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.

 

 

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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.

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.

Tangerine dreams

During a recent trip back to London for work, I became trapped in a wine bar with a friend by an army of yummy mummies. It was mid afternoon and perhaps we should have anticipated that a roomy, women-friendly venue in an affluent part of Clapham would be a favourite for green tea and cake-fuelled debates about the relative merits of different brands of organic baby foods. But as increasing numbers of well-dressed young women manouvered their designer baby tanks through the double doors and assembled next to and around our comfy sofa, we began to share a mild sense of discomfort, soon to be displaced by incredulity.

Having failed to suppress our giggles over “she’s a little bit special about yogurt”, we lost it when one yummy asked another: “have you tried George with tangerines and if so, do you peel the skin off every segment for him?”. Yes, and yes.

We received benign, no, patronising smiles in response to our sniggers. Time for us to clamber over the all-terrain baby mobility systems and return to our cynical sanity.

It’s not that I’ve been away long enough to forget about the posh buggy clubs that operate in certain parts of the Capital (in our little bit of north London, baby jogging and “walkie talkie” groups on Hampstead Heath are what the new, or not so new, mothers who don’t need to work do to pass the time). But it’s so far removed, and offensively so in these straitened times, from the day-to-day reality of parenting small children here in Òrgiva, or indeed in any working class community, anywhere.

I was reminded of gorgeous George and his perfectly peeled tangerines as I sat with my daughter on our decking a few days later. Off sick from school, she had decided that sitting in the sun and attempting to relieve our loaded trees of their burden of fruit might help clear her aching head. “Vitamin C mum, vitamin C.”

tangerines

I sampled one, winced at the hit of acidity and nearly choked on the pips. I don’t have the knack of spitting out the stones that my daughter acquired as a baby and has finely honed over the years. Not for her the peeled segment. Call social services.