Smouldering Seville

feriaI couldn’t have timed it better, arriving in town during the week of the Feria de Abril de Sevilla, a vivacious celebration of country traditions, equine style and fiery flamenco. Once a simple cattle market, Seville’s April Fair has grown into one of Spain’s most joyful and vibrant festivals.

Each afternoon of the fair sees the most important bullfights of the year occur in the country’s oldest bullring, the Plaza de Toros de la Real Maestranza de Caballería de Sevilla, after which thousands of spectators cross the Guadalquivir River for an evening of fun, food and dance.

Everyone in town seems to be wearing traditional glad rags as they sashay over to the fairground in the barrio of Los Remedios where, from dusk until dawn, guitars strum, heels drum and dancers swirl.

Women express full flamenco flair in their traditional costumes, gleaming bracelets, brooches and earrings, hair fixed with ornamental comb and flower, an embroidered shawl (manton) around their shoulders. They swirl across the bridge, creating an intoxicating kaleidoscope of polka dots, ruffles and frills.

Entry to the fairground is under a splendid arch of fairy lights opening onto avenues of richly decorated party tents (casetas ) lit by garlands of orange lanterns. As darkness falls the fairground transforms into a lamp-lit tented city echoing with song and laughter.

Each caseta hosts private celebrations of guitar, song and dance, fuelled by glasses of manzanilla. For an invitation you need the right connections. Along with most of the crowd I simply wander, observe, listen and enjoy. And when dancing spills onto the avenues I shrug off inhibitions and join in.

Most of all I’m fascinated by the ceaseless pageant of horse-drawn carriages patrolling the avenues. Seville’s April Fair is said to be the largest annual gathering of horses and carriages in the country. The carriage occupants and scores of riders alongside, often riding two-up, are dressed in their finest.

To make the most of the Fair you need be able to celebrate all night and then, by lunchtime, be ready to begin over again. Surviving seven days of non-stop festivities requires staunch stamina and essential siestas – both fundamental to Spanish style.

# Seville’s April Fair is normally held two weeks after Semana Santa (Holy Week).

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Hot times in the snow

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Gran Hotel Chillan

Swirls of steam are dancing on the surface of an outdoor pool surrounded by snow. The hot springs at the Gran Hotel provide a mandatory apres-ski activity at the Termas de Chillan resort, 500 kilometres south of Chile’s capital Santiago.

Another unusual apres-ski attraction at Chillan is fangotherapy. This involves having your entire torso smothered in thick, oozing, warm volcanic mud and then jumping into a tub to be ever so lightly broiled.

Termas de Chillan squats on the slopes of an active volcano. At the risk of further spraining an already exhausted cliché, it’s a true hot spot for winter sports, known not only for its skiable acreage and, given the right conditions, an abundance of pristine powder snow, but also for the  hot mud stuff that’s available at any time.

Chile Chillan 52From my room in the Gran Hotel, a ski-in, ski-out family resort, I can see early morning powder hounds making their way to the chairlifts. A few of them will be plucky enough to ride the El Fresco lift up into the wild, white yonder and then face testing options for a return to base.

The winter action is spread across 7,600 hectares of widely-varied mountainside terrain, with a vertical drop of 2,300 metres. Don Otto is the name of the longest double chair lift in South America, a 2.5km ride ascending 700m from base. Chillan’s longest run is 8km.

Mud bathBeing a totally duff skier I limit my time spent falling about like a clown in the snow. Instead I indulge in some serious personal panel-beating at Chillan’s volcanic bodyshop undergoing a couple of hours of fangotherapy. I reason that if hippo, buffalo and pigs enjoy wallowing in mud then why shouldn’t I?

Rather recklessly I also sign up for a full facial following my mud bath. This lengthy procedure is performed by a woman in white surgical attire who peers intensely at my face through a massive magnifying glass.

Decades of accumulated grime is painstakingly excised to the extent that when I finally exit the clinic to meet with friends at the hotel bar my new face is so buffed and radiant they instantly clap on their ski googles.

Himalaya hike

India: Kumaon WalkThe closest I’ve come to tackling Mount Everest is hiking in the foothills of the Himalayas. I walk between remote villages, tramping up and down the sides of steep valleys, climbing endless steps that wouldn’t alter a mountaineer’s pulse but has me running out of puff. Unlike the stalwart villagers who do this while carrying baskets filled with rocks!

