Olive and Yellow

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The farm is carpeted with yellow flowers. There are such a lot of them, creating such a visual treat, I feel reasonably guilty not knowing what they are. I don’t suppose it matters too much, but I’ll ask someone. Spring is phenomenal for wildflowers, but there’s some spectacle or other all year round. It got to about 24 degrees yesterday, with a navy blue sky, but going into the shade – specifically the house – was like diving into a freshwater pool.

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The Future is Olive

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This is an olive farm among olive farms in the very region that produces more olive oil than anywhere else in the world. As a matter of fact, much of that ‘Italian’ virgin oil comes from right here although you might need a barcode scanner or a magnifying glass to see that.

For most of the year the olive trees are basically iconic scenery, dotted lines across the bald straw coloured hillsides, left to their own devices. From now through to January they are the centre of attention.

About a month ago during one of our over the fence evening chats Fernando suggested I might want to start pruning my trees which looked like thick shrubs. He demonstrated and made it look pretty easy. Obviously when he handed me the clippers I couldn’t work out which shoot started where or cut through them even with two hands on the clippers. Just cut off anything that’s growing vertically, he said. That’s how you end up with the big open space at the centre that lets light and heat in over the winter. I now know I have 300 and something trees, and that some of them are easier to get up than down from. I’m pretty handy with a saw, my hands have changed shape – fat paddles – and are covered in callouses; my ring will be on for life.

The trees however look quite good, and when I go past an olivar that’s been neglected, my sawing and clipping hand gives a twitch. Maybe if journalism dries up this is a new career path.

On the 20th of October, two weeks ahead of schedule because of the spring drought, the conveyor belts at Nuestra Señora del Rosario co-operative olive press started rolling. Farmers have been showing up in their pick-ups to tip sacks of olives through the grates and a couple of weeks on the place now smells of squashed olives again, and will do through to January. You can drop off as little as kilo or a lorryload; price depends on quality. I often come here, not selling olives unfortunately, (according to Andalucian law this year’s crop belongs to the farmer that owned the land and tended them up to May last year) but spending cash. The co-op has a store where you can buy shovel handles, chicken wire, and cement mix, as well as cheese, water, and washing-up liquid, which is convenient. Sometimes I browse in the overalls section. Not Selfridges, but it will have to suffice.

Meanwhile Fernando and his cousin Fernando are in his fields higher up the hill bashing branches with a stick so the olives collect in the nets they’ve spread right around the base of the tree. He has around 850 trees to go. Arturo and Rosi and the in-laws are doing the same in the fields below. With the tock tock tock of wood from all directions it sounds like a jousting tournament. Not that I’ve been to a jousting tournament. Anyway, jousting, goat bells, cockerels, a lot of birds (gone wild after the rain), and barking dogs.

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Rally Driving

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We had three days of rain in mid-September which previewed what would happen when the rain really started, i.e. the barn would leak, wind would drive water under the doors, the bathroom would be a lake, and the track dissolve. I watched the track dissolve with horror because the farm is pretty isolated. For instance it’s about 90 minutes to the main road, three hours walk to Zahara, so the track is pretty useful.

About 300 metres of it is on the property, curving down at a 45 degree angle from the house at the top to the place where a gate should be. The pictures don’t tell the story. It’s basically a mix of clay and rock with gullies and olive fields to either side. Beyond the non gate there is another gravelly drop, a tight bend (clay) over a culvert, a long stretch on a slant with tall, tough vegetation down the middle and big holes for the wheels to slot into, a wide mud bog bend with a deep red mud under water chaser, and eventually a blind summit made of sharp rocks, some deep, broken, concrete drainage channels, and the all clear of the schoolhouse and junction. As drive up you see nothing but sky; as you drive down bits come off the numberplate. This is partly why the farm was cheap.

After this there is a tarmac road, popular with tractors and vans pulling trailers of hunting dogs, which winds, and winds, and rolls over the mountains several miles to the road to Seville. To be honest it would all be a lot easier in something other than a right-hand drive Peugeot GTI but we can’t afford anything higher off the ground that actually starts.

Obviously I’d been well-happy to be a passenger-navigator, and wouldn’t have chosen to get back behind the wheel as the skies opened to unleash several months of rain, but for the fact Dave went to London and needed a lift to the airport in Jerez. I didn’t much like driving on the wrong side on roundabouts, bends, motorway slip roads at first. I spent the journey back struggling to convert miles to kilometres in order to avoid adding to our growing collection of speeding fines, and trying to recall what he’d said about avoiding getting stuck on the track. Was it roll it in neutral? Or put it in second and step on it? I don’t know. I got halfway up pretty fast sideways and then, feeling that was probably good enough, left the car under a tree where it sunk into the soil.

After hiking the rest of the way (with 10 litres of water and 2 litres of wine), I collected wood, lit a fire, and sat down with a drink, at which point a cat, Bob, trotted by briskly with a mouse dangling from his mouth –the first he’s ever caught. A phobia about cats torturing mice is part of the reason I wasn’t keen to get two. I made efforts to herd him and his captive prey outside but he wasn’t having any of it, given the rain. The life and death struggle continued at length behind the settee, from the bathroom, the bedroom, the stairs . . . audible even over the tedious Se Llama Copla, a singing competition always on the one channel we get when we get a channel at all.  Afterwards I went in and dealt with the aftermath, swearing and whimpering as I gathered the mashed up remains and padded into the dark in my slippers to send them flying over the wall. But killing stuff, that’s what the cats are here for I suppose. Yes. Well done Bob.

A day of challenges though, and the chances are it’s not the last mouse or the last rain I’m going to see.

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C15s and Gatitos with Ribbons

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A friend, Ismael, was going to sell us a car, a Citroen C15, the Andalucian Land Rover. The advantage the C15 has over a Land Rover is that they are worth a lot less and usually available. They are so basic they can be patched up by anyone with some mechanical know-how and a spanner, and therefore keep going for decades – which means there are always ancient, battered, patched up, workhorses for sale in the sierras. Unfortunately Ismael couldn’t get his to start, so we went round to his garden to see it.

When he opened the door in order to demonstrate how there were no front seats and the window would need to be extricated from the door frame there was loud mewing from a big cat and about eight kittens `- gatitos – occupying the seat well. We didn’t get the car (although it did later make it as far as the farm where it stayed for a while before being towed back), but we did get a couple of the kittens.

I’d been hankering after a troubled refuge dog – once we’d finished the fencing, after I’d done the next batch of work trips – and I wasn’t keen on the idea of putting further complications in the way, but after being told with depressing regularity that without cats the farm would be inundated with mice once the cold weather starts, I vaguely relented. Ismael brought two round on the basis that if I didn’t like the look of them he’d take them straight back home again.

Inevitably that didn’t happen.  The minute I saw the cat which hereafter will be called ‘Bob’, I liked him a lot, so that was one. And the she-devil cat, henceforth to be known as ‘Joan’, shot off into the unsavoury depths of a wood store, where any efforts to retrieve her by groping around blindly in the dark were met with a deep hiss and a swipe of claw. Bob dashed in and hid behind her in the murk, and it began to rain. Satisfied with his work, Ismael left with a cheery wave. In the small hours of the morning the kittens, lured by string and a newspaper ball, switched location to a dark area beneath the settee where they huddled in miserable silence while we fretted about food, milk, litter trays, what they wanted, etc.

They are brother and sister, as were their parents, which doesn’t seem quite right, but anyway, now fully confident and well happy with things generally (see before and after photos above). Bob is dark, slow and soft, and Joan, white, sharp and fast. Neither show any inclination to go mousing, and actually, because of their size and the amount of owl activity these nights, they’re still kept inside rather than thrown out to prowl the various hollows and sheds from whence the rustling currently emanates. Our neighbours at the egg farm have a lot of peckish hunting dogs, and Fernando says if his own dogs  – now down from four to three after Johnny the pitbull assassinated Bruto the donkey-sized mastin over Gorda the labrador the other morning–  see the cats they’ll get them.

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A Level Walking Trail

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The weather is about to change and the pressure is on to make the most of the sun while it lasts, hence I decide to Go for a Walk. There are no end of trails hairpin bending through the Sierra de Cadiz; from my door I can walk for hours in any direction. I’ll probably have to once the rains start and the gullies in the track get more entrenched and the car’s sump and wheels get shredded again.

However, as well as the unmarked open rambles along rivers and lanes, and the bonafide marked trails through the Sierra de Grazalema National Park, there’s a 36km Greenway nearby, a Via Verde, that follows the course of a disused railway from nearby Puerto Serrano to Olvera.

There are more than 90 Via Verdes across Spain covering 1,900 km of vehicle-free – and relatively flat – cycling, riding, and walking routes. All are well-signposted and maintained thanks to an  annual injection of cash, and they vary in length from a couple of kilometres to 190km.

The Puerto Serrano – Olvera route is the only Via Verde in Cádiz, and quite possibly the only trail without a climb so steep it makes you want to heave. I could have done it on a bike (I don’t have one, you can rent them), but I walked, and stopped to admire the views and take pictures along the way. As a result, I got to the not-quite-halfway point, La Estación de Coripe, too late to continue and reach Olvera before dark. What a shame.

In truth, the old station house, now an immaculate bar, and restaurant with yellow trim surrounded by crags and forest and birdsong seemed like a good place to stop. I had one nice cold beer, then another, then some rollitos de calabacín, queso y jamón. Maria and Eugenio took over the place a year ago, and the combination of excellent home-cooking and convivial hosting has made it a popular spot. There are six spotless and calm rooms, half looking out across the valley, half up to the sierra. If I hadn’t been invited to a birthday party the following day, I’d have maybe stayed and set off early the following morning to complete the route. The current plan is to wait until a bright crisp December Sunday and start out from Olvera in order to get here in time for a restorative lunch.

Obviously not everyone walks or cycles to this point; there’s road access to this and six other points along the way. Walkers be warned, though: it may be flat and easy but it’s still pretty isolated and you can walk a far while without seeing another soul even on a sunny day (unless it’s national via verde day, the second Sunday in May) so go prepared. Also, if you have a tunnel phobia, forget it: there are many, the longest (a cool treat on this, a hot day) just under 1km. Nice views over the Guadalete river, and across olivars and asparagus fields, as well as the craggy sierra. I also got to take a long, hard look at a gem of a house perched above the Via Verde which we once considered buying but, surprise, surprise, couldn’t afford.

To be honest, the views from the farm are just as beautiful, and the walks I can take more varied., but anyone with older or younger companions looking for a level trail should take advantage of this one. The Estación de Puerto Serrano, signposted to the left as you enter the village is the foundation HQ for the Vía Verde de la Sierra. Like Coripe and Olvera, it is also a bar-restaurant with accommodation. There’s information about the route, history and wildlife (birds) there and at www.fundacionviaverdedelasierra.com.

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October Wild Swimming

zaharalakejetty

The Sierra de Cadiz is a veritable lake district. This, at the foot of Zahara, is an embalse, a manmade lake, but – aside from the dam at one end and some trees sticking up at the shoreline – you wouldn’t know it; it’s wild and natural, with just two jetties but plenty of natural beaches along its 30km circumference.

We’re having an Indian summer – or a membrillo (quince) summer as it’s known here. I’ve been the only person in the lake in August, and today – almost November – when I stopped for a swim on the way back from shopping for jamon, cucumbers, and milk, I unsurprisingly had it all to myself again as I swam out and floated on my back enjoying the view of olive fields and beauteous Zahara. The temperature today was around 28, and the water is about as warm as it’s going to be this year.

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