December 29, 2008


This New Year’s Eve we’ll be once more returning our Spanish friends’ hospitality by inviting the family to join us for a New Year’s Eve meal in a restaurant in Gaucin, after which we’ll wander around the beautiful old town for the local celebrations held in the various small flower-filled squares.

We won’t, however, make the same mistake we made when we first arrived - with the ‘lucky’ grapes. Traditionally, when the clock starts to strike on New Year’s Eve each person should be clasping a handful of grapes, one of which must be carefully and slowly chewed and swallowed on each stroke to bring good luck for the New Year. And then corks start popping, cava flowing and streamers and confetti everywhere. The only problem was we’d already eaten all our tiny grapes on the first stroke!

Should we make any other mistakes this year, however, they’ll all turn up in a later post!

¡Feliz año nuevo!

December 26, 2008


Was returning home from Christmas at the finca and driving along the N340 motorway when I had the shock of my life. I could hardly believe my eyes when I spotted a car in front travelling at around 120 kilometres per hour with a woman clinging onto the bonnet for dear life! Maybe I had had a glass too many of that cava after all!

As far as I could make out, the car’s driver was swerving abruptly from one side to the other as if he was trying to throw the woman off. At this point, police who’d clearly been patrolling nearby suddenly appeared and made chase but the driver failed to stop and abruptly turned right up a route with more twists and bends - with the woman still clinging onto the windscreen wipers!

With the help, now, of another patrol car, I could just make out in the distance the police managing to block the vehicle’s path. I later read in the local press that the woman, a 31 year old Brazilian, told officers that the driver, her boyfriend, had tried to kill her. And that she’d climbed onto the bonnet when he had attempted to run her over. The driver, a 34 year old Spaniard, was arrested for attempted murder.

A dangerous place, Andalucia…!

December 24, 2008


This will now be our third Christmas in Andalucia and our second in a real Spanish home. P and I have been invited once again to spend the holiday with the family of two students we got to know really well in the course of our mutual language studies - theirs in English and ours in Spanish. But that’s another story...

Their family home is a large country house or finca set amid orange groves outside Gaucin, one of the many attractive pueblos blancos or whitewashed villages in the hills far inland from the coast - large enough for the extended family comprising parents, siblings, grandparents and grandchildren. Quite a household!

The house will be traditionally decorated with a real fir tree complete with baubles and tinsel but no Christmas cards. (The Spanish don’t do cards; when face-to-face contact isn’t possible, they prefer to exchange greetings by phone - even email.) Pride of place will go instead to the belén or nativity scene, a lovingly preserved family heirloom. This is spread out on a table in the living room and, instead of opening pages on an Advent calendar each day as is the custom in countries like Germany, the grandchildren will move the figures of the los Reyes Magos closer and closer to the stable.

The most important meal of our Spanish Christmas will be the one served on Christmas Eve when we’ll sit down with the rest of the extended family to eat our way through a gigantic meal lasting several hours. Though the main dish may vary elsewhere - turkey, lamb or fish - here it is always the same: suckling pig. We’ll also be offered a lot of shellfish! For dessert, there’ll be several varieties of turrón, Spanish-style nougat. In fact, turrón will be everywhere in the house - all washed down by litre after litre of cava, Spanish champagne.

The midday meal on Christmas Day is yet another opportunity for a huge feast, after which ‘our’ family will restock the larder and use up any left-overs in the brief break before the next huge celebration - New Year’s Eve. Which this year everyone will be spending with us...

A very traditional Spanish Christmas.

December 22, 2008


As promised, I rushed back to Sra Noriega after the last Spanish class to lend a sympathetic ear to her woes and seemingly unending reminiscing about her youth and ardent wish she’d met Juan Antonio then and not Señor Noriega.

As she poured me yet another fino, she hardly stopped to draw breath, regaling me with tales of her courting days and the changing times.

Having to be home at 9 pm (even if the film finished at 9.15) seems to have been the least of her trials then. With Señor Noriega waiting outside, she and her sisters would often be made by their grandmother to offer prayers to numerous virgins before being allowed out, and the same grandmother would sit with them while they played parchis (ludo) - wearing sunglasses so that they wouldn’t be able to tell if she looked away or closed her eyes for a second.

And so she rattled on about the way courtship used to be conducted in Spain with little privacy until after the wedding ceremony. Some customs, she continued, still exist such as the petición de mano when the two families get together for the official "asking of the hand" and the practice of asking friends round to see the future home of the happy couple. This is then usually followed by a post-honeymoon invitation to see the photos of the wedding and the now lived-in home.

I was happy enough for her to carry on without interruption - if only to help her get things off her chest.
Until, that is, she unexpectedly burst into tears again.

"How can our two families - Juan Antonio’s and mine - ever get together for the petición de mano, let alone for our wedding, when my children won’t even speak to him?" she wailed in despair, clasping the hapless Lola to her ample breast.

How indeed?

December 20, 2008


With the increasing economic downturn here, lottery ticket sales for El Gordo (The Fat One) have bucked the trend among Spanish consumers who are having to cut back sharply. More Spaniards than ever are buying €20 tickets ahead of the big draw on Monday for one of the biggest lottery jackpots in the world - with €2.3 billion (£2.1billion) in prizes.

Spain is suffering the worst unemployment rate in Europe, at 12.8%, and one Madrid lottery office has said that some people were buying more than one ticket, risking all they had in the hope of winning a little money and solving all their problems. Just like Jesús.

Famously inveterate gamblers, Spaniards will take any chance to gamble. In every bar in the country, the fruit machine is a standard fixture and on each street corner there is a lottery booth. Figures for El Gordo tickets sold have not been released by the State Lottery and Betting organisation, but they have been rising steadily since Spain's troubles began after the crash of its construction sector last year.

Sales of the Euromillions lottery, for instance, rose by 16 % on 2007 and the Spring Gordo lottery sales increased by 9%. General weekly lottery sales rose 2.4 % until October, when people started concentrating on El Gordo.

The Christmas draw is the biggest of the year, attracting millions of Spaniards, as well as those - potentially - from around the world. In a sign though that Spain's economic gloom has even hit El Gordo, companies that traditionally gave tickets to employees as Christmas gifts have bought fewer this year. However, Professor Roberto Garcia, of the Carlos III University, Madrid, who has carried out a study of lotteries, believes El Gordo has been largely unaffected by the downturn because it brings society together and reinforces friendship and community spirit.

Not like Jesús then, having broken off his long-standing engagement with Dolores and staking his entire future on El Gordo - alone.

December 19, 2008


Today began and ended in tears.

When I went down to fetch Lola for her morning exercise, Señora Noriega started reminiscing about her courting days and how she wished she’d met Juan Antonio then (the approach of the New Year always seems to make her maudlin). Mention of his name then started her off and before I could stop her, she was howling uncontrollably.

She wouldn’t let me leave until I’d promised I’d come back later today. But first I had to get to the last Spanish class of the year. And Jesús.

As a group, we had all clubbed together to buy him a gift token that he could redeem as he wished. For some CDs, a book or something for his beloved computer. And when he was handed the small envelope-sized package, his eyes lit up in surprise and, just for a second, he looked like a small boy again as he started tearing off the paper. But as he did so, he started to get quite emotional and tears welled up in his eyes. Immediately we were once again reminded what a bad year he’d had with the loss of the pre-payments on his apartment and consequent strain on his relationship with his fiancée.

The atmosphere was fast getting tense and, as everyone started looking apprehensive at the prospect of his breaking down altogether before he finished unwrapping it, I thought I’d try to diffuse the situation.

"Jesús, es turrón?", I asked, knowing full well how much he hates those sickly sweet, honey-coated almond delicacies which are as much a part of Christmas in Spain as mince pies are in Britain.

"No! No es turrón!" shouted indignantly all the Germans in unison as they turned on me, missing the irony while the only other Brit looked on, grinning broadly.

When at last he’d opened it up and read our messages on the enclosed card, he was very near to tears. "This is almost as good as winning El Gordo," he declared. Referring to next Monday’s huge lottery, The Fat One, which he, like millions of other cash-strapped Spaniards are pinning all their hopes on. More in the next post…

December 18, 2008


In recent posts, I have described my continuing sense of unease at the degree of corruption still prevalent in Spain - particularly in Andalucia. And my doubts were in no way alleviated by what I read in the local papers today about the latest fraud to be uncovered in the region.

Spain's most spectacular tourist landmark and one of my favourite destinations, the legendary Alhambra fortress in Granada, has been defrauded of €8m by a ticket scam, allegedly operated by its staff, travel agencies, a tour guide and a branch of the BBVA bank, according to a recently released report. Up to 50 people are implicated in the swindle involving 800,000 faked or unauthorised entry tickets handed out over three years in a process described by criminal investigators as "anarchic and uncontrollable" reportedly plunging the institution into a crisis bordering on bankruptcy.

