Saturday, January 31, 2009

There Is No Bad Weather….

A friend of mine once told me, “There is no bad weather, only inadequate clothing.” This weekend’s excursion was a perfect illustration of that wise old saying. I suppose I should know better than to go hiking in the mountains in January, even in southern Spain. This weekend’s expedition was to Ventisquero, in the Sierra Sur de Jaén. For you geologists, this is the northernmost of the two mountain ranges which separate the province of Córdoba from the province of Granada (all of which are still in Andalucía). Sorry, there are no pictures this time; there was just no opportunity, as you’ll see.

Yes, southern Spain is mostly sunny and warm. There is snow up in the mountains, but I just haven’t seen anything too bad. When I was reading the weather forecasts for this weekend, they were predicting rain (a 25% probability, not uncommon at this time of year) and snow at the higher altitudes. Based on experiences to date, I was expecting slushy snow that would melt upon hitting the ground. I have a nice warm jacket which is not waterproof, so I brought a plastic poncho just in case. I also bought a pair of polainas (a sort of waterproof leggings), figuring that they would probably stay in my backpack. As always, I was wearing tennis shoes; I’ve never yet found a pair of hiking boots that I liked, either in Spain or in America. The polainas covered most of the top part of the shoes, so I figured my feet would stay dry through anything short of a continuous heavy downpour. All set, right?

I started walking to the pickup point at 6:30am , leaving Tonya blissfully sleeping. It was raining when we boarded the bus…not an auspicious beginning. I slept most of the way to the pueblo of Valdepeñas de Jaén, where we began the hike. It was raining, of course, so I put on the polainas and the poncho right from the beginning. The good news is that the rain stopped after we’d walked a few kilometers. The bad news is that it turned into snow. The worse news is that it was sticking to the ground, rather than politely melting away.

At this point, I was still doing fine. It didn’t feel that cold (my layered outfit was doing its job), and the poncho and polainas were keeping me reasonably dry. There was a fairly stiff wind, but it was at our back for most of the ascent. I tried to ignore that nagging voice that was reminding me that we’d be walking into the wind on our way down. The snow kept getting deeper and the temperature dropped; before long, we were walking on icy ground covered with a layer of fairly slippery snow. I was using both of my walking sticks, and this probably saved me from landing on my rear end in the snow a few times.

Francisco, one of my walking companions, pointed out that I’d put on the polainas backwards, so they weren’t covering my shoes as effectively as they could. At the next rest stop, I fixed the polainas, but noticed that my poncho had developed a rip; historically, this has been a bad sign. At this rest stop, about a third of the group decided to turn around and head back down. I took a deep breath and decided to join them; the weather was continuing to get worse, and I simply wasn’t outfitted for it. As it turns out, the rest of the group turned around shortly afterward. Nobody made it to the peak today.

The return trip went from merely uncomfortable to positively nasty. As I’d feared, we were getting sharp little granules of snow blown into our faces. The wind continued getting worse. The little tear in my poncho turned rapidly into a big tear, and then a second tear, and before long it was in tatters. One of the other hikers later showed me a picture he’d taken of me from the rear; I looked like a scarecrow, with shreds of red plastic poncho trailing behind me like pennants. At least the wind kept the front of the poncho pinned against my chest, so it was still keeping me from getting wet.

As we came down into the pueblo, the snow turned back into rain. Finally came the blessed moment when both the rain and the wind stopped for a time. I dumped the remaining shreds of poncho into the first trash can I saw. By the time it started raining again, there wasn’t any wind, and so the umbrella was effective. Thank goodness; otherwise I’d have been soaked to the skin! We found the only open restaurant in town (with radiators, which were highly appreciated!) and enjoyed one of those wonderful Spanish comidas with wine and bread and lots of dishes cooked in olive oil.

The lesson here is almost cliché for Oregonians: if you’re going to do foul weather hiking, don’t skimp on buying the proper equipment. In my defense, today’s weather was much worse than what I’d expected. I simply don’t do enough of these kinds of excursions to make it worthwhile to invest in the gear.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Spanish Political Humor

It continues to amaze me how much the Spanish people are interested in American politics. I suppose it’s inevitable; American policy decisions have a great deal of effect on other countries. There is a lot of optimism in the wake of Obama’s election. I hope he’s able to live up to the great expectations of the United States and the rest of the world.

