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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.

When your new neighbours move in with a crowbar – Squatters in Spain
21 June 2019

Front door ajar, Ronda. Photo ©

We came to our small town in rural Andalucía to escape the rat race, consciously abandoning North American city life in favour of Spanish village living. We were used to sirens 24/7, rush-hour traffic and panic buttons on alarm fobs and were looking for a slower and more forgiving pace. We found a perfect little casita on a narrow dead-end street in a charming barrio where everybody knew each other. We could leave doors and windows open and had a friendly repartee with all the neighbours. Then one night everything changed…

Just a small opening. Photo ©

We were woken by unfamiliar noises - the familiar ones being barking dogs, braying sheep and donkeys and distant flamenco parties. Two police cars were parked right in front of our house. The vehicles remained there for a couple of hours, while uniformed men moved about with flashlights. The next morning we discovered the reason for the disturbance. Someone had tried to force apart the window bars on the house opposite ours without total success, and proceeded to rip open the front door, or Breaking and Entering - usually a punishable offence. Word on the street travelled quickly, confirming that there were at least two squatters inside. So, what had the police done with the unlawful intruders we asked our better-informed neighbours? “Nada..” (nothing) was the answer. And what could the law do according to the same information source? “Nada…”

Intruders disguised as Holy Three Kings. Photo ©

Squatting refers to unlawful occupancy of uninhabited buildings or unused land - an increasingly common problem here in Spain. Whenever we speak to locals about squatters everybody has a horror story to tell, often involving their families. A friend had squatters move into her flat. As the invaders had barricaded themselves inside she couldn’t evict them, even if it was legally her home, for which she had always paid her taxes and bills. In the end, after having to sponsor the intruders’ steep electricity bill and a 700-euro water bill, she became furious (and one should never make an andalusa angry). Though barely 4 feet tall, this brave little lady went to her home and told the squatters that she would personally throw them off the balcony if they didn’t leave immediately. Somehow they moved on.

Lonesome door. Photo ©

People in Spain have been known to go on holiday and return to find somebody else living in their home. The owners then have to find another place to live, paying double expenses, while proceeding with legal action against the unlawful occupiers. In a famous media story, a woman whose home was occupied heard that the squatters had the audacity to sublet her rooms. She rented one of these, moved in and waited until a day when both squatters were out. Then she hurriedly changed the locks and was thereby finally able to reoccupy her own home.

Are you shaking your head yet?

Peaking in. Photo ©

Spain has literally millions of empty properties all over the country. Most are for sale, many are used as secondary holiday homes, while others are repossessed by the bank because the owners have failed to pay their mortgage. The latter was unfortunately the case with the house opposite ours. Bank-owned buildings are perfect for what one can describe as organized squatters, because the laws are more lenient to the felons when no individual suffers personal loss or depreciation of property value. Spanish banks possess thousands of buildings and are known not to care, so removing squatters from a bank-owned property take considerably longer than evictions from privately owned homes.

Chained entrance. Photo ©

Organized squatters usually work in teams, identifying empty properties, assessing security measures and weaknesses, verifying if water and power are connected and moving in quickly under the disguise of darkness. These types of professional home invaders do not represent the poor, desperate homeless or bankrupt families in dire need of a roof over their heads. The pros make it their business to invade homes. Like our new ‘neighbours’, they own vehicles, wear new clothes, and have cell phones of the latest make and model.  They tend to be repeat offenders with previous charges against them for former unlawful entries. Pro squatters are the hardest to get rid of, as they know every loophole in the Spanish legal system. They will always leave one person back at base so re-occupation cannot take place. The others may be seen skulking about the neighbourhood, their eyes always scanning around 360-degrees, as if they are expecting to be attacked from behind.

Door knocker, Galicia. Photo ©

While two individuals broke in initially on our street, other family members usually follow. The squatters were overheard to have said that they would leave the premises if the police paid their rent elsewhere. In broad daylight the next day the intruders changed the locks. After two more nights of police visits, the cops packed up their non-threatening flashlights and drove away, leaving the intruders to take up residence for an undetermined length of time. The squatters are currently launching about and airing out ‘their’ new home, while the remaining neighbours keep kids inside, and windows and doors secured out of fear of the intruders’ next move. Every night, the squatters seem to bring in more furniture. And though the house has neither water nor electricity, it can easily be ‘borrowed’ from adjoining buildings. After all, they are pros.

Window Marbella. Photo ©

The Spanish law on squatting has changed in the past few years, allegedly making it easier for owners to get rid of unlawful occupants. Yet, this law only refers to privately owned properties, not those owned by banks or real estate companies. There is no great legal deterrent for squatters, as home invasion of uninhabited properties usually only entails a fine and a slap on the hand. Whether one denounces the culprit/s or not, the average time to fully evict unlawful occupants is more than a year. There are still too many legal loopholes. Squatters can in principle be removed within 48 hours, unless they change the locks, which is the first thing the pros will do. If they additionally register themselves as residents of the specific address with the Town Hall, it is even harder to get them out. And if they bring children under ten years of age into the premises, don’t even start…

Over the fence. Photo ©

So, what can be done if ones’ home has been invaded? From what I have read on the subject, it is vital to act swiftly. Report it and seek immediate legal advice to get the squatters out as soon as possible. There are private now companies who promise to remove unwanted intruders within a couple of days, but I cannot say how reputable or efficient these are. Neighbours can also present civil action against the squatters, or report them to the police when they engage in what one deems to be illegal, dangerous or harmful activities. Official complaints and requests for action can be made to whoever owns the property, or their security company. Joining neighbourhood associations and creating formal or informal Neighbourhood Watch groups can be helpful, and may give the affected residents a greater sense of solidarity and security. Though some affected owners try to break in and re-change the locks when the occupants are out, this seems risky at best, as one never knows what the occupants are capable of. It can also backfire, as squatters can actually denounce the legal owners for illegal trespassing. So much for the sanctity of ones home!

Doorway in Andalusian country estate Photo ©

For those who own a Spanish holiday home that is left empty most of the year, how can one prevent unlawful occupants? There are of course no guarantees, as criminals who want to break in will usually find a way. However, there are some simple things one can do to deter unwanted intruders. First of all, one should assure that the property is checked routinely. Next is installing indoor lights on timers and sensor lights outside, and keeping a clean entrance without heaps of mail to advertise that no-one is home. As we discovered, it does not always help to have a silent alarm with direct connection to the police station. By the time the officers arrived on our street, the intruders had already bolted themselves inside. A less sophisticated alarm system that omits a loud sound when someone breaks in might be better, certainly in a residential area.

Entrance, Granada. Photo ©

The problem of squatters is much bigger than our little street drama. It is something that every city, town and municipality in Spain have to deal with. Authorities who do nothing send a wrong message to the public. People will question why they should rent or buy a home and pay fees and taxes, if others can just come and invade them at their leisure. In some countries this type of problem is ‘solved’ by hiring a few thugs with baseball bats to scare off the squatters, but I am glad to say that Spain does not follow the law of the jungle. This is the land of the law of mañana

In the meantime, the legitimate residents of our street wonder when we can return to our peaceful life and open our windows again.   

(To protect the innocent home owners, none of the photos used in this article are from an occupied house)

Open window Casco Histórico, Ronda. Photo ©

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Visiting Setenil de las Bodegas - where the Heavens are made of rock
05 June 2019

Magical street. Photo ©

Envisage a town concealed in a gorge with houses dug into a mountainside.  A place virtually unknown to tourists a few years back, yet where history goes back millennia. Now this has to be an interesting town to visit…

Sign. Photo © snobb.netMeet Setenil de las Bodegas - a tiny municipality in the province of Cádiz with a mere 3000 inhabitants. In 2018, Setenil was included in the Association of Spain’s Most Beautiful Villages. Only last month it was also chosen as the Best Secret Destination in Europe, ahead of Malcine in Italy, Renania in Germany, Agos Nikolaos in Greece and other lesser known European jewels.

Open courtyard. Photo ©

Setenil forms part of the route of Andalucía’s White Villages, yet the town has something which none of the other Pueblos Blancos possess. Whereas most white villages are situated on high ground, Setenil is embedded into a narrow river gorge. Approaching from the mountain plateau that surrounds it, you cannot see any sign of an upcoming town. Like Alberta’s Badlands, the road suddenly dips into a crevice, in Setenil’s case created by the Río Trejo and Río Guadalporcún.

River's edge. Photo ©

Setenil’s most distinctive feature however, is the town’s large number of cave dwellings. The white washed buildings literally seem to grow out of the mountain or to be physically embedded in the rockface. Many homes have a single external wall. The rest of the living quarters will expand underneath the protruding overhang, dug out of the porous sand stone by enlarging the natural caves that the river created millions of years ago. This innovative design makes Setenil one of the most original villages not only in Spain, but in all of Europe.

Walking under the rock. Photo ©

Troglodyte living is not a new thing in Setenil. Caves in nearby regions were occupied in both Paleolithic and Neolithic times. It is likely that Setenil also was home to our Neanderthal ancestors, but evidence of Stone Age residents may have been lost in the spring-cleanings of newer inhabitants during the last couple of millennia.

Setenil de las Bodegas, 1907 photographed at art exhibit in old tower

The town’s name is said to have come from the Latin words septem nihil (seven times nothing), referring to how this Moorish town resisted the Catholic Reconquista army, only falling after seven long sieges in 1484. In my opinion there has to be another explanation. Firstly, how would the Latin speaking Romans have known about a conquest that happened several centuries into the future, after they left the Iberian continent? Secondly, would a Latin town name have been used through 700 years of Moorish rule? And finally, would the Catholic Monarchs want to name the town in memory of their six unsuccessful attempts of taking over the town, even if they finally succeeded on the seventh attempt? To me, it is a mystery indeed.

Historical brotherhood. Photo ©

The addition to the name, de las Bodegas, dates from the 15th Century, and refers to the once thriving local wineries. After expelling the Muslims, Setenil’s new Christian settlers introduced grapevines, while continuing the Arab olive and almond production. The vineyards were wiped out by an insect infestation that killed virtually all of Europe’s grape stock in the 1880’s, but recent replanting has once again filled up Setenil’s bodegas for us to enjoy their bounty. 

Cave house street and campo vista. Photo ©

While Setenil is a mere pueblo today, it was once an important town. In fact it received a Letter of Privilege from the Catholic Monarchs in 1501, giving it trade benefits on level with Sevilla. Yet the true sign of the town’s past importance comes in the form of an engraving from 1564, when Joris Hoefnagel drew an atlas of Europe’s most important towns, one of which was Setenil! His Civitates Orbis Terrarum, published in Cologne in 1572, was one of Europe’s first map books.

Setieil a la 1564 by Joris Hoefnagel. Photo from art exhibit in the Torreón del Homenaje tower

Living merely 30 minutes drive away, Setenil is a favourite place for my husband and I to take visitors. You can see the entire town in a morning, though I believe one should never miss the chance of having lunch under a suspended rock! If you come on a Friday, you get the added bonus of seeing the villagers descend upon the weekly mercadillo (8 - 14ish) It is great for people watching and a must if you are in the market for flowers, fruit, spices, synthetic dresses or granny style underwear.

Friday market. Photo ©

We prefer less busy days, when we can spend an hour or two doing the natural circuit, strolling along one side of the river and returning on the other. Wandering the streets of Setenil, or callejear as they call it is simply a joy. Everywhere you look there are magical corners, narrow alleys and picturesque balconies bursting with flowers.

Kissing corner. Photo ©

Our walk usually starts in Calle Cuevas de la Sombra (loosely translated as ‘the shady cave street’), one of the most astonishing rock-ceilinged streets in the known universe. In spite of the limited headroom, locals blast through in their mini-trucks not paying the slightest attention to the tight clearance on either side.

Calle del la sombra. bnw. Photo ©

There seem to have been a recent revival of the town, with an increasing number of stores and delis. We stop in one of these to have a chat with the owner about village life. La Cueva del Ibérico, like many shops in town, is really a cave. There is no ceiling as such, just the bare rock overhead extending onto the back wall. Not only is the atmosphere of the store fabulous, but Daniel the proprietor knows his trade. He can tell you where every cheese is produced and why one wine differs from another, and those who are lucky to spend the night or not driving can always ask for taste.

Calle de la sombra. Photo ©

Daniel was brought up in Setenil, but like many young, left town to study and make a career in the big city. As a husband and recent father, he has returned. He likes the slow pace of Setenil, but also the year-round visitors from all over the world. He tells us that five years back there were only a handful of guesthouses in town, while today there are more than 30 casas rurales, including half a dozen within spitting distance of his shop.

We emerge from Daniel’s cave with a litre of sherry after having tried the whole range - from the driest Fino and the floral Amontillado to the sweetest Pedro Ximénez grapes. At the end of the street, after a short but steep climb (not recommended in the hot midday sun), we stop at a local chapel to light a candle by one of the many statues of the Virgin Mary.

Chapel. Photo ©

Continuing uphill we come to Plaza de Andalucía. It is a little early to begin to tapear, so we indulge in our first iced coffee instead. The square has a couple of tapas bars, as well as possibly the world’s only cave bank!

Troglodite banking. Photo ©

Meandering our way up past the tourist office we arrive at the top of the bluff, which offers an excellent vantage point of the town. The Torreón del Homenaje tower is the only remains of the original alcázar castle from the 12. Century. Occasionally used for art exhibits, it is also well worth the climb to the top for an undisturbed birds’ eye view of the surrounding countryside.

Setenil from above. Photo ©

Descending through narrow alleys with kissing-distance from the buildings on one side to the other, we return to river level. We are ready to explore the town’s less frequented roads, where some of the most charming and authentic cave homes in Setenil can be found.

Narrow street, Setenil. Photo ©

The sandstone overhangs make natural turbans for the cave dwellings, which merge perfectly with the overgrown terracotta roof tiles.

Roofline detail. Photo ©

These traditional rural homes have few and small windows, to keep the heat out in summer and the cold out in winter. One has to ask oneself how living in such enclosed stone quarters must be in the rainy season, as even on the sunniest of days the buildings feel humid and cool. Not sure if I would like to try, but I can see it being perfect for curing chorizos…

Roof detail. Photo ©

Not all the caves are homes though. Some are converted into unsightly garages, while others look more like squat barns and donkey shacks. The majority of these cave dwellings were probably shared by people and their domestic animals way back when. Maybe some still are?

Cave houses Setenil de las Bodegas. Photo ©

We return on the opposite side of the river, walking along Calle Cuevas del Sol (sunny cave street), which is without doubt the most frequently photographed street in town.

Calle cueva del sol. Photo ©

The market stalls are being disassembled into vans, and we find a table at Bar Frasquito where Pedro and his family serve to-die-for tapas. My weakness is their fried slices of eggplant with melted goat cheese topped with a Pedro Ximenez reduction - a true hedonistic treat. As an aside, the English translations of Spanish menus can be quite amusing, often spelled phonetically, translated literally, or just plain wrong. My eggplant with goat cheese for instance, is written up as Eggpland wiht good chesse

Menu, Setenil style. Photo ©

Setenil has managed to reinvent itself in the 21st Century, while retaining its charming village feel. People still practice traditional agriculture, combined with a growing but limited tourist trade. Add to this a unique setting and beautiful surroundings and you get a rural community with an authentic Andalusian flavour.

One thing is for certain. Setenil is truly unforgettable, and if you ever doubt it, all you have to do is look up…

The 'ceiling' of our restaurant. Photo ©

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Ronda’s annual National Ham-Cutting Championship – Maybe soon a new Olympic sport?
24 May 2019

Championship Ronda 2019. Photo ©

I would never have thought that ham cutting could be a competitive sport, until we paid our first visit to our Andalusian town several years back.

At the end of a European holiday, a sudden shower forced us to seek shelter in Ronda’s Convento de Santo Domingo. We stumbled into a courtyard full of locals, staring intently at the sharp knives of half a dozen men dressed in head-to-toe black including long aprons. Each man was allocated a table where a leg of Iberian ham was fastened with screws and clamps into a torturous stand. Each had his battery of knives and sharpeners upon which his logo or initials were engraved. Unbeknownst to us, we had come upon our first national ham-cutting competition, an event the Spanish and the competitors evidently took very seriously.

Jamón cutter at work. Photo ©

Every year in the month of May, competitors from all over Spain meet in our town for El Concurso Nacional de Cortadores de Jamón, the national Iberian ham cutting championships. This year marked the 17th edition, still taking place in the same courtyard we inadvertently stumbled into way back when. The event was created and is still organized by Ronda’s Casa del Jamón, a local family business with no less than four national champion ham cutters.

The Corbacha family in Casa del Jamón, Ronda. Lourdes, Antonio and Leocadio. Photo ©

The patriarch, Leocadio Corbacho, began cutting ham as a teenager, long before it became a profession, let alone a nation-wide competitive event. In those days, the quality and control of the Iberian ham production was poor compared to today.

La matanza, traditionally in October. Photo © Casa del Jamón.

When he was contracted to supply the local military with ham, he began to cut the slices finer - not because it was the going trend, but so that more sandwiches could be made with less ham, hence feeding more soldiers. Recognizing the Spanish love of talking, he began to cut the slices fine enough that the consumer could continue a conversation while eating it. He discovered that this was a far more comfortable way of eating what eventually became a real delicacy. Only in the past couple of decades has the Iberian ham industry achieved the international fame it now enjoys. Jamón Ibérico, which is unique to Spain, is now part of the national patrimony on line with bull fighting.

Jamón cutter from an earlier championship. Photo © snobb.met

Eight professionals from Madrid to Huelva were selected from hundreds of applicants to participate in this year’s championship. Thought all were male, women have begun to enter the testosterone-driven ham-cutting scene. In fact, the winner of the 2018 Ronda championship was a cortadora from Salamanca and Leocadio’s daughter Lourdes is not only the first but the only female to have won first prize at the national ham cutting championships, not once, but twice!

Lourdes Corbacho, two time national champion cutting jamón Ibérico. Photo ©

Alberto Corbacho, another champion cutter in the family, explains that the competitors must be professionals and good standing members of the Asociación Nacional de Cortadores de Jamón. According to the rules, each participant is presented with a leg of Premium Iberian Bellota ham, allocated by lotto prior to the competition. The legs must have similar physical characteristics and weigh approx. 8 kilos - the optimal size for an Iberian ham. Otherwise, the contestants are responsible for their own tools and aids, such as knives, tweezers, ham stand etc.

Platters in progress. Photo ©

I noted that the latter had changed in the past decade. All the stands are now stainless steel, whereas in the past some would have been made of wood, bone and more traditional materials. Alberto tells me that the space age looking stainless tabla is the Ferrari of all ham stands with ability to twist, tilt and swivel almost 360 degrees in all directions.

CU of stainless jamonera. Photo ©

As in any competitive event, there is tension before the games begin. One participant carefully sharpens an already razor-sharp knife, while another re-tightens the screws of his ham stand.

Tension. Photo ©

Like before a ski race, one of the contestants sends a look towards the heavens and crosses himself. We are in Spain, after all.

Sending prayers to the one above. Photo ©

Next comes the count down and they are off! Knifes twinkle as the men in black begin to shear off long pieces of fat that protects the precious meat. The competitors are deadly serious about their craft. Each contestant appears to have his own style of handling the leg, holding the knife and building the plates. Ages vary from mid thirties to early sixties, with looks from classic 50’s Pompadour and wiry bullfighter-ish Brylcreme comb-over, to hairless minimalism.

Jamon cutter 1. (Madrid) Photo ©

During the course of the two-hour showdown, they must cut the leg clean, while producing plate after plate of impeccably presented and carefully cut slices or lonchas of ham. To add to the pressure, each plate should contain 100 grams of ham, on the nose. The slices need to be so thin that you can see the blade of the knife through the ham. As they say in the jamón industry, the slices must be fino como papel de fumar (fine like cigarette paper).

Ham cutting cu. (Thanks to hand model Lourdes Corbacho) Photo ©

Half a dozen professionals from the industry (including two females) judge the event, wandering about watching the competitors’ every move.

Judge, and last years winner prepares her notes. Photo ©

Not only is the end product important for the awards. The discarded fatty cut-offs are also carefully inspected to verify that not a morsel of edible ham is wasted. It is the judges’ job to determine the most original plate presentations and to announce the winner – the one who demonstrates superior dexterity with the knife, as well as the utmost style and creativity when it comes to the platter presentations.You cannot be any old chopper. A jamón master must have confidence, rhythm, elegance and panache. “There is an art to ham cutting. It is all in the wrist,” says Leocadio.

All in the wrist. Photo ©

I am not much of a ham person myself, but there is ham and then there is Iberian ham, particularly when speaking about Premium Bellota ham, which can cost more than 500 euros for a mere hairy leg. A certified Bellota ham comes with its own personal id, specifying place of birth and the age of the animal. Iberian Bellota ham is often said to come from pigs that have had an exclusive life-long diet of acorns, but this is not the case. Acorns are only in season from September to March, and the free roaming Iberian pigs only eat the bellota superfood during the last six months of their lives.

Premios. Photo ©

The Serranía around Ronda has always had the perfect climate for the rearing of the slim bluish black Iberian pigs. It also holds near optimal conditions for curing the Iberian ham. In contrast to regular Serrano ham, an Iberian ham will be immersed in salt (one day per kg) and then spend a minimum of two years curing in a humid place. Finally, the leg is hung to air, traditionally in a farm loft, to get that perfect Iberian flavour. The special Mediterranean mountain climate is likely the reason why the Asians haven’t managed to reproduce the quality of the Spanish ham yet, in spite of their effort and keen taste for jamón Ibérico.

Jamón Ibérico. Photo ©

The fat of the ham is part of the morphology of the leg muscle. The more marbling, the ‘sweeter’ the meat, the experts say. It is fundamental, not only for the richness of the taste, but also for aesthetical reasons, as proven when the competitors present their free-style creative platters.

Creative ham platter presentation, the free-style event. Photo © snobb.netThe popularity of the championships might be partly due to the fact that during the course of the cutting, spectators are able to purchase a plate of the very ham that has been cut in front of them. Add to this the sale of tinto (red wine) from the Tempranillo grape produced by the local Chinchilla vineyard, and one is bound to have a successful event!

Cheers. Photo ©

So, lovers of Jamón Ibérico out there, be sure to be in Ronda next May for the 18th edition of the concurso. And if you cannot wait that long or are looking for more of a challenge, there is apparently an upcoming course in jamón cutting including 10 hours of knife practice in Malaga in June. 

(For more information, contact Alberto at Casa del Jamón)

Cortador Logo. Photo ©




Like 0        Published at 17:32   Comments (2)

Making an Andalucian wall fountain and still having ten fingers to type the tale…
10 May 2019

Stone work 2. Photo ©

There is nothing more peaceful than a trickling fountain. We always wanted one in our backyard, but living in rainy Vancouver it was a mute idea. Then, after moving to Andalucía, long before we bought our reform-needy ruin, I began plotting our future terrace water feature.

Lovely stone wall fountain in Ronda garden. Photo ©

The first summer came and then another one, and we still hadn’t find our fountain. Nor did we have a home to put it in for that matter, as our Casita 26 was awaiting a building permit. Meanwhile the search continued. We saw some lovely colourful tile fountains in Morocco, but like any good design, they were copied in infinite reincarnations. We weren’t looking for a-dime-a-dozen fountain, we wanted something unique that reflected our new home turf.

Water feature in Arab garden at Palacio Montdragon. Photo ©

A fountain (from Latin fons - source of a spring) is a water supply regulated into a man-made construction, whose function is to send water by gravity into a basin, or propel it skywards by jets. In the past it would usually serve a dual function, both supplying drinking water and being a decorative feature. In other cultures it also had a religious significance.

Dragon fountain detail from Palacio Mondragon, Ronda. Photo ©

The earliest fountain builders were possibly the Mesopotamians, who made a series of stone basins connected by a natural water source in about 3000 BC. Greeks and Romans employed similar systems, while mechanical fountains appeared in the Italian Renaissance.  

Generalife, Alhambra. Photo ©

Here in rural Andalucía, where most residents were dependent upon livestock, fountains began as water troughs for animals. The base of the fountain would be a long pileta (pond) carved of a single stone, while a backing would contain spouts and at times decorative carvings. Some of these fountains were made in the Visigoth era (after the Romans and before the Berber invasion). An example of this is a water trough in the village of Grazalema, which is still in use today.

Visegoth fountain in Grazalema. Photo ©

People will still bring their horses to drink at the trough built by the old town gate in our neighbourhood. Farmers will also come and fill up jerrycans of water for their olive trees, as it is said to come from a special spring. Every farm we have visited here in Andalucía will have at least one of these piletas. With such an intriguing past, we agreed that our fountain needed to somehow reflect this part of our local history.

The Ocho caños wall fountain in the Padre Jesús district of Ronda. Photo ©

In addition to digging the stone troughs, we loved the warm sand colour of Ronda’s Tajo. Initially we wanted to make some walls in our home from the same stones, but since we bought a 3-meter wide ruin, we could not allow the extra padding of exposed rocks. Making a stone fountain became the solution.

Finding an ancient stone trough to fit into in the limited space available on our terrace turned out to be impossible. When we told this to our friend Juan, he suggested that we went to a former stone quarry in la Serranía to find a rock, and then to carve it ourselves. Never ones to say no to a challenge, we took off with Juan on a stone finding expedition a few days later. The quarry, like many rural businesses had had to close down due to lack of costumers. There were mountains of rocks to choose from. One could get lost in the piles, and these were just the broken rejects that had been pitched off the lot onto the nearest hillside.

Closed down stone quarry near Ronda. Photo ©

Having the exact measure of our pileta to be and tape measure in hand, we finally found a rock that could do. We dragged the monster to Juan’s jeep, me of course bringing a few extra piedras along, heading back to his property where the real work was to begin.

Already having driven us to get the rock and helped carry it to the car and bring it to his property, Juan said that he might have a more suitable rock for us. It turned out to be an already chiselled stone that had once been part of an entrance arch. The stones were now a garden wall, but Juan persisted that we take one, while he would use the less perfect quarry stone in its place.

The hero stone. Photo ©

Before we knew it, he had wedged the rock out and fetched two different sizes of rotary saws. Though he was supposed to build a bench at his rural estate that day, he began to make vertical, horizontal and finally diagonal cuts in the rock, making it easier for us to dig out the hollow centre.

Juan cutting the stone. Photo ©

What would have taken us days with a hammer and a chisel now took us mere hours. The rest was almost a breeze, at least if one was used to working with stone, which neither of us were. I managed to swing the heavy hammer off target and ended up with a few blood blisters, but nothing that time wouldn’t heel. Miraculously, I still had all my fingers.

Look, 10 fingers. Photo ©

Jaime carving the centre, Photo ©

Driving home with our prized pileta, we left it in the car to wait until a couple of young and strong neighbours could help Jaime hew-hawing it into the space. I would not trust myself to lift it, even if I could do so. Manolo, our neighbour who is near 90 saw us arrive and asked to look at the rock. “Oh that! I can lift that on my own over my back”, he claimed. We said that we were sure that that was the case, but that we felt it was safer to wait until there were more available hands. Not Manolo. He began to shimmy the rock off the back seat giving Jaime barely time to grab onto the other end. They walked into our house, across the living room, past the kitchen and onto the terrace. I could not believe my eyes. Manolo’s hands and step did not falter as he carried the rock, dressed in his customary suit and black leather shoes. There was the typical rural Andalusian man of centuries past: low to the ground, strong as a toro and tough as nails.

Done, and brought to its resting place by our soon 90 year old neighbour Manolo. Photo ©

Once we had our pileta into place, we began searching for rocks for the backsplash. This is no problem when one lives in rural Andalucía where every trail and field is covered in rocks. Juan let us have free range of his property, and we returned home with 10 kilos each in our backpacks.

Another rocky trail. Photo ©

Once we had enough material to choose from, some encrusted with fossils, I drew the shape on a piece of cardboard and plotted in the rocks like a puzzle on the ground (Once a designer, always a designer).

Planning the backsplash. Photo ©

The only thing remaining was to get somebody to apply my rock puzzle onto the wall. Though half the neighbourhood told us how easy it was to do this ourselves, we wanted a pro, to assure that it would not collapse on us. We spoke to four different contractors, all promising to come and nobody showing up. Finally Salvador, a friend and handiman agreed to do it. I will be there at 10 am tomorrow he said, and five minutes to ten he was there, tools in hand.

Work begins. Photo ©

In the morning he applied the rocks to the wall, and the same afternoon he came back to put in the sand coloured grout that we had requested. Écolo, it was done.

Fountain in progress. Photo ©

Our fountain is the first thing we see when we enter our house and look out onto the terrace. Though the grout still needs drying and we still need to attach our solar powered water system, we cannot be more pleased. Like we had envisioned, it echoes the sandstone coloured cliffs around us, bringing a little bit of Ronda’s Tajo into our home. More importantly, it is a labour of love, not only by our own hands, but by the help of some of our wonderful rondeño friends and neighbours. Our fuente is already like a piece of Andalusian history, hecho a mano en Ronda.

Almost done. Photo ©

Like 3        Published at 17:11   Comments (5)

Doing El Camino Light - A week on ‘the way’
03 May 2019

100 km left. Photo ©

Ever since I read The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho in the latter part of the last century followed by Shirley MacLaine’s movie-star-incognito account of the route, I have wanted to do El Camino. When Coelho walked it in the 1980s, there were barely any people venturing on the almost-forgotten pilgrim trail. On the other hand, there were allegedly ghosts abound, packs of wild dogs and even an occasional wolf to spice up the route, while lack of signage made one sure to get lost.

Worn trail. Photo ©

Not anymore…

Today El Camino de Santiago or the Way of St. James is as busy as it was in its hay day - the Middle Ages. Decidedly one of the most popular cross-continent walking routes in the world, the contemporary caminos attract scores of people every year. 2018 was a record year with 327.342 registered pilgrims! Most pilgrims are Spanish, though Italians, Germans, Americans and more surprisingly Koreans and Mexicans are also frequent camino walkers. There are now several different routes to choose from, with starting points in Roncevaux, Lisbon, Seville or San Sebastian, just to mention a few.

Camino grafitti. Photo ©

Many years after my literary exploration of the pilgrimage, we had an opportunity to do the walk ourselves. As we only had a week off and could therefore only do a partial route, I call our experience El Camino Light. As it is, walkers are of no obligation to do the entire way from start to finish. One can begin wherever one desires. To receive la Compostela, the official document proving that one has walked el Camino, pilgrims simply need to walk a minimum of 100 km or bike 200 km along the trails. (One can also do it on horseback or in a wheelchair.) Particularly for national walkers, it is quite common and practical to split the way into chunks, doing a portion each year depending on ones availability, family plans, wallet, physique, desire, or possibly, how many sins one has committed.

The cross. Photo ©

Speaking of sinners, though walkers are still called peregrinos or pilgrims, the reasons that most people take to the road now are quite different from that of the original pilgrims. Being the most important Christian pilgrimage after the ones leading to Rome or Jerusalem, the way was primarily shared by devout and repentant sinners. The road to Santiago attracted peasants and beggars, adventurers and dreamers, as well as nobles and royalty. One would also meet criminals whom the court had ordered to make the pilgrimage instead of serving a prison sentence. Doing El Camino was a dangerous proposition, as you also risked being attacked by muggers. And if you survived all the way to Santiago, you would face the challenge of getting back home - most likely on foot.

Peregrinos. Wall painting in Sarria. Photo ©

We prepared for our walk from our Ronda home, spending weeks on online research finding the best socks and the perfect insoles, as el Camino is all about the feet. Or more specifically, ones legs and ones pack. Whether one walks for a month, or a week, one basically needs the same things in the backpack, you just reuse the items more times on a longer camino.

La cruz. Photo ©

Before our departure, a friend from Delhi asked me why my husband and I wanted to do El Camino, adding that Indian people often believe that they are the only ones making pilgrimages. I thought about it for a moment. Why were we, neither of us Catholic, attracted to doing this Christian pilgrimage? I told her that there were many reasons: our love of walking, history and the outdoors, as well as the challenge and the adventure. We wanted to approach the way like a walking meditation, doing it for friends who couldn’t walk the way themselves. We would dedicate our daily walk to a friend who was sick with cancer, a neighbour with a collapsed lung, and a pal with a diabetic foot. We would walk out if gratitude for being blessed and healthy enough to be there, and to be on this life's journey at all...

The day before we were scheduled to leave, our friend with cancer passed away, making us feel a stronger urge than ever to begin our Camino.

Old fence. Photo ©

Spring is a glorious time of the year to travel, making a pleasurable 10-hour drive from the very south to north western Spain. Galicia displayed the most electrifying green landscape as we followed meandering roads towards our starting point, the town of Sarria.

Farm, caught from car. Photo ©

We had chosen to stay in what they call pensiones, where we had our own room and usually our own bathroom. Though some might find this a huge indulgence, we felt the extra couple of euros per night were a worthwhile investment. We saw no need to suffer in bunk beds, while sharing room with 20 other pilgrims. After all, we were not doing this to repent our sins, as ours are far too many…

The beer maiden. Photo ©

Each day, we walked about 20-30 kilometres, which is the daily average for most of the caminos. Since we didn’t have to hurry in order to get a bed in the next town (our rooms were booked in advance online), we could leave leisurely after daybreak, enjoying not only the walk, seeing where we were going without using head lanterns.

Morning mist and pilgrims in  motion. Photo ©

Taking our time, we discovered some magical creatures along the way. 

Lizard. Photo ©

The designer in me went amok as we passed one stunning timeless stone barn after another, complete with black natural slate roves. The yards would have old farm tools, as well as a traditional stilted, wooden granary.

Farm wall. Photo ©

The granary. Photo ©

Otherwise, some of the more recent Galician architecture was not as impressive. Most buildings in the towns we passed seemed to have been slapped together right after the Spanish Civil War with little maintenance since. Though there were some lovely restored or reproduced homes using slate and stone, many recent houses had an Edward Scissorhands meets 1971 American Dream home feel. I regret to say, once a snob, always a snob…

The best of the old and the new. Photo ©

Spring is still relatively cool and wet in Galicia, so we did not meet as many pilgrims on the trail as we would have had in the summer months. Being Semana Santa (Easter), we were happily surprised to see many Spanish families with younger children on the trail. (Almost 1/3 of the Santiago pilgrims are under 30.) We didn’t meet anyone talking in tongues or doing the Camino bare feet while whipping themselves, which one might expect after watching the 2010 Hollywood movie The Way. Our trail mates were quite ordinary people, happy to be there, enjoying the walk. Actually one of the most memorable things about el Camino was our trail-mates. Most walkers would greet you as you laboured along. As everybody was moving in the same direction, we would run into the same people at least every couple of days. If we didn’t know their names, we called each other by nationality. Hola Portugal. Como estás, Brazil? We became known as los Mexicanos, since my husband had the emblem of his former military college in Mexico on his pack.

El mexicano. Photo ©

I sometimes would ask our co-walkers why they were doing el Camino. A woman from Toronto told me she was doing is as a Social Media Cleanse. It was probably the best reason I heard, though most of the peregrinos had their mobile in hand to take photos, check out the next village, send WhatsApps to friends and to verify their mileage, calories or daily steps.

Santiago. Photo ©

The youngest pilgrim we met en route was 6-year-old Amor. She walked with a huge staff, accompanied by her older sister, two cousins, parents and an uncle. We had great admirations for the youngsters and their brave guardians, taking to the trail as a family in a time when most kids get their ‘exercise’ through online battles. Amor would boldly ask us our names, where we came from and how old we were, which to her of course might as well have been from the Middle Ages. I never knew her sisters name, but I imagined it would be Paz, as what better companions to have on a pilgrim trail than Paz y Amor (Peace and Love)!

Amor y Paz. Photo ©

Walking anywhere these days except possibly in the jungles of Borneo one is bound to have to cross over or walk along a few sections of highway. We were grateful to find that most days we were on old farm roads and country trails. The Camino crossed ancient bridges and lead along beautiful moss-covered stone fences.

Mossy fence. Photo ©

Each day we needed to get our passes stamped twice to prove that we had actually walked the way. Most frequently, these were stamped in hostels and restaurants. However, a couple of times we passed a ‘stamp station’, once in a chapel where a blind man urged the pilgrims to lead his hands so he would stamp the correct space. Another time, a former Romanian Paralympic athlete had set up a rickety table by a river, offering stamps against a symbolic donation. I didn’t really care if their stories and afflictions were true, as they offered a welcome diversion for road-wary pilgrims.

The passport. Photo ©

As far as The Way is concerned, the trails we walked were usually wide and fairly level, certainly compared to the rocky mountain paths we are used to in Andalucía. Most sections were well marked and decently serviced, passing villages with hostels and eateries every few kilometres. Even tiny hamlets would have a pilgrim shop selling beverages, rain covers, walking sticks, trail snacks and cheap Camino souvenirs. And then there was the occasional oasis…

The Oasis. Photo ©

As we had chosen the most frequented Camino Francés, we were hard pressed to get lost at all - unless, like me, one has a natural tendency to choose el camino malo or the wrong way. There were stone markers every kilometre, sometimes made into shrines by passing pilgrims.

Shrine. Photo ©

In addition, there were yellow arrows painted on houses and fences.

Follow the yellow arrows. Photo ©

Likewise, we could follow the symbol of the camino, the shell, which would be embedded into the pavement in more urban areas.

Follow the signs. Photo ©

We still managed to do a few unintended detours and some rutas complementarias, but when you think about it, what is the right way anyway, especially in a land where all roads seem to lead to Santiago de Compostela?

The way. Photo ©

Though the scalloped shell has been the symbol of el Camino since the pilgrim route began, it actually predates the way as the symbol of the Roman goddess Venus. If you remember the famous Botticelli painting, it was from this same scalloped shell that the goddess rose from the sea. Be this as it may, el Camino has become synonymous with the shell, which one can see dangling from virtually all the pilgrim packs.

The pilgrims and the packs. Photo ©

No camino is complete without a bit of hardship, so of course we were bound to hit a storm. On day two, with a 30 km of road ahead of us, it began dripping, then falling and finally pouring down. Fighting windblasts and trotting in mud, our knee-length one-size-fits-all rain ponchos or chubasqueros came into good use. As I said, el Camino is all about the feet. In spite of all our preparations, I had forgotten to pre-wash some of my double anti-blister socks, so my heels became open wounds. But what would a pilgrimage be without a bit of pain and suffering?

Walking in the rain. Photo ©

When the rain eased up, the Eucalyptus trees released their refreshing scent, clearing our sinuses and spurring us on. At other times, the Eau de Camino would have quite a strong bovine aroma, as we passed farms and fields with the large Galician cattle.

Perfume du jour. Photo ©

The region, by the way, produces Spain’s best beef, so that even I who always order fish and vegetables would break down and have an enormous steak, cooked on a stone griddle, on day four of our walk. (This time. there was only meat on the menu...)

Meat on the menu. Photo ©

We knew we were near the end when we reached Monte do Gozo (Hill of Joy) from where we could see Santiago de Compostela at a distance. The city has spread out, so we had to walk through an extensive commercial suburb area with crossing motorways, loosing the sense of the pilgrim path until we entered the old town and finally could discern the tower of La Santa Apostólica y Metropolitana Iglesia Catedral de Santiago de Compostela. That was our roads end, or rather the Office of the diocese, where we would receive our final stamp of the journey.

In Santiago de Compostela. Photo ©

Speaking for us, Santiago was a bit of a let down. Not so much because the cathedral was under construction and we could not see the famous pendulous botafumeiro incense dispenser at work, but because of the people. Being used to the warmth of the Andalucians, the Galicians we had met thus far had been polite, but not exactly overly friendly. Here in Santiago de Compostela however, many locals we met were downright rude. Not that we deserved applauds for our achievement, but we hadn’t expected an almost Paris-style coldness and disinterest. Granted, there are thousands of pilgrims passing through town, so locals might be fed up of seeing yet another backpacker, but pilgrims are still the main business of the town. Alas. I say no more.

All about the feet. Photo ©

What was special about El Camino was the walk, not the destination. Maybe I had felt different if I was Catholic, but to me, it was not a religious experience. It was a human experience. There was a special feeling of communion as we the pilgrims moved in the same direction. The daily walking, step ahead of step, hour by hour, sometimes in pain, intrigued me. If it weren’t for my blisters, I would have wanted to walk on, possibly forever. Your life at home did not exist anymore, all you could think about was the way and the road in front of you. 

On El Camino. Photo ©

On a more spiritual level, I see the camino as an analogy for life. We all go in the same direction. Whichever faith or religious belief we may hold, our final destination is the same. There will always be people before us and there will always be someone who will come after us. We can choose to walk quickly or slowly, but whatever speed we go at, at one point we will get to the end. Like it or not, when it comes to life, we are all on the same camino…

Sheep. Photo ©

Like 1        Published at 11:15   Comments (5)

The many skeletons and secrets of our Ronda neighbourhood
05 April 2019

Peak into el campo. Photo ©

When they began to refurbish a ruin a block from our house a couple of weeks back, they found eleven skeletons. Literally. Eleven bodies. The discovery neither shocked nor surprised the construction crew, nor the archaeologist who was called in for the occasion. Actually, skeletons are common in our neighbourhood, not only in closets, but also in the ground.

Neighbourhood square. Photo ©

The discovery wasn’t the first of its kind. Ask any neighbours and they will tell you stories of similar findings, sometimes in their own campo.

La Paqua. Neighbour. Photo ©

These days the authorities are usually called in, though in the past people would often cover up the bones or keep the ancient treasures they had found. Hence, the many Roman column bases one sees surreptitiously placed in closed-off courtyards around the hood. Not that I will squeal on anybody…

Sneak view. Photo ©

In case you wonder, our home is in the historical Barrio San Francisco in Ronda in southern Spain. In this part of the world, one can hardly put a spade to soil without being confronted with the incredible past of the Iberian Peninsula. Celts, Phoenicians, Suevians, Romans, Visigoths, Berbers, Christians and robbers have lived and died in these parts. Everywhere you look there are signs of bygone eras, previous settlements and former empires.

Column bases. Photo ©

I will not force you to sit through a history lesson of Andalucía’s past, but I would like to invite you to take a walk with me through our barrio (neighbourhood) to discover some of its known and not so known former secrets.

Metal gate at 15. Century school. Photo ©


Roman aqueducts and preaching friars

Leaving the barrio. Photo ©

Walking out of our front door, we are literally emerged in history. At the end of our unassuming, narrow street, amongst olive trees and vineyards is what was once a Roman water tower.

View from our street to the campo. Photo ©

At el Predicatorio at the top of our barrio, one can still see remnants of the Roman aqueduct system, which brought water into the municipium of Munda almost 2000 years ago.

Water tower. Photo ©

Today, a lonesome windswept cross tops the ruins, indicating the natural pulpit or predicatorio where the ascetic Capuchin friar Diego José de Cádiz held sermons for his followers in the 18th century.

Predicatorio with view of Ronda. Photo ©


Andalusi necropolis

Almocabar gate  on a winter day with Barrio San Francisco in the background. Photo ©                                             

But let's get back to our home base, Casita 26. Walking the other way to the top of our street, we stand face to face with the old protective town wall, built about a thousand years ago during Ronda’s (then called Runda) 700 years of Islamic rule.

Looking up our street on a rare snowy day. Photo ©

The Almocabar gate dated from around the 13th Century is still there today. The name comes from the Arabic word Al-maqabir which means cemetery, as the Muslims buried their dead just outside the walled-in town. Our neighbourhood is therefore an ancient Andalusi necropolis. Later, when travelling vendors began to be charged for entering the town to sell their wares, those who could not or would not pay the levy started trading outside the town walls. They eventually set up home there, thus beginning the urbanization of our small neighbourhood.

Winter landscape outside town wall. Photo ©

The Christians built their own, larger entrance gate shortly after the re-conquest. Everyone wants to have the last word… Today cars can drive through the same gate where King Ferdinand and Queen Isabel rode from our barrio and into Ronda after their victorious battle against the last Moorish governor Hamet el Zegri more than five centuries back.

Almocabar gate with view into Ronda's lower Casco Histórico. Photo ©

I suggest we stop for a coffee at Juan’s, just inside the town gates. We are now in the official Casco Histórico (historic quarter), though as we have come to learn, there is equally rich history outside the town gates. From where we sit, you will notice a narrow street trailing up towards downtown. This street once housed Ronda’s silver and metal smiths. If you squint your eyes, you might be able to imagine how it looked like a few centuries back.


Robbers, armies and nuns

Semana Santa in our barrio. Photo ©

The peace and quiet never lasted long in our little barrio. Shortly after the Christian re-conquest, the Spanish Inquisition began, during which time nobody was safe, especially Muslims, but also Jews and converted Moriscos. Later, during the Napoleonic invasion of the peninsula in the 1800s, much of Ronda’s fortifications were damaged or destroyed. The barrio’s Convento San Francisco barely survived the French armies, only to be attacked again during the Spanish Civil War a century later. Yet, somehow, it is still here.

Convento San Fransisco. Photo ©

If wars and battles weren’t enough, our barrio was often refuge for the famous Bandoleros, or robbers who raided the Serranía de Ronda. Though few were as principled as Robin Hood, some Bandoleros became folk heroes, such as the legendary Pasos Largos.

Rondeños and rondeñas dressed up for Ronda Romántica. Photo ©

Ronda’s old May fair, now renamed Ronda Romántica, is dedicated to its bandoleros. It is not surprising therefore that the procession, with participants from dozens of Serranía villages, starts in our barrio. 

Paquirri with his donkey Paquirra in the Ronda Romántica procession. Photo ©


La Plaza – the heart of our hood

La Plaza San Francisco. Photo ©

Our neighbourhood’s square, Plaza de San Francisco is always bustling with life. Tables of at least half a dozen adjoining restaurants are full of rondeños and visitors alike, while local children play around old men who sit and gossip on one of the square’s many stone benches.

Entrance to Ronda from barrio San Fransisco with old rondeños. Photo ©

Central to the square is a fountain with a statue of St. Francis, from whom the barrio gets its name. It was from this very square that the Marquez of Cádiz gathered his troops before reconquering Ronda on the 20th May in 1485.

As we sit down for an afternoon refreshment, try to imagine how knights on horseback once jostled in this square, while the unfortunate defeated caballeros were quickly brought to the chapel of Our Lady of Grace across the street for their final rites. You can still see the façade of the chapel, allegedly soon to be reformed into a hotel.

Kids laying soccer in front of  Chapel. Photo ©

Imagine as well, the livestock fair and market which was held here until as late as the 1970’s. According to those who lived here then, our barrio had squeaking piglets running about and clucking chickens in every yard. 

Unruly donkey in Plaza San Francisco. Photo ©

Waiting for our tapas to arrive, we have an excellent view of the building site where the skeletons were recently found. According to the archaeologist, the bones were from the last centuries of Islamic rule, based on the placement of the bodies (facing Mecca), and the ceramic pieces found around the site. No tombstones or things of exceptional archaeological value were otherwise discovered, so this time the bones were allowed to rest in peace. 

Andalusi Necropolis. Photo ©

Does living in an ancient necropolis bother us? Not in the least. Wherever we live on this planet, we walk with our own or someone’s ancestors underfoot. To me, it is a great privilege to have our home in a place where so many people and cultures have passed through before us. It is a healthy reminder that regardless of faith and origin, spirits may soar beyond, but this temporary and most finite carcass of ours share the same fate.

Reflections. Photo ©

And here in the square I will leave you, in the heart of our barrio, where past and present meet, and where one can only hope that the Andalusian village life will go on forever and ever more.

Neighbourhood kids practicing for Semana Santa. Photo ©

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From Delhi to Palm Desert - My Andalucian Tales travel the world
22 March 2019

C26 with suitcase. Photo ©

There is no better travelling companion than a good book in my opinion. A book will not weigh you down, be it in electronic or paperback version. It fits into most handbags and costs the same as a light lunch in a mediocre restaurant, while offering endless hours of entertainment. It can cheer you up and captivate you with amazing tales of bravery, hardship, love yearnings, hopes and dreams. Besides, a book won’t talk back or complain, like other travelling companions might…

C26 by Sinnataggen in the Vigeland Park in Oslo with Oskar

A good read can make a transatlantic flight, an unscheduled delay or a long wait at a station practically enjoyable. I once flew through Malaga’s nastiest storm on record, lighting striking from all sides while gale force winds threw the fuselage around like it was a toy. Usually, I would have been saying my last prayers or hyperventilating into a paper bag under such circumstances, but I was so engrossed in one of my mum’s old, action-packed Neville Shute WW2 novels that I didn’t notice a single bump!

Casita 26 in Budapest by night with Nina

My first book, Casita 26 – Searching for a Slice of Andalusian Paradise, was released in the US last month and I encouraged readers to take it on the road. The response has been beyond my wildest expectations. I started receiving photos of the book from all over the world, both from readers I already knew and from complete strangers.

Paul the delivery guy brings Casita 26 to Maija in Vancouver, BC.


So, shall we take a look at the C26 journey so far?


Oslo, Norway

C26 by the Monolith in the Vigeland Park in Oslo with Oskar

Oskar brought Casita 26 to the Gustav Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo during a snowy day.


Whidbey Island, WA, USA

C26 on Whidbey Island with Jane and Marco

Jane brought her copy of the book to the shores of the lovely Whidbey Island north of Seattle. Many a sailor has passed here, as indicated by the local names such as Mutiny Bay.


Brussels, Belgium

C26 goes drinking at Mort Subite (sudden death) in Brussels with Sheena

Travelling makes one dehydrated, and there is no place better to quench one’s thirst than in La Mort Subite (Sudden Death) in Brussels, where Sheena brought her C26.


Coxsackie, NY, USA

C26 by the Hudson river in NY with Ruby

Ruby took C26 to the edge of the Hudson River in her hometown of Coxsackie, NY. Looks like winter is sill hanging in there…


Málaga, Spain

C26 wanders the streets of Málaga with Virgínia

Meanwhile, Virginia brought C26 for a walk in sunny downtown Málaga, with its almost eternal blue skies.


Dolomites, Italy

C26 in Italy. Photo by Marieluise

Marie-Luise had a nice glass of après ski red wine with C26 in Val di Non, in the Italian Dolomites.


Lleida, Cataluña, Spain

C26 in Lleida with Ferran

In Lleida in Northern Spain, Ferran took C26 for a romantic late night stroll.


Whistler, British Columbia, Canada

C26 goes higher with Rod in Whistler, BCC26 and Maija in Whistler, BC

On the other side of the world, Rod brought his Kindle with C26 to the slopes, while Maija enjoyed her hard copy after cross-country skiing.


Delhi, India

Casita 26 goes to India with Vijay and Anjana

Vijay and Anjana directed their copy to the Nehru Place market in Delhi. Who would have known that C26 would have readers so far afield!


Ronda, Andalucía, Spain

C26 goes caving outside Ronda

Then, I took my already tattered copy of C26 caving in Tajo del Abanico outside Ronda


Ottawa, Ontario, Canada

C26 goes skating in Ottawa wi th Sarabel and Rocío - 2

Sarabel and Rocío risked frostbitten fingers to get this picture with C26 and Canadians skating on the Rideau Canal in Ottawa.


Palm Desert, California, USA

C26 goes golfing in Palm Desert

A bit further south, Nils and Kari were kind enough to give C26 a break from the cold with a round of golf in Palm Desert, California.


Sachs Harbour, North West Territories, Canada

Castia 26 goes extreme, to the North West Territories with Alida

Alida braved the minus 46 degrees weather and brought C26 on her Kindle (which magically didn’t freeze up…) to Sachs Harbour in Canada’s North West Territories, north of 70 degrees latitude. That is as close to the North Pole as it probably will ever get…


Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Casita 26 in Vancouver with Kel

Kel wandered across Cambie Bridge to take this photo of C26 with our beloved former hometown Vancouver in the background.


Budapest, Hungary

C26 in Budapest by night. Photo by Nina

Nina took her C26 for a nightly walk through the Hungarian capital and along the River Danube.


New York, NY, USA

Casita 26 in the big apple with Ruby

At the other end of the world, Ruby brought her C26 to visit her mum in the Big Apple.


Toronto, Ontario, Canada

C26 arrives to Toronto. Photo by Harriet

Harriet got her copy of C26 delivered in her Toronto office.


Cabo San Vicente, Portugal

C26 goes to the seaside in Portugal with Virginia

From the very southern tip of Portugal, and Europe, came this photo of C26 from Virgínia.


Tromsø, Norway

Casita 26 in Tromsø, Norway with Annelise

Annelise put on her Norwegian wool mittens and took this photo of C26 in Tromsø in Northern Norway. I hope she can catch the northern lights next time…


London, UK

C26 goes to the British Museum in London with Fiona

While Fiona decided to further C26’s cultural education by bringing it to the British Museum


Niagara Falls, Ontario, Canada

C26 visits Niagara Falls with Sara

And finally, Sara took a wet chance and brought C26 to the edge of Niagara Falls.

My primary wish as an author is that my curious epistles will entertain, touch, amuse, or inspire my readers. Receiving these images makes me think that I might have done something right. I would like to thank everybody who has sent me pictures. I am forever in your debt.

C26 with homemade lemonade in India. Thank you Vijay for the photo

I hope the C26 journey will continue and encourage anyone to take your Casita 26 book along for the ride.

C26 on the North Pole, well close enough, with Alida

You can order your copy of Casita 26 on Amazon. Follow me on Facebook for new C26 photos. 




Like 1        Published at 16:18   Comments (4)

Algaba de Ronda – A retreat to Eden
07 March 2019

La Algaba wall detail. Photo ©

If I were asked to define the mythical Eden, it would be a place of natural beauty with abundant native flora and fauna, where wild and domestic animals roam freely, nature is managed sustainably and people live in harmony with their surroundings. Not many places fit these criteria anymore, though there are still a few Edens on earth. One of these is El Centro Algaba de Ronda.

Photo © La Algaba de Ronda

Algaba is an educational centre, research facility, nature camp and residential retreat located an hour inland from the Costa del Sol. The centre was created for the conservation and diffusion of the historical, cultural and natural heritage of the rural environment of the Serrania de Ronda.

Gate to La Algaba. Photo ©

With its entrance just off the Ronda to Algeciras road, the gate is usually tied up with a piece of string, more to keep livestock in than unwanted visitors out. Continuing down the unpaved lane surrounded by crooked oak trees, one might run into horses grazing, seemingly without a worry in the world. Crossing a cattle guard, watching out for free-range hens pecking in the dirt, you find yourself in an enclave of traditional lime-washed buildings where the centre’s activities are based.

Truly free range. Photo ©

The original Andalusian farmhouse has been expanded and converted into an aesthetically pleasing and impeccably executed Centre for Education and Conferences, including a reception area, library, kitchen, conference and lecture hall, and communal areas for dining and leisure activities.

La Algaba reception. Photo ©

La Finca Algaba. Photo ©

La Algaba cottages. Photo ©

Pool with a view. Photo ©

Visiting Algaba gives an impression of arriving at a carefully and lovingly cultured wilderness. The property includes 60 hectares Mediterranean moorland of ancient gall, holm and cork oaks, with undergrowth of hawthorn, broom, wild roses, herbs and mushrooms. Situated on the bird migration paths between Europe and Africa, the zone is of great ornithological interest, homing eagles, buzzards, owls and various woodland birds. Other wildlife includes toads, lizard, snakes, martens, badgers, foxes and deer, as well as jabalíes, the native wild boars, who rototiller the land at night looking for tasty morsels underfoot.

Crown. Photo ©

Visitors are invited to meander through nature trails, surrounded by traditional cement-free piedra seca stone fences, while sunrays filter through the canopy of branches above. No wonder that the centre is named Algaba, the Arab word for forest or indeed oasis, either ringing true for this Mediterranean nature-lovers paradise.

Trail. Photo ©

Trail. Photo ©

Trail. Photo ©

However, La Algaba offers much more than nature appreciation. Being at the forefront of sustainable farming research, the cooperative includes a team of professional investigators and educators in areas such as agro-ecology, geology, ornithology and experimental archaeology. The estate has dedicated pockets of land for planting traditional non-GMO cereals, using the methods available to the zone in the Neolthic era. La Algaba also incorporates a Centre for Apiculture with organic production from more than one hundred beehives. Algaba offers workshops based on sustainability, innovation, quality and future longevity, using its natural resources for training, promotion and production of ecological agriculture and breeding.

Merino sheep and beehives. Photo ©

Rare Cardenas cattle. Photo ©

Felipe the donkey with the Bette Davies eyes.... Photo ©

The organic animal husbandry programmes are dedicated to the protection and recovery of traditional breeds in danger of extinction. Rare varieties of native livestock are raised on the estate, including the endangered Cardena cattle, merino sheep from the Grazalema region, donkeys and various types of Andalusian chickens. However, the rarest breeds are the blond or golden Andalusian pigs. These species are officially considered extinct, though there are still some hundred animals living happily in Algaba, the very last ones in the world!

Cerdo Iberico Rubio o Dorado. Photo © Algaba de Ronda

Perhaps the most unique part of Algaba’s work is its Centre for Experimental Archaeology. This 4,000-square-metre reconstruction of a prehistoric Neolithic village is based on Copper Age settlements from 3,200-2,600 BC in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula. El Poblado as it is called, is an on-going, full scale, archaeological experiment, exploring the relationship between prehistoric settlers, technologies and environments. To share this knowledge, visiting groups can participate in hands-on, open-air classroom workshops in experimental archaeology, flint knapping, pottery, esparto grass weaving, work with leather hides and use of medicinal plants.

El Poblado Neolithic village.  Photo © La Algaba de Ronda

A snowcovered Poblado Neolithic village, a rare sight.  Photo © La Algaba de Ronda

Sculls. Photo ©

Located in one of the areas in Europe with the highest incidence of tourism and urban growth, Andalucía is facing progressive abandonment of traditional forms of production and disappearance of popular culture. Therefore, the work of Algaba is vital in conserving the heritage of the region.

Detail mill wheel and pots. Photo ©

Original well. Photo ©

The Centre collaborates with the University of Cordoba Department of Veterinary Sciences, the Prehistory Departments of the Autonomous University of Madrid, University of Malaga Environmental Studies and University of Granada Department of Archaeology. Algaba has received several awards, including the Europa Nostra Award in the categories of Education and Heritage and the Junta de Andalucía prize for best tourist initiative in the Malaga province. It is acknowledged by the European Charter for Sustainable Tourism.

School children visiting La Algaba. Photo ©

While last time we were there, a class of Montessori children had come up from Málaga for a day camp, Algaba is becoming increasingly known as a retreat centre for groups of international yoga, pilates and meditation practitioners, as well as complimentary health practitioners. Algaba offers accommodation in rustic cottages, serving traditional food made with locally grown and organic produce when available. Cultural workshops and tours are presented in Spanish, while English or French tours are available upon request.

Wall detail. Photo ©

Acomodation. Photo ©

To be sure, La Algaba is not a hotel. It does not offer the luxury of king-sized beds, room service and flat screen TVs. What Algaba offers is something much rarer – the exclusivity of sharing a natural sanctuary, whose patrimonial wealth the Algaba custodians aim to defend and protect for all humanity.

Old watering trough. Photo ©

For more information go to Algaba de Ronda 

Like 3        Published at 21:02   Comments (3)

Day trip to magical Zahara de la Sierra and a few notes on rural travel with octogenarians
21 February 2019

Zahara town and Santa María de la Mesa church. Zahara with church. Photo ©

The advantage of calling Andalucía home is that we live a short distance from some of the world’s most amazing cities, such as Granada, Cordoba and Sevilla. With Ronda as our chosen base, we also have the added bonus of near proximity to Andalucía’s famous White Villages or Pueblos Blancos. Picturesque, peaceful and quite pristine, they are often favoured by day-trippers from the Costa del Sol. But are these rustic mountain towns suitable for elderly travellers? Planning the forthcoming visit of my mother, we decided to preview the village of Zahara to ensure that we could conquer it with a sprightly Norwegian 88-year-old in tow.

Zahara from the road. Photo ©

Not to be confused with the coastal fishing town of Zahara de los Atunes, or the Sahara desert (which admittedly is inching its way further north), Zahara de la Sierra is located in the northernmost corner of Cádiz province. The town appears like an apparition, perched on a rocky knoll on the Ronda to Sevilla road. The hilltop town has the jagged peaks of the UNESCO Biosphere Sierra de Grazalema as a dramatic backdrop, while facing a more tranquil valley and the turquoise water of the Embalse de Zahara-el Gastor reservoir. As far as mind-blowing settings go, there is hardly a more stunning sight in all of Andalucía.

Zahara view. Photo ©

Travelling with octogenarians and nonagenarians in rural southern Spain, there are things one ought to be aware of. The village streets are mostly cobbled and tend to be quite uneven. There might not be sidewalks, or if there are, walker and wheelchair users might find that ramps are lacking. This said, one can almost always count on a friendly local willing to help a stranded traveller. Thankfully, my mother only needs her trusted collapsible walking poles to move about, and of course a bench now and then. She is happy to sit down in the shade with a cappuccino (she won’t order Café con leche, even if that is what she will be served…) while writing postcards to all her widow friends back home in the fjords.

From restaurant. Photo ©

Since we were on a scouting expedition, we parked where the farm fields ended and the white houses began, and continued on foot. Zahara does have vehicle access into the village centre, but the few potential parking spots tend to be taken long before one gets there. If double-parking by a fire hydrant is the only option, the alternative is to leave one’s globetrotting granny at a café in the main square and rid oneself of ones vehicle farther away from the centre.

Zahara de la Sierra. Photo ©

Choosing the narrowest calles and most charming alleys, we proceeded upwards at a steady incline, meeting some of the local Zahareños en route. Zahara is after all a living pueblo with approximately 1500 inhabitants. Like many other White Villages, the main industry is tourism, though the local population still run small businesses, contribute to the cork trade, produce olive oil, wine or Payoyo cheese or sell locally made baked goods.

Zahara shop. Photo ©

Speaking of Zahara, there is some dispute as to the origin of its name. Those in the know agree that it is derived from Arabic, but the consensus ends there. Some suggest it comes from the woman’s name Zahra, possibly referring to the wife of an Emir back in the day. Others say it has something to do with the Azar, the orange blossom, which are abundant in town, or that the name refers to the huge rock upon which the town sits. I however, vote for the forth theory (there are more…) where Zahara means beautiful, bright, shining or brilliant, all of which aptly describe this magical little town.

Azar. Photo ©

Ronda is also considered a Pueblo Blanco, but Zahara’s houses are whiter than white, certainly on a spring day when the sky is brilliant blue and when the deep green leaves of the orange trees that line the streets are loaded with fruit. I can see why the Andalucian flag is white and green. But why are these villages called Pueblos Blancos, other than the obvious fact that the houses are all painted white? The reason for the white is the locally available limestone traditionally used to whitewash the homes.

Zahara house built into the rock. Photo ©

We only detected two exceptions from the all-white theme – a stone castle and a pink church. Like many settlements in the sierra, Zahara is crowned by an impressive defensive tower dating from the time the Moors ruled Spain. The 13th century Nasarid castle was built on top of an earlier 8th century watchtower. Due to Zahara’s strategic position, many battles were fought here, until the Christian forces under Rodrigo Ponce de León finally conquered the village in 1483.

Nasrid castle above Zahara. Photo ©

Even for those who do not care one iota about history, the view from the top of the tower is well worth the climb. When the time comes, my mother will probably let us ‘youngsters’ ascend while she will enjoy watching village life from below. She is wiser than I will be at her age, as I will surely head to the top only to get stuck in a crack and need to be winched down or picked up by a helicopter, my legs flailing about in the air-born harness. That is if I am still around at such a ripe old age...

Sierra de Grazalema from castle. Photo ©

Zahara’s second coloured edifice is the 17th century Santa María de la Mesa Church. With its pink façade and marble Baroque portal, it stands out against the dark cliff and the surrounding white houses. Upon entering, there is a painting of the Christian re-conquest of the town more than 500 years ago, when soldiers climbed the cliffs, which nowadays have comfortable walking paths. Santa María is lovely example of rural Andalucian churches, with a hand carved pulpit and choir. As it is located in the main square right across from the town hall, any visitor can easily stop by and light a candle here.

Painting in church. Photo ©

One does not have to visit battlements and churches to enjoy Zahara, which was declared a Patrimony of Humanity by UNESCO in 1977. There is a true charm in wandering around the handful of streets in the village centre, peaking into windows, admiring the abundant flowers in pots on walls and terraces, and stopping to try some specialties of the region. One might not get the latest haute cuisine, but you can always find a hearty, heaping comida casera (home-cooked meal), whether you want a lake or a sierra view. You probably will have to share the lovely vista with other tourists, otherwise such villages would not survive, but you can still find a quiet street where you can observe the Zahareños hanging off their balcony sharing local gossip.

Village gossip. Photo ©

Like 4        Published at 16:48   Comments (1)

Happy New Year, again - Meet the Muddy Pig
05 February 2019

First spring wildflowers. Photo ©


Not all of us manage to get things right the first time. Take me for instance, who has been married three times…

Many of us have probably already broken our New Year resolutions and abandoned the carefully designed life improvement plans we made on December 31. If this is the case for you, do not despair. There are second chances in spite of what some people say. These might not present themselves exactly when, where, or how you might expect them, but you can have another kick at the can. Furthermore, you do not have to wait another eleven months to be able to do so.

Almond blossom. Photo ©


On February 5th, starts the 15-day Asian Spring festival called Chunjie (春节), better known as the Chinese New Year. The specific date varies each year depending on the lunar calendar, landing anywhere between January 21st and February 20th. This time we enter into the Year of the Pig, the last animal in the 12-year Chinese zodiac cycle, maybe because pigs like to take their jolly good time. 

Winter laundry line. Photo ©


When it comes to further details about this Pig year, it gets a bit complicated for us who aren’t astrologers. Some sources say it is the year of the Earth Pig, while others claim it is the year of the Brown Pig. The elements of earth and water have something to do with this, which leads others again to say that it is the year of the Muddy Pig. I’ll stick with this last option, which seems the most jovial.   

Plant. Photo ©


As for the general outlook for the Year of the Muddy Pig, even for us non-pigs, zodiac-ly speaking, there are both sun and clouds on the horizon. Though we might not be as happy as pigs in shit this coming year, the animal symbolizes prosperity in the Chinese culture, a thing we all might welcome more of in our lives. One also hears mention of luck and a focus on hedonistic pleasures, as pigs seem to be lovers of the good life. I would not suggest for anyone to count on any such fortune yet, but the year of the Muddy Pig sounds infinitely brighter than for instance the year of the Water Snake.

Road with morning mist. Photo ©


I see the introduction to the Year of the Muddy Pig as both auspicious and serendipitous, as it coincides with the US release of my book Casita 26. Living in Andalucía, I have become fond of pigs. Iberian pigs, of course. These animals are very different from your great, fat, pink, run of the mill industrial pig. The Iberian version is usually small, lean and bluish black. Most are free roaming and live a happy, carefree life - until they get converted to Jamón Ibérico, of course…

Iberian pigs. Photo ©


If the Chinese New Year doesn’t give you enough time to get your ducks in a row, do not give up. Our modern Julian calendar, celebrating New Year on January 1st is a relatively new phenomenon. Long before we began to kick-start the year in the dead of winter, the Mesopotamians celebrated the coming of a new year in mid-March, around the time of the spring equinox. Likewise, the early Roman calendar designated the first of March, or Martius as they called it, as the beginning of their ten-month year. A spring start makes all the sense in the world, as it is the time of rebirth and new beginnings. Though Julius Caesar introduced his more accurate solar-based calendar in year 46 BC, moving the New Year to its present date, this shouldn’t prevent us from embracing new beginnings and turning a new leaf with the Chinese, the Mesopotamians or the ancient Romans.

Flying high. Photo ©


So, have a Happy New Year. May we all be as content as pigs in mud.   

Happy pig. Photo ©



Like 3        Published at 08:23   Comments (1)

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