The dubious past of the Vienna New Year’s Concert and WHEN did I start humming at the television???

The annual Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s über-traditional New Year’s Concert is more popular than ever. Televised in over 90 countries to an estimated audience of 50 million people, one admittedly is dealing with a universal ‘hit’. Yet, this greatly loved tradition hides a dubious past.

The orchestra, founded in 1842, is recognized as one of the finest in the world. Indeed, it was so fine that ‘mere’ popular music, such as the waltzes composed by the father son duo of the Strauss family, now considered synonymous with Vienna, were not included in the orchestra’s repertoire until the 1920s.

The orchestra’s first ever New Year’s Concert took place in 1939, organized as a fundraiser by the National Socialist Party to help the needy in the winter. The concert had exclusively Strauss (Jr.) on the program and when it emerged that the family had some Jewish ancestry, the Nazi propaganda minister Goebbels ensured the news was hushed up. Or so the story goes.

In spite of being an invention under Austria’s Nazi regime, the concert has prevailed, grown in popularity, and thankfully in acceptance. In 1980, Lorin Maazel was not only the first non-Austrian to conduct the orchestra, but also a Jewish-American of Russian decent. The orchestra is still a conservative lot, largely consisting of well-groomed Caucasian men, though in recent years one may note a slight increase in appearance diversity and a trickle of female players. For the 2015 concert, we counted all of six female musicians and one male player of possible Asian decent, in addition to the Philharmonic Orchestra’s honorary conductor, Zubin Mehta, who is a Zoroastrian Parsi. There is hope!

The demand for concert tickets is so high that one must register a year in advance to participate in a draw for tickets for the following year. (Some seats are held for certain Austrian families, passed down from generation to generation.) Should one be lucky enough to win, one will still have to purse out a small fortune, 1000-1500 euros, in addition to agents and brokers fees for the honor to attend. In addition, come the new outfits. I am happy to say that Loden- coloured military outfits are virtually gone and we even noted a row of Japanese in Kimonos this year. For those who neither win, nor can afford the going price, one can do like millions of people around the planet – from Japan to Swaziland – watch it on the telly.

In my family, the New Year’s concert was as holy as Christmas and something one simply could not miss. I recall my parents sitting in front of the TV, drink in hand to cheer on Herbert von Karajan or others of their favourite conductors. As every year, they would complain about the outfits of the dancers (my dad, bless his soul, did not like men in tights…) ohh and ahh at the flower arrangements and hum and clap along with the orchestra to the utter embarrassment of their offspring. And, as my husband and I crawled up on our couch to watch the 2015 concert, I noticed myself purring along with Strauss’ waltzes and clapping along with the Radetzky March, carefully following Mehta’s baton not to do a faux pas. Had the program been a thirty minutes longer, we would have nicknamed all the musicians. Heaven forbid, I am turning into my parents, lamenting about why the legendary Julie Andrews is no longer doing the BBC commentary and kvetching about not enough ballet inserts –  just like my old folks…

Happy New Year to all. May it be a year of Peace, Love, and Understanding.

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Peace love and frozen fingers

Forget about presents, Santas and Michael Buble’s Christmas Special. My favourite things about Norwegian Christmas are the taste of roasted reindeer, the smell of myrrh incense and, most of all, the tradition of lighting candles on the family graves. There is nothing more peaceful than seeing a snow covered churchyard at night with hundreds of candles flickering by the gravestones. And as our minds tend to soften the edges of memories with time, I seem to have forgotten how freezing cold it can be.

Norwegians practically schedule their Christmas Eve around their grave visits. It needs to be carefully timed, as daylight is scarce. Even in the very south the dusk starts about 3 pm. You ideally want to come after early mass or in between the masses, to hear the church bells as you light the candles. My mother, husband, son and myself were ready with a basket of specially lidded grave candles and no less than three lighters to be sure that the procedure would go smoothly and that no fingers would be sacrificed. This year, the snow was not a problem, but rather a layer of hip-breaking ice, which neither gravel nor salt seemed to make any safer. Like my father before us, my mom and I insisted that we go to all the graves – in three different graveyards – including five generations on my father’s side all with the same name and distant great grand aunts, starting with my grandfather’s cook who became like a grandmother for us, and who nobody else light a candle for.

Things were going swift as snow and nobody had broken any limbs or split any nails, until we got to the third grave in the second graveyard, where all lighters refused to function. This is what happens when one is in double-digit sub-zero temperatures with additional North Sea wind factor. My son tried to use a nearby grave lantern to light a candle when a compassionate gentleman came by on his way from mass, offering us his left over matchboxes. (Two used boxes glued together, one for the new matches, one to put the used ones, bless the care and frugality of the old…) My son thanked him profusely. ‘Team Grave-candle’ was in the race again. Between gusts of wind my lad de-gloved to light the first match, which died immediately. Our little group squeezed closer together, one holding the candle, one the match box, one cupping the match and one ready to slam on the lid, while all tried to shade for the freezing wind. Almost success, though at the last moment, the candlewick got a gust of wind and died.

Suddenly, all my childhoods Christmases came back me. My sister and I in our choir uniforms (with awful synthetic blouses which were ice cold in the winter and didn’t breathe in the summer), stomping our patent leather shoes in the snow. My dad insisting we go to all the graves, never mind the cold. Him telling us that here lies so and so, your great grand so and so, married to so and so and son of so and so in that branch of the family. Then, after the candle was lit, we were supposed to stand in quiet respect while we remembered the ancestors we had never met or could not for the life of us recall, as all we could think of was how long it would be until the grave lighting torture was over.

Back in the last churchyard, by our family grave with all the Linaae’s in a row, we were running desperately low in matches. Like Hans Christian Andersen’s story, we saw the flame flicker and die in front of our very eyes. My son was at this point beyond saving the old matches in the lower matchbox compartment. There is only so much one can take before the fingers stop working.

With only a couple of matches left, we managed to complete our mission. The time of quiet reflection was admittedly less than brief before we all as one took off and let the candle flicker as they may. At least we had done our Norse family duty to our ancestors. May they rest in peace until next year.



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Farewell to Sevilla’s legendary Duchess

The Duchess of Alba back on the front page. Photo ©


When the Duchess of Alba, head of the 530-year-old House of Alba, passed away in her Sevilla palace last week at the age of 88, she truly marked the end of an area. Prior to her death, the duchess had more nobility titles than any living person (seven times Duchess, once Countess-Duchess, 19 times Marquesa, 22 times Countess and once Viscountess), making her outrank the King of Spain and her contemporary Queen Elizabeth. As a successor of the Stuart dynasty, a direct royal descendant of King James II of England, a descendant of Christopher Columbus, as well as granddaughter of Queen Victoria, la Duquesa would have been the rightful heiress to the throne of an independent Scotland, should the election results have turned out differently. Not that the duchess was looking for a job…

María del Rosario Cayetana Alfonsa Victoria Fitz-James Stuart, or Cayenana, as she preferred to be called, had all but a boring life. Born before the Spanish civil war, she outlived her first two husbands by several decades, had six children (eleven pregnancies) and married her last husband, a humble civil servant 25 years her junior, just before turning 85. Her middle-aged children were openly against the match and had the spouse-to-be sign a prenuptial agreement that neither her titles nor her alleged 3.5 billion euro fortune, larger than that of Spain’s Royal family, would go to him upon her death. But those who knew her saw her as happier than ever during the last 3 years of her life at the side of her beloved Alfonso. “Love is the same at forty, as at eighty”, she said.

Fame and fortune puts one under the scrutiny of the media and Cayetana certainly had her share of media scandals. Be it her plentiful and not all successful facial surgeries, her twenty-something palaces, her second marriage to an allegedly gay, ex-Jesuit priest or her last marriage to a man who was younger than her oldest son, Cayetana was a favoured topic of gossip magazines in Spain and abroad. However, in spite of her titles and her fortune, Cayatana did not care much for convention. She loved bullfights and flamenco, and even kicked of her shoes to dance at the doors of the Sevilla Cathedral after her 2011 wedding.

Though born in Madrid, la Duquesa de Alba was Andalcuian in spirit. She chose to live her last years and to die in Seville’s lovely Palacio de Duénos, a 15-century palace that had been in her family since the 17th century. She loved her hometown; saying in one of her last radio interviews that “Sevilla is the most magical place on earth.”

With more than 100,000 people filing by her coffin on regal display in Sevilla’s town hall, la Duquesa certainly made a grand exit. One of the last things she the duchess said, speaking to a hospital nurse, was “Please call me Cayetana”. One may think what one may about nobility, but La Duquesa de Alba was certainly no ordinary duchess.

Story Written for La Serranía Services

By her own requst, part of the ashes of the Duchess of Alba is buried in the Church of Christ of the Gypsies in Sevilla. The rest of her ashes are in the family crypt of the House of Alba in Madrid. Photo © Rafael Cabrera


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City of Dreams

 Roda sunset in November. Photo © Pilar Becerra

For centuries, Ronda has been hailed by artists and romantic travelers as a Ciudad Soñada or a city of dreams. No time is this more apparent than when walking across the bridge that gaps the 120-meter gorge, which forms the main traffic artery through this dramatic town.

“Nothing in all Spain is more surprising than this wild town”
Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926)

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Embracing autumn in Andalucía


Fall has definitively arrived in Ronda. Not with the gloomy darkness, wind-bursts and incessant rains of more northern climates, but with dramatically skies, sudden downpours, mystical mists and spectacular rainbows. It is autumn all right even on the southern tip of Spain.

By November, the steady pour of visitors flocking across Ronda’s famous Puente Nuevo has thinned to a trickling handful. Only the bold and the foolish (tourists and smokers) occupy the seats outside the bars, braving the elements. Most have left their flip-flops and tank tops at the coast, though there is always one skimpily clad ‘forever young’ Northerner who insists on wearing cut-off jeans to show off their goose bumps, regardless of the time of year. Seasonal dyslexia is clearly not only a teenage phenomenon…

After the hot summer months, fall in the Serranía de Ronda offers a most-needed nature revival. Fields that have been dry since June are once more sprouting a delicate layer of green. Most trees in the area, be it olives, pines, citrus, oaks, cork or fig trees, keep their leaves throughout the winter.

The mighty chestnut trees, however, turn golden and rusty, making for a visual spectacle worth a trip in itself. November is the season for local delicacies such as roasted chestnuts and wild mushrooms, which is the cause for many a village festivity. Around the countryside, soups and stews are percolating with root vegetables and meaty bits, such as callos (tripe), a local favourite. The pomegranates are at their reddest and the local nunneries are busy making membrillo, or quince jam and sweets for the holiday-season to come – though thankfully rarely uttered yet.

Though we are a mere five weeks way from Christmas, not a single store in town has put up decorations, nor have we heard a Christmas carol, which I am utterly grateful for. This way, one might even appreciate hearing the carols during their rightful seasons, since they have not been played ‘ad nauseam’ for months.

By now, temperatures have dropped to the low teens, making locals exclaim “Que frío!”, as they seek shelter in another tapas bar. People order their coffees and tinto (red wine) without ice and warm their fingers on deep-fried churros dipped in hot chocolate. Rondeñians, male and female alike, seem to favour the hunter and equestrian-style fashion. Both hunting and riding are admittedly traditional and common to this area, though riding-boots and hunting jackets are just as likely worn by those who have never held a gun or sat on a horse.

Be as it may, their outfits make for a rather stylish Sunday family promenade, another Andalucián favoured past time.

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Robert Redford, the piglet, gives all trotters for the environment!

