Vertical Thrill – Living on the edge in Ronda, Andalucía

When we first came to Spain we visited towns from Granada to Cádiz, searching for a place where we might want to hang our hat, at least for a few months, or if we really liked it, possibly forever. We passed through charming white villages and historical towns, but once we got to Ronda we knew that this was it. Nothing could compare to the dramatic setting, perched on a cliff with the world’s deepest urban gorge splitting the town in two.

Living in Ronda means literally living on the edge. The houses along the rim of el Tajo, as the narrow canyon is called, have nothing but a sheer drop in front of them. Pity the day the house owners need to fix their foundation or crumbling outer walls, as the Tajo is over one hundred and sixty meters deep in places. Just imagine the scaffolding… Anyhow, as long as the stonework holds this means that you as a visitor can sit at a restaurant and enjoy a glass of tinto, or sleep in a hotel room literally suspended in the air.

Such a thrilling place will of course attract visitors by the thousands, but the tourists usually walk across the world famous bridge (one of Spain’s most photographed locations), buy a couple of postcards, have a cerveza and get back on the bus to return to the Costa del Sol. For those of us who live here however, passing the edge is an everyday occurrence. Children walk to school on top of a cliff and people drive to work every day back and forth across the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge), which in spite of it’s more than two centuries and the worn cobbled surface is still the main, and really the only, traffic artery between Ronda’s old and new town.

Going to school in Ronda means learning with a view. Whether one takes lessons in Spanish, horse riding, flamenco dancing or local crafts, chances are that your classroom will sit on an edge with a sweeping vista of olive groves and vineyards and the towering Serranía de Ronda mountains at a hike-able distance. It might possibly be too distracting for a daydreaming teenager needing to pass their high school exams, but for visiting students and resident expats who may not need to ace their tests, the view is a definite bonus. Take Entrelenguas, the language school just inside Ronda’s old city walls, where you not only can learn to conjugate your Spanish verbs with a vista, but they also offer wine tastings, movie nights, cooking courses, gardening stints and a pay-as-you-want bar. You may wonder if we learns anything at all here, but we do…

Living in Ronda means loving and letting go on the edge. This type of vertical landscape will spur people to declare eternal love, propose, get married, get re-married, have bitter quarrels and threaten to leave, divorce, all while standing on the brink. The edge brings out the passion in people, particularly on the “holy …..’ balcony which extends out over the Tajo at a drooping incline and with dangerously slight and seemingly rusted supports. You may hear stories about people being thrown off the bridge during the civil war or in the times of the bandoleros, though most of these are local legends and may or may not be accurate. What is sadly true is that some visitors will try to reach out a bit too far to get that last awesome shot of the Tajo. Their very last…

This type of vertical landscape will of course attract thrill seekers. There are wire-frame ‘ladders’ going up the walls of the Tajo, which are used by local and visiting climbers on a daily basis. Most seem to survive… A couple of weeks ago we had a group of young daredevils jumping with parachutes from the bridge and the edge of the Tajo. Keep in mind that it has sharp, uneven rocky edges and is very narrow, just over 60 meters at it’s widest. I chose not to watch the jumping, rather waiting for the video to be posted online the next day, just in case… Last weekend, Ronda was the host of the First European Open of Vertical Progression Techniques in Caving and Canyoning. 150 male and female competitors from all over Europe brought helmets, ropes and shackles and other climbing paraphernalia to suspend and zip-chord themselves over the dizzying ravine. The longest span went over 300 meters. My husband said he would have done it in his younger days (I actually believe him, as he was flying military planes at 17), though I made no such claim and had enough of a thrill just walking down to the bottom of the Tajo to take pictures of the competitors, suspended like tiny spiders far above. Amazing what some people do for fun!

Unbelievable as it may seem, there are rondeños with fear of heights, though anyone with a slight bout of vertigo will gradually and inadvertently be cured of the condition by the mere fact of living here. One does get used to living on the edge and staring into the stunning deep abyss. Many local residents race blindly across the Puente Nuevo as if it was any old bridge with any old view, but such is to be expected. Familiarity may not always breed contempt, but it certainly can breed indifference. I hope I will never take the stunning vista and vertical beauty for granted, though I assure you, you wont see me dangling on a rope across the Tajo any day soon…

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The Hidden, the Buried and the Living History of Übeda, Spain’s Renaissance Jewel

Much has been written about the town of Übeda in the province of Jaén, which with neighbouring Baeza were declared UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2003. Known as Spain’s Renaissance gems, there are possibly more richly decorated and perfectly conserved buildings per city block here than in any other place on the Iberian peninsula; magnificent palaces, grandiose squares, private chapels and stately homes. One can spend days admiring Plateresque façades, Romanesque churches, Gothic arches and religious carvings from the 16th and 17th centuries at the height of the Andalucian Renaissance. Yet, with all its splendour, what struck me most during a recent visit to Übeda was something quite different. Three simple images have remained with me, so here comes the story of The Hidden, the Buried and the Live History of Übeda.

The Hidden History – The street-side baby drop-off
Deep in the old quarter of Übeda on an unassuming side street lies the Casa Cuna or the Cradle House. Now a private residence, the only thing left is a ghost of a window with a screened wicket, formerly the turnstile where unwanted babies were deposited in centuries past. This is where children conceived out of wedlock and women who were raped would ‘deposit’ new-borns they could not, or would not care for. Yet, married couples frequently used the services of la Casa Cuna, as well. A law existed where a legitimate married commoner could receive the title of Gentleman or Hidalgo by producing seven consecutive live male offspring, thereby receiving the title of Hidalgo de Bragueta, literally Gentleman of the Zipper. Such an attractive offer must have challenged many a man to prove his virility. And pity the wives who would let them down and produce female offspring. Entirely her fault, of course…

Passing the wicket today, one cannot help but mourn the tragedy that occurred on this narrow street and inside Casa Cuna, where so many infants suffered and perished. One may wonder what the people living in the house feel? I hope they occasionally light a candle in the turnstile for the abandoned children of Übeda.

The Buried History – The underground Mikveh ritual baths
In 2007, three local developers wanted to convert a few houses in the old town of Übeda into luxury apartments with underground parking. As they began their de-construction, removing the inner walls of a former beauty parlour, they discovered stone arches and other indicators that this must have been more than a regular home. Two of the developers wanted to close up the evidence and continue building without saying anything to the local authorities. (Pretty standard here in Spain, unfortunately) The third developer thought it had great historical value and insisted that they got it checked out properly. The partners split, the good ‘conservationist’ keeping the ground floor and basement for archaeological digs, while the other developers made flats out of the upper floors.

