Thursday, September 14, 2017

 

Rewriting History

A group called the Hermandad Provincial de Caballeros Legionarios, the provincial brotherhood of the Gentlemen of the Legión Española - the crack Spanish force with their barracks in Viator outside Almería - has an exhibition going on at the Patio de Luces in the Diputación de Almería building in the provincial capital.
Not many people will be queuing up to see it perhaps, although it is said to be a pretty good exhibition of photographs and pictures of the Spanish Legion.
Turns out though, there's a problem. the revisionist parties in the City Hall don't like the people who founded the Legion in 1920, some 16 years before the Civil War. One of the two involved in creating the legion was General José Millán-Astray, who was as mad as a hatter. Millán-Astrey once lost his arm in a battle in the Rif. It was blown clean off his elbow. He is said to have picked it up and hurled it at the enemy. No doubt impressed, they gave up. What a guy, eh? The socialists and those further to the left are trying to have the truculent general erased from the history books (without, we hope, offending the Legion). They are removing his street signs and the odd statue glaring at the passers by under the customary load of pigeon-shit.
The man in the photo isn't Millan-Astray though -  it's a man the lefties hate even more even though the picture comes from long before he left his mark. This is a young General Franco.
As the empty rhetoric continues, here's the Brotherhood's take: 'The exhibition at the Patio de Luces attempts to show some brushstrokes on the history of the Legión and the photo to which the PSOE alludes does not include the figure of Francisco Franco in his years as the Caudillo, but as one of the figures of the founders of this glorious body, many years before'. Izquierda Unida meanwhile says 'We want to formally complain regarding the presence of well-known fascists presiding over an exhibition dedicated to the Legión and installed in the Diputación de Almería'. So silly.


Tuesday, September 12, 2017

 

Local Voting after Brexit



While British ambassador Simon Manley has been trying to put out the fires of health insurance, pensions and the falling pound (see his latest address to the Britons in Spain here), no one wants to talk about the British residents in Spain and their voting rights in the Spanish local elections of May 2019. Will they be able to vote then? Will they be able to put forward candidates? Without the British, will the Town Halls concern themselves over the remaining foreign residents? Will Spain and the UK make a special bilateral agreement on local elections (allowing Spaniards to vote in the UK and Brits to vote here)? Is anybody talking about this? Is anybody listening?
I was approached today by someone who wants to look forward to the next local elections. What could I tell him? We may have the vote, or maybe not. For our town, where the population is roughly split between the local Spaniards and the foreigners, these concerns are huge. Our mayoress would likely win the next elections anyway - she has formidable advantages -  but would she have a token foreigner on her voting list? Would she spend energy on those concerns that the foreigners might have? Would our British opposition leader (born in the UK, been in Spain since she was three) be able to run her party? Yes, she could take Spanish nationality, but what about her voters?
Spain has an agreement with EU countries that expatriate EU citizens can vote and be voted for in local (and presumably European) elections. The European elections, by the way, couldn't be more useless here as candidates, operating on the same list system, represent their country filtered through their party. You either vote for a conservative Spanish nationalist or a socialist one. Neither of them could care less about foreign residents' rights.
Spain also has bilateral agreements with a number of other nations. These include, I think, New Zealand and the Turks and Caicos Islands. In these cases, the suffrage is merely active. You can vote (yes, both of those Kiwis, I mean you!), but, you can't run for office. Can we expect to be given a sop along those lines?
I can't see the British allowing the Spanish residents over there the right to stand in any elections if the Brexit gave them an opt-out, so would doubt that we would retain those rights here.
Either way, it is beginning to get close to the time when new parties are formed, new alliances, new candidates and new proposals. With Brexit, we may be facing the loss of even more of our rights as foreigners in Spain.
Simon Manley touched on this concern in a note issued on Tuesday September 12th: '...On the right to stand and vote in local elections, the UK wants to protect existing rights of UK/EU citizens to vote and/or stand in local elections in their host state. However agreement has not been reached on this point...'.
Well, when are the next local elections in the various EU states and what would happen to existing foreign councillors when the Brexit finally bites? We need some information and, of course, some proper representation.

Friday, August 25, 2017

 

Portugal, the Other Iberian Country



Portugal has changed from my particular idea of the place. This could be because I have an old black and white guidebook from 1957, and, let’s face it, nothing stays the same forever.
By Spanish standards, it’s still a bit gloomy, a bit quiet and the Portuguese still read the news pages rather than the sports pages, but that large piece of the country that the Spanish weather forecasters solemnly leave blank has quietly turned itself into a modern European state.
We had been in Mérida – a very hot part of Spain during the summer months. Mérida is a city where, if you kick over a rock or even a stubborn weed you’ll likely find some remains from the Roman times. The town is quite beautiful (even if it stands somewhere behind Córdoba and Granada) and it’s a fine place to visit, especially if forty degree weather doesn’t bother you unduly.
In the best tradition of Spain, you are never far from a bar in the city of Mérida – the name comes from the Latin Augusta Ēmerita – or a decent restaurant. Or, as we have seen, a Roman ruin, many of which are used today for theatre, concerts or scenic backdrops to one’s holiday snaps. The region itself is attractive and covered with storks’ nests. These comical birds like to find an interesting looking building, preferably a highly-prized monument, to build their giant nest of sticks on top of with an insouciant ‘well, what?’ attitude. It all helps keep us in our place, I think.
Mérida is, of course, at sixty kilometres, not far from Elvas, the Portuguese town leaping with castles, palaces, churches and a fine aqueduct. It took no time at all to reach since the formalities of crossing a frontier from one Schengen country to another involve nothing more than turning to your companion and saying ‘Cor, looks like we’re going to need that phrasebook soon’.
We spent our first night in Portugal in a hotel outside Elvas. We had decided the route and the various hotels with Booking.com – which apart from a very odd place near Seville had served us well. The Elvas place had a fine restaurant where we discovered that the Portuguese have a trick. They leave various plates on your table of cheese, ham, fish paste and olives before you’ve settled down and looked at the menu, and then they charge you heavily for them afterwards. Later on in a Lisbon restaurant, we said to the waiter ‘all of this stuff – fuera!’ The Portuguese couple at the next table looked vaguely impressed. ‘Yeah’, they said, ‘you can take ours away too’. 
The food in Portugal is great; the wine – especially the vinho verde – is excellent. Chicken, by the way, is called frango. Easy to remember, I told my Spanish girlfriend after a glass or two, just think of Francisco Frango.
The coffee is served black in tiny cups.
Our particular trip took us from there to a coastal city called Aveiro which is notable for its canals; its handsome three and four story tiled buildings and a beautiful old palace which makes a fine cup of tea in a china pot. My partner had her first ever cup of Earl Grey.
We had brought our swimming things with us on the tour, but the weather was cool: sweaters in the evening. ‘You won’t want to swim here’, we were told, ‘the ocean is far too cold’.
After a daily return north to Oporto on the local train (150 kms total at seven euros per passenger), to meet a friend, to marvel at the dramatic beauty of the city and to buy a bottle of port (my article on Oporto here), we left Aveiro for Lisbon.
The roads are pretty good, with the motorways usually run by concessionaries who charge a toll, either with an operator, or with slightly annoying cameras. We pay the first willingly enough, but ruefully ignore the second. Perhaps the president of the company will send us a bill here in Spain for the one euro fifty we owe, but I doubt I shall pay it.
I’ll let you know if I’m wrong about this.
The normal country roads are more or less fine, although the Portuguese sometimes add large metal posts to where a simple white line of paint would serve nicely. Driving through the country, the best thing for me – we live in the desert of Almería – was the greenery. As we had had some trouble with the GPS – Movistar doesn’t make it easy when you switch to another country – we got a bit lost at one point, and found ourselves driving through the burned forest which claimed over sixty lives recently. It’s a large and most depressing stretch of country. The Portuguese have been blamed for planting eucalyptus in the countryside, and the fires are consequentially dangerous and immediate. We saw several reported on their TV news channels.
Lisbon is a tremendous place. High buildings and narrow streets cover the seven hills. Small yellow trams; tuc tuc three-wheelers with a sofa nailed to the back; tiny electric two-seater Renaults; some Segways, some motorcycles with sidecars and a few expensive looking battery-run BMWs make up most of the traffic. The city is full of tourists. Everyone speaks English, and French and anything else – except of course Spanish. Spanish? Forget it. It doesn’t exist.
We spent three contented days in the Portuguese capital – where the history of their abandoned colonies in Africa and Asia, plus their success story of Brazil – means that you see people of all colours and, unlike anywhere else I know, perfectly integrated.  Portugal has a lot going for it.
We spent our last day in a small town called Castro Verde, where we felt like the first tourists ever. The place was peaceful and grimly bucolic: the food in the local restaurant was terrific.
And so back across the border to Spain, with our booty of fridge magnets, tee shirts and decorated mugs. Our first stop was in a giant motorway cafe near Antequera. The noise of a hundred and fifty gleeful diners was welcome – and ear-splitting. ‘We’re home at last’ my partner shouted happily to me as she stirred her café con leche.


