My main combined birthday and Christmas present was an iPad to complement my MacBook and iPod Touch. Unfortunately, whilst I rapidly wrote up a posting about Christmas Day, I then spent the next few days trying to work out how to publish it to my blog. By a very devious route (the connection crashed every time I tried to simply open the web page) I managed it earlier today. But I wasn't happy. Soon we're off on a trip and I don't want to lug my laptop along. Just now though, the little cartoon light bulb above my head lit up; go to App Store, search on "blogger", download the app, open it and here I am a mere ten minutes later, posting this. What a wonderful company is Apple.
Christmas this year we are here in the village, and on Christmas Day we were just the two of us. Several of the British-owned restaurants had a traditional lunch on offer, but we chose to eat instead at El Mirador, a restaurant right at the top of the village choosing from the regular menu which we know and love. We had a table on the front rank of the terrace, from where we had an amazing view (hence the name) all the way down to the sea, 6km away. The day had actually started out dull, ovrcast and rainy, but around one o'clock the rain stopped and thereafter the clouds progresively gave way to blue skies and warm sunshine. Taken together with an excellent menu and fantastic wine list, it is difficult to see how we might have done better. The next day - a normal working day in Spain - we took an afternoon bus into Malaga to see the Christmas lights and to enjoy a paper cone full of roast chestnuts from one of the street stalls that are everywhere right now, before catching a late evening bus back. All in all a really enjoyable Christmas.
I watched a programme last night on BBC television, in which Paul Mason presented a detailed analysis of the way in which the present Spainsih economic troubles arose. Some of you may have seen it; others may care to track it down on BBC iPlayer. Once again, it was evident that a major contribution came from the banks. In 2008 when the crisis began, Spain was one of the EU’s major economies and one of the strongest, ranking alongside Germany. The government had adopted a prudent approach to running the economy, so that in many of the preceding years Spain had run a surplus. Employment levels were high and the country appeared to have little to fear from problems in the Eurozone. Except that the major banks had embarked on similar high-risk strategies to those of other companies, so that the immediate impact on the Spanish economy was that the government had to use its own healthy finances to rescue the banks. Then, as the economy began to slow more generally, the construction boom collapsed and the smaller, regional savings banks were found to have ridiculously over-extended themselves in that sector, and everything went from bad to worse. The situation was compounded by the three or four tier structure of government in Spain, primarily the power of the autonomous communities. One down from Westminster in the UK, are the county councils and the metropolitan authorites - forty-odd in number, and heavily dependent on central government for their funding. In Spain this tier comprises seventeen authorities, wielding much more power over both revenue and expenditure. It is as if the UK were split entirely into regional authorities of the size and power of the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. At the other extreme, local authorities can represent very small populations indeed. Frigiliana, for instance, has a population of only about 4,000, but its own local council responsible for a wide range of services. The boom years presented golden opportunities for politicians to demonstrate the importance of their own patch. Paul Watson took the example of the Comunidad de Valencia. Seeing the success of the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, they embarked on an ambitious programme of building of spectacular, showpiece developments that brought conference and convention business streaming to the city, captured the Americas Cup (for two years) with a magnificent new marina and port, brought Formula 1 to the area (though, again, only a couple of times). In a similar vein, the Valencian city of Castellon constructed a splendid, international airport, complete with website - but unfortunately without a single flight even to this day; the runway was inadvertently constructed too narrow for planes to land or take off. I wrote in glowing terms about eighteen months ago, about another project at Avilés in the north of Spain. One of the last commissions by the celebrated Brazilian architect, Oscar Niemeyer, who died recently at the age of 104, gave birth the theCentro Niemeyer, down by the harbour. A beautifully designed, strikingly attractive complex incorporating three gallery spaces, indoor and outdoor theatre spaces, restaurants, cafeterias and a spacious plaza. It cost a fortune, but six months after opening it closed its doors have run out of the funding necessary to run it. All of this would be laughable, were it not for the dire economic consequences of these prodigal schemes. For the past three months, for instance, the City of Valencia has been unable to pay the city’s pharmacists for the medicines they have been dispensing to patients entitled to state health care. And since 2008, 300,000 Spanish graduates have left the country in search of a job - any job.
A couple of days ago I came across a book published last year, that tells the story of Frigiliana through its nicknames. I’ve only read about thirty pages so far, but it promises to be fascinating. A long-standing tradition in this village, and I guess in Andalucía generally, was to name the first son after the local patron saint and the first daughter after the “patron” Virgin. Subsequent children were often given names which reflected the devotion of the parents to the catholic church. This is a tradition which is followed less these days, and so among younger people there is a wider variety of names than hitherto; for example, we have young women called Gema, Vanesa, Olga, Lucretia and young men by the name of Raúl, Oscar or Germán. There are two patron saints of Frigiliana, San Antonio de Padua and San Sebastián, and the Virgin venerated is Nuestra Señora de los Dolores (Our Lady of the Sorrows), though Nuestra Señora del Rosario (Our Lady of the Rosary) is also important. As a consequence the village abounds in Antonios, Sebastiáns, Dolores and Rosarios, abounds to a confusing extent. Add to this the Juans, Franciscos, Pablos, Carmens, Marías, Victorias and other common names and there is a clear need to distinguish between the different holders of the same name. This was a problem that we encountered as soon as we moved into our present home, an apartment build on top of an existing house. The house is the home of Dolores, and for a while her sister Rosario lived there with her, both being widows. Our next door neighbour is also Rosario, and her next door neighbour at that time was another Dolores. As if that were not enough, my wife went to the free Spanish classes offered by the town hall and her teacher was one Dolores. Unwittingly, we adopted the village solution; we identified Dolores Debajo (Dolores downstairs), Dolores Profe (Dolores the teacher) and Dolores Su Brazo, which requires a word or two of explanation. This last Dolores, also a widow, lived a very lonely life and sought to inject a little social contact into her life by heading down into the village, leaning heavily on her stick, where she would accost some male tourist with her free arm outstretched and with the appeal, “Señor, señor - su brazo.” which freely translated means, “Please sir, give me your arm.” Clutching the tendered arm she would then direct her prey along the street and up the 32 steps at the entrance to our street and along to her front door, where he would be thanked profusely and receive copious kisses to the back of his hand. Then, some ten minutes or so after her knight in shining armour had retreated thankfully to rejoin his family, out would come Dolores to head back down into the village in search of her next victim. I look forward to learning how our Spanish hosts developed the nicknames identified in my new book.
The results are in and counted. CiU, the governing party which called the election on the specific platform of a referendum on Catalan independence, went into the election with 62 seats and has emerged with 50.They now face the alternatives of forming a coalition with the socialists (highly unlikely, given that CiU is a right-wing party) or going forward as a minority government. Nor was this result a product of voter apathy; turnout was substantially up on the 2010 election. Seems like Spain can continue to sleep at night.
Well, what jolly fun back in England. Every police force in England & Wales now has a Police and Crime Commissioner to tell it what to focus on. No doubt the said PCCs will need a fully staffed office with secretarial and IT facilities, a Deputy to do the bits that the PCC doesn’t fancy doing, and a string of departmental heads to do those things that neither of them want to be bothered with. Each will need a salary, a pension plan, office space in which to locate a desk and a computer of some sort to access those IT systems. All of this used to be handled a police authority of around 17 members sitting on a part time basis for a daily fee and expenses. The rest of the time, when not involved in overseeing local policing they got on with other useful things. The composition of the authority was carefully controlled - I know this because at one time I sat on the body responsible for selecting and appointing magistrate members - with the majority of members being local councillors, but appointed in proportion to the representation of the main political parties on the local authorities covered by the police force, a small number of magistrates, and a number of seats reserved for lay members. Between them they brought a range of skills and experience to the task of overseeing the general direction of policing in their area, and of appointing a chief constable when necessary. The chief constable and his or her senior management team were responsible for delivering effective policing. All well and good, said the politicians, but (bowing before a current shibboleth) they aren’t democratic. They are a shadowy group of appointees with no democratic mandate, and the public has no idea who most of them are. And so £100 million has been spent on rectifying matters. PCC candidates have presented themselves to a fascinated public, who have weighed their characters and qualifications and have placed their vote in favour of the most suitable candidate. Unfortunately, none of the £100m was allocated to giving candidates the necessary funds to present themselves, their experience and their plans to the public. The result I see, is that only around 15% of those entitled to vote bothered to do so, and mainly voted for the placemen and women put up by the main political parties. Actually, that is not quite true; there was a significant number who used their ballot paper to explicitly state their opposition to the whole idea of PCCs, however chosen. Had I been there I would have been among that number. Firstly, I have yet to hear anybody explain - convincingly or otherwise - why the police should be subject to democratic oversight. Every serving police officer, at whatever rank, occupies the office of constable. The office of constable is a Crown office. In other words, and in order to avoid the politicisation of the police service, their loyalty and their accountability is not to parliament, but to the sovereign. That independence is jeopardised if the person to whom the chief constable is accountable on a day-to-day basis represents a political party. Police authorities represented a cross-section of the community served. Secondly, if someone can demonstrate that democratic oversight is a) desirable and b) more successful, then why are the other emergency services not treated in the same way? What about the prison service? The armed forces? The public utilities? Ofwat, Ofcom, Ofgen, Ofqual, and all the other Ofs? Finally, when even those who did vote freely admitted to the media that they had little or no idea who they were voting for, nor what they were voting for, how can anyone other than a career politician have the gall to suggest that these PCCs have a democratic mandate?
I find myself with a dilemma. On the one hand, I don’t like to leave big gaps between postings, but on the other, neither do I like to write about nothing. This is probably the quietest time of year in the village. The summer peak is followed by the arrival of visitors who wait for the schools to go back. They, in turn, are followed by the half-term break people. After that it’s nothing much happening until people start arriving for the Christmas/New Year break. Which means that it is the time of year when bars and restaurants can close with least impact on their takings. So some close for holidays; others for a full clean and redecorate, and yet others for both. As a consequence in a village where there is a choice of forty bars and restaurants - impressive for a population of between three and four thousand - we are not sure where we will be able to eat this evening, though we have decided to eat out.
October/November. A time of year when we expect our rain to arrive, and indeed it did, a couple of days at first with a break of about a week, then followed by more rainy days and so on until towards the end of this month when things should dry up again and the sun should come back until February/March time when we have our second rainy spell. It is during these two periods that we get the vast bulk of our annual water supply and so in this neck of the woods clouds, wind and rain are a welcome change. As I say though, there are also dry days interspersed and this year I have been fortunate with two of them. Last weekend was the auction for Pablo. Wednesday was iffy, Thursday and Friday prolonged rain took over, leaving me anxious that the weather would dissuade people from turning out. But Saturday dawned bright, dry and sunny and stayed that way all day. Then the weather dipped again coming into last week. Thursday was my birthday and we wanted to go to our favourite restaurant, El Mirador, to celebrate. The trouble is that it is right up at the top of the village up a couple of steep, stepped streets which can readily turn into waterfalls, which they did four years ago so that we ate in a very quiet restaurant, our jeans soaked all the way up to the thighs - and then had to descend the waterfall to get home. So this year we decided that we had better choose somewhere down in the centre of the village. Anyway, Thursday was a lovely day and as the afternoon unfolded, showed no sign of changing. A quick phone call confirmed that there was a table available and so it was off up the steps to sit out on the terrace looking all the way down the valley to the sea, eating wonderful food accompanied by a very good bottle of wine - a gift from Rafael. In case you can find it locally, it was a Ribero del Duero, Pagos de Carraovejas, 2009 Crianza, almost entirely tempranillo (or Tinto del Pais, as it is called in that region) with just a little cabernet sauvignon to balance it. Oh, I do like living here.
At last, the auction is behind us. I must admit to feeling somewhat anxious as the hour approached. Having succeeded in attracting the donation of 82 lots, plus a lot of bits and pieces that were not really suitable for auction and which we put onto a stall “Everything 1€”, my concern turned to whether anyone would actually turn up on the night. Well they did. And they brought their money with them and a huge sense of generosity. My wife manned the 1€ stall and found that lots of people insisted on paying more than 1€ for the items. Indeed one lady paid 10€ for a crucifix, then having thought about it over the weekend, decided that she would prefer to pay 50€, and so she has paid over another 40€. Two men caught the spirit of the evening to such an extent that they got into a bidding battle over a childs’ bath set worth around 4 or 5€. The winner got it for 50€! More cash donations have come in today from people who weren’t able to be there on Saturday. The outcome is that we raised more than enough money for Yolanda to book her next visit to the UK with Pablo for another course of treatment at the clinic. Already improvements in Pablo’s functioning are evident. He can move his fingers and his legs. He can smile. He can vocalise. And he is more relaxed generally. We all look forward to seeing the results of another visit to East Grinstead.
There is a third name by which the Iberian Peninsula has been known; Sepharad, the name given by the Jews.In the fifth century BC, one of the minor prophets of the bible, Obadiah, prophesying the structure of the new Israel when the Jews return to the Promised Land from exile, makes an interesting reference in verse 20. “...and the exiles from Jerusalem now in Sepharad will occupy the towns of the Negeb.” So before either the Christian or the Muslim religions existed, Jews were living in Sepharad, and continued to do so for more than a thousand years. Indeed, the territory gave rise to the name of one of the two main branches of Judaism in Europe, the Sephardim, descendants of the Jews of what is now known as Spain and Portugal; the other branch, the Ashkenazim, are the descendants of Jews of Germanic and Russian lands. Why do the Jews not feature more prominently in the history of Spain? Possibly because the Jews did not come as an invading army; they came as merchants and traders. They were also skilled craftsmen working in gold, silver, leather and fabrics, serving their wealthy neighbours. Later they became bankers and in the days of Al-Andalus, they were trusted by both Christians and Muslims as diplomats, ambassadors and negotiators. In addition, then as now, the Jews set great store by learning and so they also excelled as teachers, philosophers, doctors and translators. Jewish quarters thrived in the main cities of Al- Andalus, especially in Toledo, Córdoba, Sevilla and Granada. There were Jews who spoke the languages of the east, Arabic, Greek, Persian, Egyptian in addition to Hebrew, and there were Jews who spoke Latin as well as Hebrew. So, especially in Toledo, there were Jews translating the classical texts into Hebrew and other Jews translating the newly translated Hebrew texts into Latin, after which they could be, and were, disseminated widely across Christian Europe. They were the vital link between east and west.
Tariq and his immediate successors, who together form the Umayyid dynasty, recognised the authority of the Caliph in Damascus, and ruled their territory as an Emirate, but in the ninth century Abd-ar-Rahman III renounced the authority of Damascusdeclared the establishment of a second, western Caliphate based on Córdoba, the Umayyid Caliphate, with the city of Sevilla being the major commercial port. Al-Andalus (The Land of the Vandals), and especially the cities of Córdoba and Toledo, flourished as the home of culture, science, philosophy, literature and learning in medieval Europe. The importance of Toledo was particularly great, and also provided a model of religious tolerance and cooperation. Christian, Jewish and Muslim scholars worked together on the translation of the ancient texts of classical Greece and Arab texts into Latin for dissemination across Eurpoe which was then in the throes of what we now call the Dark Ages. As an aside, it is worth noting that an Arab contribution of enormous significance was to have brought back from their trading activities in the East, the Chinese secret of paper-making. A cheap, easy-to-manufacture medium for the written word as an alternative to vellum, meant that the production of books was able to expand exponentially. It was a change as profound in its implications for the future of communication as is the fact that I can write these words on my computer, upload them onto a website, and make them available for immediate reading by anyone anywhere in the world who knows their way to my blog. I am talking, of course, only about the technology; the content is another matter! Nothing lasts forever, however, and upon the death of the Caliph al-Mansur in 1031, al-Andalus was left in a politically and militarily weakened state. The Christians of the north of Spain seized the opportunity and the Reconquest began in earnest. During the period from 1037 to 1065 a string of defensive castles were built up along the frontier (Castilla La Vieja). With their defences secured, the Christian armies then began their advance. In 1085 Toledo fell to the Christians and in 1095 El Cid had a series of major victories for the Christians around the Valencia region. In response, in 1086 the Muslim rulers appealed to the leaders of the Almoravid Dynasty of North Africa for assistance. They came to Spain, stabilised the Muslim kingdom and stemmed the advance of the Christian armies. However, they liked what they found on this side of the Mediterranean so they then took over and ruled Al-Andalus themselves. They ruled sufficiently harshly that eventually in 1147, the people called on the Almohads, the North African successors to the Almoravids, for help in ousting the Amoravids which they did, liked what they saw and took over themselves. Unfortunately, the Almohads were the Taliban of their day, and as such were perceived as a serious threat by the Christians and so once again the Reconquest resumed. In 1212 Tolosa fell, swiftly followed by Úbeda. The advance continued, Córdoba was taken in 1236 and Sevilla in 1248. This left just the rump kingdom of Granada, ruled by the Nasrids and extending from west of Málaga to Almería, its northern limit pretty much in line with the Granada to Sevilla road of today. The Nasrids survived for a couple of hundred years, paying tribute to the Christian powers and posing no threat to anyone, until following the marriage of Fernando V of Aragón and Isabela I of Castilla, the Catholic Monarchs, as they styled themselves, sought favour with Rome by ousting the Nasrids and expelling Muslims and Jews in order to proclaim a united, wholly Catholic Spain.
The opening for the Muslim Era was provided by a major dispute within the Visigothic hierarchy. The Visigoths were Christinas, but subscribed to the Arian interpretation of the relationship between Jesus and God. As such they were considered heretics by Rome, and so whe the Visigothn King Recarold converted to catholicism in the 6th century this led to internal conflicts within the ruling families, conflict which came to a head on the death of Recarold’s son and successor, King Witiza in 710. Roderic, Duke of Baetica (an Arian) immediatelyseized the throne and installed himself as King. Witiza’s family then appealed for help to Tariq ben Ziyad, the Berber Governor of Tangier, and In April 711 he crossed the straits with an army estimated at between 7,000 and 12,000 men, establishing a beachhead near to Algeciras (Gibr al Tariq = Gibraltar). He rapidly advanced to Medina Sidonia where he defeated Roderic’s forces and carried on to take the Visigothic capital of Toledo. Over the next three years, the Berbers spread out across the Peninsula as far as the borders of Galicia in the west, and to the banks of the Ebro in the north and east. Generally at this stage, we are talking about taking control of the territory rather than actually occupying it. For the most part the local population stayed put, many converting to Islam, but many more not. Although nominally the Reconquest began almost immediately with the Battle of Covadonga (Asturias) at which the Christian, Pelayo defeated the invading Muslims, in truth this was no more than a little local skirmish between a Muslim raiding party and the local population defending their cattle and their women. The Christian kingdoms of the north of Hispania were too small, too weak and too disunited in the eighth century to put up any real resistance. Over the next 150 years these kingdoms gradually came together, the two main events bringing this about being firstly the claim in 791 of Alfonso II of Galicia to be the rightful successor to the Visigothic kings, with his sights set on Toledo, the Visigothic capital, and secondly, the ‘discovery’ around 830 AD of the long lost tomb of St James in present day Santiago de Compostela. The tomb rapidly became the third most important pilgrimage destination after Jerusalem and Rome, which in turn led to the Knights Templar establishing themselves along the route as protectors of the faithful, thus greatly increasing Christian military strength, and ushering in the beginning of the true process of reconquest, which even so would not be finally completed until the end of the fifteenth century. Meanwhile, the three hundred years from Tariq’s landing in 711 to the death of the Caliph of Córdoba, al-Mansur in 1031 represents the golden age of Al-Andalus, as the Muslims named those parts (most) of the Peninsula under their rule. The name, Al-Andalus harks back to the Germanic tribes driven out of tHispania in 429; Al-Andalus, the land of the Vandals.
The Romans, as I said last time, invaded the Iberian Peninsula in force early in the third century BC. They named the territory Hispania, which gives us our first taste of a name resembling modern, Spain. We have already seen how the Phoenicians gave us the name, Gadir which evolved into Cádiz, and that the Carthaginians gave us Cartagena, the name by which that city is still known today. The Romans gave us some more recognisable names. They divided Hispania into four provinces, in the north west, Callecia (Galicia), in the east, Tarraconensis (Tarragona), in the west, Lusitania (Portugal) and in the south, Baetica, the province which came to be the richest in natural resources and hence the most important along with its capital, Córdoba. In honour of the Emperor Augustus, they also founded the city of Caesarea Augusta (Zaragoza). Christianity appears to have arrived in Hispania very quickly after the death of Jesus, although it is difficult to pin down precisely when. If we look to the New Testament there are a couple of clues. The book, Acts of the Apostles tells us that in AD 44, Herod had James,brother of John (author of the Gospel of St John) beheaded. Spanish legend has it that James’s disciples brought his remains by boat to the north west coast of Spain, coming ashore in what is now Galicia, where they received permission to bury his body. For some time a chapel marked the site of the burial, but this fell into disuse and knowledge of its location was lost. We shall return to this later, but the choice of Hispania as a destination might suggest that there was already a Christian presence. A second clue is to be found in St Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, written in AD 57 or 58. He promises the Christians living in Rome that, “When I have... officially handed over what has been raised, I shall set out for Spain, and visit you on the way.” Unfortunately, there is no record in the New Testament, and no local tradition in Spain, that Paul ever did get to Hispania, but it was his custom to visit existing Christian communities rather than to set out to convert people from scratch, and so his intention lends support to the idea that there were already Christians living in Hispania within 25 to 30 years of Jesus’s death. A third clue is a tradition in the Orthodox Church, that during the first century AD, the “Six Apostolic Men” sent to convert Hispania were all martyred. All of this points to Christianity arriving here very early, though not as early as reported by one schoolboy howler picked up by one of the markers of this year’s A-Level papers, in which a student confidently asserted that, “The Romans brought Christianity to Spain in the third century BC.” Roman rule in Hispania lasted some six hundred years. Then in AD 409 Germanic tribes crossed the Rhine, swept across Gaul and entered Hispania. The Suevi occupied Galicia and northern Portugal; the Alani conquered and settled southern Portugal (the Alentejo), and the Vandals took over Baetica. All of this was possible because the Roman Empire was by now in terminal decline, to the extent that the Emperor Honorius was unable to send troops to drive out the invaders. Instead, he appealed for help to Athaulf, his sister’s husband and the King of the Visigoths (who were also Christians), to do the job for him. Athaulf and his armies entered the peninsula in strength in AD 415, basically ignoring the Suevi in the north west, but slowly but steadily driving the Alani and the Vandals south, until in AD 429 these two tribes were forced to retreat across the straits into North Africa. Unfortunately for Honorius, the Visigoths were very taken with the lands that they had conquered and so stayed on setting up their own kingdom and establishing their own capital city at Toledo; the country continued to be know as Hispania. So now we have Christianity firmly established in Spain. Next we will look at the arrival of Islam.
Moving forward to around 12,000 BC, we come to the Neolithic Age when a sophisticated culture seems to have developed in southern Spain, marked among things by the building of megalithic tombs along the coastal areas of the Peninsula, of which a particularly fine example is to be found at Antequera, here in Andalucía. The region around Almería was settled in the millennium from 5,000 to 4,000 BC by the Iberians, a neolithic people who arrived from North Africa bringing with them an agricultural, pastoral style of living.. With the arrival of the Bronze Age, made possible partly by a settled lifestyle, but mainly by the abundant supply of copper in the area, these people began to spread outwards from Almería, roughly 1,500 BC, into the rest of Andalucía and north onto the meseta. Then, in 1,000 BC they were joined by several waves of Celtic and Germanic tribes, and we find ourselves in the era of the Celt/Iberians. It was at this time that the Iberians founded the kingdom of Tartessus, based on the estuary of the Guadalquivir river and extending from present-day Huelva in the west to what is now Tarifa in the south. At the other end of the Mediterranean, a major power was the Phoenicians who were extending their trading activities westward, first into modern-day Libya, and then through the straits and up the west coast of the peninsula where they founded a trading post, the city of Gadir, now Cadiz, the oldest city in Europe. They remained a powerful influence in the area for the following four hundred years, until their growing links with Byzantium in the east shifted the whole emphasis of their activities. The Phoenicians left behind them the colony of Carthage on the North African coast. Freed from the control of the Phoenicians, in 600 BC the Carthaginians invade and destroyed Tartessus, and then spread eastwards along the Mediterranean coast as far as present-day Murcia; here they founded their new capital, Cartagena. The most famous of the Carthaginians was a gentleman by the name of Hannibal, he of elephant fame. The main, competing political entity to the Carthaginians was Rome and its empire to the east. At the time we are talking about - the early third century BC - Rome took little interest in the Iberian Peninsula, its westward expansion having stopped at the Pyrenees. Hannibal, on the other hand, had ambitions beyond his station. Confidently, he attacked the might of the Rpman Empire in 219 BC - and lost. Thus ended the rule of the Carthaginians and thus came the wholesale invasion and occupation of the peninsula by the Romans. More about the Romans next time.
Recently I was invited to speak on the topic of the three cultures to a group to which my wife belongs. The latest festival had just finished and members were interested to know what it was all about. As I researched the topic, I found more and more of interest and dug further and further back into history. It struck me that other people might also be interested in the story of the Iberian peninsula and so over the next few postings that is what I am going to write about. We start a long, long way back; near the village of Orce, in Granada Province, is an archeological site which has yielded the earliest know human artifacts in Europe. The stone tools which have been discovered were made by our human ancestors, the Neanderthals, some 1.4 million years ago, dating which demonstrates that early humans were colonising western Europe almost half a million years earlier than previously believed. Their presence covered an enormous timeframe, stretching right up to around 40,000 years ago by which time the Mediterranean coast from Tangier to Alicante represented the last outmost of Neanderthal Man, as Homo Sapiens arrived from France via the Bay of Biscay coastline, and progressively spread south. Close by Frigiliana we have the town of Nerja, and on the outskirts of the town are the famous Nerja Caves, a major tourist attraction. Only a relatively small part of the caves are open to the public, though it will still take you two or three hours to look round them; the caves then penetrate deep into the mountain for several kilometres. In the upper galleries, archeologists have discovered a series of cave paintings, thought to dat back to the Stone Age. Recently, however, organic material found in the area which has the paintings has been dated to an estimated 42,000 years ago. Investigators from France have now visited the paintings with sophisticated electronic equipment which has allowed them to take samples of the calcium deposits overlying the paintings, without damaging the paintings themselves. These deposits have now been taken away for dating in the laboratory; it will take some months but the results are awaited with great excitement. If the age is confirmed as 42,000 years, then a major reassessment will be needed. Either Homo Sapiens arrived in this area much earlier than was thought, or Neanderthal Man also produced cave art. This latter conclusion would call into question the universally accepted view that the ability to create representational paintings is a unique characteristic of modern man, Homo Sapiens. All this of course, is long before the “three cultures”, but serves to demonstrate the importance of this area way back at the dawn of human time.
September has arrived and with it, cooler weather. There is a precision here that I have noticed in previous years and which I am at a loss to explain. For the past six weeks or thereabouts we have had daily maximum temperatures ranging between 32 and 37 degrees, and overnight lows of around 23 to 25 degrees. And so it continued through last week. But yesterday was the first day of September and our maximum was 27 degrees; overnight it fell to 17 degrees and today’s high is 24 degrees. My online weather forecast tells me that this is the pattern for the next 14 days. How does the weather know the date so accurately? A stupid question, I know, but it does it year in, year out. It can’t be just coincidence - can it? Whatever the reason and whatever the mechanism, this is the good news. Our electricity costs will be less as we shan’t need the aircon and the fans. It is pleasant to go out and about again during the day, and soon we’ll be able to take up serious walking again. That is on a personal level. On a wider consideration, we should hopefully have seen the last of the horrendous fires like the one I wrote about last time; the countryside is still tinder-dry, but it’s unliklely that we will see a repeat of “the three 30s”. I only learned yesterday of this rule of thumb that brings the emergency services to full alertness: If you have temperatures of 30 degrees or above, and you have wind speeds of 30 kmh or above and you have humidity of less than 30%, then you have all the necessary ingredients for major wildfires to break out. I’ve titled this post ‘The Good News And The Bad News”. The bad news, too, is a consequence of the arrival of September, though this hopefully is a one-off situation. To combat the current economic crisis (or if you are on the paying out end, to exacerbate it!), the Spanish government announced changes to IVA rates (VAT) with effect from 1st September. The 8% rate is increased to 10%, the 18% rate is increased to 21% and the 4% rate, imposed on items judged necessities, is abolished, being replaced by either the 10% or the 21% rate. So up go all the prices yet again, and in addition to permitted increases in gas and electricity prices which are effectively backdated to allow the utility companies to make up the ground lost when these prices were frozen in the autumn of last year. So actually, not using the aircon and the fans means we won’t pay as much more as we might have done. Moreover, public sector employees, who last year saw their pay cut by around 5%, now have to work an extra two and a half hours a week with no extra pay to accompany it.
