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 jesusmmronda@gmail.com

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.

 

MUNDA  (RONDA)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ACINIPO  (RONDA LA VIEJA)

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. 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

MALACA (MÁLAGA)

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.

 

GADES (CÁDIZ)

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.

 

BAELO CLAUDIA (BOLONIA)

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

EMERITA AUGUSTA (MÉRIDA)

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’!

 

WHY THE ROMANS?

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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Hooch making in the Spanish south – How I became the creator of fine-ish Andalusian liqueurs

Due to my lack of skills in the cooking department, I had serious intensions of making up for this unfortunate deficiency by expanding my baking repertoire once we moved to Andalucía. Yet as time went by, even this has petered down to rare, bi-annual attempts. It is not that I am lazy – it is just that my interests lay elsewhere. And when it comes to making concoctions of the consumable kind, I am much more inclined to play with liquids.

Our ever-changing Andalusian landscape is a celebration of nature’s bounty, with each season bringing new buds. Early spring, as we now have entered, is the period for almond blossoms. Later, bitter oranges will fill the air with their hypnotic azar fragrance, and so the year goes by. Every month is crop season for one thing or another. Many of these yields of the land lend themselves perfectly to the making of liqueurs, allowing one to enjoy the fruits at their peak in small sips throughout the year. Before arriving here, I had never even made wine from a kit, let alone producing a liqueur, but this changed when we got to Andalucía.

It all started with a nut…

 

LICOR DE NUECES (Walnut liqueur)

One late June afternoon, I was driving with our friend Vicente on the windy old road between Ronda and the village of Arriate. Passing by his family’s casa de campo, he asked me if I had seen nueces before. Though nuez means nut in Spanish, it also means a walnut, which is generally what locals refer to when using the term. As I was not acquainted with such trees, Vicente backed the car up and brought me into his parents’ garden. After greeting his ancient mother who sat on the porch, we walked over to a rather nondescript tree, called a nogal. Hidden among its long pointed leaves were pods of round greenish nuts about the size of golf balls. These make a wonderful Licor de Nueces, Vicente told me, wondering if I wanted to try to make some? Always interested in learning the customs of the locals, I immediately said “Yes, of course!”

This is Vicente’s recipe (with a few of my own additions):

- Pick 12 walnuts, ideally on summer solstice (June 21)

- Dig out a 20+ litre old hand-blown wine jug from your shed or buy one in an antiguedades store. If the latter cannot be found, a much less romantic food-grade plastic olive oil jar can be used. Either way, make sure that the mouth of the receptacle is big enough to swallow the nuts.

- Poor in 6 litres of cheap white wine.

- Add 6 kilos (!) of plain white sugar and let it dissolve.

- Plop in the twelve nuts. (I threw in thirteen for good luck)

- Cover the jug with a blanket to keep out the sunlight. Forget about the inebriant and do not move the bottle for 6 (yes, six) months.

- On la nochebuena (Dec 24.), undress the glass jug, discard the nuts and decanter liqueur into bottles for many a Christmas cheer. Your finished liqueur will have a dark mahogany colour, as the nogal is also traditionally used as a tint for staining furniture etc.

After storing away the Licor de Nueces in late June, I was encouraged to expand production to other liqueurs, as well. When later that summer the cherries were in season, my husband and I decided it was time for number two in our new line of quaffable creations.

LICOR DE CEREZA (Cherry liqueur)

Unlike the first product, we never had a recipe for our cherry liqueur. My father, rest his soul, used to make a very decent cherry liqueur in his day back in Norway, but his required a lot of sugar. Feeling we had gone overboard on sweetness with our first decoction, we decided to let the fruit do the job sin azucar this time around and see what came of it.

Here is the process:

- Buy a 750 ml bottle of plain vodka at your corner store or fuel station of choice. To begin with a neutral, flavourless spirit, spring for something not completely dirt cheap.

- Wait until the biggest blackest juiciest cherries are in season and buy a small flat (a generous kilo) from the neighbour at the top off the street.

- Poor vodka into a wide-mouthed bottle (minimum 1.5 litres). Should you desire a smoother flavour, a cooled down sugar-syrup can be added (two parts sugar to one part water).

- Add as many cherries as you can fit, still allowing a bit of ‘breathing room’.

- Let liqueur steep for about 3 months. In contrast to the walnut liqueur, the liquid can be moved, looked at and even tested periodically.

