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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.

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

Picker with headlight. Photo ©

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

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

Descalzos Viejos wine and view. Photo ©

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

Wine container. Photo ©

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

Descalzos Viejos winery. Photo © Carlos Aires

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

Wall of former monastery. Photo ©

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


Descalzos Viejos blends old and new architecture. Photo ©


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


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


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

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

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

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

Pepe restoring frescos in 2002 . Photo © Carlos Cáceres

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


Altar wall with frescos. Photo ©


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

Grapes ready for pressing, Photo ©


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

Descalzos Viejos' six wine types. Photo ©

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

Harvesters only tools. Photo ©


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

Vines with fall colours. Photo ©


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


Descalzos Viejos grapes. Photo ©

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

By the fire. Photo ©


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


Daybreak. Photo ©


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


Nocturnal grape harvest. Photo ©


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


Catching a ride. Photo ©


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


Garnacha Tintorera grapes. Photo ©


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

Loading grapes. Photo ©

Vicente and María sorting grapes in early morning. Photo ©

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

Church with stainless steel wine tanks. Photo ©


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

Church nave looking towards entrance. Photo ©

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


Fresco detail. Photo 2002 © Carlos Cáceres


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

Cloister walk Photo ©

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


Water feature. Photo ©


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


Pomegranate. Photo ©


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

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


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


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

Cork CU. Photo ©

Like 0        Published at 08:01   Comments (3)

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

Flamenco dress, Antequera. Photo ©

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

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

Train to Varanasi. Photo ©

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

Peaking into history in Übeda. Photo ©



Visual impressions

ink Bougainvillea, Jerez de la  Frontera. Photo ©

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


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

Poppy field in Nigüelas. Photo ©

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

La Mezquita de Córdoba. Photo ©


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

Mellow yellow wall, Malaga


Auditory impressions

The rebellious donkey in Plaza San  Fransisco. Photo ©

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


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

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

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

Church tower by night. Photo ©


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

Flock of sheep with shepherd outside Ronda. Photo ©


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

Coti singing. Photo ©



Olfactory impressions

Oranges, Sevilla. Photo ©

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


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

Lemon blossom, Valle Lecrin. Photo ©


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

Incense carrier, Ronda. Photo ©


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

Wild lavender, La Serranía de Ronda. Photo ©


Gustatory impressions

Fresh from the campo. Photo ©


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


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

Tomates aliñados. Photo ©


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

Sardines from Chiringuito in Malaga. Photo ©


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

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

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

The coffees of Malaga. Photo ©


Tactile impressions

Cork Bark. Photo ©

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


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

How could you not want to hug this friendly giant?

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

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

Rock formation, Ronda. Photo ©


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

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

On another sensory journey. Photo ©



Like 6        Published at 16:12   Comments (3)

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Legend Of The House Of The Moorish King

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

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

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

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

Casa del Rey Moro today. Photo ©


The Duchess With A Conscience

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

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

Garden pond. Photo ©

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Islamic Kingdom Of Ronda

Sign at the entrance to the mine. Photo ©

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


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

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

Vertical view from terrace. Photo ©

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

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

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

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

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


The Question Of The 365 Steps

Entering the mine. Photo ©

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

Detail of wall in mine with lime deposits. Photo ©

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

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

Water Ways And Air Ducts

Hidden window. Photo ©

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

Upper stairway. Photo ©

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

Ancient skylights. Photo ©

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

Stairway with natural light from exterior. Photo ©

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


The cathedral like mine with airy inner walls. Photo ©

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

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

A True Tale Of Slaves

Stairs where slaves carried water. Photo ©

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

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

Perfectly vaulted ceiling in the Room of Secrets. Photo ©

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

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

The Secret Of The Crosses

Crosses from pre and possibly post Catholic conquest. Photo ©

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

Initials on mine wall. Photo ©

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


The Myth Of The Bathing Nymph

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

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

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

Magical view of the river below. Photo ©

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

A place for a bathing princess? Photo ©

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


A Missing Hole Or A Muslim Traitor?

