Embracing autumn in Andalucía

 

Fall has definitively arrived in Ronda. Not with the gloomy darkness, wind-bursts and incessant rains of more northern climates, but with dramatically skies, sudden downpours, mystical mists and spectacular rainbows. It is autumn all right even on the southern tip of Spain.

By November, the steady pour of visitors flocking across Ronda’s famous Puente Nuevo has thinned to a trickling handful. Only the bold and the foolish (tourists and smokers) occupy the seats outside the bars, braving the elements. Most have left their flip-flops and tank tops at the coast, though there is always one skimpily clad ‘forever young’ Northerner who insists on wearing cut-off jeans to show off their goose bumps, regardless of the time of year. Seasonal dyslexia is clearly not only a teenage phenomenon…

After the hot summer months, fall in the Serranía de Ronda offers a most-needed nature revival. Fields that have been dry since June are once more sprouting a delicate layer of green. Most trees in the area, be it olives, pines, citrus, oaks, cork or fig trees, keep their leaves throughout the winter.

The mighty chestnut trees, however, turn golden and rusty, making for a visual spectacle worth a trip in itself. November is the season for local delicacies such as roasted chestnuts and wild mushrooms, which is the cause for many a village festivity. Around the countryside, soups and stews are percolating with root vegetables and meaty bits, such as callos (tripe), a local favourite. The pomegranates are at their reddest and the local nunneries are busy making membrillo, or quince jam and sweets for the holiday-season to come – though thankfully rarely uttered yet.

Though we are a mere five weeks way from Christmas, not a single store in town has put up decorations, nor have we heard a Christmas carol, which I am utterly grateful for. This way, one might even appreciate hearing the carols during their rightful seasons, since they have not been played ‘ad nauseam’ for months.

By now, temperatures have dropped to the low teens, making locals exclaim “Que frío!”, as they seek shelter in another tapas bar. People order their coffees and tinto (red wine) without ice and warm their fingers on deep-fried churros dipped in hot chocolate. Rondeñians, male and female alike, seem to favour the hunter and equestrian-style fashion. Both hunting and riding are admittedly traditional and common to this area, though riding-boots and hunting jackets are just as likely worn by those who have never held a gun or sat on a horse.

Be as it may, their outfits make for a rather stylish Sunday family promenade, another Andalucián favoured past time.

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Robert Redford, the piglet, gives all trotters for the environment!

Robert Redford, the piglet, takes a leap for the green cause. Photo © Ronda Limpia

Robert Redford is no common piglet. He is a dangerously handsome Cerdo Ibérico or Spanish black pig with a deep husky oink and a winning grin.

Last evening, after his siesta, he starred in a video for Ronda Limpia, showing that pigs as well like a clean environment. Robert even did his own rather risk-filled stunt of jumping from a parked car. Not something all piglets would do so fearlessly!

Ronda Limpia, a community spirited group based in Ronda, has produced videos for the last year to teach Andalucíans good environmental habits. For the latest video, Ronda Limpia joined forces with Grupo ART (Aficionados rondeños al teatro) and we are happy to say that the group eagerly awaits new assignments.

Though neither Redford nor Almodóvar may have something to fear – yet, Ronda Limpia and Robert, the piglet, plan to take on the silver screen and hope that through our humorous and sometimes debated videos we can encourage rondeños and Andalucíans to ‘Go Green’.

Watch the video here: Ronda Limpia – Conductores limpios y cívicos – YouTube
Please stay tuned for other Ronda Limpia videos and career updates for Robert, the piglet.

Member of Grupo ART, Aficionados Rondeños al Teatro, plays polluting citizen. Photo © Ronda Limpia

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The Spanish Quick-Fix method

The famous Puento Nuevo in Ronda from 1793 being ‘quick-fixed’ with regular cement. Photo © snobb.net

When my almost 85-year-old father visited Ronda last year, he exclaimed that he had never been kissed so much before in his whole life!

Like it or not, Andalucíans are a passionate lot. They live, love, talk, dance, eat, drive, and certainly, as my late father pointed out, kiss with more ‘gusto’ than most of us from more northerly climates.

I am aware that I am moving on the shaky ground of stereotypes here, where whole nations are labeled as limes, kiwis and frogs. When it comes to my own kind, the Norwegians are generally portrayed as Fargo-like: tall, stoic and a bit slow, with conversational abilities limited to ‘Pass the cod’. I am the first to admit that there may be some truth to these sweeping generalizations, though like anything, there are exceptions.

A Swedish friend here in Ronda, Malin, told me that some locals use the expression ‘un sueco’ (a Swede) to describe someone doing something ‘dumb’. She is of course not pleased with this, but us Scandinavians are used to hearing ‘dumb blond’ jokes about our kind, even though she herself is a feisty redhead! Frankly, Norwegians are no better when it comes to stereotyping. We use the expression ‘to take a Spanish one’ when referring to taking a not-completely legal shortcut or doing something ‘quick and dirty’. It is not fair to the Spanish, of course, though I have to admit that I have never seen so many people taking illegal U-turns or jumping a long bank cue as here in Andalucia…

To get back to my father’s observation on frequent kissing, if one wants to live amongst passionate people, one has to expect the unexpected. With passion come more spontaneity, higher tempers and BIG pathos. In other worlds, if you want the kisses, you also have to take a few loud public arguments, car-honking and arm-waving. (But what would life in Spain be like without it?)

A logical bi-product of the lively Spanish temperament is what I call ‘the Spanish Quick-Fix Method’.

We see examples of this all around, though it is not testament to poor Spanish workmanship, as much as a proof of their wish to quickly mend something, with all the best intensions of coming back and fixing it better and more permanently at a later date. Though as the saying goes, tomorrow never comes, and this is even truer when one speaks of mañana….

Our first winter here was very rainy and on the main road between Ronda and the province capital Málaga, there was a large mudslide closing off the road. For months, we had to do a 30-minute detour through a village called Teba (well worth a visit, by the way…). When they opened the road again, they had simply pushed the earth a bit closer to the side of the road, still forcing cars to drive into the oncoming lane of traffic. Every time we would drive by, we were joking that we should bring a spade in the car and take a few digs each. This way, we said, the road would be cleared before the Andalucían road authorities got to it, though all it really would take was someone with a tractor zipping about for a few hours. Finally about 18 months later they fixed the road, and even built a nice new stone retaining wall. Be this as it may, to me, this is the perfect example of the Spanish Quick-Fix Method.

Henry Higgins was right when he said ‘the rain in Spain’, as it does actually rain here. Not as much as other places mind you, but certainly enough that people ought to make houses that are capable of taking some precipitation. Yet, you would be surprised to discover how many houses in our neighbourhood alone that have to put up a temporary rain shade, as in a piece of cardboard or a piece of ply-wood, slanted out from their front door and onto the sidewalk to prevent the water from running into the house.

We see innumerous examples of ingenious Spanish temporary solutions every day, from old mattress springs used as ‘temporary’ fencing to manhole covers padded with a piece of old tire to prevent the lid from making a sound each time a car passes. One may think it is very ‘third world’. However, though the electric wires which hangs like droopy Christmas garlands along our street look very much like the ones I observed in rural India, our electricity have not failed once in almost two years, which is more than what I can say about the modern electrical system in Vancouver, where sometimes the whole city goes black for hours.

Alas, the Spanish may fix things the ‘quick and dirty’ way, at least temporary, but to me this just adds to the unique charm of this place, just like the kissing…

Left photo: our street in Ronda. Right photo: McLeod Ganj, India. Photos © snobb.net

 

 

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Postcard from Ronda, September 26, 2014

Fall has come to Ronda. I was alone in the community garden this morning, except for a couple of bees hiding in the Spanish lavender and a flock of birds doing their communal fall thing, flying south towards warmer climates.

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La Feria de Ronda – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Much like a spaghetti western, La Feria de Ronda is a rather rowdy affair. It celebrates many Spanish icons, such as flamenco dancers, wine, proud stallions, macho men and last but not least, big black bulls.

Foolish or not, men have fought, worshipped, leaped over and sacrificed bulls since time immemorial. Bulls are depicted in cave paintings and hailed in epic verses by the Mesopotamians to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Ronda saw its first official ‘bullfight’ when King Philip II created the Royal Calvary Order (La Real Maestranza de Caballería) in Ronda in 1572 to promote military training of noblemen. Their training included horsemanship, as well as spearing wild bulls from a horseback.

Francisco Romero (1700 -1763) from Ronda’s legendary Romero family is considered the father of modern corrida or bullfighting. While traditionally fought from the back of a horse, Francisco evolved the fight to where the matador (literally meaning ‘killer’) confronted the bull on foot. He also introduced the emblematic red cape, which colour does nothing for the bull, (they are colourblind), but helped hide the bloodstains and also made for a more exciting visual spectacle. The ‘modern’ style of bullfighting spread rapidly across the Iberian Peninsula and into the Spanish colonies. The greatest fighter of the Romero family was Francisco’s grandson, Pedro Romero, who allegedly slew 5,558 bulls during his lifetime without receiving a single goring.

During the early 20th century, the Ordóñez, another Ronda family, achieved further fame in the bull arena, with its family members still fight bulls today. In 1954, Cayetano Ordóñez developed the Feria de Pedro Romero, the only fair in the world dedicated to a bullfighter. The Feria combined the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Pedro Romero, the town’s annual fair and the art of the 18th-century Spanish painter Francisco de la Goya, with the highlight being a Corrida Goyesca where the matador himself wore a Goya period costume. Cayetano’s son, Antoñio Ordóñez, continued developing the Feria, which due to his close friendship with Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles brought Ronda and bullfighting to the world stage.

Hemingway wrote after seeing his first fight: ”Bullfighting is not a sport, it’s a tragedy”, but he later became a real bullfighting aficionado. And he was not alone. Though most celebrities of today, excluding Charlie Sheen, will avoid the game due to its politically incorrectness and the bad press it may cause, stars of the Hollywood era, such as Gary Grant, Sophia Loren, Bing Crosby, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Raquel Welsh and James Dean were depicted enjoying the ‘new’ bullfight rage in Ronda or elsewhere in Spain.

Ronda’s Corrida Goyesca is still one of the highlights of the Spanish bullfighting calendar. The town also has one of Spain’s oldest bullrings, the celebrated Plaza de la Real Maestanza de Caballería, completed in 1785. Bulls are still big business and a big media seller here in Spain, though it is worth noting that Ronda only hosts one bullfighting event each year, because the owners actually earn more money from the busloads of tourist paying to see the empty arena and visit the bull fighting museum than going to the ‘real thing’.  Although a blood sport by definition, many spectators view bullfighting as a ‘fine art’ rather than a sport. As an expat living in Ronda, I for my part, with my Viking- raids and whale-slaughtering ancestry, shall not be one to point fingers at this most Spanish of traditions.

For for those who find this sport a bit too bloodthirsty, there are lots of other Feria festivities to entertain the willing. There is the cabalgata or parade to present this year’s young Goyaesque ladies, folkloric dances, the enganches horse show and carriage processions through the streets with locals dressed in 18th century costumes. And then there is the 24-hours a day party. La Feria is when Rondeños really let their hair down, or up! Everything is put on hold for the weeklong party. Forget business and bank hours, and expect big lineups. The streets surrounding the Plaza del Socorro becomes a never-ending bar with wine barrels rolled out as tables for the dancing and drinking hordes. Pity the vegetarians who may find themselves in our town during the first week of September, as there is not a vegetable in site. On the contrary, Jamón Ibérico, croquetas, chorizo and salted, grilled or hung meats are sold by the truckload for over-inflated prices to tourists and locals alike, flushed down with gallons of sparkling alcoholic beverages to counterpoint the stifling heat.

Hemingway described a feria as “For seven days, the dancing, the noise and the drinks don’t cease”. Ronda certainly stands true to the tradition.

 

 

 

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Nocturnal pilgrimage to Olvera in black and white

On overnight walk from Ronda to Olvera. Photo @ G. De La Barrera

For us who like nature hikes and village walks, the Andalucían summer poses a major problem – the heat. In July and August the temperature may rise above a stifling 40* C, which doesn’t encourage one to strap on a backpack and lace on heavy hiking boots. So, when, where and how do we get out in nature?

To avoid heat stroke, the Andalucían summer really only offers two hiking possibilities: semi-aquatic hikes or night hiking. While we have not had a chance to join the former one yet in the flash, we went on a night-walk during the last full moon. Unlike the flat areas around Sevilla and Cordoba, temperatures in Ronda thankfully sink down to a balmy 20*C at night, making it possible not only to sleep, but also to go for a hike at night.

As every summer around this time, a group of about 60 rondeños met in the Plaza San Francisco around midnight and set out on the 34 km walk from Ronda in the province of Málaga to the Hermitage Church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Our lady of the Remedies) on a hilltop outside the small white town of Olvera in the province of Cádiz. We were told that the hike would take about 6 to 8 hours and would include regular roads, gravel paths, farm roads and paths in various states of repair or disrepair. Last year, part of the path had been washed away by heavy rain, so the group had to fend through bush, following the moon and any other orientation devices at hand. This only made it sound more interesting to our group, as we were stamping our ‘hooves’, keen and ready for any challenges the night would bring.

Once we left Ronda behind us, the moon became our all-night companion. It was said that it was the biggest moon of the year. I do not know how people measure such and whatever makes it seem bigger to our human eye, but I assure you, the moon was giant! Almost like a fake set piece cut out of golden fabric and hung onto the night sky. A paper moon. I realized as we walked up the Setenil road from the Sevilla take off, that the moon is really no good indicator if one is lost, especially if one is walking up a switch back road. During the hour climb, we had the moon alternately behind us, on either side and in front of us. So at least to me, the moon was no help when it came to finding our way…

On the other hand, living in a modern society, in cities with electric illumination everywhere, people often do not realize how instrumental the moon must have been since the dawn of man, in simply providing light. How dark and dreary our nights would be without our moon? On a clear night, you can almost ready by moonlight. We did not need our headlights while hiking the open stretches – the moon provided all the desired illumination. Passing olive groves, the moon cast streams of light between the trees, so we really were ‘followed by a moon shadow’.

As we passed by the entrance to the Chinchilla vineyard (one of my favourite Ronda vines, in case you should be in the area…), the landscape flattened and the dirt road passed rolling hills, rocky outcrops and distant farms. We could see the light of the other hikers far behind and in front of us, as by now the group had spread out into smaller clusters of hikers all through the valley.

Walking at night reminds me of being a child, seeing trees and rocks that turn into witches and monsters. As an adult you know for a fact that you are looking at an olive tree. As you come closer you can clearly distinguish its branches. You pass it confidently. Of course it is a tree! Then as you walk on, you feel as if someone is watching you from behind. You start walking a little faster. Finally you turn back. Sure enough, there she is again, that scary bent witch!

Witches aside, a night pilgrimage is a meditative experience. All the bright colours, patterns and details that fight for our attention during daytime are turned off. What remains are softened shapes in an infinite tones of greys and blacks. As the visual stimuli and the audio noises are lessened, ones remaining senses become extra alert. We can distinguish the rustle of leaves, the trickling sound of water, a hooting of an owl, a white horse galloping across a field, a distant bark or a donkey’s complaining bray. Even usually unperceptive sounds, like the slight tingling of the electric wire containing a herd of sheep, are heard. You become hyper sensitized, yet very peaceful.

We could see the town of Olvera glowing at a distance, with its hilltop church and Arab castle fighting for the highest and most revered spot. It is amazing how much electric light we use nowadays, even when people are allegedly sleeping. Coming to the village of Torre Alháquime, we knew we were nearing our destination. Like any Spanish name starting with ‘al’, it has Arab roots. The name comes from Al Hakin family, meaning “the wise” or “the learned” and the village is said to closely resemble Berber towns in the hills of North Africa.

Though we knew that we just had a few more kilometers climb left, we did not know which road to take, so we had to wait for others in the group to lead the way. For good reason – The last piece is a meandering trip through the streets of the village before one departs on an unmarked trail along the fence of a local goat farmer onto a path that we never would have found on our own.

Walking in the dark is freeing. You have to trust your step and accept that you only see a few feet ahead. What will come will come. We had never been on the path we were walking, which edge fell off into a black nothingness. We did not know whether the drop was two meters or 200. Every step becomes a walking meditation, and time becomes fluid. Has hours passed or maybe only a few minutes? The calming darkness soothes all aches, and you just walk on and on.

Quite suddenly the trail ended and we stepped out onto a road. On stiff legs we walked the last steps up to the hermitage where our hike would end. It had taken us just under five hours of steady walking, so the sun had not yet risen. Some hikes took off immediately with waiting cars, other stretched tired limbs, some ate, while others laid down on a stone bench. I sat down and fell asleep almost immediately, as we had to wait for our ride home. Waking up, the sun was up and more hikers had arrived. A group of local women came in procession from the village to the church. A clergyman followed with a loud megaphone, repeating a prayer to a virgin. Spain is all about virgins – innumerable, holy and immaculate.

Our friends who would take us back to Ronda had arrived, as had the day, though I was not sure if I liked all that light… We had planned to enter the church to give our thanks, but the priest with the megaphone asked ‘the people outside’ (ie us) to be quiet or to leave, so we drove off, giving our thanks to the Gods of the Sun and the Moon instead.

The white town of Olvera seen from the hermitage Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. Photo © snobb.net

 

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Postcard from Sierra Blanca

Hike to Cascajares, Andalucía. Photo © snobb.net

Went on a sunset hike to Cascajares last night. The stone formations are similar to the Rif mountain chain in Northern Africa, as the two continents were linked just a few million years back. On a clear day one can see across to Africa from the 1416-meter peak, but the August heat brings in clouds from the humid coast, which made for a dramatic, albeit cloudy evening sky.

We managed to get down to the lower trails before nightfall, running into at least a dozen brown scorpions on the road back to the car. Maybe our headlights bothered their nightly hunt?

 

 

 

 

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Community Gardeners Unite!

This summer, we have been following the fight to keep the Arbutus Community Gardens in Vancouver, Canada. We had the privilege of living just around the corner from the threatened gardens, which was our favourite evening walk from spring to fall.

A community garden, or allotments as they are called in the UK, is a plot of land made available for individual, non-commercial gardening. It is a place where neighbours and residents come together to learn and grow edible and other plants, foster health, creating green urban environments and cultivating vibrant, caring and SHARING communities. The gardens are usually located on vacant public or private land and are generally donated, lent or leased by city councils, foundations or private landowners to neighbourhood associations and other community groups. The plots are formed by subdividing a piece of land into smaller parcels, which are then assigned to individuals or families. Our community garden has 30 plots, 2/3 rented by people from the community and 1/3 donated to Red Cross families, sponsored by the paying tenants.

The concept of a community garden is far from new. Though some people may believe that the gardens emerged in the nature-loving 1970’s, communal gardening has been around for centuries: In Russia, the first allotments appeared during the rein of Peter the Great (1672-1725), as the Tsar offered small country estates to local (or loyal…) vassals. In Denmark, land outside the fortified Fredericia was designated for allotment gardens in 1778. Today, the Danish Allotment Garden Union is more than a hundred years old, representing 400 allotment associations in 75 municipalities. In Norway, Oslo’s largest community garden has around 600 allotments and is so popular that there is a waiting list of over a decade! In the UK, a 1732 engraving of Birmingham shows the town encircled by allotments, some still in existence today. At the time allotments and ‘potato grounds’ were promoted to provide the labouring classes or the parish poor with a small portion of land, as a way to help the hungry help themselves.

Allotments supplied much of the vegetables eaten by the poor in the 19th and early 20th century. Particularly noticeable is the increased numbers of community gardens during wartime: In 1873 there were 244,268 plots in England, compared to 1,500,000 plots in 1918. While numbers fell in the 20s and 30s, they increased to 1,400,000 during World War II. The number has declined since, likely due to the limited availability and rising cost of land, increasing general prosperity and competition from other leisure activities. Never the less, community gardens have become an important part of today’s urban landscape from the Philippines to Texas. They are an innovative, healthy and sustainable way of growing food. The gardens bring together people from all walks of life and backgrounds. Our own community garden has active gardeners aged between four and probably 84. The gardens are a hub for learning, sharing and socializing. We have communal clean ups, compost-building days, workshops, seed-exchanges, food ‘give-aways’ and BBQ’s. Communal gardens foster a cross-generational, engaged and physically active community, which is especially important in today’s society.

Back in Vancouver, the owner of the community garden grounds, the Canadian Pacific Rail, has not run trains through the area since my 19-year-old son was in a baby-daycare that was bordering the tracks. That the company now, over 1.5 decade later, is intending to banish the gardeners – and the unique, well established and well kept, most necessary green lunge in an otherwise primarily concrete urban environment is an utter shame. Clearly powerful real-estate interests are at stake, but how many condos does a city really need? I seriously doubt that they will reconstitute a train, which no longer is a feasible way of transporting goods through an urban area, nor a realistic alternative to driving for the people in one of Vancouver’s wealthiest areas. The gardens can obviously not compete when it comes to financial gains, but expanding and keeping public urban green spaces should be a MUST for 21-century city planning. Community gardens offer a vision of sustainable living in urban and in our case, rural environments. Is that why they are seen as a threat to developers?

Here in southern Spain, our own Community Garden experience is simply a joy. Oh, and just a bit of hard work. We started out last year as complete amateurs and have grown in the ranks to become Learners with capital L. A southern European climate is very different from a BC rain-forest, so some trials and many errors are to be expected. Thankfully some of our retired co-gardeners are willing to share their organic plague treatment and growing advice. With their help we have created a veritable vegetable horn-of-plenty in our 10 m x 10 m plot, with zucchini, peppers and herbs by the bushel and soon more tomatoes than our entire neighbourhood can safely consume.

We quickly realized that we needed to search for beaked and four-legged assistance in eating our vegetable surplus. It became known to us that our neighbour, María del Mar, has chickens, that now happily eat the tops and tails of our radishes, melon peel and other compost delicacies. This spring her son found a baby sheep on the highway, so ‘Bo’ the speckled sheep is now helping us devour the zucchini and squash behemoths we keep finding under dinosaur-sized leaves in our plot. Hence all benefit and with the kind assistance of friends, neighbours, co-gardeners and miscellaneous critters, we manage to not drown in our green bounty!

All things sadly being equal, we do not know if our Community Garden will be allowed to remain either. The plots were leased to Silvema from a Madrid landowner for a preliminary two years, which gives us until May 2015. After that, we have no guarantees. Seeing that his abandoned, dry grazing land has become such a lovely green space, he may allow us to remain. But then again, he may, like the CP Rail, insist we get out by the end of the month – lock, stock and barrel.

There are uncountable reasons why community gardening and turning unused plots of land into productive social hubs, makes sense. First of all, they allow neighbourhood groups to work together to learn and share knowledge of growing one’s own food. More so they help minimize food waste, reduce family food budgets and provide opportunity for exercise, recreation and new friendships. And last, but not least, community gardens can be a safe heaven and a place for peace and contemplation.

Had we still been in BC, I would have chained myself to the rusty CP rails to fight with the Arbutus community for its special gardens. For now, we are supporting the cause from 5385 miles away in the bountiful Andalucían south.

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Embracing an 800 year-old giant

‘Los exploradores intrépidos’ at the sacred chestnut tree of Istán. Photo © Rafael Flores


“You haven’t seen the Holy Chestnut tree?”
our friend Rafa exclaimed and immediately offered to bring us there. Somehow his spontaneous kindness did not surprise us, as this is not the first time we have experienced the heartfelt hospitality of the Andalucíans.

Two days later, our friend Mamen, her son Dawda, plus my husband and I were bumping along in Rafa’s jeep, following the narrow unpaved road chipped into the mountainside. After the takeoff from the San Pedro highway, it was just us and nature. There are no stores, fuel stations or inns along the way. Only the Junta de Andalucia who repairs the roads and handful farmers who have livestock in the area regularly use the route. Which was just as well, as the turning points were few and far between.
Once in a while, we stopped to take in the view, hear a story about a nearby mountain range, investigate an abandoned cortigo or admire a predator in flight. “I might get lost in town, but I know these roads like the back of my hand”, grinned Rafa, gesticulating with his hands while avoiding fallen boulders by steering centimeters from the unprotected edge, which wispy grasses separated us from the valley deep below.

We were on what they call a Via Verde, a 45 km long walking route between Ronda and San Pedro de Alcántara. We had often thought of setting out on this 13-hour stroll, which for thousands of years was the main connection to the sea used by fishermen, nobility, explorers and thieves alike.

En route, we hear the story of the historically important, yet hard to find Castañó Santo de Istán, just 37 kilometers from the bustling Costa del Sol.
The surrounding forest area was the place of Moorish rebellions in the 16th century. In the year 1501, King Ferdinand held a mass under its sacred branches. According to legend, they prayed that the sunset would be delayed to allow the safe return of the Catholic troops to Marbella. 69 year later, more than one hundred people was present when D. Luis Ponce de León, also known as the Duke of Arcos, held a mass here to give thanks after putting an end to the Moorish rebellion of September 1570. The fact that the tree was that important 444 years ago speaks for itself…

The Castañó Santo de Istán is an enormous, ancient chestnut tree situated in a forestall zone called Sierra Real de Istán. The name Istán may reflect the importance of the Arab settlements in this area for eight centuries. Istan or stān (spelled ـستان in Perso-Arabic script) is Persian for ‘place of’ and the word also means ‘place’ or ‘homeland’ in Urdu, Hindi and Sanskrit. Could not be a coincidence, could it?

At a fork in the road, an unassuming hand-carved sign indicated  the Castaño Santo and pointed us in the direction of the friendly giant. The tree is on private grounds, but thankfully the public is still allowed access. Not that there were a lot of us. Other than the distant bell-sound from of a herd of sheep or goats, we detected no other humans or animals. Rafa jokingly said that if we would meet a wild boor, which actually do frequent the area, we must run and climb up a tree. But no such luck… The trail itself was worth the drive, leading us through an enchanted forest of ancient cork trees, some covered in thick layers of moss and large spider webs.

And then, there she was, the sacred chestnut.

She stands alone in a clearing, without information posts, visitor’s benches and other guest facilities. The tree is believed to be the oldest in the entire province of Málaga, with an estimated venerable age of between 800 and 1000 years. It is Spain’s 22nd oldest tree and 4th biggest when considering size. Her colossal trunk is at least five meter in diameter, with a circumference that in some places exceeds 22 meters. The tree is about 25 meters high, with the projected area of the spectacular leafy crown covering 510,02 m2. What magical potion does the underground water contain to grown such giants?

Due to it’s special growing power, in the past, visitors would dig out and bring with them some of the earth surrounding the tree, leaving the impressive network of roots exposed to the elements. Therefore, stone terraces had now been built to protect the roots and the tree for future generations to enjoy and admire.

There is a special reverence in approaching a near thousand-year-old giant. At first I watched her from afar, letting my co-explorers revel in her magnificence. Surprisingly, though her bark was like dark veined and weathered skin, her leaves were a shade of almost spring-like green, even in late July. Slowly, I approached her and finally put my hand out to feel the pulse of this living giant.

Once touching, I did not want to let go. Almost thousand years old! How many hands have touched exactly this gap of the weathered trunk? How many have climbed into her welcoming arms? What changes have this tree not seen and felt? Every piece of its bark and limbs was like a diary, telling stories of storms, drought and floods, thunderous nights, wars, abandonment, abuse, care, and love. As one can imagine, many weddings have been celebrated under her magnificent crown through the ages.

Though the sources are unclear, some say that the Castañó Santo de Istán has been declared a Natural Monument. I have found no official information to support this fact. Other sources claim that since there has been an application to consider the sacred chestnut as a natural monument, it is assumed that it has an inherent official protection. Rafael, who is Ronda’s elected environmental representative, told us that though the tree is listed and catalogued amongst Andalucía’s unique trees and forests, it does not have any means of protection, being on private land.

As the sun started setting and we bid her our good byes, I wondered how long our giant will be allowed to grow, unguarded and unprotected from vandals and land-developers. Most similar giants around the world are located in national parks, having designated visiting hours, ticketed entrance fees, mountain rangers ready to escort away anyone who poses a threat to the giant and signs telling visitors to ‘DO NOT TOUCH!’

Yet here she stood, alone and magnificent. And one can only hope that the Castañó Santo de Istán may be protected by the centuries of pilgrims and nature lovers she has allowed into her graceful, green and enormous embrace.

Rafael, our wonderful guide and troupe leader hugging the Castaño Santo de Istán. Photo © snobb.net

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Mother Superior’s Mini Storage and other nun’s tales

Hands and cross adorning top of well. Convent courtyard, Barrio San Francisco, Ronda. Photo © snobb.net

In North America, nuns are usually a thing one only see in the movies or during Halloween, which is why I keep expecting the nuns we pass in town to break into a Monte Python song and dance routine. But of course, they never do. They are real nuns.

One may be right to think that the Catholic church changes at a sub-glacial speed, but when it comes to women of the habit, their life have changed drastically in the last couple of generations. Take our hometown Ronda. There are still seven convents in operation here, but just like most places in the world, the numbers of nuns have declined significantly. Our local ‘nunnery’ has seven nuns, compared to the twenty-four nuns who lived there just a few decades ago. The demographics have changed as well, with the average age of the nuns now seemingly well over 70. The younger nuns inevitably are ‘imported’ from Africa, Asia, or ‘the Americas’, like our friend, sor Clara.

Clara was a teacher in Mexico in her former life and took the nun’s habit only a few years ago. She is young, bright and ever so friendly. From what I understood, and of course I may be very wrong, she found her space at the convento through the Internet.

