One from the vaults: Another Trip down Memory Lane

Of course, at this time of year, we’d normally be watching the Vuelta a Espana and consequently we’re heading back to Marbella for the opening stages of the 2015 race. It’s an area which holds many fond memories for us, as I explain below.

We’ve just returned from a few days in Marbella, one of our old stomping grounds, where we were watching the initial stages of this year’s Vuelta a Espana. It’s an area we first visited almost 40 years ago when my parents bought an apartment there. As newly-weds with little money, we spent many a happy fortnight in the sun, exploring the surrounding area. My younger sisters spent all summer there prompting me to speculate why my parents hadn’t invested earlier. Two words – dollar premium.

In the early 1980s, we spent a month there over Xmas and New Year, taking the ferry to Santander and driving to Marbella via Madrid and Toledo. At the time, it was our longest holiday ever and truly relaxing apart from my beloved, a noted swimmer, getting swept out to sea on his windsurfer. He managed to paddle his way back to shore, albeit several kilometres down the coast, without the assistance of the Spanish coastguard, although it was touch and go.

Puerto Banus has mushroomed in size
Puerto Banus has mushroomed in size

As the years rolled by, we typically spent a week in Marbella either in May or September when the weather was warm but not so hot as to prevent us playing tennis for several hours. Retirement beckoned for my father and my parents decided to sell the flat, preferring to use the proceeds to holiday elsewhere. We however continued to spend a week there most years, often over the late May Bank Holiday.

From time to time my parents accompanied us, as did their closest friends. On my parent’s 50th wedding anniversary, we spent what was to be our final family holiday together at one of our favourite hotels, courtesy of my Dad, and we’ve not been back largely due to our move to France.

Family favourite: Marbella Club
Family favourite: Marbella Club



When we saw that the Vuelta was kicking off there this year, my beloved and I decided to take a trip down memory lane. In the intervening years, much has changed but our old haunts are still there and happily flourishing. The trip bought back many happy memories, particularly of times spent with my parents who are no longer with us. We’re not going to leave it quite so long before paying the area another visit.

Bidding a fond farewell to Igor Anton

Like many cycling fans, I’m experiencing withdrawal symptoms after a thrilling Vuelta a Espana 2018. I just love it when you don’t know who’s going to win until the last few stages. It’s so much more exciting. I was bitterly disappointed not to go to any stages this year, particularly as the race started in Andalucia, and also visited Asturias and the Basque country. All places I love to visit.

Our first Vuelta was 2011, when we went to watch the stages which started and finished in Bilbao. Stage 19, the first stage of the Vuelta to be held in the Basque country for over 30 years, was fittingly won by Basque rider Igor Anton, then riding for Euskaltel-Euskadi #Carrots.

I say fittingly because the previous year Anton had crashed out of the Vuelta while wearing the red leader’s jersey. His brave soldier face and bloodied body as he was folded into his team car is an abiding memory. Sadly, he never again reached such heady heights and on Sunday bought the curtain down on his illustrious 14 year professional career (incl. GC win in Vuelta Asturias, 4 stages in Vuelta a Espana, 1 stage Giro d’Italia, 2 stages Tour de Romandie, 3rd on GC at Tour de Suisse).

The 35 year-old Basque from Galdakao in Vizcaya started his professional career with the Euskaltel – Euskadi team in 2005 and when it sadly folded nine years later, he joined Movistar in 2014 before signing for what was to be his last team, Dimension Data in 2016.

Anton explained why he was retiring in an open letter:

The Vuelta a Espana has defined me as a person in many aspects, it is where I achieved my best results, it gave me some of my best moments and some of my worst moments. Therefore, after thinking well about my career, I have decided that tomorrow I will end my career with my final race number, 102.

It is a fitting scenario and race to bring this adventure I have been on to an end. This chapter of my life has been unbelievable, and I would not want to change anything because I have been privileged to make a small contribution to the long and magnificent history of the sport of cycling.

I want to say a big THANKS to all the partners that supported me at my 3 teams; Euskaltel-Euskadi, Movistar Team and Dimension Data for Qhubeka. From the first day of my career until this very last moment I have been backed by these incredible organisations. At Team Dimension Data I had three very special years and it was a great experience to be part of this unique project, it made my career so much more interesting.

