Call for entries: Exhibit your recycled art in a 14-century Andalucían convent!

Artist and non-artists alike are invited to take part in a recycled art competition on May 17th, El día Ronda Limpia in the Palacio de Congresos de Ronda – Convento de Santo Domingo by the world famous Puente Nuevo in Ronda, Andalucía, Spain.

Ronda Limpia is a public engagement initiative and volunteer community movement to encourage good environmental habits and promote the famous 3 R’s: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. In addition to community clean ups and media releases, Ronda Limpia will host a free environmental event on May 17th, the international day of recycling. The city of Ronda is lending us the lovely Santo Domingo convent where most of the activities will happen in the open courtyard. The recycled art will be exhibited in the stunning adjoining chapel.

Built on Arabic foundations at the instigation of King Fernando II and Queen Isabel I in 1485 after the fall of Ronda to the Catholics, the building has been rebuilt over the centuries in Mudejar (post-Reconquest Arabic), gothic and Renaissance styles. It has been a Dominican convent, a private mausoleum for the Moctezuma family, a jail and even a tribunal for the Spanish Inquisition. Abandoned for years, it was reopened in 2005 as a museum and conference space. The convent has seen major exhibits, such as Goya, Miró and Picasso, and was the location for the worldwide launch of the Playstation game series ‘Gran Turismo 6’ earlier this spring. We are therefore excited to host the first annual day of Ronda Limpia at this special location!
The art exhibit has 3 categories:

  1. Recycled Art and Sculptures
  2. Drawings: ‘Mi Ronda Más Limpia’ (My cleaner Ronda)
  3. Utility pieces created by recycled materials

Presentation dates: All objects must be brought to the Santo Domingo convent between the dates of May 5 – 10, 2014. Together with the work, we require a note with the names of the creator/s, the name of the piece and if possible a list of materials.

Foreign entries may be sent to us by prior arrangements. Due to the Spanish economy and since this is a volunteer event, we cannot help with shipping of art pieces. All pieces will be carefully recycled afterwards, unless the artists wish to pick them up.

Who can participate: All individuals and groups of any age or ability are welcome to contribute recycled artwork.

Prizes: Three prizes in each category will receive a diploma from the city of Ronda, a Ronda Limpia T-shirt, bag and other gifts.

Exhibition: All art objects and drawings will take part in a collective exhibit on the day of Ronda Limpia on May 17th in the Palacio de Congresos y Exposisiones del Convento Santo Domingo, Ronda, Málaga, Spain.

If you like to participate, please contact:


Phone +34 952 873 240 ext 3 (Spanish speaking only)

Phone +34 602 455 528 (my Spanish mobile)

For more information:

Our web site should be up in a few weeks:



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Who would have thought mom would move into a flat!

My mother, bless her heart, has always looked at apartment living with distain. Dad and her enjoyed separate floors in their house, which possibly can account for their long life together. When I would mention that they ought to consider moving into a smaller abode, my mom would look at me in horror and tell me the same story about how some friends had sold their lovely family home and moved into a flat, instantly regretting it. Apartment living, according to mom was like being confined to live in a rabbit cage. Moving into such limited quarters would invariably lead to sadness, depression and early death. Apartment blocks were veritable eyesores, particularly the hyper-modern triple complex piercing right out onto the fjord in the center of their picturesque town. Nothing would ever change her mind. She planned to leave their house feet first!

The problem with living in a big house is that one tends to fill it, especially if one lives there for more than 40 years, which was the case for mom and dad. We moved into our house when I was in primary school in the 1970’s. Small Norwegian towns didn’t have many apartments then and those that did exist were only considered suitable for bachelors, widowers and the working class.

Our new house was not a Modern Scandinavian Design showpiece, but it was big and comfortable and suited a young couple with three kids, as they were at the time. It had views to fields and hills and even to an old ski jump, and mom loved to sit in her favourite chair and watch ‘her painting’ as the sun disappeared on the horizon. 70’s houses had an abundance of storage, so every room had a wall of floor to ceiling closets. As the years passed, each closet was filled to the brim, as was the attic, the basement and the garage. Especially since my dad, bless his soul, had a certain affinity for buying ‘stuff’, acquiring an enormous collection of maritime antiques and rarities, old gym equipment and, amongst his oddest collections, hand-held vacuum cleaners. Is there any reason my mom thought that moving into a two bedroom flat was simply impossible?

When my father passed away last fall and mom fell a month later, needing by-weekly hospital care, she may have started to wonder about living alone in a large house with too many rooms, an unused indoor pool, a cavernous double garage, as well as a lawn to cut and driveways to clean. It is quite possible to live with uncut grass, but snow is a whole other matter. November came and so did the snow, as is to be expected in Norway. Mom had to get help to make a trail to the street and onto the garage. The next morning the snow would be back again and she would have to find help to remove what she calls the ‘Berlin wall’, which appears after the snowplow passes. If not, she would be stuck. Recently she told me that her car was caught in a snow bank. Luckily the mailman passed by and could give her a push. Norway in winter is not for the weak of heart. Maybe, just maybe, my mom thought their house on top of the hill wasn’t completely ideal for a lady in her advanced years?

Then one day my mom admitted to having gone, PURELY because she was curious, to a flat viewing. Of course she said afterwards that the flat was way too small and had no view and no space for her dining table for 18 and… In other words, it was official, flat living was not for her! Yet, a few weeks later mom said she had met a lady in church who had moved into a flat and loving it. Mom was invited to see the wonder and declared afterwards that if she has that amount of space it would not be too bad to live in a flat. Not that she planned to move… Only days later she met a former neighbor who spoke excitedly about her new abode. My mom went to see it and came out claiming this is where she wanted to live. Sadly it wasn’t for sale. Mom is evidently not the only old widow in our hometown looking for simpler living. But this flat-thing had now peaked my mom’s interest, she was on the hunt.

Mom called one day asking me to go to a real estate site to look at the photos of a flat for sale. To my great surprise, the apartment was located in the infamous ‘eye sore’ complex that mom always had been complaining about. Looking at the pictures, one saw the other side of the coin: a lovely, sunny, clean and modern flat with a big balcony looking out over and indeed overhanging the fjord just above where some brave Vikings take their daily morning dip. The flat came with heated floors, underground parking (no shoveling!) and ample storage. It even had its own boat mooring spot! I asked mom “What is there not to love?”

Knowing that mom would not manage to envision living anywhere if she saw the flat at the same time as dozens of other interested buyers, my brother arranged a private viewing. (Old ladies should be allowed a few perks) As expected, mom came out saying that even though it was a nice flat, the kitchen was painted too dark and that the underground parking would be hard for her to navigate and… She wasn’t sure. Being a Libra, my mom can only buy a dress after bringing the two contestants home on loan and trying each on several times. But when it comes to buying a flat, there is no time for such dwelling. It was a situation of now or never. In spite of all her misgivings about flat living, my mom bought the fjord view apartment, which proves that one thankfully can learn to appreciate new things at the age of 83.

And as far as her mooring spot is concerned, she can always get a speedboat and take up a new hobby.

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Postcard from Sierra de Líjar, February 2, 2014

Spring is here! Well not really, as we have had some rather cold and rainy days lately. But when we went for a hike in the Sierra de Lijar region this Sunday, we witnessed our very first almond blossoms, as well as wild-growing daffodils and a very rare pink orchid, whose Latin name has escaped me.

Sierra de Lijar is located between the white villages of Algodonales and Olvera in Spain’s southernmost province of Cádiz. The area is a favoured launching-spot for para-gliders, as well as Griffin vultures, neither of which seemed to mind sharing the same air space. Lovely site!

With more rain in the forecast, we still have to wear Gortex coats and sport wind-worn umbrellas. But as the fields have taken on a shade of light green and the almond trees in our back yard are bursting their buds, we know that warmer days are just ahead.

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Ronda Limpia – Cleaning the town, one bin at a time…

Ronda Environmental Delgate, Rafael Flores and Ronda Limpia volunteers cleaning containers. Photo © R. Flores

Ronda is spectacular by nature, surrounded by mountains and devoid of big-city smog and pollution. Seen from afar, it is truly pristine. Yet like many Spanish towns, we have a problem with garbage and dog ‘droppings’. Clearly not something a major tourist town would like to be known for, nor wish to admit to, but the truth is that all modern consumer societies have problems tackling their residue and Ronda is no exception.

