And So the Season Turns

Autumn is slowly dwindling into winter here in Asturias. A last few stubborn leaves cling to branches but at the base of the trees their fallen brethren pile higher and higher. Where, a couple of weeks ago, my dog walks inspired me to stuff my pockets full of chestnuts, now they send me scurrying off for my wheelbarrow to collect this bounty of leaves for mulching.

I’m a great advocate of anything that’s natural, free and ultimately makes less work for me. Leaf mulch, nature’s own design for over-wintering trees, ticks all of these boxes. My much neglected fruit trees will this winter benefit from a leaf-mould compost feed that will at the same time be suppressing weed and grass growth around their bases.

The garden overall has been looking increasingly sad and bedraggled – enough to encourage me into some ruthless pruning and cutting back. As I’ve found my rhythm with the clippers I’ve enjoyed the process more and more and I’ve taken the opportunity to cast a critical eye around the beds and do a little planning.

And so it is that the onset of winter provides a necessary pause in the growing cycle. A beat in which to take a step back and look around. The growing season here is so long and so productive that most of the year it’s all I can do to just try and stay on top of things. It’s a battle to stop the grass (and weeds!) from growing to waist height as soon as I turn my back. There is no time for grander plans or designs.

Now I barrow the compost that I (or rather, time) has made from our kitchen and garden waste and cover large areas of ground to rest and recuperate, to imbibe nutrients ready for planting next year and to make it effortless to dig and prepare for fresh planting. Hard experience has taught me the importance of this. It has also taught me that no effort in the garden is ever wasted. A little work and forethought now will pay me back in spades in the future (pun intended ūüėČ ).

This is also a pleasant time for physical work in the garden. The cooler temperatures are great for days spent digging and hoeing and barrowing. As, yet again, I strip down to short sleeves I wonder how I ever got anything at all done in the heat of summer. Now that this year’s drought has finally ended it’s also easier to catch the soil at its most malleable – not so wet that it is clumpy and sticky but moist enough so that you can slide a spade into it and turn it over with ease.

With the cutting and pruning also comes the natural opportunity to propagate. Last winter was really the first time where I took several cuttings of various bushes and potted them up over winter. The results were amazing. A simple snip and a shove into a pot of compost and come spring and summer I had a load of new lavender, rosemary, succulents, rose and margarita bushes and many more gorgeous plants nicked from neighbours. Simply magical.

So this year I’m naturally keen to do the same – but more and better. I have a lot of ground to cover (both literally and figuratively) in the garden so I’ve taken a LOT of cuttings and been splitting a lot of plants. If they all take I should have a happy surplus on my hands – so lots of nice presents for friends. But we have a while to wait yet.

Last week was when winter started to really bite. The temperatures finally, and suddenly dipped sharply. We had 5 full days of rain, with one daylong electrical storm accompanied by hailstones. A week to spend indoors with the woodburner on. When last weekend came around and the rain finally stopped the clouds lifted to reveal this:

First snow

The view from our house to the Cordillera Cant√°brica, south of Oviedo. Note: we’re at 450m (1500ft) above sea level but no snow here, not even so much as a hard frost. The beauty of living close to the sea in a mild, oceanic climate.

And so this weekend (a long, holiday weekend here in Spain) sees the timely opening of the ski stations. Winter is upon us.

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Driving Over Chestnuts

I may have mentioned before, but it is Autumn in Asturias. The leaves have turned. The cider lorries collect the roadside sacks of apples daily. And round every bend on every winding back road huddles of people clutching baskets, carrier bags and, of course, sticks hunch to their task of collecting chestnuts.

As do we. It’s quite impossible to resist. The proliferation of the sweet chestnut tree is such that the roads are carpeted in their fruit at this time of year. In fact, I regularly suffer pangs of conscience as the car bumps over yet another prodigious patch of them, plastering them pointlessly to the tarmac. Such waste.

So, quite apart from dedicated foraging trips to the woods or chestnut groves, and much to the annoyance of our energetic greyhound, our daily roadside walks have become grossly extended in time but not distance, as I cannot resist stopping to stuff my pockets to bursting every few paces. As I roll yet another spiky chestnut casing underfoot to reveal its shiny bounty within, the hound prances about impatiently, occasionally resorting to a gentle nip on my sleeve to remind me where my focus ought to be.

