All EOS blogs All Spain blogs  Start your own blog Start your own blog 

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.

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 2        Published at 16:48   Comments (0)

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)

Coincidence or destiny? How my Andalusian tales became a book
31 January 2019

Casita 26 in front of Ronda's Puente Nuevo. Photo ©


Just like an actor firmly believes that he will be discovered in a Starbucks line-up and a teenager is positive that she will be the next supermodel if only Elite takes a peak at her Facebook, almost everybody who doodles with a pen knows in their heart of hearts that they can write a book. It is just a matter of time.

Hand of Fatima keychain. Illustration for Casita 26 by Virgínia Jiménez Perez






















All my life people have told me that I should write. I thought so too, but years went by and no book emerged. Of course it didn’t. Books do not appear by osmosis and I was too busy working, being a mom, designing film sets, organizing fundraisers and simply living. Not that I wasn’t writing all along. I was a lifestyle journalist in Paris, a movie reporter in Montreal, a scriptwriter in LA, and a content writer for NGOs in Vancouver. Yet, as far as my ‘brilliant’ book ideas went, these were only being written in my head…

Falling parachuter. Illustration for Casita 26 by Virgínia Jiménez Perez























Contemplating writing a book is a far cry from having it in the hands of your reading public. In between lies the writing, editing, publishing, printing, registering, distributing, reviewing and purchasing of said book. Getting the story out to the masses seems to be the greatest stumbling block for all us scribes alike. I for my part have many strikes against me. First of all, I am not famous. Not even infamous. The media doesn’t swarm around me and nobody inquires as to what I am writing. Furthermore, I live a small town located way off the freeway system where hardly anyone speaks English. Yet in the end, it was this very place that inspired me to finally start writing the book that for so long had inhabited my mind.

Ronda street scene. Illustration for Casita 26 by Virgínia Jiménez Perez






















Years as a cosmopolitan nomad taught me that our surroundings are a major contributor to our creativity, which for me meant my writing or lack thereof. When I lived in Paris, my antique Remington typewriter was slammed around the clock. Quebec city had a similar productive effect on me, whereas living in Los Angeles and Vancouver seemed to dampen my creative urges and dull my pencil to a grinding halt. Then, as we decided to throw our caution to the wind and move to rural Spain, this all changed. Like our journey to the unknown, my writing took on a life of its own.

Luggage cart. Illustration for Casita 26 by Virgínia Jiménez Perez





















Coming to Ronda felt as if I had got my trusted old Remington back (though it was left with a Parisian mathematician I gave singing lessons to, when I returned to Norway for what I thought was the last days of humankind after the Chernobyl accident). Not only Ronda - all of Andalucía was full of stories, stories that I wrote between us looking for a home, buying a car, getting familiar with the lay of the land and me learning a new language. Andalucía’s multifaceted history, its rich and diverse culture and the people themselves fascinated me. These colourful personalities would populate my blogs, which in time began to get followers from within and outside of Spain. I wasn’t writing high literature, but readers would contact me from Nova Scotia to New Delhi and from Reykjavik to Cape Town, all encouraging me to keep writing.

La chismosa, the gossiper. Illustration for Casita 26 by Virgínia Jiménez Perez






















About a year to the day of us moving to Spain, I requested a meeting with the politicians at the town hall to propose a local environmental movement. In spite of my still much flawed Spanish, they agreed. When we hosted Ronda’s first recycled art competition, a NY artists called Ruby Silvious was amongst those replying to my Call for Participants. When I later read that the first book of her recycled teabag art was being published in 2016, I congratulated her on this monumental accomplishment. As a frivolous aside, I mentioned that I too hoped to make a book one day. Why don’t I speak to my publisher, said Ruby ever so generously.

Olive branch. Illustration for Casita 26 by Virgínia Jiménez Perez























Naren Aryal, Ruby’s American publisher and pater familia of Mascot Books read some of my writing and promptly suggested that we have a conference call. I was admittedly very nervous. What if he asked me about my other books?  I would be forced to say that there were plenty of them, though unfortunately all were stored in the deep folds of my brain. I knew how hard-ass these US publisher types could be (We’ve all seen them in the movies…) and Mr. Aryal was a Washington corporate lawyer before going into book publishing. It didn’t bode well.

Our house pet, the tailless lizard. Illustration by Virgínia Jiménez Perez

























Connecting on Skype, I saw a far too young and friendly face appear on my screen. Naren asked me if that was a Buddha behind me. Yes, I mumbled, blurting out a long inconsequential explanation to the effect of that the statue was sitting on my husband’s altar and that the room happened to also be my writer’s dungeon, in addition to my yoga sanctuary. (Why didn’t I just say Yes and leave it at that?) To my surprise, Naren didn’t cut our conversation short. Instead, he told me that he was also a Buddhist, born in Nepal. The ice was broken and we talked on, almost as though we were old pals. Was I delusional? Was this a coincidence, or perhaps we had known each other in another lifetime?

Crash landed vulture. Illustration for Casita 26 by Virgínia Jiménez Perez
























Friendly chatter aside, my real concern was whether I had it in me to produce an entire manuscript. I had written travel tales to fill volumes, but blogs do not a book make. After our collaboration was established, the real work began. First, they asked me to send them my book layout (What layout???). I hastily put together a sort of conceptual skeleton, which was subsequently pulled apart, buried and exhumed many times prior to being accepted. Finally we had a layout that all agreed upon, onto which I was to pin my body of work - an 18-chapter story of a present-day move from a cosmopolitan North American city of millions to a small town off the grid in rural inland Andalucía. A daunting task indeed. Writing is essentially a solitary profession, but now I had someone I could voice my doubts to and bounce ideas off.  The Mascot team came with the right suggestions and encouragements to move me forward, or backwards when needed.

Ladies of Ronda Dumpster Diving Society. Ilustration by Virgínia Jiménez Perez























I delivered my first very rough draft with great trepidation, knowing that it would take a master of word-smithing to make sense of the work of an author whose native tongue was Norwegian but who had spent most of her life in Canada, and who spoke half a dozen languages, all very rusty, and who wrote in her own peculiar style of English, telling a story from Southern Spain. Once again, luck or providence was on my side and I was provided with exactly the help I needed. Anne Dellinger, a wonderful Brooklyn-based editor usually engaged by the Oxford University Press was set to the task. She was beyond patient with my misspellings, made up words, over-eager punctuation and smattering of Spanglish glossaries. Every time she sent back a clean copy (marked up with 87945 corrections, give or take), I would immediately ruin all her efforts by changing the story and adding many more typos in the process. When it came to structural changes I often dug my heels in, refusing to follow her wise suggestions. The poor woman had the challenge of dealing with a Norwegian Taurus to boot…

Andalu' leg. Illustration for Casita 26 by Virgínia Jiménez Perez.





















The words now more or less under control or out of my hands, my focus shifted to the visual aspect of the book-to-be. Spain is a spectacle for the eyes that is sometimes difficult to do justice with plain words. The publisher suggested including a selection of my photographs. I had some great pictures, not because I am an exceptional photographer, but because one cannot avoid taking semi-decent pictures in such a photogenic place. Yet, I wanted the readers to conjure up the personalities and visualize the setting in their own minds. I suggested that we add some hand-drawn sketches instead. My only problem was that while I knew exactly how these should look, I sadly cannot draw.

Vertigo trail. Illustration for Casita 26 by Virgínia Jiménez Perez
























Again, somehow the right angel appeared at the right moment. Though I could offer neither fame nor fortune, just my eternal thanks, Virgínia Jiménez Perez, a Ronda artist agreed to make our illustrations. It was only supposed to be a handful sketches, but I kept asking her for more, promising that this would be the last one, though it never was. In the end, she drew multiple versions of 34 charming illustrations that perfectly captured the essence of life in rural Andalucía. For this, I was and am eternally grateful. Her becoming part of the book also made it more authentically Andalu’ - a collaboration with a real rondeña, not just a wannabe one, like myself…

Old lady mopping sidewalk. Illustration by Virgínia Jiménez Perez
























As things magically and often without my doing, came into place, I recalled the frequently quoted and misquoted words of Goethe:


What you can do, or dream you can, begin it;

Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.