Having moved from a large city in Canada to a small town in rural Spain, we could not avoid but noticing the difference in how people tend to their garbage and recycling. Not to say that all British Columbians are law-abiding environmentalists, but there is a strong sense of communal responsibility, as well as a no-less-powerful ‘culture of shaming’ which keeps local neighbourhoods and towns relatively clean. Of course not all rondeños leave a trail of garbage, but some residents unfortunately lack the education or the will to take responsibility for their refuse. This communal challenge ought to be addressed, if for no other reason, because of the town’s main industry and income source – tourism.

Small Spanish towns such as ours have gone through a relatively rapid change from a farm-based to a tourist-based economy in the space of a couple of generations. While older residents often grow their food and follow the ways of the past, the younger generations working and living in the downtown area have quickly adapted to modern-day conveniences and unfortunately also ‘use and throw away’ consumer habits. This goes for anything from appliances to candy wrappers, which some residents unfortunately will ‘forget’ or leave for others to tend to.

There are a few things to be said about Spanish garbage customs. In some Spanish bars the clients have traditionally thrown their paper napkins on the floor. Some restaurants still accept this custom. Hence, the habit of tossing napkins and peanut shells on the ground will naturally be brought onto the streets and plazas. Children watch and learn from their parents and there you have it. Added to this custom, most Spanish towns have a whole army of sweepers or barrenderos, so some residents see no great reason to walk to the closest rubbish bin. Knowing that the sweepers will come by offer people a convenient excuse to leave their garbage and recycling bags outside of the bins, promoting rats and other pests. Like a neighbour said: “I pay my garbage taxes to the city, so why would I clean up after myself?”

Just as people elsewhere will claim that it is ‘good luck’ to be hit by a bird dropping, in our town (possibly due to the impossibility of avoiding it…) people say that it is ‘good luck’ if you step in a dog pile. Of course, this is a fallacy. Rather oposite, it is a spreader of bacteria and disease. But as with recycling and proper bin use, picking up after ones dog is something that has to be taught – through community campaigns, education, shaming, use of role models, and possibly the most effective – through fines.

Wishing to help Ronda deal with its refuse challenge, I made a proposal to Ronda’s environmental delegate, Rafael Flores. He liked the idea and arranged for me to meet the town mayor, as well as head of police, culture, tourism and sanitation. All agreed that something had to be done, and in November of 2013 Ronda Limpia became a reality.

Ronda Limpia is a volunteer community movement and environmental public engagement campaign. We encourage rondeños to make a cleaner city, while promoting the concepts of reducing, reusing, recreating and recycling. In addition to spontaneous volunteer public clean ups, online information campaigns, a reusable art competition, promotion of reusable bags etc., we will host an event El Día de Ronda Más Limpia on the international day of recycling, May 17, 2014.

So far, we have had an overwhelming response from local and provincial media, as this type of community movement in fact has not been tried here before.  As expected, we have also met naysayers and outright deniers, who insist that Ronda is clean and that we are making the town look bad! Most residents though are very positive to what we are doing and in in agreement that something should be done.

We know we have big challenges ahead. Next Monday we hit the street again, this time cleaning dog droppings. Clearly we do not enjoy picking up other peoples’ dog excrements, but one has to start somewhere. Though many local dog owners are responsible citizens, others need to be told that their pets are not like self-cleaning ovens and that the streets and park of our town are not a giant public canine loo. Getting the owners to bring bags and actually pick up after their pets will be a challenge: With less than 40.000 inhabitants, Ronda has more than 9.000 registered dogs (!), and one can only guess how may un-registered ones. Calculate just one dropping per dog per day and you can imagine what we are up against….

For Ronda to remain a place which tourists will enjoy visiting and will wish to come back to, we need to put our best foot, or should I say paw, forward.

For more information: Join our Facebook or become a volunteer.
Our web site will hopefully be up soon.

Read more about Ronda Limpia in the press:

Diario Sur
Malaga Hoy
La Voz de Ronda 

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A visit to the virgin-maker

Virgins are a vanishing lot, especially if one is to judge by the lack of native sisters entering the hundreds of convents still in operation on the Iberian continent. (To fill this gap, Spain now actually needs to ‘import’ virgins from Africa, Asia and South America, but that is another story…)

Historically and culturally, however, virgins are big in Spain. Every village has it’s own virgin and most holidays seems to be virgin-based. You more often hear people being congratulated on their saint’s day than on their birthday. During Franco’s dictatorship, it was an unwritten rule that  female babies should be named after a virgin. Therefore most Spanish woman born before 1975 has María as one of her names. If not, her parents would be shunned as communists, separatists or worse still, republicans!

Spanish virgins of the not flesh and bone kind are everywhere. From vast cathedrals to the smallest, most humble chapel, virgin figures fill every alcove with her demure look, pale skin and teary eyes cast at the heavens. In the past, virgin making and carving of religious statues must have been a respected and much-needed profession. But like most classic handicrafts, I doubt that many Spanish youngsters have ‘virgin maker’ in their future career plans nowadays.

Thankfully there are still exceptions, such as the talented Sevilla sculptor and image-maker Dario Fernandez. We were lucky to visit his studio together with a keen group of amateur carvers from my husband’s wood carving class, and all came out with newfound inspiration. Dario’s studio in Sevilla’s historic quarter is filled with tear-sheets of virgins, Christ figures, carved hands in progress and rows of heads of biblical figures sculpted in wood or clay. (Not very Middle Eastern looking, but the convention of virgin making does not take such details as geography and ethnic origin into account) And then, of course his specialty: virgins.

Dario comes from a city that is renown for its Easter processions, where sculptures of heavenly virgins clad in rich brocade propped up on heavy gilded thrones pass through the streets. Growing up amongst all this religious imagery, the virgins, he claims, where almost like his dolls.

Clearly, being a virgin-maker is not a common profession. It is a skill that may take a lifetime to master. After studying art with specialty in ceramic, wood and stone-carving, Dario became an apprentice and disciple to the famed D. Antonio Dubé de Luque for seven years. Today, at the relatively young age of forty, he has his own apprentices from the Academy of Fine Arts learning the same art from him.

“You cannot learn this is school”, Dario says. Of course you can learn anatomy and brush use etc. in class, but when it comes to the actual art of virgin making, understanding it, seeing it, and believing it, you could almost say it is a calling. It is certainly a labor of love and of faith.

Virgin making is a most painstaking job. Dario uses only the best of cedar (no point even trying cheaper woods, such as pine, he says), traditional hand tools, classic tints, resins and glues, as well as an infinite amount of patience. Unless he uses an existing statue as reference, he will first work out the facial features in terra cotta clay, before he starts the carving.

The virgins are usually actual size, about 1.60 cm, to give them that special connection with the mortal admirer. While Jesus statues are still carved in full, virgins now have secrets under their skirts.  In the 17-18 century, the carvers stopped making full female figures. As their lower bodies were to be covered in cloth, the carvers made a open bell-shaped lower part, to save on material, money and carving hours. As the virgin figures are given costume changes for special religious holidays, articulated arms were also added. Common for all full figure statues, whether virgins or Christ statues, are that they are carved in sections and then glued together, before the last sanding and painting takes place. Finally Dario uses several layers of lacquer to give his figures that desired, or should I say divine shine.

Like all known Sevilla sculptors, Dario only makes sculptures to order, serving both the church and more often these days, wealthy private clients. A full sized virgin will take some 3-4 months to carve, depending on the detail and the look of the finished product. The price tag starts at about 20.000 euro for a basic virgin, going into the thirty thousands for more advanced figures and special requests.

Should you be interested, Dario will make your very own virgin to order. For more information, visit Dario’s web site

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Ronda, a worthy World Heritage Site?

“I searched all over for the city of dreams and at last I found Ronda….. in Spain nothing is more unexpected than this wild mountain city.”                                           Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

Our heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage is irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration and as such should be protected.

Since 1972, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) have identified places of special cultural and natural heritage around the world considered to be of outstanding universal value to humanity. To date almost a thousand World Heritage Sites have been recognized by UNESCO, such as the Taj Mahal, the great wall of China, Egypt’s pyramids, Timbuktu and Stonehenge, to mention a few. These sites belong to all people, present and future, irrespective of the territory on which they are located. UNESCO encourages member states to nominate sites within their national territory for inclusion on the World Heritage List.

Spain has 44 Patrimonio Mundial or World Heritage Sites, with Andalucía holding six, including the Alhambra and the historical centre of Cordoba. Last year Ronda was proposed. It is unclear whether UNESCO has a similar backlog of applicants as the canonization of saints in the Catholic Church, which at least in the past could take centuries. What is clear is that creating these sites is vital to encourage preservation on a global level. For a city like Ronda, that struggles with government budget cuts, while trying to restore all its historical sites, the denomination would be an essential help for the preservation of this city’s most unique cultural and natural history.

Ronda is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful places in the world. It somehow manages to merge more than 2000 years of history with a bustling 21-century town, while keeping its magical air. Where else do you find the main auto thoroughfare through town as a bridge from 1790’s, mounted over a dramatic hundred-meter gorge?

Here is how Rilke once described his cuidad soñada or city of dreams: “The spectacle of this city, sitting on the bulk of two rocks rent asunder by a pickaxe and separated by the narrow, deep gorge of the river, corresponds very well to the image of that city revealed in dreams. The spectacle of this city is indescribable and around it lies a spacious valley with cultivated plots of land, holly and olive groves. And there in the distance, as if it had recovered all its strength, the pure mountains rise, range after range, forming the most splendid background.”

Ronda has been settled since Neolithic times. Celts, Phoenicians, Romans and Visigoth rulers have passed through. Arunda as the Romans called it received the title of city at the time of Julius Caesar. For more than 700 years, Hisn Ar-Rundah or the Castle of Rundah was under Moorish rule. The best-preserved Arab baths on the Iberian continent are part of Ronda’s heritage from this era. Abú al Fidá (1273-1331) 
described Ronda as an “…elegant and lofty city in which the clouds serve as a turban, and its towers as a sword belt.”

In more recent history, Ronda became the place of infamous thieves (Bandoleros), bullfighters (Ronda boasts the oldest ‘plaza de toros’ in Spain from 1784) and romantic travelers. Many a famous artist, painter, writer and poet have passed through our city gates, such as Washington Irwin, James Joyce, Jorge Luis Borges and Ernest Hemingway. Hemmingway once said of Ronda, “The entire town and as far as you can see in any direction is a romantic background”. Ronda made a noted impression on John F. Kennedy and decades later on Michelle Obama. But none so much as honorary Ronda citizen Orson Welles, who chose to be buried here.

UNESCO World Heritage Sites are often recognized for their cultural or their natural heritage, though for Ronda it is really a combination of both. Looking at the UNESCO’s Selection Criteria, I can see Ronda falling under at last the following:

(i)  to represent a masterpiece of human creative genius;

(ii) to exhibit an important interchange of human values, over a span of time or within a cultural area of the world, on developments in architecture or technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design;

(iv) to be an outstanding example of a type of building, architectural or technological ensemble or landscape which illustrates (a) significant stage(s) in human history;

(vii) to contain superlative natural phenomena or areas of exceptional natural beauty and aesthetic importance;

(viii) to be outstanding examples representing major stages of earth’s history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;

Ronda’s bid for Patrimonio Mundial has over 30 000 Facebook supporters, but this is not a popularity contest. Regardless of how many heritage sites Spain has, Ronda in it’s own right ought to be on the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage Sites, as a place of special cultural and natural heritage of outstanding value to humanity!

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Postcard from Sierra de Grazalema, January 2014

We passed this tree hanging off a cliff on the magical walking route between the white villages of Grazalema and Benoacaz in the province of Cádiz. I have met many bent souls in this life, but few that can match this black oak.

If you ever wonder if trees can have back ache, here is your answer…

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Postcard from El Chorro – December 2013

Train coming through El Chorro with views to ‘El Camino del Rey’


I saw a video of ‘El Camino del Rey’ before we came to Spain and told my husband that I would not even make it up the first set of stairs.  After too many fatal accidents one is not allowed to climb there anymore. But as you will soon see, some people still do…

As it were, this royal path, built between two hydroelectric plants in the early 1900s, lays a short hour drive from Ronda. We had seen the amazing gorge coming back from Malaga in a train once, and though I still withhold my pledge to never walk it, one cannot but be curious to see it.

Our chance came last week. As a final push for the old year, our hiking group Pasos Largos organized a new year’s trip from the village of El Chorro, hiking the mountains above the infamous path. Thankfully we got to view it from a safe distance, instead of pinned to the cliffside on a crumbling narrow cement path some 100 meters above the water. I will gladly leave that thrill to others.

The Andalucían government has apparently budgeted to fix part of the trail by 2015, though several other plans have been cancelled before. Seeing the path today, it is surprising if not concerning that the ‘Camino del Rey‘ was a favoured place for primary school outings until a couple of decades ago. Most of the adults in our group remembered walking along the narrow path with their young classmates. Possibly the railings were still intact then?

Hold onto your hearts. Here is the video

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An ‘Andaluz’ Christmas story

December is here, and are celebrating Christmas in Spain for the first time. Like anywhere else we have lived, the fiesta is seen and felt far and wide. People elbow their way through the supermarkets with bulging trolleys, prepare meals for a small army and eat and drink far too much. Yet, Christmas in Andalucía is different from anything else we have ever known.

The first concern about Christmas in my native Norway is whether the festive season will be white. Here in southern Spain of course, that is no question. There might be a dusting of snow on some far away mountains, but generally winter means that the hills are covered in camel-coloured velvet. We do have the occasional rain during this part of the year, one just has to hope it won’t happen at Christmas. To be sure, we did a weather consultation with Antonio, a local farmer who at 85 years of age still works in the fields from 6 am every morning. He told us with a toothless smile that it would rain by Christmas Eve, lasting two days. Seeing our disbelief, he pointed up at a wet blotch on the ancient Arab city wall behind him. This spot, he told us, only comes out when there is agua (water) in the air. Apparently it had something to do with the salt deposits in the wall. Regardless, if we were to believe this modern day soothsayer, we should expect rain.

In Canada, where my husband and I lived for many year, Christmas music, or Muzak, will blare out of stores and malls ad nauceum starting just after Halloween, forcing one to be constantly reminded of the upcoming festivities. Hence, by Christmas one is completely fed up by ‘White Christmas, be it the original Bing, or the newer Boublé version. Here in Ronda, most stores have had no Christmas music even days prior to the holiday. The main walking street (La Bola, as the locals call it, named after an alleged huge snow ball that once rolled down this hardly inclined street) has speakers playing Christmas songs, though they cut them off respectfully during siesta time. Besides, they sound more like flamenco music to me.

The main streets of Ronda do have Christmas lights. Most shops have squeezed a Santa, a penguin with a red toque or a few stars in between sausages or sequence dresses in their window display, but it is nothing near what we saw in North America. Step off any commercial street and one would think there is no celebration at all. Be it due to electricity prices, poor economy, or simply tradition, people here have no Christmas lights or decorations outside their homes. One exception is a red banner with a naked baby Jesus, which some will hang from their balconies. A more pagan twist is hanging a rope off your balcony with an escaping Santa, or as a variation on this theme, a fleeing holy three kings on a rope. Most certainly ‘Made in China’, these dolls are in some way so uniquely Spanish.

The rondeños do celebrate Christmas, both the 24 and more so January 6, or el Día de los Reyes. Our neighbor showed us her nativity scene, which covered half her living room and according to her lacked all but moving parts. Every house, church, store, religious brotherhood and even bar have the stable-scene on display. Traditionally, Joseph, Maria, shepherds, kings (before escaping…) and animals are all there, while the miniature baby Jesus will be added on the night of Christmas Eve.

