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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.

Clear Waters at Nerja

A Daytrip to Nerja

Visitors to Ronda find the city to be a wonderful location from which to explore the rest of Andalucia, and the Axarquia coast is within easy distance to spend a day on the beach, visit Nerja Caves, or explore the little towns of the coast.

Nerja is one of the gems of the south coast of Spain, about 40 minutes drive from Malaga, not much more from Malaga airport, and from Ronda only an hour and 15 minutes more. In fact a drive to Nerja to see the sights is easily done in one day, and for those without a car, Nerja is an easy destination by train and then bus.

From Malaga the road to Nerja is a pleasurable drive, the Mediterranean on one side and the Sierra de Almijara mountains on the other, and it is for this reason Nerja is known as the pearl of the Costa Axarquia, though the Costa Tropical with all year round perfect weather is so close to Nerja that it’s easy to understand why Nerja is so popular.

The caves at Nerja are an obvious drawcard, with the world’s largest stalactite, but also cave paintings that are now known to be have been drawn by some of the last surviving Neanderthal folk.

But the town shouldn’t be missed just because the Nerja caves are nearby. Nerja’s town centre is an attractive place to wander around in the old quarter looking at the shops, courtyards of people’s homes, or enjoying the smells of restaurants and bakeries.

The ‘Balcon de Europa’ is here too, the place where in the 19th century royalty from all over Europe would visit, and where now the promenade is filled with cafés, buskers, and stalls. There is a statue of King Alfonso XII in bronze, the town church, and a covered walkway overlooking the cove beach below.

The Balcon de Europa is also where you’ll find the tourism office, though the ton hall is just next to the church, and the entire plaza is only 100 metres long so you shouldn’t have any trouble :)

Outside Nerja on the way to the caves, be sure to stop and admire the El Aguila aqueduct built by Francisco Cantarero Senio to supply water to his sugar factory “Las Mercedes” at the end of the 19th century.

The aqueduct was built in mudejar style, is four stories high with a total of 37 half point arches, and made from brick kilned locally. The aqueduct is still used to this day, though only for irrigation, and has recently been restored to last another 100 years.

Spanish Banks to Transfer Toxic Debts to New ‘Bad Bank’

Mariano Rajoy´s government on Friday approved by decree a fundamental change to the banking sector with the creation of a ´bad bank´ to take ownership of toxic debts held by Spain´s mortgage banks, notably Bankia, Santander, BBVA, and the various cajas with high debt to assets ratios.

Responding to demands from the ECB and other Eurozone members to clean up Spain´s banking industry, the move is expected to satisfy Eurozone partners and start the process of Spain receiving upto 100 billion Euros of banking sector bailout funds to stabilise the economy.

Speaking after the announcement Soraya Saenz de Santamaria, the deputy Prime Minister, said that this additional decree and the creation of the ´bad bank´was needed to “get credit flowing in the economy” again.

Banks with distressed property assets that are transferred into the ´bad bank´ will walk away with a combination of cash, debt or shares to add to their balance sheets, with the requirement that all banks increase their core capital classed as rock solid to 9% of total assets, a shift from the current 8%.

As well, the government announced that remuneration for senior managers and directors of distressed banks would be capped at 500,000 Euros per year, in an effort to stem protests at former directors of failed banks taking home millions of Euros in compensation at the expense of bank shareholders and depositors.

Olli Rehn, Economics Affairs Commissioner for the EU praised Rajoy´s cabinet for approving the decree stating that the creation of a bad bank sends an important signal to the world financial markets that Spain is determined to clean up and strengthen its banking sector.

With unemployment over 25% across the board and important regions such as Catalonia and Valencia asking for central government bailouts, Rajoy´s cabinet needed to do something to stem the banking sector crisis before tackling local government debt.

The Bank of Spain warned at the same time that capital flight to foreign banks had reached 20% of GDP, with June alone seeing net capital outflow of 56 billion Euros, and an estimated total of 220 billion in the first half of the year. Both the Spanish government and Eurozone will be hoping the creation of the ´bad bank´ will be sufficient to restore some confidence and stem the flow of cash leaving the country´s banks.

In a concession to the Spanish public, the economy minister Luis de Guindos announced that the government´s banking agency (Frob) will be given new teeth to take control of failing banks, and replenish funds in the depositor guarantee scheme which have been completely used in previous bank rescues.

Shrine of our Lady of Sorrows (Templete de la Virgen de los Dolores)

Shrine of Our Lady of Sorrows (Templete de la Virgen de los Dolores)

Ronda and the Serrania surround it have been lawless lands for millennia, not even the iron grip of the Almohads could stamp out rebellions and banditry, so it is hardly surprising that capital punishment has been so widely used.

In Ronda, nowhere is this more obvious and chilling than the Temple of Our Lady of Sorrows, also known as the Shrine of the Hanged, with its frightening depictions of condemned men’s eyes bulging as they desperately try to get a last breath while the hangman’s noose crushes their windpipe.

Capital punishment is gruesome business, but under the authority of the church, and with the shields of Ferdinand and Isabella (the Catholic Kings) and their descendent Philip V on either side of the image of the Virgin to lend legitimacy.

The Temple of Our Lady of Sorrows was more than just a reminder to all who pass of its terrible duty, but also a place where the condemned could beg forgiveness for their mortal sins. It was only through beseeching the Church State to intercede on their behalf that they could stand any chance of forgiveness in the afterlife.

Modern day visitors to the temple are rarely told of its past, most of the tour guides make only a passing mention of the condemned, though a cursory examination quickly reveals a dark past.

The temple is nothing more than a roof and two pillars leaning against an adjacent house, but intricately decorated and adorned with the date 1734, the year of it’s construction. Each of the pillars look less like supports and more like statues, a cunning effect intended to frighten the condemned into confessing their sins.

The corners of the temple appear incomplete, descending only to a point around 40cm from the roof, but adding to the illusion that once under the cupola one is completely inside the temple.

Intricately constructed, the cupola is beautiful, almost heavenly, and once again an appeal to the condemned to confess in the hopes of eternal forgiveness. The trick on the mind cannot be understated, the mindset of a person from the 18th century brought to beg forgiveness would be sure to see the connection that in the 21st century we see only as an expression of art.

Interestingly, the images of the hanged men closely resemble the style of statue found at the Palacio de Salvatierra, as well as Aztec temple artwork. This is no coincidence, with the last king of the Aztecs (Moctezuma) having spent his years in exile in Ronda. To this day his descendants are still powerful landowners around Ronda.

Setenil de las Bodegas

Setenil de Las Bodegas

Setenil Cave Village
For many thousands of years Setenil de las Bodegas has been occupied, possibly for as long as people have been using the Cueva de Pileta, though it wasn´t until the age of the Phoenicians and then Romans that the village was first mentioned in texts.

Always eclipsed by nearby Acinipo, Setenil was nothing more than a warehouse for storing goods that were traded with other parts of Iberia or the rest of the Empire. It was during this time that archeologists believe the caves were first closed off with brick walls to prevent thieves from stealing goods produced in the area.

After the fall of Acinipo (and the Roman Empire) in 495AD, Setenil´s fortunes changed as the village was forced to convert the warehouses into homes.

For many hundreds of years Setenil was a quiet almost ignored village, a mosque was built after the Islamic invasion of Iberia in 711AD, and it wasn´t until the 1200s when Christian advances had taken Cordoba and Sevilla that Setenil finally became an important frontier post.

So critical was its position that 7 separate attempts were made to capture the town, however the castle was built to be impregnable. It stands at the highest point of the village and one of the two towers remains along with the well.

Next to the ruined castle stands the largest church in the village, Our Lady of the Incarnation, built in the last years of the 16th century and completed around 20 years later. It includes a gothic vaulted ceiling and ribbed vaults.

Within the church there is a chasuble, a vestment worn during Mass which was presented to the people of Setenil by the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella to commemorate the first Mass in the village after the it fell to their armies.

The rest of the castle was demolished by cannon on the 21st September 1484, a momentous occasion in the Christian reconquest of Andalucia, which directly led to the fall of Ronda one year later, and then Granada in 1492.

Also not to be missed in Setenil, and of course the main reason people visit, are the homes, shops, and bars that occupy the caves. Unlike other cave villages, most of Setenil has not been enlarged, the caves have simply been closed in.

Visitors often wonder how safe the people of Setenil feel living under the rock, but villagers will tell you the village has existed for many years so it must be safe, though the truth is they prefer not to think about it.

Lesen sie mehr über Setenil de las Bodegas

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