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 speaking 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.

Read / Add Comments

A Hashtag Virgin gets a Lesson in the Lessons of Instagram

I am not looking for Pokémon. In fact, I will gladly admit that when it comes to the latest in technology and social media marvels, I am a deliberate dinosaur. I waited the longest possible time before I finally broke down and exchanged my pager for a cell phone, some 20 years ago. People were using computers and digital cameras for years before I acquired them and I still and hopefully always will prefer old-fashioned books to a Kindle. Indeed, since I have never been stuck on a Survival-type desert island, only allowed to bring three personal things and a TV crew, I have never had much of a problem with access to the printed word.

People have tried to talk me into getting on Facebook forever. They argue that I am loosing out on seeing shots of old school friends, that I am cut-off from ‘reality’, that I won’t know what my son is doing and that it is my duty to friends and family to share my photos with them. I have always stood steadfast by my decision. I do not want to be on Facebook. Frankly, I don’t need to know what my school friends look like and would probably not recognize them anyhow. I’ll never know what my son is up to all the time whether I am on Facebook or not. And I think it is my duty NOT to expose the world to photos of my loved ones and myself, posing while eating, traveling and what have you not. People can post whatever they like, but in my opinion and possibly mine alone, there are enough people out there without me posting my ugly grin every nanosecond, as well.

The other day I was chatting with my son, and he said that I really should get an Instagram account in conjunction with launching my new web site and design business here in Spain. (Coming soon…) “What’s Instagram?”, I asked and my son (probably eye rolling) bombarded me with things like Hashtags and other words that some middle-aged women like myself may not particularly want to know. Yet, I decided to give my lad the benefit of the doubt and did some googling on the subject.

Since the name started with Insta, I thought that a couple of Youtube videos would teach me the ropes and make me determine whether Instagram was for me. Cut to three hours later. I was still on Youtube, having watched at least a handful Instagram-for-Dummies and Instagram-101 tutorials. I was led onto more advanced Tips and Trends on how to grow your followers and how to become an Instagram success while earning millions in the process. As if… What struck me was that the deeper I got into my research, the younger were the self-proclaimed ‘specialists’. I don’t know why this particular fact should surprise me, seeing that most CEOs of multinational companies and many heads of states are a decade or two younger than me. I suppose anyone can be a specialist when it comes to new technology and the majority of cutting-edge social media Apps are probably invented by teens. So I deferred to the specialists:

First, there was the typical squeaky-voiced platinum blonde Californian, using all of her 21 years of vast life-experience, telling me what I must not do, such as not to follow too many people nor to post any old pictures. “I mean, It’s Insta-gram,” she hoity-toity-ed, very close to adding a “Duh!”

Then there was the hip Asian Instagram brainchild, babbling faster than a Spanish sports commentator, giving me the 10 or was it the 101 ways to gain business success with Instagram. I didn’t doubt that her advice had some credit, I was just curious as to how many businesses she had had time to run?

Next was the a slightly dubious looking Baltic fellow telling me how to instantly gain millions of followers, as he undoubtedly have, by clicking ‘Follow’ on every link possible and then immediately de-clicking them. Why would anyone want to ‘trick’ people into following them, unless their sole goal is to brag about how many followers they have? I am not in need of company, nor do I need a following, virtual or otherwise.

The last ‘expert’, and this was the final straw, was a pre-pubescent boy lecturing the world on his Instagram success, while being filmed against what looked like the tool wall in dad’s garage in the dullest of suburbs. He told the World-Wide-Web and all of us listeners out there that one simply HAD to be funny, like, to be on Instagram, which he probably thought his boofy 1950s coif made him, though to me he was rather pathetic. There clearly must be something in the saying that ‘Youth is wasted on the young’. The kid went on and on about how being good-looking helped, like, and how, like, he had gained his vast popularity, like, with…

I could listen to no more.

In spite of the specialists, I did make an Instagram account and even managed to add a few photos and hashtags. “Are hashtags the same as the tags we used before?”, my husband asked me. Checking the Internet, I discovered that it is actually so. A hashtag is just a type of label, or tag, used on social networks and blogs etc., making it easier for other users to find articles and posts with a specific theme or content. So, as an example, since I like rocks, (which probably is dreeeeadfully boring to most people…) I could look under hashtags such as  #rocks, #stone’ and #fossils to find likeminded rock lovers.

In spite of my initial trepidation, I enjoy Instagram – for now. I have discovered amazing images of gorgeous fabrics from Pakistan, mind-blowing architecture and design from cities around the world, lovely Asian food and flower arrangements and nature shots that make your jaw drop, none of which I would have seen had I not explored Instagram. I like the fact that somebody on the other side of the globe might appreciate a photo I have taken, and visa versa. I might post pictures of Andalucian vistas, a snapshot of something I am restoring, a photograph of a texture, a colour, a ray of light or anything grabbing my passing fancy. And I won’t mind if you don’t like it. The day I feel that Instagram is too invasive or addictive, I will simply close up shop. In the meantime, I can promise you this. I will not post a single photo of dinners with friends and family. There are some things that ‘the world’ does not need to see.

Feel free to check out my still-on-training-wheels Instagram page: iamasnobb

Read / Add Comments

Getting lost in the Old Kissing Corner and other alleys of Sevilla’s Judería

Ever since we started exploring Andalucía with the dream of moving here, I fell in love with the alleys of southern Spain. Every town here has its special charm, so I cannot say which one I like the best. Yet, when it comes to secret side streets and twisting lanes, old Sevilla is certainly high up my list.

Sevilla, the capital of Andalucía is the independent territory’s most populated city, with almost 700 000 residents. With 3000 years of history, the city is a true crossroad of cultures and civilizations. While it offers a wide range of tourist attractions, to me it’s charm lies in getting lost in its lanes. Just a stone throw away from the famous La Giralda lies the entrance to the old Judería, Sevilla’s Jewish quarter. Once the second biggest in Spain (after Toledo), it was abandoned after the expulsion of the Jews in 1483 and wasn’t restored for centuries. It is now located within the barrios of Santa Cruz, Santa María la Blanca and San Bartolomé, neighbourhoods seeping in history, legends and past intrigues.

Coming through the rather hidden, domed entrance to the Juderia, the streets converts onto winding lanes and picturesque alleyways, some so narrow that one can stretch ones arms out and touch either side. This was probably how El Antiguo Rincón del Beso or the Old Kissing Corner got its name. One cannot help to envision illicit lovers on their opposing balconies stretching out to embrace. In la Judería one can still see street signs indicating the zone and the name of the specific barrio, or neighbourhood. Spanish street signs were and are still primarily made of ceramics, a medium not only readily available, but also one offering the most decorative options.

Looking at a book of street-names from the early 19th century, they certainly gave streets more interesting names in the past. As expected, there are an abundance of streets named after saints and holy orders, such as Calle Abades Alta (the Upper Abbot street) or Calle de las Capuchinas. The latter does not as one may be tempted to think refer to a street with cappuccino bars, but one where a convent for Capuchin sisters was once located. Other typical street names indicated what trade was performed there, such as Calle de los Boteros (the Street of the Wineskin Makers). Other names are directly referring to the products sold there, such as Calle de Azafran, meaning Saffron Street, probably a spice stand or Calle de la Calabaza (Pumpkin street). One can only guess that Calle de la Mosca (the Street of the Fly) was located near the fish market. Calle del Hombre de Piedra (Stone Man street) had a marble workshop, Calle de los baños was where the public baths were located and Calle de las Ropas Viejas would most certainly have been the place to go and buy used clothes. Calle de Quebrantahuesos, or the Bone-Breaker Street, might be for the service of bone setting before the city had a hospital, or maybe the street belonging to the local mafia?

More curious names are to be found, some still in use: Calle del Dormitorio del Carmen – Carmen’s Bedroom Street (with red lights?), Calle del Caño Quebrado – the Street of the Broken Sewer, Calle de Medio Culo - Half-Ass Street and Calle de la Teta – the Street of the Tit, which allegedly referred to a peculiar shaped rock built into the wall of a house on this street.

In Sevilla, like all through Andalucía there are many street-names of Arab origin, from the seven centuries that the territory was under Moorish rule. A common example is Calle de la Medina, which means Town or Walled-In Town in Arab. Others probably refer to a later period of religious conflict, such as Calle del Moro Muerto, or the Dead Moor Street. Sevilla’s street names sometimes bring back local legends. One of the more curious names in my books is Calle Cabeza del Rey Don Pedro, or the Street of King Don Pedro’s Head. Apparently this particular royal has a tendency to escape in the night to look for, well, what one looks for in the night. So one can only imagine that the king’s upper appendix would have had a rather dramatic ending…

Coming back to the Judería, starting from the enchanting lane leading us into the neighbourhood, we follow Calle de la Vida (Street of Life) and appropriately continue onto Calle de la Muerte (the Street of Death). Other streets still have Hebrew names such as Calle de los Levíes, likely referring to a powerful Jewish family and the mayor of the walled in city, or Calle Jamerdana, which seem to refer to the place where the slaughterhouse left their debris. Like many towns in Spain, there is a street named Calle or Callejón de la Inquisición. Though the inquisition was celebrated in the past as what gathered Spain under the common Catholic flag, many now see it as a barbaric age of their history.

Like the famed patios of Cordoba, Sevilla’s Santa Cruz neighbourhood has lovely plazas with doors peaking into typical Andalucian homes with central patios, complete with columns and potted geraniums, bougainvillea and roses. Above the front doors many of the houses still have the white ceramic tile with the house numbers painted in blue. The oldest ones are undoubtedly shaped by hand. In the past, I have read that houses would also have a tile with a cross, a half moon or a Star of David, indicating whether the household was Christian, Muslim or Jewish. I suppose the Inquisition quickly put an end to that… Another interesting tile one can still see at the entrances are the ones indicating whether the house had a fire insurance or Seguro Contra Incendios. One can only speculate what the fire-crew did if a house did not have the tile to prove its insurance in place?

When we needed a street number sign for our house in Ronda, we decided to have something made in the tradition of Sevilla’s old house numbers. We had been told that Asprodisis, a local organization and centre for the mentally challenged, has a ceramic workshop that makes Ronda’s street signs. We headed over with a couple of photos from Sevilla and were welcomed by Eva, a hiking buddy of ours. She teaches the ceramic activities and helps the residents create the most amazing hand-made terracotta and clay trophies, signs, cups, plates and medals, to mention a few. Asprodisis also makes other crafts, has a professional laundry service used by many of Ronda’s hotels, an employment centre and also offer a complete catering service! We told Eva and her helpers that we wanted something charmingly imperfect with lots of personalidad, and that’s exactly what we got.

Our house number is up now, looking ancient as it hangs, slightly askew. We cherish it because it isn’t a mass-produced tile bought in a tourist shop or something generic from a hardware store. Our number sign is something completely unique, made by hand with great care by handicapped workers in an admirable organization. We couldn’t be happier with our Sevillan Judería-inspired house number, which perfectly compliments the eclectic Mexican-Norwegian heritage of the residents of the house, built on what once was an Arab burial ground in an Andalucian mountain town.

Read / Add Comments

At the right bar at the right time – How to get things done in Southern Spain

A few months ago we were looking for a blacksmith to make us a firewood holder. In many countries ironmongers like shoemakers are virtually obsolete, yet here in Andalucía they are as busy as ever. We were told that the local smith had his shop just off the main square and if he wasn’t there, one could always find him in the bar. As predicted we found a heavily bolted door, so we headed for the bodega. No, el herrero wasn’t there yet, the waiter said, but if we waited un ratito he should be in. (I suppose he runs his business from his table?) True to the tale he arrived minutes later, ready for his beer and for business. We explained what we needed, showing him a sketch. The design and price were determined over the first cerveza and the deal was sealed by the time he ordered his third tubo. Passing the bar just a few days later, the smith called from his table, saying that our stand was ready. He could deliver it, he said, or we could pick it up. We assumed that he didn’t mean from the bar…

