I have learned but lately that the heart does not grow old……..


I know it’s only my imagination but the faces of those old people who have spent their lives on farms or close to the land seem to have a better class of wrinkle.

It’s hard to know exactly what it is, but the old folks round here seem to contain a dignity and expressiveness that suits the harshness of the climate and the general difficulty-of-being that many of them will have endured under the dictatorship and the anxieties that were their lot during the years of transition.

The life of farmers everywhere can be cruel, but nowhere more so for the humble tenant farmer of the alpujarra, who not only was often unable to own his own land, but had meanwhile to pay a set of mediaeval-like tithes and tributes to landowner and Church, usually irrespective of the yield. These days we all reach automatically for our cameras when we see the ploughman set to with a pair of mules, and this is a good thing, for not only is it a sight to treasure for its rarity and for the fact that  such a vulnerable technique  ties us  closely to a very recent bit of history, but also, more simply, it’sjust a wonderfully beautiful thing to see such skill and power harnessed to tradition.

Let’s face it, what more picturesque and bucolic scenario could you hope to find than an ancient olive terrace being turned over by a chap with straw hat,  fifteenth century plough and two mules with preposterously cutesy ears? Thing is though, for all its pastoral delights, it’s hard work, stunningly so, and subject to all kinds of uncertainty, and it’s this, I think, more than anything else, that leads the locals to carry about them their lovely, eloquent, corrugated features.

lady in joritaorTake Ana. No longer built for speed, shall we say, she has a strange geriatric grace that to this day lets you peek into her past with an echo of the pretty girl she must once have been.  Beyond her lined and careworn face her pale blue eyes still sparkle with a fierce intelligence,  and when she smiles it’s a genuine lighter-upper-of-a room affair that you just have to reciprocate. But, oh,  the tales of hardship and travail she tells can cast a cloud about  the brightest day, and I suspect they’re probably true, for as she says, she’s neither a misery guts nor has anything to gain by exaggerating the scale of her sufrimiento.

For the sad truth is, people here did suffer fairly brutally.

Let’s take but one story as illustration:   shortly after the civil war in the early 1940’s a new road was to be built to make the crossing of the Sierra Nevada more accessible, and many of the young men of our villages who were not fascists were forced to work for free as labourers during its construction. Forced at gunpoint, that is, and those who refused were maimed, or shot, pour encourager les autres.  From Mairena to the point where most of the work was to be carried out, however, is a good 6 hour walk, so the men were compelled to sleep in a cave close to the 2000 metre pass at La Ragua.  Of course they required  supplies and food, and this was brought up by mule train from the villages beneath.  But imagine this:  Ana’s husband, then aged 6, whose  father was amongst the labourers, was literally tied to the leading donkey and forced to act as the eyes of a blind man who actually knew the way as he led them up the mountains, and did this, he told me, for several months….

So the pensioners with us today have every right to be proud of their weather and time -beaten faces, for they are true survivors,  and equally have every right to the respect  that  society largely affords them, at least around these parts.  Support too:   despite the recession the regional government has continued the policy of training and employing young people whose job it is to visit and care for older members of the community in their own homes.  It’s an ambitious and no doubt costly exercise, but comes in for very little  criticism, and in many ways  reflects much of what Andalusians think of as dignidad: dignity for the carer who maintains a well –respected job,  and dignity for the frail and elderly parishioner  who need not succumb to the comforts of an old folks’ home.    I for one often find myself strangely moved at the sight of qualified and articulate young people as they slow their gait to accompany the shuffle of their charges about the village, cheerfully exchanging smiles as they try to meet the challenges of moving around streets which few would call wheelchair-friendly.carer in joriator

All told, there are worse places to become an old codger.

I think I’ll put my name down now…………..

A green pat on the back for the Sierra

poppies 2

The ancient rivalry between the kingdoms of Granada and Seville is well documented, and very much alive and kicking.  Which is why the ecologists  of Granada have reacted with fairly unrestricted glee to the news that the Sierra Nevada has become the first National Park in Spain to be awarded  entry to the much coveted Green List of the IUCN.( the International Union for the Protection of Nature.)  Not that we’re gloating, but poor old Doñana, home to a handful of expensive, mangy wild cats and the odd stork, say the folk of Granada,  has failed against the odds to have its bid accepted.

And the thing is, although  many of you may not have heard of it, the IUCN is a very significant player in these matters, and their views carry weight. In fact, the IUCN is the world’s oldest and largest global environmental organisation,  with more than 1,200 government and NGO Members and almost 11,000 volunteer experts in some 160 countries.   With the key word here being expert, for these guys are neither administrators nor jealous politicians,  but for the most part  exceptional, dispassionate scientists whose role is to describe the truth as they see it.

when it snows

So it’s a fair old honour for the Sierra  Nevada to be given this acclaim, especially when you consider that not only is it for now  the single site in Spain,  but one of only 23 internationally,  in an exclusive list stretching from Kenya to Korea to Columbia .

Fair recognition too, we think, for it is an area of immense beauty, astounding  biodiversity and with a powerful history to boot.  With more than 86 000 hectares of protected land it is by some margin the biggest National Park in Spain, and of course the highest, with peaks rising to over  11 400 feet.   Such is the height gain from practically the shores of the Mediterranean to the towering peaks  that it allows for various, distinct habitats which are home to more than 2100 plant species,  leading to the claim that as many as 80% of Europe’s endemic flowers are found within its borders.   There are also huge temperature swings through the year:  in the summer it is not uncommon for the thermometer to rise above 40C, whilst in the winter it can plunge to 20 below, so it is remarkable how various species have been able to adapt to such wildly fluctuating conditions, and to cope with drought and the challenge presented by 300 days of the most intense solar radiation.


So this award underlines what we’ve known all along, namely that it’s fabulous , that it’s fragile,  that it’s home to a myriad rare beasties, that it’s freely accessible, and most important perhaps,  that the powers-that-be are undeniably aware of all of  the above  and are offering  not only recognition but also the best protection that European environmental laws can currently provide.

Come and see for yourselves.  Despite the restrictions placed on the hunters, road builders and developers, the rest of us can roam and explore freely on foot.  There are no access issues, no tolls, no fences, and, most pleasingly of all,  virtually no people.   Unlike somewhere like say, Doñana.  Did I mention that they are not yet on the list …..?

  1. The author wishes to note that he has no axe to grind with the people of Seville. Rather that this is an amiable rivalry, a bit like that between fair Lancashire and t’other  lot.


Portrait of a villager

Were you to stage a play which required a composite, stereotypical  version  of a  swarthy, scruffy Spanish rascal then my friend Pedro would walk straight into the part.  This wise, be-whiskered, mocking, half-educated, dentally challenged campesino, is the real McCoy,  complete with all the contradictions.

When you meet him it’s like shaking hands with the Thing from the Fantastic Four. Blue eyes set deep behind an inscrutable wall of wrinkles, his direct gaze seems to weigh you, and find you somehow light, or lacking.   Put kindly,  he has a pleasingly relaxed attitude to his attire and personal grooming;  think of the antithesis of Metro-man.   Yet he exudes a sense of independence, almost of aloofness.  He is strong, canny, funny and also honest, up to a point.   I suspect that as a young man he may have been handsome.  There are dark rumours about his past.

When we first came to the village all those years ago I was drawn to this scary, complex character and we worked together on several building projects. That is, he worked and I observed and scurried around exhausted and tried to make myself useful in the role of apprentice,  whilst he muttered under his breath about the uselessness of college boys in general and me in particular. In action he was a joy to watch, poised and elegant as he selected the perfect stone to jigsaw into the wall he was building.  I also learned to swear horribly. It was often a fairly unmanning experience. Whenever I said or did something especially dim or naïve he had this habit of whistling softly inwards between the gaps in his teeth; on bad days it was like working next to an ever boiling kettle. In contrast, on the rare occasion I did something right he would give that gruff, grudging cough of approbation, and I would melt.

He’s as Spanish as could be, but  has that Yorkshire trait of telling the truth as he sees it.  One fine day, for example,  he caught me standing  with an English friend next to a drystone wall we had just spent three days  rebuilding.  Muscles  sore, backs aching, fingernails broken in a manly kind of way, we are feeling pretty pleased with ourselves, chuffed at the scale of our achievement.  “David !” shouts  Pedro. “ who fixed up that wall?” “Me, actually” I say smugly.  His reply is as withering as it is pertinent.  “Claro,” he pronounces, “ It’s shit.”   And with that goes on his way.

