Festive In Funchal

A few years ago I spent the Christmas period in Romania and with shin deep snowfall it felt particularly festive. This year after a stint in São Martinho, followed by internment at the Savoy Next hotel, we have moved into a more spacious central Funchal apartment where we hope to find that festive feeling. All the ingredients are there – sun, palm trees, orchids, a warm Saharan breeze… hang on…

Despite all of the above there are good reasons why people flock to sunny Madeira for Christmas and the New Year. The build-up starts in November when a battalion of council workers set about weaving a vast web of street lighting across the city.

Light goods vehicle

Their efforts extend well beyond some central square. Every arterial road out of the city is festooned with rope lighting and few side streets seem to be left without some sort of illumination. I’m taken aback by the scale of what I’m seeing and this is before they are even switched on. There’s a sense of anticipation I’ve never experienced anywhere else. What is all of this going to look like?!

After all of the build up I’m busy working when somebody flicks the switch. At home this would be at the hand of some Love Island reject who is set to appear in panto but I suspect here there is no need for such a sideshow when the lights will speak for themselves. And they do.

The city is transformed! There is almost too much to take in. Streets and squares that are beautiful all year round become enchanted with the most tasteful light displays. Palm trees lining the harbour twinkle beneath the mild night skies.

A vortex of yule

There is a psychedelic tunnel of colour you can walk through which pulsates and rotates in accompaniment with stirring Christmas music.

At the far end of the tunnel you are rewarded by a majestic cluster of snow white trees, the last christmas decorations before the Americas, if you ignore the cruise ships that have become temporary floating grottos.

Not sure what these are but I like them

The further you walk the more you see – it doesn’t seem to end. A glance to the distant hills, lit up by snakes of light, is enough to get a sense of what Christmas means in Funchal.

Back in our apartment we have tried to decorate the best we can. I packed a 20cm high desktop tree back in October and it looks somewhat … modest, but it’s the thought that counts and we have to be resourceful. Presents are wrapped and then bound using dental floss because we don’t have any sticky tape. The minty aroma makes an effective substitute for fresh pine needles. Best of all we nip out to the flower market and buy the most stunning flowers for mere pennies and instantly our living room is transformed.

As ever in Funchal there is a yang to every yin. During the day time we look out of our window to the 2nd floor balcony across the road only to meet the gaze of disinterested office workers taking breaks for cigarettes and personal phone calls. At night we are bombarded until midnight by noisy drunks falling out of the bar along the street. Still, we have relative space and comfort here compared to our previous accommodation.

Throughout December we only have to step outside to find ourselves immersed in the season. In one direction the illuminated thoroughfare of Dr Fernão de Ornelas is serenaded with classy uplifting choral music. At no point this Christmas will we be forced to endure Slade, Wizard or Mariah Carey.


Heading into town a suspended drizzle of lights twinkles above the small square of Largo Do Charafiz. I like to sit at the bench on a mild evening and just be in the moment. Other people have the same idea.

Continuing on past the Cathedral to Avenida Arriaga I come across a lavish nativity scene carpeted with exotic flowers. What could be more Madeiran!

Nearby at a pop-up Christmas village you can buy a poncha, the all year round speciality comprised of rum, orange juice and honey which works especially well as a Christmas drink. Amongst the many attractions is a hand-crafted island landscape in miniature, dotted with traditional scenes and images. Amongst the many clever touches is a levada with running water

Madeira under the microscope

Onward to the ever-classy Ritz where people sip cocktails and watch the world go by. Across the road to the horticultural oasis of Jardim Municipal which has been transformed into a magical village for Santa’s entourage of helpers and reindeer.

Home to Santa’s helpers

I head back home in a loop up Avenida Zarco with its colourfully illuminated trees and then through to Praca do Município which looks stunning in green and red. Every road, every square, has a distinct coordinated theme resulting in a high class of display.

There is so much to see within a few minutes of our apartment and you can only become saturated with the spirit of Christmas. Almost every night I step out into these streets after work and it is impossible not to feel buoyed by the sights and sounds.

Putting on a show

In the final week leading up to Christmas a traditional xmas night market is held in the streets around Mercado dos Lavradores. This year the event has been scaled back due to covid. Most of the stalls are selling flowers or fruit. We dropped by a butchers for some meat and we were implored to try a tangerine from behind the counter, despite the fact they were not selling them. An odd proposition but you don’t argue with a guy wielding a meat clever. He explained this was a Madeiran tangerine that was in season right now and we should be careful to buy this and not some imported product.

Liquid marmalade

We were astonished by the deep, smoky aroma of the fruit and its bitter-sweet marmalade flavour. Once outside we promptly bought a bag from one of the market stalls.

How do you celebrate Christmas when you are on a small island in the Atlantic 1,591 miles from home? You get together with others who are also away from home at this time.

We invited digital nomad friends from Prague to visit us on Christmas eve to share some good cheer around our dining table. In the best yuletide traditions of the pandemic age we cheerfully greeted them at the door, subjected them to a covid test and locked them on our balcony for half an hour until they proved negative. We exchanged some gifts and I gave them some of my freshly made gingerbread. Drinks, food, chatter and the best company made for a special night, until we kicked them out at midnight. No room at the inn!

Christmas in a suitcase

And so to Christmas day, just the two of us, the small cow atop our 20cm Christmas tree and a tiny plastic duck called Emmy who we rescued from a life of servitude at the Savoy. A day of simple things. A stroll down to the sea. The streets quiet aside from a hand full of cafes still open for tourists. The churches with their doors open to the public. And socks. Lots of socks.

Inevitably we cooked and ate like kings. I was particularly pleased with my fabulous winter bombe crafted out of shop bought ice cream, packed with fruit and nuts before entombment in layers of panettone and melted dark chocolate.

So very good!

The highlight was the thick smoky syrup I reduced out of the Madeiran tangerines we picked up at the market and swirled through the ice cream before returning it all to the freezer. It was a spectacular yule dessert yet so easy to make away from home with a minimum of effort.

If you put aside the fact that we didn’t spend any time with close friends or family it’s fair to say Madeira offered us one of the most memorable Christmas experiences ever. I didn’t expect to feel this way at all. Which makes more sense when you realise that Madeira’s reputation for delivering a great Christmas experience is dwarfed by its reputation for delivering a great New Year’s Eve party.

You see Madeira, population 250,000, is globally recognised as being one of the best places in the world to see in the new year. In 2006 Funchal was awarded a Guinness world record for the biggest fireworks show in the world, ahead of the likes of Sydney and Rio De Janeiro.

In the weeks leading up to new year many digital nomads or long-term visitors to the isle were asking where would be best to watch the fireworks. Everyone who lives on the island seems to have their preferred place to gather. Having spent a couple of months walking the length and breadth of Funchal I formed the idea that an ideal viewing point would be high up on the road above Estadio dos Barreiros, home of CS Maratimo.

Lofty Estadio dos Barreiros by day

We arranged to meet our Prague friends there shortly before midnight and at 11pm on December 31st we left our flat and walked through the town centre, which was an odd sensation in itself with crowds of people heading towards the harbour area. As we exited the centre of town we found ourselves walking almost in isolation against a mass of people heading in the opposite direction. Many people were dressed in formal evening wear, perhaps some party in their sights. The tree lined boulevard of Avenida do Infante was backed up with traffic, its pavements almost impassable due to parked cars.

Walking out of town felt like a good idea as we met our friends and climbed up steeply past Jardim Quinta Magnolia away from the hustle and bustle below. Inevitably when we arrived at our viewing point there were already hundreds of people stood at the roadside looking down into the bay of Funchal but I took that as confirmation we had chosen a good spot.

While our view was not perfect we could make out a multitude of brightly lit cruise liners in the bay who will have charged a premium for this experience. The normal harbour capacity is 3 or 4 large liners but I read that tonight 11 ships were in town with 7 anchored outside the harbour walls. Most of our kerbside neighbours appeared to have walked our of their front doors which must save a lot of time and money in the scheme of things.

A community takes to the street

On the imaginary chimes of midnight the display erupted. Trying to describe fireworks is perhaps even more futile than trying to capture them with anything but the best photographic equipment. The sheer scale of the pyrotechnics was hard to fathom. There were, apparently, 52 different launch stations distributed around the wider Funchal area, plus 5 more floating on rafts around the harbour. From our viewpoint I counted around 20 different launch clusters that proceeded to eject an intense barrage of fireworks into the sky in a computer coordinated display lasting 8 minutes. It was of a truly spectacular way to detonate over 1 million euros of explosive.

