Tag Archives: Casares

Russian Magic Tales from Pushkin to Platonov

Edited by Robert Chandler


I hate that some people may take from my recent blogs, Facebook posts, tweets etc. that I am anti-Russian. I hate what Putin has done and I hate the fact that plenty of Russians believe the propaganda of the fascism of the West, but there is really so much I love of Russia and its people and definitely its arts. I already mentioned my Belarusian friend, whom I met in Skerries when I was 14 and who took that trip to Crimea with me 10 years later. 10 years later she is living in Dublin with her Irish husband and I am godmother to one of her two sons.  She taught me the cyrillic letters and introduced me to Russian literature. I had head of War and Peace but it seemed like some huge tome that was meant to sit on a shelf and not be read. She told me they studied it in school. At the time I was studying Steinbeck’s novella ‘The Pearl’ and it didn’t seem to quite compare.


I had always been a fan of fairy tales and enjoyed reading those from lands far away, including Russia. When choosing my college courses as a clueless 16 year old, I had selected some course relating to folk tales as my top non degree choice. That was never going to happen though, I was always going to end up doing a more ‘useful’ degree. (My practical self should thank the elders who persuaded me this way, my dreamy self regrets what might have been.) When I left Belarus, my Russian teacher and good friend was very enthusiastic, though perhaps a little over optimistic, about my progress. She wanted me to prepare for exams for teaching Russian as a foreign language. On the train to Crimea I had some books to read, a diary to write in and an exercise book for my Russian. I did continue going to classes in Dublin for a few years after I returned, but I am ashamed to say that I have forgotten most of it through lack of practice. (Like my French, like my Irish. I wish I could be one of those people who seem to be able to hold multiple languages in their head and juggle around. It is not for a lack of fantastic and generous teachers. Frau Harbison, who devoted her life to teaching German to the children of Skerries and helped me when I was going through a rough patch with my degree; Oksana, who taught me twice a week as paid for by my employers and three times a week out of the goodness of her heart and Lorena, who became a part time wedding planner and full time friend. We said ‘hasta luego’ last night and there were more than a few tears as the realisation set in.)  Oksana gave me some lovely copies of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy etc. when I left Minsk, but probably those I would be more likely to return to at this stage are the ‘skazki’, the fairy tales. Randomly I’m just remembering my attempt at translating the Children of Lir into Russian (deti Lira) back when I had my daily lessons.

One of my favourites growing up was The Firebird and I was happy to find that one here. I suppose it is probably one of the better known tales, since it has been transformed into a ballet by Stravinsky, though I haven’t managed to see that one yet, even though in my time in Minsk I tried to take in as many ballets as possible at the local, but well regarded Bolshoi theatre. Back in Dublin you see the same standards every year, The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty. It drives my ballet teacher cousin crazy.


Speaking of fairy tales, a few months ago I discovered an enchanted forest close to Jimena de la Frontera. As we had made the decision to move home we tried to make the most of the time we had left here and visit the places we hadn’t seen. We arrived on that March night in heavy rain and there were lots of snipes at each other. The next morning I was not surprised to discover that the hike I wanted to join was cancelled. If in Ireland we always waited for dry weather we’d never go hiking at all. The owner of the posada pointed me to a short route around the edge of the town. I noticed that a longer route followed the river and decided to try for that one. (The posada by the way was ‘rustic’ but enchanting and had a huge library which must have been owned by some late expat; it seems like it was stuck at a certain point of time. I wouldn’t say this was the best place I’ve stayed at in Spain, but I liked the quirkiness.)


According to the map at some point there was a bridge across the river but I never came across it. ‘Marked’ walks are a bit like that in Spain, you follow a few spruced up signs, begin to believe the trails are as well organised as Switzerland…… and then you’re on your own. I did pass an area where I saw some blocks under the water and I wondered if that was it. In any other season there might be less water and it could be easy to cross but it wasn’t a goer at that time. I didn’t want to get to the other side and find I was wrong.

So I continued on, following what must have been sheep’s paths, getting further from civilisation and closer to the monster’s lair or the hidden prince’s palace.

It was nice to be somewhere different and all alone. Around Casares there are so many houses blighting the landscape. I’m sure they could not all have had the proper permits. You are never this alone.

As I moved on searching for the elusive bridge I had to hope I could follow the gingerbread crumbs back. I felt like that guy in ‘My Side of the Mountain’. I could just start living in a tree and make my life here. Does anybody write children’s novels like that (or, say, ‘The House at World’s End’) any more or do they all have to be super realistic and basically child services would be called in?

So the book itself. Despite my intention to replace A Clash of Kings with The Count of Monte Cristo, this became my go to car book. As the stories are short it probably made more sense.

It’s interesting that some versions of the tales have been from the same base story and yet are so different. I used to be so angry with Disney for not sticking to the ‘real’ story, though I was comparing to the Grimm Brothers who apparently collated different versions and streamlined them into one.

There really is an emphasis on the threes. The three sisters, a common theme in Russian fairytales and literature.Three daughters, three sons, three chicks, three tsaroviches. Well in my family there are three daughters and three sons, so a perfect fit for a fairytale. Unfortunately that would never work out well for me, as I am the eldest sister.


While out walking near Gaucin in April I had an idea for a children’s book following on from my quest near Jimena. Well, another for the backburner. Someday I’d better start writing, not just talking or blogging about it. Spring is a beautiful time of year. The rain seems to have stopped (though, it always keeps sneaking back…well into June). The sky is blue but everything is still green or verdant, is it? Is that the word you use when green just will not do? Ah Gaucin, the hiding place of Carmen, that most famous of gypsies.


On the way back we slowed down yet again to glance at the monstrosity of a palace that seems to have got past all planning laws. I wonder what fairy tale character is most likely to be hiding there. We stopped at the Genal river and dipped our feet. It wasn’t quite swimming weather yet.

The book’s introduction explains some of the influences of the magic tales on Russian traditions, such as Mishka the bear and Myshka the mouse, where a girl has to play blind man’s buff with a bear but a mouse helps her by taking her place. Even in today’s weddings the groom often has to search for his bride. By the way, I love the tradition of games at Russian (maybe all Slavic?) weddings. I thought about having some at ours, but it would have been too complicated to organise when guests aren’t used to it. Though I have to say, at this stage so many Irish people have been to Polish weddings and everybody seems to have a good time, maybe it might take off in the future?


Mayday brought us a fairytale fog. A few years back the government in Gibraltar decided to break the tradition of the UK where you got the first Monday and give us the 1st instead. That’s great, I love bank holidays and all, but when it’s a Thursday and you just have so much to do at work you feel like maybe you aren’t going to enjoy it.

There was some walk going from Casares that I thought I might join. Sometimes when I’m, not sure if I want to do something I leave it to the last minute, maybe even beyond and if it’s still possible I feel like that’s a sign. Sometimes this works perfectly, sometimes I realise too late that I really wanted to do that thing (see Devotchka concert Dublin 2008….. what do you mean it’s sold out?)

So the way our house is built you can easily have no idea what the weather is like outside. It stays cold and dark until summer when you realise it isn’t cold anymore. I was dithering over breakfast, wondering what do, then I caught a glimpse of the fog outside, raced upstairs and saw that once again the fog was everywhere. I was so worried I’d miss it that I grabbed my camera (finally replaced the one stolen last year, yay!) and my bag and headed out. After taking a few around the town I realised I had missed the opportunity of going on the walk and didn’t mind too much, I was thinking of heading to the edge of town to try and get some good shots and then I realised there was only one place for it, so hiked up to the refugio and the amazing mirador.


While I can tolerate insects as well as most (they’re obviously a very important part of the biosphere etc. etc. ) I just hate cockroaches and there were some humongous looking cockroach type creatures up there. I suppose In fairytale world the cockroach would offer me a wish in order to save his life and then would turn out to be a prince in disguise..

So I was back at the refugio to write. It is a very fairytale like setting itself, if more the woodcutter’s abode than the palace. I just had to stop every 5 minutes of so and take some more photos of the fog.

If you are kind and brave people (or various animals) will come together to help you. Look, we all know life isn’t like a fairytale, but sometimes there are lessons you can learn and if you are good to people I truly believe that they will mostly be good back.Of course in fairytales you will always get your just rewards, whereas in real life you may not be so lucky.

One of the tales is called ‘The Frog Princess’ We are well aware of the Frog Prince and as far as I knew the frog princess was just a fantastic Divine Comedy song. This was one of the many examples of a prince or princess trapped in the body of an animal until their true love sets them free.


As enjoyable as the stories were sometimes the stories of the writers/collectors were more interesting. From Ivan Aleksandrovich Khudyakov, who was convicted of complicity in a plot to assassinate Tsar Alexander II and while in exile in Siberia complied a Yakut-Russian dictionary to Nadezhda Teffi, the Russian émigré in Paris.

While I enjoyed reading the fairytales a few at a time, there is no denying that they can get quite samey and that you can become immune to people getting killed at the drop of a hat (a bit like Game of Thrones, eh?) and also falling in love at first sight with little or no emotional resonance.

So the stories of Teffi came as some respite, in particular ‘The Dog’. It is only in the very vaguest sense a fairytale and has emotional resonance in spades.


Coincidentally while writing this I came across a review of a newly published book on the works of Teffi (Subtly Worded, and Other Stories). Once I get home I’m going to seek it out. I’m beginning to realise that this ‘no book-buying lark’ is not going to work very well. On the one hand I feel I should be reading a larger portion of the books I already own, but on the other hand I know that whether I end up reading them or not my buying interesting oddball books will result in publishers continuing to publish interesting oddball books. And if I buy them in a bookshop as opposed to online I am, in my small way, keeping bookshops afloat. Sometimes independent, sometimes chains. I like independent bookshops but I like some chains too and I don’t think it’s evil to give business to a well-run bookshop like Waterstones (also have I mentioned Hodges Figgis is my favourite bookshop? Maybe once? Oh ok then…..) or Easons. Also I feel it’s payback for all the books I read for free in those shops while I was in college. Anyway loads of people are talking about unread books at the moment. Apparently it’s perfectly normal to have half of your books unread. There’s no shame in it.

I know I wasn’t finished on the subject of this book, but I think I will finish up anyway. Teffi was a high point. Russia/Ukraine has hit the headlines again and probably if you google Russian fairytales at the moment you will be more likely to read some wildly outrageous accusations about the perpetrators of MH17 than classic bedtime stories. I don’t feel like burying myself in the more traditional ones right now.


