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Our Andalucian paradise

My husband and I had lived in Mexico City, LA, Paris, Guadalajara, Oslo, Montreal, and Vancouver. On a rainy night in November 2012 we moved to a small town an hour inland from Malaga. 'Our Andalucian paradise' is about the historical town of Ronda, the mountains that surrounds it, the white villages dotted amongst them, of hikes, donkey trails and excursions around Andalucía and journeys further afield.

Divine Spanish Holiday Treats – spending a day in our local convent kitchen
13 January 2020

Our Franciscan nuns at work. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Say the word Christmas and people’s mouths begin to water. T’is the season for sweet indulgences and sins to abound. In Spain bakers get into high gear, as amigos, families, companies and brotherhoods prepare to celebrate this more or less religious occasion.

Baking frocks. Photo © Karethe Linaae

With Christmas approaching, Andalucía’s streets are filled with the buttery smell of mantecados and other confections. The best ones are produced behind the walls of local convents. Some sisterhoods have held onto their secret recipes since the Middle Ages, while others are newer to the trade, since their work as teachers, nurses and seamstresses have diminished.

Symbol of Franciscan Order on cupboard. Photo © Karethe Linaae

The names of convent pastries often reflect their saintly origins, such as Pastelitos de Gloria, Trufas de Madre de Dios and Corazones de Santa Clara. In Seville’s Convento de San Leandro, Augustinian nuns have been baking since the 16th Century. Their most famous pastry, Yemas de San Leandro, has only three ingredients: egg yolks, sugar and a few drops of lemon.

Gañotes from San Francisco Convent. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Hundreds of different types of artisan reposterías are made in Andalucía’s convent kitchens. Carmelites, Cistercian and Franciscans are some orders that will produce sweet temptations for the holiday. While initially selling to the surrounding communities, some convents now have websites, offer gluten-free alternatives, and can ship anywhere in the world.

Batatines with sweet potato. Photo © Karethe Linaae

One of the most typical Christmas pastries are Roscos de Vino. Andalusian children will keep three roscos to give to the Holy Three Kings on Dia de los Reyes, hence called Roscos de Reyes. While the grandmothers of every household used to bake them, today the duty often falls to local nunneries.

Roscos. Photo © Karethe Linaae

A special Christmas pastry from Malaga’s villages is the borrachuelo. Borracho means drunk, so they include alcoholic cider. The miniature empanada is filled with cabello de angel (angel hair) spaghetti squash marmalade. Each piece is deep-fried and dunked in sugar to add naughtiness to the sinful experience.

Pumpkins to make Cabella de Angel. Photo © Karethe Linaae

It is no surprise that some pastries date from the Al Andalus era, for example el Alfajor (Arabic al-fakher, meaning luxurious). Found in the Spanish dictionary since the 14th Century, Alfajos were exported to the New World and has become a traditional Christmas treat in South America.

Sor Isabel by the oven. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Our local nuns at Convento San Francisco in Ronda have also gained quite a reputation for their blessed dulces. When we catch the ancient Sister Natividad with a giant hammer cracking a sack of almonds on a tree trunk in the convent patio, we know their preparations have started.

Parting almonds the old way. Photo © Karethe Linaae

As December approaches, the sisters roll dough around the clock, kneading their love, care and culinary traditions into every bite-sized treat. I went to visit them during one of these busy days, when they were making 35 kilos of mantecados – meaning a few thousand cookies – by hand in a single day!

Hecho a mano. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Originating in Antequera and brought to fame in the tiny town of Estepa, mantecados can now be found all over the country and is synonymous with Spanish Christmas. What’s the secret? Could it be the generous amount of lard?

Sifter anno 1950's. Photo © Karethe Linaae

In their industrial-sized 19th Century kitchen, the sisters chat softly as they fill tray after tray with round little dough balls that later one of the novices will top with sesame seeds.

Adding the sesame seeds. Photo © Karethe Linaae

After cooking, each mantecado is individually wrapped in a silk paper with the convent’s seal.  “Working and praying is our life”, Sor Isabel says and Madre Nieves, the Abbess adds that with all the bitterness in the world, they prey that their treats will sweeten the lives of those who eat them.

Sister Natividad, soon 90. Photo © Karethe Linaae

When I ask them where they keep their recipes, they look down at their busy hands pretending not to hear. Each convent has their own specialties and the recipes are a tightly guarded secret. What I can disclose is that no pastry has more than a handful ingredients, and that there are no preservatives or artificial flavourings. Ground almond or wheat flour, butter or lard, cider or sugar and a touch or cinnamon, lemon peel or orange zest. Most ingredients are grown locally, some in the monastic gardens. There are still convents who will sell the sweets through the traditional lazy Susan embedded in the wall not to show their faces, but our nuns now sell them from their little store, albeit still behind bars…

Sor Isabel in the convent shop. Photo © Karethe Linaae

People here say that the nun’s reposterías taste of home cooking, old village kitchens and a bit of heaven. Thanks to the income from their baking, they can continue their simple lives and maintain the convent. By purchasing their artisan pastries, you are not only getting to know an important part of Spanish gastronomy, but also keeping alive part of the country’s history.

Ready. Photo © Karethe Linaae

The convent is open for holiday purchases from 10 - 18.

Convento San Francisco
Passage de las Franciscanas 1, Barrio de San Francisco, Ronda, Malaga
Tel: 952872177

The traditional Lazy Susan. Photo © Karethe Linaae

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The Madrid Climate Conference and the ‘no-pasa nada’ rural Andalucía
06 December 2019

The sun is killing me. Photo © Karethe Linaae

As world leaders meet at the United Nation Climate Change Conference in Madrid these days and a brave young Swede has sailed across the Atlantic to get there, I thought it time to take a look at Spain’s own ecological backyard – more specifically the rural Andalusian environment.


Sunflowers. Photo © Karethe Linaae

It often feels like the urban cites in northern Spain and our small southern town of Ronda are in completely different countries. Occasionally we even seem to live in separate millennia… When looking up at the nearly eternally blue skies, drawing in the fresh mountain air and beholding the spectacular Serranía de Ronda all around, one can almost be tempted to think that we are not affected by the global climate crisis.


Ronda. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Indeed, some naysayers insist that there is no problem at all. No pasa nada. But you only need to open your eyes to see the stark reality. Andalucía’s alleged White Villages or Pueblos Blancos are not only affected by the climate crisis. We are also contributing to it.

We are the river reflections. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Greta  - role model or laughing stock? 

Yesterday, I asked a couple of my students what they and their classmates thought about Greta Thunberg. They smirked and said that she had some kind of problem. I know that teenage boys will snicker at almost anything, but I had thought that they would admire someone of their own age who dares to speak up about their future for all the world to hear. Instead, their reaction echoed the ignorant, ill-informed and completely insensitive Donald Trump, who mocked Greta because of her Asperger syndrome. Some people might perceive her as ‘mentally unstable’, but with the desperate state of the current environment, we should all feel mentally unstable. Actually, we should be terrified into action!


Dry earth. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Greta’s ailment hasn’t stopped her more than acne or asthma has limited my students. I hope that they represent a minority of Andalusian youth, and that most young Spaniards are encouraged to protest alongside Greta. For those who make fun of her, she is far braver, more articulate and driven than 99% of the world’s teens and adults, politicians included!


Climate Conference vs. rural Spain

Ciudad soñada. Photo © Karethe Linaae


While the UN Secretary General opened the Climate Conference by saying that we are ‘close to a point of no return’, and the conference aims at promoting civic action and social participation, back to our small town people are still debating whether recycling makes a difference. We do have recycling containers, but many claim that everything ends up in the skip anyhow (possibly true some years back…) or simply don’t give a damn and put all their refuge into to the garbage.


Recycling nightmare. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Of course there are many eco-conscious citizens, but judging from our neighbourhood, I’d say that most rondeños do not recycle. The biggest political issue here is not a cleaner environment, but getting a freeway from the coast so bigger hordes of tourists can invade our town. So, the first rural environmental challenge is to convince people here that the environment matters and civil duties refer to all of us. 


Horses in trashy paddock. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Unlike most developed countries, there is unfortunately no money-back system for empty plastic bottles and metal cans in Spain. People therefore see such envases as worthless and discard them as rubbish. Collecting ‘empties’ is a livelihood for many people in other countries, so why can’t it be done here? Way back in 2012, there was a study done to examine the cost of introducing a bottle deposit refund system in Spain. Nothing has come out of it yet, but can Spain really afford NOT to implement this system?


Beer bottles. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Drive or walk to school?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, most carbon monoxide pollution comes from motor vehicles. While emissions per mile driven is significantly less than in the 1970s due to alternative fuels and ‘cleaner’ vehicles, the sheer number of drivers and cars on the road counteract these improvements. Everybody knows that we should limit our car use, but the rural south is, as always, lagging behind the times.


No parking. Photo © Karethe Linaae

In our relatively small town (approx. 34.000 inhabitants), everything is more or less within walking distance. Neither dangerous traffic nor threats of kidnappings prevent children from walking to school, yet most local students are driven door to door. When I asked a neighbour why she drove her teenage daughter the 3.5 blocks to school, she told me that this is what is done, or else other parents might think you don’t have a car.

In a time of increasing childhood obesity, diabetes and ADD, a few minutes daily walk is not only advisable, it should be compulsory. Yet driving your offspring is considered good parenting. Kids won’t protest, of course, or they might have to get up 10 minutes earlier to arrive to school on time. But if a 16-year-old girl can sail across the Atlantic, they can surely stroll the few hundred meters to their colegio?


School children. Photo © Karethe Linaae

It is not only local children who are over-chauffeured in rural Andalucía. Even if it means circling around for 15 minutes to find parking near their destination, some locals will still drive a few blocks to get to work, go shopping or meet buddies at the bar. The second set of rural environmental challenges are therefore to advocate for frequent, subsidized, round-the-clock public transportation, traffic-safety lessons for school children, city cycles, car-free zones and reserved bike lanes, and a massive walk-to-work campaign starting with the mayor and every civil servant in town. 


Renewable energy in sunny Spain

Scalding sun. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Spain has the most hours of sunshine in Europe, yet only 5.2% of its renewable energy comes from solar power. Actually, Germany, Italy, France and even rainy UK produce more solar power than Spain! Between the financial crisis and the debilitating “sun tax” of 2015 (only eased last year), the solar power revolution ground to a halt, leaving endless work to be done. On the other hand, wind power accounts for over 20% of the national power production and might soon overtake the biggest Spanish power source, nuclear energy. On a positive note, only 4.5% of Spanish power production comes from fossil fuels.


What the future will bring. Photo © Karethe Linaae


A rural eco-challenge many towns in Andalucía have to deal with is how to protect historical areas while still allowing the use of solar panels and other renewable power-sources. The technologies are there.  Surely there are alternatives that will neither endanger nor blemish Andalucía’s historic town centres.


Cadiz. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Water wasting fiesta in the 21 Century

Water is a resource that soon will become extremely scarce, particularly in southern Europe. Every year the temperature rises and draughts last longer. Yet, Ronda is the only place we have ever lived which does not have a compulsory public water-rationing program every summer, which is my next rural eco challenge.  


Saintly water fountain. Photo © Karethe Linaae


In 2004, around the time of the Kyoto accord, a new fiesta was introduced in our neighbourhood – la fiesta del agua. While the Sahara desert is threatening to move north and masses of people worldwide are living without drinking water, our town brings in the local fire trucks to hose down the people in our neighbourhood square every August.


Water fountains. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Of course, it is a very popular party. Kids love playing with water and teenagers get a chance to participate in an impromptu wet T-shirt contest. But this is not the time to be wasteful with resources, so how about saving that water for the next time a forest fire rages through the sierra?


Forest fire warning sign. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Sewer waste vs. geothermal solutions

One of our gravest rural environmental challenges is the lack of water processing plants in Andalucía’s White Villages. Several of these towns are situated within Natural Parks and some are declared European Places of Cultural Interest. Yet many have no sewer processing facilities, so human waste goes directly into the local river systems.


Pueblos Blancos. Photo © Karethe Linaae


This includes favoured eco-tourist destinations such as Montejaque, Jimera de Libar, Cortes de la Frontera, Atajate, Benarrabá, Algatocín, Benadalid, Alpandeire, Júzcar, Farajan, Pujerra, Cartajima, Parauta and Benaoján. The latter village is a hob for the meat processing industry and all their dirty slaughterhouse water also gets flushed into the Guadiaro river!


