Four years and I am still pinching my arm

The other day we quietly passed our four-year anniversary of living in Andalucía. We didn’t celebrate it, because every day of living here is still, and hopefully will always be a treat to us.

Our simple and happy life in Ronda, this mountain town near the Southern tip of Spain, is something we never in our wildest dreams could have imagined when we were back in Canada. How we ended up here in the first place is a bit of a coincidence. We left North America to take an open-ended Sabbatical, planning to travel around until we eventually would find our home, sometime in the unwritten future. It just so happened that we took our first pit stop and started our search here. Whenever we went on a trip to check out new place, trying to find that elusive paradise on earth, we kept coming back ‘home’ to Ronda, feeling that we pretty much had it right here.

Had we started out our search some place else, our life might had ended up quite differently, but I still believe that Andalucía would have become our home turf. The Spanish south is full of amazing towns and villages, so one is hard pressed not to fall in love with at least one. I believe we could have lived just as happily in the charming historic part of Cádiz or in the narrow hilly streets of the Albayzín in Granada. There are so many jewels here, towns for all tastes, those who like surfing and beach life, city and cultural living, valley homesteading or like us, climbing mountains. We have become very fond of the Andalucian landscape, the rich and diverse culture and it’s passionate and generous people. In these days of global turmoil, I feel it is a huge privilege to be able to hang our straw hats in a small place where life moves at a slightly slower, but not less lively pace. It is not that Andalucíans live in the past, but that they live with the past.

Clearly, there are things about living in a Latin country that can drive expats, or certainly us Nordic types to distraction, if not to sheer madness. Every place has its drawbacks, even our little paradise. After spending most of my life in North America, it is only natural that I wants to tar and feather, or certainly sue anyone who doesn’t do the work they were contracted to do. At these moments I try to bring out my inner Latina and remind myself that it isn’t the end of the world if we wont get that job done by Christmas. There is always next year….

Truly, we do not have a single regret in coming to Andalucía. We live in a place that millions of people dream of visiting, let alone living in. Every day when walking over our town’s world-famous bridge I want to pinch my arm. Is this really our home? I still snap a photo almost every time I cross it to go to work. The undulating Mediterranean landscape with olive trees and vineyards, I wouldn’t change it for the world. I have to admit that we do have lots of tourists. If we didn’t, our type of town would not survive. Yet hardly any of these groups of visitors take the time to walk down to our little neighbourhood, which is still like a traditional country village.

Of course, I will always be a bit of an outsider. I am an expat or a guiri as they call us and therefore will never be embraced as a true local. I will never look like them, nor completely sound like them. After decades in Canada I still had a Scandinavian accent. If I couldn’t get rid off my accent on my English, I certainly won’t manage to do so on my Spanish now. Yet, for all the differences, I feel as though we belong here. After four year of living in Ronda, this is our home. We have no other. We know more people here than most natives: street sweepers and politicians, surgeons, flamenco dancers, donkey herders, smiths, poets, archaeologists, police constables and surely an occasional out-law. Not being a native means that we can avoid some of the family feuds and neighbourly intrigues which others are forced to take sides in. We are equal friends with the poor and illiterate, as those who ‘run’ the town. We do not discriminate and are equally friends with gypsies and non-gypsies, Catholics and Muslims or anyone in between. We have many friends and so far no foes.

Today I went by our local Franciscan convent, as I am helping the nuns translate correspondence from French to Spanish, arranging for two novices to come from Madagascar. As I buzzed the gate and was let into the cloistered convent, kissing the nuns as if they were my sisters, I had to shake my head. Me? Here? Who could have guessed even five years ago that we would have found our little paradise here in rural Andalucía? But here we are, and here we will stay.

I hope we will never take this privilege for granted.

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The ‘horrors’ of spending winter in Ronda

A North American woman read my blog and wrote to me because to the ‘horror’ of her friends and family, she will spend some time in Ronda this winter. Their reaction may have been a bit exaggerated, but I had to ask myself what potential horrors anyone would encounter here in in our little mountain town on a regular winter day?

There are many things that may evoke our horror these days: war, terror, pollution, racism, global warming and the presidential elections of the United States, to mention a few. I can imagine ones loved ones being horrified if one is going to take a world-tour of closed down, leaky nuclear plants, but the ‘horrors’ of a Spanish village visit? Apart from what happened here during the Spanish Inquisition and the Spanish civil war, I cannot imagine many horrors a visitor may encounter in our town. Anyhow, let us take a look at the concerns of the women’s well-meaning family and friends. What possible ‘horrors’ could she experience during four winter weeks in Ronda?