That section of wall, I confess, is no longer with us.

A few years ago he came with us to climb to the top of Mulhacen, for fun.  In the 1950s he’d worked for a long time there as a shepherd and knew every  gulley and crag,  but though a hundred times he’d grazed his flock to within half an hour of the summit, he’d never before set foot there. Hadn’t he been a bit tempted, I wondered. Not at all.  He wasn’t even defensive about his lack of curiosity, and at first I was mildly discomfited, it seemed so unambitious.  For him it was just work, rural drudgery.  It only came to me later that there isn’t really much difference  between Pedro on the mountain and the London commuter who spends a lifetime on the Piccadilly line, but whose thirst for knowledge never takes him to the terminus, for the simple joy  of discovering what Cockfosters or Uxbridge is  really like.

The thing is, I trust and admire him, and can’t get enough of his wily,  countryman’s  fund of stories and practical advice.   Over the years he’s shown me  amongst other things  how to kill a pigeon, where to find wild asparagus, truffles and  French sorrel,  how to make a  herbal  tincture to take away toothache,  the scene of an atrocity after the Civil War, and an evil concoction which he claims will keep away wild boar. (Don’t ask:  it’s mostly bits of other wild boar, toasted.)

It was Pedro who taught me – eventually – the correct way to prepare an alamo, or poplar , the tall, straight trees which are used as beams in all the buildings hereabouts.   As  soon as it is felled you need to peel away all the rough bark from the trunk, but crucially, leave a 30 cm collar of unpeeled bark at one end. The purpose of this eluded me at first.  After two years of seasoning though, you soon see why, for the intact collar performs the function of a sacrificial zinc anode on an outboard motor, in that every bug, larvae or fungus makes its home there, leaving it soft and loofah like, whilst the rest of the peeled trunk is left hard and unblemished. The trick, of course,  is to cut down the tree at the appropriate time of year, in fact under a waning moon in August.  No one but the most ignorant fool would ever dream of doing  otherwise. Pedro told me this after he and his friends had watched patiently as  nonchalantly I took my new chain saw to such a tree in January.  Could he not have stopped me beforehand, I wondered through gritted teeth.   With a wicked grin, he shrugged.  He has a magnificent shrug, that Pedro.

Wry.  I think that’s the word.  Once in his stables with a group of walkers someone asked innocently whether it was true they kept the animals beneath the household so their body heat will help warm the rooms above. Nope, says Pedro.  “You ever tried getting a cow or a pig up the stairs?”

Places that are torn and wild

There are times when you’re confronted by savage and untamed landscapes that make you question whether the God that made them was still practising, or if this is the finished article.

wild and torn

I’m talking now  of the huge and empty mountains that rip into the skies above Mairena,  or  the cruel and desolate cliffs that brawl with the seas at Cabo de Gata, the little –known promontory where we spent the last two days.  This forms part of a sub – desert, the driest part of Europe, and boy, did it rain.   Blew too, white havoc on the water, with even the gulls forced to hunker down in the cracks between the slabs of rock

I loved it. Through the chaos of the wind you could see for miles down the coast and up and along the twisted black backs of the twin volcanoes lay the path we had chosen.  A tiny, heroic path stitched to the flanks, seemingly leading nowhere; in the gales this was not a route for the faint-hearted or for the owners of poodles or other lightweight dogs.

If ever you want to be reminded of your own insignificance,  spend a day alone in the mountains or on the shore of a storm torn sea.   The prodigious land and seascapes of Andalucia  are plenty vast  enough to dwarf  the biggest of egos.  Try it: worries are sloughed, you can weigh the things of substance and  appreciate the business of being.

snowy peaks

I find this revitalising, in the truest sense.    It’s kind of refreshing to remember that we’re not after all the masters of our world, that we cannot comb the unruly curls of creation.

