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 into two at the root and grow like entangled lovers, Siemese twins or like spouses who separated in mid-life and came back together again 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 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 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 the thousand-year-old harvest traditions is not only an important part of the Andalucían history and landscape, it is also an integral part of 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 Italy, or rather Tuscany, is the Mecca of olive production. Though I do not have this from a scientific source, it is said that when Italian olive crops fail, large quantities of Spanish olive oil are exported to Italy where they sell it to the world 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 olive-growing. 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.
Thankfully 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 and bent centurions. The 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, squeezing juice by pressing them between heavy stone disks. The oil is green and unclear, and much courser than what one can find in the supermarkets, but that is indeed how olive oil is supposed look and taste like. The famous 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 region, species and 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. Other more ‘efficient’ curing methods include lye and 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 corresponds to the ripeness of the fruit when picked. Most olives start out green, passing through stages of pinkish, purple and brown, and approaching true 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 the black olives are usually used for olive oil, while the green are generally used for eating.
Once the olives are harvested, they are brought as quickly as possible to the mill be pressed to avoid damaging the fruits. As late as yesterday we saw a truck with a hanger loadd with olives heading for the press. In Ronda, many growers bring their olives to a co-op, where they get oil corresponding to the amount of olives they brought 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 producers.
Before pressing, the olives are washed to remove mud, twigs and leaves. Immediately after, the fruit is squeezed until it becomes a paste, before the phase which separates solid from liquid, either by the traditional system of pressure, or by a more modern centrifuge system.
The first juice to come out is the Extra Virgin Olive Oil, often referred to as the ‘first pressing’. The oil can only be called 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 oil production qualifying as Extra Virgin, making it the most costly. Usually lower grades of oils (orujo) are the 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 having a long, healthy life, and is probably the major reasons for the discovery of all the plus-110-year-olds on remote Greek islands. The olive is a virtual super food: A diet based on Extra Virgin Olive Oil, decreases blood cholesterol and helps reduce high blood pressure. Olives are rich in antioxidant vitamin E. It also contains anti-inflammatory polyphenols and flavonoids. They are full of iron and copper and a good source of dietary fiber. There are demonstrated evidence of the olive’s benefits on the cardiovascular system, respiratory system, nervous system, musculoskeletal system, immune system, inflammatory system, and digestive system. Need I go on?
Many decades ago when I lived in Loutraki, an ugly little town on the wrong side of the Peloponnesus channel, I was abhorred by how the locals cooked everything in a sea of oil. The Greeks are in fact the world’s biggest consumers of olive oil, with an average 400-liter per family per year. How things change. Here we are, like the Andalucían peasants, pouring the liquid green gold oil onto our bread without abandon!
My husband and I are still looking for our olive tree. Not any old olive, mind you, but a windswept and gnarly one, worthy of its long and fascinating history.Read / Add Comments
Last November, my husband and I packed a few belongings, left Vancouver B.C. and set out on a new journey. We arrived in Ronda the following night in torrential November rains, not knowing how long we would stay nor where we would go next. A year later we are still here.
Ronda is one of those magical places that have people coming back. We first visited in the spring of 2012 on a one-night stopover during a trip through Spain. It was the only place it rained during our entire holiday, but when we woke up on the morning of our departure, the view that met us was like no other. A group of horses were gracing peacefully outside our hotel window. Bright sunrays hit the hill behind, where silver-leafed olive trees were silhouetted against a deep-purple sky, slashed by an auspicious double rainbow. We simply knew we had to come back.
Living in Andalucía is like living in an ever-changing painting in palates of greens, earth tones and pure gold. It is a piece of art I hope I will never to take for granted. Whether we go for a drive or a stroll around the block, few are the days where I do not feel like pinching my arm and asking myself: “Are we really here?”
Granted, living in a mountain village is not for everybody. We have no malls or big chain stores, and no Starbucks. Our town has one cinema, which to my knowledge only shows last season’s American blockbusters dubbed in Spanish. There are no five star restaurants or designer boutiques. In fact, we are probably quite unfashionable. Living in rural Andalucía is like stepping back in time. You still see the occasional donkey, though more often horses trot through the street. When you buy a dozen screws in a hardware store, they are still wrapped in a piece of newspaper. To get a zipper, you have to line up at the haberdashery with seven ladies before you, while the matron up front takes an eternity deciding on the few centimeter of ribbon to match her doily curtain. Many would find this kind of life boring, but to us it is simply magical.