First, there is the horror of bad weather. Relatively speaking, rain and thunderstorms do not qualify as horrors in my book, but depending on where one comes from, maybe to some they do? Almost all of Europe will have more precipitation and what we tend to call bad weather in the winter. But that is equally true for North America. Spain is generally a sunny place, but Ronda is not a beach town, and at approximately 850 meter over the sea level, we might even have frost or snow. Who knows, that might qualify as another ‘horror’? When one thinks about it, our winters are relatively balmy compared to the winters in in for instance Minnesota, Quebec and Alaska. On the contrary, the visitor may quite likely experience winter days with clear, blue skies.

Next there are the ‘horrors’ of rural living. If one comes from a big city and has a dread of green fields and bleating sheep, then Ronda would certainly be a risky place to visit. Indeed, you may spend a month with relatively clean air, surrounded by mountains and come back home with cleaner lunges. You may wake up to the brays of a donkey instead of sirens and rather than driving bumper to bumper, you may drive on scenic roads virtually void of cars. Such vistas can be horrific or beautiful, depending on the eye of the beholder. Rural living means that life moves at a slower pace, which may be irritating to some.

We are sort of a bit behind here in the very Southern tip of Europe. But lagging behind means that our town still has cobblers and seamstresses and ironsmiths and that you can get your toaster, boots, garden gate, watch or virtually anything repaired, usually for under 5 euros, which probably now equals the price of one fancy Starbucks beverage.

Coming to a Latin place, there is also the ‘horror’ of social contact. People may actually talk to you. Latin people are certainly more social and friendly than us Norwegians and talk more and louder than the Canadians I spent most of my adult life with. Rondeños may engage in conversation quite unprovoked. People will often smile when they pass you and wish you a good day, just like that. Furthermore, waiting in line or sitting in a cafe, people may compliment you and call you guapa or guapo, as in pretty or handsome depending on your gender. They will not mean this as a pickup line, so try not to take it as a personal attack and react in horror.

There is the potential ‘horror’ of experiencing trust and downright generosity. The first time you come into one of the small grocery stores in town, even if the shopkeeper does not know you from Adam, if you lack a few cents on your purchase he or she is likely to tell you to pay them next time. You will notice that they do not write down this debt, they will simply trust you to bring them the extra coins when you have them. Equally, they may throw in something for free: a bunch of parsley, a couple of sweet buns when you buy bread, a candy or a fruit. My husband always says “Just like in Canada” when this happens, as it never happened once in the decades we lived in Vancouver. This urge to be generous and trusting even to strangers may be something completely new and thus a bit unsettling for a traveller. But don’t be horrified. They will not come after you, expecting something in return.

There are the ‘horrors’ of style and taste, or more specifically of different style and taste. There is no limit to what you can wear here in Southern Spain. Nobody will think you are being too bling, too metrosexual, too feminine, to macho, too overdressed, too underdressed, too colourful, too 1980’s, too Chanel or too risqué. You can wear it all and not worry. As long as you are clean and care for your appearance, nobody cares if you wear the latest in fashion. Of course for a true fashonista, spending a month in our big village could be seen as, yes, a ‘horror’, but it could be fun as well. In fact, you can allow yourself to bring our your inner frills. Here is your chance to sport your über-bling jewellery that you never had a chance to wear. Oh, horrors!

Talking about taste, there are also the ‘horrors’ of the different food. Though Ronda has hundreds of eateries, the most common fare is comida casera or homemade meals. People generally make what grows around here and what is in season, so you may risk reducing your ecological footprint for the time being. Granted, this means than you wont find Bok Choi and French Roquefort in every corner store. On a personal note, I actually think the ‘horror’ will be when the traveller returns to North America and can no longer pay one euro for a café con leche or a couple of euros for a glass of locally grown organic red wine.

I should add that strict vegans might have difficulty finding restaurants that cater to their needs. If you are dead against consuming animal products, you may find the rural Spanish rather horrific. Then again, the North American fast-food chains certainly propagate daily meat consumption of over-processed, hormone-injected meat. On the contrary, the Andalucian favourite, Jamón Ibérico, or thinly sliced ham, comes from free-ranged mountain roaming Iberian pigs that are fully vegetarian, living on a naturally growing organic diet of acorns and possibly the occasional chestnut.

