Would you like Paella or Internet?

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Would you like Paella or Internet?

by Paul Singer - MD, London Fine Dining Group

As a youngster growing up in East London, there wasn't much talk of cultural excursions or fine-dining. Not unless you count a Friday night trip to Walthamstow dogs and a thin hotdog as culture and fine-dining.

So imagine everyone's surprise at me being persuaded to participate in a 7 day tour of classical Spain, including an authentic Flamenco dancing show. I could hardly contain my excitement. Spain for me held fond memories of a Full English by the beach, a piƱa colada and the sight of multiple severely burned Brits out in the midday sun looking more like lobsters than humans.

This trip promised to be very different. For a start, none of the places we visited seemed to contain any people who even spoke English, let alone knew what a Full English was. The food, as I was to learn during that week, would be presented in ever smaller brown dishes mostly filled with garlic or boiling oil - or both. Whether Tapas were invented as a form of torture to ward off the invading armies nobody knows, but the food, like the architecture, was Moorish rather than moreish.

Seville, the traditional home of Flamenco dance and Oranges, was to be our first stop. What I knew about Flamenco could be written on the side of a castanet - about 100 times over.

Now because nobody in the Flamenco theatre spoke any English, including the front of house staff, we were going to have get very good at miming. My wife looked more like a Flamenco dancer than a tourist as she tried, in vain, to mime Front Stalls and Sangria. Yes. They serve drinks in the theatre. How very civilised.

The show began with what appeared to be a fierce argument between the two main characters. The man, who might have been Fernando Alonso's lost twin appeared to be fighting with Sophia Loren's twin sister over a lace tablecloth. There was a lot of pulling at opposite ends of the tablecloth and a fair amount of stamping of the foot on the part of both the man and the woman, whilst a man who liked like Ronnie Corbett, only shorter and with thicker glasses, wailed at the back of the stage like someone was twisting his testicles. At first, I imagined that the rake of the stage made "Ronnie" look shorter but as he came forward to take a bow, he grew no taller at all. The only effect of him moving closer was that his eyes became more magnified by his glasses so he now resembled a halibut. I wondered if he was even able wear to those glasses outside without starting small bush fires.


Fernando and Sophia in a Sangria-tinted photo


"Ronnie" wails from the rear of the stage whilst Sophia and her friends

demonstrate the latest models of walking stick available.

Then several younger girls pranced around the stage demonstrating their tablecloths and showing how hard they could stamp their feet if they didn't get their own way, whilst "Fernando" showed "Sophia" what he thought of her mother, who had now joined in the tablecloth debate.


Fringe Benefits - Sophia's mum and her tablecloth.

As the night and the Sangria wore on, I became less interested in the tablecloths and more interested in the young girls who by this time had decided that the long frilly dresses they wore were impractical for stamping and so had hitched them up to their waists so that their legs had more room to stamp. It was a kind of noisier Spanish version of the can-can, if you will.

The hotel in Seville was interesting. The food service finished before dinner and there was no room service. The local supermarket shelves were filled to bursting point with unusual items, none of which I recognised other than small cartons of what in the UK might contain orange juice for children's packed lunches only here they were filled with WINE. They were packed in 3s and 3 boxes of wine could be had for less than 1 Euro which has to be excellent value, whatever the Euro was worth that week.

The hotel was advertised with WiFi. Perfect. Just time before my carton of wine, to check some emails, I thought. Wrong.

The access code for the WiFi, which had to be retrieved by begging at reception, was longer than a Flamenco dancer's dress. Once I had typed in all 15 digits and letters, I was greeted with a Spanish version of WiFi which was more like Broad Bean than Broad Band. I wondered why Google took nearly 5 minutes to load the home search page. I tested the speed. 0.1Meg. Dial up or carrier pigeon would have been faster.

The man(uel) in reception kindly volunteered that when guests reported slow internet, he often suggested that they bring their laptop to the bar where apparently the signal was stronger. I fell for it and arrived in the bar with my shiny laptop to find several other bewildered guests also clutching their laptops waving them about like water diviners in a vain attempt to get either a stronger signal or higher speed of connection. One enterprising guest was even balanced on a windowsill hanging over a 30 foot drop where there was obviously a better connection, albeit coupled with a slight risk of death.

I gave up and had some more sangria.

Cordoba was much the same. The tapas were better but the internet was worse. Obviously, the classical Spanish had no need for new fangled things like internet when they had Paella and Flamenco.

Our final stop was Granada. The city - not the motorway services on the M4.

The Alhambra was spectacular as advertised even if I did (deliberately) annoy the Blue Badge guide by calling it the Abracadabra!

Now, the Sultan who commissioned its construction obviously knew a thing or three about matrimony as he had several wives. And he cleverly put them on a different floor of the palace for a bit of peace and quiet. He also insisted that all eunuchs who attended to his wives and became musicians were blinded before being employed. I can't imagine that going down too well in the Employment Tribunal. "So your contract specified that before you could commence employment, you had to be castrated and blinded by your employer?".   

We were advised by our Guide to try the local delicacy - Roast Baby Suckling Pig. But we were warned that in Spain we would be presented with "everything but the squeak". She was right. There were some parts of the pig which even James Herriot hadn't seen before but it was all there - roasted and plated-up before your very eyes - but it did make a nice change to recognise at least parts of the meal and not have it all served in small brown terracotta pots covered in boiling oil and garlic.


Terracotta pot manufacturers branch out into catering to boost sales!

My verdict on the real Spain:

Architecture  10/10

Food             5/10

Internet         0/10

Flamenco      0/10

Wine            0/10

But at least they did offer 2 types of wine - either served in a carton with a straw attached to the side or served in a jug with fruit - which must count as the most novel way to get 1 of your 5 a day!


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