Hi folks — I’m back! As I briefly mentioned in my first blog, I moved over to sunny Cordova about thirty years ago. And so this is how it all started (and as described in my illustrated book, An English Lady in Cordova – the alternative guide)…
I first came to Spain in 1989. I thought it would just be a short-lived experience, lasting only about three years, but as the days turned into weeks and the weeks into months, before I knew it, twenty-nine years had passed. Working as an English teacher, translator and artisan were just a few of the factors that held me here, but these determinants soon grew as so too did both my children: they were born here and maintaining their schooling and home environment constant was a priority.
And then there was also another significant, influential consideration: the asthmatic lungs! Inland Andalusia offers a much drier climate for a pair of wheezy, respiratory organs that don’t take too well to the rainy and humid conditions of Good Ol’ England. So following the doctor’s enlightening recommendation of, ‘If you want to get better, you’ll have to head south to more arid, desert conditions…’ we packed a couple of suitcases with most of our belongings (which were few—we were young at the time) and squeezed them, together with an outsize army tent, in our crimson, semi-battered, open-top Alfa Romeo (the one I passed my driving license in even though, unbeknown to me, the tax disc was out of date—it was 1989 then and conditions were a little less sticky than today). Soon we were heading south to Andalusia.
After hardly any prior consideration—we were young then—we decided on Andalusia, preferring it to the other desert possibilities of Texas, Siberia, Mongolia etc., because above all things, it was closer to home and family.
Anyway, to cut a long story short, we ended up settling in Cordova, where the lungs improved due to the extremely dry conditions and the 120°F summer temperatures; but then the bones started to ache terribly from such intense heat…
We took up residence in a flat on the first floor of an ancient ramshackle house that was full of medieval echoes and harked back to the times of the Moors and Romans.
This dwelling had a typical Arabic-style, square-shaped, cobbled courtyard with an orange tree in the middle, encircled by fragrant box bushes.
There was a timeworn statue of a bronze horse’s head of Moorish design that emerged from one of the whitewashed walls and spouted water into the creamy, shelly sandstone fountain. At higher levels, indigo-coloured pots of vibrant hanging geraniums spilled forth trailing blooms over tangles of perfumed jasmine and unruly masses of intoxicating ‘Lady of the Night’. To top it all, a maze of grape vines with interwoven branches that resembled curving Olive Whipsnakes invaded the terracotta-tiled roof that had seriously sagged with time. This weatherworn roof provided a haven for all the swallows, rats, geckos, dormice and thieves that wandered the vicinity.
The patio was peppered with Roman and Moorish artefacts such as reddish pillars and ornate capitals that had previously been pilfered from the remains of the Caliphal medieval palace-city, Medinat al-Zahra (‘The Shining City’)—the original site of Cordova, ruled by Caliph Abd al-Rahman III. Unfortunately the area was only recently declared a UNESCO heritage site, so before this, the familiar maxim, ‘Help yourself!’ then prevailed. In other words the site (already having been heavily ransacked during the 1013 AD Berber vs. Umayyad Caliphate Civil War) was regularly pillaged with the result that numerous priceless archaeological artefacts came to rest in the courtyards and on the whitewashed walls of many local houses. And ours was just such an example.
Anyway, raised location was to our advantage mainly because we could easily spot all the burglars that would prowl the aged rooftops at night before then plopping down into our patio to stealthily rummage through the remainder our still-unopened boxes of belongings; the burglar would stop occasionally for a drag on that tell-tale cigarette with the incandescent butt smouldering away in the obscurity of the night, revealing his presence. It wasn’t long before we became well-known to the local Civil Guards who would often attend our calls at night; they would check the shadowy downstairs rooms one by one, pushing each heavy wooden door open wide before pouncing around it, revolvers at the ready. But by then, the burglars would have already shinned up the drainpipe or Olive Whipsnake vine and scuttled away over the midnight roofs.
A second advantage of having our flat on the first floor was that from the broad sitting-room windows we could see the bell tower of Cordova’s famous Great Mosque-cathedral (built in 784 under the orders of Abd al-Rahman I) topped by the town’s patron saint, the archangel San Rafael, who offers eternal protection to all the citizens.
But the real noise would take place on Friday and Saturday nights. It was on these nights that the university students would celebrate their end of week with drunken brawls and revelries, sometimes accompanied by ‘tunas’— (small but high-spirited musical groups composed of students dressed in Renaissance outfits, playing guitars, lutes and tambourines — and oh, of course, singing).
