As ever, lots of research had gone into our three days in Seville, not least on which restaurants we would eat in. Life is too short to eat bad food and who can afford to put bad calories into their mouths?
We chose to stay at the Hospes Las Casas Del Rey De Baeza. Hospes are a group of very cool Spanish hotels, and a part of the Starwood group. Chic, elegant. And all about design. Perfect for this design-obsessed, ex creative director and my graphic designer friend. We booked a Michelin-starred restaurant (Abantal – wonderful) for one night, the oldest tapas bar in Seville for another (El Rinconcillo – very touristy, give it a miss) and a third, which I can’t remember. Why? Because we didn’t go.
Whilst waiting for B to arrive from France, I was online, reading about our three bookings. All sounded delicious. But out of nowhere came the feeling I simply didn’t want to go to the first booking (irrespective of which one it was) and wanted, instead, to eat in our hotel that night. Not that I had read anything about the hotel restaurant so it was a shot in the dark, not something I would normally risk on such a limited time break. (We subsequently discovered it is considered one of the finest places to eat in Seville. Always trust your instincts.)
Fortunately, the easy going B went along with this moment of madness and thereupon a whole fairy-tale story was written by destiny.
We started with drinks in the bar and it was delightful; like sitting in somebody’s beautiful home. The restaurant itself was very stylish and the menus offered a myriad of options. As we were studying them, we became aware of When Harry Met Sally sounds from the table behind B. Remember that “I want whatever she’s having” moment? That’s what we felt. So B turned around to find out what had caused such orgasmic delight (it turned out to be the tasting menu) and, thus, it begun.
Enter, into my life, Nigel and Lau.
NIgel is an ex opera director. (Opera is a big love in my life.) Lau observed and appreciated my Demoo Parkchoonmoo outfit (a South Korean designer, asymmetrical, cut on the bias, silk, quirky but elegant) and asked me to do a twirl. (Fashion is a big love in my life.) (Men who appreciate Opera and Fashion are a big love in my life.) Need I say more?
We talked and laughed and by the end of dinner we were no longer two 2s but a 4. We drank brandies and swapped life stories and discovered we were all travel junkies. The Boys were off to Burma shortly, somewhere I have dreamt of visiting forever but somehow never quite got there (yet, read on). They revealed to us some secret gems in Seville to visit. And we parted late into the night (early in the morning even?) best friends.
The next day an email arrived suggesting I join them on their upcoming Burma trip, My heart leapt then sank as I realised the dates clashed with an already booked trip to the West Coast and too many friends and family were involved to even contemplate changing it. (But, retrospectively, would not have missed Kusami at the Broad for anything.)
What is meant to be does not simply pass you by. The Boys then invited me to Malaysia and Singapore and, despite only having spent a few hours together, in a few days we had planned a trip that was over a month long.
Then we planned a trip to Cambodia and Laos – and later added on a (repeat for The Boys) Burma river cruise (it had to happen one day) and a few days in Bangkok. Six weeks of incredible adventures. Then, just because it came up, we added a twelve day visit to Sri Lanka to our diary. And B and I decided to visit Granada where The Boys live. As you do. Obviously.
To me, it all seemed perfectly normal, natural and wonderful. A sentiment not shared by all. My God Daughter’s Husband is a darling. We are chalk and cheese and he looks at me with disbelief most of the time but it works. He tells me about Arsenal and I tell him about my latest dramas and we laugh together. He knows if he arrives home to find his wife glued to some sexually explicit series (think The Affair for example) it will be because I recommended it. We once sat on the terrace of my home in Northern Tuscany and literally tried each other’s vices (perhaps best not repeated here). So, fair to say, he was pretty used to his eccentric God Mother In Law’s somewhat unconventional ways. But this time I had gone a step too far, even in his books. The God Daughter’s Husband was very, VERY concerned about the sanity of going away for a month with two people I had only spent a couple of hours with – and for the most part of those hours we were sitting at different tables.
But when did common sense ever quash my spontaneity and impulsiveness?
Time passed. My NBFs and I emailed daily. Then began to talk daily. I was visiting Cordoba with a friend and The Boys’ recommendations made the trip magical (notably Regadera for dinner, Bodegas Campos for sherry and tapas and the very quirky Hotel El Viento 10 to stay). We definitely share the same tastes – so how mad could our upcoming planned trips be?
