Wednesday, 31 October 2012

A recipe for disaster

Between you and me, my little soujourn to South Africa is the first time I have flown alone before, leaving me open to all sorts of disasters. My biggest worry was the fact that it was not a direct flight from London to Johannesburg - I had to change in Paris, providing the potential for all sorts of mishaps; would I have to reclaim and recheck my luggage? Would I find the right gate? Would I have to go through security again? On top of this:
  • It was the first time I had travelled to anywhere on the African continent
  • It was the furthest south I had ever been - and the first time I had set foot anywhere in the Southern hemisphere
  • My French -which has never been above average - was rusty (to put it generously). My box of French tricks has not done any magic since my French exchange trip five years ago.
In short, the journey was a recipe for disaster, and I was acutely aware that the chances of me and my luggage both arriving in the right place at the right time were slimmer than K-Middy's waist belt.

To be honest, I don't think the enormity of what I was doing had hit me until shortly before I left, when several of my friends and family told me how brave I was for taking part in the volunteer programme, and particularly for going alone.

A tip, dear reader. If you've ever wanted to do something similar- climb Kilimanjaro perhaps, or Interrail around Europe for a couple of months, but have never quite amassed the courage, here's the trick; go ahead and book it, book it months in advance, so that you believe that by the time you actually do it, you will be prepared. By the time the departure date arrives, the chances of you being anymore prepared than you were when you booked it are slim, but you'll have spent so much money and time preparing that backing out just won't be an option.

It was this crazy school of thought which led me to be standing in the departures hall of Heathrow Terminal 4, on Halloween of all days. As I said goodbye to my dad and joined the slow-moving queue for security checks, my legs turned to jelly as I realised I was truly on my own. I was feeling slightly reassured having checked that my luggage would be transferred onto my next flight without me having to reclaim it and recheck it. I still had little faith that it was going to arrive in the right country at the right time, but at least I wouldn't be to blame.

Security proved to be my first hurdle, as I set the scanners off when I walked through. To add to my embarrassment, I was made to stand in what is best described as a pod, with my legs apart and arms out whilst a 3D scan of me was completed. Having convinced the Heathrow security staff that I was not posing a major security threat, I was allowed to shuffle off to the departure lounge, the feeling of aloneness still very much with me, and the weight of responsibility sitting firmly on my shoulders. Not wanting to destroy this illusion of responsibility by entering the Mulberry store with my debit card, I phoned a friend and had a chat. Without meaning to, or, I suspect, even realizing, he restored my belief that I was capable of pulling off this coup trip.

The first flight went delightfully quickly; I watched the industrious lights lights of the M25 until they disappeared through the clouds. When I next saw light emerging through the fluffy clouds, I assumed we were somewhere along the south coast of England, until I realised that the gargantuan settlement below was in fact Paris - and the very building I was looking at was the Palace of Versailles! I managed to pick out the Eiffel Tower amongst the glittering city lights too, although it was overwhelming how easily such a large, well-renowned monument was able to blend into the vast city of lights.

Halfway through the flight I realised that it was the first time I had flown with a non British/ American airline (Air France). It was somewhat unnerving not knowing what was going on; although all announcements were given in English after the French, the speaker was muffled and seemed to be merely regurgitating the English words rather than understanding the meaning behind them.

The next big challenge was navigating my way off of this plane and to the gate from which my next flight would depart. Fortunately the connecting flight area was well signposted (in English!) and after another security check (clear this time, fortunately- I don't think I could have convinced anyone of my innocence in French!) I was once again in a departure lounge. Charles de Gaulle airport is certainly very Parisienne; The Hermes store sits next to baby Burberry, with wine shops in every direction.

Next entry ("Arriving at the Lion Park")

Saturday, 20 October 2012

Scouting for Girls @ Shepherd's Bush Empire - 18/10/2012

Scouting for Girls played a "home turf" gig at Shepherd's Bush Empire on 18/10/2012.

 As newbies to the venue, we were surprised at how intimate it was, confirming the feeling that this was a gig aimed at real fans who had stuck with the band for all three albums. Having anticipated finding ourselves among a crowd full of screaming teenage girls, we were also surprised at the range of the audience, from families with kids as young as 6, to people in their sixties.

Predictably the first few songs were from their newly released album, The Light Between Us, including Rocky Balboa, Summertime in the City and It only rains in LA.

They then moved back into the second, more catchy album, Everybody wants to be on TV, before finishing with all of the classics from their eponymous debut album. This choice to cover all of their material, rather than focusing on promoting the newer singles as other artists may have been tempted to do, meant that nobody was left disappointed at not having heard their favourite SFG tune.

The band interacted with the crowd throughout, telling the story behind writing each of the songs, proving that this is music with meaning rather than music for the sake of music.

The highlight was seeing lead singer Roy Stride heading up into the stands (the shorties at the back didn't even realise he had left the stage, so effortless was the transition), taking optimum position for singing two of their cheekiest songs, 1+1 and Posh Girls, before borrowing a member of the audience's phone to take a photo of the screaming crowd below.

The basic, shabby chic set consisted of a backdrop onto which the latest album cover was projected, embellished by a mish-mash of lampshades hung from the ceiling. Simplistic though it was, it really captured my imagination and seduced my inner interior design geek, showing that SFG don't need fancy sets and expensive pyrotechnics to put on an enjoyable show.

Charismatic, charming and categorically the best live performance I've seen any artist give.

Monday, 15 October 2012

A heightened hotel fetish.

For those of you who are unaware, I'm currently interning at a soon-to-be-launched luxury travel website called Secret Earth. Not only is it giving me a chance to further explore my love for travel, and get to know the luxury end of the market a little better (a far cry from the student audience I'm used to addressing in my work), it's also really interesting to get an insight into a start-up company.

However, what I'm loving most about the internship is how it's fueling my weird little obsession -fetish, if you will- for hotels. Hotels have always fascinated me, and these days it's refreshing to find the obscure little hotels, catering for individual taste rather than for the masses. Unfortunately I can't share too many of the discoveries I've made - wouldn't want to put the website out of business before it's launched, would I?- but suffice to say I've got my eye on a trip to Jordan, and the south of France has some gorgeous boutique hotels just crying out to be explored! Top of my list at the moment (it changes daily) is the Jade Mountain Hotel in St. Lucia. Billed as "St. Lucia's most romantic hotel", the website images portray it as a veritable maze of infinity pools and outstanding views. I know, I know, not exactly of the beaten track is it, but can't a girl dream of being whisked off her feet?

Thursday, 11 October 2012

First impressions of this fair isle

As early as 10am in Fuerteventura can feel like mid afternoon, a fact many travellers discover early in their trip; a combined result of the sun's already relentless power, and having risen at the crack of dawn to catch early flights.

It is worth watching the descent to the island out of the plane window (Top tip: sit on the right hand side if possible). The plane flies the length of the island, giving way to a spectacular view of the rugged terrain below, and allowing an extended view of the nearby land masses of Los Lobos and Lanzarote too,  before curving back on itself and starting its final descent. The landing itself is a nervy one, due to the proximity of the runway to the glittering ocean, and passengers with anything less than nerves of steel are better off looking away. Once safely on Earth, the full, breathtaking effect of the cliffside airport is revealed, as the heat haze from the tarmac becomes impossible to distinguish from the inviting glint of the sea beyond.

The airport itself, although small, is modern, far more so than the dated terminals of Gatwick which seem a distant memory the moment you set foot on foreign turf.

Leaving the airport, it slowly dawns that it is one of very few buildings nearby - hemmed in by the sea to the East, mountains to the West, and apparently uninhabited land to both the North and South, the airport suddenly feels very lonely. Thank goodness for Geordie tour reps, eh?

Empty shells of buildings
The resort town of Corralejo to the north of the island is a 40 minute drive from the airport, during which time it becomes clear that "uninhabited" is the default setting for Fuerteventura - the rule rather than the exception. Holidaymakers who find themselves in a post-flight daze and wondering what sort of a place they are visiting would not be the first - the landscape is outwardly hostile, with barely a tree for miles. The only major township on route is El Puerto del Rosario, the capital of the island. Although it appears very industrial, travel reps are often at pains to push it as a tourist destination, being home to the largest shopping centre on the island, and, apparently, a church with a bar inside ("You can say your Hail Marys whilst sinking Bloody Marys"). Other than Rosario, the only suggestions of civilisation are a scattering of isolated and uninhabitable cottages -whether they are in stages of construction or abandoned and derelict is unclear, but often the only sign of any human interaction in recent decades is graffiti.

The other predominant feature of the Northbound journey is the mountains- the arterial road skirts directly around the base of one of them, and the sight of the mountain overshadowing the route is thrilling, even for the most seasoned traveller. The approach to Corralejo offers a relief from the aching landscape, as the rocky coastline and monotonous landscape give way to postcard-perfect sandy beaches, and the blurry buildings whizzing past the window become more frequent.

However, even in the urban areas, abandonment is rife. This building site was intended as a shopping centre, we are reliably informed, but work was never completed and the site has fallen into a state of disrepair. It is clear that despite Fuerteventura's increased tourist appeal in  recent years, the recession has still hit hard.

Initial impressions of Corralejo town suggest an Arabic influence in architecture, with many arched windows and rooftops domes, although in hindsight this is likely to be a Moorish influence. A collective sigh of relief can be heard as every coachful of tourists arriving in the town realises that there is civilization to be seen. However, nature is never far away, as demonstrated by the looming shape of one of the mountains to the south of the town, and the vast expanse of wasteland lends an almost claustrophobic air to the town, as residents and visitors live in the knowledge that it's a very long way to the next town.

Wednesday, 10 October 2012


As with all new places, one of the great things about Fuerteventura was discovering the quirks and customs of the culture. In many ways it was similar to mainland Spain, and even good old Blighty, but a couple of things caught my eye and triggered me to snap a photo (ah, the wonders of the digital age, eh?).

A trip to the supermarket resulted in genuine excitement when I realised that the price displays are all digital, none of the paper price tickets as we have in England. Further contemplation led me to realise that there is probably little benefit to this other than the ability to change prices quickly; it doesn't stop people from putting items back on the wrong shelf and thus confusing the next unsuspecting customer, and I'll bet it causes havoc in a powercut. Still, it was something a little bit different from back home.

The same supermarket trip led me to stumble upon these little beauties to the right. It's Fanta, but not as we know it (although I don't doubt that it made a brief guest appearance on our supermarket shelves back in the distant past, before Team Fanta realised that us Brits really aren't that adventurous). The strawberry (left) was really quite vile, like a watered down, sickly, fizzy medicine, but the pineapple (right) made up for it. It was like a can of Lilt (yeah, remember that?) but with even more flavour, perfect refreshment for a sticky Fuerteventuran afternoon.

 These paper recycling bins are a common sight on the streets of Corralejo. Beyond the obvious, admirable green credentials, you're probably wondering where I'm going with this. Stick with me whilst my inner linguist rears her head. The Spanish translation on the side reads "Only paper and cardboard. Your paper is important." Pretty standard, you'd think, if not a bit semantically odd when translated to English. It was only after a week of reading this, that the double entendre revealed itself to me; "papel", meaning "paper", also means "role", so the alternative translation is "Your role is important". A clever little way to encourage locals to recycle!

Whilst we're on the subject of linguistics, a couple more things came to my attention. As already mentioned, the Italian word for ice cream, "gelato" is used much more commonly than the Spanish, "helado". I can only assume that the Italian is more widely recognised by tourists than the Spanish.
Another vocabulary quirk is that the Canary Islands have their own word for chips, "papas fritas" (shortened to "papas", and also used to refer to crisps), as opposed to the mainland Spanish "patatas fritas".

And last but not least, this sign in the window of the gift shop at Baku water park amused me:

Sunday, 7 October 2012

Chalet Girl (Traill, 2011)

A 19-year old ex-skateboarding champion from an underprivileged background has been looking after her couch-potato father since the death of her mother. Struggling to make ends meet, it looks like her luck is changing when she lands herself a high paying job - the catch being that in involves moving to Austria for four months. 

Within the first few minutes, the unmistakable face of Bill Bailey appears on the screen, assuring the audience that this is no ordinary "Brit-com". The subsequent arrival of British institution Bill Nighy confirms that this is one to stick with, and, following a brief detour into St. Trinians' style territory, we're en-route for a decent film.

The most visually noticeable way in which this differentiates itself from the usual monotony of the rom-com genre is the setting; gone is the generic, nameless metropolis that usually serves as the forgettable location for romantic near misses concerning middle-class, high-earning, well-dressed fashion types. Instead, we are facing, for the main part, a gorgeous mountainous setting, with a tomboy-esque female protagonist. In keeping with the generic conventions, once the base is laid, the plotline is largely predictable, yet still satisfying. 

The class divide between the protagonist and the family she finds herself working for sets the film up for several laughs, but the way in which she holds her own serves to have the audience rooting for her from the start. Couple this with several incidents which anyone who has attempted skiing or snowing will identify with, and the comedy just keeps coming.

A feel good British rom-com which, despite understandable predictability, remains light hearted and entertaining throughout.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Más Que Bakery, Corralejo

Gelateria, Italian, Chinese, Gelateria, Italian....this is the general pattern of restaurants to be found down the main street of Corralejo. Whilst two of the three are generally agreeable, it does get a repetitive, so fans of sugar at a higher temperature will be pleased to learn of the existence of Más Que Bakery, the only cupcake shop in Corralejo, maybe the only one in Fuerteventura, and possibly the only one in the Canary Islands.

Initial impressions suggest it to be an industrialised version of the American influenced cupcake bakeries that have been popping up in England like a sugar-germinated rash for the past few years; the white wooden chairs are a nod to the white picket fences of middle class longings.

This is a Spanish take on cupcakeries; the cake is an accompaniment to the piece d’resistance, the coffee, rather than the reverse being true as it is here in Britain. Americans, never missing a chance to demonstrate their superiority, no doubt do cupcakes and coffee to equally delightful standards. Alongside the cakes, a wider variety of sandwiches, wraps and paninis are sold, suggesting that the cake-centric branding is a technique to lure the masses in, rather than a statement of purpose.

The sidelining of the cupcakes was demonstrated by the disappointingly meagre selection of flavours- five to choose from. However, each of these flavours was well stocked, so you could probably visit later in the day and not be greeted by the disappointment of an empty display cabinet, suggesting a nod towards the quantity rather than quantity end of the spectrum, which, when coupled with the lack of attempt at ambience further alienated any attempt at the personal touch.

The appearance of the cupcakes was somewhat deceptive- not in a malicious way, mind – and if you don’t speak adequate Spanish to clarify before ordering, you may end up surprised. The pink iced cupcake, for example, was not strawberry or raspberry as you might expect, but vanilla. The white, then, was not vanilla but coconut. Other flavours available were two variations of chocolate, and lemon. Opting for a vanilla and a coconut cupcake accompanied by a cappuccino and an orange juice (fresh, naturally –when in Rome Corralejo...). We had to wait for about 15 minutes before our order was brought over, but the layout and low bar means you can watch your order being prepared – and there’s nothing like watching a native Spaniard freshly squeeze your orange juice to make the end result more enjoyable.

The cakes were pretty standard, more like a fairy cake than a cupcake. The icing is where the real treat lies. It is the thickest, creamiest icing you will ever taste- more like a very smooth, flavoured custard (and none of this lumpy, school canteen regulation custard either). In hindsight, you may find it difficult to fathom how the icing ever stood up in the perfectly formed peak before you devoured it, such is the creaminess.

These were good cupcakes, but in typical Spanish fashion they didn’t have to try too hard.

Restaurant review: Di Napoli Ristorante, Corralejo

Seduced by the romance of it all - twinkling fairy lights strung so as to delicately outline the silhouette of a singular palm tree, a wood-effect rustic sign that wouldn't look out of place deep in the Italian countryside- I finally visited this charming Italian eatery on the last day of a 10-day break in Corralejo. That's 10 days of walking past, day and night, my inner foodie staring longingly at those already indulging, until the desire to visit built to a culinary crescendo, and my travelling partner relented.

Descending the characterful stone steps at a near twilight hour, the place lacked that oh-so-elusive concept of "buzz". This was forgivable, what with us British mortals eating at an hour far before any self-respecting Spaniard has even considered their dinner plans, and I have no reason to doubt that a later visit may have resulted in a more lively atmosphere greeting us.

 Yet something else was missing too.  Instead of being attentively whisked off our feet as my over-active imagination had allowed me to anticipate (have I mentioned yet how charming and romantic the exterior of this place was? Seriously, it had me at "hola"), we were shrugged at by the waiter and left to make our own way to a table. A waiter, by the way, who was dressed very casually- jeans and a garish t-shirt with the company logo. It was only on the arrival of his colleagues that it became clear they were attired so as to impersonate the Balamory seafront, each one a different colour, trying to outdo the next in the gaudy stakes. At this point I was feeling less seduced, more taken advantage of.  Not the tux and tie place I was expecting after all. *sigh*.

Being British and therefore eternally on the fence (my starry-eyed illusion of a white picket fence was fast morphing into something from the Ronseal ad at this point), we opted for a half-in half out table, still out in the courtyard (more of a corridor) but undercover.

Once seated the service was quick. Our starters were brought out within about 10 minutes, and they felt like a rush job. The gorgeous aroma of the garlic bread warned us of its arrival before it appeared. Sadly, the taste was all in the smell.  The reality was crispy, dry, overcooked and largely flavourless.

A few minutes later the mains turned up. Arriving first, the pizza was very generously sized, which gave me great hopes for the Tortellini Napoli, which was yet to come. 

Being a childhood favourite food which is now far less obtainable in England than it used to be, I had been looking forward to the tortellini since I had glimpsed the menu three days previously (In hindsight, the fact that the menu was printed in five different languages should have been a flashing warning beacon that the restaurant was a tourist trap rather than a purveyor of genuine and decent Italian cuisine).

In comparison to the pizza, the tortellini was presented in a disappointingly small portion, the dish deceptively shallow. Similarly to the garlic bread, it had very little flavour, the sauce more likely than not having originated from an industrial size pre-made jar. To this day, it remains unclear whether the stuffing was meat, mushroom or other. The pizza was a slight improvement on the pasta, but I've had frozen supermarket pizzas with more oomph behind them.

Disappointed, but still peckish, we asked to see the dessert menu, at which point the waitress proceeded to recite it from memory. The usual favourites, such as tiramisu, were mentioned, but I half-heartedly went for the Stracciatella ice cream (Stracciatella roughly equating to chocolate chip and being in no way related to the cheese of the same name). From experience, I was not expecting to be impressed, but it turned out to be the best course of the evening. Gloriously creamy and thick, it vies furiously for the coveted title of best ice cream of the holiday; the only rival coming anywhere near it is the cherry ice cream from Amarena.

To get the most out of this restaurant, I would advise you to sit outside. Not in the outside area of the restaurant-which has its' own charms, such as the delightful gnome garden- but actually outside, on the pavement, where you can enjoy the best part of it, the romance of the fairy lights, without having to endure the drudgery of the food. I wanted to like it, I really did. But for every flavourless piece of pasta I ate, it felt like one of the fairy lights went out. The romantic illusion dwindled. What this place wins in atmosphere points, it instantly loses in terms of food. Which sucks, what with it being a restaurant and all.

3 courses for two people came to 32 Euros (around £25).
Di Napoli, Avenida General Franco/Calle La Red, Corralejo.

The bells, the bells

Following our evening meal in Fuerteventura one night, we took a stroll to El Campanario shopping centre opposite our hotel, and climbed the bell tower. While nowhere near skyscraper dimensions, the tower is the tallest building for miles around, offering the best panoramic view you can get of Corralejo; the mountain to the west, the town to the north, the sand dunes to the east, and the barren lunar landscape stretching endlessly to the south.

While we were up there, the clock struck 8pm and the bells, exposed only a couple of metres above our heads, began to chime. As expected, the noise was deafening, the effect magnified by the surprise, and the sound went right through me, shocking me to the core, to the extent that I had a minor (and I hate this expression, but my literary toolbox offers no alternatives) out-of-body experience.

For a split second I felt like the tower was collapsing around me, and as much as I wanted to reach out and grab the railing behind me to steady myself, I simultaneously believed that if I did reach out, the railing would have crumbled and I would have fallen to the square below.

I've been to music concerts, I've been to football matches and theme parks, but never have I heard a noise as all-consuming as this. After the first couple of chimes I grasped my bearings and managed to survive the next six, but it was quite an experience. Well worth it for these views though:

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

You say gelato, I say helado.

Ice cream is big business in Corralejo. For the duration of your stay, you should consider it to be one (or two) of your five a day - the other four being sangria, sea food, coffee and, er, aftersun gel. In the same way that drinking pre-midday becomes acceptable at a festival, so eating ice cream at any time of day, be that 10am or 10pm, should be encouraged in the Canary Islands. Interestingly (if you are a language geek) ice cream is usually referred to as the Italian "gelato" rather than the Spanish "helado" in these parts. The reason for this is hard to come by, but one can only suppose that this word is more identifiable for tourists, who provide most of the trade.

You say gelato, I say helado, it doesn't matter; for the most part it's jolly good stuff.

El Gusto

As any self-respecting local will tell you, the Big Momma of ice cream parlours is El Gusto, at the north end of Corralejo. Although tucked away down a side street, word of mouth ensures that a constant stream of drooling customers find their way to its' doors.

The Italian ice cream is all made on site, with all the expected flavours available, as well as a couple of more unusual ones, including "After Eight".

What makes this place stand out, however, is not the ice cream cabinet. It's the fridge to the right, which is packed with ice cream based cakes, desserts and puddings:

The Smarties-topped puddings in particular caught my eye, but as this was a pre-lunch visit, I thought it best to show restraint, and stuck to good, old-fashioned ice cream. I sampled strawberry and mint choc chip, and both were delicious. My only disappointment was that we didn't find this gelateria (as this is genuine Italian ice cream, right down to the stereotypical Italian matriarch behind the counter, my inner linguistic pedant will allow the Italian to be used in this case) until the penultimate day of our holiday.

It's clear that they weren't going for the "Jack of all trade" approach, as their coffee menu was very basic, not even offering a cappuccino, to the disappointment of Mother Goose. However, the standard of the ice cream more than made up for it!

La Amarena, El Campesino

Situated in the market square and watched over by the bell tower, this locals hangout is the epitome of the Spanish coffee culture. A cafe rather than a specialist gelateria, it's not unusual to see locals meeting up here late evening for a coffee or something stronger, often with their dogs in tow.  If you don't like ice cream, this little gem is still worth a visit -their pastries looked divine, and they offer a great cocktail menu too.

El Secreto Del Sur

Situated on the main street in Corralejo, just a couple of doors down from Mas Que Bakery, this is a great place for people watching, as we discovered. Due to a lost in translation style mix-up we ended up with two cappuccinos and an ice cream. The cappuccino, although unordered, was rather enjoyable - very sweet and almost chocolatey in taste. The ice cream was also lovely - the base of real fruit really sung through in the strawberry, although I couldn't have eaten more than one scoop of it. It was no match for the pineapple ice cream I had in a Barelcona produce market a few years ago, but it oozed Mediterranean authenticity, certainly better than most strawberry ice cream you buy in England which, more often than not, hasn't seen so much as a whiff of real strawberry, from dairy farm to digestion.  The choc chip, although not a usual bed partner for strawberry, offered a sweetness that complemented it very well.

Top tips for ice cream in Corralejo:
  • Try the fruity flavours. They are usually made with real fruit, so taste unlike of the e-number crammed junk that Brits are used to.
  • If you have more of a chocolatey tooth, try Stratziatella; a creamy choc chip ice cream, even the disappointing Di Napoli managed to pull this one off.