Me, my family… and the cat in the four-star hotel in Burgos!

During the last years, living in the countryside of Posadas (in the province of Cordova) has given us the freedom to enjoy some nice animals, and as I love cats, at one point the count of these animals totalled thirteen (as you will see in the following photos)…

The oldest of these cats was Chueif (spelt that way because at the time, my daughter was too young to being able to appreciate the rules of English spelling — or, rather lack of them!).

Now Chueif was both a fierce and loving creature, and she was a good hunter too, regularly bringing home a half-mutilated snake, and cleaning out the colony of huge grey rats that would often gate-crash our house.

This ‘Right Honourable Chueif’ was our favourite cat, the matriarch of all the others—so how could we leave her behind when we migrated north to our wind-swept cabin situated atop the lofty hills of Cantabria? This brings me to the explanation of how Chueif became a hotel-indulging cat.

From a young age Chueif became accustomed to long drives, but was encouraged to regularly stretch her legs in picnic spots or in fields; she was also allowed to stay in the kid’s tent when camping. On one such camping trip we were obliged to stay an extra night in Salamanca’s campsite because the campsite’s territorial and very fierce tom cat forced her into hiding. It was only by sheer luck and cunning manoeuvres on our behalf, that after pinpointing the source of her woe-stricken meows we managed to cajole her out of her hiding spot—the shrubbery dividing off the swimming pool from the rest of the plots.

When she emerged, we quickly thrust her in the van and calmed her with soothing endearments, as well as bribing her with some tasty tit-bits such as Laughing Cow cheeselets, La Lechera condensed milk and ‘leche merengada’ ice-cream (cinnamon flavoured). We then made a soft nest for her to sleep that night amid plump cushions on the plushly-upholstered back seat of our Volkswagon Camper Van, far from the reach of the campsite’s bully. She didn’t complain!

The following night, after having felt quite traumatised by Chueif’s disappearance, and suffering from the general side-effects that camping can have on some people (such as housewives and mothers who are in need of a proper break and certainly don’t need to take their work along with them when on holiday!), we threw all caution to the wind and booked into a four-star hotel in Burgos (which offered a special deal, but which did not extend to felines).

The name of the hotel was ‘Abba Burgos’, and I’m mentioning that not because I have shares or relatives in this establishment, but because I thoroughly enjoyed my stay there: nice, spacious, comfy, offering an asphyxiating sauna and an ample buffet breakfast sprawling over many long tables which luckily came with a good supply of thick, large serviettes just in case one couldn’t manage to sample all the wares and wished to ‘take advantage’ of the situation and ‘improvise’ by making undercover, doggy bags. (After all, it’s not every day that one stays in a four-star hotel!)

Another definite plus point of this hotel (which benefitted my drawers and cupboards) was the fragrant English lavender growing by the hotel’s entrance. I really had to take advantage once again. (When we did reach our final destination in the windswept hills of Cantabria, my daughter and I devoted much time to making lacy lavender bags.)

Statue of El Cid

The hotel is also situated in the historic, old part of Burgos (which is, by the way, the birth and burial place of Spain’s national hero, the military leader El Cid. He was a key figure in the recapture of Spain during the Spanish Reconquest in the 11th century, fighting both for the Christians and then aiding the Moors in their intertribal battles within Al-Andalus.

Anyway, the hotel lies not far from the Gothic-Renaissance-style cathedral which houses El Cid’s tomb, and is close to the bustling town centre with its many squares, cafes, shops and museum of human evolution; it is also within walking distance of the very full Ebro River.

Well, apart from a little light theft or ‘borrowing’, my second infringement of the hotel rules involved cat smuggling. It really didn’t occur to me that one had to make formal enquiries whether one’s cat could or could not stay in the suite. I actually didn’t think about this—I was just so overwhelmed with relief at not having to camp that I completely overlooked it. So when we did enter the foyer, that’s when I noticed the sign in reception, undeniably obvious, which read ANIMALES NO PERMITIDOS’ (‘NO ANIMALS PERMITTED’).

I gulped. I certainly wasn’t going to leave Chueif all alone in the van, still dealing with the psychological after-effects of her camping experience and feeling abandoned, wandering anxiously back and forth between the steering wheel and crowded luggage compartment (where she would probably be forced to relieve herself in the early morning hours).

So, with a feeling of guilt, we bundled her into my daughter’s pink, diamanté, ‘Little Princess’ shoulder bag. Luckily the strap was almost hip long, so I could smother any protesting wriggling or shifting movements by exerting a steady but gentle pressure with my elbow. It was what I imagine playing the bagpipes must be like.

However, as the minutes ticked passed, muffling the remonstrative meows proved to be more difficult than I had imagined. When Chueif let out the first stifled cry, I was actually in front of the reception desk handing in my passport, so I coughed loudly and started talking to the children with exaggerated excitement. The receptionist, while returning me my passport, shot me a quizzical glance which made me feel as if I were about to be interrogated by the SS. I didn’t wait for the sentence to be delivered, but just beat a quick retreat to the recesses of the nearby lifts. There I stood, cat in bag, hair dishevelled, uncontrollably static and unwashed after our camping, and my daughter clad in grimy leggings next to me. However, we were not alone: hovering next to us was a very poshly, sombrely-attired couple, wearing sombre expressions to match— they must have been there for a business meeting, I hastily concluded.

