“OMG, she is at it again!” When the wife prefers refinishing Andalucian furniture to cooking.

My husband, bless his heart, has often bemoaned his wife’s lack of skills and interest in the cooking department. To be just, he is absolutely right. I am not a cook. He was taught to cook by his Basque mother and received chef training in Continental and Asian cuisine. He knows exactly how to slice every vegetable and what direction to cut the meat. I was not taught to cook, as it was never considered it an essential life-skill in my house. Like my mother, I prefer reading, writing and cultural pursuits. Like my father, I love tinkering, which is how I caught my restoration-bug.

In our family, my husband generally cooks while I do the clean up. A fair deal, if you ask me. It is not that I do not appreciate a good meal. I just believe that just as there need to be people who do the cooking, there also have to be eaters to compliment them. The other day I ventured to make a stir-fry-ish kind of dish. My husband ate without complaint, though he did point out that when using black bean sauce one ought not to use copious amounts of ginger, which overpowers all. I see his logic, not from a food point of view mind you, but from a colour perspective. Too much of one colour or not enough, or the wrong blend may have disastrous effects. Like spices, it is all in the mix.  When my husband cooks something, I will say, “That looks nice and colourful!”Never mind the look. How does it taste?” he will ask. Cooking and restoring are really quite similar. Either way, you end up with a big mess. In the former you have pots and pans, measuring spoons and other dishes. In the latter you have brushes, steel wool, glues and waxes.

Unfortunately, it is not only cooking I do poorly, it is also food shopping. Once a week my husband goes to his wood carving group and it is my turn to make lunch. I get busy writing or fixing something and forget the time. Minutes before my husband is due, I rush to the store, toss some eatables in a bag and dash home to start chopping, hoping to have something in the pan before he comes in the door. He will ask me what I am cooking. “Oh, I don’t know”, I’ll say. “But how can you start cooking, if you don’t have a plan?” he asks. Things are certainly easier for us non-cooks in the summer, when one can just whip up a salad (I can do that!) and throw some meat in the pan. More times than not, it ends up like carbon. I over-boil, under-cook or burn to a crisp, just as surely as some people sing out of tune or dress  like a piñata. I might as well admit it. My art lies elsewhere…

Our hometown Ronda has long been known for its rondeña furniture, recognized by its woodcarvings. Most locals have a rondeña chair or cupboard, usually carved by an old relative. The styles vary from simple farm furniture with minor engravings to elaborately carved pieces. In Ronda’s Santa Maria Major church, the choir section is carved in an ornate Plateresque fashion. The Casa Don Bosco museum has some very curious carvings, such as a wooden chandelier of human heads with mouths holding onto the bulbs. Somewhat risqué for a home of a priest, wouldn’t you say?For our home in Ronda, we wanted to restore a few salvageable pieces from the original house (read ruin…). We both liked the unpretentious Andalucian farm furniture, which with luck one still can find for sale around here. However, we both felt that the traditional brown stains would not suit our style. Dark wood and dragons carvings have their place, but us Scandinavians usually favour lighter woods and colours. All our salvaged, purchased and donated furniture I transformed with scrapers, paints, tints and waxes. Each piece got a different treatment, though our home can generally be described as a Nordic Shabby Chic with the occasional Mexican or Tibetan colour-splash.My first project for the house was four chairs bought from a fellow restoration student. They had fabulous art nouveaux embossed leather seats and backs, possibly made by a Cordoba artist, as the city was known for this type of leather embossment. The leather was covered in globs of black paint and unsightly glossy varnish. I carefully cleaned it with ultra fine steel wool and a diluted paint stripper and miraculously they survived the treatment. The wood had so many layers of lacquered that they were probably the sole reason why the chairs still hung together. Copious amounts of bug killer and then wood filler was needed, as they were too frail and worm infested to leave in their natural state. I painted them in a light vintage pewter colour, which I painstakingly got a local paint store to reproduce, giving the employee the most demanding task of his entire career…The next restoration piece was donated by one of my husband’s patient. She wanted to thank him by offered me to pick up a couple of restoration pieces from their country home. She knew that we had moved to Ronda without a stick of furniture and that I loved restoration. I immediately fell for a traditional old scale, which almost every Andalucian farmhouse seem to have. I took it home and gave it a major scrub. The iron base was beyond leaving ‘as is’, so I gave it a flat black metal paint finish. The two brass plates came out shining after scrubbing them with several plastic-mesh sponges and ample batches of boiling vinegar. This is a local restoration secret. It smells vile, but it does the job.Our bedside tables were also a gift. They were not true antique, probably utility furniture from the 50s. The side panels and back were cheap plywood and the drawers were nailed together, but once I removed the wooden decorative edging and scraped off endless layers of gooey brown varnish, I unearthed a nice top and drawer front, which could be sanded, treated and kept. All other surfaces were painted a pigeon blue chalk paint, then sanded and painted a layer of ‘hot chocolate’ chalk paint. (The latter is now available in Andalucía, though only on the coast.) After distressing and waxing it with white antique wax, they got a new home in our bedroom.A very time-consuming and messy project was the hand-made farm ladder we found in the basement when we bought our house. The last human house resident, likely the blind lady who lived there until 1986, had left a Spanish ham hanging on one of the ladder’s side rails. There it had been rotting, slowly seeping its rancid grease over the lower rungs. Though it was tempting to throw out the whole contraption, I decided to double bag the ham and hose down the ladder to consider my options. I cannot count the hours spent scraping and sanding it. The wood was a nice silvery driftwood colour, but with all the worm canals, I had to give it too much wood filler to be able to leave it natural. I chose Bethún de Judea, which is an old style petroleum-based product used here, particularly to give patinaor accentuate crackling. It has a lovely deep wenge wood colour and works wonders for disguising imperfections in antiques.A platerois a Spanish plate-shelf. Most traditional farmhouses have, or at least used to have one. These days they are harder to find, (though IKEA has made a copy) and I was lucky to be given one by a fellow restoration enthusiast. It was in a sad state, barely hanging together, full of pigeon feathers and mice droppings. I tried to revive it in it’s entirety, but as I scraped off the iridescent green (keeping some in parts, as I liked the cheery effect), I realized that it would never be able to hold plates again. So with many hidden angle irons and various coats of honeyed yellow, then antique raspberry chalk paint, and finally a matte translucent varnish, it has now become a bookshelf for all the pocketbooks that friends have kindly left or lent us.Did I say that restoration is a labour of love? One cannot repeat this enough, in case someone gets the foolish notion that restoring is a quick and easy option to buying new. It isn’t! It is fun if one loves seeing things being transformed, if one is stupidly stubborn, if one has no objection to nit-picky work and is prepared to spend endless amounts of elbow grease. Take our headboard. We found the bed in the old house covered in layers to blue paint, which removal nearly killed me. Metal is not as forgiving as wood which can be sanded over. Our bed was an old heavy iron frame with a decorative brass top piece. For days I was on my knees with a sharp picker tool, scraping microscopic pieces of paint off the iron fleur-de-lis welding points, feeling like a dental assistant. My restoration mates joined my husband thinking I had lost my mind. They suggested just painting the darn thing black. But I love exposed iron and would not give in. Once it was cleaned, I set to work on the brass top, using the Andalucian natural metal polish, boiling vinegar. I had no fingers left, but finally, after a quick rubdown with olive oil, the headboard came home. And what did I start on the following week, but the footboard! (It will eventually be the back of a bench on our upper terrace.)

My most recent restoration project was our pedestal dining table. It was actually one of my easier restoration projects yet. It is not exactly a valuable antique, more like a typical dining table from the last century. And as everything here, it was stained brown. Not ugly, just a bit drab and a bit too ordinary for my taste. Once we got it brought to our house, I could hardly wait to revive it. I was up at the crack of dawn sanding the next day. Wishing the base to compliment our dining chairs, I primed and used the same antique taupe paint for the table base, then distressing it. I kept the table top natural, in spite of some past fillings and visual imperfections, just giving it a white wash, then a rub of grey tint to dirt it up, finally a layer of matte varnish and some white antiquing wax to protect it. I do not pretend to have made a master piece, but in the right light our dining set almost looks like a Gustaviansk setup in Stockholm’s Gamla Stan. With a Cordoba twist…

Of course, my restoration bug will not end here. My husband will likely never see his wife taking a cooking course, nor become a decent cook. There are too many antiques begging to be transformed and fixed. The world needs cooks and restorers. How else would those chefs be able to sit down to enjoy their meals?

 

(For restoration or design services, please contact me at www.snobb.net)

 

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Fashion notes from rural Andalucía- tassels, panache and bling

I have long wanted to write something about the Andalucian way of dressing. Not from a well-informed latest fashion point of view, but more from an anthropological, popular culture, street-watching kind of viewpoint. In other words deeply subjective, possibly stereotyping, certainly not in the least bit scientific.

For someone who spent years on the Canadian West Coast where yoga gear is the going style and fashion usually means ‘practical meets wholesome’, coming to Andalucía was a welcome change. Not only are the clothing and accessories notably more colourful, but people’s body image and ways of carrying their garbs are also quite distinct. The North American general opinion seems to be that young and thin is desirable and beautiful and anything a bit curvaceous, wrinkled or otherwise shaped is shameful. By contrast, I immediately noticed that Southern Spaniards wear their clothes with a certain pride and ease, regardless of size and shape. Not to say that there aren’t problems with body image here as well, but on the whole people seem happy in their own skin. They do not hide themselves, even if they are not magazine perfect, which makes them all the more beautiful to me.

This seeming self-contentment may be something to do with the Latin mind set, their abundance of sunlight or even their brocade and gold clothed madonnas and virgins. Just as their music and art are generally more colourful than the one we have further north, so is their fashion. Just think about the Spanish clothing companies like Desigual and Custo (not to be confused by Cosco…) or the clothing line of the descendant of Miró.

Anyhow, back to rural fashion. Watching a family coming out from a christening or a first communion dressed in all their finery is a veritable feast to the eye. Of course, as Ronda is a small town (not much more than a large village, really), we are not talking latest runway fashion. But around here this does not matter (and who the hell cares anyhow?). What matters is that it is colourful and festive.

One cannot speak about Spanish street wear without mentioning the heels, as in the pointy thing at the back of a shoe. We have friends here whom I have never seen without a pair of high heels, even if they are doing garden work. In fact, we have neighbours who leap straight out of their bed and into their stilettos. I have not seen them, but I have certainly heard them. Andalucian women embrace their femininity, which to some equals wearing a minimum 8 cm heel. Some twin sisters on our street started stealing their mother’s high-heeled shoes shortly after starting to walk. Now they have been given their very own pairs. Consider it like training wheels on a bicycle, something that has to be taught. It is a cultural phenomenon, like any other.

I love the fact that Spanish men can embrace their pink side and wear a bubble gum coloured shirt, a purple tie, a silky neck scarf or a pair of pistachio pants without feeling that this in any way affects their manliness. I love the way the Andalucian women dress up for almost any occasion, even to go to the store. Compared to us foreigners, they are almost always lovely put together. The locals claim they recognize the foreigners by their shoes. On Ronda’s famous bridge any given morning one can pick out the guiris by their tell-tale choice of foot ware – runners, Birkenstocks or flip flops, the latter which any self respecting Spanish women would not be caught dead in. Spanish women on the other hand will usually have matching outfit, shoes and handbag, their hair in a lovely coif, with perfect nails and makeup, like they were going to an audition, not to the bank tellers.

Their rural Andalucian fiesta attire, the style sometimes dare I say a bit ‘sluttish’ for my protestant upbringing, and the fabric at times without a single natural fibre, is not so important as the general va-va-voom effect. Sequence, large gilded embroideries, plunging backsides, straps studded with ‘diamonds’ and peekaboo holes in expected and unexpected places are all good. Though it might seem like I am finding their style in poor taste, it is not so. The women of Andalucía can carry off almost anything, paired with a bright lipstick and a long shiny black mane, fiercely straightened to get out every sign of a wave, or god forbid those stunning black curls…

And did I mention the jewellery? I have never seen earrings like the ones here in Andalucía. Women wear enormous pendants, fake and real, plastic, crystal, precious stones and sheer gold, interwoven with lace and the finest needlework. But it doesn’t stop there. There are rings and then there are Spanish rings. Large rocks upon every finger, usually several to one. A friend in our barrio wears necklaces so big that one day when she had a possibly real coral number around her neck we wondered whether she there was anything left of the Great Barrier Reef. Older Andalucian women seem to avoid the granny style, either wearing impeccable suits and neck scarves, or going to the other end of the spectrum, flamboyant colours, fake fur and massive BLING. I remember watching a handful octogenians having summer night cocktails in a plaza in Malaga, just dripping in gaudy jewellery and looking just fabulous.

When it comes to their offspring, the outfits are a whole different story. While North America and Northern Europe families generally goes the Baby Gap/H&M cute, but practical route, the Spanish goes Victorian. Families take deep pride in swaddling their babies in the most impeccable hand embroidered linens and beautiful subtle lace. As the baby grows into a toddler they will be clothed in Laura Ashley style dresses or Little Lord Fauntleroy shorts, patent leather shoes and matching stockings, usually with tassels. In the winter, the children will have classic woollen coats, with complementing crochet hats, mitts and stockings. If mom is with them she may sport a matching outfit, while the boys often echo their father’s choice in dress shirt. It is mini-me all the way. I would have never managed to dress my son in the fashion without loud protestations. In fact, I believe he still is working on forgiving me for dressing him in a vintage suit and baby cowboy boots when we lived in LA and he was two…

Ronda’s fiesta fashion depends on the season and is closely tied to the town’s history, art and culture. Southern Spain is where Flamenco music and dance started and it is still very much part of our society here, especially during the local ferias. The colours, patterns and combinations may be flamboyant or exuberant, but they are always gay and festive. I used to think that flamenco dresses was just for tourists and postcards (Remember the cards people used to send from Spain in the 1970′s with the fabric dresses that one could lift up?). However, most women we know here in Ronda have at least a couple of flamenco dresses in the cupboard, if not half a dozen. They also dance a mean Sevillana!

The style of the infamous 18th and 19th century robbers in the Serranía de Ronda is now used in folkloric fiestas and adapted into popular fashion. During the month of May when our town celebrates Ronda Romantico, locals walk through town dressed like Bandoleros and Bandolareas. Others dress in the more urban, elaborate, Goyesque fashion, influenced by the paintings of Spanish painter Francisco José de Goya (1746-1828)

Since Ronda is still very much an equestrian society, rondeños often have the rider look (all but the whip) in winter. Whether they are going drinking or to the office, they will wear quasi-jodhpurs, tall well polished riding boots and stylishly tight-fitting jackets with bright-coloured piping.

Finally, bull fighting has of course also been adapted into Spanish fashion. As recent as last year international designers Dolce & Gabbana launched a whole Tauromanía fashion line. Whether one likes bull fighting or not, the matador (killer) fashion is always in vogue in Spain, particularly here in the south.

After three years I have become a local of sorts, but I cannot escape having a cara de guiri (a face of a foreigner). I have brought a few strappy high-heeled sandals and will wear them in the summer, but I still wear my Norwegian rain boots, my trail runners and, on occasion, even the dreaded flip-flops! Yet moving to Ronda, I could bring out things I could never even dream of wearing in Canada. Andalucía is a place to embrace your femininity – or your pink masculinity for that matter. Nothing is too big, too bright or too tight. It is all about colours. Art imitating life, joy, blood and even death.

 

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Finally moving into our house in Ronda, at 43°C through a wobbly ladder

We had lost count on how long the construction process had lasted. The spring had flown away and we were still paying rent two years on. We decided to move in on July 01, as long as we had a roof, a loo and a front door. All we cared for was living in our own house. The rest was in the details and could be done until Kingdom Come.

After far too many trans-Atlantic moves, this one seemed like a breeze. For one, we were only going a few blocks. Secondly, we had decided not to bring any of our book and art boxes, stored at a local convent, until we had shelves to put them onto. All we had to do was pack our clothes, toiletries and a few kitchen odds and ends. That’s all. Our earthly goods looked rather modest as they were spread about in our rental flat, but once we emptied closets and filled bag after bag, things started swelling out of hand. Without being aware of it, we had managed to acquire so much stuff that it would probably take a dozen carloads. Well, well, so much for my alleged zen-ness

Thankfully, we had a couple of days of grace period as our rental home was ours until July 3. We planned to move everything into our new house first and then return to clean up, leaving the flat spic and span for the owners. This was also a good thing because we still didn’t have a bed (details, details…). The frame and mattress, together with bathroom furniture and closets were to be delivered on July 01. Such tight timing can be very risky in Spain, but it was summer and we decided that we could always sleep on the terrace.

June 30th. The most yearned-after day finally arrived with not a cloud in the sky. Perfect moving weather, we thought. Sweat was already pouring down our faces as we brought the very first load to our vehicle. By 11 am, the temperature gage in our car showed 43 degrees and it was still creeping upwards, heading scarily close to the fifty degree mark. I was always told back in the old country (aka Norway) that southerners were lazy and hardly worked at all. Of course, compared to us Scandinavian workaholics with an innate protestant work ethic, congenital angst for sitting still, and seeing idleness as the root to all evil, most Spaniards will seem a little happy-go-lucky. But living in southern Spain, I have come to realize that blasting sun and plus-forty temperatures are not conducive to fast-paced physical work. A little to late, it occurred to us that moving is probably not advisable at the height of the Andalucían summer. However, sunstroke or not, we were hell-bent on getting there. With numerous water breaks we got done before nightfall, ending the day with a most deserved cerveza at the local bodega.

July 1st. After crashing back at the ‘old’ flat, we were up at the crack of dawn heading for our new house. If all went to plan, this would be our first night in our very own Ronda home. Of course we had no kitchen and the stairs to the second floor was still at the drawing stage, so everything had to be moved upstairs through a wobbly old stepladder that we found in the basement of the house. (We had somehow forgotten to tell this fact to the IKEA delivery company…) We had actually already given away the ladder to our neighbour for their olive trees, but the construction team kept needing it, so we kept delaying bringing it to them, which turned out rather timely, since this was now our only means of getting upstairs.

The house was a jumble of activities, as an installer was fitting the German windows and sliding doors at the back of the house and the kitchen counter was to be measured, though the kitchen was not yet built. (My husband and I had rather bravely decided that we would put together the kitchen ourselves, and somehow survive without either killing the other…) The construction team had cleared out, but the painters were still working on the outside of the house. The more the merrier, they say…

We expected the IKEA delivery guys at the earliest in the later afternoon (nothing ever happens on schedule here), but lord and behold, we got a call about 11 am telling us that they were at the top of our street with their giant truck. We hoped that they would oversee the small fact of the missing stairs. Of course they didn’t, but after a small pow wow outside they came and told us that they would do the job all the same.

The delivery and installation trio turned out to be the perfect team. The most senior, and by far the heaviest, huffed up the ladder and barely managed to squeeze though the opening, starting installing our bathroom cabinets with fierce speed and efficiency. Meanwhile, a long skinny lad remained downstairs, handing box after box hand over fist to the youngest and most acrobatically inclined lad straddled between the wall and the last rung of the ladder on the second floor. Once they had gotten all the boxes upstairs, it was discovered that our mattress would not fit through the opening and had to be roped from the lower to the upper terrace. No problem. The lads were onto it. I went at steady intervals to buy them cooling drinks to make amends and to stave off the overwhelming heat. Particularly our heavier fellow was drenched when the work was done and heaven knows how, but he did manage to get down the ladder in on piece. We could not thank them enough before they drove off, no extra charge.

The evening came sure enough, though not the long awaited cooling of the air.  Alberto the painter and his team had finished the exterior walls and packed up. The window fitter had long left and all the empty IKEA boxes had been dragged up to the recycling bin on the corner. We were exhausted and only wanted to fall into the newly installed bed. We had managed to dig out a sheet from the bags. In this heat thankfully all one needs is a single sheet as cover, or not even that. Lying in our very own bed, looking out at the starry sky and the silhouette of Ronda’s historic quarter with ancient church towers that once were minarets, we could hardly believe we were here. Home at last!

We knew fully well that had this been Canada or Norway or in almost any other country, the furniture installers would have refused blankly to proceed, insisting that moving into a house without a proper set of stairs was against their union rules, too unsafe, too wobbly or simply not in their work description. But this is Spain and things work differently here. And sometimes that is a blessing!

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Forget about tax-free and Bobbies. Hiking La Roca

I never thought I would say this, but I love Gibraltar! Not the tax-free shopping, mind you, nor the pubs, the casinos, nor the pesky monkeys. La Roca as the Spanish call sometimes it has a side that most visitors never see – kilometers of jungle-like trails with spectacular ocean views.

Gibraltar is a small rocky outcrop (less than 7 km2) that has belonged to the British since 1704, in spite of numerous unsuccessful attempts by the Spanish to change this fact. Today some 30.000 Gibraltarians populate the rock, practically living within sight of Africa. In the latest referendum in 2002, over 98% of the voting population wanted to remain British – and proudly so. The rock is beset with military monuments, as well as over 50 km of tunnels. However, most of the 12 million annual visitors (one of the highest visitor to local population ratio in the world) come there for the tax-free shopping, Marks and Spencer’s, the British Bobbies, English pubs or gambling in one of its 25+ casinos. Some visitors will venture with a taxi or a cable car to the top of the rock for the typical ‘monkey with African coast’ photo, but few will venture further. Yet, Gibraltar’s true beauty is its natural setting, the flora, fauna and its geological riches. Perched above the busy town centre, 420 m above the sea level, is one of Europe’s greatest natural reserves.

