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Our Andalucian paradise

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

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

Antique sewing machine as wall  decoration. Photo© snobb.net

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

Passing an old Mercería. Photo© snobb.net

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

Golden notions. Merceria  Madroñal. Photo© snobb.net

 

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

Window display. Photo© snobb.net

 

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

Ribbon. Merceria Madroñal. Photo © snobb.net

 

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

Trimmings. Photo© snobb.net

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

Mercería Silvia in Cordoba. Photo© snobb.net.

 

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

Zipper with doilies. Merceria Madroñal. Photo © snobb.net

 

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

Satin chord. Merceria Madroñal. Photo © snobb.net

 

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

Button measure. Photo© snobb.net

 

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

Buttons. Photo© snobb.net

 

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

Window display of haberdashery  in Cádiz. Photo© snobb.net

 

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

Mercería Silvia in Cordoba. Photo© snobb.net.

 

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

Aids. Mercería Madroñal. Photo© snobb.net

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

Zipper wall. Merceria Madroñal. Photo © snobb.net

 

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

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

 

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

Rondeña baby swaddled in precious linen. Photo© snobb.net

 

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

 Mercería Fernández Frías in Målaga. Photo © snobb.net

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

Baby a la Ronda Romántica. Photo © snobb.net

 

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

Virgin in Samana Santa parade. Photo © snobb.net

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

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

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

 

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

Zipper repair by Salvadora. Merceria Madroñal. Photo © snobb.net

 

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

Ribbons delight. Merceria Madroñal. Photo © snobb.net

 

***

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

 

 

 



Like 2        Published at 15:29   Comments (4)


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

Flower. Photo © snobb.net

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

Carthajima cemetary 2 Photo © snobb.net

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

Dust. Photo © snobb.net

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

Crypt in Osuna Photo © snobb.net

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

The old men in the plaza. Photo © snobb.net

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

Why nobody uses fresh flowers anymore. Photo © snobb.net

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

Detail, empty grave, Ronda. Photo © snobb.net

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

Tanatorio, Ronda Photo © snobb.net

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

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

Saint. Photo © snobb.net

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

Baby Jesus from convent in Osuna. Photo © snobb.net

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

Statue detail. Santa María Major, Ronda Photo © snobb.net

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

Doom and gloom. Photo © snobb.net

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

Face. Photo © snobb.net

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

Gilded virgen, Antequera. Photo © snobb.net

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

Book, Santa María Major, Ronda. Photo © snobb.net

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

Ronda cemetery. Photo © snobb.net

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

Just a number. Photo © snobb.net

Personal touch. Photo © snobb.net

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

Sombre statue. Photo © snobb.net

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

Confessional. Santa María Major, Ronda. Photo © snobb.net

 



Like 2        Published at 14:41   Comments (8)


Unfolding the story of Andalusian doornails
15 November 2018

Doorknocker, Casco Histórico. Photo © snobb.net

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

Doornails 16. Photo © snobb.net

Doornails 14. Photo © snobb.net

Doornails 7. Photo © snobb.net

Doornails 4. Photo © snobb.net

Doornails 1. Photo  © snobb.net

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

Doornails 2. Photo © snobb.net

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

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

Door with mudguard. Photo © snobb.net

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

Salvador in his workshop 2. Photo © snobb.net

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

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

Keyhole frame as art. Photo © snobb.net

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

Our doornails after me restoring them.. Photo © snobb.net

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

Door handle. Photo © snobb.net

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

Bird keyhole frame. Photo © snobb.net

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

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

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

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

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

Doornails 17. Photo © snobb.net

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

Door Casco Histórico. Photo © snobb.net

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

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

Doornail. Photo © snobb.net

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

Mssing doornail. Photo © snobb.net

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

Interior door panels from Cordoba

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

Doornails 10. Photo © snobb.net

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

Door from Ronda with mud guard. Photo © snobb.net

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

Door wicket and rare doornails from Cádiz. Photo © snobb.net

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

Spectacular door detail. Photo © snobb.net

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

Door knocker as sour little man. Photo © snobb.net

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

Key 1. Photo © snobb.net

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

Salvador's rough storage. Photo © snobb.net

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

Hardware detail. Photo © snobb.net

 

 



Like 3        Published at 21:43   Comments (6)


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

Home... Photo © snobb.net

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

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

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

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

Still-life post flood. Photo © snobb.net

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

Stove on the loose. Photo © snobb.net

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

Warped road railing and calm river. Photo © snobb.net

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

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

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

For the landfill. Photo © snobb.net

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

Home and buried car. Photo © snobb.net

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

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

The mud guard. Photo © snobb.net

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

Windowsill interior. Photo © snobb.net

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

Looking out at 'garden'. Photo © snobb.net

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

 

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

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

Ruffles, post flood. Photo © snobb.net



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When Ruby, the New York Teabag Artist, came to Ronda
19 October 2018

Artist Ruby Silvious in Ronda. Photo © snobb.net

Ronda in southern Spain has attracted artists of all kind throughout the centuries, such as Hemingway, Rilke, and Orson Wells. The town’s dramatic views are still an inspiration for painters, filmmakers, writers and of course social media gurus. To put it simply - Ronda is a very Instagram-able spot.

My husband and I have enjoyed visits from artist friends before, but I was nothing short of thrilled when I heard that Ruby was coming to town. Now, you might not know Ruby, and to be honest, I hadn’t met her either when she asked if I would be kind enough to show her our ‘city of dreams’. “But of course,” I said, not knowing how my ‘blind date’ with this talented mystery woman would unfold.

Ruby in Palacio Mondragon. Photo © snobb.net

 

A few years back, I was organizing Andalucía’s first recycled art competition here in Ronda. New York based artist Ruby Silvious saw my online ‘Call To Artists’ and contacted me about participating. I was thrilled of course, so she packed up some of her lovely hand-tinted lanterns made from used teabags and shipped them to Andalucía. After the exhibit in Ronda’s Palacio Santo Domingo, her art was donated to Ronda’s city hall, where we can only hope that the present local government still keep them on proud display.

Used teabag origami paper lanterns by Ruby Silvious for Ronda Limpia recycled art competition. Photo © snobb.net

 

Ruby and I have kept in contact ever since our first ‘meeting’. When I congratulated her on the launch of her beautiful coffee-table book 363 Days of Tea in 2016, she introduced me her publisher, Mascot Books. Now the same publisher is helping me issue my first novel later this year. It’s a small world indeed.
 

363 Days of Tea. Book of Ruby Silvious art. Photo © snobb.net

 

Most artists make their work on canvas or paper. Some choose less traditional art matters, such as Christo’s island wrapping or Jeff Koon’s behemoth dog made out of flowers. But art is certainly not all about volume. It can be any size, shape and any material the artist sees fit. So why not used teabags?
 

Miniature teabag book.  Art and photo © Ruby Silvious



The thing about tea is that it usually brings us memories. Even for myself, who come from a culture where tea is ingested without much ceremony, it still leaves a feeling of a ritual of sorts. Art echoes experiences and emotions we have had in the past, and depends on these memories for us to give it meaning. The culture of tea drinking, therefore, can be wonderful transportive medium to use in visual arts.  
 

 Abstract. Art and photo © Ruby Silvious



With her Asian family background, Ruby’s art perfectly reflects the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi, an aesthetics where beauty might be described as imperfect, impermanent and incomplete.