We may not have Venti non-fat, no-foam, extra hot lattes, but we have countless cafés looking onto picturesque plazas where we can stop for a café con leche for just over an euro. We may not have world-class restaurants, but we can buy fantastic locally produced cheese, wine, meat and vegetables that haven’t traveled across endless oceans to get to our table. And if one does not feel like cooking, there are plenty of places serving home-made ‘casera’ type fare, three courses including bread and wine for about 10 euros, which in my native Norway barely will get you a dry sandwich.
Our life has become infinitely closer connected to our natural environment, surrounded as we are by fields, olive groves and vineyards. Hanging out the laundry today (yes, we still can dry clothes outside…), I had to duck under the heavy olive branches. On my way back I met a handful pomegranates bursting out of their skin, simply begging to be picked.
We simply love our street and the lively folks that populate it, the kids wheeling down the hill on their pink bikes, the toothless smiles and cheery hellos from the old men on the corner. We enjoy the simple life, the meandering country roads, park benches hit by soft winter rays and the sand-coloured stone walls that envelop our town, echoing past mysteries and reminding us of all the people that lived here before us.
Rural Andalucians are lively, noisy, passionate, impulsive and generous almost to a default. The other day I was working in our community garden when one of the other gardeners entered, a heavy-set mother with her adult equally round son. We greeted each other and they continued to their plot, speaking in a thick Andalucian accent of which I only would catch every third word. The mother was yelling and scalding her son for everything he did or did not do. Nothing seemed to please her. The poor son took it without complaining and dug on. I thought to myself how hard it must be to live with such a horrid person. As if she read my thoughts, the lady hollered over at me, “He, hija”, meaning “Look here, girl”. With a great smile she asked me if we have planted any lettuce. When I declined, she called me over, where she handed me two large healthy plants. She had become friendliness herself.
These are not easy times in Spain and these people are not wealthy. In fact, they probably need everything they plant. Yet she shared what she had with me, a complete stranger and foreigner to boot, who happens to be digging in the ground a few lots away. For her and for so many other reasons, we feel completely welcome here. Andalucía has taken us in her embrace, and so far neither of us is letting go.Read / Add Comments
Ever since my dad took my sister and I to see Disney’s Jungle Book at the World Theatre in my little hometown in the late 1960s, I have had a special affinity for vultures.
Remember the friendly barbershop-quartet in the bleak petrified desert? Originally, Beatles’ manager wanted the band to record the song for the movie, but John Lennon vetoed the project, apparently suggesting that Elvis sing it instead. Those were the days. Of course I know that real vultures don’t sport Beatles mops and Manchester twang, but they are nothing to fear – unless you are dead, of course. And at that point you really don’t have to worry too much about it.
One of the most magnificent birds in Spain is the Griffon Vulture (Buitre Leonado), a common sight in the craggy mountains of Serranía de Ronda, one of its most important breeding grounds. We often notice them circling high above us as we go on mountain hikes or drive through rocky passes. They stay away from populated areas, so there was great commotion when a young Griffon vulture landed in the parking lot of our local Ronda hospital.
An anesthesiologist managed to snap some pictures between surgeries, while the general jokes in the halls where about the vulture coming to seek medical attention. It quickly became clear that the poor animal could not be left in the parking stall, so great minds came together to find a solution. Someone suggested a pet carrier, which was brought out to the hospital. However, given that the vulture is Andalucía’s largest raptor, they soon discovered that only its head would fit in the box. It is a blessing that doctors are not engineers…
There are often misconceptions about vultures. Unbeknown to many, vultures don’t kill. They are the nature’s cleaning team, devouring and getting rid of carcasses which otherwise would rot and possibly spread disease. They may be perceived as ugly (if one has not seen the Jungle book), but these large birds with their powerful beaks for ripping meat and sharp claws for clinging to rocky cliffs, have bald little heads with fuzzy baby hair that completely ruins their macho raptor image.
But vultures are far from macho. I fact they are a lot more ‘liberated’ than many Spanish males. Both vulture-parents incubate, brood, and feed the single egg they hatch each year. Females often steal sticks from other pair’s nests, while the males of the couple arrange them. Griffon vultures mate for life, which may be forty or fifty years. The couples circle together near the cliffs where they nest and live in colonies with other breeding pairs.
Seeing a flying vulture is nothing short of magnificent. The Griffon vulture is the highest-flying bird on record, spotted at over 11000 meters in the skies of Africa. They have wingspans of almost 3 meters, which allows them to soar for over 6 hours. Apart from takeoff and landing, they rarely need to flap their wings. They will fly as far as 150 km in search of food for their young and have a ‘cruising speed’ of over 35 km per hour.
The vulture population in Spain has been declining rapidly due to poisoning, hunting and habitat loss. To prevent this, the government put up authorized feeding stations. After the mad cow disease scare, EU farm rulings tried to stop the feeding stations, so now the carcasses are severely tested before they are put out. It is not easy being a vulture these days…
And what happened to our young buzzard friend? After much wing flipping, shouting, cell phoning and beak snapping, the severely confused bird was finally sent off. Thanks to the staff at the hospital, he is now launching in a coastal bird-rehab and can be visited at the Centro Recuperación de Aves Rapaces in Alhaurín de la Torre near Málaga.
To know more, check out the blog of the anesthesiologist and resident poet Dr. Emilio Perianes: http://hayquevivirla.blogspot.com.es/2013/10/el-dia-del-buitre.htmlRead / Add Comments
In a country with an abundance of historical and archeological sites, many places get overlooked and others are left to ruin. There isn’t enough money in the Spanish coffers to restore all and even though some 50 million tourists visit Spain every year, many astonishing places are overlooked or forgotten. Living here one gets used to seeing abandoned palaces and remains of regal dwellings and accepting it as the circle of life on the Iberian continent.
We were invited to visit one of these ‘forgotten’ sites, a small town called Osuna in the province of Sevilla. In Spain small does not have to mean unimportant. With only 17.000 inhabitants, Osuna has seven convents, Spain’s smallest cathedral (hidden underground!) and some twenty palaces. This fascinating ducal town has been declared a historic site, yet hardly anybody visit it and even Wikipedia only offers the town a few pitiful lines. Located a mere hour’s drive from Sevilla or Cordova, we did not hear a single foreign tongue while we were there. Rewind about two thousand years, and Osuna was a major center for the Romans, even casting its own coin. It was also here that Julius Caesar fought his last victorious battle.
Unfortunately, there is only one building left for the eight centuries of Moorish rule, but in contrast Osuna has plenty examples of the architecture from the Christian re-conquest and the last centuries. The famous Duke of Osuna was not only the town ruler, but at one point owned vast areas reaching as far south as Cádiz. However, as the title passed through the generations, a mixture of inbreeding and foolish spending on war, gambling and personal indulgences reduced the duke’s family to paupers in all but title.
I knew nothing of Osuna’s past until Beatrice, a friend and most knowledgeable art historian took us on a tour of town. We started in the university, which has been around for almost five centuries. Founded in 1548, the school offered studies in religion, law, mathematics, grammar and arithmetic. The university director showed us the large exam hall, with its creaky floors and old patrons staring beady-eyed down on the students. Beatrice’s husband said the smell of old parchment, moldy canvases, dark wood and dusty books has not changed since he was a student there. While there, the bell rang for recess. Student streamed out of classrooms into the inner courtyard, whose marble columns had beautiful graffiti inscriptions from other students from the 17 and 18 century! Some things never change…
Our next stop was one of the monasteries. They had 11 resident nuns, which is a lot for this time and age when young Spanish girls aspire to become anything BUT nuns and unmarried royals no longer have to hurry to get themselves to a nunnery. Beatrice spoke to a nun through a covered lazy Susan type dispenser, where they sell sweets. Most of the sisters are never seen, but two nuns came in the door and greeted Beatrice. She told them of her visiting foreigners who are interested in religious art. The hermanas wished us welcome and told Beatrice that she could show us around. One is really not supposed to take photos in the nunnery, but I was told that as long as I didn’t take photos of all – todo, I would be fine. So SpyCam in hand, I joined the others after having snapped photos of the hand-painted tiles surrounding the courtyard – some depicting the indulgences that nuns have to forsake when joining a cloister.
Though nuns themselves own nothing, past nuns usually belonged to rich and powerful families who donated religious icons and art pieces to the convent as a sort of payment for taking on their unwanted female offspring. Like a dowry for their marriage to God? Thus, many convents have very valuable religious art. I was particularly impressed by their collection of baby Jesus-es, far angels and virgin dolls, complete with gilded brocade clothing and miniature silver shoes.