Luckily, in addition to bones, meat and all things stolen, our greyhound is also partial to a roasted nut or two, so his payoff comes in the evenings, as he lolls in front of the woodburner which currently doubles up as a perpetual chestnut roaster.

We heart chestnuts ūüėČ

The history of the chestnut in the culture of Asturias is as rich as the velvety flesh of the nut itself.  Introduced by the Romans, the chestnut was the staple food of northern Spain for many centuries, providing the main source of nutrition and being consumed in many forms, including flour. Knowing this, the nutty autumnal abundance falls neatly into place.

And so it is that the Asturian version of harvest festival, ‘amag√ľestu’,¬† is a celebration of both the apple and, primarily, the chestnut. And where better to learn about the traditions of a harvest festival than in a school?

Our little country school celebrates amaguestu in fine style, involving people from across the community and the generations. The children and teachers wear full traditional dress and there is gaita music (the Asturian pipes) to accompany their dramatization of chestnut picking throughout the ages. Chestnuts are roasted and the first (non-alcoholic!) pressing of the apples (sidra dulce) is drunk. Families provide the food, with an emphasis on local and seasonal specialties (and cake, because that’s always appropriate!)

All in all it’s a wonderful event and we feel privileged to be part of such a strong community that is still so clearly attached to nature and the traditions that spring forth from that. Mind you, you don’t actually need to go to any school to realise that – you just need to drive down an Asturian country road in Autumn and see all the chestnut collectors in action.


 

Delicate

I took these photos on an early morning dog walk. It had rained the night before and the day had dawned damp and misty. The light was dull and the normally spectacular views were masked. My eye was drawn down and in to the hedgerows, which suddenly revealed themselves to be laced throughout with delicate spiders’ webs.

The gossamer webs glistened with raindrops caught and held; a natural magnifying glass facilitating a fine inspection of their intricacies. Soon the sun would emerge fully, the droplets would dry and the webs would retreat into hiding once again.

This post is for Week 108 of The Gallery: Delicate.

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The Greatest Journey – Part 2

When you last saw us we were about to embark on a treacherous journey across Donner Pass. At the entrance to the I80 interstate highway our first challenge was to put our newly purchased chains on the car. Our fumbling, first-timers’ efforts were further hampered by the blizzard that raged around us and by the fact that night had fallen with a sudden thump, like a melodramatic stage black-out curtain.

Despite the poor visibility, numb fingers and rapidly rising levels of panic, eventually we got the buggers chains on and pulled back on to the highway. Already, the snow was laying in thick, ever-deepening piles on the carriageways. Our only clue as to where the lanes went became the brake lights of the car in front, to which we clung desperately as we craned forward in our seats and peered into the swirling storm.

We inched along painfully for miles and miles. The digital roadside signs advised of a 20 mph speed limit, which kept being extended to cover more of the journey as the storm continued to rage. A distance of 70 miles was eventually subject to the restriction – not that we got anywhere near such a high speed but certainly some of the larger American pick-ups with their snow tires on and confident, experienced snow-drivers at the wheel did, terrifying us yet more as they came out of nowhere and sped (seemingly) past us in the outer lane.

We felt hopelessly out of our depth and out of place in our little PT Cruiser stuffed to the gunnels with surf boards and camping gear.¬† At least our expedition sleeping bags would prove handy should we become benighted. And the surf boards could always be used to defend ourselves from marauding bears. Or cannibals. (Richie’s tales of the original pioneer crossing of Donner Pass was still ringing in my ears.)

Somehow, some eight hours later we finally descended into Oakland and the snow turned into rain. I have never in all my days been so delighted to be driving through a torrential downpour as I was then. My kidneys were killing me from over-production of adrenaline but otherwise we were unscathed.

Woohoo! Back on the California coast it was time to break out the surfboards again.

So it was that we arrived at my Uncle Tony’s apartment, just a few blocks from Ocean Beach in San Francisco, some 5 hours later than expected. Still, I hadn’t seen him in over 20 years so a few hours here or there wasn’t going to make much difference.