Just at that point, Chueif decided to let her discomfort be known to all of us. From inside the bag poured out an untiring string of miaowing laments, which varied in pitch from high to low, light to strong and sounded like the tuning of an old-fashioned wireless. What’s more, she squirmed and wriggled frantically inside the baby-pink, bejewelled bag.

I saw the couple’s eyes immediately rotate downwards as their focus travelled to the Princess bag that was firmly wedged between my elbow and hip. I tried to camouflage the movements by gently swaying to and fro, by rocking this way and that, by shifting my weight from one leg to another, by twisting to the right then to the left, and by flexing one knee followed by the other, all in a distracted, absent-minded sort of manner (which comes easily to me), and all in time with the over-animated conversation I was having with my thirteen-year-old daughter.

I was aware that by now a damask flush was colouring my cheeks, and my mid-length hair had become even more frizzy and unruly due to the static produced by the nylon carpets and the hotel’s de-ionised air; and this was compounded by the electric static that my nerves were generating.

The lift did take an awful long time in arriving—long enough, in fact, for the couple to shoot me a second quizzical glance, fraught with unspoken accusations. ‘Mad dogs and Englishmen’ was the berating sentence that immediately popped into my head, although ‘Mad cats and Englishwomen’ would have been far more appropriate!

However, luckily and at long last I heard the relieving ‘ping’ from the lift announce its arrival. I let out a sigh of relief in time to a muffled meow (which only made me look all the more ridiculous). As the couple entered the elevator, they deemed us worthy of a smile—an all-knowing smile, coloured by a hint of sympathy and pity, but which at the same time confirmed the unspoken agreement that they would remain mute partners in crime.

We waited for the arrival of the next lift in which we managed to enter quite painlessly, and which delivered us to our fifth-floor double-suite. It was a luxurious room, and even more luxurious for Chueif, who, before curling up on the plush carpets under the bed, had to push her inquisitive, discerning nose into every nook and cranny. As for us lesser mortals, after testing out the king-sized beds, the multitude of television channels and investigating the array of freebies in the bathroom and miniatures in the fun-sized fridge; and after then pocketing the pens and small writing pads (a mother is always short of stationary, isn’t she?), we then proceeded to unpack our few items of clothing.

My husband had even fewer items, being the ‘no-fuss’, simplistic and modest man that he believes himself to be, and so we had taken advantage of his minimalistic attitude by filling his half-empty bag with the cat’s sand box, together with a small bag of sand, a packet of wet-wipes, a rubber clockwork mouse, her favourite cushion and blanket, her bell collar, a lead and harness (just in case), some fish-flavoured chews, a 250 ml plastic bottle filled with milk and a tube of condensed milk.

The litter box, after having been nicely washed, using the hotel’s shampoo and perfumed with their eau-du-cologne, was neatly placed in the kid’s bathroom. Chueif soon settled down and was ready for a nice long nap; and we were ready to go and explore the historic town of Burgos.

We were enchanted by the town and after much walking and sampling delicious tapas in many bars, we finally arrived back, exhausted and ready for a good night’s sleep.

The night and following morning went according to plan, with both Chueif and the children behaving very well indeed. There were no other incidents or protestations from Our Right Honourable Cat when we handed back the keys on our departure. Perhaps it had something to do with the bacon and chorizo that we had smuggled for her from the ample breakfast buffet.

Since the hotel experience turned out to be such a success (especially for mothers and cats), the whole ‘cat-in-a-hotel’ process was repeated once again, but this time in a five-star hotel in the historic, medieval town of Toledo.

But I think that’s enough of cats in hotels for now!

Thank you for bearing with me so far!

This story was adapted from a chapter of my illustrated, humorous and factual book, An English Lady in Cordova — the Alternative Guide

As usual, comments and questions always welcome.

Goodbye for now — take care! xxx

Me and that old, clapped-out, pre-war Land Rover of mine (aargh!) A short story from Posadas, Cordova — Part 2

Hi folks — I hope this finds you all in good health and spirits.

Well, as you might remember from my penultimate blog (if you read it) I was relating the story about the first car I was bought (note the passive tense, meaning that I didn’t buy it, but it was bought for me!). To recap, it was a really old battered Land Rover, void of all mods and cons, impossible for me to drive and just looking at it and contemplating how on earth I would manage to drive it from my country abode to our neighbouring village of Posadas, brought me out in a nervous sweat! Call me chicken if you like, but I don’t care!

My all-purpose machine

Anyway, not being able to put it off any longer, the day finally dawned when I felt a little bit ready (or rather I fooled myself in to feeling ready) to take on Posadas with my new old Land Rover: I had to take the kids to the nursery otherwise I probably would have stayed a recluse in my country abode for a little while longer. Also, I needed to get back to painting furniture, ceramics and glassware in the workshop that we had set up in the village.

So here’s what happened:

The Sierra Nevada in the background (the Alhambra Palace in the foreround)

I loaded the kids in the back seats and then carefully fastened their seat belts. I hoisted myself on the ripped driver’s seat (on which I had placed a small jaraparug that I had previously bought on one of our trips to the Alpujarras in the Sierra Nevada near Granada, along with quite a lot of the young, local costawine – the one that should be drunk fresh and preferably at high, local altitudes).

I turned the key to the first point in the ignition, waited for the red light to go out, pushed the black rubber button to prime the engine and then turned the key fully. The engine coughed into life, then settled down to a noisy ticking rhythm that sounded similar to a loud, unoiled sewing machine; this was accompanied by a juddering and jolting that kept time with the ticking and which was, I soon discovered, an innate characteristic of the car. The three of us on the inside also swayed and rocked with the rhythm, which had the effect of lulling the kids to sleep — (better for them, I thought!).