- Filter, decanter and put drunken cherries aside for next day’s baking project (for instance a spiked black forest cake)

- Though post-steep ageing of the liqueur is recommended, we just did this in the final bottle, while gradually consuming it.

 

 

ORUJO AND OTHER LOCAL HOOCH 

As the summer comes to an end and the fall announces its arrival, the rondeños start making their annual batch of mosto. This is a fermented grape juice, tasting a bit like mixing tepid leftovers of beer and white wine the day after a party. You can see I am not a fan, though we certainly have enjoyed helping neighbours with their annual mosto pressing.

Once the juice is extracted from the grapes, the remaining skins, seeds and solids are traditionally used to make a moonshine type of liquor called orujo. This drink can be flavoured with anything from coffee beans to lemon peels to peppers and herbs. In contrast to my liqueurs, which are pure mixology, this involves distilling and might therefore not be completely legal. I have never asked…

Following the local lead, we came to realize that almost anything could be steeped into alcohol and made into a flavoured liqueur. I had an utterly failed attempt at making Poire Williams, probably because I tried to force pears down the far too narrow throat of an antique apothecary glass jar. Clearly such rough handling will not reap good results. Anyhow, I was looking for new things to steep. As the almond trees near our barrio were about to being picked, I decided to take advantage of this fall crop.

 

 

AMARETTO ANDALU’ (Andalusian amaretto)

There are all kinds of instant amaretto receipts on the net, but I had set my mind on making an almond liqueur from scratch. Speaking to local almendra growers and merging their advise with online information, I came up with an Andalucian version of the loved and much copied Italian liqueur.

Here is how it goes:

- Pick a few dozen apricots, eat them and leave the pits to dry in the sun for a good week.

- In the meantime, check which of your neighbours has home grown unshelled almonds to spare. Ideally sweet, though one bitter one won’t hurt.

- Split the shells of the nuts and the apricot pits with a hammer. Separate the shelled almonds and apricot kerns.

- Go shopping for booze (vodka and brandy) and frutos secos.

- Chop ¼ cup dried unsweetened cherries and ½ cup dried apricots. Let the apricots rehydrate in ¾ cup of water for 30 minutes or so.

- Chop about two cups worth of your shelled skin-on almonds and ¼ cup apricot kerns

- Add 1.5 cups of vodka and 1.5 cups of brandy.

- Poor the mixture into a glass-jar with an airtight lid. Let it sit in dark place for a month or two to macerate.

- Strain the nuts and dried fruits through cheesecloth to separate the liquid, twice if required. Save the chopped nuts and spiked dried fruit for your second annual baking project.

- Make a sugar syrup out of ½ cup brown sugar, ½ cup white sugar + ½ cup purified water, heating it up gradually.

- Add ½ cup brandy, ½ cup vodka, 2 teaspoons natural almond extract (I get mine from Norway) and 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract to the strained liquid. Poor in desired amount of the cooled down sugar syrup.

- Strain again through coffee filter to get out last sediments. Decanter into bottles, and start enjoying by Christmas. 

LICOR DE MEMBRILLO

One of the last fruits of the year to ripen in Andalucía is the richly yellow quince, or membrillo, which the locals make into a wonderful liqueur. This is one of my favourites, because of the rich orangey colour and the fresh citrusy taste. Like any good recipe, there are countless versions, all claiming to be the very best.

Here is how it is made:

- In late November, go to the campo and pick some ripe membrillos. In years when the crop is plentiful you might skip this step, as the fruit will likely be brought to your door by generous friends and neighbours. Leave one membrillo in your car as a deodorizer for the winter.

- Clean, peel and crop the fruit meat into pieces. This is a laborious process, at least here in the rural south where fruit aren’t sprayed so virtually every quince has at least one worm. Save everything except the pieces with bug canals.

- In a large pot, add membrillo peels and fruit cores, as well as a couple of pieces of cinnamon bark and a few whole cloves.  Cover with water (one finger above fruit) and let it cook on low flame for about 30 minutes. Your kitchen should now smell heavenly! Let it cool.

- Strain liquid into another pot, add a few handfuls (ca ½ kg) of sugar. Bring to a boil, and let it simmer until it thickens. You will end up with a deep orange quince-flavoured sugar syrup.

- Discard the cooked peels and quince cores, but save any salvageable cooked fruit pieces for future baking projects or to enjoy as quince compote.

- While many recipes ask for Cognac (they actually mean cheap Brandy…), rondeños usually prefer Anís as the base spirit for their licor de membrillo.

- Poor in the content of the 750 ml bottle with the cooled down quince flavoured sugar syrup. Next, stuff in as many pieces of raw membrillo as your bottle will take. To get a warm sunset look, some locals add a splash of red wine, though the purists do without. A licor de membrillo made only from the flavoured syrup can be enjoyed right away, though I prefer to leave my concoction for a month or two to soak up more fruit flavour from the raw quince fruit pieces. In the meantime, your licor de cereza or licor de nueces should be ready.

- Bottle and dispense.

Through my handful of years as a liqueur maker, I have strived to perfect my process, yet each year, each crop and each batch is different. Every liqueur has its own personality, so to speak.

Two summers ago I had another go at the licor de nueces with a Canadian friend who has a lovely rambling orchard adjacent to their casa de campo. We made a double batch, with 12 litres of wine, far to much sugar to say out loud and 24 nuts from her nogal trees, plus a couple more for good measure, since we both think 13 is a lucky number. Later that year, she took a job in another part of the country, forgetting all about our little production. One nochebuena passed and then a second one. A year and a half later our jug still sits unmoved in her garage, cosily covered with a blanket. It is waiting for us to reveal the liqueur of the century – unless, of course, the whole thing blows up when we finally open it…

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The bridge that divides us – Ronda at war over crumbling patrimony

If there is one thing that Ronda is known for, it is its emblematic bridge, El Puente Nuevo. Literally millions of tourists from all around the world come to our small town in southern Spain to photograph the lofty construction that gaps the deep El Tajo gorge. However, these days the residents of Ronda are up in arms due to new bridge traffic regulations, forced on by cracks in the century-old construction.

El Puente Nuevo, literally meaning ‘the new bridge’, is not a new structure by any means, though it is the most recent of the three bridges that span the chasm where the Guadalevin River splits the town in two. The older still-existing bridges include the 11th century Puente Árabe or Arab bridge (sometimes called the Roman bridge), and the Puente Viejo or Old Bridge, which present incarnation is dated back to 1616. When it comes to Ronda, everything is old…

The idea of a new bridge was proposed as early as in 1542, but construction didn’t start until 1735. Unfortunately, the rapidly built, single-arched bridge collapsed. The construction of the present Puente Nuevo started in 1759 and was completed more than 30 years later, in 1793. Gapping a 100-plus meter deep gorge, it finally gave the citizens of Ronda a direct route between the Casco Histórico, or old town and the area called El Mercadillo, the present day downtown core. The triple arched bridge measured 98 meters tall by 70 meters long and was the work of the renowned Aragon architect José Martín de Aldehuel, who was also responsible for Ronda’s bullring, as well as the reconstruction of Malaga’s cathedral. The material he used for the construction was extracted from the riverbed below, so the design would fit harmoniously the warm colours of the cliffs that surrounded it. His beautiful bridge still stands until this day, but the question is, for how much longer?

Through the years, Puente Nuevo has been subject to many uses and popular legends. When Ronda’s police station was located at the market end of the bridge, the hidden chamber above the central arch was used as a prison. It is also said to have been a torture chamber during the Spanish Civil War. However, what is most unique about the bridge today is that more than two centuries after it was opened, it is still the major thoroughfare to get from one part of town to another. Unfortunately, the ever-increasing burden of urban development, namely vehicle use, has become a major risk factor for the bridge itself and therefore for Ronda’s patrimony.

Constructed in a time of horse and carriage-use, the Puente Nuevo was never intended to withstand the ceaseless strain of modern day bumper-to-bumper traffic. In the last few years we have witnessed how passing vehicles have gradually degraded the road surface. The endpoint of the bridge meeting the historic quarter of town started sinking, creating a large indentation in the road surface. Bumpy roads aren’t uncommon for any of us living in rural Andalucia, but it ought to be a cause for concern when the depression is located at the joining point where a bridge meets land, particularly when the embankment is a 100 meter free fall, should said structure fail. Furthermore, it is worrisome when the same bridge is one of the town’s most important historical monuments, the emblematic symbol of Ronda, and the key tourist attraction of which the town lives.

Though smaller repairs have been made in the past years, it wasn’t until this winter that the municipal authorities took the bulls by the horns and dealt with the impending crisis. And this is when the ‘war’ of Ronda started. Many, or dear I say most of its residents, accustomed to be able to speed across the bridge at all hours, were furious when the town hall first closed the bridge for essential structural repairs, and then proceeded to regulating the hours of vehicle traffic on the bridge. In a small town like ours, global disasters rarely seem to affect people, but when their ability to drive their car across a National monument is regulated, watch out. That is when the people of Ronda start to protest. Our peaceful and somewhat sleepy streets became a placard-filled zone over night. Neighbours and friends spoke in loud voices or became enemies due to disagreement about the new rules. Anyone in public office had to be prepared to answer screaming citizens who wondered what the politicians had done to ‘their’ bridge, seeing the partial closure as an act of treason. Their concern was not for the bridge, but for their God-given right to motor across it.

“NO to closing the bridge without alternatives”, protest banners in our barrio say.

And I agree with them. The bridge should not be closed without alternatives, but what many people fail to recognise is that for one, the bridge has not been closed. Its hours of use have merely been regulated. The bridge is still open for traffic most of the day and the night. Only 6.5 hours of 24 have been regulated, with reduced traffic between 10.00 am and 13.30 and again between 17.00 and 20.00. The driving restrictions generally go into effect once people already are at work or at school, based on local statistics. The second regulation, long time overdue, sets the speed limit on the bridge itself and throughout the historic quarter of town to 20 km/h, with vehicle size at max 3.5 tons. This is welcome news for both the bridge and the ancient buildings in the historic centre, which before had to withstand speeding vehicles fuming past on the narrow cobbled streets. In the past, if one stood at the bridge when one of the huge recycling trucks passed over it, one could literally feel it shaking. It is actually a miracle that Puente Nuevo is still standing!

As far as the protesters second concern, people do have alternatives. One can drive across the bridge for the 17.5 out of 24 hours daily when bridge traffic isn’t regulated. Furthermore, anyone is allowed to walk, bike, or drive two wheeled vehicles across the bridge at all hours of day and night. Emergency vehicles and community services such as buses and taxis can also pass at any hour, in addition to residents of the historic quarter and hotel guests/staff in the same area. Otherwise, commercial deliveries, people conducting business at the town hall and parents with children in school in the regulated zone are given expanded hours of use to facilitate their needs. Besides, residents have the option of driving around the Circunvalación or ring road, something that might take them another 20 minutes. The alternatives seem quite reasonable and well thought out. Granted that this detour may seem like a tremendous inconvenience to some locals, but compared to the hours of commute that many people in other parts of Spain and the rest of the world have to do, it is a mere trifle. While an alternative road closer to the centre would be beneficial, this will take time to decide on and to build. This is precious time that the ancient bridge doesn’t have, certainly not unless we ease its traffic burden, ideally for good.

We live in the Barrio San Francisco, right outside of the town defensive wall, just beyond the Casco Histórico. To get from our home to the downtown area takes a brisk 12-minute walk or a sauntering 22-minute stroll. The bus, which now passes more frequently, costs 1 euro or 50 cents for pensioners and students, and brings you downtown in a couple of minutes. Angry neighbours have told us that the people of our barrio have been discriminated against. The poor people of our neighbourhood cannot afford the extra expense of driving around the ring road, they say. (If you are that poor, can you even afford a car?) Others complain that the bus is too costly, though many of these same people can be seen daily at the local bodegas consuming the equivalent of at least half a dozen bus trips. Just an observation…

The other comment we often hear in our barrio is “The bridge won’t fall down! And, if it does, we’ll just build a new one.”

The first claim is an erroneous notion, as bridges do fall down. We do not have to go any further than to Ronda itself, where the bridge constructed prior to the Puente Nuevo collapsed after less than 6 years of use, resulting in the death of 50 people. Every bridge construction represents structural challenges that must be taken into consideration before starting a build, such as the geology of the area, intended use, environmental factors, and the material to be utilised. In the case of Puente Nuevo these factors might have been perfectly calculated at the time of the construction, but now 225 years later many of these factors will have been altered.

Historically speaking, bride collapses are usually the result of multiple factors. Design flaws, weather changes, increased usage and poor maintenance might all be a contributing factor to an eventual collapse. As additional weight is placed on a bridge, the structural elements might end up supporting more weight than the bridge is capable of carrying, or certainly more than the architect intended it to do. In Ronda’s case, the materials used, a porous combination of limestone and sandstone, might one day render the bridge too weak to withstand the weight of any vehicles. There is a minimum amount of maintenance necessary for a bridge to remain upright for its intended lifespan, and the key point to this is that every bridge has a life span.

