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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 Norwegian bodeguero in the sherry golden triangle
Wednesday, December 29, 2021

Bodegas Fernando de Castilla. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Bodega Fernando de Castilla. Photo © Karethe Linaae


A bodeguero is a person who owns and runs a wine bodega. Other than bull fighters, you probably won’t find a more typical Spanish profession. Yet to some people’s surprise, there is a genuine Norwegian bodeguero right in the middle of the golden triangle of sherry production, in the old town of Jerez de la Frontera.  

Jan Pettersen (64) is the man behind the reputed Bodega Rey Fernando de Castilla. His sherry house is now the 8th biggest wine- and liquor exporter in the entire Cádiz province. In fact, a couple of days after I went to interview him, the Bodega was due to host the closing party for Copa de Jerez, an event that attracts some of the best restauranteurs and largest wine personalities in the world! So, we are not talking granny-sherry and cheap brandy.

Jan Pettersen, bodeguero. Photo © Bodega Fernando de Castilla
Jan Pettersen, bodeguero. Photo © Bodega Fernando de Castilla


His own sherry-house

Jan came from Norway to Barcelona exactly 40 years ago to undertake an MBA. On gradation in 1983 he was hired by Osborne (which at the time was the largest wine and liquor company in Spain) and became responsible for their Scandinavian market. Sixteen years later he was responsible for the Corporation’s international subsidiaries and distribution companies.

 

But how did you end up as the bodeguero for Fernando de Castilla?
“In 1999 Osborne wanted to reorganize the business and amongst others stop producing sherry. I had become a sherry romantic in my years with the company and thought that it was rather tragic that they would abandon such traditional productions. I tried without luck to buy their affiliated company that dealt with sherry and port wine. The business is so small here that everybody knows everybody, and soon it was known that I was looking to start on my own. And when I got the opportunity to buy this bodega in 1999, I didn’t hesitate”.

On a narrow street in old town Jerez. Photo © Bodega Fernando de Castilla
On a narrow street in old town Jerez. Photo © Bodega Fernando de Castilla

 

When Jan took over the business, Fernando de Castilla was a small company with a very limited product line and market.  He also acquired another smaller adjacent bodega, so that today’s company is a fusion of these two old sherry houses. “I got new people in and converted much of the production process and administration, so we went from selling less than 30.000 bottles a year, to currently selling more than 500.000 bottles annually”.

Bodegas Rey Fernando de Castilla is now one of the 10 largest producers in the sherry industry. Jan sits on the Board of Jerez’ official industry association that determines who gets the seal of origin, or D.O. (Denominación de Orígen). “The bodega has gone from selling almost exclusively within Spain, to exporting approximately 90% of production to more than 50 countries around the world”.

 

Bodega. Photo © Bodega Fernando de Castilla
Bodega. Photo © Bodega Fernando de Castilla


Norway as well?
“Absolutely. Norwegians are very fond of brandy, so we sell a lot of that, while Norway is a bit behind the trend in the sherry market, due to prohibited advertising and limitations on marketing etc. The country also has only 5 million people and charges enormous taxes and duties, so I have never prioritised targeting the Norwegian Wine Monopoly. Our biggest export areas are the UK, USA, Germany, the Baltic and Scandinavia, but we also sell a lot to China and Australia”.

 

Almost a native

How do the people of Jerez accept a Norwegian sherry-bodeguero?  
«It is quite strange, but I am so well integrated that people do not look at me as a foreigner anymore. Not at all! A while back the Chamber of Commerce asked me to give a speech about how it is to be a foreign businessman here in Jerez, but I had no comparison as I have only worked here. Maybe historically foreigners kept apart, but at present I am the only non-Spaniard on the board of the trade association. My wife is Spanish, our children were born and raised here and many of their friends come from the known Spanish sherry families. Perhaps I have brought some of the values, manners, seriousness from my native country, but otherwise I am practically a jerezano


Jan Pettersen outside Bodegas Fernando de Castilla. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Jan Pettersen outside Bodega Fernando de Castilla. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

How would you describe Jerez as a town?
«Jerez has kept its uniqueness and is a place with a genuine atmosphere, compared to other Andalucian cities. It is a bit like Bergen in Norway- a town that has existed forever, with the same families, the same dialect, and the same way of life. It is a traditional town where people are a bit ‘tweed’ and old fashioned. Jerez was very international in the past, when the largest sherry families came from the UK and France. Many locals still have English surnames like Gordon, McKenzie and Garvey, or from the French sherry-families - Lustau and Domecq. Our PR Director is from the Domecq-family. My cellar master, Pepe Jerez, whom I inherited from the former owner, started working here when he was 14 and has been here now for 45 years. His uncle was cellar master before him, and now his son works with us, so when Pepe retires, we will have a third generation cellar master at the bodega.»

Old destiller in Bodegas Fernando de Castilla. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Old destiller in Bodega Fernando de Castilla. Photo © Karethe Linaae 


Both timeless and trendy

«The Jerez-area has 3000 years of wine history. King Fernando de Castilla, whom the bodega is named after, reconquered Western Andalucía from the Moors, established the protectorate Jerez in 1264, and restarted wine production in the area.  Sherry was for a long time the most important international wine. About 100 years ago 10% of all Spanish export income came from sherry – almost the same percentage as the income the tourist industry gives the country today! Although sherry is far from being in the same position now, Jerez sherry is the third most exported wine in Spain after Rioja and Cava. Under the seal of origin D.O. Vino de Jerez and D.O. Vinagre de Jerez (sherry vinegar), we produce 140 million bottles a year. And if you include other wine and liquor products, we are talking nearly 500 million bottles. Per year!  Since the sherry golden triangle only has about 25 relevant bodegas with significant exports, production is very concentrated.»

 

Courtyard. Photo © Bodega Fernando de Castilla
Courtyard. Photo © Bodega Fernando de Castilla


What makes sherry so special to you?
«There is nothing else that tastes like sherry. If you develop an appreciation for it, you will find that there is no substitute. 20 years ago, I had a feeling that if I didn’t do something with this unique product, it would become insignificant. I was fascinated by its history and saw the possibility to recreate the market, and to teach foreigners that quality sherry is one of the most interesting gastronomic wines that exist.

With sherry there are two worlds. First, there are the semi-sweet sherry types, like Pale Cream and Medium Dry, which are made for the English and the Northern European markets and which the Spanish never drink. And then there are the genuine sherries – Manzanilla, Fino, Amontillado and Orloroso, which are dry wines, as well as the sweet Pedro Ximenez. Sherry combines brilliantly with food. For example, Fino with fish and seafood, pata negra ham, sushi, smoked salmon and gravlax, and Amontillado with wild mushrooms and game.

 

Fino. Photo © Bodega Fernando de Castilla
Fino. Photo © Bodega Fernando de Castilla


Premium sherry is today incredible trendy, and the market has simply exploded. Our sales are 40% up over 2020, which was a most difficult year due to the pandemic, but not that bad for our industry. If you compare it with Rioja and Cava, where sales went down perhaps 30–40%, the sherry industry only dropped 8% in 2020. And this year (2021) our numbers are already almost 30% better than 2019. We do not have enough product for sale to meet the demand.»

 

Premium, en rama and brandy

Bodega Fernando de Castilla is partnered with a Jerez family with a 43-hectare vineyard. Here the grapes are planted, harvested, and pressed. The juice is fermented and made into a base wine, which is kept in a barrel - sobre table – for a full year before it is brought to the bodega for the special soleras ageing process.

«We make 17 different sherries, all in the Premium and Super Premium categories. In our Antique-series the grapes are picked en rama (with stem) and are only filtered through a simple paper filter before being bottled. We were one of the first bodegas to do this, but now it has become trendy, and many have copied us.  We were also the first to sell sherry in clear bottles. It was quite revolutionary 20 years ago, but to actually see the wine gives much more information about it.»

 

Antigue Fino and Oloroso. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Antigue Fino and Oloroso. Photo © Karethe Linaae


What is the difference between a regular brandy and a sherry-brandy?
«Brandy has a much shorter tradition here than sherry, and only started as a commercial product some 150 years ago. Our bodega has never done anything with the cheap brandies - which is a large industry but is usually only sugar spirits with essence and colour. For our brandies we use the grape Airen, since completely neutral grapes won’t give an interesting distilled spirit. The distilling process leads to a very aromatic grape spirit with 63 % alcohol.  Next, we bring the alcohol percentage down to just over 40%, transfer it into new oak casks for 1–3 years, and then over into used sherry casks. What makes brandy from Jerez so special is that we use the same soleras or fractional blending systems as the sherries, as well as that the brandy is stored in old barrels that used to contain sherry. This is compulsory for both the sherry and the brandy from Jerez to receive their D.O. accreditation. We never empty a barrel completely but only extract a maximum 1/3 of the oldest brandy or sherry, and then fill it up with the second oldest batch. After a while, one gets very many vintages in the system. I have soleras that have continued for over 100 years. The fractional blending system gives an increasingly interesting product over time, as every vintage that has been present has put its mark on the product. For this reason, either a sherry or brandy that has been maturing for 15 years in a soleras system is much more interesting than a product that has been laying stagnant in the same barrel for 15 years.»

Classic bodega style. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Classic bodega style. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

What would you say is your contribution to the sherry industry in Jerez?
«While the demand for cheap sherry has dropped significantly, the sale of quality sherry has hit the roof. Some people claim that we have been lucky to be able to ride this wave of popularity, but I always say that we were one of the most important promoters to restart the sherry market. We worked with some of the world’s best wine companies and sommeliers to produce, and to teach people about quality. A whole group of new players came into in the industry later, who have seen that quality sherry at the right price is good business. We have taught others that it is possible to sell a quality sherry for 40 € for ½ a litre, even though some of the most known brands can cost as little as 5 € per bottle. So I will say that we have contributed to improving the quality of sherry.»

 

Antique sherry selection. Photo © Bodega Fernando de Castilla
Antique sherry selection. Photo © Bodega Fernando de Castilla

 

Top 20 of 4000 wines

Two weeks before my visit, one of the bodega's oldest Pedro Ximenez sherries was selected for inclusion in Spain’s 20 best wines by Salon de Gourmet in Madrid. This was after the tasting-panel did a blind tasting of over 4000 contestants. The trophy stands amongst a row of other awards in the bodega’s wine bistro where our conversation takes place.


Is there a wine that you haven’t tried producing yet that you still would like to make?

«It would have to be a non-fortified white wine from the Palomino grape. Our clients have asked for this, so I probably ought to have such a product. Some years ago, we started with a new sherry-based vermouth which has been a major success. It is especially popular with people in Northern Spain who love to sit outside with a vermouth on ice with an orange peel twist. We kept at it for a long time trying to get the process and the botanical ingredients right. Everything I do must be top notch, and every time one tries something new, one puts one’s reputation on the line. So perhaps I ought to have a look at that white wine, but I am starting to get too old… »

And finally, if you had not ended up as a bodeguero, what would you have done?

«I have asked myself that many times. God knows! I have always enjoyed being creative. I enjoy buying and selling, so I probably have a bit of a pedlar-instinct. I get a kick out of making a deal with a company in some other part of the world, as well as launching a new product or trying a new method. So, I would probably have ended up doing something similar,” concludes the passionate Norwegian bodeguero.

 

Jan Pettersen, bodeguero. Photo © Bodega Fernando de Castilla
Jan Pettersen, bodeguero. Photo © Bodega Fernando de Castilla

 

For more information: www.fernandodecastilla.es

Contact: bodegas@fernandodecastilla.com



Like 1        Published at 4:29 PM   Comments (2)


CEUTA - a disputed pearl between oceans and continents
Thursday, December 9, 2021

 

View towards Europe taken from Ceuta in Northern Africa. Photo © Karethe Linaae
View towards Europe taken from Ceuta in Northern Africa. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Here is a riddle:  

What place on the globe can you stand at a single point and see two major oceans, two continents, three nations and three kingdoms? 

Answer: Ceuta


This might come as a surprise for many, particularly those who have not been to this southern Spanish town, as it is in fact situated in Northern Africa. Ceuta can be found where the Mediterranean and the Atlantic Oceans meet in the Straits of Gibraltar. The town is located on the African continent but is still part of Europe. And from the mountains above the town, there is a perfect panoramic view that includes the nations and kingdoms of Morocco, Spain, and the United Kingdom (via Gibraltar).

 

Ceuta – an arm into the Mediterranean. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Ceuta – an arm into the Mediterranean. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Legendary Cape with many rulers

From above, Ceuta looks like an arm stretching into the Mediterranean. The elbow is the town centre, with the ‘fist’ being the town’s most eastern point. Ceuta is quite separate from the Spanish mainland and is located at one of the narrowest points of the Straits (25 km away), so that Europe can be seen across the water in normal weather conditions.

 

Gibraltar not too distant. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Gibraltar not too distant. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

According to Greek mythology, Europa and Africa were connected via an enormous mountain range until Hercules took his club and smashed the opening which we know today as the Straits of Gibraltar. The two extreme points were called the Pillars of Hercules – the cliff of Gibraltar and Monte Hacho (or Ceuta’s ‘fist’). Even if the origin of the story is mythical, these two geographical points represented not only the separation between two world oceans, but also the dividing line between what once was considered as the known world (the Mediterranean) and the unknown world (the Atlantic Ocean and everything thereafter), before the era of the great explorers.    

 

Sculpture in Ceuta of Hercules which separates Europe from Africa. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Sculpture in Ceuta of Hercules which separates Europe from Africa. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Ceuta’s strategic position made it a popular destination for conquering armies and explorers throughout history. According to the town’s archaeologists, everyone has been here, probably even the Vikings. Ceuta has been visited, conquered, and ruled by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Berbers, Arabs, and finally, the Portuguese. The only ones who never conquered Ceuta by military power (even though this has been used to keep it ever since) are the Spanish. Ceuta became part of the Spanish Empire when Portugal transferred rule to Spain in the 1600s.

 

Once upon a time … Painted ceramic tiles by the harbour. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Once upon a time … Painted ceramic tiles by the harbour. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Many, such as the English and the Moroccans, have tried to take Ceuta since then. When Morocco became independent in 1956, after 400 years as both a Spanish and a French protectorate, Spain refused to relinquish its two Northern African coastal towns, Ceuta and Melilla. Ceuta remains Spanish, but after thousands of years, the Cape continues to be a disputed territory.

 

Road along the Moroccan border. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Road along the Moroccan border. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Spanish town on African continent

Together with Melilla situated 400 km to the east, Ceuta has the only physical international borders that exist between Europa and Africa. Both towns often appear on the global news, due to African immigrants and displaced people trying to enter Europe through these borders. No one can deny the enormous immigration problems, but other than this, most people know very little about Ceuta. In fact, I can count on one hand the Spaniards we know who have been there, and then only usually via an assigned post in the police force or the military. 

 

Street with the African continent in the background. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Street with the African continent in the background. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Media often shapes our understanding of the world, and many therefore only see Ceuta as a border post with desperate Africans trying to fight their way over barbed wire fencing into relative freedom in Spain. Others might perceive the town as it is portrayed in the popular TV-series El Principe (the price), the Telecinco-produced drama about forbidden love between a Spanish policeman and a Muslim woman in today’s Ceuta. The drama takes place in the colourful and primarily Muslim neighbourhood El Principe, from which the series got its name.

 


Colourful Ceuta neighbourhood. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Colourful Ceuta neighbourhood. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

So, is Ceuta an immigration nightmare or a romantic cultural fusion? At times the city is likely both, but though it certainly has illegal immigrants, corrupt policemen and love across religions, the city of Ceuta is so much more. 

 

 

Ferry to Africa

 

From the ferry. Photo © Karethe Linaae
From the ferry. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Crossing the Straits of Gibraltar from Europe to Africa in an hour and a half is an experience not to be missed.  The only way to get from Spain to Ceuta is by ferry (or helicopter), as the town has no airport. One must travel by boat, as people have done since time immemorial. Normally, the ferries are full to the brim with locals from Ceuta (Ceutí) and Moroccans from neighbouring towns, but these days the ferries are still relatively empty, due to the pandemic and the fact that Morocco has so far only opened the country borders to international air traffic.

 

Straits of Gibraltar towards the Atlantic Ocean. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Straits of Gibraltar towards the Atlantic Ocean. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The Straits of Gibraltar are one of the busiest marine channels in the world.  Around 100,000 cargo ships use it annually, or some 300 every day. In addition are the cruise ships, pleasure yachts, ferries, marine ships, smugglers speed boats, refugee barges, and other seagoing vessels. All must account for the tidal flows, which are far from insignificant in a narrow strait where two major oceans meet. The current goes both ways, with an average of 2 knots westwards and 4-7 knots in an easterly direction. It is always windy, compounded by the open sea and the currents. Crossing the Straits in a boat really brings home an understanding of the forces of nature, and is for me one of the main reasons why I recommend the trip to Ceuta.

 

 

Jebel Musa, the dead woman. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Jebel Musa, the dead woman. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

As the ferry approaches North Africa, a mighty mountain range comes into view. People in Ceuta call it La Mujer Muerta (the dead woman), because it looks like the profile of a woman laying on her back. The mountain peak, Jebel Musa, which in the Berber language means ‘the mountain of Moses’, is part of the Moroccan Rif mountain-ridge. Many say that Jebel Musa is the real pillar of Hercules, instead of Hacho, but since we are talking about a myth, we may never know the real answer as to which was Hercules’ original pillar.

 

 

Today’s Ceuta

 

 

Ceuta harbour at sunrise. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Ceuta harbour at sunrise. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Ceuta’s city centre is clean and well-groomed. The architecture is classical, and the avenues wide, as to be expected in a provincial capital. The city belonged to the province of Cádiz until 1995, when both Ceuta and Melilla became autonomous Spanish territories. For this reason, they enjoy more favourable taxation systems than the mainland. Ceuta is categorized as a tax-free zone, evident in all the Tax-free stores on the main shopping streets.

 

 

Main avenue. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Main avenue. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

When we stop to buy water, we meet a group of Arab teenagers who ask for money for food. The boys are apparently those remaining from a group of 8000 illegal immigrants who crossed the border earlier this year. Most were sent back after a tense diplomatic period which ended with Spain paying Morocco to re-close and guard their side of the international border. At least this is how the event was explained by one ceutí we met …

There is only one border crossing for cars between Ceuta and Morocco on the southernmost point of town, as well as a foot passenger crossing on the northern end of Ceuta. Our guide told us that most people who live in Ceuta have friends or family on the other side of the border. Before the pandemic, his hairdresser was in Morocco, and he often popped across the border to meet friends there.

 

 

Ceuta photographed from Monte Hacho. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Ceuta photographed from Monte Hacho. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Today’s Ceuta is a melting pot of four cultures: Hispanic Christian, Arab (and Berber, which is very different), Jewish and Hindu. The cultural diversity is reflected in the ceutí gastronomy, which naturally is based on the sea. Of the towns 85,000 inhabitants, about half are Spanish or Moroccan Muslims. The Jewish population (with ancestry from the Sephardic Jews who were expelled from Spain in 1492) has shrunk to only about 300 people, so the historic judería neighbourhood is threatening to disappear. And while East Indians have lived here since 1893, today there are less than 500 Hindus left in the town.

 

Plate with specialties from Ceuta’s four cultures. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Plate with specialties from Ceuta’s four cultures. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Spanish is the official language, but many of the inhabitants speak Darija (Moroccan Arab), Berber and French. Despite the towns limited area (approximately 18,5 km2), churches and mosques can be found, as well as a synagogue and a Hindu temple. The shining cupulas of Ceuta’s cathedral are visible from both the Mediterranean and the Atlantic sides of town, as it is located on the narrowest part of the isthmus with only a handful parallel streets.  

 

 

The cathedral with sea on either side.  Photo © Karethe Linaae
The cathedral with sea on either side.  Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

 

Historical stroll

The best way to discover Ceuta is on foot. Do not miss the royal Portuguese town wall from around 1540. These defensive walls led boats from the northern to the southern bay. Today one can stroll on top of the walls and admire the view of the ocean on either side, or rent a kayak and paddle through the azure blue canal.

 

The royal waterwalls. Photo © Karethe Linaae
The royal waterwalls. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

As humans tends to build on top of past civilisations, an older part of the defensive wall can be found inside the current wall. This includes the main entrance or the Califate gate, which was built when Abderraman II conquered Ceuta in the year 931 AD.

Other worthwhile historical sites in the city centre include a late Roman Basilica, a Merinid city wall, the Arab baths and the newer, but no less interesting dragon-encrusted casino from the 1800s. There is certainly enough for history buffs to see, and for a break how about a dip in El Parque Marítimo del Mediterráneo, designed by the famed Lanzarote-artist César Manrique? Though Ceuta has more than a dozen beaches on the coast to the north and south, the city built this enormous 56 000 m2 waterpark adjacent to the harbour in 1995. During the day it functions like any other municipal pool, while in the evenings the city’s youth gather here to hang out in the numerous bars that overlook the lit-up pools. Thank goodness my clubbing days are over!

 

Night in the water park. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Night in the water park. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

The next day, on an early morning stroll, it is the city’s sculptures that particularly catch my attention. Perhaps most surprising are the many sculptures of Greek philosophers. Our hotel is interestingly named Ulysses. So I wonder, what is Ceuta’s connection with ancient Greece?

The Greek historian Strabo portrayed Ceuta as Hepta Adelphoi in his book Geografi, which he wrote just around the time of the birth of Christ. It is also assumed that the island Ogiga, where Ulysses met the nymph Calypso in Homer’s Odyssey (written approx. 800 B.C.), in fact also describes Ceuta.

Wall with old photograph from Ceuta. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Wall with old photograph from Ceuta. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

But all is not ancient. By the towns conference centre, there is a modern sculpture of four human figures. The name of the sculpture is Solidaridad, which means solidarity in Spanish. I guess that it refers to the four cultures that usually live relatively peacefully together in Ceuta. At the same time, it made me think of the young boys we met who had escaped across the border, now without either family or home. Is Spain showing them enough solidarity. And am I?

 

Wall with old photograph from Ceuta. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 ‘Solidaridad’. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 


Sunset over the Strait of Gibraltar
The best way to see Ceuta, is to go to higher ground. In contrast to Melilla, which has permitted housing developments in its entire territory, Ceuta has large, protected nature parks both in the hilly western parts against Morocco and in the eastern ‘fist’ of Monte Hacho.  

Hacho is only 204 meters high but is still the most prominent rock formation in Ceuta. It is also the area most exposed to attacks and therefore the most fortified part of the city. The fort was started around the Year 900, and part of it is still a restricted army compound. Thankfully, it is still possible to follow the trail along the fortified walls for several kilometres, circumventing the entire fort, with the most remarkable views of the Mediterranean and the Straits of Gibraltar.

 

Fortress wall with old photograph from Ceuta. Photo © Karethe Linaae
The fortress wall with the Mediterranean in the background. Photo © Karethe Linaae


To the West of the city there are almost jungle-like forests with a selection of scenic walking trails. The country border with Morocco can clearly be seen in the distance, while walking from one old watchtower to the next. These defensive bastions, though ancient looking, were not only used in Medieval times but also in the many wars with Morocco, the last one being just back in the 1950s. But on the trail today we only meet friendly Ceuta families having picnics while waiting for the sun to set.

 

Wall with old photograph from Ceuta. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Watch tower. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

Perhaps the most stunning dusk I ever experienced is when the sun dips into the Atlantic, painting the sky about the Straits of Gibraltar in incredible shares of lavender and orange. We stand at the end of a cliff on the Spanish side, peeking down at the picturesque Moroccan village of Belyounech beneath us, with the mountain Jebel Musa and the dead woman, above us. Here there are no borders, just nature, rocks, ocean, and heaven.

 

Morocco’s Jebel Musa and Belyounech, photographed from the Spanish independent territory of Ceuta. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Morocco’s Jebel Musa and Belyounech, photographed from the Spanish independent territory of Ceuta. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

I stop and talk to two young women who are celebrating their high school graduation. Both are ceutí. One wears a Muslim head scarf, the other does not, and they are best friends. They made me think of the Solidary sculpture in town. I can hope that these girls represent the future for Ceuta and Morocco - one of solidarity, understanding and co-existence despite our differences.  

 

Morocco’s Jebel Musa and Belyounech, photographed from the Spanish independent territory of Ceuta. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Girlfriends from Ceuta celebrating graduation. Photo © Karethe Linaae



Like 5        Published at 6:01 PM   Comments (3)


La Casa de las Cuatro Torres - unique in the world?
Wednesday, November 10, 2021

Unique in the world? Photo © Karethe Linaae
Unique in the world? Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

Spain is full of history, and the greatest heritage is often found in its buildings. When travelling around the country, you can visit some of these historical marvels, and if you are lucky and have the opportunity, can spend the night in one of them and really be immersed in the magic of the past. 

Andalucía has innumerable historic hotels, many of which would not have seen the light of day if not for someone choosing to spend their energy and funds protecting these timeless national treasures.

La Casa de las Cuatro Torres in Cádiz is one of these - and it is not only unique in this coastal city, but possibly in the entire world.

 

Tower. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Tower. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

 

The house with the 4 towers


Drawing seen at Cádiz market portraying a merchant house of the past. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Drawing seen at Cádiz market portraying a merchant house of the past.  Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

La Casa de las Cuatro Torres is considered to be one of the best-preserved examples of Cádiz’ emblematic 1730’s sea merchant houses. They were called Casas de Cargadores de Indias, although they also traded with America, Africa, and Asia. The builder of this particular house, å Syrian businessman called Juan Clat Fragela, came to Spain in 1683 to expand his family’s fabric empire. Since only one tower was allowed per house, Fragela constructed four separate houses within the same building, and so was permitted one tower in each corner. There are still 129 such towers in Cádiz, but the majority are from a later date, when the watchtowers had lost their practical purpose and had instead become a status symbol and an icon of gaditano architecture. Fragela’s neoclassic building is therefore not only unique because of the number of towers, but for its ornate decorations, and because the house has the only tower in town with oculus windows in the cupola.

 

Copula with oculus windows at sunrise. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Copula with oculus windows at sunrise. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Fragela’s house was also strategically unique, as it was located near the Department of Commerce, the harbour, and the customs office. It additionally had a perfect view of the entire Bay of Cádiz, where all merchant vessels that sailed to and from Spain passed by. Apart from being his trading office, his showroom and his family home, the forward-thinking merchant also rented rooms in the upper floors to travelling salesmen. In this way he was able to run a sort of hotel establishment, a tradition which has been re-established now, almost 250 years later.

 


The tower room can be rented for an intimate private gathering. Photo © Karethe Linaae
The tower room can be rented for an intimate private gathering. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 


A protecting artist’s hand

The centuries left their traces, so although the whole building was categorized as a Place of Cultural Interest in 1976, it was in such poor condition that only a miracle could save it. The rescue came in the form of Teresa Ramos Grosso. After a long career working as an artist and curator in Madrid, Teresa was the perfect candidate to give this dilapidated building back its dignity.

 

Room with original wall. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Room with original wall. Photo © Karethe Linaae


 

“The house has become a life-project to me. I bought it for sentimental reasons. When I was a child, my family on my mother’s side owned this part of the building. The house changed owners on several occasions, but the new landlords just left it to deteriorate. When my husband and I got the opportunity to purchase it in 2005, I simply couldn’t let the opportunity pass me by.  La Casa de las Cuatro Torres is unique amongst the sea merchant houses, and I dare claim that it is the most beautiful and distinctive in the region”.

 

Hotel La Casa de las Cuatro Torres by night. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Hotel La Casa de las Cuatro Torres by night. Photo © Karethe Linaae



It took 11 years before they could open the hotel. First there were 4 years of bureaucratic challenges, with every decision having to be approved by the provincial cultural advisory board, the heritage division, the town council, the tourist department and even the fire department. Then the real job started - 7 years of in-depth restoration, with Teresa being responsible for every little décor detail. “The biggest joy of finishing the work, was that my mother got to experience the completed project” she admits.


Teresa Ramos Grosso and her mother Maria Teresa Grosso Fernandez de la Puente on the roof terrace of Casa de los Cuatro Torres. Photo © Teresa Ramos Grosso
Teresa Ramos Grosso and her mother Maria Teresa Grosso Fernandez de la Puente on the roof terrace of Casa de los Cuatro Torres. Photo © Teresa Ramos Grosso


To find a building from 1736 with original doors, windows and towers was a true artist’s dream. Under centuries of layers of paint and stucco, they found genuine historical treasures. The original Carrera marble floor in the current lobby and stairways, and the solid mahogany doors, were in fact materials used as ballast for the cargo ships. Since the vessels by law had to come by the merchant houses in Cádiz before and after trade missions, the ballast of marble and timber that came with the boats was used in the construction of the merchant houses.


Before photo of the reception area. Photo © La Casa de las Cuatro Torres
Before photo of the reception area. Photo © La Casa de las Cuatro Torres

 

After photo of the reception area. Photo © La Casa de las Cuatro Torres
After photo of the reception area. Photo © La Casa de las Cuatro Torres


Lourdes Zozaya, who has worked in the hotel since it opened in 2017 speaks about the renovation: “As far as possible we utilized original materials and respected the traditional construction methods. The walls are made from what is called mortero de cal (lime mortar) and have the natural sandstone colour. All doors and windows are original. Every hand-forged nail was pulled out before the massive doors were immersed in a special bath to remove the old paint. Afterwards, we treated the wood with natural beeswax and linseed oil, which were the materials they used originally, in addition to being the most natural and respectful for the old timber”.

 

Before and after
 

La Casa de las Cuatro Torres – one part crumbling, one part renovated. Photo © Karethe Linaae
La Casa de las Cuatro Torres – one part crumbling, one part renovated. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Today the hotel is located in one of the four houses that together comprised the original Casa de los Cuatro Torres. The other parts of the edifice are still (for now…) left to irresponsible owners and the forces of nature. For this reason, one can clearly see how the building was before and after renovation – which is likely very similar to how it was in its heyday. The municipality of Cádiz is thrilled by the restoration, which caused such a stir and curiosity that people lined up to come in to see the tower and the view when the hotel doors were finally opened.

