Gibraltar : an oddity

Gibraltar is a little old-fashioned English seaside town, somehow separated from the motherland, floated across the sea and stuck onto the edge of Spain. Just a big rock really, but home to the world’s most patriotic British.


Gibraltar is aflutter with Union Jacks, the streets packed with pubs, newsagents, turf accountants, Marks and Spencer and Topshop.

Spain wants Gibraltar back, but the British have been here since 1704 and they are determined to hang on. The empire lives on.
Apart from the odd spectacle of watching people being enthusiastically British on a tiny speck of Spain, the other sight to behold are the Barbary apes, the only wild monkeys in Europe. They too are not native. They are thought to have arrived from Africa several centuries ago.


Cartagena : victim of war

Four hours spent exploring the historic centre of Cartagena and its Roman amphitheatre is the same amount of time the inhabitants endured one of the most vicious air attacks of the Spanish Civil War. Republican Cartagena was the last city to surrender to Franco’s Nationalists. To finally ensure submission, and as punishment, Franco’s fascist allies, Germany and Italy, bombed the city to ruins. The Spanish Civil War is known as the first conflict to see large scale bombing of civilians. In Cartagena, hospitals, schools and churches were not spared. Today, central boulevards have been rejuvenated and an attractive waterfront welcomes passengers such as us from Seadream 1

But behind the elegant facade of Cartagena are street after street of derelict buildings and wasteland.

Government money from Madrid has helped open museums, including one based in old tunnels and caves used to shelter more than 5000 citizens from air attacks. This photo shows children emerging after a bombing raid.

Cartagena is trying to become a modern city, but the past remains very much top of mind. The new sculptures which now grace the main pedestrian boulevard pay tribute to the thousands of Republican fighters from Cartagena who died. Many disappeared and their families still do not know what became of them. Mass war graves are still being discovered in the area between Cartagena and Malaga.


Barcelona : cava heaven

This gigantic winery just outside the city is the biggest producer of sparkling wine in the world. They make 60 million bottles of cava each year, of which 45,000 are sold in New Zealand. A drop in the ocean, but we’re working on it.


The informative Jep showed us the vineyard (350ha of Freixenet vines and they buy in grapes from 1000 growers).


Then Jep poured eight different varieties of cava for tasting. There was an elegant silver spittoon which only Jep used. Waste not want not, I say.image

Spain Again : Battle of the Patios

The wonderful old city of Cordoba, in inland Andalucia, southern Spain, has an annual Patio Festival. It’s on my wishlist; it’s held each May; I’m going one day. cordoba 1

Private homes, grand and humble, open their courtyards to the public to show off flowers, water features, ceramics and stone mosaics. Built centuries ago to provide a cooling oasis in the midst of the hot, dry, sweltering summers, they are hidden behind high walls and doors. Sometimes a peek of the outside world is offered through wrought iron grilles. cordoba 4


But come May, the doors are opened and the citizens of Cordoba compete to find the best patio in town. From tiny apartment terraces with hanging baskets, to cloistered convent courtyards with giant pomegranate trees, competition is fierce. And it is all overlaid with the scent of jasmine and orange blossom. cordoba 10

I was in Cordoba recently, but sadly not in May. A consolation prize was to visit Viana Palace, also known as the Patio Museum. A dozen interconnecting courtyards show an ancient way of life within a grand Cordoba mansion built in the 14th century. These photos are all of the Viana patios, off-season. Imagine it in May!cordoba 7cordoba 8

A lane in Spain

El Senor

El Senor

I was pedalling happily along when around the corner came this upright Spanish gentleman on his fine white stead. The lane in Spain is actually an old railway track, and I was in the saddle lagging well behind everyone else in a ‘leisure cycling’ group. Meeting El Senor was a highlight. His mount wasn’t exactly one of the famous Spanish white stallions, but he was a proud and courteous equestrian. Here’s a newspaper story I wrote about my cycling experience in Andalucia:

Dang, it’s hot. And it’s doggone dusty. Unless I’m imagining it, there’s a buzzard circling lazily above. And it would be no surprise to spot Clint Eastwood hi-tailing it along the dry gulch down below.

Pardon the language, but I feel like I’m on the set of a Spaghetti Western. Around the corner, a Hollywood director could be bellowing directions to his cowboy actors, and I keep an eye out for a war party of Indians on the skyline.

Absolutely real, not imagined, is the little hacienda and farmyard nestling into the valley. Stunted trees cling to craggy hills, and a skinny goat pays scant attention to a turista on a bicycle.

via verde hacienda

I’m cycling the Via Verde de la Sierra in Andalucia, southern Spain. These via verde -green roads – are popular across Europe. They are cycling, walking and horse-riding tracks on the paths of abandoned railway lines just like our Otago Rail Trail. The tracks of this one were ripped up to make weapons during the Spanish Civil War. A couple of railway stations are now cafes and another is an information centre at a colony of rare Griffon vultures (one of which is almost certainly the ‘buzzard’ I saw flying overhead).

via verde tunnel

The Otago Rail Trail is four times longer – 150km versus 36km –and has many charms, but you won’t come around a bend and meet a Spanish gentleman on a high-stepping white mule (or is it a donkey?). El senor seems not at all startled, and elegantly raises his hand in salute to the wobbly cyclist. His mount is as fine a mule/donkey as you will ever see. Perhaps it owes its blood line to Andalucian white stallions, the famous ‘dancing horses’ of the Spanish riding schools? Not far from here, at Jerez de la Frontera, is the Royal Andalucian School of Equestrian Art, a dressage establishment comparable to the Spanish Riding School of Vienna.

There are more four-legged steeds than bicycles the day I ride the via verde. On an uphill climb, I am forced off the track by a stampede of horses, perhaps 20 of them galloping helter-skelter downhill with an ungainly brown mule bringing up the rear. As I pull self and bike from the shelter of a trail-side ditch, a bunch of mares and foals careers by, followed by two grim-faced Spanish farmers in a tiny white van which just fits on the track. They are heading to the valley, I assume, for greener, or at least less barren, pastures. The rain hasn’t fallen on these Spanish plains all summer. The olive crop is poor and olive oil prices are expected to increase by 50 percent.

via verde ruins

My heat-induced imaginings of Western movies are not that far from the mark, by the way. While the Via Verde is not exactly the Badlands, this region is home to many Hollywood movies. The Good The Bad and The Ugly and A Fistful of Dollars were filmed here. Sets from both are now tourist attractions in the Tabernas Desert near the city of Almeria.

Still wearing my Wild West hat, I skedaddle to the Museo del Bandoleros, the Museum of the Bandits, in the beautiful city of Ronda. The bandoleros were active well into the 20th century, operating from their robbers’ dens in the hills around Ronda. They are now folklore figures symbolizing the struggles of the poor against the all-powerful landowners. Ronda is a must-see city in Andalucia, along with the tourist triangle of Seville, Cordoba and Grenada, and within pedaling distance of my ‘leisure cycling’ base in Montecorto.

Leisure cyclists are so-called to differentiate us from the ultra-fit European racers who charge up and down the Sierra Nieves mountains while we meander through cork forests, olive groves, vineyards and villages, stopping to taste the local wine, oil and cheese.

Montecorto is one of the White Villages, not as famous as Grazalema or Zahara de la Sierra, but nevertheless a classic pueblos blancos with sugar-cube houses tumbling down a hillside.

The 400 inhabitants speak little English. Learning enough Spanish to order dos café con leche, two coffees, un cerveza, a beer, and un clara if you fancy a shandy, is a good start. Everything seems to cost one euro. A simple meal is five euro, and a glass of basic rioja (red wine) is, of course, one euro. An up-market rioja might set you back two euros. Montecorto is over the mountains and a world away from the overdeveloped coastal strip where holidaying Brits compete for beach and bar space with Eastern European package tourists. You won’t see Clint Eastwood in Malaga or Torremolinos, but on the Via Verde de la Sierra, nothing is beyond the realms of imagination.


montecorto church(By the way, this trip was organised through  based at Montecorto. Truthful travel announcement: I paid for it myself so no-one is asking me to recommend them.  But I do.)