Category Archives: Road Trip


guardian cadiz

See the feature I wrote for The Guardian on Cádiz and the Costa de la Luz: where to stay, eat, drink and more: ‘With sunshine pouring down on golden sands, ancient buildings and the sparkling ocean, Spain’s far south-west lives up to its name, the coast of light’. The idea was to suggest good places to visit in order to take advantage of the late summer sun. It’s currently late October and the temperatures are still around 30 degrees. You can read the full article here.

Tagged , , , , ,

Things to do with a Field

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Looking down at the bridge from up here I feel like a resistance fighter. Far from interrupting the view, the bridge and its barely audible traffic of cattle trucks, bikes and old cars, acts as a foil, setting it off. I’d be happy looking at that all day from my house. Of course, there is no house, but as Manolo and Molino point out, all that’s needed is a well, sewerage, electricity, the building . . .  because there is already a road up this mountain, and a flat spot here like a perch. And the plot is so big, sloping all the way down to the foot by the bridge itself, that the chances are, ojalá, building would be permitted.

But I don’t know. Trying to think through the gazillion steps involved in turning this stony olive field into a home is exhausting. (Even climbing up to it is exhausting.) Someone will build here and maybe add an infinity pool. Good luck to them. Slithering back down to the waiting car, I quote Donald Rumsfeld to a baffled Molino: ‘There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.’ I don’t know if Donald really thought through what he was saying, but it’s spot on.

For me, there are too many known unknowns and I suspect an infinite number of unknown unknowns involved in this ‘project’.

Still, I do know a small bit about tackling the known unknowns. Start by inspecting the title deeds or escritura; the land registry document – the nota simple, held at the local town hall or registro; and also the land records at the catastro. All should match up. Anyone seriously interested in buying land should use an independent lawyer to scrutinise the paperwork.

An independent architect should be brought onboard to check the planning regulations and provision of services, or lack of, for the land before you buy. And it is well worth having the architect produce as detailed a pre-plan as possible, and discussing it at the local town hall before making full payment and going beyond the point of no return. Because in order to get a building permit on suelo rustico it is necessary to gather together a crack team and a lot of paperwork, including a Proyecto de Actividad (explaining what the land will be used for), topographical, geological, and environmental studies; a comprehensive planning application drawn up by the architect and stamped by everyone, and to have it all approved by a number of bodies which generally include multiple departments of the Junta de Andalucia, such as MOPU Ministerio de Obras Públicas, Consejería de Obras Publicas y Transportes, Delegación Provincial – Servicio de Ordenación del Territorio y Urbanismo, Confederación Hidrográfica Del Sur- Departamento De Residuos Líquidos, Delegación de Medio Ambiente . . . and so on.

Nothing is guaranteed. But then I guess that is better than building and then being told some years later to un-build. I wouldn’t be too influenced by the old adage ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. That’s all I’m saying.

Tagged , ,

A Lot of Land

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The search for a rural property continues. The province of Cadiz is rural by any measure. It covers about 7,400km2, and only has around 1.18 million people in it. Half of them live in the cities of Cadiz and Jerez de la Frontera and the wider metropolitan area of the Bay of Cadiz. That leaves a smattering of white villages and a vast sparsely populated area divided between rocky mountains and rolling hills. There’s a lot of land and very few houses.

A lot of land. Over the past month or so we have seen a lot of land. The conversation with the neighbours, barmen, estate agents’ runners, and, most recently, our friend Manolo and his sidekick, Juan, all of whom frequently drive us over bumpy tracks to the point where they peter out, and then lead us on foot to a field, is usually this:
‘Where is the house?’
‘You can build one! Because there is a lot of land.’

Sometimes it is this:
‘This house is very small. It’s more like a nave . . . a . . . shed.’
‘But it comes with a lot of land.’

And often, this:
‘Beautiful house, but it’s too expensive.’
‘That’s because it comes with a lot of land.’

