Season's Greetings

Happy Christmas
Feliz Navidad
Joyeux Noel
Fröhliche Weihnachten
Buone Natale
and to any Welsh readers,
Nadolig Llawen


Keeping In Touch

This time next week we will be making the absolutely final preparations for Christmas. Despite the vagaries of the Spanish postal system, we already have a respectable display of Christmas cards with more expected. Several include letters bringing us up to date on news of the past year from friends around the world and our own cards went out with a similar letter enclosed. British television, which we can watch here, is already getting into the annual liturgy of looking back and pointing up the year’s highlights, and we can look forward to a spate of such items between now and the end of the year. All of which set me thinking about the importance attached to “keeping in touch”.
A couple of weeks ago I read a news item which suggested that, a mere twenty years after its arrival in our lives, the email is on the way out. Apparently it is being supplanted by subsequent developments like SMS, Instant Messaging, Facebook and other social media, and Twitter. My immediate reaction was to think, “That’s ridiculous!”. True, I’m on Facebook and often ‘like’ status updates and links posted by my friends, as well as feeling a warm glow when something I’ve posted gets a positive reaction. But though I’ve dabbled in Twitter, I’ve never really taken to it, and IM does not form part of my communication repertoire. Texting is something I use sparingly to convey bits of information along the lines of “Won’t be at the class tonight.” - and yes, I spell it out in full; with predictive text it’s faster than trying to think of the appropriate (?) abbreviations. Email on the way out? Pull the other one!
On reflection though, I can see that it could be true. Since discovering Skype, especially combined with a webcam, it has become the main line of communication with family back in the UK, as well as with far-flung friends. I have a regular appointment on a Monday morning with a Spanish friend in Madrid, when we chat for an hour on anything under the sun, part of the time in Spanish and part in English, to our mutual benefit. There is another friend who lives in New Zealand, and with an approximately twelve hour time difference it’s quite convenient to chat over Skype - and of course, it’s free. With a third friend who lives in Lima it’s more problematic. At the moment there is a six or seven hour time difference between us (part of the problem being that I can never quite remember whether it’s six hours or seven hours), so that finding a mutually convenient time is more difficult, especially as she works full-time and has a busy schedule. The answer in this case, of course, is email; except that mostly I don’t get around to emailing her either!
All this led me to think back further. As a child I had pen friends, which I what I guess Ana is today. I used to take great pleasure in the ritual of writing letters, posting them and awaiting the reply. I wrote thank you letters to everyone at birthdays and Christmas time. I wrote and sent picture postcards whenever I was away on holiday. This habit continued on into and through adulthood; writing to people was a part of knowing them and having them as friends. Since we moved to Spain nearly four years ago my circle of active friends has shrunk dramatically, I now realise. If I don’t have an email address for someone, and they are not on Facebook, then apart from a Christmas card, they get no communication from me from one year’s end to the next. You, the readers of this blog know more about my life in Spain than the great majority of people around the globe whom I know by name and think of as friends.
I think a New Year’s Resolution may be called for!.


Double Whammy

This is not a good week for the Spanish economy. In truth, no week is a good week, but this week won’t help.This week we have not one, but two public holidays. Yesterday, December 6th, was the Day of the Constitution, commemorating the new, democratic constitution of 1978. Tomorrow, December 8th, is the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, a religious holiday, but a holiday nonetheless. Two days out of the working week at a time of economic difficulties doesn’t help, but that is only part of it. A great many Spaniards, looking at the calendar will conclude that if you have Tuesday off, there’s no point going into work on Monday. And if you’re having Thursday off, you might as well take Wednesday. And - yes, you’ve guessed - since by then it’s almost Saturday, going to work on Friday is pointless; this is the famous Spanish puente (bridge), though as Sur, the regional daily newspaper commented, this week is not so much a bridge as an aqueduct!


More On The Local Economy

Well, as predicted by the polls PSOE were soundly defeated and PP will form a government with an absolute majority. I say ‘will form’ because there is a four week transition period during which PSOE continues in office, but with very restricted powers; whether this will help or hinder in reassuring global financial markets remains to be seen. As we wait, the situation in Andalucía continues with its grave economic problems. The latest figures, for instance, show youth unemployment in Andalucía as having risen to 53%. In other words, we are now in a situation where fewer than one young person in two has a job, which begs the question, “why are things so bad here?”
Andalucía’s economy is supported by three legs; agriculture, construction and tourism. So far as agriculture is concerned, there appears to be the potential for secure, stable employment. Vast, industrial farms, growing fruit and vegetables in vast plastic green houses, and supplying a substantial percentage of Europe’s needs, dominate the landscape of coastal Almería, extending into Granada Province; Jaén Province supplies three quarters of the world’s olive oil; and, of course, there is wine from Cádiz Province, centred on the towns of Jerez, Sanlúcar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa María. Agricultural employment has always been precarious in Andalucía, however, as a result of the phenomenon known as latifundia, a term which comes from the Latin, latus, meaning ‘broad’ and fundus, ‘landed estate’ , in practice, the division of the cultivatable land into a small number of huge estates, owned by a handful of extremely rich families.Agricultural employment is usually on a seasonal and casual basis, often drawing heavily on immigrant labour from Africa. It used to be common for families to have their own modest terraces where basic crops - potatoes, onions, tomatoes, peppers, beans and the like could be grown for their own use. The growth of tourism and construction, however, led many families either to sell off their plots to developers building villas for the second-home market from northern Europe, or to switch to crops such as avocados, chirimoyas or mangos, which generate a modest income (the real money is made further up the chain of supply), and require many fewer hours of work on the plot, freeing people up to work in the other two major industries.
So, what about these other two legs to the economic stool? Mass tourism was encouraged by Franco in the mid-sixties, and rapidly grew to be a major employer for the Mediterranean coastal areas of Andalucía, big enough to also attract and employ people from the interior of the region. Then, as visitors found a destination worth returning to and grew in confidence, tourism in turn gave rise to a booming construction industry churning out villas and apartments for the benefit of those who wanted a place of their own. For something like 30 years, demand continued to outstrip supply as new buyers came into the market - Scandinavia, Holland, Russia among others, joining the original Brits, Germans and Americans in the seasonal migration to the sun; many Spanish people also bought into the Costas. Then, in 2009 the bubble burst. Developers went bust, properties stood unfinished or empty, the forest of tower cranes, so long a less attractive aspect of the Spanish landscape, disappeared, and the dole queues grew. At much the same time, recession hit the countries sending millions of holiday makers to the costas and the tourism industry also went into decline, adding even more people to the list of unemployed.
Over the past twelve months, tourism has begun to grow again and is likely to provide the main source of growth, as construction is still at a standstill. But, as a reaction to its own recession, the hospitality sector has learned to operate more leanly, and have managed to shave around 10% off staff sizes. Things do not look good.
The only thing that is growing, jobswise, is emigration, the flight of young people especially, to other countries in search of a future beyond el paro.


So, What Happens Come Monday?

I ask because tomorrow is election day here in Spain. Although resident I do not have a vote in these elections which were called by José Luis Zapatero at the same time that he announced that he would not be seeking re-election. Instead, the deputy prime minister, Alfredo Rubalcaba leads the socialists (PSOE) into the elections, whilst the conservative, Partido Popular (PP) is led by Mariano Rajoy, who took over from José María Aznar after PP’s defeat in 2004.
The opinion polls show a somewhat confusing picture. On a party basis, the lead over the socialists is so great that, if carried through to the polling booths, it would result in a victory for PP with an overall majority in the Cortes. However, Rubalcaba enjoys much greater popularity in the polls than his main rival, Mariano Rajoy. Will people vote for party or person?
And how will the global, financial markets react, whatever the outcome? Governments have fallen recently in Greece and in Italy, and this past week the markets have turned the spotlight onto Spain. Will a new government stave off the presure, or will Spain continue to be considered another likely candidate for default? Only time will tell.
Whatever happens tomorrow, though, it is unlikely to change very much in Andalucía, except for the worse. As the largest of the 17 autonomous communities into which Spain is divided, Andalucía sends the largest number of Deputies to sit in Congress (60 compared to Catalonia’s 47 and Madrid’s 36, for example.). You might expect that to ensure a fair deal from Madrid for the community; it does not. The Partido Andalucista, which at present has no seats in the Cortes, is fighting on a platform of addressing that problem, and it is a big problem.
Spain presently ranks as the 133rd best country in which to do business. Unemployment has tripled in the last three years and now stands at 22% of the workforce. 24% of Spaniards are living below the poverty level, and the Roman Catholic charity, Caritas is operating feeding centres and food banks all over the country. Youth unemployment stands at 46%. And Andalucía heads these statistics within Spain. This, the largest autonomous community which the largest number of seats in Congress has the highest rates of general and youth unemployment, poverty, mortgage foreclosures and company failures. I’ll return to this theme next time, and look at possible causes, but for now I await with great interest but few expectations, the outcome of tomorrow’s voting.


A Studio (Of Sorts)!

My paints have been lying idle for far too long as I had nowhere where I could just walk away and leave things ready for my return. I had to use our dining table and then clear everything away before the next mealtime. That shouldn't be a problem, but being on the lazy side It meant that I stopped setting up at all.
A couple of weeks ago I hit on a solution. A local carpenter has made me a desk which will stand over the end of one of the beds in our guest bedroom which I can use without any restrictions other than when guests are coming. When that happens, the desk, which has a flat, level surface simply lifts across to stand between the wardrobe and the window where it can also serve as a dressing table. Magic! It was only delivered on Tuesday and already the paints are out and in use.


One More Sign Of Autumn

As I mentioned, the rains have started, not too heavily as yet, but enough to get the ground well dampened, and that in turn means that the risk of fire outbreaks is very greatly reduced. Which means that the bonfires can begin. Two this morning, but I can now expect to see several plumes of smoke rising from the valley each morning when I look out - unless, of course, the rain falls so heavily that you can't light a bonfire. And that will be the pattern until May, when once again the fire risk means that bonfires are banned.


Time To Dig In The Wardrobe?

Summery weather has stayed with us so far this year and I had hoped to see in November still wearing shorts and sandals, but yesterday the rains arrived. Light rain fell on and off all day, and the clouds took the temperature down. This morning heavy grey cloud is blanketing the sky and the forecast is for no more than 15 degrees - about the same as the UK - so, sadly, the shorts and sandals have gone away to be replaced by trousers, shoes and socks. The forecast is for rain on most days now for the next fortnight. Beyond that, who knows? Probably more rain, because this is the time of year when we expect it. If we're lucky it holds off until November, if not then it comes in October. However, we should get a good spell of bright, sunny weather for the winter, before the rain returns in February for another extended period. After that, it becomes more and more sporadic until by the end of May we are firmly back into the weather that gave the Costa del Sol its name and reputation.


Death Throes Of The Old? Or Birth pangs Of The New?

On the 15th May this year, my wife and I were in Malaga shopping. Passing through the Plaza de la Constitución we encountered a demonstration taking place. It was unusual in two respects; it was relatively small - perhaps a hundred people - and it was pretty quiet. There were some banners and a couple of tables around which people were gathered, but that was about all. The following day I discovered that this had been but one of a number of similar demonstrations in cities across Spain, each linked to the principal demonstration at La Puerta del Sol in Madrid. In Madrid, the demonstrators set up an impromptu camp at the end of the day and remained there for the next two weeks. They identified themselves as “los indignados”, the indignant ones, and their movement became known as 15-M, standing for 15th May. Their indignation was directed at the perceived alliance between corrupt politicians and greedy bankers, financiers and captains of industry., and at the lack of an effective role or even voice for the ordinary citizen, now being required to carry the burden of paying down a debt incurred by others. The birth of the movement had been prompted, partly by events here at home, partly by the civil unrest in Greece, and partly by what was becoming known as the Arab Spring.
Why do I mention it now? Because yesterday, 15-O, the movement born in Madrid went truly global with demonstrations in more than 900 cities spread across more than 80 countries. They varied considerably in size - around 200 in Tokyo, but 500,000 in La Puerta del Sol - but the number and geographical spread in only five months is impressive.

Standing on the brink of 71, and with my allotted three score years and ten all behind me, I too consider myself un indignado, though I wasn’t there in the flesh. I share the dream, encapsulated in their slogan, “Democracía Real Ya” (Real Democracy Now), that the voice of the individual citizen should be heard and heeded wherever they live, and whatever their circumstances, and that this should lead to a better and a fairer world.

I was brought up to remember the words of Abraham Lincoln; government of the people, by the people and for the people. Now, as I look around the democratic nations of the world I see countries where the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is broadly implemented with regard to personal, political and religious freedoms, but where otherwise there is less and less to choose between the parliamentary democracies and the dictatorships and military regimes; the words of the Declaration of Independence have been subverted. Whatever the style of rule, it is those at the top - self-selected for this eminence - who look after each other to the detriment of the rest. Government of the people, by the powerful, for the rich.

How we change that I don’t know, but I take encouragement from the fact that there are so many smarter, younger brains than mine applying themselves to finding a solution. Not for my sake, but for the future that awaits my granddaughters when I am long gone.


Best Foot Forward

The daytime temperatures are now peaking around 24 or 25, so it’s comfortable again for walking. I’ve done a couple of circuits of the village in the last few days just to check all joints and muscles are still working after the summer lay-off - actually, with the wet we had last winter, it’s nearer to an eighteen month lay-off - and everything checked out OK, so yesterday I went off on my first proper walk of the season, only 5.8km, but involving 250 metres of climbing, so I burnt off just over 500 calories. I need to pick up the pace, though, as my average speed was only 3.4km/hr. I know all this from my recently purchased toy, a Garmin GPS pedometer.
Anyway, it was a beautiful day to be walking out in the campo and it’s given me back the taste for more. As we set off, we were passed by John Keogh whose website (frigilianafootsteps.com) is at the bottom of the page, with a party of walkers he was leading to the summit of El Fuerte, our local mountain. As they strode off into the distance I realised that I need to do quite a bit more of my low level stuff before I join him; I’d love to sit on the top of El Fuerte, but it’s roughly 1,000 metres above sea level, so it involves a continuous uphill slog of 700 metres, a bit too much right now.


Dreams Don't Always Come True.

I have an iPod Touch on which I can read the online version of The Independent, so that I have some knowledge of what's happening back in the UK. I was saddened this week, to put it mildly, to read that last year there were only 60 children adopted in England.
This article particularly caught my attention because when I served as a magistrate a part of my duty was to sit in the Family Proceedings Court which deals with local authority applications for care orders. It was the most challenging and difficult work that I had to do. The decision was in our hands as to whether a child remained in its birth family or was taken into the care of the local authority, perhaps then to be adopted into an entirely new family with no further contact between itself and its birth parents.
Our deliberations were structured around the 1989 Children's Act,(new legislation has now been passed, but the basic approach remains the same) which has at its core this principle: "The welfare interests of the child shall be paramount." There is no stronger word in the English legal language than 'shall'. It brooks no exceptions; it describes something which is mandatory.
In an ideal world, of course, the welfare needs of the child are best served by being brought up in its birth family, but this is far from being an ideal world. Sadly there are many parents who are unwilling or unable to give priority to their children's needs over their own, often to the point where the child suffers actual emotional and or physical harm in its own home. Too often, if no one intervenes this leads on to problem, antisocial behaviour by the child, leading very often into petty criminality and worse.
The welfare of such children demands that they be given a fresh start in a stable and loving environment. That means that there must be a supply of people willing to put themselves forward to be assessed as potential adoptive parents. This is crucial, because if there is not an adoptive home for the child to go to, then its fate is likely to be life in a local authority home (even the best are institutional) or to be placed in a series of short and medium term foster homes with the inevitable instability and anxiety for the child. Children who have had this experience feature prominently in our prisons, drug and alcohol rehab centres and hostels for the homeless.
A side effect of the success of assisted fertility services has been to reduce the number of couples who, having failed to conceive their own child, are prepared to give their love instead to a child whose own start in life was one of abandonment.
Without sufficient prospective adoptive parents, these children can only dream of a better future.


A Bit More History

A particular delight of the Three Cultures Festival is the series of lectures which are given on the history of the village. This year I discovered that it occupies a pivotal place in the transition from muslim to christian Spain.

The Reconquista was essentially complete by 1236 when Córdoba fell to the christian forces of Fernando III. All that now remained of Al-Andalus was the Nasrid kingdom of Granada extending through Almería to the border with Murcia to the east, and to the mountains beyond Málaga to the west. Constituting no real threat to christian Spain, the Nasrids were tolerated for some 250 years until, for largely political reasons the Catholic Monarchs (Fernando V de Aragón and Isabela I de Castilla) launched their military campaign to bring the whole of Spain under their rule. This they achieved when Boabdil surrendered the symbolic keys to the city of Granada at the end of December 1492, the official end-date of muslim Spain.
The muslims in the newly-conquered territory were given the customary choice; leave, convert or die. Many left, many died and many converted living on in the region as moriscos. They formed three broad groups; around Granada itself, into the vega, and across Almería was one, the area between Málaga and Almuñecar, known as La Axarquía, was the second, and the mountains to the west of Málaga the third. Notwithstanding generous promises of acceptance into christian Spain, they were poorly treated for the most part and there were frequent skirmishes and rebellions. In addition, the catholic church was far from convinced of the veracity of their conversions. The moriscos of Ronda and what are now referred to as the white towns were the first to be put to the sword, followed by the moriscos of Granada who rose up in large-scale rebellion in December 1568; they too were soon put down. La Axarquía could not survive for much longer, and indeed resentment in the region was already smouldering. The whole area had the status of a qlima, and was divided into two tahas for purposes of administration (Bentomiz to the west of the Rio Velez, and Frigiliana to the east.). Of the two, Frigiliana was by far the more easily defended, and so moriscos throughout La Axarquía gathered their possessions and set off across the mountains to gather in Frigiliana. The christian armies arrived in April 1569 to find the moriscos occupying the heights above the village and the ridge leading up to the summit of El Fuerte. Christian reinforcements were sought and obtained from the pope in Rome. They came ashore at Burriana and marched directly up to Frigiliana in early June. The assault on Frigiliana began and ended on 11th June 1569, and with it came the distinction of being the site final end of islam in medieval Spain.


