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Our Andalucian paradise

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

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

Ronda sunset. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

Plaza de María Auxiliadora.  Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

Here are a dozen + one reasons why: 

 

  1. Wake up on the edge

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


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

 

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

 

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

Cost: 150-250 € per night
 

 

 

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

Valley below, Ronda above. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

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

 

Albergue Molinos del Tajo. Photo © Karethe. Linaae


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

 

 

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

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


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

Ticket: 7€
Calories consumed: 300+
 


 

  1. Light a candle by the Virgin of Tears
     

Santa María la Mayor church. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

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

 

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

Entrance: 4.50 €
Candle donation: 1 €

 

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

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


Museum 3.50 €
Hammam with massage 33€

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

Tapas. Photo © De Locos Tapas

3-5 € per tapa
 

 

 

  1. Enter the bullring that Hemingway made famous
     

Plaza de Toros. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

Plaza de Toros de Ronda. Photo © Karethe Linaae


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


 

 

  1. Taste wine in a former convent garden
     

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

 

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

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


 

 

  1. Pit-stop at Los Arcos
     

Tabanco Los Arcos. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

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

 

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

Tapas 1.5 – 2.5 €

 

 

 

  1.  Enjoy a sundowner on the roof of Hotel Catalonia 
     

 View from Hotel Catalonia rooftop bar. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

Drinks 3 - 5 €
View: Priceless
 

 

 

  1. Dine with a Michelin star chef
     

Michelin star gourmet chef Benito Gómez. Photo © Tragatá

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

 

  1. Sleep a la Philippe Starck
     

Cortijo LA Organic Boutique Hotel. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

Living Room designed by Starck Studio. Photo © Karethe Linaae 

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

 

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

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



Like 1        Published at 15:17   Comments (4)


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

Sangría. Photo © Karethe Linaae


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


Tinto de verano (summer red wine)


Tinto de verano. Photo © Karethe Linaae

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


Sangría 
 

Sangría. Photo © Karethe Linaae

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

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

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

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

 

Rebujito
 

Rebujito. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

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

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

 

Cerveza
 

Cerveza & Clara con limón 1 . Photo © Karethe Linaae

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

 

Agua?


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

 

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

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

 

Sangría-sunset, Ronda. Photo© Karethe Linaae



Like 3        Published at 15:34   Comments (3)


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

Infinity view at La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae


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

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

 

Shadow play. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Leave your car, and your worries, behind

 

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

 

Sunset seating. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

La Dehesa Biodinámica farm. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

Boots anyone? Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

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

 

La Donaira today. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

Laura suite, La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

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

 

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


Custom sink, La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

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

 

 

From Steinways to Stallions

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

 

Stone on stone. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

River rock walk. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

Lusitano. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Bee beds or horse-back yoga?

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

 

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

 

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

 

Grounding with Paula. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Tinto for two. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

 

0 km field-to-fork experience

 

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

 

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

 

Behind the Wisteria. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Until next time

 

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

 

Walking towards sunset. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

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


Kitchen La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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


Looking out. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

Finca La Donaira in the green. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

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

 

Hat collection. La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

For more information, please go to Finca La Donaira


Saddle, La Donaira. Photo © Karethe Linaae



Like 0        Published at 18:21   Comments (2)


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

Lost in Lavender. Photo © Karethe Linaae

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

Spring babies. Photo © Karethe Linaae

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

Huerto Leveque from above. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

Water deposit with frogs and carps. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

Impromptu greenhouse. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

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


Produce from huerto urbano. Photo © Patricia Montesinos Maestre


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

 

Onions. Photo © Karethe Linaae


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


Fresas. Photo © Karethe Linaae


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

Red and blue. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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


We love community gardens. Photo © Patricia Montesinos Maestre
 

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

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


Welcome to Huerto Leveque. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

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


Patricia and the sun. Photo © Patricia Montesinos Maestre
 

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

 

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

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

 

Hortelanas unite. Photo © Karethe Linaae

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

 

Huerto guard. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

Bees abound. Photo © Karethe Linaae


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

Creative touches. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Some people also find digging in the ground meditative.  

A little break. Photo © Karethe Linaae

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

José Antonio under the quince. Photo © Karethe Linaae


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


Laura. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

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


First visit after a stormy spring. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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


Huerto bounty. Photo © Karethe Linaae


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

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



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

Vanity, be gone! Photo © Karethe Linaae

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

 

Still me... Photo © Karethe Linaae

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

 

Playing artist. Photo © Karethe Linaae


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

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


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

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

 

Life explorer. Photo © Stein Myhrstad

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

 

In the blues. Photo © Karethe Linaae

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

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

Buddha on Mac. Photo © Karethe Linaae



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Spain's one kilometre of freedom
08 May 2020

Morning mood. Photo © Karethe Linaae

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

 

Ronda as sun rises. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

1 km radius of freedom. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

 

New mobility rules
 

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

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


Downhill. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

Behind the gate. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

What about the social Andalusians?

 

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


Churro break for rondeña exercisers. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Lone walker. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Pre-sunrise walkers

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

The barrio at dawn. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

Towards the mountains. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

Poppies. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

Long-term changes

Abandoned streets. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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

 

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


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

 

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

 

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

 

Going home. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

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


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

 



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Breathe in. Breathe out - week five of lockdown in southern Spain
17 April 2020

Pink sky in the morning, sailors warning. Photo from bed © Karethe Linaae
I never thought I would say this, but I feel rather calm. For almost forty days now we have been in lockdown. In Spain this means that the only legal reasons we can leave home are to purchase food, medicine. I have stepped outside our front door all of seven times in the past month, three times to a nearby food store and four times to bring garbage and recycling to the top of our street. But am I really suffering? Not in the least!


Hope. Photo © Karethe Linaae

When the lockdown started, we began to frenetically clean our homes, while exchanging ideas on new and productive ways to stay busy. This included all the tasks we had put off forever, like preparing taxes, deleting photos or cleaning the utensil drawer liners. Inevitably, some people got bored with exercise videos or pacing the same circuit around their flats. I mean, how many times can you prance around your living room, tread up and down your stairs or like us do rounds on a 2 x 2 meter terrace without loosing your mind?

Table after round 98469183. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Yet, as days have become weeks, everybody seem to have chilled. We are not so worried anymore about what we have accomplished. While we used to count the days and speak about what we would do after this mess was over, most of us have now stopped calculating and planning. If the lockdown must last another month or two, so be it, we just want to be here to see it through. Of course we want to be back to ‘normal’, whatever that will be, but there is no point in agonizing about it. It is like the proverbial watched pot that never boils. The same is true about the lockdown, it won’t end any sooner if we sit and stare at the clock.

Following nature in microcosmic changes. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Relatively speaking a month inside is nada. “People complain about being at home for a few weeks”, said a 96-year-old woman who spent three years in a well (!) hiding from the Nazis, and two years starving in the Warsaw ghetto. Some Spanish republicans wanted dead or alive during the Spanish Civil War spent three decades hiding, until finally there was a public amnesty for their ‘war crimes’ in 1969. We are speaking about thirty years! Therefore, when the news mentions the psychological problems that people will have from being enclosed, I wonder what the world has come to. People are certainly justified in feeling concerned and even afraid of what is happening, but being forced to be at home is no real hardship. We are not in hiding. Most of us have every conceivable comfort. We can move around freely in our homes, open windows and doors and chat with friends and family in countless wireless manners.

More dramatic clouds on the horizon. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Everything we go through in life is a chance to learn. My mother, who grew up with five years of German occupation, says she is grateful that she lived through the war. It taught her to value what matters. Like battling a virus, wars also bring out the true nature of people. It is sometimes surprising who turn out to be the brave ones. Hopefully we will remember the pandemic’s unsung heroes, such as street cleaners, assembly line workers, bus drivers, shelf stockers and cashiers.

 

Heart. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Most days our entire neighbourhood are in pyjamas and sweatpants. Who cares! If we are going to be at home anyhow, we might as well be comfortable…

Before the storm. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Yet this extended PJ party can have some unfortunate side effects. We generally associate being at home with weekends and holidays, when we normally indulge in more treats. But the lockdown is not a holiday - it is a national emergency. Of course we should try to make the best out of the situation, but we cannot continue to celebrate living for another day during weeks and months without repercussions. If we believe that we deserve to treat ourselves continuously because we are ‘suffering’ at home, we are in for a rude awakening.

Tipping the scale. Photo © Karethe Linaae

The first and foremost concern during such a crisis is not catching the virus, but the second concern should therefore be how to remain as healthy as possible. Some researchers say that the average Spaniard will gain five kilos during the lockdown. Though this number might be arbitrary, many will come out of ‘hiding’ in worse shape than ever. Consumption of alcoholic beverages has increased notably nationwide. Bread purchases (and home baking) is up 200% and there is a huge boom in junk food sales. The 10 most frequently Googled recipes in Spain these days are cookies, lasagne, pancakes and the king of comfort foods – rice pudding. This doesn’t bode well for the future.

Alternate corona treat, rooibos tea with organic lemon peel. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Spanish health authorities have expressed particular concern for the country’s younger population, who now are given more treats and TV concessions than under normal circumstances, as parents try to appease their bored and fidgety offspring. Such instant gratification will backfire, as the more sugary teats the kids get, the more hyperactive they become. I know that it isn’t easy to entertain children and assure that everyone gets their daily exercise if one lives in a small flat, but necessity is the mother of invention.

When the fog rolled in. Photo © Karethe Linaae

As we enter week five of lockdown, I am not climbing the walls, like I usually do when I am homebound with even a 24-hour flu. The longer this lasts, the less I want to go out. We limit our food shopping to once a week and eating to twice a day (more than sufficient if one considers my all-time-low daily step count of 39). We avoid excessive news watching, nurturing ourselves by reading instead. If we cannot go places, we can always travel in our minds. With the books I am reading at the moment I am magically teleported to 1970’s Yemen and 1840’s Mexico. Is there any wonder that I dream about being an absentminded antihero at night?

Heavenly vision. Photo © Karethe Linaae

When I walked to the shop the other day, I noticed how rapidly spring had advanced while we have been inside. Yet I don’t consider it a lost season. This time-out is giving us a chance to reflect on what is important in life and to gain knowledge in new areas. As I communicate with friends from LA to Delhi, we all express the same concerns and have the same wishes for the future. We share the same destiny. Neither the Chinese nor the WHO is to blame for what has happened. It is not as simple as that. We all over-consumed, over-lived and over-travelled. We must all change.

It's a rainy day, hallelujah. Photo © Karethe Linaae

An unfamiliar calmness has descended upon the world. The rain is pouring down today. Normally I would call it a ‘bad day’, but this is no longer the case. From inside our home I watch the shifting skies and embrace weather changes without judgement. I would love to go out and feel the rain on my face or hike every mountain I can see in the distance, but for now I am more than content with walking unhurried meditative laps around the terrace table.

Behind glass. Photo © Karethe Linaae



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Mindfulness through the quiet storm
22 March 2020

Ronda behind bars. Photo © Karethe Linaae

It was bound to happen sooner or later. The virus, I mean. The planet is a very small place, and we are all interconnected - in sickness and in health, as the traditional wedding vow goes.

Take the example of Spain. With a staggering 83.7 million tourists visiting last year, this country is like a revolving door of cultures, money - and germs. Consider next the millions of nationals who work, study and vacation abroad, and then add every single item that is fabricated overseas and shipped here, and it is easy to see how a virus can become a global pandemic.

Reflections of the outside world. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Last Friday Spain declared a state of National Emergency. Together with the rest of the country, Ronda went into lockdown. Schools, businesses, stores, associations and churches, and even their beloved tapas bars shut down for an undetermined length of time. Reluctantly at first, the overly social Andalusians had to learn about public distancing, and though hand washing habits leave much to be desired here, the traditional kissing as a greeting is probably the hardest habit to break for the local populous.

Stay at home. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Now in week 2 of ‘house arrest’, most Spaniards have adapted to their new circumstances. In our little town, police are on the street ensuring that rules are enforced. The Spanish Legion is patrolling outside the regional hospital. Only one person from each family can leave the house for approved errands, such as buying food or medicine, or dog walking, preferably sporting surgical gloves and mask. No other outdoor activities are allowed, except a peak-over-your-shoulder jog to the garbage and recycling containers. Anyone breaking curfew risks being fined thousands of euros. Yet, as we scrub our hands, wipe door handles with alcohol and bathe our vegetables in diluted disinfectants, two people have now succumbed to the virus in our town. Others are in isolation, awaiting verdict.

Stay healthy. Photo © Karethe Linaae

At the moment, this is the new normal.

People are coping as best as they can in their homes, reading, cleaning, studying, sending stupid jokes on WhatsApp or watching movies. To be sure, most of us are not suffering any hardship, certainly not compared to let’s say the people of Syria. We have roofs over our heads, food in our fridge, electricity, running water and high speed Internet. Although the Amazon delivery guy looks like a character in Mask, online orders are allowed, and while mail is no longer delivered, we can still phone our loved ones.

Watch the birds. Photo © Karethe Linaae

The so-called isolation we are experiencing is probably good for us in more ways than one.

Speaking for myself, I might eventually learn to be a tad more patient. I have always done things as quickly as possible, but now with all the time in the world, I strive to approach what I am doing mindfully, even if it is something as inconsequential as cleaning the utensils drawer in the kitchen. Being legally required to stay at home forces us to become more inventive and possibly step out of our comfort zone. My almost 90-year-old mother has had to start washing and ‘setting’ her own hair, a task she likely hasn’t done for half a century.

 

Face your fears. Photo © Karethe Linaae

During house arrest we might be forced to face and even befriend our demons. Stillness is my nemesis, which I now have to embrace. Those who fear living alone might search for company in new things, be it a bird perched in their windowsill or the clouds blowing by. For others, the challenge is being enclosed with a partner 24/7. It is easy to snap at the only person that is near us in such trying times, but since there are no place to run away to, we must be aware that our words and actions may have different effects and consequences in our current situation. To get over this and come out better than we started, we should strive to be more malleable to change.


Quarantine means cleaner air.  Photo © Karethe Linaae

The other day my phone pedometer registered my daily step count at 72, while it usually is over 10.000. This would normally have driven me up the wall, but these are not normal times. So I practice my very short patience. I try to lengthen every move and every breath when I do my morning yoga. After all, there is no bell at the end of the hour or incoming class after me. I see breathing slowly into a pose that sometimes is not very comfortable as an analogy for the current situation.

Lonesome, but not alone. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

Though my husband claims to have computer work until Kingdom Come, there is no end to what one can do enclosed en casa. We witness locals inventing creative ways to stay in touch and support each other. A friend recorded himself playing guitar. A priest has started an online prayer group. Another friend started singing the first lines of a song, prompting others to continue, like a musical WhatsApp chain reaction. People we hardly know send suggestions for movies and documentaries to watch, articles to read or online TED talks to listen to. A Dutch couple we know have created an impromptu gym in their hallway. Others walk the stairs instead of the Stair Master or do walking meditation rounds on their stamp-sized balconies. I bet that our friend Pilar dances flamenco in her living room. Though I am a terrible cook, once I have finalized deep cleaning the entire house with a toothbrush, I might find a step-by-step video to finally learn how to make a decent Spanish tortilla.


When chores become joy. Photo © Karethe Linaae

What is positive about this communal confinement is exactly that - that it is a shared experience. Though we are in separate homes, we are in it together. There is a growing sense of solidarity. Increasingly, people seem to be less concerned about their appearances and more concerned about the well being of others. While in some places people may fight for the last package of TP in the grocery stores, here I find a growing sense of empathy, kindness and solidarity.

Closed, but not forgotten. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Every night at 8 pm residents all over Spain go to their windows or doors and clap for the doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, police officers and emergency personnel risking their heath and safety to help us through the crisis. Whether they have a choice or not, or are bound by a Hippocratic oath, it is still a commendable act. And for us, the enclosed masses, we thank them in our simple, yet exhilarating way, by clapping and cheering every night.

Sleep longer. Photo © Karethe Linaae

From her balcony in Barcelona a former opera singer and voice coach sings for the people living in the surrounding apartment buildings every evening, while her young son holds the tape recorder with the musical accompaniment. I can find no nicer way to share ones skills and passion in the current situation

Brighten someone's day. Photo © Karethe Linaae

It is an uncertain time for many. I feel for two neighbours who are about to give birth, whom I am sure are not only worried about the safety of the hospital itself, but also what world their new child will grow up in. My heart goes out to friends and family in northern Italy, to people who are sick, and for those waiting for hospital treatments, surgeries or results on cancer tests. What hardship do we have compared to theirs?

A chance to heal. Photo © Karethe Linaae

A doctor friend was quarantined after being exposed to a patient with the virus. The first thing he did when he returned to his office was to personally call every one of his patients to check how they were doing. Many are older and most were terrified. They know that they are the most vulnerable, yet they are often the least equipped to find out how to protect themselves. So, with all our extra time, we should try to find ways of helping those who cannot help themselves.

Pray. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Come what may, this is something we have to go through. In Ronda we are only in our second week of house arrest. We know it will go on for weeks and that it will get worse before it will get better. However, while we must shut our doors to our friends and neighbours, this is a great opportunity to open our hearts out to others and show random kindness, even if it is over the Internet.

Don't read too much news. Photo © Karethe Linaae

This crisis is a chance to learn to want less and live with less, to be grateful for what we do have and to willingly share our bounty. It is time to slow down, and stop counting our assets but rather our blessings. This is the time to be generous with our time, lending our ears and showing empathy. We cannot hug each other, so a friendly wave or a timely note means so much more. 

See the light, not the darkness. Photo © Karethe Linaae

The virus has forced us to stop in our tracks, giving the planet a break from our incessant pollution. It proves that we can stop Global Warming if we want to, or if we are afraid enough... This is not the last virus that will plague the earth. We ought to be mindful of its lessons so we might be better prepared next time around.

Light a candle. Photo © Karethe Linaae

I hope that humankind will come out of this crisis a bit wiser, kinder and more patient, and that we never forget that something as simple as going outside can be a privilege.

Simplicity. Photo © Karethe Linaae



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Lérida and the lesser known Spain
27 February 2020

Road tripping in the lesser known  Spain. Photo © Karethe Linaae

If you ask what Andalusians know about northern Spain, they might say the Camino de Santiago or Costa Brava, but almost certainly nobody will mention Lérida. So, when a ‘native’ friend invited my husband and I to explore her home province, we immediately signed up to find out more about this lesser known part of Spain.

Door detail, Vall d'Aran. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Lérida, or Lleida in Catalonian, is one of four provinces in the disputed autonomous community of Catalonia. The interior province spreads from Tarragona in the south to the French border in the north, and though less than half a million people live there, Lérida has three official languages: Catalan, Spanish and Aranese.

 

A city with a crown

Lérida by night. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

Most leridanos live in the city of Lérida, one of the oldest towns in Catalonia. A mere hour train-ride from Barcelona, the provincial capital is much lesser known than its coastal rival. But that is the best part  - you can still explore without being overrun by other tourists.

 

Magic alley. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Its name is derived from the llergetes, an Iberian tribe that lived there in the Bronze Age. The Romans finally annihilated the tribe, though many upheavals followed, such as the famous ‘Battle of Llerda’ in 49 BC, when Julius Caesar came to the city with 50.000 soldiers. Lérida was a Roman municipium of considerable importance, even minting its own coin. In the cellar of the city hall, a dock where prisoners were brought from the River into the town jail can still be seen.