I want to remember my mother MaryJose in this time, who I dearly miss. She sacrificed a lot for me and put in great effort to help me achieve my dream. Also, my father, he allowed me to pursue this career. My wife, she suffered with me through all of the bad moments but always stayed by my side to help me through the tough situations. Then to my loving daughter Udane, because she is my engine now.

I’d like to wish Anton all the best, much happiness and every success in whatever he decides to do next.

The Musette: Coques – Andorran flat cakes

The Vuelta a Espana is dipping its toe into Andorra, home to many a professional cyclist on account of its favourable tax regime. I understand Andorran cooking is similar to Catalan but with influences from both France and, surprisingly, Italy.

I looked around for a traditional Andorran recipe and found coques, a flat cake made from a thick pancake-type mixture and stale bread. I’m not sure whether it’s a household staple but it sounds like the type of recipe where everyone probably has their own version. So, in the interests of research, I though I’d give it a go. I have to be honest, the first batch was a complete disaster so I played around with the recipe and my second attempt was delicious.

Revised list of ingredients for Coques (image: Sheree)

Ingredients (serves eight as a dessert)

  • 150g (2 cups) fresh white bread cut into small cubes (I used brioche)
  • 120g (1 cup) caster sugar
  • 150ml (⅔ cup) almond milk
  • 4 large preferably organic eggs, each weighing approx. 45g (1⅔oz) without the shell
  • 200g (1⅔ cups) plain (all-purpose) flour
  • 100g (1 cup) freshly ground almonds
  • 1 tsp freshly grated lemon zest


1. Preheat the oven to 190°C/170°C fan/gas mark 5 (375°F/350°F fan) and line two baking trays with greaseproof (parchment) paper.

2. Beat the eggs in a bowl with the sugar until light and fluffy, then fold in the sifted flour, ground almonds, lemon zest and almond milk in batches, starting and ending with the flour and almonds. Cover the bowl and set aside to rest for an hour in the fridge.

3. Once the batter has rested, gently incorporate the bread cubes. Divide the mixture roughly into four and dollop onto the tins and spread to make two similarly-sized rectangles on both sheets. I trace two rectangles on the paper and then turn them over – to prevent getting pencil on the baked coques –  with the outlines visible from the reverse side.

4. Place them in the oven and bake until nicely golden brown and cooked through (about 20 minutes).

6. Cut the coques into triangles and serve warm, dusted with a little icing (confectioners’) sugar.

Sheree's Coques (image; Sheree)

Sheree’s Handy Hints

1. All ingredients should be at room temperature.

2. When I’m baking I always use a timer as it’s so easy to lose track of time. Once you’ve put the coques in the oven, put the timer on for 3-5  minutes less than they should take to cook and then check regularly.

3. If you think the coques are browning too quickly, particularly at the edges, cover them with an aluminium foil tent.

4. In devising my version, I reduced the amount of sugar from the original recipe by a third and substituted equal quantities of vegetable oil and hot water with almond milk. I also substituted one-third of the flour with ground almonds and added the lemon zest. So, not too much in common with the original recipe!

5. I’ve also made this recipe into one large coque, covered with really thin slices  – use a mandolin and mind your fingers – of eating apples with a few pieces of unsalted butter and soft brown sugar scattered on the top. Then, when it’s cooked, I glazed it with thinned down apricot jam to give a nice shiny finish.

6. Otherwise, I suggest serving them with some seasonal fresh fruit, such as apricots or peaches which will go well with the almond flavour in the coques.

12 days of Christmas: day 9

This quintessentially Provencal scene is the fountain in Uzes’ main square. The beautiful, mellow, honey-coloured stone, the trees providing essential shade from the summer sun, with the restaurant parasols providing further protection, all paint a charming scene. We stayed in Uzes to watch the start of the Vuelta a Espana in Nimes, not far away. It was our first visit to the area and we were charmed by its sense of languor, old-world charm and fabulous wines. I want to go back, if only to visit its Haribo factory. Gummy Bears anyone?