Summit bashing is something I obviously should attempted when young, fit and foolish enough to assume I could do anything.

But tired as I am by the end of each day, I treasure each moment of my mini-trek in Kumaon, a region of fertile valleys, steep mist-shrouded ridges and remote villages in the east of Uttaranchal, the north Indian state bordering China and Nepal.

Dawn in Almora, my starting point, reveals a breathtaking snow-capped panorama of the snow-tipped twin peaks of Nanda Devi, India’s highest mountain.

India: Kumaon Walk

Goat herding, Jwalabanj village

My hiking trail takes me through forests of grey oak, pine, cedar and rhododendron, across fertile valley floors and up and down taxing slopes. Village children on their way to school yell greetings, followed by squeals of laughter whenever I pause to catch my breath. Each day I enjoy a leisurely lunch break with stupendous views.

A small and solitary temple sitting amid an emerald-green patchwork of rice paddies provides one particularly treasured moment. I believe this little temple has sat here since the 8th Century.

Squeezing through its miniscule doorway, I squat before a 1000-year-old statue of Vishnu the Preserver with my hair brushing against a ceiling blackened by centuries of joss-stick smoke. Vishnu’s gaze is eternally impassive. Once my eyes adjust to the interior gloom I can detect the fine detail on ancient carvings propped against the walls.

India: Kumaon Walk

Family in Alai village

In each village there are children peeking pensively from behind their mother’s skirts. Wiry old men squat contentedly, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes, gazing at the surrounding peaks with a faraway look in their eyes. The villagers are genial and don’t mind my curiosity. Before long their children lose their shyness and are willing to smile for the camera.

My Kumaon hike is definitely a “soft” adventure. I spend five to six hours a day walking and spend each night in a village house, sleeping on a charpoy (string bed) with mattress and cotton sheets. Torches and mosquito coils are provided and hot water brought in buckets to a washroom.

On my third day I reach my highest point – 2300m – and then descend through deserted woods to the village of Jwalabanj. After sharing an evening meal of spinach pakoras, rice, chicken and lentils I stay up late listening to my wizened host Umed Singh entertain us all with lengthy anecdotes. The laughter is so infectious that I almost believe I understand his jokes.

# My Kumaon village walk was with Shakti Himalaya and was arranged through Banyan Tours & Travel

 

Sightless in Seattle

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Seattle waterfront

Being in Seattle for the first time I think it’s a bright idea to hop aboard a city tour bus. The pamphlet assures me that I’ll “experience the local point-of-view on this fast-paced tour of Seattle’s fun, unique neighborhoods”.

Well, I readily admit that it’s dead accurate about the pace of the tour. But as for presenting a “local point of view” all I can suggest is that it must be an extremely blurred vision.

The coach I choose lunges around the city centre and through various inner city suburbs at a hectic rate, powering up and down Seattle’s steeply inclined streets and offering hardly any chance to view any landmark long enough to register exactly what it is or where it’s located.

We zoom up Pike Street to Capitol Hill, whizz around the neighbourhood and then plunge back down Pine Street to the waterfront. There’s a fleeting view of a long, low-slung building that has a burst of garish neon above one entrance. This is Pike Place market, says the tour guide, assuring us that “it’s the the soul of the city”.

As we speed across a bridge – with Lake Union beneath us rendered as a shimmer of blue – our guide further tells us that “Seattle’s famous glass artist Dale Chihouly has his studio on the shores of the lake below”, then adds,  “but you can’t actually see it from here.”

Not actually seeing anything is the recurring theme of this whistle-stop orientation. The on-board commentary includes priceless statements such as:

“Down there, just beyond the bend but hidden by that building on the right, is the floating house made famous in the film Sleepless in Seattle. You can’t actually see it”. And then, a few moments later:

“Bill Gates has his amazing high tech house on the shores of Lake Washington, but we won’t go there.” In compensation there is a fleeting distant glimpse of the lake. 

After 90 minutes I’m back where I started from with only the vaguest idea of Seattle’s general layout. I’m left with mixed feelings of resentment and bewilderment. I look once again at the tour pamphlet and it’s now that I notice the disclaimer: ‘‘Tours are non-refundable”.