Happy Christmas!


The tree chez Watson: we have the recycled-every-year variety.

I’ve nearly finished wrapping the presents (actually, my husband has), and it’s now the 25th, so it’s time to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas.

Wherever you are and whoever you’re with, I hope you have a wonderful day filled with lots of lovely pressies and delicious food. And music, and games, and fun with family and friends. But most importantly, no work – a day off (that’s the best bit, especially if you’re freelance)!!


Adventures in Cortes, part two: wild mushrooms, a secret stone church and cork oaks

The house where we stayed in Cortes de la Frontera.

Mushroom Days - yum!

On our weekend away in November, when we stayed in Cortes de la Frontera, we were lucky enough to coincide with the Jornadas Micologicas – the Mushroom Weekend. We didn’t partake in the fungi foray itself, for fear of poisoning our children (some dodgy setas in a restaurant in Aracena a few years ago have instilled a healthy apprehension). So we left it to others, and enjoyed the results: braised, in a revuelto, and with pork fillet. They were delicious – meaty-textured, with a rich, earthy flavour.

After our mushroom lunch, we headed off on one of the family-friendly (by which I mean small children, aged nearly three, and five) excursions suggested by the owner of the house where we were staying – Cortes is near Ronda, in Malaga province.

She had told us about an old church carved out of a rock – who can resist such a description? We drove a few km out of Cortes, parked the car and walked down a Roman cobbled path – which was pretty exciting in itself – past a hidden babbling brook, invisible but audible, covered in a dense network of undergrowth. This added to the secretive nature of the outing.

Roman path of stone cobbles.

After ten minutes happily tripping down this incredibly pretty and ancient sendero, we got to a stile and an information board. Climbing over barbed wire – only in Spain would there be a stile, to allow easy access for walkers, covered in spiky fence, to rip your clothes to shreds – we found this extraordinary building.

One of the strangest buildings I've ever seen: The Casa de Piedra, a secret church.

A clandestine place of worship in the 7th century, well before the tables were turned on the Muslims by the Catholic Kings, the Casa de Piedra was used by Christians to practice their religion secretly during Moorish times.

It is a large, round rock, with a room carved out inside, a doorway and various windows.

Side view of Casa de Piedra.

Carvings on the exterior of the stone house.

More recently, the interior of the house was used as a wine press – you can see the indentation where the crushing wheel was placed, and the runnels where the liquid used to run.

Holes from the wine jars in the Casa de Piedra.

The interior space of the Casa, place of worship then wine press.

It was amazing to think that people had snuck away from Cortes and other nearby villages all those years ago, to maintain their loyalty to their god. In its idyllic meadow, with other stones scattered about, the place had a peaceful and spiritual air, and felt much more remote than it was.

The next day, we headed off on our second excursion. Driving past spectacular mountains – I’d been told the landscape was reminiscent of Scotland – and it was true.

You could be in the Scottish highlands.

We arrived at the Parque de Alcornocales, and set up off a forest track – perfect for buggies, bordered by cork oak trees (alcornocales).

This area is very popular with proper hikers – we were amateurs, off for an hour’s gentle stroll on a paved road.

We saw endless cork oaks, one of Andalucia’s many traditional industries, being threatened by the plastic corks now commonly used in wine bottles.

Cork oak trees, or alcornocales.

This is the stuff - real cork. The texture is bizarre, and rather beautiful.

Cork factory near Cortes.

The view to the mountains was amazing, and we saw lizards (too quick to shoot) and some prehistoric-looking ferns.

View from the camino forestal to the sierra.

Ferns sprouting out of a cork oak tree.

These outdoor adventures were exactly what I wish there were more of near where I live. More forest walks! More Roman paths leading to secret churches carved out of rocks! The countryside around Cortes is truly epic, and I’m sure we’ll be back.

Seville’s Christmas spirit

Yesterday we took the kids into town to see the Christmas lights – the first year they’ve both been old enough to appreciate them. I was expecting to see the half-million-euro illuminations burst into brilliant life at 6pm, as night fell, and was so desperate to find out what time they’d be coming on that I asked a policia, who gave me a hard stare and said “Estoy ocupado” (I’m busy). He was – Prince Felipe was in town for the Davis Cup, so security was tight. Or at least, the policemen were feeling important.

Suitably chastened, I took the kids off for the inevitable loo visit, and when I came out bling! they had been switched on (6.30pm, in case you’re interested). We walked up Avenida de la Constitucion, which was packed, trying to avoid trams and horse-and-carriages. Plaza Nueva had my favourite – trees with lights around the trunks. Not sure what it is about these, but I’ve always loved them. Something fantastical and fairytale-ish. In total, nearly two million bulbs have been used on 96 streets, the majority LED ones – for lower electricity consumption, as the Ayuntamiento has to be green and watch its centimos too.

Pink, blue and white stars; Christmas trees; snowflakes; globes – it was all there, but sadly my camera wasn’t, as I left it at home. Such a professional, organised, well-prepared blogger, I know. So these are Instagram images, largely blurry and out of focus, taken on the iPhone, while trying not to lose children who kept running into zapaterias and demanding 30 euro Hello Kitty Crocs (“Let’s wait and see what Father Christmas brings, shall we?” Fat chance, honey, but she fell for it.)

Some other streets had different designs, but by this point I was too knackered to manage a decent photo, so I’m afraid this is all you’re getting of Mateas Gago, the tapas street by the Giralda.

And, of course, Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the belen stalls – packed in the area next to the Archivo de Indias, these are stocked with every conceivable figure you might need for your Nativity scene: animals, craftsmen, stable, well, and Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.

They have clear panels just above ground level, at ideal small-child height, and my daughter was transfixed by all the mini-scenes with their little sheep, chickens and pigs. (What she doesn’t know is that I have no plans to have a belen in my house – sorry, Lola.) Anyway, my attention was drawn to this little fellow.

Rather than the traditional cagon (man having a s***), this is the "I am 'avin a faaaag" man. Because tobacco was so widespread in the Holy Land all those millennia ago.

In spite of the dire economic circumstances, the atmosphere was very jolly – the smell of chestnuts roasting, the chatter of excited children, the slow, deliberate walk of the smartly-turned out elderly couples, arm in arm. This week is the perfect time to can enjoy it as there are two holidays, tomorrow (Tuesday) and Thursday. And there’s also a book fair in Plaza Nueva. So there’s every reason to head into town, have a leisurely stroll and take in the lights. And let yourself get transported into a fairytale wonderland.

A monument to fascism

Yesterday an announcement was made about the recommendations proposed by a special committee of “experts” (whose credibility is a cause for much discussion), set up to look into the Valle de los Caidos (the Valley of the Fallen), the massive, sinister mausoleum outside Madrid where the remains of General Franco are buried.

The monument was built under his orders in the 1940s and 50s by tens of thousands of political prisoners, many of whom ended up being buried there, due to maltreatment, illness, starvation and poisoning; it was said to be “like a Nazi concentration camp”. In total, over 30,000 bodies are interred at the site, which is also home to a monastery.

Far-right-wing sympathisers, and the few Falange left, gather there every year on the anniversary of Franco’s death; a monument to Fascism, it is detested by the majority of Spaniards.

The commission recommended that the dictator’s remains be moved to a place of his family’s choosing; that the other remains be identified, and their names inscribed on a list of the fallen; and that effectively this grim place, with a huge cross towering over it, be reinvented as a place honouring the dead on both sides of Spain’s Civil War. Apparently, the church’s permission is also required, since the basilica where the Generalissimo is buried is a religious site.

The official reason given for wanting to disinter the Fascist dictator’s remains is that the Valle is only for people who died in the war, which Franco didn’t.

It has also been suggested to have an interpretation centre, so people can understand what happened, and why so many people (plus the hundreds of thousands more who died all around the country) lost their lives.

The reaction to this news on Twitter was extraordinary, with every extreme of view represented: people saying, aren’t there more important things to think about, like the unemployed; it’s in the past, we need to move on;  it’s not worth spending money on; who cares (mostly younger people said this).

Some of the reactions, about what should be done with this much-reviled man’s remains, were interesting. I think their opinions are far more relevant than my own, those of an outsider. These are the people whose relatives were killed in the War, or under the Dictatorship – it’s easy to forget that pretty much every family was affected by what happened during those 40-odd years.
(I have translated them roughly for those whose Spanish might not manage.)

“Que le den un pico y una pala a la familia Franco. Ya joderia pagar una milionada por el translado”

(They should give Franco’s family a bucket and shovel. I’m not bloody paying a packet to have him moved.)

“Lo que tiene que hacer es tirarlo a una fosa comun.”

(What they should do is throw him in a mass grave.)

“Que pais. La iglesia catolica, complica del dictador Franco, es la que tiene que decidir si se trasladan del Valle de los Caidos.”

(What a country. The Catholic church, which was complicit with the dictator Franco, are the ones who must decide if he should be transferred from the Valle de los Caidos.)

“No es ningun faraon ni victima de la Guerra para esta alli.”

(He shouldn’t be there – he’s not a War victim or a pharaoh.)

“Inadmisible que un dictador tiene un monumento.”

(It’s outrageous that a dictator should have a monument.)

“Espero que pronto los familiares de los que el asesino encuentran a sus muertos.”

(I hope the relatives of those whom he killed are able to find their loved ones soon.)

“Valle de los Caidos para viviendas sociales.

(Make the Valle de los Caidos into social housing.)

“Indecente, que poco respeto para los muertos.”

(Terrible, no respect for the dead.)

“Por que coño tienen que elegir la Iglesia si los restos de Franco se quedan en el Valle de lo Caidos? ¿Quien coño creen que son?”

(Why the hell does the Church get to decide if Franco’s remains stay in the Valle de los Caidos? Who the hell do they think they are?)

“Los curas van a coger las palas?”

(Are the priests going to pick up shovels?)

“El Valle de los Caidos es patrimonio nacional. ¿Pq hay que consultar a la iglesia sobre el traslado de Franco? ¿O es que le han beatificado?”

(The Valle de los Caidos is national heritage. Why does the Church have to be consulted about moving Franco’s remains? Or have they beatified him?)

Most agree it is unlikely to happen under Mariano Rajoy’s about-to-be-formed PP government. And that the money could be better spent. But however many other, more worthy causes there are, isn’t it a good idea to try to rectify the past by ensuring that a brutal dictator is no longer honoured in such an extravagant visual way?

A cosy night in Cortes

Cortes de la Frontera, a delightfully off-the-beaten-track pueblo blanco near Ronda.

This weekend my family and I took a well-earned break from the usual monotony of me not being able to tear myself away from the computer, and my son not being able to tear himself away from the television, too often accompanied by his father, and had a night away. Without TV or computer. And boy, did it feel good. (OK, I took my iPhone, but used it as a map, and to listen to BBC World Service on Sunday morning, in place of my favourite gadget.)

We stayed at a gorgeous little cottage* in a hill-town called Cortes de la Frontera, near Ronda. Not being one of the famous ones (Arcos, Vejer etc), it is delightfully untouristy. This weekend the Jornadas Micologicas (Mushroom Days) were taking place, so there were plenty of hikers around. But it’s not geared up for tourists in an all-signs-also-in-English way, if you know what I mean.

The place where we stayed, a two-bedroom house in a teeny terrace, used to be inhabited by a family with ten children (one of them lives next door, and his daughter helps look after the property). My own kids were thrilled to hear that the mules used to sleep in what was now their bedroom (“What were their beds like, Mum?” asked my five-year-old. Priceless.) and the pigs in their bathroom, as well as horses and chickens. Upstairs was given over to animal feed – they must have got through a fair few sacks. This is now a spacious, attic-y bedroom with an indulgently large bathroom (Like, Like) and its own terrace – the views over the town to the mountains are breathtaking. And the silence is glorious.

When the (English) owners converted the house, they did a clever job of keeping its character, with traditional super-steep stairs (which the two-year-old - neurotically forewarned, “Careful!”, “Slowly!” - loved negotiating, proudly announcing each time: “Mummy, Mummy, I did it on my own!”). There are pretty wooden window-shutters, the type where you can either open the middle part only, to let the light in, or the whole thing, for air. Add to these the wooden lintels over the doorways and windows, and the exposed beams in the ceiling, and you feel like you’ve gone back a few centuries – we should have hung up a ham, or a leather gourd full of wine.

Just what you need on a chilly autumn evening in a mountain village: a wood-burning stove.

It was pretty parky at night, but a wood-fired stove made the (TV-free) sitting room wonderfully snug and cosy. The house has no doors inside, just curtains to divide the rooms from each other, so the warmth and woody aroma filled the whole casa. One of the best things about staying in an owner-owned rental property, as opposed to a less characterful, perhaps better equipped (I missed my microwave) property, is that the people to whom it belongs leave their mark on it, so you know you’re looking at books and pictures which have been owned or chosen personally, according to their own taste.

I particularly recommend Complete Mediterranean Wildlife (blue spine), which is superbly illustrated. I will be ordering my own copy.

They had an amazing selection of guidebooks and maps, especially for hikers and birdwatchers, as this is prime walking and twitching territory. As an avid collector of books on Spain, this tickled my fancy no end. Novels and games were also provided, and they had even left out some children’s books for my kids – a thoughtful gesture which was highly appreciated when the small ones were wide awake and running around at 7am on Sunday.

I also loved the colourful earthenware bowls and Andalucian-themed prints (a bull, a park in Cadiz). There was even a CD player with case full of discs which, spookily, I own several of – Portishead, Macy Gray, Madonna (Ray of Light, since you ask). The kids danced to Macy Gray in the way only small children can – enthusastically, arhythmically and hilariously.

Son dancing to CDs provided with house. Result: entertained, tired child and entertained, happy mother.

The house’s owners, who have a new company which rents out bijou one-off properties all over Andalucia, pride themselves on their knowledge of the area – notably, its history, terrain and cuisine – having lived here for 12 years. Their personal touch was evident even before we set out, with a whole sheaf of notes covering topics from a guide to Spanish pronunciation, to how and where to shop (the empasis is on small, local suppliers – the company is aimed at foodies), to little-known Roman sites in the area. We followed their advice on some short, family-friendly outings, badly needed for this bunch of lazy, indoorsy suburbanites.

Our adventures will be related in the next post – stay tuned…

* We stayed at La Casa del Arriero in Cortes de la Frontera as guests of The 2′s Company Travel. However, as this is I my first post written in association with a company, it’s very important that I tell you this: the opinions expressed here are exactly as they would have been, had we been paying clients. I’ve never been known for biting my tongue, nor do I have any intention of compromising my journalistic integrity.