How Does The Climate Know The Date?

This time last week the Festival of Three Cultures was drawing to a close in the August heat. Daytime temperatures were peaking around 30 or 31 degrees and only fell overnight to around 27 or 28. The trick was to switch on the aircon in the bedroom before setting off to the evening concert and closing doors and windows to trap the cool. Then, on returning we would turn off the aircon and switch on the ceiling fan at a low speed for its cooling effect through the night. We began this week in similar vein. Then, around mid-week, something changed. A breeze came in from the west, maximum temperatures only got to 25 or 26 and nighttime temperatures started dropping to the high teens. No aircon, no fan, window open all night. No problems.
So what happened? Well, Wednesday was the last day of August, our notoriously unpleasantly hot month, and Thursday was the first day of September when we know that everything becomes tolerable again. I know that, but how does the climate know? All explanations welcomed!


Centro Niemeyer, Avilés, Asturias, España

First of all, I must acknowledge the skill of the photographer who took this image which I downloaded via Google. Unfortunately, on the day of my visit the weather was very wet and I couldn't get a good shot of my own.
A recent post was entitled, "Serendipity". That could as easily have applied to our discovery of this newly opened centre.
Landing in Gijón on our return journey from Brittany, we had decided to spend two nights in the city of Avilés and treat ourselves to a day lying on the beach. It was not to be. Firstly, I had to descend to the second basement level of the hotel car park in order to find a place. There were so many tight corners to be negotiated that I decided the car would only come out to set off for Toledo two days later. Then, to top it all, the following morning saw Avilés under a blanket of heavy cloud with rain streaming out of the sky; not a beach day.
On our way into the city, however, we had seen an interesting complex of striking buildings which we knew were not far from our hotel, so descending to the car only to grab a couple of umbrellas from the boot we set off - in Spain the rain usually comes straight down rather than attacking you at an angle, so we were able to keep quite dry.
The Centro Niemeyer was opened in March of this year, and is a complex of four minimalist buildings set in a huge plaza all laid out on a former industrial site down by the river and port. We assumed that there must be some reason why it should have been dedicated to Oscar Niemeyer, the architect who designed the new Brazilian capital city of Brasilia, but what that reason was we knew not.There were four temporary exhibitions on offer, sculpture displayed out in the plaza, an exhibition of African tribal art,a collection of Polaroid photos by Julian Schnabel, and a multimedia presentation on the subject of light and vision assembled by Spanish film maker, Carlos Saura. Each of these last three was housed in its own building. Pausing only for a snack lunch in the restaurant, we took in all three exhibitions, most time being spent in Carlos Saura's. In total we spent around four hours in this amazing centre, worth a special visit to Avilés.
And what have I discovered today? That the centre also has the distinction of being the first project by Oscar Niemeyer in Spain. I had assumed that he must be long departed. But no, at the age of a mere 103 years, he is still creating.


What A Way To Finish; We All Went Home dancing!

They are called Melech Mechaya, they are a Portuguese Klezmer band and they closed the 6th Festival de las Tres Culturas last night. Enjoy!!!



The Festival Is With Us Again

Last night the sixth Festival of Three Cultures opened and it looks as if it is going to be at least as good as previous years. Here's a taster:



Back home from a fantastic holiday in France, with just over 3,300km under the bonnet. In addition to the enjoyment of the holiday itself, the trip has raised a question in my mind: What is the collective noun for a string of serendipities? I have always had a soft spot for the word ‘serendipity’ since the first time I encountered it; apart from its pleasing sound it describes an experience which is always to be welcomed. This trip has abounded with examples.
Discovering a fantastic little restaurant, Chez Boubou, in otherwise uninspiring Saint-Nazaire;
Finding that the apartment I had booked was in the heart of the medieval city of Dinan, and not in the port as I had thought. Although the port sounds more romantic, there is very little there except a string of creperies. All the life and activity is at an altitude a couple of hundred feet higher, and we were in the centre of it;
In Dol de Bretagne ( a serendipitous choice of day out in itself) the cathedral still uses real wax votive candles that you light and they have a proper flame, so that I was able to light one and think of those I have lost recently or who are suffering. How I detest the present custom of offering a little box of light bulbs with a slot for the coin needed to operate it. Really, does the assurance, “I’ll switch a light on for you.” carry anything of the comfort that can come from the promise, “I’ll light a candle for you.”?
Entering the village name on my cider bottle into the TomTom and being led to the cidery ( I choose the word on the basis that beer is made in a brewery and wine in a winery) and buying a case of 24 x 33cl bottles of “Val de Rance, cidre bouchée brut, cru Breton” to bring home to Frigiliana.
In the gift shop of the Sephardí Museum in Toledo, finding a CD of music from the Arab, Sephardic and medieval Christian traditions, produced back in 1992 to celebrate five hundred years from the Reconquest
And across the road a really superb restaurant for our last dinner of the holiday!


The full programme for the festival is now online. Looks to be every bit as good as I hoped.


A Heart-In-Mouth Moment.

Our arrival in Zamora provided a heart-stopping moment. Following satnav instructions, we left the motorway and drove into the city, over the Rio Duero, turned left as directed, then right and left again, with the final announcement, “You have reached your destination”. The photo shows the destination, supposed to be the NH Hotel Palacio del Duero, adorned with four stars! Enquiry of a passing local revealed that we needed one final right and left within the space of another 30m, and there, tucked in behind the renovation work being carries out to the church of Nuestra Señora de la Horta was our hotel. Large sigh of relief!
Zamora turned out to be a lovely city with a distinctly Romanesque style of church architecture, there being an abundance of small, simple churches all through the historic centre of town as well as a number of larger ones, also dating primarily from the XII and XIII centuries. We spent a day wandering around them and visiting the cathedral and the ruins of the castle. Both evenings we ate out at good but inexpensive restaurants in the Plaza Mayor.
Our journey from Zamora to Gijón was shown as around three hours. We had our room until midday and our ferry did not sail until 9.00pm, so we had a full morning to spare. We took advantage of this opportunity to follow the advice of my friend, Luis, and go in search of the Museo de la Semana Santa. What excellent advice it turned out to be. This modern museum is home to the tableaux and statues which are mounted on tronos (thrones or plinths) and carried in procession in the city during Holy Week. They are enormous, they are true works of artisan art and there are around three dozen of them. Also on display (somewhat eerily, it must be said) on mannequins are the vestments of the individual cofradías (brotherhoods) linked to different churches in the city. I suspect that the only thing better than a visit to the museum would be a visit to the city to watch the Holy Week processions.

The road to Gijón took us up and over - and frequently, through - the Picos de Europa mountains with a long, long downhill runout which had my dashboard insisting that I had enough fuel for a further 1,320km. A normal fill-up gives a range of 1,040km without air-con, or 940km if air-con is switched on, and the distance from Frigiliana on the Med to Gijón on the Bay of Biscay is only 1300km. We arrived in mid-afternoon at what was very clearly not a ferry port. Gijón is a major centre of the Spanish steel industry and we had arrived at the gate to a very obvious iron ore port. I sought the help of an agente of the Port Police, who first reeled off a string of directions to get me from where I was to where I needed to be. Then he had a better idea. “Wait,” he said, went across and spoke to his partner, then set the barrier to automatic, climbed into his patrol car and led us along this convoluted route, sailing past ‘authorised personnel only’ checkpoints and straight up to the ferry company office. My wife was astonished at this friendliness, which in truth is not that rare among Spanish people, as she witnessed with even more incredulity when the Guardia Civil officer in charge of border control arrived to take the necessary details from me and then stayed another ten minutes chatting about the differences between the Spanish and the French and English (his wife is French, so he knows what he is talking about).
So then it was just a matter of drive onto the ferry, find our cabin, get a drink and a meal, a night’s sleep and then watch the mouth of the Loire appear. I’m already seeing evidence of the Guardia’s words; what miserable ‘douaniers’ we had to deal with to get off the docks at Saint-Nazaire!


Sadly, No Photo After All!

In March 1989 we drove across Spain for the first time. It was something of a fraught experience. We were travelling with our friends who introduced us to Frigiliana, Pat and Judy, to share the driving and then to spend a couple of weeks as guests at Casa de los Arcos, the house they owned on c/ Chorruelo. Sadly, a month previously Pat had had to undergo a programme of chemotherapy following the recurrence of a cancer which had been thought to be in remission, and so when we arrived in Santander he and Judy took the train via Madrid to Málaga, where they were met by friends. We then drove their car across Spain for them.
Why ʻ a fraught experienceʼ? Well, to begin with it was my first experience of driving on the righthand side of the road, and in a righthand drive car to boot. Secondly, as I pulled on the handbrake on the car deck of the ferry, there had been a great whoosh of steam from under the bonnet, which severely depleted the water in the radiator, so the first thing to be done on the dock side in Santander was to pour 3 litres of best quality Evian water into the radiator and then try and top up further by refilling one of the bottles from nearby puddles. This eased the problem rather than solved it. On the open road everything was fine, but on the slow crawl through each successive town the temperature gauge climbed steadily red-wards, only held under control by turning heater and fan onto full blast; given that the Spanish temperature was in the mid-twenties, this also required both windows to be fully opened to vent the heat from the passenger compartment. My wifeʼs main memory is of rolling through Plasencia with her legs out of the window; not literally true, but you get the picture. In this way we got to Salamanca in the late afternoon and treated ourselves to a night in the parador. We felt we deserved it, and anyway it was the day after our wedding anniversary, so that fully justifed the expense.
Day two unfolded in pretty much the same way as day one, with the added anxiety that the exhaust seemed to be noisier than previously. Still, we bowled down the road from Salamanca, through Caceres and Mérida towards Sevilla. Around Zafra we took a left turn to head across to Córdoba before turning south again for Málaga. We now found ourselves on a lesser road which was in need of extensive resurfacing; so much in need, in fact, that the contractors had already stripped the old surface off a forty kilometre stretch which they were now repairing piecemeal. The noise from the exhaust increased with each kilometre, although it was often hard to hear over the noise of tyres bouncing over the rough, rutted surface.
And so at last we reached the small town of Llerena in southern Extremadura. It had a single ʻhotelʼ next to the railway station - Los Ángeles, a typical Spanish bar with rooms. We asked to see one and were led down a nondescript corridor and through a door on the other side of which we were transported back into the 17th or 18th century and an old venta. Iʼve written about this in one of my early postings, so wonʼt repeat myself here.
The reason for this reminiscing is that yesterday we set off on this yearʼs holiday, two weeks in Brittany and weʼre taking a ferry from Asturias across to Saint-Nazaire. The route allowed us to retrace our 1989 steps and so we booked a hotel in Llerena for our first night on the road, sadly not Los Ángeles. Having checked in, we decided to stroll across town to the railway station and have a drink at our old hotel.. No joy! Where once had stood this ancient hostelry was now a block of very modern apartments. So we came back by another road so that I could at least get a photo of the wonderful old fountain, built out of marble the colour of ivory, and its rim so well-worn by countless Spanish bottoms that it looked like a well burnt candle, an appropriate illustration for todayʼs posting. But that, too, has gone.
Today we drove the rutted road to Zafra, except, of course, that it has a fine smooth surface now. We have driven north past Mérida, Caceres and Salamanca (you donʼt drive through them any more, not now thereʼs the motorway, Ruta de la Plata.) and here we are
in Zamora, a new destination for us, which we look forward to exploring this evening and tomorrow before we head on up to Gijón on Thursday.
Thereʼs a saying, “You canʼt go back.” I think I now know what it means.


The March of Progess?

Before the advent of the railway era in Britain, the canals were the motorways of the Industrial Revolution, transporting fuels, and raw materials to the factories and large items of production to where they were needed. In the forties and fifties, by contrast, when I was growing up in industrial northwest England, the railways were enjoying their hey day and the local canals were silted up, partially filled-in, reed infested stretches of stagnant water, not without their occasional dead dog to fascinate us kids. The railways in their turn were superseded for a while by the new motorways, although they are now experiencing a resurgence. And the canals, too, have made a dramatic reappearance, rescued and reinstated initially by people generally held to be somewhat eccentric - or downright mad - and now the pride of the Waterways Board, a national leisure resource populated by pleasure craft large and small. As the saying goes, what goes around, comes around.

These thoughts have been prompted by a feature by Alasdeir Fotheringham which I read in the Independent On Sunday last weekend, about the massive decline of the vias pecuarias of Spain. These are the drove roads which for centuries (perhaps even millennia) have criss-crossed Spain. They were the motorways of the Middle Ages, the means by which huge flocks of sheep and herds of cattle were moved from the sierras to the plains for seasonal grazing, and by which merchandise travelled from where it was produced to where it could be sold, trains of mules plodding their way along broad green lanes over the plains and winding, narrow tracks through the mountains.
One such road passes through the middle of Frigiliana, though you would never know just by looking. In the days when a friend of ours, now sadly dead, moved here in the early 1960s, the road from Nerja on the coast, through the cane fields, up and along the ridge of La Loma de las Vacas (The Ridge of the Cows; a giveaway!), on and up onto La Loma de la Hermita (The Ridge of the Chapel), now completely built-over as the new village. Thence, down the main street of Frigiliana, in turn, c/ San Sebastián, c/ Real and c/ Chorruelo and on into the mountains, past the hamlet of Acebuchal and on to Granada. In one direction, fish and sea food were carried from the fishing village of Nerja to the city of Granada as well as lime produced in the mountains behind Frigiliana; the return journey brought fresh fruits and vegetables from the fertile plains beyond the mountains. In addition, day labourers from the coast travelled north to harvest the fruit and vegetables, and their counterparts came south for the sugar cane harvest. The route was in constant use.
Now, it is all asphalt or concrete until nearly at Acebuchal, and no longer used by the drovers. And if you want to go to Granada, you take the motorway network and get there in just over an hour!
According to Fotheringham, this is the fate shared by three quarters of the approximately 30,000 km of vias pecuarias in Andalucía; to have been buried under roads for motor vehicles or blocked by motorways, railway lines, or simply by the arrival of huge urbanizaciones of holiday homes. The practice of ‘transhumance’, the seasonal movement of huge herds and flocks from one grazing area to another, has declined from a total still of 200,000 animals in the early 1990s to around a mere 20,000 animals today. He gives the example of a family from the village of Laroles, in Granada province who walked with their sheep the 350km to grazing in the mountains fo Córdoba and then back again as recently as 2009, but have now given up in the face of the danger to life and limb from the heavy traffic they now have to share the route with. And, with the possible exception of Extremadura, the least populated and least developed of the autonomous communities, the same pattern can be seen all over Spain.

One of the many things that I admire about the Spanish is the way in which they protect, preserve and conserve the historic districts of their cities, towns and villages. The motive is local pride, but the spin-off is a valuable tourism resource which brings people to wander the ancient streets and buildings of cities like Salamanca, Toledo, Pamplona, Santiago de Compostela and dozens more. So I am saddened to see so little attention being paid to this other facet of the historic patrimony of Spain. The drove roads were the canals of the Peninsula, if you like, and just like the canals, they provide potentially a rich resource for developing rural tourism to the interior of Spain, a resource for walking, mountain biking, horse riding, birdwatching, study of the native fauna and flora - the list goes on. ¡Ojalá! someone will see this and do for Spain’s vias pecuarias what has been done for Britain’s canals.


Really Good News

The Guardia Civil helicopter has been around again to day. It was ferrying rescuers up into the mountains where Mary Anne Goossens was found alive but trapped in a river gully this morning by three walkers. The rescue is under way at the moment.
Three walkers following a route along the Rio Chillar made the discovery and alerted the authorities at around ten to eight this morning. Mary Anne was conscious and able to speak to them and later to the Guardia Civil officers and apparently explained that she had slipped and fallen into a gully of the river 18 days ago. Whilst able to move, she had been unable to climb back out of the gully or to follow the course of the river up or down, and so had remained trapped since the 17th June. The rescue will take some time because access to that part of the mountains is not easy, and neither will be the task of getting her out of the gully.
No doubt further details will emerge in due course, but everything that I said in my previous post holds true. Her survival, I guess, is due entirely to the fact that a) she was conscious and mobile, b) she had access to ample, drinkable water and c) that her location would have given her shade from the full power of the sun at this time of the year.
For her and for her family and friends, I am delighted that she has been found alive. But she is still a very silly person who has been very lucky indeed; most people missing for that length of time in these mountains would be brought out dead - if at all.


