Me, my family… and the cat in the four-star hotel in Burgos!

During the last years, living in the countryside of Posadas (in the province of Cordova) has given us the freedom to enjoy some nice animals, and as I love cats, at one point the count of these animals totalled thirteen (as you will see in the following photos)…

The oldest of these cats was Chueif (spelt that way because at the time, my daughter was too young to being able to appreciate the rules of English spelling — or, rather lack of them!).

Now Chueif was both a fierce and loving creature, and she was a good hunter too, regularly bringing home a half-mutilated snake, and cleaning out the colony of huge grey rats that would often gate-crash our house.

This ‘Right Honourable Chueif’ was our favourite cat, the matriarch of all the others—so how could we leave her behind when we migrated north to our wind-swept cabin situated atop the lofty hills of Cantabria? This brings me to the explanation of how Chueif became a hotel-indulging cat.

From a young age Chueif became accustomed to long drives, but was encouraged to regularly stretch her legs in picnic spots or in fields; she was also allowed to stay in the kid’s tent when camping. On one such camping trip we were obliged to stay an extra night in Salamanca’s campsite because the campsite’s territorial and very fierce tom cat forced her into hiding. It was only by sheer luck and cunning manoeuvres on our behalf, that after pinpointing the source of her woe-stricken meows we managed to cajole her out of her hiding spot—the shrubbery dividing off the swimming pool from the rest of the plots.

When she emerged, we quickly thrust her in the van and calmed her with soothing endearments, as well as bribing her with some tasty tit-bits such as Laughing Cow cheeselets, La Lechera condensed milk and ‘leche merengada’ ice-cream (cinnamon flavoured). We then made a soft nest for her to sleep that night amid plump cushions on the plushly-upholstered back seat of our Volkswagon Camper Van, far from the reach of the campsite’s bully. She didn’t complain!

The following night, after having felt quite traumatised by Chueif’s disappearance, and suffering from the general side-effects that camping can have on some people (such as housewives and mothers who are in need of a proper break and certainly don’t need to take their work along with them when on holiday!), we threw all caution to the wind and booked into a four-star hotel in Burgos (which offered a special deal, but which did not extend to felines).

The name of the hotel was ‘Abba Burgos’, and I’m mentioning that not because I have shares or relatives in this establishment, but because I thoroughly enjoyed my stay there: nice, spacious, comfy, offering an asphyxiating sauna and an ample buffet breakfast sprawling over many long tables which luckily came with a good supply of thick, large serviettes just in case one couldn’t manage to sample all the wares and wished to ‘take advantage’ of the situation and ‘improvise’ by making undercover, doggy bags. (After all, it’s not every day that one stays in a four-star hotel!)

Another definite plus point of this hotel (which benefitted my drawers and cupboards) was the fragrant English lavender growing by the hotel’s entrance. I really had to take advantage once again. (When we did reach our final destination in the windswept hills of Cantabria, my daughter and I devoted much time to making lacy lavender bags.)

Statue of El Cid

The hotel is also situated in the historic, old part of Burgos (which is, by the way, the birth and burial place of Spain’s national hero, the military leader El Cid. He was a key figure in the recapture of Spain during the Spanish Reconquest in the 11th century, fighting both for the Christians and then aiding the Moors in their intertribal battles within Al-Andalus.

Anyway, the hotel lies not far from the Gothic-Renaissance-style cathedral which houses El Cid’s tomb, and is close to the bustling town centre with its many squares, cafes, shops and museum of human evolution; it is also within walking distance of the very full Ebro River.

Well, apart from a little light theft or ‘borrowing’, my second infringement of the hotel rules involved cat smuggling. It really didn’t occur to me that one had to make formal enquiries whether one’s cat could or could not stay in the suite. I actually didn’t think about this—I was just so overwhelmed with relief at not having to camp that I completely overlooked it. So when we did enter the foyer, that’s when I noticed the sign in reception, undeniably obvious, which read ANIMALES NO PERMITIDOS’ (‘NO ANIMALS PERMITTED’).

I gulped. I certainly wasn’t going to leave Chueif all alone in the van, still dealing with the psychological after-effects of her camping experience and feeling abandoned, wandering anxiously back and forth between the steering wheel and crowded luggage compartment (where she would probably be forced to relieve herself in the early morning hours).

So, with a feeling of guilt, we bundled her into my daughter’s pink, diamanté, ‘Little Princess’ shoulder bag. Luckily the strap was almost hip long, so I could smother any protesting wriggling or shifting movements by exerting a steady but gentle pressure with my elbow. It was what I imagine playing the bagpipes must be like.

However, as the minutes ticked passed, muffling the remonstrative meows proved to be more difficult than I had imagined. When Chueif let out the first stifled cry, I was actually in front of the reception desk handing in my passport, so I coughed loudly and started talking to the children with exaggerated excitement. The receptionist, while returning me my passport, shot me a quizzical glance which made me feel as if I were about to be interrogated by the SS. I didn’t wait for the sentence to be delivered, but just beat a quick retreat to the recesses of the nearby lifts. There I stood, cat in bag, hair dishevelled, uncontrollably static and unwashed after our camping, and my daughter clad in grimy leggings next to me. However, we were not alone: hovering next to us was a very poshly, sombrely-attired couple, wearing sombre expressions to match— they must have been there for a business meeting, I hastily concluded.

Just at that point, Chueif decided to let her discomfort be known to all of us. From inside the bag poured out an untiring string of miaowing laments, which varied in pitch from high to low, light to strong and sounded like the tuning of an old-fashioned wireless. What’s more, she squirmed and wriggled frantically inside the baby-pink, bejewelled bag.

I saw the couple’s eyes immediately rotate downwards as their focus travelled to the Princess bag that was firmly wedged between my elbow and hip. I tried to camouflage the movements by gently swaying to and fro, by rocking this way and that, by shifting my weight from one leg to another, by twisting to the right then to the left, and by flexing one knee followed by the other, all in a distracted, absent-minded sort of manner (which comes easily to me), and all in time with the over-animated conversation I was having with my thirteen-year-old daughter.

I was aware that by now a damask flush was colouring my cheeks, and my mid-length hair had become even more frizzy and unruly due to the static produced by the nylon carpets and the hotel’s de-ionised air; and this was compounded by the electric static that my nerves were generating.

The lift did take an awful long time in arriving—long enough, in fact, for the couple to shoot me a second quizzical glance, fraught with unspoken accusations. ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen’ was the berating sentence that immediately popped into my head, although ‘Mad cats and Englishwomen’ would have been far more appropriate!

However, luckily and at long last I heard the relieving ‘ping’ from the lift announce its arrival. I let out a sigh of relief in time to a muffled meow (which only made me look all the more ridiculous). As the couple entered the elevator, they deemed us worthy of a smile—an all-knowing smile, coloured by a hint of sympathy and pity, but which at the same time confirmed the unspoken agreement that they would remain mute partners in crime.

We waited for the arrival of the next lift in which we managed to enter quite painlessly, and which delivered us to our fifth-floor double-suite. It was a luxurious room, and even more luxurious for Chueif, who, before curling up on the plush carpets under the bed, had to push her inquisitive, discerning nose into every nook and cranny. As for us lesser mortals, after testing out the king-sized beds, the multitude of television channels and investigating the array of freebies in the bathroom and miniatures in the fun-sized fridge; and after then pocketing the pens and small writing pads (a mother is always short of stationary, isn’t she?), we then proceeded to unpack our few items of clothing.

My husband had even fewer items, being the ‘no-fuss’, simplistic and modest man that he believes himself to be, and so we had taken advantage of his minimalistic attitude by filling his half-empty bag with the cat’s sand box, together with a small bag of sand, a packet of wet-wipes, a rubber clockwork mouse, her favourite cushion and blanket, her bell collar, a lead and harness (just in case), some fish-flavoured chews, a 250 ml plastic bottle filled with milk and a tube of condensed milk.

The litter box, after having been nicely washed, using the hotel’s shampoo and perfumed with their eau-du-cologne, was neatly placed in the kid’s bathroom. Chueif soon settled down and was ready for a nice long nap; and we were ready to go and explore the historic town of Burgos.

We were enchanted by the town and after much walking and sampling delicious tapas in many bars, we finally arrived back, exhausted and ready for a good night’s sleep.

The night and following morning went according to plan, with both Chueif and the children behaving very well indeed. There were no other incidents or protestations from Our Right Honourable Cat when we handed back the keys on our departure. Perhaps it had something to do with the bacon and chorizo that we had smuggled for her from the ample breakfast buffet.

Since the hotel experience turned out to be such a success (especially for mothers and cats), the whole ‘cat-in-a-hotel’ process was repeated once again, but this time in a five-star hotel in the historic, medieval town of Toledo.

But I think that’s enough of cats in hotels for now!

Thank you for bearing with me so far!

This story was adapted from a chapter of my illustrated, humorous and factual book, An English Lady in Cordova — the Alternative Guide

As usual, comments and questions always welcome.

Goodbye for now — take care! xxx

Camping with the wild boar and our dubious hostel acquaintances in La Breña reservoir near the castled village of Almodóvar del Río

This blog recounts my experiences of when I went camping with some so-called acquaintances to our local lunar-landscape reservoir, La Breña, one sizzling August day when temperatures were oscillating around the 42° C (= 107.6° F)! Did I enjoy myself? Did the motley crew acquaintances have fun? And what about the great bristling wild boar?

(Taken in part from the first chapter of my book, ‘An English Lady in Cordova — the alternative guide’ – available at ).

The castle of Almodóvar del Río at night – the best preserved in Andalusia. (Close to the Breña reservoir.) Well worth a visit. Has its own legend. Don’t take the English translations to heart!

After we had settled cosily into our Moorish abode we were ready to take on a couple of much-needed money-making projects in the ancient Jewish Quarters, the Judería. As mentioned earlier, we bought the close-by hostel, Mari II in Horno de Porras street, situated in the narrow, cobbled lane that led down towards the humid banks of the Guadalquivir River. An area which, at that time, was regarded as the sleazy part of town: muttering old men would surface from the darkness of certain ladies’ dens, hunched over with hands fumbling deep in their pockets, often simultaneously spitting out catarrh from their nicotine-lined gullets.

Calle Rey Heredia and Horno de Porras Street

There were also the no-good layabouts that would emerge from other dusky squalors, tottering and totally inebriated from their prior visit to Las Cabezas bar which was famous for its Moorish fountain in the central part of the ice-cold, white marble patio and the large, heavy olive-wood chairs with seats woven from typha stems (nigh impossible to move!); of similar fame was its cheapest, sourest ‘fino’ sherry that you could consume plentifully, served straight from a musty oak barrel, at the cheapest possible prices.

The ‘fino’ sherry is matured in American oak barrels

(The bar has since been replaced by a beautiful, luxurious hotel, situated opposite the Museo de las Cabezas, and has embellished all the original, historical features.) Well, I think the reasoning of the bar owner, José María (Joseph Mary), went something like: ‘Once you’ve got ‘em, keep ‘em there, even if it is by getting’ ‘em paralytic!’

His wife, also at one time during her former days of culinary glory served a restricted repertoire of dishes which included plates such as ‘flamequines, croquetas, calamares, chorizo, morcilla’ etc. which are, more or less: breaded pork loin rolled and stuffed with egg and Serrano ham; croquettes made from béchamel with diced ham or chicken; spicy cured sausage; and black puddings—the last two sausages being homemade, prepared from their most recent slaughter of their garden pig, the meat of which would definitely not be tested by a vet (the then true Andalusian way).  She would concoct this fare in her tenebrous, squalid kitchen amid the odd, balding chicken or manky cat that she kicked out of the way with her holey, threadbare slippers.

Anyway, to get back to the main thread of things, the Cabezas neighbourhood, being a rundown, dodgy and plebeian area was responsible in bestowing upon our hostel a very interesting clientele, some of who decided one day to ‘volunteer’ (uninvited) to join our summer camping weekend at the local reservoir, La Breña (situated some twenty-two miles west of Cordova, between the villages of the castled Almodóvar del Río and Posadas). And as for me, being polite and English— having been brought up in East Sheen and educated at Gumley House Convent School run by the ‘Faithful Companions of Jesus’ nuns— I couldn’t really refuse their self-invitation, could I? But I wasn’t at all happy with the idea.

And so one sizzling summer’s day, we (who were as yet childless, footloose and fancy free) arrived at this reservoir, together with the bunch of said ‘volunteers’.

It looked like an innocent enough place, even if a little bit lunar what with all its cracked schist and volcanic nuggets peppering the parched sand; there were also sparse, rough-stemmed and thick-bladed weeds poking out all over the place. Pinkish-green Salix bushes and other willowy sort of bushes grew lower down close by the muddy water’s edge, wavering in the dry wind, while hostile, sharp-edged grasses and velvety rushes protruded out from shallower depths. There were crumpled, soiled tissues strewn about here and there together with the odd, billowing plastic bag that was tossed from one pebble to another as the wind caught it like a kite; and the occasional squashed, miniature carton of juice completed the scene, giving it a semblance that would have been more appropriate of a public rubbish tip. (But then again, the throwing of litter here and there, whether in areas of natural beauty or built-up places was, when I first arrived in Andalusia— and still is to some extent— a typical habit of the Andalusians.)

Recent view of La Breña reservoir looking
quite bushy after having had its facelift. There’s even a beach there now. Not much shade though at lower levels since all the former oaks and olive trees were pulled out, so be sure to take along your maximum protection sun cream! You can practise water sports too and then go up top to the restaurant/bar to rehydrate and recover.

Then there was the worrying fact that one shouldn’t really swim in the waters of the Breña reservoir (which is what we were about to do), mainly for two reasons: firstly, the water is reserved for human consumption and irrigation purposes only; and secondly, there are numerous hazardous objects that lie hidden under the water’s surface which are decidedly treacherous to the unsuspecting swimmer. Some of these objects include sharp, snagging branches that can hold the bather back or pull him down under; there are tree stumps with rotting branches yawning wide welcoming the swimmer into a last confining embrace, while various cables and wires (which weren’t removed before this natural lake was dammed) stretch dangerously from one corner to another. Within the water there are strong, unpredictable undercurrents and dark, circling patches that eddy round and round, ready to suck the swimmer down to perilous depths.

Careful with the underwater branches, roots, wires, cables and other paraphernalia – and that’s not mentioning the jaws and incisors!

There is also a large population of hungry and menacing, carnivorous, generously-jawed Pike, Carp and Catfish, as well as slithering eels and water snakes that glide quietly through the water; there is also a poisonous variety of mollusc that is native to the Ebro River in Burgos (but how it made its way to the Breña in Andalusia remains a mystery as there are no connections between the two water sources). And last but not least there is also the caiman that one of our gypsy friends, Jesús, let loose in the lake when pursued by the Civil Guard after a tip-off.

Apart from this possible inhabitant, there have also been reports of a menacing, poisonous clam from the Ebro River in Burgos (north Spain) that has come and invaded the Breña waters…

So if those aren’t enough convincing reasons for not swimming in the Breña, then the bather must be the sort of deluded greenhorn that went on a camping trip like ours.

But getting back to our intentioned trip with these ‘friends’: basically they were an assorted motley crew, the number of which was not determined by the level of friendship, but more by the number of freeloaders that could be stuffed in our old VW camper van— true to the saying: ‘The more the merrier’.

The crew consisted mainly of poor, young university students and backpackers who were staying in our hostel and taking advantage of the cheap prices that reflected this lowly location. (However, this area has since been given a face lift, especially for the sake of pulling in the tourists, and one can now find Arabic hammams together with upmarket bars, restaurants, boutique shops and jewellers. Gone are the days when curly-haired Lola with her glossy, bright-red fish lips would poke her head out of her ‘panadería’ shop door and shout up the street to her mother; or when you could hear the cries from the subservient wife as her chauvinistic husband directed a torrent of abuse at her and delivered his children an almighty thwack while all the neighbours listened on, unaffected, having been brought up in these traditional methods of discipline and machismo. And gone are the days when the original owners of the tourist shops and bars, many of them dark-skinned and with greasy hair Brylcreemed back would stride up and down the roads with their long, green, pressed-wool cloaked overcoats hanging from their shoulders in mafia-like manner, shrouding them in all self-importance. And when chickens were crammed into small patios: undersized kitchens were dimly lit by just one central, yellowish, low-wattage light bulb that hung from the grimy ceiling—it was only the woman’s domain after all—and the whole freezing, stone-floored and tiled walls that formed an icebox of a house were heated by just the odd brazier or too;

Typical tiled walls – a habit passed down by the Moors
A very decorative Sevillana chair (please excuse the mobile phone photography!)

and when the only form of comfortable seating was the highly uncomfortable, but brightly-painted wooden ‘Sevillana’ chairs; when neighbours would sit out on their doorsteps till late on a summer’s night, chatting away under the intoxicating jasmine; and when English was only just being introduced into the National Curriculum and there was plenty of demand for English teachers like me; or even when locals would gawp with lower jaw hanging wide when they heard an English native speak Spanish with an English accent… But times have since changed.)

Nothing like a burning fire on a sizzling
summer’s day!

Anyway these hostel recruits of ours immediately volunteered, or rather insisted on coming along with us once they heard it rumoured abroad that we were planning a quaint little camping trip to the Breña Lake where we could cool ourselves down. What had initially been an offer to a French couple was soon extended to the multitudes. In a nutshell, it included those who wanted to have a free ride, free grub ‘n’ booze, and a free touring weekend!

So the motleys consisted of: one Canadian flamenco guitar student (a poor-little rich boy) accompanied by his Australian counterpart (sweet, shy, not well off, having to give English classes in flip flops but also attired in a suit forced on him by the director);

A little ‘bulerías’, ‘soleares’ or fandango’ to set the mood…

four very flirtatious French girls who were spending a year in Cordova to study philology and Spanish men; three of their male and very effeminate co-students; a poor, elderly, highly-eloquent English gentleman with a great weakness for classic literature, art and alcohol of any sort, together with his potty, Welsh lady friend; a German lute maker recently arrived to hone his skills during his apprenticeship with a master craftsman; an effeminate male engineering student with pouting lips who hadn’t as yet emerged from the closet as it would have wounded Mexican family pride and Nationalistic sentiments; a fair-coloured, blue-eyed, sleazy Berber student whose mouth used to water at the sight of anything in a skirt; a vivacious male student from Peru who gave salsa classes in our downstairs room; and last but not least, a Venezuelan Don Juan who, after putting his Malagueñan girlfriend in the family way, soon upped and ran (taking another girl with him) and was never heard of again. The van was big after all, and in those days seat belts were not the order of the day, and although Spain had just recently entered the European Union (in 1986) it hadn’t yet felt the full effects of peaceful discipline and conform on its society.

But to linger no longer, off we set, unaffected by the limited space and accompanied by raucous laughter, eager cheering, guitar strumming, alcohol-smelling breath, wafts of ‘grass’ and the general muddle, commotion, cacophony and disorder that personifies youth. (Luckily I had reserved my place in the front seat, and unaccompanied. Doubts had already started crowding my mind!).

Our van was bursting at the sides with the
self-invited, motley crew ‘acquaintances’

After about an hour we finally arrived; we slowly and painfully alighted, stretching legs, arms and rib cages. The spanking summer sun was already suspended directly above me and the gang, and was heating the stones relentlessly with its direct waves, causing the air above to shimmer and waver like a mirage. Once we, or rather they, had erected tents, rolled out mats, made and prepared food on the camping-gas stove, drank plenty to get into the swing of things, and donned bathing suits and all sorts of paraphernalia, we, or rather they, made a steady way downhill towards the water’s edge. I followed up the rear, gingerly picking my way over sharp pebbles while trying to avoid the unavoidable sun’s rays. It was mid-July and we were too poor then (or too thick-brained really) to do the decent, logical thing which would have been to head north to Cantabria or Asturias, Galicia or even País Basque (in other words, to the cooler, breathable and more humane temperatures of the ‘Garden of Spain’) where we would have been able to enjoy a proper holiday. But we didn’t have children then, so we were caught up in that whirlwind of illogical and impracticable thinking, where one acts first, later reflects, and in the end, pays the consequences.

Anyway, we tiptoed our way across those hard, angular, quartz-rich rocks— a painful experience for those of us who hadn’t been sufficiently anaesthetised by the lunchtime Valdepeñas followed by the ‘cafe carajillo’— that is, coffee cranked up with a ‘real man’s’ measure of anisette. (It could also be with brandy, rum or whisky, as drunk originally by the Cuban troops in order to bolster their courage.)

Soon we reached the ruffled waters where we let our feet sink into the oozy, slimy, brown-grey, amphibious-insect-infested mud. The sensation was disgusting! The substrate was neither sandy nor firm, but simply gloopy and muddy. (I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why certain beauty victims go for aesthetic mud treatments.) I felt ill at ease, to say the least (obviously not having been sufficiently prepped by the carajillo) and was expecting something nasty to sink its incisors into my flesh.

After a few seconds I was sure that I could feel an itching, pinching and biting, and when I withdrew my legs from the murk, sure enough my feet and ankles were covered in a myriad of raised, angry-red blotches and spots. I wasn’t going to have any of it—I legged it out of those dubious waters as quick as I could! The silty water soon dried off my skin leaving behind a pattern of mica flakes that scintillated and glistened over the sore red patches and resisted being scraped away even though I was now scratching myself frantically like an incensed dog. Luckily I spied some dock leaf growing under a low Salix bush not too far away, so I crawled off in that direction, plucked off a few leaves and then applied these, poultice-like to my sore feet and calves. I then remained there, like a wounded dog, crouched low under the parched willowy branches, trying to cheat the sun’s rays.

However, the braver recruits continued on undeterred in their valiant, inebriated state. They plunged into the water and were soon swimming out quite far despite their vague awareness of the chubby, torpedo-like Carp that lurked about in the obscure depths. (Although my brother assures me that these fish are total vegetarians, I wasn’t willing to hang around and put his theory to test! What’s more, I had also heard from our local fishing group in Posadas which hold their regular contests in Miguel and Rita’s bar— the corner one near the train station— that the slithering Wels Catfish has also been spotted in that lake, and apart from their size being menacing, they do have multiple rows of razor sharp teeth.)

Anyway, I stayed put, cowering under the thin, willowy branches of the Salix bush, that now and then whipped my bare skin as the breeze mustered up an increasing strength.

I say that ‘I stayed put’, but that was only for a while, until a new idea dawned on me which was as bright and illuminating as the midday sun: ‘Why don’t I go and look for firewood up there in that dusky, mysterious coppice that crowns the top of the hill?’. It seemed to me at the time, a helpful and practical idea and I was putting my ability to foresee the future in play (and also the sardines and other food that would need cooking) — and with some effort, I hauled myself upwards, dusting off the annoying little angular stones that had become half embedded into my bare calves and thighs.

Well, what I thought would be a good idea in fact turned out to be a very bad idea. I’ll give you a clue…Grunt! Grunt! Oinks, screeches and screams, and me dicing with death.

But, although I would love to recount the full story in detail, I think that I should abruptly bring my tale to a close for fear of this blog becoming too lengthy. However, it was an eventful day, where not only the raucous, drunken, over-enthusiastic, self-invited motleys were the protagonists, but also the menacing wild boar — (‘jabali‘, in Spanish!). If you would like to learn more, then these and other amusing stories can be found in my book, An English Lady in Cordova (see link in the above first chapter).

Thanks for reading — see you soon!