Colours and tastes of Andalucia

Years ago I was sitting in a jazzbar with a friend, enjoying a live band and chatting away as we finished our meal. On the spur of the moment I ordered a glass of port to round off the evening. The taste was a mix of sultanas and a hint of chocolate and extremely smooth. As I exclaimed over the flavour and urged my friend to taste it, I noted the name on my phone and decided that I had to have a bottle of my own. So began a quest that lasted years. That phone died and was replaced, but the name stuck in my mind. Bar staff were questioned, bottleshops explored, bottleshop staff asked, friends of friends who knew someone put out a word and time passed. It seemed as if it was unattainable. Then one day in a bottleshop across the road from my home at the time, there it was. Despite the gasp-worthy price tag I pulled it off the shelf and took it home. It was slowly savoured, after a nice meal or over a good book.

Then came the time when we were to move overseas and we threw a party, leaving our accumulated bottle selection on the bar. My port was nestled at the back, out of sight, but as the night and drinking wore on it was uncovered and someone assumed it was wine and, well, let’s not dwell on that bit.
Having moved to a new country my search continued, checking the back shelves in the government owned monopoly bottleshops and the menus in bars. It began a habit more than anything else and not a sight was seen.

Which brings us to an early afternoon in Ronda, a couple of hours north-west of Málaga in Spain. Lunch was finished and we had begun our slow wander back to the bus station. We stopped in a tourist shop and found a lovely bowl, decorated with bright red hues and dark grapes that now sits as a contrast to the whites and creams of our Swedish apartment. My partner also wanted a souvenir of the bottle variety, so we investigated a little shop selling wines, cheeses and delicacies. As I glanced around, admiring the local reds, I saw it. A bottle of Alvear Pedro Ximinex Dulce Viejo 1927.

My precious

My precious

It’s now up on the shelf nestled between champagnes, wines and port from all around the world. It seems obvious now that I’d find it in Spain – perhaps if I’d thought of that I’d have visited sooner.

Still aglow from my discovery we crossed the bridge to the new town, dodging tourists, cars, cyclists and horse drawn carriages. We had enough time to sit and bask on the pagoda overlooking the valley and canyon as the guitarist played Spanish melodies behind us. Finally we left, glancing one last time at the view, as he struck up Recuerdos de la Alhambra. It had been the first thing I hear when we reached the platform, so it was fitting that it would play for us as we left for the bus, a sort of goodbye from the amazing views, sun and flowers of Ronda.

Goodbye Ronda

Goodbye Ronda

Back in Málaga we rested for a while at the apartment and planned our final night. After a few sips of wine, we headed out for dinner and finally settled on a place specialising in paella. We continued the night on the terrace of the apartment, finishing off the last of the wine as we looked out over the city.

The amphitheatre and fortress at night

The amphitheatre and fortress at night

The next morning we packed, tidied and cleaned, leaving the apartment in as close to the condition we’d found it in as possible. Then we said goodbye to the lovely little place and wandered town with our suitcases, using up our final hours with slowly perusing shops and windows, and seeing the amphitheatre and fortress for the last time. Down at the harbour we found a seat in the sun and finished off the fruit, chatting, napping and making notes for this blog.
Then the time came for the bus, and we said goodbye to the gardens, horses, sunlight, bustle and citrus-scented streets of Málaga.

Colours of Spain

Colours of Spain

I hope we can return someday, to snack on fresh fish at El Palo, gaze out over the Mediterranean from Gibralfaro and finish off a bottle of local Rioja over a table full of tapas.

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Beaches and almond blossoms

Last week’s post left us on a sunlit wall on Gibralfaro gazing out over the Mediterranean, sipping local red. I’ll let you pause and absorb that feeling, from wherever you are. Take as long as you need.

Ready? Ok, on with the journey.

A gull guarding Gibralfaro

A gull guarding Gibralfaro

Leaving a tip for the waitress and the comfortable wall behind, we descended the hill, winding down the twisting path that seemed quite a lot easier this time around. Our next stop was a place we had spotted from the fortress – El Palo. A lady at the tourist office recommended it as a beach that was more for locals and well worth a visit, so we hopped on what we hoped was the right bus and headed off along the coast. At what seemed a good stop we jumped off and tried to spot the sea. Between houses and across roads we caught glimpses, until finally a path by a dry riverbed lead us to our destination. On either side of us stretched seemingly endless boulevards of palms, shaded paths, sandy beaches and stalls selling local delicacies.