Abandoned Books

Jimena de la Frontera-20140329-00897

Luckily for me at this moment, this is not a picture of my library, though I do plan to have a house full of books when I’m home. And believe me, we’re bringing a lot of books back (and there are plenty still waiting in the attic there….)
Some reluctantly….some it’s a case of good riddance, but the following is a list of books that will not be making the journey back to Ireland with me. If you’re in the South of Spain/Gibraltar and any of these catch your eye, just let me know! (Also, if my husband is reading this and is unhappy with anything on the list….well better get in there first!)
Oh and if you are in Ireland and one of these books is one you really, really want, I can maybe bring it back, but to be honest I don’t see that being the case for any of these:

Virginia Andrews ‘Tarnished Gold’
Neil Belton ‘A Game of Sharpened Knives’
Heidi Betts ‘La Dureza del Diamente’
Martin Booth ‘The American’
Roger Boyle ‘ Year in the Scheisse’
James Caan ‘The Real Deal’
Donato Carrisi ‘The Whisperer’
Paulo Coehlo ‘The Pilgrimage’
Paulo Coehlo ‘The Winner Stands Alone’
Joseph Conrad ‘Typhoon and Other Stories’
Agatha Christie ‘Hickory Dickory Dock’
Agatha Christie ‘4.50 from Paddington’
Jeffrey Deaver ‘Carte Blanche’
Louis De Bernieres ‘A Partisan’s Daughter’
Patrick Dennis ‘Auntie Mame’
Jessica Duchen ‘Hungarian Dances’
Laura Esquivel ‘Like Water for Chocolate’
Ildefonso Falcones ‘Cathedral of the Sea’
J. G. Farrell ‘The Troubles’
Ken Follett ‘The Pillars of the Earth’
Nell Freudenberger ‘The Newlyweds’
Reg Gadney ‘The Scholar of Extortian’
Anna Gavalda ‘Consolation’
Dave Gorman ‘vs The Rest of the World’
Almudena Grandes ‘The Frozen Heart’
The Best of Gibraltar
Mark Giminez ‘Accused’
Diana Hamilton ‘Matrimonio de Convenencia’
Shirley Hazzard ‘The Bay of Noon’
Anne Holt ‘1222’
Rona Jaffe ‘The Best of Everything’
Elfriede Jelenik ‘Women as Lovers’
Asa Larsson ‘Aurora Boreal’
Louise Levene ‘Ghastly Business’
Marina Lewycka ‘Various Pets Alive & Dead’
John Lloyd ‘Second Book of General Ignorance’
Grace McCleen ‘The Land of Decoration’
Ali McNaMara ‘From Notting Hill with Love Actually’
Henning Mankell ‘The Troubled Man’
Sue Miller ‘The Lake Shore Limited’
Raye Morgan ‘El principe perdido’
Carole Mortimer ‘Tras la pasion’
Kate Mosse ‘Labyrinth’
Melissa Nathan ‘La Camerera’
Derek Neale ‘The Book of Guardians’
Jo Nesbo ‘Headhunters’
Haken Nesser ‘Woman with Birthmark’
Chris Pavone ‘The Expats’
Ian Pears ‘An Instance of the Fingerpost’
Leif G. W. Perssom ‘Another time, Another Life’
Sarah Raynor ‘One Moment, One Morning’
Bethan Roberts ‘The Good Plain Cook’
Cynthia Rogerson ‘I love you, Goodbye’
Penny Rudge ‘Foolish Lessons in Life & Love’
Peter Schneider ‘The German Comedy’
Natasha Solomons ‘The Novel in the Viola’
Dana Stabenow ‘Play with Fire’
Susan Stephens ‘Recuerdos de Verano’
Martin Suter ‘The Chef’
Jackie Todd ‘Dog Days in Andalucia’
Miriam Toews ‘A Boy of Good Breeding’
Paul Torday ‘Salmon Fishing in the Yemen’
Eric Van Lustbader ‘The Bourne Objective’
Dimitri Verhulst ‘Madame Verona comes down the Hill’
Katharine Weber ‘The Music Lesson’
Will Wiles ‘Care of Wooden Floors’
Austin Tappin Wright ‘Islandia’

Also a few DVDs:
How I Met Your Mother Series 1-6 (After that atrocity of a finale I don’t think I can ever watch this again)
The Hangover 2
The Master
The Edukators
Sherlock Holmes (Juego De Sombras)
Michael Thomas ‘Masterclass Spanish’ (well CDs…we have two sets for some reason).

When Nights were Cold

by Susanna Jones


One day I’d like to gather some friends together and take them to the refugio de Crestellina. When I’m on my own and heading for a walk my favourite route is up to the refugio from the village. I’ve never actually seen it open. I suppose, as a refugio it’s pretty close to civilisation. There are piles of branches beside the open air barbecue but the door is firmly shut. I was actually surprised to see on a local website that the place can be rented out, because it doesn’t look like the doors have been opened in years.

Apart from when there are groups of hikers taking advantage of the picnic tables it’s a very peaceful place.

I just have this image in my head of a rag tag gang of friends, backpacks full of food, the steep hike up and then picnic heaven, Maybe if we did get the keys and stay the night we could walk up to the viewing point and watch the sunset. The mirador here is one of the most amazing views of anywhere I know. To the south you have the Mediterranean, Gibraltar and behind it Jebel Musa the spectacular mountain rising out of the mists. To the west you gaze out over the Alcornales, to the north Sierra Crestellina of Casares, to the east Sierra Bermeja towering over Estepona. And just below you is the pueblo of Casares. As my sister said, if you took away the urbanizacion where you live it would be picture perfect.


I like hiking, I wish I was just more motivated to do it on my own, or I could find some people to latch on to. Or that I could skip the years of practice and head out with my husband on his epic Sunday cycles.

My parents brought us hiking from a young age. We went on summer holidays in West Cork for a number of years until I was 12, when we went to the Alps for the first time. We went to Wengen in the Jungfrau valley and fell in love with the place. Two summers in the Austrian Alps did not compete in my mind. We returned the summer I was 15 and I told my parents I was going to come back and work in my summers when I was a student. I did work a summer by the Thunersee, but it was winter when I returned to Wengen, I had travelled 14 hours by train (reading material used up much earlier) and while on the last leg of the cog rail from Lauterbrunnen I was anxious. I’d just had a few emails and I’d had to borrow the train money from another student as my wages hadn’t come through. Also a few other students had left for Switzerland the week before and we hadn’t heard anything from them.