We jumped on the chance to go to see this when RF Natura, a Ronda-based nature-excursion company, arranged a 14 km day-hike across the rock. It is not my intension to endorse companies, but when it comes to hiking in the mountain ranges and natural parks around here, one is best advised to go with an experienced guide, unless one wishes to become a vulture’s lunch. RF Natura’s founder, Rafael Flores, is an author and editor of several books about Andalucian nature. He knows every peak and valley from Southern Spain to the Atlas Mountains and will excitedly exclaim the Latin name of every rare flower as we trek along. With his trusted team of experienced co-guides, we could not imagine anybody better to lead our day-hike across the rock.

Whether one drives the costal road from San Pedro, or overland from Ronda to Algeciras, at one point one will see this emblematic and stately rock, marking the end of Europe. El Peñon de Gibraltar is quite unique from a geological point of view, as it is the only monolithic limestone rock in the area. The surrounding costal mountains are primarily sandstone based. The formation of the limestone that today is known as Gibraltar began during the Jurassic Period with the accumulation of shells and marine organisms. As Gibraltar is located near the boundary between the Eurasian and African plates, the compression lifted the limestone layer above sea level. Today, curiously, only the isolated rock remains.

To avoid border delays, we left the bus in the Spanish border town of La Linea, walking across the border checkpoint and the somewhat treacherous-looking runway of Gibraltar’s airport. Passing through Main street, with all stores closed and hardly a soul in site, we took off up a side street, which soon narrowed into one of the several flights of steps taking one up to the middle green belt, crossed by corkscrew roads, meandering their way up to Gibraltar’s upper rock. It was quite amazing to walk through a lush jungle-like forest on a peninsula that has no natural water reserves, rivers nor streams. Gibraltar’s water used to be provided by aqueducts, wells and captured rainwater, though today its supply of drinking water comes entirely from desalination from huge underground, or should I say under-rock reservoirs. Also scattered along the hike, was numerous bunkers, military barracks and other monuments, as testaments to the rock’s feisty past. I am not one to ohh and ahh at a canon, but I did like the 250-year-old graffiti carved by soldiers, some with the nicest penmanship, into the crumbling limestone walls.

The final ascent was a steep climb up the Queens Gate steps, several flights of stone stairs, part of it originally built as a wall by Philip II of Spain in the 16th century. This is a great place to take a breather (or assure that a heart attack is not coming on, for those who rarely walk) and to enjoy a bird’s eye view of Gibraltar and further away in the sea mist, the busy harbour of Algeciras. Coming to the top at last, we stepped straight onto the road that bridge the two semi peaks of the Upper Rock Nature Reserve area. At some part of the day, this would be bumper to bumper minivan taxis, though when we got there, there were thankfully none. There was only a contingency of the islands most famous residents meeting us. Gibraltar’s Barbary macaques are allegedly the only wild population of monkeys in Europe. I say allegedly, as the monkeys sit plumped down like sloths on the roadway, barely moving out of the way for traffic, while waiting for a ‘benevolent’ tourist to throw them a scrap of food. Feeding the monkeys is highly illegal, as they now have their own feeding grounds. Watching the monkeys felt rather sad to me, and I could certainly understand that some of them have attacked the occasional tourist, as these flail away with their selfie sticks. I would too, if I was stranded up there with only delousing my fellow monkey mates as my past time.

The top of the reserve still has some closed off military installations, though there are several stunning nature paths, some open to the public. Our guide Antonio led us to the beginning of the famous Mediterranean Steps, located entirely within the Nature Reserve. Originally built by the British military, is its now a pedestrian route from Gibraltar’s summit, descending through steps partly cut into the ground rock along the steep southern side of the rock, offering views of the Mediterranean and the coast of Africa.

There are times when a picture can say a thousand words, and this is certainly one of those occasions. The blue cloudless sky, the silvery sea, the white limestone rock, the deep green tropical foliage with shocking yellow blooms throughout. I was completely in awe, drinking in the colours, hand over footing down the stairs, while clicking pictures like a Japanese tourist. I know it sounds banal, but I simply had to bring this feast for the eyes with me.

Gibraltar has more than 600 plant species, three of which are endemic and found nowhere else. In addition, there are species native to North Africa and Gibraltar is the only place in Europe where they are found. There are also wild white freesia, sweet-scented wild honeysuckle and sea lavender to name a few. The nature reserve is also home to about 300 species of birds, some permanently residing here, while others appear during their bi-annual migrating season. The rock of Gibraltar serves as a temporary stopover for many migrating species before continuing over waters or deserts en route to far-away places such as Russia or Greenland.

Being of limestone, it is not surprising that Gibraltar also contains caves. The most famous, St. Michael’s Cave, has amazing stalactites and stalagmites, though the large concert venue and multi-coloured lighting gives it a somewhat theme park feel. However, Gorham’s Cave, located on the steep eastern face of the rock, is a hidden treasure. Archaeological excavations have found evidence that Neanderthals used it some 25,000 – 30,000 years ago, suggesting that this may be the place that our stoop-backed, heavy-fronted ancestors died out.

The peninsula’s history and legends didn’t end there. The final stretch of our hike as we entered paved ground showed the place where one of the Pillars of Hercules has stood, guarding where the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Ocean meet. Clearly after such astonishing views, Gibraltar’s Main Street and a rather lame and costly coffee (in Gibraltar Pounds, of course) came as a bit of an anti-climax. Yet, having done only a partial hike, our guide Antonio promised to bring us back another day to do the entire 31 km of paths on Gibraltar’s Upper Rock Nature Reserve. Any takers?

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Dangling wheelbarrows, tanned plumber’s butts and other Andalucian building tales

Where was I? I seem to have left our building drama in mid-air, just as the archaeologist packed up and left the premises.

We were probably as surprised as anybody when we got our final, I mean the very final, building permit and had the go-ahead from all departments to start constructing our small house in Ronda’s historical Barrio San Francisco. As was to be expected, by the time all papers were signed and stamped and the construction team was ready to go, we were heading for fall. Naturally, we had hoped to be living in the house much earlier, but as months went by we had gotten somewhat wiser and more realistic about the Spanish concept of time. The constructors bidding on the job had estimated four to ten months, so we knew that we would be able to move into our casita before the spring at the earliest.

The archaeologist had left us with a finely combed ground and the teardown team had left four outer walls, minus a cavernous opening in the facade. Like starting from scratch, really. First up, our builders had the exciting challenge of bringing bins, machines and materials into our very narrow sloping dead-end street. Thankfully, the house across from us was vacant, so we had no complaints when they packed the area with construction supplies. Equally, the neighbours all seem to accept when large trucks backed up the morning traffic on our street. We could not believe it. The build had actually started!

Building in the older quarter of town is an on-going reality check. We had our ideas of how we wanted the house to look. Being a production designer and decorator, I had drawn up the plans for each floor before we hired our architect. He proceeded by drawing the technical plans (of biblical proportions in spite of the modest size of the house). However, there are times when you have to forget your visions and even the architect’s plans. Ideas aside, it is only when the builder starts working in the actual house, that it becomes clear how the space can be moulded between the jutting neighbouring walls. No one can really known the realities of the project until the slate is cleared and tabling old walls and falling roves are removed.  I cannot count the occasions that we were called by our builder, who would suggest a practical and necessary change in the plans. This may not be a challenge when one has a large space, but we were working in a three-meter by ten-meter space. We wanted an open house, allowing as much light as possible to enter. This meant no dividing walls on our main floor, skeletal stairs up and down and only dividing walls for the bathroom, even that mostly using glass. For us, it was all about light, why else would we live in Southern Spain?

Just as a teardown has to be done from the roof and down, the construction team started in the cellar, working upwards. We worried that the winter rains would come before we got the roof on, but what could be done? They poured cement over reinforcing steel bars, creating a foundation that the house had never had. Then we had to wait 21 days while the floor would dry before adding the next story. Some days it felt like nothing happened and other days we would discover that a wall had seemingly popped up overnight. Such is building, I suppose.

Building sites everywhere are probably more or less alike, messy, loud and rough. I quickly discovered that the only difference between Canadian and Spanish plumbers butts is just that the Spanish ones are tanned all year around. What may be different are building codes and the adherence to such. We discovered some local building methods that we both liked, such as the winch-system to bring supplies from the lower to the upper terrace. In fact, inspired by the suspended wheelbarrows, my husband promised to make us a dumbwaiter system similar to one we had in a rooftop hotel in Rajasthan, to bring our drinks for our Sundowners. I look forward to having it, though I remain realistic that it might not be for this coming summer, as my husband’s specialty is healing people, not engineering winch systems…

The mail-woman for our street had hinted that the three addresses we had had for the last year might lead to loss of mail and though she knew where to get hold of us regardless what the address would be on the envelope, she could not speak for her holiday replacement. Thus, we went off to buy ourselves our first gift for the house – a real Spanish mailbox to embed in the wall beside the front door. Maybe we had no roof yet, but we had a mailbox!

In true Andalucian tradition, we wanted to raise the flag and celebrate with our builders once the roof was on the house. We had no flag of course, Spanish, Norwegian, Mexican, Canadian, or otherwise, so I went to the convention centre where we had volunteered and borrowed a huge Andalucian flag. We hung it out the yet-to-be closed-in second floor bathroom window, the green and white Andalucian colours waving in the wind. Roof completion usually calls for beer at the building site, but as our living room was domineered by a giant cement blender, we invited the workers, constructor, architect and even the building inspector for tapas and cerveza at our local bodega to show our gratitude, and frankly, our relief!

Winter came and with it rains and dipping temperatures. The house was coming along with traditional pico de gallo roof edging and the old terra cotta roof tiles back on, but we still had cracks that allowed the sideways rain to enter. One day I put on my Norwegian rubber boots to inspect. Thankfully the main floor was almost dry and the upper floor had just a shallow lake throughout our future bedroom. The basement had not fared as well, having become an indoor pool from all the floodwater. Even if water is good for wet cement, now that it was cured, we did not want it to get wet again. Oh, well…

Eventually things dried up or seeped into concrete no-mans-land. The guys sprayed insulation foam, walls were bricked in and things were starting to look almost homey, in a bare-bone sort of way. Spring had sprung and the electrics and plumbing were installed, the former leaving dangling wires that would have given building inspectors and Fire Marshalls elsewhere a hay day. But this is Spain and they do things differently here.

Time to choose the final wall-finish. Our options were concrete, which is strong, but harsh, or a type of plaster-of-Paris finish that cost more, takes longer, scratches easier, but looks softer and insulates better for sound and changing temperatures. We went for the latter and hired a local father/son team who brought in their wall-smoothing paraphernalia and their innovative coat rack made of two sticks and half a dozen nails. Señor Pladul, as we called him, was a one-man running soliloquy (we guessed that his wife is deaf) and Junior sang love-songs to their plaster-stained transistor radio. Eccentricities aside, they made a wonderful team and worked hard, as long as we did detours around the house to avoid that papa would see us and break into another two-hour speech.

When our house was finally done, we were almost sad. Our builders had become like family. We had lived with them through thick and thin, in sickness and health, through floods, frost and near 50-degree heat waves. One day, one of our builders did not show up. He was usually the first to arrive to work and always courteous and friendly. They said that he would not be back. Had he gone onto another building site, we inquired and were told that tragically, he had taken his life the night before. He had a wife, children, a steady job and a home. Everything one could wish for, but things are not always as they seem.

Building a house in Spain is not for the weak of mind, nor for the ones wanting straightaway answers, instant reactions and an air-tight building schedule. It took us more than two years and we often felt resigned along the way. Yet when all is said and done, we love our three-meter-wide slice of Andalucian paradise, which never would have felt so special, nor so much like home to us, had we not gone through all the trials and tribulations to get here.

 

 

 

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Cheers, chatter and chorizos – Andalucians on the hiking trail

There is one thing one can say about Andalucians – They love their food and will make almost any occasion into a celebratory feast.

Food is certainly a favoured topic when we are in the sierra with our mountain groups. We may be leaping over boulders, crossing a river or scaling a cliff side, yet our fellow hikers somehow manage to hold a running commentary. More often than not, it is not about the trail or the magnificent views, but about eatables. We have rarely ascended a peak without learning a new recipe.  The steeper the hill, the richer the ingredients, with further intensity and willingness to share roasting tips closer to the holiday season.

On the way to the mountain in the morning, the conversation may skirt around healthy-ish fare, due to the physical effort we  are about to endure. Around mid-hike, almost every conversation is about what they have brought, or would like to have brought, or wish they could have brought for lunch. By the routes’ end, usually sitting down for a post-hike cerveza, our gang is a virtual cacophony of voices, trying to top each other’s dirty jokes and stories of hedonistic eating pleasures.

But, the Andalucians’ love for food doesn’t limit itself to mere talk. As soon as we take off on a bus tour, someone will bring out a bottle of something festive. We have hardly left town before it is time to stop for a ‘quick’ bite. Likewise, after walking up the first steep hill, someone will insist that we must stop for something to eat, as they did not have time to eat breakfast before leaving. During our many walks, not an hour seems to pass without a snack break, one of multiple lunch stops or a halt for a communal cheer. In other words, Andalucians require frequent refuelling.

The lunches our fellow hikers bring are a chapter to itself, well worth a closer appreciative look. I have hiked since I was a child and was always taught to pack a hearty lunch, and I still do. Water, a fruit and a wholesome sandwich. The latter is generally squashed up in my pack by the time I devour it, admittedly without the greatest of pleasure, or much thought. Not until now…

Andalucians have given me a whole new meaning to the concept of hiking lunches. Why make a dreary sandwich before you leave home, when you can make something tasty en route? Just bring a whole, fresh, white loaf of bread and something to fill it. Take a generous block of sheep-milk cheese, a can of fish, oily sardines if you have them, plus some fresh tomatoes or a glass jar or pickles. Cut it all up with your hunting knife and you have a feast worthy of a mountain king. It may take up a bit more space in your pack, but it makes for a much better lunch. Besides, nobody is going to want to share my pre-packed, shrink-wrapped poor excuse for a sandwich!

A freshly made trail-sandwich is one option for the Andalucian hikers, though they will also bring sausages, Iberian ham or fuet by the meter. Not to mention a few links of spicy chorizo. All these make excellent high-cholesterol hiking food, while instantly giving you new friends.

Like-wise, a fresh tortilla of a dozen eggs or so, with onion and potatoes and possibly a bit of spinach will keep you going for hours and make you very popular, particularly with the expat hikers with their sad little sandwiches. Fruit? Only if you peel it right there and offer all around. Chocolate bars? Why bother? It is much more fun and certainly more social to bring a whole cake and share it with the lot.

Then there are the all-important liquids. Of course you need plenty of water on a hike, especially during the hot summer months, but cans of beer, pop and cider are also most welcome trail blazers. However, when it comes to mealtime, no Andalucian hike seems complete without at least somebody offering you a hit of wine or a slug of Manzanilla from their leather bota.

Nothing they pull out of their packs, or their hats, surprises us anymore. The key to Andalucian eating is sharing, which always makes a better meal and a jollier time. I suppose it boils down to a basic cultural difference; We Nordic types generally eat to live, which the Spanish live to eat. And, believe me, eat they do!

Finally, I would like to take this opportunity to thank our fellow hikers, guides and mountain pals for all the wonderful open-air meals and good cheers we have enjoyed together in the sierra. I promise to work on improving my lunch contribution for the next walk!

 

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The magical cork and why every self-respecting wine should want one

People may say what they like about the advantages of plastic corks and screw tops (lets not even talk about wine in Tetra packs…), but to me a well-made wine merits a real cork. I am not a wine snob, but probably a bit of a traditionalist. Particularly these days when everything is about convenience, it is important to keep some of the old rituals, such as the simple joy of pulling a cork out of a wine bottle. Hauling a wad of plastic out of your favourite vintage simply cannot compare. There is the earthy smell of the cork, the little squeaky sounds as one wiggles and pulls and finally the little pop as the cork emerges from the bottles’ neck. A perfect tool for the job, having served us for centuries, with still no man-made competitor when it comes to the longevity of real cork.

The cork oak, a native tree of the Mediterranean, have been around for about 150 million years. Here in southern Spain, there is evidence that people worked with cork since about 4,000 BC. The Greeks, the Phoenicians, and later the Romans used cork as a sealant, enclosing their wines and other liquids in clay containers. However, it was not until the 17th century that a French Benedictine monk named Dom Pierre Pérignon replaced the wooden peg formerly used and tried a cork as a bottle stopper. And corks have been produced basically the same way ever since.

The job of a wine closure is to keep the wine in and oxygen out, as simple as that. Wine types, laws and regulations, tradition, current fashion and last but not least cost all influence the bottle closures selected by the producer. Alternative wine closures came quite recently onto the scene. Screw caps have been around since the mid-sixties and are generally used by New Zealand and Australian wine producers. Plastic and synthetic stoppers are rapidly replacing natural cork. On a global level, most wines now favour synthetic corks, though these types of bottle sealants are not suited for long-term storage. So, is this tendency all about the mighty buck?

Wine closure alternatives were developed by winemakers wanting to prevent loss due to ‘cork taint’, when a wine gets spoiled by air penetrating the cork. ‘Cork taint’ affects about 3% of wines using traditional cork, making it seem like an undependable choice to some producers. (Yet, have you ever seen a champagne bottle with a plastic cork?) Due to its natural growth and harvest, corks are 2-3 times more expensive than the synthetic alternatives. Being a natural product the quality vary and producers may choose a lower grade cork to save cost. Some of the alleged drawbacks of natural cork may be blamed on the lower grade technical agglomerated cork products, which is a bit like comparing particle-board and MDF to hardwood. And as with real wood, you have to pay for quality.

Cork advocates argue that alternatives don’t allow the alcohol to breathe naturally. Cork is the single best natural product malleable enough to hold content inside a glass bottle. A substance found in the cork cells stops the passage of air and liquid through the cork. Natural cork bottle enclosures have many advantages. They are natural, flexible and compressible, with amazing anti-slip properties. They are also biodegradable, recyclable and grows in the wild, thus promoting biodiversity. Unlike synthetic closures, a natural cork expands and contracts with a slightest temperature fluctuations, maintaining a perfectly tight seal, even as the glass of the bottle itself also minutely changes.

Cork is the prime choice for long-term wine storage, where the present alternatives cannot compete. As a testament to the amazing sealant qualities of natural cork, imagine the incredible pressure the bottles found in the Titanic wreckage had been exposed to, still with the corks intact! In 2010, a ship was found at the bottom of the Baltic Sea, 50 meters blow sea level, containing 169 bottles of champagne, having survived since the mid-19th century and apparently being quite quaffable, at that. The darkness, plus constant, low temperature are perfect aging conditions for wine, which is why some producers, such as Ronda’s organic wine producer Schwartz, are experimenting with storing some of their best vintages under water.

As the worldwide demand for wine is growing and new wine markets are emerging, there isn’t enough cork grown to supply all producers. I am not saying that all wine needs the real thing, just that there is a fallacy, especially in North America, where one is told that cork is a depleting resource and that cork trees are dying out. They are not. We are just drinking more and more, and want our wine to be cheaper and cheaper. Since the majority of cork production goes towards wine production, the real threat to cork production is the decline in demand, due to the cheaper synthetic alternatives. The WWF has actually started a cork conservation campaign, encouraging consumers to buy wine with real wine corks to help the industry stay alive. Cork extraction is one of the most environmentally friendly harvesting processes there is. Not a single tree is cut down to get the cork!

Living in inland Andalucia, we have the privilege and joy of being able to see the cork forests up close. In the mountainous, rural Western Andalucía, between the towns of Gaucin, Urbique, Ronda, and nearly all the way to Algeciras in the south, one can observe the traditional (and virtually unchanged) harvest methods of cork happening between June and August every year. The cork, which actually is a type of parasite on the bark of the trees, is carefully retrieved with special knives or hatchets, peeling away the outer cork bark, leaving the inner bark intact. The cork trees are nothing short of amazing. After the first 20 years of growth, they can produce cork for over 150 years, even though it may have been stripped at nine-year intervals. Being a cork harvester, now a special 2-year college education, is a skill handed down from generation to generation. The cork is only cut off once every nine years, allowing the trees time to regenerate. Once the ‘sheets of cork are brought to the plants, the corks are stamped out by machines with different widths for wine, champagne and cognac.

Andalucia’s Bosque de los Alcornocales, a protected Natural Park, is Spain’s biggest plantation. However, there is nothing plantation-like at all about the cork forests. The trees grow wild amongst other oaks and natural shrubbery, often in incredible inclines, where rope and donkeys have to be used to bring in the harvest as mechanical aids would not be of much help. Spain is the worlds’ second biggest producer of cork (after Portugal) with an industry worth an estimated two billion dollars a year. With its impermeable, buoyant, elastic, and fire retardant properties, cork is also used in diverse processes from car construction to aeroplane insulation.

