w r i n k l e d
ADVENTURES IN TRAVEL, WRITING AND AGING GRACEFULLY
We've been so busy and doing so much that I've barely had time to ruminate over our experiences. So I'm not even going to try. Sometimes it's OK to just be in the moment and enjoy it.
WHAT WE DID:
Cuevo del Gato
We drove to nearby Benaojan, parked at the train station and then hiked the long dusty trail along the river and past rural hotels to a partially collapsed footbridge. We ignored the danger signs and hiked to another bridge that took us under a viaduct and then a cave opening shaped like a cat’s head (I don't see it, but whatever). The waterfall spouted ice cold, crystal clear water into a large, sun dappled leafy pool. It was like something out of a fantasy.
It's not a hike with Chris unless you pass a few of these signs. Good thing we don't read Spanish, right?
This is Chris contemplating a dive: Just how deep is the water? If I hit rock, could Cheong pull me out? Where is the nearest hospital anyway? And if she dragged me back the 2 miles to the car, she couldn't even manage the stick shift. I'd be a goner for sure. Oh forget it.
Climbing to the cave. More ignored signs, this time to identify a bird's nest near the opening.
Fishing for leaves. The kids had such a good time at Cuevo del Gato that Chris and the kids went back the next day.
Drinks with Alex and Ikuko
Ikuko is Japanese, but her husband was working for an Aussie firm that transferred him to Cortes. When they got divorced, he left, but she decided to stay. She’s been here for 12 years. I’m not quite sure what her deal is – she rents a small apartment to the handful of Japanese tourists that pass through Cortes each year and has a mysterious business in HK. But mostly she sits at Bar Pay Pay drinking beer and keeping Alex company while he throws back glass after glass of red wine.
Alex on the other hand is as forthcoming as Ikuko is mysterious. A British expat who has been traveling the world for 25 years. He’s been everywhere, done everything, living on very little and getting by on his charm. At 46 he’s been four times engaged, most recently to a woman in England. A couple of years ago his aunt left him a 10,000GBP inheritance. He took the money, bought a horse trailer (which he renovated and now lives in), and parked it on one hectare of Cortes land. He called fiancé #4 to join him, but alas, she had met someone else. He used the rest of the money to buy 100 oak trees which he infused with truffle spores, the get rich slow scheme being that in 10 years the trees will grow tall enough to host truffles that he will then cultivate, harvest and sell all over Europe. Ikuko rolls her eyes as Alex relays his plan. As he waits for his trees to grow, he sits at Pay Pay or the Petrol Station and drinks his eyes red and his teeth purple, and makes hilarious, sad, lustful comments about the small population of women that pass by. Oh and also, he’s written a book, which I dare say, is pretty good. http://www.amazon.com/Cursive-Alex-Wyndham-Baker/dp/1908122218/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid
A word about Cortes: I am not exaggerating when I say there is nothing to do here. The way that Alex tells it, there is a well-traveled ring of Pueblo Blancos. I’m sure you’ve been to some: Arcos de la Frontera, Casares, Grazalema, Ronda, Gaucin. The cluster of white houses shining in the valley, bougainvillea dripping down the Moorish corridors, quaint local shops, tourists wandering the shiny cobblestone paths, the terra cotta roofs, wrought iron balconies and the charming wooden siesta shutters. Then, smack in the middle is Cortes. The only ones that venture here are the ones that have lost their way, took a wrong turn on the Ruta de los Pueblos Blancos. It’s true that the Oficina de Turismo is manned by a 16 year old. The day we visited, he was wearing a Boy Scout looking vest and simultaneously babysitting his little brother. He, like everyone else, speaks no English, but is pleasant as he hands over a map of the mountains and little else. In a country with a 25% unemployment rate, Cortes tops out at 50%, the cork trees in the valley being the town’s major source of income. But harvest season runs only two short months out of the year, which means a second job must be secured for the remaining ten months. It’s no wonder that the town has only four restaurants, but 22 bars.
When I ask Alex, how he could have traveled all over the world to end up at Cortes, he says, despite the local population that fornicates with the animals, despite the Spanish having no sense of humor, he loves Cortes because the living is easy. The wine really is cheaper than water and lunch, as in Ikuko’s case, can be had in a simple 1E chorizo sandwich. In all there are 20 of them in the village and another 30 in the valley; the Expat community tight as a knot and according to Ikuko, gossipy as sisters. Most of them unmarried, no kids, long-time residents muddling around in middle age. Aside from the obvious drinking, I can't help wonder how they idle their days.
Alex suggests we meet at the train station for a cerveza and then walk five miles to the next stop for another cerveza. As he puts it, “If you drive, the beer is good, but if you walk, the beer is excellent.” A hot, dusty walk along train tracks for a beer? I bristle at the efficiency of it. Did I mention there's not much to do here?
Estepona is the smaller, laid back cousin of Marbella on Spain’s Costa de Sol. It’s less touristy and glitzy than Marbella, which I prefer. I had heard they had an International School so we drove down hoping for some luck finding Halloween costumes. Not only did we get costumes, but we hit the jackpot with Spain's best supermercado yet. But first we walked the Old Town, had a long, leisurely lunch, shopped and went to the beach. Along the way we looked for the giant murals on the city’s mural walk.