Of course not all Andalucian business happens at the bodega. There are also the coffee bars. When we first moved to Spain, we made an appointment with one of the local banks to set up our accounts. The appointment was at 11 am. Being new in the place, we foolishly showed up before the scheduled time, which one simply never does down here in the deep South. The employee we should meet, whose desk was by the entrance with his very own line-up, was not there. Curiously, nor was the cue. Assuming he had nipped off to the loo or something equally urgent, we waited in front of his desk. Finally, another employee took mercy on us, asking if we needed help. We explained that we had an appointment with Señor so-and-so at 11. Being just 20 minutes past, we were told not to worry. He had just gone for breakfast and would surely be back by noon. Being seasoned guiris (a somewhat derogatory name for foreigners), we now never make appointments at breakfast time, knowing perfectly well that all employees disappear for their God-given-right-to-eat-breakfast-during-work-hours for at least 60 minutes between 10 and noon-ish. We also have learned to avoid the post office during breakfast hours, when the line-ups are dismal and only one wicket is open, with a very cranky employee anxious to go for breakfast. So, what to do? Should ones business be too urgent to wait, one can go to the employees’ coffee-bar-of-choice and endeavour to get the answer to ones question ort approval of ones loan over a café con leche.

I am not claiming that all business at these southern latitudes happen at the bar. Our accountant for one only has meetings in her office, though she is often gone for coffee when we arrive. Many will do their business behind office doors, but it is surprising how often someone will bring a contract, a wedding invitation or a medical record to the bar. Bars are Andalucía’s backbone and many peoples’ second home. Our local bars open from 9-ish in the morning, with the regulars coming in for their first Anis shortly after. The same people seem to close the bar and its business some time after 3 am. The street sweeping crews have their regular bars where they take a break to discuss rubbish and politics. Politicians meet at bars to plan further procedures. Meetings with lawyers, architects, inspectors and undertakers are frequently held at a bar. If one wants to get a second medical opinion about a blood test, X-ray or an MRI in Andalucía, one could bring the papers to the bar. Sooner or later a doctor will arrive, willing to discuss the findings over a wine or a coffee. People bring family, friends and dogs to the bar. Baptisms and first communions with babies and youngsters will be celebrated at the local bodega. News about the passing of a local resident is often announced in print by the bar entrance, or if space is tight on the beer fridge. Bars are where one goes to inform oneself about funerals, weddings, divorces, health matters, building projects, political upheavals, family interventions, scandals and local gossip. Business deals are sealed in Andalucian bars all the time and heaven help those who do not frequent bars, as how else would they get new clients and hear about new projects.

When we initially were looking for a place to rent in Ronda we went through a proper rental agency. A couple of years later, needing a place while constructing our house, we knew better and went straight to the neighbourhood’s key information hub – the local bodega. We ordered a couple of tintos and started asking around. Within minutes, we had several options.  The sister of one of the regulars, always sitting at the same table with the same red nose, had a 7-bedroom house for rent in the historic centre. Maybe a tad too big for two, we said. The third cousin of one of the waiters had a place in the campo. Taking the matters into her own hands, the bar owner called a landlady around the corner. As there was no answer, she hurried off down the street on high heels to arrange an immediate viewing. That’s instant action, I’d say!

We may not run a business from the local bar just yet, but we know where the deals are made and where one needs to go to get things done in southern Spain. There is no telling what can happen if one is at the right bar at the right time…

 

Read / Add Comments

Forget about washing the car. It’s raining Sahara sand again…

It hadn’t rained since late April. The fields were brown sticks and the soil ravaged and bone dry. If we were to believe Antonio, the 85-year-old farmer up the street, and we always do, it would not rain until November. The heat was stifling day as well as night. Occasionally, we would have a few days of wind, which gave the females in the neighbourhood migraines, though to me it was a welcome repose. At least the hot air got blown past one, instead of drowning one in stillness.

One day we woke up to a bizarre sky, as if we were looking at it though unpolished glasses. Something was definitively up. We heard a plop, then another and several more. ”Could it be rain?” we thought. Hurrying to the terrace, I felt something on my skin. Not actual rain drops, but gritty warmish globs of red mud. The ‘rain’ only lasted a few minutes. Then it got dead quiet, leaving a world covered in fine rust-coloured dust everywhere, in every indentation and on every surface. The cars parked on the street had a film of dust and in some places a mini-reef of fine-grained sand. Our neighbour shrugged his shoulders. “It’s lluvia de barro (mud rain) from Sahara.,” he told us, as if it was the most natural thing in the world. And apparently it is. Thankfully not a daily occurrence, African mud rain is quite common in the Mediterranean region. However, with the right atmospheric circumstances, Saharan sand has been registered as far away as my own Scandinavia, southern USA and even South East Asia. We are talking thousands of miles! Not shabby for plain old dust….

Sometimes called lluvia de sange (blood rains) because of the dust particles’ particular tone of red, Sahara Rains actually happen all year around, though it is certainly more noticeable here during the dry summer months. Strong winds originating in the Sahara desert get transported beyond the African continent, where later precipitation rinses the dust out of the atmosphere, bringing it down in the form of muddy drops. For the phenomenon to take place it allegedly needs several atmospheric conditions to be present simultaneously. First, it needs a prolonged period of draught in the Sahara region (isn’t it always?), which produces an increased presence of suspended dust. Secondly, it needs the above-mentioned particles to get into the higher layers of the atmosphere, more specifically for us in Spain, with a southern or South Eastern wind. Finally, it needs precipitation in the area of the dust recipients.

One recognizes an incoming cloudburst of Saharan dust by watching the sky, which takes on an unusual muddy colour and dense luminosity. Other than the fact that it obscures the sky, such amounts of airborne smut are obviously not comfortable, nor healthy to inhale or ingest. Especially people with respiratory problems and asthma (popularly called ‘ama’ in Andalucía, for those who may wonder) ought to stay indoors and not engage in anything that may cause physical exertion. Yet, contrary to what this may make one believe, Saharan rain has nothing to do with pollution per se. With acid rain the opposite atmospheric phenomenon occurs, when the absence of wind allows the pollution on the earth’s surface to rise into the atmosphere, not the presence of it.

Once you know what on earth the blood rains are, it is no longer very exciting. In fact it is a royal pain in the you-know-what. The fine sand particles adhere to anything and are virtually impossible to extract. You have to hose down your terraces and walls at least twice, especially if you live in a Pueblo Blanco (white village) like we do. The dust seems particularly attracted to shiny surfaces, so beware that your car will get a good sandblasting. It will appear in the most hidden away places, being brought along by the aid of mysterious, invisible currents. Months later, when you think you have gotten all the traveling dust out of your car, and your life, you will open your trunk and find the rusty particles lining the entire inner door jam system, where seemingly not even air can get to.

Having fiercely vacuumed out the very last particle of the blasted hidden dust and given the car an almost professional detailing in the process, you sense a weather change coming. You look back up at the sky, noticing that it has taken on a curiously red colour…

Read / Add Comments

Walking on air – the deadly Caminito del Rey has become a walk in the park

The world is full of daredevils who will sink their grimy nails into any piece of vertical rock, with or without safety.  El Caminito used to be one of the places where human spiders with suction cups for hands used to convene to dare each other into virtually walking on air. Some did it, their hair-raising videos going instantly viral, while others were not so lucky, ending their climbing careers and lives at the bottom of the gorge. Andalucía’s Caminito del Rey (The King’s Little Pathway) reopened after major reconstructions last year. It is still a spectacular and thrilling experience to most. What used to be known as the world’s most dangerous boardwalk is now literally a walk in the park.

El Chorro lies about 45 minutes inland from Malaga off the Campillos road, near the town of Ardales in southern Spain. The breath-taking three-kilometre Gaitanes gorge, at some points only 10 meters wide and 700 meters deep, was carved into the limestone and dolomite cliffs by the Guadalhorce river. It was not until the 1860’s that the canyon gained importance, when the Málaga-Córdoba railway was constructed along 17 tunnels, 8 viaducts and 18 bridges with the most spectacular part going through El Chorro gorge. (The railway is still open today and is absolutely worth the trip.)

In the early 20 Century, hydroelectric power plants and dams were built on either end of the gorge to provide electricity to the area. The original walkway, built between 1901 and 1905, was constructed to give the workers a means to move between the plants. The one-meter-wide steel enforced concrete walkway was built into the rock face on the opposite side to the railway about 100 metres above the river. It was crossed by Spain’s King Alfonso XII in 1921 and have carried his name ever since.

As years passed and roads became a faster way to get between the dams, the walkway fell into disrepair. The original handrails gradually fell off and in many sections the concrete top collapsed, leaving gaps bridged only by rusty, narrow steel beams. These open-air gaps were exactly what attracted the climbers to the place. The local authorities tried to discourage use, removing entire pieces of the path at the entrances to make it ‘impossible’ to get onto it. Of course, the more difficult they made it, the more attractive it became to climbers. The authorities closed the path to the public in year 2000 after several people lost their lives there. Even after the closing, four other climbers died attempting to cross the gorge.