Clearly, preference in wine and bottle enclosures is a personal thing and there is much more to be said in this debate. But next time you grab a bottle and find a REAL cork, take a deep breath to smell its earthy past and send a small thank to the tree that offered its coat for your drinking pleasure. Cheers!

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Our Annual New Years Theft – Starting the year with a very clean slate

For the past two years we have met the new-year a bit lighter. Certainly not from lack of eating and drinking during the holidays, but because somebody some place decided to pick up a few of our belongings. Though initially being victim to theft feels rather upsetting and one tends to bemoan ones losses, in retrospect it can almost feel liberating. I am not hereby advocating burglaries, nor inviting people to come and serve themselves of our dwindling earthly goods. However, at the dawn of the year, when most people have over-indulged on the material front, it is important to remember that nothing is permanent and that all things we have in our possession will at one point no longer be ours, simply a lesson in impermanence.

Last year, on the very last day of the year my wallet was picked from my bag just off Ronda’s world-famous bridge. Really, I should only blame myself for having become such a country bumpkin that I think nothing can happen in our small town. Lesson learned, cash or not, I now keep it in a double zipped pocket and hold my bag underneath my arm when walking through crowed areas. Loosing a wallet is of course very annoying. I entered the New Year not only cash less, but without a single credit card, driving license or other Ids. January first was spent on hold for hours with banks in Vancouver and Madrid and credit card call centers in Delhi or god knows where, having to answer question and disclose codes I barely could recall. Then to denounce my Spanish Ids, at the local police station, which like any Spanish office is not the ultimate in speed and efficiency. But once it was all done, I felt a strange sense of lightness. Here I was, walking about without a single piece of Id. I could be anyone. Could there be a lighter way to enter a new year?

This year, also in the first week of January we discovered that ALL our art that we had brought from Canada was gone from where we had stored it for the past year and a half. The irony was that it was kept in a local convent with cloistered nuns. Our poor nuns were beside themselves, as this had never happened in the memory of any of them, even for Mother Superior who is pushing on 90. It was unfathomable to them. Hardly anybody enters the nunnery and the few who do, are trusted by the nuns. On the other hand, doors are hardly ever locked, and treasures, be it the convents own and things stored there, can in reality be picked up and brought out along other things, should one be criminally inclined.

Initially, we were understandably upset, having lost thousands of euros worth of original art, decades in the collecting. There were priceless inherited pieces, irreplaceable old family photographs and rare and original works of art from Mexico, Canada and Norway. Many pieces where inherited or gifted to us, such as some lovely embossed limited edition bottle labels given to my husband from the Baron de Rothschild family. All gone! Friends and neighbours advised us to call the police and get fingerprints off my art portfolio that was ripped open. But sending the police and insurance agents into the nunnery was out of the question for us. It would probably give Mother Superior a heart attack. We could not do anything to hurt ‘our nuns’, who had been kind to store our boxes. We felt bad enough telling the nuns about the theft, as in the end they were more upset than us about the loss.

What to do? It was just stuff. Clearly stuff we loved and cared enough about to bring along across a large ocean. However, the art came from another chapter in our life and maybe as a new year and another page is turned, we must leave our walls bare for a while, until new art will come our way. Neither my husband nor I feel upset. We have each other, we have our health, our home and our families and friends here and abroad. What more do one need, and compared to that uncountable wealth, what is a few paintings?

If we need to experience our annual theft to be reminded of this material impermanence, I am OK with that. We cannot take it with us anyhow. And when it comes to stuff, less is almost always more, even if it sometimes hurts to realize it.

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The house saga continues – De-construction and digging for dead Moors

To demolish a house should be a rather easy affair, but not so in southern Spain. Certainly not when the house is in town where all houses are attached, so you virtually own a slice of a sidewalk with shared walls. If your house in addition is located in the historic and thus protected area, expect trouble. Our house was both; a slice with vaguely defined neighbouring walls sitting right where Ronda’s old Arab graveyard used to be located up to the late 15th century. We were at peace with our house’s friendly ghosts and felt privileged to live in such an historic area, but knew that this could cause a few delays.

Cut to two years later… Having our building permit in hand, the first thing we had to do was to apply for another permit, or to be precise, a permit extension. Not for the building, nor the demolishing, but for the archaeological dig, which they so generously had given us two weeks to complete. We’d gladly do as they said, had it not been for the rotten beams and partially caved-in roof, the treacherous stairs and shaky floors that all had to be removed, and outer walls that had to be properly checked and secured before an archaeological dig could be safely performed. But the building experts in Malaga had not foreseen this practical impossibility.

Thankfully, the extension was given without too much delay. We could in principle begin the de-construction work. There was only one more hitch. In the province of Malaga, (and no other place in Spain, as far as we know), archaeologists are only allowed to work on one project at the time. Architects and builders can juggle a handful projects to allow for technical delays, but not archaeologist. This law must exist to assure that archaeologists will starve if a work site is inevitably stalled or delayed. We contacted Ronda’s two archaeologists, who both had projects for a year or so. We started looking for archaeologists in other towns, all of whom would come with lengthy timelines and extensive projects proposals, as if we were to dig out an entire Roman village and not a 3-meter by 10-meter slice of a house at a depth of barely 40 centimeters! After a few too many ‘special price just for you’ proposals, we found an archaeologist in a nearby town who miraculously had a gap in his schedule merely two months away. We were ready to kiss his dusty sandals and signed the deal on the spot. The work could FINALLY begin.

By this time we had spoken to more constructors than we cared to remember and had found a builder whom we both felt would do a good job. He was local, second generation builder and had a family, so we knew he would not run off on us if there were any problems. Such are important things to consider when somebody is supposed to build you a house in a foreign country. His team consisted of a group of rugged men, including three very capable brothers with their specialty skills. They worked with us for almost eight months, through thick and thin as they say and we never regretted our choice. Anyhow, I am getting ahead of myself. We had not even started digging…

The thing with an old house is that one never knows what the project will entail until things are brought to the open. Walls that seem sound initially may crumble once indefinite layers of chalk paint are removed. Beams will turn to sawdust. Neighbours may have built illegal extensions and the ground may not be as solid as initially thought. There are always surprises with old houses and surprises generally cost, time and money.

Our builders ‘moved in’, putting up an official construction sign and hanging up the legally required hard hats on the wall, never to be used as far as we detected during the entire process. Their first step was to remove the old Arab style roof tiles, one by one, carefully storing them aside to be mounted again once the new roof was built underneath. Re-using the old tiles is required in Ronda’s historic area, and both my husband and I loved the look of these patina and moss covered terra cotta tiles. Working from top to bottom, the next step was to remove all inner walls and then the dividing floors. Finally, the crumbling stairs to the second floor were removed and only the skeleton framework of three old supporting beams remained. Our architect, building inspector and builders met on the site, agreeing that things had to be taken very slowly or the sidewalls could cave in.

As our house and the 2-meter wide slice of house to the right were once a single dwelling, probably split by siblings’ inheritance, we knew that this wall would need strengthening. We also shared the ridge beam with them, so the builders put up support buttresses next door before cutting the final beams. On the left side of our house is a multi-housing unit, which shot up during the building boom some 20 years ago. Once we stared thinning our meter-thick exterior wall, we discovered that the complex had not, as law requires, built their own exterior wall against ours, but merely leant their cross-walls against ours and ran all their cables and water pipes down our wall. As our house had been abandoned for a few decades, nobody was there to protest and we could not insist they build their wall now, 20 years later. We wrote to their strata council and were given permission to tear down and properly re-build the entire sidewall, of course out of our pocket, never mind them having broken the law. Ironically, during the entire construction period, the only complaint came from the one neighbour who had an illegal balcony leaning on our wall. Details, details…

We were now down to the ground level. We kept what could be saved of the psychedelic hydraulic tiles that now are back in fashion which covered main floor, later donated to our builders storage, to his wife’s great annoyance. The basement and the upper floor had old terra cotta tiles, though only a dozen could be saved after indefinite years of use and abuse. Nobody actually knows how old our house is. The city plans said that it was built in 1949, which was likely when they did the last ‘renovation’.

Judging by the enormous hand-forged nails (enough to make a Viking jealous), at least part of the house must have been there for centuries. These types of houses have been changed, added to and morphed throughout generations, as families grew or shrunk. Our seemingly solid outer walls, a meter thick in places, were built by sticking together a mixture of oversized boulders, small rocks and red earth which once may have been clay. Equally, the house had no foundation. The walls were standing straight onto the soil with the floor tiles sitting on the earth. No strange it was a bit of a humidity problem…

The facades of houses in protected areas are supposed to be left undisturbed. This proposed a problem, as no mechanical digger could fit through our narrow front door. We had to ask for permission, once again, this time to remove the door and make a hole just wide enough for a excavator to enter. How the operator managed to actually turn the digger around inside a house no wider than 3 meter is a mystery and should in itself earn him a medal.

By now it was time to call on the long-awaited archaeologist. Notebook, mini brushes and putty knives in hand, he came to observe the digging, stopping the mechanical claw every time he saw a hint of something that could resemble a dead Moor or anything else worth saving. Day after day he came, picking away at the ground like a spoilt child at breakfast, and leaving walls and floors as clean enough to eat from. At long last a week later he packed up his brushes and putty knives and offered us his findings. Nothing! Nada! A few chicken bones, some pottery shards and a rusty tool-head was all he had unearthed, and a rather hefty bill. Clearly we understood that if he only could do a job at a time, he had to make as much out of the spectacle as possible. Of course the answer was NO to our next question. We could not go on with the construction before his written report had been sent to the town hall and onto the culture department, to be read, debated, hopefully approved and sealed and signed with many signatures before being couriered back to Ronda, in triplicates.

Relatively speaking, we were lucky. He could have found human remains, grave posts from Moorish times or worse still, Roman coins, mosaics or column pieces? That could have stopped our dig for good. Such treasures have been found in many houses in our barrio, many quickly covered up or secretly displayed in inner courtyards. At least, with no dead Moors in site, we knew that the construction of our house could finally begin. It was just a matter of time.

But that is a story for another day…

 

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The backbreaking road to liquid gold – our first olive harvest

Walking around the Spanish countryside in winter one can often hear the clacking of sticks and the noise from what sounds like motorized saws (they are actually branch shakers). The olive trees are heavy with fruit, threatening to fall to the ground and the cooler days and low December sun makes perfect weather for picking. It is olive harvest time in Andalucía.

Actually, I should correct myself, as olives are harvested from November to March, depending on the area, types of grapes, and last but not least, whether one has enough help. Like any harvest, picking olives is a race against time, before rain, wind, hail or drought comes to ruin the entire crop. Yet, olives are tough, thriving in poor, dry or rocky soil. They need very little water. You can crop them down to the ground and they will still come back. They can handle sub-zero temperatures, as well as scalding near 50-degree-Celcius. They yield fruit year after year and are to my knowledge the only sadomasochistic tree around, accepting a thorough beating every harvest.

One day we met our neighbour, completely exhausted, telling us that the entire family had worked for days harvesting olives and they still had several hundred kilos to be picked. Always up for a new challenge and never having tried harvesting olives, we volunteered immediately for the late afternoon shift. The grandma, the husband and wife, their daughter, plus the two of us stacked into their car and drove off to the field. On the road there, they explained that olives yield on an average of 20 kilos per tree, though a good tree can give you as much as 60 kilos. They had already picked 500 kilos, which they had brought to a mill that press your olives into your own oil. This had given them almost 50 liters of organic oil, more than enough for the family for a year. The remaining olives would be brought to a local mill where all olives are mixed, thus not assuring if you get pesticide and other herbicides in your oil. Here one can choose to exchange ones’ crop for their generic oil or wait until the factory’s oil have been sold and get your olives worth in cash some time in the spring. Smaller producers can certainly not get rich by selling their olives this way, but at least the fruit is not wasted.

Arriving at their plot, their fifty or so olive trees were planted harmonious within the landscape without the militant order of commercial lots, which look like fine cross-stitching from outer space. Most were at last a century old, wonderfully crocked and yielding a mixture of black and green fruits of at least three different traditional varieties (Thankfully, Monsanto have not been here yet…). Some had grown tall and wild, while others were small and rugged, in between which their chickens would roam, the roaster would rule and their yappy little dogs would run around. The family does not put anything on their olives, other than once a year immersing the fields in water and letting nature do the rest. As far as insecticide, they use a bottle of sugar-water to catch mosquitos that otherwise would attack the fruit – a truly organic crop.

Olives have grown on the Iberian continent since time immemorial, though the Romans made it into a commercial crop here some 2000 ears ago, at which time they started importing vast quantities of Spanish olive oil. What was interesting to discover for  us ‘virgin harvesters’ , was that the methods of gathering the fruit have not changed much in the last millennia. The bigger farms may now use their noisy branch shakers and drive from tree to tree in tractors, but for the majority of producers, certainly these types of family farms, olives are still beaten down with sticks or carefully gathered by hand. (Hence, keeping the trees short and squat is an advantage.)

We had about a dozen trees to harvest before the sun would set. The crop needed to be in the open trailer to be rushed out before 7 pm, when the mill would close its doors. We would spread large nets under each tree, hit the upper branches with wooden sticks, gathering the fruit from the lower branches by hand. The olives would then fall to the nets below, which were cleared of branches before they were gathered up in buckets and wheelbarrows and emptied into the trailer. Then the process would be repeated again, and again. It may sound romantic, even kind of meditative, reaching for a branch of silvery leaves and shiny black fruit, ready for the picking. And it is sort of romantic, at least for the first few trees, until your back starts aching and your hands have splinters and have been been pelleted by too many falling olives.

Night had fallen far to quickly and our troupe was spreading thin, trying to pick clean the last handful of trees. “We got to go!”, called José. The fruit must be brought to the mill the same day or it may be spoilt. So, with wilting strength and a last great group effort, the final fruit was poured into the trailer and off we went. We reached the mill just in time, so this years’ harvest was saved. The following day we reemerged somewhat limping, yet promising our neighbours that they could count on our help next year, as well.

A few days before Christmas there was a knock on our door. Our neighbours proudly presented us with a bottle of their very own organic olive oil. After our day as pickers, I will never look upon a bottle of olive oil the same way again. It is a labour of love and, as we have experienced, a backbreaking proposition. Oil from a lovingly tended and carefully picked olive tree truly deserves the name the Andalucíans have given it – liquid gold.

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