With the final thunderclaps echoing around the bay we popped open the bottle of bubbly I had carted up the hill and broke out the lamest rendition of Auld Lang Syne that would have turned the clocks back to 2021 if they hadn’t been suffering from temporary hearing loss.

Happy New Year!

We bade our farewells before edging down the pitch back hill to Avenida do Infantes which was already pretty much emptied of parked or moving traffic. In fact we saw very few people on the way back to our apartment. Where are all of these parties? Or has everyone gone home already?

After the party

Somebody is going to have some cleaning up to do tomorrow. All of this will happen magically and invisibly, as is the way in the magical festive bubble of Funchal. A lot of stuff gets organised and implemented here without any visible build up. Perhaps the wooden Christmas Elves in Jardim Municipal wait until the streets are dead before heading out to fill their sacks with party debris. I could think of nothing less fitting.

The Last Savoy

Our stay in São Martinho has come to an end. Today we move to the Savoy Next hotel near Funchal harbour for 2 weeks that we hope will feel like a luxury holiday rather than a custodial sentence. It will turn out to be all of this, and yet less.

Our arrival is notable for the wrong reasons. Our taxi, overloaded with baggage reminiscent of some expedition from the Grand Tour era, is flagged down in the harbour by a police officer who explains that the final leg of our journey is closed due to a classic car event. Despite protestations we are dumped at the foot of a steep hill with 60kg of luggage and no alternative but to lug everything step by step up hill in the heat of the morning to the bemusement of baseball capped tourists.

Funchal Harbour

Our dishevelled arrival at the Savoy could only have been more humiliating were a piglet or hen to break free from one of the bags. Fortunately they stayed still and kept quiet during the check-in process. I should go easy on myself. It will turn out that our expectation of superior quality accommodation, sea views and access to a pool area will be tempered by a reality yet to reveal itself.

This looks promising

Our self-catering studio is a marvel of compact refinement, with the emphasis on compact. The balcony enjoys incredible views out over the pool area and to the sea. To our left we can see the end of the harbour with a glimpse of the latest docked behemoth. To the right the outline of Reids, a rapidly efficient way to dispose of your wealth for the sake of being able to tell friends you have spent a few nights in Madeira’s most famous hotel.

Spying on the visitors

We soon come to comprehend what the Savoy marketing team describe as “relaxed ambience”. It starts in reception with a loud loop of soulless muzak that needlessly imposes itself. The management team are slapping themselves on the back somewhere thinking they are creating appeal for a younger clientele. Meanwhile the large comfortable reception area that they have specifically marketed to young and/or affluent Digital Nomads remains empty because who wants to work in a noisy environment.

Great views from the balcony. Shame about the sounds.

The music continues to be piped loudly into corridors, most likely seeping into the rooms. We escape this Guantanamo level discomfort in our studio across the road but the hotel has found plenty of other ways to steal our peace. First there’s the hob extractor fan that does not turn off and disturbs our sleep. We keep complaining and they keep fixing it but the noise always returns. Then there’s the oh-so-clever lighting array controlled by an escape-room level of puzzle solving complexity. When you finally work out how to turn all the lights on you are still stumbling around in relaxed ambience x-files levels of gloom. On two occasions the lights just turn themselves on in the night and wake us up. Because reasons.

Beer out of a Saxophone – On brand for the Savoy

And there’s more. We specifically requested the top floor to minimise potential noise disruption from other guests – who were fine. Less fine was being kept awake half the night by a private karaoke party booked at the hotel poolside bar. Yes, the hotel management actively decided to prioritise a few hundred euros for a private event at the cost of annoying guests collectively spending thousands for their stays. They also, inexplicably, managed to ruin the poolside experience for guests during the daytime, by taking the relaxing ingredients of sun, fabulous sea views and comfortable chill-out beds and adding that same looped muzak all day long. Relaxed ambience. Also known as weapons grade incompetence. A lesson in how to trash your brand.

OK, thanks for bearing with me while I got that out of my system. It would be churlish not to mention some of the good points of the Savoy. One high point, literally, was the rooftop terrace bar. On Saturday nights it hosts the weekly Nomad meet-up where exotic creatures from around the world (albeit mostly Berlin) come to exchange stories of adventure, hope and fascination. I seemed to be the only one taking a second to enjoy the views.

Nomads – serve cocktails and they will come

Credit also to the pool terrace, at least the part furthest away from the bar muzak. We never actually swam in the pool, instead jumping into the sea because it was warmer. After emerging from the brine I baked myself dry on a sun bed and reminded myself it was December and I really shouldn’t be able to do any of this.

Not bad for a work week in December

The hotel does open up new possibilities for us due to its location. The tranquil beauty of Santa Catarina Park is just a short walk away. It becomes one of my favourite places. In a city of sights on an island made for instagram it stands out for its breathtaking views across the harbour, into the distant hills or simply across the pretty lake where you can sit in the shade a world away from the noise and pollution of Estrada Monumental.

Santa Catarina Park

The harbour provides a portal into another world as major cruise liners come and go like debutantes at the royal ball. Amidst the supersized hulls you can often see paddle boarders, kayakers or a flotilla of dinghies from the sailing club. This is a harbour for everyone. Especially if your name is Cristiano Ronaldo. His sprawling family home sits at the foot of the hill up to the Savoy. The inner harbour, a few hundred metres away, is defined by his CR7 museum where there is always a line of people queuing up for a photo next to his bronze statue.

Golden Balls, in a rare upright pose

When you are staying in central Funchal it is impossible not to become slightly obsessed with the comings and goings of the cruise ships. Arrival or departure is generally heralded with three long blasts on the ships horn. Most of the arrivals are regulars, like the TUI or German Mein Shiff fleets which shuttle in from the Canaries each week. A less regular boat like the Azamara Journey tends to cause a stir so you can imagine the excitement when the Queen Elizabeth floats into harbour after a 10 year absence. For all of her standing she really looks extremely dated when compared to some of the other ships in town.

Look who’s back

It can be easy to forget the extreme physical nature of Madeira when you are sat working or gazing out at the sea from the balcony. It is a volcanic sea mount situated 500 miles off the coast of Africa, rising an astonishing 4km up from the sea bed and then a further 2km to the mountain peaks. It depends heavily on outside goods and you are only ever a storm away from shortages.

No zoom background required for this meeting

In this case the weather prevents the Funchalese supply ship from mooring and some shops soon run short of a few supplies. I can at least be assured that, in the worst case, there will be no shortage of the home-produced oranges, honey and rum required to make the island’s signature Poncha cocktail. Panic over.

When the morning light comes, I’m back out watching the surf whump into the harbour walls. We can just about see the Porto Santo ferry moored up safely. All ship movements have been postponed today for obvious safety reasons and it is sobering to think that in previous years the waves have been known to throw surf right over those massive harbour walls.

Getting tasty out there

The winter squall hits us as our Savoy stay comes to an end. I have been secretly hoping for some rough weather and so it’s thrilling to be woken at night by flashes of lightning and the pelt of rain against the pool outside. We stand together in silence on our balcony at 3am in a dark salty mist just absorbing the energy of the storm.

A stormy send-off

Our two weeks are up. With pig and hen corralled into hand luggage we drag our wooden chests through the aural assault course of reception and await a taxi to our Christmas digs. The rain has abated and the sun is out. There’s no hint of the storm battering the other side of the building, just the ghostly wailings of a deceased ambient musician stuck in limbo between this world and the next for all eternity.

So long Savoy. We’ll be back once you grow up.

Highs and Lows in Sâo Martinho

Sao Martinho

You have to be fairly determined to stay in Madeira for more than 2 or 3 weeks in the year 2021. A spike in popularity has seen near full occupancy rates for the island and consequently we have had to navigate our way through availability calendars and split our stay into multiple locations, starting in the ever-expanding suburb of Sâo Martinho, a couple of miles along the coast from central Funchal.

We are new to Sâo Martinho. It is peppered with an increasing number of hotels and apartment blocks as it looks to cater for tourists, retirees, Funchalian professionals and absent property speculators from Russia and China, often intent on obtaining a golden visa via their investment. During our stay Sâo Martinho simultaneously delights and frustrates us – a theme which is set to continue as we move on.

