Traslado del Virgen continued – The Outfall

On one of our exploration evening drives we took the route that the pilgrims take from El Rocio to Almonte out of pure curiosity. It is hard to believe that a throng of people marched this camino in the middle of the night, with no lighting and through pine woods and pure sand, carrying a statue as if that wasn’t hard enough. There are Stations of the Cross, decorated arches along the whole way but also an enormous amount of litter. It is an utter shame to see plastic bottles strewn all over the camino and blown into the forest even after a week passed. Obviously religious fervour does not include taking responsibility for the environment. A wooden statue is celebrated like the famous golden calf, venerated and huge amount of tax payers money is spent on organising this event, for security, catering, decorations and what not. According to the online edition of Sevilla ABC news stated 1,4 million people took part, calculated by the amount of cars parked in the specially opened spaces, the amount of water bottles sold, buses used and toilets flushed. And again, Mother Earth has to suffer even as a Virgin is carried on hands…

Eclectic mix of guests

Most weekends we are completely booked out. We had a booking for the downstairs bedroom with private bathroom which turned out to be a gay couple when they finally came in the door. An hour previously they had phoned as they were lost, even though I always sent the location and a description how to get to us via Whatsapp to every guest. After trying to guide them here I finally handed the phone over to another guest, thinking that my bad Spanish might be the reason of their lostness. These boys needed devine guidance to get them to our place; they were near, yet so far and I handed the phone to the priest, who also stayed the night in our casa and luckily had returned just in time to save the lost sheep. These gentlemen came with a sports Audi coupe and gave us one of the worst reviews, a   3.5 out of 10. All was wrong, obviously they would have been better off with a five-star hotel in the middle of town.

Other guesting gripes are phone bookings with the result that the people don’t turn up. I take phone bookings midweek to fill rooms but not at the weekends. This Saturday I had three bookings for one room, with one immediate cancellation and one no reply, which is rather rude, but eventually a booking came through via booking.com and we had all rooms full. It is a bit exasperating because each time I send a personalised whatsapp message with directions after saving the number into the mobile phone.

It is true, I do get blue, and sometimes I think of the green, lush fields of Ireland. The familiarity that 25 years of living on a relatively small island instills, the ease of conversing in a language which I picked up from primary school but only mastered after a few years of practical application in County Westmeath.

I thought a warm climate supports the growing of plants. Alas, the heat is just as bad as frost, both burns the leaves and shrivels up the poor things. Granted, it’s too hot for slugs but instead we have burrowing furry things attacking plants from underneath. They felled most of the aubergine plants. On the upside I am proud of the lovely kohlrabi and beetroot, these are yummy.

Now in the first week of September, it is time for autumn sowing, and more kohlrabi and beetroot, fennel, beans, peas, herbs, brussel sprouts and later salad are on the way. The hot soil temperature has seeds germinating within 2-4 days, but it is important to keep them shaded and moist or they’ll get burned.

Which they did. Now we are already well into October and temperatures reached above thirty degrees and killed off my lovely pea seedlings. Fennel, Brussel sprouts and Kohlrabi did not germinate at all but the beans are fairly happy, as long as they can enjoy some shade. So for next year the garden will definitely need to get proper shading   installed over all parts.

BERLIN

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We spent three nights in Berlin to visit my mum, who is now 95 years old. This time it was on my birthday so she got a lovely bunch of roses. Unfortunately and understandably she has slowed down a lot and a two hour visit is all she can take.

 

As a treat we watched the VIVID show in the Friedrich-Stadt-Palast. I always wanted to see this iconic building from the inside. I studied not far from there Agriculture Sciences at the Humboldt University. The Palace has kept his old style feel and art deco interior. It is supposed to be Europe’s biggest stage, in depth. The orchestra sits right at the back of the stage and we could glimpse it between the actors and dancers. It was a spectacular show with headgear designed by Philip Treacy, the Irish hat designer and custom-made music, dance and decorations for this place.

We also watched the winning runners of the Berlin Marathon pass us at the Fehrbelliner Platz, just around the corner, where my mother lives. The drizzly rain felt refreshing to us since we had no rain here in Almonte since April.

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Berlin Marathon

In the meantime we had our house angel Sara and her mother and sister mind our finca and look after our furry and feathery friends. They had a lovely weekend at the beach and we were all happy.

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Olive Season 2019

This year the olive harvest started already in the first week of September. This coincided with the wine harvest, so the area was a flurry of activity. The reason of the early date is the lack of water. The olives are starting to turn black and so need to be taken down as the green ones are used for eating at the table, not for oil. This year the yield is down by 50-60% so we don’t need help this year. We have finished the Manzanilla variety and are close to 2 t and Nigel has started on the pruning until we harvest the Verdial olives.

The Virgen Comes to Almonte

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La Paloma Blanca

Our town Almonte has worked itself into a fever pitch preparing for the arrival of the Virgen of El Rocio,  La Paloma Blanca, the White Dove how she is called among many other names. And so the decorations include millions of white paper flowers strung over the streets and around poles, at windows and archways. The Virgin herself is a small, 12th century statue of Mary and the baby Jesus, but here in El Rocio she is the Virgin of the Dew (= Rocio), or the Mother of the Marshes (of the Doñana National Park). A small nugget of useless information: her statuary vestment was designed by no other than Yves Saint Laurent in 1985.

This is a very important occasion which only occurs every seven years and of which the Almonteñas are very proud of.  For nine months the much loved statue will reside in the church in Almonte until she is returned to her home in El Rocio.

As with all religious or historical festivities the Spanish put in an enormous amount of work and effort to make this a fiesta to remember.

The whole way along which the Virgen is carried is sumptuously festooned, archways and domes are constructed and decorated by hand with rosemary sprigs and palm fronds, white crepe paper and gold lamé.

But the hardest part is the midnight pilgrimage from the shrine in El Rocio to the church in Almonte.  The Virgin is carried in her sedan on the shoulders of the parishioners on a 15 km long fairly rough camino, with no lighting and any amount of dust.

The plan was apparently to leave El Rocio at 20.00 in the evening on the 19th of August, but excitement and sheer exuberance eroded the patience of the participants and so they started moving at half past four in the afternoon.  That meant the main road between Matalascanas and Almonte and further to Sevilla was closed;  which meant a detour of two hours for us, as I saw fit to spend a few hours at the beach on that very day, knowing full well that the next day that this road would be a no-go because of the returning traffic from El Rocio and Almonte. So we had to divert along a camino that cuts across the National Park from Mazagon to Almonte. A scenic but rather rough drive with about a hundred speed bumps scattered along the way.

To us this fanatical veneration of a statue seems strange, particular when most people we ask answer that they are not really religious. The Spanish just like a reason to arrange a fiesta and then be in the midst of it, seen and be seen, they love being part of a crowd.  This of course is another reason why Spain is the party destination per se.

Of course having a holy statue also helps to generate income from visitors and a lot of new shops have sprung up selling everything from holy pictures, to plates, t-shirts, bags, medals and other religious paraphernalia. A few new bars and restaurants have opened and every building got a makeover.

For some reason, the virgin seems to be particular poplar with the gay community. We frequently have gay couples staying that plan to go to the shrine in El Rocio. Mind you, there is also a fiesta with food, drink and marihuana to be had in El Rocio. So one goes with the other I presume.

[see also the blog describing the Pentecost pilgrimage:   http://christophotto.com/andalucia-the-miracles-of-el-rocio  and more  http://www.andalucia.com/festival/rocio.htm ]

We were told that up to a million visitors were expected, so we thought we could make a killing. Initially I had my rooms booked out for those three days, only to have all of the reservations cancelled in advance. So I raised the price for the last-minute bookers, only to end up with a nearly empty house. I can only assume that people decided to save the money as they would not have needed a bed being on the camino all night and then afterwards, tanked up on coffee, headed home or to a nearby couch in a friends house. Our experience with renting our rooms now is that up to a certain price people are willing to pay, beyond that they will just find other accommodation, even though we are on the lower price bracket. Of course other providers in El Rocio or Matalascañas are flexible and adjust their prices downwards to attract guests, and if I am not on the ball, I miss out.

Saying that, having the house a few days to ourselves is a welcome break and gives my head peace. It’s not easy for a rather introvert person like myself to continuously welcome strangers into our home, worse when they also want to use my very own sacrosanct kitchen, even if it is only to make coffee, constantly. After all, I want to supplement our income by providing home-cooked meals and hearty breakfasts to our guests.

BEACH BEACH, BABY

 

When the temperature hits 33 degrees plus, it’s time to head to the beach, where it is mostly six degrees less hot and a nice breeze caresses your body as you judiciously space out the time between swims with lounging around, reading and people watching. We go to a place that is near the chiringuito ‘Heidi Bananas’, a gay haunt and a left-over from the heydays from thirty years ago, when Matalascanas was ‘hip’ and visited by the Germans and English, before they discovered the Costa Blanca, Ibiza and Mallorca. Then the huge camping place with all mod-cons was also in use, but is now completely deserted.

This beach lays to the right of the town, at the end of a winding sand camino, which ends close to the light house. There the beach is fringed with cliffs and stretches endless. It is never full, as there is so much space. There is also a tractor to watch that pulls boats from the water or leaves them down to the surf. The next restaurant is about a km further on and this whole side of beach until the yacht harbour in Mazagon stretches over 25 kms. The other side, in the direction of Matalascanas to the Gualdalquivir river stretches over 30 kms, with a dune landscape. So the total length of the beach here is over 55 kms! On both sides of Matalascanas is the Donana National park, which means no buildings are allowed and there a very few places, where you can actually access the beach. All this area belongs to the Golf of Cadiz and the Costa de la Luz.

But not only can you use the beach to relax, no, Nigel uses it to whip himself into shape with varies circuit exercises while running up and down the beach. Recently two fifteen-year old boys stopped to ask him how many press ups he could do. So they joined him in crunches, planks and press-ups; and that after he had already done his set of 100. There really is no glory to challenge an over 60-year old when you are fifteen and can’t keep up…

Tomato Chutney

A good use for ugly, discoloured or green tomatoes is to make some chutney. The green tomatoes were harvested accidentally; the others just didn’t look nice on a plate so in they went together with two onions, one tired apple and a handful of raisins. Chutney also needs brown sugar, vinegar and some spices, here I used ground ginger and three small dried chillies and a pinch of salt. I have made chutney before so I am not too concerned about quantities, as long as the flavour is good. I had about a pound of tomatoes and half a cup of brown sugar left and added vinegar by taste. Don’t be tempted to add water, the apple, onions and tomatoes have enough juice themselves.

An hour later all was nicely soft and golden brown and ready to put into jars, hey presto.

 

Blessed Are Thou Amongst Women

It just so happens that we now have an (nearly) all female house, with 5 female guests and I Nigel is vastly outnumbered. Not that he minds…..

We have two mothers and daughters, Italian and Peruvian, and a lady from San Sebastian, all holidaying here for more than a few days.

We do have one of the best beaches, have I mentioned this before? And lots of horse riding opportunities as well as cultural attractions like three of Cristoph Columbuses carabelas, a huge ancient and still working open-cast mine, a venerated Virgin, a vast National Park and in the not so far mountainous region of the Sierra Morena also caves.

Our other star attraction is Jack, the cat, loved by all.

The best guests…

… love animals

…. enjoy the food, the time to read or even swap breakfast for a haircut

 

My First Bull Fight

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Corrida in Almonte

So I went to a bullfight, corrida de toros. Does that make me a bad person?

I was full of trepidation but also excited. I expected to be repulsed and to leave early, maybe after the first bull was killed. But I didn’t, I stayed till the end.

Every year, at the end of the Feria de San Pedro in Almonte the bull ring is erected in the Recinto Ganadero, just out of town, this is the place where a week before the horses from the Doñana National Park have been corralled. So the bull fight is the finale of the very important tradition starting with the ‘Saca de las Yeguas’, followed by the fiesta in the chaparral and culminating with the annual bull fight and the last day of the festivities. We could hear the noise from the feria and its many attractions and rides still at 4am.

I make it my business to explore the country I live in and try to understand how the people tick. What has shaped them, what circumstances have brought them to this point in time? This includes the history of the country, which is very colourful and rich in Spain, religion, but also the climate, the influence of neighbouring cultures and how everything weaves together to generate the people and their specific culture and traditions.

So I gain an understanding and a love for these people that I have chosen to live with. That includes learning and experiencing customs, which may seem alien and illogical and are completely new to me.

The Spaniards are known worldwide for their joy in celebrating fiestas for any reason. Whole families or villages will group together to enjoy food, drink, song and customary dressing up. Every village has their own patron saint and their very own date to celebrate him or her, so if you want, you can attend a fiesta every day of the year. A lot of them are based on the catholic holy days, and if there are not enough, a few other ones are added. Even though few people attend church, veneration of saints is still a big thing and we have one of the major ones beside us in El Rocio, La Paloma Blanca. So we kind of are getting used to the hype around the statue and her importance in the yearly calendar and profit from it, as a lot of Spaniards will stay at Casa Halcon for the night to attend a meeting or celebration in El Rocio, which happens nearly every month.

Every town in Andalucia also has or had a bull ring. And if this edifice is not suitable anymore, then a temporary structure will be installed for the day as it is in Almonte. This seems to be the only fiesta where children are, fortunately, not brought along, it is an adults only event. Nevertheless is it a family day out, with big cooler boxes, picnic baskets, drinks and cushions brought along. I can only speak for Almonte, which is a small agricultural town, so these corridas in Sevilla or Madrid are probably a different affair. I was worried about the dress code, but here is was more relaxed, people not so much dressed up. We brought along our Spanish friend Teresa, but since her last corrida was ten years ago, she didn’t really know what to expect either.

I was just looking up the calendar of toro (=bull) events, corridas, and there are two bull fights on every day in Pamplona! So the tradition of bull fights is well and truly alive in most of Spain. However, in Catalonia bull fighting is banned since 2011, but the Spanish court overruled this decision, deeming it to be more anti-spanish than pro-animal rights [see https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/oct/20/spanish-court-overturns-catalonia-bullfighting-ban ].

In fact, bull fighting has already been practiced in pre-historic times, then the Greeks and Romans were at it and so it is still ongoing, also in Portugal, France and parts of South America.

We went an hour early to get good seats as the seats are not numbered, but still ended up, inexperienced as we are, with the sun shining fully at us, which made photo-taking a bit difficult. We should have known, as the rungs opposite us were already quite full, and they had the sun in their backs. Outside the ring the participating horses were warmed up and exercised. Beverages and snack and seat cushions were sold; it was a rather calm atmosphere.

On the programme it stated six bulls and six bull fighters were involved. All participants in the ring are toreros, but only the matador will kill the bull, or that is the hope. It does seem a bit unfair, as there are at least five toreros involved, including the banderilleros, which assist the matador in the ring. They have pink capes, with which they attract the attention of the bull. The matador has two capes, both in red, one smaller than the other. The banderilleros start the performance, getting the bulls attention, then a picador arrived on horseback, the horse heavily cushioned against injury from the bulls horns, to apply a lance into the bull, but not piercing him too deep.  Then the banderillero will stick six banderillas, barbed darts, into the bulls back. I have not made myself knowledgeable about all aspects of the bull fight, but I suspect it has to do with bloodletting and aggravating the bull. So he is already weakened and mad. Then the ‘dance of death’ begins, with the banderilleros stepping in when the matador needs a break to change the cape or the sword. The bull just seems to concentrate on attacking the biggest target, the cape. But the matador or banderillero needs to read the bull, assess his strength, his next move because they are only inches away from his horns and hooves. So it is a skilled dance for life or death, only the bull having the disadvantage of being on his own with his instincts and the ever increasing blood loss. At some stage the matador will move to kill him with sword between his shoulders, puncturing the heart, as clean and swift as possible. To do that he needs to confront the animal, which is as dangerous and he needs to be able to assess if the toro is in an enough exhausted stage to not suddenly attack him. Sometimes this does not happen quite as it should, and the banderillero will deliver a coup de grâce, cutting the spinal cord of the bull with a broad bladed dagger, once the bull has gone to its knees.

http://www.aficionados-international.com/general-information/the-bullfighter

We also got to see the spectacular performance of a picador, a matador on horseback. The awe-inspiring skill of the rider to keep the horse just an inch away from the bulls’ horns was unbelievable. The horse was unprotected, and if it goes down, the rider will go with it. The horse was agile and stepped backwards, sideways, danced his way around the bull. It is such an intense performance, that the horse was changed every ten minutes.

The matador will be rewarded for his skill and performance with one or two of the bull’s ears, which are cut off in the ring when he is dead. The picador, being such a skilled horse man, also received the tail of the bull. It is the spectators that decide by waving white kerchiefs what the matador will receive or if the bull is given pardon and can live.

The dead bull is removed by the ‘death squad’, a team of mules that drag the dead bull out of the ring. The bull is slaughtered in a mobile slaughterhouse on-site, and the meat sold to restaurants and butcher shops.

Then helpers rake the arena, covering over the blood.

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the dead bull outside of the arena

Despite being born and reared in Berlin (West), the now capitol of Germany, I have worked and lived on a dairy farm for 13 years, I also lived and worked with sheep, I have been to slaughter factories (only once or maybe twice) and I eat meat. And I think anybody that eats meat should not be ignorant of the final journey an animal makes to become the meat on the plate. Death is part of life, but what I do not condone is ongoing suffering, the needless suffering of animals kept in conditions that are far removed from their natural habitat or confined to an extent that they cannot carry out their natural behaviours. And this is factory farming, where pigs and chickens are kept in cages all their lives indoors, pumped full of antibiotics to control disease, which will spread rapidly if living conditions are crowded and prevent the animal’s natural movements.

In a bull fight the animal, beast against man, is respected. And it had a very good life up to that point, pampered and pastured, fed with the best of grain, exercised and trained to become the star of a seemingly barbaric custom.

I have now experienced all of the fiestas that the Doñana area has to offer, and this was the final baptism, in blood. I won’t go again, but I will not judge or condemn the people that enjoy this spectacle, it is their tradition and culture, and as a blow-in I have to respect that.

 

 

Saca de las Yeguas 2019

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Almonte has not just the Romeria and the Virgin of El Rocio, it also has one of Andalucia’s most important horse events, the Saca de Las Yeguas, the Running of the Mares. There is a unique race of horses here in the Doñana National Park, the Marismeña race. These horses are the original American mustangs. They were imported to America on ships from Huelva, starting with Christoph Columbus in the 16th century.

For the past 500 years on the 26th of June, the mares and their foals, born in the marismas of the Doñana National Park, are brought by the Yegüerizos, the local horse men and women, first to the church in El Rocio to be blessed. Then they proceed through the streets of Almonte to the Recinto Ganadero, the livestock corral, where they are cleaned, vaccinated, reshod, their manes are cut, the foals are branded and some horses sold. After three days they return to their grazing grounds in the Doñana, passing by our gate. This year there were 1,500 horses being herded to and from their grazing areas.

The horse men and women have had a few very tough days finding and gathering up the semi-wild horses in the over 150,000 ha large National park. They arrive there 3-4 days in advance of the drive to camp out and follow a tradition that has no rules or standards, only instinct and the deep understanding and love of the mind of the horse.

It is breath-taking to see groups of riders bringing groups of 300-400 horses, that have not seen a human being for much of the year, into the towns of El Rocio and Almonte. The horse dominates the life for a lot of people here: from the townhouses in El Rocio, that have poles in front of every house to tie the horses and at the back the stables, to the carriage manufacturers, saddle and reins makers and the gorgeous riding boots, hand-made with traditional decor. Alone on our camino are two riding schools and further the other direction is ‘Doñana Horse Adventure’, owned by a french girl, Sandrine, you can book an adventure on horseback through the national Park or the dunes along the beach. [ see https://www.inspirock.com/spain/el-rocio/donana-horse-adventure-a1399490733 ].

There is a monument to the Yegüerizos in Almonte which says: “For he who has never won a horse in the swamp, does not know what it means to ride.”

[ see more at https://www.spain-holiday.com/Almonte/articles/the-saca-de-las-yeguas-almonte-huelva]

The Saca de las Yeguas is followed by the Feria de San Pedro, the patron saint of Almonte, which seamlessly continues the fiesta-athmosphere and celebrations, of which the Spanish are famous.

Romeria and Puppy Love

Puppy Love

Drops, our little terrier-mix, thanked us for taking care of her with a clutch of puppies. We kept two of them, Bonnie and Clyde. So we now have four dogs in total and that is enough.

As cute as their antics are, the animal instinct drives the mother to give them lessons in survival hunting and they turned suddenly on our two white hens. Ordinarily the hens forage around the dogs, happily clucking away and even eating out of the same bowls. One hen did not survive the attack, the other is rather ruffled looking, missing all feathers on her back, but is feeding away. So we are down to three eggs a day. With guests enjoying the odd fry-up, we need a bigger supply of fresh farm eggs and so are buying three more hens. The red breed seems to be more resilient as we still have the two original hens, Ruby and Rita.

