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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What NOT to do to survive the Andalucian summer

No doubt about it, summer is here. The other day Sevilla reached 47 degrees Celsius and this is early July! Here in Ronda we are not far behind, so what does a Viking with low heat tolerance, a virtual heat wimp, do to survive the summers of Southern Spain? As I haven’t figured out my DOs yet, let me tell you my DON’Ts:

DON’T spend the day scraping paint off a door on the terrace
It seemed like a good idea at the time, working outside in the breeze and the shade, but that was before I almost perished by heat stroke. You see, the southern rays get everywhere. It is like the wind that comes from all directions at the same time. Heat envelops you from above, below and from every possible angle in between. Even if the sun isn’t actually hitting the spot where you are standing, there is no escaping its wrath. Scraping paint was particularly unsuited to this type of weather, as millions of paint-pieces adhered to my damp skin like glue and not even a rough floor brush got them off. The stone flooring amplified the heat factor and the white walls blinded me, while I slowly sizzled alive.

DON’T start baking
We had an abundance of fresh zucchinis from our community garden and naturally I wanted to make sure they didn’t go bad. Zucchini bread for the freezer was my bright Martha Stewart-inspired solution. I had finally accepted that one ought to stay inside in the heat of summer (see above), so I reasoned that baking would be a perfect mid-day summer indoor activity. You can see that I don’t do much cooking… As the oven gradually got warmer, I realized that this might have been a bit of a mistake. Taking my ready masterpieces out of the oven made it even worse, with no place for the hot air to escape. Our entire house became an extended oven, making it unliveable not only for the Norwegian in the family, but even for the Mexican.

DON’T do yoga in the dark
I usually do yoga in the morning. As daylight emerges, I go down to our office where I can play my Eternal Ohm, spa-like muzak, Bollywood soundtracks or African rap, depending on how rebellious or ‘Zen’ I feel. Summer is my least ‘Zen’ time of the year, by far. As the temperature rises, I start my session earlier, to prevent the outer heat from interfering with my inner one. While there might be rodents and slithering guests coming into my hall of inner peace, I always open the window to the elements, to get my daily dose of fresh air. Fearing that the heat would make me see double before I go into my first shoulder stand, I decided to go down to my yoga session in the pitch black. Considerate as I am (after all, I am a yogi…) I did not want to awake the above-mentioned Mexican, so I left the lights off, risking life and limb as I fumbled my way down two flights of railing-less stairs. After crashing into undefined objects and stubbing my toe in transit, there was of course an ‘early bird’ fly there to greet my pre-sun salutations.

DON’T open the windows
Like a true Viking, I believe that there is nothing better for ones health and wellbeing than fresh air. Actually, we Northerners solve almost any problem with AIR. Like the English run for a cup of tea when crisis hits, we get a bit of fresh air. Most of us keep windows open all year around, including the coldest winter nights. I mean, what could be healthier??? If there is a larger problem at hand, one might go for a brisk walk to air out ones head. With this preamble, it was only natural for me to think that the still air in our house in the midst of summer needed airing out, or a change of air, as it were. We had built our house with the traditional thick Andalucian walls, to keep the heat IN in the winter and OUT in the summer, but having a breeze running right through the house, albeit hot, felt like the right thing to do. In retrospect, I see why all our Spanish neighbours keep their windows closed and their blinds down all summer, even if the thermometer go down to a balmy 25 degrees at night. I suppose I just can forget about fresh air until October…

DON’T go on a fly hunt
I am not sure if the flies around here are native to Andalucía or have travelled from further afield. They certainly are tough enough to survive a jeep-ride across the Sahara and crossing the Gibraltar Straight in a leaky dingy. Wherever they origin, what I can say is that they are a pesky breed, indeed.

Whether you air out the house or not, you will have flies. Whether you have screens on every window and barely open your front door a narrow gap to sneak out, mark my word you will have flies. If you do not have flies coming in, there will be flies that have hibernated since last year. And even if you got rid off every single member of last year’s army of flies, there will be thousands of eggs waiting to hatch in places your broom can never reach. Naturally it is tempting for a Scandinavian cleaning freak to try to eradicate these pests. I do not want to use carcinogenic bug sprays and I cannot stand the thought of an electric fly-zapper or a trap full of fly carcasses, so I vacuum them out. Well, I try. And I try. Surely the neighbours are talking about the mad foreigner who runs around with the vacuum, fighting invisible demons and screaming at what looks like an empty room. As the summer temperature rises, the flies get more and more clever and persistent, and I get more and more lethargic and sloth-like. I might have to admit that during the heat of summer the flies are a loosing battle, even for this Viking.

DON’T get drunk
We all know that one is supposed to drink lots of fluids in the heat. And I do. My drink of choice in plus 30 degrees is usually water by the gallon. However, one night I joined some Spanish friends, most of whom with seemingly unlimited capacity for food and alcohol. I was served a glass of liquor-infused sangria. It was so effortless to drink, just like lemonade with a happy colour. Every time I looked away, like a cup of cornucopia, my glass was filled up to the rim again. As night fell and the heat started lightening its grasp on our throats, we all cheered. And cheer one certainly should, though preferably in water I realized as I was lying in bed, trying not to close my eyes to prevent the room from going around, something I have not done for decades. Blame the heat, blame the ever-filling glass or blame the lack of fresh air.

So, the moral of the story is… DO greet the day, but do it mindfully. DO air out the house, just not at high noon. And DO cheer at sunset, though preferably not in a fountain of sangria.

 

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Sweeping vistas, legroom and bar trolleys – Consider the train next time you travel in Spain

Last week, I was a substitute for an English teacher in town. Summer being here and exams over, I asked the giggly teenagers about their preferred mode of travel. They all answered Planes, even a student who had never been on one. “What about trains?” I asked, receiving eye-rolls all around. Trains are for old people, like grandparents and such, they informed me. Obviously, I must be getting old, because for me there is no equivalent to the railways. There is something very soothing about sitting on a train and letting oneself be tuff-tuff-ed along without worries or responsibilities. As long as there are tracks to the destination and time and money to spare, I will choose the railway every time.

