Tales of the Lecrin Valley

A personal view of life in an andalusian village.

Well, the new website is up and running. If anyone has any comments or spots my inevitable typos, please let me know. Having striven to get the site up, Carmen and I are leaving Saleres and the Lecrin Valley for a couple of weeks in Morocco. It will be interesting to see the Moorish roots of the valley and compare architecture and customs. Will write when I get back.

Ron

Another great day out at the romeria in Restabal. All the usual features, music, horses, wagons, and singing and dancing. There was unlimited beer and a two metre paella for those who had bought a three euro ticket, and this came with a memorial ceramic tumbler. What good value. eh? This year we set up our table as Asturianos and had cider and Asturian food aplenty, to recompense for the years we have freeloaded off the villagers. It was a geat success and a good time was had by all. It reminds me of a romeria here in 2007 about which I wrote at the time. Here it is:-

View of Restabla from Calvario

View of Restabal from Calvario

The Romería Cerro del Calvario, May 2007

This weekend we were free, so went off to to the beach on Saturday to expose ourselves to the sun for the first time this year and which as usual left me burned. Then on Sunday we went to Restábal, to attend the Romería de la Virgen del Cerro. This takes place on a hill above the village, aptly named Calvario, and from where there are stunning views of the valley and the Sierra Nevada beyond.

The horses resting and their riders at the bar

The horses resting and their riders at the bar

Atop the hill is a chapel which is the centrepiece of the festival and to the front of the chapel the romería committee had set up a bar and a stage for the attendant artistes. This year there were memorative ceramic cups to be bought for a mere 3 euros, which were then filled from the bar at no cost. To the side was a two-metre paella pan which dispensed paella to the assembled company. (and prices haven´t gone up since!!!)

The day starts with a procession of the Virgen through the streets of the village and then up the very steep hill of Calvario to the chapel. Being a romería, there are always plenty of horses around and the occasional carriage, bedecked with flowers and coloured ribbons. The villagers all bring tables, chairs and umbrellas and set up in family groups around the chapel, very much like a beach party.

Carmen and I arrived a little late and found that all the ceramic cups had been sold and that the paella crew had run out of plates so we could neither eat or drink. This is quite usual, so we mingled and chatted until resupplies appeared. We eventually received our paella and a beer and sat on the wall overlooking the village. Suddenly a gust of wind upended my plastic plate and deposited paella on my chest, staining my shirt nicely. A great start to the afternoon.

Dressed to kill

Dressed to kill

After that, Carmen and I walked about and joined various groups for jamon and queso, tortilla and olives. I had previously decided to stick to drinking beer as the weather was a bit warm, and the day progressed swimmingly. Juan and his son from Albuñuelas turned up mounted on a pair of beautiful Andalucian greys, having ridden across the hills to pay their respects to the Virgen, and whilst the music played the riders guided the horses through a dance routine, before riding up to the door of the chapel and having the horses bow to the Virgen.

Then we found ourselves sitting at the table of Agustin the plumber, who proudly brought out the dreaded mosto in a small goatskin bag. Anyone who has read my tales will know the perils of mosto and as usual, as soon as I had brought the goatskin up to my face and squirted the wine into my mouth from the required arms-length with only the slightest spillage on my shirt to add to the paella, all the surrounding tables insisted that I must try their mosto as it was far better than Agustin´s. And I was once again on the slippery downhill slope of village hospitality and mosto arbitration. We had a few with Agustin, and a few more with other friends and then the band came back from lunch and started to play. There were a few modern renderings and then the old favourite, the Paso Doble. I have no idea why, but I can´t resist this rather staid dance, so Carmen and I got up to strut our stuff with half the village. The group obviously realised that this was a good way to keep people dancing, so they carried on the same tune for about a quarter of an hour, the dust rising from the ground up to our waists. Finally it ended and exhausted, Carmen and I moved to one side of the dance floor and chatted to even more friends, our backs to the dancers.

Let the feast begin

Let the feast begin

I vaguely remember the sound of the Conga being played in the background and suddenly a pair of hands smacked down on my sunburned shoulders and the voice of the Alcalde came over my shoulder,
“Ron! Bailamos!”
One can´t, in the villages, go against the wishes of the Alcalde and Juan Antonio was well enough oiled by now to have made objection pointless even if he hadn´t been the Alcalde. The pain in my shoulders was excruciating and Juan Antonio, enjoying himself immensely, and with a grip like a Scotsman on a five-pound note, was now alternately burying his thumbs into the muscles of my shoulders, first left then right, indicating which way I should go, steering me like a rotavator. We careened around Calvary until at last the music stopped and my shoulders were reprieved. (I am writing this a few days later and the skin has peeled nicely above the bruises Juan Antonio left.)

More chatting and then I noticed that the music had changed to flamenco, and good soul-wrenching flamenco at that. I looked around to see who was singing and there was Agustin, a man with many talents. The guitarist was a bar owner from another village, and as soon as they had begun, his wife strode out into the centre of the dance floor and started to dance very passable flamenco indeed. It all seemed so right, the setting, the mood, the company, and soon she was swirling and stamping, her shoes and calves covered in pink dust from the earth of the dance floor. Entrancing. The local baker took the next spot, singing a mournful gypsy song, and between them they continued to keep us enthralled for a half-hour or so.

By now the sun was dipping below the chapel and things began to wind down. A delightful day, marred only by the certainty that the mosto was waiting in the wings to make me suffer the following day. Which it did, but not as much as it made the Alcalde suffer, according to Carmen who had a meeting with him first thing the next morning.

And as usual, I can´t for the life of me remember who had the best mosto, if there is such a thing!

I suppose that as I am writing about the Valle de Lecrín I ought to describe it. It lies at the western tip of the Sierra Nevada mountains in Andalucia, Southern Spain. The Sierra Nevada are big mountains, going up to eleven and a half thousand feet, the tops covered in snow from November to May. I can see the snow from my study window and when the sun is shining on it, it’s breathtaking. They say that on a good day you can see Africa from the top of the highest peaks. If seeing Africa is a good day for you.  The valley is mid-way between the city of Granada and the Mediterranean. Our village, Saleres, is at the bottom of the valley, but nevertheless at a height of about two thousand feet. It has a marvellous micro-climate that normally allows the almond blossom in January to remain untouched by frosts. As long as the blossom comes out after the January moon has waned.

Entrance to Saleres

Entrance to Saleres

There is a river that runs through the village, called the Rio Santo. It’s only small but it runs year-round which is quite rare in the south of Spain. This keeps the valley irrigated and beautifully lush and green. None of the locals know it’s called the Rio Santo but name it after the next highest village in the valley, from whence it comes. This was quite confusing when I first arrived here and at first I thought there were three rivers. It starts in the hills above Albuñuelas, runs through the Albuñuelas gorge, down through Saleres and on to Restábal. From there it empties into the large and very deep Béznar reservoir at the bottom of the valley. The people who live in Albuñuelas call it ‘El Rio,’ the people living in Saleres call it ‘El Rio Albuñuelas,’ and the people in Restábal call it ‘El Rio Saleres.’ Nobody lives in the reservoir. There is a footpath that runs beside the river, which should be avoided after a night on the beer unless you are an inveterate traveller, as it goes east to Athens in one direction and west to Gibraltar and on into Africa in the other. There are few roads and the locals use mules to transport fruit from the groves to the village whence it is picked up by truck and taken to one of the various cooperatives.

The village of Saleres The village of Saleres in the heart of the Lecrin Valley

The valley is steeped in history and ruins. There is a Roman villa and baths, Moorish forts and lookout posts, and later Mozarab churches and houses. My old house is one of these, the deeds merely stating that the house is ‘more than a century old.’ The walls are a metre thick and made of mud. I didn’t know this until Paco the builder tried to put an adjoining door between my house and Carmen’s and had to call in a team of miners to finish the job. It’s cool in summer and warm in winter which is just why it was built like that.

