So, I find myself this morning in a bar in Mojacar Playa with a beautiful view of the sea, with palm trees everywhere I look, the sun shining and blue skies and it’s all rather lovely.
It’s 11.20am and I’m here preparing classes and doing Spanish homework. I’d normally be listening to my own ‘soundtrack’ on headphones, but it’s so nice that even the trashy pop of the local radio station can’t spoil the moment. Or who knows, it may even be weirdly adding to it.
What this experience makes me think of is to not take things for granted. Thursday mornings in London were rarely like this. London doesn’t have the beach, sunshine and tranquility, although it does of course have countless other advantages. However, as many self-help books and the more recent ‘mindfulness’ movement suggest, I’m trying to focus more on being in the moment.
I’m not sure I’ll ever get used to living in Andalucia. Mrs Cortado and I have been here for almost 4 years and although I’m not expecting our life to disappear anytime soon, I often find myself under a strange type of self-imposed pressure to enjoy myself and make the most of being here as long as it lasts. Or maybe that’s just living wherever you are? Having said that, it is much easier to enjoy living the life we live, especially since we got a dog.
I’d never owned a dog before and never been particularly ‘dog-friendly’. However, we’ve had our rescue dog Grace for over a year and every day, she’s a lovely reminder of living in the moment. When we wake up, the most important thing in the history of everything is to go for a walk and sniff stuff.
And maybe, that’s it. The ‘answer’ if such a thing exists.
So, as Grace would no doubt recommend in her delightfully innocent, Taoist, Winnie the Pooh- type way, stop thinking about stuff, stop writing stuff, and get out there and sniff stuff.
I’d always wanted to visit California. Los Angeles, Big Sur and Venice Beach for example, were all places I’d seen or heard in films, TV and music and they always seemed so exotic.
From the natural marvels of Yosemite and Sequoia, our trip was now taking us to ones of a different kind on the West Coast. We first headed to Monterey where we walked along Cannery Row, the old fishing area which has been prettified, but seemed a tad soulless and then drove to the lovely Pacific Grove where we just strolled along the ruggedly beautiful coastline.
Later that evening, we popped into the delightful Carmel, which for somewhere so small, seemed to have an inordinate number of pricey shops. After dinner in a cute, little Italian restaurant we found, we thought we’d have dessert elsewhere and came across a local bakery which was closing, but we managed to persuade the assistant working there to sell us a few cakes which hit the spot.
And then, the day after, appropriately armed with a Beach Boys playlist (and a little bit of Johnny Cash too as I had really got into his music in Nashville), we set off on a gloriously sunny day down the coast along Big Sur, which really was as incredible as we thought it would be.
We were heading towards our next stop at Pismo Beach, which was an excellent point to visit the nearby and magnificently strange Hearst Castle where we saw an eclectic mix of things including an absurdly opulent blue indoor pool with real gold tiles, as well as a few zebras in the grounds. We even managed to see a few elephant seals on the beach nearby.
The next day was our 9th wedding anniversary and we were going to be celebrating it with some American friends who we had first met in Granada, Spain where we were living at the time and lived in San Luis Obispo further down the coast. Oddly enough, we ended up going to a restaurant appropriately called Granada. We had had a lovely meal and then, on our way back after the meal, we got our first American ticket for parking the car facing the wrong direction, which we didn’t even know was a thing! Another experience for the list…
The next day, we headed to Solvang, a slightly strange and sweet, seemingly Danish village in the middle of American wine country which even has its own windmill!
On the way down the coast to Los Angeles, we stopped off at Santa Barbara, one of the many places referenced in American TV shows and films and although Mrs Cortado really liked the feel of the place, other than the low-rise architecture which is very common on this part of the country, it just seemed full of shops and little else to me.
We rented an apartment in Marina Del Rey for a few days as our base for visiting LA. One of the first things we did was to get a sightseeing bus to take us around the city so we could get our bearings, as LA is even bigger than we had imagined.