Ultimately this I suppose is part of why I love the alpujarra.  It is untamed, mostly, but in a tame kind of way, on the edge of the sierras, but not edgy as in could-be-lethal.  A walk at 10 000 feet here is a controlled adventure, somewhere between a stroll in the Cotswolds and a trek up the scary bits of Everest.  Danger lurks everywhere, of course.  I remember one terrible occasion, for example, when the dogs – Labradors inevitably – stole the picnic from our rucksack, including the only Melton Mowbray pork pie in the kingdom, so it always pays to be watchful.

It’s so different here.   Not always better, but always different. This time last week I was in London and I loved it.  I discovered by chance the Japanese gardens in Holland Park, and was blown away. Not blown away like the poodles on the cliff walk, but amazed by the detail and symmetry of these exquisite ponds and lilies.  Now that is the finished product, no question.   Whether I’d want to live there permanently though, rather than  in the capricious, eye-popping, awe- inspiring mountain wilderness of Mairena, is not, at least for this writer, a particularly difficult question.

Almonds and bees

All around the almond trees the air is zumming and thrumming to the sound of a billion bees.  A lot, anyway.     It seems to me a serious, responsible noise, one which is at once soothing and uplifting,  a constant, reassuring springtime background to complement the brash bright flowers and, when you can remember to grant yourself the time, a gentle hubbub to inspire fine thoughts.

They are altogether grand little fellows, the bees.  Good eggs.  Selfless and dedicated, you just get the sense that a bee wouldn’t let you down as long as you don’t muck him around too much.    A bit unimaginative they are , all that flying in straight lines and hive subservience  and so on,  but  they’re  reliable and gentle and their presence deeply pleasing,  unless one decides to join you in bed, that is, or hides in your sandwich.

So I like bees. They’re not spiteful and random and vicious like some wasps I have known, but strangely serene.  So too I enjoy all that persistent buzzing around and appreciate their endeavours in the field of pollination, which steadfast task incidentally helps keep the human race in fruit and veg.    Honey too , of course, the only foodstuff I can think of that is somehow faintly decadent and yet  still good for you.

Meanwhile, an agreeable peculiarity is that their greatest enemy here is rather glamorous, with Mother Nature seeing fit to send their chief tormentors dressed in the finest feathers she can find. Seriously, have you ever seen a bee eater close up ?  Fabulous.  Incredible balletic fliers who must disembowel their prey mid-flight lest it sting them, these  lovely assassins burble happily and sing like nightingales, (well, not exactly like nightingales obviously)   and are as ostentatious as they come,  all reds, yellows and kingfisher  blues.   Little consolation to the bee, I suppose, that its killer is a looker,  it’s a bit like covering the can of insecticide in Christian Dior and silk, but it means  you can forgive them, kind of, for supping on your favourite insect, in a way that you may not forgive say, a crow, were he to do likewise.

And as for their favoured haunt this month,  the  almond trees, there can be few finer sights on this fair earth than to see them now in bloom against the snow and  blue, blue sky, the most fragile, perfect flowers in Christendom toughing it out against the wind and cold a mile up  in the high sierras.

You see  the thing with almond trees is that you might imagine that  they’re a bit soft, with  their delicate pink petals,  poetical  prettiness,  exquisite scent and ephemeral confetti blossom and all that, but you’d be wrong,  for beneath that camp façade is a tree that’s hard as nails.  A desert tree that requires but little water,  whose resilient black trunks  stand defiant like van Gogh squiggles against the bare winter hillsides, and whose timber is like iron.  So beware, lumberjack, for if with an axe on some cold winter day you should strike at just the wrong spot then your arm will recoil and quake as in a scene from Tom and Jerry. These guys are tough nuts.

So these efflorescent macho dandies are the perfect host for the tireless bee.  Year on year the two combine and offer up their yield to us, and do so beautifully.    At least for now.  Spain is currently the world’s second largest producer of almonds after California, but the US state is suffering from  the dreaded Colony Collapse Disorder which has led to all kinds of shortages, to the extent that  half a million hives now need to be trucked  in  by so –called pollination brokers.

Thus this morning as I sit enchanted in the ancient groves of Granada, the breeze carrying with it the murmur of the bees and the perfume of the petals they adore, I find it hard to imagine the disquiet and lamentation that must be the fate of the American farmers, but hope, selfishly, that we will not share their distress here, and that the perfection of the orchards of Andalusia will persist a while longer.

Ojala, as the Spanish say.   Inshallah….. God willing.