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.

 

Torrijos 2013: a picture post

Devotees (or the merely curious, like us), head for the chapel to see the visiting Virgin, and the Christ statue.

Devotees (or the merely curious, like us), head for the Hacienda’s chapel to see the visiting Virgin, and the Christ statue.

Another year, another Romeria de Torrijos in the village where we live. For weeks beforehand, the horses and oxen are trained and prepared in the fields around our house, carriages practise-driven, carretas decorated in brightly coloured tissue paper, and of course flamenca dresses and accessories sought out, examined and donned.

This year was perfect weather – blue skies, but not too hot. We missed the procession of ox-carts due to a prior social engagement, but stayed later to make up for it. I’m always intrigued by the chapel of the Hacienda de Torrijos, the Arab-era estate where the romeria takes place.

An image of Jesus was supposedly discovered 400 years ago by a hen pecking near the chapel wall, a dubious event related in a tiled niche. But enough to convince the faithful/supersitious/gullible (delete as appropriate) creyentes, who leave small silver offerings – arms, legs, cows, horses – to ask the Son of God to cure their, and their livestock’s, ailments – as well as messages of thanks.

I will leave the rest of the photos (and captions) to speak for themselves. Hasta la proxima!

Clapping hands in time to the song, as men play the guitar. Romerias are about friendship, feasting and flamenca.

Clapping and singing, as men play the guitar. Romerias are about friendship, feasting and flamencas.

A typically animated group enjoying their lunch, with the Hacienda de Torrijos behind them.

A tableau of romeros enjoying their lunch, with the Hacienda de Torrijos behind them.

This way you can't lose your glass when you move around visiting groups of friends, while at the same time displaying your football allegiance.

This way you can’t lose your glass when you move around visiting groups of friends, while at the same time displaying your football allegiance.

Horsemanship starts young in Valencina, and obviously he has to look the part, in his traje corto and Cordobes hat.

Horsemanship starts young in Valencina, and obviously he has to look the part, in his beautiful traje corto and Cordobes hat.

When my daughter lost her new balloon (dalmatian with turqoise collar), only candy floss could cushion the blow.

When my daughter lost her new helium balloon (dalmatian with turqoise collar) to gravity, only candy floss could cushion such a terrible blow. My son’s bubble gun was more grounded, thankfully.

I love the way the sunlight falls on these horses' arses (so to speak).

I love the way the sunlight falls on these horses’ arses (so to speak).

A horse-drawn cart kicks up dust crossing a field.

A horse-drawn cart kicks up dust crossing a field.

My daughter Lola poses with some romeros - pilgrims (Chaucer overtones make that word sound so wrong in English).

My daughter Lola poses with some romeros – pilgrims (the medieval overtones make that word sound so wrong in English).

This hibiscus flower is the new fashion for flamenca hair accessories.

This hibiscus-style flower is the new fashion for flamenca hair accessories.

Entrance through the left arch, exit on the right - the chapel of Hacienda de Torrijos

Entrance through the left arch, exit on the right – the chapel of Hacienda de Torrijos

Huge exotic shell looks incongruous against the azulejos of the chapel entrance.

Huge exotic seashell looks incongruous against the azulejos of the chapel entrance.

Little silver ofrendas to give thanks to Cristo de Torrijos for curing feet, legs and hands.

Little silver ofrendas to give thanks to Cristo de Torrijos for curing limbs and extremities.

The story of how the image of Cristo de Torrijos was found - by a hen!

The story of how the image of Cristo de Torrijos was found insde this very wall – by a hen!

A sensory experience: la higuera

This fragrant little beauty, on a tree in Benoajan after a 9km hike, made my day.

This fragrant fig tree in Benoajan, spotted at the end of a 9km hike, provided a moment of sheer euphoria.

They say that memories triggered by smell are the most powerful and long-lasting. Familiar odours can bring back, in depth and detail, experiences and places visited many years before.