I had dreamt and I had finally begun, and many times during the process forces beyond me seemed to propel the project forward.

In just a few days, on the 5th of February, Casita 26 – Searching for a Slice of Andalucian Paradise is being released in the USA. Who knows what will happen after, though with my book already housed in the impressive sounding American Library of Congress and available on Amazon, I feel that Casita 26 and I are on a roll. I can only hope that Goethe’s words run true to the end and that my story of making life changes will be read by many, some of whom might be inspired to take that leap that they have wanted to do for ages, but to which the time has never felt right.

In the meantime, Andalucía keeps bringing me her stories. Perhaps more books will come. As they say in Spanish, Hay más tiempo que vida. Time will always outlive us, but while we are here, we can always try to find our own slice of earthly paradise.

The actual Casita 26. Illustration by Virgínia Jiménez Perez
























More information about Casita 26  

Order Casita 26 on Amazon








The end. Illustration for Casita 26 by Virgínia Jiménez Perez



Like 2        Published at 10:41   Comments (6)

Will the Spanish ever be on time?
11 January 2019

Ronda's La Bola pedestrian street. Photo ©


Some stereotypes, such as the tardiness of the Latin people, are seen as universal truths. But are they really so?


World renown for being less than punctual, Spain is often described as an eternal mañana culture where everything and everyone is behind schedule. There are of course exceptions to such broad national claims, and there certainly are some Spanish people who are punctual. However, speaking for our small town in the Spanish south, and for the vast majority of its residents, the concept of being ‘on time’ tends to have rather flexible parameters. We knew about this trait prior to moving here, although it’s one thing being aware of a tendency towards lateness, but another learning to live with the locals’ open-ended más o menos, more or less, schedule. To this end, I decided to do a bit of cultural exploration and to ponder some of the reasons why the Spanish, or certainly the Southern Spanish, can never arrive at the exact minute or hour they say that they will be in a certain location.


Santa Maria la Major, clock and  bell tower. Photo ©


Devices to measure time can be traced back thousands of years, so promptness should by now have become second nature to the human race. But it isn’t always so. Though everybody in Ronda carries at least one mechanical or digital timepiece on their person, and though every bar, butcher, pharmacy and many street corners have a wall-mounted clock, and though the towns church bells will chime every 15 minutes reminding one of the incessant passing of time, you can never expect that a meeting will happen at the agreed-upon hour. I am not speaking about merely social engagements (when even us Norwegians will allow ourselves to be a few minutes late), but any scheduled appointments, but any scheduled appointments, be it to set up a will at a Notary Public, to get a handyperson to do some basic house repairs, to get a root canal, or to get to ones own wedding.


Later for the wedding. Photo ©



Even after a few weeks here, we were aware that if a contractor promised he would be at our house within the hour, we might expect to see him there some time that afternoon, but more likely the following day. If he pledged he would come by during the next week, we knew for a fact that we would not see him for at least a fortnight, and if he guaranteed that he would deal with the job the following month, we might as well forget about the whole business. We have on several occasions

witnessed locals answering their phone claiming that they were en camino (on their way) to the next job, while the truth is that the person, who happened to be a plumber, had their head deep under our sink with no possibility of imminent departure. Likewise, they might just have sat down to order their daily mid-morning Anís, while promising someone at the other end of the cell line that they are seconds away.


Cheers. Photo ©



Now, the first thing one has to be aware of when it comes to the Andalusians’ sense of timing, is that none of these pie-in-the-sky promises are spoken with malice. Nobody sees them as lies, least of all the person speaking them. It is all about intention. In the speakers mind, they are already on their way - their physical body just needs to catch up with their verbal aptness to comply.


Clock at Migelángel, our wine and Iberian ham supplier. Photo ©



Second, one has to take into account the nature of the people themselves, whose character and temperament are more passionate and thus generally more spontaneous than people from northern climates. Just as we overly punctual Scandinavians might see tardiness as rude, the Spanish might see our Norse innate always-early-for-appointment tendency as proof of our lack of ability to enjoy life. There seems to be fundamental differences in our make-up, culturally or genetically.


The clock above Ronda's Parador hotel. Photo ©



Third, the Andalusians’ notion of the clock is completely different. They are perfectly aware that they tend to be late-ish, but since everybody is the same and all know the rules of conduct, there is usually no problem. When we began hiking with a group of Andalucians, they often joked about la hora inglésa (English or actual time), as opposed to la hora española (Spanish or alternative time), of course preferring and following the latter. To them, what mattered most was not that we took off at 8.30 am sharp, but that all had managed to enjoy a coffee prior to our departure. So what if we were half an hour delayed? Nobody suffered in the process, other than possibly us, the anal foreigners with our petty punctuality.

Forth, there is the thing about the language itself. While midday for an English speaker means noon or twelve o’clock, mediodía in Spanish has a much broader scope. If you tell someone that you will meet them at mediodía, they will agree and then proceed to ask you when you are meeting, at 1.30 or 2 pm?


Street-mounted clock. Photo ©



To add to the verbal confusion, in Spanish, mañana means both tomorrow and morning, only distinguished with the use of a preposition. To point out that it is in the morning you would say por la mañana, while when you are indicating the following day, a plain mañana will do. This being said, we know that mañana is the most overused expression in the Spanish language and some, like the saying goes, believe that mañana never comes.

Equally, the word tarde means both afternoon and late, again depending on whether one adds a preposition. En la tarde means in the afternoon, while a plain tarde means late. In addition, the Spanish use the word tarde for both the afternoon and the evening, so if someone tells you to meet them a las diez de la tarde, they want to meet you at 10 in the ‘afternoon’… Generally, everyone is tarde. They will enjoy a prolonged siesta with outmost pleasure, knowing fully well that they ought to be some place else. Then they will rush to get to their next destination, driving like mad, of course arriving late.


Siesta time. Photo ©



When it comes to private social engagements the concept of time is even more malleable. While we had been used to give the hostess a five-minute grace period before arriving at a dinner in North America, here in Andalucía one has to allow for a much wider buffer zone. We learned this when we were invited to a private luncheon. Not only was the hostess heading for the shower when we arrived at the agreed upon hour, but the table was not set. In fact, the table was nowhere to be seen, never mind that some forty-something invitees were slowly streaming into the garden. After festive liquids were offered all around, sawhorses and plywood boards were brought out on the terrace to construct said table. Then, and only then were the meal prepared under jolly conversation, ready to be feasted upon just a couple of hours later.


Paella dinner in the open. Photo ©



The most extreme example of late arrivals happened when we attended our first Andalucian surprise party. The event was to take place in a small town outside of Ronda. The hostess, the sweetest, shortest, roundest Andalusian village-mayor you will ever meet, had told the dozens of guests to arrive at 8 pm, giving a full hour to conceal our cars and other evidence of life and to prepare for jumping out from our hiding places and call out Sorpresa! Swinging into the driveway of said home, we were a little alerted (if not surprised) not to see a soul, nor a sign that there would be a party there in a mere 60 minutes. Had they hidden it that well? We knocked on the door and the hostess finally came out, dressed in sweat pants, telling us without the slightest concern that we were the first to arrive.

Sensing the urgency of time ticking by, we offered to help her prepare - me blowing up balloons until my lounges nearly collapsed, while my husband and the bubbly hostess took off to the nearest bar to pick up ice and beverages. While we hung the Felicitaciones banner above the door and ignited the fire for the BBQ that soon should feed many hungry guests, our hostess wondered whether she maybe ought to call the wife of the celebrant to see if she could invent some delay, since nobody else had arrived and it was now only 30 minutes to the grand Sorpresa time. The wife of the apparently unaware celebrant made up a last minute emergency at her work to stall things. Meanwhile at party central, the grill was almost ready to receive the meat and another sawhorse table was built. To our joy, a second car arrived just 15 few minutes before our jump out moment. The hostess was again on the phone with the wife, now in the car with her husband, the celebrant, and therefore answering in code language. She told him, much to his chagrin, that she simply had to stop to buy cigarettes before they would drop by and pick up a friend, the sad mayor who was all alone and whom they would take for dinner. Three couples out of seven had arrived when the hour was up, the wife’s delay being the only reason why the guest of honour wasn’t present yet.


Beer ad clock at our corner store. Photo ©



Needless to say, we finally got our Sorpresa moment. The celebrant seemed genuinely surprised, or at least happy to see us, and only a couple of hours later the last of the guests swung into the property, bringing desserts and good cheers. 

So, what is the surprise at the epitome of tardiness - an Andalucian surprise party? The surprise is whether not some, but any of the guests will arrive before the guest of honour…


Party time. Photo ©



I am still none the wiser as to my original question of whether the Spanish will ever be on time. In general, I doubt it, and I would certainly not recommend anyone who expects punctuality to live in a Latin country. Certainly here, down in the deep Spanish south, you have to learn to go with the flow, peak at your watch with half shut eyes and order another glass of tinto while you wait. And wait…


Cathedral of Malaga double time piece, clock and bell tower. Photo ©

Like 2        Published at 12:17   Comments (12)

SNOBB’s Annual Wreck Award –12 of Ronda’s Memorable Abandoned Buildings
02 January 2019

El gato.Photo ©



A couple of years back I wrote a story about the renovation of a ruin into our present Ronda home. It was my first fictitious episode of a non-existent Andalusian Extreme Makeover Television Series. Amongst later ‘episodes’ was a 10-1 countdown of Andalusian ruins and potential fixer-uppers.

The idea remains off-the-air, but I am still of the opinion that it would be a great show, as this is the land of potential for extreme home makeovers. Andalucía is literally simmering with yet to be discovered jewels in the raw.


Wall with a past. Photo ©



Since a new year has come upon us, I felt it was appropriate to present another countdown episode, this time of abandoned places in the town of Ronda. In the spirit of the season, I have decided to include 12 contestants. All are within the town centre or old town, all are abandoned, non-inhabited and/or uninhabitable, and all are, in my mind, beautiful in their present stage, yet have vast potential for the right Extreme Makeover Visionary.


Wall detail. Photo ©



As in my previous countdown, I want to make it clear that I do not and will never work in Real Estate. This is not about flogging properties. This is about commemorating the past while recognizing the beauty in forgotten places, be it an abandoned home, a former fort turned boarding school, or a disgraced palace.

So, without further ado, here are a selection of 12 of Ronda’s most memorable abandoned buildings for your enjoyment and perusal:


Casa 12 – Crashing beauty in the Barrio San Francisco


Bull fighters home. Photo ©



When you walk up Calle Torrejones from the Barrio San Francisco on a windy day, you will inevitable hear slamming doors. Do not be alarmed. It is not the neighbourhood ghost, but merely the unhinged window shutters of my first contestant.

According to local legend, this former señorial home was once owned by the famous rondeño bullfighter Pedro Romero. One of the front door panels is gone, but the carved stone doorframe is still gorgeously intact. In recent months, the inner ceiling caved in (the upper roof went long before), giving the entrance hall a rather post-apocalyptic look, but what better way of defining a crashing beauty?

Entrance. Photo ©


Casa 11 – City Hall open-air extension

Open air solution. Photo ©



There are various streets that lead to Ronda’s town hall square. One is a cobbled, pedestrian only lane ending up in a set of stairs, adjacent to the town hall building itself. The homes on either side of this entrance have fallen down and are abandoned by any residents, save a few hooting pigeons.

Building to the left with entrance intact. Photo ©


Most people will pass it thinking it an eyesore, though to me, it has great potential. What remains is a fascinating imprint of the past, as we can still see frames of windows, as well as room and roof divisions embedded into the back wall, which once was part of the town’s inner defensive wall from the Arab era.

Open air solution with old window niches. Photo ©

As an Extreme Makeover project, this would make for a beautiful, rambling extension of the peaceful town hall square park. Without much interference, one could simply remove the unsightly concrete walls that have been added in recent years and secure the back wall, leaving the echoes of past residences. This way, it could make a unique semi-open area where visitors and locals alike could enjoy being simultaneously inside and outside Andalusian history.

Imprint of past. Photo ©


Oh, the things I will do when I become the queen of Ronda…




Casa 10Solid Roman bones


Once a Roman dwelling, old town Ronda. Photo ©

Not far from the town hall, amongst the random network of narrow streets and alleys that make up the towns old quarter or Casco Histórico there is a unique abandoned place. Not much to look at from the outside, this stout building with slightly bulging walls is said to be one of the few remaining edifices in Ronda with Roman origin.

Roman bones. Photo ©



Though Arunda was a Celtic settlement since the 6 century BC, Ronda as we know it was founded by the Romans. A fortified post in the Second Punic War (218-201 BC), Ronda, then Munda, received the title of municipium (town status) during the time of no other than Julius Caesar.

The Roman statue that decorated the front wall when we arrived a few years back is gone and there is little other evidence to see from the outside. All the same, I felt it was a deserving contestant in the abandoned place award.

Vertical Foilage. Photo ©



Stay tuned for more information, or another episode, if I can manage to persuade the town archaeologist into giving us a private tour…


Casa 9Niche house without record

What you see is what you get. Photo ©



In a fork in the road on the exit from our barrio you will find an abandoned home whose demise I have followed for the past couple of years. Not one of Ronda’s oldest or most salvageable residences, the home was at one point split into two, possibly in an inheritance dispute. However, for our purpose, I have given them a shared Casa number 9 award because…

Split dwelling with niche. Photo ©



There is nothing quite like an authentic over-the-front-door niche. This one just needs a saint or virgin. Looking out through an open entrance are still the roses that once embellished this rural home. When, in addition, there is an old record player (though no record) in the one-time living area, who can not be enchanted?


Inventory includes old record player. Photo ©



Casa 8Lilliputian with secrets




You may ask what in heaven’s name is a boring old block like that doing in this distinguished company.


Well, it is easy to judge a book by its cover. Indeed, when it had a For Sale sign a while back, my husband and I thought: Who would want to buy that? It ‘s small, dwarfed by newer buildings and with an apparent ground surface of 10x10 feet.

But this is where one has to think again, as you never know what you will find behind the door of an old Ronda home. This block, for instance, could extend in secret tunnels and hallways way back, possibly all the way to the next street?

Upper storey with roof terrace optional. Photo ©


Pretty? No.

Salvageable? Who knows?

But, interesting? Absolutely!



Casa 7 The mind’s the limit


Abandoned, but divine protection. Photo ©



As far as we know, the owner of this abandoned place is a doubly blessed señor called Jesús María. More of a lot than a home, the front gate should say it all.


Mystery door. Photo ©


With the 15th century Espiritu Santo church always looking over its shoulder, one should never have to worry. The open-plan home leaves the imagination free to create, with only a few fig trees to be ensnarled in.

Wall detail, possible from 13 Century. Photo ©


Casa 6Old town classic

Señorial past. Photo ©




Right on the main road going through Ronda’s Casco Histórico towers this once elegant manor. Even without having noble ancestors, living here would automatically provide them, family crest and all. The view from the roof terrace, whether it is accessible or not, must be out of this world. And to be sure, there are ample bedrooms for visitors and a myriad of aristocratic children.

Imagine the roof terrace. Photo ©



Casa 5 Fort turned School turned Parking Lot


El Castillo with grazing sheep. Photo ©



We see this building every morning from our bed, as the sun hits the eastern wall, making it shine like gold.

Abandoned since the 1990’s, El Castillo (the castle) as the locals call it, has an incredible history. The outer walls were part of the Acazaba or defensive fort built during Andalucía’s 700 year of Arabic rule. After the Catholic re-conquest, it remained a military stronghold, seeing Ronda through the Napoleonic wars in the early 19th Century. In 1885, an Augustinian Order took over the place, tearing down much of the fort, using the same rocks to build the structure we see today. Originally a school for underprivileged children, it eventually ran out of money. A Salesian Order took over in the early 20 Century, making it a profitable resident school for sons of well to do Andalucian families. Today the abandoned building is a ward of the Moctezuma Foundation, which has stipulated that it never can be sold and that any leasers must include an educational portion in use.


EL Castillo parking lot behind 800 year old  defensive battlement. Photo ©



Unfortunately, Ronda’s town hall has converted the old armoury and the surrounding area into the town’s public parking lot (where is the education in that?), while allowing winter storms and rains to enter the edifice. Meanwhile, we keep dreaming that El Castillo once again will become a place of learning.


Casa 4Birds eye view


Bird's eye view. Photo ©



Some buildings have to be seen from afar, or as this one, from above, to really appreciate its potential.

Nuzzled in an enclave of old houses also beneath the Espiritu Santo church, this casa will never lack neighbourly intrigues!

The boss. Photo ©



With the convenience of almost the entire roof gone, it perfectly shows the divisions of tiny rooms that humans and their domestic animals shared in a traditional Andalucian home. Usually this would include chickens, goats, Iberian pigs and possibly a mule or two, and quite often these types of homes will still have the stone troughs where they fed.  


Casa 3Worthy of a King


Casa del Rey Moro. Photo ©



No other building in Ronda is likely subject of more gossip and wild speculations than La Casa del Rey Moro, or the house of the Moorish King.

Apparently, there was never a Moorish King living here, though the mine and the secret underground stairs down into Ronda’s tajo bottom is from the Moorish era. Rumour has it that the house, more of a palace really, has been bought by a foreign woman who wants to restore it into a five star hotel. So far, from what we can see, no permit has been granted…

Casa del Rey Moro window detail with rambling rose. Photo ©


For all the mumbled gossip, it is a stunning building in a magical setting. Located right on the edge of Ronda’s famous tajo, La Casa del Rey Moro forms an essential part of the rondeño landscape. For this reason alone, it is quintessential that it should be restored to its former stature, before it crumbles and forever alters the historical patrimony of Ronda.

Casa de Rey Moro. Photo © snobb.netCasa del Rey Moro. Photo ©



Casa 2Corner lot on wheels


Tyre house. Photo ©


I have to admit that this house has always fascinated me. I mean, why the tyres?


Like many abandoned buildings in Ronda, this one has been denied permit to reform, so it has been left to crumble. Located near the lovely Santa Cecilia Church, this corner lot just has a good feel. Once owned by a local baker, I can perfectly visualize donkey drawn carts with flour sacs being pulled into the inner courtyard, though I do not know for sure if it has one... I am considering buying a drone, so I can photograph it from above. In the meantime, here is how it looks like from la tierra firme.

Tyre house. Photo ©



Casa 1Chapel for jousting knights



Capilla de Nuestra Seõra de Gracia and the ancient Colegio de San Francisco. Photo ©


Besides kids using the courtyard as a soccer pitch and the present owner using it as a parking lot (not another one…) this abandoned place, located right across from the neighbourhood plaza, is close to the heart of many ceporreros, or residents of the Barrio San Francisco.

As our neighbourhood was where the Catholic kings started their re-conquest of Ronda in the 1480’s, our square was once a practicing ground for jousting knights on horseback. Since such sports tend to have bloody endings, a chapel was built next to the grounds, for prayers and possibly funerals. It was dedicated to the Nuestra Señora de Gracia (Our Lady of Grace), which was certainly needed if one wanted to avoid being spearheaded…

Fast forward to mid last century, when a poorly constructed school building was added around three sides (the ancient Colegio de San Francisco), while the old chapel was left to decay. The neighbourhood children naturally began to play inside the ruin. According to local legend, when one of these youngsters jumped from the former alter, the floor beneath opened, revealing four bodies. When the kids took the bones, the place became haunted, though it is later thought that the ghostly howls probably came from an owl. As it was finally cemented shut a few years back, I have not had a chance to climb in and check.

Window with a past. Photo © Photo jpeg


And so the local legends continue…



Like the Chapel for the jousting knights, some of these historical marvels deserve their own article, or their very own episode of my Andalucian Extreme Makeover Show. I am still waiting for the right producer to come forth. In the meantime, consider this as a teaser, a taster or a trailer, depending on what the future and the New Year will bring.

Roofline detail. Photo ©



For more ‘episodes’: 
The (yet-off-the-air) Andalucian Extreme Makeover Home-Edition

My TOP TEN Andalucían Ruins and FixerUppers - The Official 2016 Countdown



Like 3        Published at 18:45   Comments (0)

All I want for Christmas is nada
21 December 2018

Lonesome tree in winter. Photo © snobb.netWhen I asked my young students what they wanted for Christmas this year, most gave me a long list of mal-pronounced Spanglish names of plastic toys, straight from the Hasbro or Mattel catalogue. Older kids wanted the latest game consoles for their XBox or new cell phones. Thankfully, at least one girl wanted a book.

When the kids turned around and asked me what I wanted for Christmas, and I told them that I wanted nada, they looked at me like I was the dumbest person, if not on the planet, then at least on our street. Nothing? What do you mean nothing? Who would not want to get presents for Christmas? In their minds, one had to be pretty daft not to profit on such a free-for-all occasion.

Xmas. Photo ©

Of course, it is to be expected that kids want presents. If you have become accustomed to be given piles of stuff during a certain holiday, be it thanks to Santa, Baby Jesus or like here in Spain, the Holy Three Kings, you are not easily going to give up that receiver habit, even long after you have discovered that the actual giver does not live on the North Pole.

Heaven. Photo ©

I have heard many adults bemoan the burden of Christmas presents - who to buy for, what to get for someone who has everything, and when they will manage to find the time to go and purchase these things. Still, most continue the habit, as if it was an obligatory omen, or a necessary curse of the season. Some people organize a Secret Santa, where each guest buys a single present for one person in the party, with purchases usually limited to a symbolic sum. At least this means less shopping, but you still have to buy stuff, generally something that nobody wants and more importantly, nobody needs.

Rose. photo ©

It was different a few generations back, when people owned a single good Sunday suit and when children were lucky if they got one tiny toy for Christmas. Giving and receiving presents is really a luxury phenomenon. For the past 50 years, our gift giving has followed the same upwards graph as our chocolate consumption. While sweets used to be something exclusive to Saturday nights, now they are consumed anywhere anytime in an endless supply of daily treats. Our shopping habits follow a similar pattern. We, the lucky few who live in peaceful and relatively affluent countries give ourselves presents whenever we want something, and thereby more than satisfy our own needs for gifts. So why do we need more?

Another sunset. Photo ©

Not to add to my family’s overfilled cupboards and closets, a few years back I began to give them gifts of hens to a family in Africa, schoolbooks to children in Pakistan, or part of a well in Bangladesh instead of other Christmas presents. However, since most of my funds ended up as running costs for a non-profit, I decided that it was an ineffective way of helping.

Shadow play. photo ©

These days therefore, other than making my 88-year-old-mother a calendar, I don’t give Christmas presents. It is not that I am a disciple of Mr Scrooge. I am just not a great believer in a mass gifting tradition that has regressed into a rather manic consumer spectacle. I actually do like giving, but preferably when it is not expected.

I love Ronda. Photo ©

By all means, we should sing, cheer and rejoice in the festive season, but why does our love and care for each other have to be measured in volume of gifts?

Colour Therapy. Photo ©

As my parents grew older, they started giving each other presents of experience rather than things for birthdays, holidays and anniversaries. I certainly prefer this, as an experience can last much longer and result in much richer memories than physical objects, even if it is just a road trip to a neighbouring town.

Road trip. Photo ©

As for myself, I do not want anything for Christmas. It is not that I want nothing in particular. It is that I want particularly northing.

Reeds. Photo ©

We do not need anything. I consider us rich beyond belief. My husband and I have loving friends and family, near and far away, and though I would like to see them more often, the Holy Three Kings cannot help me much with the travel arrangements.

Shadow play. photo ©


We enjoy a peaceful life without fear of war, terrorists or lethal pollution. We have nature at our doorstep. We have a lovely home and though it is only 3 meters wide and might have a couple of cracks and a few dangling wires, we’ve got a roof over our head which is more than most people on the planet can dream of. We do not need more trinkets.

Roofline, Ronda. Photo ©

We are fed and clothed, healthy in body and remotely sane of mind for our many years. I ask myself, if I can still see the stunning blue Andalusian sky, smell the jasmine on our terrace and hear the sheep baahing down the street in the morning, what more can I possibly wish for?

Home. Photo ©

I could have told my students that I wanted World Peace and a reversal of Global Warming, but such lofty goals cannot be hidden under a tree. Though we may wish for joy and happiness, these are values that must be cultivated within, and cannot be contained in a Christmas stocking. The greatest things in life are free and the real gift is being here to be able to enjoy it.

So on this Winter Solstice day, I wish you all the very best for the season and for the year to come.

The road ahead. Photo ©

Like 4        Published at 12:57   Comments (6)

Haberdashery Heaven – Discovering Spain’s love for sewing
14 December 2018

Antique sewing machine as wall  decoration. Photo©

When did you last hear someone say haberdashery? It is probably a doomed word. Long, convoluted and hard-to-spell, it will soon work its way out of the English language, if it hasn’t already. In fact, I believe that if one were to take a random sampling of English speakers under 40, certainly in North America, the vast majority would have no idea what the word means. And the main reason is that these types of establishments simply do not exist anymore.

Passing an old Mercería. Photo©

A haberdashery usually refers to a shop selling ribbons, pins, thread and other paraphernalia used for sewing. Consequently, a haberdasher is the seller of the above-mentioned items. Together these goods are sometimes referred to as notions, not to be confused with having a notion (as in an idea or impression). However, like the word haberdashery, notions are also a dated term, just like sewing itself is becoming a dated activity in most places.

Golden notions. Merceria  Madroñal. Photo©


When we lived in North America, if one were to sew an outfit or make ones own curtains (nobody I knew did…), one would have to go to a type of craft superstore to get supplies. There were fabric stores of course, but they were also dwindling rapidly. I remember a knitting supply store in Vancouver run by two extremely old spinsters, but I never saw a true haberdashery - that is, until we moved to Spain.

Window display. Photo©


In Spanish, the term is mercería. Though the younger generations of españolas are not as apt with the needle as their mothers and grandmothers, there are still several haberdasheries in almost every Spanish town. In Ronda, with a population of under 35.000, there are still at least five mercerías, mostly small, generally stuffed to the gills with any thinkable and unthinkable sewing supplies, and, somewhat surprisingly, always with a line-up.

Ribbon. Merceria Madroñal. Photo ©


My first errand to a mercería in Ronda was to buy supplies to make a scarecrow. From the moment I walked in the door, I was enthralled. It was like entering a world I had no idea existed. A Haberdashery Heaven so to speak. The store had every ribbon, string, button and all the other goods for sale located safely behind the shop counter, the majority of which was stored in a cavernous, poorly lit room in the back. This meant that the client (invariably a female, usually older) had to explain to the haberdasher what type of tassel trim she needed for her overstuffed couch, and this of course could take quite some time. Patience-challenged beware!

Trimmings. Photo©

Consequently, I had ample time to observe the shopping procedure, particularly seeing that I was number five in line. Some clients would bring a bit of cloth, others would have a photo of an outfit they wanted to copy, while others still would bring an entire sewing pattern that they would discuss at length with the expert behind the counter. Then, the haberdasher, which in this particular instance was a very old woman, would shuffle out through the narrow corridor into the back of the store where I could see shelf upon shelf stacked with hundreds of small dusty boxes, some labelled with long hand, others with a button, tassel or ribbon attached to the front. 

Mercería Silvia in Cordoba. Photo©


More often than not, the item in question would be located on the uppermost shelf and the haberdasher would have to push a wooden ladder over and climb up on wobbly ancient knees to get to the box in question. Once she had dug out a couple of more items, she crept back to the front counter, presenting her selection to the client.

Zipper with doilies. Merceria Madroñal. Photo ©


After much deliberation and humming and hawing, and possibly a secondary trip to the back, a purchase was made - 30 cm of ribbon and half a meter of zipper, which was carefully wrapped into a piece of silk paper. The purchase tallied 85 cents, which was paid in full after some heavy rumbling in the depths of a bottomless coin purse. Finally, greetings were exchanged and a bit more sewing advice solicited, before the client left, and it was turn for number two in line…

Satin chord. Merceria Madroñal. Photo ©


And so it went, every client with her sewing project or fabric sample, every purchase including a trip to the back and a few cents exchanging hands. Even with a line-up all day, I could not help but wonder how this could add up to a profit at the end of the day.

Button measure. Photo©


Like so many things in Andalucía, I have become enamoured by the mercerías. Some might find it a terrible waste of time, but I enjoy the experience like a piece of theatre, or a slice of life that might cease to exist within a generation or two.

Buttons. Photo©


When travelling, I make errands for myself, just to be able to visit another haberdashery, to check out the window display, the old counter, the shelving and the fragile old paper boxes with their fascinating secret contents. I become like a kid in a candy shop, enchanted by the rich colours and shiny pieces. My poor husband has been dragged into haberdasheries from Bilbao in the north to Cádiz in the south, and I don’t even sew a stitch.

Window display of haberdashery  in Cádiz. Photo©


Our latest visit was to Almacenes Silvia, a lovely mercería in downtown Córodoba, where the haberdasher had worked for more than five decades. Her selection of buttons where out of this world and she kindly let me come behind the counter (otherwise unheard of, but it was 9 am and nobody else was on the street) to admire her collection up close. Actually, she had probably never had such a keen client in her store before. We finally left with half a dozen special buttons that I probably will never use, promising to return upon our next visit.

Mercería Silvia in Cordoba. Photo©


Back in Ronda, I went to my seamstress’ haberdashery to learn a bit more about the profession. Mercería Madroñal proprietors are Salvadora Sánchez Sánchez and her daughter Paqui Atienza Sánchez. Though their mercería is fairly new compared to some of the others I have been to (theirs opened in 1991), it perfectly demonstrates why these types of businesses work, certainly here in Adalucía.

Aids. Mercería Madroñal. Photo©

There was just a single client when I arrived (which is rare, but it was just after opening) so Paqui kindly took me to the back to show me their secret stashes. As I snapped endless photos, she taught me the traditional names of some of the chords, such as a coloured satin thread called Colita de raton (mouse tail) and the thinner Tripita de pollo (chicken intestine). I marvelled at the sheer volume of stock. Where did it all come from? (Thankfully, I noted that some were still Hecho en España) I inquired how they keep it all organized. Paqui explained that some items were colour coded or stored by product numbers, while other items such as multi-coloured upholstery trim were stacked a bit more randomly. They simply have to know where everything is, she said, admitting that after her father has been there to help clean up, they cannot find anything...

Zipper wall. Merceria Madroñal. Photo ©


The Mercerías popularity apparently depends on the town or the area. In the province of Almería almost all haberdasheries have had to close down. There is simply no business for them anymore. Thankfully, here in Ronda the mercerías are more popular than ever. In fact, Paqui told me that they have many younger clients. While the older clientele might bring in embroideries and things that need mending, the young girls want to learn how to make clothes for themselves.

Flamenco supplies in Mercería Madroñal. Photo© Mercería MadroñalPhoto session in Merceria Madroñal with Paqui's sister. Photo © Mercería Madroñal


There is also a unique tradition of making baby clothing here in Andalucía, which I have never seen anywhere else. Babies are swaddled in beautiful hand embroidered linen outfits with precious little bonnets, knitted socks and patent leather baby shoes. (Appearance before comfort…)

Rondeña baby swaddled in precious linen. Photo©


I was told that the haberdashery did have a few male clients, and as if to prove their point, a gentleman walked in to buy some ribbon. He was a regular, Salvadora informed me, just like a Ronda clothing designer who has established himself in Sevilla. Curiously, many haberdashers are male, such as at the amazing Mercería Fernández Frías in Málaga, where I have only seen men behind the counter. Their clients are of all ages and genders, I was told, and include some of Málaga’s cofradías or religious brotherhoods and many local designers.

 Mercería Fernández Frías in Målaga. Photo ©

Many of the travelling notions vendors are also men, though such wandering peddlers are loosing out to online catalogues. However, it is still safe to say that 99% of the clientele in most mercerías are female.

Baby a la Ronda Romántica. Photo ©


Added to the popularity of Ronda’s mercerías is the fact that the town’s férias and other celebrations include outfits that people habitually make for themselves. Be it Flamenco dresses, Ronda Romántica’s Bandolero outfits, First Communion dresses and sailor outfits, wedding veils, or the various traditional costumes used during the Semana Santa (Easter) processions, there are always things to be sewn. And the more elaborate, richly decorated, the better.

Virgin in Samana Santa parade. Photo ©

While I kept Paqui busy in the back, showing me all the useful gadgets used by seamstesses, Salvadora was trying to handle the ever-growing line of waiting patrons. I spent some time watching from the sideline as the two of them served their clients. The mother-daughter team was like a dynamic duo, reading each other’s thoughts, taking over a client or passing each other something to be put away, as if it was a relay baton. No pun intended, but they were truly a picture of seamless collaboration.

The proprietors of Merceria Madroñal, Paqui and Salvadora. Photo ©

The proprietors of Merceria Madroñal, Paqui and Salvadora. Photo ©


Not to have too many unnecessary trips to the back and to streamline the selection process, they used a Pantone style colour chart. I soon discovered that these haberdashers had another vital role, as they repaired things, on site while the client was waiting. Almost every second client came in with jackets and bags with broken zippers, which sliders Salvadora would fix, or pulls she would exchange in a jiffy. This type of service was offered for free, which is unthinkable where I came from. A client entered with a pair of children’s boots needing new zippers. Salvadora told her that she only needed to purchase one zipper, as the cobbler up the street could divide it in half and use the second, still working slider for the other boot. I could hardly believe my ears. They were not only reasonable and frugal, but extremely service minded, even if this meant that they sold a few less zippers and other notions.

Zipper repair by Salvadora. Merceria Madroñal. Photo ©


Reluctantly, I took my leave, thanking my new friends for their hospitality. Walking down the street, I thought that I really should at least try to add a few notions onto my Ronda Romántica outfit, comes spring. At least then I will have another excuse for going snooping through their lovely ribbons again…

Ribbons delight. Merceria Madroñal. Photo ©



To learn more, or to see videos on how to thread a needle or make a ribbon bow, go to Mercería Madroñal Facebook page




Like 2        Published at 15:29   Comments (4)

From Dust to Dust – Rites of passage in rural Andalucía
23 November 2018

Flower. Photo ©

End of life traditions are a topic that is extremely personal and emotionally loaded. However, since it is a milepost we all have to pass, I wanted to share a few observations on these rituals here in southern Spain.

Carthajima cemetary 2 Photo ©

Regretfully or not, my husband and I have been to more funerals in the handful years we have lived in Andalucía than in the rest of our lives combined. This could be partly due to the fact that we moved here from a North American city that catered more to the working population than to new-borns and nearly deads. It could also be that we are getting on a bit ourselves…

Dust. Photo ©

I was born in a country that is primarily Lutheran (read agnostic/heathen), and spent most of my adult life in multicultural Canada, which in my circles meant that people were wannabe Buddhists or quasi Hindus. It was therefore quite a change to become a resident of an almost exclusively Catholic and at times very devout rural town. While funeral rites in northern climates are becoming increasingly liberal, with virtually free choice when it comes to location, entertainment, as well as what is being said and by whom, in Ronda funerals are still done much the same way as in the distant past. Things might have changed in the northern parts of the country, but here the rituals of passing are still a very tradition-bound affair.

Crypt in Osuna Photo ©

Granted, rural Andalusian towns like ours tend to be tradition bound all around. Here, life’s progression is still measured by the celebrations of saints and virgins. In our barrio (neighbourhood), which is like a village it itself, we have donkeys and horses regularly clippety-clopping by and sheep grazing up on the hillside. Even though it is a traditional family, working class neighbourhood, a significant proportion of our neighbours are octogenarians and nonagenarians. Just crossing the local Plaza San Francisco square where the old men stand and gossip day in and day out, we are reminded of the inevitable circle of life.

The old men in the plaza. Photo ©

We have become accustomed to hearing the sombre chime of the mourning or luto bells before a requiem mass in the 15-century church up the street. Likewise, we have started following the funeral notices tacked up above the counter at the local grocery store, cramped between farm eggs ads and pre-Christmas Iberian ham basket lotto draws. Every time an ambulance stops at the top of our dead-end street my heart starts racing, fearing the time has come for one of our ageing neighbours. Thankfully, they are still hanging in there, but we know with all probability that there will be more funeral masses ahead.

Why nobody uses fresh flowers anymore. Photo ©

Before I continue, I want it to be clear. I am not a member of any faith and have no training in Catholicism whatsoever. My following observations are purely that - comments from an outsider inside point of view, who by mercy of friendship has been invited into the locals’ private circles in their most vulnerable and emotionally heightened times. I share these observations with outmost respect and love for our friends, their families and their lost ones. I am here as a cultural observer, that is all.

Detail, empty grave, Ronda. Photo ©

The first thing that struck me about rural Spanish funeral customs was the progression of the events. In my native Norway, a funeral might happen weeks or months after the actual death, depending on the family, the venue, the availability of musicians, as well as when a relative can manage to come back from trekking in Bhutan. It is a practical matter more than anything. Here, on the other hand, things happen very quickly. Once someone passes, within hours the body is usually transferred to one of the town’s two, always busy, Funeral Homes or Tanatorios.

Tanatorio, Ronda Photo ©

I would guess that the proceeding steps traditionally happened in the privacy of people’s homes, but a few things have changed for modern day convenience.

The Tanatorio is where everything seems to happen - where family keep vigil and grieve, where respect is shown and friends come and say their last goodbyes, where the mass is held and from where the casket is brought to the final resting place. And all this usually takes only a couple of days. It might surprise some, being acquainted with the infamous Spanish mañana culture, that the process of parting is done so hurriedly. As far as I have detected and I might be poorly informed, there is no official 48-hour time constraint, which would explain the urgency at which the deceased is transferred to the final resting place. But then again, tradition is always the strongest determiner. 

Saint. Photo ©

While a North American Funeral Parlour might opt for a discrete non-denominational name such as ‘Eternal Rest’, the names of the Tanatorios in the Spanish south tend to have religious overtones, like our Tanatorio El Niño Jesús (The Baby Jesus Funeral Home). Approaching one of these Tanatorios, there is almost always an enclave of people outside. Naturally, this is where the smokers congregate, but it is also where the family of the deceased can escape the endless row of condoling neighbours, friends, distant relatives and unknown acquaintances.

Baby Jesus from convent in Osuna. Photo ©

Inside the Tanatorio, there is usually an open entrance hall and a reception area and possibly even a cafeteria. There is always a waiting room, a chapel, as well as two or three separate intestinal rooms for the families of the latest departed. In the latter rooms, the closest relations to the deceased will sit on pews facing a glassed-in chamber where the coffin sits, closed or open, depending on ones wishes.

Statue detail. Santa María Major, Ronda Photo ©

I am not completely sure what it the actual reason for sitting for hours facing ones recently departed loved ones. From what I have observed, it only accentuates the tragedy, ripping up a yet-to-be healed wound. It seems torturous on the families, especially after what one might call an untimely death (Are there any timely ones?), when someone has died far too young. I do not believe the custom helps the family start the grieving process any sooner, rather the opposite. Maybe this tradition meant to make us face our own mortality, admit our sins and rectify our earthly ways?

Doom and gloom. Photo ©

As we dressed up in black to go to show our respect for our first rondeño funeral, we were surprised to note that we were the only ones to do so. At least here in town, there seems to be no tradition of sombre funeral attire. In my hometown, it would be simply unthinkable to show up to a funeral in leopard tights or any bright and gay colours, but not here. Everybody wears normal street clothing. Ones physical appearance therefore doesn’t seem to be part of the otherwise very tradition bound affair.