Tony had emigrated to San Francisco from Dublin over 50 years previously and had worked there all his life as a yellow cab driver, making him the perfect tour guide. He was a flamboyant, larger than life (slightly bonkers) character and we had more bizarre adventures with him than you might think possible in the space of a few days – fodder for a separate blog post. Or book.

From San Francisco we would drive all the way back to LA hugging the coast on the Pacific Coast Highway, Highway 101. What a drive. Finally our dinky PT Cruiser felt like the right car to be in and our surf boards felt like the right accessories to have (those and a dog-eared copy of Kerouac’s Big Sur, natch) .

Our first stop was not far south of San Francisco, where we pulled off the highway to pay a pilgrimage to Pillar Point.¬† We couldn’t miss the opportunity to see Mavericks, the famous big-wave surf spot. Incredibly, when we got there it was going off! We sat on the clifftop, amongst all the pro-photographers and watched tens of brave souls run nervously along the sand, with their boards clutched under their arms, about to embark on the 2 mile paddle out to try and catch one of the scariest waves on the planet!

Pillar Point – the clifftop on which we sat and watched some scary big wave action
Image courtesy of Dawn Endico http://flickr.com/photos/51035743246@N01/1168944

Suitably inspired (terrified, actually) we continued on to Santa Cruz, where we got our first opportunity in a long time to actually wet our own boards. And what a place to surf! Santa Cruz is Surf Central. Everyone surfs in Santa Cruz. Moms pitch up in their station wagons after the school run to suit up and paddle out, elderly folk gracefully drop in on you in the water and scrawny grommets pull aerial tricks as lesser mortals flounder about (that would be me).

The water is crowded but I found the atmosphere generally friendly and non-aggressive, surprisingly so given how busy it is. The quality of the surf is great, with lots of points as well as beach breaks and reefs. It was consistently good with super-clean, regular lines coming in every day of our stay there.
Whilst at Santa Cruz, we camped at New Brighton State Beach campground, a beautiful forest camp just outside town, great value at just $25 a night. The only hazard there being the squirrels perched high above who took to pelting our car with pine cones.

From Santa Cruz we made the spectacular drive on to Big Sur itself. There we camped right on the edge of the cliffs, directly overlooking the Pacific. Kirk Creek Campground has to have one of the best locations of any campsite in the world and at $22, including a free entry day pass to National Forest beaches and picnic grounds along Big Sur, such as Pfeiffer Beach, Sand Dollar Beach and Willow Creek it’s really excellent value.

The PCH at Big Sur, taken from the air
Photo courtesy of http://www.airlinesafety.com/editorials/AboutTheEditor.htm. Cc.logo.circle.svg

From here we continued to meander our way along this stunning coastline, visiting some of the aforementioned National Forest beaches and generally allowing ourselves to absorb the natural beauty and atmosphere.

As we passed one beach that had an untypically large number of cars parked at it, Richie impulsively swung the car off the road to investigate what the attraction might be. We followed the small crowd of people onto the wooden walkway that ran along the top of the beach, non-plussed. Slowly our unsuspecting eyes adjusted and we distinguished that the sandy-coloured surface of the beach was in fact a heaving, writhing mass of elephant seals. We had stumbled across Piedras Blancas in full elephant seal weaning season. A truly awesome sight.

The beach at Piedras Blancas – a heaving, writhing mass of elephant seals.

At Jalama Beach County Park we made camp again, hoping for some good surf in the morning. Instead a rain-storm hit overnight and left mushy, unrideable waves in its wake. The night also brought us another unwelcome visitor. We were awoken in the early hours by heavy, rasping breathing coming from the porch of our tent. Undoing the zip we were greeted by a raccoon brazenly rummaging through some food we had stupidly left in the porch. Luckily, after a tense moment, he turned tail and ran. Despite Richie’s initial cries of ‘How cute!’ I had no desire to tangle with a sharp-clawed, tubercular raccoon in the confines of a small, nylon tent.

Jalama Beach – wet and surf-less but unscathed by our close encounter with a raccoon.

The rest of our journey and any parts that I have glossed over here (believe it or not there are some!) have already been written up. You just need to get your hands on a copy of ‘Surfing California’ by Bank Wright, published 1973. This evocative book guided us to and around all of the iconic surf breaks of California and in no small way contributed to our great, final tally of over 4,000 miles driven on this, our greatest journey.

