Another Andalusian pet joins our family – Meet Leopoldo, the jasmine lover

Moving from a cosmopolitan city in Canada to a rural town in Andalucía, our plan was always to simplify our life. We wanted a smaller home that we could lock and leave when going travelling. For the same reason, we didn’t want a big garden. And, we would under no circumstances get a pet! Not that we disliked them, we just liked our ability to globetrot more.

Even before coming to Spain, we had been warned by foreigners living here, who would assure us that we would adopt a dog within the first few months. Basically all foreigners did, they said. As there are tons of abandoned, homeless pets all over Andalucía, foreigner residents with their bleeding hearts tend to be the ones who end up taking in these unwanted animals. Alternately, they will walk around with pet food and dinner leftover in their handbags to feed perpetually pregnant alley cats. We, however, would do nothing of the kind. Not that we were completely heartless, I just can’t live in close proximity to cat hair and dog fur without scratching my eyes out.

We managed to stay to the program when it came to both the house and the garden. However, when it came to the pets, things started sliding. First we got ourselves a resident lizard. This was sort of a natural development, as the fixer-upper home we bought came with a tailless Podarcis vaucheri. As we discovered that cats love to torture these Andalusian mini-reptiles, we felt that somebody had to protect them. Next to move in with us were a family of geckos (Tarentola mauritanica); Umberto Major the Pater Familia, his wife Umberto Minor, as well as Umberto Mini, their prodigal son who likes to come into our bedroom at night to hunt for microscopic bugs. We thought for sure that this would be the end of our pet emporium, but then came Leopoldo…

We first noticed him on our upper terrace at the beginning of the summer. He was quite young and inexperienced at the time, not yet having found his preferred stomping ground. As the temperature rose by the day, he moved down to our lower terrace. There, he not only got more shade, but he fell in love with our jasmine bush. He settled in the upper branches and has lived there happily ever since. The jasmine is a perfect habitat for Leopoldo, seeing that his light brown bony body can easily resemble one of the plants curled up dead leaves or a spent blooms. He is safer from birds and bigger predators, while he can gorge himself on insects that live on the plant. It is indeed a win/win situation for him. As an added benefit, his home is also located right beside the Umbertos, who for the past couple of years have taken up residence behind a set of antique doors that we have mounted on our terrace wall. Therefore, Leopoldo also gets to munch on the rejected bugs that are not up to our reptiles’ standard or size requirement.

I forgot to say that Leopoldo is a praying mantis. Named because of its prayer like stand, mantis is the Greek word for prophet, and in an alien ET sort of way they look rather mystic. Usually green, yellow or brown, their coloration will not change with their natural environment. The mantis must therefore find a setting that matches their appearance, just like Leopoldo’s jasmine. The mantises are brilliant hunters and can sit there camouflaged immobile for hours waiting for a prey to show up. In fact, their ferocious appetite for bugs was what made the conquerors of the New World bring the European Mantis to North America in the 1600’s, so they would help them combat insect pests on crops. Using their antennae to smell the pray, their triangular heads with bulbous eyes will watch out for danger, with a field of vision of up to 20 meters. Not shabby for a bug that measures a few centimetres. And here I was thinking that I could sneak unnoticed up to our new family member…

In contrast to our other pets, Leopoldo is not shy. While I have to struggle to get even a blurry ‘action’ shot of the Umbertos, our mantis doesn’t mind being admired or photographed. He will cock his head and stare at me inquiringly. Sometimes, he gets a bit impatient and throws me a glance as if to say, “Oh, not you again…” Genealogically speaking, Leopoldo’s closest relative is a cockroach, but of course our lad is much better looking! I am calling him ‘he’, but we do not really know what ‘he’ is. The female mantis is said to be generally bigger and more butch than the male, sometimes devouring her offspring and uncooperative male partners. Or so I have read, as I am no scientist and only have my limited terrace observations to speak of.

Having studied Leopoldo up close and personal, he appears to be more of an African Mantis (Sphodromantis viridis) than a European one (Mantis Religiosa), which isn’t strange seeing our proximity to Northern Africa, but there are at least a dozen types of mantis in Spain. Whichever type he is, Leopoldo is decidedly more of a fighter than a lover. He is certainly not one for prayers, always with his frontal paws (or raptorial legs) up, ready to jab. Mantises will eat just about anything that moves, with the emphasis on the moving bit. Since they only consume living, and I imagine struggling, prey, I am fine not having witnessed this particular exploit of his.

The benefit of having a self-providing pet is evident – No worry about pet sitters and feeding when away. Yet, the backside of having these free-roaming critters as wild pets is their limited life span. We will only be able to enjoy the company of Leopoldo until some time this winter, as mantises live no longer than a year. Therefore, we can only hope that his offspring will continue the family lineage, so we can have a Leopoldo Jr with us next summer.

For the time being, this is our extended family. We are perfectly happy with our current pet repertoire and have no plans of expanding upon it. Though, if a family of disgruntled bats will descend upon our terrace, lets say on a late evening around Halloween, I have a feeling that we will adopt them, as well…



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This week’s escapade – the not so known corners of Old Town Málaga

There is nothing as exciting as an escapade – a spontaneous trip to a place of ones desire. Whether visiting the location for the first time, or wanting to see it again with fresh eyes, an escapade, like a good laugh, must surely prolong our life. Defined as an act involving excitement, daring or adventure, the concept in itself is so tempting, that I don’t understand why people don’t do it more often.

This summer, my husband and I decided to get ‘serious’ about our escapades.  We agreed to put aside one day a week for unplanned adventures (not that we really need to get way from our life in Ronda). Friday is our chosen day to run away. We hit the road first thing, travelling by car, bus, train, or on foot, whatever we choose. Any location within a couple of hour range is on our radar, and might be added to our ever-growing list of potential run-away destinations. It feels a bit naughty or even illicit, taking off for the sole purpose of our own enjoyment. And I have to admit it. I look forward to our Friday outings like a child looks forward to a birthday. There are always unknown surprises when escaping, especially if one goes without to many set plans or preconceived expectations.


Why Málaga?

This Friday, we decided to explore some hidden alleys and forgotten corners of the old quarter of Málaga. Though we have been in the city plenty of times, it is still one of our favourite urban jaunts. Often ignored by tourists in favour of one of the smaller beach towns on Costa del Sol, Málaga is well worth a day of explorative free-style strolling. Being the museum capital of the Spanish south, there are always fabulous art exhibits with a wide selection of works and styles.

However, this time around, we intend to stay off the beaten track. After all, we are here as escapees, about to enjoy the city’s vicarious pleasures of yet to be known kinds.

For us who live in a quintessential big mountain village, an occasional city spree is a healthy diversion. Málaga isn’t the metropolitan centre of the universe, but with near 600 000 people, it offers us a much-needed urban fix. The city is just the right size to get lost and to find one’s way again. It has pretty much the right amount of pollution, city dust, shopping variety, ethnic diversity and population density to tempt us by its urban splendour, while reminding us how lucky we are not to partake its daily traffic jams.


Málaga lays only 1.5 hours drive from Ronda, but we decide to leave the car and take a bus instead. Using public transport adds an additional dimension of freedom to our escape, allowing us to enjoy the journey without thoughts of speed traps or parking maids. Getting chauffeured to our destination, and for a modest fee at that, we can be as reckless as we want to, neither of us being the designated driver. Should we loiter about the streets too long, we can always grab a later bus, jump on a train, or find a place to spend the night. Or maybe we just travel on? One doesn’t want to limit ones options too much, does one, or it would not be a true escapade?


Blooms abound

After having breakfast in a place that boasts about serving eight types of café con leche, all in the same type of glass with varying degrees of milk and espresso, we are ready to roll. Our first stop is a completely unassuming park, which meanders along one of the main traffic arteries leading into the downtown area. One is guaranteed never to meet tourists here, as who, other than I, will insist on walking blocks on end just to see trees. But, it is worth taking you on this quick detour, as these particular trees are a sight to behold. While they have trunks covered in cone-shaped lethal spikes, their crown is a delicate filigree of pink blooms.

Málaga’s flora is something that always impresses me, being so very different from what one will find merely an hour inland. Wherever you go, there are planters with crimson hibiscus flowers. Even the smallest balconies seem to manage to squeeze in half a dozen pots of geraniums or a trailing bougainvillea, and the city’s avenues are lined with rows of tall, slender palms.

One of my favourite squares here is Plaza de la Merced. You might have passed it on your way to visit the house where Picasso was born, another of the town’s many museums. The neighbourhood is admittedly getting a bit worn around the edges. The garbage is not emptied as often as it could and the spray paint artists work faster than the town’s anti-graffiti squad. However, this raunchiness cannot outweigh the almost childlike joy I get standing in the middle of the square when the jacaranda trees are in bloom and the plaza becomes awash with purple flowers.


Popsicle coloured walls

Speaking as a designer, the colours of Malaga are one of the city’s true inspirations. Whereas Ronda is one of Andalucía’s Pueblos Blancos or White Villages and therefore stays within a safe all-white colour-theme, Malaga’s architecture is a lively contrast. The beautiful low-rise apartments in the old town can have the most surprising colour combinations. While most remain within the family of warm earth tones, other edifices may combine bold egg yolk yellow with emerald green or bright pink.

I stop and admire one of these 19-century classics with semi-curved walls. This one is facing a smaller plaza. It has 6 stories of flats, each with a French balcony embellished by art nouveau ironwork. The walls are sand dune coloured, with cool khaki green detailing and cream bisque shutters. It is a combination I would have never thought up. Seen apart, they could almost appear clashing, yet when combined, they look nothing short of spectacular, particularly when augmented by the soft rays of a late afternoon sun.