The most curious Christmas tradition I have witnessed to date is the ‘Christmas minibar’ with various liqueurs and mantecado cookies which businesses will set up for their clients. I first noticed this amicable tradition in the dealership where we bought our car last Christmas. This December we had to renew our car insurance, and there in this most responsible insurance office we saw the festive minibar again. Yesterday I also noted it in our hardware store (where they sell the before-mentioned ‘holy three kings on a rope’, should anyone be interested), just beneath the pocketknife stand. Nothing like a good cheer before driving off in a new car, signing a life insurance or revving up a new power saw…

Sure enough, as Antonio had predicted, we did get our ‘agua’. In fact 240 mm of it combined by gale force winds. As word got around that we would be alone for the holiday, friends and neighbours opened their homes and hearts to us. On Christmas Eve, while the wind was howling, we cheered the season together with a local policeman, his wife, children, in-laws and other family members. On Christmas Day we were invited to the family of the long-passed sacristan of the Santa Maria Mayor church, joining his eight adult children, an old aunt (with a lovely alto voice), spouses, children and ‘Tango’ the dog. After the meal, musical instruments were brought out and they started singing Andalucían carols, some composed by their great-grandfather. Braving the element, we set out on their annual traditional caroling visit to the local convents. In biblical fashion, the first convent we came to was locked. In the second convent a nun eventually opened the door. She let us in to a chapel where a handful cloistered nuns were praying. Hodden around a corner, a couple of them were singing a Gregorian chant, showing fragment of their robes and musical sheets. Once the chant came to an end, our group started singing the carols which this family has sung for the nuns as long as anyone can remember. After a couple of  songs, we made our leave and went back out in the rain, seen off by a waving and smiling nun.

Our first Spanish Christmas was a different one indeed. It was not about Christmas presents, but about Christmas presence. And as far as weather predictions go, we have decided to forget about online weather reports and cellphone apps. From now on we will get our weather from ‘the spot’ on the wall, like old Antonio.

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The mighty olive

Olive field by Virgen de la Cabeza, Ronda

There is nothing lovelier than an olive tree – this symbol of peace with its silvery leaves and its twisted body. Sometimes the trunk will divide at the root and grow like entangled lovers, Siemese twins or like a couple who separated in mid-life and came back together in old age. You may strip the tree of all its limbs and cut it down to its very root, yet branches come back, still producing the mighty little fruit we call olives.

Olive trees can live for centuries, the trunk becoming a veritable wall of gnarly wood. Their productive years start between 5 to 20 years of age, while the trees can go on producing a good olive crop for 100 to 150 years, after which their production will decline in quantity, though not in quality! The oldest known living olive tree is on the island of Crete and is now past her third millennia!

These days Rondeño farmers are harvesting their olives, hitting the trees with poles so the ripened fruit fall onto canvas tarps on the ground. Some have invested in more advanced equipment, such as a metal rake with moving teeth (an idea likely borrowed from the movie Edward Scissorhands). Others still gather each and every olive from the branch patiently by hand, or ordeño, though these days the latter group is far less common.

There have been olives in Andalucía at least since the Phoenicians came here some 3,000 years ago, though carbon testing brings the olive’s presence on the Iberian continent back almost 6000 years. The quality of olive oil from Hispania was already highly regarded by the Roman Empire. Later, the Arabs perfected the technique of olive oil production in Spain, where aceite, the word for oil comes from Arabic ‘al-zat’, or olive juice. These ancient trees and their thousand-year-old harvest traditions are not only an important part of the Andalucían history and landscape, they are also an integral part its  economy.

Spain is by far the world’s largest producer and exporter of olives, making over 40% of the world’s olive oil, approximately 6 million tons per year. Italy is second with over 20%, followed by Greece at about 12%. This may be a surprise to many foreigners who often think that Tuscany is the Mecca of olive production. Though I do not have this from a completely scientific source, it is said that when Italian olive crops fail, large quantities of Spanish olive oil are exported to Italy, where it is exported as Italian oil.

Out of the 262 varieties of olives cultivated in Spain, 24 are used in oil production. Andalucía in the south is Spain’s premier olive growing region, with an approximate 165 million olive trees or 75% of the Spanish production. Olive trees produce better fruit in poor, rocky soil, making Andalucía ideal for olives. The province of Jáen alone produces more olive oil than all of Greece, in 1/10 of the surface area. These giant oil-producing farms looks like a fine cross-stitching planned from outer space, where equal-sized and perfectly spaced olive trees are planted with mathematical precision as far as the eye can see.