El Palo

El Palo

We wandered for a while, trekking across the sand to the shore and feeling the chilly water, being investigated in turn by small dogs, considering which beach side stall to stop at for a bite and taking photos. We wended along the beach and boulevards until the sun began to sink, and then turned around to make our way back. As we went most of the stalls were closing, the ashes in the firepit-boats cooling and the stereos turned off. There were last drinks at a few more permanent restaurants, but we decided to take our chances in the big city instead.

Back in town we did a little bit of shopping. A search of a bookstore managed to uncover exactly no English-Spanish phrasebooks and a grocery store produced exactly as much wine, cheese, ham, fruit and bread as we would need for a quick Mediterranean breakfast the next morning. It seemed as though even something as domestic as taking groceries home was an adventure of sorts in a city like Málaga, as we found out as we walked along beside the dried river bed. The Guadalmedina was empty of water when we were there, but full of people rollerblading, practicing badminton, skateboarding and walking the dog. A sort of below ground, open air leisure centre filled the space between the roads and under bridges, which seemed a pretty sensible use of a river that’s dry for most of the year. Close to the apartment we found a crowd who were gathered around for a match, and judging by the cheers and stacks of beer bottle it was a regular and competitive game. On each side of a volleyball net 3 men headbutted, thumped and shouldered a ball, trying to keep it off the ground. We watched for a while, admiring their skill and speed, and wondering what they must be like on a soccer field.

Guadelmedina in the morning

Guadelmedina in the morning

After relaxing for a little while at the apartment and planning the next day, we went out onto the street to find dinner. We decided to try the restaurant recommended by Plane-man and our host, which we’d located during our earlier explorations. We found it, took a table and spent a while drinking wine and eating. By the time we left I was tipsy and we’d decided not to follow all recommendations in future, especially when they were at touristy locations. As we would need to be up early the next morning we called it a night and, in my case at least, wobbled back to the apartment.

The next day dawned clear and sunny, and after a quick breakfast of fresh bread, salami and cheese, we went out in search of the bus station. After a bit of a fuss we found it, bought tickets and got on the bus with a few minutes to spare. As we drove out of town, the apartment blocks gave way to fields, scattered villas and far off hills. We passed through a few small towns warming in the morning light, and vast spreads of lemon trees full of fruit. Soon these were replaced by olive groves that seemed to stretch on forever, all in neat rows. Given the history of the area, we wondered how long farms like those had been there, and mused on the lifespan of olive trees. The road led us gradually upwards until we reached a built-up town and the bus suddenly pulled into a garage and stopped. It seemed we had arrived. Out on the street were groups of tourists, all headed in one direction, and only having a vague idea of where to go, we followed.
We passed shops, more tourists and some locals, and then the road ended at a small bullring. According to the brochures it was the oldest bullring in Spain, though we didn’t get a chance to have a look at the inside. Next to it was a small fenced off garden with a bull statue, and tied to the fence was a horse dressed up in tassels and decorations. After watching for a little while I realised that it stuck it’s front left leg out whenever a person stepped close, and my suspicions were confirmed by a man dressed up in a similar way sitting watching in the shade. A few tourists stopped for photos and to pat the horse, who obediently stuck it’s leg out and then waited patiently for the next visitor.

A view with a Spanish guitarist

A view with a Spanish guitarist

Beyond the horse and the ring was another garden, which slightly blocked our view of a small pagoda where a man was playing guitar. And beyond the pagoda was a view. A platform stood out from a cliff, a few hundred metres high and surrounded by a distant ring of hills. If we peered around to the left we could make out a bit of the canyon that made this town, Ronda, so famous. We stood there for a while, taking photos and soaking in the scenery and the sun, and listening to the guitarist playing Recuerdos de la Alhambra, the the occasional bah of sheep or snatches of singing from the valley below. It was one of those perfect moments that even crowds of tourists, selfie-sticks and worries about tomorrow couldn’t tarnish.

A hill of almond blossoms

A hill of almond blossoms

From the platform we followed the crowds around to the canyon, and saw the bridge for the first time. If you haven’t seen pictures of the New bridge at Ronda imagine a narrow, steep canyon between two halves of a town and then shove in an immense bridge a bit like an aqueduct. Or look at the photos coming up soon. We crossed the bridge and took a selfie on the other side, with terraced houses and hills behind us, and then continued on to the old part of town. I’d made out a path along the hill and guessed that there might be a viewing spot, so we wandered till we found it and then descended under the shade of almond trees in full bloom. Rather than go all the way down and risk having to then come all the way back up again, we stopped halfway and found a good vantage point for photos. The bridge was even more dramatic from here, and the steep walls of the canyon and the sheer size of everything began to make me feel a little vertiginous.

Puente Nuevo

Puente Nuevo

We then climbed back up again, hunger and thirst making us a bit more energetic and went in search of food. It was eventually found at a restaurant down a side street in the old town, which served us delicious tapas, a burger and wine, which we ate contentedly as the sun moved slowly overhead. Soon we would have to head back the way we’d come to get a bus back to Málaga, but not just yet, not when there is one more glass of wine and dessert on the way.

(Photos 2, 4 and 6 by JG31)

Sunshine in Málaga

A few months ago, staring out of the window at the dark skies and considering the possibility of the sun ever returning to us, my partner and I decided that we had to get away. Just for a few days, long enough to soak in the sun a little and get a taste of Spring. Last year we visited Rome, as a combined birthday present and escape to the sun, and this year for the same reasons we returned to the Mediterranean, and a country that neither of us had never visited.

It was my partner who decided on Málaga, a place that I’d never really thought that much about, and which conjured up images of dusty industrial parks and scrubby bush land (for those not familiar with the exciting industrial suburbs of Western Australia, consider yourself lucky). I have always had an interest in Spain, and so happily agreed.

We left on Friday night, amid a crowd of grey-haired explorers who seemed to be regulars. The man in the seat next to me on the plane over there had been 12 times already, and owned a house in a town just outside of Málaga. Once he realised that I was willing to listen (or at least not willing to tell him to stop talking) he proceeded to describe the surrounding areas, his house, his ‘lady’, good hiking areas, how much it cost to hire a car, the best places to eat and how long it took to get to Granada. He then showed me photos, mostly himself in front of dramatic landscapes and a pile of maps, pointing out nice villages and landmarks. We eventually landed and he disappeared with a bashful smile, as our fellow passengers did their usual headlong bag-grab-and-dash to the doors. On the tarmac the air was vaguely smokey, and thick with scents we didn’t recognise, a change from the clear air of Sweden. As we were the last arrival for the night it was easy to grab a cab and rumble off to the apartment where we would be staying.
As with our trip to Malmö, we were using Airbnb and again it worked like a charm. Our host met us at the door, showed us around and then left us to unwind. A quick trip up to the terrace revealed a breathtaking view of the city, from the dry river behind us to the walls of Gibralfaro on the hill, lit up in the crisp darkness. Having whet our appetite with the view, we then slept.

Morning over Málaga

Morning over Málaga

The next morning we began with a leisurely search for breakfast through sunny morning streets (just a quick warning; the word sunny may pop up a few times in this post. My excuse is winter and the fact that right now, behind me, sun is shining through the windows. It’s a northern Europe thing). Many places were closed, and when we found a tapas restaurant that we liked the look of with glasses of wine for £1 we popped in for a snack. Unfortunately the lady at the bar seemed unimpressed with our lack of Spanish and so, in a round about way, ignored us so we in turn, in a more direct way, took our custom elsewhere. A glass of fresh orange juice, an expresso and thick bread with cheese later we were over our snubbing and raring to explore the sights.

Málaga cathedral

Málaga cathedral

The first stop was the Roman amphitheatre which sits in the shade of Alcazaba. Just in front of that, visible through a triangle of glass, were the remains of stone basins used to make garum, the famous Roman condiment of rotten fish. I wonder if there was ever a whiff of it during a performance?

The amphitheatre, still in business

The amphitheatre, still in business

We sat on the steps for a little while, contemplating this and basking, and then climbed up into the citadel. The path twisted and turned through gates and arches, narrowing into dark passages and then opening into paths lined with orange trees. As we ascended we had views out over the city and the sea and could hear the loud strains of a Christian rock band playing by the harbour. Near the top we reached a garden overlooking the sea, with channels of water running to a bubbling fountain surrounded by shrubbery and climbing roses on pillars.

A fountain

A fountain

The gardens continued for the next few twisting levels, with pots of rosemary, fountains, channels, oranges and bowers heavy with years of growth. At the top we found the palace, a small maze of cool rooms around two open-air courtyards, one lined with orange trees and the other circling a pool. The crowds limited the sorts of photos that would have summed up the peaceful atmosphere it was trying to project, but it was still lovely and graceful and just the sort of place I would like to have if I had a summer palace in the Mediterranean.

Oranges in Spring

Oranges in Spring

After our leisurely stroll about the palace and citadel, were headed for the heights of Gibralfaro. It was reached via a winding, steep path up the hill, past eucalyptus trees and other tourists panting and taking off their winter layers. From a vantage point we had a view of the bull fighting ring, which filled me with a mix of distaste and historically relate interest, resembling as it did the ancient Roman equivalents. The sandy arenas and animal battles of the Empire haven’t quite disappeared yet.

Bull ring

Bull ring

By the time we reached the top we were feeling a little bit puffed and thirsty, so after a look around the walls and over them at the surrounding city and more distant hills, we found a place to rest and refresh ourselves. It was a small cafe, which we suspected of touristy expense and tastelessness, but which turned out to be the perfect place for a midafternoon break. We took wine and tapas, a bit of juice and an icecream and finally olives and more wine, while sitting in the sun and gazing out over the sea. The taste of herbs, warmth of the sun and sharpness of the wine blurred into a sort of bliss as we sat and did nothing much, and felt rather as though we had slipped into some sort of paradise.

View of the harbour

View of the harbour

And here is where I will leave this part of our Spanish journey, sitting in the sun and feeling the relaxation of a holiday seeping into our bones.

Songs of snow and the future

The first time I saw Sofia Jannok was at an open air concert as part of the Kulturkalas, a city-wide festival of music, crafts and dance, which I wrote about in a previous post. It was a wonderful performance, though I was too far back from the stage to be able to hear what she was saying. I am glad that I got to hear her recently, as what she has to say it definitely worth hearing.

Sofia Jannok singing

Sofia Jannok singing

Last month she did a free concert at the Värld Kultur Museet (for those of you with no Swedish, yes, it does mean what you think) and my partner, myself, some friends and a mass of others piled onto the steps in the main hall to listen to her. By the time she stepped onto the stage, we were all crammed together, leg to leg, babies on laps and in some cases knees to chins, which somehow suited the intimate feel of the concert. She was dressed quite casually, with a large round brooch festooned with polished discs on her chest, that I had seen once at home when my mum brought out the family jewellry and since then in traditional stores. A chap with a guitar played with her, and aside from a duet, there were only two on the stage. Despite the simplicity, there were many threads to her songs, and many layers beneath them.

Sofia was born in Sweden, and identifies herself as Sami, the indigenous inhabitants of the European countries that hug the arctic circle. They are known as reindeer herders who wander the snowy steppes, continuing the nomadic way of life of their ancestors. From what Sofia said this is basically true, but there is more to it than that, and those of us who live in cities are ignoring the deeper layers to our own detriment. I couldn’t understand the words she sang, but they conjured for me the sound of snow falling, longing, the past and a hope for the future. Sami lands are being plundered for oil and the culture is gradually disappearing. She spoke of watching the movie Avatar and crying the whole time, as the story echoed what was happening to her own culture and lands.

Sofia Jannok mid-yoik

Sofia Jannok mid-yoik

She was passionate, hopeful, angry and had a lovely voice, which I hope I will get to hear again.

A few weeks later we decided to end our weekend with music at a cafe we are fond of. We didn’t know much about what we would expect, other than the somewhat vague hints of Finland, traditional music and the extremely broad ‘world music’ and that the artist was called Aino Kurki. What we saw as we sat down and settled in was a large wooden instrument resting on a stand, somewhere between a harp and a guitar, or the insides of a grand piano. I very much wanted to touch it or try plinging on the strings, but managed to hold myself back. Before long a young woman stepped up behind the instrument and began to play. The music was a mix of blues, samba and something that I’ve never heard and so can’t put a name to it. We sat mesmerised as she played, her hands finding the correct strings with seemingly inhuman precision, knowing against the boards for a beat and constantly twiddling the tuners.

Aino with her kantele

Aino with her kantele

The instrument, Aino explained between songs, was a kantele. Kanteles originated in Finland, and have been around for thousands of years. My research while writing this post revealed that there is a mention of a kantele in the Kalevala, and ancient saga from Finland. After hearing about it’s history, I wanted to play with it even more and even own one myself, half for the fun of trying to make music and half for the pleasure of owning something beautiful and historical.

After the show, she sold CDs (one of which I bought) and spoke to the audience. It seemed as though half of the Finns of Göteborg had gathered in the cafe, listening intently and clapping politely, and talking to her in their clipped and unfamiliar language. I wished that my grandmother had taught me some words of her native language, if only just hello or goodbye, though I suppose I could have asked. Maybe I will when I see her next.
If nothing else it serves as a reminder that we shouldn’t let the past disappear, and there are those who can carry it into the future.

(Photos of Sofia Jannok from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/jg31/, photo of Aino Kurki from: http://ainokurki.com)