Like a bullitt in the Sierra Nevada

In the famous car chase scene of the 1968 classic movie Bullitt, Steve McQueen’s Mustang passes the same green VW Beetle at least four times while he chases the black Dodge. This was of course a continuity error, with the chase scenes being intercut and reused. But on a recent trip to enjoy the Sierra Nevada en verano (in summer), just 1.5 hours drive from Órgiva, we became increasingly convinced that the footage of our own trip was somehow being replayed.

I first noticed the 4×4 as I stood on the balcony of our hotel room shortly after checking in. Glancing up the road to where our car was parked, I saw the smart white vehicle with an unusual red number plate pulling in behind it. But then the driver seemed to change their mind, swinging out suddenly and racing down the road into town.

It should be said that Europe’s most southerly ski resort village of Pradollano, high above Granada, does not have a problem with heavy traffic or a lack of parking at this time of year. Our decision to spend a couple of nights at well over 2,000 metres above sea level was down to cheap deals at one of the few hotels open while the ski station markets itself as a mountain biking and hiking centre, along with a need for cooler temperatures. The advertising is working to an extent, but staff working at restaurants dotted around the almost deserted plaza were clearly relieved to have our business.

Moments after seeing the white car, it returns and repeats its actions, almost parking up before quickly gliding away. Pradollano’s main road comes in from the mountain, goes through the town, out again onto the mountain road and circles back in. Even a formula 1 Ferrari at top speed on the streets of Monaco could not complete a lap that fast.

Puzzled, I stay on the balcony. I call my daughter over, and wait. And there it is again, the shiny 4×4 with the red plates, moving in behind our car, then off again. I share my bewilderment, but somehow she hasn’t seen the vehicle, and I begin to doubt my eyes. Am I being bugged by a metaphorical green Beetle?

Next morning, same story. While I stay on the balcony I spot the car several times. It dawns on me that there must be more than one. It stops briefly directly across the road and I note a number on its rear flank. Does it have a driver? Are they watching me?

Finally, sitting at a restaurant as the sun begins to set, we all see the car. In fact we see two together, and the nagging fear that I’ve somehow become the Prisoner’s Number Six, imprisoned in a mysterious village, trapped by balloon-like “rovers” that prevent escape, dissipates.

Quite why there should be two, or maybe more, Pradollanoidentical cars continually driving around this empty pueblo remained a puzzle. We think we spotted a Lexus logo, but the red plates, the numbers on the sides and the lack of anything indicating a model were odd.

As we headed home down the mountain we passed a convoy of UK-plated “camouflaged” cars and lorries, the black and white funky swirls disguising shapes and brands. The trucks were huge, and each carried or towed enclosed steel containers. And finally it dawns on us. The Sierra Nevada in summer, when roads are empty and tourists are few, provides the perfect base for automakers to carry out secretive prototype high altitude testing. Several unidentifiable, future models would have been under wraps in those lorry containers.

Or perwhite carhaps they were on their way to pick up a fleet of enigmatic white 4x4s, whose activities, it turned out, were rather more spied upon (by us) than spying.

 

 

Shellibrating local wildlife

Dog walking is increasingly a struggle. One of our dogs, a neurotic, part podenco (Spanish greyhound-type sighthound), part mastin (calm, giant Spanish agricultural beast), has developed a thing about stagnant ponds. While we’ve had a good amount of rain here in recent weeks, isolated pools of water in the Alpujarras are not a common sight. But for a mutt that got the sighthound, but not the sensible livestock defender bit of the genes, oh, they are everywhere.

The dog emerges from her long sojourns covered in stinking black slime. We try alternative walks, but murky waters are still found. We’re puzzled by the attraction. Perhaps it is ducks, or frogs.

And then the begrimed, evil-smelling creature appears from across an apparently dry, grassy field. It’s agitated: white-tipped tail thrashing, long legs digging, and something in its mouth. Lizards? Grasshoppers? It is the season for all sorts of critters to be lurking in clumps of grass and small bushes. The other dog joins it, doesn’t understand the urgency, runs back to me, and stares, vacantly.

And then the hunting-one decides to run with her find. It’s a stone, perhaps. I demand she drops it and, fearfully (for there are some fairly weirdy creatures here), approach it.

It’s a turtle. A European pond turtle to be exact. On its back. And now a long way from water.

While I’ve had contact with many scoundrels over the years, I so wished that my daughter, a lover of all things reptilian, was with me to touch this one. Tentatively I turned the shell over and waited to discover if the creature was still alive.

It was. And, standing alone in that field, I was extremely reticent about picking it up. Spanish tortugas might be poison spitting, disease carrying, and reportable vermin. But then it looked at me.

So I embarked on the trek back across the field, turtle in hand, throwing stones at the canines and sliding into the side of the standing, muddy mess of a terrapin environment. Not so much a good deed, but an action to try to make better the damaging impact of domestic animals on these fragile ecosystems.

You say peseta…

When our elderly Spanish neighbour who, like many native Órgivians, lives in town but keeps land and animals in the campo (and thinks foreigners are loco for wanting to live in old stone animal barns) presented himself at the house of friends with a message for us – that a goatherd with a couple of hundred beasts had offered 12.5 million pesetas for his property, but we could have it if we paid more, we initially fell about laughing, speculating about how many pesetas could be scraped out of the ancient nooks and crannies of our old cortijo.

Spain joined the eurozone in 1999 – one of the first-wave of countries to do so – fourteen years after it joined the European Union. The euro became the official currency on 1 January 2002 and the transitional dual circulation period, when both currencies had legal tender status but the peseta only as “book money” that had to be converted to euros, ended three months later.

It’s not surprising that for our neighbour’s generation, or even the goatherd’s, the euro has never become the acceptable currency. Indeed the Spanish central bank revealed a couple of years ago that some €1.7bn worth of pesetas was still held by Spaniards. Perhaps those brought up in rural communities such as ours are, even now, using them to make black economy transactions. Though if they are they can’t exchange them for euros except with the central bank.

And of course many Spanish blame “el crisis” – Spain’s economic “great recession” – on joining the euro because of the housing bubble that followed and which burst so spectacularly. The collapse of the Spanish banks revealed irresponsible and predatory subprime mortgage lending – still a major cause of misery and suicide as people lose their homes but, unlike in the UK, continue to have to pay off the debt.

Those who still think in pesetas are also pretty canny with their mental currency converters. They know what the conversion rate was fixed at in 1999. The rest of us are grateful that online versions still exist that don’t simply declare the peseta to be obsolete. For when we considered the implications of living next door to 200 smelly cabras, along with their dogs, our neighbour’s offer suddenly became a lot less funny.

Cabras No

Our sentiment exactly

 

Our water-man confirmed the story. The goatherd intended to build a nave (a warehouse, in the industrial sense of the Spanish word) to house his livestock. The animals would also have the run of the land. “Muy mal” he said, holding his nose and suggesting that we might want to pay the money.

We suddenly felt as though we had woken in a gigantic pool of blood, 200 goat heads placed in our bed as we slept. Our neighbour may not look much like a mafia boss, but it increasingly looked like an offer we could not refuse.

Rapid consultation with other near residents, some of whom have goats overnighting close to them, though not as close as this would be, further convinced us to scupper the goatherd’s plans. Cute as they are, the smell of goats is a taste few people acquire, and what with the horse flies, noise and other delights that would accompany a large herd in small confinement, we might as well abandon our home.

Within hours we learn that our neighbour has rejected the goatherd’s initial offer, it’s been upped by another million pesetas and is about to be accepted. Another consultation with the currency converter reveals he’s pushing close to the official asking price (in euros), albeit a substantially reduced one since the property went on the market two years ago.

We wondered, cynically, having converted pesetas into pounds and it sounding much better, if we might try it in another long-redundant, more over-valued currency to get an even better result. You say peseta, we say Italian lira, perhaps.

And so we find ourselves about to be the owners of nearly 1500 m2 of land with two huge avocado trees, olives, oranges, nisperos (medlar fruit), three chickens, some scabby cats, a trailer (oh what luck, we were planning to buy one of them), a three-roomed casita with no bathroom or kitchen, and an out-building. But even the wise heads of Orgiva’s legal advice and translation service, who helped us in dealing with our neighbour’s determined daughters and the legal paperwork, agreed we had no option.

There are of course bright sides to this predicament. We have learned from this whirlwind process that in Spain, vendors who receive an offer for a rural property which they are inclined to accept are obliged to offer it to their immediate neighbour, especially if the land was once part of the same catastral (piece of land), as ours was. So at the very least, we know our rights have been respected.