Robert Redford, the piglet, takes a leap for the green cause. Photo © Ronda Limpia

Robert Redford is no common piglet. He is a dangerously handsome Cerdo Ibérico or Spanish black pig with a deep husky oink and a winning grin.

Last evening, after his siesta, he starred in a video for Ronda Limpia, showing that pigs as well like a clean environment. Robert even did his own rather risk-filled stunt of jumping from a parked car. Not something all piglets would do so fearlessly!

Ronda Limpia, a community spirited group based in Ronda, has produced videos for the last year to teach Andalucíans good environmental habits. For the latest video, Ronda Limpia joined forces with Grupo ART (Aficionados rondeños al teatro) and we are happy to say that the group eagerly awaits new assignments.

Though neither Redford nor Almodóvar may have something to fear – yet, Ronda Limpia and Robert, the piglet, plan to take on the silver screen and hope that through our humorous and sometimes debated videos we can encourage rondeños and Andalucíans to ‘Go Green’.

Watch the video here: Ronda Limpia – Conductores limpios y cívicos – YouTube
Please stay tuned for other Ronda Limpia videos and career updates for Robert, the piglet.

Member of Grupo ART, Aficionados Rondeños al Teatro, plays polluting citizen. Photo © Ronda Limpia

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The Spanish Quick-Fix method

The famous Puento Nuevo in Ronda from 1793 being ‘quick-fixed’ with regular cement. Photo ©

When my almost 85-year-old father visited Ronda last year, he exclaimed that he had never been kissed so much before in his whole life!

Like it or not, Andalucíans are a passionate lot. They live, love, talk, dance, eat, drive, and certainly, as my late father pointed out, kiss with more ‘gusto’ than most of us from more northerly climates.

I am aware that I am moving on the shaky ground of stereotypes here, where whole nations are labeled as limes, kiwis and frogs. When it comes to my own kind, the Norwegians are generally portrayed as Fargo-like: tall, stoic and a bit slow, with conversational abilities limited to ‘Pass the cod’. I am the first to admit that there may be some truth to these sweeping generalizations, though like anything, there are exceptions.

A Swedish friend here in Ronda, Malin, told me that some locals use the expression ‘un sueco’ (a Swede) to describe someone doing something ‘dumb’. She is of course not pleased with this, but us Scandinavians are used to hearing ‘dumb blond’ jokes about our kind, even though she herself is a feisty redhead! Frankly, Norwegians are no better when it comes to stereotyping. We use the expression ‘to take a Spanish one’ when referring to taking a not-completely legal shortcut or doing something ‘quick and dirty’. It is not fair to the Spanish, of course, though I have to admit that I have never seen so many people taking illegal U-turns or jumping a long bank cue as here in Andalucia…

To get back to my father’s observation on frequent kissing, if one wants to live amongst passionate people, one has to expect the unexpected. With passion come more spontaneity, higher tempers and BIG pathos. In other worlds, if you want the kisses, you also have to take a few loud public arguments, car-honking and arm-waving. (But what would life in Spain be like without it?)

A logical bi-product of the lively Spanish temperament is what I call ‘the Spanish Quick-Fix Method’.

We see examples of this all around, though it is not testament to poor Spanish workmanship, as much as a proof of their wish to quickly mend something, with all the best intensions of coming back and fixing it better and more permanently at a later date. Though as the saying goes, tomorrow never comes, and this is even truer when one speaks of mañana….

Our first winter here was very rainy and on the main road between Ronda and the province capital Málaga, there was a large mudslide closing off the road. For months, we had to do a 30-minute detour through a village called Teba (well worth a visit, by the way…). When they opened the road again, they had simply pushed the earth a bit closer to the side of the road, still forcing cars to drive into the oncoming lane of traffic. Every time we would drive by, we were joking that we should bring a spade in the car and take a few digs each. This way, we said, the road would be cleared before the Andalucían road authorities got to it, though all it really would take was someone with a tractor zipping about for a few hours. Finally about 18 months later they fixed the road, and even built a nice new stone retaining wall. Be this as it may, to me, this is the perfect example of the Spanish Quick-Fix Method.