During the initial excavations, the scientists thought they had found a Catholic chapel. In the 15th century, Spanish Jews had to practice their faith in secret, so they disguised the entrance of their synagogue. To further protect their place of worship, the Jewish community had put a fake sign of the Inquisitor Office on the house next door, hoping that nobody would imagine them to be as bold as to live and pray beside a house of the Inquisition. Further excavations revealed the 15th Century synagogue, complete with seven interior wells still with water today. Excavating the cellar area was almost impossible, as past house owners had used the basement as dumping ground, filling it with construction rubble to avoid paying building permits. As literally ton after ton of debris were removed to access what was thought to be an old wine cellar, they discovered the seven stone steps leading down into a Mikveh, a Jewish ritual bath. Regardless of ones faith, there is a peace and serenity surrounding the bath. Though no photos were allowed, the image is imbedded in my mind. There are only a handful conserved Mikvehs in Europe, and two in Spain, the only one with a continuous supply of fresh water in Übeda, making this a very rare discovery, indeed.

It is a tremendous privilege to visit this sacred place that not only the Spanish Inquisition tried to abolish, but which a mere decade ago would have been destroyed forever in the name of progress had it not been for the honesty of one builder. Nine years has passed since La Sinagoga del Agua was discovered and the builder is still its owner. The synagogue’s last chapter is not written yet. Part of the Jewish settlement is still ‘buried’ in a neighbouring house, but the present owner refuses to sell. Anyhow, having waited almost 600 years to be unearthed, what does a few more years or generations matter…

The Living History – the white-haired artist
People have been making ceramics in Übeda for millennia, so naturally we wanted to visit one of the town’s famous pottery workshops. The first morning, we went on a photo hunt, starting at the main plaza. The low sun silhouetted the famous funeral chapel of the Saviour, while it’s rays spread into the empty plaza. Well, almost empty, except for a man with long white hair strolling leisurely through the square. After breakfast, we visited a ceramic workshop across from the town hall. The owner came to greet us, a man with long white hair. “Why did you take my picture this morning?”, he asked with the abrupt sincerity of the elderly. To me, a town is nothing without its people, and this gentleman was someone one hardly would miss. Neither was his story.

Juan Martínez Villacañas, or Tito as he is called, was born in 1940 in the pottery district of Übeda. His father was a ceramic and Tito learned to make pots from childhood. In those days there were still hundreds of potteries in Übeda, primarily making everyday utility items. In the 1960’s most of these workshops were forced to close down, as new materials like plastics and modern technologies such as electricity and domestic water access replaced ceramic vessels. In spite of the dark outlook, Tito continued in his chosen profession, reinventing himself by adapting what he had learned to a modern society where pottery had lost its functional use. He registered his company Alfarería Tito in 1965 and has produced ceramics under the embossed label TITO-ÚBEDA ever since. That he is still around, right in the historic centre of Übeda, is a true testament to his art.

The younger generation of the family now work with him, bringing new innovations while remaining faithful to the rich Spanish pottery traditions, incorporating forgotten methods and designs and bringing back finishes and colours that have not been seen since the Renaissance. Alfarería Tito has received national awards and critical acclaim. Tito’s ceramics are in collections all over the world and have been featured extensively in movies such as Carmen, Alatriste with Viggo Mortensen, Águila Roja and HBO’s Game of Thrones, to mention a few. With such proven success, it is not strange that other ceramics have tried to copy him or his name. But the old artist is not worried. At 76, Tito still goes to his workshop every day, sitting at his potters’ wheel in an old apron encrusted in terracotta-coloured clay. His entire workshop is like a museum with thousands of pieces, hidden amongst which are old photographs, antique ceramic pieces and a transistor radio.

I met one of his helpers in the paint- shop, meticulously hand-brushing tiny cobalt crosses on a white carafe, just like it was done in the 16th century. He had been working with Tito for 30 years, he said. That’s loyalty if you ask me… I wandered into the large courtyard, where giant old wine and olive tinajas stood side by side with Tito’s ceramic pieces. On a wooden table were the leftovers of his breakfast, a torn loaf of peasant bread, a bottle of Jaén olive oil and a well-used ceramic mug. Three large sunflower heads were drying beside it, making the still life complete.

“People always hope to like what they do, but some do what we love.”  TITO

 

 

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My TOP TEN Andalucían Ruins and FixerUppers – The Official 2016 Countdown

I have developed a new hobby after we moved to Andalucía (or more of an obsession, if you ask my husband). I collect Andalucian ruins. Everywhere we go I make him stop so I can snap photos of potential fixer-uppers, and since the autovías have closed access to many roadside settlements, there are increasingly more ruins to see along the Andalucian freeways. Now whether you can get to any of them is another story.

There is something very beautiful about how Andalucian stone houses age, become abandoned, windswept, crocked and bent, in various degrees of decay and finally collapse. Since Andalucía is primarily composed of rocks and dirt, so are its traditional rural houses and farms. While we humans might not look particularly ‘hot’ as we transform back to dust, old stone fincas look just more gracious and harmonious with their surroundings as they crumble back into the soil. My hobby is by no means at an end and I will continue taking photos of dilapidated buildings, but I thought I would take stock and share my favourite ten. So far…

Before I start my countdown, I need to add that I am not in real estate and do not represent any special interest. I do not know if any of the buildings are for sale, nor frankly do I care. It is really irrelevant to the fact, as I collect ’my’ ruins on purely aesthetical grounds. Most of the fixer-uppers are off the grid, many without road access, unless you get on a tractor or go by mule. The buildings are in various state of dis-repair, all seen from the outside. It is hard for me to say which of the ten are my absolute favourites, though possibly more so as one comes closer to number one. Most of the ruins will never be fixed, while others may have lots of restoration potential. Some require more imagination than others to appreciate, though all have lots of patina and hidden beauty.

So, without further ado – The contestants for the 2016 Andalucian Ruin / Fixer-Upper Awards are:

10. Single walled ruin – Old town Ronda
 

I am starting with this one, as it was my first Andalucían ruin. I actually sent it to my parents when we came to Spain. I told them we had bought this perfect fixer-upper, all it needed was a bit of TLC. My husband would do the roofing and I would see to the finer details. Such nasty things one does to shock ones old parents! Anyhow, this ruin is located in Ronda’s Casco Histórico, across from Casa del Moro. As far as I know, it still only has the façade, though the wooden supports that somehow were to prevent it from falling have now been replaced by heavy metal supports.

9. Finca with Eucalyptus trees – near Estación de Benaoján
 

The next contestant is a lovely two-story finca near Estación de Benaoján. The roof has caved in, but that is a minor detail, especially if one considers the idyllic location, tucked beneath a green hill, nestled next to a couple of towering eucalyptus trees, with undisturbed sweeping views. If you look carefully to the right of the photo, you see that the property comes with a couple of well-disguised speckled black sheep, and who wouldn’t like to have a black sheep to keep one company?

8. Ruins of Arab fortress – Teba
 

This is not your regular private dwelling. It is an Arab fortress and key player in the Battle of Teba in the year of 1330. It is protected, but it still falls under my definition of a ruin, and a stunning one at that! Located just above the village of Teba, hopefully nobody will be able to build this into a dream castle or Andaluz theme park. Instead, this is where one can see a perfect example of how a stone carcasses of past grandeur blends beautifully with the landscape. And what a golden vista!

7. Casa with iron gate – Ronda
 

This lovely fixer-upper is located on our walk out to the Pilar de Cartajima. The blackberries have more or less taken over the house, but just look at that priceless crocked, rusty gate and the lovely mossy stone fence. Besides, if one has a yard full of old olive trees, who needs walls…

6. Haunted house – Ronda
 

I am writing the heading without really having any scientific proof of the claim. This grand old house, located on the gravel road along the ridge leading to Virgen de la Cabeza, is said to be haunted. Our neighbour used to play tennis with the children living there half a century ago, which shows how quickly things fall into ruin when left to its own demise, or to graffiti artists and vandals for that matter. Anyhow, in my own far-too-developed imagination, this was a dancing establishment and members-only gambling club in the swinging 1920s and 30s. The word on the street is that it has been sold and that the new owner wants to build a hotel and luxury residences on the property. In other words, goodbye ghosts! Before this happens, I will chain myself to Villa Apollo to try to prevent them from tearing down this charming ruin.

5. Minimalist dream  – near Montejaque
 

This ruin just above the village of Montejaque may not be to everyone’s taste, but it certainly is one of my favourites, possibly THEE favourite. First, look at the dramatic setting with that sculpted cliff behind. Then there is the neighbourhood of course, wide open to interpretation. And finally, there is the structure itself, a minimalist dream. I say no more!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Finca with visteria – Júzcar area

 

The beauty of this fixer-upper is how the visteria has completely taken charge of the place. The finca, including outhouses, sheds, stables and even bits and pieces of broken furniture, is in the vicinity of Júzcar, the bubble-gum-blue village where the Smurf movies where shot and where we are too old or too snobbish to enjoy going. The property is impossible to find, unless one balances over rivers and scrambles through thorny tracks. However, when we finally got there, we did notice some type of farm road coming in from the opposite direction and a live human being working on the nearby land.

3. Ruin with guard sheep – near Jimera de Libar
 

We are coming dangerously close to the top of the list, so these are all my favourite favourites. We have walked past this ruin several times, as it lays on the hiking trail between Estación de Benaoján and Jimera de Libar (thank goodness the Spanish like their names short…) The ruin has a lovely terracotta hue, which in itself grants special notice. But with the young lamb as a guard sheep, it certainly deserves this year’s bronze.

2. Concrete block with white mare – outskirts of Ronda
 

This ruin, merely 43 years old and not even a particularly modernist style, still gets the silver for this years’ fixer-upper count down and it is all due to the mare. I actually do not know if it is a mare, but she kind of looks that way with her tired eye. She is not feisty, but neither is the ruin. The scrolled forged iron sign gives the building a sort of Western cowboy feel and puts this fixer-upper in a class of its own. Whether the mare’s name is Jcona or that is the owner of the joint, I do not know, but if you happen to walk from Ronda to Montejaque, you will pass it right before you cross the river and start the upwards hike towards the ruin of the former Ronda brothel on the hill (The latter I am saving for the 2017 edition of the fixer-upper awards)

1. Farm with Roman grain tower  – outskirts of Ronda
 

This ruin is pure poetry. It is located in a twist in the sandy road leading from Ronda to Tajo del Abanico, before one gets onto the nature trail. It is also on what use to be the main transport road between Ronda and the coast of Gibraltar, we are talking centuries and centuries back. I have scores of pictures of this ruin, as I cannot pass it without taking another shot. The tallest part, or so we have been told, is the remnants of a Roman grain tower, as they used to grow grains, olives and grapes around Ronda some two thousand years ago. Although it looks beautiful as a ruin, one can only hope that the local authorities decide to protect and restore this priceless piece of history. The tower has been added to and built around in later years. Interestingly, the newer buildings are in a much poorer condition than the much older tower. Even if the towers have been fixed and mended through the years, but it still goes to show that the Romans built to last.

11. Mystery house – Ronda Tajo
 

Did I say it would be a countdown of ten? Well, like the BBC Escape to the Country TV program, I decided to add my mystery house, as well. Tagged on at the end, I will let it be a teaser for my next, but likely not last fixer-upper countdown. Ronda’s Tajo had about a dozen mills built into the steep cliff side, many which were used until just a couple of generations ago. Now overgrown by trees, roots and foliage, the mill-ruins are like jungle village beneath the town of Ronda. It is truly a hidden jewel, but do not try to find it on your own or you might have a very long fall in the process.

I leave you with another image, as a reminder that all starts and ends as dust. It is a rather humbling thought, bringing us closer to the ground as it were. While I am still in a relatively human form, I will keep photographing and sharing my favourite Andalucian fixer-uppers and ruins. Like my friend Ruby Silvious from New York, who just published her book 363 Days of Tea with her beautifully hand-painted daily teabags, maybe I should publish a book of My year of Andalucian Ruins?

In the meantime, stay tuned for the 2017 Edition of My Top Ten Andalucian Ruins

 

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Tamarind… Que? Why rural expats head to the Costa del Sol to stock up on exotic cooking ingredients

The Spanish love their Spanish food and who can blame them. We enjoy tapas as much as the next person, but there is something to be said for variety. I am talking about gastronomic and ethnic variety with exotic flavours from faraway lands that challenge and stimulate your taste buds.

My husband and I moved from a city of millions to a small town off the major Andalucían freeway system. In Canada, we were used to having a dozen Chinese restaurants, a handful sushi places, a couple of Falafel places, in addition to Thai, Indonesian, Malay, Greek, Italian, French, Afghani and vegan restaurants (anything but Canadian…), all within walking distance of our Kitsilano home. Though our new hometown has more than 150 eating establishments, Ronda has only a handful places that serve what can be remotely defined as foreign food, the less interesting being pizza joints, the most ‘exotic’ ones being two very drab looking Chinese places that only seem to tempt the Chinese tourist-bus crowds. (I have sworn to my husband that I will never put my feet in there, much rather having a liquid lunch in the scuzzy Jerez bar next door.) Unfortunately our only Indian place, which actually served an excellent Rogan Josh curry, is gone. Alas, our need for spicy, exotic foods and flavours has to be satisfied elsewhere.

Ronda is of course not completely off the map. All the supermarkets will have soy sauce and a German supermarket chain have some vegetarian, wheat-free and even the occasional ethnic fare. But not enough for my hubby, who loves his Indonesian Rendang curry almost as much as he loves his native Mexican tacos. I said almost… Our immediate solution was to tell friends who would come to visit from abroad to bring us spices. Unfortunately, one cannot count on this type of vicarious importation. We also stocked up when we went to visit the family in Norway, as Oslo seems to have more ethnic food than all of Spain combined. Yet, this also wasn’t a viable solution in the long run, and who want to risk getting black bean sauce spilled in one’s suitcase…So, the solution was to go to the coast, as in Costa del Sol, just like we do when we need to buy good quality paint, or special tools or something for the house.

In the nearly four years we have lived here, we have driven, eaten and scoured our way through the independent territory of Andalucia in search of ethnic and foreign ingredients. In an emergency, we can recommend Carrefour or the food court at Corte Inglés. In spite of its deceiving name (meaning the English Cut, referring to an Anglo style of tailoring), the latter is a Spanish chain, offering a decent selection of foreign ingredients. We have found some spices in Malaga’s market and a better selection still in the open market in Cádiz’ old quarter. Last time we were there, we even managed to find Sichuan pepper. Quite an exciting discovery!

It wasn’t until we discovered an unpresumptuous Asian food store on a side street with near-impossible parking in Arroyo de la Miel in Benalmadena that we felt we had hit the jackpot. Saborasia (Asian Flavour) as it is called, is run by Karishma. Originally from Indonesia, she tends to the store with her Spanish husband, while her Japanese mom sometimes may be seen sitting in a plastic chair outside with a grandchild. We immediately knew we had come to the right place, as not only could we find the ingredients we were looking for, but Karishma actually knew what she (and we…) were talking about! She even gives Asian cooking courses on the weekends!

For the first time since we came to Spain, we could have actual (though frozen, for now) lemongrass, lime leaf and galangal in our Thai Tom Yum soup. I could finally supplement my dwindling supply of Japanese Genmaicha tea. My husband ogled over the Oyster and Hoisin sauces, chili oils and his beloved curries. They had Asian rice and noodles of any imaginable type and size and of course endless brands of soup mixtures. Almost like shopping in Vancouver, they had good quality aged miso, gari (picked ginger) and wasabi. And even Sake, which you have to get at the liquor store back in Canada. As we stacked our purchases on the counter, we also spotted ginger candy (great for car sickness and sugar-lows during hikes), and added them and coconut milk to our ever-growing stash. I would have included a cool Asian tea set she had behind the cash register as well, but by this time our bags were full and our wallets empty. Well, well, there is always next time.

We haven’t yet tried Karishma’s Asian cooking classes. My husband still ‘threatens’ to send me away so I can learn to cook, as I suppose he can’t see the great benefit of having a wife who prefers to style food, rather than to cook it. For now, we drive down to Saborasia whenever we get low in supplies. And one of these fine days her Asian tea set is coming with me so I can drink my Lapsang Souchong in style.

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A Hashtag Virgin gets a Lesson in the Lessons of Instagram

I am not looking for Pokémon. In fact, I will gladly admit that when it comes to the latest in technology and social media marvels, I am a deliberate dinosaur. I waited the longest possible time before I finally broke down and exchanged my pager for a cell phone, some 20 years ago. People were using computers and digital cameras for years before I acquired them and I still and hopefully always will prefer old-fashioned books to a Kindle. Indeed, since I have never been stuck on a Survival-type desert island, only allowed to bring three personal things and a TV crew, I have never had much of a problem with access to the printed word.

People have tried to talk me into getting on Facebook forever. They argue that I am loosing out on seeing shots of old school friends, that I am cut-off from ‘reality’, that I won’t know what my son is doing and that it is my duty to friends and family to share my photos with them. I have always stood steadfast by my decision. I do not want to be on Facebook. Frankly, I don’t need to know what my school friends look like and would probably not recognize them anyhow. I’ll never know what my son is up to all the time whether I am on Facebook or not. And I think it is my duty NOT to expose the world to photos of my loved ones and myself, posing while eating, traveling and what have you not. People can post whatever they like, but in my opinion and possibly mine alone, there are enough people out there without me posting my ugly grin every nanosecond, as well.

The other day I was chatting with my son, and he said that I really should get an Instagram account in conjunction with launching my new web site and design business here in Spain. (Coming soon…) “What’s Instagram?”, I asked and my son (probably eye rolling) bombarded me with things like Hashtags and other words that some middle-aged women like myself may not particularly want to know. Yet, I decided to give my lad the benefit of the doubt and did some googling on the subject.

Since the name started with Insta, I thought that a couple of Youtube videos would teach me the ropes and make me determine whether Instagram was for me. Cut to three hours later. I was still on Youtube, having watched at least a handful Instagram-for-Dummies and Instagram-101 tutorials. I was led onto more advanced Tips and Trends on how to grow your followers and how to become an Instagram success while earning millions in the process. As if… What struck me was that the deeper I got into my research, the younger were the self-proclaimed ‘specialists’. I don’t know why this particular fact should surprise me, seeing that most CEOs of multinational companies and many heads of states are a decade or two younger than me. I suppose anyone can be a specialist when it comes to new technology and the majority of cutting-edge social media Apps are probably invented by teens. So I deferred to the specialists:

First, there was the typical squeaky-voiced platinum blonde Californian, using all of her 21 years of vast life-experience, telling me what I must not do, such as not to follow too many people nor to post any old pictures. “I mean, It’s Insta-gram,” she hoity-toity-ed, very close to adding a “Duh!”

Then there was the hip Asian Instagram brainchild, babbling faster than a Spanish sports commentator, giving me the 10 or was it the 101 ways to gain business success with Instagram. I didn’t doubt that her advice had some credit, I was just curious as to how many businesses she had had time to run?

Next was the a slightly dubious looking Baltic fellow telling me how to instantly gain millions of followers, as he undoubtedly have, by clicking ‘Follow’ on every link possible and then immediately de-clicking them. Why would anyone want to ‘trick’ people into following them, unless their sole goal is to brag about how many followers they have? I am not in need of company, nor do I need a following, virtual or otherwise.

The last ‘expert’, and this was the final straw, was a pre-pubescent boy lecturing the world on his Instagram success, while being filmed against what looked like the tool wall in dad’s garage in the dullest of suburbs. He told the World-Wide-Web and all of us listeners out there that one simply HAD to be funny, like, to be on Instagram, which he probably thought his boofy 1950s coif made him, though to me he was rather pathetic. There clearly must be something in the saying that ‘Youth is wasted on the young’. The kid went on and on about how being good-looking helped, like, and how, like, he had gained his vast popularity, like, with…

I could listen to no more.

In spite of the specialists, I did make an Instagram account and even managed to add a few photos and hashtags. “Are hashtags the same as the tags we used before?”, my husband asked me. Checking the Internet, I discovered that it is actually so. A hashtag is just a type of label, or tag, used on social networks and blogs etc., making it easier for other users to find articles and posts with a specific theme or content. So, as an example, since I like rocks, (which probably is dreeeeadfully boring to most people…) I could look under hashtags such as  #rocks, #stone’ and #fossils to find likeminded rock lovers.

In spite of my initial trepidation, I enjoy Instagram – for now. I have discovered amazing images of gorgeous fabrics from Pakistan, mind-blowing architecture and design from cities around the world, lovely Asian food and flower arrangements and nature shots that make your jaw drop, none of which I would have seen had I not explored Instagram. I like the fact that somebody on the other side of the globe might appreciate a photo I have taken, and visa versa. I might post pictures of Andalucian vistas, a snapshot of something I am restoring, a photograph of a texture, a colour, a ray of light or anything grabbing my passing fancy. And I won’t mind if you don’t like it. The day I feel that Instagram is too invasive or addictive, I will simply close up shop. In the meantime, I can promise you this. I will not post a single photo of dinners with friends and family. There are some things that ‘the world’ does not need to see.

Feel free to check out my still-on-training-wheels Instagram page: iamasnobb

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Getting lost in the Old Kissing Corner and other alleys of Sevilla’s Judería

Ever since we started exploring Andalucía with the dream of moving here, I fell in love with the alleys of southern Spain. Every town here has its special charm, so I cannot say which one I like the best. Yet, when it comes to secret side streets and twisting lanes, old Sevilla is certainly high up my list.

Sevilla, the capital of Andalucía is the independent territory’s most populated city, with almost 700 000 residents. With 3000 years of history, the city is a true crossroad of cultures and civilizations. While it offers a wide range of tourist attractions, to me it’s charm lies in getting lost in its lanes. Just a stone throw away from the famous La Giralda lies the entrance to the old Judería, Sevilla’s Jewish quarter. Once the second biggest in Spain (after Toledo), it was abandoned after the expulsion of the Jews in 1483 and wasn’t restored for centuries. It is now located within the barrios of Santa Cruz, Santa María la Blanca and San Bartolomé, neighbourhoods seeping in history, legends and past intrigues.

Coming through the rather hidden, domed entrance to the Juderia, the streets converts onto winding lanes and picturesque alleyways, some so narrow that one can stretch ones arms out and touch either side. This was probably how El Antiguo Rincón del Beso or the Old Kissing Corner got its name. One cannot help to envision illicit lovers on their opposing balconies stretching out to embrace. In la Judería one can still see street signs indicating the zone and the name of the specific barrio, or neighbourhood. Spanish street signs were and are still primarily made of ceramics, a medium not only readily available, but also one offering the most decorative options.

Looking at a book of street-names from the early 19th century, they certainly gave streets more interesting names in the past. As expected, there are an abundance of streets named after saints and holy orders, such as Calle Abades Alta (the Upper Abbot street) or Calle de las Capuchinas. The latter does not as one may be tempted to think refer to a street with cappuccino bars, but one where a convent for Capuchin sisters was once located. Other typical street names indicated what trade was performed there, such as Calle de los Boteros (the Street of the Wineskin Makers). Other names are directly referring to the products sold there, such as Calle de Azafran, meaning Saffron Street, probably a spice stand or Calle de la Calabaza (Pumpkin street). One can only guess that Calle de la Mosca (the Street of the Fly) was located near the fish market. Calle del Hombre de Piedra (Stone Man street) had a marble workshop, Calle de los baños was where the public baths were located and Calle de las Ropas Viejas would most certainly have been the place to go and buy used clothes. Calle de Quebrantahuesos, or the Bone-Breaker Street, might be for the service of bone setting before the city had a hospital, or maybe the street belonging to the local mafia?

More curious names are to be found, some still in use: Calle del Dormitorio del Carmen – Carmen’s Bedroom Street (with red lights?), Calle del Caño Quebrado – the Street of the Broken Sewer, Calle de Medio Culo - Half-Ass Street and Calle de la Teta – the Street of the Tit, which allegedly referred to a peculiar shaped rock built into the wall of a house on this street.

In Sevilla, like all through Andalucía there are many street-names of Arab origin, from the seven centuries that the territory was under Moorish rule. A common example is Calle de la Medina, which means Town or Walled-In Town in Arab. Others probably refer to a later period of religious conflict, such as Calle del Moro Muerto, or the Dead Moor Street. Sevilla’s street names sometimes bring back local legends. One of the more curious names in my books is Calle Cabeza del Rey Don Pedro, or the Street of King Don Pedro’s Head. Apparently this particular royal has a tendency to escape in the night to look for, well, what one looks for in the night. So one can only imagine that the king’s upper appendix would have had a rather dramatic ending…

Coming back to the Judería, starting from the enchanting lane leading us into the neighbourhood, we follow Calle de la Vida (Street of Life) and appropriately continue onto Calle de la Muerte (the Street of Death). Other streets still have Hebrew names such as Calle de los Levíes, likely referring to a powerful Jewish family and the mayor of the walled in city, or Calle Jamerdana, which seem to refer to the place where the slaughterhouse left their debris. Like many towns in Spain, there is a street named Calle or Callejón de la Inquisición. Though the inquisition was celebrated in the past as what gathered Spain under the common Catholic flag, many now see it as a barbaric age of their history.

