Spain through the looking glass

Archive for the ‘environment’ Category

Another silly love song

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A few years ago, the downtowns of even Spain’s most humble cities, towns and villages were about as close to urban nirvana as you can get. Wheelchair-friendly pavements gleamed and glistened under bright southern skies. Traffic lights winked comfortingly at the intersections of streets without traffic and municipals gardens were a dazzling display of magnolias and oleanders.

Polished park benches, pretty pergolas, and manicured roundabouts: you could barely move without tripping over an EU-sponsored fountain or footbridge.


Then Spain’s construction-driven gold rush ended. And the arrival of the crisis was like an earthquake with millions of tiny aftershocks; these are still rattling the country’s foundations five years later.

Spain’s town halls were no more immune to this seismic shifting than anyone else. More used to spending cash than saving it, they began hunting around for ways to cut corners. And one of the casualties was street cleaning.

But the problem with cutting your maintenance budget is that the results are hard to hide. Bins fill up and then overflow, spilling out trails of half-crushed beer cans and used lottery tickets. Litter is driven along by the wind and then collects in forgotten corners. Parks and gardens dry out and became parched as lonesome drunks.

This dirt is an outward manifestation of the crisis and particularly dispiriting, given Spain is a country where cleanliness is a point of both domestic and civic pride. Letting your streets fall into disrepair is as unthinkable as donning last season’s clothes because you can no longer afford to replace them.

Madrid has not been immune this general decline in upkeep. If you look beyond the lacy frills of the Plaza Mayor or the velvet swagger of the city’s swanky Salamanca neighbourhood, you’ll see the rents in the fabric: the buckled footpaths, a shabby plot of overgrown grass fronting a ramshackle palace, a pair of overfull recycling containers.

Indeed, if you believe the country’s biggest newspaper, Madrid has become dirty, unloved and unlovable. This is, apparently, a city without a story, without an image, and without that single Eifel-tower style monument that would make it a world-class city. To make matters worse, Madrid’s nightlife is moribund, the streets are filthy and there is a lack of a general direction or plan.

The newspaper’s attack – or perhaps wake-up call is the better way to put it? – didn’t come out of nowhere. Just weeks ago, Madrid lost its bid to host the 2020 Olympics. It was the Spanish capital’s third time of trying, and before the vote many people honestly seemed to believe that the world owed Spain something, that all the years of hardship would be rewarded with the spinning of the Karmic wheel. Winning the Olympics would be some kind of international redemption. It would mark a glorious new chapter for Spain.

Instead we were treated to the astonishing – and perhaps never to be seen again – sight of thousands of Spaniards reduced to complete silence as they learned Tokyo, not Madrid, would be the lucky hosts.

Perhaps this was a case of straws breaking camel’s backs. Maybe until that moment, the judgement on Madrid was still out. Now, though, it seems you can say whatever you like about the Spanish capital.


This Madrid bashing is all very unusual – for me at least, as it’s the first time I’ve come across it in Spain. This is not Australia where people tend to despise Sydney and Sydneysiders with joyful abandon. This is not England with its bitter resentment of the black hole that is London, or even Italy where the residents of every town in the land pretty much hate the residents of every other town in the land. By contrast, Spaniards seem, for the most part, to have a sort of grudging affection for this scruffy redbrick city on the plains.

This Madrid bashing is strange, too, because the more time I spend here the more I like this big-city -writ-small with its museums, and shady parks and grubby unpretentious bars. I love its tangle of neighbourhoods that live – happily it seems – without a plan or a direction.

I’m sure, too, that Madrid has seen better days and far worse days and will cycle through both again.  But what I also know is Madrid will never again be this Madrid where I spent my first autumn and rejoiced at its constantly changing skies, or at the just-glimpsed view of the mountains on the city’s fringes, or simply enjoyed that delicious moment leaving home each morning in October when the air was a little too cool to be entirely comfortable but ‘cold’ was just a word.



Written by georgemills25

October 19, 2013 at 15:17

Green tape/red

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A few days ago, a friend and I decided to escape an increasingly malodorous Seville (see my previous post about the city’s rubbish strike) and take off for the hills.