And then there’s the strategic benefit of owning land adjacent to ours, given the options it opens up (and closes down), increased water rights at a more sensible time of day than we currently enjoy (see Zeds (or lack of them) and the art of pool maintenance), and finally being shot of a not so easy vecino.

Our daughter, who plays the video strategy game Civilisation, commented that it was a bit like a move where a city state is invaded for tactical reasons to stop someone else having it, and by doing so yet another piece of land is blocked off which could have value to opponents.

And judging from a call we received from the owners of a holiday home the other side of the would-be goat ranch, we might yet be considered local heroes.

Zeds (or lack of them) and the art of pool maintenance

After weeks of trying to de-green our small swimming pool and to stop it being a holiday haven for the neighbours’ noisy Iberian water frogs by adding municipal swimming pool levels of chlorine, defeat was admitted, the water was emptied onto a grateful garden and the pool surface cleaned and painted.

But now for the challenging bit – refilling it. Agua (water) is a more precious natural resource than gold in Las Alpujarras and the mysteries of acquiring the acequia water which flows past our cortijo at this time of year, as the mountain snow melts, without upsetting our vecinos (neighbours), are only just becoming clear.

The community-operated, Moorish system of irrigation follows strict rules. There is a rota which dictates when residents of our (and every) road can open the sluice gates and divert the water on to their land, and for how long. While it is possible to take agua at other times, it is necessary to understand the somewhat complicated circumstances in which this can be done.

We’ve always known that our turn comes at some ungodly hour of a Friday morning, which is why we’ve never attempted to find out exactly when. But after being gently chastised by our friendly water-man, he who has responsibility for managing the acequia in our road, when we thought we were safe to sneak a quick hour, we resigned ourselves to respecting, not playing the system.

And so it was that at midnight mi esposo (husband) set off in search of our water. On discovering that el vacino across the road was watering his land it was clear that a conversation was necessary. Armed with home-made cinnamon whirls, a smile and far too few appropriate Spanish verbs for the task, esposo made his approach.

Sharing sweet pastries in an orange and olive grove in the early hours of the morning with a Spanish smallholder is perhaps one of the more eccentric acts it has been necessary to perform to extract information about how things work here. But it was effective. Our friendly neighbour explained that our turn for the water was after his, at 2am, for three hours. He rattled our gates to let us know when he’d finished and even insisted on helping with the water diversion.

By 5am our garden was watered, our pool was full, we’d introduced a new type of baked product to the area, and it was time for bed.

The acequia flow is already diminished as the benefits of the heavy rains of early spring in our valley, accompanied by significant snowfall to a relatively low level on the slopes above us, begin to dry up. It won’t be long before watering the garden and filling the pool requires payment. While taking water in the small hours is part of the way of life for those who have always worked the land here, we are inclined to think that buying an hour of water to use at a civilised time of day fits better with ours.

Unsettled election, unsettled history

Andalucian president Susana Diaz continues to try to govern alone after failing to secure a majority in last month’s regional election, in spite of winning the same number of seats as in 2012. Her Socialist party (PSOE) is eight seats short of what it needs to avoid having to negotiate with other parties to pass every piece of legislation.

Anti-austerity, anti-corruption party Podemos, which secured 15 seats, is hardly coalition material for a ruling party that is following an austerity agenda and has three former ministers suspected of involvement in a billion euro fraud case. And the other newcomer to Spanish politics – the right wing Ciudadanos (Citizens), which won nine seats – has also ruled out a formal alliance, even with the conservative Popular Party (PP), which came second but lost 17 seats.

The Spanish media continues to predict that Podemos could hold the balance of power after the general election in November. But given that the Andalucian vote, especially the collapse in the vote of PP (the party of national government), is seen as a strong gauge of the outcome, it is difficult to envisage what sort of coalition Podemos might be a part of.

Meanwhile, the breakdown of voting in Granada province, and particularly in Las Alpujarras, shines a light on the sides taken in our villages and towns during the Spanish civil war.

The people who work the land here do not consider themselves to be anything other than working class – it is uniquely Spanish anarchism. But the terrible experiences of the civil war are, for many people of the Alpujarras, still painfully recent. Here there are estimated to be as many as 25 mass graves containing the remains of Republican or anarchist villagers who tried to resist Franco’s armed rebels who came up to these mountains from the coast. Towns such as Torvizcon were repeatedly attacked and their inhabitants “disappeared”. Órgiva marked a frontline throughout the war and remains proudly anti-Franco.

With a few exceptions, such as the pristine spa town of Lanjarón which narrowly voted PP – perhaps as much because of the relative wealth of its inhabitants through tourism as that it was Nationalist during the war – this remains a staunchly socialist region. PSOE won the majority of Alpujarran municipalities, with Podemos coming second or third in many. And it is unsurprising that while the United Left (IU), which includes the Communist Party of Spain, lost seven seats in the Andalucian parliament, it had a relatively strong showing in many places here.

Take the tiny pueblo of Cañar, from where our internet signal is beamed. IU achieved 6.8 per cent of the vote – that’s eight people in a village with a population of just a couple of hundred. If only those eight could get their hands on that broadband transmitter…

Blue Monday? Happy Tuesday (it’s another fiesta)

The so-called saddest day of the year was declared to be Monday (19 January) by those organisations which have identified an opportunity for some calculated marketing around the January blues. Whichever Monday it falls on seems to depend on which pseudoscientist is to be believed. But the Spanish have an inevitable cure for being down in the dumps after the festive season. They throw a fiesta in the name of a saint.

Unlike in the UK, where Christmas and new year are distinctly separate events and the fun ends abruptly on new year’s day, the Spanish keep their festivities going until the 6th – Three Kings Day – with processions and presents and much partying on the night of the 5th. Things go a bit quiet after that. But not for long. Here in the Alpujarras, a neighbouring town Torvizcon soon perks up the collective mood with its annual “fire”. It’s a three-day January weekend fiesta celebrating San Antonio Abad, which seems to involve combining the eating of lovingly raised pigs with the burning of red underwear. If there is more to it than this, and there almost certainly is, then lo siento. But my sources may have consumed a little too much of the local “costa” vino to be able to coherently recall the details.

And so to last night. A procession through Órgiva followed by bells and fireworks ringing out across the town and its campo marked the Alpujarran capital’s own Saint’s day.

Saintsebastiane-online-free-putlocker Sebastian (he of the Derek Jarman film Sebastiane, which established Seb as something of a gay icon) entered the Roman army to assist the martyrs and had a brutal time of doing good. Found out, and having initially survived his body being pierced by arrows, he was eventually beaten to death by clubs. He’s buried in Rome, on the Appian Way (where I once ruined a favourite pair of shoes).

As one local put it, San Sebastian deserves a few rockets and bells. And it’s cheap entertainment for a rural and fairly impoverished community which would, no doubt, be aghast at the UK travel companies and their PR firms’ use of dodgy statistics and cod-psychology to convince us that that we need a holiday. I don’t believe in deities, but if the Spanish devotion to and success at living life to the full and enjoying longer, healthier lives than most in Europe has anything to do with their ability to throw a fiesta at the drop of a saint’s name, then buena suerte to them.

Olives, pickers and rowers

Stuck at Granada airport before boarding a three-hour delayed British Airways flight to what was originally London City Airport, but became the somewhat less glamorous “London” Southend (as owned by Eddie Stobart), I reflected that the presence of the Great Britain men’s rowing team among the gloomy passengers provided at least better company than the drunken hen party I had endured on my previous Easyjet trip back to the UK.

Nice lads. Very tall. Very strong. They’d been training at the high altitude pre-performance centre in the Sierra Nevada. I eavesdropped on their stories about Olympic medals won and lost and exchanged brief small talk with the ones who sat around me on the plane. We arrived in the early hours in the wretched Rochford, endured a miserable coach trip back to a freezing cold London City Airport, and I thought little more of the rowers.

Until now. As I make up a pitifully small olive picking team, I so wish I’d got the GB rowers’ numbers.

The annual olive harvest has been going on for a few weeks, but we’ve worked on it with a neighbour for the last three years between Christmas and the New Year. It’s when the olives are at their best and, in theory, when there are people with a bit of time on their hands.

This year, both olives and people are thin on the proverbial ground. It’s biennial, but the additional impact of drought and higher than average Spring temperatures has resulted in a much depleted crop. A grove we worked on last year has nothing at all to offer. Our own tree, which produced 60 kilos of olives last year, struggled to give us one. The price of Spanish extra virgin olive oil has been going up year on year due to shortages, but is predicted to rocket now (how will my north London friends cope?).

Yet there are some trees still dripping with fruit. And so I stand, head, neck and arms painfully straining upwards to reach the precious purple and green treasure, watching others precariously perched on top of ladders, chain saws cutting the highest branches, and I yearn for those men of oars.