When I felt that the engine had warmed up sufficiently, I made the sign of the cross over my forehead, breast and shoulders, then manoeuvred the lever into first gear. It was stiff and made a protesting sound, so I released and pressed the muddy clutch again and pushed the gear-lever harder into first position: this definitely provoked a grating, throaty protestation from the engine. However, as I steadily let the clutch out (which was heavy), the car responded and leapt forward. I continued squeezing the accelerator, let the clutch out fully and hey presto! we were off, with the car jumping and jolting forward in an awkward, irregular manner. No problem though – at least the first stage of the operation had been achieved!

No — this isn’t really me, but that first day was similar, especially as it had rained loads!

I drove off slowly, dodging the potholes and rattling and swaying over the ruts. I reached the junction with the A-431 Córdoba-Palma del Río road, which wasn’t too much of a test because I didn’t bother stopping and just stuck to first gear, applying and reducing the pressure on the accelerator, but making sure that the slowing wouldn’t be so slow as to need a left-foot response on the unyielding clutch. Luckily there were no other cars that I had to give way to, so I successfully joined the main road, where I stayed slow for the remaining three miles to the village.

My country track on a good day — there’s a steep gradient down to the house

(I didn’t have much option but to go slow, because as this was my first trip I only dared move up to second gear, despite the protesting whine from the engine. Needless to say, by now there was a whole queue of cars trailing behind me which I pretended not to notice, and which in fact were difficult to notice given the minuscule, scratched rear window and equally miniscule wing mirrors that had rusted with time into the wrong position, so that instead on focusing on the cars behind, they reflected the rather delightful image of the passing scenery that lay at a quarter to three.)

However, when I did eventually reach Posadas, I entered it by way of the roundabout that lies near the olive oil factory Covidesa Virgen de la Salud – (Our Lady of Health). The Arabic name for Posadas, Al-Fanadiq, is on the roundabout and clearly bears testament to Posadas’ Al-Andalus past, as does the Roman name for the village, Detumo.

The roundabout entering into Posadas — you can just spy the olive oil factory to the left in the background and the roof of the sports centre to the right

I then made sure just to stick to the straight (and then non-trafficked) road of Avenida Soldevilla Vazquez. There I dropped off my daughter (who I had to wake up) and placed her in the caring arms of Rosario and Maria Angeles in the nursery (leaving a trail of muddy footprints from my boots after me). So far so good.

Street map of Posadas which has a population of approx. 7,400. As you can see, there are quite a lot of churches and chapels in this historic village

I had left my car running so I could easily start off again, then made a left turn which took me across Calle Gaitan road, up past the friendly chemist, to a T-junction, which I nervously stuttered around, keeping my hand on the hand brake as it was up a slight incline, and watching carefully the narrowing sides of the street I was entering. Luckily there were no cars coming, and it was one-way only, so I let out a sigh and coaxed the car into turning a left at El Casino bar, turning on to Calle Fernandez de Santiago street (which is close to the town hall — and decorated with a large stork’s nest on the bell tower!).

The town hall — or ‘ayuntamiento’ in Spanish is situated in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento, which at one time was a hive of activity, especially during the times of the Civil War when people gathered there during the fiestas of the patron saint, Nuestra Señora de la Salud, and delighted in watching the bulls come running down Blas Infante Street, during the encierro, before being enclosed in the bullpen which was located in the Ayuntamiento square.

The Town Hall with stork’s nest on the turret!

Anyway, I slowly drove past the Manuel Rumí Cortés theatre — (slowly, because this is quite a narrow street, especially if it is double-parked) — and on past Urbasa supermarket and café Soler. At this point, I slowed down even more because the street continued to narrow.

The local theatre holds lots of events. Posadas is a bustling village

However, I was making good progress so on I drove, even though the street continued to taper, and now there were cars parked on either side. I just managed to squeeze through the constricted gap, but then I came to the point, just approaching the photographer Domingo’s shop, where the canopy was pulled out low and where the cars were definitely double-parked. By this time I was gaining confidence with my first gear and clever manoeuvring, because generally, my judgement of distances and widths has always been quite good.

Due to the double-parked car just opposite, I was forced to climb the pavement on Domingo’s side and had to move within just a few inches of his cheerful-yellow, diamond-patterned canopy. I carefully calculated how close I could actually get to this problematic feature. So, with a certain amount of self-belief (which is really quite atypical of me when all said and done), I slowly drove straight ahead, parallel with Domingo’s façade. I took the conscientious precaution of flicking the hazard warning switch to warn all and sundry of my slow progress (including those buzzing mopeds that had their silencers removed, in case any were about to snarl past me on the other side).

However, despite my thorough calculations, I had forgotten about the four (or was it eight?) little hooks that protruded out from the open-ribbed, rusted roof rack. Two on the right side, two on the left (and goodness knows what they were for anyway!).

I cautiously inched forward, keeping well within my calculations of the width between Domingo’s canopy and the car that was double-parked opposite Evaristo ironmonger’s.

Soon, to my surprise, I heard the rather unnerving sound of creaking, squeaking and groaning – the sort of sound that one usually associates with metal failure. I gaped about me in bewildered innocence, but as I didn’t notice anything unusual I just kept on gently squeezing the accelerator with my right foot to continue moving on — slowly of course!