The valley is very steep-sided so the Moors terraced the slopes to enable the planting of orange, lemon, almond and olive trees to supply the nearby city of Granada. The main acequias, or water channels, follow the high contours around the top of the valley and can be tapped into to flood-irrigate the terraces below. To do this, you level your terrace and build a foot-high retaining dike around it, then you dig an acequia from the main acequia to your piece of land. When the you are ready, you open your sluice, the water runs along your acequia and onto your terrace until it is flooded to the height of your retaining dike. Then the sluice is closed and the water gradually seeps into the soil. When the terraces are flooded at dusk, the orange-red reflections of the sunset in the still water is stunning. Like rice paddies with attitude.

The 16th century in Saleres

The 16th century church in Saleres

 

Carmen has inherited a piece of land in the most inhospitable part of the valley and I am dreading the time when she wants me to terrace and build an acequia down to it. I have only been there twice, and the second time I fell down an overgrown acequia and slid down to the terrace below, smashing my ear against a rock and damaging a couple of ribs. I returned to Madrid the following day with a blue-black ear and was incapable of lifting my arm to write on the blackboard without moaning pitifully, a source of great amusement to my students.

Saleres has about three hundred souls. There were more, but the earthquake of a hundred or so years ago sent half the village down the valley side and into the Rio Albuñueñas. The bottom of our garden is the fault-line which separates the half of the village which disappeared from the half which remained. Carmen’s sister is a Mining Engineer and she bought some topographical maps of the area to us last year when she came to stay. When she visits she sleeps with a crucifix clutched to her breast. I am currently devising a delicately balanced gadget which will fall with a great noise if anything untoward occurs. There are literally dozens of fault-lines running through the valley, but no-one in living memory admits to having so much as felt an earth tremor, although there was one last month. Just in case, Carmen’s house is built using new construction techniques, but in the old village style. The foundations are a half-metre of steel reinforced concrete, the basement is a bunker, and if there is another earthquake we will simply slide or roll down the valley side and come to rest in the Rio Albuñuelas, hopefully the right way up.

The people of Saleres are delightful in the main, polite, helpful and generous to a fault with their time and possessions. A pleasure to know. They are a little idiosyncratic, but then, who of us isn’t? Everybody is related, if not brother and sister, then at least a ‘primo,’ or cousin. Everyone knows everyone else, their business, their foibles and their strong points and this can be a great advantage to a foreigner. You only have to get on well with one person in the village and the rest are bound by family honour to be your friend too. Unless the friend you have has enemies. In this case you are honour-bound to take part in any blood-letting vendetta which may be on-going; or at least not to be too friendly with the enemy and his family if you see them. Most people have forgotten what started the vendettas in the first place, but it is normally a mule, a woman or water rights. I prefer to play the slightly idiotically grinning ‘guiri,’ or foreigner, and play hale-fellow-well-met to all and sundry, including dogs and cats. This always puts you in well with somebody. Saleres is full of characters, nearly all on the old side, as the youngsters have left to work in the cities of Granada or Barcelona.

Looking across Saleres to Restabal to Beznar Lake

Looking across Saleres to Restabal and Beznar Lake

If you ask the mothers of the ones who live in Barcelona what their children do for a living, they invariably reply ‘Business People,’ which means they are either taxi-drivers or entrepreneurs of one kind or another. These prodigals only come to the valley once a year, during the entire month of August, the only month when there is no work to be done in the campo, save perhaps the early harvesting of almonds. This means plenty of parties and is a good time to be in the valley, but a bad time to be waiting for a taxi in Barcelona. All the villagers from Barcelona drive BMW’s or Mercedes’, and the only way to tell the taxi-drivers from the entrepreneurs is by noting the colour of their limousines. The entrepreneurs vehicles aren’t painted a dull yellow and don’t have a sign on the roof saying ‘TAXI.’

The ones who now live in Granada are teachers, doctors or nurses, with a couple of agronomists and agricultural engineers thrown in. They drive sensible estate cars and come and stay at the parental home every weekend and work in the groves to help their parents, many of whom are well beyond retirement age. On Sunday evening they fill their cars to the brim with oranges and sell them in Granada’s shops for a bit of cash on the side. I often smile when every Friday evening one of the teachers from Granada arrives in his Renault Espace, dressed in a sober suit and looking suitably serious and teacher-like. He parks in the Church Square and walks smartly into his parents house. Half an hour later you see him smiling broadly, dressed in traditional village working clothes, riding his father’s mule up the track into the campo. I have taken some photos of him for his pupils and will blackmail him at some time in the future.

It is a bit of a paradox that the village school which gave a such good education to these young professionals is now closed as there are not enough children to justify it being there. It has now merged with the schools in Melegís and Restábal, the old school building currently being used as an adult education centre and a library. Many of the oldsters, having suffered from the neglect of Andalucia under Franco, are now going to evening classes to learn to read and write. There are also handicraft lessons, always over-subscribed by the older women. They have a natural ability to ‘make-and-mend,’ having lived that way for well over half a century, and some of the artefacts they produce would sell well in any handicraft fair. On a high point, some of the people from Barcelona and Granada are now restoring the family homes in the village with an eye to retirement away from the city, which bodes well for the village, and even better for Paco and Jose-Luis the builders.

There are no shops in Saleres. but there is a small market once a week in the bottom square in front of the olive mill. When it is not market day, the village is serviced by dozens of white-van-men who drive into the square at all hours, their horns screaming like banshees. The local women can distinguish one horn from another, but that skill has defeated me until now, as I’m deaf in one ear and have difficulty distinguishing where the sound is coming from, let alone who is making it. Anything we need, Ascension Two gets for us and we pay her later. There are three different bakers who each come three times a day; the egg-woman, the frozen-food man, the red-meat butcher man, the chicken-meat-man and just about anyone else who has ideas of selling anything. Last week there was a man selling sofas and chairs, with a deafening loudspeaker atop his Transit van proclaiming to all that their luck was in and that the Chair Man had arrived.

Until last year there used to be the open-backed rubbish-truck, which was a sight and smell to behold. It would arrive daily at six-thirty in the afternoon, the only vehicle with a timetable. The driver would jump out and run upwind to avoid the smell and the villagers would hold their noses and throw their rubbish over the sides and into the back of the truck. It was a good time to meet people, to find out how they were and what they were throwing away. Nowadays there are psychologists who go through peoples rubbish to find out what kind of personality they have, but this has been going on in Saleres for years. You have to remember to throw any really good rubbish away privately, or disguise it in a black plastic bag, or people will think you are getting above yourself. The truck has now been replaced by the council with large plastic rubbish containers and a modern truck comes and empties them. At least I suppose it does, as on reflection I can’t ever remember seeing it, but the containers are often empty so it must do. In the bottom square there are three pristine containers for glass, paper and old clothes. This is an attempt by the Council to ‘Go Green,’ but no-one in the villages throws anything valuable or re-usable away so they stand sadly neglected where they were originally positioned.

The villagers all grow their own vegetables in the campo, as the alluvial soil from the Sierra Nevada is capable of supporting anything. The wild asparagus that Antonio Two occasionally brings us, when mixed with scrambled eggs from Ascension One’s chickens, is a dish worthy of a king. I forgot to mention that many villagers have a room on the ground floor of their houses for breeding chickens, another for the mule and an extensive bodega for mosto-making and the like.

The village bar is in the main square, the door hidden behind an old striped curtain. Only men go in there and it intimidates even an ex-bar-room-brawler like me. It’s the most basic bar I’ve ever been in, a room with a waist-high wall running down the middle to separate the bartender from the customers. These customers are at least two hundred years old, always wear trousers, boots, shirt, pullover and jacket, no matter what the temperature outside; look as if they’ve never left the bar and speak an argot which I have given up trying to understand. I have never seen any of them in the village or in the campo, and am not sure who they are. Perhaps they’re the ghosts of drinkers past?

Due to an event of about five years ago I’m accepted there. When I say accepted, I mean that with the aid of sign language they serve me miniscule bottles of beer, and I’m hoping that in another few years they will talk to me and give me what I order and not what they decide I want. If the bar is shut and you need a drink you can always knock on the door of the barman’s wife and she will open up for you. She also has the keys to the church if you wish to visit that out of hours, so you can get a job lot, so to speak. A pragmatic approach by the cura, I think.

Their tapas are diabolical.

The event of five years ago. I was in Saleres for a fortnight in August, working on my house. It was wickedly hot at around 40 degrees and I had spent all day on the terrace in the sun, building a pergola. When I’d finished I went to the fridge for a well-earned beer or two and found that I’d earned them all already, so decided to go to the bar for my reward. My request for a cerveza was dutifully ignored, the barman and the customers looking at each other and shrugging shoulders at the sweaty red foreign intruder wearing shorts and a T-shirt. I pointed to a bottle of beer on the bar and the barman got me one out of the fridge. The bottle was only twenty-five centilitres, less than half a pint, and I’d been working for eight hours. I drank straight from the bottle and with the bottle still tilted to my mouth I pointed to the fridge for a second. The barman gave me another which went down in one, two beers in less than thirty seconds. Then I asked for another and had that in a glass, then one for the road and was out of the bar within three minutes. Not unusual in the Nags Head, but in the village the word spread like wildfire.
‘There’s an English borracho, a drunkard living in the village,’ I heard whispered around the streets for the next few days. So I went to Mass the following Sunday, clean shaven and with shirt and tie, and think I was forgiven, but I don’t go to the bar except in the direst emergencies or to frighten visiting friends. I prefer Jose’s bar in Restábal.

My immediate neighbour, Antonio One, worked as a guest-worker in a factory in Germany for most of his adult life, and now enjoys his retirement working in the campo. He is seventy-odd years old, about five feet high, weighs less than eight stone, is always working and laughing and has a grip like a vice. His wife Ascension looked after the land whilst he was away and between them they know everything there is to know about crops and plants. Antonio has problems understanding my Spanish, which is sort-of Castellano, and he only speaks Andaluce, and the Andaluce of the valley at that. When we suffer a communication problem he reverts to German, as he assumes that as I’m not Spanish I speak German. My German is known as soldaten-sprecht, or soldier-speak, which enables me to order up to five beers, to ask directions to the nearest fast-food outlet and to get a taxi back to the barracks, none of which is of much use in a farming valley in deep in southern Spain. But we get on fine, and once I even did what was expected of me.

But I am worried about his concept of time. Having waited three weeks to prune my vine, and having been told that I have to wait ‘until the January moon has waned,’ I’m afraid I doubted his word, checked my diary and found that the moon had waned on 15 January and it is now February. So this weekend when I arrived in Saleres, there was the moon defiantly waxing itself in full view of me and him, but still he adheres to his ruling. Either he is stark raving mad and I should get on with the pruning, or he doesn’t know what month it is and I should advise him in some way that January is past. The trouble is that nobody else in the village has pruned their vines either, and I’m beginning to wonder if they are on the same calendar as me. But paranoia is a wonderful thing, as they say. Or is Saleres the Spanish translation of Brigadoon and do I pass through some kind of a time-warp somewhere on my journey there?

It would explain those customers in the bar.

What follows are a series of stories about incidents that have happened in the valley and seemed worth reporting. None of the names have been changed to protect the innocent as there are no innocents!!!! All events reflect my understanding of said events and are (mostly) at first hand.