Spain for keeps?

Sun, blue skies and nature’s bounty!

So now,  off to settle in Spain, having concluded our eight months on Safari in southern Africa.  Ha ha…when is 8 months ever enough?!  Although we marvelled again at the vastness of Africa, breathed deeply as the evening air cooled and the sun sank in a golden shimmer below the western horizon, tensed with excitement as big cats stalked past – all the while relishing our good fortune – we started looking north again… contemplating a new, stranger, Spanish life.

Having made our decision based largely on the abundance of sunshine and space, it was mildly disappointing (and ironic, too) to land at Malaga in the rain.  Officially Malaga’s Costa del Sol Airport!  No hay problema!  A minor blip, no doubt, as the dependable Spanish summer awaited us…

Choosing a beautiful B&B an hour away from Malaga, in the hills near Alfarnatejo, as our first stop seemed like a great idea and was easily arranged on a laptop in another country, but actually finding it required a little more application… and some scary new driving experiences.  Navigating narrow mountain roads, while driving on the ‘wrong’ side of the road was hair-raising!  It was worth it, though…  Margarete’s house was gorgeous: mountain views, a gorgeous pool, a backdrop of rocky crags, the gentle tinkling of goat bells – and a hostess who has now become a friend.  A local venta (inn/pub) down the road and a little pueblo blanco (white village) up the road.  What with a local Gazpacho Fiesta, this life could get some serious hooks in! (Gazpacho: wholseome, fresh tomato soup).

Sun, pool and vista in Alfarnate, Malaga.

We met Enrique one night, down at the inn.  Bubbly, cheeky little terrier, but exceptionally hospitable.  As is Maria, his very able wife who makes delicious tapas and supplied us with an endless stream.  We weren’t always sure what we were ordering, but we never went hungry; we’ve loved discovering new food, and new ways of cooking old favourites.  Amazing how Enrique’s liqueurs improve Richard’s Spanish… so he claims, anyway.  We still go back to visit and laugh and get teased in Spanish!

Our next house was arranged for us by Angela, a lovely English woman with close to 20 years’ experience of living in Spain.  Our landlord is Miguel: a very hospitable, friendly Spaniard with a lovely young family and a wonderful sense of tradition and living off the land.  He has rare-breed Andalucian chickens, and plentiful fresh fruit and vegetables in his garden; a highlight was watching Miguel and his family crushing grapes to make wine in the traditional way.  We would stumble through conversations about local ferias (festivals), food, harvests, villages and his wine-making!  Miguel’s casa has been a tranquil home-base for our introductory few months in Spain.  Actually a traditional finca (small rustic country cottage), now modernised into a holiday cottage with a large outdoor living area and little pool for the blistering hot days in July and August.

Miguel’s family restaurant is down the road… serving good local food and ice cold beer and wine under the shade of a grapevine.  It’s a regular haunt for the old men and their competitive dominos: raucous domino rounds resound – possibly only equalled by the passion and intensity of the Spanish conversations.

mango

Aaah, the colour, aroma and flavour of fresh fruit straight off the tree!

 

8ª Fiesta de la Cabra Malagueña en Casabermeja. Local food produce in honourof the local goats!

8ª Fiesta de la Cabra Malagueña en Casabermeja. Local food produce in honour of the local goats!

Within weeks of our arrival we sat engaged in a confusing yet fascinating enterprise as we familiarised ourselves with Spanish bureaucracy.  Not a lot different to bureaucracy anywhere else; more of a Spanish flavour and clearly more stressful in a foreign language, but still the same nitpicking and prevarication that characterises dealing with officialdom in so many countries!  (In Spanish we think that would be “quisquilloso y prevaricacion” – but testing that out will have to wait for a bit more boldness on our part!)

As the summer temperatures rose we settled more into a Spanish rhythm: breakfast at about 10:00am, lunch at 2:00pm, a siesta to escape the intense heat of the day (with temperatures regularly reaching 40 degrees) and a late supper…  We’re seldom in bed before midnight.

House-hunting is our priority, so that’s been our main focus since early July… touring the countryside and exploring little villages.  Apart from knowing we wanted to be in Malaga province, in inland Andalucia, we didn’t have any fixed idea about location – which has made house-hunting both interesting and challenging!  We have our sights set on a particular type of house (which we have yet to find!) but we have seen some really beautiful places and, of course, some less than comfortable spots.  As you might imagine, matching what we read on paper to reality is sometimes virtually impossible.

Even out house-hunting, stopping at little country ventas and local cafes, the Spanish rhythm prevails (apart from the siesta, that is!)  We have found ourselves a wonderful estate agent.  Simone is a professional, honest, down-to-earth, straight talking, no nonsense Dutch lady who has settled in Spain.  Her local knowledge, sense of humour and facial expressions when she doesn’t like what she sees, have kept us entertained during many a long day visiting properties in the heat.  It helps, too, that she knows the best restaurants and where to find a superb sizzling Gambas Pil-pil (Spicy Prawns)!

Image courtesy of http://www.absoluteaxarquia.com

Image courtesy of http://www.absoluteaxarquia.com

We thoroughly enjoyed having friends visit during the summer – especially as it gave us an excuse to be tourists again…  Discovering the province of Malaga has been fascinating!  We’ve explored from the relatively quiet, protected beaches in a natural park north of Nerja, inland to Antequera and the fascinating karst rock formations of El Torcal, north to the sunflower fields of Cordoba, through Campillos by the flamingo lakes at Fuenta de Piedra, past Ardales and El Chorro to the embalses (or ‘Malaga Lakes’) and the amazing Caminito del Rey walk, across mountains to the historic town of Ronda, over the beautiful Sierra de las Nieves, and down to the busy and vibrant coastal strip of Marbella.  A huge arc encompassing a large chunk of Andalucia pivoting around Malaga and encircled by beautiful rocky sierras.

The sun-drenched plains south of Cordoba.

The sun-drenched plains south of Cordoba.

 

Olive groves, river valleys and sierras!

Olive groves, river valleys and sierras! Axarquia, Malaga.

 

Food of the Gods, or Godesses! Nature's bounty for eating as opposed to fermenting :-)

Food of the Gods, or Godesses! Nature’s bounty for eating as opposed to fermenting :-)

 

ronda

Ronda and the fascinating Punte Nuevo. New Bridge.

Two particularly picturesque areas we’ve most enjoyed have been El Torcal and the Caminito del Rey.  El Torcal is an endlessly fascinating mountainous landscape filled with an assortment of different limestone rock formations, constantly eroded by wind and rain…  If you arrive early and explore before the tourist hordes arrive, you may be privileged to see wild Spanish Ibex on the rocky cliffs – traversing seemingly impossible cliff faces!  Griffon vultures wait for the thermals and then soar overhead – often in groups of 20 or more.  Every turn in the path opens up new far-reaching vistas and the possibility of spotting more Ibex.  Just magnificent!

The captivating and riveting Karst landscape of El Torcal near Antequera!

The captivating and riveting Karst landscape of El Torcal near Antequera!

 

The curious inhabitants of El Torcal. Cabras Montes or Spanish Ibex.

The curious inhabitants of El Torcal. Cabras Montes or Spanish Ibex.

Equally magnificent is the Caminito del Ray walk, once known as the ‘most dangerous walk in Europe’, which links two of the Guadalhorce embalses (reservoirs).  You walk through a gorge along a vertiginous footpath attached to sheer rocky cliffs 100 metres or so above the ground. It’s awe-inspiring, breathtaking and occasionally dizzingly scary!  The juxtaposition of the ancient cliffs; the original old path (now worn and full of holes); the newly restored path that often straddles the old path; the train line with modern high speed trains that intermittently pass through tunnels in the mountains; the eagles and vultures that soar majestically overhead; and the constant stream of excited walkers is absolutely captivating.

The awesome Caminito del Rey. A river gorge walk suspended above canyons and bolted to cliff faces.!

The awesome Caminito del Rey. A river gorge walk suspended above canyons and bolted to cliff faces!

 

El Caminito del Rey

El Caminito del Rey – also visible by train!!

 

The new, safer, walkway above the old on El Caminito del Rey!

The new, safer, walkway above the old on El Caminito del Rey!

The hillsides are a patchwork of olive and almond trees, interspersed with splashes of colour from the oleander, the colourful garden flowers and the pretty bee-eaters migrating south.  The harvesting of almonds is happening now and the gentle thwacking of the branches to dislodge the nuts into nets below drifts to us through the cooler morning and evening air.  There is a definite feel of Autumn; although the sun is still hot and the skies a vibrant blue, the nights now cool quickly after sunset.  This is a continuation of our journey of discovery as we only know the very hot and sunny Spain.  The cooler, wetter winter months are ahead… but before that the mango, avocado, olive and citrus harvests will happen.  We wait, eagerly, for this time of abundance and also for the opportunity to learn more about the olive harvest, the pressing for oil and the preserving of the olive fruit.

summer

The colours of summer – especially the blue Malaga sky!

 

Olives ripening in the late summer sun.

Olives ripening in the late summer sun.

Late September and warm sunny days are a pleasant change to the achingly bright and hot summer months.  The nights are fresher as Autumn approaches.  We’re looking forward to seeing the impact the rain has on the parched environment, and to the changing colours of the different seasons…

We have loved our 3 months in Spain so far.  The people are wonderful – vibrant, effervescent and unfailingly hospitable and helpful.  It’s been interesting seeing how they have warmed to us when we’ve tried our halting Spanish; and in turn they are willing to try their English out on us.

Still we look for a house to buy…  Somewhere to maximise the sunshine, give us a view of the gorgeous sierras and night skies, and possibly provide for an orchard or olive grove of our own…  We want to surround ourselves with as many photogenic locations as possible. Karyn wants to hear the tinkling of goat bells in the distance; Richard wants a tree laden with ripe avocados; we both want to see eagles soar overhead.  Not too much to ask for!  We’re keen to put down roots somewhere, and, with a place of our own, to shape our futures – in whatever form emerges…

The Andalusian Bull, overlooking Casabarmeja.

An Osborne Bull (now an emblem more than it is an advert for sherry), overlooking Casabarmeja.

 

Sunset after a hot summer's day.

Sunset over the hills.

As Autumn arrives and the Orange trees are laden with brightly coloured fruit, the Olive trees are hanging heavy-boughed with plump olives, the Quinces and Kaki fruit are so brightly coloured as to be fluorescent! The flavour of fruit plucked ripe off a tree is unsurpassed! We are revelling in it! So here is the golden quince….

Quinces for "dulce de membrillo" - in all their golden glory and with the most wonderful floral scent filling the kitchen!

Quinces for “dulce de membrillo” – in all their golden glory and with the most wonderful floral scent filling the kitchen!

As always, thank you for your friendship, visits, support, updates and feedback which have entertained us during our Spanish transition!

Best wishes

Richard and Karyn.

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The Sierra de Cazorla.

The vast plains around Jaen, in south-central Spain, stretch as far as the eye can see in this olive-growing ‘capital’ of Spain.  They are solely populated with Olive trees; if you pull off the road and stand quietly amongst the carefully tended groves you can imagine the trees working at producing the olive oil that finances the province. The sheer number of olives (and their variety) is immense…

The vast acreages of sun drenched olive trees stretche as far as the eye can see in Jaen province...

The vast acreages of sun drenched olive trees stretch as far as the eye can see in Jaen province.

The green gold of Jaen Province.

The green gold of Jaen Province.

Guarding the eastern fringe of these endless plains stands the Sierras de Cazorla, Seguras y las Villas: three mountainous ridges running parallel to each other in a south-west to north-easterly direction.  This area is Europe’s largest Natural Park – a beautiful region of high rocky outcrops, craggy cliffs and deep gorges, scented pine forests and soaring vultures.  Climbing up into the peaks the majestic vistas open up on all sides…

The Sierras de Seguras y las Villas from Sierra de Cazorla...