On A Serious Note

Yesterday notices went up around the village appealing for information about a missing person. A Dutch holidaymaker left her hotel on the morning of 17th June and was seen in Frigiliana the same day. She never returned to her hotel and for the past ten days nothing has been heard of or from her. She has drawn no money from any ATMs; she has not used her credit card; nor has she spoken to her family. She should now be back home in Holland with her family. Instead, her family is here in Spain desperate to know what has happened to her.
Today the Guardia Civil helicopter spent close on two hours overflying the open country of the Natural Park which lies to the east of the village. It has gone now. Whether the crew had any succes in their search or not, I do not know.
Of course for so long as she remains unlocated any speculation as to what might have befallen her is exactly that; speculation. Nevertheless it set me thinking. As I described in a recent post, El Parque Natural de las Sierras deTejeda, Almijara y Alhama is a wonderful area of mountains, narrow, steep-sided valleys, springs and rivers. It is on the doorstep of Frigiliana. It is close to Nerja, ten or fifteen minutes from the beaches. At this time of year the sky is an amazing blue, the sun shines from dawn till dusk. You could be in paradise.
You are not in paradise, though. Close as it is to the coast and to ‘civilisation’ the Natural Park is a wild and empty mountain region. For those of you who know the northwest of England and the Lake District here is a point of comparison; the altitude above sea level of my roof terrace is 67 feet higher than Shap Summit on the M6 motorway, and we aren’t even properly into the mountains yet.
Speaking of the Lake District, in my travels to different parts of the world I have yet to find maps that are as detailed, accurate and easy to follow as the Ordnance Survey 1:25,000 Explorer range. Maps of this area are not in the same league. Nor are the books and pamphlets of walks in the sierras sufficient in themselves. To explore this area - well worth doing, by the way - you need to be properly prepared. You need adequate footwear, particularly for ankle protection; on steep, uneven ground with loose rock and stone it’s all too easy to put a foot wrong. So you are also well-advised to carry at least one walking pole to aid balance and stability. You need appropriate clothing, including at this time of the year, a broad-brimmed hat that will protect you from the power of the sun’s rays (so don’t forget your factor 20, either!). You will sweat, often profusely, and so you need a good supply of water with you, as well as some high-calorie snacks. Hand-held GPS and a mobile phone are useful, though in many places you won’t get a signal, so don’t rely on them.
Finally, it is a very bad idea to go alone into the mountains unless you are extremely familiar with the area. And if you go in a group, one at least should have that familiarity. If that sounds an impossible ask, then you have two options. Either stay out of the mountains, or sign up with one of the guided groups which are available. That’s for your safety, but it’s also a useful plug for a fellow expat, John Keogh. A link to his website is part of this blog.
After all that, let us hope and pray that Mary Ann Goosens is found soon and that she is safe and well.



The feria has gone. The romería is over.And spring now turns smoothly into summer. Cloudless skies, blazing sun and the annual influx of visitors who will hopefully provide the village shops, bars and restaurants with the level of income that they need at this time of the year if they are to survive the quiet winter months. To my wife and I the arrival of summer calls for a change to the daily routine. No more waking late, lounging in bed with a mug of coffee then on to a late breakfast. We wake around seven, breakfast by eight, and are out before nine to do whatever we have too. With maximum daytime (shade) temperatures now up into the mid-thirties, the aim is to be back indoors by eleven at the latest, to take refuge in the shade of drawn blinds and later, after a leisurely lunch to settle into that classic Spanish invention, the siesta. Later, a cup of tea - we are still English, after all - and then about seven we can venture up to the roof terrace for half an hour in the jacuzzi. And sometime after eight then maybe out for an evening stroll and a drink outside a bar before eating late.


All Over Bar The Swearing-In

Well, the negotiations are at an end it seems. The new alcalde (mayor) who will be sworn in on Saturday morning at 11 am is the old alcalde, Javier López Ruiz of the Partido Andalucista. The outcome predicted from the start by ‘those who ‘know’ has come to pass; the two Partido Popular councillors have formed a coalition with the outgoing party to ensure another four years of power, making a total of 20 in all.
I had read yesterday in Sur, the Andalucian daily paper that this was about to happen, but it has been confirmed by the arrival under the door today of a leaflet from PSOE, the socialists, who you may recall had the majority of the votes but lacked the killer sixth seat to take power. I shan’t bore you with the details, but they not happy bunnies today So the make-up of the new ayuntamiento is Partido Andalucista/Partido popular 6 seats; PSOE 5 seats. Will this turn out to be a good thing or a bad thing? God willing, I’ll let you know in 2015.


A Suggestion For Andrew Lansley

My late father in law used to love coming on holiday with us to Frigiliana, but would never have wanted to move out permanently because he was worried about health care. And before we moved here ourselves it was not uncommon for people we knew who clearly perceived us to be 'of advancing years' to ask how we would feel if we needed medical treatment in Spain. Well, let me set your minds at rest with a couple of personal examples.
Because I have two separate chronic conditions I need regular, daily medication. Both conditions are stable and so my prescription doesn't change. This enables my doctor to write an annual prescription which is stored on my computerised medical records. I have a compact plastic card with an electronic chip. Whenever I am running short I drop into a handy pharmacy - it can be anywhere in Andalucía - and hand my card to the assistant who places it into a reader and dispenses my next allocation of whichever drug it is that I need. And the drugs are free because of my age.
I also need to have an annual blood test, which was due round about now. So on Tuesday morning about 10 o'clock I dropped into the local health centre in the village and asked the receptionist for an appointment with my doctor. She gave me an appointment for midday that same day. My doctor issued the necessary form for a fasting blood test, and on the way out I spoke to the receptionist again, who booked me an appointment with the nurse for 9 o'clock the following morning; in fact as I walked out of the health centre on Wednesday morning, the church clock was just striking nine! So from request for an appointment to completed test, twenty three hours.
Mr Lansley, before proceeding with your wholesale shake up of the NHS might I suggest you come out here and spend some time finding out how this level of service is achieved in Spain; then on the way back, you might have a chat with the French authorities. There was absolutely no comparison between the treatment my brother received in a French hospital during his final days and what I saw delivered by UK hospitals before coming here.


Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama

An event was advertised around the village last week to launch a book by an Aguanoso, Sebastián García Acosta. For at least the last thirty years Sebastián’s twin passions have been his camera and the mountains which stand behind the village and form the Parque Natural de Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama, His book brings together the two wonderfully. So on Friday evening I dropped into the Casa de la Cultura (Cultural Centre) for the launch. The advertised start was 8.00pm which locally can indicate a much later actual start, but already the patio was already crowded with people at ten to eight and more were arriving all the time. Nor were they only villagers who could be expected to be friends and neighbours; many people had travelled to the village for the launch. Introductory speeches were made by people who had been instrumental in bringing the book, “Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama” to fruition; the man who had helped Sebastián select the photos from among the many thousands he has taken of this area, the editor who had designed both the overall structure and the detailed sections, the retired professor who had undertaken the translation of the Spanish text into English, so that the final creation is bilingual (and, incidentally, a great opportunity for anyone to improve their Spanish by studying the parallel texts.). And then Sebastián himself spoke of the book, his passion for photography - with his first wages he bought his first camera - and his love of these sierras, their majesty, their dangers, as well as the flora and fauna, including perhaps his favourite, the cabra montes (Iberian Mountain Goat) which is the emblem of the park and which sadly is found in few other parts of Spain these days.

The natural park encompasses, as its name suggests, three separate sierras, stretching in an east-west orientation from Otivar in the province of Granada to Venta de Zafarraya behind the town of Velez Málaga. This ridge of Dolomitic limestone is the westward extension of the much more well-known Sierra Nevada, whose main summit, Mulhacén, is at around 3,500metres, the highest on the Iberian Peninsula. From a wild region of ravines, cliffs and mountain streams in the east, it gradually broadens and softens to reach its western extremity in the much more rounded, Maroma just over 2,000 metres in altitude.

At the end of the speeches I joined the queue for my copy of the book which even in these economically challenging times, and at 50€ a copy, was flying off the table. Deservedly so. Examining it in detail later, I found it to be much more than a mere coffee table book - though it serves that purpose admirably - but also a detailed account of the topography and history, both natural and human, of this unique zone. This is a book to enthrall walkers, climbers, and other photographers, as well as those whose interests are in the fields of botany, ornithology, and the native fauna of Spain.

So, for any of you who fall into one or more of these categories, the details are as follows:

García Acosta, Sebastián Tejeda, Almijara y Alhama (Parque Natural), 2011
ISBN: 987-84-614-6866-9

And if it inspires you to want to explore the park, there’s a link from this blog to a guy who leads walks in the local mountains.


The Elections

Just looking at my statistics, I see that so far today I have had eleven hits on my blog, probably a record for a single day. All had entered a phrase like 'election results frigiliana' into a search engine and the search engines obligingly directed them to my blog.

So, if this is not shutting the stable door, I can tell you that PSOE obtained the largest share of the vote and claim five seats (+1); Partido Andalucista came second with four seats (-2) and Partido Popular came in with the remaining two seats (+1). The votes for Los Verdes and for Izquierda Unida were insufficient to entitle them to any seats. This means that PA have lost their absolute majority, but PSOE have only managed to secure a simple majority amounting to approximately 44% of the vote.

What does this mean in terms of the ayuntamiento? Mainly that the horse trading starts today. It is considered (I am told) unlikely that PSOE will try to operate as a minority administration as the other two parties would simply vote down every proposal they put forward. On the other hand, PSOE and PP are at opposite ends of the political spectrum and unlikely to want to come together in a coalition. Which boils down to whether the two PP councillors will prefer to throw in their lot with PA and be part of the ruling group, or refuse and remain in opposition, which would leave only the possibility of PSOE and PA burying the hatchet and forming a ruling team of nine. Who knows? Well, Brits might like to think back to May 2010 and Nick Clegg's team.

New alcaldes are sworn in on June 11th, so they've plenty of time to thrash it out. Watch this space, as they say.


A Quiet Day

Two weeks ago the campaigning began for our municipal elections, and since then there has been an abundance of meetings at which you can become familiar with the plans which each party has in the event of securing the majority of seats on the ayuntamiento. Of course, these opportunities have been accompanied by a free bar, and trays of finger food passing among the attendees. Sometimes a band has also been laid on, so that nobody needs to rush away once the speeches are over. At the same time we have had doorstep visits from each team of candidates to deliver a voting slip to use on their behalf, together with literature to support their argument for a chance to run the town. The ruling Partido Andalucista set out its claim with the slogan, "So much achieved; so much more to do." The other parties seek to rebut this proposition and suggest that after sixteen years, it's time for a change. A common theme to the electoral literature is that the other parties (not your own, clearly) are lying. This in turn calls for robust rebuttals from the party traduced.
The election is tomorrow, Sunday, and so at midnight last night - approximately, as it always is in Andalucía - all campaigning ceased and we the electorate are treated to a Día de Reflexión in which to make up our minds as to who gets our vote. The polls will then close at 8pm tomorrow and we should know the result by 10pm, at which point the partying will start again, either to celebrate victory or to console oneself and one's supporters for having come so (or not so) close to one.
Nice to have a quiet day; and the sun has come out again!


A Small World

The statement, "It's a small world" seems to have cropped up so often in my life that I could probably open another blog devoted entirely to examples from my own experience. However, my madrileño friend, Luis, tells me that lately I have not been giving this one the attention it deserves; that is even more true of my Spanish language blog, so perhaps two blogs is a sensible limit.
The trouble is that I have another interest which grabs my attention quite obsessively from time to time, so that other things tend to get neglected. That other interest is genealogy, or to be precise, my and my wife's family tree. Over the last year or two (it's probably more if I look properly) I have made good progress with three of my grandparents and with three of my wife's. Ironically, I am having most trouble with the least common surnames - Fullegar and Lanigan. I have recently been revisiting the Lanigan thread, my mother's paternal ancestors.
My mother took great pride, with justification, at the progress which her father had made in life. John Lanigan was born in 1869 to an Irish tailor and his dressmaker wife, Matthew and Mary Lanigan, in what Friedrich Engels referred to as "the classic slum'; this was the Greengate area of the city of Salford, a low-lying, ill-drained, massively overcrowded area in a loop of the River Irwell. The houses had been hurriedly thrown up with scant regard to anything but the need to put roofs over the heads of the people swarming into the area from the countryside and from Ireland to find work in the dozens of mills and factories which the arrival of the Industrial Revolution had given birth to. The houses were shoddily built, ill-provided with sanitation, small and hugely overcrowded. Into this festering quagmire was born my grandfather, the second youngest of six children; the whole family would have lived in a single room at No 6 Barrow's Court, thankfully long gone. He grew from this to become (ironically) Chief Sanitary Officer for the City of Salford, the equivalent in today's terminology of Director of Environmental Health. As I said, a justifiable cause for family pride.
However, during the time since my last posting to this blog, I have found out a little more about his father, Matthew Lanigan, my great-grandfather. He, it transpires, had already bettered himself by the time that his fifth child was born. On arriving from Ireland at some stage during the 1850s ( His marriage is recorded as being in the 3rd quarter of 1858 in Manchester), he lived not in Greengate, but in what I have discovered was an even more desperately deprived area, were that conceivable. His address in the 1861 census is given as 22 Beswick Row on the Manchester side of the Irwell in an area know as Angel Meadow. Essentially, it seems to have been an Irish ghetto in the shadow of Manchester's cathedral, covering an area of approximately 1 mile square. Into this hellhole was crammed in the mid-1850s a population larger than that of the whole of the rest of the city of Manchester. My great-grandfather had at least managed to escape to the somewhat less appalling Greengate by 1869.
And the small world? Well, I looked in the Manchester A to Z Street Map. Beswick Row still exists as a street. In the early 1970s, my office was no more than 200 yards from my great-grandfather's front door!


My Vote Counts

May is the month of local government elections here in Spain (22nd) and in the UK (5th). In the UK the day also brings elections to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh Assembly, possibly Stormont (I’m not sure), but most important in many ways, a referendum on the voting system. Although I have long wanted to see a change in the UK voting system, I shall not be able to vote for it in the referendum. My vote is here in Spain. And here in Spain, my vote counts equally with every other vote cast.

In Spain a system of proportional representation is used so that seats are allocated on the basis of the percentage of votes cast in favour of each party. Each party assembles a closed list of candidates in order of precedence determined by the party, and a line is drawn, as it were, at the percentage obtained; those above the line are deemed to have been elected, and those below, not. If you want to know more, you can find a full account at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Politics_of_Spain.

I say that my vote is here in Spain, but that extends only to local elections and elections to the European Parliament. As a foreigner, I have no vote in the national elections, which seems entirely reasonable to me.

In England, on the other hand, I had a vote at every level. Sadly, for the whole of that time my vote was of no practical use at all. My allegiance was initially to the Liberals and subsequently to the Liberal Democrats. I lived first in a rock-solid Labour constituency (Salford West), then in an unassailably Conservative constituency (Kensington and Chelsea). In the other constituencies where I later had my vote, all were either safe seats or Labour/Conservative marginals. Not only that, but the voting system - simply electing the candidate who polled more votes than any other single candidate - led to a situation where a Liberal Democrat candidate had to secure four votes for each one won by his/her rivals in order to win a seat; that’s a statistical reality, based on the total national vote for each party.

If I wanted my vote to ‘count’ in some way, the only solution was to ignore my party allegiance and instead vote for the candidate I least objected to in the (usually vain) hope that this would ensure that the candidate I most objected to would not be elected.

That, in a nutshell, is why if I had a vote in the UK referendum, I would vote for a switch to the alternative vote system. If introduced it would mean that in future, someone in my position could vote according to their party allegiance, and then use the order of preference to indicate the least up to the most objectionable alternative candidate. It’s interesting, but not surprising to see that the greatest opposition comes from past and present members of parliament who see the imminent disappearance of ‘safe’ seats. Then again, as the saying goes, would you expect a turkey to vote for Christmas?


Topsy Turvy

Easter is just about as late as it can be this year, which must have been a great encouragement to all those people in Britain who fancied the idea of a week or two in the sun over the holiday period, and booked flights down to the Costa del Sol. But things have been turned on their head so far as climate is concerned. They could have found all the warm sun and blue skies that they desire right back there on their own doorsteps in the UK. Here, by contrast, the temperatures plummeted last weekend, the clouds came rolling in borne by stiff breezes, and the rain started falling. Today, Good Friday, we are promised several hours of rain and a daytime high of 14 or 15 degrees. Which is now worse than the rest of the week so far, nor any worse than what is promised for tomorrow and Sunday.

Matters are just as depressing for the local population. As I described last time, this is a week of elaborate religious processions wending their way around the streets of cities, towns and villages; not this year. Yesterday for instance, of the seven cofradias who should have been processing through Málaga, only one was able to leave its home base. On the one hand the costumes, robes and vestments of penitents and statues would be badly damaged by the rain; on the other, the underfoot conditions would make it too dangerous to attempt to carry the tronos through the streets. I’m not sure how many processions have had to be cancelled in total this week, nor how many will fall victim to the weather today and on Sunday, but the toll is likely to be very high indeed. In fact, I just looked out of the window and the rain has set in again.

I could say that this is not typical weather for late April, but I seem to have been calling different periods of weather ‘not typical’ quite frequently. Is climate change serving up new typical patterns, or a future defined by unpredictable weather patterns? I don’t know; I suppose we will have to wait and see.


The Big Week Draws Near

Once again we are on the brink of the big fiesta of the Spanish year, Semana Santa (Holy Week). Officially, the week begins this coming Sunday, Domingo de Ramos (Palm Sunday) and ends with Domingo de la Resurección (Easter Sunday), although in many places, the observances will begin on Friday of this week, Viernes de Dolores. This is especially the case in any town or city whose Patron Virgin is Our Lady Of The Sorrows. Interestingly, although Nuestra Señora de los Dolores is the Patron Virgin, the day is not marked by any ceremonies.
Although Semana Santa is important throughout Spain and the Spanish-speaking world, the manner of its observance differs from one part of Spain to another. The most ostentatious manifestations with the greatest religiosity, are to be encountered in the southern part of Spain, Andalucia above all, but also the comunidades of Murcia, Valencia and Extremadura, and in a much more restrained manner in Madrid and Barcelona.
I find this variation interesting in the light of my recent reading of the history of Spain. It seems that the greatest fervour is to be found in those parts (Al-Andalus) where it was most important to display your Christian credentials following the defeat of the Nasrid kingdon of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella (Los Reyes Católicos) in 1492. The Moriscos were often in literal fear for their lives were it to be suspected that they had not after all jettisoned their Islamic faith completely; likewise the Jews, and Toledo is another city with spectacular celebrations.
Within Andalucia, two cities stand out, Sevilla and Málaga. The other provincial capitals all make much of Semana Santa, but nothing quite equals these two. Sevilla boasts 57 cofradías or brotherhoods, each one associated with a different manifestation of Christ or of the Virgin Mary, and each cofradía taking to the streets in massive, tortoise-slow processions, accompanying the pasos or tronos, heavy with flowers and candles, on which the statue of the object of their veneration is carried, frequent rest stops being needed along the way. At one or more of these stops a saeta is likely to be sung, especially to a statue of Mary. This is a mournful, flamenco lament, sung a capello in the harsh nasal tones of the cantaor or cantaora. In the muffled silence and the dark, this sound piercing the night air will raise the hairs on the back of your neck; I guarantee it.
The two main cofradías of Sevilla, both of which go in procession on the night of Viernes Santo, are Jesus del Gran Poder, which has more than two thousand members and La Virgen de la Macarena. The crowds lining the streets for these two processions are truly enormous, and treat La Macarena with the greatest respect. As a Spanish colleague of my wife’s once explained to her, “When La Macarena goes by even the atheists put their cigarettes out.”
Málaga has around 60 cofradías, who likewise take to the streets at their allotted time throughout the week, wending their way from their home base to the cathedral and back, an excursion that takes several hours. An individual paso (as they are called in Málaga) can weigh in excess of 5,000kg and requires up to 250 people to transport it. The hermanos (brothers) belong to one of two categories, the nazareños (who wear the penitent’s garb of black or purple robes and capirotes , the spiked, whole-head masks that conceals their identity from others, who follow behind the paso), and the costaleros (literally, sackmen) who physically carry the paso, and who derive some limited relief from the pain and discomfort of the task by placing a thick pillow on the shoulder that bears the wooden beam. Apparently, until the middle of the last century the costaleros were all drawn from the ranks of the dockers in the port of Málaga.
The big difference between Sevilla and Málaga is that whilst Sevilla communicates an air of deep religious feeling, the malagueños can never quite put aside their party mood, and so Málaga processions are marked by high degree of alegría, at least among the onlookers.


Don't Believe Everything You Read Online!

Around this time last year, a friend told me that there were some very well-priced, cantilever parasols on sale at Ikea, so I, too, bought one. We didn’t get a huge amount of use out of it last summer, partly because we spent less time up on our roof terrace during the day than we had anticipated, but mainly because the the roof is high enough to catch whatever wind is about, and so it was often a bit too blowy to open it.
You can imagine, then, how I felt when said friend, visiting back in the autumn, wandered over to the parasol, looked at it for a moment, and than said, “You’ve got the same problem.” The ‘problem’ was that the frequent small movements of the closed parasol had abraded the cord that raises and lowers it, to the point were it had snapped. Checking the Ikea website, showed that, the season being over, the item was no longer listed, and so couldn’t be replaced! Suddenly, it seemed like a very expensive purchase, dividing the cost by the number of times we had used it.
I did what I have learned to do in such circumstances; I googled the sentence, ‘Cord on Ikea parasol has snapped’, and in no time at all found a raft of fellow sufferers. Also, though, I found someone with a solution; instructions on how to take the thing apart, fit a new cord (we opted for metal this time, not nylon), and reassemble it. Half an hour’s work at most, we were told, but a two person job at certain stages. So, whilst in England recently, John picked up the necessary 9 metres of cord and yesterday we set about repairing his. DIY is not my strong suit, which is why I was so happy to have John’s help (This actually translates accurately as watching John, handing him some things when asked, and holding other things when asked) as he is a DIY natural.
The job is now done, and so on Monday we will repeat the process for my parasol. Only this time we will be looking to trim a bit of time off the task. Half an hour at most? I think not! Close on two hours is what it took. On the other hand, we will now have fully-functioning parasols again.



It looks as if we have turned the corner, weatherwise. Daytime temperatures going forward are all into the twenties, now and the only rain day on the forecast is a couple of weeks away, In addition to which, of course, the clocks went forward this weekend and so it was still daylight at nine o’clock. Soon it will be time to stow my long-sleeved shirts, trousers, shoes and socks, and switch to shorts and sandals.
Yesterday, we went for lunch with friends who live in the old part of the village - el barrio morisco - and ate outside on their terrace. They are high enough in the barrio to look out over the rooftops and down the valley to a broad sweep of the Mediterranean, sparkling and blue in the sunshine.
It struck me as such a contrast with where I came from. This thought was prompted by a book I bought recently on the internet, Lancashire by the Salford author, Walter Greenwood, best known for “Love On The Dole”. In particular, on Saturday, I was reading his chapter on Salford, the town where I, too, was born and where I lived until I left in 1960 to go to university.
I have long suffered my own version of SAD, not Seasonal Affective Disorder, but Salford Affective Disorder. Somehow, every time I cross the city boundary my mood slumps, only to revive when I leave again. Since the death of my stepfather a couple of years ago, I no longer have any reason to return, but I often wondered why I should have this reaction. Greenwood’s account of the city brought back to me what I had consciously forgotten; what an appalling place Salford was during the 1940’s and 1950’s, the years of my childhood and adolescence. The skies were rarely, if ever, blue, on account of the very high rate of atmospheric pollution, and for the same reason our main experience of the sun was as a brighter patch in the all=pervading haze. In winter days on end, sometimes weeks, passed under a blanket of yellow, choking, sulphurous smogs, which annually killed several hundred people, visibility reduced to a matter of yards. I do not exaggerate. One evening my father, walking home from the far side of neighbouring Manchester where he worked, on account of the fact that the buses had had to stop running, found himself not on Chapel Street as he should have been, but on the towpath of the canal, having misjudged the point where he thought he was turning into Chapel Street.
The pollution, too, was all-pervasive; it was taken as a matter of fact by we children (though perhaps not strictly true) that should you have the misfortune to fall into the River Irwell with your mouth open, you would be dead before you had the opportunity to drown.
Today people are openly disbelieving if I ever tell them that as a primary school child I had to attend the Police Street Schools’ Clinic for a course of breathing lessons.
What a transformation my life has undergone between then and now!


The Sound of Silence

My wife is a member of the Anglican church down in Nerja which, last weekend, organised a quiet day at a recently opened retreat centre in the Sierra Nevada National Park. We both signed up for the visit. Indeed, we did more. Saturday was our wedding anniversary, and so we arranged to drive up on Friday afternoon and stay the night, so that we would be fresh and ready for the day on Saturday.
Hacienda Los Olivos is the first Christian arts and spirituality retreat centre in Spain, and it has set a precedent that will take some beating! Set in the mountains, 1100 metres (3,600 ft) above sea level,it imaginatively combines the traditional Andalucian with the modern; it is light, airy and peaceful. I have added a link to the website in this blog.
The whole day was rewarding, but I especially valued the two opportunities, one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and each of one and a half hour's duration, to find a spot to be alone and to let your mind be open and receptive to the surroundings. I had expected to gaze in wonder at the mountains - and to a degree I did - but in fact I spent my time becoming aware of the sounds that are to be found in silence; the drone of bees collecting pollen from the almond blossom, the buzz of a passing fly, a bird calling in the distance, the occasional sound of the breeze moving the leaves, a passing car or two (you can't ever quite get rid of the twenty first century!), and found my attention on the little things around me that would normally have gone unnoticed. I was reminded of a book title; "The God of Small Things" by Arundhati Roy.