Face. Photo ©

Some time during the first or the following day, a funeral mass will be held. This can happen in the Tanatorio itself or in one of the many churches in town. It probably depends on the family history and whether they belong to certain religious brotherhoods. In most cases, the mass appears to be done in the chapel of the Funeral Parlour, with one mass happening after another, depending on how many departed are being served that day. In the dozens of funerals we have attended, there have been very slight deviations in the requiem mass. The liturgy is always the same, except the name of the departed being swapped out, and the sermon always includes a communion. The process seems to be much the same for every passing soul. The chapel is usually full, with mourners coming and going during the sermon.  As expected, there will always be the inevitable phone ringing (ring tone: Despacito or some cheery Latino Salsa) Someone two rows behind us will fumble desperately to get their phone, not to turn it off mind you, but to answer it, telling the caller that they cannot talk because they are in an entierro. (…)

Gilded virgen, Antequera. Photo ©

The mass proceeds at a rather hurried pace, giving a sense that there is a real urgency to get the soul into sacred ground. For someone like myself, who barely remember ‘Our Father’, it used to surprise me that everybody around me knew the mass from beginning to end. All as one mouths along with the prayers and confessions, crossing themselves, standing, kneeling and sitting at the right moments, even those who are neither regular church goes nor creyentes (believers).

Book, Santa María Major, Ronda. Photo ©

After the last word is said, the family of the departed will gather behind the coffin, while the crowds file towards the alter to show their respect, make the sign of the cross while bowing to the coffin, sometimes touching it, or sending an invisible nod of compassion to the mourning family. Once all have gone past, the process of moving the coffin to the cemetery begins. Traditionally, the chapel and the graveyard would be situated side by side, which is almost the case in Ronda. While the coffin would have been carried to the cemetery, nowadays it is usually transported in a special funeral vehicle. Still, the most important part of the tradition remains. The near family, then other mourners and finally curious bystanders will follow the coffin to the cemetery in a slow walking procession, halting all traffic in their wake. In smaller villages, this will include basically the entire town. Life stops and every business close, as all the residents will walk along behind the coffin, showing their last respect to the very end. To me as an outsider, it is a particularly heart-felt tradition, which one can only hope will be kept for generations to come.

Ronda cemetery. Photo ©

The internment into consecrated ground happens immediately afterwards. For most Catholics, certainly rondeños, this means placement into a vertical wall cubicle. In Ronda’s Cementerio de San Lorenzo, there are thousands upon thousands of these cubicles, stacked four or five layers high. Though this might give one an impression of a morbid sub-development, each grave is usually decorated and given an individual touch.

Just a number. Photo ©

Personal touch. Photo ©

Last week, as we followed the procession of a recently parted town fellow, two workers in coveralls were waiting on a cherry-picker type lift. In a matter of minutes, while the family watched, the coffin was raised and deposited into the niche. The last thing that went in, barely fitting, was a wreath. Then, without music, words or any ceremony, the workers began to cement a lid onto the opening, completing the process by leaning a pre-made marble plaque that was to be added later. Finally, the cherry picker was lowered and the workers walked off with a silent nod, leaving the mourning family in tears. One of the ageing daughters of the departed fainted at this point, while two doctors in the crowd sprang forward to help. In fact, she got more attention than her passed-on mother, aged 94. This is Andalucía after all, where passions run high and drama or sometimes melodrama is part of every day life.

Sombre statue. Photo ©

And so, from cradle to grave, we follow our rondeño friends and neighbours, celebrating their victories and mourning their losses, lighting candles for the sick and ailing, though not yet confessing our sins or crossing ourselves as we pass roadside shrines. Some things are better left to the locals.

Confessional. Santa María Major, Ronda. Photo ©


Like 2        Published at 14:41   Comments (8)

Unfolding the story of Andalusian doornails
15 November 2018

Doorknocker, Casco Histórico. Photo ©

Old doors have always fascinated me. When traveling in rural Italy, urban India, the British countryside, Antigua Guatemala or my native Norway, I have always snapped more door photos than vistas or anything else, certainly more than those of my traveling companions. When I lived in Paris, I started an additional obsession with doorknockers. However, it wasn’t until we moved to southern Spain that I realized that there was a whole new world of other door paraphernalia to explore - like doornails.

Doornails 16. Photo ©

Doornails 14. Photo ©

Doornails 7. Photo ©

Doornails 4. Photo ©

Doornails 1. Photo  ©

Now a doornail is not any old nail. Per definition it is a stud set into a door for strength or ornament. In other words, the nail feature may or may not have a structural reason to be. In my case, this is really irrelevant, as the doornail in itself, especially the original Andalusian hand-forged doornail, is like small piece of art. It really needs no further purpose.

Doornails 2. Photo ©

When we bought our ruin and future home in Ronda a few years back, I immediately started visualizing the stunning antique door we would employ as our piece de resistance entrance. We started a province-wide search, covering antique stores and flee markets. We discovered a company in Granada’s Alpujarra region that were said to remake the traditional Arab style doors for a considerable, but seemingly fair cost judging by all the hand-carved details. A place near Marbella had a couple of these masterpieces in stock, so we went to see them. We were sadly disappointed. The style resembled what I call Late Flint Stone, due to the excessive hand chiselling. To the naked eye, the wood looked like the plastic-y hobbit houses one see in cheap adventure parks. Once again I discovered that what we say in the film industry is true - some things are good from far, but far from good.  There are no ‘bueno, bonito y barato’ (good, nice looking and cheap).

Our next step was to snap photos of doors during our walks and travels. I began collecting images of the perfect handle candidates, door wickets, keyhole embellishments and examples of antique doornails that we would love to use to ‘fortify’ our future street entrance.

Door with mudguard. Photo ©

We asked our neighbours where to find an old door and were told to contact Salvador Sato, an older rondeño gentleman who allegedly had a storeroom full of antique doors. His warehouse turned out to be a vast former stable on the windy road adjacent to our community garden. We had passed it numerous of times without knowing what riches were hidden behind the nondescript green garage doors.

Salvador in his workshop 2. Photo ©

And treasures there were. Salvador had lofty hall upon lofty hall filled with old doors. There were doors for castles, cathedrals, señorial mansions and cutting edge city dwellings. There were towering entrances worthy of a medieval fort, ancient enclosures of any type, style and state and stately twin panels to separate ones great reception halls from ones ballrooms or smoking chambers.One of several rooms with Salvador's refinished doors. Photo ©

The place was a virtual museum, a heaven for restorers and utopia for door lovers like myself. The only thing Salvador did not have was a door to suit our rustic home, whose façade was merely 3 metres wide. Our entrance was simply too small. Salvador kindly suggested he could cut something down to size, but for one we didn’t want to ruin any of his precious doors and secondly, we didn’t know what size we would be allowed to make our front door, seeing that the original opening was made for the squat Andalu’ farm stock. Therefore, we thanked Salvador for the most interesting tour and continued our search.

Keyhole frame as art. Photo ©

Months passed and we finally got our building permit, though we still had not found our door. Using photos as reference, we got a local carpenter to build us one from scratch. While he was making the door, we kept searching for hardware. By chance, one day we passed a wood carving shop where we found about six-dozen antique doornails of two different types for sale. “We’ll take them all”, we told the bearded artisan, thinking that if one type didn’t work, we could always use the other. The nails were rusty, greasy, with paint splatters and thick globs of black metal paint, but since this was the only place in two years of continual search that we had found true antique doornails, we simply couldn’t let the chance pass by.

Our doornails after me restoring them.. Photo ©

I spent three weeks scrubbing each of the about 80 nails with boiling vinegar. If anyone tells you that restoration is not a labour of love, they have never tried it. And I wont even start talking about the smell... Once the nails were clean, dry, and protected with a matte varnish, I gave the carpenter my drawing of the nail pattern we wanted, so that he could cut them down to size and bolt them into our new battle-ready front door.

Door handle. Photo ©

For a long time, Salvador’s doors stayed on my mind. Finally yesterday, I wandered down to his workshop to have a chat with him and to photograph his world, so I could share this unique repository with other antique door and hardware lovers. 

Bird keyhole frame. Photo ©

Salvador told me that he had worked with doors since the early 1960’s. While his family dealt in antiques, he only wanted to restore old doors. And they are still his passion today.

Salvador's showroom in Ronda with his refinished doors. Photo ©

His collection includes a set of 16th century doors from Cádiz with the most amazing lion head doornails. At the time, Cádiz was more important that Madrid, hence the grand style.

The best doornail ever, from Cádiz, anno 1600s. Photo ©

There were also some 18th century front doors from Puerto Santa María, the town where Columbus set off from on one of his expeditions.

Doornails 17. Photo ©

The coastal areas usually used mahogany or cedar for their doors, while the doors from the interior, such as la Serranía de Ronda were usually made from pine or walnut.

Door Casco Histórico. Photo ©

Just like Andalusian doors have a story, so have their nails. Most Andalusian homes used to have doornails on the exterior doors, due to the extreme climate. The inner set of entrance doors had none, though they traditionally would have carvings and fine embellishments. 

The doornails on the coast and in urban areas were often made from bronze or brass, while doornails in smaller towns, like Ronda, were simple in shape and made from forged iron.

Doornail. Photo ©

Unfortunately, the historical buildings in Ronda with antique doornails are slowly being robbed. A doornail makes a very cool souvenir…

Mssing doornail. Photo ©

Cordova and Antequera have their own style of doors, with artistic rod iron grid work above the door panels.

Interior door panels from Cordoba

The typical Ronda entrance had massive simple round doornails, though I have seen some larger buildings in the historic town with fabulous fleur-de-lis shaped nails.

Doornails 10. Photo ©

Common in our town is also an iron kick board, extending up about 2 feet from the ground, to protect the doors from mud and foul weather.

Door from Ronda with mud guard. Photo ©

Another typical feature is the traditional door wicket, which is an older type of the modern spy-hole. This one can be seen in endless variations when walking through almost any historic town in Andalucía.

Door wicket and rare doornails from Cádiz. Photo ©

As our town used to have many skilled ironsmiths, there is a fascinating selection of keyhole frames on the old entrance doors. Some will be in the shape of a Phoenix or an eagle, others, like ours, in the shape of a lopsided heart.

Spectacular door detail. Photo ©

Of course, there are doorknockers to die for, in fact, better than in my Paris days. I found this one, with a face of an angry little man the other day, while strolling through the old town.

Door knocker as sour little man. Photo ©

Finally, we must not forget the keys. Salvador also restores these to perfection, although most homes probably will chose to have a secondary, well disguised, modern lock for additional security.

Key 1. Photo ©

Salvador has enough work for 10 lifetimes in his warehouse, but these are the last testament to a piece of Andalusian history that is rapidly being replaced by modern home enclosures. Sadly, there are no more old doors to be found.

Salvador's rough storage. Photo ©

So, if you happen to have a mansion in need of a striking entrance piece, you might still be in luck, but you better hurry.

Hardware detail. Photo ©



Like 3        Published at 21:43   Comments (6)

After the Disaster – and why Less is almost always More
01 November 2018

Home... Photo ©

There are days when I realize how powerless we humans are against the forces of nature. No time is this more apparent than during a natural disaster.

Still looking for the matching  boot... Photo © An act of God as it is sometimes referred to, is dreadful for those involved, but it can also remind us of what really matters in life. After an earthquake, a hurricane or a flood, our day-to-day problems tend to vanish. Trivial matters become irrelevant. The primary concern during a catastrophe is always the safety and well being those involved. Only once the question of survival is assured can material damage even be considered. Therefore, living through a disaster puts our values into a whole new perspective.

Where Paul Smith has never gone  before... Photo ©

Last week, Andalucía was under red alert. All emergency personnel were on call, even the Spanish Foreign Legion. After days of howling winds, massive rain, continuous lightning bolts and earthshattering thunder, the storm finally subsided, leaving a horrid mess in its wake.

Still-life post flood. Photo ©

For those of us who are spared personal losses during a disaster, there is always a certain question that is difficult to ignore. Why was I the lucky one? Seeing the destruction all around, it is clear that we can all be victims of natural disasters. Next time, it can just as well be us watching our car float away, or our home crumbling in front of our very eyes. While the first reaction of the unaffected is generally relief and gratitude, it is hard not to feel empathy for the misfortune of others. Shouldn’t it be our communal duty to assist those who have suffered where we were spared? After all, we are in the same planetary vessel, heading for the same not-so-distant final shore.

Stove on the loose. Photo ©

My husband and I offered to help a couple we recently met whose home had been ruined by the floods. Though we were merely a few extra hands, at least we could do something. Having never been to their house before, we followed the Google directions, while simultaneous getting instructions from the owners over the phone. The flattened trees, twisted road railings and towering mud banks along the river indicated what was to come. Our friend warned us that under no circumstances were we to take a certain bridge, which likely was on the verge of collapse. Was that the one we had just driven over? Too late, it was time to abandon our car and continue on foot. Somebody had ploughed the main access road, though any subsidiary roads were literally gone. 

Warped road railing and calm river. Photo ©

Like everybody else in town we had seen online videos about the destruction around Ronda, yet these could not prepare us for the real thing - the post-disaster wasteland.

The family’s home, which is surrounded by two rivers and a creek, had been attacked from all sides. Just like the rivers had gobbled up new land, the water had also piled up huge sandbanks that had never been there before.

Passing a lonesome shoe likely brought from another home up river, we saw the top of our friends’ car sticking out of the mud. The rest was buried, symbolically, as that vehicle will never drive again. At the front of the property was also a huge pile of rubble - mattresses, beds, broken furniture and warped doors –to be taken to a dumpsite once the road have been unearthed again.

For the landfill. Photo ©

When it came to he home itself, WW1-type trenches were dug around the outer wall perimeters to create access. I could detect the vague layout of the former manicured gardens by the top of the stone fences, which like the crowns of a couple of buried trees were protruding from the mud. A faded pink flamenco dress was hanging to dry over the old well. Scattered about or all embedded in the mounds of dirt were material victims of the flood - unrecognizable clothing, a plastic mixing spoon, a broken drawer, a single hiking boot, underwear on the loose, blackened bedding and a crumpled canvas that once might have been a work of art.

Home and buried car. Photo ©

Neighbours and friends had already been at the site and done the grunt work, so we were set to dig out a bathtub where we later hosed down the family’s treasured and now mud-encrusted carpets. Others helpers were scraping grime off floors or carrying more damaged furniture to the ever-growing rubble pile.

Yet, it wasn’t until I got into the home that I realized the extent of the destruction.

The mud guard. Photo ©

Wherever you are, look around the room. Imagine a murky stream suddenly bashing in through the door. The water rises far too quickly for you to do anything. What should you rescue, if you even can recall where anything is with the drama at hand? What do you bring when you have only seconds to decide?

Windowsill interior. Photo ©

Imagine the water now also starting flowing in through the windows. In a matter of an instant, everything below your chest-level is under water. Your books, furniture, carpets, photo albums, electronics, trinkets from travels, inherited treasures, your passport, diaries and all your important papers. Absolutely everything that is not sitting in your Cloud... Hopefully before this point, you and any other residents will have had the wherewithal to escape, only being able to bring what you can grab before running for your life. If you are lucky, you will be able to drive off before the last escape route is also flooded.  Otherwise, you must head for higher grounds and pray that the storm will stop soon.

Looking out at 'garden'. Photo ©

We went back today to help scrub down whatever furniture that had survived. Divine intervention or not, there was a welcome reprieve from the dark skies, and even a spot of sun. The home-owners were seemingly calm throughout. I wondered if it was the shock of it all. Or maybe it was the fact that once you have experienced such calamities, nothing will face you?Ghostly photo booth image after flood treatment. Photo ©


Walking through the post disaster site, I was once again reminded of how insignificant and flighty material things are. There are times when the concept of less is truly more. At least it is clear as day that the more we have, the more we have to loose. For all the material possessions we clutter our lives and homes with and for all the things we yearn to buy and wish to own in the future, in the end it is only stuff, which can float away with the next tidal wave.

It doesn’t bode well for our communal future, as floods and other disasters will be more frequent in times to come. So, on this All Saints Day I can only hope that some of these heavenly creatures will send a bit of mercy our way…

Ruffles, post flood. Photo ©

Like 2        Published at 19:41   Comments (3)

Spam post or Abuse? Please let us know

This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse you are agreeing to our use of cookies. More information here. x