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A Season in Spain

CHAPTER ONE

THE HOUSE BY THE RIVER

FOR A SEASON we lived in an olive grove in Spain. We went looking for a house and were beguiled by a tiny fruit farm near an Andalusian river. Beneath its ancient olive trees thrived acres of oranges, lemons, peaches, almonds, quinces and loquats. Fig trees shaded the house and vines dripped from its terrace. We found it in summer.

'It's the romantic option,' we warned each other, 'not the sensible one.'

But the sensible one was withdrawn once we had taken the sensible decision. The romantic option became the only one.

It rained the day we moved in. Summer had become December. Eager to put customs and confusion behind us, we had driven through the night from the ferry port at Santander. The roads were empty. Villages fled by in a landscape of moonlit monochrome. We drove fast and free, and when we crossed the Sierra Morena that cuts off Andalusia from the rest of Spain, it began to rain.

In Granada we sought breakfast in a bar by the railway station. The waiter was taciturn, the city dull as any on a rainy Sunday morning. Drizzle hid the Alhambra and the snowy mountain peaks beyond. We hurried on south, to the Alpujarra.

This is the rocky world where the Moors settled when they were chased out of Granada five hundred years ago. They are very much in evidence, especially in the clusters of flat roofed houses that might be taken for villages in north Africa; and in the irrigation system that waters the terraces. Our olive grove was on the fertile river plain of the Guadalfeo, twenty miles from Granada as the eagle flies and twelve miles from the Mediterranean.

In summer the camino, the dirt road from the main road, had been yellow dust billowing in the breeze. On the day we moved in, rivulets criss-crossed its surface. We parked where a slender path, a mule track, joined it and we began to walk. For the first few yards we skirted a field and then we were beneath olive trees. The track meandered. We had to hop over irrigation channels and several times we paused to look up to our left, high up to the snow on the mountains. The air was sweet and clear, and very, very cold.

Then the path began to drop and we saw our house. It looked different: in the summer only one stretch of its patio had been covered and now it all was. Before, the first glimpse had been of the curving wall of the dining room with its stained glass window. Now the new roof jutted into view ahead of it. A pity, we thought, that this had spoiled the line. But as we stood beneath its cover that wet morning we did not imagine there could be any other disadvantages to it.

The house was a long, low L-shape with a flat roof of launa, a grey shale. When the owner, an Englishwoman we'll call Sally, acquired the property the previous summer, there was only a typical local cortijo, or farmhouse: a row of four or five rooms, each opening onto a strip of paving. Some of them had been living accommodation and the rest used for animals or storage. The old house leaned against the bank. In a flurry of activity, this building had been turned into kitchen, dining-room, bedrooms and bathroom. Then a new wing had been built to provide a large sitting-room and bedroom. A sinuous passage linked the two areas. Eight doors opened onto the patio.

The house was full of beautiful touches, some original and some traditional Spanish. A window in the passage shed golden light because it was not a window of glass but of stone the colour of amber. The centre bar of a window in the new bedroom was curved, to echo the shape of the olive tree a few yards away. Small blue tiles were dotted at random among the heavy dark clay ones of the indoor floors and the patio.

Everywhere, white walls set off dark beams in Spanish style. Some ceilings were made of cane in the local manner. A vine was growing from a trough in the dining-room and in a few months was to arc across the beamed entrance to the kitchen. Terracotta bowls were used as washbasins in the bathroom and kitchen. The bathroom was a fantastic creation of blue and white tiling, a muddled dream of the Moorish and the Oriental. All that could be said with certainty was that it had what the French call a toilette à la Turque and which the Spanish do not discuss at all.

Sitting on the patio the previous summer, drinking tea in the fluttering shade of an orange tree, we had talked about crops and animals. Of course, have the crops, Sally said; and yes keep goats, a few chickens, whatever we fancied. Later we made plans for the crops but ruled out the animals. Animals limit travel. We knew Spain a little but not well and this was our best chance to see it. But we wanted the crops. Olives would pay well, and health food shops in London would be delighted with an offer of the other fruit, organically grown, assuming the regulations allowed us to send them our produce.

We offered to look after Sally's cat. Although we had never had anything to do with cats, one would be useful in fending off less welcome animals.

'And the dog?' she suggested.

'OK, the dog too.'

But, in the shilly-shallying days between summer and December, the dog went to expensive quarantine in England. Sally rang to tell us, and to say, 'I'm leaving you a silky young tabby called Cosmo.' She added instructions about chasing off a big cat from a neighbouring cortijo that came marauding whenever Cosmo was fed.

Cosmo seemed desperate to be fed the morning we arrived. She squeaked and scampered and danced about on her hind legs and did everything but shout at us that she was starving. Unversed in the ways of cats, we believed her and, as soon as we had the key to the house in our hands, opened a packet of cat food. There was plenty of cat food. A dozen packets were lined up on the shelf in the dining-room.

That array of cat food rankled once we looked around. Things that should have been provided for us were nowhere to be found. Although the house had beds for six or seven, it was barely equipped for four. Furniture and furnishings noted in the summer had vanished.

But explorations were cut short by the arrival of a large black cat who edged Cosmo from the feeding bowl. We chased it off, and over the next half hour took turns to stand on guard. The black cat was brazen. It might have been joined to the feeding bowl by a length of elastic, it rebounded so persistently. In a while we let it win, too busy to do otherwise. There were possessions to ferry in a wheelbarrow along the mule track, damp rooms to air; and we had to launch a serious search for means of heating. No, there was no time to be firm with a thieving cat. That would have to wait. And when we had done it all, and when we had discovered cleaning materials and begun to attack the muddy paw marks that covered every surface a paw might reach, well it was then that we came upon the note. Sally's note, saying she had left us her black cat called Posy, and here was some ointment to put on her temples.

The black cat called Posy regarded us stiffly and would not let us near.

Early next morning a bird sang in the darkness. A while later oranges glimmered through half-light. The new day was dry and sharp, the colours brilliant, as only the coldest weather can make them. Indoors it was colder. Glaze on pottery mugs crackled as hot tea was poured into them. Those terracotta washbasins chilled water before we could wash and the two-bar electric fire gave little more heat than a candle. We were cast back to childhood memories of unheated houses with frost inside windows. If it did nothing else, our time in the Alpujarra would remind us what the seasons were like.

Strolling through the olive grove we took stock. There were nine olive trees, huge ones, the biggest measuring more than eighteen feet around the trunk. There were 135 orange trees of several varieties, three lemon trees, and perhaps half a dozen almonds... But the paths curved and were incomplete, we doubled back and lost count and then realized we had not included trees on the lower land. This was a narrow terrace reached by ducking beneath the washing line and risking a headlong plunge. After the rain the path was slippery, but it was down there that we earmarked land for our vegetable patch.

We gave up counting trees and walked to the edge of our land. Between us and the river lay a few neglected terraces with olive trees blackened by fire, and a tumbled farmhouse. Across the river rose the Sierra de Lújar, 6,000 feet of rounded, gently folded Triassic limestone with a scattering of buildings abandoned when they stopped mining fluorspar. It was bare, except for an almond grove, perhaps an acre, teetering on a crag above the river.

Behind us soared western Europe's second highest mountain range, the Sierra Nevada, its ragged outline peaking at 11,421 feet at Mulhacén which we could not see, and topping 10,000 feet on the Loma de Cáñar which we could. On the lower slopes were white villages, a scattering of tawny farmhouses and the deep green of olive groves.

© 1995 Andrew & Lesley Grant-Adamson

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