Southern Spain Does Have a Winter

When we were researching where we would live in Spain for a year, climate played a large part in our decision which is why we chose to live in Southern Spain. And although coastal Spain would have been the most suitable climate befitting a ‘soft’ Australian, we couldn’t see ourselves amongst the sun-seekers and retirees who flock to coastal Spain. So we settled on Granada, attracted to a small city that punches above its weight in terms of history, culture, diversity, natural beauty and education.

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Pico de Veleta in the Sierra Nevada Mountains viewed from Granada

Once the decision was made, we carefully monitored from Australia the temperatures during the Granada winter. In January 2013, lulled by a balmy summer in Sydney, I foolishly declared that as long as the temperatures generally stay above zero degrees celcius, all would be well. We could handle that couldn’t we? I mean, my husband spent three years living in Finland in arctic conditions so I could manage zero couldn’t I?

It is 30th November. Winter will officially commence tomorrow and yet I am already beyond my comfort levels. Once the sun sets, the temperatures here plummet to 3 degrees and I can be heard repeatedly complaining about how cold I am. I have virtually boycotted getting out of bed in the morning as it is just too cold. Surely there would be appropriate heating in this climate. Well, let me explain…

We live in a UNESCO listed heritage area called the Albaicin, the oldest part of which dates back to the 11th Century ie. 1000 years ago! What that means in practical terms is that the stone and limewash houses are cold and difficult to heat, especially as solar panels are not permitted and natural gas is not available. We do have a wonderful wood burning stove that keeps us warm in one part of our home in the evenings but the mornings are torturously cold. I really don’t mean to be a whiner, I am just not accustomed to the cold. I recall driving to the Blue Mountains (just outside Sydney) on a Winter’s day and how excited we all were when the ‘outside temperature’ reading in the car went below 10 degrees. That just seems ridiculous now as I walk my kids to school in 2 degrees.

So beside being cold and having astronomical electricity bills to pay, there are some beautiful aspects to living in the mountains of southern Spain…

First Snowfall

At my language school (Castila), my classroom has a view of the Alhambra Palace with the Sierra Nevada mountains as the backdrop. Each day in October I would ask my teachers when they thought the first snow would arrive on the mountains (the highest peak of the Sierra Nevada is Mulhacen at 3,478 metres in altitude). We decided to have a bet in the class to see who could guess the day of the first snowfall. My teacher guessed 12th November, another student the 10th December and I decided that I wanted it to snow on my birthday – 14th November. Since I always celebrate my birthday in the warmth of an Australian Spring, it seemed significant for the first snow to fall on my birthday. And what do you know? This is what we woke up to!

Last Monday we ran out of kindling for the fire stove that we use to keep warm in our downstairs living area. We still had our rental car from the weekend so, after dropping the kids to school, my husband suggested we drive up to Alfaguara Natural Park in the nearby mountains to collect pinecones for kindling. As we ascended the mountain, the temperature gauge dropped to 5 degrees, then 3 and finally 0 degrees Celsius. The car kept flashing the temperature and beeping at us warning of possible ice on the road. When we arrived at the pine forest at about 1,300 metres altitude, there was fresh snow everywhere. We began our walk through the forest with the snow creating a muted and peaceful atmosphere. We were alone in the fresh powder with animal footprints the only sign of life. As the sun rose higher the sound of crackling, melting snow falling from the trees was magical. We took some time to enjoy the moment before busily scooping up five bags of pinecones.

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Happy Mexican and Australian who think snow is a novelty
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The deep dark wood all for us
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The loot of pine cones

Hammam Bathhouse

Another place that we have come to appreciate during these cold months is the Arab bathhouse (Hammam). Granada was the seat of a Moorish kingdom for nearly 800 years (from 711-1492) and there remain many Arabic influences to this day. We have become semi regular clients of Al Andalus Hammam and tend to go there to celebrate any special occasion and to relax and warm up. A hammam is a tranquil, candlelit environment with warm, hot and cold baths, a steam room, hot stone beds and a massage area. It is decorated with beautiful Arabic tiles, colonnades and geometrical plaster carvings. There is the constant sound of running water from the numerous fountains and water features.

After soaking in the warm and hot pools, you cool down in the ice cold pool and then have a turn in the steam room. During the soaking, at some point your masseuse will come collect you and take you into a separate area of hot stone beds, massage tables and water fountains. You are asked to choose between lavender, amber, rose or pomegranate oil before being massaged into a blissful and relaxed state. After all the walking up and down the stairs of the Albaicin, my calf muscles certainly appreciated the attention.

The warm pool at the bathhouse
The warm pool at the bathhouse (this is photo from the Hammam website since photographs are not permitted to be taken inside.)

Birthday Celebrations – family Olympics

A couple of weeks ago we celebrated my birthday on a Finca (farmhouse) in the Alpujarra mountains in a town called Orgíva. It is a sunny ‘pueblo’ at the foot of the imposing Sierra Nevada mountains. It was different for me to celebrate my birthday in the cold and in the mountains as I usually have my first ocean swim of the Sydney Spring season on my birthday.

We invited eight families to join us for a day of Olympic Games where each family, representing a different country, competed for Olympic glory. There are so many mixed nationality couples and families here that we barely had to double up on any countries.

It was great to see adults and children working and laughing together to try to win the ridiculous competitions we devised. The events were football (soccer), volleyball, sack races, three legged races, beanbag on the head races and egg and spoon races. The end  results were: Bronze medallists: Spain and England, Silver medallists: Canada and Slovakia, Gold medallists: Australia (I think our games master may have rigged a few events to make me feel like a winner on my birthday). Needless to say, the post-Olympic celebrations went on into the night and involved food, wine and music by a large fire. Are you understanding why I love the vibe here?

My good friend in Australia asked me last week whether it felt strange celebrating my birthday with people who I didn’t even know on my last birthday. I thought about it for a moment, thinking she had made a very valid point but my reply was a resounding ‘NO’! Somehow, we are so present to this new life that it feels like we could have been living here for years. We have managed to find the ‘pearls’ who make up our new friends here and we are grateful. If I am going to have my mid life crisis, it can wait until we get home next year. For now, despite the FREEZING COLD, we are riding too high for me to have a crisis.

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Teams gather for the sack race
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There was some collateral damage
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And some fell flat on their face
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The competition was fierce on the soccer pitch- check out the horse watching at the back
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Team pep talks with the Sierra Nevada as the backdrop
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And then the post Olympic celebrations moved indoors
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By the cosy fire
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