Postcard from the Vuelta

Unusually, this year’s edition of the Vuelta a Espana kicked off in Nimes. It’s only three hours down the motorway from us and it’s a place we’ve only ever driven past, never visited. We drove down on Thursday afternoon after an expensive lunch in Antibes. I rarely park in the road but there’s no parking fee in France during the lunch break (12:30 – 14:30)  – so civilised. We parked on the opposite side of the road, about 100 metres down from the restaurant. Tom was looking particularly fine as he’d just been for a wash and polish. When we went back to the car after a very pleasant lunch, I noticed someone had keyed the length of the passenger side of the car. I checked the cars either side but mine was the only one chosen for such treatment. Hence my comment about an expensive lunch.

I’d decided we would stay in Uzes, in a small, highly rated B&B which lived up to its billing. Uzes is a chocolate boxey, bastide town in the Occitane region, on the western fringes of Provence, 45km west of the Medieval walled city of Avignon, 25km north of the Roman city of Nimes and a mere 6km from the world UNESCO heritage site, Pont du Gard. Aside from its Roman origins, it’s home to the first duchy of France, whose glorious Ducal Castle, built on the site of the Roman Castrum (camp) is still in family hands.

There are plenty of grand Renaissance mansions, plus the Cathédrale Saint-Théodorit d’Uzès, a place of worship since Roman times, which dates from the Middle Ages. It has been destroyed and rebuilt several times. What remains is largely from the 19th century, only the organ remains from pre-Revolutionary times. Next door is its fascinating and iconic Fenestrelle tower, the only Lombard style campanile tower in France which dates from the 11th century and stands guard over a wonderful Medieval garden, restored to its former glory in 1995.

The town’s cobbled, largely pedestrianised streets spill out into elegant squares, shaded by gently worn, pale golden stone and shuttered buildings. In the centre of town, ancient sycamore trees dominate and shelter the Place-aux-Herbes and its fountain which is fringed by golden arches. This is where you’ll find the town’s famous twice-weekly (Wednesday and Saturday) market. The place is a gourmet’s delight, surrounded by truffle plantations, vineyards and home to Le Musee du Bonbon, opened in 1996 by Haribo. Though the town’s traditionally famous for its liquorice rather than gummy bears.

To be honest, all we did was stroll around the town, meandering along its cobbled streets, pausing every so often to oooh and aah over its captivating architecture, its wonderful specialist food shops and plentiful restaurant menus. We also visited Pont du Gard, an incredible World UNESCO heritage site, 275 metres long and 48 metres high, spanning the river Gardon, which was built in 50AD as part of the Nimes’ Roman acqua-duct, in use until the 6th century.

Sadly there was no time to visit any of the many wineries, olive oil mills or the Haribo Musee du Bonbon – next time! Nor, aside from Nimes with its amphitheatre, did we see much of the rich Roman heritage in the area in Arles, Orange, Avignon and Chateauneuf-du-Papes  –  another time.

Saturday was devoted to wandering around Nimes and watching the Vuelta’s opening team time-trial. The city is located between the sea and the Cevennes hills. It was established by the Romans, on the edge of the Mediterranean plain, some 16 kilometres inland, and has the finest collection of Roman remains in France, plus an attractive old town.

Nimes Maison Carree

The teams started on the steps of one of Nimes’ most famous Roman remains, the Maison Carrée – the best preserved Roman temple anywhere – and rode through the 2,000 year old Arena, one of only three large Roman arenas in the south of France. The city has several other Roman remains, in particular the Temple of Diana and Tour Magne.

Apart from its Roman monuments, Nimes has an attractive and historic centre, with narrow streets and tree-lined boulevards typical of the south of France. The park of the Jardins de la Fontaine, the site of Friday’s team presentation, laid out in 1745, is one of the oldest city parks in France, and a delightful area of greenery, fountains and shade on the edge of the old town. It also has some striking modern civic buildings designed by Jean Nouvel, Lord Foster and the Portzamparcs.

I had hoped to follow in the Vuelta’s footsteps for a few stages more but my beloved had to fly off to China at lunchtime on Sunday. While I might not visit Nimes again, I’d certainly consider a return trip to Uzes and its gummy bears!



12 Days of Christmas – day 10

This is the view from the finish of stage 3 of the Vuelta a Espana, 176.4km from Marin to Dumbria, Mirador Ezaro which was won by Alexander Geniez (FDJ).


It was a long, hot wait at the summit finish for the peloton, particularly as supplies of cold drinks ran out early on – we were somewhat ill-prepared. But the view back down to the Atlantic coast was worth it.

I’ve just realised that three photos of the Atlantic coast have made it into my 12 favourite photographs from 2016: San Sebastin’s La Concha beach on Day 2 along with one of Vigo’s many beaches on Day 8. But then I do love looking at water, it’s very calming. In our current home we have a beautiful sea view which stretches, on a clear day, from Cap d’Antibes to Cap Ferret and I never tire of looking at it.


12 days of Christmas – day 8

My beloved was keen to visit Vigo while we were following the Vuelta a Espana around Galicia. Aside from its beautiful Atlantic beaches, alleged to be among some of the best in Europe, the town has a magnificent Old Quarter which, while not extensive, covers an interesting area on the slopes above the marina with a number of beautiful plazas along with buildings and streets that have survived from the medieval period.


Vigo’s history and heritage though is not only confined to the old quarter. The greater city has many stunning examples of civic architecture dotted  around its centre and there are a number of squares and parks and plenty of great bars and restaurants serving fish, including my favourite octopus, from the bountiful seas. Galicia seems to enjoy a warmer and less wet climate than the rest of northern Spain and fewer tourists.



Postcard from the Vuelta III: Bizkaia

We first visited Bilbao in Bizkaia back in 2011 when the Vuelta stopped and started in the Basque country for the first time in 33 years. No prizes for guessing why the Vuelta had avoided the area for a while. Fittingly, that stage was won by (former) Euskaltel rider, Igor Anton. We stayed in a small hotel overlooking the town which, by chance, was next to two great restaurants. I had thought of staying in the town this time around but my beloved preferred to stay outside since it would be easier to ride from there. He was right – and I don’t get to say that very often!

Although we’ve visited Bilbao a number of times, I don’t think we’ve seen most of the town. It’s one of the most prosperous parts of Spain largely thanks to its port and industrial heritage from its iron ore deposits. Though it’s now more reliant on the services sector and better known for its Guggenheim museum, on the Nervion river and  fronted by Jeff Kroon’s flower strewn puppy, which was opened in 1997 as part of the city’s attempts to revitalize it. I’d say they’ve succeeded.

We left Gijon early on Thursday morning, right after breakfast, and headed to our new hotel to drop off the bikes and luggage before heading back into town to watch the conclusion of stage 12. The hotel was another converted Palace  – I could get used to this – situated on a golf course with all the amenities you could want or need. We had a light, spacious room at the rear of the property overlooking the golf course with a patio garden- perfect.


After a delicious press buffet lunch in the NH Hotel, I interviewed Ashley House of Eurosport for VeloVoices. I first met him back in 2012 when I spent a few days with the Eurosport team at the Tour. We’ve bumped into one another on a regular basis at most of the Grand Tours, so an interview was long overdue. He didn’t disappoint.


We then bade the Vuelta a fond farewell and spent the last two days of our holiday enjoying the beach and riding around the incredibly undulating countryside. Friday evening, we ate in nearby Gernika-Lumo which was full of families enjoying themselves in the warm late evening. The sun was starting to go down which is why I’ve resorted to photos from Getty Images, mine were too dark and my beloved’s are still languishing in his camera! I’m sure he’ll download them eventually. In his defence, he’s been on a lengthy business trip ever since our return from vacation.

After a leisurely stroll around the town famously bombed and destroyed by the Germans with Franco’s blessing in April 1937 –   I found what looked like a great bar and restaurant. I wasn’t wrong, the diners on the next table confirmed it was the best in town. My father taught me well, I can sniff out a great restaurant at 50 paces. And, yes, I did eat more octopus!

Saturday evening, we returned to Bilbao to investigate another part of town. We followed a similar strategy to the previous evening until I espied a small restaurant (20 covers) at the rear of a wine shop and deli. The maitre’d explained there was only a 7-course tasting menu. My face fell as I explained my dietary restrictions but he assured me that chef would cook me something within those guidelines. He did, and it was absolutely delicious, and a fitting end to our wonderful vacation.

