Eight paws and four hooves – our new donkey

Two kids, two dogs, donkey, husband.

Two kids, two dogs, donkey, husband.

Getting to know my new "child".

Getting to know my new “child”.

Over the past 11 years since I’ve been living in Spain, I’ve acquired one husband, two children, and two dogs (in that order). Now our family has grown again, with a new arrival – a baby donkey.

It’s a long story – isn’t it always? We were out for a walk with the dogs one sunny Sunday afternoon, and we came across a donkey, as you do. It wasn’t tethered, it didn’t have any food or water, and looked pretty sad and lonely, if in good health and well-fed. As it was a hot day we decided to take it home to give it some water, at least.

Gentle Lucero was a donkey delight.

Gentle Lucero was a donkey delight.

Luckily we had a fenced off area of our large garden which had been used for growing vegetables, but was currently abandoned and overgrown. So in went Lucero, as the kids christened our new four-legged friend, and we went out to buy him a halter and some food. Lucero was a quiet, calm animal, male but not “whole” as they euphemistically describe it. Right from the start, I made it clear to Zac (8) and Lola (5) that the donkey wasn’t ours to keep, that someone would come and collect him and take him home soon, that we were just looking after him.

Their dad took them out for rides on Lucero in the olive field next door. The donkey nuzzled them and followed them about – I had never realised these gentle creatures were so affectionate. Before long Zac and Lola were donkey-doped, hooked on this furry creature the same height as them, with soft, kind eyes and nibbly lips. Zac, who is a typically bouncy and active eight-year-old, spent hours in his enclosure just talking to the animal and being with him.

Our Labrador Buddha gets to know Lucero the donkey.

Our Labrador Buddha gets to know Lucero the donkey.

Inevitably, given that everyone around here knows everyone else and their animals, word got back to the owner that we were looking after his beast, Pepe. He came to collect Lucero/Pepe on the Wednesday night, when the kids had just been out for a ride on him. Who would have thought that in just four days (three of them spent at school) two small children would become so strongly attached to a burro? They were both inconsolable when Lucero was loaded up to be taken back home.

The owner stayed chatting to my husband for while, and I had to ask him abruptly to go, losing my usual excessive British politeness (Not “I say old chap, would you mind awfully slinging your hook, the nippers are a little upset”, but “LEAVE NOW!”) as they were prolonging the painful agony of farewell for my weeping, desperate children, something no parent can cope with well.

Men are often a softer touch as fathers, in my experience (“Daaaad, Mum won’t let me watch TV/have some biscuits/buy a PlayStation – pleeeeease, go on, can I, pleeeease?”) and my husband couldn’t bear to see his darling niños in a state of such abject misery. So what did he do? He promised to get them their own donkey, of course. Dentro de poco (very soon). And so it all began.

He found someone among his wide circle of friends and acquaintances who had a young donkey ready to be separated from his mother. They arranged a barter deal and along came Polly. A *male* donkey. He’s now called Bolly.

Bolly is welcomed into his new home.

Bolly is welcomed into his new home.

Young donkeys can be nervous, a little aggressive, unpredictable, very affectionate and full of energy. Bolly is all of those things. He loves playing with the dogs, although the pecking order is still being established as our Labrador is always convinced he’s top dog – as he told the small dog in no uncertain terms soon after he arrived (having been passed on by two families). The small dog was found by my husband when he was a week old – the only survivor of an abandoned bitch with her litter of puppies.

Taking Bolly out for his first walk in the olive grove.

Taking Bolly out for his first walk in the olive grove.

Bolly meets the horses next door.

Bolly meets the horses next door.

Lola rides Bolly along the lane.

Lola rides Bolly along the lane.

I am learning fast about donkey behaviour, making lots of mistakes, and trying to be a good donkey owner. My husband is more instinctive, having had animals as a child (we had small dogs, hamster and guinea pig). The children ride Bolly bareback (on a leading rein), and they’re all getting used to this new experience. Like anything with a new animals, it’s not always a smooth ride. Bolly likes playing tug of war with the lab, whose old, deflated football, the toy he arrived with a year and a half ago, is used as the tugged thing. They chase each other around the garden. It’s not always good natured, and there are plenty of tellings-off, so we’re constantly on our guard for animal shenanigans.

One friend who knows lots about horses and lives in rural France has been a huge source of advice and support, suggesting books and videos about donkey behaviour. They are very intelligent creatures, she told me – yes, they’re famous for being stubborn, but that’s just because they take time to process information and then make a decision. Horses are faster to decide.

Beautiful tiled entrance arch to our local horse, donkey and oxen fair.

Beautiful tiled entrance arch to our local horse, donkey and oxen fair.

Gines, Sevilla, feria

Welcome. The Gines Town Hall thanks you for your visit. We hope you enjoy the authentic taste and feel which you experience at Una Para en Gines.

A feast of donkey excitements. Caramelo, a famous donkey who dances like a horse, is a star attraction.

A feast of donkey excitements. Caramelo, a famous donkey who dances like a horse, is a star attraction at this Gines fair.

Caramelo the dancing donkey at Una Para En Gines.

A dancing donkey (not Caramelo) at Una Para En Gines.

Two colourful rocieras on their mules.

Two colourful rocieras on their mules.

Donkey racing - not the most elegant sport, but great fun to watch.

Donkey racing – not the most elegant sport, but great fun to watch.

Soon after Bolly arrived, with extraordinarily good timing, I was told about a local livestock fair called Una Parada en Gines, in the next town from here, with oxen, horses and, yes, donkeys. Races, pulling contests, dressage… live music, bars, food…girls in feria dresses, a colouring/in tent…  your typical Spanish town fair. One morning, a young man doing a PhD in donkey behaviour came to do a donkey meet-and-greet with small children from local primary schools, so I took the opportunity to fire some questions at him, which he answered very good naturedly. Bolly might still be anxious from being separated from his mother, he told us, so we should be patient with him.

I didn’t much like seeing the donkeys, including tiny miniature ones, squashed together in small pens, but I suppose that’s what happens at these fairs. It was interesting to see the different breeds – I worked out that Bolly is a Catalan donkey.

It’s a steep learning curve for the whole family – kicking, biting, head-butting v hugs and gentle body contact (leaning in) – but we’re getting there.

Una Para en Gines takes place at the end of September in Gines, a town near Seville. Find out more here.

 

 

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!

Flamenco among friends

flamenco

Maria (left) with the two dancers on stage  at Flamenco Esencia in Salteras, near Seville.

flamenco

The venue is a converted bodega, with high ceilings and plain white walls displaying photos of flamenco legends.

Even though I’ve been living here in Seville, the cradle of flamenco, for more than 10 years, what I’ve learned about the art form could fit on the back of a postage stamp.

I love it – watching it, listening to it, feeling the rhythms and passions of the singers and dancers, guitarists and hand-clappers. But the subtleties of the different compas escape me. I prefer to close my eyes and get swept along in the spine-tingling, raw emotion pouring from the performers, and they spin and stamp and shout. Music has a great power to move us, take us to places deep inside ourselves – nothing makes me cry as easily as music. And flamenco is so… visceral.

While there are plenty of venues in Seville to see flamenco, with performances almost every night, in the area where I live – the Aljarafe, to the west of the city – it’s harder to find dance shows; indeed, until recently there was no dedicated flamenco space. Flamenco Esencia was opened last year in the village of Salteras by two women, neither of whom is Spanish: Maria, a respected flamenco dancer herself (her stage name is Maria la Serrana), is Lebanese, and Fabienne is from Holland.

flamenco

Cosy corner with fireplace, and candles to create the right atmosphere.

Bar menu; mine's a manzanilla (sherry). Tapas and one drink are included in the entry price.

Bar menu; mine’s a manzanilla (sherry). Tapas and one drink are included in the entry price.

They have converted a delapidated 19th-century bodega (wine store) into an impressive but not intimidating venue, restoring it to its original state, with a high ceiling and fabulous vaulted arch, offering superb acoustics. The walls are painted white and decorated with blown-up black and white photos of legends such as Paco de Lucia and Camaron de la Isla. For chilly winter nights, there’s a fireplace, while on warm evenings you can have tapas in the patio after the main performance, including freshly carved jamon serrano, cheese and tortilla. And, of course, there’s a bar, so you can watch the show with a glass of your preferred tipple in your hand.

flamenco

Flamenco is a hugely energetic and demanding dance, and this dancer leaped high into the air.