How long before our neighbouring banana plantation becomes another apartment block?

Our apartment is functional, on paper at least. We have space to live and work. We are close to amenities. It was on the cheap side, though that cannot justify rock hard beds or a lack of cookware. It’s beyond me why landlords would skimp on such essentials as the ability to eat and sleep in comfort. They should live for a week in their properties before renting them out to learn what works and what doesn’t work.

A rare daylight sighting of a refuse lorry. Only the most glamorous pictures in my blogs.

One more thing that most definitely does not work for us is noise. We cannot comprehend how the council are allowed to noisily empty the bins beneath our window at 1:30am most mornings. Nor can we understand how a single person can be allowed to leave a dog barking on their balcony for hours at a time to deny 100 neighbours their sanity. Madeira is revealing its quirks to us.

Bakery delights of Pastel De Nata – nothing short of a religion in Madeira

The best feature of our flat is the ability to walk out of it and be somewhere better. Up hill the Forum shopping centre is classier than it might sound. There are good shops and nice cafes where you can sit in the sun. There’s a bus stop where I can watch hotel guests play tennis while awaiting the short ride into town. Then there’s the friendly bakery where I soon abandoned any attempt to speak Portuguese in favour of English and at one point, to my embarrassment, Spanish.

The beach of Praia Formosa and beyond it the half kilometer high cliff of Cabo Girão

Down hill the sea awaits ready to cleanse my mind of any piffling domestic or work thoughts. I can never tire of the views towards Câmara Do Lobos and beyond it the staggering 584m cliff of Cabo Girão. It is from this vantage point at the end of my street that I stand and watch the sunset as often as I can. Even on days where low cloud obscures the peak of Cabo Girão it is a view that cannot be ignored.

Praia Formosa

It was possible until recently to walk along the sea front from here to Câmara Do Lobos but the short section of foot tunnel carved roughly through the cliff down to the beach of Praia Formosa is now closed for unknown reasons. Instead it is necessary to walk up to the coastal road and then down again directly to the beach, adding a mile into the journey. It’s worth the effort though just to appreciate the rugged nature of Praia Formosa with its sunset poncha bars and rocky bay, where a few bathers seem to take to the water whatever the conditions.

Boardwalk to Chamber Of Wolves. No landslide today.

Here the journey to CDL is hindered yet again by a barrier at the entrance to the boardwalk. There was a landslide last year and the path was closed – in the most typically Madeiran way. There is a barrier and sign saying not to enter but hang around and you will see dozens of walkers and joggers hopping over and continuing their journey. This lip service to regulation seems to be a feature of island life, whether it’s compliance to motoring, building or covid laws. When in Madeira…

Câmara Do Lobos – pretty and serene by night

…CDL is simply charming, whether you are sitting at a cafe overlooking the picturesque bay, catching a glimpse of an octogenarian barber wearing a traditional Madeiran hat in a backstreet walk-in, or staring out to the blinding sea from the modern seafront terrace at the other end of town. The icing on the cake is the discovery that Câmara Do Lobos translates as Chamber Of Wolves.

Despite the attraction of CDL most of the walks from our apartment take the opposite direction. A stroll along the cliff path towards Funchal takes in rocky ocean views dotted with marine traffic ranging from the regular stream of harbour bound cruise ship megaliths through to catamaran ocean trippers. The walk is blessed with endless exotic plants that grow vigorously in their native habitat from even the most unattended plot. There are no weeds by any definition I would recognise.

Public saltwater pools at Lido

A highlight of this route is the impeccably maintained Lido area with its open-air swimming pools and limitless views. We visit one autumn afternoon when the water is warmest to swim a little in the pool before drying off in the sun. I venture down the steps to the sea where a colony of large red crabs basks on some rocks. A few braver swimmers than me bob around in a protected salt water inlet. “It’s warm!” one assures me. OK.

Autumn turns out to be very much like summer, just a little cooler in the evenings. A few deciduous trees shed their leaves, perhaps based on memory rather than reaction to the elements. At some point my fellow residents start to wear thick tops, fleece jackets and sometimes even gloves. This must be a signal and so I decide to wear long trousers in the evening.

Changing seasons

Another sign of the season is the quite staggeringly comprehensive array of Christmas lighting being set up in main streets and side streets radiating for miles out of the centre of town. The festive period is an international attraction and a massive switch-on of city lights is scheduled for December 1st. I’m like a boy again and I can’t wait.

Preparations for the big switch-on

We have taken to walking into Funchal on most days and if we are not taking the cliff path we are following the busy Estrada Monumental road. In Madeira you are mostly travelling up or down unnervingly steep roads so this level approach to the centre is a relief, though it’s fair to say that our fitness has been transformed since we wheezed up our first hill back in October.

Not a bad view for a walk into town

One of my favourite aspects of this walk has been stopping to watch games of Padel on the courts near Jardim Panorâmico. This highly popular sport is a cross between tennis and squash. I find it pleasing to watch as it seemingly lacks the high skill requirement of tennis or the brutal physical demands of squash needed for the average person to play out an entertaining game.

I’m learning that Madeirans like their sport. Cycle lanes are popping up and club riders favour Sunday mornings for their forays in to town and along the harbour front. The cooler evenings attract countless joggers who for the most part look totally unfit, as if they feel that it’s something they should be doing rather than something they want to be doing.

Estádio da Madeira, home of C.D. Nacional – 632m above sea level of Funchal Harbour below

For many the relationship with Madeiran sport is from the side lines. Funchal plays host to 2 professional football teams. The red and green of Maratimo play at the modern Barreiros stadium in the Premeira Liga alongside the giants of Porto, Sporting and Benfica, who recently thumped them 7-1. The green and white of Nacional play in the second tier at a stadium so high up in the hills overlooking Funchal that they must sometimes play in the clouds.

“If God had wanted us to play football in the clouds, he’d have put grass up there.”

Brian Clough

…sorry Brian.

On one Saturday I walked over to the magnificent grounds of Quinta Magnolia to watch the Madeira ladies tennis tournament. This WTA event sees players ranked from 100 to 1000 compete for singles and doubles titles as they seek to earn ranking points. I’m blown away by the standard and can only marvel at the power and precision of players at this level. There’s a mix of diminutive 17 year olds playing with grit and tenacity against seasoned thirty something opponents applying all of their experience as they attempt to hold onto their former rankings. In typical Madeiran style you would barely know about this event from any online publicity. You just have to somehow “know” about stuff here.

WTA Event at Quinta Magnolia

Local favourites the Jorge sisters fall by the wayside and I decide to support young Croatian Antonia Ruzik because she just seems to be having fun playing against (and mostly beating) more seasoned professionals. Ultimately ranking plays out and the winner is top seeded Kristina Kucova.

The resplendent Quinta Magnolia

I will return to Quinta Magnolia to enjoy the peace and the views of this green oasis in the city. It’s an example of how much there is to discover in and around Funchal.

And this is how we spend our time in Sâo Martinho. We work during the week, explore locally in the evenings and try to be more adventurous at the weekends. It’s a good way of living, for a limited time at least. Soon we will be moving closer to the centre of Funchal where there will be new experiences and opportunities. Perhaps most of all we are hoping to get a good night’s sleep. Is that too much to ask?

The Impossible Isle

It is November. Autumn has arrived, temperatures have dropped and my garden is gradually succumbing to the annual drop of leaves. This much I know because I’m checking in on my webcam from a remote island retreat in the Atlantic. I close down the IP camera session and return to the here and now. Here is a cliff top cafe outside the Madeira capital of Funchal. Now is Sunday afternoon and my immediate concerns are shuffling into the shade of a parasol so I can sip an iced coke out of the 25 degree heat.

Of course, none of this needs any justification but I feel the need to explain this is not a holiday but an extended stay during which I will be working during the week and exploiting whatever opportunities Madeira has to offer the rest of the time. This is not my first visit to Madeira. On previous visits I have been wowed by the impossible beauty of this fantasy island and have immersed myself into notable cultural events including the annual Carnival and Flower Festival.

Catching the end of this year’s festival

Regardless of my familiarity this latest visit is going to take some adjusting to. It’s not just that I’m swapping the gloom of a British winter for the promise of unbroken sun and warmth. My overriding discombobulation comes from swapping 18 months of Covid-dodging isolation with rare distanced meet-ups and zero trips to the pub / restaurant / cinema etc, for an almost daily routine of socialising in bars, cafes and restaurants. That this is possible stems from the implementation of firm covid management policies that are not only keeping a lid on cases in Madeira but inspiring confidence amongst the population, swollen as it is by a rotating influx of tourists.

This feels… normal

On face value I have adjusted almost seemlessly to this flick of the switch but it feels surreal nonetheless. It reminds me of the time Bobby Ewing returned to Dallas a season after being killed off and we were asked to dismiss the intervening episodes as the product of a dream sequence.

The collective and personal cost of pandemic life to each of us is something I feel will take a long time to appreciate let alone fully move on from. Madeira will be my medicine. Each day I feel a little more human, a little more hopeful. It turns out that my batteries were lower than I had realised.

This is not our first winter escape. Last year we spent 10 weeks in Spain combining work with the mild outdoors. We had a great time although covid restrictions left us socially isolated. This year is already shaping up to be a much more human experience thanks not just to the relative safety of the island but specifically due to an initiative that is seeking to redefine Madeira.

An example of traditional tourism in Madeira

A destination synonomous with older or retired tourists is attempting to attract a younger and more dynamic demographic by promoting itself as a community for Digital Nomads. The concept is simple enough: if you can work remotely why not swap that home office for somewhere more exotic. Digital Nomadism is not a new concept but, in an age where remote working is an accepted norm its time has come.

Based on the first year of operation the Madeira Digital Nomad initiative has been a success with many hundreds converging on the island so far and many thousand more expressing an intention to do so in the future. They come from around the world and stay for a week, a month or even a year. Some are buying property and moving in.

It’s called Ponta Do Sol for a reason

The authorities have backed the scheme by offering various incentives to travel and stay. The calm town of Ponta Do Sol has been energised by the many Nomads who have taken lodgings there so they can access the free co-working facilities. There is the coordination of a busy social calendar with daily events in PDS, Funchal and a number of other towns.

Living the high life

We have been using the Slack channel to keep track of events and integrate with fellow nomads. There are many opportunities to hike, paddleboard, surf, dance, paint, etc. Some nomads are doing skill swaps or collaborating on work projects. In our case we are going to social events to meet great people, share unlikely stories and support the regions drinks industry. There are all types of nomad.

Rooftop nomad meet-up

It seems impossible that in just 2 weeks we have transformed our lives. We handed keys to our house sitter and left a cold damp country where our lives had contracted due to disasterous handling of the pandemic and Brexit. We have begun to breathe again in the temperate climes of outward looking Funchal, where we can live the outdoor life and shoot the breeze with a Pole, Canadian or Italian over coffee.

It has turned into a quiet balmy November evening and I’m putting the finishing touches to this blog on my balcony 100m from the coast.

How it’s going

Jupiter and Saturn are blinking out from the night sky. A gentle breeze is rolling off the Atlantic through the banana enclosure behind my apartment block and to the mountains beyond. Madeira is alive with possibilities.

Riding the last wave

San Sebastian really has done its best to keep its secrets from me. A combination of December weather and Covid closures have limited our experiences and so, with just a couple of days of our lengthy Spanish sojourn remaining, I’m determined to at least walk the coastline and enjoy some of those famous views.

It is clear the rain is not going to let up and for all of my explorative tendencies I know M isn’t going to pass up on Christmas shopping for a day at the mercy of the elements. It’s just me, my camera and a wide angle lens that I want to fill with that definitive panorama of the bay. How hard can that be?

The view I would like to capture!

It turn’s out that it’s really quite hard. I have heard that the best views of the world famous crescent bay are to be found atop Monte Igueldo, the elevated peak at the south of the bay.

There’s a funicular railway up to the best viewpoint but I believe it is closed and there is some doubt how easy it will be to access the viewing platform. No worry, I will walk the bay and climb the peak of Urgull at the other end of the bay. With dreadful light conditions flattening out the landscape today isn’t going to be great for photography but I’ll do my best…

Urgull in the distance

Concha bay (every rounded bay in northern Spain seems to be named Concha) is deceptively wide. Attractive old flats line the bay and a wide promenade bustles with pedestrians and cyclists, one peddling tentatively while gripping a surf board. There are a smattering of surfers and hard-core bathers on this December morning, with a high tide obscuring most of the luxurious sandy beach. Low tide in the summer must resemble the Copacabana.

Views all year round

I stop to watch construction workers digging a hole in the beach. What can they be doing? Are they making a sandcastle with the mini digger? An elderly gentleman shares my curiosity, sidles over and speaks with passion about the (apparently bad) thing the council are doing, gesticulating angrily. He’s speaking Basque which is of no help to me and I explain to him in fluent Spanish that I do not speak Basque or Spanish. He nods his head, pauses and then continues to engage me in Basque for a couple more minutes until he has got “it” out of his system. Glad to be of service. In these times of social isolation perhaps it’s enough just to babble incoherently at somebody. It certainly made me feel a little more human.

High tide and low clouds. Better in black and white

The sizeable rocky outcrop of Isla de Santa Clara is unmissable from any point along the bay. I walk through a concealed harbour adjoining the old town from where a popular summer ferry service departs for the isle. Visitors can climb to the lighthouse on the summit for panoramic views in all directions. One more treat I’m going to have to save for my next visit.

The Bay of Biscay can be notoriously rough

A service road follows the coast at the foot of Urgull and regular signs highlight the dangers of being swept out to sea by powerful waves – a warning or attraction depending on your disposition. I veer off up the hill along a windy path that looks like it might not be officially open, eventually breaking out into the grounds of a castle.

A military past

Old steel field guns point impotently into the bay to threaten some imagined foe. They would probably lose in a knife fight these days but provide a little insight into former times.

A view of sorts

I still don’t have the elevation to do justice to the view across the bay but there are more steps to climb yet. The view begins to open up nearer the summit but still I can’t quite nail that iconic wide angle picture I was aiming for.

View of Isla de Santa Clara

The drizzle is falling and there are only few people out today exploring the hilltop fortress. It is hard to make out the profile of this structure due to dense woodland and a lack of signage leaves me retracing my steps on several occasions. There is some kind of statue at the peak but I’m out of patience and so descend back down a hairpin footpath down into the medieval old town.

The river Urumea dissects San Sebastian and I stop awhile on the iron bridge to watch a captivating battle between the outgoing waters and the incoming tide. This is an attraction of its own and I have to drag myself away and on towards the fabulous imposing Kursaal concert hall that looks out over San Sebastian’s other beach – Zurriola.

Surf school in front of the Kursaal

This overlooked sibling to la Concha has a lot going for it. A rocky breakwater curls out into the sea creating a protected inlet that channels the surf onto another expansive sandy beach.

The last land before North America

The surfers are here in sizeable numbers on a day where, to the untrained eye, the surf is challenging without being treacherous. I wonder how Covid restrictions have affected sea-goers. On the face of it not at all.

No social distancing in the sea

I’m always drawn to surfers and I can’t resist trying to capture the action on my zoom lens, despite the low light. I could watch this for hours. In fact I do.

A timeless attraction

There always seem to be a minority of boarders trying to catch a wave. Many of the neoprene clad youngsters seem content to bob together in groups just chatting. There are worse ways to spend a day

Man vs Nature

As daylight recedes the water is streaked by lights from seafront properties yet there is no exodus from the ocean

Still time to catch that last wave of the day

Very gradually people emerge from the surf and drift off up the beach to, well who knows. There must be somewhere for surfers to rinse and change. The beaches I have seen in northern Spain have generally been very well equipped with facilities.

Surf’s up

I like to imagine people heading off together to relive the action somewhere over a steaming coffee, though presently only takeaway drinks are permitted.

Time for a hot drink

It is dusk by the time I haul myself off the beach and onto the promenade. It’s still raining but I haven’t really noticed it since arriving at Zurriola. Nor have I dwelled on my failure to capture that perfect view of la Concha. My senses have been filled with the raw power of the sea.

There is a hum of early evening traffic as people finish work. The bay is illuminated in an evocative crescent of light culminating in the soft welcoming glow of the Kursaal. I would love to return here for some live music on my next visit.

A welcoming sight

This lengthy Spanish odyssey is almost at and end. I have traversed the arid flatlands, explored nature in the Costa Brava, navigated through a blizzard in the Pyrenean foothills and sampled a taste of muli-faceted San Sebastian. Not bad work during a pandemic.

Adios España y gracias por todo el pescado. So long and thanks for all the fish.

Donostia San Sebastian

San Sebastian, or Donostia as it is known in the Basque dialect, is a city with an enviable reputation and I have long wanted to experience everything it has to offer. In the morning I want to enjoy the large natural bay that is home to a beach voted the best in Europe. In the afternoon I should be tempted to flit in and out of the many high class independent shops to be found in this affluent city. In the evening I really must hop between hostelries in the gothic quarter where the pinxtos and tapas have attained legendary status, even by Spanish standards.

Our December arrival has coincided with a stormy weather front that will hover over the city for precisely the 4.5 days of our visit. The pandemic has closed most bars and restaurants, plus many shops. We are going to have to find some alternative aspects to appreciate this week. The truth is that we only have the opportunity to be here thanks to a quirk of ferry re-scheduling so just being here at all is a bonus.

Our gratitude starts with our accommodation. We have exchanged a hilltop Costa-Brava flat which was all about the views and outdoor space with a city centre apartment that is all about the luxury and indoor space. There are things that need to be said about our latest rental…

This 2 bedroom 4th floor apartment with its high ceilings sits bang in the centre of the main thoroughfare, 2 minutes from the bay and 10 seconds from the shops. It has been beautifully renovated and modernised to a high specification and the owner has made some bold choices of decor. It has style as well as substance.

I count 27 light switches and 7 electric roller blind switches. Over the course of our stay I will totally fail to work out what controls what. Our neighbours will wonder why there is a constant flickering of lights and partial blind movements as I curse from room to room trying to work out how to activate any particular device. Perhaps the owner controls everything via Alexa over the superfast broadband that my tablet measures as 300MB/s.

It is clear that the kitchen has been designed and equipped for people who subsist on champagne and canapes rather than anything that might have been prepared on site, let alone actually cooked in the oven. Presumably anyone who can afford 500k euros to live here isn’t going to be fussed about cooking when surrounded by an entire industry dedicated to producing award winning meals. This is a flat for the instagram generation.

Cosseted in this luxury it is hard for us to mask up and drag ourselves down to floor level where an interminable rain is raging in off the Atlantic. We need food supplies and the shop opening hours are as medieval as the city. We spy an endless queue and join it in the hope it is for the bakery and not the hat shop next door. It is indeed for the bakery and it’s a relief to discover that the queue attests to the quality of the bread and is not simply because everywhere else is closed.

Give us our daily bread. Ooh, and a slice of chocolate cake please

Our exploration of the old town is not limited to queuing in the rain. We also get to walk in the rain, past all sorts of beautiful things. Here’s a snapshot of the bay looking moody when I want it to look cheerful. I’m going to explore the seafront more intimately in the coming days once the weather has finished beating me up.

Cheer up, it’s almost Christmas

One of the highlights we have been looking forward to since our arrival in Spain is a traditional Christmas market. We have swept into town just in time for the opening day and so we stroll (through the rain) along the tree-lined banks of the river Urumea that winds down out of the Pyrenees into the Bay of Biscay, only find ourselves pretty much the first visitors to the festively intentioned wooden huts. Only a sleigh ride with Noddy Holder and a crate of mulled wine could make this feel Christmassy, but hey – we’re here!

I’m dreaming of a wet Christmas

By mid afternoon the sun has decided it’s not even going to bother trying anymore and a gloom descends forming a seamless transition into the night. At least this accentuates the lights on the river. It’s all very classy.

Wet and subdued but always classy

I try to imagine how gorgeous this colonnaded square must be in the heat of summer. There is no bad architecture in this part of town

Right place, wrong time

You can live very well in this city if you are blessed with wealth and many high end independent shops will do their best to relieve you of that wealth. The shop fronts are all decorated tastefully to tempt you into the dry.

Attractive all year round

The evening is already upon us and the main streets are extremely quiet. It’s not clear whether this is due to the weather or the pandemic. Either way our damp day of curtailed exploration has run its course. I have tracked down one of the few bars that has remained open for takeaway food. We step out of the rain into a space that should be throbbing with people talking and laughing over a drink and a bite. Some chairs are up on tables and the joint looks closed except for the bartender who appears to be cleaning glasses in preparation for some version of normality in the middle of next year. We order some dishes to take home and enjoy a conversation with – another human being!

Back in the flat we dry out and I spend 15 minutes flicking various switches until I find a balance of mood lighting that might improve the grumpy mood that the last 15 minutes of switch flicking has incurred.

We eat fabulous take-out food. We enjoy a dessert every bit as exquisite as the ones we sampled recently in Catalonia.

The final word on today.

With all alternative options involving us getting wet, we opt to sink into the comfortable furnishings with a drink of choice and truly relax for perhaps the first time in 3 months. The full San Sebastian experience has so far eluded us but I feel that we have a little insight into Donostia. Not every visitor could say that.

Trans España

Back in early October it was a relief simply to arrive in Spain amid the uncertainty of travel at the peak of Covid. Since then we have appreciated every single day of our “workation” regardless of any local restrictions. We recognise our good fortune.

With a week left on our Costa Brava apartment lease it’s time to plot the trip home to the UK – and things are getting messy. Our inward ferry route via Bilbao has ended for the season and the alternative departure from Santander isn’t a road trip we want to make in one day. To further complicate matters long distance travel within Spain is currently forbidden at the weekend.

In keeping with our current mindset we look to turn this cloud into a silver lining, with a rather wonderful solution. We will travel to San Sebastian on Monday and then make the short hop to Santander the following Saturday. We have ALWAYS wanted to visit San Sebastian…

Booking the ferry was simple enough but accommodation is in short supply and the parking prices are insane. Eventually we fall lucky and find a stellar apartment right in the centre of SS at a good rate. Let’s just not talk about the parking tariff. Fingers in ears – I can’t hear you!

In the days before our departure my only stress is witnessing all of the shopping we are accumulating for our trip home. Where is it all going to fit? I’m doing mental gymnastics through to Monday morning where my former elite level of Tetris accomplishment finally pays off. In one of the greatest achievements of my life I manage to pack everything into the car. The space under the seats is crammed with wine and olive oil. Door pockets are full of chorizo. I’ve filled the narrow space under the boot liner with computer gear. A little crevice beneath even that, where the battery sits, is now stuffed with bags of rice harvested in Pals just up the coast. The rest of our capacious boot and rear space is crammed to the hilt with everything you can imagine and some things you cannot.

Remarkably we leave by 10am as planned following a quick exchange with our landlady who has driven up from Barcelona. The car feels heavy! My thoughts turn to travel psychology. Instead of a depressing 9 hour drive to catch a ferry home we have 7 hour drive to go to an actual holiday destination following the end of our working stay. A serendipitous solution.

It’s a little sad to say goodbye to our sunny home from home but we are onto the next adventure. The forests and foothills of Catalonia roll by in a slow farewell eventually giving way to an undulating agricultural landscape that is greener than the arid plains we crossed on the way in. That’s because we are taking a more northerly route on toll-free roads that run the length of the Pyrenean range.

Road trip!

It has been raining for a while when our route juts off to the North and we begin a gradual ascent into the foothills. Roads become narrower and windier as they carve through an increasingly rocky landscape. We stop to fill our lungs with cold mountain air next to a steeply banked river that looks so fresh and inviting.

Fresh air!

A towering mass of rock looms into view. Two improbably vast stone pillars dwarf a village settlement. They beg to be carved into kingly middle-earth figures from Lord Of The Rings. Any sense of travel fatigue is left behind as each corner unfolds some new rugged beauty

Into the mountain kingdom

I’m forced to check the route as we traverse a river on single lane bridge. There’s a dusting of snow. Can this be right?

Well this is getting fun

Soon the road sides are white and still we continue up hill, stopping briefly to feel the icy flakes on our faces. This is a dream inside a dream!

We weren’t expecting this when we set off

The snow is coming down harder now and is beginning to settle on a road that has seen almost no other traffic in the past 30 minutes. Do not break down here. Do not slide off the road here. Fortunately with 4WD and heated seats there is nothing much to do other than crawl along and enjoy the ride.