The sound of metal failure continued, increasing in intensity, reaching a higher, more screechy pitch – rather like the amplified sound of scraping your fingers down a blackboard. But I wasn’t to be deterred: I just presumed it was the workmen on the nearby building site using their metal grinders to cut steel — (there were a lot of building projects going on here in Spain at that time, when José María Aznar of the Popular Party was the president of Spain, and when the country’s economy was booming rather than crashing).

So on I continued, bit by bit and always careful not to come into close contact with the double-parked car on the other side, even though the accelerator offered some resistance: I just put that down to the fact that I was climbing the kerb.

It was only then that I spotted through the miniscule rear window, Domingo standing outside his shop window amid the wreckage and debris of the highly distorted aluminium frame with a ripped and torn, sunshine-yellow canopy. His face was flushed, his arms stretched above his head, flapping about agitatedly, and he was moving from one leg to another, which, in direct contrast to the gravity of the situation, immediately reminded me of Rumpelstiltskin. His face was aglow, his eyes reduced by anger to the size of two small, dark dots (this time reminding me of a boar’s), and now he was shaking a clenched fist in my direction.

Realisation dawned on me. It was I who had caused such destruction — the almost total annihilation of his sunshine-yellow awning. I panicked, my heart knocking against my rib cage, magnifying in my ears. I hesitated a minute, rapidly weighing up the pros and cons of making a run for it, or whether I should stay and pay the full consequences. I realised it would be useless to scarper, since a) I was wedged in by the car that was double parked, and b) there was only one Land Rover in the village like mine.

So, fearing the worse, I came to an abrupt, juddering halt a few inches ahead, as my foot let out the clutch too sharply. I opened my tinny door, levered myself down onto the pavement with the help of the ceiling handle, went to the back passenger door where I then gathered my son into my arms. I took a deep breath and walked towards Domingo with a mix of bewilderment and fright registered on my face and the odd tear or two.

Now I don’t know whether it was either one of the above three, or the maternal stance of babe-in-arms (Spaniards are generally speaking, very children-oriented, especially in the villages) that sparked the following reaction from Domingo.

As I hesitatingly approached him, he slowly relaxed his raised arms as he lowered them to his side; the tinto-colour in his cheeks faded to rosé and the pitch in his voice recovered its usual bass tonality. The angry grimace gradually transformed itself to one more forgiving and understanding — almost of pity. After all, he must have had some relatives and friends who were female, and therefore he was well rehearsed.

¡Lo siento mucho! ¡Lo siento mucho, de verdad! ¡Cúanto lo siento!’ (‘I’m sorry! I’m truly sorry! Oh, how sorry I am!’)

It worked! His earlier Rumpelstiltskin attitude now became tamer, and his eyes returned to their larger origins, melting into a dark ‘café solo’. Even the waxed extremes of his 70’s handlebar moustache seemed to unfurl slightly. This positive change was confirmed by reassuring tones as he uttered:

‘¡No pasa nada! ¡Tranquila — no pasa nada, mujer! Todo tiene arreglo…’  (‘It’s okay — don’t worry — it doesn’t matter, woman! It can all be fixed…’)

(Where, once again – ‘woman’ was being used in the most respectful of terms.)

So luckily for me it turned out that he was a genuinely nice man — he was also a good friend of Álvaro, our insurance broker, who is the village’s funeral director too — (as well as being an accomplished pianist and having honed his skills in the music conservatory, Conservatorio de Música Rafael Orozco, in Cordova – named so in honour of Rafael Orozco, a skilled pianist, born in 1946 but died in 1996 from AIDS). Anyway, Domingo’s shop was insured with Álvaro.

So after checking that my culpable, war-worthy Land Rover was safely parked (it hadn’t, needless to say, suffered any consequences from this little incident), we both proceeded to Alvaro’s office — (me still with babe in arms). But now, being close to eleven o’clock, Álvaro was of course absent. In other words, gone for his second breakfast, as is the tradition here in Andalusia. However, it wasn’t long before we managed to root him out of the nearby upmarket café, Soler (known for their home-made, delicious cakes and pastries).

After exchanging the usual Spanish kisses which were accompanied by the all-purpose expression ‘¡Hombre!’ (‘Man!’) — followed by enquiring after each other’s families and what each member was up to now, and ‘What about the neighbours?’ etc., we completed all the necessary insurance protocols over ‘cafe con leche y tostada con aceite, ajo, tomate, jamon, zurrapa, manteca colora’, pate, churros etc., etc., etc.’ — (coffee with milk, and toast with olive oil, garlic, tomato, Serrano ham, rustic pork pâté in dripping, orange-coloured lard containing bits of pork and flavoured with paprika, fried dough rounds etc., etc., etc.). The true Andalusian way of doing business!

Once these all-important breakfast negotiations were finalised, we got up, and before leaving, Domingo and I exchanged the heartiest of handshakes, a kiss on the cheek and a reassuring pat on the shoulder. He even invited me to drop in and visit himself and his family next time I was doing the rounds.

I then returned relieved, though still a bit shaky, to my infamous war machine. I fumbled for the key, turned it, and the car started without any problems, once again juddering and shuddering into life. I then headed off to Andalusia Primary School (in Calle Andalusia road) where I accompanied my son to his nursery classroom, apologising for his lateness to Sonsoles, his gentle, affable teacher.

The morning turned out well, I got back safe and sound even if a little shaken, but there were no other incidences on that day. I say that, because on other days, there were. Plenty!

The view from the plain outside my house

Well, that’s it for now — but if you like what you’ve read and would like to know more, you can always check out my humorous, illustrated book, An English Lady in Cordova — the Alternative Guide.

Thank you for bearing with me — and as usual, comments and questions always welcome!

Take care! xxx

Me and my pre-war Land Rover (yikes!) A short story from Posadas, Cordova (Part 1)

When we first came to live in the countryside of Posadas, I needed a car. I never drove in Cordova, though I did help drive down to Andalusia from London in an open-top Alfa Romeo Spider, which was very classic, very old, very draughty and rather unreliable. It was also automatic, crunching back and forward into gears. It was the one I passed my driving test in even though the tax disc was way out of date and the open top roof was flung all the way back. How I drove in it to Spain I don’t know (though I was young and brave all those many years ago!).

Here’s an old, faded photo of the Spider I drove down part of the way to Andalusia 30 years ago. I can’t think for the life of me though what it was doing here in front of olive trees and on top of a load of freshly-picked olives…

However, due to Cordova being a small-sized provincial town and therefore easy to negotiate on foot, we soon sold the English reg. car to some expats who were living on the Malaga coast (and who as yet didn’t realise the complications and costs of legally importing a car, which, needless to say, involved a lot in order to deal with all the bureaucratic red tape and greasing of palms—a process helped by the presenting of gifts such as a wheel of queso curado cheese, a leg of jamón, litres of the best-quality aceite oil etc., etc., etc.). In those days it was much simpler and cheaper to do things illegally (and still is in certain cases, such as declaring, or rather not declaring yourself as a self-employed entity etc.).

Once we moved to the country though, we did need a car—not a delicate Italian vehicle, but one that was solid and sturdy and able to sustain the effects caused by a country track full of grooves and potholes. This track was also flanked by a river-filled gorge on one side and a steep cliff rising on the other, and so in times of rain turned into a perilous, muddy rink due to the set of streams, rivulets and rivers that formed on the surface. This was definitely a track which only hunting aficionados and other incensed country enthusiasts would use in time of hunting! In other words, one that was totally unsuitable for the Alfa Romeo!

No, this isn’t actually me and my Land Rover, though the track was very similar on rainy days the car’s much better than mine — as you are about to see…

So it wasn’t long before we sold it.

As a replacement, I was ‘presented with’ a khaki-coloured, clapped-out, pre-war Land Rover that jittered and shook like a jitterbug. It was also void of modern luxuries, such as power steering, heating, air conditioning, good visibility etc., and although it hadn’t done too many miles, the ones that it had done were certainly off-road, over very rough terrain—something that had definitely taken its toll of the suspension. It also boasted an open-ribbed, rusted-steel roof rack as its crowning glory. After all, it was only the family’s second car, just for me and therefore didn’t need to be so good…(Poor overworked, underrated, full-time, round-the-clock, stay-at-home mothers! I’d be a millionaire by now if I had charged for services rendered!)

Well, the seats were ripped and there were still knots of wool from the sheep that had previously been transported in the car. We had bought it in Castro del Río (another town famous for olives, in the province of Cordova) and considering the way that it jittered and shook, and the amount of play in the almost unresponsive steering wheel and brake pedal, I had been too frightened to test drive it. Also, noticing the dubious looks directed at me from the two pre-Civil War brothers who were selling it not only didn’t help, but were positively unnerving, and so I made the initial mistake of relying on my husband (an enthusiast of off-roading!) to test drive it.

As you can see, it was also useful for hauling things about (when the solid roof was taken off)
The roof of the Land Rover lying listlessly in the shade of an olive tree — but at least my ten cats use it for their shelter!

That was definitely an error, because after doing a couple of rounds in their stony field, during which he had to dodge the sheep (and where the driver’s seat lurched backwards every time the brakes were applied), he seemed to have thoroughly enjoyed the challenge. So when he got out of the car, the sentence was delivered, deeming this relic very suitable for me:

‘Just needs a little getting used to, that’s all!’

Famous last words!

By the way, Castro del Río, where we did eventually buy the jeep, does have some interesting history attached to it, as do most of the towns and villages that lie within the province of Cordova. This village forms part of the ‘ruta califal’Caliphal Route—which traces the history of Islam in Spain and links Cordova with Granada. It also dates back to the Metal Ages, encompassing the Neolithic, Iberian, Greek, Roman, Visigoth to the more recent Napoleonic French invasion (War of Independence, 1808) etc. It has one of the oldest and current cockfighting pits in Spain—the excuse that pardons the cockfighting is that this ‘sport’ is beneficial for the breed, while improving the stock!—and the previous ground-floor prison in the town hall was a temporary home for Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616), the famous novelist, playwright and soldier. It is claimed by the locals that it was here that he started writing his famous Don Quixote.

The town is also linked to former president John F. Kennedy. It was from this very town (well-known for its furniture made from olive wood) that the he ordered two wooden rocking chairs to be shipped home to him. (This added to his collection of rockers that he regularly used in order to alleviate his back problems.)

Anyway, getting back to my Land Rover… So we were on the verge of accepting or rejecting the deal, (I secretly wished for the latter), and all my hopes were dashed when I heard my ‘better-knowing’ husband pronounce the words:

‘¡Vale! ¡Trato hecho! Lo cogeremos por 400.000 pelas, nada más, nada menos.’ (‘Great! We’ll buy it for 400,000 pesetas, nothing more, nothing less!) — roughly equivalent to £2,140.

(‘What a waste for that clapped-out, old piece of junk’, I thought to myself!)

