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].

 

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.

 

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.

La Saca de las Yeguas – Almonte

Almonte is a small rural town, one of the famous white villages in Andalucia. But it has some very interesting and unique festivals, which are all based on customs typical for the Doñana area. The Andalucian horse plays a very important role in the life of the people here. Nearly everybody rides or owns horses, it seems. They ride through the town, cross the main road or exercise their horse in the field nearby and make them dance.

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After the festivities of Easter have died down the Romerìa is next on the calendar. The pilgrimage to El Rocio at Pentecost is a vibrant exhibition of traditional costume and religious fervour. This takes place in late May or early June, depending on the date of Easter. This is the most important date in the calendar of Almonte, as the Virgin of El Rocio, La Paloma Blanca, is carried also to Almonte every seven years, and back to her shrine in El Rocio.

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In June, on the 26th, then the running of the mares, La Saca de las Yeguas, takes place. Also a fiesta that occupies a whole week of festivities as it merges into the fiesta of the local patron saint, San Pedro. The mares and foals are herded up from the marismas, the wetlands, of the Doñana National Park, and driven by riders first into El Rocio and then into Almonte. Everybody lines the streets to see the up to 1,000 half-wild horses run by, together with the exhausted and dusty Yeguerizos, who have already spent days camping out in the marismas [see https://www.spain-holiday.com/Almonte/articles/the-saca-de-las-yeguas-almonte-huelva and https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lFscycRzYq8 and  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0UzIPTZl_mo ].

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In the outskirts of Almonte, in the towns special corral, the horses are being prepared for sale. They are being cleaned, their manes and tails are cut, young horses branded. These horses are of the local Marismena race, a race that is known for its strength and endurance.

 

We are very lucky in the way that our finca actually lies along the camino that the horses are guided back by the riders to their grazing grounds in the national park. They literally passed by our gates the other morning.

The wetland of El Rocio:

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CASA HALCON on booking.com

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Yes, finally the last touches are being added and we are ready to open our house and finca for guests. Time to pop the cork!

The first bookings are coming in and soon we are also live on Airbnb.

And, since temperatures are soaring, we are installing a swimming pool. A big round over-ground thingy, 17.4 m3, 1 m deep which will give us some refreshment during the hottest months here when we won’t make it to the beach.

In the meantime another fiesta in Almonte is in preparation.

But first I want to tell you about our experience with the Romeria, which takes place each year at Pentecost.

El Rocio – The Romeria at Pentecost, see  https://rove.me/to/seville/el-rocio-pilgrimage  for footage and general information.

El Rocio is a town build on sand, therefore all its streets are pure sand and predestined to be used by horses, riders and carriages.

It also is a pilgrimage town, where throughout the year the brotherhoods, ‘hermandados’, meet to prepare for the biggest of the fiestas, the Romeria, at Pentecost. Last year we were just leaving for Portugal, when the throng of carriages, waggons and riders descended upon El Rocio. This year we watched the build-up in Almonte, where children and whole families were beautifully dressed in traditional costumes and flamenco dresses. Little girls complete with flowers in their hair, lipstick and dresses. Even little boys looked like their fathers in traditional leather riding boots, cummerbund, white shirts and hats, a lovely sight.

El Rocío Pilgrimage or Romería de El Rocío in Seville - Best Time

Some of the pilgrims passed-by our entrance.

We are people that shy away from crowds. This is our excuse, for this year anyway, not to join in the festivities in El Rocio. Instead we watched the religious fervour unfold on the television. There is a whole channel devoted to going-ons in Donana, the Nature Reserve and area here which includes Almonte, Matalascanas and El Rocio and the Donana National Park. This is a very catholic celebration of the Virgin of El Rocio, La Paloma Blanca, the white dove. Every hermandado has a float, richly decorated with flowers, drawn preferably by oxen or horses or mules. There are prayers, incantations and blessings. Not really our style. And to be wedged in between nearly a million dressed-up followers in the beating sun isn’t really our idea of fun.

However, we sneaked into town at sunset on the Sunday. Therefore my photos are very dark and some were too wobbly, as catching the carriages driving by or riders and lady’s on horseback proofed too much for my limited photographic talents. On this evening, an almighty downpour drenched the town and the revellers and big puddles need to be negotiated.  The floats are proudly displayed in a separate tent beside the place for the bow-top caravans for families that do not own a house in El Rocio. It is very much a family festivity and there does not seem to be much alcohol involved.

El Rocio, circa 15 kms from our house, at night: