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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 November night we moved to a small town an hour inland from Malaga. 'Our Andalusian 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.

The new Scandinavian eco cuisine – a conversation with chef Fredrik Anderson at Finca La Donaira
26 November 2020

Fredrik Andersson, chef at La Donaira

Historically speaking Scandinavians have not been known as the world’s most exciting gourmands. “But this has changed in the last couple of decades,” explains Fredrik Andersson, chef at Finca La Donaira, which is outside the village of El Gastor in Andalucía. Fredrik is part of the new gastronomic wave that favours simple dishes using only the very best organic ingredients. I travelled to La Donaira to talk with this down-to-earth cook who doesn’t like to call himself a master chef.
 

Fredrik Andersson (43) is originally from Stockholm, though he has lived outside of his birth country most of his adult life. During his diverse life, he has worked as a chef in several different countries, ran a biodynamic farm in France, and owned the restaurant Mistral in Stockholm. He was introduced to the owner of La Donaira, who persuaded him to become their chef. After 2.5 years at the boutique hotel, he cannot imagine a better place to work.
 

La Donaira open kitchen. Photo © Karethe Linaae.


And why should he? Vogue Spain called Finca La Donaira one of Spain’s most charming hotels. But it is much more than rural charm – a luxurious boutique-type hotel with nine exclusive and unique rooms, a 1700 hectares nature-focused property with its own organic farm.
 

La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae.

 

In addition to 82 thoroughbred Lusitano horses that can be ridden on the premises, it is also home to flocks of sheep, goats, rare cattle, hens, bees and wild birds, in addition to a couple of friendly mutts that always seem to be hanging around close to the kitchen. The farm is run in line with Rudolf Steiner’s biodynamic principles and produces about 95% of all that is consumed in-house, both by humans and animals. Last year this included 5.488 kg olives (462 litre extra virgin olive oil), 528 kg almonds, over 2000 kg Petit Verdot and Blaufränkisch wine grapes, and an astonishing 236 kg of their precious medicinal honey.


 

Bee hive. Photo © Karethe Linaae.

 

When did you decide to become a cook and how were you trained?

“I have always been interested in food. As an adult I have come to realize that my earliest childhood memories all seem to centre around food and meals. I knew that I wanted to be a cook before I became a teenager. However, I didn’t go to cooking school. When I was 18 years old and fed up of sitting in a classroom, I wrote to a dozen restaurants in Stockholm asking if I could work for them for free. The places weren’t exactly Fine Dining establishments, but they were restaurants that I thought were exciting and had cooks that I wanted to learn from. One of them said “Sure, come on over”, so I started and was later employed by them. Since that time, I went on and worked in other places. So you could say that I learned the trade the old way, as an apprentice”.



Fredrik at work. Photo © Karethe Linaae.

 

Who was your first real teacher?

“She was a chef called Karin Fransson, known for her Haut Cuisine at Borgholm Hotel on Öland, whom I worked with in my early twenties. What particularly touched me was how her food reflected her persona. She showed me that food could be much more than just about quality. Of course, the quality should be the highest possible, but she could put her personality into anything she cooked, which for me was a great experience”.
 

Do you have any other role models in the restaurant industry?

“Very many! There are a lot of incredibly clever people who work with food and who influence the development of our gastronomy. Two grand chefs in my books are Michel Bras and Alain Passard from France, who might be seen as the foundation of the natural cooking that we try to achieve here at La Donaira. I am also very fascinated by the Catalan cook Ferran Adrià from the restaurant Bulli”.
 

 

 

Dried herbs. Photo © Karethe Linaae


 

When can one call oneself a Master Chef? And what do you think of the Master Chefs on TV?

“First of all... one should probably never call oneself a master of anything. Personally, I think there are many fantastic cooks around, but very few are actual Master Chefs. To be that, you must have defined your very own style of cooking and developed a gastronomy wave that others follow. Therefore, one ought to be very careful before calling oneself a Master Chef. You have to be a culinary artist and someone that breaks boarders. There also has to be a noticeable before and after, gastronomically speaking, for a real Master Chef, like there was with René Redzepi at the restaurant Noma in Copenhagen. People in our trade do not consider all TV Master Chefs as such. There are a lot of decent and educative food programs now and of course creating interest for home-made food is a good thing, but there is a far divide between the real craft and pure entertainment.”
 

 

Food-art a la Fredrik. Photo © Karethe Linaae.
 

At La Donaira you make organic and biodynamic food.  Why? And has this always been your passion?

“Indeed. It has always been my lifestyle when it comes to food. I started working exclusively organic about 15 years ago, but I didn’t physically reside where the things were grown. Here at La Donaira we work with a complete cycle. We follow the entire process and have a personal relationship with the produce as well as those tending to the crops and animals. The union with nature is strengthened and the possibilities are therefore completely unique.

 

Organic bounty. Photo © Karethe Linaae.

Only a small percentage of our produce gets brought in from the outside. The only thing that doesn’t come from our farm, other than coffee, is fish and seafood. We pick up a bit of foie gras from a small producer in Extremadura, and some other types of wine than those we make ourselves.  Otherwise, all our vegetables, fruit, grains and meat are produced or raised right here. We sow the seeds from which we make the flour that we bake into our own bread. It is a continual process, like with our development of rare animal breeds. (Note: All the animals are free-roaming and organic, in addition to being local and are also often rare or threatened species.) Product development is just as big a part of the job as preparing the food. The quality potential is optimal. Here everything is brought in straight from the garden. There is no transportation. Everything is fresh – up to the minute fresh.  Such a system could not be reproduced if everything was to be brought in from the outside”.

 

Vegetable garden, La Dehesa Biodinámica. Photo © Karethe Linaae.
 

What influences you as a cook and how would you describe your own style of cooking?

“More than my own style, I believe we are trying to find something that is unique to here – what can we physically produce with as natural and pure tastes as possible? The natural experience of being at La Donaira should be matched by the food we serve. Since La Donaira is located in Andalucía we base ourselves on Spanish cooking. All the same, we are an international setup. The kitchen-staff alone come from Austria, Spain, UK, Belgian Congo and Sweden.

 

International kitchen staff. Photo © Karethe Linaae.

 

About half of the 77 people who work here come from El Gastor. The local population appreciate and understand the value of the hotel to their community, as the employment opportunities in the village are very limited. Everything we do is a communal effort so that everybody can learn to appreciate the whole process. We strive to find the balance between the international and the unique things that this place has to offer locally. The most important thing for us is that it is a healthy and natural experience, and that our guests find that the food they are served at La Donaira cannot be eaten anywhere else”.


Table is set. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Scandinavians aren’t traditionally known as being gastronomes. How has this changed in recent years?

“There has been a mind-blowing development. Speaking on behalf of Sweden that I know best, the food quality has changed radically. The gastronomic elite in Scandinavia is definitively/undoubtedly world class. When the trend began to alter towards very high quality gastronomy some 20 years back, it took a while before this dribbled down from gourmet restaurants to simpler restaurants and later to food stores and finally to the individual consumer. I haven’t been home to Sweden for a few years, but what I experienced prior to moving was an enormous shift in everyday consumption, as well as access to better quality products/produce, and organic and locally grown food.

 

Yellow Society Garlic. Photo © Karethe Linaae.

In Stockholm the farmers market has become a very established system. Several of my friends earn good salaries from producing and selling directly to consumers. Now during the Corona pandemic, the service has been converted to pick-up. The demand for local, healthy food is enormous – if they can supply 300 clients, their demand is from 3000. Education and interest in food has had a very positive impact generally. People care more, eat better and spend more on healthier food. This development has led to even more organic and locally grown food being produced to meet growing demand. Scandinavia has really taken the baton and led international developments here. So even though our food here at La Donaira is not accessible to all, there is an international movement that tries to support healthy local food. If anything, this might be the one positive thing coming out of this pandemic. People feel the need to take a step in the right direction, food and health-wise”.
 

 

La Donaira organic cold-pressed olive oil. Photo © Karethe Linaae.
 


What is your favourite dish?

“I am not sure if I have a personal favourite, but I have many vivid food memories particularly about my late grandmother who made fantastic food. Her meatballs are something I will always remember. And I love really well made bread. The bread culture is also something that has developed since I started making food. The interest for quality bread has truly returned. My mum grew up on a humble farm in Dalsland in western Sweden and my parents wanted to distance themselves from the poor conditions by going in the opposite direction. Their generation wanted everything to be quick and easy. Everything should be pre-packed. Now as they are growing old, they have gone back to their roots and can recognize the value of what they had in the past”.
 

Fredrik with La Donaira’s very own bread. Photo © Karethe Linaae.

 

How has La Donaira been affected by the Corona pandemic? Before the pandemic most of your guests were foreign. Who are your guests now?

“It has been a difficult time for everybody, but for us it has also been a great surprise. We never thought that Spaniards would become our guest base, but after the first lockdown, that is what happened. The response has been unbelievable. It is really quite exciting. People seek nature and come to us from all over Spain. But of course, we welcome any guests with open arms”.

How is it to be working in the Garden of Eden?

“You are right, that’s how it is! I thoroughly enjoy all aspects of working here and cannot imagine a better working environment. It is a fantastic place with endless possibilities”.

For more information: Finca La Donaira

 

 

Sunset dining. Photo © Karethe Linaae.



Like 2        Published at 16:18   Comments (1)


A jolly pedal along the Spanish Via Verdes
16 November 2020

Biking over viaduct. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Las Vías Verdes is a network of Greenways that spreads all across the Iberian Peninsula. Since 1993 more than 3000 km of Spain’s abandoned train lines have been converted into these bicycle and pedestrian routes, as part of the European Greenway system. They can be used free of charge by cyclists, walkers, wheelchair users and horseback riders. My husband and I set out to try one of the 120 Spanish greenways.

Andalucía offers many exciting activities, but if you are looking for something suitable for the whole family, try a bike ride along one of the territory’s abandoned train lines. Due to the railway’s standard width, wide-angle turns and limited gradient, the route meanders in a leisurely manner across the undulating landscape without steep ascents or descents. The Vías are user-friendly and it is practically impossible to get lost. The signage is impeccable and includes the distance to the next station, traffic signs when you cross an occasional farm road, and signs pointing out upcoming sights. We also pass warning signs for the legendary Spanish Toros Bravos, but these imposing animals are thankfully behind fences.

 

 

Toros Bravos are not a joking matter. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Visitors can also find water, toilets and places to eat at some of the former stations along the way, as well as information panels, picnic areas and observation platforms. The goal of the Vías Verdes is to improve the range of non-motorized tourism, promote nature knowledge and healthier life styles, and contribute to district development and local employment.

Map of Vía Verde de la Sierra. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

 

Bike rental with full service

We have chosen the Vía Verde de la Sierra between Olvera and Puerto de Serrano in the province of Cádiz. On a sunny fall day, we drive to Olvera’s old train station to pick up our rental bikes. While the country’s shortest Vías are only a couple of kilometres long, the longest are well over 100 km and include overnight lodgings options. Our route is a perfect compromise at 36.5 km or a 73 km round trip. It is part of the southern Camino de Santiago de la Plata, and is said to be one of the prettiest and most awarded greenways in all of Europe.

 

Europe’s loveliest greenway? Vía Verde de la Sierra. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

According to its website, the bike rental office is open from 09.00 until 18.00. One obviously has to take this with a pinch of Spanish salt, as not a soul is around when we arrive. While waiting, we decide to grab a coffee at the station cafe, where they just have started bringing out the first tables. No rush, we have the day before us. 

The young man who serves us says that the station never actually opened as such, or trains ever used the line. The construction of the railway that was to connect the villages between Jerez de la Frontera and Almargen began in the 1920s, but the economic depression and the subsequent Spanish Civil War stopped the project before it opened - until now.

 

The old train station in Olvera never opened as such. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

A couple of minutes later the fellow who rents the bikes is ready for business. The company has everything from terrain and tandem bikes, to bike seats and trailers for kids, and even a pedal powered 4-seater rickshaw. In addition, they also provide electrical bikes, but we feel that is a bit like cheating, particularly as in the morning we are still fresh and energetic. We have reserved a couple of terrain bikes online, that we get adjusted to our size. The bikes have decent disc brakes and disc gear and seem perfectly all right, except perhaps that the seat is a tad too hard for my behind. The renter assures us that we are in safe hands. If any problems should occur, we can call a number and they will come rushing with a spare tire or whatever might be needed. In a worst-case scenario, if we cannot handle biking any longer, they will probably even give us a ride back. He shows us a map of the route, highlighting that most bikers turn around half way, since the entire route takes well over 3.5 hours one way and much longer to return. As the route inclines slightly towards Puerto de Serrano, we will have more hills to climb on the way back, he explains, unfortunately to partially deaf ears.

The hour is nearly 10 by the time we set off, which means we have 8 hours before we have to return the bikes. Piffle, 73 km, of course we can manage that, I think. And this would not have been a problem had we been seasoned bikers, but the fact was that we had not sat on a bicycle since we left Canada almost 8 years ago…

 

Us. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

On two wheels in La Sierra

“Ohhhh, how fabulous it is to be on a bike again!” I call out as soon as we set off. Everything goes smoothly and the road seems great. The first couple of kilometres are even paved, but after that it is primarily gravel and sand. We pedal along, me with a perma-grin from ear to ear, past a rolling landscape of farmer’s fields and olive groves, and I insist that we stop to take photos every few hundred yards. We arrive at the first of many tunnels and its perfect opera house echo prompts me to sing out loud. This is going like a dream!

 

Andalusian landscape. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

After about 5 km, we zoom by the first abandoned station, waving to someone resting in the shade of the ruined building. The road leads on into a Mediterranean forest with gnarly oaks, tall poplars, pink oleander and wild olive trees.  There are relatively few people on the road today. Most of the ones we meet are older Spanish men who judging by their appearance must have partaken in many national bike races in their younger days. Since this is the day before a long weekend, we also meet a few families with children, and even an entire primary school class with their teacher.

 

 

Teacher with class from Coripe. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

At about the 16 km point, our surroundings change again, this time to barren rock. We are approaching the nature reserve by Zaframagón. The station here is now used as an information centre for the local vulture colony and there is also a feeding station nearby. As exciting as this sounds, we decide to move on and catch it on the way back.

 

Perfect cliff formations for vultures. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Otherwise there are no lack of sights en route, and we cross four spectacular viaducts. These are bridges composed of arches that would have taken railways across valleys and riverbeds, with inclines which would otherwise have been too steep for locomotives to navigate.

In the following section, we bike through some of the route’s most impressive tunnels before arriving at the station near the village of Coripe. This is clearly the central hub of this Vía. People from nearby villages park their cars here and wander or bike a shorter route before enjoying a longer lunch at the station restaurant. It is almost crowded, so it is probably wise to avoid long weekends or puentes in Spanish.

 

Martina (4) and Pablo (7) taking a break at Coripe train station. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Coripe is also the turnaround point for most of the cyclists who come from Olvera. Only the pros, the unknowing and those like us, the particularly stubborn, bike the whole way. But we have come this far, what is another 14.5 km? We take another slug from our water bottles and jump onto the bikes again.

 

Beautiful, mystical, dark tunnels

The most memorable and unique feature of the Vía Verde de la Sierra, at least for me, are the tunnels. This particular route has 30 of them – everything from elongated bridges to mountain passes that extend for more than a kilometre, where I get to test the echo with a selection of Edith Piaf and mock operas. The tunnels are also beautiful aesthetically speaking, with a classic 1920s hand chiselled look and archways that are repeated at regular intervals. Since no train has chugged through them, the walls aren’t covered in soot either. In addition, they are nice and cool on a sweltering day.

 

Shorter tunnel without lighting. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The first tunnels we go through are short enough for the daylight to more or less shine through. Later we come to longer tunnels, with are illuminated automatically as you enter, some fuelled by solar power, others by regular electricity. It is a tough adjustment on the eyes to come from the bright daylight into a relatively dark tunnel, lit or not. Luckily my sunglasses have a string around my neck so I can pop them off without having to get off the bike. My husband, who uses glasses, wishes he had one of those sunglass attachments that you can just flip up and down. Otherwise, contact lenses would probably be complicated, especially if the tunnels have a lot of dust in the air. And rest assured, this will happen.

In spite of the roads being closed off to vehicular traffic, you will always meet a couple of maintenance vehicles or a pickup from a nearby farm during a day on the Vía Verdes. Speaking from my own experience, this is guaranteed to happen when you are inside a tunnel. The good news is that you can see the car’s headlights from far away, and that vehicles according to the signs are only supposed to drive at a max 10 km/h. Since we do not know if the driver has indulged in an Anís or two for breakfast, we still stop and glue ourselves to the tunnel wall while waiting for the car to pass and the cloud of dust to dissipate.

 

The contrast between the dark tunnels and the strong daylight is hard on the eyes. Photo © Karethe Linaae


It can however, get quite dark in between the lights in the tunnels. Light bulbs don’t last forever and not all are changed as soon as they expire. Neither Jaime nor myself thought about checking for lights and reflectors before leaving the station, something we now realize would have been a wise move. The road surface inside the tunnels is uneven at best. Some have a strip of asphalt, which may end at any point without warning. These can actually be more challenging than a gravel road, as you cannot always see the edge of the many potholes.

 

The longest tunnel is over 1 km. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

After a couple of precarious, half-blind tunnel crossings, I recall that I have a head lantern at the bottom of my pack. I fasten it around my upper arm, holding it in such a manner that the dancing beam occasionally hits the ground. It is not flood lighting, but at least it helps us see the largest holes before we hit them. And in such a way we manage to get safely through tunnel after tunnel.
 

Only lunch guests

Following the river Guadalete. Photo © Karethe Linaae


The road continues along the beautiful riverbeds of the Guadalete and Guadalporcún and continues into rural farming districts with sheep and cattle, where we meet a couple of local gents who are enjoying the road on horseback.

 

Vía Verde on horseback. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Since the last tunnel is closed, we have to take a detour and are relieved when we roll in at the end station. It is just past one o’clock, so it has taken us just over three hours, in spite of my endless photo stops. We peak around the station building, which is supposed to be a restaurant, but see no other diners. A man comes outside and confirms that they are open. Could they bring a table outside and serve us some lunch, we ask, and even if the place seems rather abandoned, the dishes are brought out on the double. We enjoy a tasty meal including an entire grilled octopus leg, beautiful tapas dishes of baked eggplant and venison stew, plus a couple of bowls of their local olives, cured by the owner’s mother. The entire meal including beverages comes to just over 20 €. How can you beat that! I would have loved to bring back a large glass jar of the home-cured olives, but with the ride back in mind, I manage to restrain myself. For the same reason we do not order wine with the meal and decide to enjoy a dessert later en route.

 

Lunch break at Estación de Puerto Serrano, first and foremost water. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

 

Uphill return


By the time the meal is done and paid for, it is two o’clock. Have we already been here an hour? We only have four hours left now before the bike rental closes. Perhaps this is why we were recommended to turn back after half way? I remember the golden mountain rule from my youth in the Norwegian woods: There is no shame in turning around!  We don’t recognize the truth in this saying until we plop our sore behinds back on the bicycle seats and start pedalling. Ouch!

All those jolly little hills that I sang myself down on the way here, we now have to bike up. Thankfully, the road surface is as mentioned fairy flat, but even the gravel feels heavier to pedal through now in the afternoon. The Andalucian heat is also something one always should be aware of, even on a late fall day. When we took off it was a comfortable 13 degrees, but now the temperature has gradually crept up to close to 28 degrees in the sun. We begin to long for the balmy tunnels.

 

Greenway in golden fall can still be hot. Photo © Karethe Linaae

I have always been the first to preach about how important it is to bring enough water on nature excursions. Usually we bring a couple of litres each, plus a bottle of Aquarius with electrolytes as extra provision. This time we only brought our small water bottles, partly because we had read that one could buy water at several places along the way. Think again! Here we are far away from stores and restaurants with only measly mouthfulls of lukewarm water between us.

 

On the way back I long to do like Ferdinand the bull and lay down in the shade of an olive tree. Photo © Karethe Linaae

One ought to take certain precautions on the Vía Verde, as with any other Andalucian nature trip. Sufficient liquids are vital. Always bring more water than you believe you will need. You cannot plan to buy it on the way, as one never knows what one will encounter, and when and if places are open when they are supposed to be. Likewise, sun protection is a MUST all year – sunglasses, sunscreen and sunhat, unless you are wearing a bike helmet, which I would whole-heartedly recommend. If you use your own bike, remember your repair kit and make sure you have proper lights on your bike and even an extra flashlight.

  
 

Sheep, sheepdogs, but where is the shepherd?


The locals are mostly four-legged. Photo © Karethe Linaae

After a while we get back into the rhythm of it and the kilometres fly by. We zoom through another tunnel and are back at the riverbed. There is a flock of sheep on the hillside. I am just about to stop and snap a picture, but get wary when I notice that some of the moving dots have rather long snouts. Then I hear the first barks. At this point I should add that I have an irrational fear of ownerless dogs off leash, ever since a German Shepherd attacked my stroller when I was a baby. Our local shepherd’s loyal sheepdog take care of over 100 sheep without uttering as much as a tiny woof, but these beasts are quite different.

As we get closer (there is no other way but forward…) I discover that there are more of them than I originally thought. I count four, eight, no, at least twelve big hounds, looking like crosses between all the scary guard dogs I have ever met. Some growl and one starts running after me, as if he can smell my fear. “Jaime!”, I squeak while wobbling on the cycle, the beast hot on my heels. “They aren’t dangerous. Just go on”, he calls out. Easy for him to say, as he is behind me… The mongrel is only interested in snapping at my foot, regardless of how much my husband whistles and yells. The tunnel ahead doesn’t seem to get any closer. Where is the darn shepherd?

I have more or less come to terms with sacrificing my left foot, but am not as keen on inheriting the rabies that I in my overdeveloped imagination seem to detect frothing at the mouth of the snarling beast.

“Just step on it, we will soon be in the tunnel,” encourages Jaime. I weaver along towards the opening with a palpitating heart, while the angry hound hisses at my front tire. Jaime uses all his canine discipline tricks to no avail, while the shepherd is likely to be found at the closest bar. If I just had a pepper spray, I think, not that I can stop and get it out of my backpack anyhow. Just as I am about to give up all hope, another dog comes to my rescue. When the nasty mongrel tries to bite my leg off, the other dog jumps in and tries to pull the snarling dog away. Phew! Finally, we enter the safe darkness of the tunnel. Thank goodness, I didn’t become lunch for a pack of mad dogs today, after all…

 

Thankfully not me after all... Photo © Karethe Linaae


The drama is over, but we still have 25 km left to ride. My hands are aching after having been clamped onto the handlebars, but they are nothing compared to my butt. Even if one never forgets how to ride a bicycle, the gluteal muscles will. As I can no longer manage to sit without being in total agony, I stand and pedal for the remaining kilometres, while occasionally resting my extended lateral rump on the seat when I can just cruise along.

Don’t misunderstand me. It is a stunning bike route, just that after 60 km with a ball breaking seat, direct sunlight and limited water, I begin to think like Ferdinand the bull, and look for a nice olive tree where we can lay down and take a long siesta. Or call the bike rental agency. That is just a thought of course, because upon my life, we will not give up. We pass the nature reserve with the vultures again that, not unexpectedly, is now closed. No water for sale either and the next station is a ruin.

 

 

Water anyone?  Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Just half a dozen tunnels and a few more hills and we will be there. We see the old fort over the village of Pruna, and at long last roll in at the Olvera station. It is now 5 pm, so we made it in record time, certainly for us who haven’t ridden for nearly a decade. We return the bikes, ready to collapse in a chair at the station restaurant and order copious amounts of liquids and food to follow. But that is not possible. They close at 17.00. After a bit of friendly negotiating, they reluctantly agree to let us have a couple of bottles of water and sit at the last remaining table that they still have not stored away.

Happily home, a couple of days later we again manage to sit on our tender rears and only remember the jolly part of the ride on the Vías Verdes.

For more information: Via Verdes

Andalusian family in rented rickshaw. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 



Like 4        Published at 17:38   Comments (6)


Autumn 2020 – Seize the possibilities within the limitations
05 November 2020

Leaf. Photo © Karethe Linaae

We live in strange and uncertain times. There are days when I prefer not to watch the news, as whole countries go back into lockdown, economies plunge, the USA segregates into Republicans and Democrats, and record numbers of CoVid cases are counted.

Another lockdown? Photo © Karethe Linaae

It is easy to get a bit down by it all, but since nothing else can be done, let’s try to spin the negatives into new positives. Every prohibition defines some kinds of permission.

If you cannot touch the flowers, you can still smell them. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Instead of focusing on all the restrictions that we are living under, why not seek the possibilities within these limitations?

Tight squeeze. Tree in El Gastor that certainly is seeing the possibilities, not the limitations. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Compared to the seven weeks this spring when we couldn’t leave our homes and were limited to walking rounds on the terrace or trailing between the living room and the kitchen, we have considerably more freedom now.

At the edge. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Of course we have to wear masks, but at least we can go outside. So let’s be grateful for what we have and what we actually can do, and enjoy that we can prance around semi-freely, even if it only is in our own neighbourhood.

 

Into the sunset. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

If you live in a town that is closed off, use this as an opportunity to explore your local surroundings. My husband and I often enjoy being tourists in our own town. We search for streets, alleys, and paths that we have never walked before.


Street peak. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

There is always something new to discover, even if you just go in the opposite direction on the same old street.

 

Fall wall. Photo © Karethe Linaae

When we see things from a new angle, a whole new world can open up before us.

Wall with different eyes. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Every season brings changes, which are also visible in the cityscapes.

 

Quintuplets. Photo © Karethe Linaae

With November comes darker nights, but also golden undertones and surprising patches of green.

Moss in November. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Both in Scandinavia and North America where I used to live, this was a month we generally dreaded and wanted to get over with as soon as possible. It was dark, cold, wet and miserable. Most of all, it was colourless. In Andalucía, it seems that the colour spectrum of the seasons is reversed.

 

Water droplets. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Summer usually arrives by May, when the landscape begins to dry out about the same time as the first spring buds open in the north. Similarly, when all gets grey and dark in the Northern hemisphere, life comes back to the Spanish south. After 6 months of practically no rain, the first November showers transform the Andalucian plains into a sea of iridescent green.

Green fields. Photo © Karethe Linaae

The fall is generally a dramatic time of the year. It is therefore, a perfect time to explore nature, with all it’s range of emotions and disguises.

Leaves. Photo © Karethe Linaae

And when the wind warnings and sheets of rain keep you inside, light a fire, make a cup of tea, read a book, or go on an inward voyage to places where the only restriction is your imagination.

 

The walled city of Cáceres. Photo © Karethe Linaae



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A classic high – a hot air balloon flight over Ronda
10 October 2020

Flying above Ronda

Ever since I read Jules Verne’s book ‘Around the World in 80 Days’ in my youth, I have wanted to fly in a hot air balloon. What could be more timeless and irresistible than floating wherever the wind takes you? Since we moved to Ronda in southern Spain, I have often seen balloons over the town and one day I asked myself “What am I waiting for?” With the current world situation, none of us knows what the future will bring. If we want to do something and it is possible, legal and not too immoral, we absolutely ought to go for it. Or throw our caution to the wind, as was my case. The decision was taken – I was going up in a hot air balloon at the first opportunity.

Balloon over Ronda roof. Photo © Karethe Linaae

I contacted two Andalucían companies that fly hot air balloons and immediately heard back from Glovento from Granada, who would take me next time the conditions were suitable and they had space in their basket.   

The following week brought gale force winds, but then the seemingly eternal summer returned and the date was set.

 

Pre-sunrise take off

The rig on a trailer. Photo © Karethe Linaae

I show up at Ronda’s Féria ground with the other 5 passengers at 7.30 on a Saturday morning. The pilot, Santiago Vale Correa and his helper Juan are already there with the rig on a trailer. It is still dark as they evaluate where the take-off should take place. Juan lets a regular helium party balloon into the air and Santiago follows it with eagle eyes, conscious of its every move. Since this type of flying is completely weather dependent, it is essential to be able to read the different wind currents and predict how they will evolve.

 

25 meter long balloon. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Santiago decides that we will take off from a farm field a bit south of town. It is dawn by the time the 25-meter-long balloon is extended, shackled to the basket with ropes and cables, and inflated by a fan and a couple of large propane burners. They are required because even our relatively small balloon contains a staggering 150.000 cubic feet (4245 cubic meters) of hot air. But that is also all that is needed – hot air!


Filling up the balloon. Foto © Karethe Linaae

 

The principle, apparently called Archimedes, describes how the balloon’s buoyancy is determined by the difference in the air temperature inside and outside the fabric membrane. When the temperature rises inside the balloon, the air density becomes lower than the colder air outside the balloon, which makes it rise. The balloon mouth does not need to be enclosed, as hot air always goes up. The maximum legal operating temperature for the balloon is 120°C, which is considerably lower than the melting temperature of nylon and other modern synthetic balloon materials, which is around 230°C.

 

Inside the balloon. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The concept is so simple that even I can understand the science behind it, which I cannot say when I am seated in a Jumbo Jet. While the flames that shoot out seem to make some of my co-passengers nervous, I am even more excited about the forthcoming ride.

 

A classic

Classic basket. Photo © Karethe Linaae

It dawns on me that this type of air vessel hasn’t changed much in the past couple of centuries. The classic knitted rattan basked is still preferred to other more modern materials, as the basket needs to be light and strong, yet flexible for landings. Both the top frame of the basket that we will hang over and the footholds made to ease the climb into the basket, are made of leather. It is truly beautiful and in my eyes could go straight into the latest travel collection of Louis Vuitton.