Anyway, to cut a long story short, the deal was signed and sealed and paid for in those very pesetas (though from the look of the car, it should have been paid in reales or maravadises). The aged brothers drove and delivered it to our country abode (only because they were going to look at some sheep that Mateo was selling in one of the fincas just off the Cañada Real Soriana).

I dutifully dedicated the next few weeks to driving round and round the only flat plain that there is outside our house, and getting used to gear-crunching, unresponsive steering and the lurching seat.

However, the day finally dawned when I felt ready (or rather I fooled myself in to feeling ready) to take on Posadas with my new old Land Rover: I had to take the kids to the nursery otherwise I probably would have stayed a recluse in my country abode for a little while longer. Also, I needed to get back to painting furniture, ceramics and glassware in the workshop that we had set up in the village.

So how did it go? Well, in order not to make this blog too long, I will continue with the following part in my next post…

(I am not purposefully making this a teaser, I just know that time is precious to all of us and I do not want to ask too much of your time…)

So next time I will describe with all the embarrassing details of how I got down to Posadas and what fate waited for me once there!

One of the roundabouts leading into Posadas — you can just make out the lettering, ‘al Fanadiq’ in white, which was the Arabic name for Posadas, during the time of the moorish occupation of al-Andalus

Thank you for reading — comments and questions always welcome.

Hope you are well — take care! xxx

Camping with the wild boar and our dubious hostel acquaintances in La Breña reservoir near the castled village of Almodóvar del Río

This blog recounts my experiences of when I went camping with some so-called acquaintances to our local lunar-landscape reservoir, La Breña, one sizzling August day when temperatures were oscillating around the 42° C (= 107.6° F)! Did I enjoy myself? Did the motley crew acquaintances have fun? And what about the great bristling wild boar?

(Taken in part from the first chapter of my book, ‘An English Lady in Cordova — the alternative guide’ – available at https://www.etsy.com/es/shop/GillysWork?ref=search_shop_redirect ).

The castle of Almodóvar del Río at night – the best preserved in Andalusia. (Close to the Breña reservoir.) Well worth a visit. Has its own legend. Don’t take the English translations to heart!

After we had settled cosily into our Moorish abode we were ready to take on a couple of much-needed money-making projects in the ancient Jewish Quarters, the Judería. As mentioned earlier, we bought the close-by hostel, Mari II in Horno de Porras street, situated in the narrow, cobbled lane that led down towards the humid banks of the Guadalquivir River. An area which, at that time, was regarded as the sleazy part of town: muttering old men would surface from the darkness of certain ladies’ dens, hunched over with hands fumbling deep in their pockets, often simultaneously spitting out catarrh from their nicotine-lined gullets.

Calle Rey Heredia and Horno de Porras Street

There were also the no-good layabouts that would emerge from other dusky squalors, tottering and totally inebriated from their prior visit to Las Cabezas bar which was famous for its Moorish fountain in the central part of the ice-cold, white marble patio and the large, heavy olive-wood chairs with seats woven from typha stems (nigh impossible to move!); of similar fame was its cheapest, sourest ‘fino’ sherry that you could consume plentifully, served straight from a musty oak barrel, at the cheapest possible prices.

The ‘fino’ sherry is matured in American oak barrels

(The bar has since been replaced by a beautiful, luxurious hotel, situated opposite the Museo de las Cabezas, and has embellished all the original, historical features.) Well, I think the reasoning of the bar owner, José María (Joseph Mary), went something like: ‘Once you’ve got ‘em, keep ‘em there, even if it is by getting’ ‘em paralytic!’

His wife, also at one time during her former days of culinary glory served a restricted repertoire of dishes which included plates such as ‘flamequines, croquetas, calamares, chorizo, morcilla’ etc. which are, more or less: breaded pork loin rolled and stuffed with egg and Serrano ham; croquettes made from béchamel with diced ham or chicken; spicy cured sausage; and black puddings—the last two sausages being homemade, prepared from their most recent slaughter of their garden pig, the meat of which would definitely not be tested by a vet (the then true Andalusian way).  She would concoct this fare in her tenebrous, squalid kitchen amid the odd, balding chicken or manky cat that she kicked out of the way with her holey, threadbare slippers.

Anyway, to get back to the main thread of things, the Cabezas neighbourhood, being a rundown, dodgy and plebeian area was responsible in bestowing upon our hostel a very interesting clientele, some of who decided one day to ‘volunteer’ (uninvited) to join our summer camping weekend at the local reservoir, La Breña (situated some twenty-two miles west of Cordova, between the villages of the castled Almodóvar del Río and Posadas). And as for me, being polite and English— having been brought up in East Sheen and educated at Gumley House Convent School run by the ‘Faithful Companions of Jesus’ nuns— I couldn’t really refuse their self-invitation, could I? But I wasn’t at all happy with the idea.

And so one sizzling summer’s day, we (who were as yet childless, footloose and fancy free) arrived at this reservoir, together with the bunch of said ‘volunteers’.

It looked like an innocent enough place, even if a little bit lunar what with all its cracked schist and volcanic nuggets peppering the parched sand; there were also sparse, rough-stemmed and thick-bladed weeds poking out all over the place. Pinkish-green Salix bushes and other willowy sort of bushes grew lower down close by the muddy water’s edge, wavering in the dry wind, while hostile, sharp-edged grasses and velvety rushes protruded out from shallower depths. There were crumpled, soiled tissues strewn about here and there together with the odd, billowing plastic bag that was tossed from one pebble to another as the wind caught it like a kite; and the occasional squashed, miniature carton of juice completed the scene, giving it a semblance that would have been more appropriate of a public rubbish tip. (But then again, the throwing of litter here and there, whether in areas of natural beauty or built-up places was, when I first arrived in Andalusia— and still is to some extent— a typical habit of the Andalusians.)