OK, this is getting serious

The road eventually turns out onto the beginning of a new looking mountain highway that weaves us west-bound quickly and efficiently, through tunnels and over wooded valleys in a long gradual descent into the heart of Basque country, toward the legendary city of San Sebastian. We emerge into Donostia as it is known here with the sun receding and navigate our way through busy streets into the heart of the Old Town and directly to our underground car park. Thank you Google Maps.

A lift takes us up to street level where we emerge into frenzied gusts of salty wind that blow in off the Atlantic just a stones throw from our base in the old town. The massive crescent bay opens up right in front of us. White surf stands out in the early evening gloom as sea-front lights begin to form an arc around the bay. I want to inject this but there’s a host to meet and a car to unpack.

The world famous bay

It’s a mere 2 minute walk from the bay to our block where we meet Edu who is stylishly mummified beneath a long coat ruffed up scarf and brimmed hat. He leads us up out of the squall to our 4th floor luxury apartment – home for the next 5 nights. There’s a well-rehearsed canter through the formalities with Edu promising some recommendations before disappearing into the night. I make a couple more trips to skim the surface of our packing from the car and then we sit with a drink relishing the warm metropolitan comfort that we have signed up for, and in particular beds that will allow us the first truly restful sleep since our arrival.

With food on the mind (when was it not) we head out for a little exploration in the dark, wrapped up warmly for the first time since setting foot in Spain all those weeks ago.

The cold diagonal rain is a shock to the system after the polite weather of the east coast. It’s not just the weather that is smacking us in the face, it’s the change of pace, from our sleepy backwater bang into the heart of a bustling city. I’m reminded of my first blast of Manhattan back in 2010, exiting from the subway straight into the shadow of the New York Times office and yellow cabs. In this case we are transported into a hive of shoppers holding onto their hats as they navigate the busy streets lined with high class shop front windows, each tastefully decorated for Christmas.

From sunshine to Christmas in one day

An extensive nativity scene sprawls across one of the squares accompanied by piped carol music. No caganer in sight here for we have most definitely exchanged Catalonia for the Basque country. We have become unaccustomed to such crowds of people and it is a battle to keep our distance. Everyone wears masks but I don’t sense anyone thinks it is more than a formality. The restaurant recommendations ping onto our phone from Edu but we have neither the time or energy for further exploration and decide to make a dash to an unnervingly busy supermarket for food and retire to our nest for the evening.

What a surreal day. From autumn in Catalonia through dramatic snow covered wintery foothills of the Pyrenees and into the stormy bay of San Sebastian wearing its festive clothing. Tomorrow a new adventure begins…


Catalonia has exited Covid lockdown and with it a slew of cafes and restaurants have re-opened their doors. Many of them were previously invisible to the unfamiliar eye and the transformation of streetlife in Sant Feliu is remarkable. Even in the rain the outdoor covered terraces are abuzz with warmly coated groups who are catching up on life over a coffee or lunch. It is as though blood has returned to the arteries of the town.

Getting into the spirit

With the curtailed tourist season a distant memory the cultural calendar has been in limbo until now as thoughts turn toward Christmas. Shop fronts have gradually acquired more glitter and a platoon of the Council’s sizeable army of workers has been assigned to prepare street illuminations. I’m pleased to say that none of this has taken place before late November which makes a refreshing change to the October Christmas marketing that assaults one’s senses in the UK.

Some things haven’t changed regardless of the season. Mademoiselle Sonia (a Belgian ex-pat) in the flat downstairs continues to host her weekly piano social every Thursday afternoon. Her mystery visitor arrives around 1pm and the door buzzer heralds the start to proceedings. This has become a highlight of the week and we like to identify her flowery interpretations of classic songs. There is a little variation from week to week although the Godfather theme is assured.

A foggy Thursday at our apartment – the stage is set…

It’s Thursday 26th November and the opener is Don’t Cry For Me Argentina – a new track. As usual I provide a running commentary of the playlist to my sister in the UK via WhatsApp (perhaps the novelty of this is wearing thin for her by now). She messages back with a football emoji. Of course! This is being played in tribute to Maradona who died yesterday and who played for Barcelona just down the coast. I wonder what Sonia would think if she knew that her upstairs neighbours were so engrossed in her performances, and sharing them with an international audience. I’m listening to the recital from my workstation when M suggests that maybe the visitor is the pianist, not Sonia. After all we don’t hear piano music at any other time of the week. The logic of this is hard to resist yet it threatens the bubble of reality I have conjured up in my mind. I’ll stick to my prior delusions thank you very much.

Another constant since we arrived has been the “work” being carried out at a house down the hill that we pass on the way out. The garage door is always open, with a maintenance van parked outside and anywhere between 2 and 4 workmen in various poses of non-work. Over the course of 3 weeks they have combined their collective might to empty the garage of a few shelves, give it a good old sweeping and then apply some white paint to the walls. With the advent of the rain they have taken to sheltering in the empty garage and drinking coffee. Nothing happens fast in Sant Feliu.


The last Saturday of November is a washout. There has been thunder and sheet lightning almost non-stop for 24 hours. I have been watching from the balcony as ominous layers of dark cloud have rolled off the hills, eventually obscuring Sant Pol. The line between sea and sky became indistinguishable at some point. Now things have settled a little and I can see the street below awash with wet pine needles that have been beaten down from the trees, The army of council workers will have yet more cleaning up to do.

We are seeing a changing of the seasons on the Costa Brava. The relentless northerly wind shaking up the weather system is know here as the Tramontana. I wonder if this is the same as the French Mistral? Other Mediterranean winds are available. Regardless, this heralds the addition of yet another layer of clothing on the streets. Every Catalan dog walker wears a thick coat, a hat and sometimes also a scarf. Their chubby pampered dogs are also wrapped up in some form of blanket. For our part we are forced to carry a light jacket in case our thin long sleeved tops aren’t enough.

Not bad for a first attempt

The season also brings with it the trappings of Halloween. This tradition has no place in Catalonia but it is gradually gaining traction and a few stores apologetically put on a display. This is certainly not our thing, but we do have a small pumpkin from the allotment that we harvested the day before we travelled and it has failed to ripen on the balcony. Can you believe that I’ve never carved a pumpkin before? It is more fun than I expected, especially once a tea light is inserted and lit. It’s just going to be embarrassing if it gets blown onto Sonia’s balcony that juts out below.

The storm has abated overnight – just a light scattering of rain remaining. There is no damage on our balcony despite the rearrangement of some of the furniture. Everything looks the same. Down in Sant Feliu there are some deciduous trees and these are looking very bare today, The wide sandy thoroughfare that runs parallel to the seafront is dotted with piles of crisp golden leaves. An advertising sign has blown over in front of a shop. This will probably make the local news.

Reflections on last night

There’s not much more to report but it’s not always this way. There was serious flooding in the region last January while previous extreme weather claimed lives last year. I have noticed flood barriers installed at the base of some town centre doors. There must be an ongoing threat from the nearby storm surge channel. I wonder if the gradual rising of the seas may prove a greater threat in the long term.

Today nobody is looking alarmed. A few hardy souls are bathing in the November swells. I have no doubt the sea is much colder than they make it appear. One dog is hesitating on the cusp of the waterline, conflicted as to whether he should gallantly retrieve the ball his owner tossed into the surf, or preserve itself from certain hypothermia. This is what you end up with if you wrap your pooch in blankets and take it to a canine hairdresser.

After the storm

The pomp of the storm may have passed, yet the change is undeniable. There is a smell of pine in the damp air. Everything green has turned a little greener. Everything golden has fallen to the ground. The cloud unexpectedly breaks and the sun is back, burning away the puddles. I find it uplifting, at least compared to the oppressive fog that could be chilling my bones right now in the UK.

Back at our apartment I hear Sonia on her balcony downstairs. She is cooing the birds that perch in her fig tree before fluttering down to peck seed from her patio table. A moment of alarm – where is my carved pumpkin? It must have blown downstairs! No, it’s there amongst the flower bed on my balcony wall. Anglo – Belgian relations have survived the Tramontana.

Girona – Not Barcelona

In the geographically dysmorphic world defined by airlines like Ryanair the typical visitor from northern Europe may conclude that Girona Airport exists purely to serve tourism in Barcelona. Now I love Barcelona as must anybody who has visited the Catalan capital, but over the years I’ve absorbed a drip feed of accolades about Girona and now, with my home from home a mere 30 minutes drive away, it’s time to right a wrong. Our first post-lockdown trip to a big city will be Girona – not Barcelona.

Our drives throughout Spain have gone smoothly most of the time and Google Maps takes a lot of pain out of our travel, although it cannot do much about the lamentable standard of driving here. People don’t generally speed but neither do they signal, look where they are going or show the merest courtesy toward other road users. Today’s drive is mercifully uneventful.

Girona is a great sprawling city and we have to pass through most of it to reach the compact old town. It is market day and this means that precious parking opportunities are at a premium. Many drivers have creatively invented parking spaces where none actually exist. Coming from the old school of motoring I cruise around until I see a car sized space between 2 painted lines.

Colours of autumn

If it wasn’t clear where the market was one only has to follow the groups of people trailing towards the park. And what a park this is! After weeks of short fluffy green pines these towering lines of deciduous trees provide quite a contrast. The long straight path of crisp golden leaf-fall might be the prelude to some fairly tale.

There is such a thing as too many nuts

The market feels familiar with the kind of stalls you would expect to find. Regional produce has arrived by the lorry load. There are barrels full of freshly harvested nuts which sound great until you consider the effort of shelling them. We pick up some bags of oranges for juicing and drop them off at the car.

Pilchards and the ubiquitous salt cod

You can’t visit Spain and not enjoy freshly squeezed oranges!
My assumption is that every Spanish kitchen is equipped with some form of motorised juicer given that the long-term alternative is chronic wrist strain.

My daily intake of olives!

A pleasant stroll over the river brings us to the medieval centre. Every building is hewn from stone. The streets packed between the river and hilltop are narrow and windy. The gothic looking cathedral looms from a distance yet becomes obscured by tightly packed buildings until we are right next to it. This town is a film makers dream, indeed a reality. I would recognise the scenes from Game of Thrones that were filmed here, if I had watched any of it. That’s one more for my watch list.

Built to last

We loved the many and varied shops and stalls selling artisan produce and hand-made goods. A scattering of covered stalls dot the streets and we stop to buy a hand made scented heat pillow from a stall on one of the bridges over the river. The lady who hand crafted all of these goods is generous with her time and we are unsurprised to learn that Covid has badly affected tourism and sales. The hope is that Christmas markets will be allowed to go ahead and rescue at least some of her income.

It’s time for refreshment and boy do they know how to make coffee here! I’ve seen several tempting looking independent coffee shops and am finally seduced by the heady aroma of a roastery situated beneath the stone arches. For the first time I heard not one but many foreign voices.

Life in the old town

Girona has a large student population and there is a cosmopolitan vibe that would be fun to embrace with a longer stay in non-covid times. I envisage myself spending an evening sipping wine and discussing philosophy with worldly types at a nearby book-cafe/jazz-bar, at least until I let my mask slip with some ghastly non sequitur. With most premises only offering takeaway service I’m left to hold onto that thought for the time being, taking scant consolation with one of the many craft-beers that have gained immense popularity in Catalonia.

Supporting local businesses

I have a frustration. On one hand I don’t like the Christmasification of November. On the other hand I really wanted to visit a Christmas Market while we were here. It seems the markets don’t start until mid December. Specifically I wanted to pick up a truly unique souvenir specific to Catalonia – the Caganer.

The Caganer is traditionally the figurine of a peasant taking a crap amidst the nativity scene. Why? This is too wonderful to require an explanation, but if you really must have further details… https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caganer

Caganers on the throne

Nowadays you can buy all variety of famous people depicted as Caganers. Lionel Messi, Gandalf, even Queen Elizabeth is depicted squeezing one out “on the throne”. I need one – but I can’t get one. Remarkably they are not generally available. The tourist office suggests they are only available at Christmas markets. This is the same tourist office that has a website that fails to mention the dates of any Christmas markets. The Costa Brava is really backward in many ways, for good and for bad. Why would a visitor want to know about events? Why might a visitor want to buy a unique regional memento outside the last fortnight of December?

A colonnade encloses this beautiful square

Like everywhere else we have visited on the Catalonia the shops close between 1:30 and 4:00pm. I pity the shop worker who starts work at 8am and finishes at 8pm, with this awkward long gap in the middle. Presumably this stems from the siesta days but it’s not clear what shop workers do in this break. You can only spend so long over lunch.

Something to catch your eye around every corner

The mandatory break from retail poses no dilemma for us as we seek to explore more of the old town. We pause awhile on another of the bridges that span the river Onyar. The clear water is busy with large carp. Various birds of interest wade around the shallow banks. Old flats line the river sides. I can see colourful wooden shutters, some with laundry airing in the window. It all feels a little Italian for some reason.

The banks of the Onyar

I’m keen to walk the city walls and enjoy some spectacular views. I can see them on the hillside above, but where are the entry points? As we ascend the steep narrow streets they become steeper and narrower stone stairways. It becomes apparent that the entry points to the tall city walls are all blocked off. A covid measure? A frustration. Regardless, the views would be great even without the sunset. No trip to Girona would be complete without walking randomly through the ancient streets on this hillside. Nothing much appears to have changed in 100s of years.

Game Of Thrones

We are pretty high up even at the base of the walls. The sun is setting through the early evening haze and I hear a church bell clang bluntly from some close quarter. The gothic setting feels timeless and evocative as the evening draws in.

Remains of the day

I leave Girona Caganerless yet buoyed by the sights, flavours and smells of the old town. When we see a return to less restrictive times I will surely stay for longer. Maybe I’ll also fit in a trip to Barcelona. If there’s time.

Living The Dream?

I’ve been a visiting resident of Sant Feliu De Guixols in Catalonia for several weeks now on an extended workation – a word I just made up. Novelty has become the norm. I’m on nodding terms with various faces in town. I nod at them and they have no idea who I am or why I’m nodding at them. Things have settled down. What is it like, living and working in one of the most up-market tourist destinations in Spain?

We have settled into a routine. I work Monday to Friday with hours flexed to accommodate a walk or trip out most days while the sun is out. Weekends we may travel a little further afield unless forbidden by Covid lockdown. This is a good work life balance. I am also getting some interesting perspectives as an outsider.

Dog tie rings. Normal in SF
Dog tie rings. Normal in SF

A visiting alien would assume that every human has a dog. Everyone has one. There is a whole industry dedicated to dogs (dog hair dressers, dog clothing, etc), though not quite rivalling the howling insanity of San Fransisco (dog bakeries).

Pampered pooch
Pampered pooch

Sant Feliu appears to have a wealthy but aging population. I didn’t see any kids for weeks until I visited another part of town. Maybe they are just being reared until they are fully trained for the main focus of activity here – taking dogs to the shop, spending 20 minutes buying one thing very slowly and then chatting in the street until nightfall.

Not everybody can be a full time dog walker. Some people have jobs. In fact a great many people are employed as gardeners and pool cleaners. There’s a massive industry here supporting second home owners who, for the most part, rarely seem to visit their second homes. More perplexing is the fact that, while pretty much any decent property will rent for a sky high fee over the 10 weeks of summer, people are not particularly bothered about trying to rent their properties during the rest of the year. Something to do with tax maybe? Either way it means that some suburbs are verging on ghost towns in the out of season months, which is a shame because there are some beautiful homes in stunning locations sitting idle for 10 months of the year.

Boats moored out of season
Boats moored out of season

Another sizeable proportion of the population appears to be employed by the local council. Every day I have seen innumerable workers out cleaning, clearing and maintaining some aspect of the civil landscape. Taxes may be sky high but at least people get something in return for them.

Masks for all
Masks for all

Everybody from pensioner, white van hombre or solo school kid wears a mask, with no exception. At first I thought this demonstrated a really impressive social cohesion with everybody looking out for each other but then I realised it was not that simple. People are very good at unconditionally following rules but there can be a disturbing lack of thought process. Acquaintances shaking hands. People congregating in close groups to chat. People using bare fingers to key in pin numbers, then rub their noses. But it’s OK because they are all wearing masks…

Wine from the barrel
Wine from the barrel

One thing I love about SF (and the surrounding towns) is the sheer proliferation of small independent businesses on every street, even in very central locations. Tailors, printers, picture framers, book shops, florists and any number of small enterprises seem to eek out livings that would be totally unsustainable in the UK, where they would have to commit to sky high rates over a long term contract. Affairs are managed much more equitably here with the net result being that a strong fabric of local business ownership and employment is not only possible but sustainable. Long may that continue.

Wax papered parcels tied up with string...
Wax papered parcels tied up with string…

Something else that the UK could learn from would be sustainable packaging. Shops here tend towards paper bags over plastic ones. Best of all are the cake shops where wrapping is an art form. The chosen cakes are placed on a cardboard tray. Long thin strips or cardboard are wrapped loosely around the tray like a rib cage and then wrapped in decorative paper, which is secured with waxy string and a bow. So pretty, yet practical and ecologically sound. I’ve evaluated a large number of cake shops in SF and can confirm this is standard practice across the town.

...this is one of my favourite things
…this is one of my favourite things

We shop here on pretty much a daily basis as per local custom, buying fresh, small and often. I enjoy our forays into Sant Feliu where there is always something to steal your attention, whether it’s a raucous parrot marking its territory in the trees or just the town architecture. On one occasion I spend a full 5 minutes watching an elderly lady buy a lottery ticket from a street booth. There was no impatience in the (growing) queue behind her as she chatted with the seller and made a mountain out of every aspect of the purchase. Perhaps modern life has made me impatient.

Distinctive architecture
Distinctive architecture

Speaking of patience I diligently learned Spanish every day on Doulingo for weeks prior to travel only to find that every spoken and most printed word is in Catalan. Make no mistake, people here identify themselves primarily as Catalan.  Then Spanish or possibly instead European. My standard response to any question throughout my stay in Spain was “Lo siento, yo no hablo Espanol” which, despite what Doulingo told me, translates as “I speak fluent Spanish/Catalan/Basque – please engage me on a lengthy conversation”.

What day is the fish waste bin collected?  = Quin dia es treu el peix?
What day is the fish waste bin collected?  = Quin dia es treu el peix?

It was several weeks into my stay before I briefly flicked through the TV channels to see what passes for evening entertainment. There’s a Ramsays Kitchen Nightmares rip-off where a rotund Spaniard rips pieces out of dysfunctional restaurateurs – that’s entertaining. But nothing quite matches Wheeler Dealers dubbed into Catalan. I could switch to the English audio but really its better in Catalan. One new found joy was watching Handball on Catalan TV. Why don’t we play this in the UK?

The past few weeks of discovery have presented an unusual dilemma for me. Normally I would want to share my rich experiences with others in real time (whether they want this or not) but this time I have been much more reserved in my output. For one thing I didn’t want to tell the world my home might be unoccupied, hence publishing this series of blogs after returning to the UK. Also I felt bad about the idea of shoving continuous sunny carefree images at my social circles as they contend with frost and fog.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing. Rocketing Covid in Catalonia (mostly in the cities) has prompted a lock down across the entire province. This curtailed some of our travel plans, for instance to visit Barcelona, or the medieval city of Vic, though we did make it to Girona and later to San Sebastian – which will feature in forthcoming blogs.

Covid: Eating in is the new eating out
Covid: Eating in is the new eating out

Even so, with such beauty to discover on our doorstep it hasn’t really felt like a lock down other than when it comes to eating out. Food, cookery and eating is everything here. We should be sipping coffee in outdoor cafes during the day and dining out in the evening but that simply hasn’t happened. Establishments have either been closed, offering a takeaway service only, or open with limited capacity. Either way we have opted not to risk infection. On one hand it feels odd to be here and not enjoy this facet of living but equally we are just grateful to be here at all. 

Home made comforts
Home made comforts

Want a drink out? Take a thermos flask of home made iced coffee and sit by the beach. Want to eat well? Cook for ourselves. Want entertainment? Wait until Thursday afternoon for a free piano recital. More on this in a future blog – it’s not what it seems

San Feliu De Gweejols
San Feliu De Gweejols

So what have I learned so far? Guixols is pronounced Gweejols. Residents dress two seasons colder than tourists. Octopus is an everyday food. Coming to this blog soon: walking through Game of Thrones, the storm arrives, a week in surfing paradise…

Into The Woods

Another week working from my retreat in Catalonia and the plague ridden chill of England’s autumn doesn’t enter my thoughts. The view from my balcony atop the hill of Les Bateries, overlooking Sant Pol and Sant Feliu, is one of the sea and of pine. There can be no better region in which to walk, breathe and absorb the great outdoors. At home now it would be a struggle to break up my working day for fresh air and exercise but here there are no excuses. One moment I’m signed into a remote terminal session hosted somewhere in the cloud, working alongside Canadian and Indian colleagues for an American company. The next minute I can be out there…

View from the balcony
View from the balcony

The woods across the road from my flat conceal a remarkable pristine environment that feels untainted by humans. Massive rounded rocks bulge up from the ground. They glitter with tiny specks of mica formed under great pressure many millions of years ago. Some of the expensive villas on this hillside are creatively built around these rocks to great effect.

Fools gold
Fools gold

A soft deep red sandstone provides more level ground between the boulders. Pine trees grow from this surface and also out of every conceivable (and some inconceivable) crevice in the boulders. I also come across some gnarly old cork trees. There is a long standing cork industry in this region of Spain as evidenced by the former cork factories in Sant Feliu and Pallafrugel up the coast.

Cork tree
Cork tree

Great clumps of cacti sprout naturally in any clearing, often accompanied by densely fragrant wild lavender in some kind of symbiotic relationship. These plants are under a protection order to prevent people from taking the red cactus fruits. I tried one (bought from the market) and let me tell you there is no need to protect these in the wild. Nobody is going to want to eat them.

Not for eating or sitting on
Not for eating or sitting on

This little paradise provides fertile grounds for an abundance of wild mushrooms. A couple of weeks back I spotted a group of French visitors picking and bagging them up in great numbers. Judging by the price these can fetch at market we could probably pay for our 2 month stay with a few days of endeavour. I just wouldn’t have the confidence in what I was picking.


My evening walks in this woodland have been restorative in every way. The wind doesn’t penetrate the trees, nor does any outside sound. The sunsets are memorable. The low light casts long shadows through the vegetation. The baking sandstone appears to glow red.

A special place
A special place

Wild bushy grasses shine with a pearlescent glow. In places a rocky outcrop opens up with an uninterrupted view down to the sea. Time seems to stand still. Absolute tranquillity. Not bad for a 2 minute stroll from my apartment. Aside from the outstanding beauty it’s also a place to forget about the worries and limitations imposed by Covid. I wander with my mask down – an act that seems rebellious in a region where compliance is mandatory. Just occassionally the spell is broken by some other rambler or dog walker and I raise my mask for a while. The moment passes, then it is back to these views.

No better place to watch the sun go down
No better place to watch the sun go down

This wonderland may be just a footstep from my flat but the entire region is full of woodland and walking routes if you know where to find them. I downloaded a walking app for my phone and tried a couple of routes that were badly translated from Catalan.

My favourite was a route up into the hills above the adjacent village of Castell d’Aro. This little town delighted me straight away with its old buildings, centring on the church which now serves as a museum. The fountain at the summit of the route was anticlimatic to say the least but the scenery, views and clear air were well worth the exertion, not to mention the many signs of the wild boars that live abundantly in these hills.

Wild boar tracks
Wild boar tracks

I have read that they come out at night to feed and drink from the many streams that channel through these hills so there is almost no chance of seeing one. My research also indicates that the nearest bears live far away to the west in the mountains towards the Basque region, which is simultaneously a disappointment and a relief.

Three months later and I am revisiting my memories for this blog post on a bright and frosty English January morning. I miss having such easy access to the outdoors. I would need to drive half an hour to reach the outskirts of the peak district, and besides a journey of this length would be forbidden under lockdown rules. Instead we popped out for a walk around a local park – pleasant enough but no sea views, no wild boar prints and plenty of other people.

As we get in the car to drive home I notice a collection of acorns trapped beneath the windscreen. This unlikely harvest dropped from a tree onto our parked car 3 months ago and has migrated 1000 miles north. If you can’t go to the forest can the forest come to you? How long does it take a tree to grow from seed?