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.”
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.
Bonnie & Clyde
Bonnie & Clyde
Bonnie & Clyde
Bonnie & Sofie
Bonnie & Sofie
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….
Jack – 4 weeks
on the terrace
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 ]
Almonte preparing for the Romeria
on the way to el Rocio
before heading off
ready to go
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.
with beer bottle holders
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.
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].
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.
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.
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.
When we came here first, the property had not been lived in for nearly 6 years. The olive trees were abandoned and the house was in bad shape. All wiring had been ripped out together with light fixtures, plumbing and who knows what else. Then, just before we returned from Ireland, all windows and doors were taken. This was done professionally, over several days before we bought the property. Naturally that all impacted on the price. So we had a big job on our hands to clean up, restore, rewire, replumb, and order new doors and windows as well as installing our very own, off-the-grid photovoltaic system for generating electricity from the very generous Spanish sunshine.
Before we bought the property:
And after our efforts:
The worst place was the en-suite bathroom. It was dark and sported an unfinished concrete bath. It seems it was built as an after-thought, as underneath the sides were tiles on the wall. As we already have a bath in the other upstairs bathroom we wanted a nice, generously proportioned walk-in shower. So the bath had to go. Nigel painstakingly chipped away at it and carried bucketfuls of rubble out. Then the floor and walls had to be smoothed out, plastered and tiled. It isn’t everybody’s dream bathroom, but for us it is a great achievement and it reminds me of the Gaudi-style. Why straight and even if you can play with form and colour? I even refreshed and painted up some tiles for the skirting board and these complete the look.
Our brand-new doors upstairs are now also painted and we had our first B&B guests, Bego, a very talented photographer who was here to take pictures of the ‘Saca de las Yeguas’, running of the mares (more about that in the next blog), and a very young couple.
Next up is my friend from Berlin with her two young sons, so this is holiday time and fun after all the intense time of work, frustrations and difficulties to get everything together.