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El Tesoro

In Practice, Production on May 8, 2014 at 7:47 am

El Tesoro

Trundling toward Seville with a bootful of booty – a creamy blue cheese from Galicia, a jar of blue cheese cream from Asturias, a jar of apple jam, a jar of orange jelly, a jar of strawberry jam, a jar of quince and orange paste, a jar of quince and lemon paste, a jar of chilli chutney and a small bottle of nispero liqueur, the maker of which didn’t so much recommend to us as warn us about. Two bottles of hand-picked olives in deep brine and three bottles of Extremaduran wine, a fridge magnet, two porcelain beer mugs and, wrapped up carefully in a straw hat, the most delicate cargo of all: six eggs from the finca we’ve just left and the chickens we’ve just waved goodbye to. Now all we have to do is get them home, just over four hundred kilometres away.

The project does not have an auspicious beginning; after just a few minutes we drive through a small town so sleepy and rural that even the main street is cobbled. Mis huevos, I complain as the car rattles through. We stop afterwards, outside a mammoth industrial complex of some kind that caught my eye on the way here yesterday – four huge silos and more at the other end next to a concrete dome the size of a small moon. At least half a kilometre in length, the plant consists of enormous pipes and ramps, a thousand stairwells, chutes and chimneys in all sizes and the constant noise of process. More

La Magia

In Practice, Presentation on March 4, 2014 at 10:06 am

La Magia

I have written about Benarrabá before and about the spell it holds over us. Even by pueblo blanco standards, it is tiny, hidden from view at the end of a series of hairpin turns, a kilometre or so from the road that threads along the eastern side of the Genal Valley and ends up in Ronda. A succession of larger pueblos, with names from the days when this was Berber high ground, adorn the road like a string of gleaming worry beads.

Unlike them, it is hard to imagine Benarrabá expanding or modernising. Expansion, in fact, is impossible – the town is draped across a narrow ridge that offers no more space – and any modernisation going on around here is going on in Gaucín, a few kilometres down the road, so this little pueblo of six hundred souls sparkles alone in the green velvet of the valley, isolated on its summit but connected by sight – and the ineffables of culture and history – with other tiny towns, visible in the distance on the other side of the river.

We come in February every time, the Andalucian winter just beginning to lift and the skies wet with heavy raincloud. The topography always seems to punch a few holes in the grey blanket, though, and vertical shafts of sunlight play across the slopes as if painted there by a master; the brilliant sun shines through the murk like a miracle, even as mist envelops the hills above the slanted little settlement that has never failed to enchant. More

El Soborno

In Practice, Presentation on February 19, 2014 at 10:27 am

El Soborno

“If you annoy me in Ikea today,” says K – we are on Calle Luna, a long pedestrian shopping street in El Puerto de Santa Maria that begins near the water where the tapas bars cluster along Calle Misericordia and ends in the Plaza de Juan Gavala, a little square of flower sellers – “I swear, I will leave you.”

It is K’s contention that I make a poor companion when it comes to enjoying the many delights that Ikea has to offer; I don’t like admitting to my faults any more than the next person but in this case I would have to concede the point – in Ikea one actually ascends into hell and the second my foot leaves the top of the infernal escalator the crankiness kicks in like clockwork.

Where are the pencils? Where are the bloody pencils? What is this thing anyway? Is that the number for the red or the white? White brilliant or white matt? What are we doing in the kitchen section? We don’t need anything in the kitchen section…

I invariably find myself admonishing K to ‘focus’. Never mind that teams of psychologists and designers have been brought in to create an environment that would prevent anybody from focussing. Never mind that K simply doesn’t want to focus, that she has never shown the slightest interest in focussing. Never mind that I’m not her headmaster. No, I acknowledge none of it – I just hop around after her barking the word ‘focus’, like a broken monkey. More

Los Circuitos

In Practice, Production on February 12, 2014 at 12:01 pm

Los Circuitos

In February, with a messy sky diffusing the dawn light, the horizontals of the beach are toothpaste stripes; the water’s blue is deep and cool and the powder that whips across the surface of the sand makes it flutter brightly. As the liners head out onto the ocean and the whitewater flashes its thousand teeth, the day looks like it tastes of mint.

I turn left, not right as I usually do, so instead of making my way through the long grasses of the bird sanctuary, I walk south along this very last bit of Spain’s Atlantic coast, towards the island. The morning is bright and blustery. The winds were strong overnight and the little square where the promenade widens out is an apocalyptic scene; see-saws and rowing machines poke out of the sand like relics of a former time.

The beachside bar that overcharges us for wine whenever we’re absent-minded enough to end up there won’t be overcharging anyone tonight – the makeshift roof of corrugated iron that covers its terrace has collapsed. A new chiringuito, not yet built but present in the form of the steel girders that have been driven deep into the sand to support it, sits next to the causeway. Its customers will enjoy enviable views – of the island itself, and the lighthouse and the Tangier coastline – and I imagine they’ll pay for them in pricey wine, but for anyone who chooses not to be one of its customers, it will be a carbuncle. More

El Invierno

In Plenary, Practice on January 27, 2014 at 10:02 am

El Invierno

The sky has cleared after more than a week of rain and relative darkness: a wet cold that drenches the bones and dampens the socks in their drawers, a lack of light that dulls the wit, relieving everything of the fine lines and sharp edges that the play of brightness and shadow make to define and clarify the world – the contrasts that make comparison possible, the perception of difference, of change, or whatever you want to call it. The variations. The variegations. The building blocks of thought and speech, of language itself.

With Morocco’s black coast cloaked in mizzle and the cloud-capped hills hidden from view, the mind’s eye – bored and restless – turns toward that other landscape, the interior, only to be disappointed. The grey soup has seeped through the skull – it’s as murky, sodden and slow in there as it is everywhere else. There’s a kind of sensory deprivation, a shutting down broken only by fitful fragments – undirected flashes of memory that slither and trouble.

Two nights ago, though, on the coast road, the details of the dark night gleamed. The windows and streetlamps of Ceuta were crisp on the horizon, the pinpoints of Tangier port twinkling close and crystal clear. The red lights of the turbines that turn on African soil were a winking reflection of their counterparts on this side of the Strait, blades reinvigorated and rotating wildly.

There was a brightness to the high visibility More

La Resaca

In Practice on December 16, 2013 at 10:02 am

La Resaca

“You’re a genius.”

My first words of the day. K has just handed me a second can of isotonic-whatever-it-is and informed me she still has a little bottle of water in her bag, and some ibuprofen in the car. The woman is a genius.

My head – or what remains of it – falls back on the pillow. It does strike me as a little odd that she would choose such a moment to tickle my feet, but then I realise she’s putting my socks on. That’s good; I wasn’t going to get around to it anytime soon. While I’m being dressed, the images start flooding in; the first of them provide me with my bearings. I’m in Gibraltar.

No wait, I’m in La Linea, across the border, but I was in Gibraltar. I remember waiting at the runway after dark while a Monarch jet landed, more or less silent in the air as it slipped in from the east, but roaring on the tarmac when it touched down right in front of us and deployed its flaps. A little more waiting while it trundled back into view and towards the terminal…

…K is putting my underpants on. I have neither the energy nor the necessary synaptic functionality to feel ashamed of myself. I am, however, able to feel a lot of pain, somewhere behind my eyes. I wonder what could have caused it. Could it have been the Domaine Patrick Mauvy 2012, a Sauvignon Blanc from the Loire valley? It was certainly fruity, I’ll give it that, and successfully avoided that ‘furniture polish’ thing that Sauvignon’s so often don’t, but apart from that it seemed innocuous enough… More

Los Septiembres

In Practice, Production on September 13, 2013 at 8:04 am

Los Septiembres

For protection from the brutal winds that blast the hills around Tarifa, the little homesteads that stud the slopes are invariably planted with something to surround them and take the brunt – some tall, bamboo-like grasses or a bank of prickly pear cactus. This evening these peripheries glow golden in the setting sun and so does the surrounding country as it descends from the high road to the shore below. I look down on it all from the bus window.

On the African coast Jebel Musa, Hercules’ southern pillar, peeks out from the murk of a marine layer and a few paltry tufts of cloud drift across the summit. Over Spanish soil the clouds are just as small and disparate but dirtier, full of rain. Above all that the sky is the tired blue of an ageing day. A lone vulture circles on this side of the strait – side to side and up and down through all the elements of the view, owning all of them. As it banks the sun catches its wings.

September light.

I’m on the bus because I’m back at work after a long and humid summer, but for all the mundane humdrummery of another working year, it does deliver this daily gift – the descent into the little pueblo that sits at Europe’s southernmost point, warmly lit by a yawning, westbound sun.

The winding mountain road straightens out as it slides toward the town and the vistas open up: the gleaming, endless Atlantic to my right, the Strait and Mediterranean to my left, Morocco dead ahead More

El Gastor

In Practice, Production on September 4, 2013 at 10:36 am

El Gastor

“You’d have a shit life,” says K, leafing through one of those magazines of hers in a deck chair out by the kidney-shaped pool, “without me.”

Strong words, but I believe she has me on this one. I give the proposition a moment’s thought, just in case, but no – I’ve got nothing. Still, I like to give as good as I get and after a brief period of reflection I manage to deliver a retort I think I can live with.

“We’re going to need more wine.”

“We have two bottles,” she says, eyes on the page.

“We have one bottle.” It’s exhilarating to be a step ahead of her. “I used some for the chicken.”

She looks up.

“You used a whole bottle of wine for your chicken?”

I shrug, lacking a magazine of my own to hide behind.

“That’s coq-au-vin, I’m afraid.”

She returns to her portfolio of cranky, hungry young women teetering on heels in what I assume are circus costumes.

You’re a coq-au-vin, I’m afraid.”

I pick up my book. That’s as maybe, I think to myself, but we are going to need more wine. More

Los Picos

In Plenary, Practice on August 28, 2013 at 12:22 pm

Los Picos

It isn’t the views that make me nervous. We awoke this morning to mist and now we’ve driven up into it on one of the winding highroads that wend their way through the Picos. The mist is grey and wet. So is the road. No, it’s the invisibility of the valley, far below the roadside on my left, that induces vertigo. It’s cold too – we’re nearing the sixteen-hundred metre mark and the sunless gloom is chilly. I’m preparing myself for heartbreak; I’ve been waiting for this hike for many months but it’s really about the views. Apart from the obvious danger of trying it in these conditions, it would be pointless.

I haven’t brought a jacket and it’s wet out there. I curse myself and my breathtaking stupidity. We’re not quite at the point of giving up and turning around, although I’ve suggested it a couple of times, clinging instead to the hope that the summer sun will start to burn the cloud off by late morning. When we finally reach the little right-hand turn we’ve been looking for, no such luck. K is trying to shake me out of my black mood and suggests we descend to the next village for a coffee to give the weather some more time to improve.

It illustrates a striking oddity of mountain weather that when we get to the village – a ten minute drive  – it is sunny, bright and warm. We are encouraged and sit with our coffee for half an hour before heading back up. Still no luck – we drive right back into the murk and park the car at the end of the unmarked little road. The beginning of the route is also unmarked so we have no idea where to go. More

La Garganta

In Practice on August 13, 2013 at 11:52 am

La Garganta

We walk the Cares gorge, beginning at its upper reach in Cain where nobody smiles and landlords tell you that you can’t use the wifi, even when it says “Wifi” on the outside of their bar. Oh, they’ll confirm that they have it – but it isn’t for you. Where your own landlord tells you that you can’t check in because check-in time is noon (this at eleven fifty, in the middle of nowhere). Seriously, people of Cain – cheer.the.fuck.up. I’m left wondering what the hell happened here, that they should be like this.

The weather falls well short of optimal – a grey and drizzly day that necessitates my horribly ineffective Primark rain jacket and a poncho from the gift shop for K. I finally renounce my long-standing anti-extendable hiking stick stance and buy myself an extendable hiking stick. We set off.

It very quickly becomes apparent that, despite what has been a very irritating morning – the smell of burning rubber from Polly’s brake pads, annoying news on Gibraltar/Spain relations, rain, Cain – this is going to be one hell of a walk. The river Cares has gouged out this gorge between the central and western massifs of the Picos de Europa; the mountains themselves are dizzyingly tall masses of solid rock on such a scale as to have me wondering if my eyes are deceiving me. In some places the gorge is a mile deep.

Starting at this end, the path – which was originally blasted out of the rock to facilitate maintenance of the canal that feeds More

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