A Challenging August

 Life as a Guesthouse owner

After three years of opening our home to complete strangers, we have many tales to tell.

What seems to be on repeat is that some guests stop in from of our neighbours gate, just after passing ours, with the name Casa Halcón written in big letter. This gateway is also as the main photo on booking.com, where the majority of our guests book. And yet, they phone me up and ask to be let in and that there are some big dogs.

It is true; our neighbours have four humoungus mastins and a sign that says ‘Finca La Tremosilla’.

I can only guess that just because they do not see a house through our gate, they keep going to the next one with a house.

We also have the occasional worker staying here in the single beds room for a single-person rate. The last one also called for help, and then at 22.00 he asked for food. So I made him two toasted sandwiches and a salad.

I was up the next morning shortly after six to prepare breakfast for our guests that booked a tour through the Doñana National Park. These buses leave at 8.00, so breakfast needs to be ready at 7.00.

In between I receive bookings, make contact on Whatsapp to give directions, receive phone calls, make beds, clean rooms and go shopping, cook lunch and sometimes dinner for guests and tend to the garden.

Nigel’s part is to make the guests relaxed, make sure the lights are on outside at night, the gate is unlocked in the morning and sometimes he cooks an Irish breakfast and plays the guitar and sings. He also lovingly keeps the lawn watered and luscious green, a nod to the green fields in Ireland.

So here guests get individual attention and even entertainment. We only have the three bedrooms for rent, but six strangers coming and going every day can be quite exhausting and it is basically a 14-hour job for me and Nigel clocks in more time as the night porter, waiting up until all guests are in their beds.

More excitement is provided every year by the forest fires, this was only 800m down the road from us. Thanks to Steffi, our neighbour calling the fire brigade immediately it was brought under control quickly.

The road to Mazagon ,  The further you go, the farther you are away….

The kilometer signs from Almonte to Mazagon on the Camino de los Cabezudos are a bit confused. They tell you it us 32 kms to Mazagon, the next signs says 35 kms, then we are down to 28 kms only to go up to 30 kms again.

This road goes through the national park area and sports 53 speed bumps. Otherwise it would be a quick drive to Mazagon, the seaside town with a yacht harbour.

We went there on a Monday after the guests left to have some tapas and a drink in the small bar, but it was closed. So we just watched the small boats and some fishing vessels coming in and going out. It was the most relaxing time, as they glided slowly on the water, it was mesmerizing. Even the unloading of the incoming fishing boat had to happen slowly as the bins were heavy and full of fish and ice water.

Now is high season for the tourists, but there in the harbour was nobody, so I really got to chill.

Later we went for a meal and spent an hour on the beach to round off the day. From the beach in Mazagon you can see the tankers of oil waiting to come in. Every day several are lined up on the horizon to supply Spain with oil and gas.

Isla Cristina

This island is connected via bridges to the mainland, seven kilometres from the Portuguese border and has, according to Huelva turismo, eleven beaches, the marshes, marismas, protected nature reserves and salt flats, and more important one of Spain’s most important fishing harbours.

https://www.huelvainformacion.es/destino-huelva/playas-huelva/playas-Isla-Cristina-robaran-corazon_0_1583543647.html

We like the contrast to our olive groves and agricultural land uses. It is interesting to see the rather small fishing boats getting ready to go out to sea. It will take them over an hour to go along the channel to reach the Atlantic sea.

There are numerous restaurants that serve the daily landed fish; it is hard to make a choice. We selected a smaller place away from the crowds in the centre not far from the actual fish market.

Beware of the whole fish, the price is per kg and you do not know the price before the fish is on the plate! We had fried anchovies as a starter, tuna in tomato sauce, some sea food croquettes and a sole, a flat fish with a very delicate flavour, which costs itself the princely sum of €25. Altogether we spent €53, which we might do twice a year to treat ourselves.

Here is a little story in photos of fishermen boarding to go to sea. It is amazing how many people it takes to bring in the fish from the sea. At the end there were twelve men on board.

More Guesthouse Stories:

When The Sun Gets Too Much

We had just had our first serious heat wave of this year with temperatures of over 45 degrees, in the shade.

And yes, of course the Sahara is not far, about 850 kms and we are in the South of Andalucia. It just depends how you deal with those sorts of temperatures that feel as if the hot breath of a dragon breathes upon you. That is the reason why we have siesta and everything shuts down from 14.00-18.00.

Even our solar system that depends on the sunlight to generate our electricity had enough and shut down. The fault message was 2: overheating, even though it sits in a shed with door and window open. There was a slight panic as we had four guests in the house that did not wanted to leave the premises and preferred to rest. And we could provide no water as the pump (for toilets and taps) did not run, no fans worked and the fridge and freezer were also off.

In the case of bad weather, no sun or if the need for electric heaters arises we have a generator. Unfortunately this is directly connected to the solar inverter so it starts automatically when the battery bank is low on wattage.

In our case we had more than enough power generated but it was not delivering into the house or anywhere as the inverter took a well needed break. This prevents the system from overheating even further.

We tried cleaning the fan of the inverter box, switching off the whole system, fanning the control unit and praying to the Holy Virgin of El Rocio. After about four hours she heard us and all suddenly sprang to life again.

To keep me from panicking I started preparing the dinner for six. Cooking does relax me, it takes concentration and if the end result is pleasing for all concerned then this is time well spent.

And after all that we got a very glowing review in booking.com, so our efforts paid off.

What did we learn?

There is a reason why a solar powered system needs a back up, just in case. In most places it is the connection to the grid, in our case it is the generator. We will now add a direct line from the generator to the house, circumventing the solar control unit. So in future we have total control when we want the generator to take over; which is probably a smart move for when we need to carry out work on the system like replacing the batteries, the control unit or for repair.

A Case of Mistaken Identity

This August we hardly have a day without guests coming or going or staying. It is not always possible for the two of us to go away, unless the guests have a key, which we only give out to guests that stay longer than one night.

For Sunday we were invited to a ‘pool party’ at Tina’s to give a farewell to our German friend’s son and girl friend. As Nigel did not want to miss his favourite football team’s match, we decided to split our attendance. I would go earlier and then return when his game was over, so he could go, so then there would always be one of us at home.

I gave him instructions about the two couples that would arrive that afternoon and where to put them, the Italians upstairs and the Madame, Spanish, downstairs in the room with private bathroom. I went happily on my way, promptly taking the wrong exit for Tina’s house and taking another twirl down the motorway when my mobile rang. The first guests had arrived and where sitting in front of the closed gate. I instructed them to open it by hand and called Nigel, three times. Another call from the guests, they could not get in. I told them Nigel was coming to open, but I still had not reached him. More heat then was already in the car crept up my body.

Where was he? Fallen asleep in front of the TV? This would not be surprising as he puts himself on night porter duty every night, staying up until all guests have returned to lock the gate and switch off lights.

I tried again, no answer. Then I ask our guests where exactly they were? They sent a photo of the entrance on Whatsapp. It was our neighbour’s gate, again.

What is it about people? Our gate has the name ‘Casa Halcón’ in big letters on it. A photo of it is on Booking.com’s website. What else can we do?

By the time they had reversed I had finally spoken with Nigel; he had been out given water to the horses and naturally did not see a car.

Anyway, all was now sorted, or so I thought. Shortly after I arrived at Tina’s and after a cool drink of cucumber soup I checked in with Nigel to see if all went well. Yes, he showed them the room upstairs and they were happy.

And then the Italians arrived on a motorbike. Well, he is Italian, she from Paraguay. It turned out Giuseppe had lived and worked in Ireland for 20 years and he and Nigel hit it off at once.

So they took the bottom bedroom with private bathroom. Unfortunately, or rather fortunately for them, this was not what they had booked. Nigel had switched them around because he maintained the first fellow definitely looked Italian, but was Spanish.

When I came home later that night they were all happily sitting outside, chatting. Which is all very well, but when you pay twenty Euros extra to ensure you have a private bathroom and discover somebody else had been given this room, you want an explanation.

