Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Andalucian Tour part 1

We would not have believed anyone if they had told us that the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of Andalucia would overwhelm us - but they did!

Our eight-day tour of Andalucia encompassed Los Pueblos Blancos (the White Villages), Ronda, the Sierra de Las Nieves, the Sierra Tejeda, Almijara and Alhama, Granada, the Sierra de Las Alpuharras, the Sierra Nevada, the Sierra Magina, the towns of Jaen, Ubeda and Baeza, Cordoba and the coastal region from Estepona to Sotogrande.

That’s a lot of Sierras you may say and you would be right. We were unaware of the extent of mountainous country in Andalucia but it is widespread albeit that the highest peak is no more than 3600 metres.
We hired what we thought to be the smallest car in the world, a left-hand drive Kia ‘Picanto’, until we passed a gas-powered car. In fact we managed to pass two of them! In truth the small car proved to be an advantage in negotiating the narrow twisty roads, not only in the hills, but also in the narrow streets of the old quarter of Cordoba and Ubeda. The one significant drawback of this car is that the door pillar obstructs the driver’s sight line around tight left hand bends.

Los Pueblos Blancos or the White Villages are fortified hilltop settlements in the mountains around the Sierra de Cadiz and the Sierra de Ubrique, so called because of the whitewashed walls of their buildings in the Moorish style. They have their origins in Roman and then Moorish times and, although having hardly changed for centuries, are not just tourist sights but working agricultural towns.
The gateway to Los Pueblos Blancos in the Sierra Cadiz from the direction of Rota is Arcos de la Frontera, an archetypal white town with its labyrinth Moorish quarter. The principal buildings are mostly in the Gothic – Mudejar style and hang from the hillside, as is the tendency in all White Villages.
It was a beautiful sunny day with perfect visibility for our drive through the mountains.

We had a late breakfast in a café overlooking Arcos of tostada (toast) and pate taken from one of the many communal plastic tubs strewn around the counter. This may not sound hygienic but it was really tasty and none of the many locals there was dying around us!
In the valleys and on the lower slopes of the hills between Arcos and Ubrique there were citrus and Almond trees and Olive groves and as we climbed through the Villages of Benaocaz and Grazalema, the town reputed to have the highest rainfall in Spain, there were Oak tress whose bark is stripped and used for cork, pine and fir forests and massive sheer sided rocks rising to 1600 metres. Eagles were gliding on the thermals rising from the valleys.
The view from the Mirador at Puerto de las Polamas overlooking the sheer drop to the valley below and the lake stretching up to Zahara, where we took lunch, was magnificent and we could even see the snow capped mountains of the Sierra Nevada in the distance to the west.

Our Hotel at Ronda, which was only five minutes walk from the historic centre of the town, was economical yet clean and comfortable. After checking in we walked past the bullring and over the famous Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) and, just before sunset, drank a beer on the balcony of a restaurant overhanging the ‘gorge’ and overlooking the Puente. After walking round the compact historic centre Miggy had excellent duck for supper while I tried the local delicacy of suckling pig for the first time. Whilst Miggy’s duck was overwhelmed in a rather rich date and wine sauce, my pig was perfect with moist tasty flesh covered with a delicate crackled skin.

Ronda sits on a massive rocky outcrop and straddles a precipitous limestone gorge, El Mercadillo, some 100 metres deep. The Puente Nuevo separating the old and new towns spans this gorge. One of the oldest towns in Spain, Ronda has its origins in prehistory although the most striking aspect of the cultural heritage and its surroundings is Arabic. This influence has impregnated the style of building, the gastronomy and many other traditions of the town and region. The conquest of the town by the Catholic Kings in 1485 was followed by a period of cultural reorganisation but it was in the 18th and 19th centuries that the most emblematic and symbolic monuments of Ronda were built: the Puente Nuevo and the Plaza de Toros (bullring).
The bullring is one of the oldest in Spain and is the spiritual home of bullfighting. The classic Ronda style of fighting is more severe than that of Seville and was developed by Pedro Romero, the father of modern bullfighting.

We are not aficionados of this savage ritual torment, torture and slaughter that we have both witnessed in the past: in fact we abhor it. We have some sympathy with what Paul Theroux says in his book ‘The Pillars of Hercules’ – ‘… the only satisfying part of a bullfight to me was seeing a gored Matador lying in the sand being trampled flat by a Bull’s hooves, the Bull’s horns in the supine torero’s gut. It is what ought to happen to anyone who dares torment an animal… This Bull is cruel – when I stab him he tries to gore me’.

On a brighter note before setting off we looked at the view to the mountain range to the west from the terrace outside the Ronda ‘Parador’ (one of many state run hotels of good and consistent quality) just after sunrise. The colour and contrasting shades were glorious and an ideal start for the next stage of our journey through the mountains of the Sierra Tejeda, Almijara and Alhama to Granada.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Autumn News

The weather is, without doubt, getting into winter mode. We have broken the duvet out to keep us warm during the crisp clear nights we have experienced recently with the temperature dropping to 10ºC. During the day we are still in shorts and Miggy is still swimming daily in the sea. We have not missed the torrential rain that Spain has suffered over the last few weeks although we have had no flooding. This area needs the rain to top up the reservoirs as it failed to materialise at all last winter.
Peter and Mary, John Gilbe’s Mother and Stepfather, are kind enough to have come all the way from Sotogrande to take us out to Sanlucar de Barrameda for the day. Sanlucar is on the southern side of the mouth of the River Quadalquivir, the river upon which stands Seville and Cordoba. We visit the Pedro Romero Bodegas, one of the many Bodegas in Sanlucar that produce the very dry and salty Manzanilla sherry.
The English tour should have begun at begins at 1200 but there was no English-speaking guide. No matter a sweet Spanish lady who spoke not a word of English takes us around the Bodegas. This somehow enhanced the experience in that we had to listen intently and understand the commentary the best we could. In fact we did comprehend a surprising amount and now have a good knowledge of the Sanlucar sherry making activity.
I will describe sherry making after we have visited a Bodegas in Jerez but the difference between Jerez and Sanlucar sherry is interesting. Manzanilla is only produced in Sanlucar and is made with 100% locally grown Palomino grape whereas Jerez sherry uses a blend of Palomino and imported grapes. The Sanlucar sherry producers also say that their Manzanilla differs from and is better than the Fino sherry of Jerez for three reasons, besides the quality of the grape: the air from the Atlantic Ocean, the proximity of the Donana wetlands to the north, and the wide mouth of the Quadalquivir river! Finally Sanlucar sherry is feminine, i.e. la Manzanilla Fina whereas Jerez sherry is masculine, i.e. el Fino. Whatever the reasons we all like it as the photograph shows – the empties are piling up!
We are treated to lunch by the riverside on the Bajo de Guia of grilled fish and simple salad washed down with a beer. It was a delightful day and we are so thankful to Peter and Mary.
All here is not play however and the cooler weather is more conducive to boat maintenance. We have been doing things such as washing and taking off the sails to save the wear and tear in the winter gales, winterising the engine with an oil change, oil and fuel filter replacement and checks and cleaning, fitting compensators (sort of stainless steel springs) to our shore lines to stop them ‘snatching’ in the wind and waking us up and, of course, constant scrubbing and polishing! Miggy has also been in the water in her fins, mask and snorkel to check the anodes and underwater fittings and to scrub the bottom of the boat as far as she can. She needed a good shower afterwards!
We are getting excited about our impending tour of Andalucia. We have hired a small car from Saturday the 18th of November for eight days and will drive to see the Pueblos Blancos (The White Villages), Ronda, Granada and the Sierra Nevada, Jaen, Ubeda and Cordoba before returning to Rota via Sotogrande to spend a night with Peter and Mary.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

Only Apes and Horses

The bus to La Linea, just across the border from Gibraltar, takes four hours and goes by way of Jerez, Puerto Santa Maria, Chiclana, Conil, Barbate, Zahara, Tarifa and Algeciras. It is an interesting trip with scenery varying from fields of cotton and vineyards, old and working saltpans in which we notice Flamingos, massive windfarms and 400m high hills near Tarifa with views over North Africa. Our first sight of the ‘Rock’, where we were to spend two days, was thrilling. Gibraltar is a busy and noisy place. Miggy had expected it to be like Guernsey but is disappointed to find that not to be the case. The place has changed since I was there 25 years ago. There is massive redevelopment on reclaimed land with apartments selling for up to £2m. Who was buying them we asked? Rich Americans, Brits and all nationalities other than Gibraltarian we were told - they can no longer afford accommodation on the Rock. Main Street is now pedestrianised, lined with many more large shops and filled with a huge number of tourists. The waterfront has also altered extensively with many Marina berths being swallowed up by the redevelopment. We will have to book our space next April to have any chance of staying there.
We shopped at Marks and Spencer for some Christmas goodies and quality tinned meals for the reserves. I noticed a clock in the store saying 1750 and we were meant to meet Neal’s stepmother Beryl and her partner Gerry in the Rock Hotel at 1800. I had mistakenly put our clocks back to BST! We made it only twenty minutes late having rushed back to the hotel, changed and splashed on some deodorant and catching a bus to the Hotel. After extending our sincere apologies we had a very pleasant evening of good food and wine in grand company and surroundings. At the other end of the scale we indulged ourselves with fish and chips and good old English Ale. We set off to the top of the Rock on the cable car with great expectations of fine views over North Africa and the Mediterranean. These were dashed by cloud although we were thrilled to see a Peregrine Falcon hover near to us and then dive out of sight. The interactive facility is excellent and we vow to return in the spring. The Barbary Apes enchanted us. They are by no means timid and are always on the lookout to steal one’s bag in the hope that it may contain food. There is a saying that as long as the apes remain on the Rock so will the British. When Winston Churchill was told that only three apes remained he imported some from Morocco. The half hour bus ride to Jerez takes us through rolling hills covered first with cotton plants and then with vines on which grow the grapes that make the sherry but more about this later.
Our expectations of Jerez were not great having seen the outskirts, which comprise industrial estates and run down buildings, from the bus on our way to Gibraltar. We were pleasantly surprised though and spent one of the best days of the trip. Our walk through the cobbled and citrus tree lined streets and squares of the old town was all done in the pouring rain although the temperature was around 25ºC. The locals were in shirtsleeve order under their umbrellas and there seemed to be a ‘battle of brollies’ going on with no one giving way or raising their weapons to clear others. We came across no casualties however!
We found the most spectacular of all the sights to be seen to be the Alcazar of Jerez. This is basically the remains of the 12th century Moorish defence system a group of buildings surrounded by castellated walls and towers. The Alcazar was a fortress and a palace and constituted the seat of political and military power for the city of around 16,000 inhabitants.
This beautifully renovated and restored monument comprises the 12th century City Gate, Mosque and Arab Baths and a 15th to 19th century palace built on the site of the original Arab Palace and its Oil Mill. A good section of the walls and towers around the perimeter remain to be seen, albeit substantially restored, together with the Parade Ground and stunning gardens planted with Olive and citrus trees around the cool running water of fountains and ponds.
Amongst other attractions is the Cathedral and a superb pedestrianised shopping area.
The City is, of course, renowned as being the home of sherry and takes its name from the drink. The town is littered with ‘Bodegas’ where the sherry is made and stored. As you look at the City from on high you can pick out familiar names on the Bodegas such as Sandeman, Harvey’s, Gonzalez Byass along with many, many others. We had intended to visit the Sandeman Bodegas but the last tour had been and gone when we arrived. The girl in the Tourist Information office had misinformed us. Never mind we will go to Jerez again nearer Christmas – it is only a half an hour away and the return bus trip costs all of 2.25 euros each.
The performance of the ‘Como Bailan los Caballos Andaluces’ at the Fundacion Real Escuela Andaluza Del Arte Equestre; The School of Andalucian Equestrian Art, will be an everlasting memory. This equestrian ballet to Andalucian music is based on choreography taken from classical and country eighteenth century dressage. We have seen dressage on television but we were unprepared for what we witnessed which was extraordinarily beautiful with horse and man in perfect harmony moving with stunning grace and beauty. The elegant Andalucian stallions performed leg movement that one would have thought impossible if one had not witnessed it.
We are sad that, because photography is naturally not permitted during the performance, we cannot post a photo of this incredible event. We can however show you the ‘siring’ of another fine animal! To make the day complete we had lunch at an Argentinean restaurant. We had excellent meat at such a restaurant in Amsterdam and we were not disappointed here, anything but.
Life here in Rota goes on as ever with yet another fiesta. This time it was like our Harvest Festival but without the ‘we plough the fields and scatter’ bit!
The weather has definitely turned and we have had strong to gale force winds, first from the west, ‘The Poniente’ and then from the east, ‘The Levanter’. The myths, legends and facts about these winds and those of the Mediterranean are so very interesting but are best recounted in writings more informed than this.