Things we love and hate about living here!

Whilst outside doing some washing this afternoon, being hounded by flies, it got me thinking about the top five things we love and hate most about living here – some on the list are relevant to our particular location whilst others are more general about Spain!

Things we love:

The climate – obviously! In Almeria we average just under 3,000 hours of sunshine a year, and it only rains on 25 days in an average year. Average temperature is 19 degrees.

The sense of community – there are events almost every weekend in the summer (in years with no pandemic!) where the community comes together to enjoy … well, being alive! Everybody helps each other here.

The fiestas – we’re keeping our fingers crossed that we may be allowed our big summer fiesta again this year. There is a love of fireworks here, and no party would be complete without them!

Fiesta in July 2019. The ‘big one’ each year in each village lasts around four days!

The cafe culture. I think this is where the pandemic hit hard last year. Spain is a very sociable country and people spend time with friends and family at the local cafe, enjoying a cold beer and some tapas.

The work life balance. When there’s work to be done, sleeves get rolled up and people work hard. BUT, and this is the bit that’s missing in other countries, people here work to live, not live to work. Weekends are precious, and so aside from the big stores in the city, you’ll find local shops closed on Sundays – I love that.

So then … the top five things we hate!

Number one has got to be the flies – they drive you to distraction from June until about October. Even when they’re not in you, you feel like your skin is crawling with them after a while. I am often seen doing stupid dances whilst doing jobs outside – just to keep the flies off. It’s a sight to behold.

This next one is very personal to me – Rog doesn’t mind them, and that’s the snakes. Literally, my blood runs cold when I see one.

Learning Spanish. It’s the second fastest spoken language in the world, and when the locals fire a conversation at you, it’s almost impossible for non native speakers to understand. Where we might have 3 words for something in English, there’ll be two dozen in Spanish. Makes our heads hurt … but we’re getting better!

The use of car horns. Many delivery vans visit the villages selling bread, fish, gas bottles etc, and they literally drive around continually honking their horns to let people know they’re there. This might go in for fifteen minutes each time.

We’re struggling to think of a fifth thing … oh, the bureaucracy! Everything you want to do involves reams of forms. When we changed our mobile phone numbers to Spanish ones we popped into the bank to let them know – 20 sheets of paper each with multiple signatures. When trying to register the car when we bought it, I actually cried outside the fifth government building with the fifth form out of sheer frustration. My advice – never ever try and do these things yourself – pay a gestoria – they are administrators and know the systems. You will never fathom it!

The list of things we love was really easy – the only difficulty was keeping it to just five things! When we did the list of things we hate, we struggled to think of five things – tells us we’ve made a good move!

Almeria – a very special place

Almeria was actually third or fourth in our list of preferred areas when we came to Spain. Top of the list was Malaga province, mainly because we knew there a little more. Then came Granada or Jaen and then Almeria. For a few months after we made the decision to move, we became avid watchers of A Place in the Sun, when it was about southern Spain. Whilst it is without a doubt an intensely annoying programme, it did give us a few insights into different areas around Andalucía. That, coupled with lots of research on the internet looking at house prices, climate, distances to airports etc, all contributed to deciding our top areas.

During our property search when we got here, we quickly ruled out Malaga – the properties we could afford would’ve been very difficult to live in – very very rural and on top of very steep mountains! We then discovered just how cold Jaen and Granada can be in winter, and we had to consider things like distances to airports etc, having elderly parents. There was a suitable property, although it was at the very top of our budget and needed work. This was in Alcaudete in Jaen. There was just something about it that didn’t feel right, but we kept it there as an option – until we saw this place.

Driving over to Almeria, we had heard of the plastic tents, but nothing prepared us for the sea of plastic tents that went on for miles. The further we drove, the more convinced we became that we would be buying the house in Alcaudete.

The plastic greenhouses in Almeria can be seen from space!

But then we turned off the motorway and started heading towards the Alpujarras and Illar. We spent a lot of time staring out of the window just going ‘WOW!’ at the scenery! There were still a few plastic tents dotted here and there, and we can even see one from our finca, but you get used to them, and they play a huge and important part of the economy in this part of Spain.

The scenery here is dramatic to say the least. That’s probably why so many films have been made in the area. Not too far from us is Little Hollywood, where you can visit some of the film sets from movies made here – including many spaghetti westerns, Top Gun, Terminator, Indiana Jones and Star Wars to name but a few.

Clint Eastwood made many films in Almeria.

The climate is special too – summers are short and hot and winters are short and cold, and the rest of the year it’s, well, just lovely!

They always say that the special thing about here is you can go skiing in the morning and sunbathe on the beach in the afternoon! We’re about 30 minutes from the coast, and 30 minutes the other way you find yourself in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

The city of Almeria is actually lovely – you can wander round the shops then walk over and have lunch by the beach! This part of Spain was heavily influenced by the Moors, and you can see the remnants of this today, not only in the architecture but also in the food.

The Fort overlooks the city.

Almeria’s popularity is growing – there are growing areas of expats, particularly over towards Mojácar and Albox way. Even here in our small village there are probably a dozen expat couples from the UK, as well as from other countries. Property prices tend to be cheaper than other places such as Malaga too.

On the coast you can find Cabo de Gata – a beautiful nature reserve with stunning beaches and little white villages – somewhere we have yet to visit (mainly because of the lockdown), but it’s definitely on the list of places we want to see.

Cabo de Gata is a UNESCO Biosphere Site, and somewhere I’d happily spend a day!

This is also a popular area for observatories – clear skies with little or no light pollution make it a great place to stargaze – we have sat on our roof terrace mesmerized by the Milky Way over our heads!

Little villages dot the landscape, all of which have little bars & cafes serving authentic tapas. Almeria is a place I would definitely recommend hiring a car and having a roam about, and I feel so unbelievably lucky to call it home.

Rog took this photo the other day from a viewpoint up on top of a mountain and it shows the valley where we live!

Fiestas during the pandemic

Spain loves a party! And what must every party have … fireworks, lots and lots of fireworks!

Spain’s love affair with fireworks!

Each village has their own series of fiestas throughout the year, and we made the effort to go to most of them during 2019 – they’re all about the community coming together, and we thought it was really important to be a part of that.

Last year, of course, everything was cancelled. I can’t tell you how sad it made people feel .

Yesterday was Santa Ana day. As she is the patron saint of our village it’s a big deal here. For those that may not know, Santa Ana was Mary’s mum (Jesus’ Granny). Obviously we’re still living with lots of restrictions, but our village was declared covid free a couple of weeks ago.

I take my hat off to the Ayuntamiento for the way they managed to celebrate yesterday – obviously no parades, no brass band etc, but what they did do was bring in a churros van and everyone in the village got free churros and chocolate in the morning – pop along to the van, pick up your freebies and take them home to enjoy. Then at lunchtime there was mass, which was streamed on Facebook, accompanied by fireworks. And last night, a huge firework display for everyone to watch from their balconies, again, streamed live on Facebook.

Free churros for everyone!!

The amount of thought that went into organising a safe way for everyone to celebrate is astonishing, and is testament to how well local government works here.

Each town or village has an ayuntamiento – a town hall. Each village also has an elected Mayor. The Mayor (here it’s a lovely chap called Carmelo, who, just like the rest of us, farms oranges) works with the other committee members to run all aspects of the village.

Bearing in mind there’s only 380 people in our village, we have a municipal swimming pool, a floodlit astroturf football pitch, a small theatre, and a handball court. A small army of workers constantly sweep the roads, cut the trees, paint the walls and benches etc – every week some sort of maintenance is happening to keep the village looking lovely.

So the next celebration is Easter of course – usually there’s a parade here on Palm Sunday and then lots of community events over Easter – we’re highly unlikely to be able to have anything close to a normal Easter here, but we all have a little heart after yesterday that we’ll find a way to make it special.

Food shopping in Spain

Out here in the countryside, the weekly shop is a little different to what we were used to in the UK. Large supermarkets with an enormous amount of choice, and all veg available all year are just not a thing here. In Almeria you have loads of big supermarkets, but we rarely go down to the big city these days!

Locally, there’s the daily fish van that comes round the village beeping his horn vigorously – we’ve never bought from him as he doesn’t get to our village until lunchtime, and we’re always back at the finca by then if we have been out. Some locals say never to buy the fish as the van isn’t refrigerated – the fish is kept in polystyrene boxes in the back of the van, and would’ve been in there for hours by the time he gets to us!

We have two food shops in the village – they’re small, but you can get your staples there if you run short, and we do like to support our local shop where possible. We do go to the nearest ‘bigger town’, Alhama, which is about 4 miles away, as there is a small supermarket there, so between Alhama and what we have in the village, we can get everything we need.

Then there’s the pharmacy – if you want some headache pills, you can’t get them in the food shops – there’s no crossover here! Different shops for different things.

But the highlight of the week is the market on a Wednesday. Every village has its particular market day, so if you miss yours for some reason then you can always find a nearby market within the next day or two (when there’s no pandemic and you’re allowed to travel anyway!).

The number and variety of stalls vary from week to week, but there’s always a couple of fruit and veg stalls, a butchers van, usually one selling clothes, one with household items – pots and pans etc, and a linen stall with bedding and towels. Sometimes we get shoes, handbags, scarves, and underwear too!

The weekly market is an important part of life in Spain. Some weeks the market is really small, but other weeks stalls line both sides of the road.

You can always tell when it’s fiesta time – extra stalls appear with special flowers and posh dresses!

We always get our veg from the lovely Alexandra. It seems normal to us now, but I remember when we first moved to Spain how we couldn’t get over the size of the veg – it’s all huge! And it’s really fresh too. You don’t go with a shopping list – you decide what to buy when you get there based on what’s available and what’s in season. The only things I really miss are parsnips and swede – never ever see them here (probably because they need a frost and that just doesn’t happen here!).

I remember as a child going to do the weekly shopping with Dad on a Thursday night – butchers first, then the green grocers, followed by the supermarket (and always the fish and chip shop on the way home, making sure we were back for Tomorrow’s World and Top of the Pops!) – going shopping here is just like that (minus the fish and chips, Tomorrow’s World and Top of the Pops of course!) in that you go to different shops for everything. I didn’t realise just how much I’d missed that till we got here – it really is like going back 40 years!

Like most things about life here, rushing is pointless. Standing at the veg stall isn’t boring .. it’s just an opportunity to catch up with other people and enjoy the sun for a while! This slower, calmer pace of life is wonderful and I would heartily recommend everyone trying to introduce a bit of this ethos into life! It would’ve probably driven me mad though if I was working full time with a family like I used to – it was a struggle to find the time to do an online shop back then, never mind visiting different shops!

Over the last year during the pandemic, shopping hasn’t been as much fun as it used to be … after getting our stuff from the market we would go and enjoy a leisurely coffee at the cafe and have a gossip. Unfortunately, our cafe has been closed since last Autumn as our lovely cafe owner, Antonio, is very ill with Covid – I’ll take this opportunity to wish him a speedy recovery – the cafe is such an important part of the village and it’s just not the same without Antonio and his family there. Fingers crossed we have better and happier days coming again.

Houses in Spain

Spain certainly seems to have different building regulations to what we’re used to in the UK, even more so when you buy a cortijo on a Finca.

Many cortijos were built without any permissions or sign offs at the end of the build – think along the lines of building a shed in your garden!

Most houses don’t have a damp proof course, so suffer from some damp and paint peeling off the cold cast walls.

When we bought this cortijo were went in eyes wide open and knew what we were buying – and also accepted that some work would need to be done to live in it all year round. And I think we’ve been pretty lucky – the house has been way better than we thought it would be. Some of the electrics and plumbing have been ‘interesting’ to say the least, but Rog is handy in both of these areas so with a bit of hard work and some choice swear words, we’ve had everything working ok.

But there, in the back of our minds was ‘what’s going on under the shower tray?’ We took the decision to leave it well alone while it’s all been working ok.

But a couple of weeks ago we had a problem with the hot water – there was literally a trickle coming out of the taps. Knowing the water here has loads of calc we called Emilio, our gas man, to clean out the boiler pipes with the special diluted acid to get rid of the calc. But then disaster struck!

We turned the hot water back on and even though the taps were off, we could hear water running in the house – there was a leak somewhere. The leak had been plugged by the calc so now the pipes were clean, the leak could flow freely! At which point I buggered off to the UK leaving Rog to sort it out!

It turns out that the water pipes were laid and then the concrete floor was poured. So Rog had to dig down and around to find the leak, taking out the shower as part of the process. He had to dig fairly deep …

This is under what used to be our shower!

So the good news is we do now have running hot water, but the bad news is we have no shower or bath! So, we called our builder (also called Emilio!), who once again looked at something in our house and simply said ‘Madre Mia!’. The situation has forced our hand to get the bathroom totally re-done (which was on the list for some point in the future). We’ve been and bought all new tiles and new fixtures and fittings for the bathroom now in case we go back into lockdown like other countries in Europe, but Emilio can’t do the work for a month … it’s going to be a very long month I think!

At this point it’s better to just rip everything out and start again. We’re bringing the water pipes above ground just in case we have another leak in the future!

We’re turning it into a wet room and have chosen tiles we actually like 😂. It’ll all be worth it when it’s done!

Learning to cook all over again!

Since moving to a predominantly plant based diet, I can’t tell you the new things I’ve learned, and the experiments that have been carried out in this kitchen!

It really helps having such lovely fresh produce available, and a good nose about at the market often comes up trumps. My herb and spice rack has never been used so much!

Lots of people on a plant based diet use these vegan and vegetarians alternatives – ‘pretend meat’ – but the problem I have with these is that they’re so highly processed, and when you read the labels you find they’re not that good for you (or for the environment). When we first went down this road we had a trip into Almeria to go to a big supermarket and bought a variety of alternative products to try, and very quickly decided that we would rather just not eat the alternatives, and instead stick to cooking with fresh plants from scratch. Apart from the fact they’re highly processed, don’t taste that good and are expensive, we would have to do a 62km round trip to get any of them. Nah!

And I’ll just say, pretend cheese made from cashews … ewwwww… it tastes like cardboard flavored with whatever they use to make quavers crisps.

Growing up with an Irish Mum and an English Dad who suffered terribly with stomach ulcers (he ended up having most of his stomach cut out), we ate very plain food at home. It was all plain meat and boiled veg, stew and dumplings, Sunday roast with Yorkshire’s – in fact, the first time I ate pasta was after I left home! My first curry was about six years ago – I know, it’s shameful!

So, I decided it was time for this old dog to learn some new tricks – and once you get started, it’s amazing what you can serve up with a few veg, herbs, spices and a little inspiration from You Tube! The great thing is that I have time now – I’ve always loved cooking, but now I’ve become quite passionate about it. After a long day at work it was often difficult to muster the energy to cook something exciting. Living here and only having a small supermarket locally means I have to get inventive with basic ingredients or face a trip down into Almeria for supplies.

A few favourites of ours have become:

Veg stew with white beans and dumplings – ready from scratch in 30 minutes and perfect on a cold day.

Veggie paella (I call this paella de Finca del Cielo – if Spanish people saw my paella they would have a fit as it’s not terribly traditional!).

Poached quince crumble with oat milk custard (ooh get me!)

Deconstructed tortilla (don’t laugh but it’s way easier than trying to flip a tortilla when you make them as chunky as I do!) Again, it’s my own take on a Spanish tortilla and does not conform to tradition!

This is real comfort food!

Fried cauliflower rice. I used to buy the tubs of cauliflower rice in the UK but had never made it myself. As they don’t have that sort of stuff here in the shops I now make my own, and am quite ashamed that I ever bought it – sooooo easy!

So, over the next few days I’ll share the recipes for these on the ‘recipes, tips and ideas’ page. They’re all really flexible recipes – they change every time I cook them depending on what’s in the fridge!

The great thing about cooking without meat is that it actually becomes quicker and healthier and you don’t have to sacrifice flavor. I have been astonished at how easy the change has been, and by not going for the ‘pretend, processed stuff’ we’re saving a fortune every week. Eggs feature quite heavily in our diet as the girls lay an average of 3 a day between them – I think I have cooked eggs in every possible way over the last few months!