A man entered my life (FF – don’t ask). Nigel and Lau flew via London en route to a Danube cruise and the four of us met for dinner. Our second meeting and by this time we had booked three trips. Dinner was wonderful. FF was going to join us on our trips so we were a 4 again. (If you are wondering why B wasn’t coming, she’s a wife and a mum with two young sons so has to wait a couple of decades before she has such luxury of time.)
Next, B and I visited Granada and the friendship, if it hadn’t been before, was cemented for life. B and I stuck to our itinerary this time with an incredible first night dinner at Mirador de Morayma where we had a table on the very top terrace with divine views of the Alhambra. The next night was with The Boys. Drinks and tapas at La Borraja (which has become a firm favourite and B and I returned the next day when they cooked a paella in the street that was big enough for 250!) then a stunning, size-gaining tasting menu at Damasqueros. Day 3 was dinner chez The Boys. First time in their home and they are as art-obsessed as I am. Dinner was a culinary work of art in itself. Nigel is an amazing cook. And we were introduced to designer liquorice: Lakrids by Johan Bülow. Heaven in your mouth as well as for your eyes. (So so much food and drink; need to get back to Fierce Grace as soon as on return to sweat out the toxins and pounds.)
When I discovered FF was a bastard, he and I had a trip to Venice planned for my birthday, specifically to see the Damien Hirst Wreck of the Unbelievable exhibit at the Palazzo Grassi and the Dogana galleries. My knights in shining armour stepped in and invited me back to Granada instead. My weekend was infinitely better than the Venice one ever could have been. A wonderful concert at the Auditorio Manuel de Falla and a very quirky but delicious vegan meal at Hicuri (great organic wine) on my birthday eve. Spending the entire day in our pyjamas and sitting in the glorious sun on the balcony just talking on my birthday before going on a surprise birthday treat – a tasting menu with wine pairing at another Hospes, the Hospes Palacio de los Patos – now obviously Hospes are enshrined as “our” special place. The next day Lau introduced me to Manuel Angeles Ortiz, an artist I cannot believe I did not know before. Utterly exquisite, I bought a signed print even though I literally have no wall space left in my home. The Ruiz Linares gallery, a complete treasure chest of glorious objects on three floors, had so much of his art including a couple of oils I would have killed for – but would have had to move to house them. We found snails made to represent a Lorca poem and plates with hand-painted spiders in a wonderful design shop called Menfis. And I posed next to the Federico Garcia Lorca (my hero) statue in a beautiful avenue. The sun shone and my heart sang that weekend. (Talking of Lorca, on returning from Granada to London, went to the new Cervantes Theatre in Union Street to see a staggeringly intense and incredible production of The House of Bernarda Alba.)
(Next week B and I are off to Venice to see the Hirst so all is not lost there either – and we are spoiling ourselves and staying in Palazzina G, a stunning Philippe Starck designed hotel, way more stylish than anything FF would have chosen!).
But that is not the end of the story. Our adventures are just beginning. And we are going to share each delicious moment.
It started with a twirl. Or was it a glimpse? Or was it a question about a menu? It certainly started in Seville on 2 March 2017 and ended up in London, Granada, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Singapore, Valencia, Bangkok, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia – or at least will have by early December 2018.
Anyway, as a result of that twirl or glimpse or menu question, Ms Maroulla Paul and Messrs Nigel Warrington and Lau Thorbjørn are committed to a year of travelling together. They – we – are now a travelling team – a touring trio – a globe-trotting troika. Though our team membership currently extends until 7 December 2018, in our collective waters we kind of feel it won’t end there.
My partner Lau (Danish) and I (English) live in Granada, Spain. We’ve lived here since summer 2015. When we first moved to Spain from Turkey (another story) in 2013, at the time to another town in another Andalusian province, our new home country was unchartered territory. So the years since have involved an intriguing, fantastically surprising voyage of discovery. We never knew that Spain had so much to offer. In March 2017 we treated ourselves to one of our regular, short ‘research trips’ (our excuse) – this time three nights in Seville. It is a city we know pretty well now from a few previous visits, and love. This time we stayed in the charming Hotel Boutique Elvira Plaza in what is arguably the most picturesque square in the whole of Seville – the Plaza Doña Elvira. It was a perfect break. Although it was only March, we sweltered in the all-year-round, sizzling ‘summer weather’ that Seville is famed for. We were diligent tourists and squeezed in some sights we hadn’t visited on previous trips to Seville, including the quirky, oddly moving Las Dueñas – home of the (for want of a better word – I never knew her) highly eccentric Duchess of Alba until her death in 2014 – and the Casa Pilatos – a mind-blowing, architectural marvel dating from the late 15th century. We sipped our welcome, included-in-the-price-of-the-ticket beers, toasting on top of the iconic Parasol. We siesta-ed on the huge private terrace of our hotel room, from our loungers just glimpsing the shiny roof tiles and the oranges on the topmost branches of the trees in the square below. We sipped cocktails in the rooftop bar of the Hotel Doña Maria – an absolute must on any visit to Seville, particularly at night when the sky is velvet black, the bats dart round the orange-glowing Cathedral tower, and the bar seethes with tourists, locals and a diverse smattering of dolled-up ‘professionals’ sipping cava with their elderly clients. It’s magic. (Just don’t opt for the house cocktail – it tastes like a cheap perfume a teenage girl on a tight budget might use.)