As I stepped off the train the snow began to fall and I watched a father pull his kid along on a sled. It was like a scene from a fairytale. There are no cars in the town, so one of the porters had an electric car for luggage and I trudged through the snow with the passengers.

Back then I had the same mini obsession with Switzerland that judging by my reading material I seem to be having for Ukraine at the moment. I ended up writing my first dissertation about Switzerland and couldn’t understand why my tutor assumed I must have a boyfriend there, the same way that years later everyone assumed I had left behind a boyfriend in Belarus. Why do people always assume there has to be a guy at the centre of all of these decisions?

That was 14 years ago and I haven’t been back to the Swiss mountains since then. I’ve been back to Switzerland twice in the last few years but just to Zurich on business. It’s a nice city but for me Switzerland is not about its cities, it’s the mountains that make it.

Reading this book really made me yearn to return to Switzerland. I missed out on the last business trip to Zurich, but I did not really mind, it would have been just another city trip. I want to see the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau again in all their majesty. And of course the Matterhorn. I went to Zermatt just once with an Inghams rep I’d met in Merligen. We met a Zermatt based rep that day and I remember at some stage having a conversation about young versus old people (let’s face it, hiking is quite popular with older people) and at the time my 19 year old self found it funny that the 38 year old rep was including himself in the ‘young’. Ah, youth!

Grace Farringdon was a similar age when she first went to the Alps. It wasn’t the Alps she’d been dreaming of though, but the Antarctic. As a young girl she followed Shackleton’s adventures and in the opening pages we read a letter volunteering her service and that of two friends. After this the Rebecca-esque opening line:

‘Last Night I tried to climb the Matterhorn again’

what starts out as a relatively straightforward coming of age story becomes more and more claustrophobic and you wonder about how truthful any narrative ever is, when it’s told from one person’s point of view.

In the early part of the book I found myself cringing at the views of Grace’s father, who does not believe his daughters should go to college. Catherine, the older, does not have the strength of character of Grace and submits to his will, a fact which eventually leaves her slightly unhinged, as her talents are left to rot. Or is that just how Grace sees it?

Her father later regrets playing out the Antarctic voyages and planting adventurous ideas in Grace’s mind. He himself loves reading about adventures to the coldest parts of earth, the highest mountains, the poles. He writes to the Times when he is not happy about something.

The headmistress in her school encourages further education but she herself is held up as an example of what might befall girls who wish to devote themselves to learning.

The Jungfrau railway is being built. Her father sees them as being a mutilation of Nature ‘we must protect the sublimity the mountain’. When asked about the Matterhorn ‘if they get away with building a railway to the top that’ll be the end of it as a proper mountain. You can take your wife up to the top and bring her down again half an hour later’.

In a way I see his point. So many places are now accessible to so many people, whereas before it was God, nature and a few brave souls. However on the other hand, I have been to Jungfraujoch and delighted in the journey. It was also my first time skiing, aged 15 in shorts and Tshirt, fighting with the lifts on the way back up. This was the highest train station in Europe, but not the World, as that was one in Peru. That piece of information was tucked away and forgotten about until I started planning my trip to South America and decided I needed to do it, to go to Huancayo. It was interesting, but not one of the highlights of our trip. Especially since it is no longer the highest. That is now somewhere in China. Who knows, maybe I’ll get there some day. 


Grace goes to university and discovers cocoa parties the type of which I dreamed of when reading the Anne books. She idolises Shackleton and longs to go on an Antarctica adventure with him. She sees him speaking one day and on a whim steals his glove.

As the older Grace is telling the story from the time of the second world war we are told pretty early on that she is the only surviving member of her Antarctic exploration group, in fact, no spoiler alert needed, the back of the book tells us that too. I can understand the desire to visit the Antarctic. I really wanted to take a ship from Ushuaia, but economics got in the way. Another one for the list…


The three others in her group are Lucy, a spirited actress who loves theatres in everyday life, Cecily Parr, an oddball who encourages the group to take up climbing and has some strong anti-suffrage beliefs and Winnie, who doesn’t want to push any boundaries but is just passing time until her fiancé finishes his studies.

There are plenty of clashes within the small group and Grace tries to keep everybody together. Cecily is the one who guides the group to active adventure rather than simply retelling the adventures of men.

We originally meet Frank as a bland figure in the background, a suitor of Catherine who fades ever further away when Catherine fails to stand up to her father. Grace meets him again in Wales, when the society goes on their first climbing expedition. To us, the readers, he seems like a different person, a romantic hero and we start to root for him and Grace but Catherine unwittingly comes between them. He notes ‘you’ve got so much more spirit than your sister’. And because of the original connection it seems that this romance is doomed from the start.


Cecily Parr takes effective control of the group’s mission and all year they are leading towards conquest of the Matterhorn. Even Winifred is on board, after she has been able to convince her fiancé that climbing is not unwomanly activity.

Random sentence I loved: ‘A Glacier was not always the jewelled floor of beauty I had imagined but something that moved from  brown to grey, was harsh with pleats, whorls and ugly growths that looked like tongues and fingers.’


It does not end well, and Grace does not go back to university. Before the trip her father had died. Her small inheritance had funded the trip, but Catherine stayed in the house to look after her mother. Now Catherine felt it was her turn to be ‘free’. 

Frank turns up again, a new grown up, cynical man, not the idealistic artist he used to be.

I feel like I am just summarising a simple story here and it’s not a simple story. After the Switzerland trip Grace is changed, unsurprisingly, but for us the readers, she’s not somebody we can get behind and admire as easily any more. Everything, everybody is against her, but as we read, we begin to wonder how much of the craziness we encounter is Grace’s and how much everybody else.

I’ve never been a climber so I haven’t had the same brushes with death as the ladies in this book. I do remember one climb to a peak on the Thunersee. When I came back and told my boss where I had been she admonished me for going there without letting anybody know. Another day I was doing the loop Wengen-Männlichen-Kleine Scheidegg-Wengen when there was some terrifying thunder and lightning. I hurried up as much as I could (which is not very much in some people’s eyes I know) and was relieved when I was able to get back on the train and safely back to the motel. The owner was watching the TV in the breakfast room. ‘Any news?’ I said, not expecting anything interesting. But there was…and it was bad. During the storm a group had been caught in a canyoning accident and bodies were turning up in the Brienzersee. I couldn’t believe it, that this was happening further down the valley as I was trembling at the lightning. A total of 21 people died that day, a reminder that no matter how much we tame the mountains, there are always risks. 

This week we’ve read about the Sherpas who died in the avalanche on Everest, a harsh reminder that the mountains can be temporarily conquered, but that will not make it easier for the next.


It’s been months since I started writing this piece and this May Day I’m back at the refugio. It’s closed and empty as usual. The birds are singing all around me. The sky is blue above, a blanket of fog is below. I’m going to miss this.


I’m now in Zahara de la Sierra enjoying a cold beer after canyoning the Gargante Verde with a group from El Puerto de Santa Maria. It was amazing. It was just one of those times when going in nature out of touch from the ordinary life and feel so so so alive! Why do I bother getting manicures or facials or silly things like that (ok been some time, but even so) when I could just spend my time doing this. Why watch TV?


I do love a stereotypical writer’s block. I’ve returned this morning to the end of yesterday’s barranquisimo. The icily cold water is spurting out of the canyon and while yesterday at this stage I was happy to splash about in it (being in the sun felt much mwarmer after the pools deep in the canyon). Today I’ve paddled a little before taking out my book. I do think the Sierra de Grazalema is one of my favourite parts of Andalucia and while Zahara and Grazalema are both beautiful villages, Grazalema tends to be a little bit overrun. 

I’m going to head back up now to meet D and hopefully find a slightly warmer swimming spot on the lake.


Maybe I can then persuade him to drive back the way we came yesterday. I was too stressed about being late then to appreciate it. You know, I’ve got so many of these blogposts nearly ready, just needing to be finalised but I’ve realised today that it doesn’t matter. There will be plenty of rainy days in the future when I can do that.

Inside the Peleton

By Nicolas Roche


I’m staring out at the crystal blue sea at San Pedro de Alcantara. I can see Morocco at a distance to my left. Gibraltar is either not visible or hidden behind some trees. It’s now officially Spring (for some reason Ireland is a bit different and calls 1st February the first day of Spring, though for most places that is deep winter). Last year we were here on St. Patrick’s Day, it was raining and the roads were slick. This year the sky is clear. It was cold when we left Casares and it’s still fresquito, but it’s only 9 so still plenty of time to heat up. It’s D’s first race of the season.

As you may have guessed, the unread cycling books on my shelf were not bought by me. I thought it might be about time I read one.

Cycling for me, as a child, was just a matter of getting from A to B. Occasionally  we might cycle to Ardgillan and back, for no other reason than doing it, but it was usually a matter of getting somewhere faster than walking (and numerous trips to the library in Balbriggan). Somewhere along the way I stopped using my bike very much until one day I was getting my train home from college and bumped into my cousin. What was she doing getting this train? ‘Oh, I need a bike and your Mam said there was one at your house that wasn’t being used.’

Apart from occasionally renting a bike on holiday, that was the extent of my cycling. Then I met my future husband and since then, well, I wouldn’t say I got back on my bike, but let’s say I’ve had to develop an interest in cycling. I do have my own bike again, though for me I find the hills around Casares too difficult for a leisurely cycle. I can have a lovely 15 minutes cycle downhill and then it is pure torture. I know, I need to try harder!

Everybody in Ireland was a cycling fan in 1987, when Stephen Roche won the Tour de France, but as there was no successor to the crown in the 90s the interest waned and then of course the focus on the sport only involved drugs. In the last few years the sport does seem to be making something of a comeback at home. I can’t really comment on the drugs issue, the train of thought seems to vary between ‘sure they’re all on drugs’ to ‘maybe the sport is at its cleanest in years to ‘ah, they’re always one step ahead of the testers’.

Ok, some brave souls have just gone for a swim. I’m sure a lot of people in Ireland think that it must always be a nice day for a dip down here, I did anyway, but even for me it’s still too early. I’m going to start swimming after Easter and that would be way too early for most. La noche de San Juan, the 23rd of June, is usually the official start of the season. I have done the Christmas swim in Skerries for years, but I’m not like my mother:  I couldn’t go swimming in the Irish sea in all seasons. In fact, I’ll have to get used to swimming in the Irish Sea in summer again.

Anyway, last summer we decided to drive to France for our summer holidays and as it happened to be Tour de France season we made a detour to Bagneres de Bigorre in the Pyrenees. We just wanted to see a stage, catch the atmosphere. Little did we know that we would witness the first Irish victory in over 20 years by Daniel Martin, the nephew of Stephen Roche. I was so annoyed that we hadn’t had an Irish flag to wave. The atmosphere was amazing and doping was the last thing we were thinking about.

2 months later the Vuelta a España was passing through Andalucia. Originally it was supposed to pass Casares but the route was changed. I think the road was supposed to be repaired but wasn’t up to scratch. Most of our visitors would agree. The end was the same though, the climb from Estepona up to the Peñas Blancas, one of D’s usual routes.


This time I packed up the flag and all the bunting that my mother had sent for that St. Patrick’s Day. The road up had been closed a few hours before but we took the back road past Genalguacil, the one that isn’t paved, so we made it on time. We watched as Nicolas Roche came in 3rd, which put him in the 1st place overall and gave him the red jersey, the first time an Irish cyclist had a leader’s jersey at a grand tour in 25 years. Do you see a pattern?

As I write this, I’m beginning to think that I don’t have any excuse not to go to watch the Giro d’Italia in May as it takes a bit of a sidetrip to Ireland and passes through Balbriggan, where my house is and Skerries, my hometown. Unfortunately it’s the worst timing for me; I have to see if I can work it out.

Even today, in this amateur race there is talk. The winners last year, a team from Cordoba, have not turned up this year. Apparently the leader is involved in a doping ring. It does cast a shadow.


And a few weeks on we’re in Montemayor. One of the things that I like about this cyclist’s wife gig is that I get to go to some random places which are well off the main tourist radar. Last autumn D had a race in Cabra (Cordoba, not North Dublin) and we stayed in a cute little village called Zuheros in the Subbetica. That time I left him to go off on a walk and I had a walk into the Rio Bailon Gorge.

Today I’m on cheering duty but last night we stayed among the olive groves in Hacienda La Vereda near Montilla. It was a very relaxed setting. You had to switch off your timetable really but that suited us just fine. We tried the local vino fino and enjoyed it; much softer and palatable than the more famous sherry. We forgot to buy any this morning but already I’ve seen signs for ‘centro de interpretacion de vino’ so I might pay a trip there when the race is done. Last year D came here on his own, getting up at 5.30 in the morning to drive over and race in 3°C. Today it’s more like 23°. The morning fogs have lifted and I’m sitting near the castle and looking out beyond the rooftops at the impressively linear hills.

One race just set off and the bulk of the people have walked down. I’m a bit confused, is the next race not setting off from here? Or is it just that all the supporters were following this race?

So in the end I missed the start of D’s race and at the second of the two laps he pulled out. It was an exhausting route and he had fallen back from the lead group and did not see the point in finishing. I got him a coke, and then we walked up to the castle to wait for the end.

Before meeting D I would really have thought of cycling races as simply ‘he who cycles fastest wins’. I did not realise how much tactics were involved.

When he saw that I was reading Roche’s book he commented that it was not too interesting to him as it had just stitched together previously published diaries from the Irish Independent. That’s not quite true and even if it were it wouldn’t really bother me as I only properly started reading his columns last year.


I found it very interesting and insightful. Only when I got to reading about the 2010 Vuelta did I start recognising that I’d read some of the diary extracts before. I hadn’t read the initial entry about the time trial in Sevilla. I remember how hot it was that weekend. We had to rush back to our hotel room and spend a few hours on the bed with the air conditioning switched on to full. No wonder they couldn’t have the race any earlier than 10pm. Everybody thought we were crazy to visit Seville in August, but that’s when it was on. It was my first time at a big race and it was exciting.

I liked reading about his constant attempts at the Irish championships as I recognise lots of names from conversations with my husband. Though as D said when we were talking about Roche: ‘I only met him once, at the Irish Championships. I came 14th and was delighted. He came 4th and was pissed off. That tells you all you need to know about the difference between him and me’.

And yet, I think no matter what level there are certain points all cyclists have in common.

‘Cyclists out training are a bit like old women. We love to have a chat’. D always says this too, the amount of things you can gossip about while out on the bike, which is why it is frustrating that our Spanish never got to the level of comfortable chatter. He seems to have got on ok with his gang and while my Castellano might be somewhat stronger D is more fluent in Andalu(z). it also helps that our neighbour and fellow cyclist was born in England.

Pasta, pasta, pasta and no nutella. Cyclists can get through a huge amount of food and man do they eat pasta! (I, on the other hand, went 10 years without eating pasta until the hotel I was working at in Germany served it to me and I couldn’t exactly say no). But they can eat so much and still be thin. Fat cyclists are like normal thin people. For me the problem with living with a cyclist is that while I probably eat healthier overall than I would on my own I just end up eating far too much. Cyclists always slag each other off about how chubby they are, even if to the normal eye they are nothing of the kind.

‘When I see an Irish flag it gives me chills, because there is no other Irish racer in the face, I know it’s for me and it really motivates me to do well!’

Well at Peñas Blancas I didn’t see any other Irish flags apart from ours. I can understand how much of an impact a single Irish flag can make when over 250km of cycling you’re not likely to see too many. Each one on its own (if seen) can have the effect of a stadium full.

Sidenote on Guadix, where Roche comments that he felt he was waking up to ‘Once upon a Time in the West’, or at least the landscape. I guess you knew that all of those spaghetti westerns were made in that region? When we went to Almeria I insisted on visiting the Mini Hollywood park at Tabernas and watching the shootout recreations. Cheesy but fun!

The cyclist motto ‘never stand up when you can sit down, never sit down when you can lie down’, yeah I have heard that one too. Unfortunately for D he’s not a professional cyclist so he doesn’t get to abide by it as much as he’d like!

I vaguely remember D talking about Wouter Weylandt, the Belgian cyclist who died in a stage of the Giro 2011, something Roche discusses in the book, leading on to a general discussion of the danger of the sport. Of course there are dangers and especially during professional races at the speeds they do. Or anybody who just is crazy, like the Brazilian cyclists in the video D just showed me, cycling 124kph in a lorry’s draft.

But in general this can happen to anyone and D has had his fair share of incidents. Since he’s been with me the two worst were 2 years ago, a few months apart. The first one was the day after my birthday. I went out on my new bike, my birthday present, and the first bike I’d owned in 15 years. I struggled a little but enjoyed it, got back to the house and waited. And waited until I got a feeling in the pit of my stomach, then a voice I barely recognised was calling from the bottom of the steps and blood was streaming from his mouth. Straight after that people joked ‘Oh you won’t let him out on the mountainbike again before the wedding, will you?’

A few months later, recovered except for a scar, he went out with some friends and I went for a short walk in the same area with the girlfriends. We saw them pass, then again, then we were waiting in the carpark and the other two came by and stopped for a chat. The pit of my stomach told me something was wrong but they were smiling and laughing so I reasoned that everything was ok. Just after they had headed off, D came walking up the trail with an elbow looking not how an elbow should look. There was less blood that time but it took much longer to get fixed.

People weren’t joking this time when they said ‘you’re not letting him out on the bike before the wedding, right?’

But at the end of the day he wants to do it and it’s part of who he is and while it may scare me sometimes I wouldn’t want to change that. I know when he’s out and when I don’t hear from him for ages that’s normal. My internal clock does remind me at certain times ‘hey, shouldn’t he be back by now?’, and I’ll only get worried if he’s not back within an hour or so after that. I have to trust that he wants to avoid getting himself injured even more than I do.

I do occasionally get irritated if I want us to do something together and he sees it as getting in the way of the bike. I don’t know how professional cyclists’ girlfriends/wives manage. Does their life simply have to take second place (assuming they are not fantastic cyclists themselves)? Roche mentions ‘on my days off I don’t go walking around shopping centres with my girlfriend’. Ok I never want to go walking around shopping centres with my husband but I enjoy walking in la naturaleza in this beautiful country, or around cities and funnily enough, sometimes I like to do it with my husband, so I have to say: ‘tough, you’re not a professional cyclist, let’s do this!’

Speak of the devil, I suggest coffee and a cake at el rincon de Cristina in the centre of Casares and he’s on his bike. Cake seems to be Spanish cyclist’s vice of choice, the forbidden fruit: ‘I really shouldn’t be having this, but then again, I’ve been out on the bike for 6 hours today, so….’

Or they’ll stop mid-morning for their coffee + tostada at a Venta in the middle of nowhere, pile the bikes together and sit outside. If only the Irish weather could accommodate this tradition.

It’s interesting to read Roche’s views on Contador at the beginning of the 2011 Tour. I’d like to think that he, (Nicolas Roche), is clean, he mentions it quite a bit, (but then again, don’t they all?) and it’s interesting that just 2 years later he’s cycling on the same team as Contador. I guess at this stage it’s impossible to cycle on a team that is completely untainted by scandal, but this just seems like a complete turnaround. And yes, I’ve read David Walsh’s ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ so I’m aware that Roche Sr is not untainted either. As I said before, being a fan is complicated.


One last race before Easter at Cartama. Cartama itself does not seem to be the most beautiful of places, a working suburb of Malaga. D has commented that the town reminds him of Balbriggan. We’re in Estacion de Cartama, it seems that when the Spanish built their railways they were never in the towns themselves so separate towns grew up around the stations nearby.  Maybe the original is a quaint pretty place, but we are not going to see it.

I am not feeling great this morning, but have asked D to take me to the top of the mountain once the race is over. I’ve seen signs for Ermita las tres Cruces and I think it might be a place a coworker mentioned a few years ago. She was talking about how it would be the perfect place for a wedding and she and her husband had seriously considered getting married there, but they hadn’t been baptised Catholic and felt it would be hypocritical to convert for the sake of a pretty church.

Ok so after a few delays D is on his way. I’ve plodded to the edge of town and am watching the rest of the cyclists as they pass, one by one. The town is not particularly pretty, but seems like a nice place to live if you work in Malaga and want some space for a family. The hills around do not look particularly steep, though I’m sure I’m going to hear about how difficult it was. 007 has just passed, does that mean the last ones are out?


All day planes pass over on their descent to Malaga airport. That makes me doubly sure that this ermita was the church my colleague was talking about. I remember her pointing it to me from the Swiss plane after our trip to Zurich. I couldn’t see it but nodded anyway. I’ll have to look out for this place next time we fly over.  Two days later I was engaged, but while I tried to google where she was talking about, we never seriously considered it. We were more than happy with the church in Casares.

So, it was a windy and precarious road up. I can only imagine the reactions of various relatives if we had chosen that. The Casares road is smooth running in comparison. It is a fantastic view and the tiny church or ‘Ermita’, might be perfect for an intimate destination wedding if anybody is looking. Preferably if none of the guests have vertigo!


Well one way or another, a meeting has been rescheduled and my calendar in May has freed up. I’m going to ask my boss tomorrow about the possibility of going home that weekend for the Giro. Wish me luck.

The Next Best Thing

By Jennifer Weiner

A few nights ago we went to Tarifa for New Year’s Eve. From our balcony in Casares we usually can see the mountain of Jebel Musa in Morocco hiding behind Gibraltar, but we never sense exactly how close Africa is until we drive to Tarifa. It was dark as drove and as we approached the ‘mirador del estrecho’ we could see the lights of Tangier sparkling across the water. So close, so close you could just reach out and…

You think about the people of Tangier looking across the water and seeing the sparkling lights of Tarifa and how close it seems. For us Tangier is the gateway to Africa, continent of mystery, adventure…an other world. For them, what do they look over and see? Wealth, opportunity, a better life, perhaps a chance worth chasing?

A few years ago we visited the beautiful Cabo de Gata in Almeria. We took a wrong turn along the way and ended up deep in the land of plastic sheeting and hothouses. Due to the climate the landscape is covered with plastic covered structures where vegetables are being grown to be shipped all across Europe. It seemed as we we’d come onto a corner of Africa because of both the people and the slum like conditions. I wondered how many of the people working there had come across on a boat from Tangier to the Costa de la Luz and whether in the end it was worth it. I don’t know what the answers are, but it’s not something that can be ignored.

Now it seems a little bit trite to return to my book buying habits, but when I was home at Christmas I picked up a book ‘Leaving Tangier’ by Tahar Ben Jelloun about a boy in Tangier who wants to leave. An older Spanish guy promises to take him to Barcelona if he will be his lover. I wanted to buy it, but that would go against my resolution. I carried it around Hodges Figgis until my pile had got too big, my arms were getting sore and I couldn’t think of anybody for whom I could pretend I was buying it was a present. So let’s just say it’s one for the list.

In the run up to Christmas I spent time in 6 different bookshops over 3 days and I only caved and bought one book for myself: ‘Memories of the Future’ by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky. I can’t really say why I bought this one above ‘Leaving Tangier’ or any of the others I picked up and forced myself to put down again. It was just a moment of weakness. All in all, I bought the following:

For my Dad: The Testament of Mary by Colm Toibin, Memory Man by Jimmy Magee, Brian Boru and the Battle of Clontarf by Sean Duffy, The Battle of Clontarf, Good Friday 1014 by Darren McGettigan

For my Mam: Philomena by Martin Sixsmith, Brian D’Arcy’s Food for the Soul

For my Father in Law: Beatsploitation by Kevin Curran, Winter’s Tale by Mark Helprin

For my Mother in Law: The Little Book of Christmas Memories

For my Sister in Law: The Next Best Thing by Jennifer Weiner

For my brother: The Barefoot Emperor: An Ethiopian Tragedy by Philip Marsden, Berlin Tales

For my sister’s boyfriend: Mr Penumbra’s 24 hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan

For my husband: The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach, Cockroaches by Jo Nesbo, Norwegian by Night by Derek B.Miller and Death in Breslau by Marek Krajewski. I also bought ‘The end of the World in Breslau’ before I realised it was part of a series and not the first book, so I suppose he’ll find he has that one as a present too, which he’ll realise either when he reads this or finishes the first one, whichever happens first.

I was a big fan of ‘In her Shoes’ and can’t really remember ‘Good in Bed’ but I think I enjoyed it. Jennifer Weiner seemed to write a slightly higher quality of chicklit than most others. So when I saw this one on sale I thought ‘oh that could be a nice present for my sister-in-law. I was getting books for the rest of the family so didn’t want to leave anybody out. And ok, I thought I could read it really quickly before. Now, ten days after Christmas I regret that I gave it. While I was reading it I thought ‘this isn’t really as good as I remember the other books being. Am I just being too critical?’ But I put it down to having read too much chicklit over the years and being deadened to it. So I went ahead, wrapped it and presented it as planned. The more the days pass, though, the more I regret my decision. I’m half hoping that it just ends up on a shelf and is ignored like many of the books I give as presents.

I wasn’t long into this when I realised that the author herself must have had a failed TV show and of course that is the case. At first I thought that she just took this idea of a failed sitcom writer and used that as a template, but everything about the show in the book seems to have been copied from ‘The State of Georgia’. The faded child star (actually I can’t remember if the actress in the book had been a failed child star, or just washed out in general but that was the impression I got) who is supposed to be curvy but loses weight between shooting the pilot and the rest of the series, the living with an older female relative, the replacement of the actress playing this relative between the pilot and full season etc. The book seems to have been written as an apology for how her series turned out and basically is saying that if she’d had her way it could have been so much better.

I’ve seen some excerpts on YouTube (all in the interest of research) and I have to say I can understand why it wasn’t renewed and I say that as somebody who has got addicted to some really crappy TV in the past. For example, watching those clips did remind me of my fondness for Roswell back in the day, considering these two shows share an actress. I actually first read the books, splitting my time between that triangle of bookshops that used to exist on Dawson Street when I should have been studying in the library across the road. Next I had to watch the TV Series, next I fell into the wormhole of Mightybigtv.com and was hooked.

I’ve no problem with somebody using aspects of their real life in fiction. I’m sure if I ever get down to it I’ll do that too, but there doesn’t seem to be much else to the story, as if JW just wasn’t into it. She just wanted to write this to explain what went wrong. You know, I found some aspects of the creation of the show quite interesting, though I’ve no idea how true to life it all is. It does seem like she really wanted to write an expose of the industry but instead used it in this.

The story outside the story didn’t really move me at all. Maybe my senses have just been dulled since reading ‘In her Shoes’ but there might be a reason why, even though Jennifer Weiner has written over 10 books  she is still always described as the ‘author of “In Her Shoes” and “Good in Bed”.’ I remember going to see ‘In her Shoes’ with my sister. We’ve had our moments, though I can’t say either of us ever betrayed the other as badly as in that story, but there was still a connection, as if reading/watching it I just felt ‘yes, that is exactly what sisterhood is like.’

Here, the characters have been through a lot, but I never really connected with them. In those other books the heroines were never perfect and that helped us empathise with them, but Ruth just seemed too whiny. Yes, something bad happened to her, but it seemed to be the only thing to define her.

I’m trying to send vibes to my SIL back in Wicklow. Don’t read it!