Friday, July 13, 2018

Almería is a Beautiful Province to Explore

Mojácar is a nice looking village with astonishing views and a residential quarter of white cubist houses and narrow streets which has been left largely in peace. The main square and surrounding alleyways are however more of a commercial mall than an attractive little pueblo: neon and hawkers, souvenir shops and blackboards. One of 'the most beautiful villages in Spain'? Well that's just marketing.
Almería has some rather less spoiled and even more beautiful pueblos. Out of its 102 municipios, more than a handful are really quite splendid. Bédar is the first one. Its views are even more dramatic than Mojácar and its streets are just as narrow. The houses though are well-preserved rather than turned into apartment blocks or commercial premises, and apart from a slightly odd statue at the beginning of the village (all Almería pueblos have at least one Junta de Andalucía funded statue for some reason), the village is very satisfying. Like almost all Almería pueblos, it's quiet and peaceful... and perched on a mountain.
Not far away is Sorbas in its remarkable setting crouched over (rather than on) the cliff. Narrow streets again - a donkey was all you needed in the old days.
Senés - a tiny Alpujarran village of just 600 souls up past a huge underfunded solar plant - is quite beautiful. Hardly any visitors ever come to visit so it is unspoiled and blessedly free from souvenir shops, disco music and quiz nights. Their Moors and Christians (August 5th and 6th) is restrained: four people mounted on horseback declaim the old poetry of the Cid. The beer is cheap, too.
Also in the Alpujarras (an excellent area which carries on towards Granada), there is Abrucena, a  quiet little village which can trace its history back some nine thousand years.
Vélez Blanco - up towards Huercal Overa and then inland, is by far the most beautiful pueblo in Almería. Better still, it has an absolutely wondrous and photogenic castle. Superb.
The castle at Vélez Blanco
(The village claims provenance for the Indalo, one of a clutch of  prehistoric drawings in a nearby cave called the Cueva de los Letreros which is of course silly - the Indalo, My Dears, is mojaquero).
Serón up in the Valle del Almanzora has many historical sites as it was founded by the Nazaries in the thirteenth century (it also has the best jamón);  Cuevas de la Almanzora with its castle and gypsy caves; Laujar de Andarax with its wineries and its fountains;  the small agricultural gem of Laroya hidden in the hills of the Filabres and the quiet old-fashioned pueblo of Ohanes, again in the Alpujarras.
For flat roofs and white houses pitched in narrow streets, the mother-lode is Nijar with its pretty main square and church. The municipality of Nijar is the second largest in Spain and hosts a number of smaller villages of interest - Las Negras, Rodalquilar and the fishing villages of Agua Amarga and of course San José in the Parque Natural del Cabo de Gata.
An old mill on the way towards San José
Lucainena de las Torres is another splendid village hidden in the interior hills of the province. Like Mojácar, it is a member of the 'Most Beautiful Villages in Spain' organisation. Again (and unlike Mojácar), it is largely unspoilt.
Just two more for now - Vélez Rubio is a fine place, a little larger than its neighbour and known for its superb XVIII C. church and its local museum with examples of local habitation going back 30,000 years.
Finally (and with apologies to Lubrín, Tabernas, Antas and Adra), there's Berja, at the foot of the Sierra de Gádor. A wealthy farming pueblo with some good architecture and copious historical sites. So much to see - and I've probably missed a few other beautiful Almerian destinations.


Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Invasive Species

We are defended from the threat of ‘invasive species’ by laws, the Ministry of the Environment and the sterling is sometimes arbitrary work of the ecologists. Without them, Spain would be full of peculiar animals, fish, birds and plant-life.
As we know, it pretty much is anyway.
To combat the uninvited guests that sometimes take over from the autochthonous species (no Briton is unaware of the Gray Squirrel that was introduced from Canada to the UK a hundred and fifty years ago, only to drive the native Red Squirrel almost to extinction), the front-line in our defence is sometimes pushed to take extreme measures.
While no one will admit it, the Black Snout Weevil (here), cousin to the palm-killing Red, was almost certainly brought in to eradicate the Agave plantation near the Almería airport – a plantation that’s been there for around 100 years and has been an indignant thorn in the flesh of every true-blue ecologist since then. Why, we have no idea, since nothing else grows there anyway. Their grub, by the way, is the thing you find in the bottom of a bottle of mescal.
The snout weevils have now been introduced – one way or another – and are doing a splendid job in reducing the agave not only near the airport, but in private gardens across the province, joining the Red Palm Weevil and the Cochineal Fly in killing Spain’s palm trees and prickly pear.
Another concern of our zealous friends are the cotorras (here), the large green Argentinean parrots that have escaped from captivity and currently infest city parks in much of the Spanish territory. This ‘green demon’ – around 30,000 of them – is taking over from the Madrid sparrow, says Antenna 3 (video).
The ecologists, including SEO-Birdlife, Amigos de la Tierra, Greenpeace, WWF and Ecologistas en Acción, are currently at odds with the Government which is allowing certain ‘invasive species’ the right to stay – as they are fun to hunt and eat. The Black Bass, carp, pike, catfish and so on (here).
Not that one should worry unduly – but there are probably some ecologists who might go so far as to consider us foreign residents as ‘an invasive species’. Just kiddin’.

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

The Old Mojácar Dig

L to R: Fundación Valparaiso secretary and Beatrice Becket, President. Mojácar elder Emmanuel Aguero, local historian Juan Grima and senior archaeologist from the University of Granada José María Martín Civantos
The excavation of Old Mojácar was officially launched this week by the vice-mayor of Mojácar Emmanuel Aguero, the local Valparaiso Foundation and a group of archaeologists from the University of Granada. Mojácar la Vieja, as it is in Spanish, is now being investigated to reveal its secrets. While the 'secrets' vary according to who is telling the story (one mojaquero in the Town Hall reputedly said the dig will make the hill more famous than Pompeii - another thinks that we might discover proof of Walt Disney's Mojácar connection hidden under a rock), the presentation on Monday in the Centro de Artesanía (now called the Centro de Unos Múltiples to keep everyone on their toes) was more sanguine.
The excavation for this season - the month of July - is concentrating on the aljibe - the cistern - on the top of the hill, together with a small section somewhat below. The lower section apparently being an area of defensive wall plus part of what could be the main gate to the ancient settlement.
The archaeologist from Granada told us that Old Mojácar was a fortified town anything up to 4,500 years old and in use until the thirteenth century. Currently, they are building an easier access - that's to say, a pathway, to facilitate the arrival of visitors, diggers, volunteers, politicians and Erich Von Daniken, if he has the time.
Juan Grima, who has written a number of historical books on our area, and is the editor of Arraez Books and the Axarquía magazine, told us of earlier archaeological digs which had ended up under a thick cover of cement with nothing to show beyond some lost papers and  artefacts: Roman ruins, Moorish walls and so on, quietly bulldozed back into oblivion. Other material from Mojácar was in regional, national and even international museums, generally forgotten by the local public. Still other history  - such as the famous agreement made in 1488 at the Mojácar fuente, the base for our Moros y Cristianos festival - was nothing more than a mere invention by Louis Siret, the famous Belgian investigator who excavated various sites locally between 1885 and 1900.
This dig, he promised us, would be different, with a full catalogue and everything on view.
Slightly disturbing were the remarks from the presenters that this would benefit Mojácar tourism. Large groups of visitors decanted by bus to toil up the hill? Not, perhaps, until the Chinese discover our Corner of Enchantment.
Photo Tuesday 3rd July. Photo by Emilio Aramburu.
My own view that an ancient city would be better served nearby - where there is a spring, room for animals, gentle slopes and a good escape route notwithstanding, the archaeologists seemed convinced that our humble yet magic Old Mojácar may hold more than a few secrets.
The budget for the dig is 40,000€ and the students - some 30 or more - are bunking down in the Centro de Artesania building. 
The plan is to work this July and then return next year for another session. The cistern has already been cleaned of plant-life and one can only hope that, the moment the archaeologists' backs are turned, yet more local tomb-raiders don't climb the hill in search of lost ingots of gold, ancient mummies and some early Walt Disney drawings.

Share with your Dog

I am one of those people who rarely gets sick - much beyond a cold, a cough and the traditional annual week in bed with 'man flu' just after Christmas to catch up on my reading.
The dog is ill though - he has leishmaniasis. This nasty disease is a parasitic infection that comes from the no-see-ums that fly around in clouds over stagnant water (there's an obliging pool in our nearby dry river bed). These midges bite on the ankles in humans, without causing much more damage than a passing itch, but they appear to be mortal for most dogs in my barrio (not all, my last hound managed to bark at the neighbours for twenty two years before death took her).
My dog has the disease, and a vet recently discovered a medicine that keeps the infection in check - it's a pill that humans take against gout called Alopurinol. He's managed over a year now on one of these pills crushed daily into his doggybix and seems to be doing well on the diet.
Gout is a nasty little complaint. It's like a tiny piece of gravel behind the bone in one of your extremities. I looked it up on the Internet after my toe turned red, started to hurt and swelled up. Too much brandy apparently. I was limping around shouting blue buggery, taking a whack at any child or animal that came to close to me and wondering whether to go and see the doctor. But then, I thought, what about the dog's daily dose!
So, here we are. The dog and me are sharing the same box of tablets. One for you my dear and one for me.
Ahh, that's better.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

The Dying Villages of Spain

Being on the mailing list of most newspapers and a number of political organisations, Business over Tapas recently received a notice from  la Asociación de Municipios en Defensa del Desarrollo Sostenible y contra la Despoblación about the dying villages of Almería. It seems that a group has been set up to bewail the emptying of the smallest villages in the province (a phenomenon visible throughout Spain) as the young move to the cities in search of fun, a relationship, a job, some excitement and a living wage. In short: the old die off and the young move away. There’s not much point in celebrating the fact that many city-dwellers still have property in those villages, if they aren’t there to participate much beyond a bemused presence in the annual fiesta.
Thanks to modern economics, the public transport to these moribund pueblos is reduced, the banks have closed their branches and the schools are boarded up.
What can we do, ask the Almerian villagers pathetically.
Sometimes an abandoned village gets the hippy treatment – as happened in Fraguas in Guadalajara (Wiki) – where the six starry-eyed ‘repobladores’ are now facing both clink and demolition costs.
Across Spain, the population has grown (slightly) to 46,659,302, an increase of 132,263 souls in a year (thanks, more to immigration than domestic births). Of course, this growth has been unequal across the country, with some provinces – Madrid, Tenerife and the Balearics showing growth and others – such as Zamora, Ciudad Real and Ávila – contracting. An article in El País delves into this subject and notes that one of the reasons for the falling population is those who have moved abroad in search of work.
But as for the small villages – a Google search shows many stories along the lines of ‘a number of municipalities in the province lose inhabitants’ (Jaén here, Málaga here and Navarra here etc...). 
A useful study at El Confidencial (from January 2017) is titled ‘Inland Spain remains old and without inhabitants (while the capitals get fat)’. It says that ‘The most affected regions are Galicia, Asturias, Castilla y León, Castilla-La Mancha, Aragón and Extremadura, which in 2013 formed the Forum of Regions with Demographic Challenges’. The Forum asked Central Government for funding back in October 2016 (here) and appears to have quietly disappeared since then.
I wrote back to the Almerian moribund-villages-people, ‘AMCODES’: ‘Hello, if you want to increase the population of your dying villages, and create some wealth and some jobs, think of the retired people from northern Europe. They have money, they are looking for a place to live quietly and it would be an elegant solution to your problem. Perhaps even build a residence for foreigners (there are many bilingual Spanish nurses who want to return from England for example). Care will have to be taken with the Junta de Andalucía and not to get into 'illegal housing', but existing housing can be converted or repaired...’.
Naturally, they didn’t answer me – perhaps they were just looking for some funding.