I enjoyed the romantic, sentimental serenading, but not the rest of the general riot which was made worse by those stragglers who, as the wee hours of the night approached would desperately look for a place to have a much-needed wee; and because the main door of our building was a little away off the Roman cobbled ‘Encarnación’ street, up a few granite steps and flanked by a couple of pilfered Arabic Medinat al-Zahra pillars, the highly educated scholars would find this a most convenient place to relieve themselves. So in the morning, on my way out of the house (armed with the house pipe and a 5-litre bottle of bleach) I would be met by a vast, yellow-green, murky, ammonia-pungent puddle—one which represented the collection of numerous wees piddled out there over the weekend.
However, as I soon became accustomed to this regular procedure I grew all the wiser, trying to catch the culprits out: I would crouch low on my moonlit balcony, half-hidden by my Hibiscus bushes and Madonna lilies, preparing for the moment of attack. When I spied that the offender was ready to take aim, I would grab the watering can and chuck all the water down onto him: this would immediately stop him in midstream, making him shove his ‘churro’ back in his trousers whilst scurrying away like a rat down the moonlit alley. Or if the offenders were being really vile and rowdy, then it would be all the earthy contents of a terracotta pot that would shower down onto their heads. However this would be only a temporary solution, as the following weekend they would be back for more!
The plaza outside the nearby archaeological museum was also the stage set for such drunken revelries, and often fuelled by drugs. (This area has since been given a beautifying facelift!)
Apart from suffering teething problems due to the raised decibels in our street, we also suffered the consequences of an insufficient electricity supply. And at first, we had none at all. The house was rickety and old, and had been in a state of abandonment for many years, and since we had not as yet managed to acquire our residency permits (a long and arduous process then) we were denied connection to the mains supply by Sevillana—the major electricity company in Andalusia (analogous to ‘corrupt’?). So we were surviving on candlelight alone and only hand-operated fans (which was quite taxing given the summer temperatures oscillated around the 115° F mark). However, we soon managed to acquire a small trickle of electricity which our neighbours, some humble students who rented the neighbouring house, illegally directed our way (we were young then!). The dodgy wiring that stretched between our two flats was, needless to say and in accordance with the Spanish safety rules at that time, void of the green, safety earth wire.
Neither could we have a telephone connection via Telefónica, the major telephone operator in Spain then (which was at the time, government-owned and, once again, ‘corrupt’?): so communication was limited to either writing letters or going to the Telefónica’s main building in the Tendillas square and making very expensive calls. (And despite being privatised in 1997, the company still charges in its favour!) But with time, the necessary connections were made, which were not just with cables and wire, but also with the people (a factor of great importance here in Latin-Moorish Andalusia). And gradually, once all our papers were in order and we were classed as legalised aliens, we started to eke out our living.
From my cosy sitting-room in our flat that overlooked the courtyard’s orange tree I gave English classes to many people. Some male students were of a very dubious nature where their main interest was more along the lines of deflowering English roses. I also did a lot of handicraft work which I sold in the tourist shop that we started on the ground floor. The shop opened on to the well-known Calleja de Las Flores square and was always graced by budding Flamenco guitar artists.
The house was well positioned, being in the heart of the old Jewish quarters of Cordova—a bustling town built upon the banks of the Guadalquivir River (christened thus by the Moors); a town steeped in history and culture, known for, amongst many other features, its famous Great Mosque-Cathedral and the Fortress / Palace of the Christian Monarchs (King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella—parents of our King Henry VIII’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon). These renowned buildings are encased by the Roman and Arab walls of the city. Cordova is also a town characterised by much celebration and jubilation thanks to all its fiestas and cultural festivities (of which we partook assiduously!).
And within these old Jewish quarters we also opened a hostel. The area was, in those days, located in the sleazier, disreputable and not surprisingly dubious part of the neighbourhood.
In fact, just round the corner was the notorious Calle Cabezas (Streetof the Heads)—a narrow, cobbled lane famous for its legend dating back to the middle ages when the blood-soaked, decapitated heads of a nobleman’s seven sons were displayed as trophies along the street, one hanging from each of the seven arches. Well, this is where our hostel was situated. It seems as if the tone of the neighbourhood had already been determined many years ago when the medieval, reconquering Christians were in serious combat with the Arabic Moors in order to regain their lost territories. (This was the famous Reconquest of Spain which occurred between 718 and 1492.) And local skirmishes still persisted in our early hostel days: conflicts which were usually fuelled and ignited by the cheap, traditional ‘fino’ sherry that was sold in the antiquated Seven Heads bar that lay just opposite those notorious arches.
The area was also regularly patrolled by ladies of the night, and so being located in such a setting, our hostel attracted clients of very questionable nature. There were the more-straightforward clients such as the lowlier, foreign backpackers who arrived poor as church mice but all eager to experience the delights of eras gone by; and there were the flamenco music students, fresh from afar who were seeking cheap rentals so they could spend their pesetas on guitar classes imparted by maestros in the local ‘peña’ bars. These lessons would invariably be accompanied by a glass of ‘tinto’ or ‘fino’ along with Spanish tapas, all being consumed and performed amidst a grey haze of cheap ‘ducado’ cigarette smoke and in tempo with the clapping of palms and stamping of flamenco heels. And then there were also male immigrants from poorer countries who were seeking out Spanish wives in order to obtain legal residency (they would quietly confide in us saying that this one was just for the papers, whereas the proper one was still back in the country of origin).
There was also the shady, crooked lot who were on the run from the police: these included a peculiar and intimidating ensemble of drunks, drug addicts and wife-intimidators— but as soon as we suspected anything dodgy we would report it to the ‘policia local’ (who already knew us ‘giris’ well by then): they would arrive in a handsome jiffy, handcuffs clinking against their sides, walkie-talkies in hand, revolvers in holsters and truncheon thrust in belt. A good few criminals were whisked away. And finally, last but not least, there were the straight-forward, peaceful tourists who, after having experienced both the irregular goings-on and the dark nature of some of the hostel inmates would check out the following morning, nervously looking over their shoulders.
It is not surprising that after a few months of this hostel lark we decided to sell the business!
However, in the meantime, we gradually negotiated our way amongst this strange assortment of people and amid the Cordobese, though it was not all smooth-going and sometimes involved a good deal of pain. And more often than not there were many embarrassing, god-awful moments caused generally by my inexperience of both the language and customs (recounted in full humiliating details in my amusing and fully-illustrated book An English Lady in Cordova—the alternative guide). There were also some serious cockups and blunders committed, such as those related with my work as a teacher (both privately and in schools), or resulting from my indiscreet dealings with the locals. Additionally there were some serious errors of judgement during my encounters with wild animals. And crowning it all were those little ‘slip-ups’ involving me, my misbehaved jalopies and the general misinterpretation of Spanish road signals.
These little faux pas were fortunately neutralised by my positive, hassle-free encounters with the many good-natured, warm-hearted people who adopted me into their very familiar social circles. There were also many amusing, humorous and curious events involving those from not only the historical-rich town of Cordova but from the nearby villages (in particular Posadas, our local village). Characters that ranged from the sophisticated to the more simple and naive; and the incidents—well, some were experienced first-hand, whereas others were recounted by locals and jotted down by me; some are contemporary, spanning the Civil War and the present democratic times, and others are stories from the past, including ancient legends rooted in the Arabic and Christian medieval eras shrouded in their particular veil of mystery.
We did eventually move out of Cordova’s Jewish Quarters after about ten years of trial and error, and we took up residence in an olive grove on top of a hill five miles from the village of Posadas del Rey.
I think there were various factors that contributed to our decision. Perhaps it was the puddle of urine on the doorstep that grew too pungent and deep, or maybe the din from the cathedral bells combined with the non-baffled mopeds clattering down the narrow street that encouraged our exit.
It might have been the result of the uneven, cobbled pavements over which my daughter’s pram and son’s pushchair bumped over in a detrimental sort of way; or perhaps the distinct lack of green areas for children to run around and play, and where instead they were confined to cobbled plazas and granite-slabbed avenues.
(I admit I did feel intimidated by the young, hoity-toity mothers of those provincial bygone days who would gather together in the central Plaza Tendillas Square showing off their infants who were immaculately dressed in accordance with the overdone Latin way—something I never managed to achieve with my more ‘informal’ toddlers: their children were prim and proper, the girls with wide, satin bows clamped in their hair or topped in frilled bonnets, ears pierced and clothed in dolls’ dresses or finely knitted suits despite the summer temperatures; and the boys dressed like little men in starched shirts, knee-length shorts and highly polished shoes, where the only item that was missing from the whole ensemble was the moustache; and all the while the mothers would warn them not to play on the floor or rub against the railings otherwise their clothes would get dirty. But how else were they supposed to play? And in the dreadful event of dirtying their clothes, they would receive a short, sharp slap and a torrent of heated Latin abuse. Like me, these ladies were new to the experiment of motherhood, but unlike me, they celebrated this newly acquired status by caking their faces in makeup and relinquishing their jeans, track suits and plimsolls—which was, yet again, unlike me, because this was my standard wear. Though things have since changed…)
Could one of the reasons for our exit have been due to the gypsy mafia that lived nearby? The dark-skinned, voluminous matriarchs of the clan—dark hair piled high, golden filigree adorning their ears, though clad simply in flip flops: they would corner me, in a bullying, intimidating sort of way against a Roman façade or Moorish cornerstone, insisting to read my palm whilst forcing a twig of rosemary into my hand—and me being young, naive and fresh from Richmond Park and Queen Elizabeth’s deer, just could not evade this uncomfortable encounter. It was a scene that repeated itself time and time again, until I grew very cautious and weary.