In fairness, they were very nice about it. They asked if it was a fault with booking.com. No, I replied, it’s a fault with Nigel assuming things and not asking. So I let them have drinks and breakfast gratis and in the end they left us a really good review. They even said they would return. He acts as a bodyguard to politicians and even showed us his badge and gun. He was used to bringing it around with him, a habit that he cultivated due to the ETA threats from years back.

our entrance

Priests Having Lost Their Way

We have all kinds of people and couples here, in all sorts of combinations, from all sorts of countries. And then there were the two priests in the big double bed….

They could have booked the single beds, but the Spanish do seem to see all things catholic a bit different. I prefer this to the cleric putting their hands on children any day, but we should not jump to conclusions either. They were to go praying to Almonte in the evening, where the Paloma Blanca, the venerated Virgin of El Rocio still resides, according to Nigel because she has not been given the jab, the Covid vaccine.

On the way back they must have decided to take the scenic route and then relied on Google maps for a shortcut home. They must have been back at around 2.30 in the morning. Nigel met them at 8.00 on the stairs and they asked for his help to tow their car out of an olive grove, where it was safely sitting in sand. With the help of the jeep he got them out, but how and where they got into this place was a mystery as it was fully fenced and Nigel had to find a place to open the thorny wire fence.

Rio Tinto

Sometimes we get away on a Sunday or Monday evening, when no more guests are expected and explore more wonderful places around here.

The last outing was to the Rio Tinto, which is a red river that ends in Huelva port. Nigel brought me to the Embalse de Corumbel Bajo, a reservoir forty minutes from us. It is quite pretty and this is where the mountains start. From there he went off-road on a track that goes up and down and around and ends along the railway line, which transported minerals and metals from the mines to the harbour in Huelva. Part of the line is dismantled, parts have been turned into a Via Verde, a cycling path, and some parts are still intact.

It is a fascinating place with its many colours of reds, rusts, browns and yellows. Mineral deposits can be seen where the water recedes and old workings, going back to Roman times, are also still in place. There is so much more to discover along the Rio Tinto and we will have many more explorations. In fact, in the spring Nigel cycled with Robert on their mountain bikes from Bollullos up to the mountains and along the Rio Tinto over some of the old railway bridges and it was none so pleasant I am told.

And then we went for some delicious tapas in La Palma De Condado, a small bar that was a meeting place for the pensioners, but they still served us ;0). As usual we were way too early , but after an hour the place was full.

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.

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.

dav
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

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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.

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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!

Together with my friend Sabine and kids we had a good look how he managed to first secure money and ships from the Spanish king and set about his many voyages. The Santa Maria, Niña and Piña have been rebuild and actually set to sea and are now ankered just outside Huelva at la Muelle de las Carabelas. His first expedition took place between 1492 and 1493 and his ships were astonishing small considering his ambition to discover East-Asia but landed in the Bahamas instead [see https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Maria_(Schiff) ]. Columbus, or Cristobal Colon, as the Spanish call him, was not even Spanish, he was born either on Corsica or in Genua, nobody really knows and therefore Italian. First he asked the Portugese king, but he wasn’t keen to give him the money necessary for his expedition so he went begging to the Spanish king and queen, Ferdinand II. of Aragón und Isabella I. of Castillia, who adopted him subsequently as their Spanish explorer. He is partly buried in the Cathedral of Seville. His bones were transferred back and forth to Cuba, probably a few getting lost on the way or sold off, who knows.[https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christopher_Kolumbus ].

French Dresser Project

The last piece of restoration here was the ‘French’ ‘antic’ dresser we obtained from our scrap merchant for €110. It was completely black and still had evidence of previous use in a restaurant or pension, as I found six pepper and salt dispensers in it and a few napkins. So I went about painstakingly stripping the paint off. This was a madness-inspired task as the wood is deeply grooved. So I used a spatula and screwdriver to get the paint off in those grooves. And of course it has insets and two handles missing. But I took my time and the result is pleasing to the eye (at least mine). It now looks a bit multi-dimensionally, as the paint has three layers and a bit of black from previous use of the brush. I chose the colour to pick out the slight green centre of the tiles and it looks alright in our bedroom.