Henry Higgins was right when he said ‘the rain in Spain’, as it does actually rain here. Not as much as other places mind you, but certainly enough that people ought to make houses that are capable of taking some precipitation. Yet, you would be surprised to discover how many houses in our neighbourhood alone that have to put up a temporary rain shade, as in a piece of cardboard or a piece of ply-wood, slanted out from their front door and onto the sidewalk to prevent the water from running into the house.

We see innumerous examples of ingenious Spanish temporary solutions every day, from old mattress springs used as ‘temporary’ fencing to manhole covers padded with a piece of old tire to prevent the lid from making a sound each time a car passes. One may think it is very ‘third world’. However, though the electric wires which hangs like droopy Christmas garlands along our street look very much like the ones I observed in rural India, our electricity have not failed once in almost two years, which is more than what I can say about the modern electrical system in Vancouver, where sometimes the whole city goes black for hours.

Alas, the Spanish may fix things the ‘quick and dirty’ way, at least temporary, but to me this just adds to the unique charm of this place, just like the kissing…

Left photo: our street in Ronda. Right photo: McLeod Ganj, India. Photos ©



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Postcard from Ronda, September 26, 2014

Fall has come to Ronda. I was alone in the community garden this morning, except for a couple of bees hiding in the Spanish lavender and a flock of birds doing their communal fall thing, flying south towards warmer climates.

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La Feria de Ronda – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly













Much like a spaghetti western, La Feria de Ronda is a rather rowdy affair. It celebrates many Spanish icons, such as flamenco dancers, wine, proud stallions, macho men and last but not least, big black bulls.

Foolish or not, men have fought, worshipped, leaped over and sacrificed bulls since time immemorial. Bulls are depicted in cave paintings and hailed in epic verses by the Mesopotamians to the ancient Greeks and Romans. Ronda saw its first official ‘bullfight’ when King Philip II created the Royal Calvary Order (La Real Maestranza de Caballería) in Ronda in 1572 to promote military training of noblemen. Their training included horsemanship, as well as spearing wild bulls from a horseback.

Francisco Romero (1700 -1763) from Ronda’s legendary Romero family is considered the father of modern corrida or bullfighting. While traditionally fought from the back of a horse, Francisco evolved the fight to where the matador (literally meaning ‘killer’) confronted the bull on foot. He also introduced the emblematic red cape, which colour does nothing for the bull, (they are colourblind), but helped hide the bloodstains and also made for a more exciting visual spectacle. The ‘modern’ style of bullfighting spread rapidly across the Iberian Peninsula and into the Spanish colonies. The greatest fighter of the Romero family was Francisco’s grandson, Pedro Romero, who allegedly slew 5,558 bulls during his lifetime without receiving a single goring.

During the early 20th century, the Ordóñez, another Ronda family, achieved further fame in the bull arena, with its family members still fight bulls today. In 1954, Cayetano Ordóñez developed the Feria de Pedro Romero, the only fair in the world dedicated to a bullfighter. The Feria combined the bicentennial anniversary of the birth of Pedro Romero, the town’s annual fair and the art of the 18th-century Spanish painter Francisco de la Goya, with the highlight being a Corrida Goyesca where the matador himself wore a Goya period costume. Cayetano’s son, Antoñio Ordóñez, continued developing the Feria, which due to his close friendship with Ernest Hemingway and Orson Welles brought Ronda and bullfighting to the world stage.

Hemingway wrote after seeing his first fight: ”Bullfighting is not a sport, it’s a tragedy”, but he later became a real bullfighting aficionado. And he was not alone. Though most celebrities of today, excluding Charlie Sheen, will avoid the game due to its politically incorrectness and the bad press it may cause, stars of the Hollywood era, such as Gary Grant, Sophia Loren, Bing Crosby, Marlene Dietrich, Gary Cooper, Raquel Welsh and James Dean were depicted enjoying the ‘new’ bullfight rage in Ronda or elsewhere in Spain.