Water pipe lead to the Guadiario river by Estación de  Benaoján. Photo © Karethe Linaae


The general excuse from the Spanish government, be it local, provincial or national, is always that there is no money. But in a country that receives more than 60 million tourists per year, surely there must be enough money to clean up our ‘shit’, so to speak? 


Trash bins in our hood. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Ronda only got its water processing plant in the early 2000s. Better late than never one could say, though when a sewer pipe broke in October of last year, it took the town nearly a year to fix the crack. Meanwhile, the leak polluted the tributary creek Arroyo de las Culebras that feeds into the Guadalevín River, the very same river that goes through Ronda’s much-photographed Tajo gorge. And, we are still waiting for the local government to clean up the spillage…


The Guadalevin river. Photo © Karethe Linaae


On several occasions, Ronda town hall has had to send out warnings about swimming in the local rivers due to ‘accidental’ leaks. Meanwhile, the local government recently proposed to make a public beach on the banks where these two rivers meet. If it happens, perhaps we will have to share the space with sewer rats?


Polluted dog after entering into Arroyo de las Culebras. Photo © Karethe Linaae



Saving trees?

Lonesome. Photo © Karethe Linaae


At a time when forest fires destroy millions of trees every year and the natural environment should be protected at all costs, Ronda is cutting down trees. The multinational electrical company ENDESA was given virtually free range to chop down the trees along the before-mentioned creek so their branches would not interfere with their electrical lines. These same trees were planted and cared for by Ronda’s school children almost 30 years ago. Protestors managed to stop the company’s first attempts at buzz-cutting the trees, but it is only a question of time before they come back with the chainsaws.


Arroyo de las Culebras, Ronda. Photo © Karethe Linaae


The irony is that a few years ago, Ronda’s town hall had money allocated to put these unsightly electrical cables under-ground. Furthermore, there are pipes in the ground alongside the creek installed just last year to lead electrical cables to the town’s new hospital. So the pipes are there, the money should be there (though they were likely misspent…), and the electrical company on their ever so green web page speaks about their grand mission of sustainability. But ‘no pasa nada’…


"We are keeping our river clean". From Setenil de las Bodegas.  Photo © Karethe Linaae


Spain has the natural resources and the know-how to become a leading nation for the environment. But are people willing to sacrifice some of their present comfort and convenience to make the future of their children and their children’s children more liveable?

Ronda's young - our future. Photo © Karethe Linaae

I hope that the Madrid Climate Conference and the acts of a brave young Swede will have a positive impact not only on the world at large, but even bring positive change to Spain’s rural communities. Despite the existing challenges of tackling climate change, the risk of doing nothing is much greater. Ronda, our beloved city of dreams will not be la ciudad soñada for long if we do not do something fast.  


 Where to go? Lost baby turtle on the road to Benaoján. Photo © Karethe Linaae

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Want to learn Spanish? Seven tips on how to go native
29 November 2019

Faux flamenco. Photo © Jaime de la Barrera


Many foreigners live in Spain for years and never learn to speak the local language. Some say they are too old. Others won’t even try, surviving I suppose, with English and sign language. I am the first to admit that my memory isn’t as receptive now as it was when I was young, but for us who have chosen to live in rural Andalucía, not learning Spanish is really not an option.


Barrio street. Photo © Karethe Linaae


For those who struggle with past and future verb conjugations and find Andalu’ twang hard to understand, here are a few tips on how to go native and achieve semi-fluency at any age.


1. Change el Chip


The fishmonger. Photo © Karethe Linaae


To quote a much-used Spanglish expression, the first thing one must do to learn Spanish is to ‘cambiar el chip’. In other words, start with the attitude. We must tell ourselves repeatedly and truly come to believe that we will speak Spanish. Every time we say to ourselves that something is too difficult, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.


Solito. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Learning a foreign language isn’t only a way to widen ones horizons and enables one to communicate with the locals, it is also healthy for the brain. Practicing multiple languages can keep Alzheimer’s and dementia at bay. It is never too late. My role model for continual learning is a friend of my mother in Norway, who still reads the French Le Monde newspaper every morning even though she just celebrated her 100th birthday…


2. Find a new maestro


Victoriano - Once a rebel, always a rebel... Photo © Karethe Linaae


When we came to Ronda, I was recommended to enrol in a Spanish course for foreigners. Actually, nobody we know became fluent through that school, though several of the students redid the beginner course numerous times. I left after a couple of months, finding that I learned less stuck in a classroom between other foreigners than on the street.


Salvador and María Jesús on second honeymoon. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Most foreign residents in Ronda attend a private Spanish school. It is a great place to meet the local international community, but once again, nobody we know who has taken classes there for years seem to speak fluent Spanish. At least not yet…

I am not trying to discredit the value of formal education, but one cannot achieve total immersion in a classroom. Cliché as it may sound, try to attend ‘the school of life’ as well. Begin by talking with the neighbours.


Manolo teaches us basket weaving. Photo © Karethe Linaae


There are no better teachers than the locals. Take Monolo, who taught us the classic (and sadly dying) art of reed basket weaving. The lesson took place on his patio, didn’t cost us a cent and we even walked away with a basket as a present and offers of a future lesson in broom making!


3. Slow down


It’s a dog’s life.... Photo © Karethe Linaae


We all want things to happen instantaneously. This is certainly the case for us who came from North America to the Spanish south. But when you move to a mañana culture, you have to embrace the fluidness of any situation and accept what may come.


Thursday afternoon at Miguel's. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Though Andalusians talk at break neck speeds and never seem to run out of topics, the general pace of life here is more leisurely than in northern climates. It is a challenge for some of us to slow down, and more difficult still to try to calm our urgency to speak perfect Spanish right away. But learning one expression per day is sufficient. Daring to engage with one local person per week is a step in the right direction. If you cannot read a whole book in Spanish yet, start with travel brochures or Hola magazines. The know-how will come in it’s own good time one of these mañanas. If you have chosen to come to Spain in your latter years, there is no hurry, is there?


Two of our favourite neighbours, Isabel and Mari KiKi. Photo © Jaime de la Barrera


Many of the elderly in our neighbourhood love to chat, like Mari-KiKi. Now in her late 80’s, she grew up in the mills in Ronda’s Tajo. The buildings are now in ruins, but she will gladly tell you how our town used to be. Ask as many questions as you like. The bell wont ring and she has no time restraints.  And more importantly, you will be doing your elderly neighbours a social service by offering them your ear.


4. Go shopping


Laura in another barrio mom and pop store. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Some people do not need much encouragement in this department, while for others the mere thought of going into stores is torturous. But do not undervalue this seemingly trivial pastime.

There are endless language lessons to be had by simply going to a local corner shop. We love and frequent all of them, though one of my favourites is Pepe’s. His store is so small that barely two clients can fit at the same time, but you won’t believe what you can find behind his counter. These types of stores are also the best to source local produce. Pepe’s vegetables come from his father’s field, which provides fabulous organic vegetables, like this Romanesque Borccoflowers, almost year round.


Pepe with his father's organic broccoflower. Photo © Karethe Linaae


The smaller the establishment, the more regulars you will meet and thus, the better the conversation. Besides, by buying from these mom and pop businesses, you contribute to the local economy.


Miguel cuts Iberian ham. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Make sure to become a regular, so the shop owner knows what you like and will stock it for you. If they do not have something, ask for it – in Spanish of course. If you are not sure which brand to get, ask again.

Ask Juan Lu at our mini-market which vinegar to use to clean windows and there will immediately be three amas de casa starting a major debate on the pros and cons of effective window washing. Soon you will find yourself joining in with your own opinion.


Right or left? Photo © Karethe Linaae


Brace yourself and stand for half an hour lining-up at the butchers while listening to local gossip. Though I dread cooking, my inevitable waits at the butchers have been immensely productive, expanding my cooking vocabulary significantly, while giving me a chance to catch up on births, deaths and weddings of every family in town.


5. Do what you love


Our fellow community gardeners or hortelanos. Photo © Karethe Linaae


A magical way to learn a language is to do so subconsciously. You hear a word enough times and whoops, there it is as part of your own vocabulary. It snuck in the backdoor of your brain without you noticing or trying to capture it.

The easiest way to achieve this type of indirect learning is to concentrate on doing something you love. If you like motorbikes, join an MC club and make frequent visits to the guys at the local mechanic shops. If your special interest is sewing, you will get great ideas at the fabric store or the haberdashery, where the waits are always long and customers always want to share their craft projects with the proprietors.

When we moved to Spain we decided to try new things. My husband always wanted to learn woodcarving, so he joined a wood workshop. I took up furniture restoration and together we became members of the local Friends of the Opera. As we love hiking, we also joined a couple of senderismo clubs. Why not?


Hiking mates. Photo © Rafa Flores, RF Natura


Whilst in the mountain doing what we most enjoyed, I couldn’t avoid picking up expressions about the trail, the kilometres ahead, altitude climbed, packs carried, aches and pains, lunches to be had or other trails that we were advised to do. I didn’t consciously try to learn anything, I just chugged along and the words magically lodged themselves somewhere deep inside my cranium.


6. Become an amigo


Neighbourhood kids collecting money for their religious ‘hermandad’. Photo © Karethe Linaae


To truly get a sense of belonging as a foreign resident, you need to make local friends. However, this is a to-way street. To make amigos, you yourself need to be a friend of the locals. If they see you only mingling with other foreigners, they will naturally assume that you are not interested in their lives and thus will not be interested in you.

To become an amigo, you need to become one of them. Be an active participant and a good neighbour. Greet them, ask them how they are and offer to help whenever possible.


Giving a helping hands at our local convent. Photo © Karethe Linaae


People are generally patient with one, even if ones grammar is limited to present tense. It is the effort that counts. Enquire about neighbours’ health, and they will soon do the same in return. Learn the names of their children, their spouses and their pets. Participate in local meetings and go to church concerts. Dress up and join the local fiestas.


Ronda Romántica. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Help the kids in the hood with their English homework. Become member of your neighbourhood association. Volunteer your time in something you believe in. Vote in local elections. Go to church. Get a garden plot. Buy and consume local produce. Help friends and neighbours with the harvest.


Volunteering for a cleaner town. Photo © Rafael Flores


Buy Christmas goodies fro the local kids to support their school trips. Attend fundraisers and walk the solidarity walks with the people of your town. The locals will appreciate your interest and eventually begin to consider you their friend.



7. Realize your limitations


Costaleros in Easter procession. Photo © Karethe Linaae


It is sometimes easy for those who have lived in other places to unconsciously look down at the rural population for their lack of worldliness and international savvy.  The one lesson I have learned by living in small-town Andalucía is that experience is very relative. I might speak half a dozen languages and have travelled the world, but I do not know how to dance the Bulería, recite the poems of Federico García Lorca by heart, make our orange tree bloom year round, saddle a horse, identify all the different species of wild orchid in the sierra or make a fluffy tortilla. So, in the end, I certainly have lots to learn to become a true Andalusa!


Auxi with her 'body guards'. Photo © Karethe Linaae


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Long weekend in Lisbon - a pastel city portrait
08 November 2019

Pastel city. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Mysterious, magnificent and mellow - many words have been used to describe Portugal’s coastal capital, though I see it as a portrait in pink and blue. Arriving across the Ponte 25 de Abril suspension bridge, the city lays bathed in pastel light, begging to be explored.

Lisbon, or Lisboa to the natives, has become a favoured European weekend escape and one of Southern Europe’s busiest capital destinations. Spending a few days here, one can certainly see why. Hailed as Portugal’s most liveable city, it has a year-round mild climate and an inordinate amount of sunny days. With an urban population of merely half a million people (3 million including the wider Metropolitan area), it is easy to navigate. Lisbon is also reasonably priced and relatively safe as far as European capitals go. And in a world where over-tourism has become a threat, one can almost miss the crowds by avoiding major tourist destinations and walking a bit further afield.

Magical alley. Photo © Karethe Linaae


400 years older than Rome

One of the oldest cities in the world and the second oldest European capital after Athens, Lisbon predates London and Paris by several centuries.

Its original name, Olisippo, might be a derivative from Phoenician alis ubbo meaning ‘delightful little port’, though the city could also have been named after its mythical founder, Ulysses.


Mythical sea creatures from Monastero dos Jerónimos. Photo © Karethe Linaae


What we know for a fact is that Phoenicians settled in the area around 1200 BC. Julius Caesar made it the municipium of Feliecitas Julia a couple of decades before the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. In fact there are still underground Galerias Romanas from the era of Emperor Augustus open to a few lucky visitors twice a year. The galleries are accessible through a sewer hole in the ground right under the tramline on Rua da Prata. Sounds irresistible? I will certainly plan our next trip accordingly...


