Spain

Ejo #39 – How We Discovered Special Accommodation In Tagamanent, Spain (El Folló) and Terre Rouge, Rodrigues (Domaine de la Paix)

Those of you who know me well know that I don’t like to stay in hotels when we travel. I couldn’t think of anything worse than being in some amazing city in the world (Prague, Amsterdam, Singapore, Sydney, Los Angeles, Paris) and staying in a room which tells me nothing of that city. Yes, the five star experience has its place, offering comfort, familiarity and certain expected amenities. But frankly, I’d rather miss out on all of those things in favour of a room with character, personality and charm. A place that smells, looks and feels unique to that town, city or country. And you really can’t get that in a Hilton.

 

For the last couple of years David and I have been using the services of a great website called http://www.airbnb.com – a clever concept in which you can rent a couch, a room or an entire house in the city you wish to visit. We’ve stayed in some awesome places in San Francisco, Amsterdam, New York City, Barcelona, Munich, Berlin and Madrid. And I’m sure we’ll stay in some more in the future.

 

But you know what I’ve found? I’ve found that the quality and variety of apartments is only really great in the big cities. As soon as you start looking further afield, the number (and desirability) of the available apartments tends to plummet. I’ve spent hours scouring Airbnb for apartments in Ibiza, Kalkan, Palm Springs, Poros, Napa Valley, Asolo (and many more) to no avail.

 

So, if you are visiting these smaller destinations and you can’t find an apartment to rent, and you wouldn’t be seen dead in a Mövenpick, what options are available to you?? I’m happy that you asked. We have, in our travels, occasionally stayed at bed and breakfasts, guesthouses, small hotels and inns. Naturally the quality varies (somewhere between horrible and sublime). After all, you are staying in close quarters with people that you have never met before and who may be boring, stupid, smelly or just plain annoying. And, who knows, they might think the same of you. It’s a crap shoot – which is why I spend so much time researching. I want to lower the odds in our favour.

 

In the last two months we’ve hit the jackpot and have stayed at two very special houses. El Folló in Tagamanent, Spain and Domaine de la Paix in Terre Rouge, Rodrigues. They are both very different, but have a lot in common. They are both small. El Folló has seven rooms and Domaine de la Paix has only five. They are both run by interesting couples. El Folló by Mercé and Jaume, and Domaine de la Paix by Claudine and Pascal. They are both in isolated regions. You would never “accidentally” happen upon either of these places – you have to really want to go there, and even then you still might get lost. They both bake their own bread every day. And they both serve amazing home-cooked meals every night. And, of course, for me that is the clincher.

 

I have written reviews of both of them on Tripadvisor (El Folló and Domaine de la Paix). I don’t usually write reviews of places that are already wildly popular and well-known. They don’t need my help. I tend to only write reviews of the small slices of paradise that we’ve lucked upon. The reason being that they do need my help. If someone reads my glowing review and decides to stay, then, well, it’s good for business. It’s the least I can do in return for great memories. In fact, El Folló wasn’t even registered on Tripadvisor before we stayed there. As a favour to Mercé, I contacted them and requested that they add the guesthouse as a “Specialty Lodging”. Which they did.

 

So, let me tell you about it. We arrived at El Folló on an evening during which they happened to be serving an amazing banquet. Aren’t we lucky! We stuffed our faces with leg of venison served with fig and red onion compote, octopus stew, organic roast chicken and rabbit, baked monkfish, two types of regional soup (one pasta consommé style and a thicker leek-like creamy style with mussels and romesco), salads, roast potatoes and a brown rice pilaf. After this savoury cornucopia we were offered six different types of dessert (including semolina pudding, quince custard tart, banana cake, berry muffins and chocolate cake). Later on we waddled upstairs and slept very well indeed. The next night was a slightly more subdued affair, though we ate just as heartily. We also managed to score a free cooking lesson from Mercé (she normally charges for her talents), helping her with the calçots. Check out the photos.

 

Beautiful old farmhouse in the hills just outside of Barcelona.

Beautiful old farmhouse in the hills just outside of Barcelona.

 

Mercè taught me how to peel and cook artichokes.

Mercè taught me how to peel and cook artichokes.

 

Cooking calçots on the open fire.  Calçots are a mild green onion grown in Catalonia, Spain.

Cooking calçots on the open fire. Calçots are a mild green onion grown in Catalonia, Spain.

 

After the calçots are cooked they are wrapped in newspaper to "sweat" for a bit.  Note the heavy duty gloves that Jaume is wearing.  These babies are HOT!

After the calçots are cooked the are wrapped in newspaper to “sweat” for a bit. Note the heavy duty gloves. These babies are HOT!

 

So, you pull out the tender, cooked centre of the calçot from the charred, dirty casing, dip it in Romesco sauce and buen provecho!!

So, you pull out the tender, cooked centre of the calçot from the charred, burnt skin, dip it in Romesco sauce and buen provecho!!

 

Not the fanciest sitting room in the world - but it could possibly have been one of the cosiest on a chilly winter's day.

Not the fanciest sitting room in the world – but it could possibly have been one of the cosiest on this chilly winter’s day.

 

A bedroom at El Folló.  Cosy, rustic and very comfortable.

A bedroom at El Folló. Cosy, rustic and very comfortable.

 

At Domaine de la Paix, there were no cooking lessons. But there were pre-dinner drinks mixed by Pascal, who easily makes the best ti-punch on the whole island. We weren’t required to have dinner at the house every night – we just wanted to. The food was so amazing that we spent five out of five nights there. Sure we could have gone into town for dinner every evening, but when the cooking is that good at home, you’d be an idiot to go anywhere else. Plus, it meant we could drink as much of their wine as we liked without having to worry about drinking and driving. We’re smart like that. So, to serve as an explanation as to how we each gained 3kgs in 5 days, not only did we enjoy Pascal’s home-made bread, brioche, yoghurt and chocolate crème for breakfast every morning (accompanied by Claudine’s delicious jams and marmalades – my favourite being ginger and melon, truly divine). But every night we ate at least three spectacular courses, washed down with free-flowing French and Chilean wines and finishing off with Claudine’s variously flavoured infused rums to help with our digestion. Whoa Mama! All for the ridiculous price of €25 a head. We almost felt like we were stealing from them. On our last night, we were actually treated to a dinner of three lobster courses, out-of-this-world chocolate cake and fresh papaya. C’est très très bon! J’insiste! (We even got a few French lessons each evening, don’t you know!) Have a look.

 

Classic french table settings for our lobster banquet.  We ate outside on one of the few nights in wasn't raining.  It was just lovely.

Classic french table settings for our lobster banquet. We ate outside on one of the few nights in wasn’t raining. It was just lovely.

 

The lobster!!!

The lobster!!!

 

The incredibly rich, gooey, intense chocolate mud cake.  It was literally oozing on the plate.  YUM!

The incredibly rich, gooey, intense chocolate mud cake. It was literally oozing on the plate. YUM!

 

And after we'd already eaten four courses (three lobster dishes and the mud cake) I honestly couldn't even finish this lovely, fresh, light fresh papaya in syrup dessert.  I just couldn't.  Shame on me!

And after we’d already eaten four courses I honestly couldn’t even finish this lovely, fresh, light fresh papaya in syrup dessert. I just couldn’t. Shame on me!

 

The wonderful magnesium pool.  As I'd sustained a pretty bad sunburn in Mauritius the week before we only went swimming when it was raining (sunsmart, you see)!!  I'm pretty sure everyone thought we were mad.  The magnesium made our skin soft and velvety - and actually helped with the sunburn too!

The wonderful magnesium pool. As I’d sustained a pretty bad sunburn in Mauritius the week before we only went swimming when it was raining (sunsmart, you see)!! I’m pretty sure everyone thought we were mad. The magnesium made our skin soft and velvety – and actually helped with the sunburn too!

 

As a little side note, on our last day on the island we had a drink at a place called Le Marlin Bleu, run by one of Pascal’s friends, an awesome guy called Méga. He was warm, funny, entertaining and not too shabby in the looks department either. When my Birkenstock broke he took it, disappeared for five minutes and then returned it to me, patched up with a shiny brass screw. This gesture just blew my mind and warmed my frozen black heart to its very cockles. It encapsulated the hospitality, generosity, warmth and kindess that we experienced on Rodrigues.

 

Méga, the owner of Le Marlin Blue cafe on the beach fixed my shoe.  It warmed my frozen black heart to its very cockles.

Méga fixed my shoe.

 

So, spending hours trawling the internet hoping to come across one of these gems is certainly not everyone’s cup of tea (though man, I would do it all day long if I could figure out a way to get paid for it). But that’s why I’m writing this ejo for you, so that you don’t have to. If you happen to ever find yourself in Tagamanent (a 40 minute drive from Barcelona) or in Rodrigues (a 90 minute flight from Mauritius) then do yourself a favour and seek these guesthouses out.

 

You can thank me later.

Ejo #22 – Our Flight To Madrid, Spain (Or; How Emirates Airline Completely Screwed Us Over, And Yet Managed To Redeem Themselves As Well)

I’ve been known to have some zany stuff happen to me.  Of course, nothing comes even close to the travails of Dangerous Doug, but still, I’m prone to predicaments.  Our recent flight from Dubai to Spain was quite an adventure.  Our flight was scheduled to leave at 8am, so we left the house at 5am.  We like to get to the airport the full three hours before a flight, to avail ourselves of the free champagne on offer in the Emirates Silver Lounge.  Yes, even at 5am!  Don’t look at me that way!  It’s free Veuve Clicquot; you drink it no matter what time of day it is!

 

Anyway, things went awry from the moment we checked in.  We were advised that it was a very busy flight and we should proceed to a different counter to drop off our bags and collect our boarding passes.  This seemed odd, but we casually sauntered over to the other counter to complete the check in process.  When we got there we were asked for our paper tickets.  I think I guffawed.  Paper tickets??  Was it 1997?  No, we said, we don’t have paper tickets – we’ve already checked in and just need to drop off our (already tagged) bags and pick up boarding passes.

 

The lady behind the counter then looked at us funny and asked, “Chryss and David?”  We looked at each other warily and nodded.  She plastered a smile on her face and told us that the flight had been overbooked and we may get bumped to the next day’s flight (there’s only one a day).  She then proposed a pretty sweet deal – if we voluntarily took the next day’s flight, we would each be given another ticket to Madrid (valid for 12 months) – for free!  We asked for time out to confer and entered into deep, frantic discussion, quickly weighing up the pros and cons (like some weird game show).  We came to the mutual conclusion that even though it was a tempting offer we’d prefer to take our chances and try to get on this flight.  After all, we had already booked (and paid for) a connecting flight to Barcelona, accommodation and a fancy dinner that night.

 

The lady looked at us with a glint of admiration in her eyes and directed us to the standby counter.  As we turned to leave, she whispered conspirationally, “I hope you get upgraded to Business”.  Gee, I thought, that’d be nice but I just hope we get on the frigging flight!

 

So we went and registered, along with dozens of other people (all bound for different destinations around the universe) and  waited.  And waited.  And waited.  A couple of hours of waiting later we had to accept that a pre-departure glass of champagne wasn’t looking good.  In fact, it was looking like we’d have to hail ourselves a taxi and go back home.  Having just finished working a night shift, David was visibly starting to flag.  He’d been awake for about 24 hours.  I’d had only three hours sleep and was beginning to feel rather fatigued myself.

 

All but resigned to spending another night in Dubai, I figured I might as well try to find out what was going on.  Our flight was due to leave in 35 minutes and I didn’t hold up much hope but thought it might be worth asking anyway.  I approached the busy counter, jostling my way through the throngs of people and said to the lady, “Madrid?”  She asked my name, typing it into her computer.  When she looked up at me I immediately knew we were on the flight.  The skies opened and the sun shone onto her face as she smiled and said, “Bring your bags!”  The disgruntled crowd parted as we loaded our luggage onto the weighing station.  She printed off our boarding passes and handed them to us – 10F and 10J.  Business class, baby!  Woohoo!

 

It was now OK that we’d missed out on Lounge time because we could get as much free champagne as we wanted on the flight!!  Seriously, I would have been happy seated in economy (yep, even between some morbidly obese guy with a BO problem and a baby with seven hour screaming capacity).  We were on our way and that’s all that mattered!  Business class was just a bonus.

 

We rushed to the departure gate and were the last ones shooed onto a bus which took us to the aeroplane.  On the 20 minute ride David actually started looking pale with exhaustion.  I wasn’t feeling great either.  But there were no complaints out of us!  We were going to Spain!

 

When we finally got onboard, it was already 15 minutes past our scheduled departure time.  We were then delayed an additional 90 minutes because of an air-conditioning problem.  We happily passed the time sipping champagne and, eventually, we took off for our seven hour journey.  It did cross my mind that the three hour buffer we’d allowed ourselves in Madrid to make our connection to Barcelona might have dwindled a little bit, but I never really considered the possibility of missing it.  I’ve been close a few times but in all my years of air travel I have never actually missed a flight.

 

So, we arrived in Madrid with about an hour and fifteen minutes to catch our domestic flight.  Madrid airport is enormous and, unfortunately, we were departing from a different terminal to the one we’d arrived in.  But first we had to jump on the airport monorail for the ten minute ride to Baggage Claim.  Once there, we grabbed our bags and made a dash to the information desk to find out how to get from Terminal 4 to Terminal 2.  The information guy told us, in tortured Spanglish, to catch the “green shuttle bus”.  With time ticking we ran outside, carting our bags, and couldn’t believe our luck when we saw a green shuttle bus waiting to depart.  We jumped on just as it pulled away from the curb and we both breathed audible sighs of relief – we might just make the flight with 50 minutes left until departure.

 

A few minutes into the bus ride, I looked around at the other passengers and noticed that, oddly, no-one else was carrying any luggage.  A bad feeling ensued.  The bus eventually pulled into a large car park and everyone disembarked.  We just stood there, bewildered, tired and confused.  We must have looked quite pathetic because one guy came back to inform us that we had somehow got on the bus to the staff car park.  My heart sank like an anvil.  When we told him where we wanted to go he very kindly directed us to another (green) bus parked up ahead and told us to catch that back to Terminal 4 whereupon we should catch a different (green) bus with T1/T2/T3/T4 on the front.  As we shuttled back to the airport we started to worry for the first time that we actually wouldn’t make our flight.  I felt really bad for David who had been up for over 30 hours by now.  Still, we had to try to make that flight to Barcelona.  We weren’t giving up.

 

Back at Terminal 4, we jumped on the next green bus to Terminal 2 (yes, we made sure that was, indeed, its destination) and arrived there five minutes later.  There were still forty minutes before departure time.  We’d formulated a plan that David would put all the luggage on a trolley and that I’d race ahead to check in and get them to hold the flight for us (brilliant plan, no?).  I started following the signs to Check-In: around a corner, up some stairs, around another corner, up two escalators, down a travelator, around another corner – wondering the entire time where the hell check-in was.  Eventually I found it and waited in line while David caught up.  When it was finally our turn, we breathlessly asked the check in guy about our flight.  He looked at us with compassion in his eyes and shook his head.  Check in for that flight was closed.

 

I had now officially missed my first ever flight.  It was not a very good feeling at all.  Unfortunately, all remaining flights that day were solidly booked up.  We tried the other domestic carriers in the terminal – same thing.  No flights left today.  We were told that the only other option was Iberian Airlines, which operated out of the International Terminal.  Yep, we had to trudge back to Terminal 4 on that ridiculous lime green bus.  We were certainly becoming experts at negotiating the Madrid Airport transport system.

 

Back in Terminal 4 we approached the Iberian Air ticket counter and were told that it would be better for us to go to “Puente Aero”.  Hmmm, OK, sure.  Why not?  It just added to the comedy factor at this point (I could almost hear the Benny Hill theme song in my ears).  We found the Puente Aero counter and plaintively asked if they had any tickets to Barcelona.  When the answer came back “Yes” we were taken off guard.  Perhaps our luck had changed.  We were so happy that we didn’t mind paying the full fare of €460 (though it does sting a bit in retrospect, especially as the original tickets cost only €70).   The next flight was boarding immediately so we got right on the plane, relieved to be on our way at last.

 

We got to Barcelona airport OK but the fun and games were not over.  When we got to Baggage Claim we couldn’t find our flight number on the display board.  This rang alarm bells, of course, but we were so tired that we just followed everyone else from our flight to Baggage Carousel #15.  We figured it might just be a printing error on our boarding passes.  Haha, how optimistic of us!  Half an hour later, when everyone else had collected their luggage and ours was nowhere to be seen, we figured we’d better ask someone what on earth was happening.  I certainly wouldn’t have been surprised if it transpired at this point that our luggage was on its way to Iceland.

 

We asked around and were told that we’d have to go to the dedicated Puento Aero baggage carousel to collect our luggage.  Naturally.  Where was that?  Why, in the next terminal, of course!  This time it was only walking distance so we dragged ourselves, like a couple of zombies, across the airport wondering when these shenanigans would end.  When we got to the special Puento Aero region of the airport we were shuffled back into the airport (huh?), through the x-ray machines and security.  What the hell?  We went in and then right back out again (our minds boggling, the entire time) and, lo and behold, there were our lonely looking bags waiting for us.

 

Exhausted, but happy, we grabbed a taxi and checked into our accommodation without a hitch.  We also managed to get to the restaurant on time, and had an amazing 7 course degustation dinner.  Unfortunately, we only remember a few of the dishes as we kept dozing off during the meal – and no amount of kicking each other under the table helped.

 

There were bruises the next day, but that night we slept the sleep of the dead.