I walk on in awe, admiring the playful palettes of aubergine, champagne and over-ripe nectarine. It is almost enough to make you hungry… 



There is never a wrong time to stop for a tentenpíe, which is the Spanish slang for an appetizer or titbit to hold one off until the next real meal. Often, we stop in Málaga’s lovely old public market for this purpose, but this time we want to escape the line-ups.

Possibly the best place to enjoy a drink and a couple of appies is in one of the city’s historical almacenes (warehouses). Nowadays, these traditional food vendors are more like a bar combined with a classic deli. Their escaparates or shop windows, like the shelves inside, are filled with a tempting array of local wines, cheeses, meats, canned seafood, and other malageño specialties.

A perfect place to fraternize with locals while getting a taste of real Málaga, we decide to plump ourselves down outside one, enjoying a break, while sipping a frosty glass of local Fino and some wedges of to die for oveja (sheep milk) cheese. Hoards of tourists will come home from their Spanish holiday with an abanico (fan) that hardly opens, castanets that will never be used, or a imitation flamenco apron Made in PRC, but how many will drop by one of these delightfully authentic delis and buy some smoked, ground Spanish red pepper to bring home instead?


Ribbons, bowlers and chokers

In between the dime a dozen chain stores selling cheap shoes and cell phone covers, Málaga still has a few of its traditional family run shops. Some are hidden away in secret alleys, while others can be found squeezed between Italian lingerie emporiums and international frozen yoghurt outlets. Most have discretely faded signs and a dusty window display. But this is where you really can do some authentic shopping. Forget about the Chinese dollar-stores that have everything – all poorly made. These stores are the mom and pop kind with over-the-counter service, specializing in one type of item. Their goods are descent quality and might even be Hecho en España (Made in Spain), though possibly not in the last decade.

One of my favourite examples of these is the traditional Spanish Merecería or Haberdashery. Here, the local housewives will line up to buy 20 cm of three different kinds of ribbon. The process of purchase is painstakingly slow since everything has to be brought out from the back room, but it is ever so interesting to observe from a socio-anthropological point of view.

Next are the traditional ferreterías of hardware stores. To be sure that your chosen location is an authentic one, the wall behind the counter needs to be lined with small drawers. These might contain everything from doorknobs and powdered chemicals, to curious looking rodent-traps and poisons outlawed in 1965.

Equally interesting are the old stores that sell church supplies and religious paraphernalia. This is where you can go if you, like me, are tempted to buy one of those silver incense burners suspended from chains that they whiff about during Catholic mass.

As for my husband, he loves the small shops that remind him of visiting his family in Bilbao as a boy. We are talking decades back. First, there are the little-old-lady owned perfume shops that sell weird brands of splash-on colognes that nobody uses anymore. Then, there are the traditional linen stores, looking as far from Zara Home as you can imagine. These will usually have a crowded window display with piles of hideous synthetic blankets, practical poly-something tablecloths and a selection of could be handmade doilies and baby bibs. Though we have never bought anything in the latter type of store, they are always cool to peak into.

Like most large Spanish cities, Málaga also has a couple of the traditional hat stores, where they still will measure your head and display hats on wooden cranium-shaped domes. The owners of these businesses tend to be far beyond retirement age, so it is wise to not wait too long to visit the premises, or they might be closed down. Here is where you will find a Fedora, a genuine Panama hat, or (not by the storeowner’s intention) brand new, yet now vintage hats for any festive occasion.

As it is the high season for Andalucian férias, I also enjoy visiting a Flamenco store. I am not speaking about the souvenir shops that sell poor ruffled imitation dresses. This is the real thing, where they design and sew the colourful flamenco gowns from scratch and where you can find a genuine Manton or Manila shawl for several hundred euros. I love their ever so stylish Flamenco leather shoes, though I cannot for the life of me dance the Sevillana. But their outrageously huge loped Flamenco earrings are another matter…



Being quite shopped out, though we hardly have bought anything, it is time for some grub, of which Málaga has got aplenty. The old town is usually crawling with tourists, but you can still find decent restaurants with mostly local clientele, merely a couple of blocks off the main drag. Wherever you go, it is advisable to avoid places that hand you a voucher as you pass by, as well as those who offer a 10€ daily plasticized menu written in seven languages with pictures of their sad paella and rabo de toro.

Though we usually go for ethnic food when in the big city, this time we decide on a new organic place. Located on a corner in a residential street, we appear to be the only out-of-town-ers. I am certainly the only non-Latina.

From our street-side table, we are able to do some quality people watching, as the real malageños – fashionable, traditional, risqué or retro punk – go about their daily life. Business people bike back from work, parents pick up the kids from preschool, workers deliver cases of wine and neighbours chat from one window to the next. During another escapade, we got to watch aspiring ‘actors’ and ‘actresses’ enter the casting session for what appeared to be a not completely legit adult movie. This time around, we are just as lucky, catching a band practice in a building across the street. Though we do not see the musicians, we get a free Spanish guitar concert, and this, just a handful blocks from Calle Larios, Malaga’s busiest walking mall.

Look up, look down

I should mention that this very same pedestrian-only avenue, which crosses the Casco Histórico, has the most beautiful rust coloured marble paving (for those who manage to tear their eyes away from the wall-to-wall shopping bonanza). Each piece of marble is so remarkable that I would take any of them home and put it as art on the wall. The stone looks particularly stunning when it has been recently polished, around Semana Santa and before Christmas. They also look great after a rainfall, though water makes the stone lethally slippery, so consider yourself forewarned.

Actually, this is yet another great thing about escaping to a place where we usually do not trot about. We tend to look more up, or down as in the case of the pavement. At home, walking the same old streets, I often forget to see what really surrounds us. During an escapade, on the other hand, my head continually swivels, enjoying both horizontal and vertical splendours. Escaping allows one to see life from a slightly different angle, inspiring one to observe and sense more intensely, even as one returns to familiar surroundings.

The evening has come upon us. Though there is still much urban exploring to be done, such as enjoying the sunset from Malaga’s Cathedral roof or watching a foreign movie in its original language. But we feel more than content. Filled with new sights, sounds and tastes, we wander back to the bus station, where the same driver chauffeurs us home. As I watch the beautiful sculptural landscape of Andalucía flying by, I know that we will escape again a Friday or two from now. Where we will go is yet to be decided.

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Behind closed doors – Joining the sisterhood in the 21st century

The other day, my husband and I drove past a man walking with an animal draped over his shoulders. At first, I thought it was a shepherd with an injured sheep dog, but as we came closer I realized that the roadside wanderer was a Franciscan monk. The site flew by, leaving me with a Sunday school image of a saint carrying a lamb. Such a vision would not even be fathomable in our past life in North America. We never saw monks and nuns on the street there, unless it was Halloween. But living in rural Andalucía, we have become accustomed to the daily presence of sisters and brothers of the cloth.

There is no doubt – Spain is a very Catholic country. In Ronda, people still cross themselves when they pass a roadside chapel, even if they are driving a scooter on a bumpy road. Many still send their kids to Catholic schools and most of our neighbours are active members of one of the town’s fourteen religious brotherhoods. The vast majority still celebrate the milestones in life in front of an altar and do not consider a rosary a fashion accessory. Though few locals go to church on Sundays anymore, they all know the Mass back to front. And everybody in town seems to have at least one great-aunt that is a nun. It shouldn’t therefore be a surprise that our town of barely 35 000 residents has at least half a dozen working convents and monasteries. But for how much longer will they be around?

Every month a Spanish monastery or convent needs to close its doors. Most have been serving the community for centuries, teaching the young, nursing the sick, helping the needy, or offering spiritual counselling and prayers. In 1980, Spain had almost 100.000 monks and nuns in dozens of orders. Four decades later, 40.000 remain. An additional 1000 members depart each year, not abandoning their faith for secular living – most simply die of old age. The average Spanish monk or nun is 64 years old, while stricter orders such as Jesuits have an average age of 75.

The local convent, like our neighbourhood, is named after St. Francis. Convento San Francisco was constructed in the 17th century, at the location where King Fernando sieged the town in 1485. The convent was attacked by Napoleon’s forces in the War of Independence and was almost burned to the ground during the Spanish Civil War. One would think by this gloomy history that nothing is left of the original buildings. Yet, walking through the convent’s courtyards, passing heavy wooden doors with huge hand-forged keys, up creaking steps into silent halls holding ancient niches with crackled religious paintings and hand tinted Baby Jesus porcelain dolls, one can easily imagine how life would have been here centuries ago.

But what is it really like to be a nun in this day and age? I decided to pay a visit and talk to our Franciscan hermanas (sisters) next door.

Sor Natividad or La Madre Abuela  (89)

The oldest and dearest nun in the convent is Sor Natividad (Sister Nativity), or as we call her la Madre Abuela (the Mother Grandmother). The former abbess is a feisty little woman, who loves sharing jokes with my husband when he comes to take her blood pressure. When I comment on her good humour, she explains frankly: “We have made a vow of poverty, but not of misery!”

Quickly approaching 90, La Madre Abuela is unstoppable. She is responsible for the abundance of flowers in the convent’s courtyard, is a master seamstress, and the go-between when there is construction work in the convent. She also fixes shirts and hems pants for the congregation against a symbolic donation to the convent. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever seen her without her sewing scissor dangling from a string or a thimble in the pocket of her patched, worn, brown Franciscan robe. Though her doctor won’t allow her to work like she used to, she protested when she was told to stop doing the laundry, by hand, in winter, in the century-old stone sinks in the convent’s garden, especially since they have perfectly working modern laundry machines inside… “What do they want me to do? Sit down and wait to die?” she says with twinkle in her eye.

Always wanting to join a convent, Rosário as she used to be called was born in Estepa in the province of Sevilla in 1929. (Those days the nuns used to change their name upon giving their vows.) Her father had passed away before she was born and her mother had lost 5 of their 11 children in childbirth or early childhood. Understandably, she therefore didn’t want to ‘loose’ her youngest child to the church, especially since one of her older daughters already was a nun. But Rosaríta, or little Rosario didn’t give up, arguing wisely that she wouldn’t be lost, because she wouldn’t be dead, since nuns were still of this world. Her mother told her to “Pray and ask God what you are supposed to be”. To join an order, she needed a letter from her priest, stating that she came from a good Christian family, were the right type of girl, had a strong vocation and the right disposition for monastic life. “Some people thought that I didn’t have the personality to be a cloistered nun, but being ‘enclaustrada’ doesn’t mean that you need to be sad”.

Rosario came as a novice to Convento San Francisco on the 18th of April in 1952, more than 66 years ago. “I am VERY happy here in the convent. I would never have changed my life,“ she says, always with a warm smile.


Due to Spain’s difficult economic situation during the last century, many young girls became nuns. Giving their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, they would spend the rest of their lives inside a convent having no further contact with their loved ones, as the Church would be their new family. Even to this day, 75 % of Spanish religious are women, out of which one third have chosen a cloistered life.

La Madre, Sor Nieves (75)

Madre Nieves, or Sor Nieves as we used to call her, is the abbess, a role she was elected to just over a year ago in a secret ballot amongst the nuns. As Mother Superior, she deals with convent business and Church affairs, communicates with the local priests and oversees the nuns. Nieves is the only rondeña of the sisters. In fact, she grew up across the street from the convent, running in and out of its halls as a child, so monastic life always seemed to be her path. At 18, she told her parents “God has called me” and asked their permission to join the Franciscans, but since the age of majority was 21, she needed her parents’ written consent. Now 75 years old, the convent has been her home for 57 years.

Social and bubbly, Madre Nieves will always greet me with a cheery “Hola Preciosa!” when I come to visit. While some nuns dislike leaving the convent, she enjoys an occasional trip up to town. Last time we met her, she was there because she had problems with her cell phone. This type of outside errand would have been unheard of just a couple of decades ago, but these days cloistered nuns are allowed to go out to see the doctor, to visit government offices and to attend necessary appointments. Not every nun see smart phones and social media as part of a religious’ life, but even Pope Francis is an active tweeter with more than 17 million followers, which is probably more than many celebrities. For Madre Nieves, WhatsApp allows her to keep in contact with people. In fact, this is how we set up the times for these interviews.

The greatest joy in living a monastic life for Madre Nieves is to be God’s servant and to be able to serve those who serve. She confides that living a communal and cloistered life is not always easy. In her words: “We have our feet on the ground, like everybody else. We are neither angels, nor saints. But we have a good life here. We are poor, but we are doing OK”.

The day at the convent starts at 6.30 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m., always with prayers. The sisters keep silent until after breakfast and from dinner until bedtime, and ought to refrain from unnecessary chatter and speak in low volume for the remainder of the day. Contemplative nuns do primarily two things, pray and work, as the sisters view physical labour as an extension of their contemplative work. And work they do. Unbeknown to many, the convent receives no funds from Rome. Furthermore, they hardly receive any private donations anymore. Though the nuns live very frugally (up to last winter had no heating in their cells), they still need money to live. The sisters are responsible for generating enough funds to cover their living expenses and the upkeep of the buildings. Some convents use all their income just taking care of their ageing and ailing sisters, while others have resorted to asking for help at the local Food Bank. Our nuns tell me that they will not beg for help. At the same time, they no longer earn enough from their traditional production of sweets to sustain the convent, never mind covering Social Security and pensions, which the sisters became part of in 1977.

The nuns at Convento San Francisco are trying to adapt to the changing times, though for many it is a steep learning curve. The convent needs to find new ways of generating revenue, just to make ends meet. While the nuns have always sold baked goods, they are now trying to expand their business to supplying local restaurants and stores, as well. The convent’s industrial-size kitchen looks like a mid-century version of a commercial bakeshop, where the sisters shell almonds, one by one, to make their almond cookies. If one were to calculate the actual cost of each piece, nobody but the Spanish royal family would afford them. It is a labour or love, or for the sisters, perhaps of devotion? Their baking is not all that the sisters are changing. Unused rooms on the upper floor of the convent are now rented out as storage, and spare quarters in the outer courtyard are being transformed into rental lodging. Maybe soon the nuns of San Francisco will be listed on AirBnB?

The sisters tell me that Spanish convents are in a crisis, because of the lack of vocation amongst the young, because there aren’t enough priests to say mass, and because of the rising cost of maintaining the old, enormous and often historically significant buildings. In the not very distant past, monks and nuns were the society’s teachers, nurses and health care workers. These days, you need certificates and university degrees to practice any type of profession. Religious training inside a closed convent won’t be considered practical working experience outside the convent’s walls. Even the role of caring for ‘souls’ is gradually being taken over by the secular society in the form of psychologists, marriage councillors, social workers, addiction therapists, and more than anything, the Internet. A young person who wants to help the needy can find a slew of charitable organizations that won’t demand the personal restrictions of a religious order. With all the choices offered in our contemporary society, it is difficult to imagine a young Spanish willing compromise him or her-self to a cloistered life of celibacy and poverty. “Had it not been for our novices from other countries, we would have had to close down”, says the abbess.

Convento San Francisco had 18 nuns when she arrived almost six decades ago. Today they are 5 nuns left. Out of these, only two are Spanish born, the others are from Kenya and Mexico, while the convent’s three new novices are from Madagascar and Tanzania. One in every five Spanish religious sisters and brothers are from another country. The majority of the postulants and novices who join Spanish religious orders come from Africa, Latin America and Asia, as these are the only areas in the world where the Catholic community is still growing or maintaining its numbers. Yet, even this ‘importation’ from other continents is not able to stop the dwindling numbers of monks and nuns or the continuous threat of closure that most both monasteries and convents are facing.

Sor Isabel (45)

In contrast to some of the older nuns, Sor Isabel had a professional career prior to becoming a nun. Originally from Machakos in Kenya, Elizabeth as here name used to be, told her parents that she wanted to be a nun when she was 17. Believing it was the passing fancy of a teenager, her father insisted that she get an education and a profession before making a final decision. Elizabeth studied business and worked for 4 years. When she informed her employer that she wanted to enter a convent instead, they doubted her decision. She was told to try for a year. If she didn’t like it, she could come back to work.

Sor Isabel never looked back and has now been a nun for 14 years. “There may have been moments of doubt, but I always returned to my faith,” she says. In Kenya, most nuns choose an active life of teaching and mission work instead of a contemplative life in a closed convent, but Sor Isabel preferred the silence. “We do not need to be present to help, because prayers have no limit”, she says. She confides that living a cloistered life has its challenges. The nuns have different backgrounds, languages and characters, which get amplified in a communal existence. Part of this convivencia or coexistence is resolving issues – through reflection, listening and acceptance.

In addition to household chores, Sor Isabel coordinates the education of the novices, a training period which usually last 2 years. I met the novices in the teaching room, where they take lessons in Spanish, vocational singing and scripture reading. Why do they want to become nuns, I ask and they smile shyly, mumbling about serving El Señor. Finding new novices and postulants is also the responsibility of each convent, not the Church. Foreign nuns have in recent years been allowed to visit their family every 4 or 5 years and to go home if there is a death in the family (funds permitting). During these travels, the sisters are ambassadors for their convent, trying to spur interest amongst young girls in their country to join their sisterhood. 


Sor Clara (44)

Sor Clara, or Herminia as is her Christian name, is originally from Aguas Calientes in Mexico. She grew up in front of the parish church, where she sang in a choir, participated in youth groups, and later taught bible studies. Recognizing her vocation, the local nuns invited her to a religious’ experience in a convent. Even then, she felt that this was what she wanted. Upon her parish’ urgings, she studied and became a Catholic schoolteacher instead. While working as a teacher for 5 years, she longed for a quieter life. She never forgot about her experience in the convent.  She knew that a cloistered life is what she needed to give her life meaning.

Sor Clara came from Mexico to Convento San Francisco, which has been her home or the past 9 years. “I am a very solitary person. I love silence, praying and being near nature, where I feel a direct connection with God.” But monastic living cannot be all easy, I wonder, and she admits that it took her some time to get used to the non-spicy Spanish food, and more so to adapt to Ronda’s mountain climate, which can be very cold in winter. The only task she doesn’t really look forward to, is the cooking, which is done on rotation among the sisters. The other nuns joke about how they all get thinner during the weeks when it is the Mexican sister’s turn to make the meals, but it is all done in good humour.

Sor Clara prefers to play music, religious music, of course. She is trying to learn to play the church organ so she can assist with Mass, though the convent only has a partly functioning organ for her to practice on. But, with the Franciscan sisters’ faith and patience, I am sure a proper organ will find its way to them, one day.

Possibly digging more than I ought to, I ask Sor Clara how she can help the outside world while being shut inside a convent. “We represent the world of the needy. We pray for those who do not pray, for those who suffer the most and for those who do not know God. For me, there is only God. Y Basta.” 

Convento San Francisco is still managing to stay afloat, but I cannot help but wonder for how much longer these historical institutions will survive? Will people still want to join the order in the future, or is this the end of the sisterhood, as we know it?

“We have gone through many rough patches throughout history and we will pass this one, as well,” Sor Clara says. “Because ours is not a human project, it is a divine one.”

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Enjoying life’s simple pleasures, such as breakfast at Juan’s

I have always been of the opinion that we ought to enjoy the small pleasures that life offers. If we hold back for the big delights, the large victories and the jump-out-of-the-cake surprises, we might end up waiting forever. So, in the meantime, I cherish each passing smile, enjoy every miniscule blessing, celebrate even the tiniest victory and treasure life’s mini-wonders.

Living in rural Spain, our life is filled with such small pleasures – Waking up to the bells of half a dozen sheep grazing up the street, watching life go by from a stone bench in the local square, feeling a Mediterranean morning breeze on the skin, following a meandering trail through olives and almond groves, chatting to a neighbour about Andalucía’s past, pulling a hand through a sea of lavender, being greeted by first name at the local store, having a basket of newly laid farm eggs handed through the door with nothing expected in return, opening the window, instantly being immersed by the heady scent of honeysuckle and jasmine, slinking back to bed for a guiltless early afternoon siesta, picking up sun-dried bed linens after less than an hour on the line, enjoying a free concert of someone singing flamenco at a distant party, and sitting on the terrace after nightfall still in a sleeveless dress, watching the stars.

There are innumerable small pleasures such as these that fill our daily life here in Ronda and we discover more every day. Like many people, I enjoy going out for dinner, yet my favourite eating-out experience in Spain is a traditional Andalucian no-frills dasayunos.

Mornings in Spain are not complete without a coffee. A Spanish café con leche is nothing like a fancy Italian cappuccino or a tub-sized French café au lait. Nor does it taste like any of the coffees served by Starbucks in their poor excuse for environmental care recycled paper cups. The truth is that I didn’t even like coffee when we lived in North America, but this all changed when we moved to Spain. Recently arrived, my husband ordered a coffee at a café in old Málaga. The waiter slammed down a worn glass on the table, containing two finger-widths of black-as-my-soul espresso. He proceeded by sloshing in milk from a spotted stainless pitcher. It was all done quite unceremoniously and for that reason alone, I was fascinated. There was no inquiry about whether the client wanted the coffee extra hot, with a shot of vanilla or served in a special receptacle, nor were there any artistic leaf or heart shaped in the foam. The coffee was as basic as can be. And from that day on, I was hooked.

The second part of an Andalucian breakfast is bread. The dough is always white, but the shape may vary from a huge slice of tostada, a medium sized bollito or mollete bun, the smaller pitufo (Spanish for Smurf), or the baby of the bun family, a pulga, meaning a flee. As I am allergic to wheat, I bring my own bread, which thankfully they will toast without any questions asked, but the rest of the traditional breakfast process, I follow to a T.

Upon receiving their morning toast, locals will start stabbing the bread with a knife, followed by drowning the whole thing in olive oil. This is the same oil that sits on every table, certainly in every rural Spanish café and restaurant. Some of the braver locals rub cloves of raw garlic into their toast, while some go straight for the salt, shaking their heart out. Others, like myself, douse their bread in freshly blended tomatoes, another staple in every Andalucian café.

One can of course go more advanced and add zurrapa, a spreadable lard and meat concoction, but I prefer to stay with the basics – oil, tomato and salt, which make the most divine symbiosis in the mouth. Nothing can improve on this simple Andalucian breakfast. It is the most rudimentary campesino food Andalucía has to offer and something everyone has access to, usually from their own plot of land. It is heavenly, Mediterranean and dirt-cheap. Whether you eat at a truck stop or a downtown café, this authentic breakfast will usually put you back less than three euros, including tip, and, I swear, there is no small pleasure like it.

As my list of daily joys keeps growing, one item will always remain – going to Bar Sanchez for breakfast. Located just inside Ronda’s old defensive wall, it is one of those completely unpretentious joints with less than a dozen tables in and out, where one immediately feels at home. Run by Juan and his wife Loli, their menu might not be the most extensive in town, but everything comes out freshly made and everybody is made welcome. Whilst downtown Ronda is steaming with tourists, you can still have a peaceful morning coffee at Juan’s, possibly accompanied by a few regulars, having their first hit of Anís before heading off to the fields. We usually stop by in the morning, on our way home from our community garden, just as Juan brings out his tables. Albeit a muddy pair, all we have to do is ask him for ‘the usual’, and less than a minute later two glasses with café con leche get brought out to our table. People can say what they want, but the good life is all about embracing these small pleasures.





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Escaping the Spanish heat in tropical Norway and discovering how mom learned to swim in 1944

As the weather gets hotter here in Spain, I immediately long to escape to my native Scandinavia. 45 degrees Celsius is not a temperature we Vikings generally thrive in, at least speaking for myself. Last year, it got so bad that I suggested that my husband and I look for a volunteer job protecting icebergs on Greenland for the months of July and August. No offers came.

This year, I booked my trip in the early spring, arranging to spend part of July in the refreshing north. Then came May. While we in Andalucía had downpours and freezing nights, Norway experienced an unseasonal heat wave. We still hadn’t put away our winter woollies in Ronda, as Oslo’s temperatures exceeded 30 degrees and they could boast of being the warmest capital in Europe. Things cooled down a bit in June, but by July, when I left for northern latitudes, it was basically as hot there as in southern Europe. Pity Scandinavians who had booked their annual trips to bask on the Costa del Sol, as their neighbours back home would get just as tanned, with less crowded beaches and cleaner water.

I can say one thing for certain about my country fellows – we love immersing ourselves in seawater for any occasion, practically all year long. The Norwegians fondness for the ocean blue hit new heights this summer, as I saw people diving in right downtown Oslo harbour and then plopping down to soak up some rays on any available piece of grass, terrace, pier or even public boardwalks. I too jumped in from my mother’s fjord flat, where environmental programs have made the water cleaner than for the last fifty years.

The only one who didn’t swim was my mother. Granted, she will be 88 this fall so she does have a valid excuse, though age doesn’t seem to stop some of the old keeners in her building. I tried to convince mom to join me, but she declined, preferring to enjoy the sea from the safe distance and comfort of her terrace.

One evening, after my 5th dip in the fjord, my mother told me how she learned to swim. I have heard her stories my entire life. In my younger days I listened with half an ear, not really that interested. Lately, I have paid more attention, as I know that she might not always be there to share them. Her stories have become increasingly precious to me and I consider them the greatest gift she can share with us, her offspring. This one, a story from 1944, was one I had never heard before.

My mother was born in 1930. Since my maternal grandmother was paranoid of the ocean, thinking one could drown by merely looking at it, my mom would never have been allowed to wade in above her ankles as a child. Therefore, at the start of the Second World War, mom still didn’t know how to swim. She was almost ten when the German’s invaded Norway in the spring of 1940. For the years to follow, she dreamt of owning a bicycle, so she could bike to one of the bathing spots along the fjord in the summer, but she had to wait several years after the war (there was rationing into the 50’s) before she got her first, well-used bike. Thus, life wasn’t exactly a beach.

During the war, everything was rationed, from milk to petrol to fabric. While fashion styles got increasingly less voluminous due to lack of materials, the clothing stamps the families received were used for essentials, or traded into food stamps. As things got scarcer and scarcer, flower gardens were converted into potato fields, shoes were made from salmon skin and old curtains became the only way of having a new spring dress. I still have my grandmother’s tattered Kitchen Almanac from 1938, which she not only used as a cooking diary during the five years Norway was occupied, but also scribbled down her annual production of homemade black current jam and her Christmas baking all the way up to 1985, merely a coupe of years before she died. The almanac is a true testament to her generation’s thriftiness. When my mother prepared for her confirmation in 1943, clothing stamps were saved for months so the families of the confirmed teens could communally purchase a roll of fabric, enough to make a cloak for each. Compared to the fortunes spent on dresses, gifts and parties today for confirmations or the Spanish equivalent Spanish, la Primera Comunión, the class of 1943 had a true confirmation of faith.

As the war continued, my mother still didn’t know how to swim, that is until the gloomy summer of 1944. It was decided that all students in town had to know how to swim and that those who didn’t were to be given swimming lessons. Basically one had no choice in the matter. Even with my grandmother’s protestations, the kids were going in, come hell or high water.

Needless to say, my mother didn’t own a bathing suit. Such a frivolous luxury item wasn’t readily available, even if one had the money or the stamps to purchase one. During the war, mom had shot up and was at this point the tallest girl in her class, and having far surpassed even the lankiest of the boys. My grandmother, on the other hand, was a tiny woman. So when a bathing suit had to be found for the obligatory swimming lesson, mom had no other option than to borrow her mother’s by then probably dated, ill-fitting swimsuit.

In addition to the perils of war, the lack of food, the fear of bombs and Nazi traitors, the ‘war summers’ as my mom calls them, were also freezing cold. The students were asked to show up on a beach in the in inner harbour. Mom needed to walk through the town to get to the lesson, surely not thrilled at having to learn to swim together with children who were much younger than herself. By then, she had started walking hunched over to appear smaller, so German soldiers wouldn’t bother her. Understandably, I have no photos of mom from this time, as cameras and film rolls were only for the privileged few, but I have dug out some bathing fashion from the era to set the mood.

The ‘beach’ the students were to meet at was not a beach in today’s sense of the word. First, our town was then an important industrial centre, known for its shipping, whaling and petroleum industries. Even 30 years later, when I was a kid, the inner fjord often looked like a zest pool. Secondly, there would likely have been German war ships in the harbour with guns and canons facing in every direction. Third, the beach would contain more boulders and sharp rocks than course sand, many likely covered with oil slicks. The water would also have been floating with seaweed, in addition to an assortment of the three species of jellyfish we used to have. I can just imagine the scene – a handful sporty male gym teachers and several dozen pale, skinny children in borrowed bathing suits having to enter that water on a cold, grey summer day in 1944.

Many years later, when we were cleaning my grandparent’s house and emptying their attic, I found one of my grandma’s old bathing suits. It was a threadbare curiosity that nobody in the family except myself would even dream of saving. Back to Andalucía after returning from my trip, I went looking for it. Maybe it wasn’t the same one my mother learned to swim in, but there it was. Kept as a time capsule in an antique valise, together with a hand-sewn bra from the 30’s, a threadbare Charleston dress from the swinging 20’s and a few other things that remind me of my stylish little grandma.

My mother did learn to swim in spite of the odds, tied with a rope that was attached to a pole held by the teachers (I believe my dad tried the same method on us kids a few decades later…) yelling instructions while the student’s teeth were chattering.

Can I blame my mom for not loving the sea?

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Jesús the embroiderer –a Gender Bender in rural Spain


Andalucía tends to be very traditional, undeniably conservative and often ultra religious. Be it because of its century-long ties with the Catholic Church or its rich history, chances are that if you live in small town Andalucía, you might at times wonder if you have stepped into the past.

Ronda, our hometown, certainly fits that bill, with fourteen religious brotherhoods, dozens of churches, and handful active convents in a town of less than 35.000 people. We are speaking tradition with capital T. Of course, there are rondeño men who change diapers on babies, drive kids to school, do the family shopping and maybe even mend the occasional sock. Equally, we do have professional women with higher education, who hire house cleaners, invest in stocks and drive sports cars. The last two mayors in town have been female, a testament to that rural Andalucía is not all what it used to be. Yet, when it comes to gender patterns, much remain the same. Husbands are still the primary breadwinners in most families, while the wives are often amas de casa, or housewives, caring for offspring and ageing relatives. If she in addition juggles a paying job, the home is still considered her primary responsibility, not to mention the family ironing…

When it comes to hobbies, the gender divide gets even more pronounced. Women in our neighbourhood might sign up for Flamenco or Hip Hop classes or a peineta workshop (the tall Spanish hair combs), while local men customary spend their spare time in their campo, dealing with livestock. Alternately, they will sit around our plaza shooting the breeze with the other men or watch sports at a local bar. Men here like to be considered manly or dare I say macho, which actually means male in Spanish, not male chauvinist.

The conventional roles of the sexes are deeply ingrained and hard to break out of, so you can imagine our surprise when we met Jesús Muñoz Muñoz (36), a local man with a passion for embroidery.

The first time we saw Jesús, was inside the dimly lit Medieval- looking holding for one of Ronda’s religious brotherhoods or hermandades. He was sitting surrounded by other embroiderers – all female and all stitching away at a feverish speed. The velvet capes that they were working on would clothe life-sized statues of Christ and Virgin Mary, which were to be carried through town in processions of the devout during the upcoming Semana Santa (Easter). Since it was only a few weeks left until this holiest of weeks in the ecclesiastical calendar, all hands were on deck, or as it were, occupied with needle and thread.

While embroidery is his passion, Jesús daytime job is helping his mother María in their antique- and gift store in the historic part of town. Jesús’ great grandfather started an antique dealership in Ronda in 1921, and though the family business has changed through the decades, some traditions still remain. The very same great grandfather came with the initial idea of creating a brotherhood for Ronda’s gypsies in the early 1950’s. Though they didn’t receive official approval until decades later, la Hermandad de los Gitanos, (or la Hermandad de Nuestro Padre Jésus de la Salud en su Prendimiento y María Santísima de la Amargura), is now one of Ronda’s biggest and most important brotherhoods. Minding their religious statues is something they do not take lightly. The garbs of the statues must be perfectly preserved, restored and at times renewed, as outfits change depending on the sacred occasion.

I ask why a young man chooses to spend his spare time embroidering golden curlicues onto religious frocks in this time and age. Why volunteer for a religious brotherhood in the first place?

“To me, all the brotherhoods and what they stand for are beautiful”, Jesús explains.

Jesús has chosen an intricate and time-consuming hobby, demanding the patience of a saint. Neck pain and strain of the eyes are common complaints amongst the embroiderers, he tells me, though I think blood drain from pricked fingertips is more of a risk. Just like the throne-carrying costaleros, the embroiderers’ dedication can be seen as another form of penance.

The materials used for the needlework are silk, gold and silver threads. The best supplies are found in Sevilla, which Jesús calls Andalucia’s centre for Semana Santa. First, each embroidered section gets drawn out on the fabric, next they get bulked up with felt, and finally they are covered in miniature decorative stitches and knots, depending on the desired effect. Jésus is not only a master of religious embroidery. He has also given classes in the fine art of this type of stitching. Though a woman initially taught him to embroider, and all of his ‘disciples’ have been female, traditionally this was a task often performed by men. Some male embroiderers from Sevilla even became famous for their skills with gilded thread.

But how do people in Ronda view Jesús choice of hobby today? Are there snarky comments from the more machista and less open-minded residents?

“People are sometimes surprised at first”, he lets in, “though they usually show respect and admiration for my work.” Maybe this is not so unexpected. His embroidery is after all representing a long and venerable Andalusian tradition.

But what if he had been brought up in Madrid instead? Would he still have been doing embroidery, I ask him. No, he says without a second hesitation. If he lived in Madrid, he would be in fashion.

* * *

Need a gold embroidered robe, or have you got a religious mantle to restore? Contact Jésus at

or drop by Tres Marías, C/ Armiñán 39, Ronda, Andalucía


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Following the Roman trail through the Iberian south

We have all heard about the mighty Romans. At its prime, the Roman Empire covered more than five million square kilometres, from Egypt in the south to England in the north, and from Iraq in the east to Portugal in the west. Even today, it is virtually impossible to travel around Hispania without coming upon evidence of the Roman presence here some two thousand years ago.



The Romans called our Andalusian hometown of Ronda for Munda. Though it was never a major outpost, one can still see remnants of aqueducts and Roman grain towers around town. Two centuries before the birth of Christ, Roman soldiers defeated the Carthaginian army in a battle said to have been fought in what is today our downtown centre. In 45 BC, no other than Julius Caesar had a temple built here to commemorate his victory against the rebellious forces of Pompeii, Cneo, and Sexto in what became later known as ‘the battle of Munda’. Though this temple no longer exists, Ronda is full of history, and there is rarely a construction dig without unearthing at least one Roman column base.














Our first real meeting with los romanos was at the archaeological site of Acinipo. Also called Ronda la vieja (old Ronda), Acinipo is located a twenty-minute drive outside Ronda. In the first century AD, this was the home of 5000 mostly off-duty Roman legionnaires. They had Roman baths or termas and temples, as well as an amphitheatre seating 2000, which partly stands until this day. Acinipo minted its own coin engraved with grapes, indicating that wine was already being produced in the region.

Unfortunately, the ruins at Acinipo have not been given the attention needed to protect such an important historic site. There is a gatekeeper, when one can find the gate open, though the site is sorely lacking in information, guides, access, signage, and most importantly, protection of the partially excavated sites and continued exploration of the entire area.

However, apart from the missing infrastructure, Acinipo is a stunning place. The theatre sits on an impressive mesa-like plateau at 999 meters over sea level with sweeping vistas to the surrounding countryside. The rowdy Romans are long gone, leaving a breezy stillness and sacred peace that one rarely finds in this day and age. In fact, you are almost guaranteed to have the entire archaeological site to yourself, save a few grazing horses and sheep. 














Talking of theatres, if you are exploring the old town of Málaga (or Malaca in Roman times), just around the bend from the Picasso Museum, directly below the 11th century Arab Alcazaba fort, you will run into yet another Roman amphitheatre. Discovered in 1951, this theatre was built under the command of Emperor Augustus in the first century BC and was in use for at least four centuries. According to the architectural model, it was designed by the known Roman architect Vitruvio. The theatre is well worth a visit, where the sleek contemporary visitation centre will give you an introduction to the city’s distant past. And if you happen to park in one of the underground parking lots by the harbour, you might also see newly discovered remnants of Roman mosaics when backing up into your parking stall.



The fact that history is found underground became clear when the town of Cádiz (known as Gades by the Romans) renovated an old theatre in 2012. Not only did they discover Roman streets and houses under the existing building foundation, but nine meters beneath the present day street level, they discovered remnants of Gadir, a Phoenician settlement from 900 BC!

Visiting the theatre is a mind-blowing journey, literally over history, as you walk on glass-bottom catwalks looking down at the past. Cádiz also had its own Roman theatre, built in 70 BC, but there are still more Roman ruins underfoot. During a storm just this past spring, segments of an until-then unknown aqueduct and a Roman road were uncovered.



At the southernmost tip of Europe, a few kilometres west of the Spanish kite-boarding capital of Tarifa are the remnants of a very different kind of Roman settlement. Surrounded by beautiful white beaches (some nudist, they say) the sleepy village of Bolonia was once the busy Roman fishing town of Baelo Claudia. Named after the stuttering sovereign, Emperor Claudius also gave the town its status as a municipium. The close proximity to North Africa made the town an important trade link between the two continents. Baelo Claudia specialized in making a foul-smelling fish sauce used in Roman cooking called garum. In fact the enormous stone wads used to cure and age the fish to perfection can still be seen today.

Standing at the centre of the site facing the ocean, one can easily visualize the town spread out in front of one – forum, temples, baths, a market place, perfectly paved Roman streets, a busy harbour and a two millennia old fish processing plant. And if all this history gets too much, one can always leave the site for a moment and leap into the teal-coloured water where the Straight of Gibraltar meets the Atlantic Ocean.

Baelo Claudia was abandoned around the 6th century AD, after a massive earthquake and frequent pirate attacks made the town unliveable. 












VOLUBILIS (near present-day MEKNES in MOROCCO)

Though we had come to expect the Roman presence in the Spanish south, nothing could prepare us for the sight of the expansive Roman ruins in Volubilis, about 200 kilometres south of Tánger in northern Morocco. Situated among fertile grasslands near the foothills of Jebel Zerhoun, this was Rome’s shortest lasting and most remote outpost, established in 42 AD. Aside from administrators and armed defenders, the town’s 20 000 residents were mostly dedicated to olive oil- and wheat production, possibly to feed the occupying forces?

Though I would recommend having a local guide give one a tour, it is also worth taking a lonely stroll around the enormous archaeological site, where wild flowers, towering ruins and stork families coexist, side by side.

Due to the fact that the site lay abandoned for almost a thousand years, Volubilis presents a historic authenticity and unique cultural blend that granted it a UNESCO World Heritage designation in 1997. It is unfathomable that this town was ruled all the way from Rome, literally thousands of kilometres away, in a time when horses were the fastest means of transportation.















We thought we had seen all things Roman, until we recently paid a visit to Mérida in the province of Extremadura. If it weren’t for the signs indicating that we were entering a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we could have thought we were driving into any run of the mill medium-sized Spanish towns. Only when we started exploring the centre did we realize that we had come to a very unique place.

Mérida has more Roman archaeological sites than anywhere else in Spain. Just like walking around the modern-day Italian capital, ancient ruins pop up everywhere. A block from our hotel, we stumbled upon a plaza where one of the town’s Forums had been located. Known as the Temple of Diana, this first century BC edifice once served as a tribune to address the populus. Today it sits amongst contemporary buildings, surrounded by bars and cafés. I suppose it is a sign of our times.

Mérida was decidedly more strategically important during the Roman Era than it is today. Situated halfway between Madrid and Lisbon, it was a natural stopping point for travellers and invading armies. It was also about midway on the Roman trade route that crossed western Spain from the Asturica Augusta gold mines in the north to the Mediterranean coast in the south. The name, Vía de la Plata (Silver Way) is derived from Arabic and means paved road. So, there you have Spain in a nutshell – a route through Iberia, built by the Romans, used by the Visigoths and later named by the Moors, until finally the title was adopted for a national freeway.

But lets get back to the Romans, the protagonists of this historical travel tale.

Mérida was a perfect launching point for the imperial army, possessing the natural resources to support the constriction of a Roman civitas or city. In 25 BC, Emperor Augustus founded Emerita Augusta. Eméritus in Latin means retired, indicating that the Emperor was loyal to his troupes beyond their years of active duty, allowing Roman veterans to retire here.

The first thing the Emperor ordered was to build a bridge to protect the passage over the Guadiana River. Extending for half a mile, it is still the longest of all existing Roman bridges in the world today. The town became the capital of Lucitania, one three Roman provinces dividing ancient Hispania Romana. Lucitania included large parts of western Spain and most of modern day Portugal, making its capital one of the most important cities of the Roman Empire outside of Italy.

A testament to the Emerita Augusta’s past grandeur is its theatres, which form part of the Archaeological Ensemble of Mérida. First, there is the smaller version of a Roman Colosseum. (Believe me, there is nothing miniature about it!) Inaugurated in 8 BC, the circular arena was an audience favourite. Hidden traps in the sand-covered staging area would release wild animals upon the combatants, and while gladiators fought for their life, some in full armour, others scantly clad and lightly armed, an audience of up to 16 000 people would have cheered. Inugula! (Kill him!) Verbera! (Beat him!), or Missus! (Pardon him!)

The second theatre is an equally impressive partly restored enormous Amphitheatre. Its construction, promoted by the Roman consul Agrippa, was started in 16 BC. After the Empire’s demise, it was abandoned, until excavations began in the early 20. century. The theatre has been the host of a classical theatre festival since 1933 and still presents performances at night during the summer months.

Mérida has countless other Roman sites worth visiting, one more jaw dropping than the other; the Arch of Trajan, the Aqueduct of Miracles, Roman dams and water reservoirs still in use, and stately Roman homes (domus) with mosaic floors and painted walls throughout, many of which can be admired, complete, in the National Museum of Roman Art. The latter is a must when visiting Mérida, and has become our favourite museum of all time (even surpassing the opium museum in northern Thailand).

But we must not forget Circus Maximus. Though less visually spectacular, it is no less deserving of ones attention. Actually, it is one of the largest ruins of the Roman era in all of Spain. The circus held extremely popular Ben Hur type chariot races for as many as 30 000 seated spectators! No strange Mérida has been nicknamed ‘Little Rome’!



To really understand the might of the Romans, one has to look to the settlements beyond Italy’s borders. Controlling such a large empire must have taken tremendous coordination, unlimited funds, in addition to a very disciplined army. So, what was the secret of the Romans success?

Though the Romans arrived waggling weapons, in contrast to other invading armies, the new subjects could become socii, or allies of Rome. This gave them a limited Roman citizenship. The conquered territories also enjoyed Roman protection from other invading forces, even if they were heavily taxed for this privilege. Provinces like Lucitania were governed from Rome, but each province was composed of partly self-administering smaller communities, or civitates. Roman governors called the shots, but locals could be given other administrative tasks.

Rome shaped Spain in numerous ways and brought unparalleled development to the Iberian Peninsula, be it the provisions of fresh water through aqueducts, urban sewage systems, paved roads, a law and order society, industrial scale wine production, or bread and circus for the masses. The road networks built to move the imperial troops around opened for communication and trade. Though the Roman and the indigenous cultures blended, the territories shared the common Roman ideals of government and citizenry, which to some extent have lasted to this day.

Our journey through Hispania will continue, as there are many other sites to explore. When it comes to the Romans in Spain, we are still just scratching the surface of time.

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El ‘Look’ de primavera 2018 – the annual Andalusian scarecrow style update

“Are you using all that just for Gonzales hair?” my husband asked.

“Oh, it’s only plonk”, I answered offhandedly, as I continued pouring the better half of a magnum bottle of red wine onto a brand new mop-head sitting in a large baking bowl. What I omitted to say was that I had already used twenty–odd teabags, a batch of organic coffee, plus a generous pinch of his specially imported turmeric and other precious spices – all sacrificed in the effort to get the right colour dye for Gonzales’ new hair.

No expense ought to be spared when one is doing the annual scarecrow spring makeover. Our Gonzales probably has the costliest and most time-consuming beauty regime of any espantapájaros in the entire region of Andalucía. Each year, our trustworthy allotment garden custodian goes through a complete physical makeover, adapting a brand new look (‘el look’) for the upcoming growing season. His style has to be classic enough to outlast the micro movements of mid-season fashion dips and peaks, because once he gets embedded in our plot, he is there for the duration and wont have a shave or change his outfit until early spring the following year. In other words, a scarecrow has to be built to last.

Other than the obvious, as what the name implies, what is a scarecrow anyhow? I believe these sweet and ghoulish figures somehow represent our universal need to recreate our likeness and to mark our territory. In all cultures and all epochs of history, figures shaped like humans or human-like deities, have been created out of stone, clay, precious metals, wood and even straw. These figures have varied in size, such as the enormous heads found on the Easter Islands, as well as the just over 10 cm tall figure of the voluptuous 30.000 years old Venus of Willendorf. Humans and other animal figures have been used to protect and guide us, as seen in North American totem poles. They were sacred figures placed towards the roaring sea, like the Inuksuk stone figures of the Inuit. Many were made to seek protection from the gods, such as the Greek god Priapus. In spite of being son of Dionysus and Aphrodite, Priapus was allegedly extremely ugly. In fact, he was so ugly that Greek farmers carved wooden scarecrow figures of him and placed them in their fields to protect their harvest and scare away birds and other undesirables. Since Egyptians and others used scarecrows even before the Greeks, Gonzales ancestry goes back at least 5000 years!

Now when it comes to the scary part, it gets real interesting. There are of course all the horror movies with a scarecrow villains, but scarecrows in the likeness of witches were believed to bring early spring in old Germany, presumably by scaring away the winters. Young boys and girls were dressed up as scarecrows in Medieval England, tasked with chasing away birds. Similar live scarecrow traditions were common amongst some Native Indians in North America. In some African cultures, farmers would net in their crops. The first birds caught inside the nets were killed and hung around the perimeters to scare away other birds, making them literally scare-crows. To further add to the international medley, the word ‘to scare’ comes from the Norse word skirra, meaning to frighten. You can always count on us Vikings to come up with those types of terms…

Here in Spain, espantapájaros (as in scarer of birds, not just crows) are less frequently seen. This could be because olives and grapes aren’t subjected to as many bird attacks as lets say a field of wheat. In our huerto or community garden, lizards are more frequent plunderers than birds, though they only affect the bug population. Since our town is located at about 800 meters above sea level, pretend-farmers like us have to grapple with a fairly extreme climate. Plants must be able to endure near 50 degree Centigrade summer heat, plus often no precipitation from May to December, as well as below freezing winters and floods and hailstorms in the spring. Only tough plants will thrive in such a climate, and equally tough guardians of said bounty.

We found Gonzales severely affected after this last winter. His handsome head was barely hanging on, attached by a single strand of skin and a couple of zap straps (bless those non-tear spice panty hoses…). Begging his forgiveness, I snipped off the remaining tendons and brought his head home, planning to deal with his bodily transformation later in situ. Like every year, I had to strip his cranium down to its individual parts, only keeping the sensory organs – eyes, nose and mouth, since he has never had any ears. His brain, which is always quite dense, didn’t need much new stuffing. It is amazing what industrial plastic wrapping can tolerate. I re-formed the head, leaving a hollow centre to allow a solid merging with his bone straight metal-rod spine. Come hell or high water, his head will not come off next winter!

There was no doubt that Gonzales needed a new ‘do’. His dried esparto grass wig had become a matted mass that even a Rastafarian scarecrow would have rejected. I bought a classic cotton thread mop-head, since the new microfiber ones won’t accept natural dye. I let it sit over night in the before-mentioned foul-smelling concoction, hoping to find a spectacular auburn wig the next morning. No such luck. It is ironic how an innocent spill of wine or coffee can leave permanent stains, yet when I deliberately tried to dye the mop with the same substances, it hardly had any effect. After rinsing it, what remained was a dirty mustardy coloured wig. Now, fake brash yellow hair is something that few of us wants to be associated with these days, but at least Gonzales will have the guts to admit that none of his hair is his own…

Once his head was covered in three layers of brand new granny-style skin-coloured nylon knee stockings, it was time to reshape and sew on his aristocratic nose. Due to my lack of needlework during the rest of the year, it got a bit of a north-eastern twist, but at least Gonzales can slide unnoticed onto any Alaskan Airline flight to Vegas, looking just like any of the other gamblers with a broken beaks. Next to be dealt with was Gonzales eyes. I tried different buttons, but felt that it would be unfaithful of me to change his old buttons and his deer-in-the- headlight stare. I decided to place the buttons close together to give him a slight myopia. This, combined with his Montreal designer eyeglass frames, gave him a new air of intellectual complexity. (Or perplexity, perhaps?)

When it was turn for his facial hair, I briefly considered then abandoned the idea of giving him sideburns. After last year’s bold-is-beautiful look, I wanted a younger style. I cut off his scruffy moustache, leaving a clean-shaven upper lip. To help disguise the fact that he doesn’t have much of a chin, I embroidered on a hipster style goatee. This new look was further augmented by a pair of bushy, un-tweezed eyebrows. After stitching on his yellow wig, I quickly and foolishly trimmed his bangs. It wasn’t a good look for Gonzales, and I couldn’t comfort him saying that it would grow out again soon, so I hid the unfortunate cut under a classic Andalucian straw hat. Then, to counterpoint his newfound masculinity, I gave him voluptuous pink lips. There was no question in my mind about one thing though – His signature look, his diastema, or his widely gapped discoloured front teeth had to stay.

Back at the huerto, it was time to clothe our scarecrow, which is always easier done when headless. I had managed to persuade my husband to donate one of his long sleeved gingham shirts. Though Timberland is not entirely Prêt a Porter, Gonzales 2018 style fits the part of our rural garden guardian. The new Gonzales is both outdoorsy and manly, vaguely resembling a music producer (I have too many film producer friends to compare him to them…). I doubt he scares away many birds and wouldn’t be surprised to find a nest in his straw hat next spring.

But lets be honest, Gonzales lives on our plot to bring a bit of fun and naughtiness between the tomato rows. His familiar face greets the hortelanos when we look up from our digging to stretch our aching backs. He is there for the hell of it, and because I once in my youth fell in love with a Hollywood silver screen legend. A favourite character in the techno-coloured Wizard of Oz has to be the clumsy, stuttering, lisping scarecrow. He remains close to our hearts, reminding us of our humanity.

How many of us haven’t on occasion lamented, “If I only had a brain…”


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The battle of the loos – another rural Andalusian tale

Let me be completely clear. Though the central character of this story is something as commonplace as a Water Closet, I am not into toilet humour. This is my personal pondering on a basic human need and our right to have access to certain public facilities to alleviate said need. It all began with a trip to the bus station…

Our hometown Ronda has slightly less than 35.000 inhabitants, yet it receives several hundred thousand visitors each year. By far, the majority these come through organised tours, get dropped off at Ronda’s bus station, are given a brief walkabout and are fetched again at the same location an hour or two later.  Therefore, essentially by default, the local bus station is the first and the last image most tourists will have of our town.

Unfortunately, most bus stations leave much to be desired in the style department, and Ronda is no exception. Often synonymous with bus depot, they tend to be unsightly places to store and shuffle fuming awkwardly large vehicles, which in their current incarnation look like behemoth insects. In contrast, the designs of train stations usually range from quaint or cool industrial. Ronda’s own train station is a typical Andalusian small town estación. It is clean and bright, has comfortable seating for waiting passengers, a decent café extending indoor and outdoors, free and clean public toilets and a manicured green area with huge umbrella pines (Pino piñonero) outside. It is a charming place to arrive and to leave from, worthy of the reputation of our stunning town.

On the other hand, Ronda’s much busier bus station is located in a building slapped together in the post-WW2 era. The only admirable features are some mosaic wall murals that were added later, featuring scenes from Ronda or what they call ciudad soñada – city of dreams. But the dream stops there. The bus station is a walled in, covered sidewalk with a dozen docks for incoming buses, all facing a rather featureless street of private homes, most of which are for sale, presumably due to the traffic. To be fair, there are a few benches outside where travellers can rest their wary legs, thought exhaust fumes and second hand smoke will likely discourage most from doing so. At one end of the station is a characterless café and at the opposing end, right inside the actual station building, there is a lonesome closet-sized shop with an overfilled magazine rack. The half a dozen ticket wickets, one for each bus company, are of the 1950 type, most seemingly without a clerk behind, at least last time I checked. Otherwise, the station is a dimly lit place with little to no seating. There isn’t a single visible electronic screen to announce arrivals and departures, neither inside nor outside (just an occasional crackling speaker). Other than a photocopied page taped onto a ticket window, one can find no information as to which aisle one’s bus will leave from. And, up to recently, there were no signs outside as to where one could find the public washrooms. So, there you have it, the Distinguished Ayuntamiento de Ronda bus station.

A visiting friend from Canada arrived at the before-mentioned train station, and after staying a few days, left for Sevilla from Ronda’s bus station. Before the two-hour trip, she wanted to use the facilities. She came hurrying back, telling us that she needed 60 cents. Not 50 cents, not a euro, but 60 cents, which was how much the pleasure of a visit to the bus station loo would cost her. In other words, it is a while since the expression ‘spend a penny’ was accurate, even here in Spain. My husband dug into his pocket for his trusted coin supply so our friend would be able to complete her errand. She came back incensed, saying that after paying for her bus ticket, as well as for the use of the ‘public’ toilet, the rather dingy facilities didn’t even have toilet paper. Having lived here long enough, this didn’t surprise me in the least. Some days you might have toilet paper, some days there would be soap in the dispenser, some days the hand dryer might work and some days the cubicle door might lock. It was all the luck of the draw. Understandably, we felt embarrassed on our town’s behalf. Was this, I thought to myself, what Ronda’s town hall, the proprietor of the station, wanted to offer the hundreds of visitors who travelled through there each and every day of the year?

Earlier this spring, we were positively surprised to notice that someone had renovated one of the unused buildings opposite the bus station and made it into a public washroom. That a private citizen and a rondeño family to boot had taken it upon themselves to invest and finally provide this much-needed service was to me nothing but commendable. This was one thing we have learned from living in rural Spain is that status quo is very hard to budge. It takes someone thinking out of the box to make changes, particularly for the better, even when it comes to something as basic as a public washroom. Yet this bold and welcome business idea was not well received by the people across the street, as in the folks running the bus station. To them, that someone had had the audacity to open a business to compete with their poor excuse of a public washroom was simply outrageous. I believe that what particularly irked them was that the newcomers ran a booming business, having multilingual signs, hence catering to the bus-tour crowds. It was time for counteraction, the bus station superiors must have though. Soon after, they put up three huge signs along the wall outside. WC  WC  WC, they read in bold print, with big arrows pointing to the interior of the bus station. (No subtleness there…) From the signs alone, one would be tempted to think that their WC’s were something completely out of the ordinary. Maybe a new kind of public facility with hypermodern spa like design? Maybe even with those dryers that actually dried ones hands?

I decided to pay a visit to both facilities, playing investigative journalist. Having piqued my curiosity, I went the bus station first. After all, their WCs had to be something unique and memorable to grant such oversized signs. In spite of that tourist numbers through Ronda’s bus station keep increasing, I could see no noticeable improvements made to the building itself. Likely forced by the circumstances, their WC had now lowered the price to 50 cents and had two female employees outside. One of these was gathering the fees, while the other was pointing people into the free cubicles. Since, as always, there was a long wait for the woman’s washroom, and since there were only a couple of measly stalls for each gender, the WC allocator urged an unsuspecting Asian lady into the Men’s Room. When she tried the same tactic on me, I refused, insisting to wait for my own gender’s facilities. After all, there are limits. Finally my turn, I observed that the cubicles still looked dated and worn, but were reasonably clean and at least they had TP and seats intact, which is not always the case in the other ‘public’ (‘pay as you pee’) washrooms operated by our honourable town hall.

