For 10 years I ran Camino Holidays, our sister company. Camino Holidays organised Flamenco holidays in Andalucia. This story dates from about 9 years ago when we hadn't been in business very long and in order to raise our public profile and get more publicity in the UK, we occasionally offered free or discounted holidays to journalists who would then write an account of their holiday for magazines. To be honest, it wasn't so much that we offered this - it was more than journalists would contact us and ask for it. Sometimes we said no, but sometimes if it was a national publication with a large circulation (with millions of readers) we would of course say yes.
Before I begin, let me start by saying that this is a true story, but I'm going to change a couple of names in order to protect the guilty. Stick with the story to the end and you'll see that it is eventually about Flamenco, or at the least, about dancing Sevillanas.
A certain young journalist (we will call her Daphne for the length of this blog) contacted us to ask about a forthcoming holiday that we were running to the Feria del Caballo in Jerez. Daphne was eager to book for the holiday and stay with the rest of the group. She would also take the daily dance classes and make the most of her Feria experience. During the holiday she would interview me, my staff and the other people on the holiday for the article. Daphne was a journalist with a leading women’s monthly magazine, one with a massive circulation. Blinded by excitement, we agreed to include Daphne in the holiday for NO CHARGE!
In those early days before we employed permanent staff in Spain, I would frequently fly out to accompany the holidays. I arrived in Jerez the day before the group in order to prep everyone that we had a top journalist coming and to present everything in the best possible way at all times. Next day I went with the driver to meet the group at the airport and when they arrived the group was already thrilled and excited. The sun shone, the sky was deep blue, and Jerez looked lovely - everywhere was signs and preparations for the Feria. Everyone was enchanted!
Everyone except Daphne. She looked out of the coach window and said “is this it? I’d imagined something, you know….more Spanish”. Cue dropping of jaw (from me). What could I say? I said nothing and thought “she’s tired from the journey; she needs to relax and eat something. It’ll all be fine”.
The group was staying in one of the most highly rated, charming boutique hotel in Jerez. We had arranged for Daphne to have their best room (although everyone’s rooms were just lovely) and while everyone else in the group made ooohhhh noises at their first sight of the hotel, Daphne looked as if she was sucking on a lemon. She didn’t speak to anyone else in the group, barely spoke to the charming hotel owner who had come down to the hotel specifically to greet her, but just stomped off to her room.
After giving the group a couple of hours to wind down, unpack and generally relax, I had arranged to collect them from the hotel to take them to eat lunch. When I arrived at the hotel the group was up on the roof terrace, complimentary drink in hand and already in fine spirits. No-one had seen Daphne for some time. At this point I should explain that no-one else in the group knew that Daphne was a journalist, or why she was there. I thought it for the best, at least initially, as I didn’t want them to act differently with her.
At the appointed hour we all assembled in the hotel lobby and waited for Daphne who didn’t appear. The hotel called her room. No answer. I called her mobile. No answer. I went to her room. She wasn’t there. No one in the hotel had seen her leave. Staff searched the hotel, but no sign of Daphne.
I had LOST my journo! How had I managed that? The cold sweat began, coupled with the dawning realisation that I had to keep up the charm offensive for the rest of the group and make sure that they remained oblivious to what was really happening. We were already almost 30 minutes late for our lunch. I dug deep, smiled brightly and took my group off to lunch, leaving the hotel strict instructions to call me the moment Daphne appeared. We were about 20 yards along the road when we ran into Daphne who seemed very unhappy with my relieved and enthusiastic greeting. She had apparently “been bored “and had gone for a walk. She didn’t think it mattered if she turned up for lunch or not and wasn’t sure that she would now join us anyway. The others in the group, in their happy ignorance, pleaded with her to join them (I think they thought she was shy) and so off we went.
The restaurant was in a small pedestrian square in one of the oldest parts of Jerez. We had a large table set out for us under the Jacaranda trees which were in full flower, a sea of frothy purple beauty. The table was prepared for us with bottles of chilled white wine, bottles of chilled water, bowls of crusty bread and saucers of olives. Some of the others in the group thought it was so lovely they almost had tears in their eyes and almost everyone took photos! Except Daphne.
She began by berating the waiter in English. I explained that none of the waiters spoke English. She huffed and puffed and said very loudly that she didn’t like to use a translator as they never said what she had actually said (too right there!). Her seat had to be moved, she was too much in the sun, then she was too much in the shade. The water was too cold, she didn’t eat bread. She didn’t drink alcohol. She was a vegetarian, was there a vegetarian menu? No, she hadn’t added this onto her booking form in the section marked “are you a vegetarian?” because she had forgotten to. She sent her first course back un-tasted. She sent her second course back twice for changes. She devoured her pudding as if she’d never met cream and custard on the same plate together before. She had a second pudding. It seemed like a very long meal.
At this point I’m going to fast forward as by now you are all getting a good picture of what life with Daphne was like. By the end of the lunch only the die-hards were still attempting friendly conversation with her, the majority of the group had given up and were forming their own friendships and starting to really enjoy themselves. As for me, since Daphne continually spoke to me as if I was both her enemy and a lowly servant, I really couldn’t achieve anything much.
The Flamenco dance classes started the next day. The group had 5 classes over the week, all with a local teacher at her dance school. The rest of the group found the classes challenging and great fun and loved the fact that they were dancing at a local school. I dropped in to watch the classes on day two, to see how everyone was getting on and to make sure that the teacher was happy too. As soon as I walked in I noticed Daphne sitting down. In the break I asked the teacher if everything was alright and she said yes, but that no matter what she did or said, she couldn’t get Daphne to dance. I was amazed and said “do you mean she comes here every day and just sits there?” and the teacher said, yes – she did exactly that. She just sat and made notes.
Everyone else was learning the dances of the Feria, the Sevillanas and the Rumba. They were going to need them because after lunch that day we went to the Feria del Caballo for the first time. On the day we went it was still relatively quiet, with no more than 20,000 people enjoying several square miles of casetas. There were beautiful horses parading up and down, beautifully dressed locals, from every corner poured the music of Sevillanas – inviting you to dance, drink and enjoy yourself. The first day at the Feria everyone was a little bit intimidated and although I know they really wanted to dance too, so they just walked about and soaked it all up. There was plenty of time.
Daphne also came to life, taking loads of photos. She particularly liked photographing the horses and the carriages. We found a table outside a particularly attractive caseta and ordered a round of drinks and a selection of tapas. Daphne went off to take photos. About 15 minutes later a local came running over to me, asking me to go with him back to the first aid tent – Daphne had been trodden on by a horse.
No bones were broken thank god and far from being tearful, Daphne was ranting about how she was going to sue the organisers of the Feria. Privately I thought “good luck with that one sweetheart” and to talk her down from the trees I tried distraction technique. I explained that I was rather concerned that we were 2 days into the holiday and I hadn’t seen her speak to any of the group, nor had she spoken to me, the hotel owner or the dance teacher. She hadn’t asked me for any background on Jerez or the Feria. My question seemed to cheer her up immensely and she told me that she had changed her mind about the angle of the piece. She was now going to do it from the point of view of a normal client in our group – so no interviews and only the knowledge she could pick up herself during the holiday.
We had five more days of the holiday. Everyone else loved their classes, loved being in Jerez and loved the Feria. They made new friendships, got drunk, laughed and got sunburnt. And they danced, and danced, and danced. By the second visit to the Feria I couldn’t stop them dancing Sevillanas, Rumba, even trips to the Salsa caseta. I left them to it as by day three of the Feria they didn’t need or want me there, which was fine. They had discovered that the Feria was a 24 hour party with great food and drink, where you could see and hear great music and dance, where you could dance till you dropped. A group of women aged 35 to 60 felt young and carefree. They loved it.
Daphne never got off her chair in the dance class. Daphne never danced Sevillanas at the Feria. By day four she had stopped going to class and had no contact with the rest of the group all at. She came to the farewell meal, but barely spoke to me or anyone else at that final meal of the holiday. She did not seem happy. I was told later that she sat separately to the others on the plane going back and at the baggage carousel said to them quite happily, “goodbye, I don’t suppose I will ever see any of you again”. And that was that. But not quite…….
Three months later I was in Sainsbury’s, standing in the magazine aisle reading the magazine with Daphne’s article in it. The first that my friend knew that anything was wrong was when, from two aisle away, she heard me make “a strange animal howling noise” and rushed over to find me jumping up and down on the magazine, shouting “Bitch, bitch etc…….”
Yes folks, Daphne had written her story – a fascinating tale of love, lust and dancing in the hot Andalucian sun. The story began by her explaining that something deep inside had called her to do this thing and even though she had never been to Spain and didn’t speak Spanish, all on her own she booked this holiday and went unaccompanied to this strange town called Jerez.
There she knew no-one and was completely alone, staying in this quaint little run down hotel. Somehow she found her way to a local dance teacher who on seeing her dance christened her “La Niña Valiente” (the brave girl) and admired and encouraged her natural talent.
She was entranced by the strange, almost savage locals, cooking over their open fires in the streets (in her version everyone’s cookers seemed to have packed up) and gazing at her with dark, lustful eyes. A local man told her that she should go to their Feria, so that everyone would see her dance. She went and hung around at the edge of the dance floor at first. Then a tall, dark, gypsy man with long flowing hair approached her and said “are you La Niña Valiente? You must dance with me!” and before she could stop him, he whirled her out onto the dance floor and there they almost consummated their passion, in the powerful steps and hot glances of the Sevillanas. She felt like a woman re-born into the mystery that is the true Spanish life.
At no point did Daphne mention Camino Holidays or Camino del Flamenco and no reader would have been any the wiser about how or why she got there. We received no reference of any type in the 4 page piece, packed with photos and nor did the dance school or the hotel.
But as I promised at the beginning, this story does end with dancing Sevillanas.
A strange but true ending (sort of) to this story is that a year later I was contacted by someone wanting to book a dance holiday with us. She said that she’d read a thrilling article in a magazine about how an ordinary woman booked a Flamenco dance holiday to Jerez and how she found love there and it had inspired her to want to do the same. Did we offer holidays like this? Of course I said yes!