Category Archives: Spain
Sit back and be prepared to be educated. We had to be.
Nine months ago, we were introduced to the little-known properties of one of the latest ‘super-foods’ to enter the global food chain. When our daughter, Rachael, announced to us via Skype (as we sat in our hotel room in Amsterdam during a city-break), that she and her partner, Jonathan, were going to leave Mexico to return to Spain, with the intention of settling and acquiring a few hectares of land to plant something called ‘Moringa’. It was a ‘jaw-dropping’ moment for both of us. Why?
Well, like most people, we had never even heard of the plant. Even an expert botanist friend of ours had only just heard of it, but couldn’t tell us much more about it. Into the small hours that night, we researched it on the internet, discovered that it originates in India, can only be grown in tightly defined sub-tropical areas with ready access to irrigation, and must be planted on well-drained terrain. Rachael and Jonathan, with the help of Jonathan’s parents (both Colombians, by the way) experimented with a few trial plants and found that parts of Andalucía in the south of Spain would provide the ideal environment………all of which led to the kick-starting of an adventure into the unknown.
Having acquired the lease of three hectares of barren uncultivated land, they ‘whipped’ the terrain into submission, ploughed, fed and watered it in preparation for over 1000 delicate little saplings which, in the last six months, have grown at a pace, but their first harvest will be to capture the seeds from the pods to plant the next generation, extend their holding, then to harvest the leaves the following year for the market………and to make some money, we hope.
Moringa is a fast-growing, drought-resistant tree, native to the southern foothills of the Himalayas, where the seed pods and leaves are used extensively as vegetables. The most nutritious part of the plant is the leaves, rich in vitamins A, B, C and K, with high levels of manganese and calcium. So complete a food, in fact, that in poorer parts of Asia it is a vital constituent of their diet. For the western market, however, where people are mostly well fed, it is promoted more as a supplement that can be taken in addition to the normal diet in the form of teas, pills or powders. Go into your local health-food store and you will find many products that include moringa on their list of ingredients.
It has been a leap into the unknown for these newcomers to the world of horticulture, but they are doing their ‘homework’, dealing with the inevitable problems of working with vagaries of nature, and looking to the future with optimism.
And since the ‘banks of Mum and Dad’ on both sides happen to be significant investors in this pioneering venture, we look on their joys, trials and tribulations with more than just a little curiosity, and find ourselves periodically shouting………. ¡Viva la Moringa!
That country we mistakenly call ‘Spain’ is more of a ‘Joseph’s coat of many colours’.
Cataluña is not Spain, just as Portugal is not Spain, but an accident of history has defined its place in the world, and over many centuries, it has struggled to maintain its true identity. Even through 40 years of oppression under Franco, when the Catalan language was banned, they held on to their essential character, and never let go of their linguistic roots.
They are quieter and more organized than their
neighbours. They have a creative imagination in the field of arts and design that is peculiarly theirs, and the avante-guard architecture of the modernist period is familiar to anyone who has been to Barcelona. During their fiestas, they build fearsomely high human towers, ushering the bravest little boy to the top to compete against other confraternities. They are hard-working, industrious and productive. Their economy makes up nearly 20% of Spain’s GDP, so Spain can’t afford to lose them in an independence referendum.
We recently enjoyed a few weeks exploring the southern reaches of the region, sampling the strong, punchy wines, feasting on the huge peaches and nectarines grown just up the road. With the peninsula’s biggest river, the Ebro, carving its way through the countryside on its way to a broad delta, where much of the country’s rice is grown, it’s not hard to understand why it is such are fertile environment.
When we thought that there was little left to discover about this peninsula, we now understand we have only just started. We need to peer around more corners, lift up more rocks, climb more mountains and cross more rivers…….in other words, we need to ‘get on our bikes’ before it is too late……….
The mention of Ibiza terminally categorizes the island in many peoples’ minds. Made famous by the hippies in the 60s and 70s, it has never really recovered from its image of being the clubbing and raving capital of the Med.
A small island it may be, but far from the enclaves of sweating, intoxicated youth, you will find a landscape brimming with interesting contours, sparkling white villages, ancient buildings that betray the presence of Phoenicians, Carthaginians and marauding Moors and Turks.
Large towns, like Eivissa and Santa Eulalia, proudly present their lofty fortified citadels, built during a period when safety from invaders was paramount. The many secluded Calas (Bays) with their protected beaches, make perfect places for bathing. The surrounding buildings are so perfectly white, they betray a winter spent applying the fresh coat of whitewash before the tourists return in the spring.
