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!!!

12 October 2010

Pilar, patriotism and puentes

Today, 12 October, is a public holiday in Spain. Unlike the UK where all public holidays fall on a Monday, here they stick to the date, and when one falls on a Tuesday or Thursday many people take the intervening day off to make a long weekend.  This is called a puente (bridge) and can be a source of confusion and frustration when you first move here, because you can never tell which shops will be open, if any.  It is safest to assume nothing will be open for four days and stock up the freezer accordingly.

My US readers will be briefly wondering why the Spanish are celebrating Columbus Day, until they remember where Columbus first came from.  This day in 1492 is apparently when he first set foot on American soil.

12 October is celebrated in most South American countries and is variously called the Día de la Hispanidad (Argentina, where it first became a national holiday), Día de las Americas (Uruguay), Día de las Culturas (Costa Rica), or even Día de la Resistencia Indígena (Venezuela).  Elsewhere, including in Spain, it was known as Día de la Raza (race) until in 1958 Franco renamed it as the Día de la Hispanidad, Day of  the Hispanic Peoples, emphasising the mother-country´s ties with other Spanish speaking nations.

This term was officially dropped in 1987, when 12 October was picked as the date of the Fiesta Nacional de España, a national festival intended as a compromise between conservatives who wanted to emphasize the status of the monarchy and Spain's colonial history, and republicans wishing to commemorate Spain's burgeoning democracy with an official holiday.

In 2000, 12 October also took on the role of the Spanish Armed Forces Day, and a fairly low-key military parade is held each year in Madrid.

None of this particularly excites the imagination of the average Spaniard, however.  With their customary enthusiasm for all things Marian they simply refer to today as el Pilar; 12 October is the feast day of Nuestra Señora del Pilar, Our Lady of the Pillar, after a vision of Mary standing on top of a stone pillar in Zaragoza.

Our Lady of the Pillar is, conveniently, the patron saint of Spain, of the Hispanic peoples, and of the Guardia Civil.    What an incredible coincidence that Columbus landed in the Americas on her Feast Day ...

Del puerto de Palos partió Colón,
con tres carabelas y un gran corazón.
Soñaba con tierras lejanas tal vez,
adonde llevarles su amor y su fe.
Un doce de octubre a ellas llegó
y en nombre de España tomó posesión.


10 October 2010

Horror stories about Spain

I've just sat through a highly depressing set of videos on YouTube entitled "Spain is Dying". Filmed by an embittered Britsh ex-expat on the Costa Blanca, it shows scenes of boarded-up shops and bars, apartment complexes abandoned half-finished, rows of unsold dwellings in urbanizaciones where lawns and flowerbeds are no longer maintained.

We are told how expats are seeing their dreams collapse around them and are fleeing back to Britain in droves, or living in fear of criminal gangs, while lazy Spanish postmen throw their Christmas cards into the sea because they can't be bothered to deliver them. Brits who tried to "live the dream" and run their own bar are going bankrupt because there are no customers any more, or because of excessive bureaucracy and inflexibility shown by the Spanish authorities.

The British media are reporting similar tales of doom and gloom, with people's dream homes being demolished or appropriated under the "land grab" laws, pensioners living in penury due to falling exchange and interest rates, and corrupt politicians, builders and estate agents colluding to offload illegally-built properties onto unsuspecting buyers.

The man who made the videos presumably wants to warn off British people thinking of moving to Spain; I can't think why else he has gone to so much trouble.  But the scenario he is describing does not apply to Spain as a whole, only to parts of her blighted Mediterranean coast.

The greed of speculators, construction companies and politicians over the last forty years led to invasive and often hideous overdevelopment of what were once beautiful places. People from Northern Europe were lured there in their millions, by an image of "Sunny Spain" where life was just one long holiday based around sun, sea and cheap booze, to live in ghettos of little pink villas where nobody needs or even wants to learn about Spanish language or culture.   When the coastal plain was full to bursting, the developers started eating into the mountainous hinterland, creating unsustainable demand for scarce water resources and threatening some of Spain's richest wildlife habitats.

At the other end of the social scale, the gated communities of the very rich are equally alien. The urbanizacion of Sotogrande, for example, with its millionaires' yachts sparkling in the marina and its exclusive polo club, is like an inflatable sex doll; enticing, artificial and sterile, whose sole purpose is the gratification of pleasure.  There is nothing Spanish about these places except their location.

Spain convinced itself that all this was the way to strengthen its economy. Meanwhile the farmers and fishermen who used to live in these places were packed away out of sight somewhere. Their children got jobs in bars or hotels and saw money being thrown around like water by people living a hedonistic lifestyle that they themselves could never afford - little wonder some of them turned to crime.

I have every sympathy for those people whose dreams have turned into nightmares, but I do wish they wouldn't go back to the UK and blame Spain for their misfortunes.  To quote one of the contributors to my favourite expat forum:
"There are those who seem to think Spain is a British colony. They come with a sense of entitlement, speak no Spanish and make no effort to, and regard Spain as a 'third world' country ... and the Spaniards as backward morons.  The people who settle happily here are those who have had established, happy lives in the UK. They bring their level-headedness and contentment with them, don't expect paradise and learn to cope with all the little niggles and adjustments living in a foreign country entails."
Spain is undoubtedly going through a rough time at the moment, with 20% unemployment and over a million newly-built dwellings unsold. But away from those blighted Costas, life goes on more or less as usual; the festivals and ferias, the big family lunches on Sunday afternoons, the evening paseos, the bustling street markets. The Spanish people have come through far worse situations in living history and they will, eventually, come through this one.

04 October 2010

Vulture Culture

The Alcornocales Natural Park is home to at least 800 pairs of griffon vultures, and these magnificent if somewhat scary-looking birds can often be seen circling slowly on the thermals in the skies over Alcalá.   They like to nest among inaccessible crags, and there is a nesting site within walking distance of the town, past the campsite along the sendero de los molinos.  

The griffon vulture (Gyps fulvus) or buitre leonado as it is known in Spanish, is enormous.  It grows up to110 cm (43") long with a wingspan of around 2.5 metres - just over 8 ft.  First-time visitors often mistake them for eagles, but as a general rule eagles fly solo and vultures fly in groups.  They are also a completely different shape, with a bald head (more hygienic for burrowing deep in the entrails of a cow), very broad wings with "fingers" on the end, and short tail feathers. It has a white neck ruff and yellow bill. 

They feed on carrion, and in the past farmers would leave carcasses of dead livestock out on the mountains for them; a clean and effective way of disposing of the bodies.  However in 2002 an EU regulation was passed which made this practice illegal; the idea was to control the spread of BSE ("mad cow disease") but it also led to hungry vultures plundering urban rubbish tips like the one at Los Barrios.  Special vulture feeding stations have been set up to help them - you can see one on the mountains above Tarifa (details here) - and the Spanish government is trying to get the law reversed.  Numbers in the Alcornocales are said to be rising again.

Local writer Juan Leiva, in his series of childhood memories from the 1940s "Evocaciones Alcalainas", describes  a moment of great excitement in the town when a some youths captured an injured griffon vulture and dragged it limping up and down the street followed by a large group of small boys:

"The retinue followed after the vulture, shouting. We went along the Calle Real from the Plazuela to the Alameda and back, I don't know how many times. Some men who saw us said it was a griffon vulture, and that they came from Grazalema. Others said it was a golden eagle. But the young men were certain that the strong, curved beak and the claws were those of a vulture. The poor creature moved its head in sorrow, as if awaiting its sentence. The discussion ended and they dragged the vulture along, forcing it with the stick.

Halfway down the Calle Real, near the house where Dr Antonio Armenta lived, the animal refused to get up again. The young man carried on thrashing it until finally the creature hung its head and died. Don Antonio stood in his doorway, making a gesture of disapproval at such a death. Later, with his authority as Doctor, he ordered it to be carried to the common land by the Playa, where we played football, and buried. That night, the vulture's sorrowful eyes would not let us sleep."