Monday, June 18, 2018

What Else Can We Tear Down?

The Mojácar Tourist Councillor (and probably future mayor) has come up with a fresh wheeze.
We already have Mojácar pueblo turned into a Disneyville with such attractions as the Night's Longest Kiss, and the Night We Turn some of the Lights Out, and the Rockabilly Night (Mojácar remembers with pleasure the old Swingin' Fifties).
There are indeed more concerts, festivals and attractions in the village to keep even the most miserable souvenir stall-owner grinning through the season.
Mojácar Playa, with those pesky beach-bars soon to be closed down and those wretched teenagers sent packing, will shortly become a hot version of a Butlin's Holiday Camp (where are the Red Jackets when you need one?).
Now it's Old Mojácar's turn.
The venerable old mountain is to be excavated at the invitation of the Town Hall's Emmanuel Agüero together - according to Nova Ciencia - with the Fundación Valparaiso.
I remember Paul Becket, who was an archaeologist and creator of the Fundación Valparaiso, buying Old Mojácar with my Dad precisely to stop the local people from screwing up the venerable (and artificial) hill, which was built in the earliest of times and has been the source of Mojácar's magic ever since.
Mojácar, which comes from Muxacra (the Arab name), which comes in turn from Mons Sacra, the Roman name: the Holy Mount.
So, what's the plan? Fifty-five volunteers join some archaeologists from the university of Granada from July 2nd to open up the mountain to see what's left (it's been sacked by hundreds of generations of local people). The Town Hall will be sure to organise kiddywinky activities - allow me to quote from Nova Ciencia: '...The children will also be the protagonists in Mojácar (the first Andalusian municipality to be certified as a family tourism destination), as for several days the smallest children will be able to visit and get to know the site, as well as the work of the archaeologists. There will be guided tours, in Spanish and English, talks, activities such as "archaeologist for a day" or "ceramics workshop", being just some of the activities that lovers of culture and archaeology can enjoy in Mojácar throughout the month of July...'.
The Town Hall has sent out a press notice which more or less quotes the article from the Nova Ciencia, but adds (to rub in the tourist angle) '...Mojácar, one of the "Most Beautiful Villages in the World", will be adding to its many attractions as a tourist destination the opportunity of an archaeological visit to what will surely become one of the most interesting sites in the province of Alméria...'.

Friday, June 15, 2018

Spain's Frontier Towns - Near no Modern Borders

Vejer de la Frontera

What do Jérez, Arcos, Morón, Vejer, Chiclana and a number of other Andalusian towns have in common? Their full and proper names are ‘ la frontera’. They are all ‘on the frontier’, and yet, since nothing is simple in Spain, they aren’t. The Cádiz city of Jerez de la Frontera, for example, is 242 kilometres away from the nearest frontier – that’s to say, Portugal.
One could argue that early Spanish cartographers were not very good at their jobs, or that the Royals were never wrong, but the fact is, the place names make perfect sense when you roll back a few centuries to the time of the Moors and the Kingdom of Granada.
The Christian forces of Aragon and Castile were slowly (oh, so slowly) taking the country back from the Moors. These North African colonists had been in control of almost all of Spain for anything up to seven hundred and fifty years (depending on which bit we happen to be talking about) although, by the beginning of the fifteenth century, the writing, whether in Arabic or in Latin, was definitely on the wall. Granada, as we know, capital of the ‘Nazarí Kingdom’, fell in 1492, the same year as Spain discovered the Americas. 
This would be known as Spain’s greatest time. 
Stood between the Christian and Moorish territories while leading up to the final push in the later XV Century were a number of frontier towns which watched uneasily over a no-man’s-land (or ‘Terra Nullius’ as it was officially known – an unclaimed space between the two forces). During its existence, this border strip had great military, political, economic, religious and cultural importance. Beyond being a border like many others, it was for more than two centuries the European border between Christianity and Islam. It was, therefore, a place of exchange and barter, which kept alive in both territories the spirit of the Christian crusade and the Islamic jihad together with the chivalric ideal, already anachronistic in other European territories.
It also made possible illicit economic activities, such as trade in oriental products, as well as regular military incursions, aimed at taking booty, as well as the captivity of hostages with whom to maintain the slave business, or simply to negotiate the redemption of captives. Religious orders took sides in this regard. The border was a key element in the formation of the identity of Andalucía and in the formation of the vision of Islam throughout Spain. 
While another culture might have dropped the Arab names once conquered, the Spanish have appeared gracious enough to keep them. Such towns as Vélez-this and Alhama-that are quite common (the first comes from the Arab word for ‘land’, the second for ‘baths’). Indeed, anything beginning in Al – comes from the Arab prefix ‘the’: Alhambra, Almería, Alpujarra... 
Al-Ándalus, as far as the Moors were concerned, means and meant anything which was under Moorish control in the Peninsular – at some point, almost as far north as Pamplona. 
Of all of the ‘frontera’ towns, mostly located in Cádiz, the largest in Jerez de la Frontera, with its magnificent Alcazar, an XI Century Moorish fortress. The Moors called the city ‘Sherish’ and held it until 1264, although the Christian forces controlled the surrounding lands from 1248. The town would become a ‘frontier’ with the Granada kingdom. 
Jerez is the largest non-capital city in all of Andalucía, with a population of around 210,000 souls (larger than Cadiz – its provincial capital – as well as Almería, Jaén and Huelva). It is known for wine, horses, flamenco and motorcycles. 
Morón de la Frontera, in the province of Seville, owes its appellative to having a major garrison, once it had been conquered in 1240 by Fernando III, from which the Christian forces could harass the Moors.
Morón de la Frontera may not have a frontier, but the nearby American-controlled air-base of Morón (actually located in the next-door municipality of Arahal) – which has been going since 1953, of course does. You’ll need a passport to make it past the heavily-armed gate and on to the PX store... 
Another town on our list is Chiclana de la Frontera. It is just up the road from both Conil de la Frontera and Vejer de la Frontera. There must have been a gleam in the eye of King Fernándo IV when he got into the swing of naming his towns in the Most Loyal Province of Cádiz... 
Chiclana is just 24 kms south of the city of Cádiz and has become a tourist resort with the largest number of hotel beds anywhere within the province. With a population of over 84,000, the town is only marginally smaller than its nearby capital city. The town is noted for its monuments and its wineries. 
Next door’s Conil de la Frontera, again in reference to the far-off ‘frontier’ with Granada, is a beautiful resort which grows five-fold during the summer season. 
The ‘frontier’ town with the most charm must nevertheless go to Vejer de la Frontera, a small coastal town with a view of the Atlantic. Vejer is a member of the ‘Prettiest Towns in Spain Association’ and is a maze of narrow streets and white houses.
I like the story of how a Moorish prince and his Christian damsel were forced to leave Vejer as the enemy forces arrived. She tearful, he defiant. ‘I’ll build you another town as pretty as this one’, he promised her and, back in North Africa, that’s what he did, building in her name the beautiful turquoise-blue town of Chauen. 
Since The Olive Press (where a version of this article made its debut last week) travels the breadth of Andalucía, mention should be made of Murcia’s frontier town. Puerto Lumbreras, the Port of Lights (roughly), may have been a trading or military port, but it is around 32 kilometres from the coast and thus its name refers to its frontier status, as it is separated from Almería’s Arab-sounding Huercal Overa on the other side of the wide no-man’s-land strip, in this case some 23 kilometes, and was a heavily-garrisoned fortress-town. 
For two hundred years, the sometimes uneasy border between the Christian and Moorish cultures stood until Spain’s famously revered ‘Catholic Kings’, Fernándo of Aragon and Isabela of Castille, brought the ‘re-conquest’ to an end in 1492, and Spain was born from the ashes.