The Sierras de Seguras y las Villas from Sierra de Cazorla.

 

High up into the hills and a Griffon Vulture sits sentinel over his domain...

High up into the hills and a Griffon Vulture sits sentinel over his domain.

 

The Griffon Vulture.

The Griffon Vulture.

Unlike in much of Spain, wildlife is still allowed to flourish here: these sierras are a haven for many of the larger Spanish icons such as the Spanish Ibex, Iberian Lynx, Griffon Vultures, Fox, Wild Boar and Red Deer.  You can see the Ibex sunning themselves on a prominent rock in the early morning sun.  They clamber about the vertiginous rock faces seemingly defying gravity and totally oblivious to the danger of a slip or fall.  Probably natural selection in action!

The Lynx are difficult to find but we managed to see much of the rest.  October, and the rut is in full swing.  The Red Deer Stags bellow across the valleys and the Fallow Deer gather their harems together in anticipation of conceiving the next generation of youngsters. (It is wonderful being surrounded by nature’s annual stag rut; however it also makes for very disturbed nights!  The caves in the limestone hills reverberated with the calls of the most powerful stags, loudly proclaiming their right to mate and warning challengers to keep away).

Fallow Buck wandering through the campsite...

A Fallow Buck wandering through the campsite at night.

 

Beautiful female Red Deer keeping a wary eye on the humans...

Beautiful female Red Deer keeping a wary eye on the humans.

By the end of summer the land is parched and dry, the waterfalls are barely a trickle and the fire risk is high.  Walking in the hills is hot and sunny; although the mountain streams that are still flowing have some lovely deep pools that allow for a wonderfully refreshing swim in some icy cold water. You’ll need to be of strong heart as the shock of the cold snow-melt water is severe – even in the warmth of the days – but tremendously invigorating.  Great for chilling a few bottles of beer too!

The invigorating mountain streams in the Sierra de Cazorla.

The invigorating mountain streams in the Sierra de Cazorla.

As ever, many walkers take their dogs; this usually precludes them (and, unfortunately, others) from any up-close wildlife encounters.  So, get up early and the hills and peaks are all yours.  This little fox was wandering along our track minding his own business after a night out hunting and scavenging.  Wondering how to avoid the humans on his path, he lay down in the shade to consider his options and was soon up and vanishing into the pine trees, leaving us with memories and some photographs.  Beautiful!

The stalking Fox.

The stalking Fox.

 

Dozing Fox high up in the Sierra de Cazorla, Jaen Province, Spain.

Dozing Fox.

The scent of the pine with the sizzle of the Cicadas is such a summer-time experience it is hard to imagine winter could possibly make any in-roads – until the first rains arrived in the night, washed the dust off the vegetation and made the air fresh and clean again!  The sweet smell of the fresh rain on the parched earth reminded us of how nurturing and restorative the long-awaited rains are – as well as how necessary this life-giving moisture is.  The Ibex were out in force in the morning, drying off in the sun.

Mother and juvenile Spanish Ibex sunning themselves in the early morning.

Mother and juvenile Spanish Ibex sunning themselves in the early morning.

The parched earth soon swallowed up the moisture and no traces were left but for the greener leaf and a deeper blue sky – and some pretty lilac wildflowers that emerged through the baked and rocky earth overnight…

Out of the harshness springs delicate beauty after the rains.

Out of the harshness springs delicate beauty after the rains.

Camping in the hills next to a bubbling brook is an idyllic experience with Fallow Deer wandering through the campsite in the evening and the Wild Boar rampaging and snorting through the undergrowth; all very audible through canvas too, late into the night.  If you want a wildlife experience then the Sierra de Cazorla will deliver… but you’ll need a lot of patience and luck to find the Iberian Lynx.  Good Luck!

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Sexy Seville!

Brimming with history, colour, and vibrancy, Seville is a beautiful city.