 

Leather foot holds in basket. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The balloon itself hasn’t changed much either. The traditional inverted teardrop shape is still the most common. Standard balloons like ours are called Montgolfier after its inventors and is dependent on hot air, while solar-balloons use black fabric to attract the heat of the sun. The largest producer of hot air balloons is still the UK, but they are receiving strong competition from Spain. The company Ultramagic has become one of the world’s biggest balloon producers, ever since the three young Catalonian entrepreneurs who started it made their own balloon to follow Jules Verne’s flight over Africa in 1978.

 

Ultramagic balloons from Catalonia. Photo © Karethe Linaae

The fabric of the balloon is divided into 4 to 24 panels, sewn together with structural fabric tape that can take the weight of the basket. Originally the fabric was cotton, but nowadays, synthetic alternatives such as nylon or Dacron are used. The top lid of the balloon has vents that can let out hot air to slow down an ascent or start a descent. The balloons also have a couple of side vents that are used for basket rotations. While the cotton could rip on the first flight, today’s balloons last between 400-600 hours before they are retired, depending on air temperature, height and the weight it carries. The balloons are inspected annually or every 100 hours, depending on which comes first. The smallest balloon, the solo CloudHopper, is only 600 cubic metres, while the biggest hot air balloons can take up to 32 passengers. I prefer our own comfy globo.     

Classic inverted teardrop balloon shape. Photo © Jaime de la Barrera

 

The art of flying a balloon

Gorgeous flame. Photo © Karethe Linaae


After the hot air has brought the balloon into a vertical position, we are ready to board. I notice that the husband of one of the passengers who is standing back on the ground crosses himself. We rise so smoothly that it is almost undetectable, and suddenly the ground crew are the size of ants. Inside the basket a silent awe prevails. I stand beside Santiago so I can interview him during the ride.  I start by asking why he became a balloon pilot. “It was the balloon that found me” he jests. He had always enjoyed doing extreme sports. One day he met a balloon and it was love at first flight. Now he has been a professional pilot for over 20 years.   


Take-off. Photo © Jaime de la Barrera

 

By the way, it is not as easy as it might appear to steer one of these contraptions. Like any other pilot of air travel, balloon pilots have to be specially qualified. For their specific type of vessel there are schools in Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona, and Andalucía now has some 15 authorized balloon pilots. Even if you have the necessary certification, you cannot take passengers with you or work professionally until you have flown 100 registered hours.

 

My fellow passengers. Photo © Karethe Linaae



Santiago tells us that hot air balloons are restricted to flying up to 300 meters over Ronda. Otherwise, I have read that they can fly to extremely high altitudes (the world record is 21.027 meters) and for very long distances. When Per Lindstrand and Virgin Record’s Richard Branson flew from Japan to Northern Canada in 1991, they had constructed the biggest balloon of all time, 30 times bigger than a regular balloon and higher than the Statue of Liberty. Even though Jules Verne’s book from 1873 was a piece of fiction, the world record was broken in 1999 when Bernard Piccard and Brian Jones flew uninterrupted around the world in a mere 20 days!

 

The vertical steering mechanism. Photo © Karethe Linaae

The pilot can make all the difference on a flight, as we get to observe. A balloon from another company flies at the same time as us, taking off just a little further north. Immediately, their balloon starts drifting away from the town. The pilot tries to change course, but the balloon rises and rises and the journey’s goal gets more and more distant. “We can decide where we take off from, but we never know exactly where we will land. Everything depends on the wind” explains Santiago.

 

Santiago, our pilot. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

As such, balloons are completely unique flying vessels. They can only be steered vertically. The only way that they will move horizontally is with the wind. Pilots don’t want too much wind, but not to be completely without wind either, because that will take them nowhere but up. The best flying conditions according to Santiago are early in the morning when the wind conditions are more stable. Otherwise, his ideal conditions are when there are many different layers of air, each with its own wind direction. Hence, flying a balloon is a complicated matter, but an experienced pilot will always try to find a puff of wind that will take the balloon in the desired direction. 

 

What a view. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Thankfully, Santiago is such a captain. He is as cool as can be and performs every adjustment with the finesse of a surgeon. Other than when he opens the propane burners, the flight is comfortingly quiet. Since balloons move at the speed of the wind (they are the only flying vessels that do this), we do not feel the wind up here either. We fly over a farm and the dogs start barking. Santiago explains that he avoids using the propane burners, as the noise terrifies the hens. In a best-case scenario, they won’t lay eggs for a week. In a worst-case scenario, the shock will kill them. As nobody wants to have a mass death of chickens on our conscience, we wholeheartedly agree with him.

 

Balloon flying towards Ronda. Photo © Jaime de la Barrera

 

 

The world’s best view

 

We follow our own shadow. Photo © Karethe Linaae

While we drift towards Ronda, a motorized paraglider circles around us.


Different flying vessels. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

We follow our own shadow as we float over Ronda’s Roman bridge, Arab baths and further into the historical part of town.

 

Balloon over Casa del Rey Moro. Photo © Karethe Linaae

We hover over the world famous Puente Nuevo Bridge. Directly underneath us lies the Tajo gorge, with classical Spanish buildings literally hanging over the edge. This is probably what some would call a million-dollar view but to me it is priceless. As soon as you are up in the air, you are hooked. You simply cannot help but fall in love with this peaceful and most unique way of experiencing the world from above. It is like the flight brings out our most innocent and almost childlike joy.

 

Ronda’s Puente Nuevo bridge. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Santiago leans over and calls out “Hola” to some people down on the bridge. They are already photographing and filming us, as seeing the balloon from below is pretty cool as well. In his 20 years of flying he hasn’t had a single complaint or passenger with a panic attack, he says. While people often will shake their fists at the noisy motorized paragliders, they smile and wave at our balloon.

 

Ronda’s Tajo gorge from above. Photo © Karethe Linaae

The balloon is brought up to 200-meter altitude. The streets and houses look like Lego pieces. Even at this height one notices that the horizon curves, though I assume that those who thought the world was flat never got this high?


Ronda from 200 meters. Photo © Karethe

 

Once upon a time there was a balloon

 

People have always wanted to fly. It is said that the forerunner to the hot air balloon was flying signalling lanterns, which the Chinese army used from about 200 AD onwards. Leonardo da Vinci wrote about and sketched more than 500 ideas for propellers, wings, helicopters and flying balloons. His Codex from 1505 AD was the start of modern aeronautics, though it would take almost another 300 years before humans managed to ascend from the earth’s surface and approach the clouds.


Classic balloon. Photo © Jaime de la Barrera

The French brothers Joseph and Étienne Montgolfier started experimenting with balloon air flights in 1782. They discovered that a fabric would billow by putting burning wool and straw underneath it. When the Royal French Science Academy heard about their experiments, these were repeated in front of King Louis XVI in Versailles in 1783. The balloon was over 18 metres tall and 13 metres wide and weighed a whooping 400 kilos, partly because it had giant gilded royal emblems painted onto the balloon. The first passengers were a sheep, a duck and a rooster that were tied to the basket. Under deafening applause, as well as probably some bleating, quacking and cockadoodledoo-ing, the balloon raised 600 metres into the air before it ripped and landed in a forest 3.5 km from the castle about eight minutes later. After this, the king insisted that they use convicted felons for the first balloon flight with humans. However, the nobles Jean-Francois Pilatre de Rozier and the Marquis François d’Arlandes pleaded for the honour. This happened on 15 October 1783 (exactly 237 years to the day of the release of this article). The first female pilot, appointed by both Napoleon and later Louis XVIII, was called Sophie Blanchard. Not only did she pilot hot air balloons, but she also specialized in sending up fireworks from the basket right above Paris. Combining an enormous hydrogen-filled cotton balloon with pyrotechnics, one can just imagine how that ended…

 

An unforgettable flight

View south. Photo © Karethe Linaae

For Santiago there is no doubt –safety always comes first. “If there are any doubts at all about the weather, we wont go up. We would rather cancel many times, than risk an uncomfortable flight” confides our pilot. Otherwise the precautions are clear. You can only fly between sunrise and sunset, with a minimum visibility of 3 km and max winds of 10 knots. The balloon has to be equipped with various instruments to measure height, wind, speed, and temperatures, in addition to a GPS and radio to contact the ground crew. As far as passengers are concerned, it is recommended that they are in good health and wear comfortable clothing suitable for the prevailing weather conditions. The balloon companies are insured and these days they must also follow the CoVid protocols of the local health authorities. Glovento is associated with the Spanish Agencia Estatal de Seguridad Aerea and the European Aviation Safety Agency. So everything is in the best of order.

A hand on the ‘wheel’. Photo © Karethe Linaae

We land as we took off, on a field right outside Ronda and barely feel the little bump as we hit the ground.  It has been an unforgettable experience. So when you plan your next trip to Ronda, make sure to book a flight, as nothing can top a hot air balloon ride over la ciudad soñada, the city of dreams.

The trip includes safety preparations, a 60-90 minute flight plus breakfast, and lasts a total of 3-4 hours.
Group flight: 200€ per person (with 6, 8 or 12 people)
Private flight: 900€
 

Ballon over the dream city Ronda. Photo © Karethe Linaae



Like 4        Published at 16:44   Comments (2)


A dozen + 1 reasons to spend a weekend in romantic Ronda
31 July 2020

Ronda sunset. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Ronda with its world famous bridge and to-die-for views should be on everyone’s bucket list. This Andalucian mountain pueblo simply lives and breathes history, having been ruled by Celts, Romans, Visigoths, Moors and Catholic Kings. In the 18th Century, the infamous bandoleros and other law-breakers practically ran the town. It was also the birthplace of modern bullfighting, and later in the 1950s and 60s a favourite hangout of Ernest Hemingway and Orson Wells. Not surprising Ronda is so romantic!

 

Plaza de María Auxiliadora.  Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The town is a perfect place to wander about picturesque streets and sit on a park bench in the shade of a pink Oleander, taking in the views while listening to a trickling fountain or someone playing classic Spanish guitar. However, to fully enjoy la cuidad soñada (the dream city), you must spend at least a night.

Here are a dozen + one reasons why: 

 

  1. Wake up on the edge

Corner room terrace at Parador de Ronda. Photo © Karethe Linaae


There is nothing quite like it - waking up and looking out your window and seeing this view. The Tajo gorge literally cuts Ronda in two, with the Casco Histórico on one side, and the newer town on the other. Created by the eroding waters of the river Guadalevín, with a drop of 100 - 160 meters straight down, those with vertigo might ask for an interior room.

 

Room with a killer view. Hotel Parador de Ronda. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

While the hotels on the Tajo edge are not the most reasonable accommodation in town, they are certainly worth the extra splurge. For a room with a killer view, try a night at the classic Parador de Ronda hotel.

Cost: 150-250 € per night
 

 

 

  1. Take a morning stroll across the bottom of the sea
     

Valley below, Ronda above. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The valley beneath Ronda was once the bottom of the ocean, hence the many seashell encrustations in the surrounding vertical cliffs. The fertile ground has been used for olive and wine farming since the Romans were here 2000 years ago. Ask the tourist office for directions and start your morning walk in the San Francisco or La Dehesa neighbourhoods.

Either way, stop for breakfast at the Albergue los Molinos, which in addition to a stunning view of the town from below, makes its own bread in a traditional outdoor wood oven.

 

Albergue Molinos del Tajo. Photo © Karethe. Linaae


Walk duration: 1.5 - 2 hours
Cost: Free (breakfast not included)

 

 

  1. Step deep down into history in Ronda’s secret Mina de Agua
     

The great hall of La Mina de Agua. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Most visitors forgo this pleasure, but to literally submerge yourself in Ronda’s dramatic past, there is nothing like stepping down some 60 vertical meters into la Mina de Agua. The 700 hundred-year-old ingenious construction was dug into a natural fissure in the Tajo wall. The mine supplied water to the independent Moorish Kingdom Izn-Rand Onda (City of the Caste) during several Christian sieges. You can still descend the steps where slaves carried water up to the city above. Hidden gaps in the shaft provide magical natural illumination, making the mine interior appears like a subterranean cathedral. Enter the hall where a waterwheel once proved the superiority of Medieval Islamic hydraulic engineering and peak through the door where a Moorish traitor let in the first Catholic troops, making the mine the doorway for Ronda’s Reconquista in 1485.

Ticket: 7€
Calories consumed: 300+
 


 

  1. Light a candle by the Virgin of Tears
     

Santa María la Mayor church. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

These days we can all need to light a candle, and no place is better for this than la Iglesia Santa María la Mayor across from Ronda’s town hall. In its lofty interior you can be assured to find peace and quiet and a blessedly cool environment on a hot summer day. Once Ronda’s main mosque, the church is allegedly standing on the ruins of a Roman temple to the goddess Diana. Do not miss a trip up to the rooftop with its magnificent views.

 

Roof walk, Santa María la Mayor. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

In contrast to many other churches, one can still light a real candle and place it in one of the church’ many beautiful candelabras. However, if you really want your prayers heard, leave it in front of the Virgin of Tears, the main statue brought out for the annual Easter processions.

Entrance: 4.50 €
Candle donation: 1 €

 

 

  1. Immerse yourself in an Arab bath - then and now
     

Magic light in Ronda’s ancient Arab baths. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Even for those who do not enjoy museums, Ronda’s Arab baths – Baños Árabes de Ronda - is worth a visit. On the winding walk down from the centre, you will pass some of the town’s other landmarks, the Carlos V gate and El Puente Viejo (the old bridge). The baths, dating back to the 13th Century, are the best preserved in the entire Iberian Peninsula. When you see the magical light therein, you can almost imagine how it was back in the day.

After seeing the historical baños, stop by Ronda’s present day bathhouse Hammam Aguas de Ronda next door, for some very reasonable pampering. Constructed in an old mill (which can be seen on maps of Ronda from the 1500s) the modern and clean facilities takes full advantage of the beauty of the old edifice.

 

Aguas de Ronda Hammam and spa. Photo © Aguas de Ronda


Museum 3.50 €
Hammam with massage 33€

 

 

  1. Eat lunch with El Loco (the crazy one…)
     

De Locos Tapas by the San Francisco neighbourhood. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

There are tapas and then there are great tapas. In Andalucía unfortunately, the former are more common. However, De Locos Tapas just inside the Almocabar gate at the edge of Ronda’s historic quarter, is a rare exception.    
Their spectacular and unique tapas are due to el loco himself, the Basque owner Guillermo (William), and his wife Begoña. With excellent reviews, personal service, vintage tunes and only a handful tables, you need to book ahead. Try their Quails Nest, Thai Prawns or Ceviche, and make sure to keep room for dessert!

 

Tapas. Photo © De Locos Tapas

3-5 € per tapa
 

 

 

  1. Enter the bullring that Hemingway made famous
     

Plaza de Toros. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Though bullfighting isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, Ronda would not be the same without this historical edifice with its glamorous past. Inaugurated in 1785, Ronda’s Plaza de Toros is one of the oldest and certainly most beautiful in Spain, in addition to being the world’s oldest arena specifically made for equestrian displays and bullfights. The site houses one of Europe's most prestigious riding schools - the Real Maestranza de Caballería de Ronda, dating back to 1571 (two years after the founding of the Vienna Spanish Riding School). Ronda’s Plaza de Toros is where the legendary Romero family started modern bullfighting in the 18th Century. Frequented by Spanish royalty and movie stars, it was also favoured by Orson Wells and Ernest Hemingway.

 

Plaza de Toros de Ronda. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Museum entrance including stables, Tauromachy Museum and Royal Harness Collection: 8 €


 

 

  1. Taste wine in a former convent garden
     

Wine tasting in the monastic garden at Descalzos Viejos vineyard. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Ronda has an inordinate amount of small boutique style wineries, many of which are organic. Almost all can be visited, just be sure to make an appointment in advance (sometimes requiring a minimum of 6 visitors). It is hard to pick a favourite as so many are excellent. The one thing that makes Descalzos Viejos winery stand out is its location. Situated in an abandoned monastery with an open vista towards Ronda, I cannot imagine a lovelier place as a backdrop for a wine tasting than the barefoot brothers’ ancient cloister garden.

Standard visit and tastings: 30 € + tax p.p.
Duration: 2.5 hour tour
Private tasting tour (1- 5 people) with owner: 150 € + tax


 

 

  1. Pit-stop at Los Arcos
     

Tabanco Los Arcos. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

If you need something to hold you until dinner – a tentenpie as the Spanish call it - join the rondeños at Tabanco Los Arcos. This wine bar just off the Puente Nuevo bridge is said to be Ronda’s best. Pisqui and his friendly and speedy team serve regional Spanish wine and tasty titbits in what must be Ronda’s narrowest wedge of a building.

 

Ronda’s narrowest building – on the edge. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Try to get a table near the window, or at least peak out at the abyss below. Ask for their Chicharrón de Cádiz and the wild mushroom paté. Once you are seated in the lively atmosphere, you might not want to leave... 

Tapas 1.5 – 2.5 €

 

 

 

  1.  Enjoy a sundowner on the roof of Hotel Catalonia 
     

 View from Hotel Catalonia rooftop bar. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

This is a MUST when you are in Ronda. Hotel Catalonia, located across from the bullring, has Ronda’s most amazing rooftop bar. The hotel offers modern 4-star accommodation, a great restaurant and a skyline pool – all very lovely. However, the best part is their rooftop bar. Nowhere else in town will you get this birds eye view of the Plaza de Toros and the backdrop of the Serranía de Ronda mountains. The optimal time to visit it is just before the sun is setting when the last rays bathes the town in golden light.

Drinks 3 - 5 €
View: Priceless
 

 

 

  1. Dine with a Michelin star chef
     

Michelin star gourmet chef Benito Gómez. Photo © Tragatá

 

Ronda is perhaps not best known for fine dining, but the Barcelona born and trained chef Benito Gómez changed this with the establishment of his two-Michelin-star restaurant Bardal. Voted the best restaurant in the province of Málaga in 2017, it was described by Conde Nast Traveller as “Without doubt the best excuse travelling south to the evermore romantic Ronda.”

 

Michelin Taster’s Choice Tragatá restaurant in Ronda. Photo © Tragatá.

 

While the celebrated restaurant is closed until 2021 due to CoVid, travellers can still enjoy Benito’s Haute Cuisine in his more informal dining establishment – Tragatá. Located a minute’s walk from Ronda’s Puente Nuevo and his other restaurant, this Michelin traveller’s choice restaurant offers a gastronomic journey with the best products to be found in the Serranía de Ronda.

Tapas 3 -12 € / Main dishes 15 - 30 €
 

 

 

  1. Sleep a la Philippe Starck
     

Cortijo LA Organic Boutique Hotel. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Ronda’s LA Organic Oleoturism Experience offers far more than designer olive oils. In addition to touring the beautifully landscaped farm with design features by the world famous French designer Philippe Starck and tasting the premium organic oils in the restaurant, you can also book a night in their rural boutique hotel, merely minutes outside Ronda. This classic Andalucian Cortijo has a bespoke modernistic interior, designed by the Starck Studio. Reserve one of the 4 delux rooms or suites, or why not rent the entire cortijo for a selected party.     

 

Living Room designed by Starck Studio. Photo © Karethe Linaae 

Delux room - 120-180 € for 2 per night
Suite – 140 – 210 €
Entire cortijo (4 bedrooms) 620 – 930 € per night
 

 

 

+ 1. Start out the day high  - Balloon flight over Ronda
 

Balloon flight over the city of dreams. Photo © Glovento Sur S.L.

 

Nothing can top a flight in an air balloon when it comes to taking in the city of dreams. Balloon pilot and owner of Granada based company Glovento Sur, Miguel Juliá Garrido offers a safe and unforgettable experience. Depending on the balloon size, the flights can take 6, 8 or 12 people. Starting at daybreak in the outskirts of Ronda, the trip includes safety preparations, a one-hour flight and breakfast. Total duration: 3 - 4 hours. The company has Civil Responsibility insurance and follows the CoVid protocol of the Spanish Ministry of Health. Glovento is associated with the Agencia Estatal de Seguridad Aerea and is part of the European Aviation Safety Agency.

 

Walk, eat or fly your way through the Ciudad soñada (city of dreams). Photo © Karethe Linaae

Group flight: 200€ per person (in groups of 6, 8 or 12)
Private flight: 900€
 

 

If you need more reasons, check out Tourism Ronda. Otherwise, what are you waiting for?

Fiesta for two at El Parador de Ronda. Photo © Karethe Linaae



Like 1        Published at 15:17   Comments (4)


Tinto de Verano and other Spanish thirst-quenchers
09 July 2020

Sangría. Photo © Karethe Linaae


If the last time you had Sangria you drank three carafes by yourself and ended up on the floor of a Benidorm bar, I can understand why the mere mention of the word turns your stomach. However, Tinto de Verano, Sangría and other Spanish summer drinks can be quite refreshing. And they are just as easy to make at home as to order in a restaurant.


Tinto de verano (summer red wine)


Tinto de verano. Photo © Karethe Linaae

This simple and delightful summer drink is more popular than sangría amongst the locals. The recipe is simply red wine (vino tinto) served over ice and topped up (ca 50/50) with sparkling sweetened soda water. If you ask your waiter for a tinto de verano con Casera, you will be given a traditional Sprite-type gaseosa, whereas tinto de verano con limón will give you red wine with sparkling lemon soda. If you make it at home and prefer it less sweet, try mixing 1/3 red wine, 1/3 lemonade and 1/3 sparkling water. Some also like to add a dash of vermouth or a squeeze of fresh lemon juice. Either way, it is a cheap and cheery drink, and an excellent way of putting leftover opened wine to good use.


Sangría 
 

Sangría. Photo © Karethe Linaae

The secret to making sangría is a generous supply of over-ripened fruit. Peaches, pears, apricots, plums, berries and even bananas are great. Traditionally the drink is made in a large ceramic bowl, but according to the size of the drinking party, any generous salad or punch bowl will do (min 3 litres).

Start by pouring in a bottle of red wine. No point in splurging on expensive wine for the occasion, so we usually buy a litre bottle of cheap tempranillo at our corner store. Next, peel and chop some fruit, the juicier the better. Wedge oranges and lemons, leaving the peel on and adding some fresh juice if you have oranges to spare. Spaniards generally add a cup or two of sugar, but it is not absolutely necessary. Finally, add about a litre of lemon soda and/or sparkling water. For festive occasions, or to get more ‘kick’, add a splash of brandy, Triple Sec or vodka. Serve with ice in tall glasses, and make sure not to wear your finest whites!
 

Sangria tub. Time for a bath. Photo © Karethe Linaae

As a variation, you can also make Sangría Blanca, where you replace the red with white wine or cava. Don’t ask for too many refills, as it slides down very easily…

 

Rebujito
 

Rebujito. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

Similar to the world-renown mojito, the rebujito is typical to Andalucía, especially during férias and other summer celebrations. As with all local recipes, the content varies depending on the maker and where it is made.

The most common recipe mixes two parts sherry (usually a dry Fino or the slightly more floral Manzanilla) and one part sparkling soda. Pour a bottle of the above into a large glass jar, already filled with ice cubes and lots of fresh Hierbabuena (good herb). If you cannot find this fragrant member of the mint family, people say that spearmint is its closest relative. Personally, I would rather use lemon balm as a replacement. Our Spanish friends also stir in copious amounts of brown sugar. You can use soda water instead of sweetened soda. It is all a matter of taste. Serve the rebujito over ice with a couple of slices of lime and a fresh sprig of hierbabuena.

 

Cerveza
 

Cerveza & Clara con limón 1 . Photo © Karethe Linaae

As far as Spain’s beloved cerveza is concerned, other than drinking the beer straight, the Spanish also serve their version of a Shandy. You can order una clara (beer with Casera soda) or clara con limón, which is beer with a splash of sparkling lemonade. Both are too sweet for my palate, so I usually drink a sin, meaning beer without alcohol, not very sinful at all…

 

Agua?


Andalu' friends enjoying Tinto de verano. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

It might sound a bit odd to mix wine or beer with sparkling sodas, so why do they do it? It is certainly not because they want to save on alcohol, which often costs less here in Spain than bottled water. The only explanation I can think of for this summer drink tradition is that people need more liquid in the heat and most aren’t big water drinkers. Spain’s social drinking culture has adapted to the climate, so we can enjoy a cooling drink or two, while still keeping our heads clear.

NB. All the above-mentioned drinks can of course be made without alcohol.
 

 

Sangría-sunset, Ronda. Photo© Karethe Linaae



Like 3        Published at 15:34   Comments (3)


La Donaira – pure luxury, pure nature and pure conscience
01 July 2020

Infinity view at La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Most world-class luxury retreats will pamper you and cater to your every whim, but can a couple of nights away from the hustle and bustle of life truly change you?

If any weekend getaway can be transformative, it is Andalucia’s Finca La Donaira.

 

Shadow play. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Described as an exclusive eco-escape, La Donaira is situated on 1700-acres in the spectacular mountain region of la Serranía de Ronda. The land was purchased by the current owner in 2002 and developed into a world-class equestrian estate. In addition to 81 thoroughbred Lusitano horses, it is now home to 300 sheep, 200 hens, 32 goats, 61 rare or endangered cattle, as well as a few resident pooches and a plethora of wild birds.

 

Lusitano horses free to roam. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

In 2005, 700 hectares of the land was cultivated following the biodynamic principles of Rudolf Steiner. Today, La Dehesa Biodinámica produces 95% of what is consumed on the estate - by humans and animals. Last year this included 5.488 kilos of olives (making 462 litres of extra virgin olive oil), 528 kilos of almonds, over 2000 kilos of grapes of the Petit Verdot and Blaufränkish varieties and 236kg of medicinal honey.

 

Lemons at entrance to medicinal garden. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Leave your car, and your worries, behind

 

La Donaira boutique-style hotel, which opened its doors in 2015, was voted one of Spain’s most charming hotels by Vogue Spain in 2018. At 850 metres over sea level, this mountain oasis will give you a chance to reconnect with nature and be reminded what it is like to be truly alive.

 

Sunset seating. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Even before you get there you feel that this will be no ordinary stay. Hotel guests are asked to leave their cars in the nearby village of El Gastor and get chauffeured the remaining way to the property. This is probably a good thing, as the jaw-dropping views are such that one could easily let go of the steering wheel.

 

La Dehesa Biodinámica farm. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

On arrival, La Donaira’s press director María is waiting to give us a tour, while our luggage is taken to the room. “This is not a normal hotel,” she explains. “We want our guests to feel as if they are at home. We are like a family. There are no room keys and everybody eats at the same table.”

 

Boots anyone? Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Does this sound too flower child-like to you? Well, it is far from it. The hundred-year-old white washed cortijo has been transformed into a rural chic state of the art luxury facility with seven distinct guest quarters, as well as two 50-m2 yurts for those who prefer glamping in the quasi-wild.

 

Early days, pre renovation. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

La Donaira today. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The bespoke designed main house is furnished with a mixture of French farm antiques, original art and a few retro-modern touches to give the ambiance just a bit of funk.

 

Laura suite, La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Each room also has its unique characteristics, such as our airy split-level suite where the natural rock grows out of the floor and the snow-white canopy bed mattress is covered in lambskin, to assure an extra deep sleep.

 

Hard to get out of bed... La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Some suites have generous bathtubs designed by William Holland, showers and taps are custom designed, while the natural soaps, shampoos and lotions are made in-house.


Custom sink, La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Throughout the estate there are homemade bees wax candles burning and vases with fresh cut flowers, so every corner whiffs of sweet, vibrant life!

 

Today’s flowers. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

 

From Steinways to Stallions

Such a natural sanctuary might inspire you to find a quiet bench to meditate on the state of the soul.

 

Stone on stone. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

However, for the more active visitors there are no lack activities. In the morning, you can do sun salutations on the yoga platform with only the sierra as your audience. You can also try one of the many hiking trails, borrow a mountain bike, jump in the outdoor pool, take a trail ride, wander around the medicinal garden, or pick your own free-range eggs for breakfast.

 

River rock walk. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

In the afternoon, you can take a lesson in natural horsemanship with Seamus the resident ‘horse whisperer’. Having been with the horses since birth and understanding their natural instincts and forms of communication, he is able to train them without causing stress or fear. Lusitanos are the oldest known saddle horses in the world, a species that La Donaira aims to preserve and evolve through natural breeding. Known to be noble, strong, intelligent and sensitive, they are well suited for dressage and ideal partners for horse therapy.

 

Lusitano. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

“This is peace,” says German-born Gloria, as she stops by a field of pregnant mares on our way to visit the generous vegetable garden. She is responsible for La Dehesa Biodinámica, a permaculture project that includes soil revival, land cultivation and ecological animal husbandry. Based on sustainability and innovation, they aim to re-educate about holistic farming practices. On the recently introduced Family Sundays, children and adults will be able to see for themselves what happens with the soil and our food when a farm is treated as a functional ecosystem.

 

Organic vegetable garden. La Dehesa Biodinámica. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Gloria tells us that almost everything we eat at Le Donaira is picked here only minutes before being served. As if on cue, the chef comes speeding down the hill in an electric golf-cart to pick his last additions for lunch.

 

Bee beds or horse-back yoga?

This unique sanctuary offers all the amenities of a high-end luxury resort, and much more.

 

Pool with a view. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

For those who need help unwinding, there is yoga on horseback, otherwise known as grounding. This is an exercise in strength, balance and trust done on the back of a stallion named Dante. Paula from Poland, La Donaira’s wellness responsible, starts by letting you pet and talk to the horse, finally walking it to an enclosed riding circle. Once you are mounted, you are prompted to do simple stretching exercises while the horse is led around in circles. With her calming voice and gracious ways, Paula helps you slow your breathing and relax into the natural rhythm of this powerful animal. And I thought I was afraid of horses…

 

Grounding with Paula. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Another not-to-be-missed activity is meditating on a Bed of Bees. (I mean who can resist such a name!) Concerned about the current bee situation, the estate began natural beekeeping, focusing on the genetic improvement of the bees, strengthening their immune system. There are currently 30 hives, in trees, old trunks and in the regular wooden box units. Three of the latter are put together to create the so-called bee bed, which I soon am to lay on.

 

Trying out Bed of Bees, as seen through beekeeper outfit. La Donaira. Photo © Jaime de la Barrera

 

Dressed in full beekeeper suits, Paula and I approach the hives to observe these hard-working insects. Then, entering carefully from the back of the hives, I lie down on the wooden platform literally on top of the hives. When the lid closes above me (yes, there are breathing holes…), I feel as if I have entered a buzzing echo chamber. I am becoming one with these amazing little creatures that are so essential to life on earth.

 

Beehive in tree. La Dehesa Biodinámica. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

After all this action, you might yearn for some pampering. Perhaps a lavender manicure or a sweet almond oil massage in the secluded stone massage hut?

 

Walk up to massage hut. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Though full capacity at La Donaira is 22 guests, you never feel crowded. In fact, you will sometimes wonder where the other guests are, when you have the entire spa to yourself, swim in the spring-fed outdoor pool or the 21-meter indoor infinity pool, sweat in the log-heated sauna, detox in the hammam, or if you are a mad Scandinavian like myself, take a plunge in the ice pool!

 

Ice water dipping pool, La Dona ira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Indoor types will find a Steinway grand piano, guitars, a vinyl record collection, a home cinema and more books than you can possibly read during your stay. Surrounded by floor to ceiling windows with views to the Andalucian courtyard garden, just add a glass of La Donaira 2010 organic Syrah and you are in heaven on earth.  

 

Tinto for two. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

 

0 km field-to-fork experience

 

Lunch in the shade. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Our first lunch is taken at a long reclaimed wood table on the open terrace in the company of a family from Portugal. The vast majority of la Donaira’s guests are foreign and most are repeat costumers. A comment in the guest book reads “The experience exceeded our highest expectations, so much that we extended our stay by a night within an hour of arriving...”

 

Behind the Wisteria. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The kitchen is the heart of every home, including here. This is where guests can share meals and observe the cooks at work. Nicky from the UK will serve you breakfasts like you have never eaten before, with fresh juices and brews, hot out of the oven bread, organic honey, jams, butter, yoghurt, and fruit, all grown or made on site.

 

Nicky serves breakfast. La Dona ira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Whether you eat in the kitchen, the library or in the living room, as you might at home, the table is set with beautiful French linen, a sprig of rosemary, and antique silverware.

 

Table setting with antique French linen and silver. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The food is at La Donaira a chapter in itself. Both lunch and dinner include at least half a dozen dishes, arriving as succulent sculptures on the plate, topped by micro greens and edible flowers. Fabienne from the Belgian Congo serves each dish with a sense of pride, giving detailed descriptions of the taste symphony we are about to partake in. This all-organic zero-kilometre cuisine created by their Swedish master chef Fredrik and his capable team, always ends with a piece de resistance, a homemade dessert, such as a sorbet from almonds grown just down the hill.

 

Exquisite taste and superb presentation. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Until next time

 

After a leisurely dinner we lounge on huge leather couches awaiting nightfall, so we can go stargazing with David the astronomer. There is nobody at the grand piano tonight, since the owner is not on the premises and my grade-3 climpering simply won’t do…

 

Walking towards sunset. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Besides the eco retreat, La Donaira offers popular summer concerts, organic cooking and wine workshops and lectures on sustainable farming. Sharing knowledge is part of their all-encompassing philosophy. This is particularly apparent in the international volunteer program, where people from diverse backgrounds and interests contribute with their special skills and ideas, while leaving with new knowledge and awareness.

The staff is also a virtual United Nations, adding to the poly-culture of the mind that La Donaira is so passionate about. There is no apparent hierarchy and everybody is on first names.


Kitchen La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

When I ask María what they hope that the guests will get out of their stay, she answers without hesitation. “Respect! Respecting our environment and taking care of it. You have to be very cynical not to be affected by such a special place. We hope that La Donaira will inspire all who come here to a healthier, more sustainable way of life. ”


Looking out. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

On our last morning we hear that a new Lusitano foal has been born. 14 more are due later this spring, as the animals here are allies that help maintain the balance of nature. 

 

Finca La Donaira in the green. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

La Donaira has been a sensory journey like no other. Simply being here is therapeutic. As we bid out good-byes we realise that though we arrived as just another pair of visitors, we are leaving as friends. And what I can promise is that this is not goodbye, but Hasta Luego!

 

Hat collection. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

A shortened version of this article was published in this month's issue of Essential Magazine - July 2020

For more information, please go to Finca La Donaira


Saddle, La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae



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The joys of community gardening – far beyond fresh vegetables
05 June 2020

Lost in Lavender. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Whatever one thinks about getting down and dirty, gardening, like cooking and making art, is an activity that can spread joy. Granted not everybody who beholds a garden will be awestruck by its beauty and hypnotized by its scent, but there is something undeniably magical about observing life emerging from plain dirt!

Spring babies. Photo © Karethe Linaae

If you haven’t got a green patch, one way to get your hands in the ground is to join a community garden, or as the Spanish call it - un huerto urbano. A community garden is a plot of land, usually in an urban area, that is gardened collectively by a group of people. The land is divided into individual or shared plots where gardeners or hortelanos grow vegetables, fruit, herbs and decorative plants.

Huerto Leveque from above. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

A huerto urbano can be owned publicly, privately, be a non-profit association, or a combination of the above. The gardeners pay rent for their allotment and water use, which also covers maintenance of common areas.

Water deposit with frogs and carps. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Most community gardens strive to be organic and encourage planting what suits the zone and climate.

 

Impromptu greenhouse. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

Many also have social and educational mandates as added benefits to the local community.


Produce from huerto urbano. Photo © Patricia Montesinos Maestre


We always see a rise in edible gardens in times of economic crisis. The concept of public allotments began in the early industrial era, when city expansions led to a lack of urban green spaces. During the First and the Second World Wars, Poor Gardens as they were called, helped address the problem of food shortages.

 

Onions. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Communal gardens regained popularity during the latter part of the 20th Century, when nonconventional locations, such as abandoned train tracks or rooftops, were converted into public green spaces. The idea that urban populations can grow gardens and feed themselves has gained momentum as people recognize the financial, health and environmental burden of food importation.


Fresas. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Most rural Andalucian families have a piece of land where they grow olives and vegetables. Since urban populations normally do not have this opportunity, Andalusian cities have allocated space for community gardens. The oldest one is Miraflores outside Seville from 1991, which has 170 individual plots, as well as a waiting list of people eager to get their hands dirty.

Red and blue. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

I asked agro-ecologist and specialist for rural development Patricia Montesinos Maestre why huertos urbanos are so important:
“These types of gardens usually take advantage of urban land that is abandoned. Quite often they are located in what used to be a communal conflict area, such as a hangout for drug addicts or a place where people would dump garbage. By recuperating this land, we give it life and value and make it into something useful for local residents. Huertos are environments where people of very different walks of life can meet. It is also fantastic to be able to cultivate your own food. It is not the same to buy food at the supermarket as eating what you have grown yourself.“


We love community gardens. Photo © Patricia Montesinos Maestre
 

Patricia is a technician for the non-profit association Silvema, which established the first organic huerto urbano in Ronda in 2013.

“Our initial goal was to recuperate traditional varieties of edible plants, which are quickly diminishing. Unfortunately there are very few spaces in Spain dedicated to this type of work. We were in fact the first in Andalucía to do so. Our goal is to have huertos urbanos in every neighbourhood, which gradually can become autonomous.” 


Welcome to Huerto Leveque. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

Patricia also recuperates traditional plants through seed collection. Her company La Indiana Rural is part of the network of Andalusian seed banks, which again is part of a nation-wide network.


Patricia and the sun. Photo © Patricia Montesinos Maestre
 

“It is vital to help develop and strengthen the traditional grain and plant types at this moment in time. For a nominal fee, you can become a supporter of the Andalucian seed bank and receive seeds once or twice a year. Alternately, you can order traditional seeds from their catalogue, exchange seeds or even become a godparent for a traditional plant.”

 

From the plot of the huerto artist. Photo © Karethe Linaae

The benefits of community gardens go far beyond offering city dwellers partial food self-sufficiency. Through exchange of ideas, seeds, plants and advice, communal gardens encourage social interaction and intergenerational activities.

 

Hortelanas unite. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Some huertos collaborate with local schools, teaching students about composting, rainwater collection and organic agriculture. In addition, many huertos urbanos organize workshops, garden visits, seed exchanges, open garden days, lectures, nature walks etc. While most of its health-bringing properties are obvious, others are less apparent.

 

Huerto guard. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Huertos can give bees, frogs and other small creatures a refuge in an otherwise hostile urban environment.

 

Bees abound. Photo © Karethe Linaae


They promote biodiversity and respect for the earth. Gardening always involves a certain amount of experimentation and has endless room for creativity.
 

Creative touches. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Some people also find digging in the ground meditative.  

A little break. Photo © Karethe Linaae

The thirty plots in our community garden Huerto Leveque is tended to by families with young children, retirees, workers, unemployed, students, doctors, artists and politicians.  I decided to ask some of them why they are hortelanos. Retired Juan said he likes to do something productive with his time, Mari Carmen likes the exercise and José Antonio enjoys sitting in the shade of his quince tree watching the plants grow.

José Antonio under the quince. Photo © Karethe Linaae


The five families who share a large plot always have a beer cooler on the table, so for them the huerto is a party. Laura, the huerto’s newest addition, told me that her father died of the Corona virus in Ronda, so to her, the huerto is a way of healing and getting on with her life. For Laura and many others, community gardening can be a kind of therapy.  


Laura. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

Although I always have broken nails and scratched-up arms, I love our huerto. It is a green and peaceful refuge. I can quietly putter about in our little piece of Eden while listening to the birds tweeting and bees buzzing. Every year we have a lizard family in our rosemary bushes. Occasionally a snake will come out to sunbathe. We have ants, beetles, worms and butterflies. Every summer, our 9x10 meter plot gives us ample vegetables to eat and share with friends and neighbours. Of course it is work and the weeds always grow quicker and deeper than edible plants, but even weeds are part of the magic.


First visit after a stormy spring. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

As a foreigner in Spain, being part of a huerto urbano will give you a chance to meet people, learn new skills, become acquainted with local traditions, save the gym membership and improve your Spanish by the bucket load, while potentially becoming healthier and happier by eating your own organic crop.


Huerto bounty. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Want to find out more? Since most huertos urbanos are connected with the municipality, your best bet is to check in the local town hall or ayuntamiento. If this gets you nowhere, check online or better still, ask your older neighbours…

One of the many reincarnations of Gonzalo, our beloved scarecrow. Photo © Karethe Linaae



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57! Me? How did that happen?
15 May 2020

Vanity, be gone! Photo © Karethe Linaae

You know when you are young and regard everyone say over thirty as ‘ancient’? Then comes the day when you pass the 30-mark yourself and suddenly they don’t seem old anymore. The same happens as you become 40 and 50, and according to my mum who will be 90 this year, even at 80.

 

Still me... Photo © Karethe Linaae

I think the fact is that we, meaning that little person who lives inside our heads, never really change. We might advance in years, maybe become a bit more mature, possibly even a tad wiser, certainly more wrinkled, but the essence of ‘I’, at least in my case, has not really changed. Though my line of thought might be different, the echo of my inner voice still sounds as young and foolish as ever. I am still ‘just me’, even though I have always expected to wake up one day and be, if not somebody else, then something else - possibly what I believed a grown-up should be like. 

 

Playing artist. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Today I have lived for 57 years. Jesus! Fifty-seven!! That is closing up on 60. I am way beyond the half-life mark, and likely past the three quarter mark. Not that any of us know how long we will be around, but for those of us who are in our latter 50’s, we have to admit that we are talking a couple of decades. So one part of me calls out ”Wait a moment! I am running out of time.” Meanwhile the other me seems to be still sleep walking and wondering “Holy smokes, how did this happen? How did I ‘suddenly’ get so old!?!”

The old couple or the 'odd' couple. Photo © Karethe Linaae


It shouldn’t really be a surprise. I have had hot flashes and I presently own three pairs of glasses. My hair is loosing colour and my skin gets more creased by the day, but I still am surprised when I see a photo of myself. “Who is that? It cannot be me…”

Make no mistake. I am not ashamed of my age. I have never been. I feel healthier and happier now that in my earlier years. Having had Crohn’s Disease since I was a teenager, I never thought I would live this far anyhow. Besides, the great thing about getting older is that you really don’t give a damn what people think. I don’t care if I am fashionable, as long as I am fit.

 

Life explorer. Photo © Stein Myhrstad

I don’t care if I have access to the latest music and movies, as long as I enjoy what I hear and see. I don’t care if I have the most advanced technology, as long as I can get hold of those I love. I seem to become more and more like my parents and though I dreaded this fact before, I am now grateful for most of the genes that they passed on. If I still can climb mountains, who cares if my runners are old-ish. So am I…

 

As long as I have a foot on the mountain... Photo © Karethe Linaae

Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of giving away all my English teaching material to a university student who wants to follow that career. I will only be writing now. Besides, it is time to pass on baggage I do not need or use, to lighten my load for the last laps.

 

Friendly reminder. La Colegiata, Osuna. Photo © Karethe Linaae

I might be getting older, but you certainly won’t see me wearing purple. In fact, I don’t like purple and will probably continue to favour black, blue and Mexican pink instead, even if I reach 80.

 

In the blues. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Life at this stage is good. I do what I want. I write. I walk. I keep learning and live with my husband in what we consider paradise. What more should one desire?

Age is liberating - you worry less about being something, and more about just being.

Buddha on Mac. Photo © Karethe Linaae



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Spain's one kilometre of freedom
08 May 2020

Morning mood. Photo © Karethe Linaae

I cannot believe it. We are walking again!!! I mean real walks, outside in the open, step by bouncy step, arms moving like overeager pendulums, lungs drinking in much-needed change of air and starved eyes rejoicing at the open landscape.

 

Ronda as sun rises. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

After seven weeks of being confined to our homes while the rest of Europe got their daily dose of fresh air and exercise, it was finally our turn. On May 2nd, the people of Spain were at long last allowed outside in the country’s first step to ease the nationwide lockdown. We couldn’t be more ready. How our legs had longed to stride in the open! In spite of the confinement, I hoped I would still be able to hobble about our hood. I had certainly done my share of in-house walking, but rounds on a 2x2 meter terrace can hardly be defined as ejercicio…

 

1 km radius of freedom. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

 

New mobility rules
 

Long before the anticipated day, people began sharing WhatsApp messages with the official curfew laws, which changed daily, explaining what we would and wouldn’t be allowed to do. Prior to leaving our house, we therefore verified the last laws on public mobility in the myriad of confusing and at times conflicting information.

Our new movement radius was 1 km. Not very much, but if you have been enclosed for weeks, you are grateful for the opportunity to be outside in any way, shape or manner. In fact, one kilometre will seem almost infinite!


Downhill. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The detailed regulations continued – Spaniards could go out once a day for exercise, alone or in company of an individual with whom they cohabit. They were not allowed to displace themselves by car to get in shape again, but had to do it around their home. The assigned hours for adults were 6 am - 10 am and 8 pm to 11 pm. Elderly were given separate time slots, as were children accompanied by an adult. To add to the possible bewilderment, bikers, runners and dog walkers didn’t fall into any of these categories, having a different set of rules. This was how Spain would keep their party-loving population apart, which in principle should work as long as everybody kept their distance and followed the rules, which rarely happens…

 

Behind the gate. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

What about the social Andalusians?

 

“You think the rondeños will change? Que va! (As if!),” declares old Mari-KiKi sitting in her walker in her doorway looking out at the crowds heading down to Ronda’s Tajo. One would think there is a race on, as everybody who is a runner, and anyone who has ever thought about running but has never done it, is out and about.


Churro break for rondeña exercisers. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

For all the laws of social distancing, I agree with our neighbour. I don’t believe the crisis will change the Andalusians a great deal. Every day we observe locals hanging over fences and leaning out of second-storey windows yapping to interested and not interested parties. Some just talk to themselves, while others keep the radio on for the un-solicited listening pleasure of the entire neighbourhood. The more lonely people feel, the more they turn up the volume.

 

When the dog is singing "I'm so looooonely." Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

As soon as the rondeños go outside, they appear to gravitate together, as if pulled by an invisible magnet. Most choose to go out at peak hours, although it is quite possible to go when there are less people about. Few head for the lonesome hills, the majority preferring to walk where they are sure to run into others, be it for a much needed chat or to show off their brand new online-ordered jogging outfit. Every time the clock strikes nine, morning and evening, the streets of Ronda turn into a walking mall. Since we live in a small town, I can just imagine the packed beach promenades on the more densely populated Costa del Sol. Not that one can blame people for missing their friends, but I hope that the increased social proximity won’t jeopardise the earlier weeks we spent containing the dreaded virus.  

 

Lone walker. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Pre-sunrise walkers

Expecting that half of Ronda would be out walking at the crack of dawn, we put on an alarm for the first time since the crisis began. We are out the front door before seven, beating the sun, let alone any slumbering neighbours.
 

The barrio at dawn. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Since we live in the outskirts of town, we are lucky to have several country roads within our legally permitted radius. As the day is dawning we are already in the campo, surrounded by a plethora of wild flowers.

 

Towards the mountains. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Can it be my dull indoor vision, or are they more vibrant than other years? Perhaps they, like the stingrays in Dubai harbour and the wild goats in the streets of the Pueblos Blancos, have taken the opportunity to reclaim part of the planet while the humans have been stuck at home?

 

Poppies. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

I never thought a simple stroll could feel that good. I am gliding ecstatically along, hardly aware of my feet touching the ground. In fact, I am so mesmerized by the gloriousness of nature and the wonderful gift of semi-free movement that I startle when a jogger comes zooming by. So, there is at least one other person who has taken the opportunity to beat the crowds. We greet each other cautiously, keeping more than ample distance apart. I catch myself unconsciously leaning away from the runner, in case the poor guy should start hacking up a lung. He doesn’t.
 

 

Long-term changes

Abandoned streets. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

At this moment in time, I keep wondering how the virus will affect people’s psyche. Will we still peer at each other with suspicion when this is over, as if our fellow humans are carriers of unknown ills? Will we forever see Asian tourists as dangerous, even if we perhaps now should be more worried about contagions from the Wild West. Not that anybody can predict when Spain will have foreign tourists again.

 

A rare sight, an empty Puente Nuevo in Ronda. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Experts say it will be months before we might return to what we previously considered normal social interaction. What about the southern European kisses? Will we have to greet friends with the awkward leg-touches that were suggested at the beginning of the crisis? With summer coming and these body parts being more exposed, I imagine that even such balance-challenging alternatives will be seen as too risky.

 

Kids drawing in window. "For all the good people in the world!" Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Millions of Spaniards have been affected by sickness, death, loss of income or business closures due to the pandemic. For these reasons alone, permitting something as basic as exercise and fresh air, is not only essential for our health and sanity, but can also be balm for stressed souls. Who knows when our one kilometre will expand to two, ten or have no limit. For now, we ought to cherish every step of limited freedom, as we gradually shred our old knowledge about life, and prepare for new ways and realities to come.

 

Going home. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Returning to our barrio, the sun creeps over the horizon. Its low rays hit the tips of some outrageously bright May blooms. I feel as if I have entered a hyper reality. Is this is what they call a ‘natural high’ or have I perhaps overdone my basement yoga practice so my stroboscopic third eye has given me radioactive vision? 


Road seen through my third eye ... Photo © Karethe Linaae

 



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