And, needless to say, we ate.
Night 1 – a return visit to Mechela Restaurante – a minuscule, shabby-chic eatery tucked away in the narrow, dark, mainly residential Calle Bailén just round the corner from the fancy, pricey, landmark Gran Meliá Colón Hotel (just in case you get lost in your attempt to find the restaurant). Mechela was the very first place Lau and I ate on our first visit to Seville in June 2014. I quote from my own TripAdvisor review at the time:
“Our first evening meal in Seville and what better choice could we have made! The ambience is almost Shaker in its pastel simplicity, though shook up (bad pun intended) by disparate chairs and lamps and upholstery and two incredibly charming waitresses. The food is imaginative and surprising and beautifully presented and guaranteed to put a smile on the face. A not too overwhelming wine list, on which all the wines would seem to be available by the glass. We had to stop ourselves from automatically eating here on our second night!”
Booking at Mechela is essential. There’s always a queue outside and – the only downside – punters craning their necks to get a glimpse of the contents of your plate. But they’re queuing and craning for a very good reason. The food is wonderful. The word ‘tapas’ brings me out in hives – now it’s such a cliché – a catch-all term for everything from greasy croquettes with a smear of spicy sauce to stunning creations including foie gras and duck breast and you name it. But it happens to be the best way of describing the food at Mechela, whose brand of tapas veers more to the ‘stunning creation’ end of the tapas spectrum.
On Night 2 we ate at the hotel.
And on Night 3 – the fateful night – the point of no return – we ate at the Restaurante Azahar in the Hotel Hospes Las Casas del Rey de Baeza, an exquisitely converted 18th century property with a cobbled forecourt, tucked away in a dense network of ancient dark streets. Again, I will start with my TripAdvisor review of the meal:
“What a delightful surprise. This intimate, stylish restaurant is located in the equally intimate, stylish hotel, Hospes Las Casas del Rey de Baeza. The food was creative and delicious and elegantly yet simply presented and served, somewhat formally I have to say, by the female maitre d’ and her waitress assistant. But what was most extraordinary was the price – 45 Euros for a 7-course menu – INCLUDING 7 wine pairings – pretty unique – as was the whole evening. HIGHLY HIGHLY RECOMMENDED!”
No, that isn’t a misprint. That really was the price of the meal. Is it only in Spain that you come across such deals and such quality?
Anyway, enough rambling and divergence and food and quoted reviews. I will now try to get to the point.
First “the glimpse”.
We arrived at the hotel early and, never having been there before, got permission from the receptionist to wander round and take a look. As we passed through the lamp-lit courtyard on our way to the rooftop terrace for the nighttime view, we noticed two elegant women, clearly guests at the hotel, sipping cocktails in the gleam of the lantern light and deep in conversation. After our little ‘tour’ of the hotel we proceeded to the sleek modern restaurant and embarked upon the next tour – of the stunning food and wine. The restaurant was not over busy, but after a few courses (how absurd – nay decadent – does that sound!) we were joined by the two women from the courtyard, who sat at a table behind ours. So then it was the “question about the menu”. We must have been emitting loud sounds of gastronomic satisfaction, and ooh-ing and aah-ing at the creative presentation of the dishes, because one of the women excused herself and asked what we were eating. Inspired by our enthusiasm, they too opted for the Marathon Menu.
I don’t remember the exact sequence after that. We certainly twisted in our seats a lot and chatted intermittently (constantly) – and though we must have finished our meal first, we remained in our seats until the two women had also finished theirs. We mustn’t forget “the twirl”. One of the women was wearing a striking, asymmetrical blue and black frock, and at some point Lau insisted on a catwalk twirl and was given one. She certainly didn’t seem averse to the attention. The frock was apparently a South Korean creation. I don’t even remember much of what we talked about. But we talked a lot and continued talking as we adjourned to the deserted hotel lounge for a brandy. We certainly exchanged contact details. And certainly at one point we mentioned that we were travelling to Myanmar in a few weeks’ time. The blue and black Korean frock woman – aka Maroulla Paul – said that Myanmar was a country she’d always wanted to visit, but never had yet.