Our dog-eared bible. Published 1973

Thanks again to Emma at A Bavarian Sojourn for tagging me in this lovely meme and prompting me to write up this trip. In turn, I’d like to tag Scribbler in Seville, Travel Lady with Baby, Putney Farm, The Donovan Boys and Erin from The Other Side of the Road. No obligation, of course, but if you (or any one else out there, for that matter!) are looking for an excuse to relive your greatest journey then let this be your cue.

Another Day in Paradise

Yesterday was one of those perfect days that yet again reminded me how lucky we are to live in ‘el para√≠so natural’. We spent the morning exploring Seguencu, in the concejo of On√≠s. It¬īs a west-facing crag and thus the perfect venue for a morning of shaded climbing on a cloudless summer’s day.

Despite being a short drive outside the busy tourist town of Cangas de Onís (gateway to the Picos mountains and hub for adventure tourism), Seguencu itself is peacefulness personified. At over 600 metres above sea-level and with the last few kilometres of access via a bumpy and steep track the approach is not for the faint-hearted driver (nor for the owners of low-slung cars.)

The views from Seguencu crag yesterday

By two pm the sun had shifted round far enough to be creeping on to the rock face and it was time for us to beat a retreat. Walking out in the sun we felt the full, fierce heat of the day and the desire to immerse ourselves in cool waters quickly overcame us.

Where there are mountains there are, of course, rivers and where there is Richie there is always an eye to exploration. This was his opportunity to investigate a spot he had previously spied from the car as we drove through the Amieva valley outside Cangas and which he had speculated upon as a potential swimming hole.

Now, many are the wild goose chases we have embarked upon together. Richie is prone to frequent sightings of ‘El Dorado’ from behind the steering wheel. A drive through any new area is never complete without a few impromptu stops where we swing off the road and then hike off the beaten path to investigate something that has caught his eye and sparked his enthusiasm. Often the crag that looked spectacular from a distance turns out to be a chossy pile of dangerous, loose rock. Sometimes, though, the shimmer in the distance denotes a real jewel. And so it was in this instance.

A short, easy walk down from the roadside brought us to the meeting of two rivers. One was shallow and gentle with rocky platforms perfect for paddling, splashing and young swimmers. The other had deeper pools perfect for plunging into. Both were cool and crystal clear.

The perfect end to a perfect day.

.I’m linking this post up to Country Kids over at Coombe Mill. Click the badge below to visit some more outdoors family adventures.

Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

Today in the Village

Today was a day like many others, lived to the rhythm of the village. Jack and I hit the garden early – we were out with wellies on and tools in hand by 9am. A good time to be digging before the full heat of the day beats us back indoors to the cool of our stone-built house.

The only down side to our (relatively) early rising is that none of the other children in the village are up and about yet, so there is no distraction on hand for Jack. While he loves to help (all the while telling me what a good helper he is) the joys of chasing round the garden with Alberto or Pelayo last somewhat longer than those of digging in the earth when Mummy’s attention is more firmly fixed on her ongoing war on weeds than it is on her darling boy.

Soon Alberto’s grandfather, Aurelio, appears. He takes his usual seat beside the hedgerow just outside our garden. This is the spot where most mornings and afternoons he sits to patiently sharpen his scythe before putting it to work in the fields. The tap, tap, tapping of the anvil on the blade beating out a gentle soundtrack to our days.

Aurelio takes us over to the barn to check in on the calf that was born last night. We were lucky enough to have seen it when it was only minutes old – pretty mindblowing stuff for a young child. Jack is delighted to see how sturdy and active it is already.

New-born calf with mum, just moments old

As the barn is directly underneath Alberto’s house our visit to the calf has the added bonus of alerting him to Jack’s presence and he soon descends with his ‘moto’ to commence the serious business of playing. The pair ride their motos round and round the garden performing stunt crashes while I weed furiously, making the most of the childcare assistance.

Beneath the squeals of children playing, the steady thrum of bees buzzing about their business often accompanies us around the village. Today it grows to a crescendo and the realisation dawns on me that one of the hives in the next field is swarming. I unfold myself from the flower bed and look on, agog; warily watching for where they might be headed.

