Monthly Archives: December 2014

Ronda – A Happy Place

The ancient town of Ronda has certainly been built in one of the most dramatic locations in Spain. Straddling the 100m deep El Tajo gorge are the old and new towns, which are both packed with interesting historical buildings and breath-taking views.

DSCF0003I enter the old town via the Puerta de Almocabar, having walked 2.5km from the campsite. There are several museums and churches in the old town but, for now, I want to see the view back to the Puente Nuevo (This “not-so-new” bridge was started in 1751, took 42 years to build and 50 workers died during its construction). The view from the top of the bridge is just as spectacular and I wonder if the half-hearted attempts at barriers along the side of the bridge have prevented people from falling or jumping to their deaths. Definitely not the place for a selfie!

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DSCF9974I’m drawn to the Plaza de Toros, a 5,000 seat bullring, more than 200 years old and one of the most revered in Spain. It’s possible to stand in the blood-stained ring where famous fighters, such as the Romero family and Antonio Ordonez have defeated the bulls. I am also able to get a bull’s eye view from the stalls where they are kept, awaiting their turn to be tortured and slaughtered in the ring. A museum on the site features prints and posters (including one by Picasso), as well as costumes and other memorabilia. Here I am able to gain a better understanding of the sport. The Matador (fighter) uses a Muleta (red cape) to attract the bull, and is assisted by picadors (on horses) and banderillos (on foot).

Bullfighting is the only art in which the artist is in danger of death and in which the degree of brilliance in the performance is left to the fighter’s honour.

Ernest Hemingway

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DSCF0016On the way back through the old town, I stop at the Bandit Museum to learn more about the early 19th century robbers and fugitives who roamed the Sierras of Andalusia. There’s no shortage of information and paintings depicting the infamous criminals. They became popular folk heroes through illustrated magazines and songs.

DSCF0027Many were captured and shot or hung, while some were pardoned and one, Jose Maria “El Tempranillo”, actually became a policeman and hunted down his fellow bandits until he was shot by one of them. The last Andalusian bandolero, “Paso Largos”, spent 16 years in prison, but when he was pardoned in 1932 he went right back to his old ways and was finally killed in a shootout in 1934 aged 60.

Bullfighting and Bandits may not seem like a legacy which would make Ronda a happy place, but if you watch this video you will see that the people of Ronda today are definitely happy.

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White Villages and White Knuckle Drives of Andalusia

DSCF9817I’m driving inland, following the 19th century railway line to Ronda. The route takes me past the hill town of Jimena de la Frontera, topped with the ruin of a 13th century Nasrid castle, and through cork oak forests and orange groves. Further north, I pass by the white villages of Gaucin and Algatocin, and can see even more in the distance. However, I can’t see the only blue village, painted for the filming of The Smurfs, and left that way as an enticement to the tourists.

DSCF9873From Ronda I head north west, taking a narrow, minor road through beautiful oak forest to Grazalema, a white village huddled into the hillside, sheltered from the wind and shaded from the sun. I feel lucky that I didn’t meet one of the large public buses on my way and hope they don’t continue further, for the road rises dramatically into the mountains, peaking at the 1357m high Puerto de las Palomas (Dove’s Pass). This 18km route is not for the faint-hearted or for those with a fear of heights as the road clings to the mountainside, winding down to the valley like a writhing serpent, with hairpin bends and sheer drops. At the bottom is the white village of Zahara de la Sierra, wrapped around a hill with a 12th century tower and overlooking a large reservoir.

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DSCF0047A few days later, I take another route, east of Ronda, through bandit country. The first part to the village of El Burgo, birthplace of the notorious “Paso Largos”, reminds me of the Scottish highlands, craggy hills and barren land suitable only for goats and sheep. The road to Ardales is not signed but, after asking a local man, I traverse the small, bottleneck roads of the village and an old Roman bridge to emerge amongst olive groves growing on the slopes of the river Turon. It’s equally tough to negotiate the village of Ardales, whose narrow, cobbled streets were not designed with motorhomes in mind. However, I soon find myself running along the edge of a gleaming turquoise reservoir which seems in need of replenishment.

DSCF0067Beyond the reservoir, I enter dark, pine forest and, following signs to Bobastro, I climb up to a magnificent 360 degree viewpoint where I stop to have lunch. Cloud cover prevents me from seeing the coast but I know that it is there in the distance, and to the north, I can make out the top of the 400m deep El Chorro gorge. Retracing my steps back down through the forest, I am able to drive through the 4km gorge and emerge at the village of El Chorro, a mecca for climbers. I can’t see any on the rock face but I can see the 1m wide catwalk of the Camino del Rey, clinging to the cliff 100m above the river. Originally built in 1905 to provide access to the hydroelectric power station, it had fallen into a poor state, making it an even more exciting challenge for adrenaline junkies. After several fatal accidents in 2000 it was official closed, but is set to reopen soon after undergoing lengthy and expensive repairs. The Malaga to Ronda train line also passes through the gorge via a series of tunnels and bridges and the finale of the 1965 film Von Ryan’s Express, starring Frank Sinatra, was filmed here.

The last part of my scenic drive takes me to the untouristy town of Antquera which boasts many historical sites, including ancient Dolmens, Roman Baths and a Moorish fortress, as well as over 30 ornate churches. Unfortunately it’s Monday and they are all closed but it gives me a reason to return to the region in the future.

MH tips: The roads described are mostly narrow and winding. Some sections have recently been resurfaced while others are in a poor state. You may frequently meet farm vehicles and cyclists, especially during the weekend. Between Ronda and Antequera the route passes through some small villages with narrow streets which may not be possible to negotiate in a larger motorhome. There is also a 2.7m width restriction on the Roman bridge at El Burgo.

On foot in Gibraltar

Much as I’m enjoying Spain and Portugal, I’m drawn to the Rock of Gibraltar in search of a little bit of Britain.

DSCF9663Trixie is staying in Spain while I cross the border on foot. Cars are queuing for miles but foot traffic flows freely with immigration officers not even glancing at my passport. There are buses from the border into town but, like most locals, I decide to walk, which means crossing the active runway of the airport. As I step through the gates a loud alarm sounds and I wonder if it is a metal detector, but the policeman doesn’t stop me, just closes the gate behind me. Vehicles are still passing so I continue on until I reach the centreline of the runway, when the cars are also stopped. I have to speed up now because I can see the Monarch Airlines plane on final approach, but I’m safely behind the barrier before it touches down.

DSCF9784I enter the town through the Landport Tunnel, once the only entry point to Gibraltar, and emerge into Grand Casemates Square which is surrounded by very British pubs offering roast dinners and fish & chips. There’s a WH Smiths selling English newspapers and a little further down Main Street is a Marks & Spencer’s selling Christmas pudding and mince pies.

DSCF9630I ignore the shops, taking a side street and then steps up to the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, home to migratory birds and about 200 Barbary macaques. A large male ape is waiting for me at the entrance to the Moorish Castle. Built in 1333, it’s now just an empty shell but there are some lovely views from the roof across the town and back to Spain.

 

 

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A short walk uphill brings me to the entrance of the World War II tunnels where I pay for a guided tour. An enthusiastic young lady explains that there are 52kms of tunnels within the rock. Quite frankly, I’m surprised it’s still standing. Luckily the tour only covers about 500m of them. We are given hardhats and led into wide, well-lit tunnels which were excavated by British and Canadian soldiers. Black and white photographs hang on the walls showing a life underground which seems a lot more fun than it probably was. Our guide charms us with lots of anecdotes she has read and heard from former tunnelers and articles on Gibraltar during WWII. Over 13,000 civilians were evacuated from Gibraltar during the war, many to London which was frequently bombed. Ironically, they would probably have been better off if they had stayed on Gibraltar, which was never actually invaded and suffered little in the way of attacks due to Spain’s reluctance to enter the war.

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DSCF9681Above the WWII tunnels are the Great Siege tunnels, hewn by hand in 1780 to provide gun emplacements for cannons, many of which are still housed there. The museum is self-guided but provides lots of information about the tunnels, the cannons and the prominent people involved at the time. It also provides stunning views across the runway to La Linea de la Concepcion and out to the Mediterranean Sea.

DSCF9714Walking along the length of the Upper Rock Nature Reserve, I have to pass under the cable car (a much easier way to access the reserve) and pass the Ape’s Den, home to many of the Barbary Macaques. I’m not a big fan of apes and monkeys so I give them a wide berth. Attacks on tourists are not uncommon and, apparently they have progressed from pinching picnic lunches to appropriating i-phones and digital cameras. Recently a large hoard was discovered in one of the smaller caves in the rock face.

DSCF9726At the south end of the Rock is St Michael’s Cave, a huge natural cavern of stalactites and stalagmites which has been spoilt by the addition of flashing, coloured lights and rock music. I manage to find a more peaceful side cavern, accessed by steep steps and avoided by the larger tourist groups. Here I can actually imagine the millions of years it has taken to form these natural sculptures. A unique feature in this cave is a cross-section of a fallen stalactite which resembles a sawn tree trunk, complete with rings depicting different eras of growth.

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A steep, rugged footpath takes me down to the bronze monument named ‘The Pillars of Hercules’. However, the true Pillars of Hercules are the Rock and Jebel Musa, the 851m Moroccan mountain across the Straits.

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The Sherry Triangle

The area between the cities of Sanlucar de Barrameda, Cadiz and Jerez de la Frontera is known as the sherry triangle and each of these cities contain sherry warehouses for well-known brands.

The names are surprisingly British: Osborne, Terry, Harvey and Sandeman. In fact it was possibly Sir Francis Drake who instigated the British interest in sherry when he sacked Cadiz in 1587 and stole 3000 barrels of the local wine.

There are 7 types of sherry ranging from very dry to very sweet.

Manzanilla dry and fresh olives, almonds and sushi
Fino very dry and pale fish, shellfish and some cheese
Amontillado off dry chicken, rabbit, foie gras and blue cheese
Oloroso dry, dark and nutty game and red meat
Pale cream 75% Fino & 25% Pedro Ximenez fresh fruit
Cream sweet fruit cake and desserts
Pedro Ximenez very sweet chocolate and biscotti

 

The process

DSCF9216There are three types of grape used for the production of Sherry: Palomino, Muscat of Alexandria (Moscatel) and Pedro Ximénez. The Palomino is the dominant grape in the region as it produces large bunches of pale green grapes with a potential alcohol level of 11–12.5 degrees. The other two grapes are mainly used for sweetening purposes.

The grapes are pressed and allowed to ferment and a layer of yeast film forms on the top of the developing wine. This is called the flor, and it forms from yeasts in the winery environment when the sherry casks are left incompletely filled. Sherry butts (barrels) are made of American oak and usually have a capacity of 600 litres, but are only filled to 500 litres, leaving a large air space. The growth of the flor protects the developing wine from oxidation and contributes a distinctive flavour to the wine.

At the end of the year when fermentation is complete, the wine is classified and then fortified. The cellarmaster tastes wine from the different casks and separates out the lighter wines to become fino, and the heavier  wines to become oloroso.

Cadiz

DSCF9535Dawn in Andalucia. I walk from the campsite, along the dockside, into the town of El Puerto del Santa Maria. There’s a lot of clanging and banging as market stalls are being set up along the road. It looks like a big market, but I suspect that by the time I return they will have packed up and left. I’m taking the catamaran to Cadiz, which twinkles across the water in the early dawn light.

It’s a five minute turn around, and then we’re off. First gently cruising through the port, where the market is still assembling. Then, as we leave the breakwater, we speed up and bob across the bay, leaving the chasing seagulls far behind.

DSCF9513As we enter the port of Cadiz, my heart sinks at the sight of the cruise ship Oceana. I expect the city to be overrun with tourists and two coachloads almost knock me over on their way for some inland tour to Seville or Jerez. I stop by the small tourist office to pick up a map, and then walk to the tall, thick walls which still mark the entrance to the city. Homeless people have been sheltering beneath the arches, cardboard boxes insulating them from the cold, stone floor. Maybe it’s because it’s still early and the streets are quiet, but Cadiz feels seedy and threatening. I’m alert and careful not to wander too far from the main routes, watching my step for fear of treading in dog shit.

At the ruins of the Roman theatre I catch up with a tour group, peering through the barred fence, trying to get a glimpse of the ancient stones. It is “closed for repair”. Perhaps it is a joke! Behind I can see the domed, twin bell towers of the cathedral, which look down upon a large square lined with tapas bars. Too early for tapas, I seek out a warm, inviting coffee shop and plan the rest of my day.

DSCF9416I stretch my legs by walking to the most westerly point of Caleta Beach, whose white sands stretch between the forts of San Sebastian and Santa Catalina. A man walking his dog allows it to shit on the beach and then just kicks sand over it, as if hiding it means he can forget it, leaving it to become someone else’s problem. I distract myself by visiting the Cortes de Cadiz Museum which has displays on 18th and 19th century Cadiz, as well as memorabilia of the Napoleonic Wars and a scale model of the 18th century city made from mahogany wood and ivory.

DSCF9463The Museum of Fine Arts and Archaeology houses Roman and Phoenician finds, including some large marble sarcophagi and gleaming gold jewellery. Upstairs is a small but memorable selection of mainly Spanish art, including a collection of canvases by Zubaran from the Cathusian monastery of Jerez and a small painting on copper by Rubens. The second floor displays contemporary art which I have never quite understood and I find very little that appeals to me.

I had been particularly looking forward to a third museum of Bullfighting and Wine, not least because a glass of wine is included in the entrance ticket. However, my information, the map and the street signs seem to be out of date as I only find a small tavern with sherry barrels, old dusty bottles and framed bullfight posters. The owner tells me that the museum closed more than a year ago.

DSCF9524I drown my sorrows in the cathedral square with a glass of red wine and a selection of tapas: kidneys in sherry, chickpeas with chorizo and garlic potatoes. As a bonus, some musicians arrive with an accordion and clarinet. They commence with a very non-Spanish “O Sole Mio” and follow it with a very out-of-tune “Jingle Bells”. Not surprisingly they don’t collect much in their cap. Some locals sit next to me and while the younger members politely move away to smoke, a middle-aged senora in a mobility scooter chain smokes away and spoils my moment, reaffirming my view that the people of Cadiz just don’t care. They don’t care about their environment, their visitors, their neighbours or themselves.

DSCF9561Back in El Puerto del Santa Maria, the market has left and the streets are quiet. Many are bordered by the long, whitewashed walls of the sherry warehouses which stand empty and are up for sale. Perhaps the sherry has gone out of fashion? I do locate the large, circular bullring which was built in 1880 and can hold 15,000 spectators. There are two prices for the seats. Sun: cheap, and Shade: expensive. Luckily for the bulls, there is no fighting during the winter period and the seats remain empty.

Zambombas and Carreras de Caballo

I find myself in the city of Sanlucar de Barrameda for the long weekend. Both the Saturday 6th and the Monday 8th of December are public holidays and it’s a time for celebration. The helpful tourist information office has given me a list of places to visit and another list of activities taking place in the town this month. There seems to be plenty to keep me occupied for the next few days.

DSCF9183On the first day I walk through the busy indoor market, smelling of salty fish and Arabic spices, and up to the old part of city. Amongst the large sherry warehouses I find the 15th century castle with a pleasant café inside the walls. Nearby is the Barbadillo sherry shop and museum where I learn about the 7 types of sherry that are produced in the region and get to try a few. The locally produced manzanilla is served chilled and has a sharp, acidic dryness that wakes me up but curls my tongue.

DSCF9256Down the road, hidden behind the imposing medieval Church of Our Lady of O, is the Ducal Palace of Medina Sidonia. There are some public areas, the palace is also a hotel, but to access the state rooms I need to join a guided tour in Spanish. I struggle to keep up with all the historical dates and names of the artists who painted the dreary religious paintings, which are badly in need of some restoration. There is antique furniture from all over Europe and beyond, displays of fans and ceramics, four poster beds with copper bedpans to warm the sheets and picture windows looking down on the city and beyond to the river Guadalquivir and the Donana National Park beyond.

DSCF9288On the second day I go in search of Zambombas. The tourist office described it as flamenco to Jingle Bells so I’m not quite sure what to expect. Perhaps professional flamenco dancers stamping away to Christmas carols? I check out the main squares, which are busy with people chatting over tapas and glasses of manzanilla, but no flamenco. However, as I stroll further into the maze of side streets, I can hear singing. Following the sounds, I arrive at a bar where a group of musicians are playing away while the locals dance in the streets. The young girls are particularly keen to show off their talents. There’s no Jingle Bells but the spirit of Christmas flamenco is definitely flowing through their bodies to the tips of their fingers.

DSCF9322On the third day I walk along the promenade to the far end of the beach to see a tradition dating back to 1845. Each August, horse races are held along the beach and I am lucky to arrive during an additional event for the younger riders. It’s all very professional with a parade ground where the judges and onlookers can view the horses and riders before the race. Then the horses are ridden along the beach for the stated distance of race before thundering back down along the sand to the finish line. There is a chill wind blowing but everyone is wrapped up and the stalls of free sherry help to warm us from the inside out.

 

Death by Selfie

I’m not very fond of technology but I’m not a Luddite either. I have a facebook account with a modestly acceptable number of friends and I have this blog with quite a few followers. I’ve even been known to take the odd selfie, though the results are usually pretty rubbish and I don’t bother to distribute it via snapchat.

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During my travels in Portugal and Spain it has come to my attention that taking a selfie can actually be fatal. While chatting to a lovely lady in the Tourist Office in Sagres, I learnt of the death of two people at Cabo da Roca, the most westerly point in Europe, in August 2014. Polish parents of two children aged 5 and 6, they had climbed over the wooden barrier at the cliff edge in order to take a selfie with the sheer drop of the cliff behind them. Unfortunately, they lost their footing and fell down the 80m cliff, in clear sight of their now orphaned children.

Then, in November 2014, a young Polish nursing student studying in Seville was taking a selfie on the Triana bridge after a night out in the city. She fell 15ft onto a concrete footing of the bridge and suffered a fatal head injury.

Back in March 2014, a 21 year old Spanish man was trying to take a selfie while posing on top of a stationary train in Southern Spain. Sadly, he came in contact with a live wire, was electrocuted and died.

So before you take another selfie, think about your safety and decide whether that picture is worth the risk.