Versions of this article have appeared in The Olive Press and as an opinion piece in Business over Tapas


Thursday, August 10, 2017

 

More Bad News for the Priors

It's a well-known story, how almost ten years ago, Len and Helen Prior watched as a bulldozer operated by the provincial representative of the Junta de Andalucía knocked down their house in a quiet area outside the town of Vera (Almería). There weren't any particular plans for the location, it wasn't on a motorway, or a landing strip or a sewage station or a beach or a rare plantation or in a beauty spot or on a flood plain. It's just a quiet area behind Vera. There are a few other houses there, and ten years later, they are still all there, just as they were then.
So what was the point?
It certainly had an effect: untold millions of euros never made it to Almería, which then, in 2008, had an unemployment rate in the mid thirties - about the highest unemployment of anywhere in the whole of Europe. The Junta de Andalucía, which is so anal that it knows to the exact head how many sheep there are in the territory (seriously, they're all microchipped), airily suggested at the time that there were some 300,000 illegal properties stretched across Andalucía - all built while someone, everyone, was looking the other way... at least until the cheques cleared.
Ten years later, there are still a few court cases - even a few mayors or planners being sent down (always from other parties than the PSOE, of course). As for the home-owners, who often had an illegal house with no water or electricity, well, they could usually go and whistle Dixie.
A lawyer called Gerardo Vásquez, an association called the AUAN, the international press and a number of other concerned people put some dents in this astonishing situation, and the Junta de Andalucía's legislators eventually came up with a new Spanish word to describe these homes: 'alegal' which means neither legal nor illegal. Illegalish, perhaps. So much the better. A climb down indeed. In a recent case, the mayor of another non-socialist Almería town went to jail... but the houses were allowed to stand. Empty, vandalised and useless, but justice tempered with mercy was seen to prevail.
The Priors, almost ten years later, are still living in the ruins of their home. This of course is very contrary of them, since they should have long since slipped away back to the UK to be forgotten.
They live in the garage (unbelievably, it was on a separate deed and thus escaped the demolition), plus some sheds they've built, and surrounded by their garden and their swimming pool which also escaped the attack.
Vera Town Hall was declared the guilty party (it was run by the Partido Andalucista at the time of the events described) but the Priors never received compensation.
Now, as the authorities continue to ignore this atrocious attack on Len and Helen's civil rights, we hear that the Town Hall is now claiming some 24,843€ in legal costs against them.
Len says he'll go to jail before he pays. 




Tuesday, August 08, 2017

 

How Many Tourists are 'Enough'?



Tourism brings untold wealth and a huge number of jobs to Spain – yet there are now some voices raised against this summer onslaught.

Hotels often use the ‘all-inclusive’ plan, which means that the clients can drink and eat for free – within their hotel. The bar round the corner may not be too pleased, but it won’t be a member of a wealthy gremio: an association, a guild really, of powerful businessmen with ‘friends in high places’. The hotels, whether all-inclusive or not, not only set the standards for tourism (being, as it were, the owners of ‘expert opinion on all matters to do with tourism’), they also frown on anyone who stays in any establishment that isn’t one of their own.

While we wait for a caution for putting up friends in our guest bedroom, we already have fresh, stringent rules in place against short-term rentals. Leading the rentals is the Airbnb company, which puts your apartment or spare room on its books. The level of attack against this service is intense, with daily press stories bemoaning the opening up of guest-rooms to a different kind of visitor, and income to a different kind of small businessperson. In the Balearics, apparently, you can get a 40,000€ fine for renting your place to tourists. Meanwhile, a story this week in El Independiente talks of 50,000 Airbnb offers in Ibiza, 20,500 in Barcelona and over 16,000 in Madrid – money that the hotels simply aren’t getting. Seventy five million tourists visited Spain from abroad last year, and many millions more Spaniards also hit the beaches or the museums or perhaps went off to see their relatives in their pueblo. One way or another (with this heat), a lot of beer was drunk.

In some cases, following the beer and perhaps the consumption of other stimulating products available on the street corner, damage was done to the local infrastructure. Someone being sick in the garden, some kids playing their music loud around the pool, a street light wilfully broken. Ten young people sharing (and destroying) a two-bed apartment... The residents don’t like this behaviour: the trickle-down of tourist money never makes it to them. Only the noise, the queues, the inconvenience and the hassle.

How much money does tourism bring to Spain? 16% of Spain’s GDP apparently comes from the visitors. But not much of that makes it to your particular pocket if you are a waiter. An article in Iniciativa Debate talks of twelve hour shifts, seven days a week work (the owner only declares four) for 700 euros per month. The same source looks at room cleaners who get 1,50€ per room. It talks of summer rent increases from 500 to 900 euros and asks: ‘Do you suffer from turismofobia’?

So, as we see in El Español, we get groups of people, or extreme left wing gangs, or simple graffitists, or perhaps some fed-up burgers, who have had enough. They start complaining about the hoards of visitors and put up posters or graffiti of the ‘tourist go home’ variety as they start to make their presence felt.  The Government has even gone as far as to threaten a harsh reaction to anyone who practices anti-tourist activities.

Some of the tourists aren’t very happy either, with new (rather pointless) procedures at the airports adding long impatient queues for holidaymakers. What is this? Our money not good enough, they ask. The Olive Press talks here of ‘Why you may have to queue for four hours at Spanish airports’ (It’s as bad as getting into Gibraltar!).

Tourism brings jobs and wealth, but it also brings inconvenience, rental hikes, vandalism and – sometimes even airport strikes. Like most things in life – there’s the good and the bad. Our advice: head for the hills!

Monday, July 24, 2017

 

A Short Visit to Oporto

After a few days in Aveiro, a large town on the Portuguese coast somewhere north of Lisbon, we decided to take the train up to Oporto to see the sights, to buy a bottle of vintage port and to meet with a fellow blogger called Colin (for a take on the daily news and opinion about Spain, see Colin Davies here).
We took the train.
The station in Aveiro is manned by a delightful collection of people who speak absolutely nothing except the local patois, and while I managed to explain that we wanted to daily returns no stoppee, it was a lottery as to whether I had got it right - especially since the whole cost for both of us was 12 euros all in, one hour each way including a number of brief stops in small country stations.
Through the window, we finally saw the beach. Aveiro is nominally on the coast - it's a town with canals - but the beaches are several kilometres off, behind dunes and scrub. At last the ocean - apparently cold and inhospitable - was in view. Perhaps another time.
The main charm for me from our mobile viewpoint was the giant bird-nests that seem to decorate the top of every beautiful and noble man-made construction in the western half of the Iberian peninsular. The more sublime the edifice, the more likelihood of a giant mess of twigs and a very self-satisfied crane crowning the building, to the irritation of the owners and the evident delight of the birds themselves.
Another pleasure is the greenery; after living far too long in the scrub of Northern Almeria, to find that everything in the countryside is green - when, of course, not on fire or scorched (there's a chunk of Portugal on fire this afternoon)  - is calming and faintly nostalgic.
The train was full, it stops in all the small villages en route and its timetable means it calls by every hour. Compare this with our own noble and idiotic plan to build an AVE through Almería and on to Murcia - a train which will be empty, hurtle by without stopping twice a day, and cost the taxpayer a fortune.
Still, who is gonna boast about a local train service?
Oporto - the Portuguese call it Porto - made me feel like a hick. Aveiro is a large town with lots of three-storey buildings - pretty ones mostly, although the modern 'architects' are beginning to make their move - but Oporto is a proper city with the most beautiful tenements, churches, plazas, bridges and noble buildings - many of them dwarfing the pedestrians below.
We met Colin, who had taken a train down from Pontevedra in Galicia, where he lives, and went for lunch.
Colin, remarking on the changes in Oporto - apparently twenty years ago, much of it was in disrepair, and certain areas were dangerous (or jolly, depending on your approach to 'night-life') - told me that tourism had done much to save Oporto, but, as it does, it would ultimately ruin it (see Mojácar for an example of this truism).
After lunch, taken in a small place that Colin knows - a place where we all tried to make ourselves understood, including the grinning owner, but where every plate was not only an unexpected delight, but was also, well, unexpected. But then again - we travel, do we not,  to enjoy small surprises, good sights and better company.
The pictures are on the camera roll, but here's one of the place which sells port.


Wednesday, July 05, 2017

 

The Olive Threat.



With monoculture – the practice of planting a single, extended crop – comes a higher profit, but at the same more risk. The gigantic and extended olive tree population of Spain could become the next cash-crop to be in danger. As Iberia Nature says, ‘...Spain is by some way the country with the highest number of olive trees (more than 300 million), in the world and is nowadays the world's leading olive and olive oil producer and exporter. Of the 2.1 million hectares (5.19 million acres) of olive groves, 92% are dedicated to olive oil production...’. Now, according to El Periódico, a destructive bacteria, known disturbingly as ‘the Ebola of the Olive Tree’, has been found in a Valencia plantation in Guadalest, Alicante. The bacterium spreads rapidly and dries out the trees by inhibiting the passage of the sap. The ecologists are working hard to contain the outbreak of xylella fastidiosa, while being aware that the olive oil business in Spain is worth at least 1,886 million euros annually.
Worse still, the plague doesn’t only attack the olive trees; it also will dry out citrus trees, plum, peach, almonds and grape-vines.

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