Post-invasion tennis
October 23, 2007, 8:11 am
Filed under: culture, science, society, spain, sport, travel | Tags: ,

I’m staying in a small town called Minas de Riotinto, a town like many in outback Australia that thrived through a mining boom (a gold star if you guess the name of the mining company that benefited), but is now atrophying quietly and sadly like a loveless elderly person. A big difference between Australian ex-mining towns and this though, is that Minas de Riotinto is on the side of a mountainous national park and is an hour from Seville, which makes it arguably a lot more exciting and accessible than Broken Hill, for example. The town is also home to the regional hospital and a few other places of employment, so the 15 or so restaurants and variety of local shops continue to scrape by.

Despite its current misfortune Minas is quite a popular tourist destination for Spaniards, who come via Aracena or Seville to visit the mining museum and look at the eerie alien landscapes worthy of NASA research, then look at the beautiful mountain sunsets while listening to goat bells and birds in the valley below.

The town has a mining heritage that dates back to before the Romans invaded, so with all the digging that’s gone on it’s an interesting archeological site. For me though Minas de Riotinto has been a unique cultural experience, because of the English Club.

Last century when the English came to make a lot of money from the mineral-rich land, the town overflowed so they built a new town next to it, to accommodate the extra workers. Hence now there’s the old town with typical Spanish architecture, adjacent to the English ‘new’ town. Here is the only place outside of the Commonwealth I’ve seen English architecture classed as culturally significant. The ‘new’ town is heritage listed and there are signs and plaques around the area, with little maps of how an English house looks, in contrast with your typical Spanish place. These cultural curiosities are just like the home where I grew up. I found it strange reading historical information describing my own culture. The coast of Spain has survived invasion after invasion over the centuries, resulting in beautiful Arab and Roman architecture. Though the English didn’t make Spain a colony they had their own form of invasion nonetheless. Surely a turn of the century English cottage doesn’t deserve recognition like the Alhambra? In Minas de Riotinto it does.

Then there’s the English Club. After a year in Cambridge where I had free access to lush grass courts as well as a plethora of surfaced ones, I’ve been feeling a little tennis deprived here. I discovered in the centre of the English village there is an expat social club, complete with a big swimming pool (only open in the summer), billiard room and 4 tennis courts. This is about a 5 minute walk from where I’m staying. It sounds ideal, but it’s been a long time since this town had a big expatriate community, so the club has been taken over by a faction of locals. Considering Spanish time frames, it took me almost two weeks to establish who could give us access to the tennis courts, and where we could borrow four rackets and some balls.

This achieved, we set out one sunny Autumn afternoon to play tennis. The courts are worse for wear after years of neglect. They’re so rarely used that when we started playing a group of Spanish boys abandoned their football game to come over and watch us through the fence. Unfortunately it was difficult to put on a good exhibition match because the rackets were also from the 80’s. The grip on the racket disintegrated a little more each time I hit the ball, leaving my palm black. After five minutes of his powerful serves Ian had blown strings on two of the rackets. He then resorted to using the two rackets more like a lacrosse stick, catching the ball in his basket of strings and flinging it back over the droopy net.

Shortly after we gave up on tennis and resolved to stick to sports that the locals know. I don’t want to be a cultural relic in Spain.


Whirling dervishes
October 23, 2007, 7:55 am
Filed under: spain, travel

We decided to stop for lunch in Cádiz on Sunday, on the way back from Rota. Cádiz is a city on a peninsula, as easy to access by ferry as by car. Given it’s surrounded by ocean it seemed a good place to have my first paella.

We were charmed by the plaza in front of the cathedral in Cádiz, or more specifically the children cavorting in it. Although there were plenty of restaurants catering for tourists (best to avoid), there were also a bunch of local kids running about, perhaps after going to church. There was a boy and his little brother playing bullfight, the youngest one holding his fingers on his head like horns, running at his older brother who got to be the matador, bopping his little bro on the head.

Less uniquely Spanish but equally as charming were a brother and sister who were being whirling dervishes. The twirled enthusiastically, so much so the girl fell flat on her face from too much momentum. She just got up and kept on twirling. They were oblivious to the world beyond their whirling, with a few near collisions as people walked around them.

Deciding the view was worth the tourist prices we sat. At the same time a huffy German couple got up and said ‘you’ll be waiting for service forever’. It was a busy Sunday and they were right, so after about 20 minutes of waiting we abandoned our table and found a restaurant in a less touristy area.

By now we were hungry. We ordered some tapas and then came the paella de marisco, a big platter with spoons for us to each take our own serve. It was delicious. There were mussels and prawns and calamari, in rice with a creamy orange sauce. Yum. Paella goes on my learn how to cook list.

Spanish debutantes
October 15, 2007, 8:38 am
Filed under: europe, events, festivals, spain, travel | Tags: ,

After an afternoon swim and a siesta we headed out to see the parade. By a stroke of fortune our hotel was by the corner where the parade started, so we joined the lines of families and old couples in anticipation. Rather than blocking the streets altogether, the police revelled in their authority, whistling angrily at disobedient traffic, then thrusting an open palm to families spilling onto the street, who fell over each other in their efforts to stop suddenly, so buses could rumble to life and continue their journeys. People on the buses to other destinations were glued to their windows, absorbing the gathering floats and bands with their eyes, like toddlers at a candy store.The parade started with a trickle of police and a man with a fistful of shiny balloons. Unlike Australian parades, where security staff strictly guard yellow lines, children here cascaded onto the road in their eagerness for inflated cartoons and sugar.

Then came the giant jungle complete with sounds, which sent the children skittling back into the safety of their parents’ arms. Each jungle creature hid a man in a cage with leavers, like the Wizard of Oz. The man at the heart of the giant rhinoceros decided to mix things up by making his shell do a 360, and the rhino’s bum came careering towards Graham, who was distracted by the looming giraffe and snake. I grabbed him moments before collision, as children squealed in delight and terror. The young lad in the giraffe decided to follow suit and the giraffe arced around the road, skimming traffic lights. The police watched on, unperturbed.

The jungle was only an appetiser though, because this was the night of the Damas. It seemed every young lady of a certain age has been dolled up in white and put on a pedestal, or at least a float of some description. There was the queen of the parade who evidently got the title on looks alone. She was given packets and packets of streamers to throw out. But it seemed she didn’t realise you’re supposed to hold the inside of the tube and throw so the streamer curls out pleasingly. Instead, she was pegging them, furled, at the audience. This could be forgiven if she were on an early float, as the audience could then unfurl the streamers over the oncoming parade. But she was the end of the show, so more likely just lacking intelligence. Or perhaps she had some vendetta against her home town that she had found the perfect opportunity to settle.

Before the queen of the parade were a broad selection of young ladies in white perched on floats of all descriptions, some with cherubic youngsters throwing confetti ahead, others intermingled with cartoon characters. If I were a debutante in Rota I would have been unhappy to be stuck on the Shrek or Simpsons floats, as a dozen girls were.

After some quick tapas we funnelled into the crowd following the parade to the centre of the old town. There we had some more tapas before realising the crowds had moved on and we may be missing the action. Heading towards the sea we discovered a massive outdoor concert starring some Spanish pop stallion. The plaza was packed, so we stayed on the outskirts, were a bar was selling drinks in takeaway glasses. There we stayed, overlooking the vast crowd. At the very front were the Damas, stripped of their glamorous aloofness, teenagers again, screaming and swaying their white-gloved arms at the pop star. It was like the town’s most eligible women were scrubbed up and served to him on a platter. He crooned to them, in response they waved their gloved arms excitedly, like whitewater in a river. The pure illusion of the Damas was broken.

Preparing for the festival
October 15, 2007, 8:31 am
Filed under: travel

Preparing the path

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

On Saturday morning we wandered into the old town of Rota, where my engineer companions were intrigued by a cement mixer churning something different, which people were spreading onto the street. After some minutes of observation and questioning we uncovered that the locals were grinding salt and mixing it with dyes, to make coloured salt which was being spread in chalked outlines on the pavement, like a colour-by-numbers book.

This was intriguing. We then tried to discover why this was happening.

It turned out that we had found ourselves in Rota for the weekend of the Fiestas Patronales. This meant that as well as plenty of sea and sun there would also be a bunch of free parades and concerts. Needless to say, we were stoked.

Dusk in Rota
October 13, 2007, 9:29 am
Filed under: travel

Rota twilight

Originally uploaded by cobismith.

We arrived in Rota unaware that it was festival weekend, content with the long beach and its fine white sand, reminiscent of Australia. After checking into our hotel with a grander pool than the cost suggested, we descended into the street, drawn to the foreshore.

It was dinner time in England, but here in Spain in October the dusky hours precede eating. Lunch is a huge meal, the late dinner more to line your stomach for drinking than anything else. These dusky hours are my favourite in Spain, the perfect time to explore new places, with charming light and an ambience of relax and release after the working day.

It’s particularly perfect for exploring the Costa de la Luz around Rota, because the sun sets spectacularly and audaciously, like nature’s Moulin Rouge, flashing colours and exposing the sky’s naked beauty.

The shore at Rota is flat, stretching deep and long. One sand-drenched end is perfect for bathing, the other a pleasure for Spain’s water birds – a cove inhabited by seaweed that was more like Rastafarian dreadlocks than slime. It proved good for walking on, springy and slightly coarse like a gym mat. At the peak of dusk the seabirds, small and community-minded, raised their twitter to a crescendo, like a round of applause for the bowing sun.

Then twilight took over quietly, blanketing the landscape. With the show over we wandered inland, in search of food.

Spanish in a small town
October 7, 2007, 9:55 pm
Filed under: language, spain, travel

I’m living in a small Spanish town somewhere between Seville and the Portuguese border for the next month. As well as editing a bunch of books I’m going to learn Spanish. I’m off to a pretty good start because at the moment (due to the nepotistic rental market) we’re staying in a lovely rural residence owned by a very enthusiastic and interested middle-aged couple who don’t speak much English.

This morning I had a few missions. I wanted to find out whether I could do the laundry myself. The answer was no – but I may be allowed to handwash things, I was a bit confused by her response.

I wanted to get directions to the supermarket. Instead, I’m getting a lift to the supermarket this afternoon, which is nice – though it would be good to wander around the town to get a sense of place.

I wanted to ask if we could keep some salt in our bathroom for Ian to gargle with as he has a sore throat. That’s not the kind of sentence you learn in basic Spanish classes. This is why I’m not sold on formal classes. In this digital age I think it’s much better to get somewhere and learn by immersion, with the help of internet resources. Between Babelfish and this intuitive dictionary, I learnt to say everything I needed. Understanding the responses is a different matter, but hopefully that will come with time.

I found that with tricky expressions like ‘hand wash’, googling is better than using a crude translator, as someone else has probably written it somewhere online. So, in case people are googling things I learnt this morning, here are some phrases:

¿Puede darme direcciones al supermercado? = Can you give me directions to the supermarket?

Ian tiene dolor de garganta. ¿Podemos mantener un poco de sal en el cuarto de baño para él hacer gargaras? = Ian has a sore throat. Can we keep some salt in the bathroom for him to gargle?

Éstas son las palabras que he aprendido hoy. = These are the words I’ve learnt today.

Quick Madrid
October 1, 2007, 9:47 pm
Filed under: spain, travel

We had one night in Madrid.

I made sure we had a night in Madrid because one of my oldest friends Sarah is living there. Sarah lived in Germany when I lived in Italy, but before that we went to school together, all the way through from junior primary. She had the cutest Cindy pigtails. We used to jump on trampolines together, little blonde curly frogs.

Now she is an au pair in Spain, while I am an editor-at-large. ‘Now’ by our standards is a few months. It’s reassuring catching up with someone whose life is as varied as mine, in contrast with those who are buying houses and having babies and settling in for the long term.

We met at Gran Via, then went to Museo del Prado, which is free on Sunday afternoon. If I hadn’t been with Sarah I wouldn’t have known that. We looked at Goya and Patinir while Ian limped around in his new flip flops. I gave him bandaids and he perked up.

Then we walked to Parque del Retiro where we listened to people drumming with fervour across the lake. We sat with cold beers in the warm evening, eating sunflower seeds as night fell.