Like the famed patios of Cordoba, Sevilla’s Santa Cruz neighbourhood has lovely plazas with doors peaking into typical Andalucian homes with central patios, complete with columns and potted geraniums, bougainvillea and roses. Above the front doors many of the houses still have the white ceramic tile with the house numbers painted in blue. The oldest ones are undoubtedly shaped by hand. In the past, I have read that houses would also have a tile with a cross, a half moon or a Star of David, indicating whether the household was Christian, Muslim or Jewish. I suppose the Inquisition quickly put an end to that… Another interesting tile one can still see at the entrances are the ones indicating whether the house had a fire insurance or Seguro Contra Incendios. One can only speculate what the fire-crew did if a house did not have the tile to prove its insurance in place?

When we needed a street number sign for our house in Ronda, we decided to have something made in the tradition of Sevilla’s old house numbers. We had been told that Asprodisis, a local organization and centre for the mentally challenged, has a ceramic workshop that makes Ronda’s street signs. We headed over with a couple of photos from Sevilla and were welcomed by Eva, a hiking buddy of ours. She teaches the ceramic activities and helps the residents create the most amazing hand-made terracotta and clay trophies, signs, cups, plates and medals, to mention a few. Asprodisis also makes other crafts, has a professional laundry service used by many of Ronda’s hotels, an employment centre and also offer a complete catering service! We told Eva and her helpers that we wanted something charmingly imperfect with lots of personalidad, and that’s exactly what we got.

Our house number is up now, looking ancient as it hangs, slightly askew. We cherish it because it isn’t a mass-produced tile bought in a tourist shop or something generic from a hardware store. Our number sign is something completely unique, made by hand with great care by handicapped workers in an admirable organization. We couldn’t be happier with our Sevillan Judería-inspired house number, which perfectly compliments the eclectic Mexican-Norwegian heritage of the residents of the house, built on what once was an Arab burial ground in an Andalucian mountain town.

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At the right bar at the right time – How to get things done in Southern Spain

A few months ago we were looking for a blacksmith to make us a firewood holder. In many countries ironmongers like shoemakers are virtually obsolete, yet here in Andalucía they are as busy as ever. We were told that the local smith had his shop just off the main square and if he wasn’t there, one could always find him in the bar. As predicted we found a heavily bolted door, so we headed for the bodega. No, el herrero wasn’t there yet, the waiter said, but if we waited un ratito he should be in. (I suppose he runs his business from his table?) True to the tale he arrived minutes later, ready for his beer and for business. We explained what we needed, showing him a sketch. The design and price were determined over the first cerveza and the deal was sealed by the time he ordered his third tubo. Passing the bar just a few days later, the smith called from his table, saying that our stand was ready. He could deliver it, he said, or we could pick it up. We assumed that he didn’t mean from the bar…

Of course not all Andalucian business happens at the bodega. There are also the coffee bars. When we first moved to Spain, we made an appointment with one of the local banks to set up our accounts. The appointment was at 11 am. Being new in the place, we foolishly showed up before the scheduled time, which one simply never does down here in the deep South. The employee we should meet, whose desk was by the entrance with his very own line-up, was not there. Curiously, nor was the cue. Assuming he had nipped off to the loo or something equally urgent, we waited in front of his desk. Finally, another employee took mercy on us, asking if we needed help. We explained that we had an appointment with Señor so-and-so at 11. Being just 20 minutes past, we were told not to worry. He had just gone for breakfast and would surely be back by noon. Being seasoned guiris (a somewhat derogatory name for foreigners), we now never make appointments at breakfast time, knowing perfectly well that all employees disappear for their God-given-right-to-eat-breakfast-during-work-hours for at least 60 minutes between 10 and noon-ish. We also have learned to avoid the post office during breakfast hours, when the line-ups are dismal and only one wicket is open, with a very cranky employee anxious to go for breakfast. So, what to do? Should ones business be too urgent to wait, one can go to the employees’ coffee-bar-of-choice and endeavour to get the answer to ones question ort approval of ones loan over a café con leche.

I am not claiming that all business at these southern latitudes happen at the bar. Our accountant for one only has meetings in her office, though she is often gone for coffee when we arrive. Many will do their business behind office doors, but it is surprising how often someone will bring a contract, a wedding invitation or a medical record to the bar. Bars are Andalucía’s backbone and many peoples’ second home. Our local bars open from 9-ish in the morning, with the regulars coming in for their first Anis shortly after. The same people seem to close the bar and its business some time after 3 am. The street sweeping crews have their regular bars where they take a break to discuss rubbish and politics. Politicians meet at bars to plan further procedures. Meetings with lawyers, architects, inspectors and undertakers are frequently held at a bar. If one wants to get a second medical opinion about a blood test, X-ray or an MRI in Andalucía, one could bring the papers to the bar. Sooner or later a doctor will arrive, willing to discuss the findings over a wine or a coffee. People bring family, friends and dogs to the bar. Baptisms and first communions with babies and youngsters will be celebrated at the local bodega. News about the passing of a local resident is often announced in print by the bar entrance, or if space is tight on the beer fridge. Bars are where one goes to inform oneself about funerals, weddings, divorces, health matters, building projects, political upheavals, family interventions, scandals and local gossip. Business deals are sealed in Andalucian bars all the time and heaven help those who do not frequent bars, as how else would they get new clients and hear about new projects.

When we initially were looking for a place to rent in Ronda we went through a proper rental agency. A couple of years later, needing a place while constructing our house, we knew better and went straight to the neighbourhood’s key information hub – the local bodega. We ordered a couple of tintos and started asking around. Within minutes, we had several options.  The sister of one of the regulars, always sitting at the same table with the same red nose, had a 7-bedroom house for rent in the historic centre. Maybe a tad too big for two, we said. The third cousin of one of the waiters had a place in the campo. Taking the matters into her own hands, the bar owner called a landlady around the corner. As there was no answer, she hurried off down the street on high heels to arrange an immediate viewing. That’s instant action, I’d say!

We may not run a business from the local bar just yet, but we know where the deals are made and where one needs to go to get things done in southern Spain. There is no telling what can happen if one is at the right bar at the right time…

 

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Forget about washing the car. It’s raining Sahara sand again…

It hadn’t rained since late April. The fields were brown sticks and the soil ravaged and bone dry. If we were to believe Antonio, the 85-year-old farmer up the street, and we always do, it would not rain until November. The heat was stifling day as well as night. Occasionally, we would have a few days of wind, which gave the females in the neighbourhood migraines, though to me it was a welcome repose. At least the hot air got blown past one, instead of drowning one in stillness.

One day we woke up to a bizarre sky, as if we were looking at it though unpolished glasses. Something was definitively up. We heard a plop, then another and several more. ”Could it be rain?” we thought. Hurrying to the terrace, I felt something on my skin. Not actual rain drops, but gritty warmish globs of red mud. The ‘rain’ only lasted a few minutes. Then it got dead quiet, leaving a world covered in fine rust-coloured dust everywhere, in every indentation and on every surface. The cars parked on the street had a film of dust and in some places a mini-reef of fine-grained sand. Our neighbour shrugged his shoulders. “It’s lluvia de barro (mud rain) from Sahara.,” he told us, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And apparently it is. Thankfully not a daily occurrence, African mud rain is quite common in the Mediterranean region. However, with the right atmospheric circumstances, Saharan sand has been registered as far away as my own Scandinavia, southern USA and even South East Asia. We are talking thousands of miles! Not shabby for plain old dust….

Sometimes called lluvia de sange (blood rains) because of the dust particles’ particular tone of red, Sahara Rains actually happen all year around, though it is certainly more noticeable here during the dry summer months. Strong winds originating in the Sahara desert get transported beyond the African continent, where later precipitation rinses the dust out of the atmosphere, bringing it down in the form of muddy drops. For the phenomenon to take place it allegedly needs several atmospheric conditions to be present simultaneously. First, it needs a prolonged period of draught in the Sahara region (isn’t it always?), which produces an increased presence of suspended dust. Secondly, it needs the above-mentioned particles to get into the higher layers of the atmosphere, more specifically for us in Spain, with a southern or South Eastern wind. Finally, it needs precipitation in the area of the dust recipients.

One recognizes an incoming cloudburst of Saharan dust by watching the sky, which takes on an unusual muddy colour and dense luminosity. Other than the fact that it obscures the sky, such amounts of airborne smut are obviously not comfortable, nor healthy to inhale or ingest. Especially people with respiratory problems and asthma (popularly called ‘ama’ in Andalucía, for those who may wonder) ought to stay indoors and not engage in anything that may cause physical exertion. Yet, contrary to what this may make one believe, Saharan rain has nothing to do with pollution per se. With acid rain the opposite atmospheric phenomenon occurs, when the absence of wind allows the pollution on the earth’s surface to rise into the atmosphere, not the presence of it.

Once you know what on earth the blood rains are, it is no longer very exciting. In fact it is a royal pain in the you-know-what. The fine sand particles adhere to anything and are virtually impossible to extract. You have to hose down your terraces and walls at least twice, especially if you live in a Pueblo Blanco (white village) like we do. The dust seems particularly attracted to shiny surfaces, so beware that your car will get a good sandblasting. It will appear in the most hidden away places, being brought along by the aid of mysterious, invisible currents. Months later, when you think you have gotten all the traveling dust out of your car, and your life, you will open your trunk and find the rusty particles lining the entire inner door jam system, where seemingly not even air can get to.

Having fiercely vacuumed out the very last particle of the blasted hidden dust and given the car an almost professional detailing in the process, you sense a weather change coming. You look back up at the sky, noticing that it has taken on a curiously red colour…

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Walking on air – the deadly Caminito del Rey has become a walk in the park

The world is full of daredevils who will sink their grimy nails into any piece of vertical rock, with or without safety.  El Caminito used to be one of the places where human spiders with suction cups for hands used to convene to dare each other into virtually walking on air. Some did it, their hair-raising videos going instantly viral, while others were not so lucky, ending their climbing careers and lives at the bottom of the gorge. Andalucía’s Caminito del Rey (The King’s Little Pathway) reopened after major reconstructions last year. It is still a spectacular and thrilling experience to most. What used to be known as the world’s most dangerous boardwalk is now literally a walk in the park.

El Chorro lies about 45 minutes inland from Malaga off the Campillos road, near the town of Ardales in southern Spain. The breath-taking three-kilometre Gaitanes gorge, at some points only 10 meters wide and 700 meters deep, was carved into the limestone and dolomite cliffs by the Guadalhorce river. It was not until the 1860’s that the canyon gained importance, when the Málaga-Córdoba railway was constructed along 17 tunnels, 8 viaducts and 18 bridges with the most spectacular part going through El Chorro gorge. (The railway is still open today and is absolutely worth the trip.)

In the early 20 Century, hydroelectric power plants and dams were built on either end of the gorge to provide electricity to the area. The original walkway, built between 1901 and 1905, was constructed to give the workers a means to move between the plants. The one-meter-wide steel enforced concrete walkway was built into the rock face on the opposite side to the railway about 100 metres above the river. It was crossed by Spain’s King Alfonso XII in 1921 and have carried his name ever since.

As years passed and roads became a faster way to get between the dams, the walkway fell into disrepair. The original handrails gradually fell off and in many sections the concrete top collapsed, leaving gaps bridged only by rusty, narrow steel beams. These open-air gaps were exactly what attracted the climbers to the place. The local authorities tried to discourage use, removing entire pieces of the path at the entrances to make it ‘impossible’ to get onto it. Of course, the more difficult they made it, the more attractive it became to climbers. The authorities closed the path to the public in year 2000 after several people lost their lives there. Even after the closing, four other climbers died attempting to cross the gorge.

With such a dark history, it is strange that any of us mere mortals would even dream of venturing onto the path. Yet, El Caminito del Rey was listed as Lonely Planet’s ‘best new attractions’ in 2015 and the reconstruction received EU’s Nostra Award and Grant Prix for Cultural Heritage Sites and various other awards. To me, it is a great marriage between an alpinists dream, safe engineering and sleek aesthetical adaption to the landscape. Of course without the dangling off a cliff thrill, daredevils now must go elsewhere.

My husband and I had heard about El Chorro prior to moving to Spain, but as neither of us was inclined to throw ourselves off cliffs, we, as many, excitedly awaited the opening of the refurbished boardwalk, which after many delays happened in March 2015. As soon as we heard, we made a booking. When we went one could walk in either direction, so we left and came back to the same point to see the gorge twice. Now all entrances are from Ardales, with a bus service taking one back. Actually, this is the best way to see the gorge anyhow, as you start out less steep and save the most spectacular (and to some maybe the most scary…) parts to the very end. The roads to get there are narrow and winding, so take it easy and do not have too many beers at the charming restaurant on either side of the gorge. The path itself is a short hike of a total 7.7 km, divided into 4.8 km of access paths, 1.4 km of forest paths and 1.5 km of the famous boardwalks.

