22 February 2017

Interview N J Simmonds - 'The Path Keeper '

Today I’m talking to Natali Drake, aka author N J Simmonds, about the first book in her new Fantasy Romance Thriller series ‘The Path Keeper’ part of which is based in Andalucia and so caught my interest and desire to read it.

Over to Natali...

‘The Path Keeper’ is your first novel. How did it feel to be offered a three book deal with Accent Press on your first writing attempt?

Surreal. I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, but I didn’t take it up professionally until 2012 (I’m a freelance writer). In September of that year the idea for ‘The Path Keeper’ began niggling away at me and I decided to start a novel in secret. In 2015 I also co-founded The Glass House Girls to which I’ve contributed more than a hundred articles and helped exercise my writing muscles. By the time the book was finished I had the confidence to seek an agent and a year later, after having received forty ‘no, thank you’ emails from publishers, I finally got a yes. I was stunned but also felt relieved, after all...there’s no such thing as luck if you work hard enough towards your goals. I’ve since moved to The Netherlands, I’m still working the day job and I’m also a mother of two, I’m very busy, so more than anything my book deal meant that dreams CAN come true if you just keep pushing.

The book focuses on many themes, from fate and destiny to love and second chances – why were these subjects important to you?

The book initially began as a story about two young people falling in love; Ella – a spoiled rich girl who isn’t as happy as people expect her to be, and Zac – a mysterious blue-eyed boy who has no money and a big secret. But as the story unravelled I realised I wanted to know why she was the way she was, and I wanted to understand her parents, and her parent’s parents. I thought about how our past effects our future, and I pondered on the subject of whether love can be stronger than fate. What if we all have a True Love out there but we fall for the wrong guy? Can we change our life path? So the book went from being a simple love story to a multi-layered journey where the lives of seemingly random characters interweave and ultimately affect the outcome of Zac and Ella’s forbidden love. I won’t pretend that my own experiences and ‘what ifs’ haven’t coloured my work. Isn’t every story a tiny reflection of its creator?

A big part of the book is set in Tarifa and the Andalusian mountains. Why did you base it there?

Two reasons: Because as far as I’m concerned you can’t get a more romantic place than Tarifa. And, because I wanted to celebrate my connection to Andalucia. In the book we see two characters Lily and Leo meet on the windswept beach of Tarifa. We watch as they fall in love among the winding streets of the town, and we see her life crumble as she sits between the two seas; the crashing waves of the Atlantic on one side and the calm waters of the Med on the other. I’ve always felt that Tarifa has a certain air about it - tranquillity tinged with drama. From the old weather station that sits incongruously like a gothic vampire castle looming over a huge expanse of beach, to the evocative Moorish architecture and incessant wind that drives its inhabitants crazy. As for the Andalucian mountains, the fictional village of Las Alas is actually based on Gaucin where my husband and I got married. I passed a little ruin of a house one day and wondered who had once lived there, and it became the backdrop for one of the most exciting scenes in the book.

Do you miss living in Andalucia?

Of course! We moved to The Netherlands a few months after I was offered the book deal. Holland is closer to the UK, where my book is published, and my husband’s job and kids’ schooling is exceptional...plus there’s a fantastic literary and creative vibe where I live in Delft. It’s the home of Vermeer and ‘The Girl with a Pearl Earring’, as well as the famous blue and white pottery, so everything is very arty and geared towards learning and expressing yourself. What’s not to love? But of course this year has also seen us ‘enjoy’ the coldest winter we’ve ever experienced as a family and it’s been tough. Luckily we still have our little bungalow by the beach in Spain so we go back as often as possible to get some Vitamin D and sea air!

Ella is a strong character- Did you choose such an outspoken protagonist on purpose?

Absolutely! I love Ella, even the most irritating aspects of her personality. I wanted to create a strong feisty female lead because I was tired of young girls in books depicted as being eternally grateful for the attention of a man; girls that always need rescuing and feel incomplete without a controlling male. Ella is a very complex character, on the surface she appears strong and untouchable but she’s also as vulnerable as any one of us. She’s lonely, she’s needy and she’s defensive...plus she’s nineteen...so she’s at a stage in her life where she’s battling between the romance of love and all its drama, and the realities of what it means to be in a relationship. As the story progresses we see her slowly change – to be open to love you also have to be open to pain, and it’s a tough lesson to learn.