The Alhambra, the medieval symbol of Muslim rule in Spain with its stunning architecture and hilltop setting, is visited by an estimated three million people every year. However, the report ordered by Granada's court in 2006 – after the ticket office supervisor told governors he suspected something was amiss – estimates that between 2002 and 2005 tens of thousands of people gained irregular access to the Alhambra’s filigree-arched chambers, water gardens and pleasure courts. Doorkeepers apparently let people in at random, "without tickets, with used tickets, with tickets for times different from that marked, even on days different from that stated on the ticket," investigators found.

Compared with the $50 billion Madoff fraud revealed in the USA at the weekend, the €8m Alhambra scam is trivial. Yet, considering that Andalucia has one of the lowest average wage-rates in all Spain, it nevertheless represents wealth on an unimaginable scale, literally a small fortune, to the perpetrators.

Where will it all end?

December 16, 2008


The prime suspect in the so-called Malaya case, Juan Antonio Roca, was back in court this week to answer charges in yet another case of misappropriation of public funds. Marbella Town Hall’s former planning officer is accused of paying lawyer and former Sevilla Football Club chairman José María del Nido 80,000 euros.

Del Nido allegedly received up to 3.1 million euros of public money between the years 2000 and 2001, and Judge Ricardo Puyol estimates that between 1999 and 2003 the total of payments made reached 6.7 million euros.

However, Roca claimed that the payments had been ordered and approved by the Mayor’s office and had passed all the necessary municipal inspections.

The lawyer normally representing Roca, José Aníbal Álvarez, has refused to defend his client in this new corruption case. He claims that his office is already "overwhelmed" with work from the fifty seven cases against Roca, including Malaya, it is already dealing with. Álvarez previously refused to defend Roca in another case (Saqueo) but that time he "claimed" it was because he hadn’t been paid.

It looks as if we can draw our own conclusions as to the true reasons…

Fifty seven cases against Roca alone - and counting… !

Is it any wonder that I, and many others besides, despair at ridding Andalucia of corruption on such a scale anytime soon?

December 14, 2008


Had words with P - again - about my continuing unease about living in Spain and yearning for the relative decency of the UK (not to mention family and friends). Specifically about the corruption which seems unremitting here. Apart from the never-ending trials involving Roca and his ilk like Barrientos, Julían Munoz etc etc, you hear stories all the time about the more petty, unpublicised instances of graft still going on.

A lawyer friend of ours comes into contact with this unseen side more than most. He routinely regales us with cases he comes across in the course of his work. Like the one he’s currently dealing with involving a café owner who's had to pay a series of local inspectors numerous bribes simply to get the necessary licence to open his business. Or another, in which a property developer is suing his builder accused of bribing a quantity surveyor to certify the construction of a swimming pool which subsequently collapsed.

All these cases in and of themselves might seem mildly amusing, trivial even but there is a darker side - as our friend reminded us. Corruption in Spain - as in a number of Southern Mediterranean countries - is quite endemic and ingrained. And will take at least another generation to disappear.

During the boom years of the last decade, Southern Spain in particular saw extraordinary wealth flow into the region with the influx of Arabs, North Europeans and, currently, Russian and East European mafias. And wherever wealth pops up, graft isn’t far behind.

And thus, as outrageous bribes have routinely been seen to be taken by senior staff in town halls, it’s hardly unsurprising that those lower down the pecking order have followed suit with more modest backhanders and other swindles. And so it goes on. And will continue unless today’s youth finally learns the lesson from the tsunami of corruption trials currently flowing through the courts - that crime doesn’t pay.

Just don’t hold your breath. As in the case of Roca et al (see next post), the jury’s out on that one too…

December 13, 2008


Yesterday Jesús was fuming in class - again.

Spread out in front of him was a clutch of local newspapers on which his gaze was riveted. We’d come prepared to talk about the pros and cons of the mass media in general but Jesús seemingly only had eyes for the print media.

What especially incensed him, he explained eventually, was the news item on page one of all the papers depicting the release from prison on €150,000 bail of the smiling former Estepona mayor, Antonio Barrientos, and three other suspects in the so-called Astapa property corruption case.

It was then we remembered that it was in Estepona that Jesús, himself, was the victim of an off-plan property swindle with no apartment to show for all his early-stage payments.

"Just read what he - Antonio Barrientos - says to reporters when he’s released," fumed Jesús pointing to all the lead articles. "Let’s discuss this in class today - it’s far more relevant and topical."

None of us could disagree with that as we each grabbed a paper and started reading Barrientos's inspirational thoughts.

"This is an emotional moment for me. Men can’t be men if they are not free. I have a feeling of inner peace and a clear conscience, which is my greatest asset. I have always worked in the interests of the town as mayor and I hope that the case against me will be cleared up once and for all."

Barrientos, Jesús reminded us, had been in prison for six months and is accused of bribery, money laundering and misappropriation of public funds in the Astapa scandal uncovered in June. The investigating judge Isabel Conejo considered him to be the brains behind the corruption at the Town Hall, which involved "obtaining funds from businesspeople and developers to finance both public and private projects".

It was Barrientos’s final words to reporters, however, that stuck in Jesús’s throat. "A lot of decent, honest people have been implicated unfairly", the former mayor commented.

"Yes, and I’m one of them…" responded Jesús.

December 9, 2008


On the way back from the funeral neither of us spoke until, as we approached a supermarket on the edge of a town, Sra N. suddenly became animated and asked me to stop as she’d just remembered she’d run out of Lola’s favourite biscuits and a couple of other groceries.

When she emerged 15 minutes later, she looked more downhearted than ever.

"Just look at this," she exclaimed, brandishing a jar of instant coffee in her shaking hand. It was the supermarket’s marca blanca or own brand.

"You know, before Juan Antonio and I always had Bonka. Good Bonka."

Fortunately I knew what she was talking about otherwise I mightn’t have been able to stop myself falling over. What she was, in fact, referring to was Nestlé’s Bonka ground coffee. (Whoever dreamt up such a ridiculous name?)

"But, you know," she continued by way of explanation, "with Spain now in recession I have to watch every euro. I love my Helmann’s mayonesa and Tropicana pomelo (grapefruit juice) but now I’m forced to look only for marcas blancas. For Lola’s favourite biscuits too. It’s so sad."

Intrigued, I had a look at some Spanish newspapers as soon as I got home. Sales of Spanish supermarkets’ own brand products, I read, are up 33% on last year. And overall, discounted products (including own brands) accounted for 17.6% of spend on food and drink in the first half of 2008 compared with 16.1% for the same period last year.

And since 2009, by all accounts, looks to be tougher still, tiny Lola may find herself foregoing those biscuits altogether...

December 8, 2008


Was busy writing about Jesús Gil and his protégé Juan Antonio Roca last week when a loud banging on the door interrupted my thoughts. It was Sra Noriega. Again in floods of tears. Fortunately P’s away so I could take as long as necessary to try to calm her down. (P, I have to admit, is a bit suspicious of her motives and believes she tries to take advantage of me sometimes so perhaps it was just as well he wasn’t at home.)

This time, though, I really couldn’t help feeling sympathy for her when at last she told me her news - her elder sister had just died and she wondered if I’d accompany her to the funeral. She’s feeling especially vulnerable at the moment not only because of her family’s extreme animosity towards JA but also their utter contempt for any plans she might still harbour to marry him. So a lift from one of them, not to mention JA, was clearly out of the question.

I’ve never attended a funeral in Spain before but remember reading somewhere that it’s important to find out straightaway where the family has congregated and when the funeral is to be held, because it’s likely to be very soon. So I lost no time getting on the phone to Sr Noriega’s daughter whom I’d met earlier at the wedding.

The funeral was, in fact, the following day in a small inland village. Since I was unfamiliar with the location, we arrived at the church really early and found those closest to the deceased, or to members of the family of the deceased, had already spent some time there commiserating with the family, some of whom had been up all night.

After many tearful embraces, we at last entered the church for Mass. What seemed a bit odd to me though was the fact that only a few attended the service and they were mainly women. When we later followed the coffin out of the church, however, we found all the men from the village waiting outside to shake hands with Senora Noriega and other family members and offer their condolences. The family and close friends then followed the coffin to the burial place and the rest of the village returned to its daily routine.

On the way back after a meal lasting over three hours, Sr Noriega seemed unusually expansive - about death. Maybe a reflection of her current feelings of loneliness and unhappiness...

Amongst other things, she pointed out that cremation, especially in the larger towns, was becoming more prevalent but it’s usually some hours after the funeral service itself with normally only family members present. Another custom which was gradually dying out, she added, was wearing mourning, although she was still of the generation that would always wear black for a certain period.

"Perhaps for the rest of my life if I can’t marry Juan Antonio," she sobbed.

December 7, 2008


Marbella has long since lost the cachet it once enjoyed when favoured by Europe's elite, by luminaries such as Bismarck, Rothschild, Metternich and Thyssen. Habitués such as Roger Moore and Sean Connery moved out when Marbella became a catchphrase for vulgarity and sleaze during Gil's megalomaniac regime, and crass property developments sprouting up everywhere blocked their sea views.

That was also the era when less discreet jet-setters moved in. The late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia regularly had in tow a 3,000-strong entourage at his Marbella palace, the arms dealer Adnan Kashoggi's gold-encrusted yacht resided in the harbour, and the Syrian arms trafficker, Monzer al-Kassar, arranged deals from his mansion, until he was arrested last June on an international arrest warrant issued by the US, accused of supplying rocket launchers and machine guns to Colombia's Farc guerrillas.

There remain countless Russian and Italian drug-trafficking mafias who settle turf wars with wild west-style running gunbattles. Last year police detained five members of the Mazzarella family, suspected of leading roles in the Neapolitan Camorra. The family had long used Marbella as a transit point for trafficking drugs from Morocco.

Gil resigned in 2002, immersed in financial scandals, and died in 2004, whereupon Roca became the "epicentre of a vast coruption network" according to investigators. Indeed, Roca essentially bought his successors as mayor, Julian Muñoz and Marisol Yague, both of whom were also arrested. Police seized more than €45,000 in cash from the home of Muñoz's girlfriend, the singer Isabel Pantoja, which she claimed were for household expenses.

"Some of Marbella's councillors were on Roca's payroll. They were rewarded for their loyalty and submission rather than for each building licence they issued," Judge Torres noted, adding that Roca manipulated the councillors, charged property developers for licences and permits in urban green zones, and laundered the dirty money through numerous shell companies. Assets confiscated and seized by the authorities amount to some €2.4bn.

Furthermore, Roca amassed two huge Andalusian estates, including an orange grove, a stud farm with fighting bulls and 103 thoroughbred horses, luxury hotels, three palaces in Madrid, beachside property developments, a heliport, a private plane, and artworks valued at €30m. When police raided his homes in April 2006, they impounded 275 paintings, including works by Picasso, and stuffed animals, including a polar bear, a rhinoceros and in one dark corner… an elephant.

And for Marbella too, Roca, like his stuffed animal, remains the elephant at the back of the room.

December 2, 2008


Spain, no stranger to dubious dealings, has been shocked and shamed as Marbella’s former planning mastermind, the right-hand man of the city’s notorious late mayor Jesús Gil, is currently on trial for the country's most outrageous property corruption scandal. Eighty-six members of Marbella's power elite, including two former mayors, are accused of embezzlement on an unparalled scale.

The alleged supremo is Juan Antonio Roca (pictured), accused of taking bribes from builders and, in turn, bribing councillors to approve illegal property developments. Police seized almost €1m in cash at his lawyer’s home.

Once an unemployed builder, Roca allegedly gave the former mayor Marisol Yague €1.3m in bankhanders, passed to her in plain envelopes, financing a facelift and home improvements worth €950,000. The deputy mayor, Isabel Marcos, had €360,000 in cash at her home, while Mr Roca built up an art collection valued at €30m, including a Miro, all on display in his steaming Jacuzzi! And when prosecutors investigated 18 shell companies registered in tax havens worldwide to launder his dirty money, they didn’t uncover a single legitimate business deal.

Roca's rise from rags to riches began in 1991, when he became the henchman-cum-protégé of Jesus Gil, the flamboyant property developer, football club owner and mayor of Marbella who presided over the resort like a mafia boss.

Roca thereafter built up a €120m fortune, according to the 450-page indictment handed down by Judge Miguel Angel Torres, derived from the greed and excess of Spain's long property boom. Town halls throughout Spain found themselves embroiled in the tide of illegality, but the utter outrageousness of the Marbella scandal eclipsed them all.

Last year the government dismissed the entire council and introduced a management committee pending local elections this May. Meanwhile revelations about Roca's sheer baroque excesses continue to stun and shame...