Setenil de Las Bodegas


We travelled to Spain in the fall of 2010 visiting Madrid and Seville before renting a cottage at Ronda, intending to explore the White Villages of the Sierra Nevada.

One day our route took us past the Roman ruins at Acinipo towards Olvera. We drove high above the River Trajo past the historic village of Setenil. We stopped to take pictures of this “village the mountain ate” before travelling on.

_MG_0835 - Version 2The village stuck in my memory and when I wanted to send Anne McPhail abroad after her adventure in Bermuda—No Motive for Murder—I brought her to Setenil with its cave-like houses and shops with their whitewashed exteriors.

The villages of the Sierra Nevada gleam from the mountainsides in this part of Spain. Every spring the citizens apply a fresh coat of paint to their walls, to reflect the harsh summer sun. Setenil does the same.

Setenil stood as a bastion for the Moors, its people attacked 7 times before the Christian king retook it in the long war that drove the followers of Islam from Spain, the Reconquesta.

Now tourists, those who find it in its remote location on a little-travelled road, sit in its cafes and walk the hilly streets.

It seemed a perfect, quiet location to bring Anne to repair her emotions. It seemed. What happened next is the story of The Child on the Terrace, coming soon from Write Words Inc.

We went on to Olvera that day, a steep town with a castle sitting on a pinnacle high above, and got lost in the Sierra Nevada.

Olvera, Spain

Olvera, Spain

Pictures from Seville

One Saturday, we walked into the Plaza Nueva, Sevilla Spain. On one side a basketball tournament, on the other wedding parties lining up to attend the civil ceremony in the city hall that formed on side of the square. The music, oddly, a piper, a busker, playing Scottish airs interrupted occasionally by “Here comes the Bride.”

The plaza in Spain, like the piazza in Italy, is the centre of civic life. It is our loss that we have nothing like it.

Spain, final thoughts

Two weeks is a short visit to another country, barely time enough to get a limited sense of the geography, no time at all to get a sense of the people, no time except to feel the otherness of the place.

“How was your vacation?” people always ask.

“Loved Madrid, didn’t like Sevilla, thought the pueblos blancos and the mountains beautiful and overwhelming,” I would say.

But even a brief two weeks, alters perception, preconceived notions of a country, and creates a desire to know what is going on there, how are the people doing, what is preoccupying the nation. Before October, I didn’t care whether the banks were failing, or what was happening to the mortgage market, or how many were unemployed, and what that would mean for the people we met, and the way of life we observed.

Madrid was happy, the plazas full of families, the museums with Spaniards on vacation, the skyline with cranes. Sevilla was sad, the streets, where we were anyway filled with tourists, the clerks in the stores and hotels and bars glum, the pueblos blancos, photo-ops that they all were, closed in and except for the British, oblivious to the visitor.

The news from Spain economically isn’t good, especially for the immigrants from the Spanish-speaking countries of the new world. An article today in the New York Times, and late in October in the Globe and Mail talked about the draconian banking laws that prevent individual bankruptcy  proceedings from including a mortgage. The result: the borrower and the guarantor are tied for life to the bank, paying off a debt even though the house is no longer theirs.The banks say this prevented their failure during the economic crisis. The entire sorry tale is available here:


Spain has beautiful cities, ancient villages where Phoenicians and Romans and Berbers walked before we did, and an unexpected, vast landscape. It’s in Europe, yet partly outside it too. I’m glad we went, even it was only two weeks.

My new book, The Facepainter Murders is available at and at

Malaga, Spain

We left Ronda, taking one of the major highways to the coast. Fabulous views opened at every switchback curve–and there were many. At one point it was possible to see four widely separated white towns shining against the background of granite crags and olive trees. Further south we came across forests of pine. I have no pictures from this drive because, although the highway was modern, in good condition and wide enough, there was no possibility of pulling off.

We found our small hotel, single story, set behind walls, with an inner courtyard and pool, in a residential neighbourhood. It was also a ten-minute walk from the sea. We walked along the sea, in sunshine, watching children playing on the stony beach, and men fishing. Further along was a seaside restaurant, a man behind grilling sardines in the old-fashioned way with an open fire.

Olvera and Setenil

We left Acinipo, turning left instead of right as the GPS advised, and followed a winding road down the mountain, en route to Olvera. We stumbled upon Setenil, a town set into the mountain, like the pueblos in New Mexico, the roofs of some of the houses formed by overhanging rock. Leaving Setenil, we followed tiny roads through miles of olive trees and mountain vistas to Olvera.

There has been human population at Olvera for 12,000 years according to a website found here: . Construction of the village as it stands was begun by the Berbers(Moors) whose castle stands high above it . One of the most beautiful of the white towns, it has steep, very steep streets(with handrails) leading up to the church which dominates the view up to the fortress. We had lunch in the plaza, in a restaurant run by an English couple. “Why are you here,” one of us asked. “I followed her,” he said, jerking his thumb towards the kitchen.

I have attached some pictures.


We met our friends at the villa in Ronda, and stayed for a week, driving, thanks to Alan’s skill on mountain roads, to several pueblos blancos(white villages) and to the Roman ruins at Acinipo, only a few kilometres and two centuries from Ronda, the rubble of a Roman town, established, it is said, for retired soldiers, with a population of 5000. Today it is a windswept hillside, dotted with what we called “stone boats”, the remains of houses, the rubble collected and piled up by farmers reclaiming pasture land, dominated by a wall of memorial, and behind it, the amphitheater. The walk goes up and up to a low stone wall, with views, from 1000 m of the Serrania de Ronda. There is a lonely farm on the site, the fields crisscrossed with goat and donkey paths.

The four of us shared Acinipo with only two other travellers, and the ghosts, that day.


A battle ground for much of its turbulent history, beloved of artists like Ernest Hemingway, Washington Irving and Orson Welles–whose ashes were scattered there—an incredible sight for any traveller, jaded or not, Ronda and its  El Tajo, astonishes, no matter how many times its pictures have appeared on web sites and in travel guides. Nothing can prepare you for the gorge and the views over Andalucia. Ronda was a Moorish city until 1485 when it fell to the Christian reconquest, its position in the mountains–685 metres above sea level, and its 1000 m gorge keeping it unassailable for much of its history. Now it is overrun with tourists, daytrippers from Malaga mostly.

We stayed in a villa–La Cancela–a lovely little house a few kilometres into the countryside north of Ronda, owned by a most accommodating English lady, a perfect entry point to the Pueblos Blancos, and to Ronda.

The bullring sits in a park in the newer part of Ronda, built after the conquest. The building itself is beautiful, elegant arches in sandstone, overlooking the arena, the same colour in the sand, except where it is stained in red. A museum in the interior outlines the history of bullfighting, containing “suits of lights”, pictures, weapons and the mounted heads of some unfortunate bulls.

El Tajo is the draw, in spite of the bullring, the shopping, the museums and churches—a “see before you die” experience”.


Giralda in Sevilla

After three days in Madrid, we took the AVE train to Sevilla, very fast, very comfortable but oddly not very accessible, especially for older travels with heavy suitcases. Younger travellers were very kind and helpful, which the train staff were not. City centre to city centre is very convenient though.

Sevilla is a beautiful city, with lovely plazas and a magnificent walk along the Guadalquivir River. We stayed in the barrio Santa Cruz and I was disappointed in our hotel-Petit Palace de Sant Cruz- and uncomfortable in the area. Unless you are a fan of narrow and closed-up streets –no windows, shuttered shops, and what seemed to be unfriendly faces, choose another section of the city. We loved our stay in Venice a couple of years ago and I thought this would be similar, but it wasn’t.

The Cathedral in enormous, but the most beautiful feature was the Giralda-the bell-tower converted from a minaret– that stands beside it. The gardens of the Alcazar, and the lovely tile work within it, the parks and the paseo along the river, the narrow Calle del Agua and the restaurant Corral del Agua–all memorable. After three days we were off on the bus to Ronda.


We stayed in Madrid for only three days. I had wanted to see Picasso’s picture Guernica, and we did, and it was as moving as I had expected. The room at the Reina Sofia museum is set up to allow the viewer to see the studies he did for the completed painting. A film running continuously in an alcove depicts the horror of the Spanish civil war, and the events which led Picasso to paint Guernica. Most of the people who were there the day we saw it were Spanish. I can only imagine the impact the painting and the film had on them.

There was a general strike called during the time we were in Madrid.I understand that the media reported clashes with police and other violence. Didn’t happen where we were, near the Congress of Deputies. The night before there was a concert in support of the strike action in Plaza Sant Ana outside our hotel. We sat in the plaza, drank wine, ate tapas, sang along with the familiar protest songs, watched the children play. The only evidence of any official concern was a brief visit by three police. The next day there was heavy police presence, including helicopters flying constantly over the city, continuing into the evening.

We saw the Prado- including Las Meninas,Velasquez’s painting, called one of the, if not the most, important paintings in the history of Western art; Goya’s Third of May, 1808 and Second of May, 1808, the first having more impact for me than Guernica, because of the realistic depiction of the executions; and the Clothed and the Naked Maja.

Cleaning Plaza del Angel

The picture at left is of an amazing and amusing bronze in the neighbourhood of our hotel.

I  loved Madrid, its beauty, its museums, its vibe. I wish we had stayed longer.


View from Puerto de Las Palomas

Back from Spain and trying to recover from the jet-lag which always seems worse going East to West, at least for me.

I had investigated all the aspects of Spain that I thought I needed to know, but was still astonished, primarily by the geography. Those Pueblos Blancos are not hill towns, similar to Tuscan ones. No, they are mountain towns, nestled into granite, streets with pitches so steep some of them had handrails. The day we visited Zahara, we took a wrong turn, found ourselves on a road that wound through the mountains by a series by switch-backs,  reached a peak of thirteen hundred and sixty-seven metres, before we descended again to Grazelema. Frightening but unbelievably beautiful.

I’ll write more when the fog clears.