Conjuring Up Space On A Low Cost Flight

I have just returned from a trip to the UK with my wife. Both the outward and return flights were very busy but we managed to have a spare seat on our row. One way I would have put down to luck; both ways seemed rather less so. Pondering the matter, I think I may have discovered an important strategy. Since the likelihood of you and I being on the same flight is remote, I shall share my thinking with you. You may wish to put it to the test next time you fly with a low-cost airline, and if you do, please let me know whether the strategy worked for you, too.
Right! This strategy is for low-cost airlines where passengers select their own seats on boarding and the flight is heavily booked. It will work (I hope) so long as there are at least some seats which will be unoccupied. I am afraid that it only works for two people travelling together; sorry singletons! (Families travelling with young children are boarded first, and so do not affect the strategy.
The first thing to think about is layout and passenger seat preferences. The usual, short-haul route is flown by a plane offering two sets of three seats per row, with a central aisle. My guess is that the great majority of passengers prefer either an aisle seat or a window seat. I suspect very few have a preference for a centre seat. The couple should therefore occupy the window and aisle seats, leaving the centre seat empty (It is, after all, where you would want the extra space.). If you occupy the window and centre seats, you leave an open invitation to someone to choose your aisle seat. Conversely, if you occupy the centre and aisle seats, the appeal of a window seat is sufficient to make it worthwhile for a singleton passenger to disturb you to get to it.
The next question is where on the plane to put this into operation. Passenger psychology comes to the fore again here. In my view there are three - or possibly four - groups of passengers. There are those who wish to sit at the front of the plane, ahead of the wings. There those who hanker after the extra legroom seats over the wings. And there are those who are not particularly bothered where they seat. It is possible, though I find it hard to believe, that there is a fourth group with an active preference for the rear of the plane.
What can we deduce from this? Mainly that competition for seats over or ahead of the wings is such that even a centre seat will appeal more than heading further down the plane. On the other hand, people who have reached the rear half of the plane are more likely to continue moving down the cabin as the cabin crew urge them to do, with the assurance that there are still plenty of seats at the back. Moreover, having reached the rear of the plane, very few people will actually turn round and start to look for seats further forward unless they really have to; and they will backtrack only so far as necessary to find any empty seat.
I therefore recommend to those who want to grab a bit of extra space, the five rows immediately behind the final over-wing row. If there is even only one unsold seat on the flight, that is where I reckon you can make sure it’s between yours. Oh, and one final point; before the doors are closed and everyone is seated do not give any indication that the two of you have ever met before.
Give it a try and let me know how you get on.


A Time Of Contrasts

Monday of this week was El Día de Andalucía, Andalucia Day, which was celebrated in warm sunshine with music, paella, beers and a generl air of festivity. The following day brought in Macrh and the beginning of spring proper. But whoa! Not so fast. Today, Friday, I have just been up on the roof taking photographs of the surrounding mountains - dressed in t-shirt, shirt and sweater, but still glad to get back indoors. The Med may be only 6km away, but sometimes that doesn't offer enough protection from the weather from further north!


Moments To Remember

Over the years the news media, initially press and later including television, have made me aware of a succession of assassinations and terrorist attacks against civilians, beginning with the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi which horrified me as a boy of 7, and culminating with the London bombings of July 7th, 2005. So many, in fact, that it is impossible to say how many.
On the other hand, there have been three moments, all of them witnessed on BBC News, which had the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. One was the night of November 9th, 1989, when quite unbelievably one of the demonstrators protesting in West Berlin against the continuing presence of the Wall, actually climbed onto the top of it, to be followed rapidly by dozens more; and not a single shot was fired. Then the demonstrators began destroying the structure, the East German government bowed to the inevitable - Thank God! - and in no time at all, it seemed, East Germans were flooding through Checkpoint Charlie into the West.
I also remember how similar was the feeling I experienced when, again on my TV screen, on February 9th, 1990 I witnessed the sight of Nelson Mandela walking freely from prison after 26 years of incarceration by the apartheid regime.
Two events that changed the world for the better; and so too is the third, the thirtieth anniversary of which was celebrated her in Spain on Wednesday. On February 23rd, 1981, Spain’s fledgling and still fragile democracy was threatened when Lt.Col. Antonio Tejero Molina, a Guardia Civil officer stormed the Cortes and began firing in the chamber which was in session. That evening saw the first occasion that the hairs rose on the back of my neck. On my TV screen I watched as King Juan Carlos, dressed in full uniform as head of the armed forces, ordered all troops and Guardia Civil personnel to remain in their barracks, making clear to the Spanish nation just how completely Tejero had misread the political situation. Within a very short time the putative coup d’etat was over and the rebels had been rounded up. In my mind that night, and that broadcast by the king was the moment that democracy truly arrived in Spain.



View Larger Map

Comares is a white village about an hour's drive from here. It sits dramatically on the summit of what in England we would probably call a crag; either a very high hill, or a modest mountain! It was one of two strongholds (along with Bobastro) of a muslim predecessor of Robin Hood, Ibn Hafsun. Back at the end of the ninth century, having fallen foul of the Umayyad caliphate of Córdoba, he lived the life of an outlaw, though a very powerful one; the territory which fell under his control stretched from Gibraltar in the west to Jaen in the east, and on behalf of the villagers he put up fierce resistance to Umayyad taxation and forced labour.
Some friends are here in Frigiliana at the moment, so yesterday we took a trip up there and enjoyed a stroll around the village, following a route which is helpfully way-marked by ceramic footprints set into the road surface. At the top of the village we were accosted - as always - by an elderly lady who emerged suddenly from her house in order to try to sell us almonds, figs, raisins or jam. I think she must spend her days sitting behind the beaded fly screen that hangs in her doorway, waiting for potential customers to appear around the corner. Sadly, I know from past experience that there is a serious mismatch between the prices charged and the quality offered.!
Back in the plaza, from which there is a spectacular view down to the plain and as far as the sea, we sat outside the bar in the warm sun for a drink and a selection of tapas, before heading home again in the early afternoon.



Last year’s Festival of Three Cultures stimulated an interest in me to know more about the medieval history of this part of Spain. For my birthday and for Christmas I received gifts of three books on the subject, and have now finished reading two of them. The first was a particularly densely written political history of Al-Andalus by Hugh Kennedy, which made for slow reading in small chunks; for instance, the index lists no fewer than twenty five separate people bearing the name, ‘Abd Allah (from ‘Abd Allah b. ‘Abd al-Aziz al-Hajar to ‘Abd Allah b. Yasin). Other name combinations occur with similar frequencies. However, by the time I reached the final page, I had laid down a basic understanding in my mind of the course of Muslim rule in the Iberian Peninsula.
And now I have just completed the second; Chis Lowney’s ‘A Vanished World”, subtitled ‘Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Medieval Spain’. This is a much more discursive, narrative work, giving the general reader (me!) a much clearer picture of the general sweep of history during this period, and adding Christian and Jewish perspectives. Both books tell of a world of disputes, rebellions and outright wars between ruling Muslim families and tribes, and also among the royal houses of Christian Spain. For the most part the two sides had little time left to fight each other - and not infrequently entered into alliances and treaties with the other to assist in the fight against their own co-religionists!
But what has most caught my attention is the way in which at street level, so to speak, Jews, Christians and Moors lived largely harmonious lives together; exactly the theme propounded by our annual festival. I shall just quote one or two of Chris Lowney’s examples.
“ Diego Gonzalez, a priest, believed that ‘ the Jew can find salvation in his own faith just as the Christian can in his.’ “
“Another Castilian Christian must have left inquisitors slack-jawed when he mused, ‘ Who knows which is the better religion, ours or those of the Muslim or the Jew.’ “
And two wonderful examples of ecumenism in action from the same source,
“ Miguel Semeno seems to have endorsed that theory; either that or his family were hedging bets on the afterlife when they erected his tombstone. ‘In the name of  Our Lord Jesus Christ’ it reads, ‘ he died on Sunday 4 November in the Era 1194.’ Yet bordering the edge of the same gravestone is an Arabic inscription. ‘ In the name of Allah the Compassionate, the Merciful. Mikayil ibn Semeno  was he who went forth to Allah, with His Mercy, from the abode of this life.”
“...the will of fifteenth-century Alfonso Fernández Samuel requested burial with a Christian cross at his feet, the Quran at his breast, and ‘his life and light’, the Torah beside his head.”


Turning The Corner?

It's the end of the first week in February, but yesterday we sat out on our south-facing side-terrace for lunch, and then as the sun moved around, transferred to the balcony to sit reading in the sun until seven o'clock. The sun actually dropped below the ridge on the other side of the valley at 6.30, but the first of the evening chill didn't make itself felt for another half hour.
Daytime shade temperatures are still chilly by (purely) local standards, reaching a maximum of around 16° or 17°, but the sun now has real warmth in it. So it looks as if already we are on the verge of spring, having enjoyed a very gentle winter. There have been odd days of rain, and indeed rain is forecast on four of the next fifteen days according to my internet weather app, but only two or three days when the rain has been torrential. We have also been spared high winds for the most part, and this year the winds and the rain have never coincided. This is so much different from last winter when heavy rain started on the 17th December (You remember these things!) and pretty much kept going for three months until Semana Santa, often accompanied by gale force winds and coming in horizontally. Indeed, we had so much rain last year that we have been able to be totally relaxed about the sparse rainfall this winter; all the reservoirs entered 2011 more than 80% full.
The next highlight will be when I swap my long-sleeved shirts for short sleeves; and the one after that, when shorts and sandals replace shoes and trousers. Fingers crossed!