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

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

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

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

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


The Dark Years And The Mad American

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


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

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

Halls and terraces. Photo ©

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

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

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


The Last Unwritten Chapter

Not completely state of the art… Photo ©

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

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

Lofty, but narrow stairway in mine shaft. Photo ©

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

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

For more information, please go to La Mina de Agua

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

Like 3        Published at 16:21   Comments (6)

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

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


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

Tango for two. Photo ©


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

As I walked in Eden... Photo ©


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

Read my trunk. Photo ©


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

Reincarnation. Photo ©


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

Fields of gold. Photo ©


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

Olive sky. Photo ©


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




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

Growing up in a bucket. Photo ©


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

Twins. Photo ©


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

The toro and olive with a slight bend. Photo ©




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

Opposites attract. Photo ©


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

Entangled. Photo ©


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

Hold me! Photo ©


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

Falling out. Photo ©


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

Mother with child. Photo ©


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

Reunited.Photo ©



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


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

The stag. Photo ©


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

Short and hairy type. Photo ©


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

Standing tall. Photo ©




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

Being encapsulated by a concrete fence,

Rooted in concrete. Photo ©


living without a core, 

Hollow. Photo ©


loosing another limb,

Decapitated again. Photo ©


showing signs of early childhood trauma,

What I have lived. Photo ©


or experiencing Amnesia or holes in the memory.

Patchwork. Photo ©


Some are left with only skin and bones.

Sinewy. Photo ©


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

New elbow. Photo ©




Believe it or not, there are trolls out there.

Two-fingered troll. Photo ©


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

When stout town’s folk looked like Hobbits,

The Hobbits. Photo ©


and a tree could become an elephant’s head,

Elephant trunk. Photo ©


or a double eyed giant.

Double eyed giant. Photo ©




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

The symphony. Photo ©


with flowing Flamenco skirts,

Flamenco dancer. Photo ©


and a peacock crown.

The peacock. Photo ©


sometimes growing in the air,

Roots. Photo ©


always magical.

Ageing beauty. Photo ©




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


rambling in the green,

Centenarians in the green. Photo ©


or finding love at long last.

Love at last. Photo ©


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


The wall. Photo ©



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

Daughter, mother and grandmother.  Photo ©


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


The old priest with smart phone.  Photo ©

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


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


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


Two for one. Photo ©


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

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


3 generations of Andalusians. Photo ©


The Grandmother

Name: Antonia

Age: 83

Occupation: Dressmaker

Level of education: Illiterate

Antonia today.  Photo ©


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

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


Antonia as young  girl ca 1938


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

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


Antonia posing for painting at 14, ca 1950


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


Antonia's 3 children ca 1970


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

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


The Mother

Name: María del Mar

Age: 50

Occupation: Self employed jeweller

Level of education: Primary


María del Mar. today.  Photo ©


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

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


María del Mar ca 1973


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


María del Mar at 14, 1983


Life was very different in Andalucía then.

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

” What”, I ask?

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

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

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



The Daughter

Name: María del Mar

Age: Soon 18

Occupation: Student

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


 María del Mar Jr. today. Photo ©


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


 María del Mar Jr. ca 2003. Photo ©


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


School children in uniforms. Photo ©

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

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


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


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


School children in Ronda. Photo ©


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

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



Like 4        Published at 16:56   Comments (10)

Does anybody sleep on Andalusian summer nights?
18 July 2019

La Alameda 1. Photo ©

Norwegians sing about not wasting precious time sleeping during their luminous summer nights. And with those long and dark winters, who can blame them?

I have noted however, a similar nocturnal awakeness phenomenon here in the Spanish south. In our hometown of Ronda people also choose to stay awake longer and later, or seemingly not sleep at all in summer. This is not due to the midnight sun of course. The reason is simply that at this time of the year the nights are ironically the best part of the ‘day’.

Plaza San Fransisco. Photo ©

When daytime temperatures exceed 30 degrees Centigrade in the shade and eggs can fry upon any sunny ledge, it is wise to seek shelter. Unless you must go out, the safest alternative is to stay indoors and only cautiously emerge from hiding in the late evening. Ronda is not as hot as Córdoba, otherwise known as Spain’s frying pan, whose temperatures can get near 50 degrees. Our town’s saving grace is its altitude and the mountains that surround us, which brings overnight temperatures down into the mid-teens. This dip provides a welcome break from the sizzling rays and a much needed cooling down of all systems.

Ronda by night. Photo ©

As soon as darkness falls the people of Ronda flock out on the street, young and old, to seize the day by night. Actually, we do not have to leave our home to observe part of this summer night tradition. While our street is almost eerily quiet during summer days, when we head to bed around 11 pm it seems that all the three-year-olds in the neighbourhood have suddenly been let out to play, not to be called home until the wee hours of the morning.

Bedtime. Photo ©

For once, my husband and I decide to stay up and join the locals in a nocturnal summer stroll to see what happens in Ronda in midsummer after dark.

The restaurants in our local square are popular all year around, but on summer evenings there can be dozens of groups waiting for tables. Whether the guests get seated at 10 pm or at midnight, never mind, appetites are only sharpened. Families, including frail grandparents and toddlers way past recommended bedtimes, order drinks and food enough for a small army, while the barrio’s stray cats lurks about, waiting for a spare morsel.

Three generations waiting for restaurant table. Photo ©

The playground swings are in demand long after midnight. Children run around on permanent sugar highs, only coming back to their parent’s table to hurl down a last sip of Coca Cola or to get maternal comfort over a scraped knee. While elderly residents occupy the surrounding benches, youngsters on bikes and scooters zoom around the plaza in semi darkness. Older boys play a game of football, booting the ball onto the street or under restaurant tables without anybody taking much notice.  

Swings. Photo ©

The local teenage girls have other games on their mind. With almost three months of holiday and generally no obligations other than rolling out of bed in time to be served lunch, their main occupation is parading about. The girls gather in large groups, generally scantily dressed in identical far-too-brief (practically cheeky) shorts, crop tops, sockless white sneakers, long ironed hair and the latest in dental-brace technology. They head downtown where similar groups of the opposite sex are waiting. Later, we see the girls again, one dragging along a pimply boyfriend, whose squeaky voice doesn’t seem to take away from his many charms. Like the tomcats in the barrio, the teenage lads circle around the females, ready to pounce, hoping to end the night with a hand snuck into bodily crevices that daylight hours would not permit. Such is teenage love and young lust readily on display on hot summer nights.

Girls. Photo ©

In the Alameda park, proud parents promenade with strollers, dogs chase balls and couples watch as the sky goes from pink to purple to deep cobalt blue.

La Alameda 2. Photo ©

Ronda isn’t yet offering midnight shopping to jetlagged travellers, so the street-long pedestrian mall turns into a bar hopping exploit. There are no lack of patrons in any of the town’s restorantes, courtyard cafés, rooftop bars and street-side eating establishments.

Square inside city wall. Photo ©

Waves of loud conversation and happy cheers are only interrupted by an occasional late night lover’s quarrel. Inevitably, a woman will be seen weeping into her cell phone, later to be reunited with her betrothed, proving that hot nights may lead to happy endings.

Bar hopping. Photo ©

We notice a lot of parents with young children hurrying across the Puente Nuevo into the historic quarter of town. Are they finally recognizing that the witching hour has long passed and are going home to put their kids to bed? Following the crowd, we come to an impromptu outside cinema, set up against the old city wall. Several hundred popcorn-fuelled children with parental guides stare wide-eyed at the screen. The town is offering free movie Wednesdays with today’s feature being the latest animated version of Ferdinand. All the bulls are speaking Spanish, as they should, of course.

