Tuesday, 25 November 2014

The windmills walk above Xabia

A surprising early departure from Camping El Naranjal this morning as
Palm regrowth after the forest
fire, Xabia 
we finally determined that today was The Day to undertake an interesting walking route Dave spotted on the Xabia website (It's shown on the Port Xabia-Montgo pdf link) which goes from Xabia port, up into the hills above, and then back down to the port to finish. The Spanish for windmills is Molins and there are eleven, so we learned, along the La Plana ridge above the town. Originally built between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries, their heavy mill stones were used to grind wheat into flour. I think these days all the wheat fields have either been built upon or are growing orange trees. Certainly we've not seen any yet in Spain. There was a huge processing place outside Almenara, Harinera Del Mar, and we bought their flour in the Mercadona for our bread.

We have already walked to the port and back a couple of times - it's about an hour from the campsite - so drove there today instead. There's plenty of free parking there at this time of year. Clear wooden signposts pointed us uphill on a lightly screed rough path which soon turned into a bit of a scramble. Once underway, the route is clearly marked with yellow, red and white stripes on rocks, trees and walls. Bizarrely, the whole area was blackened trees where there had been a wildfire in September. Little palm trees and cacti are already beginning to regrow so there are splashes of green amongst the cinders, but it's eerily quiet without the multitudes of birds we hear elsewhere around town. We continued clambering upwards until the path levelled out at the end of a valley, then turned back on itself with a more gradual slope across the opposing face. Part of the way up was the odd sight of a rusted car come to a halt against a tree part way down the steep slope. We wondered if its plunge from the road above had been the cause of the fire, but it didn't look particularly burned. We carried on ascending and were rewarded at the top from which there is a fantastic view across the port and out to sea.

We had to stick on the road for a kilometre or so as there were clean-up crews working to clear burned trees along the ridge. A couple of Spaniards were also 'helping' by filling their cars with chopped down but unburned wood for their winter stoves. We paused to enjoy another sea view, this time from the Cap de Sant Antoni. Having actually remembered to carry our water bottles this time, we didn't need the water taps at the recreation area nearby, but it is useful to know it's there.

The windmills themselves are each about seven metres high by six metres across and have incredibly thick stone walls. Their shells have been neatly renovated and are lit at night, but there's no machinery inside anymore. The path led back downwards from by the second windmill and, unfortunately, was a similar loose surface to the earlier uphill stretch. I went slowly as I'm rubbish at descents. I'm always convinced I will fall. Once we got to the town outskirts there were some elegant houses and the buildings became less grand as we descended back to sea level. A roundabout we recognised is topped by a full-size white painted boat surrounded by pretty blue flowers.

We got back to the car after just over three and a half hours and were nicely tired despite Dave's tracker app saying we had only walked just under ten kilometres of horizontal distance. I'm proud that our total overall ascent was four hundred and twenty-nine metres. We're getting our walking legs back in shape again!

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan / Reading Lolita In Tehran by Azar Nafisi / The Ark Before Noah by Dr Irving Finkel

The Spinning HeartThe Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I registered a book at BookCrossing.com!

I'm glad I didn't allow the effusive praise on the cover of The Spinning Heart to put me off reading the novel as I thoroughly enjoyed it and, for a debut author, this is an impressive achievement. The eponymous heart does not refer to that of a lovelorn Irish lass, as might be expected from the presentation, but to a creaking metal heart on the worn gate of a bitter old man, one of the many characters we meet during the course of this story.

Ryan allocates each chapter to a different inhabitant of a small bankrupt town in Ireland. Bobby, Kate, Bridie, Lily and others speak to us directly, with distinctive voices, and as each describes their situation and passes along the latest gossip, we come to understand their sad circumstances. I remember a few years ago seeing a TV documentary which visited an Irish estate where only a couple of the new houses were sold and inhabited, the rest simply decaying around them. The plight of the families trapped in these unsellable homes was disturbing and Ryan explores what led to the phenomenon in The Spinning Heart. I liked the way Ryan intertwines each chapter. He allows enough repetition of facts to quickly establish the relationship of the speaker to other people I had already met. However, he never overdoes this or allows it to slow the pace of the work. The voices sound authentic so I could easily empathise and understand their choices even if I didn't agree with their actions. Perhaps I could have done without the voice of a ghost though.

The Spinning Heart is a quick read at just 156 pages, but packs quite a punch. The colloquial language used enhances the atmosphere and several of the chapters were emotional to read.

Reading Lolita in TehranReading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I registered a book at BookCrossing.com!

I was attracted to Reading Lolita In Tehran by its promise of revealing life within Iran and also by the Margaret Atwood quote on the front of 'A book lover's tale'. Published as memoir, Nafisi does state right at the start that she had to change names and events in order to protect those remaining in Iran therefore it is hard to tell how much is actually true and how much flavoured by truth but essentially fiction. What is overwhelmingly apparent throughout is Nafisi's obsessive love for the greats of Western fiction and the energy she devotes to spreading this love as far as she can.

Always a teacher, I did feel hectored by her tone at certain points in the book and there are frequent swings off into pure literary criticism. I wasn't expecting so much of a book about books so it took me a while to adjust to 'joining her class'. However, I now have several of the titles added to my To Be Read list as Nafisi's enthusiasm is inspiring. I'm not sure that I agree with all her critical conclusions and some of the connections drawn between the literary worlds and Iran seemed tenuous, but not having been in such a situation myself, I cannot tell how my reading of the books would be coloured by the daily lives these women lead.

The title of Reading Lolita In Tehran is obviously meant to be titillatingly eyecatching to a potential Western reader and I think it actually detracts from the content of the memoir. Yes, Lolita is one of the many books discussed, but the choice of this for the title seems cynical to me.
I wanted to learn how Iranian people adjusted to the restrictions on their lives after the Revolution. The difference between the neutral view presented of people who are religious Muslims and anger at those in power who used their interpretation of Islam to enforce the rigid lifestyle is interesting. Nafisi did seem to glide a line that allowed her to get away with transgressions for which her students were punished, even jailed. Perhaps her family name is more powerful than admitted or perhaps her previous Westernisation marked her as a lost cause compared to the younger girls. I was frustrated by her lack of external attention, several times admitting she hadn't noticed or asked something at the time that I would have loved to have learned. However, I feel I now have a basic understanding of Iran at this time as well as, of course, many insights into classic novels that I must get around to reading.

The Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the FloodThe Ark Before Noah: Decoding the Story of the Flood by Irving Finkel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I downloaded The Ark Before Noah from Audible in a version which is read by the author, Dr Irving Finkel. For the first few minutes, I found his unpolished narrating style awkward to listen to and wondered if I had made a mistake. However, once his wonderful enthusiasm began to shine through, I was hooked. Finkel discusses his academic life, British Museum career and fabulous fairly-recent discovery of an ancient clay tablet containing details concerning the story of the ark and the flood. He also introduces us to the earliest origins of the story - waaay before the Hebrew Bible - and collects together other tablets with parts of the famous tale and shows how it evolved over some 4000 years into what we know today.

I was particularly fascinated by the comprehensive comparisons of the different tablets and their meshing story versions. As I have only heard the heroes' names, I am not going to attempt to spell them, but it had not previously occurred to me that Noah wasn't always called Noah! The earliest flood version wasn't occasioned by sin either - humans had simply become too noisy for the Gods to endure! Finkel goes into immense detail in his tablet comparions. He examines ark building techniques, mountain landing sites, and intricacies of language in a way that could be too in depth for less nerdy souls. I appreciated his dry humour throughout but am unsure whether this would come across via the printed page. This purely aural version obviously didn't contain images though so I think now a trip to the British Museum is called for so I can see the Ark tablet and Babylonian Map tablet 'in the flesh'. I am so intrigued by their existence that I might visit even if it's not raining!

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Thursday, 20 November 2014

Xabia and Moraira and apricot cheesecake

After over a week in Camping El Naranjal, we're getting a good feel for
Gazing out to sea from Moraira 
Xabia and have pretty much learnt our way around - even me! We have taken a stroll around the little Marina as well as returning to the Old part of town for a spot of shopping and a lunch. I was delighted to find an Atmosfera shop as I've just about gone through the soles of my New Orleans-bought running shoes so will definitely need a new pair soon in order to continue my current enthusiasm. I tried on a couple of pairs and decided on a snazzy blue pair of Asics. Super-Boyfriend-Davey has got them for me as my Christmas pressie :-)

We set out on a rural walk a couple of days ago which took us out on rough tracks firstly high up overlooking the sea and then steeply down into a shady wooded valley. Most of the high was sandy coloured rock with scrub and shrubs but, according to an informative placard, the area is home to over 400 plant species. A prolific one was wild rosemary and I took the opportunity to purloin a snippet or two which I substituted for the sage in this delicious pork tenderloin recipe courtesy of fellow blogger Linda at With A Blast. The walk route was meant to finish in a cove on the coast but we took much longer than suggested, probably due to my being too slow on the downhill bits which often were just scree, so had to cut short our expedition before its actual end. We didn't want to be out on the hills as dusk fell. We came back along roads which I was initially disappointed about, but cheered up when we had an hour or so wandering around an affluent residential area and gawping at the posh houses and gardens. We also discovered an interesting detail on the official Xabia street map that we had picked up from the campsite reception on arriving last week. Just because a road is on the map doesn't mean that it actually exists. We've seen several Spanish towns with road infrastructure built but no houses yet. Xabia goes one better by not even having the roads yet!

We meant to go for our first long walk-with-picnic today but postponed it due to ominous clouds this morning. Instead we drove to Moraira this afternoon. It's a pretty town fairly nearby and has a nice sandy beach although the sea is probably too cold for swimming by now. We took a quick look at Camping Moraira while we were there - for future reference. I liked the site, especially the showers which are big and all done out in marble. The pitches are dusty earth and completely shaded by pine trees which would be great in summer but would block any chance of sun at this time of the year. A shame as otherwise it has a nice vibe. It even has its own Dotto Train! We stopped for coffee and cake at a lovely Austrian cafe just off the main seafront road. It's called Bonissimo and we can highly recommend the Apricot Cheesecake!

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell / Hell's Angels by Hunter S Thompson / The Corsican Brothers and Otho The Archer by Alexandre Dumas

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de ZoetThe Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet has been sitting on our kindle since Dave downloaded and read it during last winter's travels. I have been put off by its brick-thick-ness as I'm not a great fan of books that take ages to read. However, our last few days in Almenara allowed me lots of lazing time so I finally got stuck in.

I've read David Mitchell before and liked Black Swan Green, but Thousand Autumns is a more serious novel. It does provide a fascinating glimpse into the bizarre crossover world of Dutch traders in - or at least very nearly in - 1800s Japan. The society with which these few Europeans wish to trade is closed, proud and rigidly governed, yet at the same time corrupt, misogynistic and seemingly stuck in a Medieval timewarp with regards to its technology. The reverse xenophobia of the Japanese officials being unable to tell European nationalities apart was a neat touch and I enjoyed reading about Dejima life and the day-to-day interactions between its residents. Descriptions of the buildings and courtly rituals are well presented and interesting. However, I couldn't buy in to the Ogiwa storyline and found it too bizarre. No doubt Mitchell's research would have uncovered a similar situation within the Japan of the time, but for me, the love triangle followed by the quests to rescue and avenge just didn't ring true.

Hell's AngelsHell's Angels by Hunter S. Thompson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I registered a book at BookCrossing.com!

I was surprised to find a Hunter S Thompson book in Eastbourne's Age Uk shop, even more so when it turned out to be his reportage on the mid-sixties rise of the Hell's Angels. For 89p, I gave it a try.