Unless one is in a desperate time crunch, why would anyone choose to fly within Spain? Take the check-in. One must be at the airport at least an hour before a flight, while you can roll in just minutes before your departure to catch a train. With trains, there are no worries of overweight or having too many pieces of luggage, as long as you can manage to drag your suitcases along. The security checks in Spanish train stations are thankfully still minimal. At bigger stations, such as Madrid’s Atocha, all one needs to do is pass one’s bags through a basic ex-ray machine with a smiling attendant waving one along. There is no need to worry about sharp objects, liquids or, heaven save us, a piece of forbidden fruit. One will rarely be asked to show ones tickets. At smaller stations like ours here in Ronda you can just waltz straight onto the train, no questions asked. In fact, on a recent journey to the capital, we did not see a single official representative on the train, other than the one bringing the bar trolley along at steady refill intervals. Train travel does not involve removing belts, jewellery, shoes and what have you. You will not be frisked nor be forced to go through the all-revealing, full-figure, hands-up, circular scanning chamber. In short, you can still enter a Spanish train with your self-respect and outfit intact!

Time-wise, trains are admittedly slower than flying. However, with Spain’s AVE trains average running speed of 150 – 200 km/h (they can go up to about 350), we can get from Ronda to Madrid in four hours and to Barcelona in just over eight. Calculating the drive to the airport, the additional time required for check-in, the waiting at the tarmac, the slow loading and off-loading, the endless airport corridors, the wait for the suitcases and the bottleneck at the final security exit, there are actually few minutes to be saved by taking a national flight in Spain. Added to this is the fact that most major airports are located far outside the big cities to whom they pertain, while train stations are usually located smack in the centre of the city, usually making it a shorter cab-ride to ones final destination. There is clearly time and money to be saved on international air travel, but for in-nation trips trains are quite competitive. Those who have entered the Golden Age can apply for La Tarjeta Dorada, which for merely 6 euro per annum gives generous senior discounts. I am not there yet, but there is always something to look forward to when one does cross that milepost…

Comparing fuel costs to train tickets, it is cheaper to drive than take the train, certainly if you are a family or a group of friends. But this means that at least one of you have to be the designated driver, needing to worry about traffic police and watching out for head-on collisions. Then there are speed traps, carsickness, roadblocks, accidents and construction, taking the wrong turnoff and trying to get back on the Autovía without a 10 km detour, unexplainable bumper-to-bumper delays on the highway, the we-need-to-stop-at-the-next-washroom conundrum, running out of fuel, the driver falling asleep at the wheel, or untimely engine trouble. Finally, there is the question of how to ‘get rid off’ the car or where to park when you arrive at the destination. On a train, everyone gets to enjoy the view and can have a glass of wine with lunch. Indeed, it is the ultimate democratic mode of travel.

In my experience, the Spanish trains are generally comfortable, spacious and clean. On longer train rides, seats are assigned, while local trains have free seating. Luggage is stored at the end of the carriages, or in the open hat shelf above, which fits even the most overstuffed Japanese suitcase. Compared to airplanes, train seats are wider, cushier, and lastly something quite vital, there is ample legroom for even the lankiest teenager to kick of their alpargatas. There are no compulsory security announcements, blinking seat belts signs, air-masks above, nor flotation devices beneath one’s seat. The train windows offer wide panoramic views on both sides, as opposed to an airplane’s tiny portholes. One can walk freely about on trains, enter the washrooms at any time, or spend basically the entire ride in one of the train’s bar carriages, which have a better menu than most flights I have been on. If you do not wish to move, the food trolley will come to you. And even the coffee is decent! Like most airlines, you are offered headphones and free films on Spanish long-distance trains. There is no entertainment choice, and it is usually a dubbed, American B movie, a Spanish sitcom or a cartoon to keep the kids quiet (There are adult-only train cabins, though I am yet to verify if the films are ‘adult’, as well.) But with the stunning Spanish landscape passing by, a café con leche or a tinto and a good book in hand, who needs movies?

Local Spanish trains chug along at a more leisurely speed and may be a bit worn at the edges, but they generally run on time and get one to ones destination in safety and comfort. There are countless Spanish villages, many that time seem to have forgotten, with charming stations, some even still receiving trains. Take the station in Jimera de Libar. Though the village only has 450 aging residents, it is a regular stop on the Algeciras train route. Here, the station master will still come out in his classic conductor cap to wave a red flag and blow his whistle. Whether he or his kin are responsible for the upkeep of the station, they should receive the award of the year for the station with the most character. All along the platform and on the station house there are floor to ceiling creepers, hanging potted plants, old lanterns and a couple of shrines to some virgin or another. In spring, the orange groves and lemon trees nearby makes one feel that one has come to an olfactory heaven. There are benches to sit on and shade to be had for all.

Should you have an hour to spare before your train departs, across the rails a few hundred meters along is the local pub where the English/Danish hosts make their own brew and serve curry, bratwurst and even Mexican fare. It is such a welcoming place that you might be tempted to miss your train. So hurry up slowly, as there are only four trains per day and yours is likely to be the last one…

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The directionally challenged co-pilot’s guide to road-tripping in Andalucía

“Are you a good or a bad co-pilot?” was the topic of discussion on Radio Andalucía a while back. I certainly belong to the latter group, having often led my husband astray, sending him left instead of right at some vital road crossing. Indeed, one could say that I am the co-pilot from hell, though I am exceedingly good at distracting the driver by pointing out places of interest, be it a flowering poppy field, colourful laundry hanging from a fifth floor balcony or a cloud formation looking like a loop-sided piglet.

I have come to the acceptance that I am directionally challenged. This tendency to mix up directions actually has a clinical name. It is called Directional Dyslexia or sometimes Spatial or Geographical Dyslexia. Though not an actual kind of dyslexia, the ‘condition’ is distinguished by right/left confusion, or what my husband would call right/the-other-right confusion, often combined with a tendency to become disoriented or lost. Now, I am not such an extreme case, as I only get lost when I choose to. However, given certain circumstances, lets say if someone was to put a gun to my head and say, “March right!” I would inevitably turn left. Or to ‘the other right’…

To my great relief, the Andalucian countryside consists mostly of single-lane roads with endless landmarks, so we, the directionally challenged co-pilots or hereafter DCCPs for short, can say ‘Turn in there after the old farm” or “We are taking off here after that nice big crocked olive tree”, thus cleverly omitting the right/left confusion. However there are times when these tactics wont do, particularly when entering the province’s larger cities, such as Sevilla, Granada or Malaga. With increased traffic there are of course more frequent crossings and turnoffs, thus increasing the need for more rapid direction giving and hence decision-making for the co-pilot. Combine this with the Spanish cutthroat drivers and the DCCPs will have a real challenge on their hands.

The invention of the GPS has helped us GCCPs significantly, especially the later models, with split screen information and multiple warnings. But right is still right and left is still left and NOT ‘the other right’. If someone, that someone usually being my husband, suddenly calls out to me “Do I go right or left???” I will unfortunately not be able to give an instant answer, and certainly not guaranteed the correct one, particularly not if I have been chatting away or had my eyes on a bicycle with a lovely basket at the front, as who would not be distracted by such?

For many of us GCCPs, the Spanish love for roundabouts can be a saving grace. Glorietas may be a pain in the neck and a magnet for accidents, especially since Spanish drivers rarely use their turn signals and will cut over two lanes of traffic to exit right in front of you without a shudder or an inkling or a ‘sorry’. However, for myself, representing the vast and barely recognized group of GCCPs, there is a trick to be taught. When in doubt, I have learned to say, “Lets go around another time to be sure, shall we?”

I used to disagree a lot with our old GPS. Initially, we called her la tia (Spanish for aunt), but gradually she became Latifah, after the Queen. I find it much easier to relate to objects when they have a name, and for technical aids like a GPS it feels better to have a name to disagree with. Latifah was imported from Canada and had a dismal Spanish accent. She also had an annoying way of repeating “Recalculating. Recalculating” with a nasal voice whenever I had led us astray, which in the first few months were often, if not always. Thankfully, our new Latifah is much better and do not say anything when I get things wrong. She just quietly finds us another way. Of course, I still manage to get us lost. The other day we were driving back from Sevilla and Latifah had dutifully advised us of the Ronda take off miles ahead of time. I could see from the GPS screen which lane we had to follow, to the right, I mean the real right. Yet, just as we came upon the fork in the row, I called “Go Left” to my husband, while pointing to the right. Thankfully he didn’t crash into the centre island, but took the right turn, justifiably lecturing me of the dangers of having a co-pilot that does not pay attention on the road. It wasn’t that I hadn’t paid any attention. I had actually been staring at Latifah and seen our take off to the right, only in my mind it was left.

The only viable way of avoiding that GSSPs confuse GPS directions is to create a GPS that uses the expression ‘the-other-right’ instead of left. We, the GPSSs are here to stay, as pilots and co-pilots on the road. We do not cause intentional confusion; we just have a different way of understanding directions. Personally, it is more a question of distraction than disorientation. I simply favour noticing Medieval towers to looking for road signs. This may lead to, and has led to slight discrepancies with above-mentioned husband and with our most trusted Latifah. Yet even they will have to admit that we have discovered many an interesting place through unwillingly or unknowingly taking the wrong turn.

 

 


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“OMG, she is at it again!” When the wife prefers refinishing Andalucian furniture to cooking.

My husband, bless his heart, has often bemoaned his wife’s lack of skills and interest in the cooking department. To be just, he is absolutely right. I am not a cook. He was taught to cook by his Basque mother and received chef training in Continental and Asian cuisine. He knows exactly how to slice every vegetable and what direction to cut the meat. I was not taught to cook, as it was never considered it an essential life-skill in my house. Like my mother, I prefer reading, writing and cultural pursuits. Like my father, I love tinkering, which is how I caught my restoration-bug.

In our family, my husband generally cooks while I do the clean up. A fair deal, if you ask me. It is not that I do not appreciate a good meal. I just believe that just as there need to be people who do the cooking, there also have to be eaters to compliment them. The other day I ventured to make a stir-fry-ish kind of dish. My husband ate without complaint, though he did point out that when using black bean sauce one ought not to use copious amounts of ginger, which overpowers all. I see his logic, not from a food point of view mind you, but from a colour perspective. Too much of one colour or not enough, or the wrong blend may have disastrous effects. Like spices, it is all in the mix.  When my husband cooks something, I will say, “That looks nice and colourful!”Never mind the look. How does it taste?” he will ask. Cooking and restoring are really quite similar. Either way, you end up with a big mess. In the former you have pots and pans, measuring spoons and other dishes. In the latter you have brushes, steel wool, glues and waxes.

Unfortunately, it is not only cooking I do poorly, it is also food shopping. Once a week my husband goes to his wood carving group and it is my turn to make lunch. I get busy writing or fixing something and forget the time. Minutes before my husband is due, I rush to the store, toss some eatables in a bag and dash home to start chopping, hoping to have something in the pan before he comes in the door. He will ask me what I am cooking. “Oh, I don’t know”, I’ll say. “But how can you start cooking, if you don’t have a plan?” he asks. Things are certainly easier for us non-cooks in the summer, when one can just whip up a salad (I can do that!) and throw some meat in the pan. More times than not, it ends up like carbon. I over-boil, under-cook or burn to a crisp, just as surely as some people sing out of tune or dress  like a piñata. I might as well admit it. My art lies elsewhere…

Our hometown Ronda has long been known for its rondeña furniture, recognized by its woodcarvings. Most locals have a rondeña chair or cupboard, usually carved by an old relative. The styles vary from simple farm furniture with minor engravings to elaborately carved pieces. In Ronda’s Santa Maria Major church, the choir section is carved in an ornate Plateresque fashion. The Casa Don Bosco museum has some very curious carvings, such as a wooden chandelier of human heads with mouths holding onto the bulbs. Somewhat risqué for a home of a priest, wouldn’t you say?For our home in Ronda, we wanted to restore a few salvageable pieces from the original house (read ruin…). We both liked the unpretentious Andalucian farm furniture, which with luck one still can find for sale around here. However, we both felt that the traditional brown stains would not suit our style. Dark wood and dragons carvings have their place, but us Scandinavians usually favour lighter woods and colours. All our salvaged, purchased and donated furniture I transformed with scrapers, paints, tints and waxes. Each piece got a different treatment, though our home can generally be described as a Nordic Shabby Chic with the occasional Mexican or Tibetan colour-splash.My first project for the house was four chairs bought from a fellow restoration student. They had fabulous art nouveaux embossed leather seats and backs, possibly made by a Cordoba artist, as the city was known for this type of leather embossment. The leather was covered in globs of black paint and unsightly glossy varnish. I carefully cleaned it with ultra fine steel wool and a diluted paint stripper and miraculously they survived the treatment. The wood had so many layers of lacquered that they were probably the sole reason why the chairs still hung together. Copious amounts of bug killer and then wood filler was needed, as they were too frail and worm infested to leave in their natural state. I painted them in a light vintage pewter colour, which I painstakingly got a local paint store to reproduce, giving the employee the most demanding task of his entire career…The next restoration piece was donated by one of my husband’s patient. She wanted to thank him by offered me to pick up a couple of restoration pieces from their country home. She knew that we had moved to Ronda without a stick of furniture and that I loved restoration. I immediately fell for a traditional old scale, which almost every Andalucian farmhouse seem to have. I took it home and gave it a major scrub. The iron base was beyond leaving ‘as is’, so I gave it a flat black metal paint finish. The two brass plates came out shining after scrubbing them with several plastic-mesh sponges and ample batches of boiling vinegar. This is a local restoration secret. It smells vile, but it does the job.Our bedside tables were also a gift. They were not true antique, probably utility furniture from the 50s. The side panels and back were cheap plywood and the drawers were nailed together, but once I removed the wooden decorative edging and scraped off endless layers of gooey brown varnish, I unearthed a nice top and drawer front, which could be sanded, treated and kept. All other surfaces were painted a pigeon blue chalk paint, then sanded and painted a layer of ‘hot chocolate’ chalk paint. (The latter is now available in Andalucía, though only on the coast.) After distressing and waxing it with white antique wax, they got a new home in our bedroom.A very time-consuming and messy project was the hand-made farm ladder we found in the basement when we bought our house. The last human house resident, likely the blind lady who lived there until 1986, had left a Spanish ham hanging on one of the ladder’s side rails. There it had been rotting, slowly seeping its rancid grease over the lower rungs. Though it was tempting to throw out the whole contraption, I decided to double bag the ham and hose down the ladder to consider my options. I cannot count the hours spent scraping and sanding it. The wood was a nice silvery driftwood colour, but with all the worm canals, I had to give it too much wood filler to be able to leave it natural. I chose Bethún de Judea, which is an old style petroleum-based product used here, particularly to give patinaor accentuate crackling. It has a lovely deep wenge wood colour and works wonders for disguising imperfections in antiques.A platerois a Spanish plate-shelf. Most traditional farmhouses have, or at least used to have one. These days they are harder to find, (though IKEA has made a copy) and I was lucky to be given one by a fellow restoration enthusiast. It was in a sad state, barely hanging together, full of pigeon feathers and mice droppings. I tried to revive it in it’s entirety, but as I scraped off the iridescent green (keeping some in parts, as I liked the cheery effect), I realized that it would never be able to hold plates again. So with many hidden angle irons and various coats of honeyed yellow, then antique raspberry chalk paint, and finally a matte translucent varnish, it has now become a bookshelf for all the pocketbooks that friends have kindly left or lent us.Did I say that restoration is a labour of love? One cannot repeat this enough, in case someone gets the foolish notion that restoring is a quick and easy option to buying new. It isn’t! It is fun if one loves seeing things being transformed, if one is stupidly stubborn, if one has no objection to nit-picky work and is prepared to spend endless amounts of elbow grease. Take our headboard. We found the bed in the old house covered in layers to blue paint, which removal nearly killed me. Metal is not as forgiving as wood which can be sanded over. Our bed was an old heavy iron frame with a decorative brass top piece. For days I was on my knees with a sharp picker tool, scraping microscopic pieces of paint off the iron fleur-de-lis welding points, feeling like a dental assistant. My restoration mates joined my husband thinking I had lost my mind. They suggested just painting the darn thing black. But I love exposed iron and would not give in. Once it was cleaned, I set to work on the brass top, using the Andalucian natural metal polish, boiling vinegar. I had no fingers left, but finally, after a quick rubdown with olive oil, the headboard came home. And what did I start on the following week, but the footboard! (It will eventually be the back of a bench on our upper terrace.)

My most recent restoration project was our pedestal dining table. It was actually one of my easier restoration projects yet. It is not exactly a valuable antique, more like a typical dining table from the last century. And as everything here, it was stained brown. Not ugly, just a bit drab and a bit too ordinary for my taste. Once we got it brought to our house, I could hardly wait to revive it. I was up at the crack of dawn sanding the next day. Wishing the base to compliment our dining chairs, I primed and used the same antique taupe paint for the table base, then distressing it. I kept the table top natural, in spite of some past fillings and visual imperfections, just giving it a white wash, then a rub of grey tint to dirt it up, finally a layer of matte varnish and some white antiquing wax to protect it. I do not pretend to have made a master piece, but in the right light our dining set almost looks like a Gustaviansk setup in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan. With a Cordoba twist…

Of course, my restoration bug will not end here. My husband will likely never see his wife taking a cooking course, nor become a decent cook. There are too many antiques begging to be transformed and fixed. The world needs cooks and restorers. How else would those chefs be able to sit down to enjoy their meals?

 

(For restoration or design services, please contact me at www.snobb.net)

 

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Fashion notes from rural Andalucía- tassels, panache and bling

I have long wanted to write something about the Andalucian way of dressing. Not from a well-informed latest fashion point of view, but more from an anthropological, popular culture, street-watching kind of viewpoint. In other words deeply subjective, possibly stereotyping, certainly not in the least bit scientific.

For someone who spent years on the Canadian West Coast where yoga gear is the going style and fashion usually means ‘practical meets wholesome’, coming to Andalucía was a welcome change. Not only are the clothing and accessories notably more colourful, but people’s body image and ways of carrying their garbs are also quite distinct. The North American general opinion seems to be that young and thin is desirable and beautiful and anything a bit curvaceous, wrinkled or otherwise shaped is shameful. By contrast, I immediately noticed that Southern Spaniards wear their clothes with a certain pride and ease, regardless of size and shape. Not to say that there aren’t problems with body image here as well, but on the whole people seem happy in their own skin. They do not hide themselves, even if they are not magazine perfect, which makes them all the more beautiful to me.

This seeming self-contentment may be something to do with the Latin mind set, their abundance of sunlight or even their brocade and gold clothed madonnas and virgins. Just as their music and art are generally more colourful than the one we have further north, so is their fashion. Just think about the Spanish clothing companies like Desigual and Custo (not to be confused by Cosco…) or the clothing line of the descendant of Miró.

Anyhow, back to rural fashion. Watching a family coming out from a christening or a first communion dressed in all their finery is a veritable feast to the eye. Of course, as Ronda is a small town (not much more than a large village, really), we are not talking latest runway fashion. But around here this does not matter (and who the hell cares anyhow?). What matters is that it is colourful and festive.

One cannot speak about Spanish street wear without mentioning the heels, as in the pointy thing at the back of a shoe. We have friends here whom I have never seen without a pair of high heels, even if they are doing garden work. In fact, we have neighbours who leap straight out of their bed and into their stilettos. I have not seen them, but I have certainly heard them. Andalucian women embrace their femininity, which to some equals wearing a minimum 8 cm heel. Some twin sisters on our street started stealing their mother’s high-heeled shoes shortly after starting to walk. Now they have been given their very own pairs. Consider it like training wheels on a bicycle, something that has to be taught. It is a cultural phenomenon, like any other.

I love the fact that Spanish men can embrace their pink side and wear a bubble gum coloured shirt, a purple tie, a silky neck scarf or a pair of pistachio pants without feeling that this in any way affects their manliness. I love the way the Andalucian women dress up for almost any occasion, even to go to the store. Compared to us foreigners, they are almost always lovely put together. The locals claim they recognize the foreigners by their shoes. On Ronda’s famous bridge any given morning one can pick out the guiris by their tell-tale choice of foot ware – runners, Birkenstocks or flip flops, the latter which any self respecting Spanish women would not be caught dead in. Spanish women on the other hand will usually have matching outfit, shoes and handbag, their hair in a lovely coif, with perfect nails and makeup, like they were going to an audition, not to the bank tellers.

Their rural Andalucian fiesta attire, the style sometimes dare I say a bit ‘sluttish’ for my protestant upbringing, and the fabric at times without a single natural fibre, is not so important as the general va-va-voom effect. Sequence, large gilded embroideries, plunging backsides, straps studded with ‘diamonds’ and peekaboo holes in expected and unexpected places are all good. Though it might seem like I am finding their style in poor taste, it is not so. The women of Andalucía can carry off almost anything, paired with a bright lipstick and a long shiny black mane, fiercely straightened to get out every sign of a wave, or god forbid those stunning black curls…

And did I mention the jewellery? I have never seen earrings like the ones here in Andalucía. Women wear enormous pendants, fake and real, plastic, crystal, precious stones and sheer gold, interwoven with lace and the finest needlework. But it doesn’t stop there. There are rings and then there are Spanish rings. Large rocks upon every finger, usually several to one. A friend in our barrio wears necklaces so big that one day when she had a possibly real coral number around her neck we wondered whether she there was anything left of the Great Barrier Reef. Older Andalucian women seem to avoid the granny style, either wearing impeccable suits and neck scarves, or going to the other end of the spectrum, flamboyant colours, fake fur and massive BLING. I remember watching a handful octogenians having summer night cocktails in a plaza in Malaga, just dripping in gaudy jewellery and looking just fabulous.

When it comes to their offspring, the outfits are a whole different story. While North America and Northern Europe families generally goes the Baby Gap/H&M cute, but practical route, the Spanish goes Victorian. Families take deep pride in swaddling their babies in the most impeccable hand embroidered linens and beautiful subtle lace. As the baby grows into a toddler they will be clothed in Laura Ashley style dresses or Little Lord Fauntleroy shorts, patent leather shoes and matching stockings, usually with tassels. In the winter, the children will have classic woollen coats, with complementing crochet hats, mitts and stockings. If mom is with them she may sport a matching outfit, while the boys often echo their father’s choice in dress shirt. It is mini-me all the way. I would have never managed to dress my son in the fashion without loud protestations. In fact, I believe he still is working on forgiving me for dressing him in a vintage suit and baby cowboy boots when we lived in LA and he was two…

Ronda’s fiesta fashion depends on the season and is closely tied to the town’s history, art and culture. Southern Spain is where Flamenco music and dance started and it is still very much part of our society here, especially during the local ferias. The colours, patterns and combinations may be flamboyant or exuberant, but they are always gay and festive. I used to think that flamenco dresses was just for tourists and postcards (Remember the cards people used to send from Spain in the 1970′s with the fabric dresses that one could lift up?). However, most women we know here in Ronda have at least a couple of flamenco dresses in the cupboard, if not half a dozen. They also dance a mean Sevillana!

The style of the infamous 18th and 19th century robbers in the Serranía de Ronda is now used in folkloric fiestas and adapted into popular fashion. During the month of May when our town celebrates Ronda Romantico, locals walk through town dressed like Bandoleros and Bandolareas. Others dress in the more urban, elaborate, Goyesque fashion, influenced by the paintings of Spanish painter Francisco José de Goya (1746-1828)

Since Ronda is still very much an equestrian society, rondeños often have the rider look (all but the whip) in winter. Whether they are going drinking or to the office, they will wear quasi-jodhpurs, tall well polished riding boots and stylishly tight-fitting jackets with bright-coloured piping.

Finally, bull fighting has of course also been adapted into Spanish fashion. As recent as last year international designers Dolce & Gabbana launched a whole Tauromanía fashion line. Whether one likes bull fighting or not, the matador (killer) fashion is always in vogue in Spain, particularly here in the south.

After three years I have become a local of sorts, but I cannot escape having a cara de guiri (a face of a foreigner). I have brought a few strappy high-heeled sandals and will wear them in the summer, but I still wear my Norwegian rain boots, my trail runners and, on occasion, even the dreaded flip-flops! Yet moving to Ronda, I could bring out things I could never even dream of wearing in Canada. Andalucía is a place to embrace your femininity – or your pink masculinity for that matter. Nothing is too big, too bright or too tight. It is all about colours. Art imitating life, joy, blood and even death.

 

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Finally moving into our house in Ronda, at 43°C through a wobbly ladder

We had lost count on how long the construction process had lasted. The spring had flown away and we were still paying rent two years on. We decided to move in on July 01, as long as we had a roof, a loo and a front door. All we cared for was living in our own house. The rest was in the details and could be done until Kingdom Come.

After far too many trans-Atlantic moves, this one seemed like a breeze. For one, we were only going a few blocks. Secondly, we had decided not to bring any of our book and art boxes, stored at a local convent, until we had shelves to put them onto. All we had to do was pack our clothes, toiletries and a few kitchen odds and ends. That’s all. Our earthly goods looked rather modest as they were spread about in our rental flat, but once we emptied closets and filled bag after bag, things started swelling out of hand. Without being aware of it, we had managed to acquire so much stuff that it would probably take a dozen carloads. Well, well, so much for my alleged zen-ness

Thankfully, we had a couple of days of grace period as our rental home was ours until July 3. We planned to move everything into our new house first and then return to clean up, leaving the flat spic and span for the owners. This was also a good thing because we still didn’t have a bed (details, details…). The frame and mattress, together with bathroom furniture and closets were to be delivered on July 01. Such tight timing can be very risky in Spain, but it was summer and we decided that we could always sleep on the terrace.

June 30th. The most yearned-after day finally arrived with not a cloud in the sky. Perfect moving weather, we thought. Sweat was already pouring down our faces as we brought the very first load to our vehicle. By 11 am, the temperature gage in our car showed 43 degrees and it was still creeping upwards, heading scarily close to the fifty degree mark. I was always told back in the old country (aka Norway) that southerners were lazy and hardly worked at all. Of course, compared to us Scandinavian workaholics with an innate protestant work ethic, congenital angst for sitting still, and seeing idleness as the root to all evil, most Spaniards will seem a little happy-go-lucky. But living in southern Spain, I have come to realize that blasting sun and plus-forty temperatures are not conducive to fast-paced physical work. A little to late, it occurred to us that moving is probably not advisable at the height of the Andalucían summer. However, sunstroke or not, we were hell-bent on getting there. With numerous water breaks we got done before nightfall, ending the day with a most deserved cerveza at the local bodega.

July 1st. After crashing back at the ‘old’ flat, we were up at the crack of dawn heading for our new house. If all went to plan, this would be our first night in our very own Ronda home. Of course we had no kitchen and the stairs to the second floor was still at the drawing stage, so everything had to be moved upstairs through a wobbly old stepladder that we found in the basement of the house. (We had somehow forgotten to tell this fact to the IKEA delivery company…) We had actually already given away the ladder to our neighbour for their olive trees, but the construction team kept needing it, so we kept delaying bringing it to them, which turned out rather timely, since this was now our only means of getting upstairs.

The house was a jumble of activities, as an installer was fitting the German windows and sliding doors at the back of the house and the kitchen counter was to be measured, though the kitchen was not yet built. (My husband and I had rather bravely decided that we would put together the kitchen ourselves, and somehow survive without either killing the other…) The construction team had cleared out, but the painters were still working on the outside of the house. The more the merrier, they say…

We expected the IKEA delivery guys at the earliest in the later afternoon (nothing ever happens on schedule here), but lord and behold, we got a call about 11 am telling us that they were at the top of our street with their giant truck. We hoped that they would oversee the small fact of the missing stairs. Of course they didn’t, but after a small pow wow outside they came and told us that they would do the job all the same.

The delivery and installation trio turned out to be the perfect team. The most senior, and by far the heaviest, huffed up the ladder and barely managed to squeeze though the opening, starting installing our bathroom cabinets with fierce speed and efficiency. Meanwhile, a long skinny lad remained downstairs, handing box after box hand over fist to the youngest and most acrobatically inclined lad straddled between the wall and the last rung of the ladder on the second floor. Once they had gotten all the boxes upstairs, it was discovered that our mattress would not fit through the opening and had to be roped from the lower to the upper terrace. No problem. The lads were onto it. I went at steady intervals to buy them cooling drinks to make amends and to stave off the overwhelming heat. Particularly our heavier fellow was drenched when the work was done and heaven knows how, but he did manage to get down the ladder in on piece. We could not thank them enough before they drove off, no extra charge.

The evening came sure enough, though not the long awaited cooling of the air.  Alberto the painter and his team had finished the exterior walls and packed up. The window fitter had long left and all the empty IKEA boxes had been dragged up to the recycling bin on the corner. We were exhausted and only wanted to fall into the newly installed bed. We had managed to dig out a sheet from the bags. In this heat thankfully all one needs is a single sheet as cover, or not even that. Lying in our very own bed, looking out at the starry sky and the silhouette of Ronda’s historic quarter with ancient church towers that once were minarets, we could hardly believe we were here. Home at last!

We knew fully well that had this been Canada or Norway or in almost any other country, the furniture installers would have refused blankly to proceed, insisting that moving into a house without a proper set of stairs was against their union rules, too unsafe, too wobbly or simply not in their work description. But this is Spain and things work differently here. And sometimes that is a blessing!

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Forget about tax-free and Bobbies. Hiking La Roca

I never thought I would say this, but I love Gibraltar! Not the tax-free shopping, mind you, nor the pubs, the casinos, nor the pesky monkeys. La Roca as the Spanish call sometimes it has a side that most visitors never see – kilometers of jungle-like trails with spectacular ocean views.

Gibraltar is a small rocky outcrop (less than 7 km2) that has belonged to the British since 1704, in spite of numerous unsuccessful attempts by the Spanish to change this fact. Today some 30.000 Gibraltarians populate the rock, practically living within sight of Africa. In the latest referendum in 2002, over 98% of the voting population wanted to remain British – and proudly so. The rock is beset with military monuments, as well as over 50 km of tunnels. However, most of the 12 million annual visitors (one of the highest visitor to local population ratio in the world) come there for the tax-free shopping, Marks and Spencer’s, the British Bobbies, English pubs or gambling in one of its 25+ casinos. Some visitors will venture with a taxi or a cable car to the top of the rock for the typical ‘monkey with African coast’ photo, but few will venture further. Yet, Gibraltar’s true beauty is its natural setting, the flora, fauna and its geological riches. Perched above the busy town centre, 420 m above the sea level, is one of Europe’s greatest natural reserves.

