Winter caught us with our pants down. Not only were we ill prepared, we hadn’t realized just how freezing it can get here. One minute we’d been enjoying the warm October sunshine; the next there was snow and temperatures dropping to minus 7 at night. The old windows shock and rattled, rain poured through our bedroom ceiling and cruel draughts tore through every crack and under every doorway. I’d had some notion that the south of Spain was spared the misery of winter but I was wrong. Grizzling about the weather to friends, I was told that to enjoy milder winters you need to be live on the coast where temperatures are several degrees higher than can be expected here and where residents enjoy a year-round microclimate. But we’d chosen not to live on the coast, and instead had bought a house 73 miles from the sea, up in the hills northwest of Granada.
After the ice and snow of November, in comparison December was a walk in the park; there was little rain and most days were sunny. It was still quite cold but not freezing. But when two-headed Janus made his annual appearance, things changed once more. It rained and it rained and it rained. When we were not totally shrouded in fog, ghostly mists descended from the hills and draped the valley like cobwebs. The villagers hid behind their shuttered windows and doors and apart from the occasional howl of a farm dog and the drip, drip of moisture falling off the tiled roofs, a blanketed hush fell upon the village.
It was on days like this that the olive harvest would grind to a halt. When this happened, there would sometimes be a knock on the door from Paco or Antonia asking us to go and have lunch with them. The first couple of times this happened we’d already eaten, our lunchtime being around 1pm. But the Spanish eat their meals much later than us Brits and 2.30pm is normal for lunch. Rather than offend Antonia, I’d pat my stomach and say ‘Fantastico, We’ll be round in a minuto’. Devouring two lunches made me feel a bit like ‘Six Dinner Sid’* and clearly was doing nothing for my waistline as in early January a dear friend told me that I needed to get on the scales –‘It’s time to start the diet, Lottie’. Mortified when I discovered the truth of what I weighed, I realized that something had to be done about it. I told Antonia that I was going on a diet and that I had to resist all her delicious but fattening food. ‘No problemo, no engorda’ she’d say placing wafer thin slices of jamon down in front of me, or a plate of tomatoes, onions, olive oil drizzled over the top of them. My generous and kind neighbour took my request to heart and knew that Fatty needed every bit of help.
Andalucían houses are not built for warmth. They are designed to keep out the fierce heat of Spanish summers when temperatures often soar well over 100 degrees. Antonia and Paco took pity on us and gifted us an old brazier. Their basic estufa struggled to keep even our small sitting room warm. Ideally, if we’d had more space we’d have put it in to the middle of the room and had the pipe go up and out of the wall but we installed it in the open fireplace that services two rooms and most of the heat went up the chimney. The stall at the Tuesday market in Alcala La Real, selling thermals and fleeces did very well out of us this winter.
Even though the gloom of January and February at times seemed interminable, the weeks soon passed and before long, hints of new life appeared on the hillside. Almond blossom started to burst out on the trees, thick green leaves hinted at the promise of Irises and marigolds popped up in gardens and along the side of farm tracks. It wasn’t quite Spring but we were getting there. With better weather, and the ground less slippery under foot I took Colin Snout out to explore with me. In the heart of the groves I found a house that I fell in love with, not practical for us but a fantasy home nonetheless. We walked through the olive groves and along the steep banks of the riverbed; a deep gorge that cuts its way down from the hill and across the valley, a place rumoured to be home to a large family of wild boar. Yellow gorse whose colour was like sunburst on those dank, grey days added a much needed dab of colour to the muted palette of late winter.
And then one day it happened. After two weeks of raining solidly, suddenly the sun came out. It shone down with such vigour and strength that we knew that this time, it was here to stay. It was March 6th., winter was finally over and the first swallows had arrived.