Each village will have restaurants with sunny terraces, boldly advertising their $10 euro ‘menu of the day’. Choose not just where the locals eat, but where the local workmen eat, and you will enjoy a hearty three course meal, with wine and coffee, and find yourself leaving the table as the clock strikes 5pm. Well, this is Spain, after all……
Or is it? Yes, everybody speaks Castellano (Spanish), but the local language is Ibecenco (a dialect of Catalan), and all education is imparted in the local language. In fact, what is currently ruffling a few feathers is the attempt by local government to impose a tri-lingual education, adding English to the portfolio of languages. And we are not talking about giving English lessons as a foreign language, but the use of English as the medium of education for some subjects. An ambitious plan when you consider that the use of fluent English is as alien to Spaniards as is the use of fluent French to British people.
I puzzled over the use of the word ‘pitiuso’, and later discovered that it is an ancient Greek term for describing both Ibiza and Formentera. And the latter is only a 30 minute ferry ride from Ibiza, and by bike you can just about cycle the whole island in a day, taking time out for a meal and bathing.
After three days on a tandem, and one day on a solo, we had covered large tracts of both islands, seeing them in a uniquely different way, and pedalling ourselves daily to an appetite that fully justified the long, leisurely lunches which, naturally (after a glass of wine or three) made the homeward journey a veritable ‘breeze’………;0)
Lugo is a city with prominent Roman remains, as evidenced by the restored Roman Walls encompassing the whole city. But its origins, according to its name, seem to be Celtic. It is named after the great Celtic God called Lugh, a name which occurs across the whole of the known Celtic world (the city of Lyons, in France, was originally known as Lugdunum).
Those of you who know a little Irish history, will be familiar with the harvest festival celebrated in Ireland on August 1st called The Festival of Lughnasa. This is a celebration that is variously connected with the harvest fruits and man’s ever-present battle against famine, the search for husbands and
wives, and the bearing of children. Given my own Irish ancestry, I should feel a warm welcome in Lugo!
The day we visited was a ‘fiesta’. Everybody was out on the streets, eating and drinking inside and outside bars. Drumming bands made their way along the streets, the insistent beating of the drums filling the acoustic well between buildings. Regional dances were staged, to the sound of bagpipes………this could have been Ireland.
Then, as we sat enjoying a drink on a street terrace, a commotion caught our attention. Photographers and TV cameras were sycophantically encircling a gentleman, who was making his way in our direction. I immediately recognised him as Alberto Núñez Feijóo, the current President of the Galician Regional Government (like an Alex Salmond, First Minister for Scotland) who was seeking re-election in the forthcoming elections. I jumped up immediately, presented
myself to him, shook his hand…..and he was intrigued to know what an Englishman was doing in Lugo, in Galicia……
I became aware of the insistent attention of dozens of cameras, I searched for my most ‘endearing smile’ and, rather than be a party-pooper and pretend to criticise his politics (“so what are you going to do for the expatriate Brit here in Galicia?”), I wished him well in the forthcoming elections. Did that encounter make the news the next day? We will never know.
I have a proficient knowledge of the Spanish language, a passing familiarity with gallego (the local Galician language), and many years of familiarity with the Spanish culture and way of life. If you were to ask me to take on, even the administration of, a major restoration project in deepest rural Galicia, I would quake at the knees. I can’t even begin to enumerate the myriad façades to carrying out such a project, but our friends Kim & Sue Renkin jumped in at the deep end and are swimming their way successfully to completing a major piece of restoration.
The old farmhouse, probably the equivalent of an old ‘pazo’ or ‘estancia’ was in a completely ruinous state, but its major appeal was its location, perched on the side of a hill at over 700 metres above sea level. It is a stunning position, located right next to the Camino Primitivo, one of the ancient routes to Santiago de
Compostela. When it is completed, they will open it as a small, select B&B (hotel rural). Guests will be guaranteed magnificent views over the lush green Galician countryside, and a swimming pool will lie invitingly awaiting its first customers.
And when I say a ‘project of restoration’, I mean just that. This is not a mere refurbishment of an already existing building. This is an ambitious undertaking of creating a whole new infrastructure that didn’t exist before, but retaining the ancient stone shell. They have not only had to battle with the perversity of two different languages (Spanish and Galician), but also the perversity of Spanish planning laws, working practices, the availability of materials and labour, as well as the endless details of the legal mechanisms that go with owning property in a foreign land.
They hope to finish, and be open for business, by the summer of 2013. If you like quiet rural retreats, or need a stopping place on the Camino Primitivo, I would recommend heartily that you stay at Casa Camiño. Take a look at their website here.
After a stop-over in Ribadeo, a ‘frontier’ town between Asturias and Galicia, we arrived in Ferrol, the end of the line for the FEVE narrow gauge train. We had completed the journey in 5 sections, but to do it as a continuous journey (not recommended) it would take about 14 hours from Bilbao to Ferrol. Jenny was mesmerised throughout by the views on both sides of the train. I lazily read newspapers keeping half an eye on the changing scenery, jumping out of my seat from time to time to grab a photo. The FEVE is a beautiful, gentle way to travel the north coast, so long as you are not in a hurry!
