Tag Archives: Sierra de Cadiz

Hot Beach, Cold Nights

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There are five clouds on the horizon – fact, not metaphor. Every other day this year the skies over Cadiz have been royal blue and vast. January was always such an easy month to work through in London; no inclination whatsoever to leave the desk, unless to meet someone in Soho for drinks at six, that is. But here it’s a little more tricky. Daytime temperatures have been in the low 20s, and hiking the muffled trails through pine forests at the top of the sierras has proved irresistible, as has lying with a book in the long, herby grass by the henhouse, even pruning the last olives. But then I haven’t got any interesting work on at the moment. A few days ago I pushed a kayak into the water and paddled slowly across the mirror flat lake, looking up at Zahara, everything steamy hot, and still and silent apart from goat bells up the mountain, a tractor, and choughs – one of the five kinds of non-tropical birds I can name.

And depending on the wind strength and direction, it’s hot two hours downhill, curled up in the dunes as well. Bolonia is never crowded, even in August, but in January people are so spread out along the long beach they look like dots. Further towards Tarifa the dots are swinging from pink and orange kites – kitesurfers skimming the surface of the sea. They don’t stop for winter either.

There are fewer people around, and some of the bars and restaurants are shut (many of the chiringuitos included, along with cheery Lola’s in Tarifa), or operating on a whimsical (annoying) ad hoc basis, but the coast is as lovely a place to be in winter as summer. It’s still got the sun, sea, sand.

Having said that, night and day in winter are as different as . . . well, night and day. The heating gets turned off in the province of Cadiz around 5.30pm, even before the sun goes down, and the temperature sinks to four or five degrees. I know that’s considered balmy in Philadelphia, Siberia, and Toronto but the daily rise and fall means I’m constantly surprised first by how hot, and then by how cold it actually is.

Dress code 10am-5pm: jeans and t-shirt. Dress code: 6pm ’til late: jeans and t-shirt, and two pairs of socks, two thermals, polo neck jumper, scarf, bobble hat, padded winter coat . . . and that’s just indoor wear.

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October Wild Swimming


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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A Happy Valley in Cadiz

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I’d be pretty happy if I had a rustic, low-slung Andalucian farmhouse and garden bordered by a trickling stream in the valley below Grazalema  – particularly if the January temperature could raise itself by around 8 degrees. It’s the complete cliché, and I’m surprised and annoyed at how quickly and rigidly I’ve resolved to be clichéd and at how much it’s going to cost me: about five times the cost of the property I bookmarked one boring afternoon, and got us all fired up and over here in the first place.

In rural Cádiz at least, the majority of local landowners prefer to live cheek to jowl with old friends, a stone’s throw from the bar in the village, than on their own in a field. They are not necessarily abandoning their farms – they’ll leave a few dogs there, hens, donkeys, and drive out to feed them and do stuff with olives – but they are wiping their hands of old properties without bathrooms and modern kitchens, with collapsing walls and missing roofs down at the far end of unsurfaced tracks. To arriviste foreigners, who probably have no friends in the village, don’t like the tiled bars with their fruit machines and girly calendars, and who have dreamt of open space all their working lives, these places seem glorious. Particularly after a glass of wine in spring. By the time they’ve fully understood that the entire building will need to be levelled and rebuilt (subject to planning approval), thus hoovering up all savings, they are too immersed to retreat. 

Yep. And I am one (and Dave makes two). Although we have made friends in the village, and got used to the dancing, and shouting, processions and hubbub, and fallen into a routine that includes Saturday breakfast in the square, and trips to buy firewood or bread that evolve into lengthy conversations and end in front of a plate of cheese in someone’s house. ‘Why are you looking in the campo?’ say the Parras, the elderly couple whose top half of a village house we are renting. ‘Buy this one!’ It’s tempting, and confusing.

However, when we are driving the meandering way up to Grazalema in order to pass through happy valley and all the properties we can not afford, we usually pause and wind the windows down to let in a whiff of pine, woodsmoke and mountain herbs, donkey hee-haws and the sound of goat bells and bleating outside the Schoolhouse.

The schoolhouse represents all that I want. It is also largely derelict, in need of a new roof, windows, some walls and some doors, a bathroom, a kitchen, internal walls, new floors, ‘re-configuration’, wiring, plumbing, insulation, painting and re-plastering. It was a bodega, and then, as the name suggests, a schoolhouse. It is priced higher in its current state of disarray (€149,000) than we have available for a house that is habitable, and it has no land in front of it. It lends itself to being a B&B which I don’t want to run, and it is quite possible that it may have been sold.

But sometimes you just like a place.

The door is usually open and so we went inside once to have a look. Nice. A fireplace you can stand inside, the remains of a high ceiling, a wall of tall (broken) windows, and loads of other rooms. Sunlight was slanting in and highlighting the fallen birds’ nests and bits of glass. ‘We can put the table here’ said Dave.

Casalsur, an agency operating from the back of the distractingly good art gallery in Grazalema, showed us a property across the road with more land, and requiring marginally less work. La Betania actually had roses climbing up the wall, and a river. Square metres never used to mean much to me, but this had 274m2 which is big, and 20,000m2 of land. Dave didn’t like it. ‘Crowded’, he said, crossing it off the long list. What? I said. It’s got 20,000m2 of land, it’s in a remote backwater, and all you can see is  fields, olives and mountains. But he was adamant, which is just as well because we couldn’t afford it. At least, we could afford it if we were prepared to live in it without a roof.

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