‘The Path Keeper’ is part of a series – tell us what to expect in the second book?

From the very beginning I saw ‘The Path Keeper’ as a trilogy, although I may expand it further if my readers want more! The first book is all about Zac and Ella and the risks they’re prepared to take to fight fate and be together, but it doesn’t end in a pretty happy ever after...the story is very much left open. The second book ‘Son of Secrets’ (out late 2017) follows the aftermath of Ella and Zac coping with their new lives. Will Ella choose destiny or her Soul Mate? And what happened to her horrid step-brother Sebastian? Plus we see more of Gabriel and meet Luci – the most interesting character I have ever written about. You won’t forget her in a hurry!

Will we be seeing you in Spain any time soon?

Definitely. I aim to be in the south of Spain during the last two weeks of April 2017 where I am at the moment busy planning signings and appearances along the coast. I also have a few exciting things happening in Gibraltar for the book launch there. So watch this space...

‘The Path Keeper’ is available to buy from 23 February 2017 at all good bookshops or on Amazon. For more information about N J Simmonds and her books please visit her author site at njsimmonds.com or follow # thepathkeeper on all social media platforms.

Cazorla - Town, Natural Park and Where to Stay

Many people get confused as to where exactly is Cazorla. The main reason  I think is when people say Cazorla they mean the Natural Park or Parque Natural de Cazorla, Segura y Las Villas but there is also Cazorla town. In the north-east of Jaen province the natural park is the largest in Spain. Rugged, beautiful, varied and green.

The reason for my last jaunt there was to see some autumn colours. Where I live the trees are all evergreen; olives and holm oaks, so pining for some colour we (hubby and I) headed to Cazorla on the recent Bank Holiday taking advantage of the glorious autumn weather we had been having.

Much to my surprise there was very little colour except green! Even so our 24 hours there with stunning scenery, lots of castle steps and great food was thoroughly enjoyable added to that the lovely little boutique guest house that we stayed in was so nice we almost didn't go off exploring but had a leisurely breakfast, with the friendly owners and their Basssett Hounds, and a better standard of breakfast than some hotels we've been to. Have you seen my Hotel Breakfasts are Very Important post?

Map Image Credit  Turismo en Cazorla
Where I stayed - Cortijo San Juan Bautista 

20 February 2017

Monday Morning Photo - Embalse de Iznajar

The Embalse or Reservoir de Iznajar in Cordoba province. Lovely views, great little town and castle even on a rare grey day in Andalucia.

Embalse Iznajar

See the Monday Morning Photo list.

Where to stay in Iznajar - the lovely Finca Las Encinas

13 February 2017

Monday Morning Photo - Traditional Olive Oil Mill

The Tourist Office in  Iznajar is the best I've seen, with displays and models of past traditions. What particularly caught my eye was this great little model of a Traditional Olive Oil Mill.

For the real thing, in my nearest town of Martos there is a mill that still produces some of their olive oil with a traditional press.

traditional olive oil mill

See the Monday Morning Photo list.

Where to stay in Iznajar - the lovely Finca Las Encinas

06 February 2017

Monday Morning Photo - Baeza Renaissance Unesco Town

Beautiful Baeza Unesco Renaissance city twinned with Ubeda. Both are jammed packed with gorgeous buildings, Baeza is my favourite with a smaller, more charming feel.

See the Monday Morning Photo List.

Where to stay in Baeza - the lovely Puerta de la Luna.

01 February 2017

Jaen Fiesta - Lumbres de San Anton - The Fires of San Anton

Traditionally the Fiesta Lumbres de San Anton or Fires of San Anton is held on 16th January, this year for the first time it took place two days before on a Saturday and that's probably why hubby and I decided to go for the first time in twenty years here.

The decision to change the date was to coincide with the famous San Anton running race which attracted over 10,000 runners and closed the city centre to traffic.

In the plaza of the enormous cathedral there were traditional dances and songs, I'll go and watch those next year, they must be more exciting than watching a bonfire! Years ago the neighbours would have sung and dancing around each fire. These days there are still fires lit around Jaen, smaller and spread around the city, there were more than 30 this year.

We checked out where they were going to be and chose one with easy parking and a bar nearby. The bar was closed, but parking was ample and it was another place to check out, which we did a week later and had a very decent, if noisy, Saturday lunch. Not a bad spot, Bar Alambrique, near Carrefour, we'll go again but it seems they are only open at lunchtime, perhaps that's just in the winter.

Anyway I'm rambling. We went to the dreaded Carrefour first (yes on a Saturday evening and horribly busy) and noticed the air was pretty smoky and reminscent of November 5ths many years ago. Then we headed out to our first lumbre on a very nippy night. It does get cold in Andalucia, in the mountains of the Sierra Sur de Jaen where I live we see extremes from -0c - +40c. This year (so far) our coldest night has been -8c. Just the once!

The smoke beckoned us and we soon found an enormous bonfire on one of the old, unused roads. We approached the fire with hands outstretched and welcomed the heat. There was no singing and dancing but piped music and not very traditional either. The group, of about 40, chatted and the put-you-up bar was laden with beer cans, bottles of table wine and bread.

Within a couple of minutes an old man made sure we got a drink and wanted to feed us too. We chose the warming but not special wine out of plastic cups, but soon we were offered swig from a traditional bota or wineskin too - hubby managed to get it all into his mouth, he'd done it before! I declined, I have trouble with water bottles near my mouth, red wine from a distance with a cream coat on? No.

Inquisitive as ever I asked about the fiesta and its origins. This particular Fire of San Anton was organised by the local neighbours' association, and each one across the city is run by some organisation or other. Food and drink being brought and cooked over a make shift barbecue and what more is needed! Warmth, company, food and wine.

We didn't stay long feeling a little uncomfortable not being part of their association and not contributing but partaking of their fare but the warmth wasn't only from the lumbre. Spanish people are open and friendly as once again we witnessed. Yes, it helps, especially with my inquisitiveness, to speak the language but we were amazed at our quickly someone approached us.

There's something rather mesmerising about flames, it takes me back to my childhood, with that and my story-telling old man (and the wine) it was a cosy feeling. He told us about San Anton in his youth when the kids made a doll out of old clothes and filled with straw rather like a scarecrow, sometimes with the empty shell of a pumpkin for its head, and with firecrackers in it. Why firecrackers? When the flames of the fire heat up and the firecrackers explode it represents the devil and his expulsion as 'he' disappears into the sea of flames - a sacrifice for all the wrongdoings

In those days there were fewer but bigger fires, I was told, so the competition between the kids to build the best fire was on. Sometimes they sat on guard all night, with loaded catapults, so nobody stole from their fire to add to another. I think these days it's a little more civilised, material to burn is easier to obtain and a nightwatch isn't necessary. But there again I didn't ask.

This is a modern-day bota do you think you could drink from it?


Photo thanks to Lourdes @El Viaje de Lu

See the Monday Morning Photo list for photos of Andalucia and beyond.

30 January 2017

Monday Morning Photo - El Balneario in Malaga

If you're in Malaga old town and a seafront stroll is in order then the Restaurante El Balneario de los Baños del Carmen should be your destination and wetting-the-whistle-stop. You can't get a better view and be closer to the sea than this!

See the Monday Morning Photo list.

Read about Nerja - a Great Winter Destination which is just along the coast.

Where to stay in Malaga near the Balneario - Hotel Castillo de Santa Catalina

23 January 2017

Monday Morning Photo - Guitar Player in the Albaicin, Granada

I love the Albaicin in Granada. This was just one of my fabulous 'moments'. The strain of guitar music floating around a corner and then - the picture.

No case for money, just practising. He wouldn't look my way either, so caught up in his moment. I passed him, stopped at the bottom and looked back and he was looking the opposite way again. Great playing too. I could have stayed all day. So quiet, so intimate.

The Albaicin is the old Moorish part of Granada, winding cobbled streets. Go up to the Mirador de San Nicolas and wander back down these streets. Its history, emotion and mystery will move you.

See the Mirador de San Nicolas photo
See the Monday Morning Photo list.
Read my post from my GRXperience blog trip to Granada.

16 January 2017

Monday Morning Photo - Nerja Caves

The astonishing and enormous Nerja caves will take your breath away, so awesomely surreal you could think it's a film set. A sobering visit when you see nature's creation and try and imagine the slow drip, drip formation over so many thousands of years.

Nerja Caves, Cuevas de Nerja

See the Monday Morning Photo list.

Read my blog post on my Trip to Nerja - A Great Winter Destination.