Ronda’s Corrida Goyesca is still one of the highlights of the Spanish bullfighting calendar. The town also has one of Spain’s oldest bullrings, the celebrated Plaza de la Real Maestanza de Caballería, completed in 1785. Bulls are still big business and a big media seller here in Spain, though it is worth noting that Ronda only hosts one bullfighting event each year, because the owners actually earn more money from the busloads of tourist paying to see the empty arena and visit the bull fighting museum than going to the ‘real thing’.  Although a blood sport by definition, many spectators view bullfighting as a ‘fine art’ rather than a sport. As an expat living in Ronda, I for my part, with my Viking- raids and whale-slaughtering ancestry, shall not be one to point fingers at this most Spanish of traditions.

For for those who find this sport a bit too bloodthirsty, there are lots of other Feria festivities to entertain the willing. There is the cabalgata or parade to present this year’s young Goyaesque ladies, folkloric dances, the enganches horse show and carriage processions through the streets with locals dressed in 18th century costumes. And then there is the 24-hours a day party. La Feria is when Rondeños really let their hair down, or up! Everything is put on hold for the weeklong party. Forget business and bank hours, and expect big lineups. The streets surrounding the Plaza del Socorro becomes a never-ending bar with wine barrels rolled out as tables for the dancing and drinking hordes. Pity the vegetarians who may find themselves in our town during the first week of September, as there is not a vegetable in site. On the contrary, Jamón Ibérico, croquetas, chorizo and salted, grilled or hung meats are sold by the truckload for over-inflated prices to tourists and locals alike, flushed down with gallons of sparkling alcoholic beverages to counterpoint the stifling heat.

Hemingway described a feria as “For seven days, the dancing, the noise and the drinks don’t cease”. Ronda certainly stands true to the tradition.




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Nocturnal pilgrimage to Olvera in black and white

On overnight walk from Ronda to Olvera. Photo @ G. De La Barrera

For us who like nature hikes and village walks, the Andalucían summer poses a major problem – the heat. In July and August the temperature may rise above a stifling 40* C, which doesn’t encourage one to strap on a backpack and lace on heavy hiking boots. So, when, where and how do we get out in nature?

To avoid heat stroke, the Andalucían summer really only offers two hiking possibilities: semi-aquatic hikes or night hiking. While we have not had a chance to join the former one yet in the flash, we went on a night-walk during the last full moon. Unlike the flat areas around Sevilla and Cordoba, temperatures in Ronda thankfully sink down to a balmy 20*C at night, making it possible not only to sleep, but also to go for a hike at night.

As every summer around this time, a group of about 60 rondeños met in the Plaza San Francisco around midnight and set out on the 34 km walk from Ronda in the province of Málaga to the Hermitage Church of Nuestra Señora de los Remedios (Our lady of the Remedies) on a hilltop outside the small white town of Olvera in the province of Cádiz. We were told that the hike would take about 6 to 8 hours and would include regular roads, gravel paths, farm roads and paths in various states of repair or disrepair. Last year, part of the path had been washed away by heavy rain, so the group had to fend through bush, following the moon and any other orientation devices at hand. This only made it sound more interesting to our group, as we were stamping our ‘hooves’, keen and ready for any challenges the night would bring.

Once we left Ronda behind us, the moon became our all-night companion. It was said that it was the biggest moon of the year. I do not know how people measure such and whatever makes it seem bigger to our human eye, but I assure you, the moon was giant! Almost like a fake set piece cut out of golden fabric and hung onto the night sky. A paper moon. I realized as we walked up the Setenil road from the Sevilla take off, that the moon is really no good indicator if one is lost, especially if one is walking up a switch back road. During the hour climb, we had the moon alternately behind us, on either side and in front of us. So at least to me, the moon was no help when it came to finding our way…

On the other hand, living in a modern society, in cities with electric illumination everywhere, people often do not realize how instrumental the moon must have been since the dawn of man, in simply providing light. How dark and dreary our nights would be without our moon? On a clear night, you can almost ready by moonlight. We did not need our headlights while hiking the open stretches – the moon provided all the desired illumination. Passing olive groves, the moon cast streams of light between the trees, so we really were ‘followed by a moon shadow’.

As we passed by the entrance to the Chinchilla vineyard (one of my favourite Ronda vines, in case you should be in the area…), the landscape flattened and the dirt road passed rolling hills, rocky outcrops and distant farms. We could see the light of the other hikers far behind and in front of us, as by now the group had spread out into smaller clusters of hikers all through the valley.

Walking at night reminds me of being a child, seeing trees and rocks that turn into witches and monsters. As an adult you know for a fact that you are looking at an olive tree. As you come closer you can clearly distinguish its branches. You pass it confidently. Of course it is a tree! Then as you walk on, you feel as if someone is watching you from behind. You start walking a little faster. Finally you turn back. Sure enough, there she is again, that scary bent witch!

Witches aside, a night pilgrimage is a meditative experience. All the bright colours, patterns and details that fight for our attention during daytime are turned off. What remains are softened shapes in an infinite tones of greys and blacks. As the visual stimuli and the audio noises are lessened, ones remaining senses become extra alert. We can distinguish the rustle of leaves, the trickling sound of water, a hooting of an owl, a white horse galloping across a field, a distant bark or a donkey’s complaining bray. Even usually unperceptive sounds, like the slight tingling of the electric wire containing a herd of sheep, are heard. You become hyper sensitized, yet very peaceful.

We could see the town of Olvera glowing at a distance, with its hilltop church and Arab castle fighting for the highest and most revered spot. It is amazing how much electric light we use nowadays, even when people are allegedly sleeping. Coming to the village of Torre Alháquime, we knew we were nearing our destination. Like any Spanish name starting with ‘al’, it has Arab roots. The name comes from Al Hakin family, meaning “the wise” or “the learned” and the village is said to closely resemble Berber towns in the hills of North Africa.

Though we knew that we just had a few more kilometers climb left, we did not know which road to take, so we had to wait for others in the group to lead the way. For good reason – The last piece is a meandering trip through the streets of the village before one departs on an unmarked trail along the fence of a local goat farmer onto a path that we never would have found on our own.

Walking in the dark is freeing. You have to trust your step and accept that you only see a few feet ahead. What will come will come. We had never been on the path we were walking, which edge fell off into a black nothingness. We did not know whether the drop was two meters or 200. Every step becomes a walking meditation, and time becomes fluid. Has hours passed or maybe only a few minutes? The calming darkness soothes all aches, and you just walk on and on.

Quite suddenly the trail ended and we stepped out onto a road. On stiff legs we walked the last steps up to the hermitage where our hike would end. It had taken us just under five hours of steady walking, so the sun had not yet risen. Some hikes took off immediately with waiting cars, other stretched tired limbs, some ate, while others laid down on a stone bench. I sat down and fell asleep almost immediately, as we had to wait for our ride home. Waking up, the sun was up and more hikers had arrived. A group of local women came in procession from the village to the church. A clergyman followed with a loud megaphone, repeating a prayer to a virgin. Spain is all about virgins – innumerable, holy and immaculate.

Our friends who would take us back to Ronda had arrived, as had the day, though I was not sure if I liked all that light… We had planned to enter the church to give our thanks, but the priest with the megaphone asked ‘the people outside’ (ie us) to be quiet or to leave, so we drove off, giving our thanks to the Gods of the Sun and the Moon instead.

The white town of Olvera seen from the hermitage Nuestra Señora de los Remedios. Photo ©


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