I thought I’d miss dairy, but I really don’t. We use oat milk instead of cows milk, and the only problems I’ve come across with this are cakes and Yorkshire puddings. We did try rice milk, and a few years ago I tried almond milk, neither of which I was that taken with.

I have bought some nutritional yeast which is used to add a cheesy taste to food, and it’s ok – you can sprinkle it on sandwiches or over salads and pasta, or stir some into your pasta sauce before serving. We wouldn’t eat it every day, but it makes a change now and again.

We said at the start of our change in diet that we wouldn’t be arseholes about it, so when I make cakes, I buy a pint of cows milk. I have now found a few recipes that don’t call for milk but use water instead. There’s always an alternative way to do things, and as I become more knowledgeable I’m sure our use of cows milk will go to zero.

Occasionally we buy a chorizo and I’ll add a little bit to a paella, but this is becoming more and more rare. I’m amazed that we haven’t craved a bacon sandwich yet, and we happily walk past all the meat and cheese etc in the supermarket without a second glance!

I think the fact that we said if we really fancied a bit of meat then we’d have some has helped – when you tell yourself you can’t have something you immediately start to crave that very thing! But I’m happy with the choice we’ve made – I feel well, I’ve discovered a passion for cooking and we’re saving money – what could be better than that!

Cultural differences

Spain and its culture have been a real surprise to me. Now that we’ve been living here for nearly 18 months I feel that we are really starting to understand what makes this little corner of Spain tick.

Like many people, my only previous experience of Spain was as a holiday maker, and I had only been to Malaga twice before and a couple of visits to the Canaries. There was a bit of me that thought that maybe that’s how all of Spain was – a bit ‘Benidorm’ but I wasn’t worried as we had planned to live an isolated life, so we wouldn’t be in the thick of it too often.

Our actual experience has been so different to the stereotype and I think it’s mainly because we’re away from the coast and tourist areas.

Food – when we moved here we decided to make a concerted effort to learn about real Spanish cuisine. I am now an expert paella and tortilla maker (although they’re not always completely traditional!), and both have become part of our staple diet as they’re quick easy and healthy! Of course, Spain is famous for tapas, and we have become big fans over the last year. There really is a massive difference between the tapas that you get at tourist resorts and the tapas you get if you drive away from the coast – I would really recommend taking a drive and stopping in almost any village cafe to try some proper tapas. Tapas translates as ‘small dish’ and it’s so much better than a Greg’s sausage roll or a bar of chocolate, which was my go to food in the UK when I was hungry in between meals! Generally, the diet here is so much healthier than in the UK – fruit and veg at the markets tends to be seasonal, so I don’t write shopping lists any more – I go to the market and choose from what’s available, and that dictates what we eat for the next week. We use loads more olive oil now, especially as we got 31 litres of it from our olives lat year! The other dish I would recommend if you visit Spain is the toastada – a toasted baguette topped with smashed tomatoes which is traditionally eaten for breakfast – a little drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt on top makes it perfect! Meal times are quite different here – Spanish people think it’s hilarious that the English eat dinner at 6pm ish as it’s customary here to eat at 9.30pm! During the very hot weather this makes absolute sense, as it’s simply too hot to eat earlier than that, but in the winter we do tend to close the front door once it’s dark at about 5pm and revert to British mealtimes! The only thing I bring back from the UK with me now is tea and vegetable diet for dumplings – sorry, but Spanish tea just doesn’t cut it – it’s soooo weak! So whenever we visit the UK we make sure there’s some room in our case for bags of Yorkshire tea – and when it gets serious I get my parents to post a box of it over! You can buy PG over here in the bigger supermarkets, but it costs a fortune and only comes in tiny boxes – the Spanish aren’t a nation of tea drinkers! But other than tea and suet, we don’t actively seek out traditional British goods any more. We’ve found Spanish alternatives which suit our new way of eating perfectly.

Family and community here are so important; children are adored and everyone talks to them – they never seem to be an annoyance or in the way, and as a result they are generally beautifully behaved with fabulous manners. Respect towards your elders is a massive thing here.