Checking out Estepona's Beach Promenade.
Isoo and Chris on the rocky beach.
The jamon selection at the Estepona market. This beats the deli counter at Jewel.
The citywide art project showcases 22 murals (and counting) by local Spanish artists. Stop by the Visitor Center for a map of the route.
Each street in the Old Town features flowerpots of a different color. Left: Orange street. Right: Purple street.
Restaurante los Rosales
It's hard to get the kids to sit still in the middle of the day so our long, leisurely lunch was a real treat. Restaurante los Rosales is located off the main square in the heart of Old Town Estepona. The weather was perfect, we sat at a canopied table in a charming, cobblestoned street ladened with hanging flowerpots. Isoo ate an entire, fresh caught fish. Oona ate four pork chops. After the World's Best Rice Pudding our waiter brought out a Spanish limoncello dessert drink for Chris and I to taste while an accordion player serenaded the kids. Perfect.
Parque Natural los Alcornocales
Saul told us about the “vulture restaurants” in this stunning forest dense with cork trees. Nope, they are not restaurants that serve vulture, but in fact, restaurants that cater to vultures. Twice weekly local farmers, hunters, butchers and restauranteurs dispose of carcasses in a government controlled dump. Hundreds of Griffon, Egyptian, Black and Ruppell’s vultures blacken the sky as they descend. Or so we were told. Unfortunately, the feedings are not posted so the viewings are hit or miss, but we did spy many vultures flying overhead as we hiked the cork forests anyway.
The cork is scored and removed by hand, and then the trees marked with a number to indicate the next time it can be harvested. Cork trees are sustainable and can be reharvested every 10-12 years without injury to the tree. You can tell by the wet, dark bark that these trees were likely farmed this summer.
The cork is then used in bottling, flooring, for shoes, coasters, etc. The industry has recently come under duress as man-made alternatives to cork stoppers have gained in popularity, threatening not only the livelihood of the cork farmers, but the wildlife such as the Iberian lynx, Barbary deer and numerous bird species that live in the forest.
Taberna de Flores
Ali, Saul's girlfriend, had suggested we check out Taberna de Flores in Colmenar after our hike through the cork forest to sample their delicious cheesecake. Unfortunately, we got there just after the chef left for his afternoon nap. A note about small town Andalusia - it takes its siesta culture seriously. I once went into a store at 1:28pm and the shopkeeper escorted me out 2 minutes later, slamming the gate behind me. The streets go quiet and nothing opens back up till 5:30pm. We haven't quite adapted to the culture so we typically use this time to hike, wander a nearby town or hit the beach. Fortunately, they never stop pouring wine.
Cooking Class with Alex and Mar
While sightseeing Ronda, we had popped into a new Spanish language school I had read about on Tripadvisor. I was hoping for a one hour drop in class to give us a chance to brush up on our basics, but when we walked into the happy, sunlight space and got to chatting with Mar, the owner, we had a change of plans. A week later we returned for a four hour private gardening session with her business partner/boyfriend, Alex (not to be confused with British Cortes Alex), followed by a cooking class at their apartment, and a lunch overlooking the Ronda mountains. Alex took us to the local community garden where we gathered herbs and vegetables for our lunch, teaching us the Spanish words for the ingredients along the way. Then we walked a short distance to their very cute apartment and had cervezas and jamon on the terrace before we got to the business of cooking. Mar and the kids made Salmorejo (basically a gazpacho that’s blended and topped with chopped hard boiled eggs) while Chris and I made a traditional Spanish Tortilla and Stuffed Mushroom Caps. For dessert Mar made homemade yogurt and laid out an assortment of cheese with local honey and fruit. We drank a fantastic bottle of wine they flinched from their friend’s vineyard across the valley. I know. Ridiculous.
Their school, Escuela Entrelenguas, had started as a one-time project hosting and teaching a group of foreign exchange students on a month-long trip to Ronda. Four months later, Mar and Alex are still in business. No surprise; they are a wonderful couple – smart, fun, energetic, ambitious and genuinely kind. There is not a false note about them. We had such a great time in their beautiful home, cooking and eating amazing food. You can feel the enthusiasm, preparation and pride they put into the class. I highly recommend a visit to their school.
And while their typical cooking classes take place in the school at 8pm, they made the exception for us and hosted lunch at their apartment on their day off just to accommodate the kids early bedtime. Crazy, right? There is something special about visiting a local's home. You get a real sense of how one lives, who they are, and deeper insight into the culture. That’s probably why this and the visit to Madeline’s house in Ireland, were so important and memorable for me.
By the way, my Spanish still sucks, but it has less to do with the teacher than the hard headed student.
Chris and Alex harvesting pimientos and herbs for lunch.
Getting ready to cook.
Prepping potatoes for the tortilla.
Alex points out the vineyards as well as the local olive, almond and orange groves in the valley. The bottle of DV wine on the table was made by his friend just outside of Ronda.
Vocab words of the day.
Oona explains how to make salmorejo.
Lunch is served!
Chris, the kiddos and our gracious teachers, Alex and Mar.
Halloween on our old street is about as perfect a picture of suburban bliss as it gets. It’s near impossible to park on our street because people actually drive to our neighborhood just to trick or treat. Houses (two in particular) take their decorations very seriously. There are entire families dressed in theme costumes. We buy bags and bags of candy the size of pillowcases. Dan passes out mini glasses of wine to the adults. Afterwards Susan makes a fantastic dinner, the kids spread out their loot to trade Dip It Sticks for chocolate bars, gather around some silly Mr. Bean movie and Isoo falls asleep in full ghoul makeup. It’s tradition.
So it’s bad enough we sold our house, but Oona was heartbroken to miss out on the holiday. We asked around and were told that while celebrated in the north, Halloween is not widely acknowledged in the south. Ali said when her girls Trick or Treated a couple of years ago, grandmas would scream at them in Spanish to stop banging on their doors and to get off their stoop. So this year, the expats were taking matters into their own hands and throwing a party at the edge of town featuring a punk rock show followed by late night Trick or Treating.
Fearing that it was not the kind of kid friendly party our kids were hoping for, I frantically searched out Halloween activities in a 60 mile radius and discovered that the hotel we had stayed at previously, the Marbella Marriott, was putting on a carnival for the local British and American expats the night before Halloween. I called for the rate, popped my eyeballs back into their sockets, and coughed up the dough for the overnight stay.
The kids played carnival games, went through a creepy tunnel, and Trick or Treated around the property while Chris and I lounged around the pool doing crossword puzzles. Seriously, I think this is the way to do all future Halloweens.
My kids are so creepy. Isoo really wanted to be the Travelocity Gnome, but have I mentioned that we are in a small town? We had to drive 1.5 hours just to scrounge up these costumes.
The kids stop by the pool to say boo!
The Marriott staff led the kids around the property screaming, "Trick or Treat, smell my feet, give me something sweet to eat. If you don't, I don't care, I'll pull down your underwear!" Isoo and Oona refused to chant because they thought it sounded "bratty". They didn't get much candy, but both had a blast playing carnival games and were legitimately scared silly by the haunted house.
Then We Did Halloween Again
We were on our way home, an hour outside of Cortes when I got an email from Ikuko informing us that this year, Cortes was throwing a Halloween party for the kids down at the Parador. Oona threw on costume #2 and high tailed it from the car straight to the party. Typically, Paradors are monasteries or castles converted into luxury hotels run by the state. In the case of downtrodden Cortes, it needed but minimal decoration to convert it into an abandoned haunted house.
Spooky decorations courtesy of Martha Stewart, er, I mean, poverty.
There were kids, cake, costumes, zombie dance and not much else. Several of the older kids played in the empty dumpster in the parking lot. We stood there eating our cake and when we were done, we walked aimlessly from one crowded room to the other, talking to each other or standing around not talking to each other. It was sort of sad and lonely, but we forced ourselves to stay long enough to mark the occasion. Afterwards we went home and as Chris and I made dinner, Oona emptied a bag of candy into a bowl and literally stood in the door shouting “Tenemos caramelos!”.
"Hola! Come here! Tenemos caramelos! Hola? Is anybody out there? Happy Halloween!"
I had warned her that it was unlikely there would be Trick or Treaters, but she was hopeful and swore she could hear children in the distance. So I put on my shoes, grabbed their masks and left Chris to finish dinner.
We followed a couple with two young kids dressed in costumes, hoping they would lead us to candy. After a couple of blocks, Isoo turned to me and whispered, “Mom, I think they’re just going home,” but Oona scampered ahead, unwilling to give up. After much coercing, she trode back up the hill and said with equal parts frustration and determination, “Mom, I just don’t understand how they do it here.”
“Isn’t it funny how this is an American holiday and we’re the ones who don’t know how to do it?” I mused.
And then she said with a firmness that reminded me of why she is so good at life, “No, Mom, we have to relearn it their way. C’mon.”
We finally found another group, just as aimless, running from one shop to another only to emerge empty handed. We had been out for a half hour and only 3 houses answered our knocks, filling our bag with bright blue unwrapped marshmallows. When we neared our house, I shouted, “Come, follow me! Tenemos caramelos!” I lead the way and Isoo and Oona scampered back and forth excitedly as we tried to lure the unruly pack to our doorstep. But as they got near our darkened street, they stopped, veered off, suddenly suspicious and uncertain. Even when Chris eagerly ran to meet us on the corner with our big bowl of chocolates, the kids regarded us nervously, politely taking just one before scampering back to their parents.
By the time we finished dinner we were all exhausted from the effort. We ended up skipping the punk rock band and instead, put on our pjs, crawled into our bed and watched E.T. on the laptop. Isoo fell asleep before it ended.
Isoo trailing the pack.
Score! One of a handful of shops passing out candy.