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

Cadiz, sierra, Sierra de Grazalema

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

Benamahoma

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

The romeria of Benamahoma, at the beginning of June.

The romeria of Benamahoma, at the beginning of June.

First view of the Embalse de Zahara.

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

pretty wildflower

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

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

The walk up to Punta de la Paloma viewing point.

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

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

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

Craggy outcrop - dramatic scenery of the sierra.

Craggy outcrop – dramatic scenery of the sierra.

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

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

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

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

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

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

One of Benamahoma's restaurants with terrace.

One of Benamahoma’s restaurants with terrace.

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

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

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

Pots and climbers in the beautiful terraced garden.

Pots and climbers in the beautiful terraced garden.

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

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

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

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

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

Double bedroom with green and (very) pleasant view.

Double bedroom with green and (very) pleasant view.

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

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

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

Coloured hanging lamp casts pretty reflections.

Coloured hanging lamp casts pretty reflections on the ceiling.

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

The pool is almost hidden by this burst of bougainvillea.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pool with sunloungers.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Plate of cold tapas at Al Lago restaurant in Zajhara.

Plate of cold tapas at Al Lago restaurant in Zahara.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheese made from payoyo goats' milk.

Cheese made from milk of the payoyo goat.

Street in Grazalema.

Typical narrow cobbled street with white-washed houses.

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

Christians' shield.

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

Moors' shield

and the Moors’ shield.

Moor's gun with beautiful inlaid handle.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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 day with the goats – free-range foodie fun

Goats doing what they love best - climbing.

Goats doing what they love best – climbing.

Finca los Robledos is in the beautiful Sierra de Aracena.

Finca los Robledos is in the beautiful Sierra de Aracena.

The farm is close to the town of Aracena.

The farm is close to the town of Aracena.

The finished product: delicious Monterobledos goat's cheese.

The finished product: delicious Monte Robledo goat’s cheese.

Readers of this blog will know that I like my food, especially if it’s from a small local producer, and that I also love days out and trips with my kids, even more so if we’re “close to nature” and eating is an essential part of the experience. So going to an organic farm with the kids to make goat’s cheese – what could be more free-range, foodie and fun?

A few months ago we went to the Sierra de Aracena for the day, to Finca Los Robledos near the town of Aracena – around an hour’s drive from Seville. Down a bumpy country road, then a narrow farm track with a little stream flowing next to it, we finally arrived at the farm. Our hostess and guide was Maria Jesus, who owns the farm along with a cheese shop in Aracena. It’s a family affair: one of her sons, Manuel, looks after the goats, along with his girlfriend; Maria Jesus and her husband, Rafael, make the cheese; and her other son, Miguel, runs the cheese shop in town – his daughter was there on the day we visited, and she played happily with my two children.

But Maria Jesus is definitely the brains and the driving force behind the operation. An energetic, sharp-witted, creative woman, she is full of tales of when her father ran the farm – it was sold to him by a terrateniente (landowner) on very fair terms (unlike today’s endless horror stories of banks, mortgages and evictions). In fact, her family has been making cheese for five generations.

The cheese world in the Sierra de Aracena is a small one, and it turns out another favourite cheese of mine, Doña Manuela, is owned by one of Maria Jesus’s brothers; Manuela is their mother’s name. Both Monte Robledo, Maria Jesus’s cheese, and Doña Maneula are certified organic, as both herds of goats graze on the same pasture – her farm is part of a 400-hectare plot of land divided between the three siblings.

Zac greets a goat - they're such friendly creatures.

Zac meets a goat kid – they’re wonderfully friendly creatures.

Maria Jesus’s herd of goats numbers 150, and she makes 10,000 kilos of cheese every year. The goats wander on the grassy hills around the farm by day, grazing on wild plants including acorns which makes them produce greater quantities of creamy milk, full of protein and with a fantastic taste. The goats are milked by machine every morning, munching on a snack during the process to keep them happy. Maria Jesus explains that it’s quicker and less painful for them, with silicone teats like those on a baby’s bottle. The goats are friendly, nuzzling me and the children; some of the kids, whose mothers wouldn’t feed them and had to be hand-fed using bottles, are downright cheeky and head-butt us.

