26 September 2010

Alcalá vs Napoleon Bonaparte

This post is an abridged translation of an article by Gabriel Almagro published in El Alcornocal, our local paper. You can read the complete article in Spanish here.

The War of Independence in Alcalá de los Gazules, 1808-1813
In the build-up to the celebrations for the bicentenary of the 1812 Constitution, this is a good time to examine life in Alcalá de los Gazules during the years of French rule.  Knowledge of the events which took place here helps bring us closer to the actions of our ancestors who risked their lives fighting the French invaders, preparing the ground for the writing of the Constitution which formed the basis of a new era in Spain's history.

The French invasion began in the summer of 1808, when the Spanish people took up arms against the appointment by the Emperor Napoleon of his brother Joseph Bonaparte as King of Spain, following the abdication of the Bourbons in Bayona. Napoleon hoped to suppress the uprising by sending an army of 170,000 men who, on their arrival, found a much stronger resistance than they had imagined,. This led to an armed confrontation which we now call “La Guerra de Independencia” [known in English as the Peninsular Wars].

General Castaños
In the first enlistment organised by the town, on 7 June 1808, sixty-seven Alcalá men lined up to set off immediately for Seville. In addition 259 had already enlisted as riflemen in the local militia, so we are talking about a total of 326 volunteers, from a town of scarcely 1,000 inhabitants. Very soon Alcalá  had to make new appeals to arms because, as that great chronicler of that era, Pérez Galdós, tells us, the war was fought by “provincial regiments who were ignorant of war, but who were willing to learn; honest countrymen, many skilled in the art of hunting, and who were on the whole excellent marksmen … converted into warriors in the heat of that patriotic fire which inflamed the whole country”. On 19 July 1808, Alcalá men fought with General Castaños who defeated the French troops in open country at the Battle of Bailén - a victory celebrated across Europe as evidence that the French were not invincible, and in Alcalá by the release of a bull.

That victory inspired the hearts of Andalucians, who continued to attack and harass the French armies, but the advantage did not last very long. In November 1808 Napoleon Bonaparte arrived in Spain at the head of his Grand Army of 250,000 men, led by his most celebrated generals. Its advance across Spanish soil was total; only Andalucía put up serious resistance. From that moment all the French efforts were centred on Andalucía and in January 1810, after Marshal Soult's victory at Ocaña over the Spanish troops commanded by Areizaga, King Joseph Bonaparte ordered the invasion of Andalucía.  In less than a month the French had occupied all its principal cities except Cádiz, which with the arrival of the Supreme Central Junta of Andalucia, became the capital of Spanish resistance against the French.

The French Army in Alcalá de los Gazules (February 1810 - September 1812)
According to Madoz, the first French troops to arrive at Alcalá consisted of a detachment of fifty mounted dragoons, who entered the town on 10 February 1810. However, based on contemporary testimonies, the number is believed by the author of this article to be more like 200.

After the initial shock to the few Alcalainos remaining in the town (the majority had dispersed to the surrounding countryside) once the town had been taken it was necessary to accommodate the French army. This was resolved by converting the monasteries of La Victoria and Santo Domingo into lodgings for the troops, while the leaders were given rooms in private houses.

On 2 March 1810, a party of between 500 and 600 men armed with blunderbusses, daggers and axes entered the town, taking the French by surprise and assassinating eighteen of them. The intervention of the monks of La Victoria prevented a greater massacre. A few days later the French army, having found out what had happened, carried out their reprisal.  As well as cutting the throats of whoever crossed their path, the French committed acts of destruction on public buildings and private houses alike. Among the first to be ransacked were the public granary, the churches and the nunnery; they even burned the extraordinary library of Santo Domingo and and did extensive damage to the monastery of La Victoria.  In the private dwellings, they plundered whatever food and money they could find.

The search for supplies was continuous throughout the war, by the French and the Spanish armies alike. Both were continually passing through the area - the French because they liked to entrench themselves in their barracks at Medina Sidonia, and the Spanish because of their great mobility, following the strategy of General Ballesteros [the term "guerrilla warfare" dates from this period].

Life in Alcalá was greatly affected by the war, not only because of the increasingly frequent recruitment drives by the Spanish army, but by the continual demands for horses and beasts of burden, materials of war, food, grain, firewood, money ...  These petitions came from both the French and Spanish armies, neither of which occupied the town permanently.  Eventually, faced with the impossibility of sheltering there, the French army decided to blow up the castle, which they did in September 1811.

In August 1812, when the French defeat at the Battle of Arapiles (Salamanca) forced them to retreat from Andalucia, General Ballestero and some of his troops visited Alcalá to ensure that the region was free of the invaders.  This was achieved on 30 September, when the last French troops were pursued through the sierras and Alcalá was finally liberated from the French yoke.

22 September 2010


The average Spaniard eats 15% more fruit and vegetables (excluding potatoes) than the average resident of the UK. But whereas 7% of Brits declare themselves to be vegetarian, only 0.5% of Spaniards do (4 million people compared to just 200,000).

So it is perhaps not surprising that vegetarian visitors to Spain (let's call them VVs) often have difficulty when eating out, especially away from the big cities.  There are a few specialist vegetarian cafes in places which have a lot of overseas visitors or residents, usually run by foreigners, but your average Spaniard definitely prefers a bit of meat or fish with his or her daily 400g of vegetable matter.

The following scenario is common: the VV goes into a restaurant and asks for something with no meat in it. A vegetable stew is recommended - traditional Andalusian berza. When it arrives, nestling amongst the chickpeas and cabbage is a small lump of fatty bacon. The VV complains.  The waiter is perplexed.  "¡Eso no es carne, es tocino!" he explains.  The VV sighs with exasperation, pushes it aside and orders (yet another) omelette.

It may help to look at the Spanish attitude to vegetarianism from a different perspective.

During and after the Civil War there were chronic food shortages and rationing, even famine conditions, especially in Andalucia where people were driven to eating berries, thistles and snails harvested from the countryside. Any Spanish person over 70 will have lived through that era, possibly even lost a relative to starvation; an estimated 200,000 people died of hunger in the 1940s. They will have brought up their children with a very different attitude to food than the casual wastefulness and fastidiousness often observed today.

Things improved somewhat in the 1960s, but eating fresh meat was still a luxury rather than a day-to-day occurrence.  It was common to keep chickens, rabbits and pigeons to eat on special occasions, and fishing, hunting or poaching provided some welcome extras.

Pigs, on the other hand, could be raised in the back yard and fed on leftovers. They would be slaughtered just before Christmas and every ounce of meat, blood, innards, feet, ears, even the skin would be used.  The lean meat would provide a Christmas feast, and the legs were hung up on hooks and cured to make jamón.  Everything else would be made into chorizo, morcilla, salchichas and tocino which, used sparingly, would last through the year, adding flavour and nourishment to dishes that were comprised mainly of vegetables, pulses, rice, pasta or bread.

This is why these preserved pork products are not regarded as "meat" and why the waiter gets upset.

I implore VVs to display a little sensitivity and tolerance when eating out.  Your lifestyle choice is confusing to people who associate the absence of meat with poverty and hardship.  So what if your paella is made with chicken stock, it´s not going to poison you.  If there´s a bit of ham in your soup, just leave it.

Alternatively, you could consider modifying your self-imposed dietary restrictions and enjoy some of Spain's gastronomic delights.  A VV friend of mine now treats herself to a plate of jamón ibérico while she´s here, reassured that the pampered black pigs grazing on acorns in the dehesas of Extremadura have had a pretty good life.


Data sources

15 September 2010

Life's a Beach

The Costa de la Luz, or "Coast of Light", boasts some of the finest beaches and nature reserves in Europe.  It stretches for over 200 miles from Ayamonte on the Portuguese border to Tarifa, the southernmost point of mainland Europe.  It faces onto the Atlantic ocean; head due west and eventually you will pitch up in West Virginia. With its wide, windswept beaches of golden sand, and those great rolling waves beloved of surfers, it has a completely different character from the crowded and tideless costas of Mediterranean Spain.

Within an hour or so´s drive of Alcalá you can reach all the Costa de la Luz beaches that fall within the Province of Cádiz:

Sanlúcar de la Barrameda's beach is on the mouth of the Rio Guadalquivir, one of Spain´s longest rivers and the border between the Provinces of Cádiz and Huelva.  Its waterfront restaurants are famous for langostinos and the driest of all dry sherries, manzanilla - a combination almost as magical as eggs and bacon.  You can take a boat-ride up the river and set foot (albeit briefly) in Doñana Parque Natural, one of Europe´s most important nature reserves.  There is horseracing on the beach in August.

Chipiona sticks its thumb out into the Atlantic and is the home of Spain´s tallest lighthouse.  Is a typical Spanish family seaside resort, with loads of great seafood restaurants and four miles of Blue Flag beaches, packed solid in July and August.

Rota is a well manicured fishing-harbour-turned-yacht-marina, with two decent beaches, one each side of the marina.  It is largely an adventure playground for escapees from a huge US Navy and Airforce base nearby; you will hear a lot of English spoken here.  The nicest way to visit the town is by ferry from the port in Cádiz.

El Puerto de Santa Maria straddles the Rio Guadelete on the northern side of the Bahia de Cádiz.  To the northwest of the elegant old town the beaches are jealously guarded by the sterile urbanizaciones of Vistahermosa, Puerto Sherry and Costa Ballena - mile after mile of luxury dwellings with pools and security gates.  In El Puerto itself there are two splendid sandy beaches, one either side of the river mouth: La Puntilla with its pine groves and campsite to the west, and Valdelagrana with its apartment blocks and promenade to the east.  Like all the beaches in this area, they are only really crowded in the Spanish holiday season, early July to mid September.

On the southern end of Valdelagrana beach is Los Toruños nature reserve, where you can hire bicycles or canoes and explore the salt-marshes.

Cádiz  A short ferry hop across the bay from El Puerto, the oldest city in Europe sits proudly on a peninsular joined to mainland Spain by two threads - a bridge to the industrial port of Puerto Real, and a causeway across the bay to the naval town of San Fernando.  La Caleta is a small, crowded beach in the old town, with a nocturnal party scene in the summer months.  On the Antlantic side of the peninsular is the Playa Victoria, with its big luxury hotels. 

San Fernando  The sandy beach stretches for a further fifteen miles or so alongside the causeway between Cadiz and San Fernando, broken only by a military area at Camposoto, after which it becomes the Playa Castillo, stretching for three miles down to the Punta del Boquerón river-mouth opposite Sancti Petri Island.  Facilities and chiringuitos (beach bars) can be found at intervals along this stretch, but much of it is wild and undeveloped; behind it lies the Bahia de Cadiz nature reserve, with flamingos and many other wading birds picking their way through the salt pans.

Chiclana de la Frontera   Sancti Petri is an abandoned fishing village located at the northern end of the Playa de la Barrosa. It adjoins the Bahía de Cádiz Natural Park and has a sheltered, rocky beach, facing a small island of the same name (boat trips to the island are available in summer).   Sancti Petri was used by General Franco and his entourage as their holiday retreat. The fishermen were forced out of their homes and when Franco died, the place fell into ruin. It is now being renovated in a fairly low key fashion, with a fishing port and marina, sailing and windsurfing schools, and a few bars and restaurants.

La Barrosa, a.k.a. "Chiclana-on-Sea", is one of Spain´s most famous beaches with five miles of fine sand and bars, hotels, restaurants and watersports facilities to suit all tastes and pockets.  At the southern end is the upmarket resort of Novo Sancti Petri, a little cluster of four-star hotels, apartments and golf courses favoured more by Northern Europeans than by the Spanish.

Conil de la Frontera from a distance looks like someone has dropped a handful of sugar cubes by the side of the ocean.  It is one of the most popular resorts on the Costa de la Luz, especially for younger people as it has a thriving nightlife in summer.  There are ten miles of beaches to suit all tastes, from long open sandy stretches to small isolated coves backed by sandstone cliffs. The clean blue waters are perfect for swimming and snorkeling. The beach closest to the town itself is called Playa de los Bateles. Others include Playa de la Fontanilla, Playa Fuente del Gallo and Playa de Roche.  Cala Pitones is a secluded cove, off the beaten track, where swimsuits are optional.

El Palmar is a couple of miles south of Conil, but falls in the territory of Vejer de la Frontera, a splendid white hill-town five miles inland.  The beach is more of the same - miles of white sand, surfing, a few bars and cafes that only really come alive at night.  The main selling-point is that you can park right by the beach, good if you have sunbeds and parasols to cart around.

Barbate The beach continues unbroken past the little resort and nudist beach of Zahora, until it reaches Cape Trafalgar (Nelson's glorious victory is seen from a rather different perspective here of course).   It then swings east to Caños de Meca, an old hippy hangout (or do I mean hangout for old hippies?) with sandy coves and rocks.

The coast becomes more rocky from here on, and the beaches are replaced by steep cliffs topped pine trees until you get to the splendid sandy inlet of Playa Hierbabuena, just outside of the fishing port of Barbate itself.  If you can tear yourself away from the beach, the walk along the cliff through the pines is simply wonderful.

Barbate's town beach is Playa Carmen, flanked by a long esplanade lined with seafood restaurants and icecream parlours.  The local specialty is atun rojo, red tuna, caught locally but most of it is exported to Japan to be made into sushi.  Preserved tuna - mojama or sarda - is delicious and makes a good souvenir for the folks back home, as well as supporting the beleagured local economy.

Zahara de los Atunes  Southeast of Barbate the coast is fairly wild and inaccessible - much of it reserved for the military - until you reach the fishing village of "Zahara of the tuna-fish".  Zahara's undoubted charms have made it almost too popular, and it is now almost completely dominated by hotels, hostels and tourist restaurants.

Bolonia  A little further along is one of my favourite places on the entire planet.  In fact I really shouldn't be telling you about it, but it's sufficiently inaccessible for the crowds to stay away.  Not only is there a fabulous beach, the bluest sea and the largest sand dune you've ever seen, but an entire Roman village, Baelo Claudio, in excellent state of repair standing right there next to the beach!

(those little dots on the left of the beach are people!)
Tarifa   Our journey ends at the magical town of Tarifa, with the Rif Mountains clearly visible a few miles across the water and the flavours of Morocco strongly evident in the walled old town.  Whipped by the Levante from the east and the Poniente from the west, Tarifa is almost always windy and the vast beaches of Las Lances and Valdevaqueros are a mecca for kite-surfers, wind-surfers and, er, surf-surfers, as well as twitchers who come to watch the millions of birds who pass overhead migrating to and from Africa.  The most sheltered beach is the Playa Chica, "little beach", just to the west of the jetty.


05 September 2010

Nuestra Señora de los Santos

Every Spanish town and village has its own local version of the Virgin Mary; ours is Nuestra Señora de los Santos, Our Lady of the Saints.  They are represented by luxuriously dressed statues, wearing a crown of stars, and occupying pride of place in the local church.  They are often named after the location of an apparition, such as Nuestra Señora del Pilar who appeared on a marble pillar in Zaragosa, or a desirable quality, such as Nuestra Señora de la Merced (Mercy).  Nuestra Señora del Carmen, patroness of the Carmelite order, is especially popular amongst fishermen and seafarers.

Sanctuaries and shrines dedicated to Our Lady can be found all over Spain, and pilgrimages to these places, which are known as romerías, are typified by a festive atmosphere, in total contrast to the solemn parades of Semana Santa (Easter Week) with their penitents in pointy hats.

Alcalá is currently in the middle of a series of events dedicated to its patroness, including the feria, the doma vaquera and even the Alejandro Sanz concert.   The culmination of these events takes place next Sunday with the romería to the Santuario de la Virgén de los Santos, a few miles out of town.

Early in the morning hundreds of people will walk, ride, drive or hitch a ride on a wagon from Alcalá to the Santuario.  Thousands more will arrive by car from surrounding towns and villages.   At midday, following a series of blessings and services in the chapel, the statue of the Virgin will be brought out and paraded round the grounds, accompanied by Alcalá´s indomitable brass band and hordes of people on foot and on horseback, all taking turns to carry the platform on which the statue is mounted, and all trying to touch her at some point.   This will be followed by a big open-air party, with plenty to drink and a giant caldareta (caldron of stew).

Yesterday they drew lots for rooms at the Santuario where families can stay during the celebrations.  Demand always exceeds supply, and the unlucky ones will set up camp in the olive groves or drive back into town at night.


04 September 2010

Doma Vaquera - Cowboy Dressage

Doma Vaquera is a style of horseriding which enables the rider to carry out daily duties on horseback on a working cattle farm. It was developed out of the use of the horse for handling the fighting bulls of Spain and grew out of decades of daily work with them in the open countryside. The style of riding, tack, dress and discipline of the working horses evolved into a competitive event, which has followers all over the world.  

Around Alcalá these techniques are still used on working farms and it is not unusual to see horsemen rounding up cattle in the fields, sometimes carrying garrochas, three-metre poles which are used instead of ropes or lassoes to control the animals.

In the video below, recorded last night at a doma vaquera contest in Alcalá, the horseman is on foot and controls the horse using riendas largas, or long reins.   The soundtrack is the theme from The Last of the Mohicans; this was actually used in the contest, but because the of the wind in my camera microphone you could hardly hear it so I've added it as a separate audio track.

02 September 2010

Alejandro Sanz - Alcalá's adopted son

The town is in a complete tizzy at the moment.  Alejandro Sánchez Pizarro, or Alejandro Sanz as he is better known, is giving a concert on Saturday at the football ground, as part of his latest tour.  It is generating almost as much excitement as the Pope´s visit to Santiago later this year.  Eight thousand tickets have been sold, and every hotel room and holiday let for miles around has been booked.  The Mayor has assured us that there will be parking for 4000 vehicles, and 150 people have been conscripted to undertake security and traffic management.   Special events are being laid on to entertain the crowds over the rest of the weekend, including a horse-riding display, an art exhibition and a medieval market.  The bars and restaurants are looking forward to a windfall weekend to make up for the fall in tourist numbers caused by the recession.

Not being a great fan of pop music, I had never heard of this fellow before I moved here, but he is definitely the Robbie Williams of the Spanish-speaking world (which includes 45 million people in the USA).  Since his recording career began in 1989 he has sold 21 million records, clocked up 200 platinum discs and topped the charts in 18 countries.  He has won countless accolades including 15 Latin Grammy awards - more than any other artist.  He has recorded and performed on stage with Shakira, Alicia Keys, the Corrs and many others.

Sanz is a scion of one of Alcalá´s most prominent families, the Pizarros.  He was actually born in Madrid, but he spent a couple of school holidays here and to all Alcalainos he is an "hijo adoptivo" - an adopted son - and they are deeply proud of him.  The boy done good, as they say.  The council  (half of whom are members of the Pizarro clan) have been trying to get him to give a concert here for six years, and their dream has finally come true.  It is by far the smallest venue on his tour, and at €30  it is also the cheapest - to see him at the Palacio de Deportes in Madrid the following Wednesday would set you back €70.

Nevertheless, I shan't be joining the crowds of swooning females down on the football ground on Saturday.  I get twitchy in big crowds, and we will probably hear it from our roof terrace anyway.