Recent view of La Breña reservoir looking
quite bushy after having had its facelift. There’s even a beach there now. Not much shade though at lower levels since all the former oaks and olive trees were pulled out, so be sure to take along your maximum protection sun cream! You can practise water sports too and then go up top to the restaurant/bar to rehydrate and recover.

Then there was the worrying fact that one shouldn’t really swim in the waters of the Breña reservoir (which is what we were about to do), mainly for two reasons: firstly, the water is reserved for human consumption and irrigation purposes only; and secondly, there are numerous hazardous objects that lie hidden under the water’s surface which are decidedly treacherous to the unsuspecting swimmer. Some of these objects include sharp, snagging branches that can hold the bather back or pull him down under; there are tree stumps with rotting branches yawning wide welcoming the swimmer into a last confining embrace, while various cables and wires (which weren’t removed before this natural lake was dammed) stretch dangerously from one corner to another. Within the water there are strong, unpredictable undercurrents and dark, circling patches that eddy round and round, ready to suck the swimmer down to perilous depths.

Careful with the underwater branches, roots, wires, cables and other paraphernalia – and that’s not mentioning the jaws and incisors!

There is also a large population of hungry and menacing, carnivorous, generously-jawed Pike, Carp and Catfish, as well as slithering eels and water snakes that glide quietly through the water; there is also a poisonous variety of mollusc that is native to the Ebro River in Burgos (but how it made its way to the Breña in Andalusia remains a mystery as there are no connections between the two water sources). And last but not least there is also the caiman that one of our gypsy friends, Jesús, let loose in the lake when pursued by the Civil Guard after a tip-off.

Apart from this possible inhabitant, there have also been reports of a menacing, poisonous clam from the Ebro River in Burgos (north Spain) that has come and invaded the Breña waters…

So if those aren’t enough convincing reasons for not swimming in the Breña, then the bather must be the sort of deluded greenhorn that went on a camping trip like ours.

But getting back to our intentioned trip with these ‘friends’: basically they were an assorted motley crew, the number of which was not determined by the level of friendship, but more by the number of freeloaders that could be stuffed in our old VW camper van— true to the saying: ‘The more the merrier’.

The crew consisted mainly of poor, young university students and backpackers who were staying in our hostel and taking advantage of the cheap prices that reflected this lowly location. (However, this area has since been given a face lift, especially for the sake of pulling in the tourists, and one can now find Arabic hammams together with upmarket bars, restaurants, boutique shops and jewellers. Gone are the days when curly-haired Lola with her glossy, bright-red fish lips would poke her head out of her ‘panadería’ shop door and shout up the street to her mother; or when you could hear the cries from the subservient wife as her chauvinistic husband directed a torrent of abuse at her and delivered his children an almighty thwack while all the neighbours listened on, unaffected, having been brought up in these traditional methods of discipline and machismo. And gone are the days when the original owners of the tourist shops and bars, many of them dark-skinned and with greasy hair Brylcreemed back would stride up and down the roads with their long, green, pressed-wool cloaked overcoats hanging from their shoulders in mafia-like manner, shrouding them in all self-importance. And when chickens were crammed into small patios: undersized kitchens were dimly lit by just one central, yellowish, low-wattage light bulb that hung from the grimy ceiling—it was only the woman’s domain after all—and the whole freezing, stone-floored and tiled walls that formed an icebox of a house were heated by just the odd brazier or too;

Typical tiled walls – a habit passed down by the Moors
A very decorative Sevillana chair (please excuse the mobile phone photography!)

and when the only form of comfortable seating was the highly uncomfortable, but brightly-painted wooden ‘Sevillana’ chairs; when neighbours would sit out on their doorsteps till late on a summer’s night, chatting away under the intoxicating jasmine; and when English was only just being introduced into the National Curriculum and there was plenty of demand for English teachers like me; or even when locals would gawp with lower jaw hanging wide when they heard an English native speak Spanish with an English accent… But times have since changed.)

Nothing like a burning fire on a sizzling
summer’s day!

Anyway these hostel recruits of ours immediately volunteered, or rather insisted on coming along with us once they heard it rumoured abroad that we were planning a quaint little camping trip to the Breña Lake where we could cool ourselves down. What had initially been an offer to a French couple was soon extended to the multitudes. In a nutshell, it included those who wanted to have a free ride, free grub ‘n’ booze, and a free touring weekend!

So the motleys consisted of: one Canadian flamenco guitar student (a poor-little rich boy) accompanied by his Australian counterpart (sweet, shy, not well off, having to give English classes in flip flops but also attired in a suit forced on him by the director);

A little ‘bulerías’, ‘soleares’ or fandango’ to set the mood…

four very flirtatious French girls who were spending a year in Cordova to study philology and Spanish men; three of their male and very effeminate co-students; a poor, elderly, highly-eloquent English gentleman with a great weakness for classic literature, art and alcohol of any sort, together with his potty, Welsh lady friend; a German lute maker recently arrived to hone his skills during his apprenticeship with a master craftsman; an effeminate male engineering student with pouting lips who hadn’t as yet emerged from the closet as it would have wounded Mexican family pride and Nationalistic sentiments; a fair-coloured, blue-eyed, sleazy Berber student whose mouth used to water at the sight of anything in a skirt; a vivacious male student from Peru who gave salsa classes in our downstairs room; and last but not least, a Venezuelan Don Juan who, after putting his Malagueñan girlfriend in the family way, soon upped and ran (taking another girl with him) and was never heard of again. The van was big after all, and in those days seat belts were not the order of the day, and although Spain had just recently entered the European Union (in 1986) it hadn’t yet felt the full effects of peaceful discipline and conform on its society.

But to linger no longer, off we set, unaffected by the limited space and accompanied by raucous laughter, eager cheering, guitar strumming, alcohol-smelling breath, wafts of ‘grass’ and the general muddle, commotion, cacophony and disorder that personifies youth. (Luckily I had reserved my place in the front seat, and unaccompanied. Doubts had already started crowding my mind!).

Our van was bursting at the sides with the
self-invited, motley crew ‘acquaintances’

After about an hour we finally arrived; we slowly and painfully alighted, stretching legs, arms and rib cages. The spanking summer sun was already suspended directly above me and the gang, and was heating the stones relentlessly with its direct waves, causing the air above to shimmer and waver like a mirage. Once we, or rather they, had erected tents, rolled out mats, made and prepared food on the camping-gas stove, drank plenty to get into the swing of things, and donned bathing suits and all sorts of paraphernalia, we, or rather they, made a steady way downhill towards the water’s edge. I followed up the rear, gingerly picking my way over sharp pebbles while trying to avoid the unavoidable sun’s rays. It was mid-July and we were too poor then (or too thick-brained really) to do the decent, logical thing which would have been to head north to Cantabria or Asturias, Galicia or even País Basque (in other words, to the cooler, breathable and more humane temperatures of the ‘Garden of Spain’) where we would have been able to enjoy a proper holiday. But we didn’t have children then, so we were caught up in that whirlwind of illogical and impracticable thinking, where one acts first, later reflects, and in the end, pays the consequences.

Anyway, we tiptoed our way across those hard, angular, quartz-rich rocks— a painful experience for those of us who hadn’t been sufficiently anaesthetised by the lunchtime Valdepeñas followed by the ‘cafe carajillo’— that is, coffee cranked up with a ‘real man’s’ measure of anisette. (It could also be with brandy, rum or whisky, as drunk originally by the Cuban troops in order to bolster their courage.)

Soon we reached the ruffled waters where we let our feet sink into the oozy, slimy, brown-grey, amphibious-insect-infested mud. The sensation was disgusting! The substrate was neither sandy nor firm, but simply gloopy and muddy. (I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why certain beauty victims go for aesthetic mud treatments.) I felt ill at ease, to say the least (obviously not having been sufficiently prepped by the carajillo) and was expecting something nasty to sink its incisors into my flesh.

After a few seconds I was sure that I could feel an itching, pinching and biting, and when I withdrew my legs from the murk, sure enough my feet and ankles were covered in a myriad of raised, angry-red blotches and spots. I wasn’t going to have any of it—I legged it out of those dubious waters as quick as I could! The silty water soon dried off my skin leaving behind a pattern of mica flakes that scintillated and glistened over the sore red patches and resisted being scraped away even though I was now scratching myself frantically like an incensed dog. Luckily I spied some dock leaf growing under a low Salix bush not too far away, so I crawled off in that direction, plucked off a few leaves and then applied these, poultice-like to my sore feet and calves. I then remained there, like a wounded dog, crouched low under the parched willowy branches, trying to cheat the sun’s rays.

However, the braver recruits continued on undeterred in their valiant, inebriated state. They plunged into the water and were soon swimming out quite far despite their vague awareness of the chubby, torpedo-like Carp that lurked about in the obscure depths. (Although my brother assures me that these fish are total vegetarians, I wasn’t willing to hang around and put his theory to test! What’s more, I had also heard from our local fishing group in Posadas which hold their regular contests in Miguel and Rita’s bar— the corner one near the train station— that the slithering Wels Catfish has also been spotted in that lake, and apart from their size being menacing, they do have multiple rows of razor sharp teeth.)

Anyway, I stayed put, cowering under the thin, willowy branches of the Salix bush, that now and then whipped my bare skin as the breeze mustered up an increasing strength.

I say that ‘I stayed put’, but that was only for a while, until a new idea dawned on me which was as bright and illuminating as the midday sun: ‘Why don’t I go and look for firewood up there in that dusky, mysterious coppice that crowns the top of the hill?’. It seemed to me at the time, a helpful and practical idea and I was putting my ability to foresee the future in play (and also the sardines and other food that would need cooking) — and with some effort, I hauled myself upwards, dusting off the annoying little angular stones that had become half embedded into my bare calves and thighs.

Well, what I thought would be a good idea in fact turned out to be a very bad idea. I’ll give you a clue…Grunt! Grunt! Oinks, screeches and screams, and me dicing with death.

But, although I would love to recount the full story in detail, I think that I should abruptly bring my tale to a close for fear of this blog becoming too lengthy. However, it was an eventful day, where not only the raucous, drunken, over-enthusiastic, self-invited motleys were the protagonists, but also the menacing wild boar — (‘jabali‘, in Spanish!). If you would like to learn more, then these and other amusing stories can be found in my book, An English Lady in Cordova (see link in the above first chapter).

Thanks for reading — see you soon!