Trying my hand at milking the goat, as explained by Manuel, with moderate success.

Trying my hand at milking the goat, as explained by Manuel, with moderate success.

Then it was Lola's turn to milk the goat - she was a natural.

Then it was Lola’s turn – she was a natural.

Zac has a got at milking the goat.

Zac has a go at the “squeeze, pull”.

We all try our hand at milking – Miguel shows us how to hold, squeeze and pull the teat in the right direction, with pressure in just the right spot. I worry about hurting the poor animal, but a warm jet of white liquid spurts out and Lola shrieks with delight. Her little hands manage to produce some milk too, though Zac finds it trickier.

Zac in the kitchen garden - lush, green and the perfect space for kids to run about in.

Zac in the kitchen garden – lush, green and the perfect space for kids to run about in.

Then Maria Jesus shows us the kitchen garden, a long grassy sloping area where they grow tomatoes and other vegetables in summer. The scenery is beautiful – lush grassy hills covered in oak trees, and today the sun is shining so it looks idyllic. There’s a small patio, with low buildings on one side: we visit the little museum, which is chock-full of fascinating old agricultural implements. I love places like this – finding out how people lived and worked in these hills years ago. If you visit their shop in Aracena, you can see more such vintage farming tools.

Maria Jesus shows us the anti-wolf collar.

Maria Jesus shows us the anti-wolf collar in the farm’s museum.

An entremuros, a wooden tray used for separating curds from whey - this is now done in a large stainless-steel vat.

An entremuros, a wooden tray used for separating curds from whey – this is now done in a large stainless-steel vat.

An old cooking brazier - hot stones placed under, pan on top.

An old cooking brazier – hot stones placed under, pan on top.

Maria Jesus picks up a scary-looking metal collar with long spikes which looks like a medieval instrument of torture. It was for the dog who looked after the goats, to protect him from wolves – a serious danger to livestock until only a few decades ago. Other antique contraptions in this cave of wonders are a hand hay-baler; an iron cooking brazier; a mill for grinding cereal to feed the pigs; an entremijo, a wooden tray used to separate curds from whey when making cheese (read on for more about this process); an iron plough; and glass jars full of dried herbs such as arnica and hierbabuena (mint) collected by her mother (the mint still has a strong smell despite its years). It puts the farm into a historic context, which seems a wonderful idea and makes our visit that much richer.

The we go into the dairy – this is unashamedly modern, with stainless-steel vats for making the cheese. The milk is filtered when it comes out of the goat, and then heated gently and stirred with big paddles. When it is hot, rennet is added to make it coagulate, and then it is “cut” with a metal implement with blades called a lira.

Freshly-made cheeses in the dairy.

Freshly-made cheeses in the dairy.

Cheeses maturing nicely. My mouth is watering just looking at this picture.

Cheeses maturing nicely. My mouth is watering just looking at this picture.

The cuajada (curd) and suero (whey) are gradually separated (the latter is fed to the pigs, as it’s high in protein), until you have a creamy, dense-textured white mass which is pushed into small plastic moulds with slots for the whey to drain out. The cheese is turned over every day, and after 20 days you have a semi-curado cheese. If you want a stronger fill-flavoured cheese, curado, you leave it for at least 50 days; for larger cheese, the process takes two to six months. Herbs can be added, such as rosemary or oregano, pimiento or black pepper.

A pure-bred Iberian sow with her newborn piglets.

A pure-bred Iberian sow with her newborn piglets.

Next it’s time to meet the Iberian piglets – born just four days ago, they confirm my non-meat-eating beliefs more than ever. I make sure my kids, entranced by the sight, realised these little darlings could be the jamon on their tostada one day. WARNING: gratuitous cute animal photo.

cerdo iberico

Reason #27 why I don’t eat meat.

A pail of fresh goat's milk, ready to be made into cheese.

A pail of fresh goat’s milk, ready to be made into cheese.

Rennet made from cardoon, a thistle-like plant.

The magic ingredient: rennet made from cardoon, a thistle-like plant.

The milk is thickening.

The milk is thickening.

Straining the mild to separate the curds (lumpy white stuff in the sieve) from the whey (liquid in the pail).

Straining the milk to separate the curds (lumpy white stuff in the sieve) from the whey (liquid in the pail).

Now the moment we’ve all been waiting for: after milking the goats, and playing with them, seeing how the cheese is made, and all those old implements, it’s our turn. Maria Jesus heats up some fresh goat’s milk (the very same stuff that we extracted earlier, or so I like to think), and adds the vegetable rennet, made from a plant called cardoon. The milk starts to thicken and she “cuts” it with the spoon, and then when it has curdled, and gone nice and lumpy, the curds are separated from the whey and we’re each given a little plastic pot-full of cheese to squash down. The process looks so simple, with only two ingredients – milk and rennet – but obviously you need to know exactly what level of heat to use, what temperature the milk needs to get up to, and when to add the rennet.

Maria Jesus gives Lola her cheese to squeeze.

Maria Jesus gives Lola her cheese to squeeze.

Zac pushes down his cheese, to squeeze the last whey out of it.

Zac pushes down his cheese, to squash the last whey out of it.

Zac's cheese, all ready to take home.

Zac’s cheese, all ready to take home.

Lola with her cheese - it didn't last long.

Lola with her cheese – it didn’t last long.

We squish our cheeses to get the whey out – a top activity with my children, unsurprisingly – then we pop lids on, write our names and listen to Maria Jesus’ careful instructions to keep the cheeses in the fridge, and turn and drain them every day for five days, adding salt, then put them on a plate covered with clingfilm. The children’s cheeses didn’t make it home in one piece, as queso fresco - fresh home-made goat’s cheese – is just too delicious to resist, but I kept mine for a month and when I finally gave in, it was fabulous (if I say so myself). And anyway, food tastes so much better when you know exactly where it came from, and what a happy, free life those goats lead.

Maria Jesus is a mine of information about everything from the history of the area, to which types of her cheese sell best where (the markets are king), to her collection of philosophical frases (sayings) on the farm’s website. She is an immensely kind woman, and generous with her time, which makes this a perfect family day out in my book.

A visit to Finca los Robledos costs 2 euros; cheese-tasting 3 euros without wine, or 5 euros with wine; visit with cheese-making 5 euros; visit, cheese-making and tasting 10 euros; and all the above with lunch (goat stew, naturally), 20 euros. They’re well set-up to cater for groups, with a large dining room.

If you want to stay in the area, I can highly recommend Posada San Marcos in nearby Alajar, or for self-catering, Monte Mateo in Navahermosas.

You can buy Monte Robledo cheese at the Monte Robledo shop, Calle Concordia 18, Aracena (tel 959 128 994); in the Alameda organic market in Seville on the second Saturday of every month, and the Aljarafe organic Market in Gines on the third Saturday of every month.

You can see Maria Jesus making cheese in this video.

The three Ferias of Seville: the caseta

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

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

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

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

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

Feria, Sevilla

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

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

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

Feria, Sevilla

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

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

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

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

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

Dancing Sevillanas in a private caseta at the Feria.

Dancing Sevillanas in a private caseta at the Feria.

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

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

Sevilla, Feria, Feria de Sevilla

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

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

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

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

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

While I’ve got your attention (hopefully), I’m going begging for votes. I’ve been shortlisted in the Travel section of the Brilliance in Blogging Awards, the major UK mum blogging awards. To get to the final of the awards, I need your help! Please vote for me, by clicking on this link, going to Travel, and ticking the box next to Scribbler in Seville. Mil gracias!

 

Domingo de Ramas: La Paz in the park

Semana Santa, Sevilla, procession, Maria Luisa Park

Two boys watch from a perfect vantage point as the Virgin of La Sed arrives at Plaza de España.

Semana Santa, Sevilla

These military-style uniforms for the mounted band of La Paz are typical of the pageantry that is Semana Santa in Seville.

Semana Santa, Sevilla, procession, Maria Luisa park

Check out the “tails” of these helmets.

Semana Santa, Sevilla, procession, Maria Luisa park

The Cruz de Guia, carried by nazarenos from La Sed, which marks the official beginning of the procession.

Children ask for sweets from a nazareno - "Nazarena, dame un caramelo!"

Children ask for sweets from a nazareno – “Nazareno, dame un caramelo!”

Nazarenos start young, and junior to them are monaguillos, or altar boys, who carry baskets of sweets to give out to children along the procession route.

Nazarenos start young, and junior to them are monaguillos, or altar boys, who carry baskets of sweets to give out to children along the procession route.

Plaza de España, Seville, Sevilla, Semana Santa

Nazarenos approaching Plaza de España – you can see one of its towers of the right.

The first procession to go out in Semana Santa (Holy Week) here in Seville is La Paz, on the afternoon of Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday). Dressed in long white robes and tall, pointed hoods with eye-holes – nazarenos; and the same white robes, without hoods but carrying black crosses – penitentes; the long snaking line of 1700 cofradia participants takes an hour to go past.

Jesus paso of La Paz passes Plaza de España. Sevillian extravagance from the early 20th century.

Jesus paso of La Paz passes the central area of Plaza de España: two examples of Sevillian extravagance – the baroque float with its richly-robed statues, and the supremely majestic neo-mudejar building – both from the first half of the 20th century.

The two highlights for thousands of people who, like me, had come to watch La Paz with friends and family, are the two pasos (floats) – one of Jesus de la Victoria, accompanied by the familiar Roman centurion with white feathered helmet, on a baroque gilded base which shone dazzlingly in the bright sunshine; and the other of Nuestra Señora de la Paz, the Virgin Mary under an intricate palio (pillared canopy) on a float of shining silver adorned with white flowers. This Virgin is well-known for the olive branch she carries – a sign of peace.

Semana Santa, Sevilla, Procession, Maria Luisa Park

Penitentes of La Paz carry their crosses through Maria Luisa Park on a glorious Sunday in April.

The first part of their route goes through Maria Luisa Park, which celebrates its centenary this year – it was created for the Ibero-American Expo of 1929, originally planned for 1914 but delayed by war and other factors.

Semana Santa, Plaza de España, Seville, Sevilla

Virgin de la Paz under her curtained palio (canopy).

The procession passes Plaza de España, one of the city’s most spectacular monuments and the centrepiece for Expo 29. This semi-circular sweep of bricks and tiled arches is a suitable backdrop of magnificence and grandeur for the dazzling religious statues with their carved decorations, fresh flowers and embroidered gowns.

Semana Santa, Sevilla, procession, Maria Luisa Park, costalero

These fellows, some considerably heftier than others, bear the weight of the pasos on their shoulders – they’re called costaleros. It’s hot and exhausting work, so these guys are taking a well-earned break. Note their corset-belts.

Plaza de España, Seville, Sevilla, Semana Santa

Penitentes passing Plaza de España.

I must state that my interest in the Semana Santa processions, is not a religious or spiritual one; it is more a case of appreciating the sense of theatre and passion which goes into them, and with which they’re received. For me, it’s about how people – in this case, Sevillanos – perceive their beloved effigies, as they are borne by men called costaleros from the church of their barrio to the cathedral, and back again. On this particular occasion, it was more of a nice day out in a beautiful park than any close allegiance to these statues – at least, that was my impression. Watching La Esperanza de Triana return to her church at the end of the Madrugada yesterday afternoon – well, that was an entirely different experience, ambience, crowd.

Over the past week I have taken over 1,000 photos of Semana Santa – I watched many pasos in landmark spots all over the city. So watch out for more posts with images of Holy Week processions over the coming days.