Last weekend, our hiking club Pasos Largos (large steps) arranged a 16 km climb of the Sierra de las Nieves. A national park and UNESCO Biosphere since 1995, this snowy mountain chain has barely seen any snow this winter. Years ago, ice was transported down the mountains and sold for refrigeration, though I cannot possibly see how they managed to pass the drops, shafts, caves and vertical falls that these mountains are known for.
I am no couch potato, but trekking along with twenty of the province’s most adamant mountain enthusiasts does make on feel a bit on the wimpy side. Granted some of the older members have hiked here all their lives, but they are decades older than myself, and yet they plug along as if it was a walk in the park. Which it is…
As one would expect from a proper Andalucian trek, the day started with a solid lard-and-salt-on-bread breakfast in two consecutive bars en route. Then, at what they called 9 am ‘Spanish time’, as opposed to la hora inglesa, we took off.
The mountains displayed a colourful flora and our fearless leader and most informative guide, Rafa, would whoop every time he saw another type of wild orchid or other rare mountain flower – and call out their names in Latin. Sadly I did not retain a single name, though I did manage to snap a photo of a few of these incredible plants, while trying not to hold up the line of eager hikers, drop the camera or fall off a cliff…
Talking of cliffs, I can climb almost anything, as long as I go straight up, and I will walk for hours without complain, but when the mountain continues straight up above, and falls off almost straight down beneath one and one has to scale along a narrow path with loose rocks and a few lonesome straws of dry grass to hold onto, should one happen to get dizzy and need to ‘hang on, well, that is when I get vertigo…
So, in the midst of our hike, about 4 hours along, when one is getting sweaty and hungry and thirsty (with no tree in site) and a bit light-headed – just as we had past the signs saying ‘dangerous path’ and Peligroso! with exclamation mark in at last two different languages, with a drawing of a stick man falling, I freeze. I cannot move any longer, and worse still, I am holding up the eager hikers. I tell my husband that NO, I can absolutely not walk any longer (the other hikers eagerly waiting to pass over and around me, in spite of sheer cliff). As we would never had found our way back and half the group is in front and we cannot force them all to turn around, though I would have gladly crawled back on my knees, I have to continue. My husband coaches me along, telling me to stare at the blue backpack of the woman in front, who strolls carefree along the path, as if she was going shopping. Step by step I proceed, not even thinking about looking to the side where the cliff falls. Not letting my eyes deviate from the pack. Finally, I get to a slightly less step incline, where the plants are somewhat more solid looking, possibly all of a foot high, (though with nasty thorns), should I have to hug them for my life, to not slide off the mountain.
Rafa tells us that the worst part is over, though I should have known better than believing him. Foot in front of foot, we edge around the entire mountain. At lower levels we had seen the fog, being told that it would blow away to display the amazing mountain formations. Instead, the fog gets thicker. While the other hikers moan that they cannot see the magnificent view, I thank all higher powers and meteorological phenomenon that fogged us in. Somehow it feels safer to scale along a white void, than seeing the sheer fall.
We stop for lunch on yet another cliff, the Andalucians bringing up knives and starting to cut loaves of bread, whole sausage, wolfing down Spanish omelettes and opening canned sardines. Our Scandinavian style sandwishes suddenly seem so small and inadequate. An opening in the fog allow ghostly impressions of the mountains in front and above us, then the fog is back full force. Rested, fed and (for me) a bit less wobbly legged, ‘we’ pocket our knives and continue.
The trail starts descending, and we come to what looks like a Jurassic Park meets Star Trek lunar landscape. Next comes a plateau where huge bodies of what looks like dead trees cover otherwise barren ground. (I always think that if I had art directed this, the director would have told me that it looks completely fake and insisted I redo it immediately!) Passing fog make it look like a title page for Sleepy Hollow, a faded title page. Along dead branches and dusty earth, we slide our way down to level ground, a greener path and finally a tree with enough foliage to allow the female members of the group to go and ‘spend a penny’.
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Living in a place with Roman and Arab ruins abound, one could become jaded. We had been told that Andalucia’s best-preserved Roman theatre laid merely 20 minutes drive away, yet we had been ‘too busy’ to go and explore it. One day we saw the sign for Ronda Veija and decided to drive and check it out. We have been back several times since and it never ceases to amaze me.
Sitting on a 1000-meter high mountain plateau overlooking de Sierra de Grazalema and the Serranía de Ronda, the Roman town of Acinipo can only be described as stunning. Approaching the city through olive groves and vineyards, you can already see the wall of the Roman theatre. Arriving, the first thing that hits you is the mountain breeze, these days perfumed by spring blossoms. If the gate is open, you can just wander in, giving your country of origin to the gatekeeper. You are usually there alone, maybe sharing the entire 32-hectare area with a couple of other visitors. There are no tour buses, no entrance fees, no brochures and nothing for sale. You are free to walk about and explore at your leisure with nobody to disturb you, other than three horses, one donkey (who thinks she is a horse) and 80 or so sheep grazing on the plateau. I cannot help but think that had this historical site been in Northern Europe or North America, there would have been a steep entrance fee, designated walking trails with arrows, barricades and sturdy guard fences, security guards at every point and ‘no touching’ signs abound. And absolutely positively no loose livestock!
Yet here we are, in a place where retired Roman legionnaires came to rest more than 2000 years ago. And if this should not be enough, there was also a Bronze Age settlement here between 1,100 and 750 BC, all mostly untouched by archaeologists!
Some historians believe that Acinipo was created after the battkle of Munda in 45 BC, between the armies of Caesar and Pmppey’s sons, Gnaeus and Sextus. Once a city of 5000 inhabitants, Acinipo even minted its own coins. In addition to the first century AD theatre that seated 2000, the town also had temples, a forum, public baths and even three swimming pools. Acinipo finally fell in 429 AD, when the Roman centre of power switched to what is now called Ronda.
We went back this week, bringing a friend who had not had the privilege of seeing Acinipo yet. As we zigzagged our way up towards the theatre, the local shepherd was walking with a sheep in tow and something hanging from each hand. As he got closer, we saw it was two tiny lambs. He told us that they were born a mere hour earlier, a sturdy black one and a smaller white one with a most memorable and dear face. Since the farmer did not name his sheep, we named the little white one Vera, after our friend who soon will leave Ronda. The mama sheep was getting a bit impatient with all the attention, so we left the shepherd to bring the sheep and her lambs inside a stone cottage, so that foxes and vultures would not catch them in the night.
And so with little Vera and her brother, life prevails on this great rock, as it has done for thousands of years and hopefully will do long after we all have left the scene of this life.Read / Add Comments
April is here and the fields have been transformed into a deep green colour, looking like a velvet patchwork carpet with stone fences as seams. Though the poppies won’t come out in their full splendor until May, the country has started looking like a Monet painting. On our walk the other morning (it is already too hot to walk in the afternoon), I picked more than twenty different kinds of wild flowers, so now we have this lovely bouquet at home – A celebration of colours and feast to the eye!Read / Add Comments
In Norway, Easter is synonymous with spring skiing, while in Canada it seems to be all about bunnies and egg hunts. Nothing wrong with chocolate and skiing, of course, but Spanish Easter is certainly more spiritual.
Yesterday was Domingo de Ramos or Palm Sunday and the holiest week in the Catholic calendar has begun. Andalucía’s Easter processions are said to be the most beautiful in the country. Sevilla and Malaga are especially known for their processions (the latter aided by Antonio Bandera’s participation), though our little town is also gaining fame for ‘our’ touching processions.
Ronda’s citizens, young and old, have been preparing for Semana Santa for months. Each neighbourhood has their hermandades or cofradías (religious brotherhoods) to which almost everyone belongs. Young men have practiced their roles as costaleros, carrying the enormous ‘floats’ with lifelike wooden religious statues, some weighing more than 500 kgs. The processions wind their way through the city and last for hours. It is considered a great honor to help carry the floats, partly because of the pain involved – the suffering likened to that experienced by Christ.
The nazarenos (literally meaning people from Nazareth) who follow along the procession have embroidered and ironed their traditional costumes, ready for the biggest spectacle of the year. Their robes consist of a tunic and a hood with conical hat or capirote, concealing the face of the wearer. These hoods were used already in the medieval time, allowing the wearer to demonstrate their penance while masking their identity.
As this is our first Easter in Ronda, we wanted to see all processions yesterday. The first was in the neigbourhood of La Dehesa. Hundreds of people were gathered in front of the church where the procession was to take off. Parents hurried along their young nazarenos, looking rather like midget members of KKK, if it weren’t for their flower baskets and braided palm leaves. Manolas, women dressed in black lace and the traditional Spanish hair combs, paraded the street. With a light drizzle and spectators finding shelter under umbrellas or orange trees, the church bells finally chimed elven. The bands played, but no procession emerged. Rather anti-climatically, we were allowed into the church to see the floats and were told that the statues, rich brocade fabrics and gilded thrones were too valuable and fragile to bring out in the rain.
At the second procession in the San Cristóbal neighbourhood, the sidewalks were filled to the very edge with residents, as well as local TV crews, precariously balancing their equipment on a table and on the roof of their camera van. Enjoying the people watching, we waited more than an hour after the procession was supposed to take off. I realized that the teenage girls of this barrio are the ones who buy the sluttish ‘Made in China’ 8″ heel imitation leather shoes they sell in town. Finally we gave up and ran across town to catch the last floats of the day, later discovering that the procession actually did take off, just 1.5 hour late…
The last procession was organized by the hermandad de los gitanos, the gypsies. As we arrived, the nazarenos entered the church in tall burgundy velvet hats, looking more like characters in a Harry Potter movie than the KKKs of the earlier processions. A gentleman came up to us, seeing we were the only people waiting outside in the rain. As patron of the brotherhood, him and his wife had two extra invitations to enter the church, which they kindly offered us. Nobody but members and special supporters get to enter, so it was a true privilege for us to observe the hermandad preparing for their procession, both excited and somber at the same time.
The heads of the gitanos brotherhood, themselves actually brothers, finally had to announce that the procession could not go out due to rain and we noticed that several of the participants were trying to hide their tears. Yet the show was just about to begin. Drums were hit and the candle- and flower-enveloped floats were lifted and walked to the front of the altar with two bands playing the eerie Easter music from either side. When the statue of the virgin was raised, people around us shouted out spontaneously, as though she was as live as them. Regardless of what church, synagogue, mosque or temple one happen to belong to, even a plain old heathen like myself had to be touched by this experience. WIthout accompaniment and all of a sudden one of the men sang a saetas, a heart wrenching flamenco.
At last the church doors were opened for the public to enter. We were already sneaking out the side door, after having shared the most momorable experience with Ronda’s gypsy families in the Semana Santa and hearing them praising their very own virgin of tears.Read / Add Comments
Since we moved to Spain, we are relieved that our 300 000-mile Canadian diet (wild guess…) has been reduced considerably. We use olive oil, cheese, meat, oranges and wine from Ronda’s own fincas and bodegas. In the winter months the majority of our fruit and vegetables are probably transported an hour up from the coast, but we rarely use canned or frozen foods and make a point of buying goods stamped ‘Hecho en España’.
The other morning one of our neighbours with the poetic name of Maria del Mar told us that Antonio, the local fishmonger, sells a giant bag of seafood for 4 euros. She advised us to go early, or he would be sold out. “If you cannot go”, she told us, “just tell Yolanda at the grocery store and she will pick it up for you and store it in her freezer.”
The next morning, we were outside Antonio’s by 8.30 am and sure enough, the ladies of the neigbourhood were already there trying to jump the cue to buy seafood for their midday meal. The store itself is no wider than a regular hallway, tiled in white with a counter running across the back wall, heaped with fish, mussels, clams, octopus, squid and barnacles that locals claim are a delicacy, but that may scare foreigners, unless you happen to be Norwegian… The goods are rarely weighed, but I doubt anybody leaves feeling short-handed with the host always topping up your bag with a few more prawns! Allegedly by noon his counter is empty and Antonio can take off to have his well-deserved coffee at the bar around the corner.
From the fish store, we stopped at Yolanda’s, the grocery store two doors down. It is an equally small store filled to the roof with boxes and shelves of local vegetables, fruit and grocery items. En route we met the cheese deliverer, who brings her fresh goat cheese every fortnight, lovingly made on his farm. We told him that we enjoy his queso fresco and he immediately invited us to visit his farm and meet his goats. Gratefully, we promised we would, given that neither of us have ever gotten a personal invitation to visit someone’s goats!
