The ‘horrors’ of spending winter in Ronda

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bon voyage!

 

 

Read / Add Comments

Hasta luego

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

More to come soon.

Hasta Luego. 

 

Read / Add Comments

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

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

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

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

1. Footwear

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

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

2. Liquids

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

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

3. The backpack

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

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

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

4. Hiking poles

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

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

5. Learn your route

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

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

And finally…

6. Know your limits

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

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

Read / Add Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The façade

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

Peaking inside

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

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

Main floor terrace

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

Basement access

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

Basement

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

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

 

 

 

 

Stairs to upper floor

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

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

Upper floor ceiling

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

Orange wall – custom blend by SNOBB

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Upstairs room, looking south

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

Bath fixtures – Jacob Delafon
Bathroom sink – IKEA

 

 

Upstairs room, looking north

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

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

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

 

Read / Add Comments