport to go to the Blue Lagoon, a small lake full of mineral rich water which was giving off clouds of steam ahead of us. 

Its not quite the natural wonder that it appears to be. The water is pumped from a mile underground and then used at the nearby geothermal power station before being pumped into an artificial lava lake-bed which forms the Blue Lagoon. Not that there was any mention of that on the signs outside which talked a lot about the natural healing properties of the water, but you can forgive them for that. "Come and bathe in power station-outflow" isn't perhaps the ideal way of pulling in the punters. It is though, a lovely experience. The water is warm and a cloudy blue. It was -6C when we were there and the clouds of steam made it impossible to see from one side top the other. P and I smothered ourselves in the white silicate mud and were instantly ten years younger. Tom, who hasn't got ten years to lose gave the mud a wide berth. He liked the lava cave though and it was all slightly surreal. It was very relaxing too and we left feeling that we had warmed up our inner cores and taken a few lines off as well!

From the observation deck we enjoyed our last big views across icy Iceland before making for the airport.  Even at midday the sun was only just above the horizon so it never really feels like anything more than early morning, until the light slowly begins to fade and twilight settles over everything.

We never did see the Northern Lights in the end, although we had our fingers crossed right until the last minute at the airport where it was still cold crisp and clear - the perfect conditions apparently. But, not quite, according to the lady at the cafe at our gate who told a couple of disappointed English tourists that it wasn't NEARLY cold enough to see the Northern Lights yet. Maybe we will have to come back again. It was a lovely few days and left us hankering for more.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Into the wild...

We felt somewhat thwarted by the weather yesterday, having been forced to scuttle back to Reykjavik without really seeing anything of the countryside. Actually "countryside" doesn't seem to be a word that you associate with Iceland. It suggests rural idyll with hedgerows and cows chewing the cud and butterflies. Iceland isnt really like that - at the moment anyway. I think a better word for Iceland's interior is "terrain". But what terrain it is. We emerged from the city into a perfectly iced landscape; vast open stretches of white rolling off to blunt-faced cliffs topped with a perfectly squared-off shelves of snow. The sky was duck-egg blue, streaked with misty clouds tinged rose from the sunrise. It was a breathtaking drive through a silent frozen world. The road had been ploughed but there had been a couple of inches of snow overnight making it all but invisible. We swished along over the smooth surface stopping occasionally to stand in the chill and take it all in. It couldn't have been more beautiful.

 We stopped at Thingvellir National Park and found the famous chasm between the tectonic plates which opened up relatively recently. Normally you can walk through it but the snow was too deep, so we had to admire the view instead. Thingvellir was the site of the first Icelandic parliament - a meeting place really, where for a few weeks a year people would gather and laws would be made. One man would recite all the Icelandic laws from memory. We could have spent more time there, but with only a few more hours of daylight left we pushed on to Geysir, an hour or so further.

 The first clue that we were getting close to Geysir was the sudden mist which smothered the road. Then we noticed that the ditch beside us was steaming and soon, that the whole field next to us seemed to be smouldering, We parked and went to look. All around us little vents were steaming away and boiling water was dribbling along beside the path. Geysir gave its name to the geyser of course and we walked within a few feet of one which erupts every few minutes. We saw it go several times, the boiling pool sucking in and out a few times before suddenly releasing a huge bubble of steam.. Small birds, with fluffy brown breasts peeped and flitted around us through the steam. They are about the only wildlife we have seen. Thor, who took us to his community bonfire last night told us that a couple of polar bears have swum over from Greenland in the past few years only to be shot. Iceland does not really want enormous hungry bears on the loose. They would certainly frighten the horses, of which we have seen dozens; little Thelwell creatures with fat necks, bowed backs and shaggy mains.

After soup and hot chocolate we hit the road again, and had it more or less to ourselves on the way back. Occasionally we passed a clapboard farmhouse with a porchlight glowing as dusk flattened out the landscape. After a couple of hours we were back in Reykjavik's slushy streets, the sky a bruise of blue. That was a New Year's Day we won't forget.

New Year's Day in Iceland