Thompson spent the best part of a year living, partying and drinking with Hell's Angels chapters in California. At the beginning of the period about which he writes, they were a small, almost defunct motorcycle gang, but rabid press attention over a few months secured their fame so much that the name is now known world-wide and, indeed, the gangs still exist.
The overall impression I have come away with is that Angels life was mostly dull. Few are able to hold down a job and most of their time is spent in the same closed circle of company, half-cut or stoned, and repeating conversations for the nth time. Occasional runs out en masse for weekends 'camping' or bar room brawls relieve the tedium. The surprise is in the outrageous paranoia and hysteria that was whipped up by outwardly respectable newspapers printing exaggerated accounts of Angel activities. It is common these days that news is taken with a hefty pinch of salt, but it would seem that 1965 middle America expected to be able to trust their Press. The moral of this book must be that irresponsible journalism can be more damaging that any topic they choose to highlight. Reading of dozens of small towns right across America being so frightened that they were actually arming themselves against the imminent arrival of thousands of motorcycle hoodlums felt unreal. Especially as only a few hundred Angels and the like even existed at the time!

Thompson writes clearly and levelly of both the motorcycle gangs with whom he spent time and also of the police officers who were set against them. The inevitable violence is described and also contextualised and I was interested to read about the right-wing politics of many Angels. Had I considered it, I would have assumed the disenfranchised men to have been more left-leaning so their attacking Vietnam and Civil Rights protesters was unexpected.

I'm not sure I will rush to read more Thompson any time soon. Perhaps this was not the best of his to start with but, having heard so much about his work, I expected to be dazzled by the writing and wasn't. Maybe I'm just fifty years too late!

The Corsican Brothers and Otho, the Archer (1904)The Corsican Brothers and Otho, the Archer by Alexandre Dumas
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This pairing of Dumas novellas makes for an odd book as, other than the author obviously, there is nothing to connect the two stories. Maybe they are earlier works of his which were later discovered because there is little of the flourish I expected in his writing.

The Corsican Brothers is a lightly supernatural tale of separated Siamese twins who retained a psychic connection. Dumas stars himself as narrator apparently seriously recounting an adventure undertaken in Corsica and its Parisian aftermath. There is lots of nice description of the Corsican landscape and of everyone's clothing and appearance, but I didn't think the story ever decided whether it wanted to be a spooky ghost-like tale, or a straight adventure so ultimately fell between the two stools.

Otho The Archer is an even stranger amalgamation of genres. This story meanders all over Medieval France being by turns chivalric romance, Christian religious fantasy, road trip, zombie epic, ghost story and history lesson. Despite, this it's not a bad read, but I wonder if this was Dumas' finished effort or if its publication happened by a more circuitous route. I felt as if several narrative strands had been sandwiched together, not because they realistically belonged, but more to make up enough of a word count.

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Sunday, 16 November 2014

Dave's spinach pie recipe

It occurred to me that it's been absolutely ages since I posted a great
Dave's spinach pie 
recipe and this spinach pie that Dave makes is one of our favourites. The original idea is the Greek Spanakopita, but this version has been Anglicised and now Espanoled too! Back home, Dave might add a rasher of bacon, but here he sliced a tomato into the spinach mix. We had to decipher the packets to find the right pastry - puff pastry in Spanish is Masa de Hojaldre and we can get it frozen in packs of two sheets. Cheddar cheese was available at the Mercadona in Almenara so that's what Dave used, but I think the pie would be tasty with one of the Spanish hard cheeses instead. The ingredients list below makes a generous pie for two that could easily be stretched to four portions with the addition of a side dish such as a crisp green salad.

Big bag (300g) of spinach leaves
1/2 a medium onion
2-3 cloves of garlic
Large pinch of mixed herbs
Salt and pepper
Sliced tomato (optional)
Rasher of bacon (optional)
Puff pastry
Grated cheese
1 beaten egg

Put the spinach into boiling water for a minute or two until it has wilted. Repeatedly drain and squeeze the spinach to remove as much water as possible. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 220c.

Finely chop onion and garlic and cook together over a medium heat until soft but not browned.

Mix onion with spinach, herbs and seasoning. At this point you can also add a sliced tomato or a chopped, cooked bacon rasher.

Lay out a sheet (27 x 24cm) of puff pastry on a flat baking tray. A tray with a lip is best in case liquid from the pie filling leaks during baking. Fold the pastry in two and then unfold it again to leave a visible half-way line. Put all the mixture on one side of the line and spread it evenly, but leaving about 1/2 inch of pastry clear at the edges.

Sprinkle as much or as little grated cheese as you like over the spinach mixture. We like lots of cheese, but this does make the pie more greasy when it is cooked.

Fold the pastry over and crimp securely all around the edges to seal in the filling. Brush the top of the pastry with as much of the egg as is needed. Make two or three cuts in the top to allow steam to escape during baking.

Bake at about 220c for 25 minutes or until the pastry is golden and you can hear the filling bubbling when you open the oven door.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Another day, another beach - now we're in Xabia

Xabia or Javea, however you prefer to spell it and, confusingly,
Wall mural on the edge of the Old Town area of Xabia 
pronounced har-vee-a. This a place about which I have heard a great deal from several friends over the years so I am particularly happy to be here. Our new campsite, Camping El Naranjal, is not one of the pretty ones, but the lack of green trees does mean that we will get every last drop of sunshine - when it shines. There has been Cloud here and also Spots Of Rain. Can you believe it?! The pitches are gravel and big enough but not generous. On the plus side, the shower block is completely enclosed so no uncomfortable drafts! Huge excitement for me in that there is a whole library room here too with many books in English and they're not all Catherine Cookson or John Grisham either! I've already bookcrossed three that I'd finished so expect to discover my new reads over the coming weeks. We found the table tennis table - upon which a woman was washing her dog - and there is a popular little boules court too. I do feel a bit 'on show' here, especially after the secluded pitches at Camping Malvarrosa, but I'm sure we'll get used to it and the advantage of having more in the way of walking and cycling means that we shouldn't be just hanging around the site in the daytime so much. The wifi is good here too and works out at about a euro a day for a month's premium access.

We are just on the edge of the seafront part of the new town, about ten minutes walk from the beach where there are any number of restaurants and cafes to choose from. An Indonesian takeaway, Tapindo, has already tempted our tastebuds and I had a delicious meal of hake in a spicy sauce with coconut vegetables and nasi goreng a couple of nights ago. Having arrived on Tuesday, we have begun exploring but 'gently' as we want to stay for several weeks so not exhaust all our entertainment/walking/cycling opportunities within the first week. There is an OK loop nearby but no perfect jogging route yet. We have hardly seen any joggers either but there must be some somewhere - there always are - just a question of finding them.

Dave voluntarily suggested visiting the weekly market in the old town on Thursday morning. The stunning mural pictured was spotted at the start of this trip. I liked the market and there were various clothes stalls that actually had clothes I could like to buy - if we had any room in the wardrobe. Everything is rather autumny fashionwise which is weird for us still in our shorts and t-shirts. It's easy to identify the tourists in Xabia! The old town has its permanent indoor market too as well as a labyrinth of narrow old streets and lots of different independent shops. I can see me wanting to go back several times for a good wander.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

The Other One by Colette / The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Sjowall and Wahloo / Seriously Mum What's An Alpaca by Alan Parks

The Other OneThe Other One by Colette
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I registered a book at BookCrossing.com!

Despite being set several decades and a few thousand miles apart, I saw similarities between Kate Chopin's The Awakening and this read, Colette's The Other One. Colette's heroine, Fanny Farou, is trapped within the same societal structure of well-to-do wives being expected to have no other function than that of an accessory to their husbands. In this novella, Fanny's husband, known solely as Farou, is a playwright whose fashionable fame keeps him away from his family for weeks at a time, periods Fanny bemoans as 'we are so dull without him'.