As one website explains: “When you first smell a new scent, you link it to an event, a person, a thing or even a moment. Your brain forges a link between the smell and a memory. When you encounter the smell again, the link is already there, ready to elicit a memory or a mood.” This is called the olfactory memory. Fascinating stuff, I hear you say (or perhaps not), but so what?

Andalucia is replete with olfactory experiences such as azahar, sweet orange blossom, Seville’s spring smell. But one of the most intense I’ve ever had, seared into my memory, was on the recent Mr Henderson’s Railway gourmet hiking trip: the fig. I’ve never given much attention to this particular fruit – goes well with ham, used by the Victorians to make a dubious pudding. My father’s fig tree is famed locally for its prodigious harvests of the swollen purplish bulbs; but they always remind me of a livid bruise, and the visceral pulp is less than attractive. Visually, and in every other sense.

Walking the dogs in the fields near my house, on a late summer evening a few weeks ago, I became aware of a glorious scent. Warm and sweet, it encapsulated the sun-bathed Spanish countryside – soft and golden. After a while I realised it was coming from the higueras – our route takes us through a field of the huge-leaved fruit trees. None had figs, all having been mercilessly foraged by the crisis-hit locals. But the trees still smelled divine, nonetheless.

Our route from Jimera del Libar to Benoajan.

Our route from Jimera del Libar to Benoajan, following the Guadiaro river.

Back to Mr Henderson’s Railway - on day three of our Algeciras-to-Ronda trip, having eaten like kings in converted stations and cargo sheds along the line, and slept like queens in heavenly hotels (more on those soon), we hiked a 9km trail from Jimera del Libar to Benoajan. The trail runs alongside the historic train line (built by an English Lord, don’t you know) which follows the Guadiaro river. Two hours of full-on walking up and down hills on the hiking trail, with just a few seedy cookies for sustenance (thanks, Lidl), just about did me in. (You see, my idea of exercise is an hour’s gentle padel knock-about with another mum, or a slow ramble with children and aforementioned canine companions. Or, at a push, a bike ride showing tourists around Seville.)

It was hot that morning, though thankfully with ample shade from the trees lining the path, under which I rested my red-faced, sweating, exhausted self. We hardly met another soul, that’s how off-the-beaten-hiking-path this route is. Watching the train pass by, through tunnels and over bridges built by compatriots over a century ago, and the fabulous views of the river, railway and tree-covered slopes from the hillside path, made it all worthwhile. Just.

Deep in the wilds of Andalucia, pretending to be a hiker.

Deep in the wilds of Andalucia, pretending to be a hiker. You can see Mr Henderson’s Railway behind.

Then I felt that joyous little leap of finally glimpsing your destination at the end of an arduous journey (for me, at least) – in this case the village of Benoajan, across the river. As the track led downhill through the outlying houses towards the bridge, I caught a whiff of something sweet, and looked up. Hanging down above my head was a large, luscious, purple fig.

What a moment! The elation of completing the hike (everyone else had already finished – I was the last, but enjoyed indulging in this profoundly personal experience alone); the relief that I had survived without bruises, scratches or sprained joints; the anticipation of yet another fabulous meal just around the corner; the enveloping warmth of a September afternoon in Andalucia; and, dare I say it, the guilty frisson of being away from my children for so long – it was all wrapped up (no parma ham) in that fruit tree and its delectably rich, evocative, sun-drenched aroma.

Fig salad: a late summer classic.

Fig salad: a late summer classic.

And lunch, on the pretty, shady terrace of a converted mill, next to a stream and drenched with pink bouganvillea, vines heavy with grapes, and yet more fragrant fig trees, lived up to its expectations – delicately-flavoured, colourful salads, hearty pasta, and exquisite ice-cream to refuel after all that physical exertion, accompanied by some excellent dry moscatel wine (a recent discovery, well worth trying). And although I didn’t order it myself, I tried a friend’s fig salad. And, reader, I liked it.

Bright bouganvillea against a white wall: so Andalucian.

A burst of colour – bright bouganvillea against a white wall is so Andalucian.

What smell triggers your memory?

10 things I’ve learned I can’t live without

A few weeks ago, I reached an important milestone – both in my life, and in my time lived in Spain: it’s 10 years since I arrived here in Seville. Back in September 2003 I came to this beautiful city – via London and Quito, Ecuador – with no expectations, no idea of what I’d find (I’d never been here before), and a few names as contacts.

A decade later, I have a small, tumbledown house (literally), two dogs and a semi-wild cat, two children and a husband, lots more English-language novels, thousands of leaflets, guidebooks and novels about various aspects of Andalucian and Spain, from the Civil War to flamenco, as well as a decent collection of children’s DVDs. And one of the contacts is still a good friend, and unofficial godmother to my son.

Having read Josh’s reliably excellent post on five things not to forget when moving to Spain (clue: it’s about food, and nursery food at that), it occurred to me that since I’ve been here 10 years, my anniversary would be a great excuse hook for a post on things I’ve learned that I can’t live without. Practical posts aren’t my forte, but this might be of some use or interest to a new, or potential, expat.

So here goes (artwork: Copyright Lola and Zac Flores Watson):

no1

1) Revo internet radio
If I want to dance, I find some pop tunes on Radio 2; hear the news, Radio 4; remember why I left London, Radio London; listen to some quirky tracks, Radio 6 Music. I go off into my own little world when I’m in the kitchen with my radio on. Some British expats refuse to listen to British radio or watch British TV. Balderdash and poppycock. (Confession: I do listen to RAI in the car.)

no2

2) Satellite dish
I rarely watch TV, except for the news – once the kids are finally in bed, I’m either working on the computer, eating, or asleep. We don’t even have one at the moment as our sitting room is a building site. But when we do, the reason I value it so highly is CBeebies. Have you seen Spanish children’s TV? Think, the most moronic, sexist, casual-violence American animated nonsense you can imagine, and that’s it. Brain-rot. At least Ballamory has sound ideas on racial harmony. And its theme tune is far less irritating than Sponge Bob Squarepants, FFS.

no3

3) Girls’ nights out
My best girlfriends are all English. What a cliche, I hear you say. But that cultural familiarity, the unspoken bonds, the mutual understanding of being married to a Spaniard (four of my closest mum mates are) and all the communication challenges that implies. All we need is a bottle of wine (or three) and you can leave us there till the wee hours.

no4

4) The Week
My wonderful, though sadly aging, Dad gets me a subscription every year to this weekly news mag, which distills the most interesting and important stories from British and foreign media into 60-odd pages – perfect loo or bath reading material. And it gets passed on to one of those mentioned in 3).

no5

5) Nice soap
The Spanish don’t seem to do nice soap, unless it’s made of honey and glycerin with oatmeal flakes suspended inside and costs 4 euros. Buy a four-pack of normal scented stuff from any English supermarket and you’ll be fragrant for months.

no6

6) Facebook, especially groups
I don’t understand anyone who doesn’t use Facebook. How else would I know when anyone’s birthday is? Or what their children look like now? Or what embarrassing thing happened to them at work last week? Or which Youtube video’s gone viral? I work at home, so there’s no water-cooler moment, no chat while the kettle boils (do they even have kettles in Spanish offices?) It’s like a mouthy coffee break, getting squiffy cocktail hour, and catch-up chat on the phone, all rolled into one. And the groups are indescribably useful and supportive. I’ve made fantastic contacts, found work, and received (and, I hope, given too) useful advice via Facebook groups.

no7

7) Extra reserves of patience and tolerance
The I-don’t-understand-you grimace, the “you don’t need that form”, “you only need one copy”, “you don’t need the original”. Ignore, push, insist, ask again, request clarification (you did need the form, four copies, and the original). If in doubt, start again from the beginning. Be firm and try to stay calm. Spanish administration is hell, but at least make sure that the bolshy jobsworth funcionario (civil servant) who’s trying to deny you that essential document – because she wants to go and have her coffee break – does her job properly. (Although in my case, I don’t think they get off scot-free either – I need everything explaining at least four times, which must have its less endearing qualities.) And if they’re being really obtuse, officious or offensive, just picture them in their underwear.

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8) Chutney
Cebolla caramelizada doesn’t quite cut it. In fact, Spanish jams in general are sub-standard. English fruit and vegetable chutneys, however, especially spicy ones, have this strange power of making an ordinary cheese sandwich into a thing of wonder.

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9) Regular trips back to the motherland
We go about twice a year – I need to be among people who speak my language, literally, and may not be as warm or friendly as the Spanish, but who won’t frown at me when I mumble because I’m too knackered to en-un-ci-ate clear-ly. Where supermarket shelves overflow with a heavenly array of cakes, biscuits and naughty puds, and crisps and chutneys (see 8) come in 359 flavours. Where friends who’ve known me for years can tell me what I need to be told. And where I, and especially my children, can spend precious time with aforementioned aging parents.

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10) My family
Well, obviously. I’m hardly going to dump them by the roadside and go gallivanting off to the Algarve for a week on my own, now, am I? (Well, actually, there was talk of a girls’ weekend away – see 3) The biggest change for me since arriving in Seville, apart from giving up smoking, designer clothes and poncy cocktail bars, has been having my children. They’re half-Spanish, or half-Andalucian as their Dad would say, bilingual, and comfortable in both cultures, thanks to 2 and 9; and 1 helps too. My husband, for his part, keeps our shoddily-built bungalow standing, tending to plumbing, electrical, structural and countless other problems, and is a bear-ish sort of bloke who is useful around the house and garden (great veg patch) – just as well, since he doesn’t have a job. Anyway, they’re the bees’ knees and I love them to bits. I managed without them for three days recently, on a very nice trip in Andalucia, but that was quite long enough, thank you. I can’t go without hugs for more than three days. Ni pensar.

What can’t you live without?

 

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The value of knowledge – a gourmet hiking adventure in deepest Andalucia

Toma Tours, Manni Coe, tuna, atun de almadraba, almadraba, Cadiz, gastronomy, gourmet, restaurant

A guided tour of the blue-fin tuna, a must for serious foodies on a trip to Andalucia.

I love to travel around Andalucia, and try to explore more of this hugely varied region whenever possible, usually in day trips. After 10 years of living here, there are still legions of parks, mountains, lakes and towns that I haven’t visited yet.

So when Manni of Toma Tours invited me to come along on his special preview of Mr Henderson’s Railway – three days of slow food and easy hikes, based around a historic train line between Algeciras and Ronda – I didn’t jump at the chance, I positively leaped. A trip without having to do any internet research, plan the trip, make bookings, read maps, or mediate between squabbling children. For I am, like most Mums, my own family’s tour planner/manager/guide/arbitrator.

Tuna fillet on wakame seaweed.

Fresh almadraba tuna fillet on wakame seaweed – from Barbate, in Cadiz, only caught a few months of the year.

Manni’s company, Toma, takes small groups of visitors around Andalucia (and beyond, to Morocco) – hiking hidden trails (he’s super-fit), eating the finest seasonal produce and drinking local wines at out-of-the-way restaurants, and experiencing all the wonderful cultural and natural attractions the region has to offer, in both major cities and smaller towns, as on this trip. Manni has lived in Andalucia for over 10 years, as well as studying Spanish at University, and has an impressive knowledge of the region’s history and culture.

The trip took place during the first week of the school term, finishing on my son’s birthday, so the timing wasn’t ideal – my son’s face when I told him I wouldn’t be there on the morning of his big day was heart-breaking. I had to leave the trip early to get home in time that day, missing the last visit – to a bull farm, with an iberico (prime Spanish pork)-fest lunch. No great loss for me, since I’m a non-meat-eater and not a bullfighting fan, either.