Sewer rat. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Since Christian crusaders re-conquered Lisboa from the Moors in 1147, it has been the political centre of Portugal, though not always its capital. Sometimes abbreviated as 'Lx' from the old spelling Lixbõa, the city is today an important centre of finance, commerce, arts, media, trade and tourism.


 Lisbon city. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Navigating the town

With our car in long-term parking for the duration of our stay, we leave our bags at the hotel - a former magistrate’s residence from 1758 filled with character, antiques and hand-painted Portuguese tiles.


Tiled hotel interior. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Our first afternoon is spent vicariously wandering towards the Tagus River. Lisbon is infinitely walkable and just big enough to get pleasantly lost. You can easily orient yourself by looking downhill to locate the river or uphill to discover where you are in relation to the Castelo de Säo Jorge (St George’s Castle), the tallest landmark in town.


View from mirador. Photo © Karethe Linaae


A wide selection of guided tours is on offer, but we choose to discover Lisbon for ourselves. Occasionally we jump on a metro or hail a tuck-tuck when needing a break, after having strolled up and down the city’s seven or eight (but who is counting) hills. Lisbon has an excellent public transport system. A transferable bus or metro ticket costs a mere couple of euros and other than rush hours, it is an easy way to get around. Some of the metro stations are worth it for the artistic tile work alone.

From Tuck-Tuck. Photo © Karethe Linaae


The famous Lisbon trams are not included in the regular system and do not allow transfers or stopovers. Undoubtedly one of the most picturesque tram rides in the world, Lisbon’s electric streetcar system opened in November 1873. Today however, the americanos as they used to be called, are victim of their own success. Every tourist has read about and wants to ride in the legendary Tram 28. As we didn’t want to be squeezed in like vertical sardines between Texan and Taiwanese tourists, we contented ourselves by observing them from the outside.


Tram riders. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Another former practical way to get up-town and avoid some of the pesky hills was to take the Ascensor de Santa Justa. The 45-meters high street elevator brings passengers from the lower or Baixa area to the Barrio Alto, a higher neighbourhood. The locals don’t use the elevator anymore. While long queues of visitors also discourage us from catching a lift, it is an impressive sight to behold with an interesting history. Lisbon’s last remaining conventional vertical elevator opened in 1899. A latticework of iron beams in Neo-Gothic style, the twin elevator cabins travel up seven stories to a panoramic viewpoint above. The architect, Raoul Mesnier de Ponsard is said to have been a student of Gustave Eiffel, but like many young engineers of his time, he might simply have been inspired by the French master and followed contemporary iron construction trends.


Ascensor de Santa Justa. Photo © Karethe Linaae


The earthquake that became pavement

On All Saints Day in 1755, Lisbon was destroyed by an earthquake, which took 40,000 lives. Almost the entire town had to be rebuilt, giving the overall building style of the Lisbon we see today a rare uniformity.


Blue reflections. Photo © Karethe Linaae


There are still examples of earlier architecture, but most of the downtown area is built in the post-quake Pombaline style, named after the Marquis of Pombal, the nobleman who was in charge of the reconstruction. Lisbon’s new centre was completed within just a few years, but nothing feels hurried about the utilitarian and plain edifices, embellished by occasional Neo-classic details.

The Marquez was ahead of his time in many ways. He instructed the ruins of the fallen buildings from the quake to be re-used to pave Lisbon’s streets. Today we can admire this unique underfoot art gallery on almost every sidewalk and square in the city.


Sidewalk detail. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Not only is the polished stonework beautiful, it is also a timeless tribute to the pavers who built the ground we tread. 


Sculpture by Sérgio Stichini. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Lisbon is said to be one of the best graffiti capitals in the world, though I would extend that to random public art, as well. The city encourages graffiti and has hired the best street artists to make huge murals all over town with the dual purpose of livening up boring walls and making the urban landscape more entertaining. 

Street art. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Azulejos abound

One cannot speak about Lisbon without mentioning the ceramic tiles. Decorative tiles go back thousands of years - from the Egyptians, Assyrians and the Babylonians and beyond. Though they weren’t introduced to Lisbon until the Moorish era, the azulejos (or Arabic az-zulayj meaning ‘polished stone’) have become a symbol of Lisbon.


Tiles CU. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Most traditional Portuguese tiles are blue on a white background, possibly echoing the country’s nautical past. In the 15th century, Portugal’s King Manuel I visited Seville in Spain and brought back a design fad that has lasted to this day. Tiles are part of Lisbon’s architecture and culture. You see them everywhere, covering entire building façades, in home interiors, on store signs, wrapping fountains and benches, and everything in between.


Tiled Lisbon homes. Photo © Karethe Linaae


To know more about them, visit the tile museum or simply stroll around the city to behold the vast selection of hand-painted Portuguese tiles. If you want to purchase some, it is advisable to go to a reputable antique dealer, as the oldest tiles can cost several hundred euros a piece and copies are virtually impossible to distinguish from originals.


Antique tiles. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Shopping for Sardines

Talking of shopping… like any other tourist destination, Lisbon has a souvenir shop on every corner. However, between all the mass-fabricated cups with ‘Lisboa’ on them, you can find some genuinely good ceramic stores, a few of which have lovely colourful porcelains worth bubble wrapping and popping in your luggage. Lisbon is also an antique hunters’ and bookworms’ paradise. You will rarely see as many new and used bookstores, and though most titles are in Portuguese, they are worth a peek inside. Lisbon’s Livraria Bertrand, which opened in 1732, is apparently the world’s oldest operating bookstore, followed by bookstores in Nurnberg and Bethlehem! The city also houses the world’s smallest bookshop, which due to its 4000 titles barely have space for clients.


Bookshop detail. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Of course Lisbon has its grand Avenida da Liberdade for shoppers who want Burberry or Cartier, but it is really on the alternative front that the city’s commerce stands out. You will have a pick of interesting merchants and cool not-to-be-found-elsewhere products in Lisbon’s Boho style Chiado district or in the ethical market of the converted Lx Factory.


Lisboeta in drag. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Those who love a good flea market should not miss the Saturday morning Feria de Ladra in Santa Clara square. Though Ladra means a female thief in Portuguese, it also refers to a type of wood bug, which must have been equally abundant at this historical market. There is still great junking to be done and actual antiques for sale, though while fleas might have been replaced by vegan cafés, one should be wary of pickpockets.


Lisboeta playing at market. Photo © Karethe Linaae


If your urge for shopping hasn’t yet been satisfied, there are still canned sardines. These were the staple food of the sea-faring Lisbon population in the past, but in recent years funky sardine shops have popped up all over town, selling colourful and collectable tins of the stuff, with or without oil, chilli and other flavours.


Pink sardines. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Gastronomic Lisbon

Dessert lovers beware. Lisbon has a huge communal sweet tooth. I have never seen so many pastelarias (pastry shops), in addition to endless cafés and restaurants with heaping cake counters. The most famous is the Pastéis de Nata, meaning cream pastry, though it is more of an egg custard tartlet. This traditional delicacy has caused culinary battles and near-death threats among local pastry chefs. The original anno 1837 recipe belongs to Pastéis de Belém pastry shop. The specific formula has never been written down, having been passed along orally through generations to the three people who know the recipe. They guard the secret with their lives, never going on the same flight or eating the same dish at a restaurant. Very 007-ish! As we are more savoury types, we didn’t pilgrim to the Mecca of cream cakes, especially since dozens of other Lisbon pastry shops claim theirs are equally good…


Feed me. Photo © Karethe Linaae


As well as sweets, Lisbon has a wide choice of international cuisine. We found a first-class Japanese restaurant with only local patrons, a brilliant hole-in-the-wall Vietnamese Pho ‘soupery’, and, please don’t tell our Lisbon hosts, enjoyed a fabulous meal at Jamie Oliver’s Lisbon based Italian restaurant.


Oliver Lisbon special. Photo © Karethe Linaae


However, the hands down best gastronomic experience in Lisbon is the frutos do mar (or sea fruit) and the fish. With the proximity to the ocean, you can always be sure that the seafood in Lisbon is fresh. Try the day’s catch, often displayed in the front window of the restaurant. Clams, oysters, octopus, prawns, barnacles and fish stew are popular dishes, though my personal favourite is the Bacalao (cod), which is absolutely to die for.


Bacalao. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Another enjoyable way to share a meal with the locals is to go to one of the unpretentious family restaurants in almost any district. They will serve you a small fresh cheese and sardine pate with the breadbasket, and a menu of the day is around 10 euros, wine included.


Port. Photo © Karethe Linaae


One cannot go to Portugal without trying their Port wine of course, though I developed a taste for a typical Lisbon liqueur called Ginjinha. You can get it almost anywhere, though the best places to enjoy a shot with the locals seemed to be in the tiny bars specializing in the sour Morello cherry liqueur. We bought a bottle from a tiny granny, selling her homemade brew from a card table on a sidewalk in Alfama. Not exactly EU regulations, but all the more charming, especially coming with a taster shot.


Meet the ‘Lisboetas’


Charlotte. Photo © Karethe Linaae


People from Lisbon are called ‘Lisboetas’, and we had the pleasure of getting to know a few. Everybody we met spoke either English or Spanish, some both. While I understand their written language, which seems like a blend of Spanish, French and ancient Roman, spoken Portuguese sounds completely different from other Latin tongue I know.


man with mint green car? Photo © Karethe Linaae


The sixth most spoken language in the world, Portuguese is the official language of nine countries. It has a lovely melodic, drawn-out quality, which makes the Lisboetas sound quite mellow and easy going compared to their temperamental and at times louder neighbours to the East. We hardly heard any car honking or yelling, which is part of daily life here in Andalucía. In fact, it seemed like the local mellowness was contagious. The hotel staff was sweet and soft spoken, and the guests seemed to gradually adopt this laidback Lisbon way of being as well, regardless of their origin.


From the series Alma de Alfama (the soul of Alfama) by Camilla Watson, mounted on plaques throughout Alfama. Photo by Karethe Linaae 


Sad and romantic

Every city has its palette. Lisbon is creamy white, golden beige, soft yellow, light pink and baby blue. One would think this might make for an overly sweet urban impression. But Lisbon is not naïve. It is classic, yet alternative. Mellow, yet open minded. Straight lined, but slightly bohemian and esoteric. 


View with 'Luis Vuitton' tile bulding. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Unlike other tourist destinations, the city is not depopulated. Locals still live and work in Lisbon, though not as many are fishermen or sailors as before. One of the most unique neighbourhoods is Alfama. Being Lisbon’s oldest district and the only to survive the 18th century earthquake, it has a true village feel with laundry hanging in its picturesque lanes.


Laundry. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Many restaurants in Alfama will have live Fado music at night. A Lisbon born musical genre sung with few instruments and lots of sentiment, Fado comes from the Latin word fatum or destiny. The melancholic lyrics deal with poverty, unrequited love and endless sea journeys, while the melodies seem to have travelled on the waves from distant southern shores.

Some Fado restaurants are more formal and include a three-course meal, while in others you may experience an impromptu performance by a local guest or even the proprietress herself.


Porta d’Alfama mureal. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Live music can also often be heard while walking around the city - someone plucking the strings of a guitar or caressing a melancholic accordion. Every street musician seemed to have a touch of the Lisbon blues, singing sad but beautiful tunes about lives many let downs and heartaches. Actually, the girl from Ipanema could easily have been from Lisbon. 


But each day when she walks to the sea
She looks straight ahead not at me


Street art portrait. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Sea journeys

Every morning the salty air hits us, reminding us that we are in a coastal town and that this indeed is a nation of seafarers.


The Monument of the Discoveries by Cottinelli Telmo.  Photo © Karethe Linaae


Portugal was a pioneering nation of nautical explorers from the 15th to the 18th centuries during what later became known as the Age of Discovery. The country was known for its capable captains, easily manoeuvrable Caravel ships and their excellent cartography. The Portuguese captain Bartholomeu Dias was the first to officially round the African continent in 1487. By the 15th Century, Vasco da Gama had discovered a shorter sailing route to India and Pedro Álvares Cabral had ‘discovered’ Brazil. Portuguese sailors were also the first Europeans to get to Japan, albeit by accident, and Ferdinand Magellan’s expeditions to the East Indies resulted in the first circumnavigation of the Earth in 1522.


Sailboat on the Tagus. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Lisbon was one of the busiest harbours in Europe at the time, bringing ginger, pepper and saffron from India, nutmeg from Indonesia, cloves from the Moluccas and cinnamon and tea from Ceylon. The taste for international fare never stopped, as Lisbon became the first city in the world to import Guinness beer in 1811.

Apart from Lisbon’s many scenic miradores (lookout spots), one of the best ways to get an overview of the city is from the river. In addition to the two bridges (the 17.2 km Vasco Da Gama bridge being Europe’s longest) the easiest way to cross the Tagus River is by boat.


From Ferry. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Following the advice of our softly spoken petite hotel night porter Paolo, we decided to do like the locals and take the ferry across to Cacilhas. For the price of a bus ticket, we arrived at the small town on the other side of the river, to enjoy yet another irresistible meal of bacalao.

The next day a thick fog covered the pastel city. It was time to head home, but we will certainly be back for more seafood and sour cherry shorts, and possibly a tour into the hidden Roman Galleries from Lisbon’s distant past.  


Pastel city. Photo © Karethe Linaae



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A subterranean meeting with the new Neanderthals - La Cueva de Ardales
23 October 2019

Pre-historic cranium from Ardales Information Centre display. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Imagine a perfect prehistoric time capsule laying undisturbed for millennia. This is La Cueva de Ardales, an enormous cave near the small town of Ardales, 50 kilometres from the Mediterranean coast. The cave would likely never have been discovered had it not been for an earthquake that shook the region in 1821. The tremor opened a small crack into an underground world that had not seen light or been visited for at least 3,000 years.


A cave tour in the 1800s


Engineer and geologist Miguel Such visiting cave in the 1920's. Photo from Ardales Information Centre Photo Display


Only two years after its discovery, in 1823, the cave became the first in Spain to open to the public. For a mere 2 reales people could visit the new national tourist attraction, said to contain fossilized human remains. Doña Trinidad Grund, a woman much before her time, bought the cave area in 1860, adding the current railings and stone steps to improve access – and on occasion using her acquisition as a staging ground for flamenco shows for the high society of Malaga and Sevilla.

The first scientist to study the rock art in the cave was the famous French archaeologist, geologist and priest Henri Breuil, who visited the cave with the Spanish geologist and engineer Miguel Such in 1918. Breuil’s findings were published in the prestigious Parisian scientific journal L’Antropologie in 1921. It was clear that the ancient rock paintings were significant, but research methods then weren’t able to specify dates beyond ‘prehistoric’.


A subterranean walk of otherworldly beauty

If you have never been into a natural subterranean grotto, it is an otherworldly, or actually under-worldly experience.


Cave explorer by underground ponds. Photo © Manu Guerrero Sanchez


Caves keep a steady year-around temperature, in the case of Ardales of 17 degrees Centigrade with 90 to 100% humidity. It is a practically enclosed atmosphere that undergoes microscopic changes in the space of millennia. This makes cave interiors completely different from anything you will see on the earths’ surface.


Underground wonder. Photo © Manu Guerrero Sanchez


Visiting La Curva de Ardales is worthwhile for its natural beauty alone. From the information centre, visitors drive on a meandering road into a hilly region, where the coastal planes and the interior mountains meet. A pyramid-structure protects the entrance, only allowing 15 visitors per day, as preservation is essential. Our guide tells us to leave bags, cameras and cell phones in the cars, so nothing will ‘accidentally’ be photographed or inadvertently end up in someone’s backpack. Once inside, he distributes flashlights and locks the door securely behind us. Then, minding each slippery step, we begin the two-hour underground adventure.

The 1577-meters long cavity takes us through narrow passages and enormous underground galleries, past upside-down columns, hidden lakes and million-year-old stalactite formations. Each section is known for its visual counterpart above ground, like the Waterfall, the Church Organ or the Hall of the Stars, while the naming also helps map out an otherwise hard to navigate subterranean landscape.


Ardales Cave interior. Photo from display


Some sections shimmer as if encrusted with microscopic diamonds, though actually it is our flashlights catching particles of calcium. Other places, iron and copper deposits have coloured the cave wall yellow or red, which become brighter when wet. The entire cave interior is like a surrealist film set, where stone appears to have melted on to itself and every wall is a genuine piece of art. Anyone who has been to Gaudi’s Sacrada Familia will clearly see from where he got his inspiration!


Melted landscape. Photo © Manu Guerrero Sánchez


Dating the cave - From Carbon 14 to Uranium-Thorium and 3D scans

Though it became a National Monument in 1931 and was used as an air shelter during the Spanish Civil War, the cave was semi-abandoned for much of the 1900s. It would be almost a century after Breuil’s initial exploration before a team of international scientists were able to accurately date the oldest rock paintings.

Many have heard of Carbon-14, a scientific method of dating organic material by measuring content of the radioactive isotope of carbon. Discovered by Willard Libby in 1946, it provided the first objective age-estimation of up to 30,000 year-old prehistoric findings. It was the state of the art in its day, but as a dating method today, it is rather outmoded.


Stalactite in the making. Photo from Ardales Visitation Centre photo display


The latest method, known by scientists as U/Th dating, uses a precise uranium-thorium technique, which overcome some of the limitations of carbon testing. “U/Th method dates geological processes without having to touch the colouring material of the cave art”, explains Pedro Cantalejo Duarte, the director of the archaeological complex. The process avoids contamination during collection and handling while enabling definite dates without age restrictions. With new computer technology, researchers can also discover if a piece of flint was worked with a stone, bone or other material, to better understand the prehistoric human way of life.

Terrestrial laser scanning is another recent technique in geoarchaeological exploration. This has been used in Ardales to create a topographical 3D model of the cave and surroundings. The scans can help establish cave dimensions, ceiling thicknesses, entrances, as well as creating lighting simulations to determine areas reached by natural light.


50,000 years of cave art

Pre-historic painting tools from Ardales Information Centre display. Photo © Karethe Linaae


The Ardales cave is a perfectly preserved time capsule of not one, but several prehistoric époques. Tens of thousands of years ago beings like us left messages on the walls for reasons that are still unknown, but with the help of science, a new door of knowledge is opening.

A multidisciplinary international research team has been investigating the cave since the 1990s, led by the Universities of Cádiz and Köln. To date, more than 1000 motives of rock art made over 50,000 years have been discovered, which granted the Ardales cave a Patrimony of Humankind in 1998. “This is one of the most interesting places on the Iberian Peninsula, and perhaps one of the areas least known to the general public,” says Pedro Cantalejo Duarte.


Scientists at work. Photo from Ardales Information Centre


The first hominids arrived on the Iberian Peninsula about 1.2 million years ago in the Palaeolithic period. Mostly nomadic, their lives consisted of hunting, gathering and struggling to survive. They carved stone and bone into tools and weapons and used fire for heat and protection. Skeletal studies indicate that their society was more egalitarian with food distributed evenly amongst a group. Palaeolithic art is figurative and life-like. In the Ardales cave it includes paintings of goats, bulls, snakes, birds and human female figures.  


Palaeolithic art in cave. Photo from Information Centre photo display


The introduction of agriculture about 10,000 years ago started the Neolithic era. Farming led to a more settled life, new tools and pottery, while also introducing the concept of private property. Cave art from this era is more abstract, using lines, dots and symbols.


Palaeolithic art in cave from Information Centre. Photo © Karethe Linaae


The Ardales cave was also used as a necropolis. Funeral deposits with 5,000 year-old human remains were discovered near the original cave opening. Recent excavations have revealed findings from 60-70,000, 45,000, 20,000  and up to 12,000 years ago, in layers less than a foot apart. Discoveries of micro-fauna has made it possible to study Palaeolithic diet and health, indicating that they ate mostly dear, mountain goats and wild cattle. The studies confirmed that life would have been tough. Children had to work and hunt from an early age and few adults lived past 40.


Recreation of the Neolithic necropolis from Ardales Information Centre display. Photo © Karethe Linaae


The cave also contains nine rare negative hand imprints, only found in 32 caves worldwide. The imprints were produced about 30,000 years ago by putting a hand on the rock. Using straws as a primitive paint dispenser, they would spray natural pigments onto the wall, leaving a negative imprint where the hand had been. The different fingers positions have led scientists to believe that it was some sort of hand signal.

Prehistoric negative hand imprint from Cueva de Ardales. Photo from Information Centre

How Neanderthal are we?

The Neanderthal “cavemen” never had their permanent homes inside caves. International scientists have found no proof of on-going prehistoric habitation in caves, which have limited supply of light, oxygen and food. Caves can extend for kilometres into a mountain, making for a very dark home. In addition, most nutrients cannot be found in caves and fires can only be lit where smoke can escape. Prehistoric populations therefore are believed to have lived near caves, finding temporary shelter inside them.


At cave mouth. Photo © Manu Guerrero Sánchez


We often think of Neanderthals as hairy, squat-brained creatures of low intelligence. In fact, we might be embarrassed to discover that ancestry swab-tests reveal that we are a tiny percentage Neanderthal! All non-African populations apparently have between 1.5 to 2.1 % Neanderthal genetic material, while as much as 20% of Neanderthal DNA may have survived in modern human skin, hair and diseases. Our Neanderthal ancestors were physically stronger than us, but similar in size and weight. If they survived their first 20 years, they might live almost half a century. They died out about 40,000 years ago, having shared the sparsely populated planet with the subspecies Homo Sapiens Sapiens, who lived at the end of the Neanderthal era.


Early man. From Ardales Information Centre display. Photo © Karethe Linaae


If you happen to carry Neanderthal genes, do not despair. New discoveries from Ardales have brought exciting knowledge about our long gone ancestors, which almost will make you proud to be one…


Neanderthal fingerprints

The most remarkable cave art in La Cueva de Ardales go back at least 65,500 years. Using U/Th dating, scientists have now proven that the markings are 20,000 years older than when formerly believed that prehistoric art began, and, more significantly, 20,000 years older than our species. They have therefore concluded that the first pre-human inhabitants to the Iberian Peninsula, the Neanderthals, produced Europe’s most ancient art. Before this discovery, artistic expressions were exclusively attributed to Homo Sapiens, thinking Neanderthals didn’t have sufficient mental capacity for art, but the cave markings challenge this belief.


65,500 year-old Neanderthal finger marks in the Ardales cave. Photo from display


Neanderthals made red paint from iron deposits and marked almost the entire cave with finger and hand imprints (except areas now only accessible by metal ladders). Leaving signs for future visitors, they planned where to put these to avoid calcium deposits covering them. From the size and placement, scientists have determined that children, likely held in the arms of their Neanderthal parents, made some of the markings. What? Thinkers, teachers, caring parents, strategizers and communicators, this is not how most of us have regarded our pre-human ancestors…  


Total darkness and Neolithic lanterns


Reproduction of Palaeolithic cave art. Photo from Ardales Information Centre


Modern humans are rarely in the dark. Contemporary society doesn’t allow us to be in total darkness, nor in complete silence. When our trusted guide Gerardo asked us to turn off our flashlights, some found it uncomfortable. With absolutely no light, we become acutely aware of our other senses - the smell of wetness and stone, an occasional drop falling, the silent echo of a cavernous space. After a brief moment of adjustment, a deep feeling of peace and reverence descended upon me. I could almost imagine how prehistoric visitors must have felt and why they ventured on a dark and risky journey into the centre of the earth to leave their fingerprint in this very cave.


Ardales cave Neanderthal markings. Photo from Ardales Information Centre


Taking about darkness, fire has been known to humans for more than a million years. Our ancestors might have carried flaming torches when clambering around bare footed in the slippery cave, but at one point they invented the prehistoric floor lantern. Carving hollows into broken stalagmites, the first Neolithic wax candle was created from bone marrow and bees’ wax, using juniper root as wicks.


The last unwritten chapter

Ardales cave surroundings. Photo © Karethe Linaae


The Council of Europe Cultural Routes included La Cuava de Ardales under Prehistoric Rock Art Trails in 2010, making it part of a new concept of scientific tourism. But the cave still has unexplored parts and chambers to be excavated.

What other stories does the cave have to tell? Is it a key to pre-human existence and an answer to where we came from? The prehistoric art was made for us to see. Scientists explain cave paintings as our traffic signs - a system of structured graphic symbols clearly understood by those who lived at the time. Yet for all our scientific progress, we still do not know exactly what they are telling us. Some paintings are found a thousand meters into caves in places that are virtually inaccessible even now. Why did they do it? It had to have been more than an artistic urge to paint a horse. Were they topographic marks, calendars, pledges, celebrations or part of religious rituals? We do not know for sure. What we do know is that they were extremely important.

The research at the Ardales cave continues, but some mysteries might be left to crack by a future generation of hominids.


What does it all mean? Palaeolithic art in Ardales cave. Photo © Manu guerrero Sánchez


General notes:

As picture taking is not permitted in the cave, some of the photographs used in this article are taken from the Ardales visitation centre or from display panels outside the cave.

Guided tours must be pre-booked, and are generally in Spanish. For more information, please go to La Cueva de Ardales


  • Academía: Cueva de Ardales, (Málaga, España) Patrimonio Prehistórico en el Sur de la Península Ibérica.
  • Caminito del Rey and its surroundings - Nomination Proposal for inclusion on the World Heritage list
  • Cueva de Ardales o Doña Trindad - Ayuntamiento de Ardales
  • Diputacíon de Málaga
  • Junta de Andalucía
  • Malaga en el Corazon - La increíble historia de la vida de doña trinidad grund
  • Axarquiaplus - El hallazgo de pinturas en cueva de Ardales habitada por neandertales revoluciona la historia del Arte
  • Henri Breuil La grotte d'Ardales, L'Anthropologie, Paris 1921
  • Editorial La Serranía – Interview with Pedro Cantalejo Duarte

Tickets. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Like 2        Published at 21:24   Comments (3)

Nocturnal grape harvest at Descalzos Viejos – Possibly Spain’s most spectacular vineyard
20 September 2019

Picker with headlight. Photo ©

Have you ever dreamt of taking part in a traditional wine harvest? I certainly have, so when my husband and I were invited to this year’s vendimia at Descalzos Viejos winery, we accepted immediately.

While our hometown Ronda in southern Andalucía is a perfect place for a romantic getaway, it is also becoming a favoured destination for wine tourism. Our region produces many outstanding wines, but when it comes to the combination of taste and setting, no winery can compete with Descalzos Viejos.

Descalzos Viejos wine and view. Photo ©

Situated at the northern end of the Hoya del Tajo valley, tucked underneath the cliff, the vineyard has a microclimate that is unique in the Serranía de Ronda. It might be for this reason that a couple of friars were granted royal permission to build a monastery in this exact spot in the year 1505, just a couple of decades after the Catholic Monarchs won back the region from the former Moorish rulers. The Trinitarian monks remained until 1664, when the threat of earthquakes and rock falls made them move closer to Ronda. Only the most senior Brothers chose to remain, lovingly tending to their vegetable garden and fruit trees. Once these Descalzos Viejos (old barefoot) Brothers whom the vineyard is named after, passed on, the monastery was abandoned.

Wine container. Photo ©

Fast-forward 300 years to 1998, when the current owners, Paco Retamero and Flavio Salesi first laid eyes on the ruin. The architects immediately fell in love with it and decided to purchase the former monastery. From the very beginning, it was a family project needing all hands on deck, though they admit that their wives, who are both doctors, are more the silent partner types. “We go to them when we need their purses”, Paco says half-jokingly.

Descalzos Viejos winery. Photo © Carlos Aires

The initial goal was to bring Descalzos Viejos back to its former splendour, primarily restoring the main building with its gardens, as well as the natural spring that feeds several ponds and fountains. The restoration, which started in 2000, was a complicated process - structurally, legally and practically - as Paco and Flavio needed their day jobs as architects to pay for the massive renovations.

Wall of former monastery. Photo ©

Visiting the property, it is clear that this was and still is a true labour of love. Descalzos Viejos is a magnificent blend of Gothic-Mudejar and Modern architecture, innovatively and fearlessly mixing ancient stone with contemporary elements of glass and steel.


Descalzos Viejos blends old and new architecture. Photo ©


Such a lofty vision could only have been achieved because the owners are more artists than businessmen. Had Paco and Flavio not taken on this monumental task, the building would have fallen down, as no government funding was granted towards the restoration of this important piece of Ronda’s history. Other buyers might have injected the funds needed for a basic renovation, but I doubt that anyone would have invested the care and passion that Paco and Flavio have brought to this unique estate.


Architects and wine makers, Paco Retamero and Flavio Salesi. Photo ©


To understand the scope of the restoration, one simply has to look at the before and after photographs. The church had half crumbled walls and a lean-to animal shed where the altar once stood. The local shepherds who built the haphazard barn construction had also dug out various openings in the wall for their chickens and other farm animals.

Photograph of Descalzos church ruin from 1998. Photo © Descalzos Viejos

Photograph of Descalzos church ruin from 1998. Photo © Descalzos Viejos

From the few scattered remains hidden behind layers of lime-wash and grime, it became clear that the walls of the chancel had been decorated with religious frescos. Once the structure was rebuilt and a new roof added (which could not touch the original walls…) a team of restorers from the University of Seville spent almost half a year bringing back the original frescos dating from the early 16th Century.

Pepe restoring frescos in 2002 . Photo © Carlos Cáceres

The marvellous centrepiece the restorers unfolded depicts St. Rufina and St. Justa, the patron saints of Seville and the guardians of the Brotherhood.


Altar wall with frescos. Photo ©


Andalucía has far too many tourist sights to attract people by merely opening a former monastery to visitors, so Paco and Flavio had to find another way to get a return on their investment. Ronda was an important wine-producing region since Roman times until the Phylloxera pest killed virtually all the European grapevines in the late 1800’s. The monks had also produced wine on the property, so they decided to try their hands at growing grapes. “We knew hardly anything about the wine industry,” they tell me. This however, didn’t stop the forward-thinking team. Paco, who later became the first president of the association of Ronda’s vinicultores or wine producers, took a Master in Oenology merely to understand what other vintners were talking about.

Grapes ready for pressing, Photo ©


In 2003, they had their first harvest. By 2005, Vicente Inat, an agricultural engineer and oenologist from Valencia, joined the team. Their 2006 vintage was almost too strong for consumption, yet the very same wine won the gold medal at the world wine competition in Brussels in 2010, and the grand gold medal in 2011, the only Andalucian red wine to receive the prestigious award that year.

Descalzos Viejos' six wine types. Photo ©

While other producers would have wanted to profit from such honours, Descalzos Viejos did the opposite. In spite of becoming one of the best wineries in Ronda in a very short period of time, you will not find a Seal of Distinction or a Certified Organic label on their bottles. “We are not interested in accolades. We want our clients to recognize the quality of our wine from the taste, not from its labels,” Paco explains. Over the past 16 years, the architects and their small team of helpers have become experts in the art of winemaking, offering a fully organic product, grown in small plots of land with the collection, fermentation and bottling done by hand.

Harvesters only tools. Photo ©


If you have a chance to taste a Descalzos Viejos wine, consider yourself privileged. The wines cannot be bought in supermarkets, nor are they sold at airports. Only a selection of wine merchants and restaurants carries the brand, as well as a few international distributors. Compared to the huge vineyards of the Rioja region, the estate is very small. With an overall area of 15.5 hectares, out of which 10 are planted with grapes, nearly all of their production can be called ‘limited edition’. They did produce 15.500 bottles of their regular DV wine in 2017, but their specialty wines, like the DV Rufina and DV Iusta wines, named after the Monastery’s saintly protectresses, are only produced in a restricted quantity of 2000 bottles per year.

Vines with fall colours. Photo ©


The grapes are grown between 600 and 650 meters over sea level in three distinct properties, each with their own characteristics. The extreme seasonal temperature variations, the dry mountain climate and the poor, rocky or clayey soil make good growing conditions for their grape varieties - Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, Graciano, Petit Verdot, Merlot and Chardonnay.


Descalzos Viejos grapes. Photo ©

Paco asked us to meet him at the entrance of the estate several hours before sunrise, so we could see their pickers at work. The purpose of nocturnal harvests are to prevent the grape fermentation process from starting prematurely, but the fact that it happens in the wee hours of the night just added to my excitement. I have to admit, I had a slightly dated picture of how wine harvests unfolded, visualizing an operetta-like scene of buxom maidens in flowing skirts with straw baskets slung over their shoulders and grape leaves tangled into their raven black locks. Of course, none of this happens anymore, but the vendimia still has its charm, certainly when one is on the observing side.   

By the fire. Photo ©


We arrive in the dark valley below the monastery to see a dozen or so pickers sitting around a campfire having a pre-dawn breakfast. One of them motions for me to sit down on a plastic crate (the same ones they pick grapes in) and I join them by the fire. They tell me that they are from the village of Algamitas, where Paco’s wife Chelo is from. In fact, a couple of the pickers are from her family, while the ones who aren’t are still treated as such. I learn that the people from Algamitas have a reputation as excellent pickers, moving from harvest to harvest, following the seasons from peaches to grapes, and chestnuts to olives. This year’s harvest at Descalzos Viejos takes place over 10 non-consecutive days, when the oenologist deems the particular grape to be ready. Today’s crop of Syrah grapes grows on a slanted hill by the Guadalevin River where no artificial watering system is needed.


Daybreak. Photo ©


The pickers’ workday starts at midnight and they will be at it until 8 am. Looking at the expanse of grapevines, it seems impossible to me that less than a dozen people with only a pair of clippers and head lanterns will handpick the entire area clean in a few hours. But that is before the last cigarette is butted out and I see them go to work. Efficiency cannot even start to describe them as they move through the vines, swiftly yet carefully snipping each mature bunch, while leaving unfit grapes on the ground.


Nocturnal grape harvest. Photo ©


As soon as the first row is done, a miniature tractor with an open trailer rolls in. It fits exactly between the vines, which are planted 2.20 meters apart. A couple of young men hand the already filled boxes, weighing 14 kilos each, to another man who stacks them on the trailer. One senses the pride of these professional harvesters, who has been part of the Descalzos Viejos vendimia since the very beginning. Today’s expected harvest is 5000 kilos. Though output varies depending on the grape variety, a kilo of grapes will yield nearly a 750 ml bottle of wine.


Catching a ride. Photo ©


While the pickers work, Paco shows us their other grape varieties, while explaining their system of grafting different types of vines onto already established roots. All the grapes we see look spectacularly healthy and plump, with leaf colours varying from green to the russet red foliage of my favourite - the Garnacha Tintorera grape.


Garnacha Tintorera grapes. Photo ©


Outside the monastery, Vicente the oenologist is overseeing the pressing process. When fully loaded, the tractor struggles up the steep hill with the cases. These are emptied into a moving assembly line, where Vicente and Paco’s daughter María, a graphic designer who has come home to help with the harvest, sort through the fruit.

Loading grapes. Photo ©

Vicente and María sorting grapes in early morning. Photo ©

Next, the grapes are rinsed and mulched before the juice and the grape skin, which gives the tinto its colour, travels through a thick hose, directly into huge stainless steel fermentation tanks.

Church with stainless steel wine tanks. Photo ©


What particularly differentiates Descalzos Viejos from other wine producers is the bodega where the wine is aged. The steel tanks of the winery are located inside the ancient church. Standing like enormous modernist columns, they line the nave towards the former alter.

Church nave looking towards entrance. Photo ©

Only the chancel area is filled with the traditional wooden wine barrels, used for special vintages. The grand church with its favourable acoustics is sometimes used for musical performances, with the audience seated between wine barrels. And with the frescos of the saints overseeing the ageing process, how can it not taste divine?


Fresco detail. Photo 2002 © Carlos Cáceres


As dusk becomes day, everything is hosed down and put away. While the pickers head home, we take a walk in the monastery garden, following the windy paths once trodden by barefoot monks.

Cloister walk Photo ©

Breathing in the aroma of ripe fruit and feeling the peace of their sacred Eden, I can certainly understand why the oldest Brothers chose to spend their remaining days here, caring for their beloved orchard.


Water feature. Photo ©


The sheltered location allows fruit to grow here that usually won’t survive at these altitudes. The branches of an enormous avocado tree, probably Ronda’s largest specimen, hang heavy with fruit. There are also quince, figs, persimmon, cumquat, lemon, almonds, as well as a pomegranate tree that has been dated back at least 500 years. In fact, its first fruits are just breaking open, displaying their spectacular crimson core.


Pomegranate. Photo ©


Those who are lucky enough to visit Descalzos Viejos are in for a treat. In which other world-class winery will you get a personal tour by the people who actually designed the premises? Wine tastings take place on one of the many picturesque seating areas with astounding views towards Ronda. Being no expert, I cannot say if the wine has a nose of blackberry or chocolate. You have to taste for yourself, but to me, the wines from Descalzos Viejos are exquisitely complicated, like their past. They encapsulate the taste of Andalusian soil, the almost ever-present sun, the sweet aroma of fruit in season and the tender care of ancient barefoot monks.

View of Ronda's Tajo seen from Descalzos Viejos winery. Photo ©


When you make an appointment to visit the winery, do not expect a commercial enterprise. There are no Descalzos Viejos T-shirts, stickers or other wine paraphernalia for sale. In fact there is no store at all. The only thing you can purchase is wine, but when you have the quality and history of Descalzos Viejos, what more can one ask for? You will not regret your visit, and I assure you, nor will you forget it!


For more information about Descalzos Viejos winery or to book a tour, please contact

Cork CU. Photo ©

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Sensational Andalucía - sight, sound, smell, taste and touch impressions from the Spanish south
05 September 2019

Flamenco dress, Antequera. Photo ©

Some of the best things about travelling are the sensory impressions that we retain long after travel photos have become dusty memories in forgotten albums.

When I visited India some years back I took several thousand photos, yet what stuck with me were the sensory flashes that I never could capture on camera. Take the Chai Wallahs running along the train at every station selling tea. I can still close my eyes and see them passing the scalding hot glasses through the train window. I can hear them chatting in a mixture of Indian and English, politely yet hurriedly receiving their payment of a few rupees. I can feel the heat of the small glass in my hand, smell the aromatic brew and taste the sweet and subtly spiced chai. No single photo could do this experience justice. Like so many memories, it is a sensation that far exceeds a single frame.

Train to Varanasi. Photo ©

Living in southern Spain, I am constantly hit by such sensory impulses. Of course there are far too many to list, so I am limiting myself to a handful of choices for each of the senses. So without further ado, here are some of the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches that to me are the essence of Andalucía.

Peaking into history in Übeda. Photo ©



Visual impressions

ink Bougainvillea, Jerez de la  Frontera. Photo ©

The Spanish south is sunny, breezy, rocky, ancient and simply stunning.


The first time we visited Andalucía we drove into the village of Nigüelas to have lunch. When a flock of sheep crossing the road forced us to stop, we saw this apparition across the way. Had Monet been with us in the car, he would have leapt out and insisted on painting it. This field has become our benchmark for flowering fields, and so far we have not found its equal.

Poppy field in Nigüelas. Photo ©

La Mezquita de Córdoba:
Córdoba’s famous mosque is in my view one of the remaining Seven Wonders of the World. It doesn’t matter how many photos or documentaries you have watched about it - when you are actually there and see it ‘live’, it is simply out of this world. I admit that there are multitudes of other astonishing places here, but when it comes to architectural structures, La Mezquita is beyond any other. 

La Mezquita de Córdoba. Photo ©


When I visualize Andalucía, I see warm and vibrant colours, like this classic buildings in the historic quarter of Málaga.

Mellow yellow wall, Malaga


Auditory impressions

The rebellious donkey in Plaza San  Fransisco. Photo ©

The sounds of rural Andalucía are completely different to those of urban centres. Instead of a steady hum of traffic interrupted by sirens, our ears are filled with braying sheep and prattling neighbours. These are some of my favourite audio impressions from Andalucía.


Bells around the clock:
When we lived in Vancouver we never heard church bells, which were possibly outlawed due to overly political correctness. Though neither of us are Catholics, I love to hear the bells morning, noon and night, as a reminder of the ceaseless passing of time.

La iglesia de Santa María la Mayor, Ronda. Photo ©

I learned as late as yesterday that the bells of la iglesia de Santa María la Mayor were pulled by human hands up to a decade ago. There are also different sounds for different type of masses, from festive storm bells to the sombre tolling of luto or funeral bells.

Church tower by night. Photo ©


Baaas and Mouuus:
Animals clucking and neighing like the song goes are no longer part of most people’s daily soundscape. For this reason, it is especially enjoyable to wake up hearing the braying sheep up the hill or a wailing donkey in the valley beneath us.

Flock of sheep with shepherd outside Ronda. Photo ©


Impromptu performances: Andalusians are a spontaneous lot. On any social occasion our friends will leap to their feet and start belting out a song or dancing la Sevillana without any prompting. 

Coti singing. Photo ©



Olfactory impressions

Oranges, Sevilla. Photo ©

As for the nose, what a treat! Andalucía simply exudes olfactory pleasures (and a few less desirable odours…)


Azar Heaven:
While Southern Spain blesses us with fragrant blooms, none has a more divine perfume than the azar, or the orange blossom. To experience the orange trees at their peak, head to the Lecrine valley in mid May and you will think that you have gone to Nirvana.

Lemon blossom, Valle Lecrin. Photo ©


Holy incense:
Ever since our first Easter in Spain, my nostrils remember with fondness the fragrant incense of Semana Santa. The scent lingers in the air, seeping out from stores, chapels and homes. I have thought about stealing one of the incense dispensers they use in their mass, but so far I have managed to hold back. The smell of hundreds of candles lighting up a dark church interior combined with the incense feels mysterious, timeless and even, for a quasi-heathen like myself, holy.  

Incense carrier, Ronda. Photo ©


Wild herbs:
As hikers in Andalucía, we always come across herbs growing in the wild. Cultivated herbs can certainly smell nice, but there is nothing lovelier than sticking your nose into a wild growing thyme, a fragrant wild lavender or a shrub of wild rosemary.

Wild lavender, La Serranía de Ronda. Photo ©


Gustatory impressions

Fresh from the campo. Photo ©


Oh, decisions, decisions. Andalucía is a tasters’ paradise, particularly since everything comes in bite-sized tapa format. Nearly every fruit and vegetable under the sun can grow in southern Spain, while you can find local organic olive oil, delicious sheep milk cheese, free range eggs and superb tinto wine from the area, if not from your own neighbourhood. Difficult as it is to narrow down the top taste choices, here they are:


Tomates aliñados:
For all the more elaborate dishes on the menu, I like the basics. When the enormous black tomatoes and the Corazon de Toro tomatoes are in season, nothing beats Tomates aliñados - tomatoes simply dressed with course salt and olive oil. Some will add chopped garlic or a pinch of dried herbs, but when it comes to this dish I am a purist.

Tomates aliñados. Photo ©


From the sea: Having both the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean close at hand, we are spoilt for choice when it comes to fresh seafood, (while there is still life in the oceans…) If you haven’t tried it yet, order the locals’ favourite, a skewer of sardines cooked over flames at a beach Chiringuito. This fabulous summer treat should ideally be accompanied by a bit of an ocean breeze and the smell of a tarred pier.

Sardines from Chiringuito in Malaga. Photo ©


Café con leche: I have a weakness. I never used to like coffee in Canada - usually meaning Starbucks’ milky brown substance served giant environmentally devastating paper cups. Since moving to Spain however, I have become hooked.

Café con leche as it ought to be served. Photo ©

Once in Malaga, sitting with my far too healthy herbal brew, I observed my husband getting a glass of dark-as-my-soul espresso, into which the waiter splashed some milk. The latter can make up any one of ten colour variations, as here in the Province of Málaga we do not measure shades of grey. We like our shades java brown.

The coffees of Malaga. Photo ©


Tactile impressions

Cork Bark. Photo ©

Of all the senses, touch is probably the one we are the least aware of and truly ‘in touch with’. Most of us are too busy being bombarded by visual and auditory stimuli to feel the subtler sensations under our fingertips. So, what are some of Andalucía’s most profound tactile impressions?


Touching Wood:
“Touch wood” we say when we wish something to happen or hope that something won’t happen. Wood therefore, somehow equates to safety. This feels particularly true by the ancient Castaño Santo, a venerable old chestnut tree that grows on the old walking trail between Ronda and San Pedro.

How could you not want to hug this friendly giant?

Touch wood, or like Rafa, just embrace it. Photo ©

Touching history:
Ronda is rock. We live on a rock split by a deep gorge. The landscape is peppered with rocks and everywhere we look we see the rocky Serranía de Ronda mountain chain. These rocks built the bridges over our Tajo, the walls that protected our town and the houses that gave people and animals shelter. The rocks came long before us and will outlive us into oblivion. Touching Andalusian rock is therefore touching a piece of timeless history.

Rock formation, Ronda. Photo ©


Your favourite sensations are probably completely different from mine, as we all hear and smell things differently. The importance is not what we sense, but that we sense at all.

I hope that reading this will inspire you to celebrate the sensational sights, sounds, smells, tastes and touches wherever you may be.

On another sensory journey. Photo ©



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The Legends, Lies And Secrets Of Ronda’s Majestic Mina De Agua
22 August 2019

La Mina de Agua in Ronda, anno 1300s. Photo ©

The most astonishing fact about Ronda’s secret water mine is that it was made in the first place. The second most remarkable thing is that it is still here 700 years later, in spite of military battles, profit-seeking owners, grave robbers, floods and centuries of neglect.

La Mina de Agua is just around the corner from Puente Nuevo, but while hundreds of thousands of tourists annually cross the bridge that spans Ronda’s gorge, most visitors miss the incredible mine carved into the rock and leading to the riverbed right below our town.

Casa del Rey Moro, the gardens and the entrance to the hidden mine. Photo ©

So, for those who haven’t had a chance to behold this man-made inversed water fortress, let us pay it a visit.


The Legend Of The House Of The Moorish King

Street leading down to mine entrance with Casa del Rey Moro to the left. Photo ©

Our journey of legends begins as we enter the gate adjacent to la Casa del Rey Moro. In spite of its name, this palace was never the home of a Moorish king. It did however belong to various members of the eminent Marquez de Salvatierra family.

Casa del Rey Moro main entrance with family crests. Photo ©

The building itself was constructed in the early 18th Century, long after the Moors were expelled from Spain. Described as a Neo-Mudejar style palace, it was the first to take advantage of the spectacular views offered by the Tajo gorge. Today, the building is in dire need of restoration. While the present owner awaits permission to do so, we can only hope it will be granted before a storm tears down the remainder of this historical edifice. 

Casa del Rey Moro today. Photo ©


The Duchess With A Conscience

Garden by Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier with the modern part of Ronda in the background. Photo ©

La Duquesa de Parcent purchased the property in 1911 and did the most for the preservation of the palace and the mine. The Duchess was also responsible for the gardens we will walk through to enter the mine. She hired French architect Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier to create a green space that would  ‘evoke Paradise’.

Garden pond. Photo ©

Merging French style and classical Muslim landscape design, the garden has fountains linked by water channels and Arab style tiles set against the dramatic backdrop of la Serranía de Ronda.

Garden with view of Serranía de Ronda in the background. Photo ©

The Duchess also renovated the mine’s stairway and built a small jetty on the Guadalevín river, so she could walk along the water to a cave where she had placed an image of the Virgin Mary. Her original stone platform is long gone, but will hopefully be restored soon as part of a larger plan to clean up Ronda’s waterways.  

From the bottom of the mine in the early 20th Century, perhaps with the Dutchess on the jetty. Photographed from book. © Juan Siles

Returning to the world of legends, some historical recounts say that the Duchess commissioned the construction of the palace in 1709, which would make her some ghostly 250 years old by the time her garden was made...

Mine entrance hidden by shrubbery and trees. Behind one sees the modern part of Ronda at the other side of the Tajo gorge. Photo ©

But let’s not forget our destination. Though the entire complex of palace, gardens and mine was declared a National Monument in 1943, the water mine is really the jewel in this rather unpolished crown.


The Islamic Kingdom Of Ronda

Sign at the entrance to the mine. Photo ©

Most sources agree that La Mina de Agua was constructed during the reign of King Abomelic at the beginning of the 14th Century, and operated in the Late Medieval era. According to folk legend, he was one of the last and most infamous Muslim Kings of Ronda, said to have drunk wine from the diamond-encrusted skulls of his enemies.


A romantic tile painting of the legendary Moorish King on the facade of the Casa del Rey Moro., where he never lived. Photo ©

What we do know for certain is that Ronda was an independent Islamic kingdom in the Al-Andalus era. The relation between the Arab and Christian rulers wasn’t as conflict-filled as one might think and both military and trade alliances were often formed between the opponents. By the 15th Century however, Ronda was on the frontline between the Nazari Royals in Granada and the Catholic Kings in the north. More of a fort than a town, its location and surrounding walls made it virtually inaccessible to invasions, but it was still vulnerable to barricades.

Vertical view from terrace. Photo ©

The primary target of any besieging army would always be the water supply, so access to water became the lifeline for the Moors during several Christian sieges. Since the old town centre only had a couple of rain deposits to count on, its rulers had to find a way of bringing water into town. The answer came through the secret water mine, accessed from the top of the Tajo gorge, yet completely concealed from the view of intruders.