As we are on the topic of animals, I should mention for those that are horrified by bull fighting that there is a bullring in Ronda, like in most Spanish towns. However, you can rest assured that there are no fights during winter. In fact the ring is only used for Corridas one weekend per year, as the bullring earns more money as a museum.

Of course one must not forget the ‘horrors’ of the fiestas and the religious processions. Rondeños, like most Andalucíans love their parties. Every city, town and village celebrates their preferred virgins and saints and the various seasonal ferias, so maybe rethink your location if processions and street parties fill you with horror. In February there are carnivals all over the Hispanic world, as a traditional way of letting loose before the restraints of lent. Though Ronda’s carnival cannot compete with Río, it is a colourful fiesta. People dress up and parade around town, liquids flow, hair is let down or put up into amazing dos, nobody wants to work and the week’s celebration ends with the burning of a doll, symbolizing the end of the carnival until next year. Clearly public burnings aren’t exactly politically correct, but does not match the horrors of the Klu Klux Klan either. And if Catholic traditions aren’t your thing, you can always go to the old Arab baths or escape to the mountains, where peace and calm reins.

Finally, there is the ‘horror’ of experiencing something new. This is a big one for some, especially those who think that the best holiday is in ones own backyard or at an all-inclusive hotel where one doesn’t have to leave the fenced-in perimeters. Traveling allows us to see and experience different things. It opens our mind to other people, their lives, food, faith and customs. To me, new experiences are vital and something one should do whenever one has a chance, in spite of the possible horrors and concerns of ones friends and loved ones.

Bon voyage!

 

 

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Hasta luego

I am writing a book of my Andalucian tales and will put my weekly blogs on the back-burner in the meanwhile.

More to come soon.

Hasta Luego. 

 

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La Sierra – not for the faint-hearted, light-headed or high-heeled hikers

Last week we were asked to take a couple of foreign visitors for a hike, as the local guide didn’t speak English. We were told that they were avid walkers who wanted a solid 15 km route. As soon as we met them, we knew there would be trouble. The younger hiker was massively overweight and hadn’t actually done any exercise for years. He was huffing after a few steps and had to abort mission in the first downhill section. We arranged a ride for him with a delivery truck to our final destination, where he would wait some four hours for us at a bar. The older hiker had a lot more experience. He struggled somewhat in the inclines, but refused our offer of borrowing hiking poles and chose not to ingest anything but a beer at the lunch stop. (You can maybe guess where he was from?) As he was an elderly gentleman and a very pleasant one at that, we felt we could not insist. People choose their own poison. Climbing up the last couple of kilometres in the hot afternoon sun, he suddenly passed out. We had to revive him by pouring a bottle of water over his head. When he finally came to, he admitted that the southern Spanish climate was quite different from the Highlands…

The Andalucian landscape offers a plethora of stunning hikes and treks for those who like to spend time in nature. Some trails are well marked and frequented by hikers, while others might be more of an isolated expedition. However, whether one prefers to ascend peaks or to stroll on farm roads between traditional villages, there are certain things every walker ought to keep in mind before venturing on the trail.

Here are six tips on how to have a safe and enjoyable hike in the Spanish south.

1. Footwear

I don’t know how many times we have gone hiking with a group and someone has showed up with completely inappropriate footwear. Spanish women love their heels and many try to sneak in a bit of extra height even on the trail. The problem is that heels put you automatically off balance, especially when walking in steep inclines, and after a couple of hours the wearer probably would give their first born to get the darn things off. Younger hikers often show up in flat-soled city sneakers with absolutely no grip or support, which is rather important to have on mountain trails. A woman even showed up once in Doc Martens, which we had to Duct Tape together in mid-trail. So, fashionable or not, you need sturdy footwear.

Regardless of the difficulty of the trail, you are certain to run into rocks and dust. You may have to leap over boulders or cross a river. Guaranteed there will be prickly brambles and thorny bushes. And with a very high probability there will be hills, as in up and down. Therefore, the first thing one ought to have when hiking in Southern Spain is proper footwear, such as trail runners or light hiking boots. 

2. Liquids

This is Spain and it will be hot, even in late fall or early spring, as our fainted co-hiker last week can witness to. You will be surprised how many times we will go for a +20km +6 hour hike and someone will arrive with a measly 250 ml bottle of water, saying they will refill it on the way. For one, you can never count on the rivers or springs having water year around. Secondly, you cannot count on the water being drinkable, especially if you come from a different climate with different bacteria in the water. And, unfortunate or not, you cannot count on finding bars in the sierra. So you must carry your liquids with you.

Liquids are vital on hikes. If you can, you shouldn’t only bring liquids for yourself, but also enough to share in an emergency. We have had co-hikers keel over or get into a diabetic shock during a hike, at which point an extra tetra-pack of juice or a spare bottle of water has been of great importance. Since I will get low blood sugar, I not only bring my camel pack full of water (2.5 litres), but I have at least one extra bottle with an energy drink with sugars, salts and electrolytes. The minimum for a regular day hike is 2 litres, (more in the summer), though if you can carry more, do it. The good thing is that your pack will get lighter as you consume the liquids, and it will eventually end up behind a tree.

3. The backpack

All you have to do to know the importance of your backpack, and it’s content, is to be lost once. Just once. I got lost in the British Columbia coastal mountains one time and had to find my way back in the dark among the enormous trees without a flashlight, virtually carrying my 4-year-old son. I will never hike without a flashlight again, even if I am going for a quick mountain stroll. Equally, if you have gotten a nasty blister or a cut on a hike, you will likely never leave your first aid kit and Band Aids at home. Your guide should have an emergency kit, but what if you get lost from the group and have to spend the night alone in the mountains? Imagine how you will miss that extra sweater or that power bar that you chose to leave at home, just to make your pack lighter?

Even if you do only day hikes, your pack should be of good quality and decent size, have proper back support and ventilation, padded straps, a waist belt and ideally a whistle. Additional ‘secret’ zip pockets in the belt are very practical for mini-snacks for those of us who need to graze along the way. Meshed side pockets for bottles are very useful, as is a compartment for a camel pack. The main compartment of your backpack should be big enough to room extra clothing, sunscreen, hat, food, snacks and extra liquids. I am not mentioning specifics about food, as at least here in Spain people are much better at bringing eatables than liquids on hikes. Another vital item to bring, especially if you hike alone, is a GPS or cell phone with GPS installed. As a female hiker, I bring Kleenex and extra feminine hygiene products, as I assure you that any woman who is stranded with her period in the middle of the bush will be eternally grateful to you.

Finally, there should be seasonal changes to the content of your backpack. When fall and winter comes along, I always add a set of ear-protectors and an extra pair of thin gloves. I rather have two thin pairs than one thick unruly one. A wind- and waterproof shell is also a must, as is extra socks. For more remote hikers, I would also suggest having a reflective emergency blanket. A colourful vest, like the one road crews use, takes up no space and may help find one if one happens to be lost in the sierra. Not that you ever want to be, but it is better to be overly prepared than regret it later.

4. Hiking poles

Poles are a matter of taste and habit, though I feel almost naked without them, since I grew up x-country skiing in Norway. Here in Andalucía many hikers still favour a single wooden walking stick, which of course also have its benefits.

The best hiking poles are collapsible with a built-in spring systems and have comfortable wrist straps and handholds. Some also come with a built-in flashlight in the handle, which believe me, may come in very useful. Though poles are not always necessary, it is good to bring them along. Primarily, they can help support and stabilize you in steep slopes and pull you up hills. Secondly, they can take a load off your feet when you are dead tired or help compensate should you hurt a leg or a knee. They give you better all-around exercise, bringing more blood to the heart and giving you additional upper body strength. Finally, they are great to share when a fellow hiker needs a bit of help.

5. Learn your route

Knowing where you are going, from start to end, and what possible obstacles you may encounter along the trail will avoid unpleasant surprises during a hike. (Also telling somebody else where you are going, is a good rule of thumb) Make sure to read up about the planned trail before going, even if you are going with a guide. If the group is big, chances are that you will not catch everything the guide is saying, especially if your co-hikers are Spanish, who generally have a hard time being quiet while others are speaking… Knowledge about the route will help you decide what you will need to bring in your pack. Had our fellow hikers last weekend checked that the temperature were going to climb over 30 degrees or had they looked at the map describing the vertical climb, they might have requested an easier route and avoided a potentially dangerous situation.

The grading of Andalucian hikes is rather basic, as routes are divided into three levels, bajo (low), medio (medium) and alto (high), with an addition of medio-alto in some cases. With such limited groupings, there is of course a wide range of difficulty levels within each classification. In addition, different guides and hiking groups classify their walks differently, so a medium-level hike with one group is not the same in another group. The most certain way is therefore to read up on the hike, checking the total vertical ascent and descent etc. to be able to properly determine if one is realistically able to do the hike.

And finally…

6. Know your limits

This is really the most important tip for doing any hike or physical activity for that matter. You need to know yourself and accept your limitations. They say that the good tings in life can kill you, and that is indeed true about the mountains. The Andalucian sun that looks so lovely at sunrise can fry you to a crisp in the midday heat. The welcoming light breeze can become a freezing storm in mere minutes, and those gorgeous treeless vistas offer no protection or shade at all.

By all means, go hiking. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s healthy. It’s probably the best therapy you can give yourself. But know your limits and be honest with yourself. If you want to start exercising and haven’t done it forever, starting in la sierra is not the way to do it.

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The (yet-off-the-air) Andalucian Extreme Makeover Home-Edition

I love a good makeover. I don’t mean hair and wardrobe makeovers. Of course those have their virtues, but some of us prefer to look for kitchen faucets to going handbag shopping. As a designer and decorator, I get excited about the prospects of making a home out of something drab, dreadful, in collapse or God forbid, in poor taste. Give me a ruin any day rather than someone’s mediocre attempt at fixing a house. The more extreme the potential for change, the more exciting.

My role in the film industry was to transform spaces, in studio or on location. Be it creating an accident scene with car wrecks and fake blood, designing an opulent office with the latest in design or building a miniature Taj Mahal dog house, every set is a transformation. Creating a temporary, imaginary reality is of course different from designing for real life, where a place cannot only look good (or whatever effect the director wants), it also has to be habitable and functional. The film industry teaches you to be fearless and proactive. You fix it, you rig it, you invent it, or you unearth somebody who can do it for you, magically overnight. If you want to survive, regardless how unreasonable or absurd the demand may be, you find a solution. So when it comes to the extreme, I’ve already been there.

A makeover is a change in appearance, which in my opinion can be applied equally to buildings as to human bodies. The word extreme implies something that is furthest removed from the centre or from the average. The expression is used in sports, though why not in renovations? Makeover shows have been popular for decades and the spinoff home makeover editions have actually exceeded the popularity of the original shows (Easily understandable to me, who prefer watching paint dry than someone applying the perfect eye shadow) While the US Extreme Makeover Home Edition recreates a dwelling for a family in an extreme situation, I prefer to apply the Extreme Factor to the renovation itself. Just like an extreme facelift, a building can undergo radical transformations until it is hardly recognizable. Since we are creating an imaginary show, ‘our’ Extreme therefore refers to the difference between the before and after of a home.

So, why would I say that our project deserve the label of an Extreme Makeover? First – because we had the challenge of making a 3-meter-wide (not even 10 feet) house into a liveable space. Next, because there was no foundation, so the exterior walls and interior floor were literally sitting on bare soil, which is great if you want to dig secret tunnels, but not if you want a sturdy and dry home. In addition, the 80 cm thick side-walls were crumbling, the roof was falling in, the stairs were treacherous at best, the basement had a ceiling clearance of a humpback, the second floor had a clearance of half a meter or less than 2 feet in one end and not a single door or window closed properly. Besides, every one of the ‘supportive’ ceiling beams on both floors were rotten to the core, including the ones we share with the 2-meter-wide neighbouring house. This threatened to collapse both dwellings, once attached, and stranded us many times during the constriction. In addition, the house was barely wide enough to bring in mechanical equipment. And, to top it off, the last resident (other than a tailless lizard and a wild cat with quintuplets) died some 20 years prior, leaving an entire Iberian ham to rot in the basement. Oh joy!

When we found our 3-meter wide slice of Andalucian paradise (read ruin…), I was really excited to partake it its transformation. As it turned out, we had ample time to plan it, as it took nearly two years, a couple of refusals and complete re-submissions of the stacks of paper and a one-week archaeological dig before we had our final permit. But such is reality if one chooses to live in a historic district of a historic town in the south of Spain. We used my rough sketches as visual reference when we met with our architect, whose job it was to translate my chicken scratches into technical drawings that would satisfy building codes, town architects and cultural departments here in Ronda and in the province capital in Malaga. Good thing there are professionals for such… We are not completely done. Our coffee table is still a cardboard box, we sport the dangling wire look and need to replace our art that was stolen from the local convent, but that’s another story…

Anyhow, this is our casita’s Before and After story, in pictures and a few words.

The façade

The façade of the house had to be kept ‘as is’ by law, so we could not expand the dimensions of the windows or the front door, nor make the roof higher than the neighbouring buildings. In the end, we were permitted to make the front door slightly taller, allowing for the fact that people have grown in past generations. Thankfully we were allowed to scrap the rough pebbled skirting of the house, though we could do nothing with the unsightly cables and various old electrical boxes that were attached and running along our façade. A bit of a bummer, but I plan to make some metal cut- out crows to perch along, to bring some humour to the situation.

Peaking inside

Peaking inside the house, one used to see cheap plywood 1950s furniture covered in doilies and ‘decorative’ nips, synthetic mosquito-net curtains and peeling paper-thin walls dividing the house into dark little rooms. In other words, a typical rural Andalucian workers’ home, except for the fact that there was no kitchen, nor a shower or a tub. (Not that we intended to use them…) Our first objective was to bring in the light, so all interior walls had to go – permanently while we made the entire back of the house of glass. We asked for polished cement floors, but allegedly the machines could not get into all the corners, so they had to hand-polish them. Part of the excitement of Extreme Makeovers is the unpredictability.

Walls – Jotun organic non-toxic paint
Beams – driftwood effect by SNOBB
Furniture – restored by SNOBB
Antique tree trunk chair – inherited from Scandinavia
Kitchen – IKEA
Bust of Arab doctor Ibn Sina carved by my husband

Main floor terrace

The main terrace was originally partly covered in carcinogenic concrete roofing and had only access through the basement. We opened it up and added a small laundry room and tool shed on the left. To bring more light to the basement, we added a glass in part of the terrace floor.

Jasmine plant – gift from Mother Superior at local convent
Garden Buddha – Art Knap Vancouver
Arab doors – restored by SNOBB
Brass Sink – inherited from Gilly

 

 

 

 

 

Basement access

The basement was originally accessible through a double stairs leading down to the cellar and up again to the terrace, all crumbling and uneven.

Basement

The basement itself was damp and leaky and one could not stand upright without hitting the mouldy, peeling ceiling. We were granted to dig down further 40 cm, with the careful eye of before-mentioned archaeologist. Otherwise, everything was gutted, only keeping the existing window opening. An older window, closed up by the neighbours, were made into a niche.

Floor – Italian tiles
Desk, sofa, shelves – IKEA
Chairs and small table – found in house and restored by SNOBB
Mess – our own…

 

 

 

 

Stairs to upper floor

The stairs to the upper floor were originally narrow and boxed in, each step with a different height. We ripped it all out and lived with a farm ladder for the first months, until we found a local metal worker who built the open stair solution we wanted. Maybe we need railings in a decade or two, but for now we enjoy the sparse, clean look

Wood on free-floating steps – beech wood with midnight blue Jotun wood-oil

Upper floor ceiling

The ceiling had a lot of unintended ‘skylights’, in fact more each day. We added as much height as we were allowed, leaving the ceiling vaulted and open, other than glassing in bathroom.

Orange wall – custom blend by SNOBB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upstairs room, looking south

The bathroom was originally storage for nuts and useless knick- knack. There was unfortunately very little to save, though I did strip and restore the window, using it in the laundry shed, painted Cantabrian Blue. Since we had ripped out the existing toilet, we put our bathroom upstairs, with a walk-in shower with pebble stone floor. For additional light, the wall to the stairway is glass brick and the door has frosted glass. We were not allowed to put in a French balcony, but a local carpenter made the custom beech window. The only item we cannot find here in Spain is a brushed nickel swivelling-angle window-stay for inward- opening windows. Nobody here gets why on earth we wish to control the angle of the window’s opening, nor that this type of contraption could prevent the window from banging shut.

Bath fixtures – Jacob Delafon
Bathroom sink – IKEA

 

 

Upstairs room, looking north

The bedroom was originally a small loft without much practical purpose, due to the steep slanted roof. There were no windows, nor ventilation, though I did find an impressive homemade double-header mousetrap there! As with the main floor, we wanted to bring in maximum air and light, making an open bedroom. The upper terrace with views of Ronda’s Tajo is entirely new, resting on what would have been the roof of the old main floor.