 

Roman prison and river dock in the basement of Lérida's city hall. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Later, Lérida was under Visigoth and Moorish rule until a Catholic army re-conquered the city in 1149. Next followed a period of flourishing art and culture, when the University of Lérida, the third oldest in Spain, was founded in 1297. The city’s affluence was partly due to wealthy Jewish and Muslim communities, though the Inquisition brought this to an abrupt end.

 

Lérida today

The Llergetes, statue in Lérida. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

Unless one hits their famous fog, the first thing visible when entering Lérida is the old cathedral towering over a city, with the town spreading beneath on either side of the River Segre. The pedestrian street crossing the old town must have Spain’s highest concentration of chocolate, marzipan and cake shops. The most famous is Pastelería Tugues, which is member of the exclusive Relais Dessert and produce such exquisite pastries that they occasionally supply the royal family.

A must for every visitor is the Seu Vella, Lérida’s most emblematic building. Constructed in the 13th Century, the Byzantine-Gothic cathedral was turned into a military citadel in 1714. With the adjoining Moorish fort, this republican army stronghold was bombed extensively during the Spanish Civil War. Today a museum, the lofty interior is lit up by arched windows with alabaster panes instead of glass.

Windows with alabaster panes in Seu Vella. Photo © Karethe Linaae.jpeg
 

Even if you do not enjoy a trip back in history, you will be overwhelmed by the majestic views that on clear days include the Pyrenees.

View from  Lérida's cathedral hill. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

Needing a break from the sightseeing, we join the leridenos in their favourite afternoon activity – the vermouth hour - on the sunny outdoor terrace at Bodega Blasi. We order a glass of the local Vermú, served on ice with a lemon slice and filled up with a vintage style soda spritzer bottle. Add some local finger seafood and it doesn’t get much better.


Vermouth hour. Photo © Antonio Gomez

 

A Gastronomic Eden

Lérida’s plains are the Catalan food basket, with fruit orchards, olive groves and undulating meadows. The province’s agricultural based economy includes food-processing, farm equipment, feed factories and breweries.


The bountiful Lérida Plains. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The mild climate in the south favours cultivation of peaches, apricots and cherries. The north offers rich grazing land, while the higher Pyrenees is the stomping ground of wild boars. In Lérida, you can follow your taste buds from one unique village to the next. And the leridenos do not easily push away from the table, as we discovered when we were invited to a village feast.


La Negreta of Mafet. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Mafet in the municipality of Agramunt has only 67 inhabitants. This count might include the vagrant dog ‘Negreta’ which everyone cares for. A hamlet of merely two streets, most supplies have to be brought in from outside, certainly when hosting a BBQ for fifty Catalans, a dozen children, a handful rescue dogs and 4 adopted Andalusians. So while the locals lit a BBQ large enough for three whole pigs, we went to hunt for dessert.

 

The Communal Catalan Sweet Tooth

Pure sin. Photo © Antonio Gomez


The people of Lérida have an undeniably sweet tooth and Agramunt is their Mecca. The nougat, called turrón, is even copyrighted. The biggest producer is Turrón Vicens, which exports throughout Spain and receives daily tourist buses full of sugar-fanatics. Traditional turrón contains honey, sugar, egg whites and nuts, but Vicens’ repertory also includes mojito or raspberry-vinegar flavour.

Yet the real connoisseurs know that the best turrón is found at Torrons Fèlix, a small family business a few streets away where Fèlix and his daughter make everything by hand in the back room.

 

Wall decor at Turrons Fèlix. Photo © Antonio Gomez

 

Our friends insist on another quick stop – in chocolate heaven. The Jolonch chocolate factory, anno 1770, displays old chocolate making equipment and their historical wrapper designs.

 

Jolonch chocolate factory, still producing by hand. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

It is said that in 1940, when Franco’s forces were about to shoot President Lluís Companys, his last wish was a piece of Agramunt chocolate.
 

Jolonch historical chocolate wrappers. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Jolonch chocolate, since 1770. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Following his advice, we order a cup of hot chocolate, so thick that a spoon will stand up straight in it, before return with more deserts to the party.  

 

Village feast a la Mafet

In Mafet’s community hall a 25-meter table is filled with local specialties, including heaping trays of Catalan pizza coca de recapte. As we sit down, I take the opportunity to ask my fellow diners about local cuisine.

Coca de recapte, pizza Lérida style. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The first staple of any Iberian table is of course wine. Most bottles produced in Lérida have a Denominación de Origen seal. Local whites are light and fruity, while reds have more body and zest. There are also fortified sweet varieties, one whose name certainly caught my attention - Vino Rancio (Rancid wine).

 

Rancid wine anyone... Photo © Karethe Linaae


One cannot speak about Lérida without mentioning cava. If you think Freixenet when you hear the word, you obviously haven’t travelled around Lérida. Like the rest of the territory, the province has more cava producers than Rioja has wine makers. And while most of us think of sparkling wine for festive occasions, leridanos will drink it morning, noon or night, even accompanied by chocolate and churros!

 

Leridanos, 1958. Photo from Jolonch Chocolate Factory museum

 

Next on the menu is carne, and lots of it. Leridanos are big meat eaters for a reason, their lamb being the best we have eaten in Spain. In addition are their tasty sausages, especially the Longaniza and Butifarra varieties.

 

Butifarras on the BBQ. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Talking of meaty bits, although snails weren’t on today’s menu, they shouldn’t be ignored. Lérida is considered Europe’s snail cooking capital, with a dedicated festival. Every May, twelve tons of snails are cooked and consumed, using only toothpicks.

 

Escargots, traditionally cooked in a tin pan with salt and pepper. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Lérida cheeses are also second to none. Buttery and slightly pungent, they bring the green pastures of the Pyrenees straight to our table. Our party managed to polish off two wheels without sweating, and still there should be space for deserts…

Seven hours after arriving, our group is among the first to bid farewell, while the rest of the party continue into the night. Clearly, the slow food movement is not a new invention in Lérida.

 

From monks to labour unions


The Catholic re-conquest initiated the construction of many monasteries. One of these is the impressive Cistercian Monasterio de Poblet, founded in 1150.

Poblet monastery and surrounding fields. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it contains a royal pantheon and a priceless scriptorium (library) with works from the 13th Century.

 

Poblet monastery. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Once housing nearly 1000 religious brothers, today the enormous complex is home to a mere 25 monks. Yet the monastery is not stuck in the past.


Poblet monastery. Photo © Karethe Linaae


The monastery offers tours and sells in-house fabricated ceramics, wine, honey and jam. The cloistered monks also offer spiritual guidance and organize concerts. In addition, the abbey has a retreat centre and a restaurant, where you have the option of eating the monks' daily meal. 

 

Brothers in stone. Poblet monastery. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Lérida and the separatists

The organisational skills of the Cistercian monks were transmitted to local agriculture workers, to help them through difficult economic times. This idea promoted agrarian cooperatives, which later became the region’s agricultural unions.

 

Fruit picker. Statue outside Portell winery. Photo © JDLB

 

Since Lérida with its strong labour movement is sometimes said to be more separatist than Barcelona, travellers might be concerned about speaking to the locals. Many people from other parts of Spain believe that Catalonia is teeming with radical independistas who hate anyone from ‘the other side’, so how do leridanos treat visitors, especially if you don’t speak Catalan?

Buddies. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Though the Catalan flag hangs from almost every public building, in our experience, the people are courteous and friendly. Nobody looked at us twice, let alone mistreated us for not understanding their language.

 

Street. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Most leridenos are bilingual and many speak English. We generally spoke Spanish to people, who automatically would answer us back in Castellano instead of their native Catalan. Even local children seem to juggle the two languages with ease, flipping from one idioma to the other.

 

 

Lower and Higher Pyrenees

 

Mountain villages. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Northern Léria is one of the most mountainous regions in Spain, offering adrenaline junkies an action-filled holiday. The particularly vertically inclined might enjoy the vía ferrata, a trek by steel cables discovering troglodyte dwellings while crossing Tibetan bridges and zip-lines. If this is not your thing, the Pyrenees also offers nature walks, paddling and skiing in one of many local ski-centres.

 

Slaloming through the high Pyrenees. Photo © JDLB

 

For those seeking more leisurely pursuits, there is the scenic Tren dels Lacs (Lake Trains), a pleasant vintage train-ride from the capital to the Pre-Pyrenees.

The lower Pyrenees. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Vall de Boi – Patrimony for Humanity

The quaint villages in the Vall de Boi are dappled with hobbit-like stone houses and surrounded by snowy mountain peaks. However, the valley’s real attraction is nine Early Romanesque churches built between the 11th and 12th Centuries.

The magical Vall d’Boi. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, the ensemble is unique in the world and holds Europe’s largest concentration of Romanesque art.

 

Romanesque church in Vall d’Boi. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Perhaps the most astonishing of the lot is Sant Climent in the village of Taüll.


Romanesque church Sant Climent. Photo © Antonio Gomez

 

nside, ancient religious frescos are still detectable and get completely revealed in a mind-blowing light and sound show, literally transporting one back to the 12th Century.

 

Frescos in Sant Climent. Photo © JDLB

 

Light and sound show in Sant Climent. Photo © JDLB

Do not forget to climb up in the bell tower, an elegant 800-year-old construction of six floors with a to-die-for vista, as Taüll perfectly demonstrates harmony between cultural heritage and natural environment.


Vista from Sant Climent. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The Aran Valley – a tribe of its own

Feeling travel weary, we turn off the main road, cross a creek, make a few sharp bends and enter one of the last villages before the French border, the Aranese town of Es Bòrdes.

 

Es Bòrdes in Val d’Aran. Photo © Antonio Gomez

 

Lérida’s northernmost valley, Val d’Aran has unique autonomy and its own language - Aranese. Variations of this language are still spoken in an area known as Occitania, also including Southern France, Italy’s Occitan valleys and Monaco. Though nearly all locals understand Aranese, only 65% speak it.  For this reason, the language is protected and considered one of Catalonia’s official languages. 

Welcome to the Vall d’Aran. Photo © JDLB

In such an isolated spot, we are lucky to find a place to eat at all, though to our surprise the local restaurant serves excellent Aranese dishes, including wild boar stew. Our friend recommends Olla Aranesa, a root vegetable soup with white and red butifarra sausage, bones, chicken feet and anything else the cooks can lay their hands on - in other words, a perfect high-energy meal after a day in the mountains.

 

Olla Aranesa. Photo © Antonio Gomez

 

At the next table sits a French couple that has come across for lunch on the Spanish side of the border. They are the first foreigners we meet in a week of travelling around the province. To be sure, the province of Lérida is not the tourist hotspot it perhaps ought to be, but you better hurry as it won’t remain a secret for much longer.

 

Stone detail. Poblet. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Heading home to Andalucía, we load the car with our communal purchases: half a lamb, several lengths of butifarra, cheeses, farm-fresh butter and three cases of sparkling wine.

It is time we introduce the lerideno tradition of ‘cava around the clock’ to the Spanish south!

Cava. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 



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Growing Nuts in La Serranía de Ronda
20 February 2020

Acorns, another Serranía nut. Photo © Karethe Linaae

For most people nuts come shelled, bleached, salted, and packaged until they are but a pale relation of the original fruit. Here in the Spanish south though, nuts still grow on trees. Frutos Secos (dried fruits) as they are called are named after their low water content and include all nuts and some seeds.

In Ronda and surrounding mountain regions locals have been growing nuts since time immemorial. The traditional family farms included citrus and nut trees and what couldn’t be produced would be bartered for. Unfortunately, this type of small-scale bio-diverse farming is no longer profitable and therefore quite uncommon, but times are changing…

Autumn ground cover with chestnuts. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

Health nuts

People recognized the nutritional value of nuts long before we began eating ‘health food’. During periods of famine they were a source of much-needed calories, but since almost 80% of a nut is fat, a little goes a long way.

Chestnut products made in La Serranía de Ronda. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Like natural energy bars, nuts are rich in proteins, polyunsaturated fats, vitamins and minerals. Their health constituents are said to balance cholesterol levels, improve heart function and prevent diabetes and cancer. Nuts also keep well, and are an economical and convenient snack.

 

Almonds – a sensitive beauty

Almond tree in bloom. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Originating from the Far East, el almendro has been growing in the Mediterranean region since it was introduced by the Phoenicians 3000 years ago. People here say that the tree improves the rock, because they will grow on the most inaccessible crags.

Almond trees are some of la Sierra’s earliest bloomers and the first nuts to be harvested. Due to climate change, blossoms can now be seen in January. Maite Teresa Martos, who has a small organic almond orchard in Ronda’s gorge, explains that early sprouting risks later frost potentially ruining the crop. “Everybody around here used to grow almonds”, she tells me, “but people stopped picking them”. Producers like her cultivate almonds for private consumption or sell to wholesalers who supply the Spanish Turrón industry in the North.

Traditional almond orchard in Ronda. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Almonds contain Omega 6, magnesium, potassium, calcium, Vitamin E, thiamine and niacin. In addition to the fruit’s many food uses, almond oil is used in the cosmetics industry for creams, massage oils and other skin products, while the oil from bitter almonds is used as natural flavouring.

Almonds in shell, right from the tree. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Almonds account for most of global nut production of 2.4 million tonnes in 2018. 67% were grown in the USA, making the Spanish 5% share negligible by comparison. Ironic since Spanish missionaries is said to have brought the fruit to America in the 18th century. With increasing global demand and the popularity of new almond products, Spain’s production is once again increasing.

 

Chestnuts – a spiky lot

Chestnuts in summer. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Spanish chestnuts (castañas) were thought to originate in the Middle East, but recent prehistoric excavations have re-classified chestnut as native to Mediterranean countries. “Chestnuts were popular with the Romans because they could be dried,” says archaeologist Pilar Delgado explaining that the Romans also spread the species throughout the Iberian Peninsula.

Walking on Chestnuts. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Chestnuts and acorns were a vital part of people’s diet until the Spanish began to import potatoes from the Americas around 1570. The wood was used in carpentry and furniture making. Castanets used by Flamenco dancers were also made from chestnut wood - hence the name castañuelas. The trees can become ancient and giant, as one can see when visiting Andalucía’s majestic Castaño Santo, said to be almost 1000 years old.

Andalucia's old giant, el Castaño Santo. Photo © Karethe Linaae

The highly valued Spanish chestnuts (annual production of 18.000 tonnes) are exported to Europe, America and even Japan. With its ideal mountain climate, the Genal Valley produces 4 million kilos. Chestnuts are an important side-income for the white villages of Pujerra, Jubrique and Parauta with crops being sold to local cooperatives. The trees are picked in October, when the leaves turn golden and the valley becomes a Bosque del Cobre (a copper forest). 

Copper autumn with chestnut trees in Genal Valley. Photo © Karethe Linaae

The chestnut harvest is celebrated with traditional village fiestas, often dedicated to the towns’ patron saints. The menu offers roasted chestnuts and artisanal products made from the nuts, accompanied by a fortified sweet wine called Mistela.

 

Walnuts – cerebral and sundried

Walnuts on tree. Photo © Nueces de Ronda

The walnut tree is full of history. Originally from the East where it grew along the Silk Route, the tree is also the protagonist of one of Aesop’s fables, written by a Greek slave around 600 BC. The Romans introduced nogales or walnut trees to Spain. Today, China and USA are the biggest producers of walnuts, which are said to prevent cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases, while having antiarrhythmic and anti-inflammatory properties.

Walnuts from Nueces de Ronda. Photo © Karethe Linaae

Archaeologist Pilar Delgado confirms that our region had enormous walnut trees. As late as the 1970’s, pickers would climb into the tree crowns, some 50 meters tall, to harvest walnuts. Never touching the ground, they used an elongated hook, grabbing onto the next tree and flinging themselves like Andalusian Tarzans from tree to tree. What I would give to travel back in time…

 

Nueces de Ronda – a seal of quality

Walnuts from La Molinilla ready for consumption. Photo © Karethe Linaae

When nobody in Ronda wanted to pick walnuts anymore, the trees were cut down and sold as wood. Their cultivation was forgotten until the 1980’s, when José Luis Fernández Cantos decided to convert his olive farm La Molinilla to a walnut orchard. “It was a total experiment, starting out with 100 trees of 15 varieties”, smiles his son and current owner Álvaro Fernández Nebreda. Since nobody knew about modern walnut cultivation, they had to study American and Chilean farming techniques.

Álvaro Fernández Nebreda at La Molinilla walnut orchard. Photo © Karethe Linaae

More than three decades later, Spain’s oldest walnut orchard Nueces the Ronda has over 10.000 trees, yielding 40 tonnes in a good year. This could double within a decade with recent additions. “Our trees are like our children,” says Álvaro. Once picked and rinsed “with water and nothing else” the nuts are dried in the sun for about 3 days. Only with rain are drying machines utilized.

Walnuts drying at La Molinilla. Photo © Nueces de Ronda

The quality of Nuceses de Ronda is renown throughout Spain, though the company is yet to enter international markets. Like any crop walnuts have their challenges. The trees need huge amounts of water, yet a big rainstorm can be fatal. However, Andalucía nut industry’s biggest contenders are the enormous nut factories abroad, which bleach the walnut shells with chemicals. Consumers believe that is how nuts are supposed to look and taste, but that is only because they have not tried the walnuts from La Molinilla yet...

 

Pistachios – the Middle Eastern cousin

Pistachios from Los Llanos first harvest. Photo © José Manuel Dorado

In recent years, growers on the coast have experimented with Macadamia and Brazil nuts, but the latest trend in nuts in Andalucía is pistachio. Originating in the Middle East, where Iran used to be the biggest global producer, archaeological digs have found that Turks ate pistachios 7000 years ago. Though most Andalusian farmers are unfamiliar with pistachios, the nuts were common here in the Andalusi era. They disappeared completely right after the Catholic re-conquest. For centuries, nobody knew why…

“Christian farmers noticed that some of these foreign trees bore no fruit, so they cut them down” explains pistachio farmer José Manuel Dorado. What the farmers didn’t realize was that these male trees were needed to pollinate female ones. With no pollination there were no nuts, so shortly after the rest of the pistachio trees were also cut down. It took almost 500 years to bring the pistachios back to Spain. 

Pistachio fruit in summer. Photo © José Manuel Dorado

Apparently, eating pistachios makes you happy, since zinc and iron helps with brain function. Pistachios are also high in thiamine, magnesium, Vitamin B6, phosphor and copper, which aid metabolism and reduce fatigue.

Spain imports 95% of its pistachios, so the nuts are in high demand. While walnuts might cost 3-5 euros per kilo, this will only get you 100 grams of high quality pistachios. No surprise they are the new nut-farming fad! The fruits are harvested between September and October and the nuts have to be shelled and dried within 24 hours, or they may become toxic. Other farmers in La Serranía have pistachio orchards, but José Manuel is the only organic grower. “ I am a book publisher and knew nothing about farming,” so he spent a year learning everything he could about pistachios.

José Manuel Dorado grows organic pistachios in Alcala del Valle. Photo © José Manuel Dorado

After 5 years, his first harvest was given to friends and family who had supported him through the process. In a few years, he expects his farm in Alcalá del Valle to yield 1000 kg per hectare. “I could get double if I watered the trees, but I am not doing this to maximize production” he says. While others plant their trees 4-5 meters apart, his trees are 7 meters apart, having 49 square meters to spread their roots. After the first couple of years, pistachios can grow without watering, producing fruit for 150 years, contributing to their environmental suitability.

Dormant organic pistachio trees at Los Llanos. Photo © Karethe Linaae

What is the future of nuts in la Serranía? Our mountain region can never compete with the vast mechanical nut farms in California and China, but if Andalucian growers continue to cultivate nuts in smaller orchards with natural farming methods, their product will always be superior.

Rural Andalusian mountain farm. Photo © Karethe Linaae



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