Most shocking, for me, is Fanny's complete acceptance that Farou will be unfaithful to her while he is away. She reassures herself that her position as favourite is secure and as long as Farou's liaisons remain casual and distant, she can live with them. Conflicting emotions arise however when Fanny realises that Farou is also sleeping with his secretary, Jane, a woman who considers herself Fanny's friend although, interestingly, Fanny does not think of Jane in the same light.

Colette cleverly illustrates the relationship between the two women through brief conversations and observations of their behaviour. Jane, assuaging guilt perhaps, is always busy, running errands for Fanny and Farou and attempting to establish an indispensable position in the household. Fanny on the other hand is lethargic and lazy, reminding me a little of Caroline in Andrea Levy's The Long Song. I was intrigued by her indecision, whether she would choose her husband and her companion and how the drama would unfold. The Other One is a small book, both in actual size and in its mostly domestic setting, but powerful emotions are examined and understood through the triangles that Colette establishes.

The Fire Engine That Disappeared  (Martin Beck #5)The Fire Engine That Disappeared by Maj Sjöwall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Fire Engine That Disappeared is the fifth of the ten 'Martin Beck' mysteries by Swedish authors Sjowall and Wahloo. I expect that I shall read all ten in time as, at half way through, their style is still sharp with an excellent plot line and there's no sign yet of resorting to dull formula.

Martin Beck himself is a fairly minor character in The Fire Engine That Disappeared. Instead, the lead is taken by Gunvald Larsson, an unlikeable man who manages to be a fascinating character to read about.

The unfolding of the mystery of a fatal housefire in Stockholm takes months to be completed which is far more believable than the rushed timelines of many current thriller novels. Technology is practically non-existent - landline telephones being about as good as it gets - and practically everyone smokes and drinks a lot. Sjowall and Wahloo manage to discreetly weave in some pretty savage comments on the social situation in Sweden in the late 1960s. It would seem they weren't impressed and detail like this adds considerably to the realism of their novel.

I didn't manage to work out whodunnit before the denouement but the unravelling is cleverly presented and has a string of satisfying 'aha' moments. Roll on number six: Murder at the Savoy !

Seriously Mum, What's an Alpaca?Seriously Mum, What's an Alpaca? by Alan Parks
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I received a free copy of this book in return for reviewing it.

I first came across author Alan Parks on Twitter as he is from the Eastbourne area where I used to live. Spotting his tweet offering a copy of his first book Seriously Mum, What's An Alpaca? in return for a review, I volunteered. Dave and I are currently touring Spain for the winter so reading about an English couple who have taken the plunge to actually live out here seemed appropriate.
Seriously Mum recounts various incidents during the first months of Alan and Lorna Parks' new life as they set themselves up as alpaca breeders in a disused olive mill in Andalucia. Their proposed lifestyle is meant to be idyllic, but unfortunately a lack of preparation and animal husbandry experience leads to a series of disasters that threaten their dream almost before it has become established.

We don't really get to know Lorna through this book as it is written solely by Alan as a series of sketches rather than an in-depth view of their life. The decision to uproot and change career comes across as being a whim that gained a momentum of its own. Neither has experience of livestock care and at several points this ignorance has sad consequences, not enough to prevent more animals being added to their menagerie though. The couple admit to still being completely inept in Spanish over a year after arriving and I found it odd that, despite their insistence on living in a Spanish community rather than with ex-pats, they shun social opportunities such as the Feria week. Many of Alan's written asides criticise Spanish culture from a strongly English perspective and I wonder whether they will ever assimilate or always remain the English outsiders.

With regards to the book itself, Alan does successfully avoid the indie author curse of poor spelling/grammar etc, but Seriously Mum feels very superficial throughout. I would have preferred deeper writing allowing me to get to know Alan and Lorna and understand their choices and decisions. Instead, brief sentences describe serious events such as the day a particular animal dies and is buried which is solely covered as 'a sad day'. I learned next to nothing about alpaca care and even the rich Andalucian culture is mostly bypassed. There are several odd little vignettes apparently written by selected animals expressing gratitude at having been taken in. I didn't get those at all. Perhaps originally intended for young readers? Overall, I found this book disappointing and thought it a missed opportunity.

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