There are rules to prevent the subdivision of farm properties and rural estates. The downside for local landowners is they can’t sell off the farmhouse while keeping the fields; if they don’t want to live in it (or can’t afford to fix it), they move out and the roof falls in. And they can’t split the escritura, split an estate into three working farms for their three kids to inherit; the property has to be sold off for each to benefit equally. The disadvantage for potential buyers, is most houses come with more land than is helpful, and that land is valuable. While the house might be a shack, the obligatory big farm add-on bumps up the price. It’s feasible for 80% of the price for a country property to be for a load of olives you didn’t particularly want. However I don’t know anyone, local, from elsewhere in Spain, or abroad, who would want to see this landscape change, so a shack and an olive field it is.
For now, ‘less land, more house’ is the honed mantra. The other day we picked up a friendly old man called Rafa at the edge of Puerto Serrano. After a circuit of the village so he could shout at all his old man mates through the car window, he directed us onto a rutted track we hadn’t spotted before and around several mountains to the foot of a hill, on top of which we could make out a roof. The property had a barbed wire fence around it to keep in the goats that were studying us balefully from the other side of the locked gate. We couldn’t get in, the owner couldn’t be seen, Rafa’s phone wouldn’t work however hard he shook it, and as we headed back down the lonely track back to the village to see if the owner was in the bar, the car ran out of petrol.

To cut a long story short, some time later, we were standing with the owner on the top of the hill admiring the view from the house. Or houses. The ‘more house’ part of ‘more house, less land’ at least had obviously struck a chord. This place had two, facing each other, rather than the scenery, across a concreted area for the tractor. One house was old and beautiful, and held up by support poles, the other was new, ugly and sturdy. The farmer said they’d moved to the village and, although when his kids were younger they’d come up here at weekends, they weren’t interested in sitting around doing nothing anymore, and they didn’t want to farm either. He, himself, was getting too old to keep on working the olives, and he could do with the cash.

It was all completely wrong but bucolic. Rafa stuffed my pockets with bellota acorns (not just for 4-legged pigs), showed me the well, ran a tap to show the miracle of water, and pointed out the boundary (‘from this mountain to that mountain’). I work hard and buying anywhere that doesn’t need to be completely rebuilt is going to swallow up everything I have, but I don’t actually think I deserve someone’s massive olive and goat farm, especially when he’s standing off to one side looking mournful thinking I’m a rich Daily Mail reader. I bet the farmer wishes one of his feckless sons would take it on, move back, and invite him to come up here and sit in the sun pondering life at weekends. I also think climbing the 45 degree scree slope to check on the boundary fence looks like a pain in the arse. And one of the houses would fall down without its poles. But in general, while this was a no for now, I felt we were getting somewhere.

We drove straight through someone’s farmyard on the way back and dropped in on a friend of Rafa’s who happened to be selling the more usual minute house with three and a half hectare view. Miguel could tell straightaway that we’d never be able to afford this little spot of paradise (perhaps from the way we said ‘Oh god, we’ll never be able to afford this little spot of paradise’, and then looked sadly at the pool, and across the orange groves to the river) but gave us some good, rough sherry out of a plastic bottle, and bread with chopped tomato and garlic and his own olive oil, and a bunch of mint to take home instead.

Tagged , , ,

Rare Sighting

I was standing in a river bothering leafcutter ants when I heard the distant slash of a machete.  I waited quietly, and eventually was rewarded with a glimpse of the lesser spotted Fitz, making his way upstream.  Although this is his natural habitat, sightings of this lone male in the wild are rare nowadays.

Discovery of New Ocean!


I am (intermittently) hard at work on a book about people who came to these parts and why, and what they did when they got here. Vasco Núñez de Balboa, a fit and fearless, conniving and bloodthirsty gold thief, is one of my personal favourites. If his name was truncated and modified slightly to Babba, I think he would be better known. But of course it won’t be. Anyway, it’s the anniversary of his Big Day today . . . sort of.