Plaza de Espana is an impressive semi-circular building, in a very picturesque setting.  The sandstone colour of the building, the myriad tiled mosaics, the huge cool corridors and staircases, the beautifully carved statues, the green moat, the fragrant and colourful flowers, the pretty yellow wheels of the horse-drawn carriages, the refreshing fountain in the centre – will all delight your senses… with long, shady porticos to see off the heat of the summer.  Watching the Spanish police efficiently deal with a pick-pocket, through some slick collaboration and strategic manoeuvring, was equally impressive.  No running required – coordination by radio does the trick!  (Also rather sad to see yet understandable as there is a lot of poverty in evidence in Spain).

Plaza de Espana, Seville. Primarily Governement Offices now, built in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition in 1929.

Plaza de Espana, Seville. Primarily Governement Offices now, built in 1928 for the Ibero-American Exposition in 1929.

On a positive, the whole city though is set up for leading a healthy, active lifestyle: numerous large parks are pretty to stroll round and also have exercise facilities including outdoor gym equipment; wide cycle paths and walking paths run parallel to the roads and along the rivers – the pulsing lungs of the city.  It’s always impressive when young women feel comfortable to exercise alone: Seville is such a city (Vancouver has a similar atmosphere).  The city is also green – with the efficient buses and trams, the easy to use cycle hire, along with the more touristy horse-drawn carriages.

Plaza de Espana and the colourful "Coche de caballos" - horse drawn carriage.

Plaza de Espana and the colourful “Coche de caballos” – horse drawn carriage.

You can walk for hours and soak up the atmosphere as you go – history and culture abound, as well as the modern café culture with restaurants spilling onto the pavements.  It’s easy to wile away time just people-watching…

Colourful people in Seville!

Colourful people in Seville!

The hour long boat trip along the river Guadalquivir is an alternative fun way to see the city, as it gives another view of the city’s landmarks by day or night.  Boats run half-hourly in the summer.  The sights, both modern and old, are impressive and help to contextualise the city, as well as reinforce the image of the fit and healthy.  Presumably the unhealthy are tucked away in the bodegas!

Torre del Oro, panoramic views and the point of departure for the boats trips up the Guadalquiver River, Seville.

Torre del Oro, panoramic views and the point of departure for the boats trips up the Guadalquiver River, Seville.

 

The crystal clear night sky of Seville from the river boat....and a bridge!

The crystal clear night sky of Seville from the river boat… and a bridge!

 

The fit and the healthy on the streets of Seville!

The fit and the healthy on the streets of Seville!

For a decent restaurant look out for those frequented by the locals, usually just one street away from the tourist centres or hotels: the food is authentic, delicious and very reasonable and the menu doesn’t look like a photo-album!

In a word we would describe Seville, the capital city of Andalusia, as beautiful.  In a cityscape kind of beautiful – as you can still find the muck that accumulates wherever humans gather.  However for a spacious, vibrant, shady city, then this is the one for you.  The city fathers have taken pains to preserve and provide access to all the great palaces, and monuments, the abundance of gardens and open green spaces… and the roads are wide, bright yellow wheeled horse carriages clip-clop along unhindered and the space created for running, walking and cycling is superb.  They do their best to keep the litter accumulation – a blight throughout southern Spain – to a minimum.  Famous architect born in Seville: Aníbal González Álvarez-Ossorio…

Aníbal González Álvarez-Ossorio. Architect and statue.

Aníbal González Álvarez-Ossorio. Architect and statue.

Seville is the only river port in Spain, and as ever, a bit of water adds an extra dimension to a city.  Once an exceptionally rich town – as evidenced by the beautiful buildings, monuments and architecture – Seville started to lose out to Cadiz as the river silted up.  However, a very photogenic city, Seville is well preserved.

The streets of Seville - a bright and cheerful place and the old and the new.

The streets of Seville – a bright and cheerful place and the old and the new.

 

Friendly, smiley people in Seville!

Friendly, smiley people in Seville!

 

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Awesome Andalucia!

