A meeting of minds and Moorish magnificence by moonlight

Palacio Carlos V - a recent construction by the Alhambra's standards.

Palacio Carlos V – one of the more recent constructions by the Alhambra’s standards.

The circular interior of Charles V's palace. He was the first Holy Roman emperor and liked to make a statement.

The circular interior of Charles V’s palace – he was the first Holy Roman Emperor.

When you work from home, as I do, Social Media isn’t just for watching hilarious viral videos of animals falling off bicycles, comparing notes about X Factor, and poring over photos of your friends’ kids.

It’s a lifeline to other, like-minded people with the same interests, in the same field of work, often in broadly the same region. Anyone who sits alone in their house, shuttered away in an office/cubbyhole/sitting room/garden shed in front of a computer for a large part of the day, will know what it feels like to operate in a vacuum. Noone else to bounce ideas off, commiserate, celebrate, or just ruminate with.

So, when you’re largely isolated, and you live abroad too, an online forum of people who live in the same country as you, speak the same language as you, and have an enormous collective knowledge base to which you contribute and which you benefit from, is a godsend.

I’m lucky enough to be a member of one such Facebook group. Who’d have thought that Zuckerberg’s beast, great for selling unwanted furniture and stalking ex-boyfriends (plus engaging with customers, as any SM consultant will tell you), would be a launch pad for such a dynamic collaborative meeting of minds. Entrepreneurs, marketers, writers, bloggers, and creative types who live in Spain, and are passionate about the country. The name is WABAS: Writers and Bloggers about Spain.

A view of the Alcazaba, the fortress, from the entrance to the Nasrid palace.

A view of the Alcazaba, the fortress, from the entrance to the Nasrid palace.

Last year I attended the group’s second national annual get-together, in Malaga, which was hugely enjoyable, interesting and constructive. This year the WABAS venue was Granada. Friends, wine, expertise and the Alhambra. Meeting online friends in person (do they look like their photo? Are they what I expected?). It’s a winning combination.

We learned about topics relevant to media-savvy expats in business. We talked. We listened. We agreed. We disagreed. We ate. We drank. We drank some more.

these niches were used for jars of water, a symbol of hospitality, vases flowers or perfume.

These tiled and decorated niches were used for jars of water, a symbol of hospitality, vases flowers or perfume.

And we visited the Alhambra. At night. It was only my second time in this wondrous complex of Moorish and Renaissance palaces, the first having been nine years ago when I was pregnant with my first child. As an occasional tour leader in Seville, I was delighted that we were taken around the Alhambra by an excellent guide, Maria Angustia from Cicerone Tours. As this native granadina informed us, Maria Angustia is the patron saint of Granada.

She also told us that the Alhambra, which dates from the 13th century when this part of Spain was ruled by the Moors – cultured Islamic rulers from north Africa – was self-sufficient; its own independent mini-city. With no natural water source, usually an essential factor in establishing a settlement, the hill above Granada wasn’t an obvious location to build a palace; a river fed by the Sierra Nevada had to be diverted to provide water for the sultan’s new palace. But the Nasrid ruler Muhammed I obviously had a vision in mind. Titbits like these, about how the monument was initially planned, bring history to life.

We started our tour at the Palace of Carlos V, King of Spain and the first Holy Roman Emperor, for whom the phrase “the empire on which the sun never sets” was coined. He also built the Casa Consistorial (original Town Hall) in Seville and held his wedding to Isabel of Portugal in the Alcazar of Seville. This 16th century palace, a few centuries more recent than the Nasrid Palaces which are the main draw of the Alhambra, is unusual in that it was the first building to be square on the outside, and round inside. The Palacio Carlos V is used for concerts and exhibitions.

Arabic calligraphy and tiles.

Arabic calligraphy and tiles in the Mexuar Palace.


Arabesque detail of an archway in the Comares Palace.

Arabesque detail on an archway in the Comares Palace.

Painted decoration on a ceiling of mocarabe, modelled after stalactites in a cave where Mohoma took refuge.

Painted mocarabe decoration on a ceiling, modelled after stalactites in a cave where the prophet Mohammed took refuge.


Artesonado (decorated painted wood) ceiling in the Mexuar Palace.

Artesonado (decorated painted wood) ceiling in the Mexuar Palace.

Entering the first section of the Nasrid Palaces, the Mexuar Palace, we saw examples of the extraordinarily complex, multi-layered decoration for which the Alhambra is famous as the most perfect example of a Moorish palace in the world. A combination of geometric alicatado tiles, with designs made from tiny pieces of ceramic; the intricate white relief sections, often with plant motifs and Arabic calligraphy inscriptions, called arabesque; the coffered artesonado wood ceilings, with their gold details; and coloured mocarabe decoration (see photo above), and you have a dazzling array of never-ending abstract art, 360 degrees, on every surface. Maria called it “an explosion of imagination”.

Washington Irving was an American writer and diplomat who lived in the Alhambra in the 1820s.

Washington Irving was an American writer and diplomat who lived in the Alhambra in the 1820s.

We visited the rooms occupied by Washington Irving when he lived in the Alhambra as the US Consul. Most well-known outside Spain as the writer of books such as Rip Van Winkle and The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Irving’s Tales of the Alhambra brought the then-largely abandoned, but mercifully still intact, palace to the attention of a worldwide audience, drawing visitors to a then-unknown part of Spain for many years to come. This American author and hispanophile – he wrote several books about the country – is revered in Andalucia, and you can even follow a Washington Irving route across the region.

Two of the 12 marble lions on the Fuente de los Leones.

Two of the 12 marble lions on the Fuente de los Leones.

Courtyard of the Lions, with trees behind. The night sky with shadowy trees was full of mystery, while the courtyard by heaving with other visitors.

Palace of the Lions, with trees behind. The night sky with shadowy trees was full of mystery, while the courtyard was heaving with other visitors.

One of the most celebrated monuments within this UNESCO World Heritage Site is the Fountain of the Lions, recently restored. Each of the 12 carved marble animals is different, but the fountain wasn’t lit up at night when we there, so it was difficult to see their faces, with individually modelled eyes and mouths. Maria explained that the water has to be to very carefully controlled to ensure that it flows out of the lions’ mouths at precisely the same speed. As always with such fabled beasts, theories abound as to why there are 12 – signs of the zodiac is one possibility.

Courtyard in the Comares Palace - water was essential to Moorish architecture, for its soothing sound, artistic (reflective) qualities and cooling effects in the sweltering summer.

Courtyard in the Comares Palace – water was essential to Moorish architecture, for its soothing sound, artistic (reflective) qualities and cooling effects in the sweltering summer heat.

The Alhambra was very busy on the night we visited, too much so for my liking, and Maria told us that 50 visitors enter the complex every five minutes – that’s 600 an hour – and that the palaces are open for 14 hours a day. Three million visits per year.

Afterwards, we went out for tapas, as you do, and I exchanged guiding notes with Maria, and reacquainted myself with fellow WABASers, as well as converting virtual online friendships into real ones, over a few bottles of good Spanish white wine from Rueda. Networking in real life and online is a necessity for today’s freelancers, and if you can do it with the surroundings of such a legendary city like Granada, all the better.

For practical information on visiting the Alhambra, see this useful post by fellow WABAS member and resident Granada expert, Molly Sears Piccavey.


A trip to Tangiers: first impressions

One of the most beautiful sights in Tangiers: a public fountain in the Kasbah with Islamic tiles, exquisite plasterwork and carved wooden roof .

One of the most beautiful sights in Tangiers: not a palace, or a mosque, but a public fountain in the Kasbah with colourful tiles, exquisite plasterwork and carved wooden roof.

Tangiers, port, Morocco

First stormy view of Tangiers from the ferry – terminal with red flag for the king’s visit, medina, and on the skyline two towers: a minaret (right) and the bell tower of St Andrew’s church.


A snatch of plaintive Arabic music, small children playing marbles in the street, a Berber woman covering her face with a scarf… narrow alleyways dotted with rubbish, houses painted azure blue, canary yellow, terracotta pink; ancient, exquisite carved wooden doors; piles of gleaming fresh aubergines, tomatoes and strawberries stacked high in a market stall; figures wearing the djellabah, a long, medieval robe with pointed hood; young men glued to a Spanish football match on TV in a bar, with the sweet aroma of hashish swirling around. Snapshots of a brief but intense experience.

Readers who follow my blog’s Facebook page (see Like box on right, part of snazzy new self-hosted look) will know that I recently went to Tangiers.

This was my first ever trip to Africa – a new continent, and a new country: Morocco. Separated from Europe at Spain’s nearly southernmost point by just a few kilometres, the two continents pushed apart by Hercules, so the legend goes. After 10 years, finally I got around to making the short, easy trip. Having been warned to expect hassle I was apprehensive, being out of practice at coping with third-world countries (trips to Europe, Asia and South America from my late teens to my mid-thirties seem like a lifetime ago), while at the same time being more excited about visiting a new place than I have been for years.

Morocco, Tarifa, ferry, Tangiers

Between two continents: crossing the Straits of Gibraltar – Africa (Morocco) to the right, Europe (Spain) to the left.

The ferry takes a smooth hour from Tarifa, with a modern, efficient system where your passport number is printed on your ticket – and the return is open, so you can always decide to delay coming back (it’s tempting, believe me). At the other end, few touts were waiting as the ferry terminal disgorged the latest batch of arrivals, mostly day-trippers. Driving away from the port towards the Kasbah, the fortified area at the top of the medina (old town), what struck me most was that the city looked remarkably like Spain – a wide avenue lined with palm trees and a variety of glass-fronted, first-world shops.

But then, but then… we climbed a hill and turned right through a series of low, narrow arches, the horseshoe shapes found all over my beloved Andalucia – and we stepped back in time. This was Bab Kasbah, the gate to Tangiers’ medieval fortified area, high up above the rest of the medina. Once inside, we saw tables and chairs set out under an ancient tree, old men whiling away the day – and then our riad. These are traditional Moroccan houses built around a central patio – just like in Andalucia, I hear you say. Not surprising, considering that north Africans, known in Spain as the Moors, occupied Andalucia for 800 years. Their architectural legacy is highly visible, providing some of the region’s most famous and beautiful monuments – Granada’s Alhambra, the Mezquita of Cordoba, the Giralda in Seville. So I suppose it wasn’t surprising, then, that in many ways, Tangiers felt familiar – like a place whose features are already so well-known, it’s as if I’d dreamed about them. This is where so much of the literature, culture and gastronomy of Andalucia came from – pomegranates (granadas in Spanish), oranges, rice, almonds.

Hotel La Maison Blanche, Tangiers, Kasbah,, Morocco

The hotel’s patio with the glow from its welcoming fireplace – a cosy spot on a cold day.

hotel, La Maison Blanche, Kasbah, Tangiers, Morocco

The fountain, with its hand-laid mosaic tiles, is the centrepiece of the hotel’s patio. Fresh flower petals add a pretty, romantic touch.

La Maison blanche, Tangiers, Morocco, Kasbah

Our red room at the hotel, with handpainted walls and moody lighting.

Our small hotel, La Maison Blanche, a newly-restored riad with just nine rooms, was decorated only with Moroccan artesan pieces – from the most gorgeous lamps, to carved cedar-wood doors, to metalwork bins (no plastic or IKEA here). Everything felt authentic and of its place; the heavy print fabrics weren’t all to my taste, although our boudoir-ish red room was heavenly; one upstairs room, with north African light drenching its antique metal four-poster bed and white furnishings, was right up my alley. They haven’t used wallpaper; just fabric hung on the wall, or hand-painted designs. Yes, it’s that classy. The interior designer was French, and the owners are a Moroccan-Spanish couple, Aziz (Tangerino) and Pilar (Malagueña), so it’s a hotel with French sophistication, Spanish warmth and Moroccan style.

tangiers, kasbah

Tangiers is full of stunning multi-layered doorways like this one in the Kasbah.

Kasbah, tile, tiles,

Craftsman working on a tile – the glaze is chipped away to make the design.

kasbah, tangiers, museum

The museum, housed in a former sultan’s palace – for another visit.

When we arrived in Tangiers it was wet and cold, and by the time we got to the hotel I was freezing (yes, I had dressed warmly: a fleece and hiking jacket, FFS), so we had a hearty Moroccan breakfast of flatbreat with goat’s cheese and pain au chocolate by the open fire, sitting in plush rich-red chairs. I was itching to explore the city, so Aziz, who is a professional guide – American travel writer Rick Steves (his word is gospel for many US visitors) is a big fan – took us on a walk around town. That’s the only way to get around these streets – few of them are wide enough for cars.

We walked down to the main square of the Kasbah, past the 13th-century mosque, the madrasa (school), the museum (a former palace), and the house where the Rolling Stones recorded Continental Drift from the Steel Wheels album with a Berber group called Jajouka in 1989, and through another arch to look out to sea. We saw a craftsman in his workshop, meticulously chipping glaze off a tile to create a classic geometric shape, as seen on azulejos all over Andalucia.

Bab Bhar, the gate which looks out from the Place du Kasbak to the sea.

Bab Bhar, the gate which looks out from the Place du Kasbah to the sea.

Kasbah, Tangiers, Morocco

A detail of that fountain. Islamic art is astonishing.

As it turns out, my first impression had some logic to it: as Aziz told us, they’re building a new multi-million-euro marina in Tangiers bay, supported by King Mohammed VI, who is keen to see the city develop economically – he was visiting while we were there, and red Moroccan national flags were everywhere to honour his presence. In parallel, monuments in the Kasbah, such as the mosque’s minaret and the old city walls, are being restored, and illegal houses built along the outside of the walls will be knocked down. The horseshoe arch which looks out to sea from the Place du Kasbah’s archway, Bab Bhar (in the photo above), has been shored up with ugly concrete, blocking out the horseshoe form – luckily you can still make out the original stone shape. Let’s hope it can be restored to its original glory as part of these plans.

Those were my first few hours in Tangiers; I will be writing more about this African adventure soon: markets, carpets, movies, artists, and our gorgeous hotel.

Tis the season for… making olive oil in Jaen

The view from Ubeda's Mirador (viewing point) to La Loma, with the Cortijo Spiritu Santo on the far left.

The view from Ubeda’s Mirador (viewing point): gently undulating fields lined with rows and rows of olive trees. Cortijo Spiritu Santo is the nearest group of white buildings; the mountain range behind is the Sierra de Cazorla.

The fruit - mashed and turned into oil within hours of leaving the branch.

The fruit – olives to be mashed and turned into oil within hours of leaving the branch.

In gastronomic terms, autumn here in Andalucia is a hive of activity: chestnuts are gathered and roasted, wild mushrooms are foraged and grilled, and olives and grapes are picked and crushed to yield their juice. In the areas where these products are grown, each village has its own celebration of the harvest; such seasonal foods are an integral part of the local cuisine, culture and economy. It’s not just a fruit, vegetable, or nut. It’s who those people are; what they grow, eat, and sell; what their life revolves around.

Nowhere is this more true than in the province of Jaen, bypassed by most visitors to the region, but famous as the world centre of olive-oil production – 25% of the stuff comes from here. The landscape doesn’t let you forget it – undulating hills with straight lines of trees, soft, stripey fields as far as the eye can see, rising and falling like a gentle sea. Nowhere else is the agricultural identity of an area more clearly visible in its scenery.

On the last puente, my children and I were lucky enough to spend the weekend at a cortijo in Jaen. At the food fair Andalucia Sabor I met a delightful couple, Maria and Juan, who have their own olive oil farm with onsite factory and self-catering accommodation. They invited us to come and stay to see how the olive oil is made, and with a three-day weekend coming up, it was a no-brainer. The season had just got under way, and I wanted to learn about how this kitchen staple is produced – also I had seen Jaen province’s “Come and make your own olive oiloleoturismo idea. As we drove into the province, these regular, repeated patterns of endless olive trees all around were strangely calming to see. A harmonious feeling of well-ordered nature.

We had arranged to meet at a restaurant in Ubeda, their nearest town. Arriving horribly late, thanks to my usual shocking time-keeping, loo stops, and getting lost in the town, we were welcomed graciously and invited to smell a bottle of their new-season extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), bottled just days previously. The oil, Cortijo Spiritu Santo, is a picual oil, so the olives are green and unripe. What did it remind me of, asked Juan? If a smell can have a colour, this was definitely green: fresh and strong. Newly-cut grass. Plus another zingy, summery aroma – tomatoes.

Jaen ,picual, olive oil, EVOO

Picual EVOO – no filter. It’s that green.

Then they poured some onto my plate. And guess what colour it was? Bright emerald, creme-de-menthe green – an improbably brillant but natural shade. Indeed, this is an all-natural product – no added colouring, flavouring or other horrors, just 100% pure picual olive juice. And the taste – grassy, peppery and fruity too. A full-on sensory experience. Drizzling this stuff over your food revolutionises its flavour – gives it a whole new lease of life. I tried it on cod, and it worked beautifully, its slightly acid taste matching the fish to perfection. The restaurant, Antique, is one of a handful in Ubeda offering EVOO extras such as olive oil tastings, and special menus whose dishes are matched with specific artesan oils, marked by signs saying “Oleotour“.

The key to this extraordinary oil lies partly, I’m told, in the shortest possible time from fruit to liquid – producing the oil as soon as possible after the olives are picked. Just a few hours in the case of Cortijo Spiritu Santo, as they’re always pressed (not literally, we’ll come to that) the same day. No chemicals are added – the process is purely mechanical. An EVOO is defined as an oil  produced mechanically, using a cold process, with specific organoleptic (taste) qualities, and a low acidity (less than 0.8%).

Plaza Vazquez de Molina in Ubeda - the church, Capilla del Salvador, is one of Andalucia's finest Renaissance churches.

Plaza Vazquez de Molina in Ubeda – the church, Capilla del Salvador, is one of Andalucia’s finest Renaissance churches.

After lunch, we walked around Ubeda, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, being wowed by the Renaissance buildings – warm stone glowing golden in the evening sun. It didn’t feel like Andalucia; more like Segovia than Seville. This is a relatively small town, with 35,000 inhabitants, which has one of the best-preserved old quarters I’ve seen in Spain; you can walk round it easily, agog at all the divine stone masterpieces. The parador is one of the finest in the country (left in above photo). The town itself is a little elevated, and from the Mirador you get a sweeping 180-degree view of the surrounding countryside – fields of olive trees stretching across to the Sierra de Cazorla, and dotted with farmhouses, including the Cortijo where we were headed.

As well as its sublime Renaissance buildings, Ubeda is also famous for its colourful ceramics.

As well as its sublime Renaissance buildings, Ubeda is also famous for its colourful ceramics.

Ubeda feels lost in the mists of time – in a good way. As an olive-themed shop-owner whom I spoke to commented, if Ubeda and its near neighbour, Baeza, were more easily accessible (nearest airport at least an hour away, no motorway, no train station), the towns would be as thronged with tourists as Sevilla’s medieval Barrio Santa Cruz, Cordoba’s Juderia or Granada’s Albaicin. Welcome news for visitors who do make it there, as they can walk around without bumping into tour groups every few metres; not so good for the local businesses. A spur motorway linking the town of Bailen, on the main Cordoba-Madrid motorway to the west, with Ubeda, is currently being built. This may change its out-of-the-way status – for the better for most, though not all.

What olive trees can be made into, besides the oil itself: fuel, wood and goat food.

What olive trees can be made into, besides the oil itself: fertiliser, fuel, wood and goat food.

Back to the oil – we visited the local olive oil museum, for the Comarca La Loma, in the upper Guadalquivir valley, the area where Ubeda is situated. The Centro de Interpretacion de Olivar y Aceite is housed in a beautiful 17th-century converted stone storehouse called Casa de la Tercia. Its name comes from the church tithes – everyone had to pay one-tenth of their olive oil harvest, which was divided into three parts (tercia), to fund the building of new churches, the upkeep of existing ones, and other such worthy causes.

The first display, in the entrance, showed all the different by-products from the tree: waste pulp is used as compost; pits and pruned branches become heating pellets; wood is carved into many objects, both practical and decorative; leaves are fed to goats. As well as showing the production methods used in centuries past here in Andalucia (think donkey and conical grindstone), the museum has a 21st-century tasting room and kitchen inaugurated by Dani Garcia.

Model of olive finca - they arrive on the left, are crushed (centre room), and then bottled in the large jars top right.

Model of old olive finca – the crop is placed in containers (left), then the olives are crushed (centre top room) using a donkey to roll the stone round, and the resulting oil is bottled in the large jars (top right).

Hydraulic press, which crushes the olives between the capachos of esparto grass, used until as late as the 1980s.

Hydraulic press, which crushes the olives between the capachos of esparto grass, widely used until as late as the 1980s. A few artesan mills in Spain still have these.

I loved the models of old fincas, and the cast-iron hydraulic press, which physically crushed the olives between circular mats of esparto grass, called capachos, to filter the oil produced. There’s also a life-size version of a donkey – poor old Platero would have walked round and round in circles all day – with the old crushing table, outside in the patio. Children will love this, as they can see how life was on a finca, until relatively recently.

The cortijo, which dates from the 17th century, with its patio and walnut tree.

The cortijo, which dates from the 17th century, with its patio and walnut tree.

After leaving Ubeda, we wove our way back down the hill, and then turned off along a track to the farm, watching out for concealed gulleys which allow rainwater to run off – tricky in the dark. The farmhouse is a traditional 17th-century building, with a beautiful stone doorway, and thick walls designed to keep out both heat and cold. It has six bedrooms, including one with bunkbeds, so it’s perfect for family groups to stay in. The sitting room has a big open fire-place, and there’s a well-equipped kitchen with a sizeable table to fit the whole group. For summer, there’s a small swimming pool.

The large enclosed patio is where my daughter spend most of the time, playing with the family’s pet kittens, while my son and Jose, Juan and Maria’s youngest child, shot hoops. Once the children were asleep (finally – bunk beds are made for jumping from one to the other), we took to the patio with a bottle of wine, and Juan filled me in on the story of the cortijo. He lives in a modern house back towards Ubeda, but sometimes stays in the cortijo as it is conveniently right next to the factory.

The farm was left by a lady with no heirs to the church in 1741; a convent in Ubeda bestowed up on it the religious title it bears today. Then, in the 19th century, much of the church’s land was taken away in the desamortizacion – the cortijo was bought and sold until it came into the hands of Juan’s father in the 1980s, and he and Maria took it on last year. Both of their grandparents worked in the olive fields. Los olivos are in their blood, part of their cultural identity. They’re part of a growing group of artesanal producers.

This is a small-scale farm, with 100 hectares and 6000 trees; some of these are over 300 years old, while others were planted by Juan and his father. Often you see two or three trees growing together, as several are planted together in case some don’t take root. They need 10kg of picual olives to make each litre of the green EVOO, unlike the “golden” varieties, which only need 5kg. The farm produces 30,000 litres per year.



Tostadas with fresh, green, intensely aromatic picual olive oil.

Tostadas with fresh, green, intensely aromatic picual olive oil.

Harvesting the olives - by both man and machine.

Harvesting the olives – by both man and machine.

The next day, after a breakfast of tostadas drenched with their delectable EVOO, we went out into the fields to see where the story begins: the olives being harvested. The fruit is shaken off the tree by a crazy little machine, which clasps the trunk with its metal claw and vibrates it vigorously so the leaves and branches shake manically and the fruit falls to the ground.


Men with sticks help by bashing the branches too, and the olives are collected on the ground in big black nets, which are dragged from tree to tree. These are then emptied into larger white tarpaulins, which in turn are lifted and emptied into trucks and taken to the factory. This farm has its own mill to produce oil, so that the olives are still in optimum state when processed – it’s just hours from when they fall from the branches until the unctuous green liquid appears.

When the olives arrive from the field, they're deposited in this tolva de recpecion.

When the olives arrive from the field, they’re deposited in this tolva de recepcion.

olives, olive oil, extra virgin oilve oil, EVOO, Jaen, Ubeda, Cortijo Spñiritu Santo

Recently-harvested olives on the conveyor belt – on their way to the mill.

Next stop was the factory, with its conveyor belt – the olives arrive from lorry, are deposited on slats, have their leaves blown off, and are carried to a big grinder which crushes them into a thick paste – pits (they have important nutrients), skins and all. This is then sent to the “batidora” (literally blender) for 30 minutes, where it is heated and slowly churned so that the small olive oil droplets can agglomerate, a process called malaxing.

olives, olive, olive oil, Jaen

A technician keeps a close eye on the machinery for producing extra virgin olive oil in the factory.

Then the paste is passed to an industrial decanter (called centrifugadora), a horizontal drum machine which spins at high speed – water is added to help draw the oil from the pulp, with the two liquids separating according to their densities. The orujo (waste pulp) is sent to be treated and reused as fertiliser, while the pits are made into pellets for heating the olive mill, and left over sold.

New olive oil pours out - with its vibrant green colour.

Newly produced olive oil pours out into a stainless steel vat – check that  vibrant green colour.

After this, the separated liquids are passed through a vertical centrifuge, which completes the process, ensuring that all remaining water is removed from the oil, and vice versa. The good stuff pours out and is send to huge vats to be filtered and bottled.

The cortijo’s eco-commitment also extends to the ground under the trees: whereas most farmers cut the grass to keep their land as low-maintenance as possible, Maria and Juan prefer to allow it to grow naturally, to protect the soil from erosion by the rain. They use compost made from orujo, leaves and twigs. In fact, they’re going to put sheep to graze there.

The Ayuntamiento of Baeza.

The Ayuntamiento of Baeza.

Palacio de Jabalquinto in Baeza.

Isabelline facade of the Palacio de Jabalquinto in Baeza.

That day we also made a trip to Baeza, the other Renaissance jewel in Jaen province, where Juan was doing a tasting. This tiny town of 7000 inhabitants also had its heyday in the 16th and 17th centuries. Some of its buildings, with their detailed, extravagant facades, are reminscent of Salamanca – the Palacio de Jabalquinto, like those in the northern town, are used as university buildings. Sevillano poet Antonio Machado taught in the university here for several years.

While Baeza matches up to its near neighbour Ubeda in terms of architectual value, some of the eating establishments aren’t as clued-up about the artesan EVOO scene as Ubeda’s.

This weekend was the perfect combination of nature, being in the middle of an unbroken landscape of olivos; gastronomy, tasting top-grade olive oil; and culture, with the twin Renaissance towns. I learned lots about olive oil production, and a little about tasting the oil, which will be built on with my first-ever olive oil cata this week – watch this space!

Antique Restaurant, calle Real, 25, 23400 Úbeda, Jaen. Tel 953 75 76 18

Centro de Interpretacion Olivar y Aceite Comarca de la Loma, calle Corredera de San Fernanco 32, 23400 Ubeda, Jaen. Tel 953 755 889. Open Monday to Sunday.

Cortijo Spiritu Santo, Apdo 217, 23400 Ubeda, Jaen. Tel 953 776 256. Juan and Maria offer self-catering accommodation in the cortijo, and also give tours of the farm and mill as part of Jaen’s “oleotourism” programme.

A weekend in Costa Ballena: spa, surfing and sherry.

Costa Ballena, Elba Hoteles, pool, view, sea,

Our balcony at the Hotel Elba looked over the pool and palm trees, to the sea beyond.

This car racing driving game was a firm favourite with my kids.

This racing game was a firm favourite with my kids (the green blur on the track is a car!).

Like most families with young children, we tend to book self-catering apartments when we go away. Much more flexible, with our own kitchen and fridge, so we can eat what we want, when we want, where we want; plus the extra space of a separate living room with sofa (essential for collapsing on with a glass of wine when the kids are in bed/depositing them on to chill when knackered after a day out), and an extra bedroom if possible, make for a more relaxed holiday.

However I know that staying in a hotel with full board can be also a delight when, like me, you’re not the world’s most enthusiastic cook, and tending a hot stove detracts from the “getting away from it all” element of a family holiday. Sometimes, worrying about kids making a mess while eating pasta, being overly energetic and enthusiastic, and noisy and potentially bothersome in public, is outweighed by not having to produce said meals. So when we were invited to stay in a hotel for two nights with all meals included, it didn’t take long to decide. I would rather sacrifice space and flexibility if it means I don’t have to cook for two days. End of story.

And so began our Dia de Andalucia puente (bank holiday) last weekend in Costa Ballena. This is a new beach resort on the Costa de la Luz, in Cadiz province, between the seaside towns of Rota (where the US Army base is) and Chipiona, both popular summer resorts for Sevillanos. The forecast (always check before going to the beach – sunhats? wellies? raincoats? thickest fleeces? wetsuits?) said sun/cloud and rain, so we knew some indoor time was inevitable. I was therefore delighted, not to mention relieved, to read that our hotel, the Elba Hotel Costa Ballena, had a Mini-club (like a softplay centre, or bolas as we call them) and a thalassotherapy spa where kids were allowed (at certain times). As long as you know there’s plenty of rainy day entertainment, you can relax.

Elba Hotel Costa Ballena, Cadiz, coast, beach

Our junior suite was a good size, with a long terrace which had one area for table and chairs (outside the bedroom), and another larger section for sunloungers (outside the sitting room). Crucially, for small children, the wall was sensibly high, making it much more challenging (off-putting, ideally) for small people to climb. In fine weather, I can imagine you would open the sliding doors in both rooms, and let the warm air come in. The view was over the pool, which was pretty and free-form with a palm tree on an island, and the golf course – with a glimpse of the sea.

Costa Ballena, Hotel Elba, Elba Costa Ballena, Hoteles Elba

The bedroom had cheery citrus tones of lemon and lime. You can imagine how delightful it would be with the balcony door open and the summer breeze gently blowing.

The children’s beds were set up in the sitting room, which also had two armchairs, and sliding doors leading onto the balcony (which remained closed due to the unclement weather). The suite was well supplied with lamps – on the floor, tables, wall, and even great little bendy reading lights by our bedside. And the bath was a hydrotherapy one – underwater jet massage. Heaven.

Hoteles Elba, Elba Hotel Costa Ballena, Costa Ballena

At lunch on our first day, the buffet was a little depleted due to a large, unscheduled group of US servicemen and their families. We were also quite late (it’s from 2-3pm), a lesson we took on board for our future meals. As well as salad, dishes on offer included fried fish fillets, pork with mushrooms, pasta, and a spread of Spanish puddings. We left that first meal feeling somewhat underwhelmed – especially by the lack of local and seasonal produce: specifically seafood (Cadiz coast is famous for its prawns and other shellfish, as we found out recently at Carnaval) and fresh fruit (strawberries from neighbouring Huelva province), hoping that dinner would reinspire our confidence (it did).

Playa Ballena, Costa Ballena

The closest hotel to the beach: Playa Ballena

Playa Ballena, Costa Ballena, surfers, surf, surfing

Surfers at Playa Ballena – not the easiest subject to photograph.

Although the weather was looking iffy, I insisted on checking out the nearest beach to the hotel, which was called Playa Ballena and was a short walk away. It was backed by grassy dunes with some pretty wild flowers, and the kids were delighted to be befriended by two dogs which happily ran around fetching sticks for them, while I realised that those black dots bobbing about on the waves were actually surfers. From that moment on, I concentrated on trying to get a decent photo of some surf action. Damn hard to catch on camera- blink and they’ve fallen over.

Rota, Costa Ballena, Cadiz, boats, harbour, dock,

Boats in Rota harbour – which one’s got your name on it?

Then we headed off to the nearby fishing village of Rota, a typical combination of sprawling streets of new-build apartments, and a pretty historic centre. With the sky now a pure Andalucian azure, we walked along the jetty of the walled harbour in the sunshine, looking at the fish darting about in the clear blue water, checking out the boats moored in rows (“Which one would you choose?” is always a favourite game), and then had a runabout on the beach. The US warships are right opposite, and their massive grey bulks loom large on the horizon. After poking around on the sand, we went into the old town, where as luck would have it, there was a medieval market.

The Castillo La Luna in Rota added the perfect medieval ambiente for the market.

The Castillo La Luna in Rota provided the perfect medieval ambiente for the market.

This "chopsticks" game, part of the medieval fair in Rota, was a feat of co-ordination for both young and old!

This “chopsticks” game, part of the medieval fair in Rota, was a feat of co-ordination for both young and old!

The usual overpriced super-empanadas, cheese, meat, olive oil and handicrafts were complemented by some excellent games which were free to use – wooden, hand-to-eye coordination ones involving using sticks and loops of rope to catch things, and move things. All wonderfully traditional stuff – the original, manual version of now-ubiquitous video games. The board games, feats of dexterity, were placed in the street, in front of a medieval castle, now used as Rota’s ayuntamiento (town hall), which set the scene perfectly.

Arroz negro, rice with black squid ink, at dinner.

Arroz negro, rice with black squid ink, at dinner.

food, red peppers, hotel, Elba Hotel, Costa Ballena

Colourful red pepper salads – part of the buffet spread.

Back at the ranch, having learned our lesson at lunchtime, we arrived as dinner was starting, and I was most relieved to find an impressive spread: arroz negro (rice with black squid ink); a decent salad bar (not an area where Spanish cuisine excels, in my experience); pasta with a choice of sauces; and a choice of fillets cooked to order: gallineta (a type of bream) and tuna, as well as chuletas (pork chops). My daughter loved the buñuelos de bacalao (battered cod balls), the closest to fishfingers, while my son chose a meat dish.

Hotel Elba Costa Ballena, Hoteles Elba, Costa Ballena

Puddings were the usual Spanish fare of creaminess topped with biscuits, or little sponge cakes. The sliced fresh fruit (melon, pineapple) and yoghurts were my choice, while Lola opted for ice-cream topped with sauce and sprinkles (all chocolate, of course).

After dinner the kids tried out the hydrotherapy (jacuzzi) bath in our room. Lots of bubbles, lots of shrieks of excitement, then boomba – flat-out asleep!

The cheese section of the breakfast buffet.

The cheese section of the breakfast buffet, with membrillo (quince paste) too – on the right.

The next day, breakfast was a magnificent spread: cold meat (chorizo, jamon iberico) and cheese; hot breakfast – tomatoes, sausages, bacon; eggs cooked to order, with ham, cheese, or peppers; cereal; pastries; fresh and dried fruits; and yoghurts. Plus, of course, the typical Andalucian breakfast: toast with olive oil and tomatoes and ham, or mantecado (pork lard).

Elba Hotel Costa Ballena

The “bolas” – kids love throwing themselves about in a ball pit.

After a filling and tasty breakfast, we had some time to kill before the spa opened, so we visited the Mini-club, which was a small version of softplay, with a slide, ballpit, swing, and games such as (soft) darts, boules and coits. The games room also proved popular, with snooker, pinball, table tennis, table hockey, and the car-racing game, with steering wheels and pedals.

spa, pool, thalasso, thalassotherapy, Costa Ballena, Hoteles Elba, Hotel Elba Costa Ballena

The salt-water thalasso pool is part of the “thermal circuit”, along with the hammam and sauna.

Then it was for the three of us time to test out the thalassotherapy pool – me and the kids. A delightful lady called Julia met us in the spa reception and explained to us about the sea-water pool with its various sprays and jets, the counter-current channel and the jacuzzi. My son, who is six, was happy to swim around on his own, trying out the various spots – sitting, lying, standing with water of varying force pummelling him; my daughter stayed with me. Sometimes we sat like kings, all three in a row, revelling in the deep relaxation and indulgence as our bodies were massaged into oblivion.

You could sit under the showers – narrow jets, like pin-points, wide horizontal ones, circular ones like mushrooms, or on seats and beds, where legs, feet and arms were also subject to the force of the sea water. We also tried the heated wooden beds, and the terma romana (Roman bath), which was pleasantly warm, but not the hamman (steam bath) or sauna, as I thought they’d be too hot, especially for my daughter who turns an enbecomign shade of beetroot-pink in extreme heat, like her mother.

Osborne, sherry, bodega, El Puerto de Santa Maria, Cadiz

Osborne is the best-known sherry bodega in El Puerto; its roadside bull signs have become a national symbol of Spain.

La Galera, sherry, El Puerto de Santa Maria, Cadiz

One of the many other local sherry producers.

Lunch featured salmorejo (a creamy tomato soup), one of my favourite Andalucian dishes, and then we set off for El Puerto de Santa Maria. This fishing port, on the Bay of Cadiz, is part of the “Sherry Triangle”, the three towns which produce the famous fortified wine currently enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Although we didn’t partake of fino or palo cortado, we passed the mighty bodegas where they’re produced (many are open for tours Monday to Saturday). After walking along the riverfront where the wind was bitingly cold, and soon retreated to the landward streets.

Castillo San Marcos, castle, medieval, El Puerto de Santa Maria, Cadiz

Castillo San Marcos in El Puerto, which dates back to Moorish times.

Castillo San Marcos, castle, tower, El Puerto de Santa Maria, Cadiz

Heraldic symbols and lettering on the castle tower.

Moorish, door, wooden, castle, Castillo San Marcos, el Puerto de Santa Maria, history, Cadiz

The main entrance of the castle, with a Moorish arch – a storybook door, fascinating for kids.

I loved the Castillo San Marcos, a magnificent structure with origins in Moorish times, around the 10th century, with heraldic friezes on its towers and an exquisite carved wooden door with Moorish horseshoe arch designs. My childish fascination with castles – their high walls, towers, gates, crenellations… so romantic, so fairytale-ish, so resonant of exciting adventures, brave knights and beautiful princesses – may be partly because my wedding took place in one: a Norman keep in Essex. Anyway, I had to rely on my imagination as we missed out on seeing the inside; you can visit from Tuesday (when it’s free) to Saturday.

El Puerto has many grand mansions with huge stone entrances and mighty wooden doors; we’ll be back to explore it further. Its a historical town for many reasons, including that one of Columbus’ three ships was named after the town. At one point, we snuck into a cafe to warm up, and found it sold Death by Chocolate and blackberry and apple tart. Time to fess up: it was Ben&Jerrys. Heavenly cakes – on Avenida Caela Aramburu.

Back at the hotel for our second, and final, dinner and night, the stand-out dishes were choco con patatas (a cuttlefish and potato stew) and a superb spinach bechamel (so nutritious!); fillets of salmon and mackerel were cooked to order, while the children loves the palitos de merluza (battered hake fingers) and, er, pizza – a surefire winner with kids.

Hotel Elba Costa Ballena, Hoteles Elba

Stained glass window in the hotel reception.

The next day, it was time to leave – noone wanted to, needless to say, and there were repeated requests to go back to the pool, and the Mini-Club, but with the rain tipping down we wanted to get the journey home as soon as possible – luckily the car park is underneath the hotel, so we didn’t get soaked loading up.

The hotel staff were obliging and friendly throughout our stay, from reception to dining room to spa, the room was comfortable, the food was tasty and plentiful, and the spa was a revelation. I can recommend the Elba Costa Ballena as a relaxing place for family holiday, with plenty of interesting places to visit nearby – and we didn’t even use the outdoor pools and bar, padel courts, gym, or golf course!

* Disclaimer: me and my family stayed as guests of the Elba Hotel Costa Ballena. However, as always, the opinions expressed are my own, and are not affected by this. It’s fairly obvious by the fact that I’m objective, anyway, isn’t it?

Weekly Photo Challenge: Weather

vejer de la frontera, weather, a word a week, weekly photo challenge, cadiz, costa de la luz, sunrise, misty, mist, morning,

vejer de la frontera, weather, a word a week, weekly photo challenge, cadiz, costa de la luz, sunrise, mist, misty morningOn this blog, as followers and regular readers (you lovely people, you) will know, I write about a range of subjects – living in Spain, speaking Spanish, travelling around Andalucia and Portugal. Sometimes I also do these photo posts, which are part of a series of themed offerings from a wonderful blogger who goes by the name of Skinny Wench.

Her photo theme this week is Weather. I’ve done Round and Glitter so far, which were fun, but this one opens up a whole spread of meteorological possibilities.  Here in Seville, it’s mostly sun, with a bit of morning mist, some rain, and the occasional hail shower or thunderstorm – there was a humdinger last Saturday, which knocked down palm trees and left huge metal-framed ad hoardings bent double by the wind.

For unusual weather in a spectacular setting, we have to venture further afield. These photos were taken on the Dia de Andalucia puente (Andalucia Day bank holiday, 28 February) a couple of years ago, in Vejer de la Frontera – a town just inland from the the Costa de la Luz here in Andalucia. One morning I woke up before the children, who were out cold from all the fresh air and exercise the previous day, and looked out of the window.

The valley below Vejer, which is a beautiful Moorish pueblo blanco wrapped around a green hill, was filled with milky white mist. The sky was the most incredible pinky-orange artfully streaked with clouds. The street lights were still on, and the town was silent. I tiptoed past the kids, slipped out onto the balcony, and started taking photos.

As the sun came up, the scene – light, shapes, colours – was constantly changing and I kept snapping. At one point, the mist glowed orange, illuminated like some religious painting. But the best, most thrilling aspect of those precious minutes was being above the fluffy white stuff – it felt like being up in the clouds.

vejer de la frontera, weather, a word a week, weekly photo challenge, cadiz, costa de la luz, sunrise, misty, mist, morning,


vejer de la frontera, weather, a word a week, weekly photo challenge, cadiz, costa de la luz, sunrise, misty, mist, morning,