The only other time I witnessed this phenomenon was four years ago when a hive swarmed onto our house. As we watched, horrified, the white walls of the third floor of the house turned black with clustering bees. I remember Aurelio stood next to us at the time, chuckling so hard that tears came. When, moments later, a second swarm came and did the same thing to his house he didn’t laugh quite so much!

Both swarms installed themselves in our respective attic spaces and despite callling the local bee expert he was unable to get them out and into a hive because of difficult access. They never gave us any trouble – the only way we knew they were still there was for the occasional, distant noise of formula 1 racing cars and the heavy, gorgeous scent of honey perfuming the air of our salon at certain times of the year. Then one year they picked up and moved on.

Still, you can understand why I was keen to see them safely re-homed somewhere suitable. The afore-mentioned bee-man had told us cautionary tales of bees taking up residence in much more problematic places than our loft space and I didn’t want to find them swarming in my kitchen this time!

Today they clustered around the trunk of a young tree in the field waiting to decide on a new hive. When swarming like this the bees are dopey and docile and non-aggressive. Still, I took this photo of them using a big lens so I didn’t have to get too close.

The swarm of bees clustered around a tree trunk

Alberto senior dashed off to get his bee-suit and a spare hive. Like some strange arch-bishop he swung his smoker, filled with wood-shavings, to entice them into the hive, placed at the bottom of the tree. Once the first few have entered, he leaves them to complete the house-move themselves in their own time.

Reinforcements arrive. Alberto dons his beekeeper suit.

The children are truly fascinated by both this spectacular display of nature in action and by Alberto’s cool armour-like suit. Once the excitement is over it’s time for their lunch and a much-needed siesta.

The road and fields are empty for a couple of hours, then post-merienda time (afternoon tea, about 5pm) the village stirs again. The children take to the street with their bikes and trucks and toys and the adults return to their outdoor tasks with them.

The cool of the early evening is filled with play and pottering in the garden. Watering with hose and can is a favourite all-family activity. After which, it’s time to water and feed the family again as the day draws to a close.

I’m linking this post up to ‘Country Kids’ over at Coombe Mill. Click the badge below to read about some more outdoors family adventures.

Country Kids from Coombe Mill Family Farm Holidays Cornwall

Going Home the Long Way Round

We spent last weekend camping and climbing in Santa Gadea and on Monday we slowly wound our way back home, taking advantage of the opportunity to explore a little of the neighbouring province of Burgos on the way.

We had been told that there was a world-class crag in the area that had yet to be developed (i.e. bolted for sports climbing) so we set off on a hunt. We never did find it (next time) but our search did inadvertently lead us to this beautiful waterfall – la Cascada de la Mea. Undoubtedly not the best time of year to view it, the dried-up river-beds in the floor of the valley meant it was a pleasant surprise to see any water there at all when we arrived.

After our somewhat fruitless, yet somehow fruitful, search we had a riverside picnic lunch under the natural limestone arch upon which the picturesque village of Puentedey is built, before getting back in the car and continuing down to Cantabria.

Just outside Santander we broke our journey with a stop at El Parque de la Naturaleza de Cabarceno. This place is amazing. Set on 750 hectares of land that was previously used for open cast mining, its enormous size allows the hundred or so species of animals from across the globe to live in semi-liberty. Different species co-exist in massive enclosures and, apart from being provided with food, the animals live as they would in the wild and display all the natural instinctive behaviours, such as fighting for control of females in mating season. It is rated as amongst the best in the world by animal welfare organisations.

If you ever get the chance to go then do. The whole park has a magical atmosphere. I always feel like I have somewhow stepped into Jurassic Park, a sensation heightened by the various craggy outcrops that surround you, the soundtrack of animals roaring and shrieking and the impressive birds of prey circling the skies above.

This visit, we only had a few hours to spend (the intention being to break our journey, not knacker it entirely!) but as ‘friends of the park’ we have year-round passes (40 euros per adult or 100 euros per family, children under 6 free) so could afford to do so, knowing we’d be back again soon. By the second visit the passes have already paid for themselves (day entry is 21 euros per adult and 13 euros for children over 6.)