Even further south, through Valenciana, lies Andalucia. Occupying most of Southern Spain, encompassing the deserts of Almeria in the east;  the Sierra Nevada and other fascinating, smaller sierra ranges; sun drenched Costas on the Mediterranean; and Donana National Park in the west near the border with Portugal, Andalucia could take you your lifetime to explore!

We are trying it a little more quickly than that, but are being enthralled nonetheless. The Sierra Nevada has a smattering of small villages beneath the peaks, snow on the peaks for much of the year and boasts the highest paved road in Europe…as opposed to the Alps which might have been an obvious choice…

Bubion, one of the pristine little white villages perched high up on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada.

Bubion, one of the pristine little white villages perched high up on the slopes of the Sierra Nevada.

The highest paved road in Europe over the Sierra Nevada.

The highest paved road in Europe over the Sierra Nevada.

Descending the twists and turns and heading west, through miles and miles and hills and hills of olive and almond groves, you will find Ronda. Home to where the bullfight originated, but possibly more famous for being built on either side of a precipitous gorge. The Puente Nuevo gets you over the chasm safely and walking down the well trodden path to the slopes beneath offers up some lovely views….and a stiff climb back to the town above!

 

The Puente Nuevo (new bridge), Ronda, Andalucia, Spain.

The Puente Nuevo (new bridge), Ronda, Andalucia, Spain.

North of Malaga lies the fascinating and ancient town of Antequerra, and in true human fashion we easily forget how many millenia the planet Earth was in existence before we laid an evolutionary eye on it. Just outside of Antequera stands El Torcal: Europe’s fines karst formation. A truly ancient (100 Million years!) old seabed, now rasied 1000 metres into the sky and slowly eroding (very slowly, given the low rainfall!)  to yield stunning rock formations for climbers and photographers alike…and of course the Spanish Ibex…

Antequera: one of Spain's most ancient towns.

Antequera: one of Spain’s most ancient towns.

 

El Torcal. Europes finest karts formation and certainly a fascinating place to explore.

El Torcal: Europe’s finest karst formation and certainly a fascinating place to explore.

 

Spanish Ibex - taken to life on the rocks and cliffs and as comfortable as a duck on a pond.

Spanish Ibex – taken to life on the rocks and cliffs and as comfortable as a duck on a pond.

 

Leaving the rocky outcrops of El Torcal and heading to the western extremes of Spain and Andalucia sees Seville slide up over the horizon. The ancient powerhouse of Europe and the 4th largest city in the world at one stage in the 1600s, Seville is a beautiful place. Colourful, culturally rich, chaotic at times, baking hot in summer and photogenic – well worth a visit with all you camera gear… but beware of pickpockets!

And a big plus, apart from all the fresh orange juice, is Donana National Park down the road. So much more to see…

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South, to Spain & Sun!

Summer in Northern Europe is a very different experience to that in the South – in time and intensity.  Driving through France is a relaxed and pleasant affair (the shenanigans at Calais excluded).  The French countryside down to the Loire Valley is green and undulating, with fields of cheerful sunflowers and row upon row of vineyards.  The villages are quaint and somnolent in the heat of summer…  Crossing the Pyrenees into Spain, the sun gets hotter, the land more arid and the proximity of Africa is evident: Vultures circle, Yellow-billed kites soar and the vast plains of sun bleached grass are reminiscent of the highveldt.  So too are the wide, blue skies…

The harsh and rocky environment of Sax, Valenciana, Spain.

The harsh and rocky environment of Sax, Valenciana, Spain.

The history of Spain is long and complex. As we travel and learn about the present, the past exerts an influence and reminds us how much of what we see is built on that which came before…

The Castle in Sax, Valenciana, Spain.

The Castle in Sax, Valenciana, Spain.

Hunting is widespread in Spain and outside protected areas not much survives. What wildlife we do see also reminds us that we we do today will affect our future and that of our sons and daughters…

Scarce Swallowtail in Biar, Valenciana, Spain.

Scarce Swallowtail in Biar, Valenciana, Spain.

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