There is one thing that has been hard to get used to though which is the staring. Men openly stare at women, and they don’t look away when you catch them! Apparently it’s purely appreciating the female form – hmmm … the jury is definitely out on this one!

Queuing is hilarious here! In the UK we are used to orderly queues, and pushing in is tantamount to treason. In Spain they just don’t queue, BUT there is a system! You go into, say, the bank, and everyone is just standing around. If you speak Spanish you then ask who is the last person in the general direction of the crowd, and once identified you know who to go after. If you don’t speak Spanish you have to memorize everyone who was in there when you arrived 😂 (the latter was us when we first arrived in Spain!). There are occasional podgers- and they get glared at and whispered about, although generally nothing is then said to them – it just seems to be accepted that they must be really busy!

Customer service – prior to moving to Spain we read loads of articles about living in Spain, and many cited terrible customer service as one of the downsides of living here. Well, that’s not our experience at all. Sometimes you go into a shop and think great, there’s only two people in front of us, and then you wait half an hour to be served! Why, you ask? Well, each person is given the time they need, and when it’s your turn, you’ll get the time and attention you need too. Nothing wrong in my book with that! Maybe the people who wrote these articles didn’t smile or speak Spanish, and if that’s the case then they can’t complain really!

Someone asked us the other week what our views were on bull fighting. Well, I said, personally I think it’s cruel and I don’t agree with it – however, I respect the fact that it’s a tradition here, and as I’m not Spanish I’m not going to pass judgement (but you wouldn’t catch me going to a bullfight). The response was, well, you have fox hunting! So we had to explain that it’s been outlawed and that ordinary people like us have never been fox hunting. Not everyone gets up on a Sunday morning and nips out on their horse with their dogs to go hunting – funny to hear how other people imagine England to be like!

Attitudes towards women here could be considered a little outdated or old fashioned in other countries – men and women really do have pink and blue jobs – a woman might come and pick some fruit at the finca, but you wouldn’t see them digging or fighting with a rotavator. It has a slight 1950’s feel to it. And do you know what, in this type of community it does actually work, and we have slipped into this way too for some things (but not everything 😂😂) – Rog does the majority of the heavy work outside and I do the washing, cooking etc. I do occasionally like to climb a few trees to prune them and grapple with the rotavator though, much to the hilarity of everyone who sees me! When you live like this each person really does have to know their strengths and weaknesses and you have to play to your strengths to get things done.

Everyone seems to own or part own a finca here for growing fruit and veg. And they all seem to help each other out – if someone is out spraying then they seem to do their neighbours finca too! One of our neighbours, Pepe, brings us potatoes and last week a huge carrier bag of peppers – he’s clearly a bit of an expert grower. He’s offered to come to our finca to help us a bit with our veg – I think he’s seen us struggling to get to grips with the very different soil, climate and timings for veg and so is going to come and teach us – how nice is that! He invited Rog over to see his finca (not me, because a woman wouldn’t be concerned with such things here!) to show him the best way to grow here, and the best way to irrigate etc. Once upon a time I would probably have been a bit miffed, but it’s actually really nice not having to prove anything to anyone anymore.

Religion is big here – the vast majority of the population is catholic and all the villages have a church in the center of the village , around which everything revolves. Holy days of obligation are observed, and they are usually public holidays. Each village has its own patron Saint – in Illar it’s Santa Ana (Mary’s mum). The annual fiesta sees an enormous statue of her being carried around the town, and everyone does the walk with the statue – it takes a good hour and there are stops on the route so that an enormous number of fireworks can be set off for her. This explains why, from the day we arrived here, I have been called Ana instead of Anita – as the name Anita is a derivative of Ana it’s much better to be Ana – actually it’s considered an honor.

The annual fiesta lasts for 4 or 5 days with Friday night being the evening dedicated to Santa Ana.

When we decided to quit the UK we cited a big part of the reason as being that we were fed up of living to work rather than working to live … and I think we have found the perfect place with like minded people and we certainly feel very much at home with the culture (except for the staring 😳).