Tuesday, 2 April 2013

From the Semana Santa parades, far too much good food and drink with friends... to our apartment in Avenida de Puerto: it's great to be back!

Well, we've clocked up more than 48 hours back in the blue-skied streets of Valencia so far. Although nothing seems to have changed over five years, everything has changed in our reality. We are all a little older. Our kids are growing up. The buildings and the people largely remain as was, though as if signifying a more profound change, many of the beautiful new buildings and structures of the City of Arts and Sciences have yellowed in the intervening years. A sort of tarnish has been allowed to develop over the formerly pristine white surfaces, and so far it appears no well-dressed public servant has yet been despatched to re-coat them. It could be the €25bn debt being split between the 7m residents that is causing the delay, but it is one of the few visible yet superficial changes that seem to have happened since "la crisis". In the past, when public service and infrastructure jobs needed doing, money, people and equipment were simply thrown at them. Other changes are more subtle still. There aren't thousands of people begging on the streets, yet we hear of more people with cars that have been broken into and victims of clever pickpocketing gangs; the bars and restaurants are still full and yet property prices have plummeted by as much as 50-60% in some areas.

Unemployment amongst the young at least is as much as 50% in some areas, but again the signs are somewhat invisible within the city centres which continue to thrive and buzz with activity.

For us the changes are as much about the people that have moved away - especially those involved with the 2007 America's Cup Challenge. That and the fact we have come back to Valencia for a very few days - as visitors, not residents. And that makes us feel temporary and transitory. We are here for a very few days, so don't feel able to unwind and re-lay down our roots. There's no Fallas or Christmas to look forward to. No long trips into the country - or camping holidays - or weekends up the coast to Barcelona or down to Alicante. No open-air concerts, operas, ferias and outdoor workshops. No great cycling expeditions up into the mountains. No friends visiting us for a few days' sunshine and visits to the local restaurants in the Barrio del Carmen. We're just here for a whirlwind return tour like those who used to visit us. Soon we'll be gone and back to missing good old Valencia, preparing for the time we might return for a longer trip. Possibly a place of our own where we can come and go as we please, and ultimately to become part of this great city and the outdoor life we love so much. For me I am heartened that the whole family miss the place as much as I do when we're not here, and love it so much when we return. I think our relationship with our friends and the city will continue long into the future, and no matter where else in the world we travel, Valencia will always have a very special place in our lives.

 From the Santa Semana procession at Cabanyal
 The Agora, The Science Museum and Santiago Calatrava's latest amazing bridge

 Calatrava's opera house

Our favourite building down on the corner of Avenida de Puerto by the port

Friday, 29 March 2013

Counting down the hours...

Well, it's getting ever closer... another trip back to our favourite place in Europe, to meet some of our favourite people in the world! After temperatures in the UK of sub-zero, it will be something to experience anything above 10°C in recent months.

Aside from meeting all our good friends, we'll be checking out the property scene. Some day - whether it's this year or in a few years - we really want to find a little 'bolt-hole' in Valencia - somewhere from which we can come and go.

Still - better get those bags packed...

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

A (hopefully) warm return to Valencia...

Well, sadly it doesn't look like we'll be moving back permanently, but the 'Hill-Whitehead' clan will be returning to sunny VLC for 6 days this Easter 2013. We are extremely excited and look forward to seeing how things have changed in the past year or so since our last visit.

Sounds like the crashing economy in Spain (nearly matched by the UK's own ailing economy) is having a profound effect on everything from unemployment to property prices, though thankfully the vast majority of our friends have escaped the worst effects so far. Could this be the moment to investigate property purchases in Spain or are prices likely to fall further? Is there further room for a fall? This question and many more will doubtless be answered on our return.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

The chilly UK return

View from the Micalet

Blogging has become rather a 'bottom-of-the-pile' priority in recent months, for which I apologise. I still have it in mind to do some serious video editing from our year in Spain and to post some more of the fascinating highlights, though time is simply not one of those available assets currently. One day... promise...

Well, since mid-August, a fair amount has happened. We had a great final month in Valencia - saw many friends and received our final few visitors before packing got underway, ready for the great return to the UK. Our wonderful landlord and his wife paid us a visit in the final few days, armed with gluten free brownies - took us nearly a fortnight to finish the tray, but the were delicious. Interspersed with visits from friends and fits of box-packing, we managed to make a final few visits to places we had unintentionally avoided during the previous 12 months. A trip to the Cathedral in Valencia and a hike up to the top of the Micalet tower next door. What amazing views across a full 360° panorama - the entire Valencia region in focus on a beautiful sunny afternoon. Sadly as the month drew towards its conclusion, the arrival of Bernie Ecclestone's Formula One coincided with our own departure on Sunday 24 August. Having got rid of the packed boxes to our wonderful mover - Jimbo the Scot - the previous week, we were left to pack the final oddments and stuff the last bags into our car - just as Hamilton was relinquishing his opportunity to win the European Grand Prix a mile down the road! Of course, packing the bags and stuffing the car was made all the more difficult by the fact that the grown-ups had been up the previous night until around 4am at a number of clubs and restaurants in the Barrio del Carmen area of Valencia, for a finale shindig with our great Spanish friends. Still, despite the cloudy minds and the sleepy heads, we finally departed late afternoon, just as the F1 traffic started moving for the city boundaries, but we still managed good time northwards towards Bilbao, where we stopped off at the Hotel-and-Go in Ribabellosa.

Departing the cold, wet and windy Bilbao, headed for Portsmouth

The next day, we made the final distance to a grey, cloudy and damp Bilbao in less than an hour. A further thirty hours or so later, and we were entering the harbour at Portsmouth - strangely, with marginally better weather!

So that's it. Back in Blighty! But for how long? Well, that's the 64p question. We're now ensconced back at work and play in Cambridge, but there's a desire to find our way back to Valencia at the very first opportunity... and we do have ways, you know!

Liz, Chris and Jo return to the UK with mixed feelings

In the meantime, I really must get back into this blogging lark again. Not only do I need to backfill our year in Spain, but time is marching on here in Cambridge and we have much to report on what's been going on for the past couple of months... back soon!

Thursday, 14 August 2008

The Iberian tour continues...

Wind- and Kite-surfing at Guincho Beach, near Lisbon, Portugal

Yet another age, I know. We're now back in Valencia - and for the final week or so at that, sadly. Well, the tour throughout Portugal and northern Spain continued through to the end of July, though internet connections became few and far between, hence the lack of posts for the past month or so (again!). Now I'll attempt a rapid hurtle through the final few weeks of the camping and sailing tour, and if time permits, a quick update on the story in Valencia. Whilst the blogs have sadly dwindled, I have been getting my full money's worth over at Flickr where our exploits continue to be recorded as digital images for time immemorial. They're reasonably neatly pigeon-holed into chapters throughout the year - I think there's around 3,500 images up there so far and the number increases by the day.

So to our grand tour, where I left you, cliffhanger-like, near Lisbon in Portugal. The beach at Guincho was stunning. Force 5-6 winds and great scenes of wind-and kite-surfers going about their business - morning, noon and night - sometimes even after dark.

The fairytale palaces of Sintra - how did they get it all the way up there?

We travelled from our Orbitur Guincho campsite slightly inland to the beautiful - and very English-looking - town of palaces that is Sintra the following day. You've probably heard the old line about how many people can one stuff into a Mini, telephone box ("What are telephone boxes, Daddy?", our children might ask!!) etc. Well, to stretch the cliché, how many palaces can one stuff into a town that is scarcely larger than a village? Well, we still don't know the answer precisely, but it is certainly more than a few, and we spent a day hiking through a number of them. Quite a fascinating place where royals and noblemen (and women) built their country retreats over the centuries. The views across the mountains from each of these magical buildings were quite something and well worth the visit.

On the beach near A Coruña, in a boat that was never designed to float!

And so, onwards towards the northern Portuguese border with Spain. We departed Guincho and headed northwards via a lunch stopover in the beautiful university city of Coimbra, just south of Porto. What a fantastic lunch, though with sweltering heat hitting the early 40°s, we decided, regrettably, it was not a day for lots of outdoor sightseeing, and we jumped back into the air-conditioned car and upwards past Porto to the town of Viana do Castelo, where we stayed for a further couple of nights before passing into northern Spain and the region of Galicia to meet our friends, Rick, Charlie, Ellie and Joe at a campsite in the titchy village of Santa Marta, just outside the city of A Coruña. Though we managed a nice day on the beach, the weather moved steadily down from the early 40°s to the early 20°s and a few cloudy and occasionally rainy days ensued. Still, despite the grey skies, we braved a trip to the tiny fishing port of Malpica and managed to convince a local restaurateur to permit us to spend the entire day eating and drinking on his terrace whilst the kids played on the beach directly in front of us. We must have been good for business in the circumstances as, despite the changeable weather our true British hardy spirit attracted a number of other fellow customers to brave the elements and order their lunch on the terrace too. The bars and cafés either side of us appeared empty throughout the day, whilst our for our chosen hostelry it was bonanza day!

A relaxing boat trip around A Coruña with Rick, Charlie, Liz, Joe and Chris

Another pleasurable day was spent in and around A Coruña. I've always been interested in visiting this great port as it seems to me to be the destination of choice for yachtsmen who cross to Spain from the UK, and is also often on the well-worn race circuit for various round-the-world yachting events.

Ayuntamiento (town hall) in A Coruña

Having been urged by everyone we know and by every guidebook ever written, we set off to Santiago de Compostela for its annual festival day. We decided that the city would be overrun with tourists and that rather than taking the car, we chose to drive into the middle of nowhere and catch the train. Despite numerous maps of the area - most of which were a work of fiction - we managed to find the 'one-horse' village of Meirama where we lay in wait for the daily train to Santiago

The train from nowhere to the 'aquarium' city of Santiago de Compostela

Sadly, the day was a real washout in every sense of the word. Not only had most of the festival finished (the fireworks having taken place the night before), but there was a political rally which appeared to be a heavily-policed fight between communists and whatever flavour of fascism is currently in vogue in Galicia. Added to which, we then experienced the heaviest rainfall of the year, so what was planned as a long day out turned out to be a severely curtailed event, though we did manage to get into the city's famous cathedral in between services.

With more than a week of camping to go including the final five days in Asturias, sadly the blog will have to pause for breath (or at least, I need to go to bed!), so until next time when I hope to conclude the trip and get up to date in Valencia...

Thursday, 17 July 2008

A whirlwind tour of Portugal, southern and northern Spain, by boat and tent…

Brian, Chris and skipper, Peter on board Tonia

Just a quick blog today – after a couple of months – a lot has happened in recent weeks and months, but I’ve either been too busy living it, or, more recently, we’ve been without internet access so have been unable to post anything. We are currently on our travels away from Valencia.

Yacht Tonia in Ayamonte border town on the Spanish side near Portugal (photo by Jo!

We departed a week ago last Sunday, 6 July, heading for the southern Spanish / Portuguese border town at Ayamonte (Spain) for a five-day sailing course for Liz and myself. This we successfully completed having sailed around 100 miles along the Portuguese coast to Tavira and then back up the Guadiana River to Foz. I now have my Day Skipper certificate and Liz has her Competent Crew one, so beware RNLI!

Liz, Chris and Jo at the beach in Guincho near Lisbon, Portugal

Since last weekend, we have started our Iberian camping tour which will be around three weeks or so. We started by driving back over the newish suspension bridge over the Guadiana River bridge at Ayamonte (we’d been sailing back and forth under it the previous week) and into Portugal’s Algarve coast. We headed on to a small town called Alvor, a few miles from the larger town of Lagoa, over yet another impressive suspension bridge at Portimao. Our first couple of nights were spent at Dourada campsite in Alvor (not to be recommended – quite expensive and every service after paying for the campsite was charged as an extra – electricity, hot water, swimming pool etc. All rather petty and annoying – why not simply charge an all-inclusive price? Anyway, I could go on…

Sunset over the horizon at Guincho - nearly the most western point of Europe!

We quickly tired of the Algarve, though we had a great day at the Splash and Slide water park in Lagoa. The thought of fish and chips and too many Brits forced our hand and we moved north to the Lisbon area on Monday. A great journey up the ‘B road’ equivalents, avoiding the motorway. I never realised how much wheat was grown in Portugal, but it is also surprising how behind the times the methods of agriculture still appear to be. The wheat fields seem to be heavily populated with a combination of cork and olive trees, which means that the more common combine harvesters would have difficulty navigating their way around a crazy maze of wheat, hence smaller machinery must be used. The entire drive was very beautiful and most of the land as far as the eye could see remains either entirely undeveloped or used for agriculture – no major towns and even the small villages seem quite basic in terms of buildings and services. The final drive over the impressive bridge Ponte 25 Abril was stunning. This bridge, similar to the Golden Gate in San Francisco, is a couple of miles long in total. Its sister bridge a few miles up river claims to be 17 kilometres (about 11 miles) long. The river Tejo is obviously wide and very picturesque from both sides. Next to the Ponte 25 Abril is a statue of Christ which, similar to Rio de Janeiro, dominates the skyline on the banks opposite Lisbon. We’ve spent the past three nights at the Orbitur campsite at Guincho, just up the coast from Cascais (pronounced Cushcaish!) which is a great site by comparison with the one in Alvor. Sadly the free wifi seems not to be working – half the staff weren’t aware it even existed and the other half claim it is working!). We’ve had a day exploring the beautiful towns of Cascais and Estoril and spent all of yesterday in Lisbon – more to follow if and when I get the chance. Today we’re planning to visit the town of Sintra and will try to grab a few minutes of broadband somewhere – someone here assures us that McDonald’s has free wifi locally. Now, can we face up to a visit for a gluten-free coffee and fries?!!

Friday, 4 July 2008

Sponsorship for Cubs

Chris on about length number 75 and still going strong!

I've completed my sponsored swim of 100 lengths of my pool for Cottenham Cubs. I raised £106 and 5p all thanks to you!! The reason we are trying to raise so much money is so that we can buy things to camp in comfort.