With such a dark history, it is strange that any of us mere mortals would even dream of venturing onto the path. Yet, El Caminito del Rey was listed as Lonely Planet’s ‘best new attractions’ in 2015 and the reconstruction received EU’s Nostra Award and Grant Prix for Cultural Heritage Sites and various other awards. To me, it is a great marriage between an alpinists dream, safe engineering and sleek aesthetical adaption to the landscape. Of course without the dangling off a cliff thrill, daredevils now must go elsewhere.

My husband and I had heard about El Chorro prior to moving to Spain, but as neither of us was inclined to throw ourselves off cliffs, we, as many, excitedly awaited the opening of the refurbished boardwalk, which after many delays happened in March 2015. As soon as we heard, we made a booking. When we went one could walk in either direction, so we left and came back to the same point to see the gorge twice. Now all entrances are from Ardales, with a bus service taking one back. Actually, this is the best way to see the gorge anyhow, as you start out less steep and save the most spectacular (and to some maybe the most scary…) parts to the very end. The roads to get there are narrow and winding, so take it easy and do not have too many beers at the charming restaurant on either side of the gorge. The path itself is a short hike of a total 7.7 km, divided into 4.8 km of access paths, 1.4 km of forest paths and 1.5 km of the famous boardwalks.

Knowing that I have the occasional bout of vertigo, I was a bit nervous, especially when we were handed helmets at the official entrance points of the boardwalk. But it was completely unfounded. One, the helmets are an assurance against falling rocks from above, not in case one should plummet down below. Secondly, this being Spain, of course most of the locals, and especially the Spanish females with their perfect manes, take off the helmets and the unsightly hairnets that accompanies them just around the first bend. Naturally, being foreigners, we doggedly follow the rules and wore them throughout, vanity be damned! Thirdly, getting back to the fear factor, I was actually too awed by the mind-boggling views to even think about the sheer drops. Besides, the new boardwalk and railings are so well made that one feels completely safe. This being said, you can expect that about a dozen people will step onto the glass-floor viewing balcony which in large letters says that only 4 people should enter at a time.

The path itself, going right above the narrow old cement path, is beyond words. It is really a thing one has to experience. Just before the end of the walkway is the piece de resistance, a steel suspension bridge crossing the gorge next to the rusty old aqueduct that the sure-footed climbers used. Hold onto your hat, no, actually forget about your hat and hold onto the steel railings, as the bridge will move. This too has a warning sign that no more than a dozen people should cross at a time, but who is counting…

During the first year the entrances were free. The site indicates that they charge 10 euros now, yet when I tried to book today, it said that the charge was 0 euros. It is probably advisable to call directly or to go with a guide. Anyhow, do not let these technicalities discourage you, as it is really worth the walk. Just check the weather before you go, as the path closes if it rains or is too windy for safe passage.

Whether the king actually walked the entire span of the gorge or only stepped onto it for a photo-op and was quickly whisked back into his chauffeured car, we will probably never know. He is not the hero of this story or the one whose name should adorn the emblematic walkway. What struck me while crossing the gorge was the thought that this was not only the singular way for the workers of the hydroelectric plants to move from one dam location to another. It was also the only way for their families to get to the neighbouring village, crossing the boardwalk on foot, bicycle or horseback. Even the local children used the Caminito to get to school, walking on the narrow cement path with a single iron railing, some 100 meters above the gorge! To all of them the new boardwalk should be dedicated.

 

Read / Add Comments

Waist high and nose deep in lavender

It is harvest time. That is to say, we are harvesting our lavender – all two plants of them. This may not seem like much, and it certainly wasn’t when we bought a couple of 1.50-euro pots three summers back. But things can certainly grow on these latitudes and the same plants are now giant bushes with a circumference of a couple of meters each. They might not be seen from space yet, but thanks to them, ours are decidedly the most eye-catching plot when you arrive at the community garden.

Say the world lavender and people immediately think lavender fields in Provence or English gardens. Yet lavender is not native to England and Bulgaria actually overtook France as the world’s biggest producer of lavender oil in 2011. Spain might not be amongst the top contestants when it comes to actual production, but while France has three species and two hybrids of lavender, the Iberian Peninsula has eleven species and subspecies and four wild hybrids, and twice as many if one counts the Canary Islands. France is still vital for the entire lavender industry, certainly in quality, innovation and marketing. Historically speaking, the plant was an important ingredient in France’s perfume industry, even if the most fragrant lavender is not the French Lavendila Dententa, but the Spanish Lavendula Stoechus.

Originating in the coastal areas along the Mediterranean, lavender has been known for at least 2500 years and been acknowledged for its medicinal properties since the Materia Medica was written in the 1st century. There are now said to be some 115 varieties of the plant growing in gardens virtually all around the globe. When I was young nobody could ever imagine that lavender would grow in Norway, yet be it due to global warming or creation of tougher hybrids, one can now see lavender in Scandinavian gardens. I suppose soon we will see new hybrids of Alaskan and Icelandic lavender, as well? Lavender loves the Andalucian hot sun and poor soil. For us living here, the wild lavender is a common site along country roads and hiking trails, especially during the spring months when they are in bloom. There are times when one literally can walk waist high in the deep purple blooms. Particularly the endemic species, such as the Lavandula Lantana, commonly known as Alhucema manage to grow from tiny gaps in the rock and be born out of the smallest patch of sandy soil.

Lavender comes from the Latin word lavandula, derived from the Latin verb lavare, meaning to wash. It is said to be because the Romans used lavender amongst other things to scent their bathwater. The plant was used during many plagues to disinfect homes and hospitals or burned to keep away bad smells, which were thought to attracted diseases.

So, what can you do with it with lavender, other than making sachets for your lingerie? Not only is it beautiful, but it has literally hundreds of practical uses. Lavender is antibacterial, antimicrobial, expectorant, stress relieving, antiseptic and analgesic, for those who know what all that means. Essential lavender oil can be used to protect against airborne viruses and bacteria, relieve menstrual cramps, deter moths & silverfish, calm coughs and colds, promote relaxation and sleep, sooth sunburns or other smaller burns, as a dandruff remedy, to relax sore muscles, for headaches, as a skin toner, for acne or skin irritations or as a natural air freshener. It can be used in baking, gourmet cooking, salads or teas. One can make lavender soaps, creams, talc, body butters, potions, lotions, bath bombs, scented oils, wreaths, candles, room sprays, carpet deodorizer or dryer sheets, just to mention a few.

The lavender harvest should happen when the flowers are at their most stunning, or so my aunt who grows them in Tuscany told me. And aunts know such stuff. Other information sources tell one to pick them when 2/3 of the blooms are open, or was it 1/3? Anyhow, we pick a bit each day, cut off part of the stem and dry them in a large flat Zambian basket on the terrace, ideally away from direct sunlight. Once dried, you can easily pull the lavender flowers off the stem, going with the direction of the straw, or in stubborn cases, against it. Your hands will be black in the end, but will smell ever so lovely.

If I understand right, the production ratio for lavender oil is 100/1, meaning 100 kilos of blooms to one kilo of oil, so I am not planning to become commercial lavender producer just yet… To me, the greatest joy of growing lavender is simply having them there. To walk along the plants, letting ones hand touch the top of the flowers to release its heavenly scent.

I never thought in my life I would virtually drown in lavender, but this is what I do these days, diving nose deep into the bushes, of course watching out for the other critters that also enjoy them. The bees, that most threatened species, love our huerto and all the flowering herbs there, lavender being their favourite. That should be reason enough to grow it, as heaven knows and we all know that the world needs more bees. The bees and I have come to a mutual understanding of shared enjoyment. I let them buzz about the plants and enjoy its bounty and they let me crop away, simply flying over to a different sprig to get out of the way.

Every day I harvest an armful, leaving a trail of scented straws as we climb up from our huerto, maybe surprising a neighbour or friend with a generous bouquet and filling every vase in the house with freshly cut blooms. There is enough for everybody, para dar y prestar. (To give away and lend) as they say here in Andalucia.

 

Read / Add Comments

What NOT to do to survive the Andalucian summer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Read / Add Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read / Add Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 


Read / Add Comments