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Christmas in Salzburg

It's Christmas Eve, so I'm taking a break from sizzling Andalucia and moving north to Austria to bring you the wondrously wintry landscape of Salzburg, where we spent a long weekend this month. I can't imagine this chocolate box city at any other time of year - Salzburg feels like it was built to be covered in thick snow, for its inhabitants to wander its narrow cobbled streets while wrapped in multiple layers (seriously - we wore three jumpers each while we were there), warmed by cups of hot glühwein and Mozart playing in the background.

When in Salzburg in December you have to completely give in to the Christmas festivities, and if you're looking for the best Christmas market in town I must point you towards the Christkindlmarkt in Residenzplatz. Dating back to the Middle Ages, this sprawling Christmas market completely fills the squares around the old cathedral. Locals congregate here to iceskate and knock back a glühwein or two before dinner. We came here to stroll among the stalls, snacking on chips covered in an avalanche of mayo and "Fischbratwurst" while snowflakes fell gently overhead. At least they fell gently to begin with - before long we were being battered by heavy clumps of snow and had to take shelter under umbrellas. 

I was struck by how quiet the market was. This is a completely different breed of Christmas fair to Winter Wonderland at home in London, where the festive hits blare from giant speakers and most of the stalls sell plastic tat (sorry, but it's true!) Here there was little in the way of music other than that provided by singers and classical performers from the Mozarteum conservatoire on the steps of the cathedral, while any chatter from the revellers was muted by the snowfall. It was the perfect welcome to Salzburg and I felt completely at peace (likely helped along by the hot spiced wine).

The Christkindlmarkt is not just a place to pick up dinner; it's also great if you're on the hunt for presents and decorations. We browsed stalls selling sweet-smelling beeswax candles, church incense and all manner of cute tree ornaments, from fuzzy hedgehogs to wooden toy soldiers. Most fascinating of all were the shops selling minuscule pieces to furnish Nativity displays: plastic sheep and camels of various sizes, glowing lanterns, tiny terracotta pots and pails, stars trailing long tails and teeny washboards. These charming models reminded me of childhood visits to the dusty specialist toy shop in Hampstead where we would rummage for tiny sets of cutlery and rocking chairs to kit out our doll's house.

Another must-visit is Café Tomaselli (Alter Markt 9) off the Residenzplatz. It's alleged that Mozart used to hang out here to drink almond milk. On that note, it's the perfect place to refuel after a trip to the nearby Mozarts Geburtshaus (Getreidegasse 9) - the house where the great man was born, now a museum housing shedloads of Mozart paraphernalia with a particularly interesting section on the set designs of Mozart's operas through the ages. We slid into a booth in a room feeling as if we'd entered a time slip into the late 1700s, with a giant wooden crucified Christ in the corner looming over us as we sipped hot chocolates and made our selection from the groaning tray of cakes brought over by a benevolent elderly waitress. 

We opted for Mont Blanc cake - layers of fluffy sponge with chestnut cream and jam, topped with the familiar strands of chestnut paste which are a characteristic feature of the eponymous elegant French dessert. Staggeringly good, especially when accompanied by a large cup of chocolate and whipped cream! I'm a massive fan of the Kaffee und Kuchen lifestyle, as you may know if you've read my Hamburg posts. This cake felt particularly special, and apt since we were surrounded by snow-capped mountains.

There's another very sweet Christkindlmarkt near the Mirabell Gardens which is a little smaller (and therefore less busy). It sells most of the same things as the bigger Residenzplatz market. On Miho's recommendation we made a stop here on Saturday morning for Bauernkrapfen, a heavenly fried puffed dough pancake of sorts topped with apricot jam. My kind of breakfast.

The Mirabell Palace looks like it's fallen straight out of a Wes Anderson shot, specifically from The Grand Budapest Hotel - especially when covered in snow. You might recognise the grounds from The Sound of Music - and hordes of tourists gather round to photograph the fountain that Maria and her gaggle of youths danced around, or the steps that they jumped up in 'Do Re Mi'. 

We also came back to the Palace later that day to see a concert of Vivaldi's Four Seasons in the sparkling, gilded Marble Hall - a brilliant performance slightly marred by the fact that many of the audience guests insisted on videoing the concert with their phones, taking flash photos and scrolling through their Twitter feeds while the performers were playing. Since when did this become a thing?

One of my favourite memories of the trip was climbing up to the Festung Hohensalzburg, a fortress perching on a hill above the city. This spot made for the best views of the city: Salzburg looked like a little gingerbread town dusted with icing sugar below, while the fortress itself was fascinating - with exhibits ranging from medieval weaponry to methods of torture as well as incredibly well preserved and restored state rooms. Plus we got to take the funicular down afterwards - so much fun!

On the Sunday morning of our long weekend we went for a pre-flight continental breakfast at Cafe Habakuk (Linzergasse 26) where Lukas went full Austro-German on the poached eggs and I had my last hot chocolate of the trip...or so I thought. Thanks to a heavy blanketing of snow in the UK, our flight home was cancelled. Luckily, we managed to book a flight for the next day, via our beloved Hamburg! But it wasn't all bad - we got an extra (extremely good) Apfelstrudel, beers and schnitzel  out of the deal. Plus walking around at night with snow falling quietly overhead felt illicit - we felt that we'd stolen one more night in this fairytale town. I can certainly think of worse places to be stranded.

Wishing you all a merry Christmas and a peaceful and happy new year! Thank you for reading my blog for yet another year. See you in 2018!

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Andalucia Travel Diary: Seville

This summer we spent eight days travelling around Andalucia in southern Spain, where Europe greets Africa. It's an arid, colourful region with great food and music and a fascinating history, its unique culture influenced by almost eight centuries of Islamic rule. The best surviving examples of these Moorish kingdoms can be found in three incredibly beautiful cities: Seville, Córdoba and Granada. We planned our holiday around these three destinations, and I'll be writing about each stop!

In Seville we stay off Calle Feria, one of the great arteries that cuts through the heart of the city. Arriving in the hazy late afternoon, Feria is deserted and shut, its inhabitants escaping the punishing 38ºC heat with a siesta. An indolent lifestyle suddenly seems very reasonable; struggling along with our suitcases feels like wading through a warm bath. Still, we are struck by the colour and beauty that greets us around every corner: earthy red and yellow walls, churches festooned with Palm Sunday knots and ribbons. By 9 PM, however, the street and the city suddenly fill up and pulsate with life, with locals and tourists out to socialise and grab a bite to eat. We join them for our first tapas of the trip at Los Dardos (Plaza Pozo Santo 16). Recommended by our host and frequented by locals, this place does tasty, reliable tapas at fair prices: plates piled high with patatas bravas draped in piquant tomato sauce, boqueron adobo, crunchy deep-fried fish about the length of your middle finger, and fat, juicy pulpo a la gallega, which you should chase with a crisp, cold caña of cerveza. The perfect pick-me-up after a long day of travelling. 

Our post-dinner stroll takes us past the Metropol Parasol, a modern edifice in the middle of the city that balloons organically into the sky. It's not difficult to understand why it's been nicknamed "Las Setas" - the mushrooms. 

Day two dawns and after breakfast and coffee we wander back past Las Setas in our pursuit of Seville Cathedral. 

Prior to reaching a shrine to religion, we experience a different type of worship: Seville's shopping district. Luckily we are sheltered by the diaphanous sails strung between rooftops, the shade a necessity in this part of the world where the sun is fierce and unrelenting between the hours of 10 AM and 7 PM. The buildings are therefore also necessarily tall; but looming over them is the lofty Giralda bell-tower of Seville Cathedral, a former minaret and relic of Seville's days as the second Islamic stronghold of Spain. 

Inside the cathedral, the air is cooler but incredibly still. It's worth going in (entry €8 adults/4 students) to marvel at the sheer scale of the place - here you won't be able to stop yourself gazing, slack-jawed, at the gilded magnificence of the largest altarpiece in the world which portrays the life of Christ, or restrain yourself from a morbid peek at the wealth of relics on display, among them fragments of the True Cross and thorns from Christ's crown. My favourite part of the cathedral, however, is the inner courtyard of the Patio de los Naranjos: an ordered grove of orange trees where we sit in the shade and listen to the cool splashing of the fountains. We also ascend innumerable flights of smooth stone to reach the top of the Giralda for a great view of the city. 

After ascending to sacred heights, a return to the world of the profane: day drinking at Ovejas Negras (Calle Hernando Colón 8). May I introduce you to tintón: an unholy cocktail of red wine, gin, vermouth and lemon (Andalucia's answer to sangria). I'm not sure if we're just drained from climbing the tower, but one glass of this, plus complimentary test tubes of limoncello, absolutely knocks us out. Luckily some tapas - a comforting cheesy aubergine sandwich and some cracking calamari with salty adobo mayonnaise - helps to take the edge off, but I'm afraid we still end up being those British tourists staggering around the streets tipsily in the midday sun. 

We claw back a few shreds of dignity by cooling ourselves down at the famous Seville heladeria La Fiorentina (Calle Zaragoza 16). This is by far the best ice cream we find in Seville, with flavours as varied as orange blossom, lime and basil, torta de aceite and dulce de pestiño, the latter a traditional Andalucian dessert flavoured with honey, cinnamon and anise. 

After a much-needed splash in the jets in the local square and a siesta to sleep off the effects of the tintón, we try two tapas bars for dinner. First, Blanco Cerrillo (Calle José de Velilla 1), a teeny joint known for its fried dish tapas where we squeeze up along the locals at the bar to graze on complimentary white beans and crunch on minuscule plates of adobo and tortilla, the servers noting our orders directly on the counter in chalk. We make the ill-advised choice of ordering beer alongside our tapas while still physically raw from the tintón. Hey, we're on holiday!

Tapas bar numero dos: Santa Marta (Calle Angostillo 2). We wander into a beautiful square at sunset in search of more food and sit down with a chilled glass of limonada before realising that we can only order tapas inside. Relocating to the bar, we enjoy patatas aliñadas con melva, an egg and potato salad with young tuna liberally doused in great olive oil, which we mop up greedily with extra bread, plus espinacas caseras, a reassuringly rich creamed spinach dish dotted with chickpeas. Fabulous, although it's slightly unsettling being eyed suspiciously by our fellow patrons.

Day three takes us to the famous Alcazar (€9.50 entry for adults; €2 students), where we feel as though we've been transported to neighbouring north Africa as we walk through groves overflowing with hibiscus and jasmine, murky pools of carp and tiled pavilions.
Most impressive of all is the Courtyard of Maidens at the centre of the Alcazar, a riot of colours and textures thanks to the honeycomb-like encrustations and multi-coloured tiles with interlocking patterns through which the motif of the star scintillates, the symbol of geometric perfection in the Arab world. This palace has been updated for its Christian rulers, its Spanish roots reinforced by visual cues such as the emblems of Castile and Léon contained within the stellate motifs.

We eat tuna empanadas for lunch in a shaded courtyard, followed by sweet peaches and ice lollies in the Plaza España. This is a vision of Spain as I think Disney might have imagined it, a veritable theme park of flamenco dancers, porcelain-clad bridges and lovers boating on Venetian canals.

The afternoon draws to a close and it's tapas time again. This time we're at Bodegón Alfonso XII (Calle Alfonso XII 33), a hidden gem just a stone's throw from the Museo de Bellas Artes, (free entry for EU citizens! Let that fact depress you for a while...) a collection of gargantuan medieval and Renaissance artworks. One of my favourite pieces is a sculpture of St Jerome - an incredibly visceral, almost modern portrayal of Jerome being penitent with a rock. In Alfonso XII, the staff are warm and friendly and we feast on tuna and potato salad, fried baby squid, fish roe in a tomato and pepper sauce and salmorejo, a cooling gazpacho topped with chunks of smoky Iberico ham (our only brush with meat on the trip).We have tinto de verano - red wine with soda on ice - which I love and which treats me far better than the tintón. I end up ordering it most nights for the rest of the trip.

Something you absolutely must do in Seville: see flamenco! West Andalucia is the best place to see flamenco (and I'm keen to go to Jerez and Cadiz next time to see some more), so while you're in Seville, visit the Museo del Baile Flamenco (Calle Manuel Rojas Marcos 3) and book yourself into a show. The museum itself is a little underwhelming - mainly video displays - but the performance itself is simply incredible. 

On our last few days in Seville we have three memorable food experiences. We take a day trip to Córdoba on day four, and on our return to Seville we discover La Pastora (Calle Muñoz León), a cheap and cheerful local hotspot outside the city's defensive walls which does Andalucia's version of fish and chips. Battered fried squid, peppers and aubergine rolled up in paper with a cold beer on a summer night is probably the closest you can get to heaven.

Another great - and super cheap - meal we have in Seville is at our local market on Feria. We enjoy empanadillas - pulpo and yucca, cheese and rice - with green beans, with flat peaches and sweet, jammy figs from the fruit stalls for dessert. A refreshing change after all the fried food you're bound to encounter in Andalucia!

And I've saved the best for last: Eslava (Calle Eslava 3).

Arrive early or you'll be queueing for a long time for a table - this place is immensely popular. 

Complementary nibbles are followed by the most glorious tapas of my life: all sensitively seasoned, beautiful and stupidly cheap - most plates clock in at under €3 and the bill comes to a tiny €22, including drinks, for the two of us.

Wobbling slow-cooked egg perched like a jewel on a mushroom cushion, sweetened with a caramelised wine reduction. The most aesthetically stunning tapa I've ever eaten.

Sceptre-like mini leeks with smoked tartare sauce, with 'Un cigarro para Bécquer' in the background: a flaky pastry rolled in the style of a Cuban that reminded me of Moroccan pastillas. It's stuffed with brie and inky cuttlefish, with 'smoke' puffing out in the form of aïoli - so clever and incredibly tasty.

Artichoke crowned with fried garlic, bacalao shavings and smoky paprika. Fresh yet buttery and comforting, this is my favourite tapa of the meal for sheer flavour.

Smoked salmon on crusty bread with salmorejo - simple and perfectly executed, the clean, sharp tomato forms an excellent foil to the oily fish.

Seville completely stole my heart! I'd be very keen to return when I come back to see Cadiz and Jerez. Next time we're going west, however, to stop in Córdoba with its perfectly preserved historic centre. Hasta luego!

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