Mr Henderson's Railway, train,

A scenic stretch of Mr Henderson’s railway in the Serrania de Ronda, running above the river Guadiaro; the hiking trail overlooks the train tracks.

In terms of the hiking aspect, I’m no fitness freak (read: lazybones), so the thought of the hikes filled me with trepidation. All resolutions to get (even slightly) fit and take some proper exercise prior to the trip went out of the window, with dog-walking being my sole aerobic preparation. Not many hills where I live, except the one that goes down to Seville, and that’s a bit hardcore for me. How did I fare? You’ll just have to wait for the next post to find out.

vegetables, home-grown, organic

Home-grown organic produce in one of the restaurants where we ate with Toma Tours.

As I set off for Algeciras, the starting point for the trip, I felt naked without my family, and realised this was going to be the longest I’d ever been away from my children – three nights (in seven years). Then it dawned on me this that was also going to be three days with NO COOKING, CLEANING, WASHING, TIDYING UP, NAGGING, OR CHIVYING, and I suddenly felt light-headed with excitement. As much as I insisted on taking reams of notes (to the amusement of fellow travellers in the group), and snapping endless photos (ditto), I could devote 100% of my attention to take in my surroundings, which is very rare.

To return to the trip – Manni has been closely involved in the restoration of Mr Henderson’s Railway, a line which was built in the 1890s by the eponymous gentleman (he was later made a Lord) to take officers from Gibraltar up to Ronda. They had to take a boat from the Rock to Algeciras, but then they could sink back into the luxury of the venerable Edwardian-era Reina Cristina Hotel – the first hotel on Spain’s southern coast; sadly, its once-magnificent views of the bay are marred these days by the industrial machinery of the port – before hopping onto the train at the nearby railway station. Manni has in-depth knowledge of the construction and history of the railway and its two hotels (there’s one in Ronda too).

An old train station with terrace restaurant.

An old train station-turned-terrace restaurant on the Algeciras-Ronda line.

The train stopped at various small stations along the way to Ronda, many built below the mountain-top villages they served, such as Gaucin – in some cases they were several kilometres away. Today, a few of these stations and their accompanying storehouses have been turned into restaurants, which form an integral part of the tour we were doing, next to the railway which has three trains per day from Algeciras to Granada. Often in tiny, way-off-the-beaten-track places, they’re the sort of restaurants you’d be unlikely to stumble across on your own – this is where local knowledge is key. So Manni can guide you to the most best and most fascinating of everything: train lines, hiking trails, gastronomic secrets, hidden boltholes…

This gorgeous naturally designed pool had one of the best views I've ever seen.

This pool is sublime – fabulous view across the valley, and perfectly landscaped to look natural, with plants and rocks.

In later posts I will write in more detail about each section of the trip, but the main impression I took away with me was that the heart and soul of a company like Toma Tours is Manni – his charm, dedication, enthusiasm, professionalism, and sense of fun. He’s one of those people who carries you along with him on a wave of goodwill.

Manni Coe of Toma Tours, who will whisk you to the best spots in Andalucia.

The ever-smiling Manni Coe of Toma Tours greets us at Ronda station.

He has supported the restoration of the railway, got to know the restaurant owners (who clearly adore him; he is a rather good-looking chap, which helps), and loves to share his new discoveries with people – to introduce them to the wonders of  the Guadiaro valley which runs north from Algeciras towards Ronda, through spectacular wooded mountains and limestone cliffs. These people include a certain TV presenter who was investigating railways for a BBC programme.

Ronda, view

Relaxation room in our Ronda hotel – get that view.

If you have an interest in railways (or even if you don’t), and you like to combine hiking – the full trip is five days, with 3-5 hours of walking per day – with some astonishingly good food in wonderful surroundings, off the tourist beaten track in Andalucia, then you can’t do better than the Mr Henderson’s Railway Gourmet Walking Tour. And I even got home in time to bake my son’s birthday cake. Nothing fancy, just a Victoria sponge, but he was delighted. And we all survived fine without each other for three days. Now, when’s my next trip?