Arriving late in the day, we decided to head straight (well, via coffee and a pincho) to the afternoon birds of prey exhibition at 4pm. We’ve seen it twice before but it doesn’t get old. The show is in two parts. Firstly the birds show off their aerial skills within the outdoor arena, demonstrating up close and personal their flying manoeuvres and identifying features.

The demonstration is so up close and personal, in fact, that the birds often skim the heads of the audience, sometimes even knocking sunhats off and often causing a lot of ducking and gasping. You are warned beforehand not to raise your hands, stand up, or to have any food with you.

In the second part of the show, birds are enticed in from crags on the far-distant horizon with prey being swung on lengths of rope. The birds swoop in dramatically from the skies, displaying awesome speed and precision. (Just ask the people in the back row about how precise their flight can be!)

Snatching prey in the air as it is swung on a rope

And again snatching prey, this time from the water

At the end of the show you get the opportunity to have your photo taken with a golden eagle or eagle owl. This young man didn’t look so sure that this was altogether a great idea.

After the show we paid a quick visit to the giraffes and their roomies the ostriches and buffalo before going on to pay our respects to the elephants. A quick tour of the petting zoo to see some of the smaller animals was all we then had time for before the park was due to close at 6pm and it was time to hit the road again.

We managed to squeeze in just one more stop, at one of our favourite Cantabrian towns, San Vicente de la Barquera. Here we had dinner and gave the dog a run on the coastal path above the extensive beaches. Poor thing had been on rather a tight leash in the park as I had no desire to see shaky handi-cam, eyewitness footage of my greyhound chasing gazelles on the evening news.

All in all it may have been a rather circuitous route home but you know what they say – it’s all about the journey.

Tired but happy at the end of the day

I’m linking this post up to ‘Family Frolics’ over at multiplemummy.com. Click¬† the badge below to find lots more ideas for family fun.

Living Close to Nature

I love living somewhere with abundant wildlife. I cherish the fact that Asturias has healthy populations of animals and birds that are in danger of extinction elsewhere. But it’s not all Disney, it does have its downside.

This week an industrious jabalí (wild boar) obliterated my potato patch overnight. 50m2 of potato plants completely disappeared. Several days worth of back-aching digging and manuring, of weeding and mounding and watering Рall for nothing.

Now, I have to admit it was partially my own stupid fault. The threat of jabal√≠ invasion was known but, unlike my neighbours, I never got round to erecting an electric fence. What can I say? I guess you never think it’ll happen to you. I certainly didn’t think that they would destroy the whole lot in one incursion.

Cute, huh?
Not so much when they’ve just snaffled your whole potato crop…
Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Having said that, despite their well-placed electric fence my neighbours have been steadily losing their potatoes to a smaller invader who can shimmy underneath the wires – the badger. The damage is less dramatic but is insidious. He returns night after night to nibble on the tubers, leaving them gnawed and unusable.

To add to their woes, their employment of the battery and fence in their potato patch meant that they left their orchard unguarded and yesterday escaped horses got in and broke off a load of branches from the apple trees.

If it’s not one thing it’s another. ‘No puedes tener nada,’ as my neighbours mutter wearily (you can’t have anything.) They’ve spent all their lives scratching a living from the soil – the sometimes harshness of mother nature is not news to them.

Eagles swoop down from the sky to snatch baby chicks from their runs, stoats squeeze through the tiniest of gaps to penetrate chicken coops and perpetrate massacre, mould blights entire crops. These are just some of the natural dramas I have witnessed here in the past few years.

On the other hand, as Aurelio said to me the other morning ‘antes hab√≠a mucho m√°s crisis. Esto no ye crisis.’ He was referring to the current economic situation in which Spain finds itself, making the point that times were much harder in years gone by.

At 78 years old Aurelio can say this with some authority. He has worked the land since he was 8, when his father died. His family had dairy cows and he also spent his days, in between milking and other farm tasks handcarving madre√Īas (Asturian clogs) to earn a little cash. He has lived through the civil war and the subsequent dictatorship.

Madre√Īas. The stilted Asturian clog used by all when working the fields. Strange looking but eminently practical. (And no, I’ve never dared to don a pair.)

For someone who has grafted at the mercy of nature season in and season out for seventy years the media uproar over the recession and austerity seems a little melodramatic. There are cycles in everything and sometimes, too, there is a little suffering.