We instantly relaxed with Maroulla and her friend, B. Conversation was easy, no one seemed compelled to behave nicely, our defences were down, and the fact that Maroulla felt comfy enough on more than one occasion to swear like a trooper was really appealing. Clearly a woman with passion and conviction. I even think Lau and I told the story of where we met. Without going into all the grisly details, we met one chilly night in Copenhagen – 19 March 1988 to be precise – and spent that chilly night together. I was working there, Lau lived there. Two days later I moved into his apartment. Talk about impulsive. It shouldn’t have worked, but it has – and on 19 March 2018 we will be celebrating 30 years together (mmm… Where to eat? Where to go?! ). But the point is not to get all gooey and sentimental about our relationship. The point is that impulse and instinct are not always a bad thing. So far so good, anyway.
Cut from 2 March 2017 to 12 November 2017. Maroulla’s birthday. Lau, Maroulla and I are sitting on our balcony in Granada in our pyjamas after a late breakfast/brunch, in true defences-down style, until 4 in the afternoon, when we finally start getting ready for dinner, which (though Maroulla doesn’t know it yet) is to be in the restaurant at the Hospes Palacio de los Patos, the Granada sister of the hotel we met in. It seemed a cute symbolic choice and we manage to keep it a secret. The 3 nights she is staying with us are pretty significant. All the travels are organised and finalised now and have been for some time. But we’ve only met Maroulla in person twice since that first brief encounter in Seville: once in an airport hotel at Heathrow in April when Lau and I were on our way to Budapest for the start of a river cruise and Maroulla (with her then consort) drove out to say hello; then again in early October, when Maroulla was meeting up with her friend B.again for a weekend in Granada. Our relationship is very much email- and WhatsApp-based and my oh my have we written and chatted! There’s a myriad of those chains of 30 or so emails, with subjects ranging from what hotel to choose in Bangkok next November and the best place to buy gems in Colombo to updates on weather and more tantalising ideas for future trips. Are we spoiled or are we spoiled?! So it’s nice to be chatting in our nightwear on the balcony, catching up and planning and feeling thank God we do actually get on and our instincts and impulses have so far not let us down. Just as well, really!
Of course, the attraction is pretty fatal.
Things have snowballed at the speed of light, and we do have to stop, pinch ourselves and check our budgets from time to time. Shortly after the Seville meeting, remembering Maroulla’s Myanmar envy, we asked her if she’d like to join us on our Irrawaddy cruise. There was still time – there were still cabins available – we checked. Her schedule didn’t allow it. But then Malaysia and Singapore cropped up – a trip I was putting together – and Maroulla was on board. Is on board. Myanmar was still on Maroulla’s back burner. But not for long. Laos and Cambodia were next. Lau and I have been before, but were stitching together another visit, this time including places we did not visit before. “Want to join us, Maroulla?” “Yes please.” We hadn’t intended to visit Myanmar again. But we weren’t 100% satisfied with the cruise in April. So we complained (it’s what we do when we feel it’s warranted). Not only did the company honourably refund us half of the cost of that cruise, they also offered us another cruise in 2018 – FREE! How could we refuse? And we could see how it could dovetail with the Laos and Cambodia trip. “Wanna come to Myanmar too, Maroulla?” “Oh Gooooood!” (That’s ‘God’ as opposed to ‘good’.) “Ok, then.” (Unfortunately the cruise isn’t free for Maroulla – in fact she has to pay a stonking great single supplement – not fair in my opinion.) So now the trip has evolved into 38 days – the longest holiday any of us will ever have done.
So we have to be careful – Team Maroulla, Lau and Nigel. Lau and I have some friends who travel so much they seem rarely to be at home. It isn’t our intention to morph into them. And Lau and I have Hector and Bella (our dogs) to think about. But do we need to be that careful? Travel and the good life and beautiful things are clearly what make all three of us tick, so why not enjoy them together? Who knows what next? Apparently – Maroulla’s idea – she and I are going to write a travel blog – oh! – we are writing a travel blog. And actually we do know what’s next. Our fourth actual, in-the-flesh meeting – 7 December 2017 in Sri Lanka. Unless by some miracle we manage to squeeze somewhere else in before! Wouldn’t put it past us.