We jumped on the chance to go to see this when RF Natura, a Ronda-based nature-excursion company, arranged a 14 km day-hike across the rock. It is not my intension to endorse companies, but when it comes to hiking in the mountain ranges and natural parks around here, one is best advised to go with an experienced guide, unless one wishes to become a vulture’s lunch. RF Natura’s founder, Rafael Flores, is an author and editor of several books about Andalucian nature. He knows every peak and valley from Southern Spain to the Atlas Mountains and will excitedly exclaim the Latin name of every rare flower as we trek along. With his trusted team of experienced co-guides, we could not imagine anybody better to lead our day-hike across the rock.

Whether one drives the costal road from San Pedro, or overland from Ronda to Algeciras, at one point one will see this emblematic and stately rock, marking the end of Europe. El Peñon de Gibraltar is quite unique from a geological point of view, as it is the only monolithic limestone rock in the area. The surrounding costal mountains are primarily sandstone based. The formation of the limestone that today is known as Gibraltar began during the Jurassic Period with the accumulation of shells and marine organisms. As Gibraltar is located near the boundary between the Eurasian and African plates, the compression lifted the limestone layer above sea level. Today, curiously, only the isolated rock remains.

To avoid border delays, we left the bus in the Spanish border town of La Linea, walking across the border checkpoint and the somewhat treacherous-looking runway of Gibraltar’s airport. Passing through Main street, with all stores closed and hardly a soul in site, we took off up a side street, which soon narrowed into one of the several flights of steps taking one up to the middle green belt, crossed by corkscrew roads, meandering their way up to Gibraltar’s upper rock. It was quite amazing to walk through a lush jungle-like forest on a peninsula that has no natural water reserves, rivers nor streams. Gibraltar’s water used to be provided by aqueducts, wells and captured rainwater, though today its supply of drinking water comes entirely from desalination from huge underground, or should I say under-rock reservoirs. Also scattered along the hike, was numerous bunkers, military barracks and other monuments, as testaments to the rock’s feisty past. I am not one to ohh and ahh at a canon, but I did like the 250-year-old graffiti carved by soldiers, some with the nicest penmanship, into the crumbling limestone walls.

The final ascent was a steep climb up the Queens Gate steps, several flights of stone stairs, part of it originally built as a wall by Philip II of Spain in the 16th century. This is a great place to take a breather (or assure that a heart attack is not coming on, for those who rarely walk) and to enjoy a bird’s eye view of Gibraltar and further away in the sea mist, the busy harbour of Algeciras. Coming to the top at last, we stepped straight onto the road that bridge the two semi peaks of the Upper Rock Nature Reserve area. At some part of the day, this would be bumper to bumper minivan taxis, though when we got there, there were thankfully none. There was only a contingency of the islands most famous residents meeting us. Gibraltar’s Barbary macaques are allegedly the only wild population of monkeys in Europe. I say allegedly, as the monkeys sit plumped down like sloths on the roadway, barely moving out of the way for traffic, while waiting for a ‘benevolent’ tourist to throw them a scrap of food. Feeding the monkeys is highly illegal, as they now have their own feeding grounds. Watching the monkeys felt rather sad to me, and I could certainly understand that some of them have attacked the occasional tourist, as these flail away with their selfie sticks. I would too, if I was stranded up there with only delousing my fellow monkey mates as my past time.

The top of the reserve still has some closed off military installations, though there are several stunning nature paths, some open to the public. Our guide Antonio led us to the beginning of the famous Mediterranean Steps, located entirely within the Nature Reserve. Originally built by the British military, is its now a pedestrian route from Gibraltar’s summit, descending through steps partly cut into the ground rock along the steep southern side of the rock, offering views of the Mediterranean and the coast of Africa.

There are times when a picture can say a thousand words, and this is certainly one of those occasions. The blue cloudless sky, the silvery sea, the white limestone rock, the deep green tropical foliage with shocking yellow blooms throughout. I was completely in awe, drinking in the colours, hand over footing down the stairs, while clicking pictures like a Japanese tourist. I know it sounds banal, but I simply had to bring this feast for the eyes with me.

Gibraltar has more than 600 plant species, three of which are endemic and found nowhere else. In addition, there are species native to North Africa and Gibraltar is the only place in Europe where they are found. There are also wild white freesia, sweet-scented wild honeysuckle and sea lavender to name a few. The nature reserve is also home to about 300 species of birds, some permanently residing here, while others appear during their bi-annual migrating season. The rock of Gibraltar serves as a temporary stopover for many migrating species before continuing over waters or deserts en route to far-away places such as Russia or Greenland.

Being of limestone, it is not surprising that Gibraltar also contains caves. The most famous, St. Michael’s Cave, has amazing stalactites and stalagmites, though the large concert venue and multi-coloured lighting gives it a somewhat theme park feel. However, Gorham’s Cave, located on the steep eastern face of the rock, is a hidden treasure. Archaeological excavations have found evidence that Neanderthals used it some 25,000 – 30,000 years ago, suggesting that this may be the place that our stoop-backed, heavy-fronted ancestors died out.

The peninsula’s history and legends didn’t end there. The final stretch of our hike as we entered paved ground showed the place where one of the Pillars of Hercules has stood, guarding where the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean meet. Clearly after such astonishing views, Gibraltar’s Main Street and a rather lame and costly coffee (in Gibraltar Pounds, of course) came as a bit of an anti-climax. Yet, having done only a partial hike, our guide Antonio promised to bring us back another day to do the entire 31 km of paths on Gibraltar’s Upper Rock Nature Reserve. Any takers?

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Dangling wheelbarrows, tanned plumber’s butts and other Andalucian building tales

Where was I? I seem to have left our building drama in mid-air, just as the archaeologist packed up and left the premises.

We were probably as surprised as anybody when we got our final, I mean the very final, building permit and had the go-ahead from all departments to start constructing our small house in Ronda’s historical Barrio San Francisco. As was to be expected, by the time all papers were signed and stamped and the construction team was ready to go, we were heading for fall. Naturally, we had hoped to be living in the house much earlier, but as months went by we had gotten somewhat wiser and more realistic about the Spanish concept of time. The constructors bidding on the job had estimated four to ten months, so we knew that we would be able to move into our casita before the spring at the earliest.

The archaeologist had left us with a finely combed ground and the teardown team had left four outer walls, minus a cavernous opening in the facade. Like starting from scratch, really. First up, our builders had the exciting challenge of bringing bins, machines and materials into our very narrow sloping dead-end street. Thankfully, the house across from us was vacant, so we had no complaints when they packed the area with construction supplies. Equally, the neighbours all seem to accept when large trucks backed up the morning traffic on our street. We could not believe it. The build had actually started!

Building in the older quarter of town is an on-going reality check. We had our ideas of how we wanted the house to look. Being a production designer and decorator, I had drawn up the plans for each floor before we hired our architect. He proceeded by drawing the technical plans (of biblical proportions in spite of the modest size of the house). However, there are times when you have to forget your visions and even the architect’s plans. Ideas aside, it is only when the builder starts working in the actual house, that it becomes clear how the space can be moulded between the jutting neighbouring walls. No one can really known the realities of the project until the slate is cleared and tabling old walls and falling roves are removed.  I cannot count the occasions that we were called by our builder, who would suggest a practical and necessary change in the plans. This may not be a challenge when one has a large space, but we were working in a three-meter by ten-meter space. We wanted an open house, allowing as much light as possible to enter. This meant no dividing walls on our main floor, skeletal stairs up and down and only dividing walls for the bathroom, even that mostly using glass. For us, it was all about light, why else would we live in Southern Spain?

Just as a teardown has to be done from the roof and down, the construction team started in the cellar, working upwards. We worried that the winter rains would come before we got the roof on, but what could be done? They poured cement over reinforcing steel bars, creating a foundation that the house had never had. Then we had to wait 21 days while the floor would dry before adding the next story. Some days it felt like nothing happened and other days we would discover that a wall had seemingly popped up overnight. Such is building, I suppose.

Building sites everywhere are probably more or less alike, messy, loud and rough. I quickly discovered that the only difference between Canadian and Spanish plumbers butts is just that the Spanish ones are tanned all year around. What may be different are building codes and the adherence to such. We discovered some local building methods that we both liked, such as the winch-system to bring supplies from the lower to the upper terrace. In fact, inspired by the suspended wheelbarrows, my husband promised to make us a dumbwaiter system similar to one we had in a rooftop hotel in Rajasthan, to bring our drinks for our Sundowners. I look forward to having it, though I remain realistic that it might not be for this coming summer, as my husband’s specialty is healing people, not engineering winch systems…

The mail-woman for our street had hinted that the three addresses we had had for the last year might lead to loss of mail and though she knew where to get hold of us regardless what the address would be on the envelope, she could not speak for her holiday replacement. Thus, we went off to buy ourselves our first gift for the house – a real Spanish mailbox to embed in the wall beside the front door. Maybe we had no roof yet, but we had a mailbox!

In true Andalucian tradition, we wanted to raise the flag and celebrate with our builders once the roof was on the house. We had no flag of course, Spanish, Norwegian, Mexican, Canadian, or otherwise, so I went to the convention centre where we had volunteered and borrowed a huge Andalucian flag. We hung it out the yet-to-be closed-in second floor bathroom window, the green and white Andalucian colours waving in the wind. Roof completion usually calls for beer at the building site, but as our living room was domineered by a giant cement blender, we invited the workers, constructor, architect and even the building inspector for tapas and cerveza at our local bodega to show our gratitude, and frankly, our relief!

Winter came and with it rains and dipping temperatures. The house was coming along with traditional pico de gallo roof edging and the old terra cotta roof tiles back on, but we still had cracks that allowed the sideways rain to enter. One day I put on my Norwegian rubber boots to inspect. Thankfully the main floor was almost dry and the upper floor had just a shallow lake throughout our future bedroom. The basement had not fared as well, having become an indoor pool from all the floodwater. Even if water is good for wet cement, now that it was cured, we did not want it to get wet again. Oh, well…

Eventually things dried up or seeped into concrete no-mans-land. The guys sprayed insulation foam, walls were bricked in and things were starting to look almost homey, in a bare-bone sort of way. Spring had sprung and the electrics and plumbing were installed, the former leaving dangling wires that would have given building inspectors and Fire Marshalls elsewhere a hay day. But this is Spain and they do things differently here.

Time to choose the final wall-finish. Our options were concrete, which is strong, but harsh, or a type of plaster-of-Paris finish that cost more, takes longer, scratches easier, but looks softer and insulates better for sound and changing temperatures. We went for the latter and hired a local father/son team who brought in their wall-smoothing paraphernalia and their innovative coat rack made of two sticks and half a dozen nails. Señor Pladul, as we called him, was a one-man running soliloquy (we guessed that his wife is deaf) and Junior sang love-songs to their plaster-stained transistor radio. Eccentricities aside, they made a wonderful team and worked hard, as long as we did detours around the house to avoid that papa would see us and break into another two-hour speech.

When our house was finally done, we were almost sad. Our builders had become like family. We had lived with them through thick and thin, in sickness and health, through floods, frost and near 50-degree heat waves. One day, one of our builders did not show up. He was usually the first to arrive to work and always courteous and friendly. They said that he would not be back. Had he gone onto another building site, we inquired and were told that tragically, he had taken his life the night before. He had a wife, children, a steady job and a home. Everything one could wish for, but things are not always as they seem.

Building a house in Spain is not for the weak of mind, nor for the ones wanting straightaway answers, instant reactions and an air-tight building schedule. It took us more than two years and we often felt resigned along the way. Yet when all is said and done, we love our three-meter-wide slice of Andalucian paradise, which never would have felt so special, nor so much like home to us, had we not gone through all the trials and tribulations to get here.

 

 

 

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