The bottom of the water mine, where walls and windows blend with the natural stone. Photo ©

Taking advantage of a natural crevice in the gorge, the ingenious construction was excavated straight into the vertical cliff side, descending a distance of 60 meters down into the bed of the Guadalevin River below.

Looking down into mineshaft where waterwheel would have been. Photo ©

La Mina de Agua is a marvel of medieval Islamic hydraulic engineering. Its function was twofold: to protect and access water, while defending against intruders. In addition, the mine had the added benefit of offering a secret, last-resort escape route from the town. Still virtually intact and unique in all of Spain, the mine is of great historical and patrimonial importance as a key player in the defence of Ronda and its final re-conquest.


The Question Of The 365 Steps

Entering the mine. Photo ©

As we descend into the mine, let’s consider the first water mine question. Legend says that the stairs had 365 steps, dug out by Abomelic’s slaves in a single year, completing one step per day. Though this sounds like a good story, post re-conquest sources confirm the step count. Speaking to Ronda’s archaeologist Pilar Delgado Blasco, she said that it would have been quite possible to excavate a step per day in the relatively soft stone of which Ronda’s Tajo is composed.

Detail of wall in mine with lime deposits. Photo ©

The number of steps have been debated, counted, changed and recounted throughout history. The stairs have been restored several times, last under the renovation overseen by the Duchess of Parcent in 1911 when the present railings, as well as the uppermost rod-iron staircase were added. Today, visitors enter through the terraced gardens and are only able to look up into where the initial descent happened, so we might never know how many steps there initially were.

Rod iron staircase added during restoration by the Duchess of Parcent in 1911. Photo ©

Water Ways And Air Ducts

Hidden window. Photo ©

I have read visitors’ accounts speaking of the dangerous, poorly lit mine, which has not been our experience. Anyone capable of walking down and up a dozen flights of stairs should be fine to venture within. Some steps will be wet of course - it is a subterranean water mine. But if you take your time, it is perfectly safe.

Upper stairway. Photo ©

Included in the entry fee is an audio guide in Spanish or English, downloadable to smart phones. Otherwise, the mine has limited signage and no posters, video screens or other visual aids. Nor are there guards at every turn reminding one to mind ones step or ones head, but this makes the experience all the more authentic.

Ancient skylights. Photo ©

Finding ourselves right inside the mineshaft is astounding by any standard. The inner walls of the vast chamber are composed of a vertical grid of ancient arches, making an otherwise dark and damp mine interior appear airy and quite striking both from an aesthetical and an architectural point of view. In addition, numerous gaps all the way up the exterior wall offer natural illumination at every point of our descent.

Stairway with natural light from exterior. Photo ©

Half way down the mine, about 30 meters under ground, we come to a large open vault. This used to contain an enormous water wheel, allegedly powered by eight Christian slaves instead of the traditional mule. Water was channeled directly into the mine from further afield through brick-lined waterways or acequias - the Arabs answer to Roman aqueducts. The canals made it unnecessary to leave the fortress to collect water, while assuring that it was available even in seasons when the river level was naturally low.


The cathedral like mine with airy inner walls. Photo ©

The vertical mine was designed to defend the lower chambers and the secret door at the bottom of the gorge from overhead. 25 meters above the river we pass the Terrace of Conquest, the mine’s first line of defence. Strategically placed below a grotto and therefore impossible to see from the outside, watchmen would keep constant lookout for signs of intruders. And should unwanted guests appear, there were ample hidden windows from where boiling oil could be poured.

Is this where they poured the boiling oil from? Photo ©

A True Tale Of Slaves

Stairs where slaves carried water. Photo ©

An indisputable fact mentioned in many contemporary sources is that Christian slaves would carry the water in leather sacks up the stairs into Ronda. Some state that the captives passing these water bags were chained to the steps. Most water carriers were likely prisoners of war from the Catholic army, as either side of the conflict would have taken hostages. 15th Century reports describe how when the Castellan troops forced entry, they discovered that the mine had essentially been a prison. Hundreds of slaves - men, women and children - were found in a wretched state, having been kept in five rooms, possibly in the defensive tower that no longer exists. All the slaves were freed without payment, which usually was the only way to escape slavery. By royal decree, 417 former slaves walked to Cordoba to kiss Queen Isabel’s hand the following Easter. The Royals ordered the chains used on the captives to be sent to Toledo and be fastened to the walls of San Juan de los Reyes church, where they still can be seen today.

Various sayings allegedly originated from the slaves, referring to the almost certain death of the water carriers. The most likely version is “Dios me guarde del zaque de Ronda” - God protect me from the water sacks of Ronda.

Perfectly vaulted ceiling in the Room of Secrets. Photo ©

We are now in the lowest section of the mine where the weapons room and la Sala de Secretos was located. The Room of Secrets has massive walls and a vaulted ceiling extending into each corner. A typical military construction of the era, it has unique acoustics. If two people stand in opposite corners facing the wall and whispering, they can hear each other perfectly well, while the conversation is inaudible to anyone standing in the centre of the room. What schemes were planned here, one wonders?

La Sala de los Secretos with vaulted ceiling extending down into the corners. Photo ©

The Secret Of The Crosses

Crosses from pre and possibly post Catholic conquest. Photo ©

We are not done with our legends yet. Descending further while trying not to loose count of the steps, we pass some course engravings on the wall.  These inscriptions of crosses and graffiti initials in the lime deposits in the stairway were discovered in the 17th Century. A story surfaced about a captive knight having scraped the initials of IHS (Jesus Christ) into the wall with his own fingernails before drawing his last breath. Though prisoners always try to signal to the outside or in this case to the ones above, some of the crosses were likely added after the re-conquest.

Initials on mine wall. Photo ©

Again referring to the town archaeologist, she explained that the new Christian population of Ronda might have engraved crosses out of fear of what would happen to them if they, God forbid, drank ‘Muslim’ water.


The Myth Of The Bathing Nymph

We have finally come to the bottom of the mine and as we behold the river through an arched doorway, it is time for another legend…

The ‘secret’ exit to the Guadalevin river at the bottom of Ronda’s gorge. Photo ©

One of the most popular myths is that the infamous King Abomelic built the mine for his favourite and of course uncommonly beautiful daughter, so she could bathe in the river out of public eye. This is pure hogwash of course.

Magical view of the river below. Photo ©

First and foremost, the mine was the lifeline for everybody in the Moorish town, including the royal household. Secondly, a princess in those days did nothing alone, certainly not bathing herself, which would be far beneath her. Thirdly, I am sure that the fair princess had her personal bathrooms, and would not have bothered to climb down 365 steps to bathe ‘in private’, but in view of every watchman in the tower, only to sweat when being carried up again, not that her palanquin would have fit down the stairs. Lastly, the King, however mad he might have been, would not have allowed the apple of his eye to enter a dark mine filled with suffering slaves and swarthy soldiers for a mere dip in the river.

A place for a bathing princess? Photo ©

Hence, the princess bathing in the Guadalevin river is yet another historical misrepresentation. The legend likely originated with the Catholic conquistadors after discovering the mine. By using the romantic tale to explain its existence, they simultaneously covered their ignorance of the function and purpose of a mechanical piece of engineering that was far beyond their technical knowledge and understanding.


A Missing Hole Or A Muslim Traitor?

The question of how the Castellan troupes entered the mine has also become a point of debate. One theory is that the invaders accessed the mine through a hole in the wall in the lowest chambers, though no such opening has been found.

Façade of water mine where some believe the Catholic army entered through a hole in the wall. Photo ©

The most common theory supported by chronicles of the time speaks of a Muslim traitor who revealed the location of the secret door leading into the mine from the river’s edge. After a long siege, it was likely here at the mine’s iron-plated back door that Castellan troops forced entry on Wednesday the 13th of May in 1485. 

The doorway through which the Catholic army likely entered the mine to take over Ronda. Photo ©

The traitor theory is supported by many historians who explain that sooner of later somebody from the inside will sell the secret to the enemy or disclose its whereabouts under torture. It makes sense - every exit is a potential entrance. When the backdoor to the river became known to the Castellan troupes and they took control of Ronda’s water supply, surrender would have been inevitable.


The Dark Years And The Mad American

A gap of air and light, invisible from the outside. Photo ©


La Mina de Agua was probably never used again after the Catholic monarchs Ferdinand and Isabel took over Spain. It was abandoned in the 16th Century and became a place of legends.

In the beginning of the 20th Century the mine was once again in danger. This time the threat came from a new owner. More crook than businessman, North American multimillionaire Lawrence Perin bought the palace and mine in 1909. He contacted national press, claiming to have discovered a new Alhambra with chests of Roman coins and hidden palaces.

Halls and terraces. Photo ©

Plotting to develop the mine into a lucrative centre for tourism, he informed the Spanish government that he had a thousand men working on the excavations. Not getting the reception he had hoped for, he turned to Morocco. Professing that his mine contained the tombs of several Moorish kings, he allegedly attempted to sell this non-existent Arabic pantheon to a sultan in Fez through an English resident of questionable reputation in Tangier.

Archway through which guards could watch slaves at work. Photo ©

Nobody in Ronda knew anything about these claims until they read about the ‘discovery’ in the national press. The writer and historian Don Juan Pérez Guzmán y Gallo was so enraged by these fabricated discoveries that he produced a 70-page document for the Royal Academy of History in 1909, setting the story, and history, straight - what one found in Ronda’s mine, he said, was the water which had supplied the town, as well as the grain mills further down river, not subterranean palaces, Roman treasures and tombs of bygone kings.


The Last Unwritten Chapter

Not completely state of the art… Photo ©

One would think that the mine had been through enough hardship, but apart from the short reprieve under the Duchess’ care, it was once again abandoned. Throughout half the 20th Century, Franco managed to practically erase the Arab era from Spanish history books, instead augmenting the importance of the country’s more Aryan Visigoth past.

Unbelievable as it may seem, as late as in the 1990’s the mineshaft was completely inaccessible, having been filled with construction rubble and garbage. Not until 1997 was this rectified, when Archaeology professor Fernando Amores Carredano took charge of clearing out the unique historical construction so we can visit it today.

Lofty, but narrow stairway in mine shaft. Photo ©

An investigation team of architects and archaeologist from the University of Sevilla is trying to uncover some of the mine’s secrets. The team is presently working on surveying and mapping out the various parts of the mine, while future projects include excavating the remains of the water wheel, making the old weapon room and guard house accessible to visitors, as well as excavating the floor in the Room of Secrets, which was covered in the early 20th Century. Hopefully their work will give us some more answers as to the mine’s past and ‘the rift that overthrew a kingdom’.

The enigmas of La Mina de Agua continue, but there is one thing the mine has taught us - sometimes reality is better than legends.

For more information, please go to La Mina de Agua

Arched opening looking up the Tajo gorge to the ‘modern’ part of Ronda. Photo ©

Like 3        Published at 16:21   Comments (6)

The olive tree – a pictorial guide to its many split personalities and idiosyncrasies
01 August 2019

Olive trees in archaeological dig in Mérida, Spain. Photo ©


We Norwegians see trolls behind every rock, so it is no surprise that I also attribute olive trees with certain human characteristics. I mean, just look at them – bent and gnarly and simply exuding personality. I cannot go for a walk in the campo without noticing another dancing olive tree. My husband knows better than to reason with me, in spite of being fully aware that the tree in question is deeply rooted and won’t do a jig anytime soon.

Tango for two. Photo ©


I will often name the trees we pass on our walks. Not a human or a pet name, of course. An olive cannot be Juan Carlos or Pongo. Yet these venerable old trees deserve a name. Like any other sculpture, an olive tree can merit a title like The Thinker or Madonna and Child. The olive develops distinct characteristics and even idiosyncrasies with age. Like people, they also tend to get more hard-headed. Despite draughts, floods, urban development and other calamities, the olive trees will hang on, more often than not outliving the people who planted them.

As I walked in Eden... Photo ©


The age rings of a felled olive tree do not have to be counted to know how it lived. Its history can be read directly upon its scarred being. The trunk will show where the wind bent it, an axe trimmed off limbs, or how a ray of lightning split it apart.

Read my trunk. Photo ©


One of the many amazing things about the Olea Europaea is its stamina. One can cut it to the ground, leaving only a dead stump. Still new branches will emerge and before one knows it, the olive tree is back producing fruit.

Reincarnation. Photo ©


This hardy stock will grow on the steepest of inclines in the poorest of soils, living through both the scalding Andalusian summers and our near freezing winters.