Knowing that I have the occasional bout of vertigo, I was a bit nervous, especially when we were handed helmets at the official entrance points of the boardwalk. But it was completely unfounded. One, the helmets are an assurance against falling rocks from above, not in case one should plummet down below. Secondly, this being Spain, of course most of the locals, and especially the Spanish females with their perfect manes, take off the helmets and the unsightly hairnets that accompanies them just around the first bend. Naturally, being foreigners, we doggedly follow the rules and wore them throughout, vanity be damned! Thirdly, getting back to the fear factor, I was actually too awed by the mind-boggling views to even think about the sheer drops. Besides, the new boardwalk and railings are so well made that one feels completely safe. This being said, you can expect that about a dozen people will step onto the glass-floor viewing balcony which in large letters says that only 4 people should enter at a time.

The path itself, going right above the narrow old cement path, is beyond words. It is really a thing one has to experience. Just before the end of the walkway is the piece de resistance, a steel suspension bridge crossing the gorge next to the rusty old aqueduct that the sure-footed climbers used. Hold onto your hat, no, actually forget about your hat and hold onto the steel railings, as the bridge will move. This too has a warning sign that no more than a dozen people should cross at a time, but who is counting…

During the first year the entrances were free. The site indicates that they charge 10 euros now, yet when I tried to book today, it said that the charge was 0 euros. It is probably advisable to call directly or to go with a guide. Anyhow, do not let these technicalities discourage you, as it is really worth the walk. Just check the weather before you go, as the path closes if it rains or is too windy for safe passage.

Whether the king actually walked the entire span of the gorge or only stepped onto it for a photo-op and was quickly whisked back into his chauffeured car, we will probably never know. He is not the hero of this story or the one whose name should adorn the emblematic walkway. What struck me while crossing the gorge was the thought that this was not only the singular way for the workers of the hydroelectric plants to move from one dam location to another. It was also the only way for their families to get to the neighbouring village, crossing the boardwalk on foot, bicycle or horseback. Even the local children used the Caminito to get to school, walking on the narrow cement path with a single iron railing, some 100 meters above the gorge! To all of them the new boardwalk should be dedicated.

 

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Waist high and nose deep in lavender

It is harvest time. That is to say, we are harvesting our lavender – all two plants of them. This may not seem like much, and it certainly wasn’t when we bought a couple of 1.50-euro pots three summers back. But things can certainly grow on these latitudes and the same plants are now giant bushes with a circumference of a couple of meters each. They might not be seen from space yet, but thanks to them, ours are decidedly the most eye-catching plot when you arrive at the community garden.

Say the world lavender and people immediately think lavender fields in Provence or English gardens. Yet lavender is not native to England and Bulgaria actually overtook France as the world’s biggest producer of lavender oil in 2011. Spain might not be amongst the top contestants when it comes to actual production, but while France has three species and two hybrids of lavender, the Iberian Peninsula has eleven species and subspecies and four wild hybrids, and twice as many if one counts the Canary Islands. France is still vital for the entire lavender industry, certainly in quality, innovation and marketing. Historically speaking, the plant was an important ingredient in France’s perfume industry, even if the most fragrant lavender is not the French Lavendila Dententa, but the Spanish Lavendula Stoechus.

Originating in the coastal areas along the Mediterranean, lavender has been known for at least 2500 years and been acknowledged for its medicinal properties since the Materia Medica was written in the 1st century. There are now said to be some 115 varieties of the plant growing in gardens virtually all around the globe. When I was young nobody could ever imagine that lavender would grow in Norway, yet be it due to global warming or creation of tougher hybrids, one can now see lavender in Scandinavian gardens. I suppose soon we will see new hybrids of Alaskan and Icelandic lavender, as well? Lavender loves the Andalucian hot sun and poor soil. For us living here, the wild lavender is a common site along country roads and hiking trails, especially during the spring months when they are in bloom. There are times when one literally can walk waist high in the deep purple blooms. Particularly the endemic species, such as the Lavandula Lantana, commonly known as Alhucema manage to grow from tiny gaps in the rock and be born out of the smallest patch of sandy soil.

Lavender comes from the Latin word lavandula, derived from the Latin verb lavare, meaning to wash. It is said to be because the Romans used lavender amongst other things to scent their bathwater. The plant was used during many plagues to disinfect homes and hospitals or burned to keep away bad smells, which were thought to attracted diseases.

So, what can you do with it with lavender, other than making sachets for your lingerie? Not only is it beautiful, but it has literally hundreds of practical uses. Lavender is antibacterial, antimicrobial, expectorant, stress relieving, antiseptic and analgesic, for those who know what all that means. Essential lavender oil can be used to protect against airborne viruses and bacteria, relieve menstrual cramps, deter moths & silverfish, calm coughs and colds, promote relaxation and sleep, sooth sunburns or other smaller burns, as a dandruff remedy, to relax sore muscles, for headaches, as a skin toner, for acne or skin irritations or as a natural air freshener. It can be used in baking, gourmet cooking, salads or teas. One can make lavender soaps, creams, talc, body butters, potions, lotions, bath bombs, scented oils, wreaths, candles, room sprays, carpet deodorizer or dryer sheets, just to mention a few.

The lavender harvest should happen when the flowers are at their most stunning, or so my aunt who grows them in Tuscany told me. And aunts know such stuff. Other information sources tell one to pick them when 2/3 of the blooms are open, or was it 1/3? Anyhow, we pick a bit each day, cut off part of the stem and dry them in a large flat Zambian basket on the terrace, ideally away from direct sunlight. Once dried, you can easily pull the lavender flowers off the stem, going with the direction of the straw, or in stubborn cases, against it. Your hands will be black in the end, but will smell ever so lovely.

If I understand right, the production ratio for lavender oil is 100/1, meaning 100 kilos of blooms to one kilo of oil, so I am not planning to become commercial lavender producer just yet… To me, the greatest joy of growing lavender is simply having them there. To walk along the plants, letting ones hand touch the top of the flowers to release its heavenly scent.

I never thought in my life I would virtually drown in lavender, but this is what I do these days, diving nose deep into the bushes, of course watching out for the other critters that also enjoy them. The bees, that most threatened species, love our huerto and all the flowering herbs there, lavender being their favourite. That should be reason enough to grow it, as heaven knows and we all know that the world needs more bees. The bees and I have come to a mutual understanding of shared enjoyment. I let them buzz about the plants and enjoy its bounty and they let me crop away, simply flying over to a different sprig to get out of the way.

Every day I harvest an armful, leaving a trail of scented straws as we climb up from our huerto, maybe surprising a neighbour or friend with a generous bouquet and filling every vase in the house with freshly cut blooms. There is enough for everybody, para dar y prestar. (To give away and lend) as they say here in Andalucia.

 

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