After a far too copious and wet 3-hour lunch we were ready to hit the sidewalks again, this time for a private tour of the collegiate church. (La Colegiata de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción) erected by pope Paul III in 1534. This enormous and richly decorated building is guarded singlehandedly by Rosario, a feisty and flirtatious 70-year-old lady who has guided visitors through the church for the past 40 years. She picked up a medieval-sized key chain, locked off the church (there aren’t many visitors…) to show us around. The church has art pieces by Ribera, Osorio, Morales, Zamora and other known Spanish painters. She pointed at one piece, saying it just was returned from a ‘guest performance’ at the Prado in Madrid. We followed her at harrowing speed in and out of locked doors and climbing down steps beneath the main altar, discovering a real miniature cathedral and yet deeper a catacomb with stone tombs for both clergy and important citizens of Osuna.
Our visit was not complete without a walk through the downtown area. The buildings in the center are all form the 16 to the 19-century. Even though they gap over 400 years in time, they present a harmonious blend of bygone times and streets are often grouped by century. Though largely ignored by tourists, Osuna’s uniqueness and beauty is not unknown to filmmakers. In Michelangelo Antonioni’s film ‘The passenger’ from 1975, Jack Nicholson’s character was assassinated in Hotel de la Gloria in Osuna. Franco Zefferelli chose the turret room in one of Osuna’s palaces for his 2001 film ‘Callas Forever’ with Fanny Ardant & Jeremy Irons. Now the best hotel in town, the so-called Marques of the Palacio Marques de la Gomera never really was one, but its wealthy initial owner bought their titles at one point when the ducal family was in need of cash.
Wanting to buy a postcard from town to send to my mom proved more difficult. After half a dozen unsuccessful tries, I found a tobacco store that had a hidden stash with a small and uninspiring selection of bleached postcards. The fact that their stock has not been seemingly renewed since 1958 might partly explain why Osuna is not the bustling little tourist town it ought to be…Read / Add Comments
My husband got his first driving license in Mexico in 1969. I got mine in Norway in 1981. We both have valid Canadian driving licenses, international driving licenses and official prof of perfect driving record in Canada for the past five years. We have been driving for a combined 78 years – Yet, we found ourselves back to driving school to get our Spanish driving license.
It is said that the Spanish road and vehicle rules are three times as wordy as the English ones. One American expat compared his Spanish driving exam to passing the US bar exam, prefering the law studies!
Driving students in Spain must enroll in a school, attend classes and answer endless online tests with a combination of 15.800 multiple-choice questions prepared by the Spanish driving authorities. When it comes to actual driving practice, young Spaniards cannot learn from their parents, but have to do all their driving with a qualified teacher. One would think that after all this Spanish roads would be very safe. Not so. Spain tops the European accident statistics, second only after Portugal.
Expats on the coast can choose an English driving school and do their classes in English, but in Ronda this is not an option. Nobody speaks anything but Spanish here. We tried to get the English translation of the theory book as an additional help for me, but after ten days of waiting, I gave up and grudgingly started reading the Spanish book. (My first one- baptism by fire) The 238 pages took me two full weeks to get through, asking the online dictionary or my husband for translations every other sentence. Motor vehicle authorities do not use normal language in any country and Spain is no exception. Of course I know the name people use for a car – either ‘coche’ or ‘auto’, but the motor vehicle authority term is ‘turismo’. There are endless examples like this, not only referring to cars and roads. For instance using nuances when describing a fog as being thick, dense, spread, light, scattered etc. In every online exam I did, (and we did about 150 of them with more than 4500 questions!!!) I did not know important words, which for instance would either make the car skid outwards or inwards in a curb. A few unknowns like this, and I would get more than the measly 3 mistakes allowed and fail the exam – while knowing all the theory required.
Talking of theory, the details students are supposed to know are dumbfounding. When again in my life will I need to know that the L-sign for a new driver is 15 cm by 19,5 cm? Or that bluish white smoke from the exhaust pipe could mean that there is oil in the combustion chamber (Where is my mechanic?) Or that only motorcycles without sidecars can enter with a specific sign. Or that a special farm vehicle weighing over 3500 kg with a hanger, or without break light, have a reduced maximum speed limit of 25 km/h instead of 40km/h?
In addition, Spain has laws that seem very curious for us who has driven in overly secure Canada. For instance, helmets are compulsory for bicycles in rural areas (not urban) but if the temperature is ‘exceedingly hot’ you do not need to wear it. Not that anoyone follows the rules anyhow… The speed limit rules for each class of vehicle for each specific road or the backing up rules for the 11 different classes of vehicles meeting in narrow sections are enough to make anyone cry, or simply decide to walk!
So here we were in a classroom with ‘kids’ who look forward to celebrating their 20th birthday, calculating that we almost could be their grandparents! I have to give it to them, our teacher Encarna and the staff in our driving school were absolutely fabulous, especially considering that they had to teach a foreigner. It became a saying at the school that if a Norwegian could pass the Spanish driving theory exam, then anyone could… I would say that if I passed the exam, it would be a small miracle, and if I did not, it would not be for lack of trying. And, thankfully, nobody here can put you up to the wall and shoot you for failing a test.
On the day of our theory exam, held in what looked like a bomb shelter in the suburbs and guarded by two most official looking examinators, a friend had gone to light a candle for us. On our walk to the exam we also passed our friend Pépe. He was so worried about our exam that he called his mother -who prays more and thus has more clout with the ones above- and asked her to light candle for us!
Be it our incessant studies for the past weeks, our capable and patient teacher, or the candles lit for us, miracle over miracle, we both actually did pass the Spanish theory exam. And now awaits another challenge, the Spanish driving test…
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If the last time you had Sangria, you drank 3 carafes and ended up on the floor in a Benidorm bar, I can understand why the mere mentioning of the word turns your stomach. However, Sangria, Tinto de Verano and other Spanish summer drinks can be quite refreshing.
Tinto de verano, a simple and delightful summer drink, is basically red wine (vino tinto) served with sparkling sweetened soda water. If you ask for a tinto de verano con Casera in our local bar, you will be given the traditional Sprite-type gaseosa whereas ‘con limón’ will give you red wine with sparkling lemon soda. Eithere way it is cheap and cheery, good if one have leftover opened wine and easy to make at home.
The secret to making Sangría is a generous supply of over-ripened fruit. Peaches, pears, apricots, plums and even bananas are great. Traditionally it is made in a large ceramic bowl, though any bowl will of course do. Start by pouring in a bottle of red wine. No point in splurging on expensive wine for this occasion, so we usually by a bottle of ‘plonk’ at the corner store. Next, peel and chop some fruit, the juicier the better. Wedge oranges and lemons, leaving the peel and add some fresh juice, if you have oranges to spare. Some Spanish add a cup or two of sugar, but I skip this step. Finally, add about a liter of lemon soda and/or sparkling water. For special occasions or to get more ‘kick’, add a splurge of brandy, Triple Sec or vodka. Serve with ice in tall glasses, and do not wear your finest whites!
Similar to the world renown mojito, the rebujito is typical to Andalusia, especially consumed during férias and celebrations. Rebujito mixes one part sherry (usually a dry Fino) and one part sparkling soda. Our Spanish friends also add copious amounts of brown sugar. On can also replace the Fino with the slightly more floral Manzanilla. I use tonic or soda water and lemon juice instead of the sweetened Casera, as a matter of taste. Serve the rebujito long over ice with copious amounts of Hierbabuena (‘good herb’). If you cannot find this fragrant member of the mint family, people say that spearmint is the closest relation. Personally, I would rather use lemon balm as a replacement.
As far as cerveza is concerned, other than drinking beer straight, the Spanish will also have ‘una clara’ (beer with Casera soda) or ‘clara con limón’, which is beer with a splash of sparkling lemonade. Both are usually too sweet for my palate, so I usually drink a ‘sin’, meaning beer without alcohol, not very sinful at all…
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When my husband and I lived in Vancouver, we loved to stroll along the railroad tracks and admire the Kitsilano Community Gardens. We always wanted a plot, but we never imagined it would be here in Andalucía.