Around Ronda olive production takes on a less industrial approach. Most farmers have somewhere between half a dozen to a few hundred trees, ranging in size from tweed-like babies, scraggly teens, sturdy adults to bent centurions. Olives provide locals with a strong connection to the past. One of the mills nearby, El Vínculo, has been in the same family since 1755, and they still use the same ancient extraction method, pressing the olives between heavy stone disks. The oil is green, slightly ‘muddy’ and much courser than the comercial oil one finds in the supermarket, but that is indeed how olive oil is supposed look and taste like. LA Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil also comes from a country estate near Ronda, where an order of nuns began producing olive oil more than 200 years ago.

Lovely as they look, olives are too bitter to be eaten right off the tree and must be cured to soften the fruit and to reduce their intrinsic bitterness. The process varies depending on the region, the species and the desired taste. People around here usually cure their olives in water or brine (a concentrated salt-water solution), submerging the olives for several weeks. Olives can also be pickled or cured in oil. More efficient, time-saving curing methods include nasty chemicals that one would rather not think about as one snacks on olives while having a cerveza at the bar…

The color of the olive in your jar corresponds to the ripeness of the fruit when picked. Most olives start out green, passing through stages of pinkish, purple and brown, then approaching black as they mature. Green olives are considered to be ripe when they have reached full size, but have not yet begun to change color. The riper the olive, the more oil it will give, thus black olives are generally used for olive oil, while green olives are commonly used for eating.

Once the olives are harvested, they need to be brought as quickly as possible to the mill be pressed. First, the olives are washed to remove mud, twigs and leaves. The fruit is then squeezed to a paste, before they separate solid from liquid, either through the traditional system of pressure, or by a more modern centrifuge system. In Ronda, many growers bring their olives to a co-op, where they get oil corresponding to the amount of olives they bring in. They are not guaranteed to get the oil from their own olives, but as most olives around here are grown in similar conditions, it seems to be the common route for smaller non-commercial producers.

The first juice to come out is the Extra Virgin Olive Oil, often referred to as the first pressing. The oil is only a ‘virgin’ if it is pressed without the use of any chemicals. The traditional way of processing the olives are without heat, explaining the bottle-label ‘cold pressed’. However, in order to reduce costs and increase production, producers will often heat the paste after the first pressing to extract higher levels of oil (though this oil no longer can be classified as ‘extra virgin’). Only 10% of the oil produced qualify as ‘extra virgin’, making it the most costly. Usually lower grades of oils are produced from secondary and tertiary pressings, where the paste is passed through chemicals and additional heat to extract more oil from the same paste.

Olives and olive oil are crucial in Mediterranean and Northern African cooking, and for good reason! Olive oil is recommended for living a long, healthy life, and is probably the reasons for all the plus-110-year-olds discovered on remote Greek islands. The olive is a virtual super food: Olive oil decreases blood cholesterol and helps reduce high blood pressure. Olives are rich in the antioxidant Vitamin E and contains anti-inflammatory polyphenols and flavonoids. They are full of iron and copper and a source of dietary fiber. There are demonstrated evidence that olives benefit the cardiovascular, respiratory, nervous, musculoskeletal, immune, inflammatory, and digestive system. Need I go on?

Many decades ago in my (even more) ignorant youth, I lived in Loutraki, an ugly little town on the wrong side of the Peloponnesus channel. Like most Scandinavians at the time, I was abhorred by how everything the locals cooked was bathing in oil (the Greeks are the world’s biggest consumers of olive oil, averaging 400-liter per family per year!) How things change. Here we are, like the Andalucían townspeople, pouring the liquid onto our bread without abandon!

My husband and I are still looking for an olive tree to plant on our terrace. Not any old olive, mind you. We are looking for a windswept and gnarly one, worthy of the trees long and fascinating history. We will let you know when we find it.

Olive field at the foothill of a snow-capped Serranía de Ronda, December 2013.

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