I can’t recommend northern Spain more highly for a fabulous, inexpensive vacation to suit everyone’s tastes. I haven’t recommended restaurants or hotels because those things are very personal and, frankly, it’s much more fun to find these yourself. I rarely book restaurants in advance unless it’s one where I know I’ll have problems booking a table. And, even in August, it’s possible to find hotel vacancies at short notice as we (thankfully) discovered in Asturias.  Also my idea of heaven is another’s idea of hell. For example, I do appreciate that octopus  – like oysters – is an acquired taste but I’d urge you to try it – just forget about those suckers and dive in.

Postcard from the Vuelta II: Asturias

Expectations were high for the remainder of our vacation, particularly after our previous hotels had spoilt us with spacious suites. We arrived in Gobientes late afternoon, after a pleasant stop for a seafood lunch in the middle of nowhere. Despite GPS and GoogleMaps, we had trouble locating the hotel. So I rang them for instructions. A combination of my Spanish and the hotel owner’s French had us driving round in circles for almost an hour. No one we asked had heard of the hotel and there were no road signs guiding us to it – not a good omen. We finally chanced upon it, about 400 metres round the corner from where we’d first rung, given our location and asked for instructions!

At this point neither my beloved nor I were in the best of humours. The hotel’s situation, right behind a working farm left much to be desired and bore no relation to the photos I’d seen or the glowing references I’d read. Its scruffy garden and terrace, where the owner was stubbing out a cigarette, didn’t inspire confidence. We checked in and then almost immediately checked out again. Our room, right next to the creaking front door, had a sea view only if you craned your neck out of the tiny bedroom window at an absurd angle. There was no air conditioning and the bathroom was another contender for my book of the world’s smallest bathrooms. Plus, it was at least 2 km from the sea and overlooked the main road. My beloved will not easily let me forget this booking disaster.




Relieved to get out of there, we drove straight back to the centre of Gijon and the soothing presence of a traditional Spanish hotel for a couple of nights. We’d previously visited the town in 2014 and had fallen in love with its charms and lovely sandy beaches. Two further days of exploration unearthed a number of fantastic local shops, bars and restaurants where I launched yet another assault on the Spanish population of cephalopods (octopuses). Spending two days right in the centre of town made us aware of how much of the town we’d missed on our earlier trip. There’s a wealth of architecture across the ages, including Roman remains near the port. The town’s been around since 5000 BC and on the outskirts of town, to the south and west, and its the main port, you can clearly see its heavy industrial legacy.




Our sanctuary for the following week was the same small, family run hotel we’d stayed in back in 2014. The house, once home to one of Spain’s steel barons, has been in the same family for five generations. The family now lives in its lodge while its guests enjoy the splendours of the beautifully maintained house and grounds, with a magnificent arboretum and a trampoline – a new attraction. I had to give the latter a go since I’d done a lot of trampolining in my dim and distant youth. I think it’s fair to say the hotel’s guests were somewhat taken aback by my skills while the owner’s grand-children were seriously impressed.


Having visited Oviedo on both Sunday for the stage finish and Monday for the stage start, we rode there on the Vuelta’s rest day, ostensibly to find its statue of Samu Sanchez but we fell short. We should have asked Samu’s family where it was when we saw them at Monday’s stage start.

I will attest that there’s very little flat in any part of northern Spain and I was thankful for the granny gears on my Orbea as I churned up yet another incline, trailing in my beloved’s wake. It was a relief to join up with the Vuelta again and watch lots of fit young guys suffer on its inclines, particularly the one to Lagos de Covadonga. Of course, their suffering only starts on the really serious gradients, which I tend to avoid for fear of having to get off and push – so embarrassing!

Nine days in Gijon allowed us to fully explore its countryside and the surrounding area, with its many hills, beautiful sandy beaches, lively bar and restaurant scene plus any number of local watering holes. One of the advantages of cycling is that you find so many more places.

We spent a number of evenings in a local restaurant which served inexpensive but fantastic food where many of the locals were sitting in its garden playing cards and ludo. Now, that’s a game I haven’t seen played for years but it’s obviously popular in Spain as a bar we went into in Ourense had three grannies playing a highly competitive game over what I assume were some G&Ts. It was also lovely just lazing in the hotel’s grounds and enjoying myself on that trampoline. It was a really restful break. Next stop the Basque country, Bilbao to be precise, for the arrival of the Vuelta a Espana.