Link to video
The media continue to be preoccupied by the question of whether Spain will ultimately need a full bail out. It certainly needs something. We are at the beginning of August which is the busiest of the holiday months, the time when local businesses must do well. And this year? In April the large hotel in the centre of the village reopened under new management following an extended period of closure. The new team had a properly worked out business plan and sufficient confidence in it to enter a 5 year lease agreement with the building's owners. Over the next four months they rapidly built up an enviable reputation for quality in both the hotel and its restaurant; accommodation was booked out for August and there were good bookings for later in the year. On 31st July, they closed down. The building's owners are on the verge of bankruptcy at which point the hotel will be repossessed by the bank, leaving the lessees nowhere to trade from. On the same day we met a friend of ours on the way to formally close his shop, and he also told us that the bar/refreshment kiosk in the Parque de Andalucía has closed. The holidaymakers are now swarming into the village but at least three valuable local businesses will not feel the benefit.
My last posting was written on the basis of very little fact and much speculation, never a wise combination. So today I return to the topic in order to set the record straight. The missing Englishman, who sadly is still missing, is no stranger to these mountains after all. He is a keen climber who has been coming to Nerja for the past seven years or so, and has often gone walking in the sierras. He knows the routes and the paths well. On Saturday last he set off on a challenging journey up the valley of the Rio Chillar, intending to go as far as an abandoned farmstead, El Cortijo del Imán, about 15 to 20km inland, and in fact very close to the area where the Dutch tourist became trapped for 18 days last year. He told his wife what he was doing and where he was going. He was properly equipped with appropriate footwear and clothing, a backpack, food and emergency rations, maps, mobile phone and a GPS device. He also hired a mountain bike so that he could cycle into the mountains as far as possible. He then intended to conceal the bike in the undergrowth and continue on foot to his destination and then pick the bike up on his way back. He expected to sleep out on Saturday night, since he knew he could not complete the trip in a single day. I owe him an apology for having assumed he was an innocent in the mountains. He had planned the trip carefully and had done everything by the book. But it still went wrong. Searchers have been in the sierras for four days now on foot, in helicopters, accompanied by search dogs trained to track down people but there is no sign either of him or of his bicycle. We are at that time of year when state of the art technology can be thwarted; we are all used to seeing the telltale heat blips in the dark on the popular police programmes, but here in July the ground is at least as hot as the people on it. No telltale blips because there is no differential. Today I read that the search has been extended in a new direction across into the sierras of neighbouring Granada Province. His route should have taken him nowhere near the Granada border, but apparently there was fog in the mountains on Sunday morning and searchers are not ruling out the possibility that he became disorientated and set off in the wrong direction. ¡Ojalá! as the Spanish say, “Please God.....”
We’ve had the Guardia’s search and rescue helicopter down on the plaza a couple of times this morning. It is, sadly, that time of year again. A 63 year old British holidaymaker went for a walk up the Rio Chillar on Saturday and has not come back You may remember that I blogged about a Dutch woman who did the same thing in June last year, finished up spending 18 days lost in the mountains and was found alive by the merest good luck when a party of highly experienced mountaineers chose to follow a route of the high sierras that took them close by where she was trapped. Will our British walker have similar good fortune? Time will tell. The mountains that rise up behind Nerja and Frigiliana are beautiful and awe-inspiring to look at, but they are not for the amateur - and that includes me. They are so close to the coast that their height is deceptive; they are much higher than they look. But what can go wrong with a simple walk along the bank of a river? A number of things actually. Firstly, there are two rivers not one, though they join just before reaching the outskirts of Nerja. To get to the Rio Higuerón, which offers the prospect of a strenous but relatively safe route up to Frigiliana (though you would be better advised to get the bus up to Frigliana and then follow the river back down to Nerja if you are not a seasoned walker), you have to ford the Rio Chillar, and of course, you have to know where. That’s not easy this summer as we had a pretty dry winter, so there is no water in the Higuerón right now; no opportunity, therefore, to say, “Oh, look, there’s the other river, over there.” So you will keep on walking up the Chillar. Then you have your second problem. There is always water in the Chillar and as the valley narrows so the availability of dry land to walk on dwindles away until you have no choice but to walk in the river itself, which of course is rocky and uneven and many of the rocks are loose and/or slippery, so you may fall. And you may break an arm, a leg, an ankle or a couple of ribs - or a combination of the above. To avoid the river bed, you may choose to follow a path that you see which will take you up to dry ground. Sadly, it may not be a path. It’s much more likely to be a track worn by the mountain goats as they move around their territory. They are far more agile than your average middle-aged, occasional walker, with a better sense of balance, a better head for heights, and two extra legs. But by the time that you suspect that you may have made a mistake, you have the problem of retracing your steps without any clear idea of which choice to make when, as it will, the track forks and forks again. Since you only set out for a simple stroll along a river bank, it’s odds-on that you haven’t any spare clothing, water supply or high energy food, all of which you may now be needing. You have now arrived at the point where your only hope is that sufficient people will leave all the other things which they really ought to be doing, to come out and find you before you need to be brought out in a body bag; if they ever do find you, that is. Alternatively, at the foot of this page is a list of links including to experienced guides who offer walks into the sierras from which you will return under your own steam.
It seemed at first in June as if summer had arrived early. Temperatures climbed into the mid-thirties and nights were hot and sweaty. Time to turn on the air conditioning. Then it eased off again, as it often does, but has remained much more tolerable into July. Daytime shade temperatures are mainly around 31 or 32 degrees maximum, whilst in the evening the temperature drops to a very pleasant 21 or 22 degrees, making sleep comfortable and easy. Now I see why. I was watching the news on BBC last night and when the weather forecast came on at the end, one of the charts showed the jetstream. At this time of year it should be tracking somewhere between Scotland and Norway, allowing warm air to spread north into the UK. Not last night! Last night’s chart showed the jetstream tracking across the southern half of the Bay of Biscay. North of it, as the people of Britain well know, one low pressure system after another rolls across the British Isles dumping record-breaking quantities of rain every few days, and causing widespread flooding and disruption. On the other hand, here on the Costa del Sol, the hottest of the tropical air is being held at bay by the very same jetstream. It looks as if we are having the summer Britain hoped for.
Well, a week ago Wednesday was the feast of San Antonio de Padua, which meant that the fairground came to town and blasted away for five days. It sets up approximately 200 metres as the crow flies from our bedroom; likewise the disco in front of the sugar cane factory, on a slightly different trajectory but similar distance. We had reason to be pleased with the double-glazed french doors we put in a couple of summers ago. We got a decent night’s sleep even though the disco kept going until around 7.00am each morning. Last night the village was strangely quiet - apart from the roars when Spain scored - as crowds gathered down on the beach at Burriana in Nerja to welcome in the Feats of St John the Baptist at midnight. Bonfires are lit on the beach, barbecues are fired up, many bottles are downed, and as the evening progresses the younger revellers take to jumping over the bonfires (not always entirely successfully) and at midnight everyone heads for the sea. It is said to commemorate San Juan Bautista, but it falls suspiciously closely to the summer solstice, so I suspect it’s another of those ancient pagan customs highjacked by the church. Anyway, all this also coincided with the end of the school year on Friday, and so my wife’s Spanish class joined with the adult classes for the people of the village to wish their teacher, Jesus, a fond farewell over lunch. I got chatting to a village lady who I guess would be similar in age to me; it was quite an eye-opener as to the differences in our experience. She attends classes in ‘learning about numbers’, ‘learning how to read and write words’ and computer skills. As a child, in common with most of the villagers, certainly the girls, she never went to school. Now she chats regularly on Skype with her son and his family in Barcelona, and with video!! She urged me to take full advantage of the free computer facilities in the Guadalinfo centre in the village. It would have been churlish to tell her I had my own computer at home. The highlight of the lunch though, was when one of my wife’s classmates plucked up courage to ask the local ladies where she could learn palmas and cante, the characteristic, rhythmic clapping and the singing associated with flamenco. The women took to her as one of their own, and one lady of 84 immediately launched into a demonstration of how to sing a copla. THe lady in whose restaurant the lunch was held explained to us that up until about twenty years ago, the singer still reatined her long, black hair and her beauty and was well-known for her performances at each and every village fiesta. She was, we were told, “Muy flamenca, muy andaluza.” Yes, I really like living in this village, just for moments like that.
A nine year old girl in Lochgilphead in Scotland, who wants to be a journalist when she grows up, was banned by the local authority from taking and publishing photos of her school dinners, even though the school itself was wholly supportive. The good news is that so many people complained that Argylle & Bute Regional Council realised they had a PR disaster on their hands and she is back on line. Martha's blog has now had over 2 million hits and has raised several thousand pounds for a charity she supports that provides school kitchens for communities in Africa. I'm including the link here in this posting, but I'll also add it as a permanenet feature to this blog. I just hope that she continues to go from strength to strength. http://neverseconds.blogspot.co.uk/
By and large this blog does not stray very far into the field of politics, which in some ways is odd as I am a political animal. So much so tht I am still a member of the Liberal Democrat Party back in the UK and continue to be registered to vote in national and European elections in the Rossendale & Darwen constituency where I used to live. Here in Spain I can vote in local elections but not in ‘communidad’ or national elections. Mostly, as regular readers will know, I write of the everyday things that are happening and of the regular cycle of fiestas that mark the path of the unfolding year - Wednesday sees the return of feria the annual knees-up to celebrate the feast of San Antonio de Padua, which in practical terms mainly affects my wife and I in the form of five sleepless nights; if we were younger we would probably admit defeat and stay up as well, but that’s another story. From time to time though, people back in the UK ask worriedly how life is here in Spain as they read of yet another supposed threat to the continued existence of the Eurozone, the world in general and life as we know it. Well obviously things are not good. Spain has just reluctantly accepted a €100 billion bail out. That was Saturday and already on Monday the doom-mongers of the British press are rubbing their hands in glee and predicting that it won’t be enough to stave off Armageddon. And George Osborne has leapt in to take the opportunity to conflate the 16-nation Eurozone with the 27-nation European Union, so that he can offer his party’s right wing the prospect of that all-important referendum to get out of Europe. So, on the one hand he and Cameron insist that the Eurozone countries must “do something”, whilst George makes it clear that if/when they do, he’ll make full use of the political opportunity it presents him with. So, let’s get some things straight. And let’s start with Spain. And let’s start with something you will be hard-pressed to find reported anywhere; the Spanish government’s debt as a percentage of GDP is lower than Germany’s. Read that sentence again. Read it over and over until it helps you to see that Spain is not a basket case. The debt that is threatening to derail the Eurozone economies, if you believe the hyperbole, is the banks’ debt. During the boom years - and this is going to sound horribly familiar - the banks invested massively in property. Just like banks in the USA and the UK, the banks lent money they didn’t have to people who wanted to get onto the housing bandwagon, in the firm belief apparently that come the day, the tooth fairy would pop round during the night and make up the shortfall. The difference in Spain is that the majority of personal bank accounts are held with what are called cajas de ahorros. These are savings banks like the old TSB, Post Office Savings Bank, and locally based building societies that people in the UK are familiar with. Mostly, they are small and many of them badly overstretched themselves in the property boom. As the bubble burst they found more and more developers and owner-occupiers handing back the keys instead of being able to carry on making their loan repayments, so that now a huge amount (I can’t be more precise, I’m afraid) of their assets are in property whose value is significantly reduced from its 2008 value. One solution that was tried, and which has now hit the buffers, was to persuade around a dozen of the hardest hit to amalgamate all their assets and rely on their resultant size to carry them through. The new grouping adopted the name, Bankia, proudly announced that at a stroke it was the fourth largest bank in Spain - and now the government have got to nationalise it. So we have the old, old story of “cash poor but asset rich”. Except that the banks have shown themselves extremely reluctant to acknowledge that they are a lot “asset poorer” than they were. Left to themselves, they will simply sit on their property portfolios until the good times return. In the meantime, they haven’t the liquid resources to finance an economic recovery by lending to small and medium sized businesses, who in turn suffer a domino effect, with business closure and a horrendous level of unemployment. Strangely, thoug the bonuses and mega-salaries continue to be paid out; that probably sounds familiar too. All of this helps to explain how what is now generally referred to as the “Occupy Movement” - Wall St, St Paul’s, etc - originated on the 15th May, 2011 in the Puerta del Sol in Madrid, the Plaza de la Constitución in Málaga, in Barcelona and many other cities across Spain as “Los Indignados”, the indignant ones, who asked the very reasonable question of the bankers and financiers, “Why should we pay to clear up your mess?” They are still waiting for an answer. However, the Spanish government is taking steps to make progress. There are the austerity cuts (mainly hitting the 1%, as los indignados also call themselves), there is now the bail out, but there is now the requirement on the banks to accept that they can’t sit on repossessed property whilst at the same time grabbing a cool €100 billion from Europe; they must write down the values and sell at realistic prices into the current market. It remains now to be seen how successful the government will be in forcing the hand of the banks.
The sun is shining on my knees and on my toes. Shoes, socks and trousers have gone away, to be replaced by sandals and shorts. We have had warm spells already this year, as I have mentioned previously, but the difference this week is that the air as well as the sun is warm. It may not be long now before I venture into the jacuzzi in the late afternoon. I got an email inviting me to learn about a new venture in the village, so it was off down to the cultural centre for eleven o’clock to meet Isabella and Antonio talking of their newly-established language school here in Frigiliana, and afterwards went to inspect the ‘escuela’. Initially they have taken the lease on a modern apartment which they have converted to provide three classrooms (aulas, if you want to build up your Spanish), and a lounge area with computer and AV facilities, as well as a modest library of Spanish-language books. Apparently, Antonio has been teaching in Nerja for many years, but not at the school I attended. Anyway, I’ll add their website to my blog for the benefit of anyone who fancies polishing up their language skills in the sun. If you follow it up, let me know when you’re arriving. I’m always happy to accept a copa as a gesture of gratitude for the introduction!
It dawned on me this morning that it’s over two weeks since I last posted anything on here. Then I thought, “Well there hasn’t been anything happening to write about.” And after that it occurred to me that that in itself is perhaps worthy of a mention. A blog is an artificial creation, after all. It sets out what a full and interesting and vibrant life I am leading here in the sun. Well, sometimes life is like that. But lots of other times, it’s just like life everywhere; long spells of nothing much happening, interspersed by bursts of activity. The past couple of weeks have been quite full, but of little, inconsequential things which are also enjoyable but don’t make for fascinating reading. Perhaps there will be something exciting next time..... or the time after.
This morning my wife got up and went to make coffee. On entering the kitchen, she discovered a large and ominous pool of water on the floor, directly beneath the light fitting from which water was dripping steadily. It had to be Sunday, of course. I rang a friend who is a plumber, he came round and together we went up to the bathroom directly above the kitchen. Everything looked fine. But then it would look fine; all the pipes are under the tiled floor. He treated me to a chorus of that sucking, slow intake of breath one expects from a plumber in the process of diagnosis, and declared it to be too big a job for him. So I did what I should have done in the first place. I rang my insurance company. One hour later, an electrician arrived to disconnect and tape up the wires to the light, assuring me that when everything was fixed and had dried out, he would return and reconnect them. An hour later the plumber arrived. First of all he made a hole in the false ceiling of the kitchen so that he could see where the water was entering the void. He went up to the bathroom, located the guilty pipe, smashed his way through the tiles to get at it, removed the necessary section and replaced it, and then three hours later left with the emergency over. He also assured me that I would now receive a visit - arranged by the company - from a builder who would repair the kitchen ceiling and replace the broken tiles (Fortunately, I have several spares, so no problem about matching them), and that a painter would then come and repaint wherever there had been water damage. All of this on a Sunday! But that is the beauty of MAPFRE. When three years ago the engine of my car blew up at 8.15 one Sunday morning on a country road in France, a breakdown truck was with us within an hour and a half, and we were then provided with transport in the form of taxi, train, taxi and hire car, which allowed us to drive into the village at almost precisely the time that I had anticipated getting back before the car let us down. It took rather longer for the car to catch up with us, but that is another story. Oh, and next year we are planning to visit friends in New Zealand. The price of comprehensive travel insurance to cover a four week trip to the other side of the world? 3.40€ each additional premium on our household insurance policy; and that covers us for any other holidays we might take, irrespective of where or for how long (up to 60 days each trip). That’s why today I think my insurance company deserves a blatant plug on my blog.