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Kate Nicol's Divulgence

Book Review: Divulgence by Kate Nicol

Divulgence is a contemporary literary romance, set in the Costa del Sol and Ronda’s white villages. This is the story of an expat who settles in Spain, gets married, and then her life falls to pieces. Download from Amazon UK: Divulgence.

Anyone who loves the western end of the Costa del Sol and inland territory as far as Ronda in the Serranía, will find Kate Nicol’s Divulgence very familiar. Grace Marchant seems to have everything. A successful business, a happy familiar home life with her husband, Leo, and friends.

Her life is a cliché of course, which is rarely true of anyone. An indiscretion on her part brings the entire house of cards crashing.

Two years later Grace’s guilt leaves her torn, almost literally as dream Grace leaves her husband. She starts a new life teaching English in the Genal Valley, from the back of a horse transporter she’s kitted out as a classroom.

Barely-awake Grace tries to continue her life, with Leo’s detachment and refusal to acknowledge her guilt adding to the tragedy. Her employees suspect, as does the little old lady Grace sees every day.

Each Grace needs to deal with her demons, perhaps poorly, and each is forced into situations she would prefer to avoid. The Spanish lover, Leo’s visiting sister, and her own friends, all with their often unwelcome advice.

This is the story of two Grace Marchants, both seemingly at a loss to reconcile the indiscretion, and valiantly trying to make sense of a world that she now can’t understand.

Kate Nicol, has pulled together an account of her protagonist’s life that is stimulating and fully believable – with a strongly written character I wanted the best for. The supporting cast in Grace’s life are instantly recognizable to any expat. I could imagine each character having a real world equivalent.

Intertwined in Grace’s fall, we are amused with many humorous events that catch Grace unaware. We are also introduced to expat life in Spain, warts and all.

Happily, Grace Marchant finds peace and there is a happy ending. Though, perhaps not quite what the reader expects.

Kate Nicol's Divulgence

Simon Hugh Wheeler's romantic comedy,"Loosely Translated"

Book Review: Loosely Translated, a Romance by Simon Hugh Wheeler

I’m always interested when I find a work of contemporary fiction partially set in Spain, because let’s face it, Andalucía is home now. Discovering Simon Hugh Wheeler, who lives in Ronda with his Spanish wife, and that he’s written a funny romance entitled, Loosely Translated
(buy at Amazon), which crosses from England to Spain, with hilarious consequences for the protagonist whet my appetite for a quick read of his novel.

So, Loosely Translated is a romantic comedy with a mixture of contrasts: love/hate, England/Spain and literature/cheesey murder mysteries. But perhaps the biggest contrast is between the two main characters: Mike, a boozing, womanizing, uncultured but somehow charming guy and Maria, a classy, intelligent and thoroughly professional girl. Cupid is going to need more than one arrow for these two to get together.

In the first scene, Mike appears boorish and a clown. Success has clearly made him lazy. María by contrast is sweet and lovely. I could be friends with her, and would probably advise her to keep significant distance between her and Mike. Much like her friend in the story, Carmen, does.

Mike writes really bad detective novels and Maria has to translate them. She is disgusted that he can get such a bad book published, actually a series of them – something that still eludes her. So she decides to rewrite his story.

One of my favourite scenes is when Mike is invited to Madrid for the launch of the second book in Spanish and Maria has to work overtime to “translate” for the audience, in case her little secret is exposed; some of Mike’s comments become hilariously twisted around.

María is determined to keep Mike under a watchful eye to prevent her secret getting out, and what follows is a series of very sweet, frequently funny disputes as Mike grapples with her lack of interest in him romantically. Readers familiar with Madrid and Córdoba will recognise a few landmarks. You may never look at them quie the same ever again.

An interesting quirk of the book is that it holds the record for the most epilogues: twenty-one! They reminded me of out-takes at the end of a movie. The author is clearly determined to give each character in the story a page all to themselves. It’s a nice touch. So often my favorite minor characters disappear while the main protagonist goes on to life happily ever after.

Simon Hugh Wheeler has written an enjoyable book that is perfect for reading on the beach, sipping sangria while soaking up the Spanish sun. Or, if you love Ronda as much as I do, it is perfect for reading in the sun, with a mountain backdrop.
Simon Hugh Wheeler's romantic comedy,"Loosely Translated"

La Bola shopping street Ronda

Shopping in Ronda

Ronda is a small city, some unkindly say it’s stuck in the 20th century from a retail point of view, but those of us who choose to make Ronda our home like it this way. Indulge in a touch of nostalgia and do some window shopping on La Bola, perhaps interrupting your walk for a café con leche y palmera and remember what it must have been like at the beginning of the 20th century.

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Spanish Fir

The Spanish Fir, Abies pinsapo

Dotted around the mountains of Grazalema and the Sierra de las Nieves, and also in the city of Ronda itself, the observant visitor will occasionally run across a type of evergreen fir that looks different from others.

This is Abies pinsapo, the national tree of Andalucía, and one of a very few species that survived through the last major ice age into the modern era. That alone gives the tree special significance, and sadly Abies pinsapo is endangered. Reforestation efforts seem to be working, but the tree is often found in zones that have a high risk of fire.

In their natural environment the Spanish Fir tree is most comfortable at higher altitudes, typically above 900m, which means that in most cases you’re going to have to get out of Ronda and the valleys to see the tree. Driving from Ronda to El Burgo, or from Zahara de la Sierra though Benamahoma to Grazalema are where they are easily seen without stopping. Of course, I prefer to avoid a car, and simply walk over the mountains :)

A fully grown Spanish Fir will be tall and upright, tapering to a point at the top, though it isn’t unusual for older trees to become irregular in shape. The leaves of the Spanish Fir are my favourite aspect of them. They are glaucous (blue-green in colour), tubular, only 2cm long, and waxy to touch. The colour of the leaves can in fact give the entire tree a distinctly blueish look from a distance.

Abies pinsapo’ seeds are cone-like, and can grow to nearly 20cm. Typically the tree will seed in the summer, and by October the cones are mature and falling to the ground. They are pink and green, and can be quite attractive.

There are two varieties of Abies pinsapo, the one known to us in Andalucía, and another that is very similar but finds its home in the Rif mountains of Morocco.

Spanish Fir

Cork Trees

The Cork Tree, Quercus suber

In the surrounding area to the west of Ronda, from Grazalema south through the Los Alcornacales Natural Park, you’ll find an unusual tree that locals use for making cork. It is the cork tree Quercus suber, native to the Mediterranean, but harvested extensively in Western Andalucía.

In truth, the casual nature lover might at first glance assume the cork tree is an Oak, with a similar dark coloured knobbly bark, at least this is what many travelers tell me when I encounter them. However, if you’re in the area shortly after the bark has been harvested you’ll quickly spot the difference.

The majority of harvesters will only remove about 1.5 to 2 metres of bark starting about half a metre from the ground. Taking too much bark can damage the tree since it is an essential part of the cork tree’s defence against fire. The summer months in Andalucia can be scorching, and the bark also helps maintain the tree’s stores of water.

After it is removed, the bark is soft and springy and children love to roll it around in their hands to see how much they can compress it. The processed cork is broken up and compressed and glued to form the cork sheets used in flooring tiles, gaskets, and the most well known, champagne stoppers.

The original invention of cork stoppers is credited to a Benedictine monk, Dom Perignon, whose name is used by Moët & Chandon on their premium champagne. Sadly there is no evidence he invented the cork stopper. You will however struggle to convince any cork harvester of this.

The Quercus suber is only able to be harvested approximately every ten years, and a mature cork tree of 50 years is needed to make bottle stoppers. Since the tree isn’t not cut down, cork forests can be left to nature for the most part, and have been known to live to more than 200 years.

The ecological benefits of cork cannot be understated, this truly is a renewable resource that allows for a complex eco-system of insects, reptiles, birds, mammals, and other flora to survive more or less uninterrupted by humans for centuries.

With Spain and Portugal together accounting for the lions share of global cork manufacturing, the financial benefits add to the ecological, and should be encouraged. so the next time you buy a bottle of wine, make sure it has a cork stopper in it.
Quercus suber cork tree Andalucia

Narcissus papyraceus

Paper White Narcissus (Narcissus papyraceus)

In the winter months around the Serrania, you really won’t need to go very far to see more Paper White Narcissus than you could ever dream of.

Around Ronda and the Pueblos Blancos – the white villages – you won’t even need to get off the beaten track. This highly scented flower blooms in December through to February while the weather is cool, and if March and April are wet and cold they may stay in flower.

According to all the guidebooks I’ve read, the Paper White Narcissus responds well to indirect light (and temperatures of 10 – 18 degrees celsius), and my own observation is that individuals may do well in full sun or exposed areas, but I generally see prettier clumps protected beside olive trees, or beside buildings.

They do seem to clump in sodden turf, and wherever the ground dries out too much they will quickly stop flowering, though this isn’t an absolute rule.

I’ve found the best time to photograph the Paper Whites is a day or two after the rain, but make sure you wear good shoes because you will sink a couple of inches into the mud if you get too close to them.

With their slender green leaves, the Paper White can be difficult to identify if it isn’t in flower, but during flowering, and then after they are quite distinctive.

The Paper White has only a very small amount of yellow, in the stamens, the rest of the flower and petals being white. Immediately surrounding the stamens will be a round white corona, and then usually six petals.

The white petals of the Paper White can vary quite a bit, from six narrow petals, to a combination of three straight pointy petals and three shorter rounder petals, and I’ve been told, as many as eight or nine petals.

After the flower has died, a green pea will remain on the end of the stem.

Woodcock Orchid

Woodcock Orchid – Ophrys Scolopax

The Woodcock Orchid is my favourite flower any time I go into the countryside, even though it isn’t always visible since it only blooms from March to June.

To find this orchid really means getting off the roads in most cases and onto farmland or public land in the Natural Parks, preferably to areas that haven’t had sheep or goats present.

Whilst the Woodcock Orchid is found all along the Mediterranean, as far as nature in Ronda goes, you really want to get up to Grazalema, which is where you’ll have the greatest chance of seeing it accessibly.

Otherwise, I’ve also seen this flower around the back of Montejaque, on the hills above Jimera de Libar, and on the Ronda side of the mountains separating Ronda from Cartajima.  I tend to walk a lot over private land, which guidebooks and tour guides will often not do, so I see flowers in places other nature lovers might not know about.

The flower is an odd arrangement, with three sepals at the top, two of which point out to the side, and the third is concave, shorter, and angles forwards like the neck of a cobra. The variety of Woodcock Orchid most commonly seen in the Serrania will have sepals of  violet shading to white, with a green centre stripe.

Inside the sepals will be three smaller petals, two of them pointing up and out like pink horns, and a third will be green in colour pointing forward, and from the side will look like a duck’s head and bill.

The lip of the flower, which is the biggest part, will be a dark reddish brown with a waistcoat and two fluffy arms sticking out from the shoulders. I know my description sounds odd, but look at the photo! Also, be sure to check the Wikipedia page for Ophrys Scolopax for another photo in detail.

Typically you’ll find Ophrys Scolopax reaching heights of around 50cm, and rarely in clumps, so if you see one specimen, that might be it for a few metres. Most of the plants I’ve seen have been around 30-40cm, so watch your step.

Woodcock Orchid

Prickly Pear

Prickly Pear (Higo Chumbo)

Dotting the Andalucian countryside from high to low, the Prickly Pear, or Higo Chumbo (Latin name Opuntia) as it’s known in Spanish, has become one of the iconic symbols of the region. Even though the succulent is found from Portugal to the Eastern shores of the Mediterranean, in Andalucia the fruit is held in special regard as a dessert.

Looking like an unfriendly briar patch of thorns attached to flat green paddles, the Prickly Pear is a succulent that grows in dry and semi-arid conditions, and can be a large as a mini-van when fully grown. Typically they will clump together making an impenetrable wall.

The variety most often seen in the wild in Andalucia is green with a checkerboard pattern of the thorns on the flats of the leaves spaced about 2.5cm apart, and two rows of offset thorns around the outer edges. The fruit grows on the outer edges of leaves and begins as a green bulb that usually grows to about the size of a pear, but more oval in shape.

A round yellow flower grows from the top of the green fruit, and after this has died, the fruit will begin to change colour until it is cerise toned, after which it will fall from the leaf. The green fruit is considered better tasting, and if the fruit is left to ripen will probably never be harvested.

Originally from the Americas’, the Prickly Pear has invaded almost every square kilometre of land, and has proved difficult to remove, you might say it is an invasive species that in some places is not at all desired.

Fortunately the fruit is edible, is very sweet, gives you a vitamin boost, and also makes a potent spirit when distilled. The leaves of the Prickly Pear can be peeled and fried, and was a popular vegetable substitute in the past when Andalucia was impoverished.

Care must be taken when peeling the fruit and gloves are recommended. The spikes on the fruit are easily avoided, but the small hairlike glochids detach and embed under the skin and are almost impossible to remove. A sturdy pair of rubber or leather gloves will be needed.

And if you ever have a toothache, it seems that as many as 9,000 years ago in the Americas’ people knew of the medicinal properties of the Prickly Pear which could lower fevers from drinking a juice made from the fruit, or by roasting the leaves, inflammation and toothache could be relieved by using it as a salve.

In the autumn months you will often see people gathering in the main shopping street of Ronda, and the bigger towns of Andalucia with their supply of Chumbo fruit ready to be peeled, sliced, and bagged, and then sold to passers by. If you’d like to try some, they will often have some water in a cup to help wash it down.

Information – Hotel booking – Activities – Events in Ronda and Surrounding Villages