Postcard from the Vuelta I: Galicia

After attending 10 consecutive World Championships, I decided to take a break this year, largely prompted by its location in Qatar. Initially, my beloved and I had decided to visit Montreal and Quebec, to watch their respective GP races, as part of a longer trip to New England. I had our whole itinerary mapped out, and then the Vuelta announced it would start in Galicia and spend a significant portion of its duration in northern Spain. Plans were quickly changed, we were off to Spain.

To spare my beloved a long drive there and back, we flew to Madrid with the bikes and hired a car. We spent the first night in an excellent and inexpensive airport hotel, before driving the five hours or so to Ourense, in Galicia. We initially drove to one of Ourense’s many spas, the site of the Vuelta’s brief press conference with the leading riders who had the good fortune to be staying in its hotel. This was a few hours ahead of the typically relaxed team presentation which gave us time to catch up with some of the riders we know. Clearly, they were disappointed to discover I hadn’t bought any cakes with me but I promised them all plenty on their return, including samples of my new Musette Bar.


I’d booked a hotel in the old town of Ourense to better enjoy the many local bars, restaurants and the famed cuisine of the area, where the humble octopus looms large. We were given what can only be described as a suite with a generous outdoor balcony, bedroom, sitting room and a ginormous bathroom. I’ve slept in bedrooms smaller than that bathroom.

It poured with rain on Friday but, undeterred, we donned our anoraks and ventured forth to explore the old medieval town which is full of squares, churches and even an old Roman spa, with bars and restaurants aplenty. The architecture is fascinating with buildings dating back to the 14th and 15th centuries built from an iridescent, creamy stone and decorated with beautiful wrought iron railings,  gates, lights and balconies, spectacular stone carved detailing along the roofline, above the window, doors and even on the facades.

It’s a delightful mishmash of styles: Romanesque, Gothic, neo-Classical and Baroque which blend seamlessly along the oft tree lined streets. Statues and civic monuments abound in the attractive squares and plazas. The whole place is a veritable delight.The surrounding area is also well worth a look around, aside from its Roman bridge spanning the river Mino, there’s some charming villages on the outskirts, plus the aforementioned thermal spas.  Sadly we never got to experience any of those healing waters!


We decided to take photographs at the start of stage one’s team time-trial which set off from another spa town late on Saturday afternoon. The riders descended the ramp against a backdrop of cascading water and a large lake. It’s fascinating watching how the different teams prepare and, based on what we did see, we weren’t surprised that team Sky won.

Sunday we decided to head for the finish in Baiona by way of Vigo, which my beloved had expressed a desire to visit. A desire stirred by Iberia’s in-flight magazine which he’d read on our recent trip to San Sebastian. It’s a fascinating place – well worth a visit – though I preferred the pretty seaside town of Baiona, which was buzzing in anticipation of the Vuelta’s arrival.


Monday, a bit of a scorcher, we headed for the finish in Mirador de Ezaro, arriving well ahead of most of the spectators. We bagged a spot in front of the big screen, purchased plenty of liquid refreshment from the only vendor (who later ran out of supplies) and applied the sun screen. The finish afforded a spectacular view of the ascent and the coast below. It wasn’t long before I was wishing I could dangle my feet in those cool Atlantic waters below and being grateful for the freebie Vuelta straw Stetson.

Race over we headed to our next hotel in A Coruna which we shared with the day’s stage winner, Alexander Geniez and his FDJ team, along with that of Ag2r. Frankly, after muddling along for days in Spanish, it was a relief to chat to someone in French. I doubt however that any of the riders were enjoying as much space as my beloved and I who were upgraded to yet another suite. This time we had a bathroom each; I bagged the one with the spa bath.

Early Tuesday, we drove to Asturias where we planned to spend the next nine days, dipping in and out of the race. We’d much enjoyed Galicia but had recently spent time in Castilla y Leon where the race was now headed, plus we wanted to ride too. I’d booked a sea view room in a small, family run hotel, within walking distance of the sea shore, just down the road from Gijon. I hoped it would live up to my beloved’s expectations after the two generously sized suites!