Sunday, July 03, 2016

The Madrid Diaries: Day 4 - Friday 29th April 2016

Our last full day in the city before we return home, and we're slowing the pace down again to explore some other areas of the city centre.

The road up to Plaza Mayor is packed with restaurants, but every day we've noticed that one particular restaurant gets a lot of attention, with what seems like every walking tour stopping off there. But I managed to get a rare photo of it without all those tour parties hanging around.


So what's so special about Sobrino de Botin (pictured above)?  Well, it's only the world's oldest restaurant and has been in operation since 1725.

On our way into the city centre we stop off at the Mercado de San Miguel.  *Gratuitous food and cakes photography klaxon!*

 Above: some tapas.

 Above: cake, anyone?

 Above: Meringues. Much to my regret, I didn't have one :( 

Above: disappointing news as Laura learns she can't have all of those crisps for 2 €.

After hanging out in the Mercado for a while, we then head back to the Plaza Mayor.  I would imagine that these flamenco costumes would probably cost an arm and a leg, so I went for the more affordable option elsewhere; a red and black flamenco-style cooking apron.  Maybe it will inspire me to dance flamenco whilst rustling up some of my signature dishes, ha ha.  



 Above: a little lunchtime tapa. Accompanied by a sangria!


After lunch at one of the restaurants on the Plaza, we return to Puerta del Sol, the city's buzzing main square and transport hub.


I was quite fascinated by this statue of a bear eating fruits from a tree...


 ...and couldn't resist taking a photo of the fans on sale at this shop on the square.


10 streets lead off the Puerta del Sol. We followed one of them and ended up on ...


...which is a pedestrianised shopping area with all the well-known Spanish and international stores.  
After a little climb up a side street we eventually find ourselves back at Calle Mayor and Plaza Mayor. Unfortunately we are going home tomorrow so have to get back to our hotel to do some packing as we have an early rise to head to the airport.  

But there is one last night out before we go, and yet another restaurant on Calle Cava de San Miguel for our evening meal.  There are so many restaurants to choose from on this street which runs from Calle del Segovia to Calle Mayor.  

Just to mention that chicken isn't really a big thing here on menus, but we managed to locate it - not just in an Indian restaurant last night, but also in our restaurant tonight. Oh, and chips...:)


But we can't leave Madrid without a final visit to the Mercado de San Miguel, which on a Friday night is as buzzing as you'd expect - but also very civilised.  You couldn't really imagine the socialising-in-a-food-market thing working over here, but it's these little continental contrasts which I love about holidaying in Europe.

So, would we recommend Madrid for a city break?  Most definitely.  I'd recommend that you stay in or around the old town, in the vicinity of the Plaza Mayor to get the best out of a surprisingly walkable city centre. Fans of tapas will be well catered for, and even almost-vegetarians like myself won't struggle too much to find something on a menu.  This was something which worried me before the holiday, pushing up my anxiety levels, but I needn't have worried.  Lots of food - and some seriously big portions too! I was also worried about personal safety, but on our experience Madrid felt a much safer destination than, say, Barcelona.  Indeed, we came to the conclusion that we might even love Madrid more than Barcelona.

There are enough interesting experiences to keep you happy on a short break to Madrid, whether you want to explore world-renowned museums and culture, or just soak up the atmosphere of this buzzing European capital.  We had a lovely time in Madrid.  So if you ever get get the opportunity to go to Madrid...then take it!

Adventures in TV: The National Lottery Who Dares Wins

 

A few weeks ago, faithful travelling companion and I went along to the BBC Scotland studios in Glasgow to watch a recording of an episode of my other favourite TV show (which isn't The Chase) - The National Lottery Who Dares Wins.  I've been a fan of the show for a few years and have blogged and tweeted about it during that time.  If you are not familiar with the show - faithful travelling companion had never seen it either - then I'll just give you a brief description.  Two people who have never met each other are brought together to compete as a team against the reigning champions (who also initially met as strangers).  The teams are then given a topic and asked how many they can name on a list, e.g. artists with no.1 albums, FA cup winners,, films by a particular director, you get the idea.  The couples then say how many they can name and the couple with the highest number will be challenged to name them.

The winners of the best of 3 rounds become the champions and go on to compete for potentially large sums of money up to £50,000.  And as long as the couples are champions they will continue to compete and potentially win more money.  On the down side, this can mean that successful teams can be reigning champions across a whole series - who can forget the notorious Chrissy and Joe for example?

It's a very simple format, but a successful one.  The show has run since 2007 and I believe that this will be the 9th series.  A couple of years ago, I noticed that episodes were being recorded but due to other commitments I was unable to go along at that time to watch the recording. Therefore when the opportunity presented itself again, I made sure not to miss out this time.

Many networked TV quiz shows are recorded at BBC Scotland's studios (pictured below), including National Lottery 5 Star Family Reunion, In It to Win It and Eggheads.  The studios are located on the banks of the River Clyde, just along from the STV studios, and just across the river from the three big concert venues, the SECC, Armadillo and Hydro.  I took this photo of the BBC studios from the Bell's Bridge.


If you ever attend the recording of a TV show, you need to be very patient indeed.  For there is a lot of waiting.  As three shows were being recorded that day, the recording of the first show over-ran which impacted on our afternoon recording, and delayed the start by 45 minutes.

We were all eventually guided into the studio.  The stage is actually smaller than it looks on TV but there are tons of lighting rigs etc hanging from the ceiling.  As photography was strictly forbidden, I found this photo on Google to give you an idea of what the stage set looks like.



The warm-up man was none other than Des Clarke (pictured above) who is a very familiar name up here thanks to his TV appearances, Daily Record column and he also co-presents the Capital Scotland breakfast show.  It didn't take him long to get the audience laughing.  He is a very funny stand-up comedian with a good line in Glaswegian humour.  We were also briefed what would happen in the recording of the show - when to clap, when to cheer and when to keep quiet!


Presenter Nick Knowles (pictured above) finally took to the stage and was a sharp-dressed man as always, in his dark tartan suit.  After recording some show trailers it was finally time to record the show.  The competing couples took their seats within the 'Pods' (areas with round windows) and the quiz began.

TV shows may look slick and smooth, but there was a lot of stopping and starting with everything from rearranging the set to reapplying make-up.  It must be quite frustrating for a presenter if the they are being asked to re-record links - but Nick remained a very professional and unflappable host.  Nick isn't prone to Bradley Walsh-style giggling fits and "Who Dares Wins" is a lot more 'serious' than "The Chase" but it is still a very good quiz show.  I would imagine it would probably take hours to record "The Chase" with all those unintentionally funny moments!

Des Clarke made a few appearances to keep us entertained during recording breaks. He and Nick also had a good rapport going. And we also got to see another side of Nick as he introduced his lovely little boy Eddie during a couple of the recording breaks. Needless to say he stole the show.

I won't go into detail about how the actual show went - that's top secret!  What I will say is that TV editing makes it look as if contestants come up with answers quickly, but it's not always as easy as it looks.

For a show which lasts approximately 50 minutes, the recording took a total of 2½ hours from beginning to end.  Recording a TV show is a long drawn-out process, even longer than I imagined - but this gave us a fascinating glimpse into the workings of television.  We just wondered, how many people standing around holding clipboards does it take to change a lightbulb?  (Only joking - I'm sure they all have a very important job to do...!)

Allsång på Skansen 2016: Week 1, Tuesday 28th June 2016

It's not summer without it - and even if the rain was hammering off the windows as I sat and watched the show in my living room yesterday, Allsång på Skansen always brings a taste of the Swedish summer for all of us who live outside Sweden.


Broadcast by SVT since 1979, the show has had six presenters in that time - including four different presenters in the last 6 years.  After Anders Lundin departed the show in 2010, Måns Zelmerlöw hosted for three years followed by a two-year stint for Petra Marklund (pictured above).  I felt that Petra was unfairly criticised during her presentation run in 2014 and 2015, as she tried to take the show in a new direction, however in hindsight I now feel that she may not have been the right 'fit' for the show.  I say this because as the years go on, Allsång increasingly appears a remnant of a past which no longer exists, so there is a need for a more 'traditional' presenter who will build a bridge between the folk-song singalongs, appearances by Swedish music royalty and up-and-coming pop acts.

On the final show of the 2015 series, Petra announced live on TV that she was quitting as presenter. The rumours began immediately regarding her replacement and SVT moved very quickly to sign up Sanna Nielsen, who had been a revelation as Melodifestivalen 2015 presenter. I was never really a Sanna fan up until that time - I always thought she was a bit of an 'ice queen' but the ice melted during that Melfest run and I realised that I was very wrong.  Sanna (pictured below) is actually a likeable presenter and her smile lights up the room - or in this instance, the Solliden stage.


On the evidence of the first week of 2016 season, they've made the right choice.  Sanna is likely to appeal to the 'traditionalists' whilst she's still young enough to appeal to the younger viewers.  Oh, and she can sing a bit as well.....which helps when you're presenting Allsang, doesn't it :)  There's also a new opening title sequence which is more "folky" than Måns and Petra's opening title sequences. Certainly a nod to the traditionalists there.  Thankfully they have ditched the cringeworthy artists' introduction song which was introduced during Petra's time on the show.


The first show of this year's series played it pretty safe.  There was the mix of the old (Benny Anderssons Orkester (featuring Tommy Körberg and Helen Sjöholm), and Kalle Moraeus, along with the new - Miriam Bryant (pictured above), one of Sweden's hottest/coolest pop stars, and major breakout star of last year's Så Mycket Bättre.


Like all the other Swedish summer music shows - Lotta på Liseberg and Sommarkrysset - Allsång relies on the current year's Melodifestivalen contestants to boost the guest list.  The first show gave us this year's Melfest winner, Frans (pictured above with Sanna) rewound to 10 years ago with a rendition of the song which first made him famous at just 7 years old: his tribute song to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, "Who's Da Man".  All together now, "Ingen kickar fotboll som han...."

It was a strong and solid start for the show.  I'm looking forward to this Tuesday's show where Oscar Zia and one of this blog's long-time favourites Daniel Adams-Ray will be among the guests.

(All pictures above courtesy of SVT)

Drowning in the stream: some thoughts on music formats past and present


"One Dance" by Drake has been top of the UK singles chart for 12 weeks now.  The song is only 3 weeks away from equalling Wet Wet Wet's chart-topping run and 4 weeks away from equalling Bryan Adams' stay at the top. It's the longest-running UK chart-topper since 1994.

If a song stayed at the top of our singles chart for that length of time, it was once a great achievement - even if you never wanted to hear those songs again. But they were at the top of the chart for a reason; they had sold the most copies of a single within that particular week to stay there.  Love it or hate it, the Top 40 used to be a fair reflection of the kind of music which was commercially popular in that week, month, year, decade - even if many of us were listening to completely different music which rarely got radio play - and the official UK singles chart was purely based on sales alone, rather than, say, airplay.  In 2005, download sales were included in the UK top 40 for the first time.  I remember being quite excited about that, purely for the reason that it might broaden the scope of the chart.  With very few exceptions - either new album fan-power or posthumous sales for an artist who has passed away - it didn't change the chart all that much.

Two years ago, it was announced that streaming plays would also count for chart positions.  In my view, this was a bad move.  So what if a certain song has so-many-million plays through streaming? That doesn't mean that it should top a singles chart, competing with other songs which have been purchased, rather than listened to for free.  By all means, have a separate streaming chart if you must, but don't include this along with sales in the UK Top 40.  Or just have a streaming chart and forget the sales.  And don't count the record-breaking chart-toppers in with other songs which made it there on different merits.  Streaming only represents a certain demographic of people. So why should their tastes be acknowledged in a chart, when the rest of us who consume music in a different way are ignored?

The other negative change which has occurred is that the singles chart is more stagnant than ever. The same songs now hang around the top 20 for weeks on end, without much variation.  New entries are a rarity and it's a massive change from the days when we had a different song going straight in at no.1 every week.  That wasn't healthy either, but at least it brought some variety.

Radio is equally to blame for the stagnation.  I went back to look at the first chart of 2016 and found that many of the songs from that chart are still figuring prominently on the daily playlist of Heart, the radio station which we listen to at work.  They will take so long to put a song on their playlist and when they do, it will then be played for a further 6 months at least.  It's a symptom of the risk-averse times we live in - mainstream radio stations are not willing to change their playlists, try something new or indeed be more adventurous in their choice of "oldies".

Perhaps that's one reason for the success of shows playing old hits which never get any airtime - like Absolute Radio 80s "Forgotten 80s" which I previously wrote about on this blog.  The show has a large and loyal audience and trends every Sunday evening on Twitter.  Another show worth listening to is BBC Radio Manchester's "Nothing But The 90s", presented by Stephanie Hirst from 10.00 pm until midnight every Saturday night.  This show provides a broad and diverse selection of music from that most underrated decade, and is available on demand on BBC iPlayer at http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p03yx41l

The UK top 40 singles chart has never been more narrow-minded and less representative of this country's musical tastes.  I have never felt more disenfranchised from what is "popular".   Which brings me back to "One Dance".  Despite its lengthy stay at the top of the chart, I have never heard this song - until today, purely for the purposes of researching this post.  My conclusion:
Why is that song even in the chart, never mind no.1, never mind 12 weeks at no.1?

It's mediocre at best.  But then again, I'm old in music-fan terms, and this kind of music doesn't mean anything to me at all.  On the other hand, I'm glad to be the age that I am, glad to have absorbed decades of good (and bad) music and lived through times when music meant something, rather than the throwaway medium of streaming.

Streaming, for me, is the worst possible development for music, as it would indicate that music is no longer of any importance to the streaming generation; they don't take any ownership of the music, it's a temporary fad, it's just passing through, and you can't listen to it any time - what if there's no internet connection for example?  With streaming, music is no longer yours to keep.  A large music collection holds a lifetime of memories.  You won't get that with streaming.

I have tried streaming music at home, but only on a very rare basis and that was only because I wanted to check out a specific Spotify playlist.  It's bad for the development of artists if no-one is buying their music, and they are only receiving a pittance from streaming services.  And who really wants to listen to music on a phone, or a little tinny speaker?  (Cue the market for quality Bluetooth speakers!).

(Incidentally, my negative view of streaming does not extend to films and TV: internet connection permitting, on-demand viewing is a good alternative to watching live or recorded programmes.  And no doubt I will eventually end up subscribing to the all-conquering binge-watching monster that is Netflix.  But films and TV are different from music and perhaps streaming is a better fit for the visual media.)

I just wonder which music format will come next?  So many have come and gone, which got me reminiscing....

Are you sitting comfortably?  Then I'll begin.

Once upon a time, people used to buy music!  And that music came in a physical form - a single was a 7" vinyl disc and an album was a 12" vinyl disc which you played on a record player.  We had one which was similar to this:


And then the technology moved on and you could play your music on a "hi-fi", a tower system which included a turntable, a radio tuner and that other piece of technology, the cassette player.


When the Walkman became popular in the 80s, vinyl was still my music format of choice.  But cassettes made music mobile, this format became increasingly popular.  Although many people of my age will probably look back fondly at taping their favourite songs off the radio, on to blank cassettes like the one pictured above.  My own home-taping adventures often focused on music which you couldn't get anywhere else, such as Radio 1 sessions from the John Peel/Richard Skinner/David 'Kid' Jensen shows, or live concerts broadcast on the radio.  Remember "home taping is killing music?" Well, it didn't.  If anything, it worked the opposite way - I would discover new artists through taping radio sessions and would then go out and buy their records.  So it didn't kill music at all.


Suddenly we were hearing about this new invention - the indestructible "compact disc".  (it wasn't so indestructible - if you've ever heard a stuck CD, that's very painful to listen to!) You no longer had to lift the stylus on the record player to change tracks - you didn't even need a stylus.  You just had to press a button.  It took a long time for me to embrace the CD revolution as a) I couldn't afford it, and b) I was determined to stick with my vinyl and cassettes.  But the technology was foisted on us and forced our hands.  Vinyl records rapidly disappeared from the record shop shelves, replaced by those little square jewel cases containing CDs.  I finally gave in and bought a hi-fi with a CD player in 1994 and began building what would become a very large CD collection.  Cassettes stuck around, but remained a problematic format.  I lost count of the number of tapes which got stuck in the machine and had to be retrieved, cut open and spliced together again with sellotape.  Eventually the cassettes disappeared from the shelves.  A few years down the line, I began digitising my cassettes and that job is still not finished!


The 21st century brought yet another revolutionary technology - digital music.  Apple were the first to corner the market with the launch of the iPod (iPod Classic pictured above) to play your digital music on.

Digital music has a lot to recommend it.  It was space-saving - all your music could be saved on an external hard drive rather than in numerous boxes and cabinets.  If you are lucky enough to own an iPod Classic, you can carry around your whole music collection with you.  You could buy songs immediately rather than wait a long time for them to be released.

I embraced digital music and remain loyal to my iPod classic, which was sadly discontinued by Apple 2 years ago.  But I also like to listen to CDs on my sound system, and for the last few years 'digital' and 'physical' music have happily resided side by side in my home.

But the popularity of MP3s had a negative effect on record shops.  Chains like Our Price, the Virgin Megastore and our particular favourite Music Zone all closed down.  HMV have had their problems but are hanging in there and they also own Fopp which is still around.

Many small independent stores do exist, and have reinvented themselves with the resurgence of vinyl albums, which are also creeping back on to the shelves of HMV and Fopp.  Yes, in this time of streaming, people are buying vinyl albums again.  A couple of months ago I was in Fopp and noticed some of my vinyl albums which I bought first time round in the 1980s. Interestingly the biggest sales are within the 25-34 year old age bracket - not so many of us 45-54s but I guess that's because we've been there, done that and already have a big vinyl collection!

I'm curious if the market will respond to this and if it will mean the return of the "hi-fi" with the turntable.  In the meantime, retro-style turntables are making an appearance.  I spotted one of these in Tesco yesterday and it brought some early 70s memories flooding back.

So I've come to the end of my little trip down memory lane.  Who knows what's coming next? Maybe time to dust off the cassette player...?

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The Square-Eyed Couch Potato: June 2016


I hadn't planned to do a TV review this month but here's a quick round-up of what I've been watching (apart from football of course!) Between Euro 2016 and the imminent Tour de France, there's been an underlying French theme this summer. So I'm kicking off my summer telly round-up with something Gallic, accessible and fun.  "LA FAMILLE BELIER" was one of France's most popular movies of recent years, and it made a major star out of its young female lead Louane Emera.  So when I found out it was on Amazon Prime then I just had to check it out.

It's heartwarming, feelgood and funny, and it was just perfect Sunday afternoon viewing.  Louane plays Paula, the hearing daughter of deaf parents, who discovers that she had a great singing voice. There are also some side plots of a political campaign, but the main plot revolved around Paula's dilemma about whether or not she should leave her family behind to study at a music school in Paris. Louane is a natural in this role and is a genuine star.


If you've ever watched American films or TV shows you'll be familiar with the fraternities and sororities which exist in universities.  But just what goes on in a fraternity? "FRAT BOYS: INSIDE AMERICA'S FRATERNITIES" (BBC2) revealed just what you have to do to get into "the brotherhood" - the vicious rituals ('hazing') endured by the 'pledges' have resulted in a number of deaths or serious injuries.  And then there is the brothers' perceived right to commit sexual violence against female students.  One of the most disturbing aspects of this is the universities' reluctance to take action, preferring to sweep it all under the carpet, with the fear of losing funding, much of which comes from ex-fraternity members.

I can't understand why anyone would want to be part of "Greek life" in a fraterity or sorority, but it's a fast-track to America's high society and the top jobs, just like the UK public school system.  Judging by this excellent documentary, there are certainly parallels between fraternity behaviour and the brothers' future within America's elite, where it's all about the survival of the fittest, the rejection of the weak, and having the right to do whatever you like - and to hell with the consequences.