Our plan was simple: we would take the 2-hour bus ride south to the Sierra de Grazalema National Park and tackle as much of the spectacular Pinsapar track as we had time for.

The Pinsapar route takes you up into the mountains and then leads you through a stand of ancient ‘dinosaur’ pines. This is a world of rocky outcrops, circling vultures and – on clear days – views over to Morocco. The route is also pretty popular so the powers-that-be make you apply for a permit for a permit before setting out; in this way, they can cap overall numbers.

The first time I went up to Grazalema, I didn’t know about the paperwork, and was never challenged. The second time, however, I got to the head of the trail only to be sent back 20-kilometre down the road to get the necessary paperwork. Not much fun, especially if you don’t have a car.

So this week I didn’t want to take any chances: our first stop would be the national park visitors’ centre in the village of El Bosque. Once there, we had to wait a while before we were served. Eventually, though, a very nice young woman with very bad English took out details and filled out a lengthy form with all our details. This was then duly stamped because nothing official in Spain – and I mean nothing – takes place without the all-important sello, or seal.

Eventually Rosa – or Margarita or Hortensia – she shared her name with a flower, I remember that much) – gave us a piece of paper.

I thought we were finished. Fat chance.

‘Now hab to take thees to the otra office for the permit,’ said our flower, pointing at our form.

‘This isn’t the permit?’

She shook her head and then proceeded to take out a little map and draw us the route to another office nearby. So around the bullring we walked (for about the third time), and down a hill to where we found office number 2.

There was no one there. Or rather, there were several people there, but nobody who looked like they might be able to provide us with the all-important second stamp. Soon, though, a little man little even by Spanish standards – and with what looked like two glass eyes – snatched my form from me.

He then ducked into another office with it and while we watched through a little window he laboriously filled out all the same details that the woman in the first office had just written up.

‘Um, why do you have two offices?’ I asked, unable to help myself. ‘I mean, it doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.’

He rolled his glassy eyes. ‘To you, maybe not. But to us, yes!’

‘But,’ I suggested daringly, ‘the offices seem to do – you know – the same thing.’

‘Ah hah! But the other office is run by a private company. This is the more technical part.’

‘So why don’t they just hand out the bloody permits at the first office,’ I wanted to say. But I was nervous that we might be sent packing with no paperwork.

We got the permit.

A few minutes later, my friend and I walked off past the bullring of El Bosque for the fourth time and studied our hard-won prize. The form I was holding was known as an “Autorización para la realización de itinerarios por la zona de reserve del parque natural Sierra de Grazalema”, or to translate that into something approximating English: “Authorisation for the realisation of walking routes in the conservation area of Sierra Grazalema National Park”.

In other words, a walk in the park.

Written by georgemills25

February 12, 2013 at 20:18

Talking rubbish

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For the last few nights, Seville has been preternaturally quiet. Eerily so.

Generally I fall asleep here to the symphonic thud and thump of municipal street cleaners emptying the dozen or so garbage containers that line our street. Since last Sunday, though, the garbage collectors have been on strike. The result? A disconcerting – very un-Sevillian – silence between midnight and dawn. It’s almost too quiet to sleep.

At first, the strike didn’t bother anyone much, and one group was positively delighted: the city’s  garbage scavengers (and de facto recyclers). With the street cleaners out of the picture, they could rake through trash bags that were now conveniently piled up on the street instead of being buried deep inside a dumpster. It was a bonanza, but a short-lived one. Even the rubbish hunters are now struggling with the smell.


Today is day 9 of Seville’s rubbish strike; there are mountains of plastic bags on every corner, like postmodern sculptures only more interesting.

The rubbish story has been brewing since last year and involves a dispute between Seville’s town hall and workers at the city’s publicly-owned cleaning company Lipassam. The sticking points in negotiations between the two parties are holiday pay (reduced) and working hours (extended to 37.5 hours a week).

You might think the Sevillianos feel some solidarity with the poor fluorescent-jacketed workers of Lipassam; theirs is not a job I’d particularly want, and they are – after all – being asked to work more hours for less money. However, the handful of people I’ve talked to seem to think the city’s cleaners are little more than a pack of thieving whingers. The reason? They earn too much (and must therefore somehow be cheating the system, or so is the inference in this pathologically distrustful country).

Anyway, the town hall says the average annual wage for a member of the city’s garbage crews is €30,885 (around £25,000 or $US42,000) To put this in perspective, the average gross salary in Spain for 2010 – the last year for which figures are available – was €22.790,20 while El Publico pointed the most common salary that year was actually only around €15,500. So the Lipassam workers are doing quite well.

Apparently – and again this only according to my completely unscientific straw poll – these workers should therefore be happy with their lot. More than one person I spoke to suggested the Lipassam workers should be fired to a man/woman and replaced with some of those members of the 6 million-strong army of unemployed people in Spain who would happily work for far less than €30,885.

Sad days in Spain when non/workers turn upon non/workers.

Meanwhile, it has to be said that Lipassam’s own staff have not been terribly effective at making friends and influencing people. Several days ago, El Mundo newspaper published photos of cleaners demonstrating by littering the streets with scraps of paper they had no intention of picking up. Bad call guys.

And how do I feel? Oddly enough, I’ve been enjoying this garbage strike. It adds a touch of drama to the streets, and operates as a visual (and olfactory) counterpoint to the corruption scandal that has hit Spain’s ruling Popular Party in the last few days. In fact, I’m happy for the mountains of rubbish bags to grow so high that I have to wade through them – so high in fact that I can’t even see the horrible eyesore that is the new Cajasol Tower. That would be something.

Written by georgemills25

February 6, 2013 at 09:29

Spaced out

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OK. So Andalusia isn’t Australia (my home). But it does have its epic moments and I love the light and the distances. Here are a few of the photos of southern Spain I’ve taken lately.


Midday near Olvera


Setting sun, Gaucin (behind Malaga)


Gaucin again; this time on a cloudy afternoon


Near Ronda, one of Andalusia’s most spectacular towns


The Segura/Cazorla National Park is the second largest in Europe, and my favourite part of Andalusia.


On the edges of Grazalema National Park

Written by georgemills25

January 29, 2013 at 22:25

Climate change threatens black truffles

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Black truffles threatened by climate change

Climate change looks set to claim another victim. After threatening to drown entire islands and swallow up the coastal regions of various continents, it seems that our cheeky old friend the climate now has Périgord black truffles in its sights.

Black truffles (Tuber melanosporum) are among the world’s most exclusive delicacies and can fetch up to €2,000 a kilogram. In the 1960s, crop yields were still around 200–300 tonnes a year, but this has fallen to around 25 tonnes annually in recent times.

Now scientists are saying that hotter summers and more frequent droughts have caused these paltry harvests in the Mediterranean heartlands of truffle production.

In a letter to the journal Nature Climate Change, investigators said black truffle harvests in key zones in Spain, France and Italy have been shrinking since a peak in 1978 despite ramped up efforts at cultivation.

In their letter, the Swiss-led international team said they had compared truffle harvests with weather patterns in the key production areas of Aragon in north-eastern Spain, Périgord in southern France and Piedmont and Umbria in northern Italy. They found that Spanish and French yields had fallen at a similar rate since the 1978 crop because of drier summers in that period. Yields in northern Italy were less affected because of higher rainfall in the two Italian areas studied.

Cooler and wetter summers are the best conditions for Périgord black truffles while warm, dry summers mean less fruiting and lower productivity in Mediterranean forest ecosystems. This is a particular problem for truffles because they depend on their host trees, the oak and hazelnut, for growth.

The scientific team, which included Jesús Julio Camarero from Spain’s Instituto Pirenaico de Ecología, is gloomy about prospects for the black truffle, with Camarero saying this century was expected to bring hotter summers and increased evapotranspiration.

It’s not all bad news for truffle lovers though. The same weather patterns that are biting into black truffle harvests across the Mediterranean basin could see forests north of the Alps becoming top breeding grounds for both natural and cultivated truffles.

There is recent evidence of a general increase in fungi in Switzerland while Burgundy truffles (Tuber aestivum) have taken off in southern Germany.

(Picture credit: Ulrich Stobbe, Freiburg i.Br.)

Written by georgemills25

November 30, 2012 at 10:24