Nude. Art and photo © Ruby Silvious



Born in the Philippines before settling in New York, with Chinese, Japanese and Filipino ancestry, Ruby certainly has the cultural melting pot thing down right. Though she studied architecture and graphic design, she is a fine artist through and through. As a young girl, she learned the Japanese art of origami from her maternal great grandmother and was so good at copying her father’s calligraphy that her college commissioned her to make their graduation diplomas when she was only 12.
 

Origami bowls. Art and photo © Ruby Silvious



What puts Ruby’s art apart is the unique effect of the sepia coloured stains and the way that the paper of each teabag absorbs whatever colour medium added in seemingly unpredictable ways.

Fish from Japanese series. Art and photo © Ruby Silvious



Ruby’s themes vary from delicate botanics and bold abstracts, to travel motifs, fashion subjects, portraits and general scenes of life as seen by the artists. Every idea is shrunk into miniature format, then, meticulously and beautifully transported onto a used teabag.

Fashion. Art and photo © Ruby Silvious



Most of Ruby’s teabags get to keep their tail and tag. Though the bags might appear randomly paired up with the artwork, Ruby choses each teabag with outmost care. However, reused teabags aren’t her only medium. She also paints on natural elements, such as eggshells, acorns and pistachio nuts.

Egg shells and pistachio nuts. Art and photo © Ruby Silvious



Ruby’s openness to new mediums and innovative re-use always surprises. When she started using Starbucks crumb wrappers and paper bread bags to make bras for her Ori-BRA-mi series, the NY art community got to see found and recycled art brought to a whole new level!

Stylish bubblegum pink Starbucks crumb wrapper bra from OriBRAmi series. Art and photo © Ruby Silvious



But bras aside, back to Ruby’s visit to Ronda. What was it that particularly struck this artist about our little town?

 

 

A Room with a View

Ronda's Tajo. Photo © Ruby SiiviousTraveling from an artist-in-residence workshop near Barcelona, Ruby had booked a room in Hotel Don Miguel. The hotel is located immediately beside Ronda’s famous Puente Nuevo. In fact, it sits on the exact spot where the former police station used to be way back in the times when the chamber of the bridge’s central arch used to be a prison. With this as a background vista, Ruby certainly had a room with a view.

 

Ruby later told me she had taken a gazillion photos for reference”, since this was her initial impression of the town. On her first morning back in her Hudson Valley home in NY, she started sketching the view at 4 am. (What else is one to do when one has a jetlag?)
 

Puente Nuevo, Art and photograph © Ruby Silvious

 

The hidden alleys

Artist Ruby Silvious exploring Ronda's alleys. Photo © snobb.net

Ruby said that other places in Europe are delightfully charming, but admitted that "Ronda is hands-down enchanting!” She loved the patina and gritty beauty of the narrow streets our Andalusian town.

Here is her latest astonishing teabag!

Calle San Antonio de Padua, Ronda. Art and photo © Ruby Silvious

 

 

Tinto Break

 Red red wine. Art and photo © Ruby SilviousNeeding a break from wandering the streets, we stopped at a deli on a side street in Barrio San Francisco called Trinidad. Here, the locals in our ‘hood’ go here to buy their Iberian ham, local goat cheese, oil, nuts, anís licor etc. One can, of course, like we did, perch oneself on a spindly bar stool by a wine barrel table and have Miguel Ángel the owner open a bottle of local Chinchilla wine, instead. 

Jaime. Karethe and Ruby. Photo by Miguel Ángel, the bar owner

 

 

Life on the edge

The light for photography is always best at the bookend hours of the day.

Dried reeds. Art and photo © Ruby Silvious

We took Ruby on a morning walk along Ronda’s cliffed edge or Tajo. The dried straws and petrified flowers hanging on for bare life seemed to awe our visitor more than the more than 100 metre drop and the fertile valley below. Granted, Ruby is not very fond of chasms, so she probably preferred to focus on the closer details instead.

Dramatic view of Ronda's Tajo with dried reeds in the foreground. Photo © Ruby Silvious

 

Arches and tiles

At Palacio Mondragon, visitors can admire some of the Mozárabe architecture that makes Andalucía so unique. What struck our artist friend here were the open Arab style courtyards, the garden, and overgrown and moss covered terracotta roof tiles of the old palace turned museum.

In Palacio Mondragon. Photo © snobb.net

 

 

A Classic Andalucian home

The vast majority of tourists coming to Ronda will only see a bullring, a bridge and an ugly bus station. Going sightseeing with us ‘nearly-natives’, we ran into our friend Concha, who kindly invited us to come and see her beautifully restored, antique-filled home. A rare and special treat indeed!

Concha's kitchen. Photo © snobb.net

 

Sunset tea

On the last night of her brief Ronda stay, we suggested that we go to Hotel Victoria, where Rainer Maria Rilke wrote some of his famous works. Sipping a cup of thematically appropriate tea on the open terrace overlooking the sierra while watching the sunset, we couldn’t have had a nicer end to a day of exploring our own town with the eye of an artist.

Ruby photographing sunset over Tajo. Photo  ©snobb.net

 

Adios Ruby, or Hasta pronto. We will hopefully see you soon again in Ronda or in the Big Apple.

 

 

Ruby Silvious work has been exhibited in North America, Europe and Asia. She is presently preparing a solo exhibit in Chigasaki, Japan, including her full-size kimonos made of hundreds of recycled and carefully hand-tinted teabags. I am saving up to buy this one for our bedroom…

Teabag kimono. Art and photo © Ruby Silvious


For more information, go to www.rubysilvious.com

Teabag in the works. Art and photo © Ruby Silvious



Like 6        Published at 12:27   Comments (2)


Looking for a new Camino? Try village-to-village walking in Andalucía
04 October 2018

Camino approaching white village of Benadcaz. Photo © snobb.net

When people hear the word camino, most will think of the trail that crosses northern Spain ending in Santiago de Compostela. El Camino de Santiago (the Path of Saint James) has been a popular pilgrim trail for both faithful and repentant sinners since the 9th century, so much so that by the 12th century over two hundred thousand peregrinos (pilgrims) were registered in a single year! Today, the historical path is more prominent than ever, as people travel from all over the world to walk the famous Camino.

El Camino, the way. Photo © snobb.net

But even the Camino has many incarnations, or many caminos as it were. There is the highly trodden Camino francés, the Camino del norte, el Camino Portuguese, el Primitivo and the Ruta de la Plata to mention the most common ones. One might say that all roads lead to Santiago de Compostela, since one can start walking almost anywhere in Europe and end up there. There is even a Camino starting in Trondheim in central Norway!

Camino sign from the Trondheim to Santiago de Compostela trail. Photo © snobb.net

So, why are there so many caminos? To get an answer to this, we first have to look at the meaning of the word. Camino in Spanish can mean road, path, track or even highway. In addition, the word also has a less geographical or more symbolic signification of the way, as indicating that someone has lost or found their way. With such a wide range of interpretations, a camino can really be anything. In fact there are thousands of caminos in Spain, the vast majority of which do not have the same prestige or fame as the Caminos referred to above. But in my view, every camino has its graces.

Camino to Villalengua de Rosário, where you sometimes have views of Africa. Photo © snobb.net

Andalucía are full of long and short, rural and quasi-urban caminos and we have had the privilege of exploring quite a few. Most will start in a village, leading one through farmland and past natural landmarks on the way to yet another village. Some have been around for centuries, following natural canyons and valleys to ease the passage of its users. Many would have started out as trade routes for arrieros or muleteers, the traditional traveling merchants that went from community to community carrying their wares on the back of donkeys.

The old Andalusian farmer, still using a donkey, here heading from Benaoján to Ronda. Photo © snobb.net

Some Andalucian caminos also have religious significance, such as the paths pilgrims took to get to the annual Rocío celebrations, which thousands of people still do today.

