Everybody Was Pueblo-Timing

Everyone in Spain is, sorry to tell you, not fútbol- or flamenco-obsessed. Not everyone in Spain loves jamón. Not everyone in Spain speaks Castillian. But, yes, everyone in Spain has a pueblo (and not-so-secretly loves it).

I learned this during my second year at IES Heliche. While discussing holidays (summer vacation for you gringos), I asked if anyone was going to a second home of theirs. Virtually all Andalusian families spend their summer months away from the sweltering cities at the hundreds of kilometers of coastline down here, so I expected to hear names of beaches within an hour’s drive (for the record, the lack of beaches is one of my extreme dislikes about Sevilla, along with the ever-shrinking airport and lack of live music – the good ones, I mean).

Nearly everyone in Olivares listed their summertime destination as Olivares. Like the ones below:

Ok, I assumed, there’s a financial crisis, and it’s likely that people are sticking around their hometowns, trying to stay in the shade. Qué no, the olivareños were simply moving house across town to their parcela – or little shack houses – with pools. Why leave your pueblo when all of your friends are around?

En fin, the pueblo is to Spaniards as our dogs are to Americans.

For ages, Ismael and I considered Olivares to be our pueblo, but I don’t feel the same way about Olivares as I do Kike’s town, San Nicolás del Puerto. With 700 inhabitants, this town is totally pueblarino and found high in the Sierra Norte de Sevilla.

While nothing can compare to a city as vibrant, folkloric and beautiful as Sevilla, I do love my pueblo time.

Cheers (with cough syrup)

The Sierra is home to several specialties, including the Miura brand anís flavored with guindas - a small, red cherry. I personally think it tastes like cough syrup and haven’t had so much as a sip for years. Still, bottles of the rojo líquido are consumed most often in the Sierra as an after-meal drink.

The Sierra’s crowning gem is Cazalla de la Sierra, a breathtaking pueblo blanco full of old men and wine cellars. Monica and I ended up here after hiking the Vía Verde last Spring, and this is where the famous anís is produced, bottled and packaged.  I tend to refer to anís as a grandpa drink (see here and see also: Monica’s love for old men and their attraction for her), but the serranos guzzle it down, served in a stout, bell-shapped glass with just one ice cube. Ask for un miura con un hielito and you’re set.

Sierra-Style Soirees

One of my favorite times to visit the pueblo is during their ferias, fiestas and romerías, all in the name of tourism, saints and, well, fun. San Nicolás is the birthplace of San Diego, and just about every male in the town is named after him (and the Novio wants his third child to be a flesh and bone sacrifice to him, too. Honest.) My pueblo is famous for its Halloween in July, Carnaval celebrations, Romería - a kind of pilgrimage to a hermitage -  and the same día de San Diego.

Here’s an excerpt from a blog I wrote after my first San Diego:

 After my usual siesta in Kike’s childhood bed, I took the main road in to its intersection with the main road out. There, sandwiched between the houses on Calle Diego, next to my favorite bar, was a charranga in full-swing and scores of small Diegos running around. The nearby owner of the camping, Diego (duh), welcomed me with a beer and I sang him the customary saint day song (Many children in Spain also receive gifts on the day the feast of the saint which bears their name is celebrated. San Enrique, for example, is July 13th. To my knowledge, there is no Saint Cat!), taught to me recently by my babies at school. The town was fuller than ever – Inma came from Córdoba to see her mother and ask that her son be baptised in the same church as she and other generations in her family had, and an old friend of Kike’s, María José, brought her small children and husband for the first time. The bailes, typically held on Saturday, were cut short due to the early morning parade to follow the next day.

 Small town festivals are often more raucous, more inviting and even more fun than the Fallas, San Isidro and Feria that Spain has become famous for.

Jamón, Jamón

Ask anyone what’s to be found in the Sierra, and the answer is undoubtedly JAMON. Spain’s great meat reigns king, and the famous Iberian ham is raised right in the mountains that run along the border of Andalucía and Extremadura. Kike’s father makes a living off of raising and selling pigs to the local matadero, so we have a leg of ham – hoof and all – in our house nearly every day of the year. While I can’t say I loved jamón when I came to Spain, the taste has certainly grown on me.

There are two types of pigs raised in the Peninsula – serrano and ibérico. The difference lies in both the color and the feed, which give the paletillas and patas their distinctive taste. Regardless, both varieties are trimmed, dipped in salt and hung to dry for up to two years before being sliced in thin rations for consumption. Ibérico’s pata negra is considered a delicacy for many palates, and its taste comes from – lo juro - the acrons the pigs munch on. Exportation has increased with relaxed laws in the US for serrano hams, but the minute I can have a real slice of guarrito in Chicago, I’ll feel like my parents can finally taste a part of the pueblo closest to my corazón.

Gastronomic Gems

Speaking of jamón, the food in the Sierra couldn’t be better: from guisos made by grandma to fresh chorizo and goat cheese, I always eat well in the pueblos. In San Nicolás, where tourism is slow – save the bikers and horseback riders among the Vía Verde – there’s no plethora of restaurants to choose from. In a normal weekend visit, we can hit all of them, and often venture into neighboring villages Alanís de la Sierra and Constantina for a meal, too.

By far the best eatery in the vicinity is Batán de las Monjas, a rustic-style restaurant owned by Diego. Part homestyle restaurant, part new-age dining (Diego’s son studied at a culinary school in NYC and now is one of the lead chefs at Seville’s famous La Bulla), the place oozes pueblo charm is the resting place for the livery that feasts off of bellota in hills surrounding the village. Typical prices for entrées are will run about 7€, so it’s easy to fill up for cheap. The migas in winter and creamy gazpacho in summer have won my heart, and Diego and his family always make me feel at home – even when not with the Novio!

A Cambio de Aires

San Nicolás has a truly privileged location, not only for its livestock, but also for its outdoor offerings. A Via Verde trail slices around the southern end of the village, making it accessible for bikers, hikers and riders. It’s normal to see bikes leaned up against Enrique’s bar on a sunny Sunday morning, giving the town an added tourism boost for the smattering of bars and eateries. There’s hills to climb, waterfalls to admire, a Roman bridge to jump from, wildlife galore and some of the warmest and down-home people you’ll ever meet. I’ve always felt like one more Marucha when I’m in San Nicolás, and for good reason – I’m accepted as one.

Have you got your own pueblo? What’s your favorite, FAVORITE thing about it? Been to the Sierra Norte de Sevilla? Tell me what to do next time!

Going ‘Round in Circles

Olivares, the village where I worked for three years, is exactly 16 kilometers away from my old house in the Triana neighborhood. This meant a 40-minute bus ride (barring cows and tractors in the two-lane highway) or a 25-minute trip with a coworker. I soon found out that this was equivalent to 10 miles to metric system-challenged Americans like me.

And then, one day, I walked 16 kilometers. I remembered Martin, my bike-wielding Dutch workmate, who came daily on two wheels and wondered how I could have walked the distance from Triana to Olivares (and, yes, uphill in the hot Spanish sun).

Monica and I, not feeling the beach or wanting to stick around in Sevilla, hopped a Cercanias short-distance train to the town of Cazalla de la Sierra, a mountain pass away from Kike’s village. Known for its enormous cathedral, white buildings and liqueurs, it is the one of the major tourism towns in the north of the province.

As we boarded the train in Santa Justa, it became apparent that the town is heavily-touristed. Scout troops, families and bikers boarded the train, leaving hardly enough seats for those who got on at other stops along the route. The train climbed higher and higher into the Sierra Norte, the farmland rich in acorn trees that feed those delicious piggies that give us ham and caña de lomo. When it let us off 90 minutes later in Cazalla, we saw no emblematic Miura signs or that big ol’ castle. We saw wilderness.

I approached a toothless man sitting outside the train station, which had no attendant. “Which way to Cazalla?” I asked.


He responded in perfect English: “Where are you from?” and, despite not having teeth, said it without any trace of an accent. I had to repeat Chicago about six times, and my neoyorquina friend kept her mouth shut before he pointed to the highway and said, “Just up that road, eight kilometres. The scenic route is flooded.”

I apologized six times to Monica, who just laughed at me as we watched the bikers head down the scenic route. So, up we went, with our sturdy walking sticks, Herbert and Leonard.

Poppies were in full bloom around the fincas full of olive trees and ganadería, livestock ranging from chickens to sheep to the elusive pigs and bulls we’d seen from the train windows. We hiked. And hiked. And kept hiking as cars and bikes whizzed past us. The clear sky coupled with Kike’s army-issued backpack that carried nuts, sunscreen and a book made for sweaty hikers, but we found some shade when we reached a fork in the road. At this point, we’d seen just one house, so the crossed-out CAZALLA was a bit ominous.

“Let’s Robert Frost this,” Monica suggested when we reached a fork in the road 100 meters up. An uphill path lead us to the gate of the Cartuja monastery overlooking horse pastures and a pristine view of the surrounding valleys. I peeked inside at the crumbling brick masterpiece of ochre and cerulean blue before a woman came face to face with me.

“You come for visit, or to stay the night?” she asked in crisp English. Geez, everyone here speaks my tongue! We told Mari Carmen, the supposed proprietor of the place, that we were headed into town. “Well, it’s three miles, so you better hop in the back.” She motioned to her blue van and Mon and I got in. Turns out that the cordobesa had bought the monastery over three decades ago and was lovingly restoring it. She was certainly weathered and looked like she’d dedicated 34 years to that place.

MC dropped us off at one end of the pueblo near a wholesale grocery store. Figuring our first stop should be the tourism office, we followed signs for the cathedral, passing pensioner’s homes and abandoned anís factories. The only people in the plaza were pensioners, and the tourism office, supermarkets and, um, everything were closed. A bar was the next stop.

People marveled at the two guiris in the two bars we had two beers in (yes, I prefer even numbers). We were treated to fried pig, sautéed mushrooms and nuts, free advice and a whole lot of stares. I asked numerous partons how long it would take to hike the Via Las Landeras back to the train station, the apparently flooded route. Tongues wagged when they told us it would take us about three hours and we had far less that to make it. Skeptical, I stopped at another bar and asked and was told I had the pleasure of meeting the town drunk, Rafael. He swore to be from Triana and asked where I was from.

“Chicago.”

“That’s not a real place. You’re from Carolina, then?” Si, por alli. Around there. We followed Rafael’s advice to take the main road down past the Cathedral until we got to a fountain and look for the small sign marking the start to the Via Verde, a green road established through a collaboration of the Environmental and Tourism office. What we found was a dirty and a dead-end. Now fearing we may never make it to the train station, we asked several more people before ending up at the other end of the main street.

The sign marking the trail claimed the hike down would take up to three hours. Monica and I tried jogging it, which didn’t last long due to horseback riders, steep turns and the intense sun on our backs. The flat path through fields of poppies quickly gave way to craggy farmland full of sheep, slate rock rivers and clandestine fields.

We made it down to the train station in just over an hour, sweating and beat. My butt hurt after the 16-kilometers. Monica’s calves quivered. It took us not even three minutes to fall asleep on the train.

I thought of Martin and realized that his 40 years looked good because, after a full 16 kilometers on his bike, he must be beat.

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