I was surprised at how low-rise the city was. American cities we had seen thus far had been full of skyscrapers of offices and apartments, but one of the charming elements of LA is that this hasn’t happened. However, the city is an enormous sprawl where getting stuck in heavy traffic is the norm, even if you have 6-lane highways.
One sad reality we encountered was one morning while popping out for coffee, seeing the exit to our apartment building had been blocked due to a fatal shooting in the car park overnight. Like all big cities across the world, crime is a reality in certain areas, however this was our first experience of gun crime in the US.
On a lighter note, Mrs Cortado has always been a fan of Disney and her mother has always wanted to see the Disney parade, so Mrs Cortado’s parents came out for a few days to visit and my mother-in-law had the time of her life at the parade, while my father-in-law and I strolled around the pretty back streets of Little Venice stopping off at different coffee shops on the way. I really enjoyed hanging out in Little Venice. It has an unusual bohemian feel, but also a spectacular kind of light, especially as the sun sets. I recently watched ‘Californication’ and ‘Flaked’ where the neighbourhood is the backdrop for the TV shows, so I could see the area again and it was nice to see that same light and atmosphere coming across in the programmes.
Another day, we drove along the Pacific Coast Highway to Malibu and were quite surprised to see how ’normal’ and un-film-starry this area was. Though I think the really big houses were safely ensconced elsewhere far away from the main road and coast. After a lovely lunch at a restaurant on the beach, we then headed into the beautiful Santa Monica mountain reserve.
Music & Film
We had now been on the road for several weeks and had had an incredible time, but we had also done quite a lot and so it was wonderful, to find a spot on Venice Beach one morning to sit down and just take it all in. Everything we had seen and experienced so far, including the fact that we were in LA (man) and especially, Venice Beach which I had always heard so much about through music and film and was also where Jim Morrison lived when The Doors first got together. I’m a big Doors fan. I also really enjoyed bumping into some of the street art in Little Venice.
Ever since watching ‘Rebel Without A Cause’ with James Dean when I was a teenager, Griffith Observatory has also always been on my list of places to visit – for those who don’t know, there are a few key scenes in the film located there. Having lived in Greenwich before, I had already been lucky enough to see a magnificent observatory, however the views of the city from here, including the Hollywood sign, were spectacular.
As a big music fan, I had really wanted to see a gig while in LA as there were so many well-known venues which had hosted legendary bands over the years and one of these was the Troubadour. A small venue which had hosted a wide variety of artists over the years including Elton John, Buffalo Springfield, James Taylor, Guns & Roses, Tom Waits and Radiohead. We had got tickets to see John Grant who happened to be in town when we were. Although it ended up being quite expensive in that although the gig tickets were only around $60 in total, the taxi fare there and back was around $100! Fortunately, we are big John Grant fans and it was a fabulous gig in a legendary venue, so another wonderful experience on our trip.
One of the last stops we made was in Laurel Canyon which was renowned for being the neighbourhood where Joni Mitchell, the Byrds and countless other singer-songwriters and bands from the late 60s made music and lived in (apparent) peace, love and harmony in the summer of love in 1967. As with Ashbury Haights in San Francisco, my expectations were impossibly high and it obviously wouldn’t be the same these days, but part of me was still hoping to somehow absorb this late-60s vibe through some kind of hippie-flower-power-like osmosis just by driving through the neighbourhood. I don’t think Mrs Cortado was as interested or as hopeful.
Spending time in LA was sometimes like being in New York in that you were already familiar with places through TV, film and music. We loved visiting LA, but other than individual moments such as the Troubadour gig, hanging out in Little Venice and Disney, we didn’t really connect with the city as a whole as much as we had with previous cities such as New York, Chicago and Seattle.
So, after a few days here, we were off again. We dropped off the in-laws at LAX airport so they could go back to England and then, we headed off to our next stop – Santa Fe – where we would be beginning the southern leg of the trip. Yet another one which we had been really looking forward to…
I’m sitting on a lovely, ever-so-slightly battered brown sofa in my favourite bar (Cafe Cyrano) in Almería, my recently adopted ‘big city’, listening to my new favourite album (‘Hey Mr Ferryman’ by Mark Eitzel) with a cortado coffee and an orange juice.
I’ve just put my car in for a service. Not a big deal for most people, but having never owned a car until recently, it feels like a strangely grown up thing to be doing. I dropped the car off at 9.30am and am told it will be 3 hours, so I’ve popped into the city to mooch around and am really enjoying it as it’s not something I can really do in the village where I now live.
I’ve been walking around for a while enjoying the buzzy morning atmosphere of a working day here. As with many cities, there are lots of ‘things to do’ here, some of which I’ve done and others that I will do, but as is often the case, I find myself doing a similar thing ie ‘not very much’ to some people.
But the joy I get from simply sitting in a bar with a coffee, listening to music on headphones, writing, reading and reflecting on nothing in particular is immeasurable.
Some people these days might call this being mindful. I don’t know why doing this works for me and maybe it’s best I don’t know, so in the meantime, I’ll just enjoy the positive and calming energy it gives me.
After only a couple of weeks on the road, we had already covered a fair bit of the East Coast – read 3 months On The Road Pt2.
The long train ride
The next stage of our trip was a much anticipated 3-day train from Chicago to Seattle incorporating the wide open spaces of states such as Montana, North Dakota and Idaho among other places. We had been looking forward to this part of the trip as we’d never taken a long train journey before.
Our train to Seattle was old, but more in a ‘hasn’t-been-modernised-in-years’ as opposed to any kind of romantic historical ‘Orient Express’ way, but having said that, the views from the train were incredible. Vast open spaces for miles and miles, with only the occasional one-horse-town and collection of oil fields punctuating the flatness of the barren landscapes. Of course, we knew that North America was big, but the endless open spaces made us realise the sheer scale.
As a music fan and obsessive fan of the American TV sitcom ‘Frasier’, Seattle had been one of my top five list of places to visit on this trip. Of course, I knew that the show had been filmed in a studio in LA, but it was fictitiously based in Seattle and so, I perhaps oddly felt I had got to know the city including iconic locations places such as the Space Needle. We also had friends who had moved there in recent years, so we had even more reason.
We were in town for a few days and were determined to make the most of it, so we visited Pike Street Market, went on the Underground Touraround Pioneer Square, took a lovely boat ride around Elliot Bay, travelled on the magnificent Monorail to see the equally impressive Space Needle surrounded by the beautifully bizarre Chihuly glass flower exhibits and also went to see one of our favourite bands, Thievery Corporation in concert. One morning, I even walked all the way to the Elliott Bay Cafe, which was apparently the inspiration for the cafe used in Frasier. Of course, it was nothing like I had expected as it had recently been modernised, but I felt a fan-like sense of achievement having visited nevertheless.
While Mrs Cortado went shopping one afternoon, I also visited the fascinating Wing Luke museum in Chinatown which focused on the the Asian Pacific Islander American experience in Seattle and the West Coast. Sadly, I missed the Bruce Lee exhibit which was starting the week after, but it was so interesting having a look around the former accommodation and even the grocery store that the newly arrived immigrants would have used. I then had some Hell Ramen fromSamurai Noodlesand at that moment, I was somehow struck by a moment of gratefulness. So much so that I even posted something on Facebook about how grateful I was with life at that moment in time and genuinely felt that if I’d been a dog, I’d have been wagging my tail like a very waggy taily thing. I was walking around feeling happy and grateful for every moment of every day. Not just being in Seattle, but also being with Mrs Cortado and life in general. It’s been nice being reminded of that while writing this post.
You might have figured out by now that I absolutely loved Seattle finding it among many other things, laid-back, bohemian, cultural, open-minded with an interesting food and cafe culture. It was even sunny when we were there, though I’m led to believe that is quite unusual. One of the places I’d wanted to visit my entire life had surpassed all expectations. Where next?