Sign of the faithful along camino. Photo © snobb.net

Other caminos go back to the time when the Romans ruled the Iberian peninsula. One such trail, which we often take, actually used to be the main walkway to get from Ronda to Gibraltar.

Camino from Ronda to Tajo del abanico, or the old camino to walk to Gibraltar. Here passing what used to be a Roman grain tower. Photo © snobb.net

Talking about Gibraltar, lets dig further past in history. Since the very first human types to enter Europe came by crossing the Straight of Gibraltar (possibly walk-able during the ice ages?), who knows, some of our Andalusian caminos might have started out by Neanderthals or even Hominids in Prehistoric time. We are talking more than a hundred thousands years ago…

Close up of worn camino leading to Jimera de Líbar on La Gran Senda de Malaga. Photo © snobb.net

One clear advantage of choosing a less famous camino is that it will be less crowded. Fewer trailblazers to share the path with is certainly a plus when it comes to appreciation of ones natural surroundings. Even those of us who are not real pilgrims can have quite a spiritual experience simply walking a camino, enjoying the peace and quiet. And peaceful it is. On most caminos we frequent here in Malaga province, we are hard pressed to meet a handful of walkers during a full day of hiking. On some, we do not meet a soul, other than possibly a flock of sheep.

Sheep on camino between Estación de Benaoján and Jimera de Líbar. Photo © snobb.net

Otherwise, one may wonder if one will encounter wild and dangerous animals on the more remote Andalucian trails. As far as toros bravos (the animals they use for bull fighting), most of these are thankfully behind fences. There are times when you have to cross a field with cattle, but if you walk quietly along and close the gate after you, you shouldn’t have any problems.

Not all toros are brave, just remember Ferdinand the Bull. But I was glad this one, on the camino to Benaoján, was behind a fence. Photo © snobb.net

In years past, packs or wolves and roaming wild dogs were a threat to Camino pilgrims, as mentioned in the books of Paulo Coelho and Shirley MacLaine on the subject. But these days, wolves on El Camino are things of the past. Here in Andalucía, most wild animals have unfortunately been hunted to extinction. The indigenous Iberian wolves and the Iberian bears are long gone from these lands. As far as the wild goats that have been reintroduced into the Andalucian sierra, these will try to stay as far away from humans as possible and offer no threat.

The now rare wild goats, on camino leaving Grazalema. Photo© snobb.net

When it comes to the wild boars however, these are animals that you do not want to have a close encounters with, as they have been known to attack humans. They are mostly out digging for truffles and other roots at night-time, so meeting them in nature is quite rare. But if you do, head for the closest tree…

A wild boar or javelí, a resident one rather not want to encounter on the camino. Photo © snobb.net

What are the other potential dangers of choosing a more remote camino here in the Spanish south? There is of course the risk of getting lost or hurt, getting a sun-stroke or being caught by a storm, but those are all part of being in nature. Bringing enough water and the right equipment, as well as knowing ones trail or bringing a guide is a must in our sierra.

Entering the fog. Camino between Ronda and Carthajima. Photo© snobb.net

As far as reptiles, Andalucía has only one venomous snake specie. I have nearly stepped on snakes sun-tanning in the trail on several occasions, though I do not think they were the poisonous adders. At any case, since the snakes were more shocked than myself by our meeting, they were off before I could verify further. Walking at night with headlights, we also see alacranes, or scorpions with their tails lifted in aggressive attack mode. These might not be as deadly as in other countries, but should understandably be avoided. Similarly, one should not dig around too much in stones for the same reason. Finally, insects pose no threat to Andalucian trail walkers, but the flies can be very pesky.

Feisty scorpion crossing camino on night walk. Photo © Rafa Flores from RF Natura

Though most trails here are pretty well marked, you might always loose your way, or your camino. The best marked and best kept trails in the territory is la Gran Senda de Málaga (the Great Malaga Path or GR 249 for those who likes looking at maps). This pioneer project is like an Andalucian alternative to the Camino, just without the pilgrim staff. The 660 km 35-stage triangular trail passes through 51 (mostly rural) municipalities, 4 nature parks and 2 nature reserves along the coast and the inland of Malaga province. We have done several of these stages, usually covering a couple of sections in a day’s hike, and would fully recommend it.

Camino near Juzcar during Otoño de cobre, or the Copper autumn. Photo © snobb.net

The Gran Senda connects to what is called the Camino Mozárabe de Málaga, which finally leads to, you guessed, El Camino de Santiago. In addition, the Gran Senda also forms part of the European Grand Tour tail network, which crosses the Mediterranean region and ends up in Greece. In other word, there is no end to caminos for those of us who like trotting along.

Camino just after sunrise. Photo © snobb.net

Let me be perfectly clear though. The Andalusian caminos do not have the same perks that the official El Camino does, nor will you encounter the same infrastructures. There are some organized walking tours, though I expect there wont be the option of having your backpacks brought from stop to stop. Though most Andalusian villages will have some sort of casa rural where one can spend a night, these might or might not be open and have beds available, so book ahead. You will hardly ever find the multi bunk bed Albergues or Hostales you can stay in along El Camino, nor can you expect to pay less than 10 euros per night. However, you should be able to find some kind of reasonable accommodation. Besides, there is something to be said for having ones own room and a private bathroom at the end of a days walk...

Subtle Do NOT enter sign on camino from Cortes de la Frontera. Photo © snobb.net

Each Andalucian village offer some services and amenities, but not every pueblo will have food stores open on holidays, nor special pilgrims’ menus or restaurants that serve breakfast for road wary wanderers at the crack of dawn. You will usually find several bars in every little town, but the menu might be more liquid than solid. Likewise, there is no certificate or pilgrim passport to be stamped in every town. Nor are there any prizes at the end of the journey, other than the joy of having completed a good days walk. But that is a prize in itself, as good as any.

Looking for signs of civilization. Weather wane in Benadcaz. Photo © snobb.net

My husband and I plan to walk ‘the real thing’ one day, but in the meantime we keep exploring the village-to-village caminos on our southern soil. Our last camino was a two-day trek from Ronda to Estación de Cortes de la Frontera and back. To us, this is a perfect kind of walk. You have decent sized villages appearing every 10-15 kilometres for refuelling. If we leave Ronda at sunrise, we are in Estación de Benaoján in time for a late breakfast or a second java injection. Then we continue on to Estacíon de Jimera de Líbar, where we can put our feet in the fresh river that runs through town. After watering ourselves inside and out and enjoying lunch in a local eatery (there are only a couple) we can proceed to our destination. As an additional benefit on this particular route, there is a train going along the same valley, so should we happen to indulge too much at lunch, we can always pop on a train for the last section. I know, I know. Resorting to public transport is not the way of real peregrinos, but in my view life has to be a balance of effort and pleasure, or pleasure and penance for the devout.

Now, this signage is pretty clear. Camino leaving Jimera de Líbar

On this particular day and this particular hike, it was a good thing that we had lunch in Estación de Jimera de Líbar, as when we arrived to Estación de Cortes, there was not a soul in the streets. It is a rural village, after all. After wandering through town, we managed to find a store open to buy some fruit and cheese. Later on, our casa rural host for the night lent us plates and threw in a bottle of organic tinto on the house, which we enjoyed while watching the evening fall. That is Andalucian hospitality to you! (though the hosts were French and Irish…)

Camino sign in Estación de Cortes. Photo © snobb.net

The next morning, we were ready to hit the road or camino before sunrise. We had seen a sign for the trail back to Jimera de Líbar the night prior, so of course we didn’t think of inquiring further. (Hindsight is 20/20…)  Once we no longer could find the road marks and had taken half a dozen unnecessary detours, meeting dead ends and locked gates, we were lucky to run into a gentleman on his horse. He was going the same way, he said and pointed us in the right direction. Not completely unexpected, he turned out to be one of only three travellers we met on the camino that day.

Lost your camino?Just ask the closest rider for directions. Photo © snobb.net

Following the horseman’s directions and sometimes the hoof prints in the sand (feeling very native path-finder-ish, I must admit), crossing a creek and later an up-to-our-waist river, we did finally come to the trail that lead to our first village, only to discover that the two restaurants were closed so there was no breakfast was to be had. Thankfully we had picked some blackberries on the trail on the day prior, so we survived until we got to Estación de Benaoján where we had a double breakfast and combined lunch to make up for our food intake deficit.

Dancing horse on camino near Montejaque. © snobb.net

We love every one of our Andalucian caminos - the ones that take off from our doorstep in the barrio and meander along the valley, the ones that crosses the sierra on steep and narrow paths with jaw-dropping views, caminos through private farmland where gates have to be closed not to let out the farm stock, and paths with or without end.

Please close gate. Typical rural camino sign. Photo © snobb.netMaybe our Andalusian caminos are a bit more off-piste than the Camino, but what would a walk be without the unpredictability of loosing ones way and the joy of re-discovering ones trail and finding ones camino again.

Riding into sunrise. Photo © snobb.net

 

 



Like 1        Published at 23:00   Comments (1)


The rain in Spain…
21 September 2018

Rainy view. Photo © snobb.net

I am sure you have heard the saying about the Spanish rain that allegedly stays mainly on the plains. Whether this used to be true or not, these days rain here can occur anywhere and any time.

Street view with rain. Photo © snobb.net

When my husband and I moved from the Canadian West Coast to the Spanish south a few years back, we knew that our life would be far sunnier that what we had been accustomed to. That is after all how the world at large sees Spain - beaches, sangría and most of all, lots of sun. But sunny Spain is not always so sunny and visitors are ill advised to think that they won’t encounter rain whilst on holiday in the Iberian south. I would certainly suggest checking several weather forecasts before tossing only shorts and flip-flops in the suitcase for a holiday in early November, as some tourists seem to do.

Hail in late summer. Photo © snobb.net

There is no way around the fact. It might, it will and it does rain in Spain. The annual rainfall in Madrid is actually only fractionally less than that of London, with the difference that the rain in the Spanish capital arrives in half the days of the UK one. Of course, Spain is generally a sunny place. In a normal year, our town might have no precipitation from May to November. Yet, rain it will, certainly as soon as the first signs of fall appear. Living in Andalucía, we have come to expect sudden cloudbursts and rapidly changing weather. In many ways el tiempo andalu’ echoes the temperament of it’s people, being both unpredictable and almost overly dramatic.Graveyard with storm coming. Photo © snobb.net

 

Added to the erratic weather patters of the Latin south are more frequent and severer storms that come with global warming. Ask any old person. The weather is not what it used to be. Antonio, one of our neighbours who has lived near a century (his age changes ever time I talk to him…) says that it rained much more in these parts in the old days, but they never experienced the volume, concentration and intensity that we now see. In an average year, Ronda will receive about 500 mm of precipitation, making it just over 40 mm per month. Yet, the fact this statistics doesn’t show is that this rain might come in a single day, in an hour, or even in a matter of minutes. The current record is from 2009, when Ronda received 110 litres of rain per square meter in less than 24 hours.

Rainy terrace view. Photo © snobb.net

Therefore, travellers, consider yourselves warned. When it rains in Spain, it can really rain. We are not talking merely cats and dogs. You might be confronted with an end-of-the-world downpour, such as the one we had a couple of days back. To be fair to the weather forecasters, they had predicted a possibility of occasional thunder and a couple of passing showers. But nothing could have prepared the town for the apocalyptic drench we got. Some neighbours measured (farmers do such things…) 60-70 litres per square meter in the space of about half and hour. We are talking biblical proportions. Streets became sweeping rivers and waterfalls that brought along any obstacle in its way - garbage, restaurant tables, and regrettably illegally double-parked cars. Stores, warehouses and homes were inundated.

Local newspaper heading after latest rainstorm. Photo © snobb.net

As ours is a traditional Andalucian town where most houses are attached, rainwater has no other way to than run downhill. Many local houses are built level with the street and have a step going down into the house, meaning that these will get flooded every time it rains. The only possible salvation for the home-owners is to put some kind of temporary rain cover in front of their entrance door during wet days, thereby trying try to prevent water from coming in, unless the rain rips the guard along in its wake first. Of course, one should be able to predict and hence avoid such flooding, yet it seems that we get caught with our pants down every time…

Dog with rain gear. Photo © snobb.net

Truth be told, I love a good storm. When we visited Ronda for the first time, it was actually raining sideways, and it never discouraged us from coming back. In the end, maybe this potential for dramatic weather is part of what attracted us to this place and made us choose it as our home?

Camino with storm coming. Photo © snobb.net

 



Like 2        Published at 07:57   Comments (4)


Another Andalusian pet joins our family – Meet Leopoldo, the jasmine lover
31 August 2018

Leopoldo in evening beauty shot. Photo © snobb.netMoving from a cosmopolitan city in Canada to a rural town in Andalucía, our plan was always to simplify our life. We wanted a smaller home that we could lock and leave when going travelling. For the same reason, we didn’t want a big garden. And, we would under no circumstances get a pet! Not that we disliked them, we just liked our ability to globetrot more.

Buddha on terrace. Photo © snobb.net

Even before coming to Spain, we had been warned by foreigners living here, who would assure us that we would adopt a dog within the first few months. Basically all foreigners did, they said. As there are tons of abandoned, homeless pets all over Andalucía, foreigner residents with their bleeding hearts tend to be the ones who end up taking in these unwanted animals. Alternately, they will walk around with pet food and dinner leftover in their handbags to feed perpetually pregnant alley cats. We, however, would do nothing of the kind. Not that we were completely heartless, I just can’t live in close proximity to cat hair and dog fur without scratching my eyes out.

Our first house pet, the tailless lizard. Illustration by Virgínia Jiménez Perez for my upcoming book 'Casita 26'

We managed to stay to the program when it came to both the house and the garden. However, when it came to the pets, things started sliding. First we got ourselves a resident lizard. This was sort of a natural development, as the fixer-upper home we bought came with a tailless Podarcis vaucheri. As we discovered that cats love to torture these Andalucian mini-reptiles, we felt that somebody had to protect them. Next to move in with us were a family of geckos (Tarentola mauritanica); Umberto Major the Pater Familia, his wife Umberto Minor, as well as Umberto Mini, their prodigal son who likes to come into our bedroom at night to hunt for microscopic bugs. We thought for sure that this would be the end of our pet emporium, but then came Leopoldo…

Leopoldo as a young boy, two months back.... Photo © snobb.net

We first noticed him on our upper terrace at the beginning of the summer. He was quite young and inexperienced at the time, not yet having found his preferred stomping ground. As the temperature rose by the day, he moved down to our lower terrace. There, he not only got more shade, but he fell in love with our jasmine bush. He settled in the upper branches and has lived there happily ever since. The jasmine is a perfect habitat for Leopoldo, seeing that his light brown bony body can easily resemble one of the plants curled up dead leaves or a spent blooms. He is safer from birds and bigger predators, while he can gorge himself on insects that live on the plant. It is indeed a win/win situation for him. As an added benefit, his home is also located right beside the Umbertos, who for the past couple of years have taken up residence behind a set of antique doors that we have mounted on our terrace wall. Therefore, Leopoldo also gets to munch on the rejected bugs that are not up to our reptiles’ standard or size requirement.

Umberto Major and Umberto Menor hiding behind Buddha. Photo © snobb.net

I forgot to say that Leopoldo is a praying mantis. Named because of its prayer like stand, mantis is the Greek word for prophet, and in an alien ET sort of way they look rather mystic. Usually green, yellow or brown, their coloration will not change with their natural environment. The mantis must therefore find a setting that matches their appearance, just like Leopoldo’s jasmine. The mantises are brilliant hunters and can sit there camouflaged immobile for hours waiting for a prey to show up. In fact, their ferocious appetite for bugs was what made the conquerors of the New World bring the European Mantis to North America in the 1600’s, so they would help them combat insect pests on crops. Using their antennae to smell the pray, their triangular heads with bulbous eyes will watch out for danger, with a field of vision of up to 20 meters. Not shabby for a bug that measures a few centimetres. And here I was thinking that I could sneak unnoticed up to our new family member…

Leopoldo feeling peckish. Photo © snobb.net

In contrast to our other pets, Leopoldo is not shy. While I have to struggle to get even a blurry ‘action’ shot of the Umbertos, our mantis doesn’t mind being admired or photographed. He will cock his head and stare at me inquiringly. Sometimes, he gets a bit impatient and throws me a glance as if to say, “Oh, not you again…” Genealogically speaking, Leopoldo’s closest relative is a cockroach, but of course our lad is much better looking! I am calling him ‘he’, but we do not really know what ‘he’ is. The female mantis is said to be generally bigger and more butch than the male, sometimes devouring her offspring and uncooperative male partners. Or so I have read, as I am no scientist and only have my limited terrace observations to speak of.

Having studied Leopoldo up close and personal, he appears to be more of an African Mantis (Sphodromantis viridis) than a European one (Mantis Religiosa), which isn’t strange seeing our proximity to Northern Africa, but there are at least a dozen types of mantis in Spain. Whichever type he is, Leopoldo is decidedly more of a fighter than a lover. He is certainly not one for prayers, always with his frontal paws (or raptorial legs) up, ready to jab. Mantises will eat just about anything that moves, with the emphasis on the moving bit. Since they only consume living, and I imagine struggling, prey, I am fine not having witnessed this particular exploit of his.

Mantis with reptile legs flexed. Photo © snobb.netMantis with reptile legs half extended. Photo © snobb.net

The benefit of having a self-providing pet is evident - No worry about pet sitters and feeding when away. Yet, the backside of having these free-roaming critters as wild pets is their limited life span. We will only be able to enjoy the company of Leopoldo until some time this winter, as mantises live no longer than a year. Therefore, we can only hope that his offspring will continue the family lineage, so we can have a Leopoldo Jr with us next summer.

For the time being, this is our extended family. We are perfectly happy with our current pet repertoire and have no plans of expanding upon it. Though, if a family of disgruntled bats will descend upon our terrace, lets say on a late evening around Halloween, I have a feeling that we will adopt them, as well…

Skyline from terrace. Photo © snobb.net

 



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This week’s escapade – the not so known corners of Old Town Málaga
24 August 2018

Malaga inspires. Photo © snobb.net

There is nothing as exciting as an escapade – a spontaneous trip to a place of ones desire. Whether visiting the location for the first time, or wanting to see it again with fresh eyes, an escapade, like a good laugh, must surely prolong our life. Defined as an act involving excitement, daring or adventure, the concept in itself is so tempting, that I don’t understand why people don’t do it more often.

This summer, my husband and I decided to get ‘serious’ about our escapades.  We agreed to put aside one day a week for unplanned adventures (not that we really need to get way from our life in Ronda). Friday is our chosen day to run away. We hit the road first thing, travelling by car, bus, train, or on foot, whatever we choose. Any location within a couple of hour range is on our radar, and might be added to our ever-growing list of potential run-away destinations. It feels a bit naughty or even illicit, taking off for the sole purpose of our own enjoyment. And I have to admit it. I look forward to our Friday outings like a child looks forward to a birthday. There are always unknown surprises when escaping, especially if one goes without to many set plans or preconceived expectations.

 

Why Málaga?

Malaga's public market. Photo © snobb.net

This Friday, we decided to explore some hidden alleys and forgotten corners of the old quarter of Málaga. Though we have been in the city plenty of times, it is still one of our favourite urban jaunts. Often ignored by tourists in favour of one of the smaller beach towns on Costa del Sol, Málaga is well worth a day of explorative free-style strolling. Being the museum capital of the Spanish south, there are always fabulous art exhibits with a wide selection of works and styles.Malaga alley. Photo © snobb.net

However, this time around, we intend to stay off the beaten track. After all, we are here as escapees, about to enjoy the city’s vicarious pleasures of yet to be known kinds. For us who live in a quintessential big mountain village, an occasional city spree is a healthy diversion. Málaga isn’t the metropolitan centre of the universe, but with near 600 000 people, it offers us a much-needed urban fix. The city is just the right size to get lost and to find one’s way again. It has pretty much the right amount of pollution, city dust, shopping variety, ethnic diversity and population density to tempt us by its urban splendour, while reminding us how lucky we are not to partake its daily traffic jams.

Málaga lays only 1.5 hours drive from Ronda, but we decide to leave the car and take a bus instead. Using public transport adds an additional dimension of freedom to our escape, allowing us to enjoy the journey without thoughts of speed traps or parking maids. Getting chauffeured to our destination, and for a modest fee at that, we can be as reckless as we want to, neither of us being the designated driver. Should we loiter about the streets too long, we can always grab a later bus, jump on a train, or find a place to spend the night. Or maybe we just travel on? One doesn’t want to limit ones options too much, does one, or it would not be a true escapade?

 

Blooms abound

Look up. Photo © snobb.net

After having breakfast in a place that boasts about serving eight types of café con leche, all in the same type of glass with varying degrees of milk and espresso, we are ready to roll. Our first stop is a completely unassuming park, which meanders along one of the main traffic arteries leading into the downtown area. One is guaranteed never to meet tourists here, as who, other than I, will insist on walking blocks on end just to see trees. But, it is worth taking you on this quick detour, as these particular trees are a sight to behold. While they have trunks covered in cone-shaped lethal spikes, their crown is a delicate filigree of pink blooms.

Tree with spikes. Photo © snobb.net

Málaga’s flora is something that always impresses me, being so very different from what one will find merely an hour inland. Wherever you go, there are planters with crimson hibiscus flowers. Even the smallest balconies seem to manage to squeeze in half a dozen pots of geraniums or a trailing bougainvillea, and the city’s avenues are lined with rows of tall, slender palms.

One of my favourite squares here is Plaza de la Merced. You might have passed it on your way to visit the house where Picasso was born, another of the town’s many museums. The neighbourhood is admittedly getting a bit worn around the edges. The garbage is not emptied as often as it could and the spray paint artists work faster than the town’s anti-graffiti squad. However, this raunchiness cannot outweigh the almost childlike joy I get standing in the middle of the square when the jacaranda trees are in bloom and the plaza becomes awash with purple flowers.  

Plaza de la Merced when the Jacaranda trees are in bloom. Photo © snobb.net

 

Popsicle coloured walls

Speaking as a designer, the colours of Malaga are one of the city’s true inspirations. Whereas Ronda is one of Andalucía’s Pueblos Blancos or White Villages and therefore stays within a safe all-white colour-theme, Malaga’s architecture is a lively contrast. The beautiful low-rise apartments in the old town can have the most surprising colour combinations. While most remain within the family of warm earth tones, other edifices may combine bold egg yolk yellow with emerald green or bright salmon.

Tickled Pink. Photo © snobb.net

I stop and admire one of these 19-century classics with semi-curved walls. This one is facing a smaller plaza. It has 6 stories of flats, each with a French balcony embellished by art nouveau ironwork. The walls are sand dune coloured, with cool khaki green detailing and cream bisque shutters. It is a combination I would have never thought up. Seen apart, they could almost appear clashing, yet when combined, they look nothing short of spectacular, particularly when augmented by the soft rays of a late afternoon sun.

Window detail. Photo © snobb.net

I walk on in awe, admiring the playful palettes of aubergine, champagne and over-ripe nectarine. It is almost enough to make you hungry…

 

 

Tentenpié

Fino for two. Photo © snobb.net

There is never a wrong time to stop for a tentenpíe, which is the Spanish slang for an appetizer or titbit to hold one off until the next real meal. Often, we stop in Málaga’s lovely old public market for this purpose, but this time we want to escape the line-ups.

Possibly the best place to enjoy a drink and a couple of appies is in one of the city’s historical almacenes (warehouses). Nowadays, these traditional food vendors are more like a bar combined with a classic deli. Their escaparates or shop windows, like the shelves inside, are filled with a tempting array of local wines, cheeses, meats, canned seafood, and other malageño specialties.

Malageño wine. Photo © snobb.net

A perfect place to fraternize with locals while getting a taste of real Málaga, we decide to plump ourselves down outside one, enjoying a break, while sipping a frosty glass of local Fino and some wedges of to die for oveja (sheep milk) cheese. Hoards of tourists will come home from their Spanish holiday with an abanico (fan) that hardly opens, castanets that will never be used, or a imitation flamenco apron Made in PRC, but how many will drop by one of these delightfully authentic delis and buy some smoked, ground Spanish red pepper to bring home instead?

 

Ribbons, bowlers and chokers

Store window. Photo © snobb.net

In between the dime a dozen chain stores selling cheap shoes and cell phone covers, Málaga still has a few of its traditional family run shops. Some are hidden away in secret alleys, while others can be found squeezed between Italian lingerie emporiums and international frozen yoghurt outlets. Most have discretely faded signs and a dusty window display. But this is where you really can do some authentic shopping. Forget about the Chinese dollar-stores that have everything - all poorly made. These stores are the mom and pop kind with over-the-counter service, specializing in one type of item. Their goods are descent quality and might even be Hecho en España (Made in Spain), though possibly not in the last decade.

From the Haberdashery. Photo © snobb.net

One of my favourite examples of these is the traditional Spanish Merecería or Haberdashery. Here, the local housewives will line up to buy 20 cm of three different kinds of ribbon. The process of purchase is painstakingly slow since everything has to be brought out from the back room, but it is ever so interesting to observe from a socio-anthropological point of view.

Next are the traditional ferreterías of hardware stores. To be sure that your chosen location is an authentic one, the wall behind the counter needs to be lined with small drawers. These might contain everything from doorknobs and powdered chemicals, to curious looking rodent-traps and poisons outlawed in 1965.

Shop sign. Photo © snobb.net

Equally interesting are the old stores that sell church supplies and religious paraphernalia. This is where you can go if you, like me, are tempted to buy one of those silver incense burners suspended from chains that they whiff about during Catholic mass.

As for my husband, he loves the small shops that remind him of visiting his family in Bilbao as a boy. We are talking decades back. First, there are the little-old-lady owned perfume shops that sell weird brands of splash-on colognes that nobody uses anymore. Then, there are the traditional linen stores, looking as far from Zara Home as you can imagine. These will usually have a crowded window display with piles of hideous synthetic blankets, practical poly-something tablecloths and a selection of could be handmade doilies and baby bibs. Though we have never bought anything in the latter type of store, they are always cool to peak into.

Malageño store window. Photo © snobb.net

Like most large Spanish cities, Málaga also has a couple of the traditional hat stores, where they still will measure your head and display hats on wooden cranium-shaped domes. The owners of these businesses tend to be far beyond retirement age, so it is wise to not wait too long to visit the premises, or they might be closed down. Here is where you will find a Fedora, a genuine Panama hat, or (not by the storeowner’s intention) brand new, yet now vintage hats for any festive occasion.

Manila shawl detail. Photo © snobb.net

As it is the high season for Andalucian férias, I also enjoy visiting a Flamenco store. I am not speaking about the souvenir shops that sell poor ruffled imitation dresses. This is the real thing, where they design and sew the colourful flamenco gowns from scratch and where you can find a genuine Manton or Manila shawl for several hundred euros. I love their ever so stylish Flamenco leather shoes, though I cannot for the life of me dance the Sevillana. But their outrageously huge loped Flamenco earrings are another matter...

Earrings. Photo © snobb.net

 

Refuelling

Restaurant in old town Malaga. Photo © snobb.net

Being quite shopped out, though we hardly have bought anything, it is time for some grub, of which Málaga has got aplenty. The old town is usually crawling with tourists, but you can still find decent restaurants with mostly local clientele, merely a couple of blocks off the main drag. Wherever you go, it is advisable to avoid places that hand you a voucher as you pass by, as well as those who offer a 10€ daily plasticized menu written in seven languages with pictures of their sad paella and rabo de toro.

Málaga market with excellent tapas. Photo © snobb.net

Though we usually go for ethnic food when in the big city, this time we decide on a new organic place. Located on a corner in a residential street, we appear to be the only out-of-town-ers. I am certainly the only non-Latina.

From our street-side table, we are able to do some quality people watching, as the real malageños - fashionable, traditional, risqué or retro punk - go about their daily life. Business people bike back from work, parents pick up the kids from preschool, workers deliver cases of wine and neighbours chat from one window to the next. During another escapade, we got to watch aspiring ‘actors’ and ‘actresses’ enter the casting session for what appeared to be a not completely legit adult movie. This time around, we are just as lucky, catching a band practice in a building across the street. Though we do not see the musicians, we get a free Spanish guitar concert, and this, just a handful blocks from Calle Larios, Malaga’s busiest walking mall.

Malaga bar and favourite hangout for locals. Photo © snobb.net

 

 

Look up, look down

I should mention that this very same pedestrian-only avenue, which crosses the Casco Histórico, has the most beautiful rust coloured marble paving (for those who manage to tear their eyes away from the wall-to-wall shopping bonanza). Each piece of marble is so remarkable that I would take any of them home and put it as art on the wall. The stone looks particularly stunning when it has been recently polished, around Semana Santa and before Christmas. They also look great after a rainfall, though water makes the stone lethally slippery, so consider yourself forewarned.

Detail of marble paving. Photo © snobb.net

Actually, this is yet another great thing about escaping to a place where we usually do not trot about. We tend to look more up, or down as in the case of the pavement. At home, walking the same old streets, I often forget to see what really surrounds us. During an escapade, on the other hand, my head continually swivels, enjoying both horizontal and vertical splendours. Escaping allows one to see life from a slightly different angle, inspiring one to observe and sense more intensely, even as one returns to familiar surroundings.

Fountain detail. Photo © snobb.net
The evening has come upon us. Though there is still much urban exploring to be done, such as enjoying the sunset from Malaga’s Cathedral roof or watching a foreign movie in its original language. But we feel more than content. Filled with new sights, sounds and tastes, we wander back to the bus station, where the same driver chauffeurs us home. As I watch the beautiful sculptural landscape of Andalucía flying by, I know that we will escape again a Friday or two from now. Where we will go is yet to be decided.La Malageña. Photo © snobb.net



Like 3        Published at 17:37   Comments (8)


Behind closed doors - Joining the sisterhood in the 21st century
17 August 2018

Cloistered. Photo © snobb.netThe other day, my husband and I drove past a man walking with an animal draped over his shoulders. At first, I thought it was a shepherd with an injured sheep dog, but as we came closer I realized that the roadside wanderer was a Franciscan monk. The site flew by, leaving me with a Sunday school image of a saint carrying a lamb. Such a vision would not even be fathomable in our past life in North America. We never saw monks and nuns on the street there, unless it was Halloween. But living in rural Andalucía, we have become accustomed to the daily presence of sisters and brothers of the cloth.Mass in La Cartuja, Cadiz. with cloistered nuns behind wall. Photo © snobb.net

 

There is no doubt - Spain is a very Catholic country. In Ronda, people still cross themselves when they pass a roadside chapel, even if they are driving a scooter on a bumpy road. Many still send their kids to Catholic schools and most of our neighbours are active members of one of the town’s fourteen religious brotherhoods. The vast majority still celebrate the milestones in life in front of an altar and do not consider a rosary a fashion accessory. Though few locals go to church on Sundays anymore, they all know the Mass back to front. And everybody in town seems to have at least one great-aunt that is a nun. It shouldn’t therefore be a surprise that our town of barely 35 000 residents has at least half a dozen working convents and monasteries. But for how much longer will they be around?

Descalzos Viejos, a monastery turned winery. Photo © snobb.net

Every month a Spanish monastery or convent needs to close its doors. Most have been serving the community for centuries, teaching the young, nursing the sick, helping the needy, or offering spiritual counselling and prayers. In 1980, Spain had almost 100.000 monks and nuns in dozens of orders. Four decades later, 40.000 remain. An additional 1000 members depart each year, not abandoning their faith for secular living - most simply die of old age. The average Spanish monk or nun is 64 years old, while stricter orders such as Jesuits have an average age of 75.

Convent entrance. Photo © snobb.net

The local convent, like our neighbourhood, is named after St. Francis. Convento San Francisco was constructed in the 17th century, at the location where King Fernando sieged the town in 1485. The convent was attacked by Napoleon’ forces in the War of Independence and was almost burned to the ground during the Spanish Civil War. One would think by this gloomy history that nothing is left of the original buildings. Yet, walking through the convent’s courtyards, passing heavy wooden doors with huge hand-forged keys, up creaking steps into silent halls holding ancient niches with crackled religious paintings and hand tinted Baby Jesus porcelain dolls, one can easily imagine how life would have been here centuries ago.

Detail from niche in convent hall. Photo © snobb.net

But what is it really like to be a nun in this day and age? I decided to pay a visit and talk to our Franciscan hermanas (sisters) next door.

Sor Natividad or La Madre Abuela  (89)

Our favourite sun, Sor Natividad. 140 cm, soon 90 and still going strong. Photo © snobb.net and

The oldest and dearest nun in the convent is Sor Natividad (Sister Nativity), or as we call her la Madre Abuela (the Mother Grandmother). The former abbess is a feisty little woman, who loves sharing jokes with my husband when he comes to take her blood pressure. When I comment on her good humour, she explains frankly: “We have made a vow of poverty, but not of misery!”

Sensible shoes. Photo © snobb.net

Quickly approaching 90, La Madre Abuela is unstoppable. She is responsible for the abundance of flowers in the convent’s courtyard, is a master seamstress, and the go-between when there is construction work in the convent. She also fixes shirts and hems pants for the congregation against a symbolic donation to the convent. Come to think of it, I don’t think I have ever seen her without her sewing scissor dangling from a string or a thimble in the pocket of her patched, worn, brown Franciscan robe. Though her doctor won’t allow her to work like she used to, she protested when she was told to stop doing the laundry, by hand, in winter, in the century-old stone sinks in the convent’s garden, especially since they have perfectly working modern laundry machines inside… “What do they want me to do? Sit down and wait to die?” she says with twinkle in her eye.

La Madre Abuela sewing. Photo © snobb.net

Always wanting to join a convent, Rosário as she used to be called was born in Estepa in the province of Sevilla in 1929. (Those days the nuns used to change their name upon giving their vows.) Her father had passed away before she was born and her mother had lost 5 of their 11 children in childbirth or early childhood. Understandably, she therefore didn’t want to ‘loose’ her youngest child to the church, especially since one of her older daughters already was a nun. But Rosaríta, or little Rosario didn’t give up, arguing wisely that she wouldn’t be lost, because she wouldn’t be dead, since nuns were still of this world. Her mother told her to “Pray and ask God what you are supposed to be”. To join an order, she needed a letter from her priest, stating that she came from a good Christian family, were the right type of girl, had a strong vocation and the right disposition for monastic life. “Some people thought that I didn’t have the personality to be a cloistered nun, but being ‘enclaustrada’ doesn’t mean that you need to be sad”.

Sor Natividad and the wishing well. Photo © snobb.net

Rosario came as a novice to Convento San Francisco on the 18th of April in 1952, more than 66 years ago. “I am VERY happy here in the convent. I would never have changed my life,“ she says, always with a warm smile.

***

Old tile art of nuns from convent in Olvera. Photo © snobb.net

Due to Spain’s difficult economic situation during the last century, many young girls became nuns. Giving their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, they would spend the rest of their lives inside a convent having no further contact with their loved ones, as the Church would be their new family. Even to this day, 75 % of Spanish religious are women, out of which one third have chosen a cloistered life.

La Madre, Sor Nieves (75)

Madre Nieves, always ready for chat and a laugh. Photo © snobb.net

Madre Nieves, or Sor Nieves as we used to call her, is the abbess, a role she was elected to just over a year ago in a secret ballot amongst the nuns. As Mother Superior, she deals with convent business and Church affairs, communicates with the local priests and oversees the nuns. Nieves is the only rondeña of the sisters. In fact, she grew up across the street from the convent, running in and out of its halls as a child, so a monastic life always seemed to be her path. At 18, she told her parents “God has called me” and asked their permission to join the Franciscans, but since the age of majority was 21, she needed her parents’ written consent. Now 75 years old, the convent has been her home for 57 years.  

Ring the bells. Photo © snobb.net

Social and bubbly, Madre Nieves will always greet me with a cheery “Hola Preciosa!” when I come to visit. While some nuns dislike leaving the convent, she enjoys an occasional trip up to town. Last time we met her, she was there because she had problems with her cell phone. This type of outside errand would have been unheard of just a couple of decades ago, but these days cloistered nuns are allowed to go out to see the doctor, to visit government offices and to attend necessary appointments. Not every nun see smart phones and social media as part of a religious’ life, but even Pope Francis is an active tweeter with more than 17 million followers, which is probably more than many celebrities. For Madre Nieves, WhatsApp allows her to keep in contact with people. In fact, this is how we set up the times for these interviews. 

Madre Nieves in garden. Photo © snobb.net

The greatest joy in living a monastic life for Madre Nieves is to be God’s servant and to be able to serve those who serve. She confides that living a communal and cloistered life is not always easy. In her words: “We have our feet on the ground, like everybody else. We are neither angels, nor saints. But we have a good life here. We are poor, but we are doing OK”.

Madre Nieves picks me some flowers. Photo © snobb.net

The day at the convent starts at 6.30 a.m. and ends at 10 p.m., always with prayers. The sisters keep silent until after breakfast and from dinner until bedtime, and ought to refrain from unnecessary chatter and speak in low volume for the remainder of the day. Contemplative nuns do primarily two things, pray and work, as the sisters view physical labour as an extension of their contemplative work. And work they do. Unbeknown to many, the convent receives no funds from Rome. Furthermore, they hardly receive any private donations anymore. Though the nuns live very frugally (up to last winter had no heating in their cells), they still need money to live. The sisters are responsible for generating enough funds to cover their living expenses and the upkeep of the buildings. Some convents use all their income just taking care of their ageing and ailing sisters, while others have resorted to asking for help at the local Food Bank. Our nuns tell me that they will not beg for help. At the same time, they no longer earn enough from their traditional production of sweets to sustain the convent, never mind covering Social Security and pensions, which the sisters became part of in 1977.

Sor María in front of the 'lazy Susan' where good can be bought from the cloistered nuns. Photo © snobb.net

The nuns at Convento San Francisco are trying to adapt to the changing times, though for many it is a steep learning curve. The convent needs to find new ways of generating revenue, just to make ends meet. While the nuns have always sold baked goods, they are now trying to expand their business to supplying local restaurants and stores, as well. The convent’s industrial-size kitchen looks like a mid-century version of a commercial bakeshop, where the sisters shell almonds, one by one, to make their almond cookies. If one were to calculate the actual cost of each piece, nobody but the Spanish royal family would afford them. It is a labour or love, or for the sisters, perhaps of devotion? Their baking is not all that the sisters are changing. Unused rooms on the upper floor of the convent are now rented out as storage, and spare quarters in the outer courtyard are being transformed into rental lodging. Maybe soon the nuns of San Francisco will be listed on AirBnB?Statue of sister outside Franciscan convent in Ronda's historical quarter. Photo © snobb.net

 

The sisters tell me that Spanish convents are in a crisis, because of the lack of vocation amongst the young, because there aren’t enough priests to say mass, and because of the rising cost of maintaining the old, enormous and often historically significant buildings. In the not very distant past, monks and nuns were the society’s teachers, nurses and health care workers. These days, you need certificates and university degrees to practice any type of profession. Religious training inside a closed convent won’t be considered practical working experience outside the convent’s walls. Even the role of caring for ‘souls’ is gradually being taken over by the secular society in the form of psychologists, marriage councillors, social workers, addiction therapists, and more than anything, the Internet. A young person who wants to help the needy can find a slew of charitable organizations that won’t demand the personal restrictions of a religious order. With all the choices offered in our contemporary society, it is difficult to imagine a young Spanish willing compromise him or her-self to a cloistered life of celibacy and poverty. “Had it not been for our novices from other countries, we would have had to close down”, says the abbess.

Dining hall in Convento San Francisco. Photo © snobb.net

Convento San Francisco had 18 nuns when she arrived almost six decades ago. Today they are 5 nuns left. Out of these, only two are Spanish born, the others are from Kenya and Mexico, while the convent’s three new novices are from Madagascar and Tanzania. One in every five Spanish religious sisters and brothers are from another country. The majority of the postulants and novices who join Spanish religious orders come from Africa, Latin America and Asia, as these are the only areas in the world where the Catholic community is still growing or maintaining its numbers. Yet, even this ‘importation’ from other continents is not able to stop the dwindling numbers of monks and nuns or the continuous threat of closure that most both monasteries and convents are facing.

Sor Isabel (45)

Sor Isabel answers the door. Photo © snobb.net

In contrast to some of the older nuns, Sor Isabel had a professional career prior to becoming a nun. Originally from Machakos in Kenya, Elizabeth as here name used to be, told her parents that she wanted to be a nun when she was 17. Believing it was the passing fancy of a teenager, her father insisted that she get an education and a profession before making a final decision. Elizabeth studied business and worked for 4 years. When she informed her employer that she wanted to enter a convent instead, they doubted her decision. She was told to try for a year. If she didn’t like it, she could come back to work.

Sor Isabel never looked back and has now been a nun for 14 years. “There may have been moments of doubt, but I always returned to my faith,” she says. In Kenya, most nuns choose an active life of teaching and mission work instead of a contemplative life in a closed convent, but Sor Isabel preferred the silence. “We do not need to be present to help, because prayers have no limit”, she says. She confides that living a cloistered life has its challenges. The nuns have different backgrounds, languages and characters, which get amplified in a communal existence. Part of this convivencia or coexistence is resolving issues - through reflection, listening and acceptance.

Rosaries. Photo © snobb.net

In addition to household chores, Sor Isabel coordinates the education of the novices, a training period which usually last 2 years. I met the novices in the teaching room, where they take lessons in Spanish, vocational singing and scripture reading. Why do they want to become nuns, I ask and they smile shyly, mumbling about serving El Señor. Finding new novices and postulants is also the responsibility of each convent, not the Church. Foreign nuns have in recent years been allowed to visit their family every 4 or 5 years and to go home if there is a death in the family (funds permitting). During these travels, the sisters are ambassadors for their convent, trying to spur interest amongst young girls in their country to join their sisterhood.

Sor Isabel with the novices. Photo © snobb.net

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Sor Clara (44)

The lovely and shy Sor Clara. Photo © snobb.net

Sor Clara, or Herminia as is her Christian name, is originally from Aguas Calientes in Mexico. She grew up in front of the parish church, where she sang in a choir, participated in youth groups, and later taught bible studies. Recognizing her vocation, the local nuns invited her to a religious’ experience in a convent. Even then, she felt that this was what she wanted. Upon her parish’ urgings, she studied and became a Catholic schoolteacher instead. While working as a teacher for 5 years, she longed for a quieter life. She never forgot about her experience in the convent.  She knew that a cloistered life is what she needed to give her life meaning.

Organ player in habit. Photo © snobb.net

Sor Clara came from Mexico to Convento San Francisco, which has been her home or the past 9 years. “I am a very solitary person. I love silence, praying and being near nature, where I feel a direct connection with God.” But monastic living cannot be all easy, I wonder, and she admits that it took her some time to get used to the non-spicy Spanish food, and more so to adapt to Ronda’s mountain climate, which can be very cold in winter. The only task she doesn’t really look forward to, is the cooking, which is done on rotation among the sisters. The other nuns joke about how they all get thinner during the weeks when it is the Mexican sister’s turn to make the meals, but it is all done in good humour.

Sor Clara and Madre Nieves in convent kitchen. Photo © snobb.net

Sor Clara prefers to play music, religious music, of course. She is trying to learn to play the church organ so she can assist with Mass, though the convent only has a partly functioning organ for her to practice on. But, with the Franciscan sisters’ faith and patience, I am sure a proper organ will find its way to them, one day.

Possibly digging more than I ought to, I ask Sor Clara how she can help the outside world while being shut inside a convent. “We represent the world of the needy. We pray for those who do not pray, for those who suffer the most and for those who do not know God. For me, there is only God. Y Basta.” 

Prayer. Photo © snobb.net

Convento San Francisco is still managing to stay afloat, but I cannot help but wonder for how much longer these historical institutions will survive? Will people still want to join the order in the future, or is this the end of the sisterhood, as we know it?

“We have gone through many rough patches throughout history and we will pass this one, as well,” Sor Clara says. “Because ours is not a human project, it is a divine one.”

Sister in habit out and about. Photo © snobb.net

 



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