To understand the political humor of another country, you have to get to a certain level of awareness of their politics. After some months, I’m to the point that I can understand most (but still not all!) of the editorial cartoons. There was a good one this morning, which will require a little bit of background. President José Zapatero of the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party (PSOE) was elected in 2004 in the wake of the Madrid bombings. He fulfilled his campaign promise to remove Spanish troops from Iraq. This made two strikes against him in the eyes of former president George W. Bush, and he wasn’t given the opportunity for a third strike; throughout his presidency, he’s received the cold shoulder from the Bush administration. This came to a head during the planning of the international economic summit last November, to which Zapatero was pointedly not invited. (He finally attended as a guest of French president Nicolas Sarkozy.) Naturally, with the change of American administrations, there is a great deal of hope for better relations between Spain and the United States.

Here’s a link showing the page with the cartoon.

Sorry for the poor quality, but unless you want to pay for a subscription to El Diario Córdoba, you can´t see the good copy! However, the drawing is pretty simple. It shows President Zapatero in pajamas, sitting on the edge of his bed in the middle of the night, looking at the telephone while his wife is trying to sleep. He says, “How strange! It’s been two days since he became president, but he hasn’t called me yet.” His wife replies, “Surely he’s thinking about it, but he can’t find your number. Go to sleep already.”

Certainly a different point of view!

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

A Spanish Pueblo

This last weekend, our good friend Lola took us out to visit her pueblo. (Sorry, no pictures this time…we didn’t think to bring the camera.) Many of the people here in Córdoba didn’t grow up in town; they grew up in some pueblo, and came to the city to find work. They still go back to their pueblos for the holidays, to visit with their mothers and fathers and cousins and nephews and nieces and so on and so on. Lola’s pueblo is actually an aldea. (This doesn’t translate exactly…it’s a small village that is under the jurisdiction of a larger town. Not exactly a bedroom community, because the aldeas are generally agricultural.) The aldea is called El Garabato (literally, The Scribble. Cool name!). It’s under the jurisdiction of the pueblo La Carlota. La Carlota was one of a series of pueblos founded in the 1700’s by King Carlos III along the royal highway from Madrid to Sevilla. He wanted some more population in the area to discourage the “bandoleros”, highwaymen who were causing headaches for travelers. Lola told us this to explain why there was nothing really old in the pueblo. I don’t know….for someone from the United States, something dating from the 1700’s seems reasonably old.

El Garabato is about 30km out of Córdoba, in a lovely green area of rolling hills covered with orchards of olive trees. Lola seemed to know, or to be related to, everyone we saw there. She was waving to people from the car, and stopping to chat with people on the street. Very soon, we gave up trying to keep track of who was related to whom. We drove out to an olive orchard owned by a brother-in-law, and found the family out picking olives. (It’s harvest season.) The ground seemed pretty rocky for a cultivated field, but I guess the trees don’t care. Tonya got right into the spirit of things, and pitched in to help pick olives for a little bit. The brother-in-law finally insisted that she stop before she stained her clothes…we weren’t exactly dressed for olive-picking!

We also visited the factory where they press the olive oil. Again, it helps that Lola knows everybody; this was not a place set up for visitors, but we got the grand tour. The olives are dumped from trucks onto a conveyor belt, then dropped through an air stream to separate out the leaves and a water stream to clean them up. They are crushed in a big machine…I couldn’t tell if it was hydraulic or not. In the old days, they were crushed using huge cone-shaped millstones, some of which could still be seen near the factory. The resulting slush of olive and oil and skins and crushed seeds went into a centrifuge to separate out the constituent ingredients. None of it goes to waste; the crushed seeds are used as a combustible like coal, the meat of the olives is used for animal feed, and the oil is the main cash product.