Though perhaps what also encouraged our departure was our hostel, frequented by those dodgy characters that performed their unsavoury business—a drawback heightened by the disreputable, ghostly ambience of those ancient, fino-smelling, macabre lanes inhabited by spirits of the past and dubious souls of the present.
Combined with all the emotionally-trying factors mentioned above, the weariness was as well due to the shattering summer heat that was amplified by the narrow cobbled streets and concrete buildings. I think that these factors finally heralded our exit, pointing us in the direction of fresher, greener pastures.
So we sold our hostel, closed our tourist shop (that had started to dwindle anyway due to tourists preferring more distant, exotic locations) and waved goodbye to our Englishy-cluttered flat with the balconies that were permanently overloaded with delicately swaying blooms reminiscent of the English countryside and the mix ‘n’ match of more southern, intoxicating varieties.
It was not long before we moved to our new rural environment set close to the Villa de Posadas, and over the following six months, with the help of the locals, we built our humble, white-washed rustic dwelling.
From the local plant nursery in La Carlota village we bought some plants which we nurtured with much love and care—the result is now an oasis-like garden bursting at the seams with evergreen creepers and bushes and tall, deciduous flowering trees that afford the much-needed shade: Indian Bean tree, Pride of Persia, Jacaranda, lime, apricot, olive, bougainvillea, jasmine, Lady of the Night, wisteria, yuccas, aloes, trumpet vine, roses… just to name a few.
There is also a small, raised pool which we use for both watering our plants and for splashing about in once the all-consuming heat of summer is full upon us. The birds also take advantage of this crystal mountain water: the owls, swifts, swallows and sparrows all swoop down to wet their beaks and to pluck out the diver beetles that flourish in the water. (As yet I have never spotted a cuckoo, or crested hoopoe, neither one of Marco Polo’s azure-winged magpies drink from the pool—nor from our stream either.)
But it is not only these feathered friends that are our regular visitors—we are also frequented by all sorts of creeping, crawling, slithering and hopping things: clades of camouflaging chameleons; colonies of rats; knots of snakes; clusters of spiders and scorpions; long, thick, bristling centipedes; lounges of lizards and geckos; clouds of flying crickets and grasshoppers; and hordes of stick insects and praying mantises. The snakes, centipedes and scorpions fill me with dread, especially when I see the latter come marching out from under the kitchen sink in an orderly file, or when I almost trip upon the poisonous centipede that is waiting for me in my bathtub or on my bedside table. These creatures are one of the reasons why I always have cats (the numbers of which last year totalled fifteen). The other reason is because I love a furry feline, and so too does my daughter. The cats also provide great entertainment and sport for our burly but laid-back mastiffs.
And so, to cut a very long story short, once we had finished building our country abode, and the smouldering September was upon us, we enrolled our two toddlers into the village nursery and primary school; they adapted to these institutions well as the atmosphere was so friendly and family-like. In the meantime, we started a craft workshop selling hand-painted furniture, paintings and other crafts, in what was a derelict farm-house on the edge of Posadas.
With time we made more acquaintances, and with the passing of the years and improvement of the language, together with the appreciation of the people and their customs, we became well-integrated into Spanish society of Posadas.
This village is set in a beautiful corner of the province of Cordova, bounded by the low-lying agricultural plains of the Guadalquivir River to the south and flanked to the north by the Sierra Morena Mountains. These rocky, steep hills offer a very contrasting scenery and have many villages, hamlets and fincasthat sprawl along the flatter plateaus and nestle in its folds—each one with its own set of peculiar characters and with intriguing tales to relate.
In fact, just as I write this from my porch I can spy the haunted Medieval castle of the neighbouring village, Almodóvar del Río, rising proud from its hill; and when I look in the other direction, I see our village, Posadas, which has its own particular mystic tale associated with the archway that was the former entrance to a castle; and looking out to the west I can just spot the first whitewashed house of another village, Hornachuelos—a lofty and sloping village famous forthe legend of the haunted monastery and the flying monk.
It is surprising just how fast time spins away. These past years for me have been ones filled with a rich array of experiences. New lands, new people; a different language, a different culture; stories from the past, stories from the present; my experiences and adventures—many of which have been recorded and narrated in my book and blog. I have wanted to share some of these locations and experiences with others, while at the same time, do justice to what I think are lovely, warm-hearted, accepting and welcoming people; an intriguing and extremely rich culture, and a very diverse land which offers something for everyone. If you would like to read more about my experiences and stories and about the different sites and history, then you can find out more from my amusing and fully-illustrated book An English Lady in Cordova—the alternative guide. For now, I will talk about some of these locations within the province of Cordova (Córdoba in Spanish) in my blog.
Step on board—I hope you enjoy the journey!