Our trip next took us to Vancouver. Another one of those places that I’d always wanted to visit and fortunately, again we had a friend there with whom I’d be reunited after 15 years since she’d moved to Canada. One of the highlights of our time here was the Dr Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Gardenwhich was a such a beautiful example of tranquility. It was delightful wandering around it absorbing its culture, history and sense of peace.
Other highlights in Vancouver included a lovely day driving to Whistler on Highway 99 with stupendous views of the Pacific and the stunning Porteau Cove on the way back. It was fun watching the BMXers riding down what would normally be the ski slope and it was so pretty seeing the gorgeous autumn colours of the trees as we went past. Another highlight was starting the day with a fabulous spicy chicken breakfast burrito at JJ Bean followed by a glorious drive through Stanley Park and ending with a romantic walk along the seawall catching the sunset.
One of the things I loved about 3-month trip in general was being able to meet up with people we knew en route. It gave that part of the trip a much more personal feel getting us to see places where we may not have otherwise visited from the perspective of our friends, who were now ‘locals’. Although I hadn’t seen Megan in the 15 years since she’d moved to Canada, visiting her and her family was just like old times, as if we’d just seen each other yesterday.
Okay, this is starting to sound repetitive, but it’s true, Portland was another place I had always wanted to visit. As a music fan and foodie, I’d always heard so many good things that I managed to persuade Mrs Cortado to include Portland on our itinerary.
We found a lovely AirBnB in one of the lovely tree-lined suburban streets and as this city isn’t that big, we were only a short bus or cab ride to the centre. Although we stayed in a variety of hotels and AirBnBs on our trip, staying in an AirBnB often added to the experience as you felt more like you were actually living there for a while as opposed to simply visiting. I even found a favourite coffee bar, the Westside branch of Heartwhich I visited each morning.
Although we’d been lucky with the weather in Seattle, our luck ran out in Portland on one particular day, however we then ended up going to a triple bill and having lunch at the fabulous Living Room cinema. It felt like a particularly Portland-type of day.
Portland is such a walkable city that when the sun did decide to make an appearance, we wandered around enjoying the quirky architecture and chilled ambience of this tranquil city. I even saw the singer from the Dandy Warholsin a cafe from the bus on my way home one night and as a music fan, that made my day.
Food is a big thing in Portland and food trucks are really popular. I’d planned to visit a highly recommended Korean truck, but on the day we went, they weren’t quite ready and so we ended up having some really good noodles from another truck just around the corner.
Not far from where we stayed we found a fantastic bar/restaurant called Levant on E Burnside which offered really good hummus and made whatever cocktails you asked for. Donuts seem to be a very big thing here too, so we thought we’d go to one of the most well-known ‘gourmet donut’ shopsBlue Star Donuts where we tried a handful of their product. Well, somebody has to…Highly recommended, although I wasn’t too sure about the marionberry and pepper one.
We loved visiting Seattle, Vancouver and Portland on this leg of the trip and again, although we enjoyed all the wonderful things they had to offer, I made a list of all the places that we wanted /should visit based on online recommendations (and sometimes we even used it), but in the end, our favourite thing was still to wander around and see what we bump into on the way.
So, from the north-west, we were now due to head south to California. San Francisco, LA, Big Sur. And guess what? I’d always wanted to go there too…
However challenging things may sometimes get, wherever we live, there are always things that can make us smile if we take a moment to look around us. We’re all so busy at times that we tend not to, but it’s something I’ve always enjoyed doing as it has often inspired me and these are just a few things that I’ve noticed that have made me smile over the last few weeks and months wandering around Granada:
A man (a ham seller I would imagine/hope or perhaps a very slow ham thief)) trying to pack a full size jamon in between his legs to carry on his Vespa
At a recent flamenco concert by Vicente Amigo, I experienced flamenco Tourette’s for the first time. I’ve got used to people shouting ‘olé’ when they feel ‘duende’, however I had never heard what sounded like ‘agua’ before and certainly not seemingly every 30 seconds or so of the concert! Maybe the man sitting next to me was just really thirsty and was trying to catch the attention of one of the ushers…
A friend who has lived in the Albayzin for many years recently showed me around the area. Although I’ve been here more than a year now, I still hadn’t really explored it other than the usual tourist spots, so I was amazed to see the view from San Miguel Alto which was stunning. Lovely still being surprised by this city (You can see a panoramic image of Granada from San Miguel Alto in the header of this post)
A young girl in a red black spotted flamenco dress with a brolly up walking down the street and with her mother walking alongside holding up the bottom of her coat trying not to get her dress wet. I guess I’d never thought of flamenco dresses and rain together…
A red Fiat 500 parked in the reception area of a local photocopy shop. A creative solution to parking difficulties in Granada!