Jack

Another addition to the family is Jack, our tiny kitten. He is only four weeks old and is the sole surviver of a batch. The others apparently got under the hooves of horses or were molested by dogs, so it was decided to farm him out. He now lives on the upper terrace until he is a bit bigger and able to stand his ground. I am however keen to give him some playmates….

Romeria 2019

As every year, The Romeria, the biggest religious pilgrimage in Andalucia, has taken place in El Rocio, only 15 kms from us [ http://www.andalucia.com/festival/pilgrimages.htm ]. The town itself is solely built on the sandy soils, with no paved roads, which is just as well as there are as many horses as people in this cowboy-feel like town, and every house has rails to tie your horse up at the front door and stables at the back. You can even drink your beer or eat on horseback with extra high planks to put your glass or plate down. [ http://www.andalucia.com/festival/rocio.htm ]

The Romeria is a colourful spectacle, with up to one million (1,000 000) poeple taking place and decending upon this small dusty town. The devotion to the ‘Virgin de El Rocio’ is amazing, but real religious fervour is rare and it#s all about the to-be-seen. Around nine months later apparently a lot of babies are born, not always conceived by husband and wife. The Spanish just like to celebrate and socialise, any reason is good enough. For us it means that Almonte closes down for nearly two weeks around pentecost, with no work or orders being taken three weeks in advance of the big festival. We just have to get used to that.

We originally thought to rent out the whole finca, but we have been adviced against it, as damage might occur and countless number of people would invade the house in an inebriated state. So we rented our rooms as usual, upping the price and …. ended up with only one full day booked and one room free. Who would have thought? Well, anybody that really has some business or involvement in the Romeria is of course in El Rocio, be it in one of the houses the various ‘Hermandades’ own, or other houses for rent, pensions, hotels, camping place or part of the gipsy bowtop caravans. Because from all towns of Andalucia families and groups diverge in several daylong pilgrimages towards El Rocio, on foot, on horse back, in carriages, carts or wagons, trailers and tractors. And all are decked out with flowers, pretty curtains, the ladies in flamenco dresses, flowers in hair or on top of their heads. The caballeros look very fetching in tight riding outfits, smart straw hats and bolero jackets.

We usually keep away from crowds and religious events, but this year I went with our German friends Claudia and Gerd to have a look on the Saturday evening. There was a lull in the celebrations and only when we left at nine in the evening, the streets started to fill up again. The real event, the blessing of the ox drawn carts with a flower-bedecked image of the Virgin in the main square, takes place around midday and is televised. So we watch from the cool of our sitting room on Canal Sur, the Andalucian regional TV station, how this religious cult unfolds.

Friendship, Fun and Festivals

At Casa Halcon in May

The month is already over – it went so fast, so much has happened. Apart from guests coming and going and our little dog family growing, we also had friends staying here and I went to Madrid and Segovia for four days, to meet my friend Fiona there.

The weather has brought us already temperatures over 30 degrees with night time temperatures also above 23 degrees, too much for a comfortable night’s sleep.

The strawberry tunnels in the area have been mostly taken down and the land is ready for ploughing. We have seen buses lining up to take the Romanian and Moroccan workers back home. This is a month earlier than last year. The strawberry originated in shady woodland of the northern hemisphere and so do not tolerate the intense heat that has descended upon us. My four plants have stopped producing and are shriveling up. I am not sure the plants will survive the heat of the summer like they would do in the winter, hibernating. I fear, I will have to replant as they have not produced runners and then also keep them under cover, against frost in the winter and the sun in the summer.

Our potatoes have produced a good enough crop, but again also have not flowered before the stalks died off. Obviously plants do behave differently when subjected to heat. My sunflowers and sweetcorn are growing and forming flowers but are stunted in growth. Again, it is the heat doing that. With courgettes I had absolutely no luck this year, even though In Ireland they never gave me trouble. You live and learn. I try to use mulch, died pulled weeds, to cover tender young plants to give them some ‘sunscreen’.

To my surprise the home-sown leeks and kohlrabi do not seem mind the heat.

Segovia & Madrid

Spain has much to offer and we have not seen the half of it yet. So I arranged to meet my friend Fiona in Segovia. I am proud to say this trip was solely conducted with public transport, which is really well organised and not pricey. The trip enfolded thus:

Car to bus terminal in Almonte – Bus to Sevilla Plaza de Armas Bus terminal (1.15 hr, €5.05) – Bus to Sevilla train station Santa Justa (€1.75) – high-speed Train to Madrid-Atocha (2.30 hr) – Metro to Madrid-Charlemartin Station – Train to Segovia (27 min., whole train journey (€55.65). Finally Bus into Segovia centre (30 min., €2.00).

Security on the high-speed train is tighter than when crossing the borders between France and Spain, or Spain and Portugal, which is nil, nada, zilch. My ticket was checked three times and all bags had to go through a scanner.

By car this would have taken 5.30-6.00 hours and up to 600 kms, depending on the route. But why bother, if trains and buses get you there in time, with great connections and air conditioning?

SEGOVIA…

…IS BEAUTIFUL AND COLD and lies in city in the autonomous region of Castile and León. Well, to me it was cold anyway. I left Almonte in 26 degrees and sunshine and arrived in Segovia with 18 degrees, going down to six degrees at night, additionally it was overcast and grey. It is a lot farther north and is at 1,000m altitude, it is also close to several sky resorts, which explains a lot.

We had two nights booked and intended to do the full circle walking around the town to pick up on all the monuments. We did visit the castle and many many boutiques….

Between the first and second century A.D. the Romans built an impressive aqueduct (http://www.romanaqueducts.info/aquasite/segovia/index.html) which can be admired in the old town, which is also full of ornate churches, pretty medieval townhouses and at the other end of town the castle, or Alcazar, is situated that apparently inspired the Disney logo castle.

The castle is a gothic style jewel from the 12th century [see https://www.spain.info/en/que-quieres/arte/monumentos/segovia/alcazar_de_segovia.html] and sumptuously decorated. We’d walked around with craned necks to admire the ornately carved ceilings. The architecture that has been handed down from the Moorish occupiers concerns itself a lot with ceilings. Also walls are top to bottom decorated with stucco and tiles, often incorporating Islamic script, praising Allah. This style is, in my eyes, so much more uplifting and celebrating the gifts and talents that god-allah bestows on humans than the Christian churches could ever come near.

some of the gorgeous ceilings of the castle:

The castle, or fortress, was also a military school, which explains the tiny knight’s amours and different sized weaponry:

There is so much to feast the eyes on, that one castle a day is quite enough.

It was rather cool and shopping makes you warm, all this trying on of lovely frocks. It’s a nice town for that, as not overrun with people and we had peace and quiet selecting our rich rags.  We employed restraint and came away with a nice long black lacy dress for Fiona and I obtained white jeans adorned at the bottom, a colourful silky skirt, a t-shirt and some much needed undergarments.

The other cultural thing we did was visit an exhibition in the Torreón de Lozoya, at the Plaza de San Martín. Simply because we had time and everything else was closed. The tower itself was unfortunately closed. One exhibition was about the Orden Espanola de Carlos III, with the portraits of members of the Orden and their costumes, the other was below and a modern photographic exhibition with black and white portraits and a video show of men’s faces, just coming from a shift from the mines. No words, no subtitles, no names, just dirty, dusty, tired honest faces. It was amazing what deep impression they made on us, how we were moved by the humanity shown. It was nearly voyeuristic just looking at their faces looking at us. The attending nice young man at the table upstairs filled us in on the background afterwards.

That night we had a horrible dinner consisting of deep-fat fried chopped up suckling pigs trotters….

I would be ashamed of serving such cremated bits of bone, grizzle and microscopic amounts of meat. But apparently this is a delicacy in this region, and warrants the €22 euro. I hoovered up the over-priced patatas bravas instead. To aid Fiona’s digestion we went in search of a decent glass of brandy, which she got. Port they didn’t know, so I had a sherry instead.

After breakfast the next day we took the bus back to the train station to go to Madrid; a much warmer place indeed, and a great city, if you happen to like city life. Fiona had already spent a night there and had a handle on where to go. We had booked an arty Airbnb apartment at the back of the artist’s exhibition and working space, an interesting set-up. I had booked us a session at the Hammam, the Arabic baths, which we were in need of after exploring the area. I hadn’t walked so much in a long time.

We visited the grand Prado museum [https://www.museodelprado.es/en/visit-the-museum ], where we came eye to eye with Mona Lisa’s twin, painted simultaneously with the other original one, by a pupil of Da Vinci. And of course Hieronymus Bosch’s fantastical works and other old masters, too many to take in on one afternoon.

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Mona Lisa II

El Retiro is a big lush park, complete with man-made lake and boats. So we hired a boat and took to rowing a while.

Somehow I didn’t get to see the Palace, even though we were as far as Plaza Mayor, next time. Instead we went to a street full of tapas bars and finally found a place with a really good selection of reasonably priced titbits. Every single bar was full of people and more waiting to come in. The metro system brings you anywhere in Madrid at any time of day or night, as is to be expected of the capitol of a major country. For me, being from Berlin, it is another city, full of people, traffic and noise and I yearned to go back to our quiet finca after these four days.

We then did the touristy thing for Barney, Nigel’s friend who came to stay with us for 5 days which includes our usual tour: El Rocio, Matalascanas and the beach, Mazagon and the yacht harbour with the little bar, the Donana National Park and Cristopher Columbuses ships. The same we did with Cordula, who came by bicycle from Malaga and went on to Sevilla.

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In between we had some revellers from the ‘Transition’ festival, a week-long psychedelic and trance music festival [https://www.festicket.com/festivals/transition-festival/2019/] near Almonte. This has been going on for the past ten years already and young, and not-so-young descend on Almonte and disappear into the woods. From there they emerged in search of a good nights, or days, sleep away from the constant music. We hosted two DJ’s and other participants. [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rAYPMyb7Zpk].

 

April brings April showers, puppies and a riot of colour

 

 

 

Demise of a pool – Creation of a new pool

We bought the round, overground pool relatively cheaply last summer in Carrefour, complete with ladder, pump and cover. It lasted one season. The wind blew it over twice when it was empty and bent the frame frightfully. Also the bottom was leaky in many places, bad quality and wrong use of chemicals being the reasons for that. At least a few guests and my friend’s kids got daily pleasure from it while they were here and I learned how to monitor and measure pH and apply chemicals.