As their numbers decline, the nuns have had to adapt. Though the order is cloistered, these days they go outside to shop, visit doctors or deal with government offices. We met sor Clara one day on the street carrying musical notes. She explained that the nun who used to accompany their mass is getting too old, so she is taking classes to be able to fulfill this task. Somehow our conversation turned to food (a favourite topic of conversation for the Spanish…) and my husband offered to make sor Clara some chicken with mole sauce from her native land. Clara was ever so excited. However, she said, it would have to be this coming week, because she was going back to Mexico for her vacation in August, a perk she had never expected when she became a nun. I do not know if holidays are now an exclusive right for Dominican or Franciscan nuns, or maybe just a special arrangement for nuns of leisure-loving Spain? Or could it possibly be part of a new universal Catholic nun’s employment plan? Regardless, times have indeed changed when cloistered nuns have vacations…

Their role in society has changed, as well. Gone are the days when nuns and monks were responsible for virtually all education in Spain. Equally, distant are the days when you would call on a Hermano or Hermana to heal your ailing relatives. Though some nuns in Ronda still teach school children, they are few government approved and certified educators or legally qualified health practitioners amongst these ladies of the cloth. Just a generation back, cloistered nuns would grow most of their food and literally never be seen outside the cloister walls. They would refuse to see doctors, because they were supposed to take care of their own – and God would see to the rest. Today, the nuns of our barrio have annual medical checkups and receive outside care when needed. Ironically, last time they had their checkup, the only nun passing the test with flying colours was the ancient, tiny and ever-smiling Mother Superior, who makes my 83-year-old mom look like a youngster…

Of course with no more teaching or healing to tend to, the nuns have to think of new ways to bring in funds to keep up their benevolent work. We knew that our convent, like others in town, still make and sell baked goods to have a bit of cash flow, but we had no idea what their other business ventures entailed – until one day we decided to move…

My husband and I have spent two winters in a cold and drafty flat here in Ronda and finally decided to move into a smaller, warmer place before the weather turns this fall. People usually associate Spain with heat and though our summers see temperatures above 40*C, our winters can be very cold. For this reason, traditional Andalucían houses were built with thick stone walls and with small window and door openings. Unfortunately, many ‘modern’ buildings skimp on isolation, combine paper-thin walls with large windowpanes, without double of triple glazing to isolate against temperature dips and loud parties.

Looking for a place to rent in Ronda was easy this time around, in contrast to when we originally got here. We sent out a ‘What’s App’ message to a few friends and neighbours and were offered the future retirement flat of friends of friends. It is perfect and has doors and windows that actually close, so we wont be heating for the crows this winter. We asked our landlady if they had a storage for the 56 boxes of books and art that we brought from Canada, which shook her head.  “Ask the nuns’ she said, as obviously everybody in our neigbourhood except us know that the nuns rent out storage space.

We went directly to the convent down the street, ringing the bell at the gate. From the not entirely state-of-the-art intercom system came an “Ave María Purísima” in a quivery old voice. My husband who thankfully was an altar boy in his youth answered ”Sin pecado concebida” and magically, things started happening on the inside. Amazing what can be achieved when one knows ones prayers… Two nuns, one tiny and old, the other more robust and double chinned (both perfect cast for “The Sound of Music”) came to the gate. Still wanting to assure that we were of pure intent, they inquired about our errand from behind the locked gate. Once it was established that my husband was Mexican and even knew Aguascalientes, where sor Clara came from, we were not only let in the gate and through the courtyard. Like long-lost relatives, we were kissed on both cheeks and lead to an inner sanctium and up to the second floor, while the nuns chatted happily on.

Where does one store things in a convent, one may ask? I imagined that we would rent one of the spare nun’s cell and that other unused cells where rented out as similar storage. Though this may be an excellent future business idea for the nuns, I was wrong, Instead, they took us to a large room on the upper floor, with food donations for the poor in one corner, beds and matrasses for single moms and other needy against another wall, broken furniture on the third and a spare corner in between that we could use. The rent was a bit more we had hoped to spend, but for their shining faces, so happy to help and frankly, to have visitors to chat with, and for the story in itself, it was truly priceless.

I mean, who else gets to keep their stuff in Mother Superior’s Mini Storage?

Cloistered nun on her way back from shopping, Barrio San Francisco. Photo © snobb.net

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