Everyone in the barrio knows Yolanda and does at least part of their shopping there. We prefer her store to the ‘supermarket’ in the plaza and try to shop as much as possibly in the tiny local stores, doing our small share in keeping them in business. I ask Yolanda if she has more pomegranates coming. She had a handful left that she put in a bag, saying she would give them to me, since they were at the end of their season. My cynical self may wonder why everybody is so nice. Is there a hook? But, thankfully no, this is normal behavior in our barrio. Here the pours are always generous and an extra fruit or two are commonly given – just for good measure!
Our next stop was the local bread shop, Panadería Alba. This shop is even smaller and can barely room three bodies, stuffed like baguettes in front of the delightfully brimming counter. Though I cannot digest wheat and thus cannot eat anything in the store, I love coming here to smell the breads and buy some of their wonderful handmade pans, bollitos and tortas – even if I only get to watch my husband eating them… As always, they poped something extra in the bag, a couple of buns or mini sweat-breads, generously passed on every time we shop there!
Finally, on our way home, we stop on top of our street to buy a chicken breast for our paella. The lady working in the store is far beyond any prescribed retirement age, though from a distance her died hair somewhat disguises her advanced years. Like many of the older generation in our nieghbourhood, they have worked here all their lives and will be here as long as they are able to, or needed. Once they no longer can stand, one will often see them sitting on a chair behind the counter, chatting with clients while critically watching the movements of younger family members who has taken up their trade. Her meat counter was almost empty, but she kindly chopped up the chicken breast into small pieces, wrapped it in a piece of paper, and received the payment of two euro coins.
Half of Antonios’s bag of seafood gave us a giant paella, which we feasted on for 2 days. Not only was it economical and delicious, but it was also food from our home province.
Last Friday, Jaime went back to Antonio’s to buy octopus for a dish of Pulpo a la Gallega. It was just after 9 am and Antonio was already sold out. We had momentarily forgotten that we are in a Catholic country and an even more Catholic neighbourhood, so Fridays are of course meat free. Add to this this that we are in the middle of lent and two weeks away from Semana Santa, one can imagine that Antonio is the most sought after man in our small nighbourhood!Read / Add Comments
It always amazes me how nature finds its way, in spite of our most concerted efforts to dissuade life with cement and concrete. Therefore, I love the way Andalucian roof-tiles and stonewalls seem to allow flowering neighbours to take residence in their midst.Read / Add Comments
A car boot sale, as the name implies, is where people sell stuff from the boot of their car. These markets happen all up and down the coast, with the largest one held at the fairgrounds in Fuengirola. This weekend we decided to check it out, driving down to the coast with empty bags, spare euros and finder instincts sharpened for the hunt. Living in LA, I used to love ‘junking’ at the Rose Bowl flea market and living in Paris, I used to explore the Porte de Clignancourt flea market weekly, so I was keen to check out what this car boot business was all about.
We had no problems in finding the area, as hordes of people were making the same pilgrimage as us. From the entrance gate there are stalls as far as the eye can see, crammed with buyers, sellers and general hustlers. We had been warned about pick pockets, so we put our backpacks to our fronts, ready to face the masses.
The market, an RV-park version of a flea market, was apparently started by expats wanting to sell off their unwanted stuff to newly arrived expats looking to fill their homes. Spanish generally do not sell used things, nor will they line up to buy them. Traditionally, they inherit used items by default and instead of selling them they pass them onto other family members. In fact, one old man in my husband’s wood carving class has 3 pianos, and he is neither Elton John nor Liberace. In fact, he probably doesn’t play a note…
The majority of sellers seemed British, with North Africans as a close second. Yet, there were also lots of sun-damaged Northern Europeans flaunting their brass wares and Russians selling synthetic outfits with somber faces. The best deals were offered by the locals, selling fresh fruits and vegetables from heaping wheelbarrows.
The coast tends to bring out the ugly expat material and the market skims the bottom, which of course makes for excellent people-watching! Anyone desiring to meet the world’s oldest teenager, a 70-year-old in a worn leopard outfit and platinum wig, this is the place. Likewise, those in need of a cartload of used electric chargers of any type and breed, here you have it. From the first tables that actually had some ‘antiques’ there were rows upon rows of tables selling pirated CDs, abused toys, hideous 1980’s condo furniture, WW2 and Franco paraphernalia, clothes with or without moth balls. The further back we got, the more trashy it got. But you know what they say; someone’s trash is another person’s treasure…
Passing a UK couple snapping hateful comments at each other in between addressing their buyers in the sweetest of tones, we felt it was time to go. But alas, the best was yet to come. Appearing in front of us was a couple that looked like Sunny and Cher – 37 years later, dressed for the part, selling tie-died skirts and macramé from the boot of their caravan.
We left the market 3 euros poorer, hugging our loot (4 avocados and 3 pocket books), happily knowing that Sunny and Cher may once again rise from the ashes of fame at some lugubrious club on the Costa del Sol.
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New Year in January has always felt completely wrong to me. It is cold and dark and does not signify the natural beginning of anything. Certainly not a time when one are supposed to reinvent oneself and become a new and better person.
Thankfully, for those of us who need a couple of tries before we get things right, there are more than one New Year. I tend to embrace them all and have my private extra-new-years as the year progresses. It is rather a relief if one only managed to keep ones resolution- the cleanse, exercise plan or, for me, the 8 hours of dedicated Spanish grammar studies daily – just past January 3rd.
When I was at university in Montreal many light years ago, my mother told me that the Romans celebrated their New Year in March, which seemed much more natural and forgiving to me. I will be forever grateful to her for giving me this two month grace period every year.
So, for those of you us who broke all our January resolutions, who missed Chinese New Year on February 10 and Tibetan New Year on February 11, now is our chance to restart our year, again… And please do not panic, should you need a bit more time, you can always restart your year in August, celebrating Ethiopian New Year.Read / Add Comments
We woke up this morning after a mighty thunderous night and opened our shutters to the most magical snowy landscape!
There was no time to waste. We immediately set out on a photo hunt, discovering Ronda dressed in white. Young and old where out enjoying the snow, not seen in town since 2006. Thus every child we met under the age of 8 most likely touch snow for the very first time today.
Our first stop was the top of the old Arab city wall, where we waved at our neighbours and rather cheekily threw snowballs at our friends, little Oscar and his father Francisco.
On the way up to town, we looked out at snow-covered fields that were covered in spring blossoms only yesterday. Orange and almond branches hung heavy with frozen limbs in the Casco Histórico. In the tajo, a thick fog was seeping in, making a magical spectacle of haze, between streaks of sunlight.
We decided to walk down to the old Arab baths, meeting our first Spanish snow man (just over a foot tall…) on the way. His feet and arms were made of delicate spring green loaves and flowering buds.
Outside Bar Casa Clemente, a charming restaurant just up the road from the baths, Maria, the daughter was making a snow lady, while Clemente himself was shuffling snow and Lola, the mother was taking photos. We decided to name Maria’s snow lady after her grandmother, Isabel, and she was given a silk scarf for added flair.
Emerging from our café con leche at Clemente’s, the snow was quickly disappearing. Isabel was threatening to fall of her fence (you know what do they say about sitting on fences…) and rivulets of melting water were running along the cobbled road.Read / Add Comments
When I went out this morning to hang up laundry in the communal garden, the grass was still frozen. Yet, the sun was already pulling humidity from the ground, creating a sense of walking on a fine layer of mist.
There is such a sacred peace about at this hour. The workers have left their homes, the dogs have completed their predawn concert and the donkey has stopped whining and won’t start again until after dusk, when the church bells chime eight.
Of course one can hear the town nearby, but since this is Samana Blanca, the winter holiday for Spaniards, it is as if the whole town, or at least our neighbourhood has decided to sleep in, to delay chores and to slam doors with less vigor than normal.
I look out at the fields behind the garden, unfolding with beautiful unpredictable order, grasslands, olive groves and windy roads. Small birds whose name I still don’t know and whose tune I still cannot recognize are twittering and chatting in the flowering bushes. An old man sits curled up like a cat against a sunny wall, shelling nuts, one by one without haste. The rusty-coloured foal on the farm at the end of the street is running lonesome circles around the yard. Teenage angst? He has grown much since the boy who tends to him last brought him up to the fountain by the Arab wall to drink, following suit of other horses for centuries past.
I am overwhelmed by gratitude and amazement that we are simply here. Who would have known, even a year ago? I cannot even start to list the daily blessings of our life here. And today, for this day, I take all this beauty, this warmth and this tremendous peace and send it north to my family who today, God, Allah and ice-free roads – willing, are meeting with my aunt and uncle in Lillehammer. This is an Andalucian hug to them all.