Mapping and (late) thoughts for 2015

Sevilla, mapping, Christmas 204

A familiar Sevillano sight – the Puerta de la Macarena, in my old barrio.

The character of this year's show was a little girl called Estrella. These are the toys in her room.

The protagonist of this year’s show was a little girl called Estrella. These are the toys in her room.

Sevilla, mapping, Christmas 2014

Estrella escapes into a dream world, starting off in her fish tank…

and then, in one of the most spectacular (and incredibly realistic) images, the building appears to be on fire...

and then, in one of the most spectacular (and incredibly realistic) images, the building appears to be on fire…

Sevilla, mapping, Christmas 2014

and is engulfed by flames.

Sevilla, mapping, Christmas 2014

Then the Ayuntamiento appears to collapse

Before becoming encircled by jungle vines

before becoming encircled by jungle vines

and exotic flowers

and exotic flowers

Sevilla, mapping, Christmas 2014

Until the whole façade is a colourful mass of tropical foliage (why can’t we have it like this all year round?)

A Roman-style mosaic of a knight on his charger

A Roman-style mosaic of a knight on his charger.

We see the city's mighty Guadalquivir river, by its Roman name, which was later given to the riverfront street in Triana

We see the city’s Guadalquivir river, by its Roman name, which was later given to the riverfront street in Triana

and its Arab name, which means "the mighty river".

and its Arab name, which means “the mighty river”.

Guadalquivir, mapping

Estrella sails down the river on a caravel.

and the piece de resistance - a dragon

and the piece de resistance – a dragon

which breathed real fire

which breathed real fire.

Mapping 2014, Sevilla

Not a great shot, but you can just about make out the beast.

Next the Ayuntamiento "filled up" with water

Next the Ayuntamiento “filled up” with water

with marine plants across the whole façade

with marine plants across the whole façade

and lots of brightly-coloured fish, reminding us of the new aquarium.

and lots of brightly-coloured fish, reminding us of the new aquarium.

Then the Three Kings arrived on the their camels

Lastly, the Three Kings arrived on their camels.

The new year wasn’t greeted in my house with any great excitement or sense of hope – sorry all you eternal optimists and believers in the integral goodness of mankind, fresh starts, and all that. Long-term unemployment (my husband’s, not mine) does that to you. A topic I tend to avoid here as who wants to read my whinges? Exactly. I just eat more cake and biscuits (see below).

So on a more cheery note, and in typically belated fashion, I wanted to share with you some images from this year’s Mapping show in Seville (Christmas 2014/15). Laser video images were projected onto the rear façade of the Ayuntamiento – our town hall, lit up spectacularly every Christmas.

This show, now in its fourth year, has become hugely popular with the people of Seville. It’s free, it’s steps way from the shops where they forget the crisis to buy presents for one and all, and it’s pure entertainment.

Called Sueños de Agua, this year’s show was about a little Sevillana girl called Estrella who has a vivid imagination and dreams on Christmas Eve of going on adventures in her fish tank. I’ve put a few still images from it here, a tiny fraction of what you could see – the full-length video is below.

We missed seeing the Mapping before Christmas as we were already in England when it started, and when we returned, between Reyes, going back to school and work, I didn’t manage to blog about it while the show was still on. But I thought it was worth posting the pictures anyway.

These Mapping shows are always pretty pretty impressive delights all generations, especially those whose inner child, wide-eyed in wonder, relishes being transported to another, simpler world by these stunning

images.

Back in the real world, do you have any resolutions for this year? Mine are

1) to eat more healthily (biscuits and cake are just so tempting, especially in this chilly weather, with a nice cup of The Earl) and

2) to swear less in front of my children. Failing bloody miserably at both so far (Lola, get me a damn Jaffa cake!).

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A Merry Christmas in Seville, some gourmet goodies, and a sting in the tail

Christmas, Navidad, Sevilla

The Giralda glows golden behind the dazzling Christmas lights in Plaza Nueva.

 

Christmas, Navidad, Sevilla

The façade of the Ayuntamiento sparkles in festive mood.

Seville at Christmas-time feels wonderfully festive, with people going about their business – whether local Sevillanos working, meeting friends, buying presents or visiting belens (nativity scenes), or visitors under the spell cast by an already magical city at its most delightful – under the pretty, sparkling, colourful lights.

Every Christmas I try to take some interesting foodie treatsto England, to add a Spanish flavour to our family meal. Last year we had cheese from Doñana Park with a special edition Tio Pepe sherry (Dos Palmas), which worked beautifully together and went down a treat with everyone.

Doña Manuela cheese from the Sierra de Aracena.

Doña Manuela cheese from the Sierra de Aracena.

tuna, atun, feria market

As delicious as it is hard to find – smoked tuna.

This time, we’ll be feasting on goat’s cheese from Doña Manuela’s farm in the Sierra Aracena, which I visited with the kids earlier this year, some manchego with red wine, smoked tuna, and Botani dry muscatel.

The first two I bought in Triana market, at the Charcuteria Alfredo stall – across the river from the new gourmet Lonja del Barranco market, which I shall be writing about soon. The atun ahumado was from another market, in calle Feria, where David, a young guy from the fishing town of Barbate, also offers products from the famous almadraba tuna. I wrote about his stall, La Almadraba, in my travel article for the Guardian back in May, but sadly it didn’t make the final cut in the published version. The smoked tuna I bought isn’t almadraba, but it is extremely good, and I’ve never seen it anywhere else.

wine, vino, white wine, moscatel, Botani, Malaga

Botani – dry white muscatel wine from Malaga.

sparkling wine, Andalucia, vino, muscatel, Malaga, Ordoñez, Botani

The sparkling version of Botani.

The wine, Botani, I first found out about from fellow Seville blogger and Tapas Queen Shawn Hennessey (I also interviewed the winemaker, Victoria Ordoñez, for a travel magazine). Unusually for muscatel wine from Malaga, which is normally sweet, this is a dry wine – yet floral and fruity without being too honeyed or sickly (I HATE sweet white wine; semi-dulce is very common in Spain). In Seville you can buy Botani at Flores Jamones y Vinos. I also got some of the sparkling version which I’ve never tried before.

For buying Christmas presents to take back to England, my favourite hunting grounds are the various crafts markets, full of original handmade pieces, where you can meet the creators behind the artworks, sculptures, jewellery, and ceramics.

Amazing mechanized wedding scene, which also features both bankers and politicians being cooked in pots.

Mechanized wedding scene, which also features both bankers and politicians being cooked in pots.

At the Plaza Nueva Christmas craft market, also known as the Mercado Navideño de Artesania, I found this stall of beautiful handmade wooden toys from Granada, Arbole. They had a full-sized puppet theatre, wooden trains, ride-ons, and mechanized toys.

These included a detailed model of a wedding ceremony in a church, with an extraordinary contemporary subtext: beneath the congregation was a version of hell with two chambers, one labelled banqueros (bankers) and the other politicos (politicians), populated by diablitos (little devils). Two men, (presumably) an abuser of democratic power and an arbiter of financial mismanagement, were being cooked in pots over flames.

As hilarious as it was surreal, this seemed a fitting expression of what many Spanish feel about the political and financial powers that be.

Happy Christmas, and here’s to a better 2015!

Snapshots from El Rocio 2014

This rociera has a peineta dedicated to the Virgen de las Marismas.

This rociera has a peineta (comb) dedicated to the Virgen del Rocio, adored focus of Spain’s biggest pilgrimage.

Oranges tied to a simpecado (float carrying an image of the Virgin del Rocio), with ribbon in Andalucian and Spanish colours.

Oranges tied to a simpecado (ox-drawn float carrying an image of the Virgin del Rocio), with ribbon in Andalucian and Spanish colours.

La Paloma Blanca, the White Dove - another name for the Virgen del Rocio.

La Paloma Blanca, the White Dove – another name for the Virgen del Rocio.

The pregon, who shouts out the Virgen chants - "Viva la Virgen del Rocio!"

The pregon, who shouts out the Virgen chants – “Viva la Virgen del Rocio!” – outside the church. The large brown bulk on the right is the ox, which pulls the simpecado cart, with its driver.

Walking staff with ribbon to show which town the rociero comes from, with some rosemary tucked in the top.

Walking staff with ribbon to show which town the rociero comes from, with some rosemary tucked in the top.

This carreta even has a matching upstairs bedroom window.

This carreta even has a matching upstairs bedroom window.

Every year I can, I scoot off with my trusty camera to capture the rocieros as they set off on Spain’s biggest annual pilgrimage to a small town in Huelva province – El Rocio.

As many others have affirmed, this romeria has a debatable religious element, with a large dose of fiesta fervour. Most genuinely adore the Virgin de las Marismas, as she is also known (as well as La Paloma Blanca), but for some it’s more the idea of a week-long drinking, dancing and everything-else-you-can-think-of session which attracts. I don’t care what they get up to, personally, as long as they treat the poor animals (horses, mules and oxen) used for carrying and pulling, responsibly – but sadly they don’t always, as around 15-20 die each year, a unpleasant aspect of the event which is garnering increasing publicity and controversy.

Here are some images from this year’s vintage, as the various hermandades (brotherhoods) set off on the Spain’s largest romeria: typical sights like the brightly-coloured frocks in the sunshine, and the pretty carrozas (gypsy caravans), but also some views and perspectives you may not have seen, and details which I found interesting.

Three flowers

Three flowers – and a bit of extra foliage, just for good measure.

This shot is blurred, but you can see the face of the Virgen del Rocio on this lady's peineta (comb).

This shot is blurred, but you can see the face of the Virgen del Rocio on this lady’s peineta (comb).

Hair decorations for El Rocio are more rustic than for the Feria - a sprig of rosemary with wildflowers, and a sunflower (currently flowering all over Andalucia).

Hair decorations for El Rocio are often more rustic than for the Feria – ears of wheat, a sprig of rosemary, wildflowers, and a sunflower (currently glowing in fields all over Andalucia).

 

Santa Rufina and Santa Justa, two of Seville's patron saints, with the Giralda.

Santa Rufina and Santa Justa, two of Seville’s patron saints, with the Giralda. On the roof of the simpecado of the Seville El Rocio Hermandad.

 

 

A colourful romeria scene - girls with their carrozas and bright dresses in the plaza in front of the Giralda.

A colourful romeria scene – girls with their bright flamenco dresses and carrozas (gypsy wagons) in the plaza in front of the Giralda.

Line of prettily decorated gypsy wagons next to the Giralda.

Line of prettily decorated gypsy wagons next to the Giralda.

Carrozas passing the Moorish Torre del Oro, by the river.

Carrozas passing the Moorish Torre del Oro, by the river.

The effort women put into making themselves look good here in Spain has never been under question, but for El Rocio, the hair accessories which the rocieras use to decorate their barnets can be especially creative. Whether they look good after tramping the 80km from Seville to El Rocio – through rivers and across the countryside, camping out at night, for three days in the heat – is another matter. But as they left Seville and surroundings towns, the level of artistry was impressive.

A major tradition such as El Rocio pilgrimage is composed of many details and moments, one of which is the pregon – like a crier – who calls out in adoration of the Virgin.

This is the chant the pregon shouts as the image of the Virgin images visit significant locations such as local churches, or in the case of Seville the Town Hall, before setting off for El Rocio (he is answered by the rocieros - with a resounding “Viva!”). Each time I heard it, by the time I’d got my camera onto the video setting, they’d finished.

“Viva la Virgen del Rocio! Viva!
“Viva la Paloma Blanca! Viva!
Viva la Reina de la Marismas! Viva!
Viva la Pastora Divina! Viva
Viva la Madre de Dios! Viva!”

Long live the Virgin del Rocio!
Long live the White Dove!
Long live the Queen of the Marshes!
Long live the Hold Shepherdess!
Long live the Mother of God!

Exploring the Sierra de Grazalema from a home-from-home in Benamahoma

Cadiz, sierra, Sierra de Grazalema

You can see for miles from Puerta de las Palomas (1,639m), in the Sierra de Grazalema.

Benamahoma

The pool at Calle Real 66 – always the top attraction for children. Not a bad view, either.

The romeria of Benamahoma, at the beginning of June.

The romeria of Benamahoma, at the beginning of June.

First view of the Embalse de Zahara.

First view of the Embalse de Zahara, from the snaking Grazalema road.

pretty wildflower

Nearly nine years ago I went to a small pueblo blanco (white hilltop town) called Grazalema in Cadiz province on a chilly November weekend, to see a friend’s photography exhibition. While I was there, myself and my then-boyfriend made a spur-of-the-moment decision (on my suggestion) – to get engaged. No bended knee or engagement ring, just a “Let’s do it!”. Families were informed excitedly by mobile phone, and a guest list and possible dates and venues drawn up on a napkin. Our wedding the following summer was a wonderfully English day (with some Spanish spice) of castle and pub, jamon iberico and salmon, sunshine and showers. But that’s another story.

You won’t be surprised to hear, therefore, that Grazalema, which sits in a lush national park where eagles soar and wild boar roam, holds an important place in my heart. I haven’t been back since that weekend, but recently I was invited to stay in a house in a village called Benamahoma, which is close to Grazalema.

The walk up to Punta de la Paloma viewing point.

The walk up to Punta de las Palomas viewing point, with baby pinsapo firs.

A pinsapo, a type of fir tree only found in this region.

A pinsapo, a type of fir tree only found in this region.

Craggy outcrop - dramatic scenery of the sierra.

Craggy outcrop – dramatic scenery of the sierra.

The Sierra de Grazalema has truly spectacular scenery – all windy, zig-zagging roads and jaw-dropping views across vast valleys and up sheer granite cliffs, with splashes of vermillion pink from wild oleanders. This area is famous for its pinsapar, a pine forest with a species of fir tree only found in this part of Andalucia, at 1000-1700m above sea level – the pinsapo. While you need a permit to enter the forest, you can see examples of this rare species by the roadside and at viewing points along the road, such as Puerta de las Palomas on the Grazalema – Zahara road.

I had never heard of Benamahoma, but I know the prefix “Ben¨-” means son of, as it’s quite common here in Andalucia, which was ruled by the Moors for eight centuries.

Flowers bloom in a street in Benamahoma, one of the wettest areas of Spain.

Flowers bloom in a street in Benamahoma, in the Sierra de Grazalema, one of the wettest areas of Spain.

Pretty fountain in Benamahoma, which is famous for its natural spring water.

Pretty fountain in Benamahoma, which is famous for its pure natural spring water.

One of Benamahoma's restaurants with terrace.

One of Benamahoma’s restaurants with terrace.

As we followed the windy road from the nearest town, and gateway to the Sierra, El Bosque, Benamahoma itself was hidden from view until we came round the corner and suddenly saw a higgledy-piggledy line of white houses, strung out along the side of the hill. We drove up the main street (well, the main of two streets) passing pavement cafes, stone hillside plazas, along hairpin bends and up steep slopes. At the top of Calle Royal was a house with a blue front door, number 66. This was to be our home for the weekend.

Each floor has its own balcony-terrace - this was the top floors, outside our bedroom.

Each floor has its own spacious balcony-terrace – this was the top floor one, outside our bedroom.

Pots and climbers in the beautiful terraced garden.

Pots and climbers in the beautiful terraced garden.

As the house is on a hillside, overlooking a wooded slope opposite, the view is one of its best features. Below you have a pretty terraced garden, sloping down to the pool, refreshingly green and bursting with glorious flora and foliage, from bougainvillea to roses; beyond, allotments of vegetables owned by Benamahomans, and then the tree-covered hill stretching up to the sky. Each of the three floors has a long terrace-balcony stretching along the width of the house, with plenty of room for chairs and tables, so you can sit outside and soak up that natural scenery.

Sitting room with dining area, opening to kitchen and view to garden.

Sitting room with dining area, opening to kitchen, and door to balcony with view of garden.

Cooks will love all the kitchen gadgets, from juicers to blenders.

Cooks will love all the kitchen gadgets, from juicers to blenders.

Double bedroom with green and (very) pleasant view.

Double bedroom with green and (very) pleasant view.

The top floor has four bedrooms, three doubles (one with access to the balcony) and a single, along with a bathroom. The sitting room is on the ground floor (also with balcony access), with an open fireplace, sofas and a dining area; a hatch connects to an excellently-equipped kitchen – as well as the gas cooker and oven, fridge and microwave, there was a juicer, coffee grinder, two hand blenders, loads of pots and pans, earthenware cooking dishes, and some pretty chinaware and glasses. You can have fun trying out Spanish recipes using wonderful fresh local ingredients.

The allure of the TV room was irresistible to my son.

The allure of the TV room was irresistible for my kids.

Coloured hanging lamp casts pretty reflections.

Coloured hanging lamp casts pretty reflections on the ceiling.

Essential for younger visitors (like my children), there are plastic bowls and glasses, a notch up from your standard, ubiquitous IKEA fare. In the basement there’s a TV room with wood-burning stove, two squishy sofas and arm chair with big foot rest. Very cosy for wet winter evenings, and there’s a double bedroom next-door with plenty of DVDs and CDs. A door leads from here to the lowest balcony of the three, and down into the terraced garden, with the pool at the bottom. Altogether, nine people can sleep in the house comfortably; for the four of us, it was like being in a palace.

The pool is almost hidden by this burst of bougainvillea.

The pool is almost hidden by this burst of vibrant pink bougainvillea.

You can tell that someone has lived here – the New Zealand owner comes back every summer – as it doesn’t haven’t that anonymous, purely-for-rental feel. A pretty sunhat hangs on the wall, which was indispensable for me while watching the children in the pool under the hot sun. Lots of good reading material, including books on Arab history and Spain, and a library of DVDs, as well as menus for the village restaurants which featured dishes made with local wild game – venison, wild boar and rabbit. Good hearty fare, with fish-eaters like me being lucky to try trout caught in lakes and rivers in the area, which has the highest rainfall in Spain.

Quirky personal touches make the house feel homely - we loved these animal towel hooks by the pool.

Quirky personal touches make the house feel homely – we loved these animal towel hooks by the pool.

I love attention to detail in a house, and this one had colourful traditional tiling along the bottom of the wall, with plenty of small tables for leaving keys, books and mobile phones, lovely bold print cushions, and lamps for soft lighting. The furniture was mostly dark wood, but without being too heavy, backed by white walls and some decent paintings. Glazed cupboards are such an attractive way to store china, glass and linen. In the garden, and on the terrace-balconies, were plenty of chairs and loungers with cushions and mattresses for the ultimate in chill-out-with-a-fab-view.

The house as seen from the garden, with long balconies take full advantage of the view.

The house as seen from the garden, with long balconies to take full advantage of the view.

The swimming pool is surrounded by citrus trees, and beyond are hills and sky.

The swimming pool is surrounded by citrus trees, and beyond are hills and sky.

Pool with sunloungers.

Pool with sunloungers – it’s the perfect size for children, and to cool off from the Andalucian sun.

What could be more fun that jumping into a pool on a hot day?

What could be more fun that jumping into a pool on a hot day?

But what the children had been terribly excited about, right from the moment I told them where we were going, was the swimming pool. You don’t need much else with children, other than a volume of water. View? Not interested. Flowers? Ditto. But endless jumping, splashing and diving possibilities? It’s an unequivocal, resounding “Yeeeeessss!” every time. We had brought a li-lo, ball and some diving toys, and they were happily occupied for several hours each day, while I had one eye on them, and the other on the view, gorgeous orange irises and my copy of Grazia. The steps in the garden are steep and a little perilous in some spots, with no side protection, so this garden might not be suitable for very young children, or those with mobility problems. Also, there’s no WIFI or satellite TV, which didn’t bother us, although some might find such media disconnection tough to cope with.

 

The amazing bright turquoise colour of the lake water is from copper deposits.

The amazing bright turquoise colour of the lake water is from copper deposits.

Over the past few years I’ve heard many people talk about a restaurant called Al Lago in Zahara de la Sierra, another white town, this time located on a lake . After taking one of the most spectacular roads in Andalucia (the CA531, in case you’re interested), which offers jaw-dropping views of the extraordinary-coloured Embalse de Zahara – a deep shade of torquoisey-green, thanks to the copper deposits, spread out like a long jagged Damien Hirst splash among the crags and creeks, with tiny islands just offshore you can swim to – we arrived in Grazalema and found El Lago. The restaurant has a wonderful shady, breezy terrace above the road, overlooking the lake.

Plate of cold tapas at Al Lago restaurant in Zajhara.

Plate of cold tapas at Al Lago restaurant in Zahara.

The lunch menu had an interesting selection, including pulpo a la gallega, slow-roast lamb and tandoori salmon. We tried a selection of cold tapas – cheese, ensaladilla, roast peppers, anchovies, and a rice salad, while my daughter snaffled all the olives. The food was extremely good, if considerably pricier than what we’re used to in Seville tapas bars. The owners, Goan-Pakistani Mona and American Stefan, also have some bright and airy rooms, with lake views.

View of Grazalema, enveloped by greenery, from below the town.

View of Grazalema, enveloped by greenery, from below the town.

Then it was time to head off Grazalema – we didn’t make a nostalgic trip back to the hotel where that fateful decision was made, or the bar where we celebrated afterwards, but we did wander round the main square, Plaza de España, where there was a painting competition, and saw a beautiful old fountain, and a shop selling hand-made wooden toys including some wonderful plush bits of mini-fruit in their mini-wooden crates (and some toy wooden guns – this is a major hunting area).

Cheese shop in Grazalema, where you can buy payoyo cheese.

Cheese shop in Grazalema, where you can buy payoyo cheese.

Cheese made from payoyo goats' milk.

Cheese made from milk of the payoyo goat.

Street in Grazalema.

Typical narrow cobbled street with white-washed houses.

Grazalema is also known for its wool blankets in earthy tones, but what got me excited was a sign saying “cheese”. La Casa de la Abuela Agustin had payoyo cheese galore – mature, semi-mature, with herbs, as a cream in a jar. Payoyo is a strong-flavoured, aromatic cheese from Cadiz and Malaga provinces, made from milk from the payoyo goat. As a cheese-lover, I bought a big chunk with tomillo (thyme), and the cream, which we tried last night with gnocchi – it was fabulous, with a deliciously rich flavour.

Christians' shield.

Christians’ shield, as used in the Moros y Cristianos festival in Benamahoma in August.

Moors' shield

and the Moors’ shield.

Moor's gun with beautiful inlaid handle.

Moor’s gun with beautiful inlaid handle, made in Morocco around 100 years ago – decorative only.

For me, this picture of two Christian soldiers has a bit of Monty Python about it.

For me, this picture of two Christian soldiers has a bit of Monty Python about it.

That evening, back in Benamahoma, we were taken on a tour by Quitin, the man who looks after the house for its New Zealander owner. We visited the headquarters of the Moros y Cristianos group, which puts a festival with street battles between the two sides every August, fighting in honour of the patron saint, San Antonio. They showed us the outfits (formerly woollen tunics for Christians), helmets, swords, shields, pennants, and guns – the Christians’ are working weapons, like blunderbusses, which fire real gunpowder, while the Moors have exquisite inlaid wood, but non-functioning, arms made in Morocco. Battles from the 16th and 17th centuries, when the Christians expelled the Moors, are re-enacted by the villagers, as hand-to-hand fights, with positions in each force being passed down through families as with hermandades. Benamahoma is the only village in western Andalucia which celebrates this type of festival, popular in Granada, Jaen and Almeria provinces – this year, this delightfully eccentric event takes place on 1-3 August.

Garden dedicated to those shot in the Civil War in Benamahoma.

Garden dedicated to those shot in the Civil War in Benamahoma.

Quitin showed us the bullring, where the Moros y Cristianos festival kicks off on the Friday night; this was also the scene of a dark chapter in the village’s history about which, most unusually, Quitin was happy, and indeed, keen, to talk to us: the Civil War. Villagers were shot there, and now next door you can see a memorial garden, Parque de Memoria Historica. Even the existence a place of peace and remembrance is a political act in itself, as there are many who would rather forget that period entirely. The small garden is visually striking, with a sculpture depicting rows of people carved into family groups within each other, and more sombrely, profiles of people lined up against a white wall.

Sculpture in Garden of Historical Memory, representing families affected by the terrible events 80-odd years ago, glows golden in the evening sunlight.

Sculpture in Garden of Historical Memory, representing families affected by the terrible events 80-odd years ago, glows golden in the evening sunlight.

The effect is extremely moving – there’s no information, numbers or names, but the mere acknowledgement that atrocities took place here is a major development for Andalucia, and a poignant reminder of tragic events in this secluded and quiet village, nearly 80 years ago. It’s the sort of place you might not find if you weren’t being shown around (or reading this); knowing important details about a village’s history makes staying there a much richer and more fulfilling experience.

Spring in the village, which is known as "El Nacimiento" (the birth).

Spring in the village, which is known as “El Nacimiento” (the birth).

Further on, passing the last few houses, we saw the “Nacimiento”, a spring from which bubbles the purest, most crystal-clear water – there are vast underground reservoirs in the area. The village’s name means “son of Mahoma, or Mohammed”, as its natural water source was highly valued by the Moors, for whom water was important for a number of reasons: visually – in gardens, with soothing trickling fountains and long symmetrical pools; spiritually, for washing before prayer; and for life – their agriculture and irrigation systems were highly sophisticated and some channels still survive today. An abandoned trout factory has left a large intact stone building, used as a laboratory, and all the square pools where the water still runs, but any fish there are free.

Christian-Moorish lock tower of hermita-mezquita, with Islamic symbol - uniting the two religions.

Christian-Moorish clock tower of hermita-mezquita, with Islamic symbol – uniting the two faiths.

Back in Benamahoma, you can see many references to the village’s Moorish past – both plazas have horse-shoe shaped arches, most famously seen in Cordoba’s Mezquita. It was almost dark by the time we ended up at Plaza de España; the chapel next door, Quique told us, is called the hermita-mezquita, and has the typical Muslim symbol, often seen on the rooves of minarets, of three balls topped by a crescent.

This combination of Christian shrine with Islamic symbolism was another motive for pondering Andalucia’s ever-complex and shifting relationship between past and present. The little chapel plays a part in the Moors and Christians festival – on the first day, (**spoiler alert**) the Moors win, and they take the village Virgin here: on the second day, (**ditto**) the Christians are conquered, and they take her to the church, which is attached to the bullring. A neat balance between eastern and western faiths.

Romeria procession led, as always, by pennant and piper.

Romeria procession led, as always, by pennant and piper.

On Sunday, we were lucky in that the village romeria passed our house just as we were about to leave, and the little procession caught me unawares so I ran out of the door in bare feet clutching my camera. The Virgin and saint rode in their carts; some people, including young children, rode horses; the women wore flamenco dresses and flowers in their hair, and sang traditional songs.

This is authentic rural Andalucia, a small, friendly, pretty village, which makes a perfect base for exploring the area – the Sierra de Grazalema is a hiker’s paradise, and other towns you can visit include Ubrique, Cortes de la Frontera and Ronda, not to mention the Parque Natural de los Alcornocales, another forest with great walking paths and picnic spots. The house itself is cleverly prepared to cater for hot weather (shutters, pool, lots of garden furniture, air-con) as well as the inevitable rainy or cold days (two fireplaces, comfy sofas,TV and DVD library, books). And there are plenty of bars and restaurants within walking distance – an essential element of any Andalucian holiday.

Important note: If you’re going to this area by car, be aware that the road from Zahara following the southern shore of the lake (CA 7375) eastwards is closed due to a bridge in need of repair. You can take the CA531 back again from Zahara, but we trusted to luck and turned off where the road was closed onto a track which looked well-used (the locals’ temporary alternative), indicated by coloured markers along the way, which went over the mountain and rejoined the CA5311.

Calle Real 66 in Benamahoma is available to rent by the week.

For more on the Moros y Cristianos festival, visit their website.

 

The three Ferias of Seville: the caseta

portada, alumbrado, Feria, Sevilla, Feria de Abril, Feria 2104
The portada (entrance) of the Seville Feria lit up on the first night – Monday: the alumbrado.
Feria, Sevilla, fish

Pescaito frito – fried fish, the traditional dish for Monday night at the Feria de Sevilla.

Every thing is done to extremes at the Seville Feria - like this flamenca's three flowers (most women only wear one, or two).

Everything is done to extremes at the Seville Feria – like this flamenca’s three flowers (most women only wear one, or two). But it works.

Last week was the Spring Fair here in Seville – officially called the Feria de Abril (April Fair), but this year held in May. It’s a fantastic event, utter mayhem of crowds and horses and heat and manzanilla sherry, where you need stamina and a strong head for drink, a decent grasp of Spanish, but above all you need friends. Friends with casetas. These are the small stripey tent-houses (or large, for companies, and the public casetas, for areas of the city and political parties) where all the action takes place.

Feria, Sevilla

Keeping track of friends at the Feria by mobile phone (WhatsApp is the preferred means of telecommunication) is an essential part of the experience.

After this year’s Feria, which was a vintage one for me, even though I didn’t even manage to meet or visit everyone I had intended to, I came to the conclusion that there are three experiences of the Seville Feria, all completely different.

The first Feria is for those who have a caseta. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s your own – casetas are owned (and the costs are shared) by groups of people – friends, family, associations. It could be your in-laws’ (the commonest option among the Sevillanos I know) or your company’s. You have your own base where you can invite friends, or mention you’ll be there on a certain day if they would like to drop by and visit (you’ll also go out caseta-hopping to visit your friends in theirs). The doormen can be informed if you’re expecting guests, so he knows to let them in even if you’re not there at the time.

Feria, Sevilla

Ingenious, aesthetically-pleasing method of keeping socios’ possessions easily accesible.

Each socio (member) has a tab for food and drink at the bar, and you tend to be generous about entertaining visitors to your caseta. If you’re canny, like some casetas owners I heard about this year, you can rent your caseta out by the hour to Chinese or German tourists for a four-figure amount which will substantially reduce the annual fee paid by the caseta’s socios.

With friends in a caseta - our kind host is in the centre.

With friends in a caseta – our kind host is in the centre.

The second Feria is when you have friends with casetas. As always, it’s a case of not what you know, but who you know. Invitations are carefully sought and cherished in the weeks leading up to this extraordinary event, the mother of all ferias (for many towns in Spain hold their own, scaled down accordingly from the 1,000-odd casetas at the Seville event). If you’re lucky enough to be invited to a friend’s caseta (or their parents’, or company’s), once you’ve called/texted/WhatsApped to check they’re there and found them, you will be plied with food and drink, and when you try to respond to your hosts’ generosity by repaying in kind, your offer may or may not be accepted (in some casetas only socios can pay).

Dancing Sevillanas in a private caseta at the Feria.

Dancing Sevillanas in a private caseta at the Feria.

As a Brit who is very aware of courtesy, and the importance of getting one’s round in, especially as a guest, I find that a little difficult to get used to – while not for a moment complaining about the wonderful Sevillano hospitality. You just have to accept it – it’s part of the Feria protocolo (code of behaviour).

The third Feria is for those who, sadly, don’t know people with casetas (or who didn’t get an invite). Obviously they can still come to the Feria – entrance is free, they can watch the procession of magnificent horses and carriages, walk around the streets, and soak up the atmosphere, as well as going to one of the public casetas - for the six Seville barrios, plus political parties and trade unions. Tourists who come must find it an extraordinary sight, if rather closed-off – women dressed in frilly flamenco frocks partying away behind closed doors (well, canvas awnings). I have heard more than one person describe the Seville Feria as “1000 wedding receptions you’re not invited to”.

Sevilla, Feria, Feria de Sevilla

Ladies in flamenco dresses riding in a carriage – one of everyone’s favourite sights at the Feria.

Many feel it is too exclusive, and only for the “have”s (or have-a-friends), when it should be for everyone. My husband is in that camp, although he’ll go to his trade union’s caseta. I noticed that this year, when it got to the small hours, there were many more young people having a bottelon (drinking in the street from bottles they’ve brought with them) than in previous years, Note that other Ferias, apart from the Seville one, don’t have the same system of private casetas as here – all are open to everyone.

This year I went one night with a friend of a friend, who had already been at the fair for three days on his own, taking photos for a project. He hadn’t even been inside a caseta. We took him round to meet our friends at their casetas, and he was bowled over by the friendliness and hospitality shown to him by the Sevillanos, and astonished by the world of difference between la Feria en la calle, and la Feria en las casetas.

What’s your experience of the Feria de Sevilla? Have you been to a private caseta, or a public one?

Next year’s Feria is 21-26 April 2015.

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