I have been to Santiago de Compostela many times before, twice as a cycling
pilgrim. For Jenny it was 30 years since her last visit, a time before the re-inauguration of the Camino, and when there was only a relative trickle of pilgrims arriving at this ancient medieval city. Today, hundreds of thousands walk, cycle or horse-ride their way to Santiago, and many millions more come by other forms of transport. It is a huge, and growing, business, and the Compostelanos are well organised ‘y sacan máximo provecho de tanto turismo’.
You can spend hours on the Plaza del Obradoiro (in front of the Cathedral) and be entertained by the stream of pilgrims arriving in a constant procession. Even in early October, there are over 1000 pilgrims arriving daily from the Camino. After they have collected their Compostela (certificate of completion) many will go to the Pilgrim Mass at noon in the Cathedral, the principle attraction being the swinging of the huge censer (botafumeiro) after the service. If you like the smell of incense, this is the place to be. If you enjoy unusual spectacles, this is one of the most unusual, and it has its
origins in the deep medieval past. Whatever spiritual or religious significance you care to attach to the use of incense, an important function was its ability to mask the appalling smell of thousands of pilgrims in medieval times. Remember, these people had spent many months on the Camino, and they would arrive unwashed, lice- infested and carrying an untold number of infectious diseases. Incense may not have been the cure, but it raised the senses to higher things!
When we opened the curtains of our hotel room, we were left speechless. I normally manage to book rooms overlooking car parks or noisy city streets, but this time we were able to feast our eyes on the soaring spires of the Cathedral, and when the moon was up and the illumination on, the sight was magical. For your information, it was the Hotel Pombal.
After a couple of nights in Santiago, we left to stay with some friends in deepest rural Galicia, who have thrown all caution to the wind and taken on the all-consuming project of restoring an ancient Galician farmhouse. Read on…………
When you enter the region of Asturias, you are not only entering the most ancient principality of the peninsula, but also the land of cider, hearty stews of pulses and blood sausages (chorizos and morcillas), cabrales cheeses, and much much more.
A taxi driver told us of the close relationship between Asturians and the Irish: he pointed to the common Celtic origins, the style of traditional dress, music (eg. bagpipes) and dance…….and more importantly, character and personality. His favourite film of all time
(he has seen it 30 times!) is ‘Barry Lyndon’. Given my own Irish roots, I felt immediately at home!
When we entered Oviedo (capital of Asturias), we were delivered to our hotel by the said-taxi, a jaw-droppingly modern structure designed by Santiago Calatrava, forming part of the Palace of Congress. The contrast with the 16th century Casona Solar of
Santillana was mind-bending. The whole wall on one side of our very large room was plate glass, giving panoramic views of the city below and the Picos in the distance.
We dashed across the street to a bar for some light supper, and engaged in conversation with two couples on the next table. The two husbands were both retired doctors, obviously enjoying their retirement, and then one produced a bag of figs, picked from his own
garden. Thrusting several in front of us, we relished the sweet seediness of the ripe fruit, forgetting what the ultimate consequence might be if we ate too many. But, we had struck up a friendship and exchanged details.
Oviedo has the ambience of a northern city, unlike anything on, or near, the Mediterranean. The streets are cleaner, the people are quieter, there is a great deal more restraint about everything. And if you have even a trace of Irish blood in you, go and meet your distant relatives!
…..ni santa, ni llana, ni del mar (neither holy, flat or by the sea). When I asked a local why it was called “del mar”, he told me there are two Santillanas: one further inland, and the other nearer the sea. It may not be on the coast, but it may mean your post is delivered to the correct place.
Santillana del Mar: the whole town is a museum! The ‘casco histórico’ (historic centre) is utterly stunning, and mostly dating from the 16th century. Some would say it is too stunning, making it a typical ‘honey pot’ tourist attraction, guaranteeing that between 10am-6pm the place is crawling with day visitors. The coaches arrive mid morning, everybody stays for lunch (which in Spain is about 3pm), then everybody departs, leaving the place empty in the evening. If you have ever been to Venice, you will know precisely what I mean.
There is a clear message here: go to Santillana to stay the night, and enjoy the place in the peacefulness of the evening or the early morning. Our visit was made very special by our hotel, a ‘Casona Solar’, a large ancestral house built in the 16th century with its own coat of arms. Our room was enormous, our balcony looked out directly onto the street, and most of the furniture was heavy oak. We couldn’t believe this only cost us £26 for the night!
Amongst many things, Santillana is famous for its ‘sobao con leche’ (sponge cake with a glass of milk). Many years ago the BBC had made a short film about a family business, that owned a big ancestral house, selling ‘sobao y leche‘. Nothing special about it, just that it formed part of a Spanish language programme about 25 years ago. We entered the said shop and reminded the elderly owner about this film, and his face lit up. It was probably many years since anyone had mentioned the long-forgotten piece of filming, and he entertained us to several minutes of reminiscences. We had instantly become his ‘amigos íntimos’.
Santillana del Mar is a jewel in the crown of Cantabria. Go and see it!
For many, a typical image of Spain is a Mediterranean costa resort, packed with sun worshippers, whose only criterion of a good holiday is the depth of their tan and the abundance of cheap food and wine. Go to the north coast, the Costa Cantábrica, and you will find few foreign tourists. The beaches are bathed by the Atlantic, that unpredictable ocean that can be a joy when its calm, and a scourge when it is angry.
But a beautiful coastline, nevertheless.
In the early 20th century, the people of Santander were so pro-royal, that they built a summer palace for King Alfonso
XIII. Dutifully, he stayed there every summer enjoying the fresh Atlantic breezes and country sports, until 1931 when he was deposed in favour of the Second Republic.
In the grounds of the Palace, an outdoor museum display honours the attempts of several Balsa expeditions to repeat (and improve on) what Thor Heyerdahl
had achieved on his Kon Tiki expedition in the 1940s. On simple man-made rafts, they succeeded in crossing the Pacific Ocean from Ecuador to Australia, a journey of some 9000 nautical miles, proving beyond doubt that ancient indigenous communities could have done the same hundreds of years ago, long before the exploits of Columbus and his successors.
I tell you, Santander is much, much more than a financial institution with a dodgy customer services department!
Within half an hour of arriving in the centre of Bilbao, even before we had checked into our hotel, the most important call on our time was to sit at a restaurant terrace and enjoy a ‘menú del día’, a three course menu of the day, that included wine and coffee. This is the moment when you feel you have really arrived!
But it was to our astonishment, when we visited the iconic Guggenheim museum, to discover that the David Hockney exhibition, so feted and so well attended in London, was still there. What was even more remarkable was the lack of queues and the very cheap 8 Euro entry fee. Seeing his paintings of Yorkshire landscapes, repeated according to the different seasons, hanging on the walls of a Basque museum, was little short of fictional. And this was a museum of a difference. On the exterior, it is covered with a fine sheet of titanium, and on the inside scarcely a wall or ceiling has straight or rectangular lines. In the atrium especially, the inclines and curvatures played tricks on the eyes.
Step outside this rust-resisting building, and you will have the pleasure of meeting ‘Mamá‘, a 22 tonne, 10 metre high spider made of bronze, meriting its name of ‘Mummy’ because of the sack of baby spiders in its underbelly.
Go around to the front of the museum and doff your cap to ‘Puppy‘, a giant floral sculpture of a West Highland terrier, originally intended as a temporary exhibit for the grand opening of the museum in 1997, it fought its way into the hearts and affection of the locals who demanded its return as a permanent feature.
It is remarkable where some ideas come from. The thought of travelling the length of the north coast of Spain by the narrow gauge railway only really hit me during my cycle ride from Kimbolton to Santiago de Compostela last year (click here). When I got to the Spanish border, and started tracing the ancient Camino along the north coast, I kept crossing, and re-crossing, and then running alongside a narrow gauge railway line, and every so often, I would see a small two coach train ambling along or resting in a small station (sometimes in the middle of nowhere).
I discovered this line started at the border with France and, 700kms/450miles later, finished in Ferrol in Galicia. The stretch starting in Bilbao is known as the FEVE (Ferrocarriles de Vía Estrecha), and it was our intention to begin with an artistic ‘pig-out’ at the Guggenheim, hop on the FEVE and trundle the 600 kms to Ferrol, stopping at several places en route to drink in some of the history and, of course, some of the local wines and cider!
If you would like to learn of some of the highlights of this little heralded route, tune in to the next few posts. The train is not a tourist train, even though it runs along an astoundingly beautiful coastline. It is used by local Spaniards to get from A to B, stopping at any of the 250 stations en route (many of them no more than ‘bus shelters’). It is a modern, comfortable two coach train running along a track which, one minute is carving its way through narrow cuttings and forests, and the next minute opens up to magnificent vistas of the rugged coastline on one side, and the jagged peaks of the Picos on the other side.
If you are a senior, you may want to apply for the Tarjeta Azul (Blue Card) which will give you a 50% discount (if you are over 60 years). We happened to be the very first non-nationals to apply for this card on the very first day the new computer system came into operation, and we discovered they hadn’t adjusted the software to accept Passport numbers (instead of ID cards). We persisted over several days, we chivvied the authorities in Oviedo (where they have their central hub) and……..to cut a long story short, they eventually corrected the software and gave us the Blue Card. If you succeed in getting one for yourself, we will be delighted to receive your acknowledgement of appreciation!
Ahora, a continuar con el viaje……;0)