V N de Balboa was born in Extremadura, Spain. (Anyone who has been there might understand the appeal of sailor or New World explorer as a career choice in an old place that is predominately dry and flat). His career didn’t start well (or end well – more of that later), and after some low key exploration, he washed up in Hispaniola where he got into debt. His fortunes changed by a fluke of fate when he hopped aboard a ship bound for San Sebastian, one of Spain’s first colonies, discovered the few remaining survivors half-starved and largely insane (evidence of cannibalism – say no more), transferred them to a new spot they called Santa Maria la Antigua de Darien, in what’s now Panama. He acted as temporary governor until the court-appointed official, Pedro Arias, (‘the cruel’) was sent out to take up his post.

Obviously at this point he had to find some other way of making his name and fortune, and, at the start of September 1513, decided to go inland, and up into the mountains in search of gold, taking with him a mob of leftover settlers and sailors. He didn’t find the gold, but he did find the Pacific Ocean, which, given the limitations of cartography at that point, was quite a surprise.

So Balboa goes down in history as the first European to spot the Pacific, 500 years ago today . . . or maybe tomorrow, or next week. The momentous event is said to have taken place on September 25th by some, and September 26th by others, and in the contemporary account below, on the ‘7th day of the calends of October’.

Regardless of when exactly he did it, he described his adventures in letters to Peter Martyr, Europe’s answer to a press agency. Martyr, the Apostolic Pronotary and Royal Counsellor to the Sovereign Pontiff Leo X, both paraphrased and embellished Balboa’s news in his riveting letter to his master.

We have received letters both from him and from several of his companions,” Martyr informed the Pope, “written in military style, and informing us that he had crossed the mountain-chain dividing our ocean from the hitherto unknown south sea. No letter from Capri concerning Sejanus was ever written in prouder language. I shall only report the events related in that correspondence which are worthy of mention.”

He continues, explaining how Balboa, demoted from the position of governor, determined instead to be the first to find gold: “Vasco Nuñez ill endured inaction, for his is an ardent nature, impatient of repose, and perhaps he feared that another might rob him of the honour of the discovery . . . He summoned around him some veterans of Darien and the majority of those who had come from Hispaniola in the hope of finding gold, thus forming a small troop of a hundred and ninety men, with whom he set out on the calends of September of the past year, 1513.”

Martyr describes how Balboa negotiated the support of a powerful tribal leader, or Cacique, called Poncha, who provided men to guide the Spaniards. Just as well, because the journey was fraught with danger:

“They passed through inaccessible defiles inhabited by ferocious beasts, and they climbed steep mountains . . . Thanks to Poncha’s men and the labours of the bearers, Vasco scaled rugged mountains, crossed several large rivers, either by means of improvised bridges or by throwing beams from one bank to another, and always succeeded in keeping his men in health.”

Those of a sensitive nature should skip this next bits.

“Before reaching the summit of the mountain-chain, the Spaniards traversed the province of Quarequa, of which the ruler, who bears the same name, came to meet them; as is customary in that country, he was armed with bows and arrows, and heavy, two-handed swords of wood. They also carry sticks with burnt points, which they throw with great skill. Quarequa’s reception was haughty and hostile, his disposition being to oppose the advance of such a numerous army. He asked where the Spaniards were going and what they wanted, and in reply to the interpreter’s answer, he responded: “Let them retrace their steps, if they do not wish to be killed to the last man.” He stepped out in front of his men, dressed, as were all his chiefs, while the rest of his people were naked. He attacked the Spaniards who did not yield; nor was the battle prolonged, for their musket-fire convinced the natives that they commanded the thunder and lightning. Unable to face the arrows of our archers, they turned and fled, and the Spaniards cut off the arm of one, the leg or hip of another, and from some their heads at one stroke, like butchers cutting up beef and mutton for market. Six hundred, including the cacique, were thus slain like brute beasts.

“Vasco discovered that the village of Quarequa was stained by the foulest vice. The king’s brother and a number of other courtiers were dressed as women, and according to the accounts of the neighbours shared the same passion. Vasco ordered forty of them to be torn to pieces by dogs. The Spaniards commonly used their dogs in fighting against these naked people, and the dogs threw themselves upon them as though they were wild boars or timid deer. ”

Back to the ‘discovery’ of the Pacific:

“Leaving some of his companions who had fallen ill from the incessant fatigue and hardships to which they were not inured, at Quarequa, Vasco, led by native guides, marched towards the summit of the mountain-chain.

“From the village of Poncha to the spot where the southern ocean is visible is a six days’ ordinary march, but he only covered the distance in twenty-five days, after many adventures and great privations. On the seventh day of the calends of October, a Quarequa guide showed him a peak from the summit of which the southern ocean is visible. Vasco looked longingly at it. He commanded a halt, and went alone to scale the peak, being the first to reach its top. Kneeling upon the ground, he raised his hands to heaven and saluted the south sea; according to his account, he gave thanks to God and to all the saints for having reserved this glory for him, an ordinary man, devoid alike of experience and authority. Concluding his prayers in military fashion, he waved his hand to some of his companions, and showed them the object of their desires. Kneeling again, he prayed the Heavenly Mediator, and especially the Virgin Mother of God, to favour his expedition and to allow him to explore the region that stretched below him. All his companions, shouting for joy, did likewise. Prouder than Hannibal showing Italy and the Alps to his soldiers, Vasco Nuñez promised great riches to his men. ‘Behold the much-desired ocean! Behold! all ye men, who have shared such efforts, behold the country of which the son of Comogre and other natives told us such wonders!’ ”

“As a symbol of possession he built a heap of stones in the form of an altar, and that posterity might not accuse them of falsehood, they inscribed the name of the King of Castile here and there on the tree trunks on both slopes of that summit, erecting several heaps of stones.”

“Not only is Vasco Nuñez reconciled to the Catholic King, [Ferdinand]who was formerly vexed with him, but he now enjoys the highest favour. For the King has loaded him and the majority of his men with privileges and honours, and has rewarded their daring exploits.”

Yes well, that sort of honour-loading seldom ends well. Pedro Arias, Governor of Darien, didn’t appreciate having to take all matters of importance to Balboa, the new Adelantado of the South Sea, and the regions of  Panama and Coiba, and in January 1519 set him up and had him beheaded for treason.

The letters from Martyr to the Pope are compiled in the most excellent De Orbe Novo. I also found an account of Balboa in a school book under the headings ‘Early Life and Exploration’, ‘Seeing the Pacific Ocean’,  and ‘Death’.  The picture is borrowed from Fine Art America  (available as cards, prints, etc), and chosen because that’s what you’d do if you discovered an ocean, isn’t it? You’d run into it with all your clothes on.

Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Osa Cookery Book: Banana Ice Cream

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

It’s a curious truth that banana-flavoured food tastes and smells more authentically banana-ry than bananas (good work, ‘flavorists’!). But here’s the exception: banana ice cream that tastes and smells 100% banana-ry despite not having a single e-number or dash of isoamyl acetate in it. Like everything in the Osa Cookery Book – a niche work in progress – this recipe has been created specifically for the hot, jungle-dwelling, non-shopping, not particularly hungry, non-cook. It does require a freezer. Until recently, what we had was ice in a cool box, but Fitz has had a fridge with a functioning freezer compartment sent down on a small boat. I share it with William and Carmen, and because it uses solar-generated power, it isn’t on all the time, but it works which is very exciting (as anyone who has read Paul Theroux’s great book, Mosquito Coast, might imagine). Anyway, after months of fishing about in the tepid melted ice water of cool boxes for slices of ham and cheese that have slipped out their battered plastic packaging, I’m well into the whole business of freezing things.

So, now for the recipe: Select your banana. Put it in the freezer. Some time later, take it out. Peel it. Use a knife to shave off banana strips. Allow them to fall elegantly into a bowl. And eat.

Fair enough, there’s no cream in this, (I refer you back to banana ice cream with no bananas) but it does taste creamy. Further recipes to follow.

Tagged ,
%d bloggers like this: