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!