Movie night. Photo ©

Ferdinand. Photo ©

The church bells of Santa María la Mayor strike twelve, but nobody budges.

Santa María la Mayor and Ronda town hall. Photo ©

Like some other churches in the south, Santa María has opened their roof for visitations. We decide to end our night by climbing onto the catwalk leading around the church towers. We soon realize that we are not the only ones with this idea, as moon gazers and hobby astronomers naming star constellations join us in enjoying Ronda’s best night views.

Walkway around Santa María la Mayor. Photo ©

Feeling content with our expedition, we head home through the old town, careful not to be flattened by nocturnal speeding bikers, pizza delivery mopeds or a lonesome brave runner. For night owls who have had enough of street roaming, there is always an until-sunrise concert on offer, or if less festively inclined, night walks with head lanterns.

View from Santa María la Mayor. Photo ©

Even the animals in town seem to keep summer hours. A canine choir competes with a lame 1980’s remix band playing at a wedding somewhere up on the cliff.

Ronda's cliff restaurants. Photo ©

The town does eventually quiet down, except for the occasional braying sheep, love struck cats or partying neighbours, but by this time we are in bed with our windows open, letting in the cool night breeze and the scent of night blooming jasmine. 

Night sky. Photo ©

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When given two buckets of plums, tis’ time to make another Spanish liqueur!
11 July 2019

Cheers. Photo ©

The other day a neighbour asked if we wanted to come over to her house and pick some plums. Not being able to resist an offer of organic fruit, we happily agreed. Subjected to the customary Andalucian generosity, we returned home with two heaping bags of organic plums, one bag of organic almonds, three humongous branches of their spectacular flowering bougainvillea and a potted seedling of a most rare type of cactus.

Cactus in bloom. Photo ©

In addition, as if that weren’t enough, they waved us off with the carte blanche invitation to come back for more any time. They also extended a personal invitation for me to raid their bitter almond tree in the fall, as few people share my love of this unappreciated delicacy.   

Plum picker. Photo ©

That was last night, so when we woke up this morning with plums galore and still only two mouths to feed, my first question was how to utilize them. I have never made plum liqueur before, but since I have made quaffable liqueurs from cherries, pears, lemons, oranges, almonds, walnuts, quince and god knows what else, plums were next in line.




Plum bath. Photo ©


Ca. 1.5 kilo plums

1 large or 2 small organic lemons (only the peel is used, so choose accordingly)

100-ish grams of sugar (I haven’t yet succeeded with stevia, so I use the smallest amount of sugar possible)

750 ml vodka, or 500 ml vodka and a generous glass of brandy


Condiments (feel free to add/subtract)

A few pods of green cardamom

A drizzle of whole coriander seeds

A slug of Mexican vanilla extract (genuine or nada!)

And a shake of Sichuan peppercorns



* Peel the lemons.

* Add lemon rind, sugar, spices, vanilla and vodka to a 2-litre sealable glass jar.

* Fill with whole clean plums until the fruit reach the top of the liquid.

* Store out of sight and mind for 4-6 months.

* Remove the plums. Most recipes will tell you to discard the liqueur-infused fruit, but I do nothing of the kind. I usually boil them to get rid of some of the alcohol, which also makes them easier to pit. Then I chop them and use them in baking with very tasty results.

* Decanter into a bottle and enjoy.

Plum Liqueur in the making . Photo ©

Before you get brewing, I want to make it clear that this is not an official recipe. It is more of a loose suggestion to encourage other plum lovers to get creative.  No measurements are accurate and all may be altered according to taste. Furthermore, I cannot guarantee the result, as it really shouldn’t be opened until near Christmastime. What I can promise is that nobody has died of drinking my liqueurs yet, none of my liqueurs-in-progress has ever exploded, and all who have partaken in my happy hooch experiments have rather enjoyed them.

As far as the inherited bag of organic almonds is concerned, it almost forces me to revamp our supply of homemade Amaretto, but I will leave that project for the fall.

Almonds, not yet ready to pick. Photo ©

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What do Philippe Starck, olives and Ronda have in common? LA Organic Experience
04 July 2019

Starck designed parking lot with photographic art. LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

Ronda in southern Andalucía is world-renown for its stunning views, fascinating past, and for the famous artists who have come here to write and paint throughout history. What Ronda is not known for is cutting-edge architecture, innovative global marketing, forward thinking ecological production, and least of all, world famous designers. It might therefore come as a surprise to some that merely a couple of kilometres outside our town-centre lies Spain’s most progressive and unique olive oil production and Oleo Tourism facility - LA Organic Experience.

Entrance gate LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

Imagine the chatter in our little town some years back when a local company engaged none other than Philippe Starck to design their olive oil bottles! At that point, the words ‘organic’ and ‘cutting edge’ were rarely seen together, certainly not here in rural Andalucía. Yet LA Organic went against the current, creating a line of organic olive oils using Starck’s vanguard product designs. I have been an admirer of his ever since I got his space age lemon press thirty years ago. For those do not know of him, Philippe Starck is a French designer, inventor and architect with 10,000 creations to his name, ranging from cooking tools to wind turbines. For some rondeños, many of whom make their own oil or buy magnum bottles directly from the mill, hiring a celebrity designer for such a ‘basic’ task must have been seen as extremely extravagant or even foolish. However, for the creators of LA Organic Experience, it was time to give the national industry of Spain the attention it deserves.

Reception LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

Olives have grown on the Iberian Peninsula for millennia. The Romans started mass-producing and exporting millions of litres of Spanish olive oil. Later, the Arabs improved on the production process and expanded its uses, and while they were exiled from Spain 5 centuries ago, the Arab name for oil, aceite, still remains.

Tour of olive trees at LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

Spain is by far the world’s largest producer of olive oil accounting for more than 50% of the current global production, and most is produced right here in Andalucía. It is therefore vital for the economy to scrutinize and at times rethink its production and marketing process. In contrast to Italy which has a reputation for supreme quality and design, made in Spain is still often regarded as ‘cheap and cheery’ by international consumers. LA Organic Experience aims to change this perception.

The Starck signature parking lot at LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

To know more about the Company, I made an appointment with the General Director, Santiago Muguiro. Coming to meet me straight from the olive fields, it immediately became clear that running this Oleo Tourism facility is no desk job. Santiago is young, passionate and full of ideas. “I come from a wine background” he tells me, adding that his family are the proprietors of the venerable Marqués de Riscal winery. “Like some Rioja vineyards have done with wine, we want to educate the public and become pioneers of olive oil tourism in Spain,” he says. Whereas Marqués de Riscal engaged architect Frank Gehry to create a luxury hotel for wine lovers, LA Organics partnered up with Starck to create the branding, packaging and the landscape of LA Organic Experience.

The original olive oil bottle by Philippe Starck. © LA Organic

LA Oro olive oil with design by Philippe Starck. © LA Organic

Just to clarify, the name has nothing to do with Los Angeles. It refers to La Amarilla, a Ronda farm owned by the Gómez de Baeza family, located in an area where nuns produced olive oil for centuries. In 1990 the family decided to re-establish the Sisters’ tradition and founded LA Organic. The Company expanded to their present location due to increasing demand for their premium oil. With investments from six international visionaries like Starch and wine expert Michel Rolland, LA Organic Experience now covers 25 hectares with 9000 olive trees of 20 varieties. The fully organic crop is planted with variable spacing to demonstrate the difference between traditional and new intensive farming methods. The latter area is composed of the fast-growing Oliana olive, which future visitors will be able to harvest and bottle themselves as part of the Experience.

Vista with young olive trees at LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

But LA Organic Experience goes far beyond oil. It is a journey that combines culture, nature and gastronomy. The Experience starts immediately as one enters the property through industrial design gates. The iconic symbol of Mediterranean gastronomy is everywhere, including the window in the guard booth in the shape of an olive.

Olive shape window in guard booth at LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

The parking lot also has a Starck signature - a vast terra-cotta-coloured plaza framed by rust and stone walls with massive artistic photographs. In fact, everything including a bespoke adjacent hotel has a touch of the master, whose designs tend to be subversive, ethical, ecological, political, and last but not least, humorous.

Olive eyes. Artwork from parking lot LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

Santiago offers to bring me on their guided tour, which starts and ends in a brightly painted warehouse where olive tasting and mill demonstration take place. From here we begin a one-kilometre route lined by newly planted poplars and fragrant lavender bushes. Our first stop is an Arab-inspired organic vegetable and herb garden designed by Navarra horticulturist Floren Domezáin.

Organic vegetable garden. LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

The tour continues past fields of olives, a shallow resting pool surrounded by orange trees, an austere 19th Century chapel, as well as a stunning plaza of century old olive trees framing the footprint of where once an old farmhouse stood.

Ancient olive trees at La Plaza de la Carlota. LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

Since olives and wine go hand in hand, the property also includes a sloped hill of a thousand grapevines of the Pinot Noir variety, perfectly suited for growing at these altitudes (approx. 800 meters over sea level). The vines are planted in terraces, thus recapturing a tradition the Romans established here 2000 years ago. With internationally acclaimed oenologist Michel Rolland at the forefront of this particular project, visitors should be able to enjoy world class LA Organic wine in a couple of years’ time.

Vista with grape vines. LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

En route, we pass several architectonic elements called the Six Surprises by Starck. For me however, the surprise of LA Organic Experience is the overall effect. With outmost attention to detail and deep respect for the natural surroundings, the Company has managed to create an unforgettable living tour – a visual, sensory and olfactory experience where something as small as an olive is the grand protagonist.

Road sign leading to LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

What we see today is only the tip of the innovative iceberg. Future plans include a sustainable bottling and labelling plant and the first-ever designer organic olive mill. Another Starck invention, La Almazara olive press and museum will be a high quality production facility with cutting edge technology dedicated to ecological agriculture and organic olive oil production. Wherever the future takes them, the LA Organic team is on the right track with their oil already available in 25 countries.

Santiago Muguiro, General Manager and CEO of LA Organic Experience. Photo ©

In the meantime, I wonder if the creator of the emblematic Alessi lemon press will become the inventor of an avant-garde design home olive press? What do you say, Philippe?

For more information, please go to

Starck point of view at LA Organic Experience. Photo ©


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

Front door ajar, Ronda. Photo ©

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

Just a small opening. Photo ©

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

Intruders disguised as Holy Three Kings. Photo ©

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

Lonesome door. Photo ©

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

Are you shaking your head yet?

Peaking in. Photo ©

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

Chained entrance. Photo ©

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

Door knocker, Galicia. Photo ©

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

Window Marbella. Photo ©

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

Over the fence. Photo ©

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

Doorway in Andalusian country estate Photo ©

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

Entrance, Granada. Photo ©

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

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

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

Open window Casco Histórico, Ronda. Photo ©

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

Magical street. Photo ©

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

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

Open courtyard. Photo ©

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

River's edge. Photo ©

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

Walking under the rock. Photo ©

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

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

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

Historical brotherhood. Photo ©

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

Cave house street and campo vista. Photo ©

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

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

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

Friday market. Photo ©

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

Kissing corner. Photo ©

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

Calle del la sombra. bnw. Photo ©

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

Calle de la sombra. Photo ©

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

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

Chapel. Photo ©

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

Troglodite banking. Photo ©

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

Setenil from above. Photo ©

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

Narrow street, Setenil. Photo ©

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

Roofline detail. Photo ©

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

Roof detail. Photo ©

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

Cave houses Setenil de las Bodegas. Photo ©

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

Calle cueva del sol. Photo ©

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

Menu, Setenil style. Photo ©

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

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

The 'ceiling' of our restaurant. Photo ©

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