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.
Church in El Rocio
riders and viewers
the provision waggon
there are coming around the corner…
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.
in the Recinto (corral)
getting ready for the horse fair
its a thirsty day
stay close to mummy
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 ].
up the road from Casa Halcon
drinking troughs are provided for the horses
mother & daughter
going back home
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.”
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 before boarding train in Sevilla
Madrid Atocha Station
Madrid Atocha Station
Madrid Atocha Station
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?
View of Segovia
Roman Aqueduct in Segovia
Aqueduct at night
…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.
Fiona & I in Segovia
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.
bird of prey -Bonelli’s eagle?
view from castle
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.
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.
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].
… 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:
solar fountain design 2
solar fountain design 1
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.
tulips and daffodils
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.
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.
Drops and babies
a safe nursery
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 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.
new flower rondel
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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: