26 December 2010

Día de los Santos Inocentes - Christian or Pagan tradition?

Several years ago when we were visiting Alcalá just after Christmas I went to the local shop to buy some flour.  "I´m sorry", explained Jacinta, "I can´t sell eggs or flour today.  It´s the day of the Holy Innocents."  Scratching my head at what appeared to be yet another bizarre Catholic custom I went home flourless.

It wasn't until I returned to England and asked my Spanish teacher that I found out what this was all about.  El Día de los Santos Inocentes, 28 December, is Spain´s equivalent to April Fool´s Day.   As the long school holidays drag on, the gap between visits from Papa Noel on Christmas Eve and the Three Kings on 6 January is filled by the opportunity for children to play jokes, known as inocentadas, on their elders and betters - some of which involve eggs and flour.  Other less messy pranks include sticking a cutout paper figure or monigote on someone´s back without them knowing, or putting salt in the sugar bowl.

According to the Gospel of St Matthew, King Herod of Judea ordered the execution of all male children in Bethlehem so as to avoid losing his throne to a newborn King of the Jews whose birth had been announced to him by the Three Wise Men. This became known as the Massacre of the Innocents.  The infants, claimed as the first Christian martyrs, were known as Holy Innocents because they were too young to have committed sin.  (Which is why, two thousand years later, victims of inocentadas must not get angry or punish the perpetrators.)

During the Middle Ages, as so often happened, Christian customs and traditions merged with pagan ones and the Día de los Santos Inocentes became an event where children dressed up in costume and went round their neighbours´ houses singing loudly and asking for cakes and sweets.  This custom, known as pedir al aguinaldo, has largely been replaced now in Spain  by Hallowe'en.  But in some places they still celebrate 28 December with acts of defiant revelry, such as the Fiesta de los Locos in Jalance, or the Flour Battle with fireworks in the streets of Ibi (Valencia).  In Setiles, Castila-La Mancha, the Devil himself makes an appearance and the children follow him around trying to pull his tail.

A common feature in these activities is the concept of role reversal, where masters must obey their servants for the day.  This, along with acts of mischief, disguise, and singing for reward, has echoes in pre-Christian winter festivals such as Yule, and Saturnalia with its Lord of Misrule.   In the Middle Ages the Christian church tried to regulate these potentially threatening activities into festum fatuorum, or Feast of Fools, a brief and controlled outlet for discontent - particularly amongst junior members of the Church itself - usually celebrated in the last week of December. Such festivals, which often included bawdy caricatures of popes and bishops, were banned by the Council of Basel in 1431, and had died out in most of Europe by the 16th century.

The Spanish media get involved in the practical jokes too, though I have yet to come across anything nearly as splendid as the BBC spaghetti harvest.  There was a small announcement in the paper last year that, because the world's clocks needed to be adjusted by one second, there would be an extra bong of the bells at midnight on New Year's Eve.   So everyone planning to follow the tradition of making a wish while eating a grape for each bong would need thirteen grapes instead of twelve ...

07 December 2010

Ponme unos huevos, por favor

There must be a hundred cockerels in this town.  Early one morning I counted thirteen different cockadoodledoos, each one more distant than the last, as they sounded their unique territorial reveilles.  So there should be at least five hundred hens, scratching about in the huertos (little produce-gardens tucked in between buildings), or living on roof terraces, or even along the roadside.

Other domestic fowl reside here too; we are occasionally held up while driving out of town by a half-dozen stately geese ambling across the road.  One house on the other side of town has turkeys roosting in the orange trees, and there are some strange-looking fat grey birds which may or may not be guinea-fowl, down near the waterworks.

But when I popped out to get some eggs this morning, the first three shops I went in had none.  I was offered several excuses:

  • The weather has been bad lately, they haven't been laying.
  • Everybody is doing extra baking for the holidays.
  • There wasn't a delivery today, because yesterday was a public holiday.

The third shopkeeper, however, offered me a solution.  If I would just hold on a momentito ...  She disappeared out the back and came back with half a dozen, all different shades and sizes, some with feathers still stuck to them.  "I'm sorry they are only huevos de campo, they are a bit small, but they are nice and fresh", she explained.  "And I've only got these six just now, but if you come back at the end of the week there should be some more."

Well, I was more than happy to get half a dozen new-laid free-range eggs for one euro.  I wonder what Waitrose charges these days?  How many shopkeepers in the UK would nip out the back and rummage under their own hens so I could have an omelette for lunch?

Eggy facts:
All eggs sold in Europe should be stamped with a code denoting their origin:

0-hens raised outdoors organically:  huevos de campo - ecologico
1-hens raised outdoors:  huevos de campo
2-barn-raised hens: huevos de granja
3-caged hens: huevos de jaula

In some of the little shops of Alcalá, you can get local huevos de campo that haven´t been through the packing and stamping process, like the ones I bought this morning.  Often their shells are so hard you have to give it a fair old whack to break it!  For this reason they are often given to you in plastic bags rather than trays.

To tell if an egg is fresh, put it in a bowl of cold water.  If it floats to the top, chuck it.  If it stays on the bottom, or just above the bottom, it's fine.

Be careful when asking a male shopkeeper if he has any eggs.  ¿Tienes huevos?  means "Have you got balls?"  Better to say ¿Hay huevos?

Round here they use the verb ponerse a lot in shops - the reflexive form of poner, to put.  ¿Que te pongo? means "What would you like?"  But if you answer "Ponme unos huevos", they might burst out laughing.   Poner has many other uses, including poner huevos - to lay eggs.   I've never risked it;  I stick to the book and use the verb dar, to give:
Dame una docena de huevos de campo, por favor.  Give me a dozen free-range eggs, please.

I am English so I can't stop myself saying por favor, but of course this instantly marks me out as a foreigner.  The Spanish rarely use it in this context.

04 December 2010

Away with the birds

We had been looking forward to a day's birdwatching with Stephen Daly of Andalucian Guides for weeks, and the recent wet weather even compelled us to buy some wellies just in case.  But we need not have worried; the day dawned clear and bright, if nose-drippingly chilly.

We met Stephen in Benalup where we piled into his  4x4 and set off along an old drover's trail, now part of the Corredor Verde Dos Bahias hiking route from Los Barrios to the Bahia de Cadiz.  This took us into the area known as La Janda, once a vast inland lagoon but drained in the 1950s in order to grow crops (mainly rice).  Stephen was a mine of information; we learned that the work had been paid for by the Americans in a deal with Franco whereby the US established military bases at Rota and Morón de la Frontera, and the malaria-infested lagoon was drained and then drenched in DDT to kill off the mosquitos.  Fortunately the area still attracts huge numbers of migrating birds and the paddy-fields provide a larder for them over the winter.

After a few hundred yards Stephen stopped the car and lent me some sensible binoculars to replace the toy ones  I usually carry.   The flat, ploughed fields and reedbeds were just teeming with birds.  He rattled off the names as I struggled to focus the binoculars -  white wagtails, serins, meadow pipits, goldfinches, chiffchaffs, corn buntings, lapwings, several flavours of plover, red-legged partridges and the improbably named zitting cisticola, clinging to a reed like a small fluffy wren.

Sitting quietly in a vehicle you see far more birds than when you are walking along chatting.  Stephen exploited their natural curiosity by making psssst noises, which makes them pop up to see what´s going on.

Further into La Janda we pulled up to watch some large birds coming into land in a field of what looked like grey boulders.  In fact the boulders were Common cranes, hundreds of them, grazing peacefully.  Having written a post on this blog about these splendid birds recently, I was hoping we might see one or two ...

The raptors also sent us into rapture - kestrels, marsh harriers, hen harriers, a distant Bonnelli´s eagle or two, and later on a black-winged kite, a rare sight apparently, but he wheeled and glided around us long enough for Stephen to take plenty of photos.

The next delight was a series of purple swamphens, formerly known as gallinules, spaced every 20 metres or so along a drainage ditch between the paddy fields.  Like plumper, gaudier versions of the moorhens seen in the UK, their bright red legs and incredibly long toes are perfect for walking across the submerged reeds.

After lunch we drove south towards Tarifa and up into the rocky hills behind Bolonia, to a nesting site for griffon vultures.  Some of them were sitting in the rocks, preening and enjoying the afternoon sun, while others circled above on the thermals.  We had hoped to see peregrine falcons, but they were having a day off.   The soundtrack was provided by stonechats, black redstarts and Sardinian warblers.

Thanks to Stephen for a great day, despite the jokes.  And apologies to all the birds I've left out ...

I didn't take any photographs of birds, because with a pocket digital there is no point, but here are some taken by Stephen (many more can be found on his excellent blog http://andalucianguides.blogspot.com/):


30 November 2010

A night to remember ...

Walking up the Calle Real last night after enjoying a wonderful concert of classical music, I said to my friends "if Barcelona beat Real Madrid 3-0 now, it will be a perfect evening".  Well, they didn't of course, they beat them 5-0; perfection + 2.  But enough gloating for now.

The concert featured the Orquestra Joven del Bicentenario, the Youth Orchestra for the Bicentenary (2012 sees the 200th anniversary of the signing of the first Spanish Constitution in Cádiz).  The orchestra was formed by Matthew Coman, a classical musician who lives in Alcalá and who also organises the classical music festival here every August.  Assisted by fellow members of the Soloists of London, Matthew has trained thirty musicians aged between 13 and 20, from all over the Province of Cadiz.  The aim is to have a high-quality orchestra to participate in the 2012 celebrations.

The orchestra was led by award-winning violinist David Le Page, and the programme comprised works from Haydn and Mozart, played to a standard that would not disgrace any concert hall (to my untrained ears, anyway).  And we got it for free, at our little cultural centre in Santo Domingo, sitting just a few feet from the players.   They have four more concerts to go, at different venues across the Province.

All Spanish teenagers are beautiful, with their shiny black hair, golden skin and big dark eyes, but when they are playing musical instruments they are even more so.  These kids have been practising for eight hours a day, and their dedication and total engagement with the music brought a lump to my throat.  The delight on their faces when rewarded with tumultuous applause was priceless.

It is strikingly clear that music and football are two of the best ways of  teaching young people to work and play together, and give them a sense of worth.  So what are the Coalition government in the UK doing?  Cutting schools sports and arts budgets by 30%.    The world needs more Matt Comans - and Pep Guardiolas for that matter.

23 November 2010

El Clásico - the Clash of the Titans

You've probably noticed that the Spanish are rather keen on football.  And rather good at it; they are currently European and World champions.  I was never a football fan till I watched the Spanish national team in the European Cup finals in 2008, when it soon became evident that their style of play was as different from that of the depressingly predictable England side as - I'm struggling to find a comparison here - Marilyn Monroe from Paris Hilton?  The National Ballet from Strictly Come Makeatwitofyourself?  A fillet steak from a McDonalds burger?  You get the gist ...

It is largely acknowledged that la Furia Roja (the Red Fury, as Spain's national team are known) owes its success to its ability to play as a team.  There are no superstars who are only on the field to score goals.  They play a clean game; they rarely dive to try and get penalties and they were near the bottom of the lists for the number of fouls committed and yellow cards shown in the World Cup.  They don't close the game down and play safe once they are 2-0 up.   And there are very few scandals off the field to occupy the prensa rosa, the Spanish equivalent of the tabloid newspapers.

One of the reasons Spain can play so well as a team is that many of the players work together all the time.  In the 2010 World Cup squad there were five from Real Madrid and seven were from FC Barcelona (known as Barça).  Their style of play involves roaming movement and positional interchange amongst midfielders, moving the ball in intricate patterns, and lots of short, accurate passes to maintain possession - a style known as Tiki-taka which originates from Johan Cruyff´s time as manager of Barcelona.

Watching Barça play is even more exhilarating than watching La Roja, due to the presence of a diminutive Argentinian forward called Lionel Messi.   At 23, he is already being cited as the world´s finest player.  It isn´t just the way he slithers through the defence like a greased whippet and casually pops the ball in the net almost without looking.  It isn´t just that big cheesy grin that lights up his face when he or one of his team-mates scores.  He is the epitome of a team player; he will frequently pass the ball to a junior colleague so he can get his name on the scoresheet, rather than put the goal in himself.

Compare and contrast with the Real Madrid superhero, Portugal´s Cristiano Ronaldo, the world´s most expensive player (RM bought him from Manchester Utd last year for £80 million).  When he is on the pitch, the camera follows him all the time.  He knows this, but often glances up at the big screen just to make sure.  His skills with the ball are indisputable, but his diving skills are pretty hot too.  He is prone to tantrums on the pitch, and when one of his colleagues scores a goal he thinks should have been his (as happened in the friendly against Spain the other day) he stomps off in a huff rather than going to congratulate him.

Next Sunday, 29 November, Barça play RM at home in the Spanish premier league, La Liga. This twice-yearly meeting is known as El Clásico.   It was originally scheduled for Saturday 28th, but was moved because it clashed with the Catalan regional elections - not because they thought this would affect the gate at Camp Nou, but because of fears that people would rather watch the match than go and vote.

El Clásico is about more than football.  Historically, these teams reflect cultural and political tensions within Spain; FC Barcelona stands as a symbol of Catalan nationalism, whereas for most Catalans and many other Spaniards, Real Madrid represents the oppressive centralism of the Franco regime.  It has a group of right-wing extremists in its fan base, known as Ultras Sur, frequently investigated for racial abuse of opposing players.

Madrid and Barcelona are the two largest cities in Spain, their teams currently stand first and second respectively in La Liga (their nearest rival, Villareal, is seven points adrift).  Ronaldo and Messi are the leading goalscorers this season, with 14 and 13 respectively (though Messi is well ahead if you count non-league games).   Barça won both games last season, and Madrid´s new manager José Mourinho is itching for revenge.  It´s going to be one hell of a game.

And yes, I admit I am just a little bit biased ...

21 November 2010

A walk on the wild side

Yesterday we went on a trip organised by various agencies involved in the Parque Natural Alcornocales, with the aim of educating local people about the natural environment and activities in the park.   This included a walk in an area which is undergoing repoblación, i.e. the native trees and shrubs have been replanted following widespread clearance back in the 1960s.  The rainclouds kindly held off until about five minutes before the end of the walk!

The start of "Sendero La Teja", on the old A381 just north of Los Barrios
Explaining the principles of repopulation
Gorse, pine and cork-oak
November is the time of year for setas (a general term for edible wild mushrooms)
Climbing up the firebreak
Blooming Heather
Baby pines rapidly turn into ...
... full-grown pine trees!
The Alcornocales is one of the few remaining habitats of the insectivorous
Drosophyllum lusitanicum. Look closely and you can see its lunch.
Cattle need to be kept out of the repopulation zone because they eat the new growth ...
... but no fence can keep out the corzo, or roe deer
This piece of sandstone would not be out of place in an art gallery.
Unfortunately it was too big to go in my bag.
More setas.  No idea if they are edible!
More rock-art.

19 November 2010

Rehab? Yes, yes, yes!

In 2002 Alcalá became one of the first towns in Andalucia to launch a programme of Rehabilitación de Viviendas del Casco Histórico, the rehabilitation of dwellings in the historic part of town. The aim of the programme was to restore dwellings deemed unfit for habitation (infravivienda), thus providing quality housing for local people, creating work for local builders and  labourers, and generally improving the appearance and ambience of the old town.    

Because of the way old Alcalá was built, with houses piled on top of and extending sideways into each other, working out the boundaries of individual dwellings created a bureaucratic nightmare for the project manager, Gabriel Almagro, and his team.  To complicate matters further, the Spanish law of succession states that on the owner's death a property is divided equally between his or her children and can't be sold without the consent of all parties.  With families of ten or twelve children common until relatively recently, and the diaspora of Alcalainos across the globe over the past century, it is often impossible to find out who owns a building, let alone trace them.

As well as private housing, the project included the restoration of the 17th century Casa Diáñez on the Plaza Alta,  whose ground floor now contains the administrative offices of the housing programme and the upper two floors will, we are promised, eventually become the town´s museum and exhibition area.

In all, a total of 31 dwellings have been restored.  The first ones were already occupied by tenants, who were rehoused locally while their homes were renovated.   Other formerly empty properties were allocated to low-income households at rents between 100 and 200 euros a month, with an option to purchase at subsidised prices.   

These subsidised dwellings are known as VPOs, Viviendas de Protección Oficial, and they cannot be sold on for profit until after a defined qualification period has elapsed - usually 30 years.  Under the Spanish Constitution, "All Spaniards have the right to enjoy decent and adequate housing.  The public authorities shall promote the necessary conditions and establish appropriate rules to uphold this right."  After a property boom which led to astronomical house price increases (10% a year between 2000 and 2007), VPOs are virtually the only way for first-time buyers on an average wage to own their own home, unless they can get help from their families.  Demand always exceeds supply, and they are usually allocated on a lottery system.

But there are still an awful lot of empty properties in Alcala.  Some are for sale, but many are just standing there, slowly disintegrating.  Property ownership in Spain is traditionally seen as a means of financial security, an inflation-proof insurance against possible hard times ahead.  So people hang on to property they don't need, rather than sell it and invest the money elsewhere.  These absentee owners should be required by law to maintain empty properties in a state of good repair, failing which a bit of aggressive compulsory purchase by the Ayuntamiento would not go amiss.  We've still got plenty of unemployed builders ...


14 November 2010

Choose cork!

The Alcornocales Natural Park forms part of a belt of of cork-oak forests stretching across southern Europe and northwest Africa, and cork has played a large part in the economy of Alcalá de los Gazules for over a hundred years.

Cork is a natural product found between the outer bark and the woody inner stem of the cork-oak, Quercus suber or alcornoque ("Alcornocales" means cork-oak groves).  Once the tree is 25 years old the cork is harvested by hand, taking care not to damage the capa madre (mother-layer) or cork cambium from which the cork layer will eventually grow back.  Following the Civil War when traditional cork-cutters were for various reasons thin on the ground, Franco sent in unskilled workers who did irreversible damage to thousands of trees because they weren't aware of the significance of this.

The colour of a freshly-peeled tree is rich chestnut red, like a conker, but it quickly turns almost black.  Cork is is a beautiful example of an environmentally sustainable industry, because the tree is not destroyed and after nine or so years it can be cut again for a new harvest.

The cork-cutting teams go out into the Alcornocales between June and August.  The slabs of cork are taken to various processing plants, where they are boiled to improve elasticity and remove impurities, then scraped, trimmed and pressed into "tablas" or boards.   These are weighed and graded according to their thickness and quality.  The good stuff will go to the wine industry to be made into bottle stoppers, especially the sherry producers around Jerez, while the rest will be sent to distant factories to be made into floor tiles, insulating materials, notice-boards, tiles, fishing floats, gaskets, coasters, tennis rackets, footwear or whatever. It is a source of despair for locals that there are no such manufacturers in the immediate area.

Local writer Juan Leiva describes how in the 1940s the cork teams used to camp out in the hills and only return to town every couple of weeks for a change of clothes.  Arrieros leading long strings of mules, each bearing an improbably large load of cork, would come into the town where they would be met by dealers' reps and the cork loaded onto lorries, equally precariously balanced.

Mules and donkeys are still used today to get to the more inaccessible areas of the park.

Before the mid 17th century, oil-soaked rags were used to seal wine bottles; it was a monk called Dom Perignon who first experimented with cork.  It is an ideal material for this purpose, being elastic and virtually impermeable; once inserted into the bottle it expands to form a tight seal.

The increasing use of synthetic stoppers and screwtops seen over the past 20 years has caused problems for the cork industry, but for fine wines only cork will do, because it allows oxygen to interact with the wine during the ageing process.  One of the reasons for replacing cork wine bottles was to eliminate the problem of cork-taint, caused by a chemical called trichloroanisole (TCA).  However modern producers have developed a method to remove TCA from cork, and aided by pressure groups concerned with the environmental impact of non-recyclable materials, there is no good reason why the trend should not be reversed.

YOU CAN HELP!  Choose cork - the World Wildlife Fund's campaign to protect cork oak forests.
Cork Screwed? Environmental and economic impacts of the cork stoppers market (PDF)

09 November 2010


No, not the tall metal things that seem to be a permanent feature of Alcalá's skyline these days.  I'm talking about Grus grus, Common cranes, currently spending their winter holidays at nearby La Janda.   (Interestingly the Spanish word for the tall metal thing, grúa, is not dissimilar to that for the bird, grulla.  Just thought you´d like to know that.)

Standing at up to 130cm and weighing up to 6 kg, the Common or Eurasian crane is one of the most impressive visitors to our area.  They breed in wetlands in northern parts of Europe and Asia, and migrate south for the winter, some heading across to Africa, others staying in Southwest Spain.  They became extinct in the UK in the 17th Century, but have been reintroduced in the Norfolk Broads and the Somerset levels.   They are omnivorous, but are apparently particularly partial to cranberries, which may be where that fruit got its name.

The Plain of La Janda, stretching from Benalup down to Vejer, used to comprise a huge shallow lagoon, with reedbeds and marshland.  It was one of Europe´s finest wetland areas for birds, especially given its proximity to the migration route between Europe and Africa across the Straits of Gibraltar.  Common cranes, storks and other birds visited in their millions, and they feature strongly in prehistoric cave paintings in the area, such as the Cueva del Tajo de las Figuras near Benalup.

In the middle of the 20th Century the lagoon was drained to support rice-growing.  This is now considered by ecologists to have been a disastrous act of vandalism, and subsequent activities like the large-scale installation of wind turbines have added insult to injury.  Despite being recognized as a priority area by international authorities, La Janda has not yet been included in the list of Protected Areas of Andalucia.  More on the ecology of La Janda.

These days the cranes still come, though in much smaller numbers. The paddy fields make an ideal picnic spot for them.  They fly in large family groups, usually in a V-shape, and their distinctive call, a rough nasal trumpeting, can be heard for miles.

Stephen Daly, a local bird expert who also runs guided birdwatching tours, reports this touching tale of reunion on his excellent blog Never Mind the Finnsticks:

"A flock from last week checks out the rice growing area on the eastern end of La Janda, before deciding to land, beckoned on by the plaintive calls of one lone juvenile crane on the ground who was calling at the top of his voice, so happy to hear and then see his returning friends. He was a survivor from last winter, having had his wing smashed by a wind turbine blade at the beginning of the year. He managed to keep low, feed and survive the increased patrols of foxes, and other predators that have bebefited from finding collision casualties from the windmills or indeed flying into the many wires that span the countryside. Such predators would surely take an injured bird. Still unable to fly, I've seen the crane often this summer sneaking through the growing rice."

This video, taken at the Gallocanta bird reserve in Zaragosa, gives an idea of what La Janda might have been like when the cranes came in their thousands:

01 November 2010

Fiesta de Tosantos

If you've seen Pedro Almodóvar's wonderful film Volver, you might remember that the opening scene is set in a cemetery where Raimunda (Penelope Cruz) and lots of other women are busy cleaning and decorating the graves of their ancestors.   

Returning to one's home town to pay respects and make ofrendas (offerings, usually in the form of flowers) to deceased relatives is one of the traditions of the Fiesta de Todos los Santos (All Saints Day), which falls on 1 November and is a public holiday in all Catholic countries.  In Spain, florists have their busiest day of the year and in some places (including Cádiz), special parades and processions take place.   Traditional foods consumed today include roast chestnuts (castanadas), roast yams or sweet potatoes (boniatos) and Huesos de Santos (Saints´bones)  - little marzipan cakes.

In other Latin American countries they go a lot further; for example in Mexico the celebrations for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead),  with their skull masks and flamboyantly decorated graves, are world-famous.

Another All Saints’ tradition across Spain is the performing of the play Don Juan Tenorio, written by José Zorrilla. The final act of this portrayal of Don Juan’s choice between salvation or hell is set in a cemetery, with the legendary lover lamenting over his betrayal of his dead sweetheart.

Officially, All Saint's Day is based on the belief that  there is a spiritual communion between the dead - in this case, those who have gone to Heaven - and the living.  The following day, All Souls, commemorates the faithful departed who have not yet been purified and made it through the Pearly Gates.  In Spain it is not specifically linked to Hallowe'en, which has only recently started to become an excuse for kids to dress up as ghouls and ghosties.   No Trick-or-Treaters knocked on our door last night, just as well since I had completely forgotten to stock up on treats!


25 October 2010

The mystery of the Mesa de Esparragal

For years we've been meaning to visit one of the most celebrated historical sites around Alcalá, referred to in every guidebook and tourist information website about the town.   La Mesa de Esparragal (lit. Plateau of the asparagus beds) is the location of Lascuta, one of the first stable settlements in the area and famous for the Lascuta Bronze, one of the oldest Roman finds in Spain (189 BC), which was discovered here in 1867 and is now in the Louvre.

Engraved on the bronze is an edict granting freedom to slaves from the nearby city of Hasta:.  

Lucius Aemilius, son of Lucius, Imperato, decreed that the subjects which the Hastansians have in the Tower of Lascuta will be free. As to the land and fort which they owned at that time, they were to keep and have it, he ordered, as long as the People and Senate of Rome saw fit.

All that remains of the site is a tower and and some bits of a wall and paved Roman road (calzado). But being the perfect time of year for a nice country walk with a bit of history thrown in, we drove off last Saturday in search of the Turris Lascutana.

We sort of knew where it was - 10 km out of Alcalá on the way to San Jose del Valle (guess which song I couldn't get out of my head!) -  but we had no detailed instructions of how to get there.  There are no Ordnance Survey maps in Spain, and instructions on the various websites all said slightly different things.  Nevertheless, a stone tower on a hilltop can't be that hard to find, we thought.

An hour and a half later, after various U-turns and an abortive hike down an old drovers' trail ), we spotted something distinctly tower-like on a hill a couple of miles off the road.  But the only track that might possibly have led there was the entrance to a farm, with fences hung with  signs warning of Coto Privado (private hunting ground) and Ganado Bravo (fighting bulls and their equally belligerent mothers).  Not wanting to be shot or gored, we decided to call it a day. When we are feeling more energetic (and have acquired a GPS device) we might try this route, which includes the Castillo de Gigonza:

21 October 2010

Bibiana Aído: Minister of Equal Rights

For a town of just a few thousand people, Alcalá has made an impressive contribution to Spain´s recent political landscape. It is known as la cuña de socialismo andaluz - the cradle of Andalucian socialism. Alfonso Perales Pizarro, one of the leading lights in the PSOE (Spanish Socialist Workers Party) was born here, and when he died a few years ago President Zapatero himself came down for the funeral. Since the restoration of democracy in the late 1970s the PSOE has always controlled Alcalá´s town council, leading to complaints of of cliquism and clannishness by the opposition parties PP (Popular Party) and IU (United Left) alike, probably the only thing they agree on.

Bibiana Aído, Minister of Equal Rights in the Spanish government, is the latest and brightest star in this particular firmament. Her father is Francisco Aído, the first post-democracy mayor of Alcalá, and her mentors include Manuel Chaves, former head of the Junta de Andalucia and now Third Vice President of the National Government. She grew up and went to school here, and apparently she was discussing politics with her father and his friends at an age when most little girls were playing with dolls.

Bibiana's ascendancy, undoubtedly assisted by her family connections, has been meteoric.  In 1993, aged 16, she helped form the Alcalá branch of the Juventudes Socialistas (Young Socialists)  She picked up three degrees in business, management and economics, two at the Universidad de Cádiz and one at the University of Northumbria.    From 2003 to 2006 she worked as the Provincial Cultural Delegate for the Junta de Andalucía in Cádíz, and from 2006 to 2008 she was Director of the Andalusian Agency for the Advancement of Flamenco.  In 2008, aged 31, she became the youngest Minister to enter the Spanish Government.

Fighting for women's rights in a country famous for machismo (literally "male-ness"; stereotypically, male chauvinism) is a challenge which she has tackled with gusto.  A powerful and well-publicised campaign against domestic violence and encouraging women to denounce their aggressive partners has led to a steep rise in the number of convictions.  Also on her job description are enforcing the legislation on equal pay, an adult literacy programme for women in  rural communities, updating Spain's abortion laws, rehabilitation of ex-prostitutes, and measures against sexual exploitation and the trafficking of women and children.

Bibiana comes to Alcalá to visit her extended family regularly.  Last year I saw her give the opening speech at the town´s summer fair.  She came on stage just after the annual beauty contest, which I found somewhat ironic until I remembered that the protests against the Miss World contest took place seven years before before she was born and such events appear to be uncontroversial in this post-feminist world.

The people of Alcalá revealed mixed feelings about Bibiana in a recent newspaper article.  Many are appalled by her pro-abortion stance and cannot reconcile this with her claim to be a good Catholic.  Others believe that the denuncias against domestic violence have led to innocent men being punished.  Some regard her family as elitist, and put her success down to nepotism rather than ability.

Be that as it may, as an ageing feminist lefty I can´t help feeling proud to live in the home town of Spain´s first Socialist Minister of Equality.

STOP PRESS:  Minutes after posting this, I read the announcement of the closure of the Ministry of Equal Rights as part of the government's austerity measures.  Its role is being subsumed into the Ministry of Health and Social Policy, and Bibiana is being demoted to Secretary of State.  Shame on you, Zapatero!!!