Crossing by the bus docks (apparently illegal) I subsequently visited the new facilities across the street. Even from the outside, it looked clear and bright. A single employee was hurrying between cleaning the cubicles and providing change for those who didn’t have the right money for the coin slot at the entrance. Not only did the new business offer a row of at least half a dozen modern, pristine WCs for each gender and a properly sized and designed handicap facility, but they also sold refreshments, souvenirs, umbrellas, Kleenex and other ‘life essentials’. There was no competition and certainly no doubt which WCs visitors would prefer.

As I left, I glanced across the street at the station’s loud WC signs. While the bus station still lacks screens indicating departures or where to buy tickets, these WC signs are now the first vision you have when arriving in Ronda. They are almost as big and sadly more attention grabbing than the old mosaic art panels, indicating that our town has gone from ‘City of Dreams’ to hard sell.


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Pedro, El Herrero – our barrio’s last blacksmith

When I hear the word blacksmith, I immediately think of the remote smithy in Dickens Great Expectations. The name itself has a sound of yesteryear, when hammers echoed in every hamlet and when blacksmiths were the heart, or certainly the hearth of every community.

As unfortunate as it is, these days the smith-trade has been gradually replaced by superglue and landfills. Try finding someone who can make a one-of-a-kind door knocker or a custom-built iron gate from scratch and you will pay through the roof. That is, if you can find someone to do it. For this reason, we were very excited when we heard that there were still smiths working in Andalucía, even one in our very own barrio or neighbourhood. His name, they said, was Pedro, El Herrero.

It didn’t take long before we needed our local smith. Our first task for him was to make a custom firewood stand, based on our rough sketches. We went to his workshop several times, always coming to a locked door. Actually, the black metal garage doors of the smithy had no business sign, and not even a forged handle to somewhat indicate what trade was practised inside. Instead, there was a phone number scribbled in chalk on one of the flat door panels. Clearly, Pedro believed in the bare-bone rural Andalusian way of advertising.

Knowing there was a smith in town and actually locating the man seemed to be entirely different matters. Our neighbour Mo said that we might have better luck finding him at the stables half way down the hill towards Ronda’s tajo. If he wasn’t there, we might run into him riding up to the barrio. Failing this, we could ask for him at one of the local bodegas, which indeed is what we did. Wherever we went, everybody knew Pedro. In fact, if we were to believe them (and we did), the smith seemed to have been in every bar we dropped by. The man must get around, as we always seemed to have just missed him. A few days later we saw a man sitting on a horse outside one of the before-mentioned bodegas drinking a cerveza, while chatting with some of the other patrons. He had dust-covered clothes, worn leather boots, and just a hint of sooth on his handsomely rugged face – a perfect cast member for a Spanish Spaghetti Western. So, this was the legendary Pedro el herrero, or Peter the blacksmith.

Blacksmiths have a long history. Hammering metals has been done since the early Bronze Age, though classic smithing started in the Iron Age when it was discovered that certain rocks would let out liquid metal when exposed to heat. This iron would gradually solidify upon cooling, allowing it to be formed into tools and weapons. These were much sharper and tougher than their stone predecessors, while being more readily available and diverse in use than bronze tools. Evidence of smithing is found in Greek, Roman, Phoenician and Aztecs mythology, while the earliest archaeological discovery was a dagger dated to about 1350 BC. In other words, it is a very old craft.

Throughout the centuries, the role of the smithy grew. By the 1300s, iron horse shoes were in general use throughout Europe. In Medieval times, blacksmiths were not only making relatively advanced tools out of simple sheds, but they also performed certain community services, such as removing abscessed teeth and probably the odd amputation. The smith could therefore be seen as the equivalent of the town’s engineer, surgeon, dentist, horseman toolmaker and veterinarian. In many cases, he would be the most learned man around. It was a profession that commanded respect and one of the first trades to develop a system of apprenticeship and education of journeymen. Though now considered a blue-collar trade, being a blacksmith in the past was a sign that one had certain intellectual abilities and possibly even partial literacy, since shillings and coppers would have to be accounted for.

As demands for tools grew, the smith profession became more specialised. Traditional smiths were replaced by armourers, nail smiths and sword smiths. Whitesmiths worked with lead, while blacksmiths were the ironworkers. Smiths were still abundant, as witnessed by the frequency or the surname Smith or Herrero here in Spain. Yet, the days of the county forges were numbered. Their demise began with the decline in horse transport and animal labour and ended with the industrial revolution. Big machinery required large production facilities, while mechanised urban tool manufacturers replaced the village smiths. Though inferior in quality to the hand forged tools, these mass-produced generally mixed metal products were much cheaper to make. Such is the way of progress. Just take the good old horseshoe. Though iron horseshoes still exist, most horseshoes today are manufactured of a blend of materials, such as steel, aluminium, plastic, and even rubber. It is a long time since people went to the smithy for a change of horseshoes, so do blacksmiths still have a role to play in our society?

Back in Ronda, Pedro the blacksmith was sitting high on his horse, nursing his second beer. My husband and I went over to inquire if he was available to do a small job. He agreed and we made plans to visit his workshop the next afternoon. What does an ironsmith in the 21st century rural Andalucía do, we wondered? Judging by Pedro’s shop, he won’t be out of work soon. There were half made fences, gates, hand tools, lamps and hinges. There appeared to always be an old neighbour or two hanging around the shop, shooting the breeze and interrupting his hammering. Most, if not all, of his jobs appeared to come by word of mouth. Local farmers used his services, as did anyone with a horse cart or a campo finca. In addition, with Ronda’s historical town centre needing custom door hardware or classic window bars occasionally replaced, Pedro probably had his future set out for him.

Of course, things have changed a bit. A 21st century smithy doesn’t look completely like my movie set image of a classic forge. Pedro’s shop has a few florescent tubes dangling unceremoniously about and a dirty boom box playing a modern Andalusian beat, letting one know that the herrero is in the house long before one gets there. Yet, the basics are the same. The main tools are anvils, tongs and hammers. There is still sooth abound and a smell of seared metal. And there are still embers, even if they more frequently come from the end of Pedro’s cigarette.

Though he isn’t the only act in town, the other smith is getting too old and no longer wishes to work the forge. Pedro literally grew up in the smithy, learning the trade from his now retired father. At 35, our local smith has worked in this same workshop since he was about 12. When I ask him if there is a school for herreros, he laughs, his bright teeth contrasting his blackened face. This is a trade you learn on the job, he tells me. Though there are modern style metal workers in town, he is the only one in Ronda who still uses the classic forge and makes tools by hand. Regrettably, not a single young rondeño is looking to learn his trade. Nobody is interested in getting their hands dirty, I suppose. But Pedro loves his craft and couldn’t imagine doing any other job. His work is creative and innovative. There is always something new to learn and try out. He is his own boss and sets his own hours. He can smoke on the job and spontaneously set off on horseback, just locking the door behind him. The costumers know him and will understand.

The latest piece Pedro made for us was a custom-designed auxiliary table. He had a quick peak at my chicken scratches and understood exactly what we wanted. It would be ready in a couple of days, he said. Since we are used to the mañana culture of the southern Spanish, we didn’t expect to hear from him for a couple of weeks. Yet, the next afternoon he called and said that it was ready for pick up, primed and all. When we went to his shop, Pedro had the forge going, making arrow shaped attachments for an enormous gate. The sound of his hammering followed a certain musical rhythm, the same that in the past have inspired chain-gang songs and Andalusian flamenco music.

Pedro was puffing as usual and wore a leather apron and a single glove as his sole protection from the flames. On a dust filled tables we discovered half a dozen beautiful axe heads. Pedro explained that he makes these from scrap metal, shaping the part to go around the handle with hammer and tongs and doubling the metal over and over again to create the crescent shaped cutting edge.

How much would one cost, my husband inquires and was told 40 euros. Granted, this was a bit steeper than the price of a factory-made axe, but there was no comparing store bought types with this beauty – a cross between a medieval battle-axe and a Viking storm trooper cleaver. The very same tool had been used for the cork harvest as long as anyone could remember, Pedro told us. The metal had to be heated in the forge and hammered, in between being immersed in what looked like black crude oil to acquire the right hardness. Pedro hit a crucifixion-sized nail to the edge of the axe head in his hand. It gave a pure bell-like sound. Cork harvesters know exactly what axe head they prefer from the feel and the sound of the metal, Pedro told us. Then, like a musician testing an instrument, he tried another one with a slightly lower pitch.

The axe head came home with us, of course. Pedro even thrown in a handle made from lemon wood, apparently one of the hardest there is. Our new tool would be more than sufficient for our modest use of splitting kindling for the fireplace, we thought, coveting our priceless piece of Andalusian history.


Interested in getting an original axe head or custom hand forged hardware? You can try to find Pedro at his shop at the end of barrio San Francisco in Ronda, around the corner from the granary, across from the large horse paddock, just before you take off on the old road to Cartajima. Or you can try to reach him (in Spanish) at the number below:  Pedro Flores Rodriguez +34 652 71 56 51

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