 

It was always to be a transitory solution, until we could effort a decent underground pool. So now we have no choice but to start the new ‘pool’ project, to that end Nigel has started digging. Yes, by hand, shovel and pick. We envision a 6m long x 3m wide x 2m deep. This will take some time, but we will use it in between, we hope. Hole in the ground, liner and hey presto, we have a pool….

‘Wonky Paws’

‘Drops’ came to us last autumn, a stray terrier mix, in need of food and love. We thought she was only a puppy because she looked so skinny and small, but she was only starved. In reality she is probably 3-4 years old. I cooked pasta and rice with sardines and egg additionally to ad-lib dog food. She soon looked more perky, started running and jumping and took up night shift duties with Sofie. She even developed dark spots on her back that were not there before. She now adores me, the head feeder. As a thank you she gave us a clutch of puppies. Well, it was really the neighbour’s dog that came visiting and romancing her. We are now left with three puppies of which we will keep one. After a month they are now starting to explore cautiously, still sleeping lots and keeping to their barrel home and surrounding bushes. One was born with a deformity, his left paw was crippled and very small and the right one was not quite right either, so I called him ‘wonky paws’. I brought him to the vet and came home with a bag full of supplements to help his development. But sadly, something happened and he died. Drops is now a working mother, doing her job as mice catcher and security guard.

A Whale of a Time

Summer has arrived with the last day of April and we took off to the beach. So wonderful to see the glistening ocean again, the endless blue sky and lovely long, golden sandy beach. It could tempt you to immerse yourself in the cool water, but just not yet. Instead we took a walk along the beach to view the stranded whale.

About two weeks ago a huge whale got stranded along the beach, a sperm whale I think, because another one got dragged in front of a ferry from the Canary islands to the port in Valencia, nobody any the wiser for this stowaway passenger.  This one is well on its way to decomposition, some bones are already loose and the skin is off, you can see the blubber layer. It is 12 m long and was probably longer when intact and alive. Thankfully it is about 2 kms from our preferred beach spot, so when it starts to stink offensively it will only assault us when the wind blows east. We wondered why it hadn’t been disposed off, but how do you deal with a monumental corpse like that? Nigel googled and the options are: stuff it full of explosives and blast it, with bits and pieces flying all over the place. If you move it at this stage, it will probably explode anyway due to the gasses inside, not an appetising vision. Dragging it back out to sea is probably too late as well, it will just disintegrate. The only option left is to bury it. As it seems it is left there to its own devices, a ready banquet for birds of prey, seagulls and other scavengers.

(We went to the beach again a week later, and the whale was gone, buried apparently, as at the site was evidence of movement of sand and machinery tracks. It’s stinking though.)

Pergola Project

To ease the summer heat on the upper terrace and in our bedroom I came up with the idea of a pergola and Nigel (of course) put it up with scrap iron and timber from our friendly scrap merchant. In time it will hopefully be overgrown with vine, jasmine and other creepers.

 

The Prince

At the entrance to Mercadona stands a man on one leg. He begs. In fact, there are two such one-legged men, maybe taking turns. Both are very unobtrusive, not in-your-face. Just the fact that they are balancing on one leg and one crutch is enough to take notice.

They are different to the loud, whining, coming-at-you Romanian women, some with a baby at their breast, begging. There is a cunning one at Lidl in Bollullos. She will get you when you come out with your trolley full of goods and walk up right to your car. She wants to take the trolley back, hoping to get the euro or fifty cent out of it. Tough luck when it is a token. Once she accosted me when I entered the supermarket, asking for food. I of course pretended not to understand, but she is cleverer than that. She somehow knew I am a softy. So she followed me in and again asked for some piece of food, explaining bread would do and somebody else might get her something else. So I relented and told her to get one item. She went off and got a packet of sliced pork to the value of two euro, fair enough.

Other Gypsy-women at the Alhambra in Granada will stop you in your tracks with a bunch of Rosmary in their hand and tell you the future, it’s near impossible to stop them. But you must walk on or else there’ll be a price to pay at the end of their wonderful story of your future life, complete with ‘a stranger will call you’,  ‘a new love will enter your life’, ‘you will meet a man…blablabla.’

Near the Mezquita in Cordoba a woman nursed a baby at her breast and whined on  in Romanian to get our attention.

Back to Almonte. So these two men are obviously unable to get work with their disability. And I don’t mind giving them a coin when I happen to pass by, which happens very seldom, as I usually take the car to the car park at the back. One day I parked nearby, because I only needed a few items and took the front entrance. The younger of the two was there and held out a very, very small bowl, more like an egg cup. I walked on but then stopped, put down my heavy bag and rummaged around to get a coin out, went back and gave it to him. He is very handsome, with dark, liquid soulful eyes and the loveliest smile. He thanked me profusely in what I think is Moroccan. The gentleness of his voice and his cared-for appearance would have me rather think of a prince. A prince without wants and hardship, so is his smile.

He is not always there, but today I drove past the entrance and our eyes met in my rear-view mirror. I am not sure if he recognised me, since I wore glasses and was in the car. But there is something very compelling about this human being. Surely there must be great hardship behind the fact that he lost one of his legs, and yet he smiles.

Maybe at was a land-mine, maybe a work accident, maybe a motorcycle crash, that took the power of his leg and his bright future away, who knows. Maybe there never was a bright future to begin with.

I would love to invite him for a cup of coffee and let him tell me his story.

I don’t know if I ever will. I am not usually in the habit of talking to strangers.

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HAPPINESS IS ……

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peas from the garden

… Shelling peas you have grown and harvested in your own garden, under the shade of the olive tree, listening to the small fountain splashing and the birds singing. And knowing your man is yet again slaving away trying to put another of my ideas into existence. This time it is a pergola on the upper terrace, so that wine and bougainvillea and jasmine can wind their ways up on top and give us much sought after shade during the blazing hot summer days.

Our bedroom, which we like to use for the siestas, becomes really hot in the summer, so we need added shading. And our back garden received a small solar fountain:

 

 

The weather is like anywhere, capricious and changing. We had really lovely summer days, with people already sun-bathing and swimming on the beach and yet the wind can be quiet chilling. Now temperatures are dropping to under twenty degrees again and we are hoping for more rain.

 

I had a friend over from Ireland for a few days, which gave me the excuse to show her around and drive to El Rocio, Matalascañas beach and we even took the Doñana tour bus early in the morning to learn about the national park and its inhabitants. It was a jaunty drive along the vast beach, we saw not only sadly dead turtles but a whole range of seabirds, from the ubiquitous seagull, here the Mediterranean Gull and Common Gull to the Sandpiper, Kentish Plover, Sanderling, Terns, Black Winged and Red Kite and , in the distance, also the Spanish Imperial Eagle. A small herd of wild pigs with mammy, daddy and piglets crossed the road in front of us and deer, mammy and fawn, did the same. These are quite used to the green buses driving slowly by. There is a sanctuary for rabbits within the national park, where rabbits can breed undisturbed. Their numbers have been reduced through the myxomatosis virus and have to be protected to increase, because they are the prey for the Iberian Lynx and the many birds of prey in the park.

 

In the vast sand dune landscape many footprints are evidence of a lot of different creatures, which make their home there: snakes, beetles, toads, frogs, goats, deer, desert mice, rabbits or hare. Further on the marshes were unfortunately totally dried out. Luckily we saw lots of beautiful storks, spoonbills, flamingos, ibises and cranes and herons on the lake, Charco de la Boca, at El Rocio the day before. The whole expedition takes 4 hours and is quite enjoyable; the driver even had very good English as we weren’t able to follow the Spanish explanations. I will definitely also try the other tour, which will bring us to the northern part.

Springtime display:

After that it was time to see my mum in Berlin, as I haven’t been over since January the previous year. She is now in her 95th year and hasn’t really changed that much. Carers now come three times a day to make sure she gets up, eats and drinks and takes her tablets. Other than that she is on her own, which she used to like, until her forgetfulness got in the way of many ordinary tasks. She was delighted to see Nigel and me; it has been a long while. She ate with appetite the roast chicken and white asparagus that we so love. It was too short, two days only, so we will return in September.

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spring-display in Berlin

The rain has come, and gone. As promised, April is the rainy season here, but we could do with a bit more, if it is to last till November or whenever the next rain is due.

 

In March we got additional family members thanks to Drops; she gave birth to six puppies, four of them survived. The daddy is our neighbour’s terrier-type dog; he had been visiting quite a lot before we were able to put a stop to it. The pups look a lot like him. They were born under the Oleander bush in the front of the house. Nigel brought down a blue barrel to provide a cosy home and shelter from the rain. They are now 3 weeks old, still huddled together with closed eyes. One has ventured out and I can see that Drops is getting sore, she has a few red marks on her tummy, so the puppies are getting their teeth and weaning won’t be long.

We got Sofie in time to the vet, which cost us an arm and a leg, €500 as she is an enormous dog and alone the anesthetic cost a lot for a 70 kg animal. She is over it now and back to roaming the boundary fence.

 

We had a huge number of guests over the Easter days, so much so that we had to decamp into the caravan, that Germans with a finca in Bollullos left with us for safekeeping. Even our own bedroom was rented out. This was my first foray into caravan life and it was good. That night we had a party of six bikers staying here , or as they call themselves, ‘Circo Mediterraneo’ . I was at first a bit intimidated, not expecting six men to share double beds, but they were very nice lads and up to a bit of fun with their 50cc bikes (they do have grown-up motorbikes at home). They tucked into our breakfast and then went on their merry way to Parque National Sierra de Hornachuelos, north of Sevilla, ca. 6-7 hours on the little bike.

 

Spring mornings, Summer days and the darker side of Sunny Southern Spain

Spring has arrived and merges into summer as tulips and daffodils are up and the geckos have come out of hibernation. The cuckoo has been here a while but can now be heard more strongly calling for a mate.

We can also see lots of tiny flowers on our olive trees, despite the leaves falling like it is autumn. We are not sure if this is normal or induced through the fungal disease, that has been spreading due to the very heavy dew most mornings. Diego informed us that this is a bad location for going organic, as the moisture, because of the closeness of the wetlands and sea, makes it a good place for fungal diseases to spread rapidly. That is why our neighbours spray Bordeaux mix, a copper sulfate treatment every 4-6 weeks, which is more than what would be allowed under organic guidelines. So we will just have to see what will happen and judiciously apply our allowable amount of 5 kgs of copper per hectare.

