On a few long weekends this winter we drove up to the northwest of Sevilla into the mountains known as the Sierra de Aracena. After we cross the Guadalqivir River we drive through fields of sunflowers, alfalfa, wheat (ok I’m guessing on the wheat), and through vineyards and acres and acres of olive trees, and then after about an hour we are in hilly terrain covered in oak and cork trees, grazed by cows, sheep, goats and the black-footed pigs.
When I rented our car for the last trip the Enterprise clerk asked where we were going.
“Alajar,” I said.
“Alajar! My family has a house there. An old one, from the 6th century. Where are you staying.”
“At Rio Molina Alajar,” I said, “It’s a ‘casa rural,’ just some small houses . . .”
“Of course,” he said, “the Dutch couple.”
And yes, the casa rural that we’ve stayed in twice now is owned and managed by a Dutch couple who moved twelve years ago directly from Amsterdam into the hills of southern Spain. They’ve built up a few houses, some gardens, a grass tennis court and a pool. They also have an orchard and a nice patio and bar-b-que station. And their careful Dutch style means that the little house we rent has radiant floor heating, a fireplace, and also a nice thick leather curtain to pull across the old drafty door on the inside to keep it cozy and warm.
My favorite part about the drive up to Alajar is the Carniceria just outside of Aracena, which sells fresh and delicious cuts of pork. The best “presa iberica” I have ever had, and very tasty when quickly grilled on the bar-b-que (as our neighbors once did for us, cooking the pork over a fire made from pinecones). The store also sells sausages, dried hams, cheeses and a white alcoholic beverage called “Leche de Pantera,” or Panther Milk. Grrrr.
So we went, we grilled, we rode donkeys. Or at least some of us rode donkeys. I was over the weight limit.
The donkeys were usually kept just down the gravel path that followed the river — the “ruta de las molinas” or route of the mills — from where we were staying, in a brick and stone stable with high wooden doors. We stopped to visit them twice and they seemed to appreciate the company. And sometimes during the day they would be put out to graze in a nearby pasture behind a stone wall, so Benji, Ibby and Mimi made flower crowns and communed.
We also took some short hikes down the ruta de molinas to a gorge to see a large collection of vultures. The path follows the river, as you might expect, and runs past many old grain mills that are mostly now boarded up or converted to houses. We also walked through some small villages, past fields where flocks of goats were grazing, past a dog kennel where the dogs slept in concrete pipes, and past a beautiful olive grove glowing with green spring grass. It was very peaceful.
From our house we would hear just the occasional bleating of a goat, or bark of a dog. Except on Saturday, when we heard all of the sounds of a birthday party unfolding on a nearby farm. Stella was the happiest of all, because she was able to spend most of her day outside and then also ran through the woods and barked at pigs and goats. The nights were cool, so naturally we had to build big fires and sit in front of them playing games and toasting marshmellows.
Mimi and Ibby were studying for some exams on our second trip, but at least they were able to study while looking out on cork-covered hills. And while they studied Benji played with Stella, or read his Tin Tin books, or built fires in the fireplace, or amused himself by sliding back and forth through a little door in the wall that separated one isolated bedroom from the rest of the house. Back in Sevilla he also dressed as Tin Tin for “world literature day.”
And as a separate side trip, when I was travelling for work, Brook took Benji and Mimi on the train down to Cadiz for the day. There was a festival going on there, and everyone was in costume, so Mimi and Benji eventually felt obliged to create some sort of disguise as well.