A far more insidious danger to bridge structures is water damage, which can gradually and invisibly wear away at the surrounding rock and surface material where the bridge stands. Though the piers of Puente Nuevo seem solid enough and stand on relatively dry land as we speak, they are placed on either side of a river whose level were higher than the bridge foundation just a few decades ago. Today the water level in the river is regulated, but if a base of a bridge sat inside the river in the past, the moving water would have caused additional erosion. In addition, there might be other unknown weaknesses in the current bridge’s foundation, since another architect who abandoned the project with the foundation piers partly made started the initial bridge construction.

Lack of maintenance is often a contributing factor to bridge collapses. When visual cracks appear, the concerned ought to be the damage that isn’t seen. We have witnessed previous attempts to fix Ronda’s monumental giant, as local construction crews tried to stop cracks and leaks by pouring bags of quick-dry cement into a manhole at the historic end of the bridge. But as Ronda’s gorge itself is a proof of, water will always find a way, and no Band Aid solution will ever be enough.

Maintaining a century old bridge that ends in an historic town, dating back to before the Romans were here, cannot be easy, as was discovered when the most recent repairs were done. Wastewater and sewers from parts of the historic centre were found to be flowing directly underground and filtering through the bridge, causing rapid deterioration to the structure. After the latest repair, the wastewater is now led away by huge pipes. We can only hope that these continue beyond the bridge and into a water treatment plant.

As for the second option of the protesting locals, that we can “just build a new bridge”, this is a very shortsighted solution, which would be devastating for Ronda. First of all, keeping a bridge open until it falls down puts citizens and visitors at risk. Secondly, a collapsed bridge would ruin Ronda’s patrimony and historical significance, and would forever destroy the town’s chances of becoming a UNESCO world Heritage site, as it supposedly hopes to become. A collapse would give the town a tragic image, instead of a mind-blowing one.

Visitors come to Ronda to see the bridge, not any bridge. Nobody would come and see a new bridge, unless it was a hyper modern structure and the world’s longest pedestrian glass bridge, designed by Calatrava, and that would not solve the town’s traffic problems. Even if it is free for tourists to walk across the Puente Nuevo, Ronda thrives because of these very visitors. Tourism is not only the largest, but also the only significant industry in town, other than a handful smaller vineyards and olive oil producers. In other words, Ronda without a bridge would starve. So, when local restaurants complain that their visitor numbers have gone down due to the ‘closed’ bridge, imagine how these businesses would suffer if Ronda’s tourism industry no longer existed. Reduced vehicle traffic on the bridge will not affect tourism negatively, rather the opposite, as visitors generally choose to walk. And with the majority of the town’s businesses and therefore residents indirectly living from these tourists who primarily come to see the bridge, this should be the town’s main priority to protect, even if it will inconvenience us in the short run.

Take any great construction in the world, the Egyptian pyramids, the Great Wall of China, the Eiffel tower or Andalucía’s own Alhambra, all these have to be protected for the sake of humanity. We do not take shortcuts through any of these historical monuments, nor should we be allowed to drive freely over Ronda’s most important patrimony, certainly not if this can cause its collapse.

I can see the frustration of parents who are used to popping their kids up to town for their karate classes, but at one point things have to change, even in our town. Whether we like it or not, the bridge cannot take it’s current load. It is cracking. All around the world children walk to school and to violin lessons, alone, with classmates or with adults following them, so why not here in our safe little town? If I were the mayor of Ronda, I would take the present opportunity to start ‘walk to school’ and ‘bike to work’ campaigns, myself being the first one to do so. I would change my own and the town halls habits for greener options and try to bring the residents with me. Walk the walk, as it were.

The last judgement on Ronda’s bridge issue has not yet been pronounced. There is an election coming up this summer. Any candidate who wants to win the popular vote just has to promise to open the bridge for 24 hours a-day traffic again. And this would pretty much be a death warrant for our bridge. Yet, there is still a glimmer of hope. Every day as we walk across the Puente Nuevo we notice more and more locals doing the same. We can only pray that as time goes by, they will get used to this new way of rondeño living and even learn to appreciate the extra bit of fresh air and exercise, while pondering the stunning views from our magnificent bridge.

 

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