Thursday, 5 March 2015

February Travels: One night in Lleida, two in Utrera

I have a tendency to return to old haunts. My affection for Andalucía  sees me journeying down south more than I do up north. But it's more than just familiarity that pulls me back to places: so many Spanish cities have charmed me with a taster visit and drawn me back in for more.

Lleida by night

This may prove to be the case with Lleida, a pint-sized Catalan city I had no expectations of. Work rather than choice took me there in February, a month when the mercury often drops below zero at night and the famous cathedral is commonly shrouded in Lleida's characteristic mist. Armed with only the information that the aforementioned cathedral –  La Seu Vella – was beautiful and that Lleida smelled of cows (I'll leave you to judge on that one if you've ever visited), I rolled off the AVE and into town.

La Seu Vella, Lleida

Business trips don't often allow much time for sightseeing (funny that), but even a post-7pm arrival time and the damp chill in the air didn't put me off hitting Lleida's casco antiguo. With a population of around 140,000, Lleida (also known by its castellano name of Lérida) is pretty petite, but it's the provincial capital and one of inland Cataluña's biggest cities. The old town was easily walkable; its smart streets lined with a good selection of shops and broken up by a scattering of pretty plaças. The real highlight, even from the exterior, was La Seu Vella, one of two cathedrals in town. Perched atop a hill, La Seu Vella lords it over Lleida and is spectcularly illuminated at night. Reached either from Pla dels Gramatics (the easier way, although it is in a bit of a dodgy barrio) or via a lift from Carrer Canyet, the 'old' cathedral sits behind defensive castle walls, adding to its imposing position. Built between the 13th and 15th centuries on the site of a mosque, it's impressive from the outside, with carved doorways, windows onto the cloisters and a staggeringly high bell tower. The interior is meant to be equally beautiful, giving me a good reason to return and explore.

Outside La Seu Vella

Following a local tip, the rest of the evening was spent in city-centre Restaurant Aggio, a friendly pizzeria and braseria. Serving a range of local and regional specialities at a decent price, it's worth a visit. The decor may be a little tired but the food's decidedly fresh: a platter of seasonal grilled vegetables and octopus cut and seasoned in front of us didn't disappoint. One night in Lleida was enough to whet my appetite to return one day: a world-class cathedral, a friendly low-key atmosphere and the chance to practice una mica de català are all fine by me. I'll just return when the temperature's a bit more inviting.

From a city with a small-town feel to a little town with a big heart, my next trip was to Utrera. I mentioned last month that the tricky part of the #take12trips challenge would be visiting new places. Well, although Lleida fit the bill, Utrera decidedly didn't. Small-town Sevilla at its finest, Utrera is home to one of my best friends and this weekend break was my eighth visit there. Around half an hour from central Sevilla on the cercanías, it's a pretty little place with an Arab castle, plenty of churches, a lively central square... and an abundance of great bars. Not just of the tapas variety.

Lovely Utrera

Long referred to by Vicki and myself as 'the party capital of Andalucía', Utrera's livelier than most small towns. Its bustling bar scene isn't just a night-time fixture: things get going with a pre-lunch tipple at Bar Carlos on Calle Corredera before moving on to the town's various tapas spots. My tried-and-tested favourites include gourmet Besana (although the pescetarian choices are a bit limited), Abuela María which has the bonus of a lovely terrace, and Doña Juana, to name but a few. Tapas are generally priced between €2 and €3.50, which is a welcome relief after Madrid's expensive raciones.

You'd think by the eighth visit to a small town there would be nothing new to see. Well, welcome to Utrera. I hit up two new (to me) tapas bars, traditional El Arco and chic El Caballo Blanco, but most memorably of all, I was introduced to the concept of salir de día (going out during the day). In England, this would be reserved for alcoholics and football fans, but in Utrera it's a family-friendly option (as long as you're happy to let the little ones entertain themselves a bit, that is). The Carlos-tapas circuit continued with a 5pm visit to Taberna Gómez Mier, a spit-and-sawdust tavern with fortified wines in dusty barrels and a bring your own food policy that sees it packed to the rafters. A swift vermouth led to another, and before we knew it a table of locals had erupted into raucous flamenco accompanied by top-volume clapping. ¡Viva Andalucía! Tavern led to tapas to a gig in a local bar and we were home before midnight. See, even Cinderella would salir de día.

So it turns out you don't necessarily have to visit somewhere new to experience something new. And if it involves traditional taverns and more visits to Andalucía, I'm OK with that.

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