The venue is about 15 minutes’ drive out of Seville, although they offer a free minibus from the city, which is great if you don’t have wheels – or even if you do, but you simply want the freedom to be able to drink. However having to make the schlep out to Salteras has its upsides: the ambience in this flamenco venue is intimate and very special; people have really made an effort to come. Flamenco tablaos can feel forced, staged and generally unsatisfactory; this is authentic. Maria and Fabienne welcome everyone and make them feel at home, and the performers strutting their stuff are all first-class.

The high quality of the artists performing at Flamenco Esencia is down to Maria’s ability to coax her flamenco friends into coming to her club-like venue – they’re here because of her, and because they want to be, not for the paycheck. She’s a well-established name in the Sevilla flamenco scene, having worked for many years with Farruquito, and knows which performers to pair which which. And it shows. As Maria explained, they are keen to host both established names and young, up-and-coming artists – those who have performed at Flamenco Esencia include dancers Felipe Mato and Leonor Leal, and singer Javier Rivera.

flamenco

The dancer lifts her long dress to show her foot work – see how marked the stage floor is from all that flamenco shoe-stamping.

Most performances feature two dancers, a man and a woman; a guitarist; and a singer. Our dancers were wonderfully entertaining and worked beautifully together as a pair – flamenco is all about drama and passion – flirting, rejecting, reuniting, spurning again – stamping, head-tossing, showing your partner your back, then spinning to confront them once more. Maria herself also took a turn on stage, showing off her footwork and skill. It is mesmerising to watch, and the volume level goes up as the shoes stamp with increasing speed on the wooden stage. The men generally wear plain shirts and straight trousers, while the women sport the fabulous ruffled flamenco skirts or dresses, with coordinating flowers in their hair.

We were very fortunate to see Jeromo Segura, a singer from Huelva at the top of his profession: shortly after our visit to Flamenco Esencia, Jeromo won one of flamenco’s most important singing prizes, the Lampara del Minero; he has also released a CD. I love his voice because he’s not shouty – yes, that’s my expert opinion as a flamenco critic, not. He actually sings without raising the volume in ear-splitting, tear-your-guts-out anguish.

After the main performance, when tapas were being served in the patio, Jeromo and his fellow artists changed into civvies and mingled with the audience. Jeromo, who has worked for many years with the renowned company of Eva Hierbuena, and has toured all over the world. I was a bit tongue-tied (OK, star-struck), but I managed to ask him which his favourite city was (lame question, I know), and he said Tokyo. The Japanese love flamenco, and many come to Seville to study baile (dance).

 Jeromo, who comes Huelva, sings as Luis accompanies him on guitar, and co-owner Maria with palmas clapping hands).

Jeromo, who comes from Huelva, sings as Luis accompanies him on guitar, and co-owner Maria with palmas (clapping hands).

After the tàpas, there was a more informal jamming session, known as the fin de fiesta, with a circle of chairs featuring Jeromo and the guitarist, Luis Amador (nephew of singer Raimundo Amador, who hails from the next-door village, where I live, Valencina de la Concepcion). The seats were arranged in an inclusive format, so everyone was the same, artists, and audience, with no “stage” – a level playing field.

They played as they wanted, conferring and laughing before each song; there’s nothing like seeing superb artists play in a relaxed atmosphere to their own rhythm – and we felt thrilled to be sitting and listening in that delightfully welcoming and inclusive arrangement. Jeromo had brought along his daughter, whom he kept trying to coax into singing, but she was too shy – in spite of the warm family atmosphere. This sing-song sometimes takes place in the patio – where flamenco would have traditionally been performed, in the outdoor communal areas of gypsy corralones, shared courtyards where many families lived together.

 Jeromo sings in the "fin de fiesta" jam session, with guitarist Luis and co-owner Maria.

Jeromo sings in the “fin de fiesta” relaxed jam session, with guitarist Luis and co-owner Maria.

Several dancers got up to have a brief go in the middle of the circle, including Fabienne, the co-owner with Maria. It was quite unlike any other flamenco show I’ve ever been to, because it was like being invited in by a group of friends who were practising. It’s a rare opportunity for tourists and locals to get up close to performers, and mingle with them. The artists don’t feel they should stay behind the scenes, as they usually might. And even better, anyone can join in and try their steps in the nurturing atmosphere of the fin de fiesta. It’s about the joy of flamenco, expressing yourself, not how good you are.

The audience was an interesting mix of Dutch, Germans, and locals from the village, from children to 70-year-olds. As we left, a not-so-young man who had been watching the show, and was already “in the party spirit”, beckoned to us and said knowingly, “Ahora empieza la fiesta” (now the party starts). Being responsible parents, we declined politely, and then spent the whole journey back in the car to collect the kids wondering just how much fun we were missing. Flamenco artists, a warm summer night, copious quantities of alcohol and other substances. I’m still kicking myself.

Flamenco Esencia has shows on Fridays at 9pm, with the doors open at 8.30pm – tapas and drink, plus transport from Seville, are included in the 35 euro ticket price. Private shows can also be arranged on other days.

For details of upcoming performers, check their Facebook page the week before.

Jeromo Segura will be performing at the Bienal de Flamenco, in Rafael and Adela Campallo’s new show, Sangre, at the Teatro Lope de Vega on 2 October. The Campallos have also performed at Flamenco Esencia.

He will also be performing at the Noches en Los Jardines del Alcazar summer music festival (link is for previous year, programme not updated yet), on 30 August.

 

A century of tradition: Seville’s olive oil biscuits go global

Ines Rosales, tortas de aceite

Sweet and savoury: from top left, cinnamon, almond (the latest), orange, and rosemary and thyme hand-made tortas de aceite (olive oil biscuits), individually wrapped in greaseproof paper with original design from the early 20th century.

The new foil packaging, used for the new flavours which are exported abroad, gives the tortas a longer shelf life, protecting them from damaging bright light.

The new foil packaging, used for the flavours which are exported abroad, such as Seville orange, gives the tortas a longer shelf life, protecting them from damaging bright light. It also features a full visual run-down of exactly what goes into your torta: olive oil, orange, sesame seed, aniseed, and wheat flour. That is all (except the sugar – oops).

Ines Rosales (far left) founded the company in 1910 in a town near Seville.

Ines Rosales (far left) sells her wares – the writing behind her reads “OTRA MARAVILLA DE SEVILLA” (another marvel from Seville). Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

Over 100 years ago, a young woman in a town near Seville started making and selling snacks called tortas de aceite, using an old family recipe. Made from nothing more than flour, water, sugar and olive oil, with a little aniseed and sesame for flavouring, these thin, round biscuits were individually wrapped in greaseproof paper, printed with their inventor’s distinctive logo, to protect them.

The tortas soon became popular and gained fame beyond Seville to the rest of Spain. Over a century later, the olive oil biscuits are still produced nearby under the founder’s name: Ines Rosales. These days the company sells 12 million packets a year all around the world.

Delivery Ines Rosales tortas in the the early days. The transport has changed, but the recipe's still the same.

Delivering Ines Rosales tortas in the the early days. The transport may have changed, but the recipe’s still the same. Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

The fact that a woman managed to start a business in 1910 is cause for astonishment, and celebration, in itself. Sadly, Ines Rosales died too soon, aged just 42. The business stayed in the family until her son sold up in 1982.

The tortas de aceite from Castilleja de la Cuesta have become a global success story. Adapting to more modern, international tastes, in 2009 flavoured versions were introduced, in both sweet (orange is my favourite) and savoury (rosemary and thyme). The “sweet olive oil tortas”, as they’re known in English, are a hit from Japan to the US, the biggest export market, where they’ve been sold since 1999; cinnamon flavour is the top seller (you can buy them at Whole Foods Market). China offers a set of up-and-coming new customers eager to sample these unusual snacks.

Working the super-glam factory visit look.

Working the super-glam factory visit look – no photos allowed inside, so this is the closest my camera got.

I was curious to see how they’re made, and since the Ines Rosales factory is very near my home, last summer I went to visit. The factory outgrew its high street location nearly two decades ago, and is now located in a town about 20km west of Castilleja, though the company’s official headquarters is still in the town. (Interesting facts about Castilleja de la Cuesta, which is in the Aljarafe region to the west of Seville: it was the home town of Rita Hayworth’s father; and conquistador Hernan Cortes, who conquered Mexico, died here.)

It is always intriguing to learn about a company which is expanding, despite the crippling economic crisis which has been affecting Spain for nearly five years. Each day 350,000 tortas are made by the nimble hands of local women, working on a production line behind a window. Men don’t make the grade for manual dexterity, when it comes to flattening the tortas, as with Carmen’s 18th-century cigarette factory in Seville.

torta de aceite, Ines Rosales

These women each make more than 20 tortas per minute. Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

These Sevillanas deftly transform the little balls of dough into flat pancake-type rounds so fast you can barely see them doing it. You have to watch very carefully – blink and you’ll miss it.

Fresh out of the oven.

Tortas fresh out of the oven. Photo courtesy of Ines Rosales

Then they sprinkle sugar on and the tortas are baked, so the sugar melts and goes crispy. Oh yes. And since each torta is hand-made, they all look different. This is one of the main selling points of these traditional snacks – they’re not made in a mould – a cookie-cutter, literally. They’re shaped by human hands into individual biscuits.

Original ads decorate the walls at Ines Rosales.

Original ads decorate the walls at Ines Rosales –  see how little the packaging has changed?

I had a go at making tortas de aceite in a cooking class last year. Mine were passable, but I only made about 20, and had plenty of time to make a hash of it. These ladies are on a production line and make 21 tortas per minute each. Quality control is strict, with photos being taken of the tortas to ensure they meet exacting standards of size and shape. Those which don’t make the grade – purely for aesthetic reasons – are donated to an NGO to distribute, while 100kg a week are given away to the most in-need families.

Enjoying a torta in the Ines Rosales canteen, after my factory visit. Well, it would be rude no to.

Enjoying a torta in the Ines Rosales canteen, after my factory visit. Well, it would be rude not to.

The company is unusually forward-thinking for Spain, in that some years ago they introduced a sugar-free torta, while other traditional biscuits, normally laden with manteca (lard), come in non-animal product varieties.

The mark of a traditional product.

The mark of a traditional product.

Last year the tortas de aceite of Seville province were officially registered by the European Union as an Especialidad Tradicional Guarantizada - which translates as Traditional Speciality Guaranteed. This tells consumers that it’s a product made from traditional raw materials, produced using a traditional method. Basically, the tortas  have been made the same way for a very long time – on a larger scale now, but using the same ingredients and hand-made process.

The orange tortas are one of my family’s top merienda (tea) choices, while the rosemary and thyme ones are a fab accompaniment to that well-earned Friday evening glass of wine. Or put some grated cheese on top and grill gently for an instant, super-tasty pizza. Ines Rosales have loads of recipe suggestions on their website, suggesting the savoury ones (sesame and sea salt is the other non-sweet variety) as ideal summer-time outdoor nibbles. A little piece of Andalucia to impress your guests.

While the classic tortas are widely available, as Spanish like them with their coffee (I don’t like aniseed, which is why the new flavours are more to my taste), not all the other varieties are easy to find, even a few km from their home-base where I live. For this reason I was very excited to hear that the first-ever Ines Rosales shop is opening soon in the centre of Seville – in Calle Hernando Colon, near Plaza San Francisco to be exact. Be sure to visit when you’re here.

Festive Seville: Mapping and Food Fairs

Happy New Year to all my lovely readers! I hope you had a wonderful festive season, spending lots of time with your friends and family.

A couple of posts ago, I listed all the events that were going on in Seville over the Christmas period.

Although it feels odd still to be talking about last month, I thought it would be fitting to report back on how they all went. I will try to avoid to less obviously festive aspects of our adventures, as I don’t know about you, but I have a serious dose of the January post-Christmas blues.

Flower-covered facade of Ayuntamiento.

Flowers projected onto the rear facade of the Ayuntamiento.

Ayuntamiento, mapping

Meccano construction on the Town Hall.

The Mapping

This is a (free) show of 3D-laser video projections on the rear facade of the Ayuntamiento (town hall), watched in Plaza San Francisco. This was not as imaginative or spectacular as last year’s, which also had more detail and was more technically impressive, and I thought it seemed longer too. However it had some great set pieces, like the Scalextric track with cars racing (video below, quite loud – be warned!), and the sweeping tour of some of Seville’s monuments: Plaza de España, the Atarazanas, Torre del Oro, and Triana Bridge (video also below). But there was no fake snow at the end, alas.

Scalextric section

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=776TXAWFNCg&w=420&h=315]

Seville monuments (watch from 9:20)

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1JRGThE5aaQ&w=560&h=315]

The markets

We managed to get to three food markets, the first two of which are annual events, so they’ll be on again next Christmas.

The location of convents which make and sell pastries around Seville. Most have their own shops, and many bakeries stock their goodies too.

The location of convents which make and sell pastries around Seville. Most have their own shops, and many bakeries stock their goodies too.

We started off with the convent pastries in the Alcazar, made by nuns in 24 religious establishments located around Seville province. These include seven in the city (see map above), and one in Estepa, which is particularly famous for its mantecados.

What a magnificent setting for such dainty confections, with the colourful tiles and high ceilings of the palace’s long Renaissance salons, which were lined with tables piled high with pretty white and pink boxes.

mantecados, polvorones, Christmas, Alcazar, Navedad

Sweet treats: convent pastries on sale at the Alcazar.

These traditional Christmas shortbread-type biscuits have wonderful names like huesos de santos (saints’ bones) and coquitas de la Habana (little coconuts from Havana). Thankfully they weren’t all laden with pig fat – manteca (lard) is one of the main ingredients of crumbly polvorones (also known as mantecados); some came in vegetarian versions too. Other ingredients typically include egg and sugar, with some spice or pine nuts.

The annual Seville Province Gastronomy and Handicrafts Fair.

The annual Seville Province Gastronomy and Handicrafts Fair.

We briefly visited the Provincia de Sevilla craft and gastronomy fair, held in the patio of the Diputacion (Provincial Government, one of four levels of government in Spain – over-stuffed civil service? really?). This always takes place over the last two weekends before Christmas.

In a crowded, covered space, the average age of visitors seemed to be around 60, so two small, rampaging children intent on running everywhere at high speed, were a dangerous addition to the mix. Before retreating to a less risky area, we spotted lots of delicious local goodies, some of which were taken to the UK as Christmas presents.

Bodegas Salado's cava was popular with the crowd at the Seville Province fair.

Bodegas Salado’s cava was popular with the crowd at the Seville Province fair.

Among the stands of Seville-made produce, we saw olive oil, honey (orange blossom, rosemary and eucalyptus), cheese, embutidos (sausages), and wine. Bodegas Salado, in nearby Umbrete, make a variety of wines, including a cava. Their stand was mobbed by thirsty pensioners desperate for a free copa de vino. But I managed to elbow my way in and try some. Not Catalan, but perfectly acceptable. This bodega offers tours – on my list for 2014.

Spanish food, Portuguese food, Santa Cruz

Spanish-Portuguese food and craft market in Santa Cruz.

Then we moved on to another food market, this time in the patio of a school in barrio Santa Cruz. This was organised by EuroAAA, the Euro-region of Andalucia-Algarve-Alentejo (southern Spain and Portugal). In a large, open space, this was much better for the kids, who could charge around without annoying anyone – there was even a face painter!

Little Portuguese cheeses, a snip at 1 euro each.

Little Portuguese cheeses, a snip at 1 euro each.

We got some delicious little Portguese cheeses, as served with bread and butter as an appetizer at many Algarve restaurants (although no sardine pate, sadly); Flor de Sal, prime sea salt, produced in the salt flats at Castro Marim, just over the Portuguese border (as always, the Portuguese owner of Agua Mae, Luis, spoke excellent English); and Monte Robledo cheese, a tangy favourite from the Sierra de Aracena, made of goat’s and sheep’s milk and rolled in rosemary, oregano or paprika.

Riding a camel on the Alameda. As you do.

Riding a camel on the Alameda. As you do.

Nothing like a good, old-fashioned funfair ride to fill a small person with seasonal joy

Nothing like a good, old-fashioned funfair ride to fill a small person with seasonal joy.

We also did the camel ride in the Alameda (the Reyes arrive on camels, so they’re a big part of Christmas here). They take three children each, one of the hump and one either side. This was a huge success, despite (or perhaps because of) the half-hour wait; and we couldn’t resist some funfair rides too. The colour and excitement, and exotic treats like riding a “ship of the desert”, are such a wonderful part of Christmas for kids. Seeing the delight on their faces is present enough for me.

What we didn’t manage to see/do: ice-skating at the Prado or the Setas (son); the Mudejar Belen at the Palacio de los Marqueses de la Algaba – a model of Seville in post-Moorish times (me). Next year!

Coming up in next blog posts: the Norfolk coast, and the Cabalgata de los Reyes in Gines.