Truth be told, we are not what one can call avid gardeners. I have always had flower orphanages, tending them with a haphazard trial-and-error approach. The first time my husband saw me dig in the garden, he exclaimed: “We have people to do this sort of things in Mexico.” Though we both wish we had green thumbs, a tale to our utter failure on the garden front was the single tomato we grew from five plants on our front stairs in Vancouver last summer. Actually, it rotted before we managed to pick it…
But it is never to late to learn, so when Pepa, the little old lady in the world’s smallest butcher shop at the top of our street had a poster advertising Ronda’s first community gardens or Huertos, we immediately signed up. That was March and we did not hear anything back for weeks. By May we wandered down to the lot to see if anything was happening and saw an aunt hill of activity with other huertlanos busily preparing their plots. Like most community gardens, ours is run by a group of wonderful volunteers, so some things will fall between the cracks. No harm done. We were allocated lot number six, 10 meters by 9 meters, facing a meandering brock and a hillock silhouetted by olive trees where a handful horses usually graze.
The Huerto Leveque consists of 30 plots of various sizes, rented annually. One third of the lots are given to Red Cross, so welfare families who has trouble feeding their children can grow crops there. This way we have met some wonderful gypsy families (one with 8 children!), who have taught us many things about what and how to grow.
We started by observing the other huertelanos as they rototillered their plots. Not knowing where to rent these machines, we went to our local bar instead. We mentioned our need to the owner and he immediately volunteered his brother to help us. Sure enough, 8 o’ clock the next morning Salvador was there with his industrial style rototiller (la burrita) , doing passes in every direction for three hours straight, not expecting a cent in return. That is Spanish kindness to you!
Copying the more experienced gardeners, we started gathering mounds of earth into rows. I insisted that we plant a lemon tree in the centre, with isles leading out on four sides. (Once a decorator, always a decorator…) Admittedly, I was more excited about making a scarecrow than digging and such, so we were the first, and still are, to have a scarecrow in the community garden. Gonzales has beady eyes, a straggly rope moustache, gold ballet slippers from a friend from the UK and a pair of army cutt-off pants inherited from Clyde from Canada. If he doesn’t scare away birds, he will at least scare people.
Our soil now well beaten, we bought a slew of plants, seeds and herbs – tomato, peppers, eggplant, cucumber, zuchini, radishes and tons of melons. Of course we had no idea how and where to plant these, but as soon as we started digging in the tomato plants, one of the organizers would storm up and briskly pull out all we had done, saying NO NO NO!, like he was scalding a child and start all over again. Of course we still did things completely wrong, like when I cut off all the leaves of the tomato plants, giving our tomatoes a nasty sunburn! Oh well, next year…
In spite of ourselves, or more so thanks to our fellow huertolanos, we have enjoyed the bounty of the Andalucian climate. Radishes the size or huge carrots, a 1 kg tomato – too big to fit in ones hand. I never thought I would say this, but I have become a pusher. Our cucumber and peppers are simply producing too much for the two of us, so we try to push our vegetables on friends, fiends, neighbours and any unsuspecting passer-by.
Every time we come down to our huerto, I have to pinch my arm to assure myself that I am really here, in this paradise! A shepherd herds his hundred-or-so sheep by along the river every morning. Some manage to get into the gardens, having to be chased out. In the spring there were four mares with their foals grazing in the neighbour lot. Later in the summer, four donkeys were there with their young. In front of us we have the hills and behind us is the 1000-year-old Arab city wall. The land has been farmed for uncounted generations. I keep finding old ceramic and glass pieces and telling my husband that I have found another ‘Roman treasure’. They are likely from the 1970’s, but like a crow, I save my shiny prized finds around our tiny lime-quat tree – awaiting the day that I will unearth a Roman olive urn…
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I have to admit, I had become a great disappointment to the ladies of my furniture restoration class. Week after week I would come into the class empty handed. The other students would look at me with lifted plucked eyebrows, wondering why I would not bring old treasures from my grand casa(we have none…) or at the very least from the contenadores de basura. I tried to explain that I had seen a three-legged chair or a broken TV by the dumpsters, but nothing salvageable or worthy of restoration.
Finding this foreigner both helpless and useless, in pure pity one of the women gave me a chair to work on. It had more bugs than wood, but underneath layers of paint and glossy varnish I found the most amazingly Art Nouveau embossed leatherwork.
Weeks went by while I diligently worked on my chair. The Ladies of Ronda Dumpster Diving Society would gradually approach, inspecting my handiwork and sometimes offer me a better tool or suggest a different brush. Clearly, I was not one of them, but they had accepted that la etrangera was there to stay. My membership in the Dumpster Diving Society was no longer suspended, though I was certainly not a card-holding member. Not yet…
One day, it all changed. Our neighbour Maria del Mar came hurrying into our class, calling me to come with her immediately. I followed her across the plaza, expecting to finds a great emergency in our peaceful dead-end street. Instead, I found her aging mother, her adult son, two other neighbours and my husband waiting by the garbage containers. Communally, they had been guarding a truckload of furniture that someone had thrown out, making sure that I would get the first pick. You see, Thursday is when the city picks up unwanted furniture, so the Dumpster Diving Society goes into high gear on Wednesday night after dark right until Thursday morning
Each carrying an armchair, my husband and I walked back to the school. The seats were not Louis XIV, nor Andalucían farm antiques, but they seemed comfortable enough and, most importantly, they were found in the dumpster. The students cheered us on like soldiers coming back from battle. The oldest and most venerable lady in the Society took it upon herself to sit down in one of the chairs. She nodded her sign of approval. Yes, they were comfortable. Where had we found them and are there more, another lady wanted to know. The class took off en masse, horn rimmed Dior glasses, paint-splattered lab coats, high heels and all. Moments later, they returned from the raid, one with a footstool, another with a mirror, and two carrying a bed frame.
We had found the mother load of all dumpster discoveries. And as far as la etrangera was concerned, I was finally accepted as a full-fledged member in The Ladies of Ronda Dumpster Diving Society.Read / Add Comments
I simply cannot fathom why some people love to repel themselves hundreds of meters into caves and squeeze themselves through even darker cracks into airless underground chambers. Yet, somehow, I found myself voluntary locked into an unlit cave amongst million-year-old stalagmites and petrified human remains, and loving it! Meet La queva de la Pileta:
In 1905, an Andalucían sheep farmer called José Bullón Lobato noticed a swarm of bats flying around a mountainside. Since bat droppings are good fertilizers, he climbed up locate the source, hoping to use the droppings for his olive trees. He found an opening in the mountain with a deep chasm. Returning with rope and a torch, he let himself down to discover an enormous cave with mysterious markings on the walls. He guessed that these were the work of the Moors, some 800 years back. He was off by over 20.000 years!
The discovery of La Cueva de la Pileta (the Cave of the Pool) changed the lives of his family. They bought the land where the cave was located, and started studying the cave paintings it together with international scientists. In 1924, the cave became a Spanish national monument, though still owned and cared for by the family. Only in the last decades has it been open to the general public. While the first scientist accessed the area on horseback, today it is considerably easier. The cave is located about 30 minutes drive from Ronda, so we brought some willing visitors from Mexico along. From the parking lot, we climbed the 101 stone steps leading to the cave entrance. (Thankfully the family discovered this second entrance in 1924, so we needed neither rope nor repelling gear.)
For those who search for authentic nature experiences, La Pilta is completely undeveloped. There is no gift shop and no set tour-schedule. Our guide, the great-grandchild of the discoverer, is the fourth generation to care for the cave, a legacy he does not take lightly. He waited until a group of about a dozen people had gathered, then unlocked a heavy padlock and opened the double door with steel bars covering the entrance. By muted torchlight he collected the entrance fees. Since the cave has no electric lighting, he handed every handful visitors a small portable lamp. Then he locked the gate behind us, to assure that nobody could enter, or exit for that matter…
He informed us of the strict rules to minimize the impact of visitors in this sensitive environment. No loud sounds, no touching walls or geological formations, and no cameras or videos, all of which can deteriorate the cave paintings and stone formations that have taken millennia to form. Electric light, he told us, bleaches the natural mineral deposits that give the amazing variety of colours to the cave walls. (In the floodlit theme-park-style caves of Gibraltar or Nerja near the coast, one can see examples of this deterioration) As we accustomed ourselves to moving in semi-darkness, an amazing underground world lay before us. La Pileta is truly a living cave. We heard trickles of water everywhere. And the flurry of bat wings. The cave is the home to 4000 bats, though not the Dracula blood sucking type, we were assured. Besides, at the time of our visit most of them were at work, catching other tasty morsels.
In the first ‘gallery’, a natural chimney was used as an enormous hearth during the Bronze Age. Further into the cave we would see soot deposits from smaller fires, as there was natural ventilation there. Moving along the slippery ground, I felt as if we were walking on a petrified composite of human remains. And we probably were. Both Paleolithic and Neolithic Man occupied this cave for long periods of time. Fragments of pottery have been found, as well as several skeletons. Amongst these was a stout and muscular man of the early Neolithic European race. La Pileta was thus one of the places where the first Homo sapiens sapiens made their home after crossing over from Africa.
Not only did the cave dwellers live there. Our prehistoric relatives also made amazing art from clay, minerals and animal fat. 134 paintings, black, ochre and red, have been found, some five times older than the Egyptian pyramids and many quite inaccessible. How did our ancestors manage this?
I was surprised that the 20-30.000 year old drawings were more naturalistic and seemed ‘better’ than the newer charcoal drawings dating back ‘only’ 4-8000 years. The older drawings made by Cro-Magnon Man in the upper Paleolithic period, showed horses, goats and bison, often to perfect scale. There was even a giant reindeer, which meant that people found shelter here during at least one ice age. The Neolithic drawings, said to be of the Levantine school, were mostly lines, zigzag patterns and stick men. Some looked like (Robinson Crusoe style) primitive calendars. The change from figurative to abstract art indicates that form and fashion altered through these millennia. In fact, the Late Old Stone Age art of Andalucía is very similar to that found in southwestern France and northern Spain. Does this mean that there were traveling art teachers back then?
We continued up and down along 243 slimy steps, carved into the ground in the 1920’s. In the narrowest passages, the larger members of our group had to squeeze though with only millimeters to spare and duck to avoid stalactites. We passed by a couple of shallow underground pools, or piletas. Our guide explained that the cave system was originally an underground river dug out of the limestone. In dry periods stalactites and stalagmites formed, while in wet periods the cave was flooded with water, explaining why some of the walls have been worn smooth. Some visitors seemed to worry about a sudden flash flood. After all, we were locked into the mountain with only a few measly lamps between us. Our guide smiled, “Maybe not today…”
Up close we could see tiny droplets carrying microbes of limestone attaching themselves to the bottom of stalactites, eventually falling and forming a stalagmite below. It takes about a thousand years for a stalagmite to grow a single millimeter – that is unless the drop comes down too quickly, eroding instead of adding to it. We were told the names of some of the rock formations, but I was too busy trying to stay on my feet and lighting the way for an almost legally blind co-visitor to take much note.
Our walk ended 500 meters into the mountain in a hall with a 50-meter-high ceiling and a 20,000 year-old drawing of a fish on the wall. Our guide stamped on floor and the sound reverberated underneath us. Wasn’t that the ground that moved? He told us that there was a bigger hall right underneath us, and the layer between the two halls was only four meters, creating a disturbingly realistic echo. The group eyed each other with looks of ‘Let’s get out of here!’
We had hardly walked a fraction of the explored caves, only what now is accessible and considered safe – not safe for the general public of course, but safe for the cave paintings and geological formations. Back outside, after buying a couple of post cards by candle light, I could honestly say that it had been thrilling and that this would not be my last cave. It was a true privilege to be taken on a journey of 30.000 years of prehistoric art, even more so when it was guided by a family-member of the man who re-discovered the cave a century ago.
La Cueva de La Pileta is the only National Monument cave in Spain that is under private ownership. For decades, the Spanish government has tried to take it over. The Bullón Lobato family has guarded La Pileta with outmost care for four generations, assuring that the sensitive environment is not damaged. Thanks to strong support from both geological and archeological specialists from around the world, the family is still the owner and caretaker of the cave. www.cuevadelapileta.org
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Looking out my window this morning, I see fields of pure gold. Gold and dust. Summer is here.
The Andalucían winter landscape is foggy and mystical, shrouded in dark greens and cool greys. Come February, things start to change. The fields go electric green, by April interspersed by a plethora of multi-coloured blooms. By June comes high summer when the sun scorches the fields and dries all in its path.
I was worried that the summer months would be pure heat torture, the views transformed to a prolonged dead zone. But there is much life and subtle colour amongst the dried straws and as long as one hides from the midday heat like the locals, the temperature is not a problem (at least not here in Ronda at 800 meter over sea level). Many plants prosper in the heat. The dusty olive trees are filled with next year’s bounty. The wild romero (rosemary) tomíllo (thyme) and lavanda (lavender) display their loveliest flowers in this season. The cactus plants that hang off the cliffs sport tasty prickly pears and fig trees are bombarding the roads with ripe fruit.
As we walk up to town past the fields where the donkeys and horses are eating the remains after the golden hay harvest, I seem to hear the echo of Sting’s ‘Field’s of Gold’.Read / Add Comments