In the garden the garlic and tomatoes are having a good time, leeks will be transplanted next week, but I have no luck with the green beans. Four came up and three died. I am not sure, if it was the transplanting, lack of or too much water or frost or heat that got them; so many possibilities. Broad beans are way easier to grow, but I don’t like them much. We still have some frosty mornings, so that might have something to do with it. The lack of rain makes watering a real must and the well is also pretty low.

Our neighbour Lauren has put four of his horses here to eat the herbage. They contribute their dung as fertiliser and also act as fire-control by keeping the vegetation low.

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our neighbours horses

Free Chimney Cleaners

Some birds try to build a nest on top of the chimney but end up sliding down the new steel pipe inside the chimney and are not being able to get back up. They try and in the process dislodge the soot, which falls onto the fire-grid. Eventually they end up in the fireplace which is closed. So we have to free them, after making sure doors and windows are open for a swift escape to freedom.

Bitter Fruits

Image result for images huelva strawberry farms

We have a steady trickle of guests and recently hosted two sets of French journalists. Both groups (two and three persons) were interested in environmental matters. The first group wanted to know about the hidden, illegal wells that apparently are used for watering crops. The two lady journalists came here for several reasons; to see some local markets and to investigate the labour conditions and environmental impact of the fruit growing industry. Both are well documented and paint a sad picture.

In fact, if consumers knew or rather wanted to know how these fruits are grown, then they might not be so keen to have soft fruit from Spain on their tables. Here are links to some articles:

https://www.theolivepress.es/spain-news/2019/02/24/too-posh-to-pick-work-shy-spaniards-leave-andalucia-fruit-farmers-berry-concerned/

https://www.thelocal.es/20180628/moroccan-fruit-pickers-complain-of-exploitation-and-harassment-in-spain

https://www.thelocal.es/20180605/metoo-moroccan-fruit-pickers-file-sexual-harassment-complaints-in-spain .

https://www.france24.com/en/20180719-focus-spain-fruit-farms-hell-strawberry-picking-moroccan-women-victims-sexual-assault.

This seems to be a well-known situation and health and social workers and unions are aware of the conditions on some farms, but nobody seems to be doing anything. The rate of abortion goes up each season, when the mostly Moroccan women arrive, as one article stated. So all is not sunshine here and vegetable and fruit growing all over Europe has some very dark sides. The consumer wants cheap food and all sorts of varieties all year round. As long as somebody buys it, it will be grown as long as there are workers available that put up with these conditions because at home there is no work. It is mostly women that suffer the consequences through becoming pregnant having to seek abortion which is subsidised here. But even if they are not pregnant the shame of having been touched by a stranger will be reason enough in their home country to be ostracised, some husbands abandoning their wives and divorcing them.

https://www.france24.com/en/20170616-video-reporters-modern-day-slaves-migrants-workers-exploited-fruit-pickers-spain-italy .

Most workers are too afraid of losing their job if they report unfair, unhealthy or downright slavery conditions.

Related image

Little Owls in Olive Trees

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After only being on booking.com for seven months, we already received their award for having achieved 9.2 out of 10 points on their review scale, which is nice. Nicer still is when our guests tell us ‘don’t change anything, you are doing everything right’.

The most elaborate and lovely review was posted by our Canadian ‘birders’ Janice and Art on google maps: “A stay at Casa Halcon is worth going out of your way. If you happen to be interested in nature, this is a great place to start your tour of Donana National Park. El Rocio is a mere 23 minute car trip. Casa Halcon is worth a stay even if the local history and nature aren’t your main interest. The owners of this Inn are dynamic, talented and experienced hosts. They run the Casa and the surrounding olive farm. If you are fortunate, you may be able to ask Angelika for a super delicious homemade dinner for a modest fee. The breakfast is unbeatable. The accommodation is both attractive and comfortable, which is a major achievement as Angelika and Nigel are “off the grid”, an ecological bonus. The dogs stay outside. If you are dog people, though, be sure to ask for an outdoor visit with Sophie and Drops. Both are adorable. Take an evening stroll down the road and say hi to the horses. As darkness falls listen to the calls of the Little Owls from amongst the Olive trees-magical!”

Said Owls are active night and day, and their call is like a bunch of kittens, but none of us has ever spotted them, as they are very small and secretive.

Our guest book is also full of praise and maybe we have now come to expect that everybody should love it here, which is not the case. Occasionally we do get people that book, but do not stay. This leaves us a bit floundered, because they do not say what made them cancel. Our location shows now up correctly as being in the countryside, 4 kms outside of Almonte. It shows you can’t please everyone and it serves to keep our feet on the floor and our heads a reasonable size.

Our Canadians hired a guide from Ronda, who spent two days with them, showing them the local wildlife around here. See http://www.wildandalucia.com/trip-reports/    http://www.wildandalucia.com/ :

Latest birding trip reports to southern Spain  11, 12-2-2019. Best of Doñana
Our classical 2-day best of Doñana Tour with Art and Janice, Canada. Seen remarkable sights such as Greater Spotted Cuckoo, Black-winged Kite, Spanish Imperial Eagle, Lesser Kestrel and Squacco Heron. Our first day was a magnificent introduction to Doñana along the whole north side of the park, i.e., José Antonio Valverde visitor centre, Dehesa de Abajo, etc. On our second day we visited El Rocío area and the Odiel’s marshes at low tide, giving us a nice bunch of waders. Great days in good company, enjoying great local fish and challenging bird sights .  9 raptor species among a rough 90 species. The season’s officially started!

 

We have now also extended the back garden, this will be its final design. It is lovely to see the first seedlings coming up to herald spring: spinach, garlic, tomatoes, leeks and the potatoes that Nigel planted the 20th of January. The peas are also doing very well. I also tried my hand on decorating a few flowerpots, cheering them up a bit.

We had so many lemons, that I decided to make some lemon jelly and lemon chutney, which turned out nicely. The rest will go for lemonade – when I get around to it.

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shop in Castlepollard, Co Westmeath

We had to make a quick Ireland visit end of February. This time Nigel’s sister Elaine and her husband Ian kindly agreed to mind our finca, house and animals. It makes for a nice warm break from frigid Ireland, where we arrived to sparkling sunshine and blue sky. We started out in Tipperary, spending a night at one of Nigel’s best friends Paddy and Joan outside of Clonmel. I also got to see my son Frank, who is working on a dairy farm nearby. Further north though, in Leitrim, the sky turned the usual colour grey and I never took off my winter coat while helping Nigel to spruce up his farm, which is being rented out.

We stayed with his neighbour Mick and Valinda and their kids in the very nice house beside the lake. On the first morning we ‘walked the dogs’ which involved kayaking on the lake while the dogs run along the lakeshore. It was bliss slowly gliding along the serene, calm and silent lake. The next day, after a day toiling away pulling weeds and cleaning drains, I immersed myself in their sumptuous outside Jacuzzi with a view over the said lake and surrounding mountains. Not a bad way to enjoy the Irish countryside! We were also kindly invited by friends of Nigel to dinner on both nights, so we had a nice time socialising.

What was this machine used for not so long ago?

It sits in the Donana National Park, the El Acebuche Visitor Centre site [see http://www.juntadeandalucia.es%5D, where we went one Sunday for a long walk. This side of the National park is open to visitors at no cost. They have extensive board-walks and bird-watching huts scattered about and a wetland,  that greeted us with a frog- or toad-concert.

Answer; it is a pine-crusher, to expel the pine kernels from the cones. To this day you will see folks beating and climbing the pines to collect the pine cones to extract and sell the kernels.

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spring flowerSilene ssp.

Ongoing fiestas in El Rocio bring many more guests and friends-to-be

The year in Andalucia starts off with a never-ending calendar of fiestas, at least in El Rocio.

No sooner is Los Tres Reyes over, it’s the fiesta of the Hermandado Triana, followed by the Candelaria. Even though we don’t attend these religious based fiestas, we know they take place because our rooms are booked out well in advance. So I need to be smarter and raise the prices, as people have remarked how cheap we are. And strangely, the cheaper you are the less people appreciate your efforts. If you don’t value yourself, nobody will.

In the past three weeks, we only had three days without a guest in the house. From wildlife experts to religious revellers this location seems to be ideal to catch the traveller en-route.

Some of our new-found friends have been guests that stayed with us while searching for a new home around here. dav

And because they are going home again we have been given lovely oranges and lemons from their holdings. Blessed be the fruit of friendship!

 

 

 

We have now also made good friends with our neighbours Steffi and Terry. A mixed-nation couple as well and they have olives, which they care for organically. So we have lots to talk about apart from embarking on darts competitions and playing cards together.

In The Garden – Organic Endeavours

So the weeds are back that I treated with the home-made vinegar-salt-washing up liquid concoction. No surprise here. So off we go again with another application. This time I devised a wipe-on applicator with an old dish-brush and sponge as an alternative to the spray bottle. They tend to stop working with me after a while.

For or rather against the dreaded olive fruit fly, Dacus oleae, we now use a mixture made from red wine, red wine vinegar, sugar and water. This is filled into plastic drinks bottles with holes in the top part and functions as a trap. The scent attracts flies, these crawl through the holes and fall into the liquid and drown. I have hung up our first 16 bottles and already Nigel found ca. 40 flies the next morning in the bottles. Success! It is a cheap alternative to other expensive commercial products.

Nigel added to our landscape a nice bench and a rondel for flowers. Bit by bit we will add colour and prettiness to our countryside residence as well as some exotic touch with some palms and a few fruit trees.

A few peas have self-seeded themselves at the hen house. The seeds must originate from the feed mix. Nigel couldn’t stop himself and already planted three rows of potatoes. We expect to eat the first of them in May. I planted out my pea seedlings and hope no frost will kill them.

Happy Pigs in Bollullos

On one of our mystery tours in the area we have finally met the happy Iberian black pig. These are kept outside all year round and feed mainly on acorns and whatever they find rummaging in the ground. This herd of pigs counts 131 and lives near the Parque Natural San Sebastian.  We had a chat with the herdsman who has to mind the pigs in case somebody saw fit to use a shotgun to turn them into pricey ham. A whole leg of ca. 8 kgs of pure ham Jamon Iberico will set you back over from €1,200- €4100! [see https://elpais.com/economia/2016/03/04/actualidad/1457115720_533201.htmland http://www.dopjabugo.es/es/ ].This is the most expensive ham in the world and comes from the Parque Natural Sierra de Aracena y Picos de Aroche. Only in winter these pigs will eat organic grains, almonds and olives; the rest of the year they spend outside in ancient oak forests. At 36 months, with 170 kilos, they are being killed early in the morning to avoid mixing with other pigs. The ham then gets cured in salt for up to two years until it is ready to be consumed. I have been to a family-run ham factory in the Sierra Nevada and seen thousands of hams hang from the ceiling or laid in pure salt.

End of 2018 – Beginning of 2019

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The Garden in Winter

I have been gearing up to get an early start on growing veg and bought seed packets. These indicate sowing times, but for what region in Spain? The climate varies widely so I also ask the shopkeeper and watched the plants on sale for a clue. We bought some strawberry plants that are doing really well, the first strawberries are already blushing in the warm midday sun. However, I sowed tomatoes and put them under the cold-frame until they were big enough for planting out. Everything went ok until the frost eventually killed them. And honestly, they were struggling through the cold nights. The spinach is doing well and even the pepper plants are still alive and producing. The cauliflower and broccoli are growing well and last year’s broccoli is also still producing. Last year’s fennel has come back and looks pretty even if it doesn’t have big bulbs, the leaves are tasty.

 

January and February are the main winter months, even as day light and sunshine hours are increasing. The frosty nights hamper real growth. I tried to buy a fleece to cover tender plants but all they have here is protection against the sun, heavy shading fabric. So I will need to look online.

My other experiment is a home-made weed-killer from strong vinegar (Mercadona has an 8% cleaning vinegar), salt and washing up liquid. I sprayed that onto the ‘non-welcome’ plants in the stone circle and within 2 hours the leaves were dead! Success! I am not sure how long this will last as I doubt it kills the roots, but even though, it still helps.

The garden is now also fenced against scratching hens and digging dogs. We are now proud owners of a giant Mastin, Sofie, and a tiny terrier stray, Drops. She dropped by one day, all skin and bones and wary but devoured all food that we gave her and disappeared again. About a week later she was back, doing the same and stayed for the day, to Sofie’s delight. Sofie, being only a little over a year old, wants to play and run around, but Drops did not have the energy. She was gone again but eventually came back to our delight. She has got stronger, more confident in herself, found her bark and now plays with Sofie. I never was a dog person but she stole my heart and is very happy to see me. She seems also more obedient than Sofie, who still has the habit of trying to get out the gate and disappear for a few hours at a time. It is impossible to catch her as she knows full well she will be tied up, at least for a day.

We still have plenty of guests, from Germany to Sweden to Switzerland and Canada. Some bring motorbikes, some bikes, some dogs and some both.

The night before my children arrived we celebrated New Years Eve with a bunch of really nice Spanish, that came all the way from Jaen-Ubeda direction. This was the family of our house angel Sara. The tradition is to eat 12 grapes when the clock chimes 12 times; one grape for each month of the New Year. I tried but couldn’t get them all down so quickly, so I must practice for the next time.

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January 2019

 

2019 started wonderful. My two children, Elaine and Frank, were here for the first time and needed some TLC, because they brought with them colds and sniffles. And the sunshine did them the world good.

We only had two full days together, but better than no time.

Forget Christmas –

It’s the Three Kings where it’s at. This turns out to be a bigger deal then Santa because there are three of them bringing presents and literally tonnes of sweets.

Epiphany is the coming of the three wise kings, mages or whatever they were to welcome Jesus and bring him presents of myrrh, gold and incense.  Nappies and a hot soup for Mary would have been more useful. But for the children in Spain this is when they receive their presents at home and on the streets. We were invited to come along to our neighbour farmer’s family and witness the carnival-like atmosphere in our small town of Almonte. The streets were full of people, old and young, lining up to watch the procession of tractor-drawn floats of colourful dressed-up people, throwing sweets and toys. So that’s why some came equipped with plastic bags to bring home their stash of sweets.

 

IRELAND, RAIN and GARDENING PAIN

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We went for a flying visit (literally) to Ireland to conduct some urgent business. And to collect post which has been sitting there for months. It was no surprise that it was raining for the whole duration, which was 5 days, including the travel days. So we ended up with a miserable cold to bring back to Spain.


DOLLY AND BABY GIRL

 

 

 

 

 

Snail Solutions

It also rains in Spain. Lots. Since October we had more than our share as TV and newspaper reports attested, for example according to ‘The Watchers’ https://watchers.news/2018/10/18/extreme-rainfall-deadly-flood-potential-spain-october-2018/ :
“Extreme weather conditions are expected across the IberianPeninsula and the Balearic Islands from October 18 – 21, 2018. The event follows devastating floods that claimed 13 lives in Mallorca and another 13 in neighboring France over the past couple of days. There is a potential for similar rainfall totals and extremely dangerous weather situation.

Spain’s national weather agency (AEMET) issued Red rain alerts for Castellón and Terruel, Orange for the Balearic Islands, Alicante, Valencia, and Tarragona, and Yellow for 11 other neighboring provinces. The weather front is expected to arrive on October 18 and continue affecting the region through Sunday, October 21 plunging Spain into the worst ‘gota fria,’ a Spanish term meaning ‘cold drop’ that explains a sudden drop in temperature, in a decade.”

 

rainy days

Average monthly precipitation in October from AEMET (Agencia Estatal DeMeteorologia, Gobierno de España) state for Huelva 5 days of rain with an average of 56 mm. When I looked at the actually rainy days in October to December this year for Sevilla, I saw that we had no rain the first week in October and then daily heavy downpours, with 27.5 mm in one day alone and 230 mm in total for October! Of course we are not the only ones that suffered unprecedented amounts of rainfall.

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The result of all the rain is that I swapped slugs for snails here in Spain and there are just the same pain!

So I declared war because my gardening here is still trial and error as I get used to the new soil, climate and site specific conditions. Tomatoes with sunburn, shrivelled peppers and rock-hard aubergines being some results.

I have tried the beer trap, but it would take a whole beer barrel to keep the snails away from all plots. My cold frame has a beer trap in it and so far no snails have come near my little ones.

I have cut up plastic drink bottles to act as cloches, but they just climb in, the slimy pests! Online I got my best weapon yet, a roll of copper band that sticks onto surfaces, so all pots and cloches are prepared with the metal barrier. When they crawl over it they receive an uncomfortable electrical charge, so they stay well away from it.

I prefer barrier methods to poison, which always will have some impact on either the soil or some innocent organisms.

Therefore I also use fly food covers as barrier and safe nursery for my baby spinach plants.

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copper hoop

Never A Dull Moment

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There has been an uninterrupted stream of visitors; family, friends and guests for the past three weeks.

Family and friends are volunteering as ‘woofers’, workers-on-organic-farms as we are now officially in organic conversion! This is another milestone in our development of the finca and getting our olives recognised and maybe making a few more cents out of them eventually.

So I am slightly exhausted as we have to give everybody our attention and of course catering for all, be it making sure there is enough food for breakfast and the occasional formal dinner for guests. As our reviews proof, my cooking is greatly appreciated.

The weather has been surprisingly wintry with temperatures down to six degrees at night and ten during the day and also dull, cloudy days and even rain. And all along our solar system, our only source of electricity for the whole finca, house, water pump and all, has been on the brink of leaving us in the lurch. The system has been guaranteed to supply us with electricity for two people and the occasional visitor and a maximum of ten rainy days. We are the victims of our own success as we have many more guests than we could have ever imagined. It’s not the guests themselves that use up a lot of power, it’s more the continuous washing of bedding and towels. And of course the uses of high-powered appliances like the toaster, kettle and the dishwasher. These last two have been outlawed for the moment until we have a back-up generator installed. This will kick in automatically when the batteries go low, but will give us peace of mind. This will run on petrol, which is of course an environmental-NONO, being a non-renewable fossil fuel and pricey. We will monitor how often it runs and then decide to upgrade the solar panels, if needed.

We have added a new member to our ever-expanding tools: a new-to-us jeep, Mitsubishi Galloper. In fact it is 16 years old but in immaculate condition as it has been used by our mechanic purely to drive around town. He is giving us a year’s guarantee. Now we can transport our olives in style.

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I have decided to give up the being nice to all people and requests to being more professional. You learn the hard way. In the beginning we threw in breakfast for free, but almost all Spanish guests left in the morning to get on the road and stop at a cafe later.  Also they do not eat cereals, but toast and olive oil or jam. Now we charge three euro for a small breakfast with orange juice, coffee or tea and toast. If you like two of our free-range eggs it’s a fiver. And they are delicious with a lovely orange colour from the grazing and grubbing they do under the olives.

Many people see us on Google maps and call, not bothering to book online. They say they have no credit card and can’t book online, but really, who in this day has no internet access or debit card?

So last weekend I had two nights booked and nobody turned up. It’s not only that the rooms have to be clean and beds made-up, I also have to block the rooms on booking.com and Airbnb so that I will not get double-booked, which would be a complete nightmare. So I am losing out big time when this happens. Last Saturday night I waited up for people to arrive and finally texted and called them but got no reply. And therefore I have resolved not to do this anymore. And honestly we have usually enough bookings that we don’t need to rely on these callers.

Apart from human visitors we are also hosts to other creatures:

Raindrops keep falling on my head – and Olives

It has finally rained, after four months. And it destroyed most of my seedlings, as the rainwater poured down onto them. I had them in trays on a table too close to the house and the rain came down off the roof. This house has no gutters apart from the  gutter Nigel installed over the terrace. So I assessed the damage and proceeded to sow again. Lesson learned.

Luckily I had already  put cut clear plastic bottles over the cauliflowers and broccoli baby plants as a snail barrier, which also keeps the hens from picking at them. The mattress base helps against the hens scratching away in the freshly dug horse manure and the netting is supposed to do the same.

(click on the photos to see caption)

Spanish course

I have signed up to an online spanish course to get more practice with the dreaded verbs. It’s all very fine to talk about the present but sometimes you need to talk about yesterday or tomorrow. I used the Babbel online course for a long time and it is fantastic for building up your vocabulary and pronounciacion, and I learned a lot. So I jumped into this course by Catalino Moreno thinking I will do my online exercises whenever I get around to it.

BUT – she keeps me on my toes. Now I regularly receive emails with videos and exercises, it’s more than I bargained for. It is great, she really is fun and involves all her students and even answers personally to comments posted or questions [see for example https://catalinamoreno.weebly.com/blog/usos-de-hay-en-espanol-parte-iii ].

So I have a real teacher now and hope I will progress a bit. Although the Andalusian dialect is still a big challenge. Thanks to Nigel I am thrown in nearly daily as he seeks out our neighbouring farmers to ask them every imaginable question about olive growing; which brings me seamlessly to our current occupation.

Olive Harvest has Started

We have a new friend. Diego is a big farmer with a big heart. He not only grows olives but also wine and has tillage. He works from morning till dusk every day of the week but took the time to bring us to the olive factory the other side of Almonte and then invited us into his home and fed us a big lunch, even his mother joined us.

This olive factory takes the olives of hundreds of farmers and immediately throws them into big underground tanks with saltwater brine. These are sold throughout the year to other companies for further pickling with different flavours. Presently in this area the Manzanilla olives are taken in, followed by Verdial and then the huge Gordal olives as they ripen. After that the olives will have turned black and are then collected to make olive oil.

The rain now will make the olives swell up and make them bigger and heavier thus giving us more money per kilo. The olives are weighed and their size is determined by counting the number of olives in 200g, this is multiplied by 5 which is the number of olives per kilo; the smaller the number, the bigger the olives. Ours were not so great to start with, they ranged from 360-280. But we will give them another week or two to grow bigger. But in the meantime they will also start turning black. It’s not so easy to determine the right timing, as olives grow in different stages on the tree, they do not ripen simultaneously.

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on-tree-entertainment

Recipe Vegetable Parsley & Oregano Pesto with Mussels

When time is in short supply, for a very quick dinner Spaghetti and pesto are unbeatable. My version includes mussels, mejillones, in a spicy sauce from a tin and lots of freshly chopped parsley and oregano, garlic, grated parmesan, freshly ground black pepper, a pinch of sea salt and either grated courgette or fried green and red peppers, as they are abundant in the garden at present.

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While the water for the spaghetti heats up, chop parsley, 3-4 garlic cloves, grate half a small courgette and some parmesan cheese. In a pan combine (only ever) virgin olive oil, the garlic and courgette and gently heat to sauté for 5-8 minutes. When the spaghetti is ready, drain and set aside. Take the pan off the cooker and add the mussels, parsley, oregano and parmesan cheese. Stir and add to the spaghetti, serve with a sprinkle of parsley and grated avocado stone.

Vegetable Pesto with mussels

 

 

 

 

 

We are also still busy with guests at the weekend thanks to fiestas in El Rocio. All our rooms were occupied and we had fun with the two little girls that had fun with Sofie and our hens.

End of Summer – the Busy Season Begins

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finca eggs

This being the last day in September, we can state that we have all rooms full. Ok, it’s the weekend so it’s not that surprising. At the moment we have three Czechoslovakian and two Russians with us. It’s getting more international!

And because everybody loves it here and is interested in what we do, I thought we could involve people in an ‘olive harvesting experience’ on Airbnb. But to my surprise they didn’t think it lives up to their standards and expectations. We would have guests, a maximum of four, for three days. We would let them try their hand at harvesting the olives, bring them along to the factory, let them taste different types of eating olives and olive oils. Bring them to the oldest olive tree in El Rocio which is over 700 years old and feed them breakfast and a light lunch. I would prepare dinner on request. They would not be required to work hard, just a bit in the morning to enjoy the activity. And have the afternoon/evening free to discover the surrounding area or go to the beach. They can take the bikes or just chill on the terrasse. What’s not to like?

I would be grateful for some comments on this or maybe someone knows where to advertise this. But we can only do this while we are actually harvesting, which is between now (at the moment we are waiting for the factory to open any day) and January.

In the meantime we continued improving the property with a lovely step at the entrance and a rockery. We changed the curtains in our bedroom and added lime wood blinds, as ours is the hottest room because the sun shines into it from noon till sunset. Our third bedroom downstairs also received curtains to make it more homely.

The intense heat will slowly fade now and growth will take off again and that means it is time for gardening. It’s the opposite to what we are used to, winter being a restful period and time to sit by the fire with a hot port. No so here. I planted some cauliflower and broccoli plants and sowed varies tomato varieties as well as beans and hope we’ll be able to keep the chickens out of the vegetable plots.

Sweet Potato and Pumpkin Lentil Dhal

Here is a recipe for a vegan Lentil Dhal I made recently, which turned out so yummy I have to share it. The twist is a sprinkling of grated avocado stone. Yes, you can actually eat the avocado stone, which is a relief because it’s so big and my attempts to grow a plant from it have not been successful. You need to peel it and then grate it, it’s actually quite soft and tastes a bit like nutmeg, but nuttier.

Here you can read up on the health benefits https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/eating-avocado-seed#Benefits but the avocado stone has not received much study, so this is a rather cautious approach. Obviously you are not going to eat a whole stone in one go, just use it to sprinkle on muesli, in a smoothie or on your soup or plate of rice etc. I would use it as a condiment or spice, not as a main ingredient.

Ingredients for 4 people:

1 big cup of lentils, soaked in water overnight (I prefer the red or golden coloured lentils, it just looks a nicer colour)

2 tablespoons of virgin olive oil

1 vegetable stock cube

½ sweet potato, cut in cubes

equal amount of pumpkin, also in cubes

1 onion, chopped

3-6 garlic cloves, chopped

Spices: freshly ground black pepper, ground cumin, cinnamon, coriander seed

(use these spices to your liking, I normally don’t work with measures, just with intuition)

a teaspoon of freshly chopped ginger

a sprinkle of avocado stone and freshly chopped coriander or parley for decoration

How to:

Sweat the garlic and onion in olive oil, add the pumpkin and sweet potato cubes for 5-10 minutes. Add the stock and lentils, top up with water if necessary. You can serve this as a soup or as a main dish.

Add all spices. Simmer for about 40 minutes or until the lentils are soft. Liquidise with a food processor and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve in bowls with a sprinkle of avocado stone and freshly chopped coriander or parley for decoration.

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summer garden produce (organic)

LISBON

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We have actually worked quite hard between Nigel amongst the olives and me keeping the house, the pool and the larder in good shape for the rotating arrival of guests since the end of June. So I was ready for a little break.

My daughter spent a weeklong holiday in Lisbon with her boyfriend. I took this as my cue to visit her there (If the mountain will not come to Muhammad, then Muhammad must go to the mountain…).

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So we went on a whistle-stop tour to Lisbon with our trusty Toyota. This took us 5 ½ hours, including an hour lunch break in a small but dear town, whose name I forgot. It was a prosperous town because of the quartz mine and the aluminium factory nearby. Hence the prices were surprising steep for a countryside town somewhere off the main motorway.

We arrived in Lisbon via the A2 over a bridge, that spans the Tagus river and gives a nice view of the town.

We had managed to book a stylish Airbnb in the heart of the Alfama, the old town, not far from the Church of São Vicente of Fora  and the flea market on the Saturday.

Lisbon has a different feel and flair. I like its shabby chic, the bygone glory of a different era still visible in its architecture and the antique shops. It is of course a tourist trap and hence expensive in the old town quarter, the Alfama.

We had only one day to spend and went to Sintra. Definitely worth a visit, but bring good walking shoes. We drove to Sintra town with our Toyota and parked for free in the town. We then looked for a bus to bring us to the mountain top castle. Waiting at the bus stop a Tuc-Tuc, the Portuguese Rickshaw, came by and we hitched a lift with the second, as the price was a lot better than the first chap quoted us. He also lied about the price of the bus ticket, but we are not that gullible. The way up is quite long and steep, so if you want to last the whole day do yourself a favour and take a lift.

Horse drawn cart ride through the Park of Pena.

In the Sintra-Cascais Natural Park is situated the fairy-tale looking Palace of Pena, a feast for the eyes and a breezy spot up on top of the turrets and wall-walk. The whole park is made of wondrous winding paths and surprises like fountains, a cute Chalet which belonged the Countess of Edla, stables for the amazing looking draught horses and randomly scattered seats of stone or carved wood. Within walking distance is the Hilltop Moorish Fortress, which also grants views over the whole National Park up to the coast.

On the way back we started walking but were a bit discouraged by the distance and again a Tuc-Tuc came puttering about and we got a real speedy, cheap ride to the car park for €10. It was a bit like being on a rollercoaster, speeding downhill around the sharp bends and the wind whistling in our ears.

We left Lisbon over the 17 kms long Ponte Vasco de Gama, with the morning haze slowly lifting.

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On the way we saw cork oak forests and  a truck bringing the cork and timber to its destination.

 

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

 

One of Nigel’s experiments: frying egg on top of the jeep hood, and yes, the egg got solidified.

Not all things work out, which is totally to be expected. This is a different climate to Ireland; it has different rules and behaviours, concerning humans, plants or animals.

My garden turned out so-so, some is good, some middling, and some bad. The tiny baby-carrots have died, probably from overwatering. I made damn sure they weren’t going to die of lack of water…  But sitting in a plastic container with no drainage, the water accumulated and they do not like wet feet. I bought a Busy Lizzie, Impatiens and a lovely fuchsia, both of which died for some reason. So did three of our orange trees that we planted back in May. Busy Lizzie is supposed to be easy-care and I used to have mine for a long time until the aphids usually got the upper hand. But now I think it just got too much sun out on the terrace as did the fuchsia. Lesson learned: I cannot expect plants that love moderate heat to cope with 30+ degrees.

Top: dead carrots, courgette plants with pollination problems                                      Bottom: woody courgettes, middle: overripe aubergine on right, left: dead busy lizzie

The three courgette plants I grew from seed were doing well and I had some nice fruits until I came across two as hard as stone. A big knife wouldn’t cut them and they were not oversized. I assume it was irregular watering or again too much sun, as even my tomatoes got sunburn.

The hibiscus however and my jasmine are happy out on the upper terrace, with a daily morning watering routine.

The beauty – Hibiscus

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Success: peppers

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The Bad

Unfortunately three out of four orange trees also died eventually. Even though a guest from Portugal told us they need absolutely no care, as he planted his 12 years ago and they didn’t receive any attention and are doing just fine. Ours were well cared for, got water and rain in the early days, manure and even were sprayed for bugs, a thing I abhor but there were tiny critters on it that made the leaves roll up and die. This happened twice and then the trees gave up their fight.

The Ugly:   Gunk in the Pool

Recently we have floating green gunk coming up to the surface of the pool when the water warms up, about midday. At night and in the morning nothing comes to the surface. Of course leaves, insects and sand fly into the pool and now there are particles collected on the bottom. Unfortunately our pump that came with the pool is too weak to suck up anything lurking there or to connect a hoover [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uwNFriu26SA best youTube video explaining to why, the how and the way to get rid of algae]. So I will shock the system and see what happens. It’s not too bad; you can clearly see the bottom.

Our olives are doing ok. We have sneaked over to the neighbouring groves and studied theirs. Some trees have bigger or more olives than ours and some have less or smaller ones than ours. So we are middle of the road, which is a great achievement considering we knew nada-nothing-zilch about olives a year ago. And the trees look much better, cared for and shapely and not overgrown and neglected.

Left: Nigel ‘cleaning’ side-shoots with an axe, middle: one lone Gordal olive, right: olives doing well.

 

Learning Curve No. 255-ish

Hosting is Fun!

It is actually very nice to see happy people in your own home because they like it there and you have made them feel welcome and comfortable. And by now we had a lot of happy people. Also couples that are very happy together, even after more than 20 years and that makes my heart sing. Because there is so much strife and hardship and separation everywhere and we both have been through it. And it is true; there are many more nice people out there then bad ones.

Praying Mantis

She suddenly appeared on the wall and was rather big and striking (both ways). She is a huntress and we are happy to count her as one of our allies against bugs and insects. She can eat things three times her size, including snakes, mice and bugs of all denominations. This includes worms, caterpillars and maggots we don’t want in the garden, but unfortunately she also devours the ‘goodies’ that help in the garden to control pests like ladybirds, not making a distinction here when she’s hungry [see https://www.jcehrlich.com/blog/5-praying-mantis-facts/ ]. She will not shy away from eating her own man after mating either. But the good outweighs the bad and so we welcome her to our home [see  https://www.spain-holiday.com/Andalusia/articles/10-wildlife-species-to-watch-for-in-andalucia for more wildlife facts.].

Squirting Cucumber – Ecballium elaterium

We have found this pretty looking plant in our garden. She is rather prickly and has pretty yellow flowers and braves the boiling sun. Her seeds are squirting forth from the pods, hence the name squirting cucumber. The juice of the seeds can cause irritation or inflammation of the skin. The roots have been used in herbal medicine, but must be used with great caution.

Solar Power Trouble

So do we have any problems with our photovoltaic system?

Not many. But sometimes things happen that shouldn’t. Last night we had a quite full house with nine people, including ourselves. And then the ventilator stopped dead. I noticed it at around 2 am and thought it ominous. I tried the light, nope, not working either; I went downstairs to check the internet and other lights, nothing. No water out of the tap either. Bad, really bad.

I woke Nigel and together we investigated the solar control station which was in total darkness, also dead. Even worse. I have to admit earlier there was a warning beep and a yellow light blinking, but this stopped again after an hour, so we didn’t think much of it as the control always showed the usual 25% usage and we were told we had 10-days worth of power stored in the battery bank, and this being peak sunshine season we didn’t worry too much until we were standing in darkness with the horror of unwashed guests and unflushed toilets on our minds.

So I sent a text message to our whiz kid David, the solar installation guy. But that didn’t send because I was out of credit. I hadn’t recharged because I am in the process of transferring to another phone company. Without internet I couldn’t recharge now either. Then on to my back-up Irish phone, which was also down to 12%, another message to David. We went back to bed discussing the next steps and how to minimise the discomfort to our guests.

Nigel got up nice and early to haul buckets of water up to flush toilets and at 9 am I borrowed our guests phone to call our best friend Cris. He is our rock and was immediately able to summon David, who had ignored the strange phone numbers popping up on his phone at 2 am.

And then it happened: the solar system came to life again and the internet restarted and there was water, phew. Ok, this meant the cut-out was due to exhausted batteries caused by the constant demand on the water pump, not only for showers and dishwashing and watering the garden but also watering our olive trees. We were warned that the system would support at least four people in the house and the pump is for domestic use only. But on top of that we had four ventilators going all night which squeezed out the rest of the power in the batteries.

Although this was not the only problem; for the past four months one battery had a leak and we could not refill the distilled water. We had David alerted and he was supposedly coming every week, but we didn’t see him. This emergency brought him out on a Sunday morning to our finca.

We have now agreed to install a back-up generator in case this happens again. We did not anticipate the success of our little B&B enterprise. Now we have to make sure not to disappoint our guests that are here for a relaxing stay in the lovely countryside.

Financially our B&B keeps us ticking over as well, because money that was coming our way from Ireland got delayed through bureaucratic hurdles and a very mean-minded Department of Agriculture. Lots of people feel aggrieved about the pay-outs that farmers receive for their work and products. I could go into a really long rant about how this system of subventions of agriculture in Europe was devised and how the general public profits from the unreal low prices of food. To receive those payments farmers are constrained restricted, controlled and policed through rules and regulations. In Nigel’s case the farm was split in half due to a court order in the course of a divorce and became unviable. He had to sell stock and machinery and rent his farm and house. Officialdom did not recognise this as a reason to cease farming and pull out of the 5-year organic farming scheme. So they punished him by denying him the pay-out of subsidies for the past two years. He is appealing this decision but this all will take time.

In the meantime we open our home to really lovely and respectful people that are happy to spend some time with us on our piece of heaven (or hell, as it is still over 35 degrees….).

Learning Curve NO. 80

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(I am not telling you about all our learning moments, as it would make us seem so stupid)

  1. Chickens can die of heat. At least that is what we suspect, because Grisella was only a young hen, but sadly passed away.   The others enjoy the shade of the house in the front with Sofie, our dog.

2. Tomatoes can get sunburn! Yes, in other countries you try to get as much sun on your tomatoes as possible to make them sweet and juicy, but here they need a bit of shade (just like the chicken). The yellow colour does not show unripeness, that should be green, but too much sun. Thanks to one of our more knowledgably guests we now know to cut that bit off and not wait forever for it to turn red.

 

3. There are male and female olive trees. And for every eight female trees you need one male tree for the pollination to take place. The male trees have slightly bigger but less fruit than the female trees.

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What we haven’t figured out yet, is how the health system works. But our friendly Gestor Angel, our agent that registers our car, will make inquiries if we are eligible for the free health care, that everybody receives when they are resident here and pay taxes.

We are now very relieved to finally be again happily legally on the road with our temporary green registration plates. These show that our car is insured and on the way to be properly registered and taxed here in Spain.  Yes, our car is constantly dusty from the dust road that goes from Almonte to our finca. As soon as we wash it its dusted over again. We gave up and safe the water.

We have also opened our third bedroom, as we had to turn people away that wanted to stay here with us. It is not yet publicised, as we first want to see if the sofa cama, the sofa bed, is comfortable enough to charge good money. We acquired it right here in Almonte for a knock-down price of €525. Its original price was €720, but it had sat awhile in the shop. It is now occupied by our lodger Fernando, who is with the National Police and resides with us for five days per week. I am not allowed to show photos of him, as it could be dangerous for him due to the ongoing struggle with the Basque separatists.

The Spanish police system is interesting and you will feel really safe, as you see them everywhere. You could be forgiven to think you are in a police state, a relic from Franco times. But I rather feel protected, particular after the experience with our raided house here (that was before we bought it). There are three divisions: the National Police, the Local Police and the Guardia Civil. And ALL of them carry guns! But as far as our experiences go, most of them are courteous, professional and polite but take their job serious [ see http://www.spainmadesimple.com/moving-to-spain/police-spain/ ].

So far we have one parking offense (which we ignored) and one speeding offense which was dealt with by three officers on-the-spot and cost us €50. We were stopped twice for breathalysing and every time they get a bit confused about our steering wheel being on the wrong (right) side. Mostly they waved us through not bothering to check our Irish insurance and tax documents. But I guess this will change now as we are definitely under Spanish law now. We have been reprimanded once for parking on the side of a (deserted, long straight stretch) of a road because I wanted to pick cornflowers.

Fernando, our friendly police-lodger, often brings a colleague for his lunch break, so that we have two police officers sitting at our table and a police car parked outside. So we are under police protection! If that doesn’t scare off any unwanted guests and burglars I don’t know what would. One evening we had Shabi, a German (long-haired and Afghan-looking) Police Detective and Fernando sitting at our table playing cards with us. Yes, it can be very interesting and exciting having guests you have never met before in your house.

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We also had guests that are vegetarian and vegan, so I have now decided that that is the way I want to go. I offer a cooked meal for €10 including a starter, a main dish and a glass of wine or beer. The Spanish eat an enormous amount of meat and pork and I don’t want to go down that road. I often cook without meat and so I will make that my speciality. I tried out my home-made pesto dish with wholemeal spaghetti on our German Vegan-guests and got thumbs up. This pesto has now already undergone varies changes and it depends on what is available out in the garden and the kind of guests I have.

The base is Olive oil and Garlic, of course. Then I add lots of freshly chopped parsley, some basil if available, a pinch of oregano and marjoram from the garden together with grated parmesan and black pepper. The interesting twist is the tin of Mejillones, mussels, in a spicy sauce that are added just before serving. For the vegan alternative I left out the parmesan and mussels and added grated courgettes and carrots, cooked them a bit in the garlic-olive oil mix and added roasted mixed seeds.

I have also dug out my vegetarian cook books, The Vegetarian Student Cook Book (Octopusbooks) a friend gave me, Linda McCartney-on-tour (written by Paul McCartney’s former wife) and The Happy Pear by Dublin twin brothers David and Stephen Flynn (Penguin books). These give me enough inspiration to device my own dishes.

Free-range Eggs in Mayonnaise Curry dressing:

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Family, Friends & Guests

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It seems now we have ticked off visits from friends and family so far.

We had Nigel’s sister and hubby, Nigel’s brother from Canada with his son, Nigel’s brother from Ireland with his daughter and as yet nobody from my small family. I am awaiting eagerly my two kids, 20 and 25, to make room in their busy lives for their crazy mum. I guess I have to wait till Christmas.

Instead I had my friends, which I count as my family, here. In March Jani from Germany/Ireland, in April Fiona from Ireland, in July Sabine plus kids from Berlin and Angelika and Elaine also from Germany (yes, we are namesakes and her daughter has the same name as my daughter! They are Ireland fans and have visited there many times).

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But now we have turned our casa into a B&B and receive paying guests through booking.com and Airbnb. This enriches our lives (and pockets) through different minded people. So far we had a Spanish photographer, a Spanish lifeguard, a Spanish fire-fighter is booked to arrive tomorrow. We had a Spanish lawyer-doctor couple and two cyclists, one from Germany and one Dutch. Another Dutch couple is staying with us for a few days and then it’s back to the Spanish. Soon we soon need a third bedroom!

We also discovered a new visitor attraction: Christopher Columbuses ships!