Incredibly, "THE HOTEL INSPECTOR" (Channel 5) has now been running for 11 years and is on its 12th series.  By now, it offers nothing new, but you get the feeling it could go on for ever.  As long as there are bad hotels, there's scope for troubleshooter Alex Polizzi to walk in with her suggestions to put things right.  I still enjoy watching this though - I like programmes about hotels and usually play along with this, picking out the bad decor and working out what could be improved.

I watched "OSCAR PISTORIUS: THE INTERVIEW" (ITV) out of uncomfortable curiosity. Pistorius was once a hero to many - myself included - until he brutally murdered his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp in 2013 and has continued to this day to deny that he deliberately killed her.  It was impossible not to cringe when Pistorius burst into tears at various points, sought redemption and when he spoke about 'what Reeva would have wanted', well that was just sickening. Understandably, the Steenkamp family did not wish to take part in this programme.  I can't really understand why Mark Williams-Thomas did this interview.  If it was to make us feel sorry for Pistorius, then it didn't work.  60 minutes of lies and crocodile tears.

Now it's time to polish up the rose-tinted glasses for a bit of nostalgia.  Can it really be 20 years since the European Football Championships took place in England?  "EURO 96: THE SUMMER FOOTBALL CAME HOME" (ITV4) focused on England's efforts to win the tournament, only to lose to Germany on penalties in the semi-final.  Not only did Germany win the tournament, but they then adopted the "Three Lions" song!

(On a side note, two years later, mum and I were on holiday in Blackpool during the 1998 World Cup and were residing in a hotel right next to a pub which blasted out "Three Lions" day and night all through the holiday, Guantanamo Bay musical torture-style!  As a result, we couldn't listen to that song for a number of years afterwards.  Which reminds me, I must do a post some time about football songs.)

So here we are at the end of June, and there are still some outstanding posts to be published, including my Eurovision reviews, the end of my Madrid holiday posts, and some thoughts on our trip to Wales.  I promise that these will definitely be posted in the coming weeks....!

A special message....

...Rachel, if you're reading this, please get in touch - I notice you're no longer on Twitter and just need to know that you are ok :)

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Forgotten 80s: an unforgettable radio show

Back in the early years of this blog I used to feature some obscure old songs on my late-night Saturday feature. Retro Saturday.  Many of these songs were from the 1980s, a decade which was actually pretty crap if you actually lived through it (from personal experience anyway!) but you have to acknowledge that there was much, much more to that decade than the usual overplayed hits.  

So if you're into the lesser-known hits of the 80s, then how much would you love a radio show which focused on the forgotten hits of that decade rather than the usual same-old 10 to 15 songs which always crop up as 80s oldies?  I think you would really love it....


"FORGOTTEN 80s" is broadcast every Sunday night from 7.00-9.00 pm on Absolute Radio 80s in the UK.  This particular radio show has just celebrated its 3rd anniversary, but I only discovered it a few months ago and since that time it has become my favourite radio show and essential listening on a Sunday night.  It's presented by Matthew Rudd, who is a refreshingly knowledgeable and enthusiastic radio presenter in an age of personality-free radio-bots who only exist to play the next Ed Sheeran/Adele/Jess Glynne/Justin Bieber song on the radio playlist.  You will probably get the best experience out of the show if you were actually around in the 80s and remember the songs first time round - sparking that crucial recognition-factor - but even if you don't remember that decade it's worth tuning in to check out the diversity of 80s music which doesn't otherwise get an airing.

I discovered the show by accident earlier this year as I noticed it trending on Twitter one Sunday night.  So what was this #forgotten80s? I decided to check it out and was immediately hooked. Matthew is a brilliant host who has such enthusiasm and genuine knowledge of the decade, and the stories behind the songs.  The criteria for the show is forgotten Top 40 hits, but a particular highlight of the show is a section called "Didn't We Almost Have It All" (#DWAHIA) where the listeners are invited to submit suggestions for two songs from 80s charts from different years, where the songs missed out on that week's particular top 40.

If you've only discovered the show, check out the blog at http://forgotten80s.blogspot.co.uk/ with full playlists from previous shows; and if you want to listen to the full shows ad-free then check out the Absolute 80s Mixcloud page at https://www.mixcloud.com/discover/absolute-80s/ and search for the Forgotten 80s shows.  I guarantee that you will not be disappointed :))

Allsång 2016: the stage is....


...Orup's! Yes, one of my all-time favourite Swedish artists has been selected for the "Allsångsscenen är din" show on 19.07.2016.

This will be the 5th year that there will be an hour-long concert following the end of that week's "Allsång på Skansen" show in Stockholm, and it will be broadcast on SVT as usual. Orup follows in the footsteps of Tomas Ledin, Håkan Hellström, Laleh and Alcazar who have all featured on the show in recent years, and who have presented very memorable shows.

Orup has had a lot of success with his stage show "Viva La Pop" which he presented in Stockholm and Gothenburg over the past year so we can expect all the hits and more from a career spanning almost 30 years. As usual with this type of show, expect some special guest artists. (Can we have a GES reunion? Or at least Lena PH?)

We are just over 2 weeks away from the beginning of Allsång season 2016, which will be presented this year by Sanna Nielsen.  (OK so does this meant that faithful travelling companion will finally be interested in watching Allsång with me then??  #shallowalert) No news on this year's guest list but I'll be watching the Swedish tabloids over the next week or so as I guess this information is imminent.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

The Madrid Diaries: Day 3 - Thursday 28th April 2016

A couple of scheduled activities today.  We technically only have three full days on this holiday so it's important that we pack as much in as we can, whilst ensuring that we also don't exhaust ourselves pounding the streets of the Spanish capital. But first, breakfast.

We're back in that nice little cafe where we had breakfast yesterday.  Today it's time for a toasted croissant.  Which is a wonderful thing indeed.


It's not long until we're back on the Plaza Mayor again.  There's been a little bit of rain today to go with the cooler-than-expected temperatures.  But the weather's been perfect for walking and exploring and I'd rather have temperatures in the mid-to-high teens for a spring city break anyway.

Inevitably we're back on the Plaza Mayor checking out a few more shops and restaurants.  One of these sells nothing but hats.  So here is my little tribute to this year's San Marino Eurovision representative, the one and only Serhat!


We have a (surprisingly affordable) lunch on the Plaza Mayor - where a number of restaurants tout for business.  And then on to our first big activity of the day.

Like every other big city on the continent, a sightseeing bus tour is a good way to get around and spot the city's main landmarks if your time is limited.  The Madrid City Tour buses (http://madrid.city-tour.com/en/hop-on-hop-off) operate two routes covering 'historical' and 'modern' Madrid.  Both routes are easily do-able on the same day, consecutively from Sol.  Some parts of the tours cover the same area, but then head out in different directions.

The tour passes city hall (below) which proudly displays a 'refugees welcome' banner....


...the impressive architectural columns of the national library...


..the Art Deco style of the Gran Via...


I can't remember the name of this building - it's either a church or a museum - but I liked it.


And when you've had your fill of art, culture and beautiful buildings, nothing will gladden your heart more than a cow dressed as a matador outside one of the city's many flashy hotels!


We covered both of the bus routes this afternoon, and as I said earlier it's a very good way to cover a wide area of the city within a limited time.

But there was one other activity on our agenda and it turned out to be the absolute highlight of our holiday: a visit to a flamenco tablao.  Now we'd previously been to flamenco shows in Barcelona, and seen a very watered-down tourist version in Puerto Pollensa, but during our research we discovered that Madrid boasts some of the best and most authentic flamenco venues in Spain.  After reading many reviews we chose Casa Patas for our flamenco show and pre-booked tickets in advance.  It's a small, intimate venue but we got very lucky indeed, being seated three rows from the front rather than the usual seats at the 'bar'/back of the venue in the past (hello Moulin Rouge and Lido!)

Unfortunately I don't have any photos thanks to respecting the venue's no-photos rule, but there are lots of photos over at Google Images and Trip Advisor which will give you an idea of how it looks. Like many of this type of venue, Casa Patas offers both show-only and dinner & show options. However, there are many restaurants in the surrounding area and we ended up having a tasty and reasonably-priced Indian meal, just a few minutes' walk from the venue.

The show starts at 10.30pm and runs until midnight.  And from beginning to end, it's an enthralling, intense and compelling experience.  The talented musicians on stage accompany the three featured dancers, all of whom display a stunning level of fancy footwork and authentic intensity.  (Oh, and shallow alert! - the male ponytail-haired dancer is absolutely gorgeous.  I wish I'd taken a note of his name :))

Whilst attracting the tourists in their droves, Casa Patas presents the highest possible standard of the art of flamenco and is an absolute must-see if you are visiting Madrid.

In the next instalment: our last full day in Madrid :(

The Madrid Diaries: Day 2 - Wednesday 27th April 2016

Going "room only" on holiday has its advantages as you're not tied down to specific breakfast times, and if you find a local cafe/restaurant nearby selling reasonably-priced breakfasts then you've cracked it.  Time to discover churros then....


Churros are a local treat: it's hard to describe them, suffice to say think a piped-version of doughnuts without all the extra sugar dusting.  They make a fine breakfast, although apparently improved immensely by chocolate to dip them into!  Although prepare for sacrilege: I don't really think I'd fancy that.  I'm more savoury than sweet :)

After breakfast it's time to see the Plaza Mayor, the city's main square, in all its daytime glory.



Our first full day in the city centre meant a) further exploration and b) going in search of a record shop!

Puerta del Sol is a busy, manic square and transport hub in the middle of the city.  Our favourite holiday tradition, the French electronics giant FNAC, has a store north of Puerta del Sol, just next to that Spanish all-conquering department store El Corte Ingles.   Just like their French counterparts it's refreshing to actually find somewhere on the continent where you can still buy CDs and DVDs in these days of streaming and on-demand viewing.  This time round I purchased some live concert DVDs, the most recent ones by Alejandro Sanz, Pablo Alboran and David Bisbal.  Which inevitably will be reviewed on here at some point, hopefully before 2016 turns into 2017 :))

Anyway, my knowledge of Spanish music isn't really what it should be.  There is one familiar face on the CD racks however: the new CD by Spain's ESC representative Barei, which is all in the English language.  Which, to this native-language purist, just won't do, so I have to "say nay"!

We move on to lunch at an Italian restaurant.  Delicious stuffed mushrooms followed by delicious pizza time!!  OK so it's not Spanish, but the time and the place was just right.



We do some further exploring in the area around the Gran Via and then make our way up to the Plaza de España.  At the top of the square is this big building which reminds me either of a) Stalinist architecture, or b) a 'landscape' rather than 'portrait' version of the Empire State Building.  It actually belongs to the Franco era, and the name of the building is the Edificio España.  And I had to lean back to take this photo, to get it all in shot!


Also on the Plaza de España there are a few market stalls and a statue of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, which faithful travelling companion was very excited about.


After hanging around the square for a while, we were on our travels again in search of the Royal Palace.  Now we're not really into checking out palaces on holiday but this one is in the heart of the city, just a few minutes' walk from Calle Mayor and the Old Town, and it also has a lovely garden called the Jardines de Sabatini.


 

Time is getting on though, and we need to get back to the hotel to get ready for another night out. Which will inevitably involve tapas...


After dinner, it was time for a stroll and we end up at a very unusual bar, the Cerveceria La Mayor, which stocks an endless amount of beers - they're even on the ceiling!  This bar feels like it belongs more in Brussels than Madrid.  Faithful travelling companion agrees and gets into the spirit by ordering a Kwak.



I forgot to mention earlier that a big event's been taking place in Madrid tonight: the Champions League semi-final between Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid.  Plaza Mayor was taken over by a crowd of rowdy but unthreatening Bayern fans, whilst we've seen a few German fans since we arrived.  When we entered the bar, the match had just finished, and some fans arrived in the bar a little while later.

It has been a long day though, so we didn't stay out too late.  Neither did many other people by the looks of it: by the time we get back to the old town, there's hardly a bar or restaurant still open. And it's not even midnight!  Madrid is definitely not living up to its all-night-party-city billing :)