 

The hotel with Cádiz in the background. Photo © Karethe Linaae
The hotel with Cádiz in the background. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

“Our guests come from all around the world. The North Americans totally freak out when they see the place, because there is no other such hotel in Cádiz - from the particular époque and of the same standard” explains Lourdes.

“Cádiz is less explored by tourists than for instance Seville, Granada, and Málaga, and our hotel is like a precious, small jewel which is still relatively hidden in the travelling world”


Narrow street with hotel at the end. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Narrow street with tower at the end. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

 

View to the Bay of Cádiz

The tower house is no Hilton. “Even if our guest comforts are to a five-star standard, we only have two stars because we don’t have a restaurant, pool, spa, or gym. But we have a personal contact with the guests and an intimacy which larger hotel chains cannot offer”.

 

Hotel roof terrace under the moon. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Hotel roof terrace under the moon. Photo © Karethe Linaae


The boutique hotel’s 20 room all have names of mariners or navigators. In some rooms one might notice the burn marks on the wood where wax candles lit the rooms before the advent of electricity. Or one can admire the original stone walls with hidden niches and closed off arches. La Casa certainly does not lack patina, and even the slightly crooked stairways give the hotel that extra unique charm.


With views of the Bahía de Cádiz. Photo © La Casa de las Cuatro Torres
With views of the Bahía de Cádiz. Photo © La Casa de las Cuatro Torres
 

The highlight of the stay is however, climbing up (or taking the elevator) to see the watch towers from the roof terrace where the hotel organizes seasonal celebrations for their guests, with an enchanting view of the entire Bahia de Cádiz. It is easy to imagine how the tower lookout sat here, peering out at the horizon for incoming ships.

“For me, the towers represent the identity of Cádiz. They were a place for both work and leisure, and these two functions continue to be the connection we have to the past – as they stand in this privileged position surrounded by the ocean. What more can one wish for?” says Teresa, the passionate owner of the hotel.  

Find out more about this unique place that has been ‘discovered’ by Spanish Vogue and Condé Nast Traveller here:  casadelascuatrotorres.com. And then it is time to plan your next trip to Cádiz!

 

Cádiz by night. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Cádiz by night. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

 

 



Like 2        Published at 3:33 PM   Comments (1)


Cádiz – a touch of Havana on Europe’s southern tip
Monday, November 1, 2021

Cádiz silhuette at sunrise. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Cádiz at roof level. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

What a difference a day makes’ sang Ella Fitzgerald, though when it comes to Cádiz, I would have to expand that to 30 years, as it was about three decades from my initial visit until I returned to the city. On my first time as a party-crazed teenager, I thought it was a terribly boring place full of old people. Yet, upon my return - 30 years later - I found it to be one of the most intriguing coastal cities in all of Spain!

Cádiz has attracted sea faring explorers for more than 3000 years. Today, most visitors still come by water. The port is a favoured stopover for cruise liners, whose passengers swarm onto the main street for an hour of power shopping before they hurry back to their departing ships.

 

Sunrise over Cádiz harbour with the Constitución bridge. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Sunrise over Cádiz harbour with the Constitución bridge. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Thankfully, we are in no such rush. Cádiz is located only a couple of hours drive from our home in Ronda, so we can easily get there in the morning, enjoy a day of seafood feasting and ocean-side reconnoitring, and still be home by nightfall. However, to truly experience the city, one ought to stay the night, because twilight and daybreak are the most beautiful times to take in this historical gem.  

 

TIMELESS SILHUETTE

Whether arriving by boat, car or train, the skyline of old Cádiz has remained almost unchanged since the 18th Century. There are no high rises or blocky hotels spoiling the view. Since this narrow isthmus sticking out into the Atlantic is virtually a sandbank, the ground cannot withstand further or taller development. Real estate developers might regret this, but for me, this is the saving grace of Cádiz.

 

Leaving underground parking into 18. Century reality. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Leaving underground parking into 18. Century reality. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

We arrive across the Constitution Bridge, which has connected Cádiz with the mainland since 2015. This impressive piece of engineering, taller than the Golden Gate, is one of Spain’s longest and highest sea-crossing overpasses. In contrast to its 1969 predecessor, the new bridge brings one almost directly to the historical centre, saving a detour through the less interesting parts of town.

Those who love the sea breeze can also get to Cádiz by ferry. From 1929, locals would take a steamboat nicknamed el vaporcito from Puerto de Santa Mária to town. Today high-speed catamarans have replaced ‘the little steamer’, but it is still a pleasant way to discover the Bay of Cádiz.

Upon arriving, our first mission is always to get rid of the car. The jumble of narrow lanes, dead ends and one-way streets in the historic centre make driving a trial and finding street parking as likely as winning the lotto. We therefore stop in the nearest parkade after having driven through the 16th Century defensive wall that marks the boundary of old Cádiz.

 

WATCHING FOR MERCHANT SHIPS AND PIRATES

Cádiz watchtowers by the harbour. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Cádiz watchtowers by the harbour. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Once upon a time, Cádiz had 160 towers, from where watchmen would keep a lookout for incoming ships and naval attacks, while shipping merchants would await their precious imports from the New World. Communication between the towers and the ships was apparently done by flags, so that the destination and even the prices of the arriving cargo would be determined before the ships had anchored.

Today there are still 129 of these watchtowers. Torre Tavira, named after its original watchman Don Antonio Tavira, is one of the few towers that still can be visited. Located at the highest point of the city, it became Cádiz official watchtower in 1778. By climbing up to the roof terrace, one is rewarded with the finest views of the city and its oceanic surroundings, especially via the ancient invention, la camera obscura, a mirror system that allows 360-degree views in real time.

A lesser known, but no less intriguing tower is La Bella Escondida (The beautiful hidden one). The city’s only octagonal tower is said to be named after an enclosed Rapunzel-like maiden, or a nun whose wealthy parents wanted to see their daughter of the cloth. It was therefore not a watchtower, as much as a tower where someone was being watched. It can neither be visited, nor seen from street level, so the hidden maiden might have to remain one of Cádiz’ many mysteries.  

 

 

FROM GADEIRA TO CÁDIZ IN 3000 YEARS

Before we walk on, let’s stop in one of the many picturesque squares and travel back in time. 

Cádiz is so ancient that it’s birth lives in the land of mythology. According to Greek legend, Hercules founded the city and named it Gadeira. The muscular god with his two lions can still be seen in the city’s Coat of Arms. As far as recorded history goes, Cádiz is considered the oldest continuously inhabited city in Europe. With a strategic position between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean, this Iberian panhandle was fought over by Phoenicians, Mauritanians, Carthaginians, Romans, Visigoths, Berbers, Vikings, Arabs, English and Spanish Bourbon armies, just to mention a few.

 

Anno 1797. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Anno 1797. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

 

The first known settlers were Phoenicians from present day Lebanon, who arrived around 1104 BC. They named it Gadir (walled stronghold) and utilized the natural harbour to expand their European trade, importing Baltic timber, Basque silver, and British tin! (And we are talking 3000 years ago…)

Little more was known about the settlement until 2012, when a 19th Century puppet theatre was renovated. Nine meters below present-day street level one discovered 3100-year-old Phoenician streets, homes, and workshops. For those who wish to know more, the theatre has been converted into the astonishing glass floored GADIR museum.

 

The floor in the Gadir museum with Phoenician streets. Photo © Karethe Linaae
The floor in the Gadir museum with Phoenician streets. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

In 206 BC, the Romans established a naval base in Cádiz, renaming the city Gādēs. Visigoths overthrew the Romans in 410 AD and a century later, Cádiz was incorporated into a Byzantine Spanish province. From 711 AD, it became part of the Moorish Al Andalus. They called the city Qādis, from which the Spanish name derives. The Moors lost their stronghold to the Spanish in 1262. Some 300 years later, Sir Francis Drake plundered the city, leaving with 3000 barrels of sherry. Many tried to take over the strategic port thereafter, but none succeeded, not even Napoleon!

 

Peak hole. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Peak hole. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

 

COLUMBUS AND THE GOLDEN AGE OF CÁDIZ

In 1465, Cádiz was a sleepy fishing town with just over 1200 people. Then came Christóbal Colón, and everything changed. At dawn on September 25th, 1493, Christopher Columbus set off from Cádiz on his second voyage across the Atlantic. The city’s boom began with his ‘discovery’ of the Americas, which on that particular journey included Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Cuba and Santo Domingo. Cádiz was suddenly on everyone’s lips.

Outside the humble church of San Juan de Dios you find a plaque commemorating Columbus’s two transatlantic voyages that started in Cádiz. Though the church is one of the smallest in the city, and in dire need of renovation, some say that Columbus and his crew prayed here before taking off on their risky journeys.

 

Was this where Columbus prayed before setting off to Amerika? Photo © Karethe Linaae
Was this where Columbus prayed before setting off to Amerika? Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

It wasn’t until the 18th Century that Cádiz experienced its real Golden Age. Due to the constantly changing banks of the Guadalquivir River, the Spanish decided to move their American trade office from Seville to Cádiz. With newfound importance, the population grew from 40.000 to 80.000 inhabitants, not counting the 20.000 ‘floating’ residents. Cádiz became one of Europe’s wealthiest cities, as any merchandise that came or went to America had to pass through the city. It is still one of Spain’s leading ports, and its wealth continues to be based on the sea.

 

GADITANO STYLE

The exposed location of Cádiz might make it look a bit more weathered than other Andalusian towns, but this also adds character. The old city has that mystical allure of old ports - not exactly seedy, but a bit illicit, and thus all the more interesting. Maybe this is why meandering around in Cadiz has the same feel as being in Havana?

 

Havana? No, this is Cádiz! Photo © Karethe Linaae
Havana? No, this is Cádiz! Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The watchtowers are not the town’s only unique structures. The buildings in the historic centre have some unconventional design features, exclusive only to Cádiz. This Gaditano style has architectural influences from both sides of the Atlantic, as the city became a visual extension of its global trade. Cádiz was the closest Europe had to an American city. The people of Cádiz, the gaditanos, were described as having an international flair in how they spoke, dressed, ate, and worked. Even its public gardens were decorated with exotic plants and trees brought back from the New World, and some are still there!

 

Fig tree. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Fig tree. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

One of the most unique things about the historic centre is that it is still very much a living urban community. Locals insist that true gaditanos must live in the old city, which to them is the only real Cádiz. With almost 127.000 people residing on a 5-square-kilometre strip of land, it is one of Europe’s most densely populated urban areas. 


A Cádiz classic. Photo © Karethe Linaae
A Cádiz classic. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

 

CATCH OF THE DAY

You simply cannot visit Cádiz without indulging in some of their local seafood specialties. Cádiz has always been known for its mariscos, which have begun to attract international foodies. One of the greatest joys of going to Cádiz is sitting in an unpretentious beachside joint with a plate of fried squid and a glass of dry Fino sherry. Or venture into one of the many local seafood restaurants, the best of which are generally found on side streets, or near the port. On cooler days, try the famous Cádiz fish stew, a recipe allegedly developed on trawlers as they returned to harbour, though I am sure many gaditanas had a hand in perfecting the dish.

 

Chipirones a la plancha. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Chipirones a la plancha. Photo © Karethe Linaae


El Mercado Central de Abastos from 1838 was Andalucía’s first covered public market. At the heaping counters, you can buy fish caught in the Atlantic at sunrise. The ‘catch of the day’ truly means del día. It cannot get any fresher. In the morning, locals swarm the market, undisturbed by gawking tourists, to purchase tuna, cuttlefish, octopus, mussels, eels, crabs, oysters, shrimps, razor clams, barnacles, and any ocean creature you can imagine. Then at night, the market converts into a local hangout, where you can go from stall to stall and order tapas, of course accompanied by a glass of wine or two.   

 

EXPLORING A ROMAN NEIGHBOURHOOD

 

A 2000-year-old Roman theatre emerges out of a Medieval neighbourhood. Photo © Karethe Linaae
A 2000-year-old Roman theatre emerges out of a Medieval neighbourhood. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

 

There are towns where it is a joy to get lost, and in Cádiz it is almost compulsory. The impossibly narrow cobblestoned streets and winding alleys make El Pópulo, a neighbourhood established by the Romans, a photographer’s heaven. You can sense the past grandeur of the old city, yet people still live in the historical homes where Cádiz’s affluent citizens resided in its Golden Era.

 

By Plaza de España. Photo © Karethe Linaae
By Plaza de España. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Another curiosity as one wanders about, are the street corners. Since there were too many military weapons after the War of Independence, the extra cannons were embedded into street corners to protect against passing vehicles - then horse carriages, now cars and garbage trucks.

 

Narrow streets in the Casco histórico. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Narrow streets in the Casco histórico. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

In the quaint and somewhat more modest working-class neighbourhoods La Viña and Santa María, one can observe the local gaditanos as they always have lived. Here the seafood is still sold right on the street from wheel carts or wooden boxes, and many shops seem unaltered since the early 1900s. In the former neighbourhood lies our favourite local bar, Casa Manteca. Even if you are not a manteca (lard) or pork lover, it is worth visiting this bullfight-themed tavern for its ambiance alone. Have a glass of Pedro Jimenez and watch the locals wolf down plate after plate of chicharrones.

 

The catch of the day is still sold on the street. Photo © Karethe Linaae
The catch of the day is still sold on the street. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Such ancient neighbourhoods are bound to hide some mysteries. One such secret came to light during a fire in 1980. Under the rubble, archaeologists discovered a Roman theatre dated from before the birth of Christ. Estimated to have been one of the largest and oldest in Spain, it housed 20.000 spectators. The structure was later used as the foundation for an Arab fort, as well as stables and houses in the Middle Ages.

The theatre has never been completely excavated since it lies beneath a protected medieval neighbourhood. In any case, the impressive semi-circular amphitheatre has free entry and is found only a couple of blocks from the cathedral square.

 

SUNSET MAGIC

 

Cathedral square before sunrise. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Cathedral square before sunrise. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

At no time is Cádiz more striking than when the sun sets over the ocean and the city takes on a golden glow. This is when the locals take a leisurely paseo in the palm-lined Alameda de Apodaca Park, with its checkerboard flooring and flamboyantly tiled fountains and benches. The balmy Mediterranean climate allows for tropical flowers and some gargantuan fig trees, attracting all kinds of lovebirds…

Even if one spends the night bar-hopping, one should never miss a morning jolt around the seafront promenade following the entire parameter of the old city. The seawall with its giant boulders holding off the crashing Atlantic waves was apparently built to safeguard the city from English attacks in the 16th Century.

 

Boulders that hold back the Atlantic Ocean. Photo © Karethe Linaae
The boulders that hold back the Atlantic Ocean. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

If you get up early enough, you might be lucky and have the entire Playa la Caleta to yourself. Unlike most Spanish beaches, it is refreshingly free from cocktail bars, banana boat rentals, massage huts, Balinese beds, and towering hotels. It still looks like an old post card, dotted with small brightly painted fishing boats. Located between two 16th Century defensive fortresses, it is a perfect place to take a morning dip.

We are not the first to ‘discover’ this beach, of course. A bikini-clad, yet armed, Halle Berry stepped out of the same waters in the 007 movie Die Another Day. Though the scene was set in Cuba, Cádiz’s similarity to Havana made it a perfect stand-in.

 

Colourful fishing boats by Playa la Caleta. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Colourful fishing boats by Playa la Caleta. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

And here we leave the city with lightly windswept hair, salt on our skins, and the lingering taste of pescaito frito and Manzanilla, ready to come back soon to discover a few more of the town’s many secrets.

What a difference 30 years make, indeed…


Cádiz alley. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Alley. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 



Like 3        Published at 9:38 AM   Comments (7)


Ode to the smile
Tuesday, July 6, 2021

Oskar's grin. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Oskar's grin. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Imagine if you were a baby that was born in the past year and a half. Certainly, here in Spain all you would have seen on the street in your short life would have been masked people on the street. Anyone who leaned over your stroller with sparkling eyes, cooing noises and exaggerated baby talk, would have worn something covering their mouth and nose.  Apart from your own family household, you would generally have seen only masked humans and therefore, quite naturally have believed that is what humanity looked like. Other than the occasional terrible mask with a grotesque Joker smile or a grinning shark jaw, the mouth and the human smile would have been veritably unknown to you.

Imagine then the utter shock when suddenly one day – for us in Spain on the 26th of June – all of a sudden everyone was allowed to walk outside amongst other people without covering their mouth and nose. You would sit there in your stroller with wide eyes, totally flabbergasted, wondering what in heavens name had happened.

 

What’s that?!? Photo © Karethe Linaae
What’s that?!? Photo © Karethe Linaae


Where did suddenly all those strange, moving mouths and lips come from? Why could you hear the voices of this mumbling nation so much better than before? Would you have been scared? Or would you perhaps have thought: Gosh, golly, look at that! Fancy that there are more people than mum and dad who have openings and gaps in their faces!

It is completely incredible what we can get used to. During the first few days of being allowed to go outside on the street without a mask, I felt totally naked. Just as if I had forgotten to put clothes on or left my bag at home. Something was definitively not right. It felt very odd!


Too much carbon dioxide? Photo © Karethe Linaae
Too much carbon dioxide? Photo © Karethe Linaae


All the same, I can guarantee that most of us have thanked the higher powers for the gift of finally being able to get rid of our masks. I say getting rid of, but that is not entirely true. First, we still need to wear them when we are indoors in public places, and perhaps more importantly, none of us really knows what the future will bring. What happens even over the next few months is a big unknown. Many surely have, like I, dreamt of burning their masks in a vast communal bonfire, but with the situation being as it is, I will instead wash and fold the most comfortable and stylish of my now quite extensive mask repertoire, and store them. They will be put away like the winter clothes, ready for another day, just in case…


Masks drying in the summer breeze. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Masks drying in the summer breeze. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

But let’s forget about the masks. It is time for a tribute!

What a true joy it is to be able to see the faces of people on the streets again! I mean the entire face – nose, cheeks, mouth, chin, and skin with freckles and scars and all the lovely wrinkles that appear when people smile. What an utter blessing it is to be able to take deep profound breaths way down into our lungs, and exhale fully without having to breathe through 3 layers of synthetic cloth or a chemical smelling paper surgical mask - all which prevented us from taking a free breath of air while covering almost our entire faces.

 

Oh joy! Photo © Karethe Linaae
Oh joy! Photo © Karethe Linaae


It cannot be healthy for one to breathe in one’s own recycled air either. In fact, a German study by JAMA Pediatrics from June of this year says that school children who wore masks all day received a significant increased level of carbon dioxide, in fact much higher than what the German Federal Environmental Office deems acceptable.  

So, thank goodness, no more masks outside. What freedom and relief! It is enough to make me yodel with joy!

I had almost forgotten, but now that I can see them again – is there anything more beautiful and personal than the mouth? Yes, we can wrinkle our nose, inflate our cheeks, and maybe wiggle our ears, but that is nothing compared to our mouth. For me, the mouth is the most incredibly expressive sensory organ that we possess. Just think about a stunned, crying, laughing or furious mouth. Without the masks, we can now finally see how people are feeling again. Because if it is true that the eyes are the mirror of the soul, then our mouth is the mirror of our emotions. 


The wonderful mouth. Photo © Karethe Linaae
The wonderful mouth. Photo © Karethe Linaae


The mouth simultaneously holds the trump card of all trump cards – the most beautiful, contagious, and universal of all human forms of expression – the smile! A smile can foster peace and understanding and open gates and hearts across cultures, religious and national borders. So now that you can, remember to SMILE! 

 

Smile tattoo. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Smile tattoo. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Recall the lovely melody that Charlie Chaplin composed in 1936, which John Turner and Geoffrey Parsons wrote the lyrics for, and that Nat King Cole made famous in a performance in 1954:

 

 

You'll find that life is still worthwhile
If you just
smile

 

Smile and the world smiles back at you. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Smile and the world smiles back at you. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 



Like 6        Published at 9:34 AM   Comments (1)


Having a heart in two countries
Thursday, June 10, 2021

Looner, Norway. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Loner, Norway. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The other day my son sent me a WhatsApp video from Norway. He was out running by the Oslo fjord and had stopped on a bridge to film the view. Far below, I could see the water that I had sailed on so many times with my late father, the Norwegian coastline, the granite cliffs worn smooth by the salt sea, and the scattering of quaint red and white wooden summer houses by the sparkling North Sea. It was so incredibly beautiful and so completely Norwegian that I was filled with a sense of deep longing.

 

Midsummernight. Norway. Photo © Karethe Linaae.
Midsummer night, Norway. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Obviously we have spring here in Andalucía as well, which is undoubtably beautiful. But spring in Norway is something very special to me. There is the joy and vitality people feel when the winter is finally starting to loosen its grip. This is something the Andalusians likely will never experience, and can therefore never begin to fathom. Regardless of how far or for how long we have been away from ‘home’, certainly speaking for myself and my kinsmen, we will always have a heart string tied up back at one fjord of another.


Looner, Norway. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Coast, Norway. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Coast, Spain. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Coast, Spain. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Norway is after all, if not our homeland anymore, our birthplace. For us who have now lived longer away elsewhere, like a compass, we will always feel a certain pull towards the north. I may speak out of hand here, but in my experience, it is almost a fact. Let’s take Spain for example. In spite of how fond we Norse men and women who live here are of our adoptive home country, and how much we enjoy the Spanish light, sun, tapas, wines, olives, music, flowers and the Mediterranean lifestyle, part of our heart still belongs to Norway - cold, snowy, sleety, dark, stormy and all! 

 

Sheep on the road, Norway. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Sheep on the road, Norway. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Sheep on the road, Spain. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Sheep on the road, Spain. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The Norwegian national anthem begins with the words “Yes, we love this land”, but some of us do not only love this land, but others as well.

 

Wheat field, Norway. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Wheat field, Norway. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Sunflower field, Spain. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Sunflower field, Spain. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

I have heard people who live abroad speaking about how split they feel having two home countries. But having a ‘divided’ heart doesn’t necessarily have to be a bad thing.

 

Wall, Norway. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Wall, Norway. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Wall, Spain. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Wall, Spain. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Instead of seeing it as something negative and destructive, isn’t it preferrable to see ourselves as having a heart that has room for both, or all, our home countries, wherever we have happened to hang our hats?


Colours, Norway. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Colours, Norway. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Colours, Spain. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Colours, Spain. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Even if at times our homesickness can be almost painful, it is still a true privilege to be able to live and create a home base across country borders. So if you, like I, at times long for your original homeland, do so with joy. It is OK to have your heart in two countries.


Between islands, Photo © Karethe Linaae
Between islands. Photo © Karethe Linaae



Like 4        Published at 12:57 PM   Comments (2)


The classic art of cordobese leather - 1000 years in the making
Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Detail, Casa del Guadamecí Omeya in Córdoba. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Detail, Casa del Guadamecí Omeya in Córdoba. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

Imagine walking into a French palace back in the 16th Century, the golden age of leatherwork, and coming upon a dancehall lined with brightly shining polychrome gilt-leather panels with the most amazing intricate botanical and geometrical designs. The decor appears to be something out of 1001 Arabian Nights or a magical fairy tale, but in fact these wallcoverings are imported from Andalucía.

Spain is world-renowned for its fine leatherwork, but there is one place that still and always will stand out from the rest - Córdoba. So let us take a visit to the city with the world-famous mosque and learn more about Córdoba’s leather art, both in the past and present.

 

Antique chest, Casa del Guadamecí Omeya. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Antique chest, Casa del Guadamecí Omeya. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

Leather has been used by mankind since time immemorial, but the Arabs introduced more sophisticated artistic leather work to Spain in the 7th Century AD. The oldest form of Córdoba leather art, called Guadamecí or Omeya, was developed in the city during the Muslim Caliphate of the 10th Century.

Many such ancient art forms have been lost, but thanks to a couple of Córdoba leather artist families, the Guadamecí leather art techniques and the later Cordobán leather embossment techniques, have managed to survive.

 


Guadamecí Omeya - 10th Century Islamic leather art


Casa del Guadamecí Omeya. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Casa del Guadamecí Omeya. Photo © Karethe Linaae


José Carlos Villarejo García (www.josecarlosvillarejo.com) may currently be the only person in the world who dedicates his life exclusively to studying and making Islamic Guadamecí leather art. He was taught by his uncle Ramón García Romero, who through archival material managed to discover and reconstruct the city’s ancient Caliphal techniques that had been lost for centuries.


Detail. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Detail. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

“I have the honour of being the only remaining artist to continue this splendorous artistic expression, maintaining the original beauty, philosophy, luxury and refinement of the art,” says the award-winning artist. “Guadamecí creations transport us back in time while reflecting the appreciation of beauty in all its forms, above all geometrical. Other designs represent nature and allows us to imagine our entry into the Eternal Garden.”


Guadamecí chest. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Guadamecí chest. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Guadamecí leather art is made from only the highest quality naturally tanned sheep hides.   The technique requires applying a thin film of silver or vermillion onto the leather, before polychrome paint is applied with microscopic accuracy. Since this type of art is clearly aesthetic, it is mostly used for luxury items, like decorative wall hangings, upholstery and screens.

To really appreciate Guadamecí art, stop at the Casa del Guadamecí Omeya in Córdoba’s historic centre. The museum and store display both historical and recent pieces made by José Carlos Villarejo García. Amongst the most amazing pieces on show are several small chests and an absolutely sublime guest book that combines both Guadamecí and Cordobán embossment arts.

Guestbook with Guadanecí and Cordobán tecniques. Casa del Guadamecí Omeya in Córdoba. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Guestbook with Guadanecí and Cordobán tecniques. Photo © Karethe Linaae


For more information, go to www.artesobrepiel.com
 

 

The development of ‘Cueros de Córdoba’

Detail of old door panel. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Detail of old door panel. Photo © Karethe Linaae
 

After the Reconquista of Spain in the 14th and 15th Centuries, some of the trained Spaniards and converted Muslims continued producing Mudejar style leathercraft. Later, Western art movements such as Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles influenced Spanish leather art, which became simpler and more utilitarian with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution.


Tooled leather chair from museum at Meryan in Córdoba. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Tooled leather chair from museum at Meryan in Córdoba. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The ‘Cueros de Córdoba’ spread across Europe and into the colonies of the Americas, but the most prestigious artists and best products still came from the city of Córdoba, which was universally also famed for producing the best shoes that money could buy. As early as 1578, the Córdoba City Council forbade anyone outside their guild to work with leather. The decree was approved by the King, and guild members had a stamp with the city’s coat of arms that they applied to mark the leather to stop the production of inferior imitations.

Leather working tools. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Leather working tools. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Cordobán leather art

The other type of Córdoba leather art is called Cordobán. Which is closer to the style we generally associate with the Spanish leather art of today. The technique usually uses high-quality goats hide, for its flexibility, suppleness, strength and durability. The hides are tanned with sumac, which gives superior results than tanning with oak or pine bark.

Carlos demonstrates Cordobán leather art, Meryan. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Carlos demonstrates Cordobán leather art, Meryan. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Demonstrations of the Cordobán process can be observed at another local leather workshop and museum near Córdoba’s famed Mesquita. Meryan leather art is a third-generation family business with a workshop dedicated to producing handmade and traditional Córdoba leather.

“The hides are always worked when they are humid. The techniques are essentially the same as in the past, and everything is still done by hand,” explains Carlos, one of their leather artists. To create a pattern or a picture, a drawing is traced onto a piece of leather. Then the real work begins - the painstaking carving, pushing and shaping the leather through various techniques such as 3D embossing, using iron stamps and bevellers, colouring, making incisions, metallizing, mosaic work, casting or branding of the leather with a heated object.

Leather tools, Meryan in Córdoba. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Leather tools, Meryan in Córdoba. Photo © Karethe Linaae


Besides observing the artists and being able to purchase some of their fine work, do not miss Meryan’s impressive museum, with rooms and courtyards displaying a wide selection of classic decorated leather furniture, a leather chess board and some ancient leather tapestries that probably belonged in a fort or a palace of the past.

Leather chess board, Meryan. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Leather chess board, Meryan. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Meryan’s leather art have received numerous awards and been featured in international media, such as the New York Times and National Geographic. For more information, please go to www.meryancor.com


Meryan museum, Córdoba. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Meryan museum, Córdoba. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The beauty of the crafted leatherwork is timeless and is yet another incentive to visit the historic and vibrant city of Córdoba.

Cordobán work at Casa del Guadamecí Omeya in Córdoba. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Cordobán work at Casa del Guadamecí Omeya in Córdoba. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

 

 


Like 2        Published at 4:30 PM   Comments (3)


Once upon a time - Love in the time of Corona
Thursday, May 13, 2021

Wrapped up. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Wrapped up. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Now that we might soon be able to talk about the Corona virus in the past tense, it is time to reflect on how this global pandemic affected our love lives. 

If ‘Love in the time of Cholera’ had its challenges, I can assure you that ‘Love in the time of Corona’ did likewise. While people still fell in love during Covid-19, one may ask how deep was their love? Can one really be sure that the person one meets at a 1.5-meter Covid-safe distance will be one’s great love mate for life? If the tender words of affection uttered through three layers of a surgical mask really have the same affect? And can the pheromones that our bodies omit to potential lovers get past the smell of our hand sanitizers? How can interpersonal attraction develop with all these security measures around? I am merely asking the questions here…

 

The thinker. Photo © Karethe Linaae
The thinker. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The Corona pandemic has had a profound impact on national demographics. Spain where we live saw record highs for deaths and new lows for marriages last year. Not since the Civil War in the 1930s or the so-called Spanish Flu in the 1920s (which really wasn’t very Spanish), did we see similar profound effects on population statistics. And as expected, the birth rates took a nose-dive as well.

New life. Photo © Karethe Linaae
New life. Photo © Karethe Linaae


While deaths increased by almost 20%, which is remarkable it itself, the real mindboggling statistics were the weddings, which fell by over 60% in 2020. We are talking about the most common public manifestation of love, which by and large were cancelled. Why might one ask? Was it because people couldn’t have the usual grand wedding fiestas, or maybe because the time of Corona was not a time for new love?


In white. Photo © Karethe Linaae
In white. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

But what about people who were already married and shacked up? How did Corona affect their lovelife?

 

The outsider. Photo © Karethe Linaae
The outsider. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

On the plus side, people had more time for ‘hanky panky’. This was clearly noted in the sex-toy industry. While most businesses suffered during the pandemic, the sales of sex toys grew exponentially. As people couldn’t have fun outside their homes, they had to become more innovative inside their homes - and bedrooms. Denmark’s online sex toys sales doubled during the first few months of the pandemic, while ‘kinky’ UK lingerie producers saw similar hikes in sales.


I'm a Barbie girl. Photo © Karethe Linaae
I'm a Barbie girl. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

But all was not fun and games. Confinement can also have many negative effects on couples.  

In the first lockdown when we all watched or shared stories on social media, a UK actress recorded her ‘secret’, yet very public, Facebook video-diary. She mostly shared her frustration about her husband who just sat in front of the telly all day. She shared this with her hordes of online closet friends rather than with the person she had the issue with. Every day she taped herself inside different closets and under stairs in a state of increasing fury, whispering her disgust to her online followers, who could not have included her spouse. I finally lost interest in following her love-turned-to-hate drama, but hope they survived the pandemic. If not, she was not alone.

 

Closed inside. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Closed inside. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The still primarily Catholic Spain has one of EUs highest divorce rates, with close to 60% of marriages ending in separation or divorce. Not surprisingly, the pandemic only accentuated this trend, as couples were forced to be cooped up together during extended lockdowns. Involuntary confinement can generally do one of two things - it brings out old wounds and highlights problems, or it makes your love stronger. In many cases it led to divorces. According to the Italian National Divorce Association, the country’s divorce rates grew by 60% in 2020. Too much pasta and not enough patience?

 

The husband, from painting in Ronda restaurant. Photo © Karethe Linaae
The husband, from painting in Ronda restaurant. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Now for the real serious facts. The pandemic saw increasing rates of domestic violence all across EU. According to the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), women usually face most danger from people they know. Though every country in the EU introduced special measures to protect women from intimate partner violence during the pandemic, shelters and domestic violence hotlines did not always have the funding to provide the support needed.

 

Anger. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Anger. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

The added stress of being confined can make abusers more volatile, while the increased privacy of a lockdown will allow them to continue with less chance of being detected. On the other hand, the victims feel a double threat during a pandemic, fearing the aggressor indoors and the virus outside.

 

Window, Amsterdam. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Window, Amsterdam. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

France saw a 30% increase of abuse cases in 2020, and even more in urban centres. What is called ‘silent requests’ for help (usually email or SMS) by abused women went up by 286% in the first 2 weeks of lockdown in Spain. In the Canary Islands a secret code was developed where women who were victims of family violence could go to any pharmacy and ask for a ‘Mask 19’, and the pharmacy would contact the emergency services on their behalf. Mask 19 has now been adopted across Spain, as well as in other countries, including France, Italy, Germany, Argentina and Norway. 

 

Fist. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Fist. Photo © Karethe Linaae


I think we can introduce a new expression into the English language:
Trial by Covid.

My son moved in with his girlfriend for the first time just before the pandemic. They not only survived a quarantine together, but also months of being laid off, a landlord from hell, contagion, tests, and an involuntary move while both of them were suffering with Covid. If all of this didn't split them up, what will? I do not have a crystal ball, but now believe their prospects are fairly good.

 

Future awaits. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Future awaits. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Personally, I am pretty much the worst example when it comes to longevity of love and marriage, right behind the American author Erica Young, who in her book Fear of Fifty spoke of her numerous failed marriages. However, my third marriage (though technically I suppose I married four times, but ‘what happens in Venice stays in Venice’) has lasted a surprisingly long time, even through the pandemic. I am not saying we are like turtledoves all the time, and there are times during lockdown that my husband was lucky that I didn’t have a mallet handy, but we are still together. And after having survived nearly three 7-year itches and a global pandemic where we had to spend the first 2 months enclosed 24/7 in our 100 m2 house without tearing each other apart, I'd say that there is hope for us as well.

On we go. Photo © Karethe Linaae
On we go. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

So, for God’s sake, or for Love’s sake, let us hope we soon can speak of this whole phenomenon in the past, and of the distant days when our love survived the Time of Corona! 

 

Light. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Light. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Sources:
El Páis, EU, European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), BBC news, Cision PR Newswire.
Love in the time of Cholera by Gabriel García Marquez
Fear of Fifty by Erica Young

 



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May is for Azar
Thursday, May 6, 2021

Orange tree in bloom. Photo © Karethe LInaae
Orange tree in bloom. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Have you ever been struck by an odour which instantly took you back to a place that you had completely forgotten about? This happens to me quite frequently. I can turn a corner and suddenly I am there as a toddler in the land of the fjords, or as a 23-year-old living in Paris. The instigator to these sudden flashbacks can be anything, just as the memories they might bring – the old knitted Norwegian sweaters in the chest smelling of camphor in my childhood home, a taco-shack in an alley some place in Mexico, a tar-impregned fishing pier on the coast of Sweden, home-baking in my grandma’s kitchen, the two-seater privy at our summer house, or the sweet and smoggy stench of old Delhi.

 

Delhi. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Delhi. Photo © Karethe LInaae

 

Sensory impressions can take us back in time and place, and revive memories that have been in hibernation for years. Even if it doesn’t happen very often anymore, whenever I hear the Bee Gees’ ‘How deep is your love’, I instantly get teleported back to when I was a 16-year-old nervously grasping my clear as day fake ID in the line-up at a disco that is probably long-time gone. (Ok, now arrest me!) The mere look at a bottle of Matheus rosé wine makes my stomach turn, though it is decades since that drunken bout. And when I touch the keys of a piano, my modern ‘compositions’ and slamming-therapy on my parents upright piano come back to me as if it were yesterday.

In many ways, I think that our senses have a better memory than our minds.


Old pier. Photo © Karethe Linaae
Old pier. Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

Nine years ago this May, I went to heaven for the first time. Well, at least olfactory heaven. We were travelling around Andalucía for a month exploring where we possibly would come back to live when we left Vancouver. We had been recommended Valle Lecrín, a valley district in the Granada province. As we drove through the first orange grove, the scent was so overwhelming that we had to slow down to 20 km/h and open all the windows. As soon as we could, we stopped the car and jumped out, so that we really could indulge our noses in this heavenly sensory experience.

Ever since that day and for all eternity, orange blossom or azar as it is called in Spanish, will for me be synonymous with that day in the Lecrín Valley in May. So, before summer barges in far too fast, perhaps it is time to reflect on your most memorable sensory spring impressions?

Azar heaven.  Photo © Karethe Linaae
Azar heaven.  Photo © Karethe Linaae

 

 



Like 3        Published at 11:17 AM   Comments (3)


Meet Spain’s (only) genuine Norwegian olive farmers
Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Raymond, Rebecca and Gimli with their olive trees. Photo © Andre Folkedal
Raymond and Rebecca with tractor in knitted Norwegian sweaters. Photo © Andre Folkedal

 

It is no secret that most Norwegians who live in Spain are pensioners who reside on the sunny Spanish coast. Which is why I admit to getting excited when I meet some of my fellow countrymen who are a tad younger, do something a bit different and who have hung their straw hats in somewhat remoter regions.

One such couple are the Norwegians Rebecca Hermansen and Raymond Bakken. Not only are they ultra-cool, hospitable and still on the right side of 50, but they also run, from what I have been able to discover, Spain’s only Norwegian organic olive farm!

 

Welcome to Finca La Colina

Thank goodness for Google Earth, I think as my husband and I pass the town of Álora and continue up and down on increasingly narrow country roads. To be sure we are on the right track, as we stop at a farm where a pack of rat-faced mutts spill out of every crack in the combined house and barn. The farmer nods and says “Por sí! - Absolutely! Finca La Colina is just at the other side of the valley”. And sure enough, after another steep incline and driving across a nearly dried up creek, we arrive at our destination halfway up the next hill, or colina as it is called in Spanish.

 

Finca la Colina from above. Photo ©Aksel Jermstad
Finca la Colina from above. Photo ©Aksel Jermstad

 

If there is any doubt that we have come to the right place, the smiling hosts appear in home-knitted Norwegian sweaters. She – fair and fresh-faced like a real Norway-ad, and him with a beard that could have given him a supporting role in the TV Series ‘The Vikings’ without having to audition. We recognize them and their wagging tailed dog Gimli from the hand-drawn labels on their Extra Virgin Olive Oil - Made with Love in Spain. Reading the description on the can, one immediately realizes that the couple do not take themselves too seriously: This oil is made bare-chested with the cap on backwards and a brew in one hand. The oil is perfectly suited for salads, frying and baking, but can also be used to attract old Casanovas and ageing ladies in leopard-skin tights.  

 

Olive oil cans with labels by Oda Valle. Photo © Finca la Colina
Olive oil cans with labels by Oda Valle. Photo © Finca la Colina

 

A unique pair

“It took us over a year to find the place” smiles Raymond and says it all started when they rented a car in Italy which they had to return in Spain. They looked for their dream home in Italy, France and Portugal, before they finally arrived in Southern Spain just over 8 years ago. “This is where we have both lived the longest since we left our childhood homes” continues Raymond, who together with Rebecca now manages an 85.000 square-meter property with 1200 olive trees and two guest houses. 

After giving us a tour of the lovely surroundings, we settle on their terrace to get better acquainted while an eagle flies in circles above us. Yes, this is certainly peace and quiet.

 

Olive oil cans with labels by Oda Valle. Photo © Finca la Colina
The smiling Rebecca. Photo © Andre Folkedal

 

REBECCA – Green-fingered guesthouse hostess

Rebecca is from the town of Holmestrand in the Oslo fjord but moved to the capital to study. “I have always moved about a lot, but Oslo was sort of big enough for me as someone who came from little Holmestrand”. After several years with various employers, she met Raymond “He had a shorter beard at that point, but I love bearded men. It is so manly!”.  She quit her job and left for Brazil with Raymond, and here they are now running an olive farm and guesthouse in rural Andalucía.  

 

Olive oil cans with labels by Oda Valle. Photo © Finca la Colina
Finca with tractor at sunrise. Photo ©Andre Folkedal

 

Rebecca: “When we got here, we had to invent something for me to do, since Raymond wasn’t ready to have a Trophy Wife at merely 35 years of age. So, I started the rental business. We have two guest houses, Casa Tranquila and Casita Iberica. Our season is usually from March to October, though people are welcome at other times and we can warm up the pool all year round. We focus on peace and quiet, so we do not allow children under 12, unless the same family books both houses. Through the guest houses, we have met fantastic people from all over the world. We have had visitors from New Zealand, Korea and Saudi Arabia. The latter were simply marvellous and even cooked for us! Some of the guests come back, even a couple from Canada. They wanted to get more of our olive oil, but shipping it over there was so expensive that they rather decided to return to our guest house for another holiday instead”.

 

Raymond on the tractor. Photo © Aksel Jermstad
Raymond on the tactor. Photo ©Aksel Jermstad

 

RAYMOND – Olive-growing IT-guy

Raymond, who grew up outside of Oslo, wanted to become a pro cross-country skier. He did well, but not well enough to get on the national team, so he studied IT instead. Between jobs and partnerships in IT companies, he travelled the world. The adventurer is still alive and kicking, and his skies are still in the shed, so he can travel up to the Sierra Nevada for some Telemark skiing when time permits.


Raymond: “I have always been a doer. I sold an IT company that a pal of mine and I ran right before buying this farm. Then I helped found another IT business called MAKE, which specializes in legitimate email marketing. We comprise of five Norwegian owners and 90% of our clients are from Norway. To work remotely is no problem. I usually go north for meetings 4-5 times a year, but due to the pandemic, I have not been back for a year and a half and nevertheless everything has run smoothly”.

 

Gimli the dog observes Raymond working on computer. Photo © Aksel Jermstad
Raymond on computer with Gimli the dog. Photo ©Aksel Jermstad

 

Why and how did you start to grow olives?

Rebecca: “The trees were standing there, so the olives kind of chose themselves. It is a food source that we didn’t want to waste, so we had to do something with them. The farm was not managed the way we liked before we took it over. A lot of pesticides had been used and the soil was rock hard. This year is in fact the first since we got here that we see earthworms. When I saw the first one, I yelled “Raymond, there is life in the soil! We have worms!”. Now I find them even when I weed the driveway! We couldn’t be happier”.
 


Garden. Foto © Aksel Jermstad
Garden. Foto © Aksel Jermstad

 

Raymond: “The first year we harvested only about 1200 kgs of olives, which is nothing for all the trees we have here. It was just enough for our own consumption. We also gave some to friends who gave us good feedback about the oil. Our neighbours also helped us, even though we spoke hardly any Spanish. Initially, I followed their advice, but then I began to read more about olive farming. We quickly realized that the best olive oils are made without pesticides and herbicides and without rototilling the soil. The farm had no topsoil at all, because it had been continually ploughed and then the rain washed the soil away. We took the land completely back to scratch and started organic farming, even though it has taken us a long time to get it going. Most people around here have smaller farms and fulltime jobs on the side. I totally get that for them it is easy to spray and be done with it. Many local farmers still run their farms the way they did when they got their first tractor and began modernizing. They are quite far behind the times when it comes to the latest farming technology and alternative methods, which is unfortunate, although thankfully some farms around here are now converting to organic agriculture”.

 

Genuine organic Norwegian olive farmers. Photo © Andre Folkedal
Genuine organic Norwegian olive farmers. Photo © Andre Folkedal

 

How do you run the farm?

Raymond: “We have gone from producing 120 litres of oil in the beginning to 2.500 litres now. During the harvest we pick 800 – 1500 kilos per day with 5 6 pickers. There is our helper Juan who works 60 % at the farm, me and 3 other guys. We use nets under the trees, a shaker, and traditional wooden sticks. From this fall on, we will use a gentler new type of shaker instead of hitting the trees. During our first year we visited all the mills in the area. The closest one is only 20 minutes away, but we would rather travel more than an hour to an organic mill - the small family-run Molino del Hortelanos in Casabermeja. We are one of the few producers who go every day during the harvest and have a set time reserved every evening for milling. We pick from 08.00 to 15.00, grab a quick bite and then drive to the mill, so there are just a few hours from picking to pressing the olives. This way we get the best quality. We add nothing to our oils, though we filter it, so it has a longer shelf-life and looks better. Our products are cold-pressed organic extra virgin olive oils from either the milder Manzanilla or the stronger-tasting Hojiblanca olive varieties”.

 

Olives. Photo © Aksel Jermstad
Olives. Photo © Aksel Jermstad

 

No former farming experience

Neither Rebecca nor Raymond had a background in agriculture. Although they were rather ‘green’ when they got here, they must have green fingers, as Rebecca’s garden looks absolutely stunning, with huge lavender bushes, herbs, cacti, succulents and other southern flowers and plants. In addition, they have citrus trees, wine grapes and a generous vegetable garden. They tried growing avocado and mango trees, but neither of these seemed to like the northern breeze that blows through the valley.


How is everyday life on the farm?

Rebecca: “Raymond gets up first and then I make breakfast and coffee, which I bring to his office 3 meters away from the kitchen. I manage the guests and the guest houses. In addition, I do all our shopping and cleaning. Usually, I go to Álora to shop and get our mail. Otherwise, the closest village is Valle de Abdalajís (three valleys away), where there is a small supermarket, a butcher and a fishmonger open in the mornings. We are now seeing more and more tourism around here. The Caminito del Rey has been a great help for the entire area, and also for our own guest houses”.

 

Casa Tranquila. Foto © Aksel Jermstad
Casa Tranquila. Foto © Aksel Jermstad

 

Raymond: “I work full time by Norwegian standards, which is from 08.00 to 17.00, on top of which I have the farming. Except during harvest, Juan is our only help, so I easily spend another 3-4 hours working with the olive trees before dinner. Some friends of ours have just moved back to the UK, so we will take over the running of their organic farm as well, which means another 450 trees”.

 

Olive harvest with shaker and stick. Photo © Andre Folkedal
Olive harvest with shaker and stick. Photo © Andre Folkedal

 

Tell us about olive farming throughout the year. What is the toughest and what is the most rewarding part of the job?


Raymond: “We harvest between September and October, which is very early. This gives us much less oil, but the quality of the product is far superior. It has more antioxidants and polyphenols because we pick our fruit when it is green. In addition, there is the cutting and pruning of the trees, cutting grass, fertilizing twice a year and organic spraying of the smaller trees every other month. We have never watered our big trees but give some water to the smaller ones a couple of times during the hottest months of the year. Recently we built a water reservoir, so we can water a little when the trees flower in the spring. One should never provide too much water. For one thing, it is a very limited resource here, and secondly if you water too much, the trees won’t grow without it. The toughest part of the job is picking and then dragging the nets full of olives into the hanger to drive them to the mill. And the greatest joy is the ability to produce food. I have never worked with food before, so for me, that is the best part, since everybody must eat.”

 

Raymond during harvest. Photo © Andre Folkedal
Raymond during harvest. Photo © Andre Folkedal

 

Certified organic agriculture

Finca La Colina is an organic farm. To be certified organic, no pesticides or chemicals can have been used on the farm for a minimum of four years. After this point, tests are taken of the soil and the trees. Everything that is done on the farm has to be reported and logged with dates, types and amounts, for example what is used as fertilizer and when. The manure that they use comes from the goat farm that we stopped at across the valley. “They give us the manure for free (free shit!), but then they also get rid of it,” grins Raymond. Organic production takes much longer than ordinary agriculture. In contrast to conventional mass production where trees might be planted barely a meter apart and some are cut down after 10 years, Finca La Colina plants their trees 7 meters apart and the trees are not used for oil production during their first decade. On the other hand, they will then produce fruit for a century or more.

 

Peaceful morning. Photo © Aksel Jermstad
Peaceful morning. Photo © Aksel Jermstad

 

What are your future plans?

 

Rebecca: “We would like to experiment more with wine. We have planted 400 vines and hope to get the first wine grapes this fall. During the first few years we cut off the fruit before they developed and left them on the ground as fertilizer, so that the plants would concentrate their energy on developing their roots. We are allowed to plant 1000 square meters of grapes for our own consumption. Every household here can produce the equivalent of 365 bottles of wine a year for home-consumption, so you can have a bottle on the table every day. To produce wine for sale is much more complicated. Some friends had to wait 8 years for their commercial permit, so we will stick to our olives”.

 

Olive oil + food = LOVE. Photo © Finca la Colina
Olive oil + food = LOVE. Photo © Finca la Colina

 

Raymond: “The plan is to build up the olive farm, so we have a bit of extra income when we retire. Maybe we also will be able to retire a bit sooner? Last year was our best production year ever, but a total of 2500 litres of oil is nothing for a Spanish olive farm. Our product is small and exclusive, so we will have to expand for it to be something we can live off. We have priced our oil at the same level as more exclusive Spanish oils. When people around here hear that we sell our oil in Norway for 28€ for a ½ litre can they are shocked, but this past year was in fact the first time our business didn’t end up in the red. In the longer term, we would like to participate in competitions and possibly do some olive oil tastings here at the finca. We have taken some courses in oil tasting but are by no means experts yet. Our oil gets sent to be analysed to ensure that we follow all the rules and regulations. The test results also describe the taste and characteristics of our oil. However, the most important feedback we get is from people who buy the oil. So far, they have given us exclusively positive feedback. It must mean we are doing something right!”.


His and her hammock. Photo ©Aksel Jermstad
His and her hammock. Photo © Aksel Jermstad

 

So, who says Norwegians cannot be olive farmers! Perhaps next time you are looking for a present, instead of wine or flowers why not try olive oil, where the joy lasts much longer?

Finca La Colinas organic olive oil is sold at fincalacolina.es and can be shipped anywhere in the world. You can also contact Raymond and Rebecca directly at post@fincalacolina.no. The guesthouses are found on airbnb and are linked on fincalacolina.es

The article originally appeared in Norwegian in Det Norske Magasinet in April 2021.

 

 

 



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