Fields of gold. Photo ©


Keeping this in mind, is it any wonder that olive trees develop what appear to be mental ailments in their later years? Although I am no expert in the field of psychological afflictions, most mature olive trees exhibit distinct signs of past trauma. But it is in fact these emotional scars that give them character and make them so beautiful.

Olive sky. Photo ©


The following pictorial guide shows some of the great olive tree personalities I have encountered on the Iberian Peninsula. They make me question whether we may have more in common genetically with the flora around us than we are ready to admit.




Like other creatures, young olive trees usually begin life with smooth skin and a relatively straight spine. Though I shall try to refrain from judgement, some olives, like this teen stuck in a rusted barrel, may have overprotective parents. I hope it will be allowed to spread its roots in the open soon.

Growing up in a bucket. Photo ©


Olive trees usually have numerous siblings. Twins are also quite common. Some will try to grow their separate ways, like these gemelos growing up among the sheep outside Ronda.

Twins. Photo ©


Later on, as the trees become young adults, life may throw them a curve ball and give them their first bend.

The toro and olive with a slight bend. Photo ©




Isn't that what we all want? Finding love. Of course, olive trees also long for someone to be close to, as seen in these two fine specimens. One leans East and one leans West and together they have become part of the same.  

Opposites attract. Photo ©


When love strikes, some enamoured trees will entangle themselves, never letting go.

Entangled. Photo ©


Not all relationships are healthy. There are a lot of needy olive trees out there, leaning on their partners. (I had to hide in the grass as I photographed this intimate family scene.)

Hold me! Photo ©


Then of course, there is the inevitable lovers quarrel. Some split-ups can be painful, causing scars, or even resulting in permanent or temporary split personalities.

Falling out. Photo ©


When the time is right, the olive tree might also become a parent, like this olive tree mother (still breastfeeding, as we can see). Her youngster seems to yearn for independence. Do helicopter mums also exist in the tree population, I wonder?

Mother with child. Photo ©


Not all love stories have happy endings, but I have noticed quote a few re-united olive tree couples out there, so they must be more forgiving than us humans…

Reunited.Photo ©



The mighty olive they call them, and there is no hiding that some olive trees can be decidedly macho. The most common afflictions among these hormone-driven olive trees are Exhibitionism and Narcissism. You see them in the fields, boldly limbed and posing in manly stances to get attention.


Like any group of males, there will always be one who boasts of his erectile function. This Delusion of Grandeur may in fact cause olive limbs to grow in odd ways.

The stag. Photo ©


Though most olive trees prefer a regular trim, the short and hairy type can often be seen in rural areas.  

Short and hairy type. Photo ©


Macho or not, this guy, living in a friend’s field (but planning to run away soon), is particularly striking.

Standing tall. Photo ©




An ageing olive tree is sometimes a study in pain, as many suffer from Post Traumatic Stress or Anxiety Disorder in later life.

Being encapsulated by a concrete fence,

Rooted in concrete. Photo ©


living without a core, 

Hollow. Photo ©


loosing another limb,

Decapitated again. Photo ©


showing signs of early childhood trauma,

What I have lived. Photo ©


or experiencing Amnesia or holes in the memory.

Patchwork. Photo ©


Some are left with only skin and bones.

Sinewy. Photo ©


But there are also signs of hope, as olive trees have a rare ability to adjust themselves to changes and virtually be reborn.   

New elbow. Photo ©




Believe it or not, there are trolls out there.

Two-fingered troll. Photo ©


Olive trees personify legends of the past and incorporate mythical figures, telling us stories from the time when nobody questioned the paranormal.

When stout town’s folk looked like Hobbits,

The Hobbits. Photo ©


and a tree could become an elephant’s head,

Elephant trunk. Photo ©


or a double eyed giant.

Double eyed giant. Photo ©




For the artistically minded, an ageing olive tree can be a sculptural beauty or a musical symphony,

The symphony. Photo ©


with flowing Flamenco skirts,

Flamenco dancer. Photo ©


and a peacock crown.

The peacock. Photo ©


sometimes growing in the air,

Roots. Photo ©


always magical.

Ageing beauty. Photo ©




In their golden years, some olive trees finally find peace,


rambling in the green,

Centenarians in the green. Photo ©


or finding love at long last.

Love at last. Photo ©


DISCLAIMER: Please note that this article is a piece of fiction and does in not in any way judge or comment on people with mental challenges. Any resemblance between the trees and actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.


The wall. Photo ©



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Women of rural Andalucía - From illiterate to university graduate in three generations
26 July 2019

Daughter, mother and grandmother.  Photo ©


When we bought the ruin that eventually became our Spanish home, the former owner did not know how to write her name on the sales contract. Granted she was over 90, but I had not expected to find illiteracy amongst the older populations in southern Europe. Was this still a common phenomenon in these parts, I wondered?


The old priest with smart phone.  Photo ©

We live in Ronda, a small town in rural Andalucía. The local community was primarily agrarian just a couple of generations back, but after the building boom of the late 20th Century most rondeños today work in the service industry.


Rural Andalusa. Photo © snobb.netMan on donkey.  Photo ©


Our part of town, the Barrio San Francisco is a typical multi-generational neighbourhood with nearly as many nonagenarians as new-borns. While 99% of the children growing up here today start school at 3 years old, some of the older generation, particularly the women, were never taught how to read or write.


Two for one. Photo ©


Wanting to know more about the history of rural education and the changing role of Andalusian women over the past decades, I decided to have a chat with a family on our street where three generations live under the same roof.

My interviewees were the 83 year-old grandmother, her 50 year-old daughter and her almost 18 year-old granddaughter.


3 generations of Andalusians. Photo ©


The Grandmother

Name: Antonia

Age: 83

Occupation: Dressmaker

Level of education: Illiterate

Antonia today.  Photo ©


Antonia was born in Alpandeire (current population 252) in 1936 at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

My father died when I was three months old, leaving my mother alone with my brother and myself”, she tells me. Her mother gave birth to five children, though the first three didn’t survive. As a widow with two youngsters, she had to do whatever she could to make ends meet. She would walk nearly 19 km to Ronda to be a farm labourer for a few days, after which she would walk back again in her Alpargatas, the typical Spanish rope and cloth sandals. “We walked everywhere, says Antonia. There was no other way.”


Antonia as young  girl ca 1938


Though there were schools in most villages and travelling teachers visiting larger rural farms, her mother had to move around so much that the children never attended school. When Antonia was four years old, they moved into a cave called la Cueva del Albanico located on the trail from Alpandeire to Ronda. Her mother had by this point met a widower, whom she later married. Antonia remember her stepfather as un buen hombre (a good man), even building a bread oven for their cave house. He worked for a landowner, receiving part of the crop as his only renumeration. Life was not easy by our standards, but at least they had food. “The four of us would walk to the farm where we would work all day. There were no machines, so everything had to be done by hand.

Some years later the family moved to Ronda where Antonia became apprenticed to a dressmaker. From the age of 12 until she became widowed at 62, Antonia sewed clothes for the families in our neighbourhood, most of whom paid her only when the completed outfits were delivered. Some didn’t pay at all. Although she was illiterate, Antonia learned how to write basic numbers and letters and developed her own code to jot down her client’s measurements. She would bring her old sewing machine under her arm if the clients couldn’t lend her theirs. Antonia clearly remembers the day when she finally had money to buy a sewing machine with a manual foot pedal – a great improvement. Only decades later would her daughter buy her an electric sewing machine.


Antonia posing for painting at 14, ca 1950


Antonia married a football player and carpenter in 1961 and they had three children. “I would have liked to have more, but there was no space”, she says. The whole family, 12 people - her mother (again widowed), her brother with his wife and four children, as well as herself with her husband and their children lived in a small two-story home. Her brother’s family had the only bathroom, so her lot had to make do with a honey-house in the courtyard, with a curtain serving as door.


Antonia's 3 children ca 1970


Since her husband’s income mostly disappeared in cigarettes and alcohol, Antonia was the main breadwinner. Like her mother before her, she was tough as nails. She fed her family and bought a house through her own labour. When she became a widow in 1996, Antonia finally stopped sewing and moved in with her daughter and her family. I ask her what she likes to do now. “Nothing. Watch TV…  I sewed a lot, and I am tired”, says Antonia.  At 83 she can finally allow herself to rest a bit.

Talking of resting, Antonia’s mother died at 93, never having had any serious illnesses in her long and hard life.


The Mother

Name: María del Mar

Age: 50

Occupation: Self employed jeweller

Level of education: Primary


María del Mar. today.  Photo ©


Like mother like daughter they say, and this is certainly the case when it comes to Antonia and her daughter.

María del Mar was born in 1969, when Spain was still under Franco’s autocratic rule. Though tourism had started on the coast, life in rural inland Andalucía was still quite harsh. “There was no social security then,” she tells me. “We had no money to pay for doctors and medicine, so we simply couldn’t get sick.” María del Mar had to leave school after her primary education and start work to help support the family, while her brothers helped their father in his carpentry business. “I would have liked to study and become a secretary, but it wasn’t possible,” she says.


María del Mar ca 1973


At 13, she got a job in a shop in our neighbourhood - one of those tiny corner stores that had everything from fresh food to house paint. She worked from 9 in the morning until 11 at night tending the shop, with only a short lunch break in the afternoon. Although they were long days, she loved dealing with the public. Luckily, her boss was a fair man, even paying for half her wedding dress when she got married. In the morning before work, María del Mar had to pick up a pail of milk for the family, and to get a few extra pesetas she also prepared a doctor’s young son for school. Every cent she earned went to her family. “We bought only what we needed for each day, if there was money. We ate what we had and NOTHING was ever thrown out.


María del Mar at 14, 1983


Life was very different in Andalucía then.

 “I picked up the milk every morning until I was 21, and even then it came straight from the cow.”

” What”, I ask?

“I mean that the man milked the cow into a bucket straight in front of my eyes”, she explains.

Different indeed. This was just back in the 1980s, when we, the kids up in Scandinavia, were worried about learning the latest Disco moves…

María del Mar married in 1992 and had two children, but she never stopped working. She would take any job she could find, sewing toys by the unit after work at night and going to nearby villages to sell jewellery. Through her and her husband’s thriftiness, they managed to save up enough to buy a home and a property in the country. “People do not buy as much jewellery as in the past”, she tells me, but she still makes, repairs and sells jewellery 23 years later. As her husband José lost his job recently and needs to retrain for a new profession, at 50, María del Mar is back being the main breadwinner. Nothing seems to stop the women of this family!



The Daughter

Name: María del Mar

Age: Soon 18

Occupation: Student

Level of education: Completed Sr. High school. Entering University


 María del Mar Jr. today. Photo ©


María del Mar Jr. was born in 2001, a whole new era in rural Andalucía. Primary and lower secondary school has become compulsory in Spain. Boys and girls receive the same education and have equal chances at attending university.


 María del Mar Jr. ca 2003. Photo ©


Like her fellow classmates, she began school when she was 3 and has never had to help support her family.  With only one parent working now, she must look to scholarships to pay for her university degree. “I would like to find a job besides university,” she says, “but it depends on the obligations of my degree.”


School children in uniforms. Photo ©

I do not worry about our young neighbour. She is as hardworking as her mother and grandmother, the only difference being that she is dedicating her time to her studies. She completed her Bachillerato with top marks. At soon 18, she speaks English and French, in addition to having learned ancient Greek and Latin. “I have offered to teach my grandma how to read and write, but she says it is too late. More than anything I believe she enjoys eating, because she experienced so much hardship in her childhood.“

With an illiterate (but very capable) grandmother, and an equally well-versed mother with only basic primary education, María del Mar Jr. will be the first person in her immediate family to get a university degree.


The whole family. Antonia, María del Mar Jr and Sr, Daniel the son and José the father, ca 2015


She is not alone: 45% of young Spaniards today have attained a higher educational level than their parents. Spain is today amongst those countries with the highest levels of upward intergenerational mobility in education, particularly for young women. María del Mar tells me that about 2/3 of her classmates plan to attend university, of which most are female. According to her, it is rare to have stay-at-home mothers nowadays in Ronda. Most of her friends’ mothers work outside the home, but the gender roles are still quite traditional. Whereas the fathers tend to be employed in retail, auto industries or restaurants, the mothers work in health services, house cleaning, secretarial jobs or education.


School children in Ronda. Photo ©


María del Mar wants to be a teacher. I ask her whether the fact that she grew up with a grandparent who could not read or write affected her career choice.

“Maybe…” she smiles shyly. After all, she is not even 18.



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