Snow on the mountains in the sunshine at the end of every street is still a beautiful thing no matter how many times I see it
The smell of incense walking past my local religious artefact shop takes me back to my childhood as an alter boy ringing the bell at Mass. I also like the very concept of a religious artefact shop where you can buy yourself a bit of religion if it takes your fancy, like a football memorabilia shop perhaps, though I imagine it would be difficult getting anything autographed…
Men of a certain age with (very) often jet black dyed hair bursting into flamenco song as they walk down the street (or maybe that’s just in the square outside my flat)
A man making screechy bird sounds as he walks around Granada. At first I thought that he may be mute and that it may have been his sole form of communication, however I then heard him chatting about football with his mates when he wasn’t popping out of the bar for a quick ciggie and a bird-sound making break
A woman doing the sign of the cross as she leaves her apartment block to go to the cafe next door. Is the coffee not very good?
These are just a few things that have made me smile over the past few weeks while living in Granada. What have you noticed that makes you smile while getting around where you live?
Sometimes someone says something and you just think ‘that’s exactly how I feel’. This is one of those times.
“Coffee is real good when you drink it. It gives you time to think. It’s a lot more than just a drink. It’s something happening. Not as in hip, but like an event, a place to be, but not like a location, but like somewhere within yourself. It gives you time, but not actual hours or minutes, but a chance to be, like be yourself, and have a second cup.”
Mrs Cortado and I moved into a new flat yesterday, so this morning I went to check out the local coffee opportunities. Many cafe/bars near me are shut, but then again it is 1030 on Sunday morning. Very early…
However, then I turn the corner into Plaza de Mariana Pineda into a mass of noise coming from somewhere called Café Fútbol which I’ve heard a lot about and not yet been to. It seems to be a bit of a local institution and clearly, it’s the place to be in this area on a Sunday morning. There are no seats outside so I go in the bar which is equally noisy, ever so slightly chaotic but like many things in Spain, somehow seems to work really well. You have to practically shout your order to be heard so not exactly the most calming of mornings but I’m not here for the tranquility, just a good local cafe/bar and I love it here, especially as it’s very much a normal Sunday morning here full of families, a handful of bemused tourists and me and it reminds me of Sunday mornings in Malta when I was younger.
Think I’m going to like my new local cafe and my new flat…
A couple of years ago, I read ‘The Return’ by Victoria Hislop. Although the first few pages made me think it would be just another ‘romance abroad’ book, it soon became clear that it was far more than that, encompassing the Spanish Civil War and the consequences on real families in Spain. And a story based in Granada where the Ramirez family run a bar. What’s not to like?
Now, as is the case with books you love, you create this image of the people and places from the story and this one was very clear for me. I have no idea which particular bar Victoria Hislop had in mind when writing the book, if any, but in my mind, the place was absolutely Plaza Bib-Rambla and the bar was Cafe Bib Rambla. I have no idea if a family runs the bar – anybody else know? – but they are running the bar today in my mind.
At this very moment, I’m sitting in that very bar. The sun is shining and as has happened from time to time since I came to Granada 3 months ago, it has struck me that I am actually living here now. In Spain. In Granada.
Maybe it’s the sunshine or too many cortados already – are you allowed 3 before 11am? – but it’s suddenly strangely overwhelming. But also rather lovely…