Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Up in Ronda

Maria, the seven year-old daughter of my traveling companions—Carmen Pereira of Vigo, Spain and John Beusterien of Detroit—makes a list over lunch of all the careers she plans to try before making her choice. Astronaut. Poet. Pet sitter. Ballerina. Food critic. She loves food, especially meat. But never, she announces, will she be a translator. This, despite the fact that she’s already fluent in Spanish and English, as are her parents, and she plans to pick up a few more languages along the way.

“I want to learn Portuguese next,” Maria says. “Then French, German, Chinese, Japanese . . .”

“How about this creamy vegetable soup?” I ask. “How would you rate it, on a scale from one to ten?”

“Four,” she says, without hesitation. “Daddy. I’ll swap you for your salad,” she says.

The next course arrives, the lomo (pork) in heavy gravy with a spread of greasy French fries.

“And this,” I ask. “On a scale from one to ten?”

“Mmm,” Maria says. “Seven.”

We’re in the mountains south of Seville, up from the broad, flat valley of the Quadalquivir. Ronda is a village of 35,000 people bisected by the dramatic El Tajo gorge. On the south side is the old Muslim city, on the north the modern Christian town with its famous bullring, the oldest dedicated bullfight arena in Spain. Hemingway loved this little town, and you’ll find a walkway dedicated to him, as did Orson Wells and Alexander Dumas. Ronda is home to three generations of Romeros, who collectively gave shape to modern bullfighting. Pedro, the youngest and most famous, was inspiration for a bullfighter by the same name in Hemingway’s novel The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway was also inspired by the Puente Nuevo, the new bridge (1793) spanning the gorge, and turned it into Robert Jordan’s mission in For Whom the Bell Tolls. But you can find this information in any reasonable guidebook, enough texture at least to decide on a visit or no.

We catch a taxi out to the Hotel el Horcajo, a country Inn in the bottom of a little valley. We stow our bags, and set out for a refreshing walk in the hills.

Making our way up the old road, we arrive at a gate near the pig barn. John and Carmen, both overly-curious professor types, dash inside as 100 little black piggies come running out. These are the famous black pigs that eat only acorns from the cork forests all over Andalucía, and are the source of the delicious jamón Ibérico (not to be confused with jamón serrano), made by slowly salt curing the back leg. In almost every bar in every town in the region you find a sea of pig legs hanging from the ceiling.

“I don’t care much for pigs,” I say, as we climb the hill behind the barn. The valley is a vibrant green from all the recent rain, and the ground is wet and soft.

“I thought you were a naturalist?” says Carmen.

“Just because it’s an animal doesn’t mean I have to like it,” I say. “Besides, pigs have tiny brains and they’re dirty. What’s to like about a pig?”

“What? No! Pigs are smarter than dogs,” protests Professor Beusterien.

“And pigs are really clean. They love the water,” says Professor Pereira. “They’re dirty only when confined by human beings.”

We come across yet another black devil rooting up the ground with its nose, and snorting hideously.

“Look! How cute,” Carmen says. “A pig in its natural environment.”

But Maria and I agree—pigs might taste good, but they’re icky and scary. I can only understand Carmen and John’s pig-defense by chalking it up to a hyper-developed sense of fair play, often a primary psychological feature during parenthood.

“But I think horses are beautiful,” says Maria.

Finally someone gets it right.

At dinner, we decide only to order a few plates and share them around, so monstrous was our 3:00 pm lunch. Plates are flying about the table like whirligigs from a copse of maple trees. Maria devours everything that once went on four legs, and then tucks into a dessert of quince and cheese.

“How is that?” I ask, noticing how she is hording the plate from the rest of us. “On a scale from one to ten.”

“It’s wonderful!” she exclaims. “Ten!”

Later, she will give the same mark to a cup of hot chocolate after a long day in Ronda walking in the rain. But don’t think of that hot cocoa you know in the States made with a synthetic powdery mix. This is a cup of chocolate, melted and heated for drinking. Again, Maria knows best.

But it’s not her fault she’s smart and speaks two languages. She’s got worldly parents, and they’ve made a point of taking her traveling. Some people just have a head start on the world.


  1. I didn't say horses are beautiful, I said they are smart! I am Maria Beusterien Pereira and thank you for putting me on

  2. Chulísimo Kurt!!!
    What it should mean something like wonderful!
    But obviously I prefer the sound of the first expression.
    I really enjoined this reading. Kind regards from Pedro, Carmen's brother that you met a couple of summers ago.

    PS: María, I do like horses too!! but...when it arrives on a plate...long life to pork!

  3. Thank you for commenting, both! And Miss Maria, I beg to differ. You said "Horses are beautiful" twice, in fact. Once in the bullring, and then out on our walk. You also said horses are smart, yes, I remember. But I left that part out.

  4. Hola, amigos! I must be feeling agreeable today, because I agree with almost everyone's comments! Pigs are indeed more intelligent than dogs (but less charming), and not, by nature, dirty. Kurt, didn't you see the movie Babe? Although we might not want to show it to Maria as it does advocate not eating intelligent creatures, charming or otherwise. I very much appreciated the literary tour through my two favorite Hemingway novels!

  5. Horses are both smart AND beautiful -- at least the ones I know. (One of whom Maria has herself ridden.) Many hellos from all of your (collective "your", Caswell/Pereira/Beusterien) friends here in West Texas, canine/equine/human!