When we were talking later to Lola’s mother (a very nice old lady, but with a thick rural accent that made her very difficult to understand), she was lamenting the changes that had come about as a result of the machinery. When she was a child, her father was a fairly wealthy landowner, and agriculture was very much a community activity. During harvest season, everyone would turn out for the picking. With everyone helping, the work wasn’t onerous, and there was lots of time during siesta for socializing. Lots of manpower was needed to move the olives about, and to handle the harnessed burros turning the millstones. Nowadays, the factory runs with a staff of about ten men. Lots of people have to leave the pueblos to find work; you simply don’t need as many people to work the land. It sounds like the transition that happened in the USA in the late 1800’s, but here it didn’t happen until the late 1900’s. This is at least partially due to forty years of dictatorship under Franco.

Some of Lola’s stories also underscore how much Spain’s development was delayed in comparison to the rest of western Europe. When she was a little girl…this would have been in the 1960’s….they still pulled water in buckets from the well. Her father would fill huge earthen jars (sort of like the old Greek amphorae) with water, load them on the burros, and take them down into the pueblo. It was a real treat for Lola to get to perch on top of the mules during the water-carrying trips. Charred pieces of olive branches, called picón, were used as fuel in the braseros; electricity was not easily available at the time, and why would you use it to heat a home? Lola would play in the picón bin, and get in trouble when her mother found her all blackened with soot. Washing clothes was also a community activity. We saw the old community laundry area; washtubs in a huge slab of concrete, with channels for the water to come in one side and drain out the other, and a ridged part where you’d rub the clothes. All of this sounds like something from the 1800’s, rather than the 1900’s.

We’re certainly getting views of Spain that you wouldn’t get on the typical vacation trip!

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Tour of Italy

From the start, I have to say that a tour group wasn’t our first choice. We had visions of fat old people in flowered shirts being shepherded from site to site. Still, after doing the research, we decided that it was the most efficient and economical way to do an initial reconnaissance of Italy. On the plus side, we visited a lot more places than we’d have visited on our own. In eight days, we visited Rome, Pompeii, Naples (Napoli), the Isle of Capri (that’s KAH-pree), Assisi, Siena, Florence (Firenze), Pisa, Padua, and Venice (Venezia). (As a side note: why do we English speakers feel obligated to take poetic names like Napoli, Firenze, Venezia, and Roma, and turn them into boring names like Naples, Florence, Venice, and Rome?) And going by bus between cities meant that we got to enjoy a lot of beautiful countryside. On the minus side, we didn’t get to spend enough time in any of these places. And Tonya wasn’t thrilled with the fact that all of the tour guides were speaking Spanish. Still, it gave us a solid base for planning future trips. We’ve already scheduled a return to Venezia, and are planning at least one more trip down south.

Spain is wonderful. France is wonderful. Holland and England are wonderful. We’ve thoroughly enjoyed ourselves in all of these places. But Italy is…Italia! It’s in a different league. The ambience, the countryside, the towns, the art, the buildings….wow. It’s a place that we’ll want to visit again and again. We took so many pictures that we had to post them in two locations…take a look at them at


With two half-days free, and blessed with lovely weather, we were able to explore Roma on our own more thoroughly than the other places. Still, there’s a lot more to see, and we didn’t get to a tenth of it. The only tour event we joined in Roma was the visit to the Vatican…well worth it when we saw the length of the line we got to avoid. (We did have a small scare on our way to the Vatican. We got separated from our group when we crossed with another group, and ended up following the wrong guide. Happily, everyone was going in the same direction, so we hooked back up with our people at the group entry line. After that, we made a point of sticking close to the guide.) The subway system is inadequate for a European capital city, but it got us more or less where we wanted to go. What a joy just walking the streets! There was some new wonder around every corner. We took to looking inside every church we passed, and were rewarded with amazing artwork. We had an exciting moment on New Year’s Eve….we didn’t return to the hotel with the tour group, because we wanted to stay longer in the city. When we went to board the Metro to come back to the hotel for dinner, we found that the Colosseum stop was closed for a New Year’s Eve concert. We hoofed it to the next Metro stop (a good distance away), and then had to walk another mile and a half once we got back out to the area of the hotel. We made it to dinner with a good ten minutes to spare.

We spent too little time in Pompeii, the ancient Roman city that was buried by volcanic ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, and not re-discovered until the 1700’s. It gives a fascinating glimpse of what an actual Roman town looked like; most towns have been built over so many times in the last 2,000 years that all you can find of the original town are the excavated foundations. It’s a bit chilling to see how much population there is today between Pompeii and the volcano. If there were another eruption, the loss of life could be staggering. In A.D. 79, the residents of Pompeii had about three days’ warning that something was wrong (the springs which supplied the city’s water had gone dry, although they didn’t know that meant an eruption was coming). Of the hundreds of thousands of people living there today, how many could be evacuated in time?

Sad to say, I thought Napoli was the ugliest city we saw in Italy. Industrial, sprawling, dirty, congested…yuck. We were given a choice between spending a half-day in Napoli, or paying 76€ each for the boat ride to the Isle of Capri. Really no choice at all. I felt as if we´d been shaken down. Still, we had a lovely time on Capri. We took a boat ride to see some of the famous sea grottos, and then a funicular ride to the top of the hill. I´m told that we saw a couple of European celebrities up there, but I didn´t recognize any of them. While walking down to the port, we saw a man working in his vegetable garden, which also had a few fruit trees. We told him, “Molto bello!” (Very pretty!). He gave us some oranges from his trees. Yes, they were delicious.

The picturesque hillside town of Assisi was the home of St. Francis, who would probably be appalled at the size of the cathedral built in his name. While we were in the cathedral, we heard a soloist singing “Tu scendi dalle stelle” (O Bambino), a lovely Christmas carol. Very nice.

The main attractions in Firenze are the museums, although we had a nice time walking through town as well. The highlight of the day was getting to see Michelangelo’s famous sculpture of David. I didn’t expect to be impressed by it, but I was. Part of it was the size; I don’t know the exact height, but it looked to be a good twenty feet. Another part was the incredible attention to detail, all the way down to the veins on the forearms and feet. Still another was the oh-so-human expression on David’s face as he prepared to confront Goliath; the combination of fear and pride. Definitely a masterpiece. Still, as our guide pointed out, it was the work of a young man (Michelangelo was 26 when he completed it, she said). It was sculpted in imitation of the old Greek statues, with a rather conventional subject and pose. His later works were more innovative in terms of content and pose. Still, for all that, it’s far and away his best-known work.

We enjoyed a lovely drive over the Apennine Mountains to get to Venezia. Making these drives emphasized how small the European countries are in comparison to the USA; in about four hours, we drove across the width of Italy. Venezia is fairly close to the Alps, which supply nice icy winds to the city. It was COLD. We opted to spend more time inside the museums, rather than walking around the town and freezing our as….ah….toes off.

It’s difficult to say what constitutes an “island” in Venezia. The city started on a few small islands in a shallow lagoon, and was extended on wooden pylons set into the sand. The water in the canals is at sea level. Thinking that way, you can’t say there’s an “island of Venezia.” Instead, there are dozens (or even hundreds) of little islands connected by bridges. Little by little, the level of the sea has been increasing (global warming, whether caused by mankind or not, is a reality), while the city has been slowly sinking into the sands of the lagoon. It’s entirely possible that Venezia will one day disappear beneath the sea. There are some very ambitious engineering projects underway to try to save the city; only time will tell if they can do it. In Piazza San Marco, we saw a very interesting thing: stacks of wooden platforms on metal legs about a foot high. Apparently, at this time of year, the piazza is sometimes under water at high tide. Not wanting to slow down the tourist trade, they set out platforms to create walkways across the piazza. Brr. Maybe the sinking of Venezia is closer than we think.

We’ll be back to Venezia in February for the annual carnival; with luck, it won’t be quite so frigid. Tonya got to see the Murano glassworking demonstration, although it was in Venezia rather than on the island of Murano. It was neat to see the glasswork, and the heat of the oven was quite welcome.

Another side note: our flight to Roma left from Madrid, and we took advantage of this to spend a full day visiting the Prado Museum. We’ve been through Madrid several times by now, but this was the first time that we had time and the museums were open. The Prado has an amazing collection of works by Velasquez, Goya, El Greco, and other Spanish artists. (Yes, I realize that El Greco wasn’t Spanish, but his did all of his famous paintings in the royal Spanish court.) An unexpected surprise was several works by Bosch and Brueghel. We couldn’t take pictures there, but here are links to some of the paintings we saw (my favorites, courtesy of Webmuseum):