Bed – IKEA
Headboard – house treasure, stripped and restored by SNOBB
Windows – Kömmerling
Tankas – Tibet
Old terracotta pots & planters on terrace – found in basement

I hope you have enjoyed our first house-tour of the Andalucian Extreme Makeover Home Edition. If you need help with an Extreme Fixer-Upper, let me know. Maybe next time the TV crew will join us?

 

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Why I will never be completely fluent in Spanglish…

After almost four years in Spain I can say that I nearly speak fluent Spanish. I still make grammatical errors, of course, and I will probably always have a Norwegian accent with a slight Mexican twang. I may sound like a local to people who do not speak Spanish, but my cara de guiri (face of a foreigner) gives me away every time, in spite of my attempts at becoming a true Andaluza.

Anyone learning Spanish in Andalucía has the additional language challenge of what’s popularly called Spanglish, a hybrid language taking words and expressions from both English and Spanish, often merging the two into new and un-heard-of terms. The difficulties for expats start when the Spanish take English words and bastardize them. Yet Spanglish goes both ways and the Spanish have equal difficulties understanding an English-speaker trying to communicate in Spanish and inventing words by taking the English expression and adding an a-ending. When I started learning Spanish, I used the same tactics with French words, as one gets it right more often by starting from another Latin language.

Our first acquaintance with ‘Spangli-zation’ was during a night-walk with our senderismo group. We were climbing down from catching the sunset on a local peak. Our group includes several avid photographers who will stop to take pictures along the way, and equally many who will offer helpful and not-so-helpful advice as to how they should compose their shots. At this time I was still primarily at the listening stage of my Spanish knowledge. Anyhow, the advice came at bullet speed (the Spanish speak incredibly fast, in case you haven’t noticed), but with the plethora of advice I noticed one suggestion coming out louder and more frequent than any other. Pon el flaa!, someone insisted. I could figure out from French that pon meant put, and el would be the Spanish article, but what in heavens name was a flaa? I hadn’t heard any word sounding like that. My husband who speaks fluent Spanish (though not yet Andalucian Spanglish) was equally lost. Si, voy a poner el flaa, said the photographer and put the flash on. Duh! Flaa equals flash, of course. It makes perfect sense now in retrospect, as Spanish-made Spanglish words are usually composed by omitting the end of an English one.

There are many differences between Castilian Spanish and Mexican Spanish. Almost 500 years of dissimilarities one could say, which is when the conquistadors arrived in Mexico. There, a guasa means a joke, so no wonder my husband was confused when a neighbour asked if we had guasa. The guy explained that it was on el internét and you had grupos de amigos and it finally dawned on my husband. “Do you mean WhatsApp?”, he asked. Hombre, que si! Guasa is WhatsApp. What else could it be?, our friend said, pronouncing both words as guasa. In fact guasa or WhatsApp is big here in Spain. Everybody has it, grandmothers who have never touched a computer in their life and construction workers who still talk into their cell phones like it was a Walkie-Talkie. So, we learned another Spanglish word.

There should be a preamble to this tale: We live in Andalucía, where people speak a language called Andaluz, which even for Spanish from other parts of the country is difficult to understand. The Andalu’ cut the ending of almost every word, making it much harder to learn than for instance Madrilleño Spanish. Mind you, at least we don’t lisp like they do in the capital here down in the south. There are also more Arab words mixed into the Andalucian language, as the Moorish settlements lasted longer here. If you learned Spanish aboard or on the Internet, it is a whole other matter when you come to Andalucía. The more remote you travel, the shorter and more gobbled are the words. Take the expression meaning any more, as in ‘I do not want any more’. In Spanish it is nada más, but here in Andalucía it is pronounced na ma, which sounds rather like a Sanskrit mantra to me… It is hard for the southern Spanish to pronounce consonants, especially when grouped together. It is almost impossible for them to say for instance worked, pronouncing both the ‘k’, and the ‘t’ sound of the ‘ed’ ending. It is all rather complicated.  Any word starting with an s is also tough for the Andalu’, who will usually pronounce Spain and Espain and school as eschool. My name is hard for people to spell and pronounce in any language, so it did not come as a surprise to me when I got a Christmas present one year with the name Escareto written on it, obviously the Spanglish version of Karethe…

Some well-established Andalu’ Spanglish words are easier to guess than others, such as fou’boo or fou’bol, which, you guessed right, means football. On the other hand, words that particularly may confuse Spanish-studying expats are technical words. Anything that has to do with Internet, social media, advertising, entertainment or fashion are generally Spanglish, as English is the universal language for these industries. I am sure Chinese have Chinglish word for Facebook, which the rural Spanish have given a Spaglish twist, calling it Fassebou.

English is everywhere, but the knowledge is not. You can just imagine how the names of American film stars and English musicians are pronounced here. I usually have no idea who they are talking about, unless I see the name in writing. International chains like Spanish Mango and Italian Calzedonia will use almost only English terms in their Spanish ads. I have seen shop windows advertising el look del otoño (the fall look), which of course rondeños will pronounce el lou. El Sale is another word they use on store windows here, though the word sale in Spanish, which is the present tense third person singular for salir, means to go out and would be pronounced saa-le. Any English word can be used, just ad the Spanish article el, for instance el fashion or el party. But things are not always that evident. When someone told me the other day that we would have a muy lai meal, it didn’t immediately dawn on me that they meant that we were doing a very light meal! So, you just gotta keep on guessing…

A good thing about the Spanish is that they love poking fun at almost anything, especially themselves. If there is a corruption case in the government or a major scandal involving the royal family, count on the Spanish to make jokes, sing songs or write a parody about it. Like any country, people from the south like making fun or the people up north and visa versa. Just normal human behaviour, if you ask me. And of course there is nobody that the Spanish like making fun of more than the Andalucians, other than the Galicians. I heard this joke the other day, which actually may be true. I should mention beforehand that the word cotizar usually means to give a quote (ie. for a job or a piece of art) in Spanish. In English, the joke goes like this:

“They did a survey in Cádiz, asking people the meaning of ‘cotizar’ and 85% of the respondents said that it was a Scotch whisky.”

The Spanish will holler at this joke, but I always need a bit more time before I get it. So, as a Spanglish detective and dissector, I first need to take the syllables apart. Cotizar = Co-tiz-ar. Next, I imagine how Spanish may have omitted letters or altered the word. The sound ar could mean art, arch or ark, or as it were Sark. Thus taking my clue from the respondents, I get my answer. Cutty Sark will be pronounced cotizar by most Spanish, certainly by those who haven’t been to Scotland and tried the real stuff. How the name of a Scotch whisky, named after a clipper, which was named after a short shirt, as mentioned in the famous Robert Burns poem, could become mixed up with a Spanish quote, is way beyond me, but at least another Spanglish mystery is solved.

My absolutely favourite Spanglish experience was when we brought a couple of friends to visit the amazing 2000-year-old Roman theatre just 20 minutes outside Ronda. The entrance is free, if you are lucky and the guy who works at the gate hasn’t left for breakfast, lunch or his siesta. This particular day the gate was thankfully open. Just inside sat a sturdy farmer’s wife on a rock, cleaning an armful of wild vegetables, which people here use in soups and stews. I always like to talk to locals, especially anyone sitting in the middle of nowhere, with only a couple of free-roaming horses, a mule and a dozen sheep (aka the lawn mowers on the archaeological site), as company. She wanted to know where our visitors came from and obviously thought that Canada was in the UK. (not that far from the truth…) This brought her onto a topic she really liked called roy ro. In fact she had always wanted a roy ro. She started speaking about technical things and even threw out the undecipherable name of the roy ro designer. Thinking that this would forever be a Spanglish mystery, I left her to her work. A while later, walking amongst the theatre ruins of Acinipo, I got it. The Spanish pronounce double ll as a y and Andalucians do not pronounce s (or any other consonant for that matter) at the end of words.

Of course, it made perfect sense. The vegetable-cleaning lady had a lofty dream. She wanted a Rolls Royce!

 

 

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Vertical Thrill – Living on the edge in Ronda, Andalucía

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

10. Single walled ruin – Old town Ronda
 

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

9. Finca with Eucalyptus trees – near Estación de Benaoján
 

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

8. Ruins of Arab fortress – Teba
 

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

7. Casa with iron gate – Ronda
 

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

6. Haunted house – Ronda
 

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

5. Minimalist dream  – near Montejaque
 

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Finca with visteria – Júzcar area

 

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

3. Ruin with guard sheep – near Jimera de Libar
 

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

2. Concrete block with white mare – outskirts of Ronda
 

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

1. Farm with Roman grain tower  – outskirts of Ronda
 

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

11. Mystery house – Ronda Tajo
 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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