Friday, 24 June 2016

Cork Trees, a Dust Storm and a Town Divided – The Last from Southern Spain

This is a cork oak.  

Did you know there was a tree species that produces cork?  Does it surprise me?  Not really, but I guess I had never thought much about where the cork in my bottle of chardonnay comes from, or the cork bulletin board I have in the kitchen filled with all the leaflets and reminders that come home from school.  I sort of assumed cork was a man-made thing – some type of conglomerate of material adhered together in a factory.  But how very wrong I was and our trip to southern Spain showed me that.  While there are “cork-like” products that are produced in factories, natural cork comes from the bark of the cork oak and is still widely used in bulletin boards, as flooring, in acoustical and thermal insulation, in badminton shuttlecocks, and of course as the stopper in wine bottles. 

We first noticed the forest of cork oak as we were driving towards Grazalema, the little mountain village we lived in for a few days in Spain.  It was hard not to notice these trees as clearly they had been systematically shaved of their bark – a very odd sight indeed.  Eric instantly knew what they were and it didn’t take him long to find a pullover to park the car, grab his camera from the trunk and set off into the forest for some pictures. 

Some fun facts about the cork oak:  Extracting the bark from these trees does not harm it, so collecting the cork is quite a sustainable activity.  Once the tree reaches about 25-30 years of age, the bark can be removed for the first time; however, this first cutting of the cork bark is usually of low quality, also know as “male” cork (sorry, I had to share that - makes me laugh).  This first harvest is good enough for insulation, flooring and other industrial products, but not wine bottles.  After 9 years, the bark from the cork oak will be ready to harvest again, and this time it’s generally a higher quality cork that is acceptable to the wine and champagne industry to be placed in their bottles.   The cork oak can live for up to 300 years, and the cork extraction can continue very 9 years or so.  That is a lot of wine stoppers my friends!

As we drove out of Grazalema on our last day in southern Spain, we passed through the cork forest again, but that wasn’t the only interesting thing about that morning.  We were also driving through a dust storm.  Okay, I don’t know if what we experienced that last day in southern Spain would technically be considered a “dust storm,” but from the moment we woke up that morning, it was clear there was something strange going on outside.  When I looked out the window of our bedroom expecting to see the beautiful view I had enjoyed the other mornings, I was met with this…

A brownish haze that spanned the horizon.  Not even the sun's powerful rays could penetrate it.  We couldn’t see much beyond the village and it was very clear that this haze was different from the misty morning haze we had witnessed a couple of days before.  For starters, it was solid from one side of the horizon to the other.  Fog and mist in the distance is usually patchy, thicker in some places and thinner in others, but this haze was completely even for as far as the eye could see.  Secondly, as I mentioned above, it was brown.  Very odd!  And finally, when Eric came back from making the first trip to the car with our luggage, he reported that the entire car and all the others he had passed on the street were covered with a brown dusty film.  We drove through this dusty, brown haze all the way from Grazalema back to the Mediterranean coastal city of Malaga where we were catching a plane back to England later in the day.   
Back in England the next day, I did a little research on the Internet to see what caused this crazy phenomenon.  Turns out it was a gigantic cloud of dust in the atmosphere from the Sahara desert in Africa!  The dust cloud circulating from Africa all the way up and over parts of Europe could even be clearly seen from the International Space Station that day.  Now, geographically speaking, Africa is pretty close to Spain and Europe in general, and it turns out that if there is sand and dust in the air from the Sahara desert and the wind pattern is just right, it can blow all the way to Spain, which is exactly what happened that day.  I found a graph showing the amount of dust in the air by day for the week we were in Spain, and the levels were low every day, but then on Sunday, February 21, the graph shot up, well over what is normally expected. 

Before heading back to Malaga and the airport that Sunday, there was one more city we wanted to see – the city of Ronda.  The reason we wanted to visit Ronda was this...  

The deep, narrow gorge that divides this beautiful Spanish city in two.  One side of the town is perched high on a plateau that suddenly and quite dramatically plummets hundreds of feet to the valley floor below.    

The view is breathtaking, even with the brown, dusty haze that was hanging over it that day.  

And the deep gorge itself, carved out by the Guadalevin River, is the sort that can give you heart palpitations, even when you aren’t afraid of heights.  There is a gorgeous bridge, completed in 1793, spanning the gap, separating the two sides of the city.   

The side we visited first has more of a modern feel, with a pedestrian street lined with every manner of store and business offering the modern day necessities of life.  But on the other side of the bridge, Ronda has a much older feel about it, almost like you are stepping through a time warp, with more of a quintessential historical Spanish type of feel to it.   

And that was our mid February trip to southern Spain.  The weather may not have been as warm as we were hoping, but the people in Spain were plenty warm and welcoming, and we saw sights of a variety that we have not encountered elsewhere in Europe.  Everywhere we went we were surrounded by that feeling that is uniquely Spanish.  It was in the tapas we enjoyed, the beautiful cafes and restaurants we ate in, the palaces we visited, the white-washed village we stayed in, the mesmerizing guitar music we heard playing in the streets, the signs advertising flamenco shows, and even in the souvenirs we took home, such as this…

Our very own flamenco dance!  So here are a few last photos from Ronda and another of our flamenco dancer.  I hope you enjoyed coming along on our trip to southern Spain.  Adios muchachos!

One last thing - apparently wands don't just work in England.  They work in Spain too.   

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