14 January 2017

Alcala la Real - Fortress La Mota

One of the best, most interesting and imagination-rioting ruined castle/fortresses that I've visited and I've been twice in the last two months. My first attempt at a visit was around 15 years, it was closed. I'm not sure why I never returned, just one of those things. It's on my doorstep, I could go anytime.

La Mota, Alcala la Real

The first entrance was with the Andalucia Travel Bloggers and Tu historia, the association of Medium-sized Towns of Andalucia, in November. Just a few weeks later with family visiting and hubby not having visited yet, I went again. It was a cold blue-sky day with views on the snowy Sierra Nevadas in the distance and clouds of mist rising as we entered the fortress and stepped back into days gone-by.

La Mota, Alcala la Real

See the evidence of the Neolithic and Bronze Age settlers and Romans, then it was occupied from 713 by the Moors until finally after it was taken for good by Alfonso XI in 1341. This was the last stronghold of the Moors that fell before their final defeat in Granada. An important and strategic location not only between the Moors and Catholic Kings but between the warring Islamic kingdoms.

Fortress La Mota, Alcala la Real, Jaen

The way the whole monument is preserved and presented is incredibly good. I liked all the information boards, in English and Spanish, with images that brought to life some of the ruins and these models showing the size and extent of the city beyond its walls.

Fortress La Mota, Alcala la Real, Jaen

On one visit I went in a group with a guide and the next just three of us with a hand-held audio-guide on which you pressed the appropriate button when you were ready. I enjoyed both ways of visiting although if you want to go into the tunnels you have to go with a guide. Each had its pros and cons, not just that the group I was with was Spanish and so was the guided tour. With the guide we could ask questions but had to keep together which was tricky taking photos and no respite on information overload. With the audio-guide you could just stop listening when awash with too much info!

La Mota really is worth a visit - or two. Where to stay in the area? My holiday home, Casa El Reguelo is just an hour away.

Read my post about the Blog Trip to Antequera, Lucena and Alcala le Real.

09 January 2017

Monday Morning Photo - Don Quixote Style Windmill

This Manchegan, from La Mancha, or Don Quixote style windmill is the most southerly of this type in Spain and it's in the lovely town of Baños de la Encina in my home province Jaen.

See another post about Baños de la Encina and its enormous castle.

See the Monday  Morning Photo list.

02 January 2017

Monday Morning Photo - Eight Metre Wooden Waterwheel

One of the few remaining waterwheels in Andalucia on the River Guadajoz in Albendin, Cordoba just over the border from my home province of Jaen. There are still a few pots to pick op the water left on this one. Sadly it's not running now because neighbours complained about the noise!

26 December 2016

Nerja a Great Winter Destination

The week before Christmas saw hubby and I heading south to the Costa del Sol and Nerja. This part of the Andalucian coast boasts over 300 days of sunshine a year. We were unlucky! But with those grey skies we were also fortunate as there weren't the crowds of tourists as on our last visit.

Our journey towards the sun took, as it usually does, longer than we expected, but we arrived and found the AndaluciaTravel Bloggers members  being shown around Nerja. That is what I love. Arriving somewhere and wandering the streets, acclimatising and getting away from the main tourist sites.

Balcon de Europa or Balcony of Europe

Our stay was in the Toboso Apar-Turis a very nicely situated hotel with apartments, more or less, on the Balcon de Europa and our 'suite' had swimming pool and sea views.

Toboso Apar-Turis

A bonus of a winter stay is that it was quiet and of course the pool was empty. I could imagine it being thrivingly busy and noisy in the summer months, making it a great place for families.

When you Wonder What's Around a Corner

The Balcon de Europe started life as the 'Low Castle' situated between rocky cove beaches at the beginning of the 16th century. As a natural outcrop it was then altered in the 18th century and equipped with canons only to be destroyed during the Spanish War of Independence. In 1885 King Alfonso XII visited Nerja and impressed with the views is said to have exclaimed that he'd found the 'Balcony of Europe' a few years later a bronze statue of the King gazing out across the Mediterranean Sea was erected.

King Alfonso XII on the Balcon de Europa

Round Restaurant Window just below the  King's Statue on the Balcon de Europa

Our mosey around town then became a Tourist Train ride to nearby Maro and the incredibly awesome Cuevas de Nerja or Nerja Caves. I'd read about them, seen photos of them, heard my then 10 year old son rave about them after a school trip, but I had never been.

Cave Train

The whole story of how a group of friends discovered the caves in 1959 after seeing bats fly out of a sinkhole was relayed by one of their sons. Something which was rather special knowing the 'guide' had grown up with this story and knowledge of the caves firsthand from his father.

Our visit was only to one of the many cave sections, and the feeling of awe of the natural formations, the hugeness of the caverns is beyond price. Amost surreal, as if we were inside the bowels of an enormous film set. There's nothing like nature to remind us how small and insignifcant we are.

Nerja Caves

World's Largest Column, the merging of stalagtites & stalagmites

After the cave visit we had lunch at the on site Restaurant Cuevas de Nerja with views over Maro and the sea beyond. The range of tapas was very good and beautifully presented on slate plates, I'd certainly eat there again.

Restaurant Cuevas de Nerja

Then back on the train to the town and after a short meander we stopped at the gorgeous little tearoom room, or Teteria, Zaidin for tea and cakes!

Lovely Details in Teteria Zaidin

A long walk was needed, but unfortunately we'd hit the other 65 days of the year and it was raining, so we retreated to our apartment to have a break, a social media catch-up and get ready for dinner!

It was hard work all that eating. The evening saw us in Restaurant Patanegra 57 a lovely spot not far from the Balcon with very good food cooked and run by Sergio Paloma who worked with Martin Berasategui the famous Basque chef.

We tried a wide range of fabulous, beautifully presented artistic tapas from Octopus with Creamed Potatoes to  Oxtail Ravioli with Cream of Cauliflower and a Port Wine Sauce all were excellent.

Then to top off these fine creations we had a Semi-cold Yoghurt with Crunchy Pistachio and Raspberry. We will be back at Patanegra 57 when possible.

A bracing ramble around the Balcon and town saw us replete in so many ways and concluded a very satisfying day in Nerja. Followed by a morning visit to the museum - Museo de Nerja where many remains found in the caves are on show. If you go buy a ticket for all three, museum, train and caves.

One of the incredible finds amongst many is a full skeleton of a young woman displayed as a whole rather sad or macabre thought to be more than 8,000 years old. The museum, in  Nerja centre, hosts an incredible array of finds and exhibitions, which if you're visiting the caves need to be seen as well.

Then to the beach and Restaurant Playa Torrecilla for a farewell meal, although we chose to sit indoors, it started brightening up and later diners sat outside.

After a full, in more ways than one, itinerary we said thank you and au revoir to all because we shall be back, there's so much more we want to explore. Next time it'll be away from the coast and inland to the mountains behind the town.

A big shout out to Nerja Tourist Board for hosting some members of Andalucia Travel Bloggers

19 December 2016

Monday Morning Photo - Jaen Monumental Cross

Jaen's huge, white monumental victory cross overlooking the city below and stretching out across the olive groves and mountains beyond. Taken this rather grey and blustery 19th December, an unusual grey sky day.

Jaen Monumental Cross

See the Monday Morning Photo list

Read an old post on What to See in Jaen

13 December 2016

Granada means Pomegranate

It's that time of year when the pomegranates have just about finished, the trees have lost their leaves and all the colour is on the ground, but they are still decorative.

The pomegranate is not only the symbol of Granada city but in Spanish granada means pomegranate. Look closely and you'll see this vibrant fruit all over the city in pictures and etchings. It was the Catholic Kings who first used the pomegranate as a symbol when the final stronghold of the Moors, the Alhambra Palace, fell into their hands.

Pomegranate trees are deciduous, in winter they're twiggy and boring then, those new fresh green leaves burst forth in spring, followed by beautiful orangey-red flowers which become gorgeously rich coloured fruit, first like earrings then christmas tree baubles. Even after the fruit has ripened and burst open to reveal those beautiful ruby coloured seeds, which are packed full with antioxidant properties, and they fall to the ground or relished by birds the dying, drying tough skin takes on its own beauty.

It's said to have originated from Iran and Afghanistan and is mentioned in the bible, where there are 163 commandments of the Jewish faith relating exactly to the number of seeds in every pomegranate. I haven't counted them personally but a tour guide once told me she had checked four and they were 163 seeds in each one. I'm happy to believe that and save myself the count.

We have a pomegranate tree in Casa El Reguelo garden which I'm trying to keep small, but every year it astounds me with its beauty in every season and it's abundance of decorative seasons ending in a ruby-rich harvest.