Monday, 22 December 2014

The Living Nativity: a beautiful way to begin Christmas.

The Zambombá

Like many refugees from the more materialistic British Christmas, I love to spend the season of goodwill in Vejer. Rather than struggling to heap up extravagant gifts for ever more demanding youngsters, or toiling over a giant turkey roast, it's relaxing to be in a place where Christmas is a bit more about community and family. The little town is bright with lights and Christmas music will play throughout the Christmas season. These are things we can all share, and the streets are crowded with people, not stressing about finding that final gift but enjoying a celebratory outing with family and friends. Gifts are not exchanged until January 6th, leaving Christmas itself free for socialising.

Two street events dominate the run-up to Christmas: the Zambombá and the Living Nativity. The Zambombá is a social event which often takes place in the late afternoon. The traditional format includes a brazier to keep participants warm, food, sometimes complementary, and live performance of popular Christmas songs. If you are lucky, you could even see the eccentric musical instrument the event is named after, the Zambombá, a kind of friction drum which in German-speaking countries is delightfully named the Rummelpott. The up-and-down action of this instrument can cause hilarity among foreign visitors, but it's fascinating to visit a traditional zambombá where this unique sound can be heard.

The other big public event, the Living Nativity, takes place on the Sunday before Christmas day, and it is only one of several nativities which can be seen around town. If you are lucky enough to get an invitation to one of the schools' nativities which are held at the end term, you'll be charmed by the inventiveness of the event, not a theatrical one, as in the UK and the USA, but a series of tableaux in which every child gets to take part.

The main event, however, involves the streets of the old town and most of its inhabitants in a recreation of the entire town of Bethlehem, with its craftspeople, animals, and of course, its Holy Family. King Herod, accompanied by a bevy of dancers, Pontius Pilate with his Roman soldiers and the Three Kings are all depicted, despite the fact that they don't appear in the accounts of Christ's birth which appear in the gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew.

The tradition of the nativity seems to have started in the thirteenth century, with St. Francis of Assisi. The saint deplored the materialism and commercialisation of Christmas celebrations and wanted to
put the emphasis back onto the spritual meaning of the Christian festival, suggesting that nothing much has changed in seven hundred years. The first nativities were, as Vejer's, living nativities which involved animals and children, mobilising most of the resources of the medieval village.

Since then, the nativity has become a popular event in every Christian country, though its form has evolved differently according to the cultures which presented it. While northern countries adopted the theatrical tradition of the medieval mystery plays, the living nativity has remained popular in southern Europe and the Spanish and Italian versions are regularly presented on television.

Both Vejer and Medina Sidonia present living nativities and both are well worth seeing for anyone, religious or not,  who wants to experience the rich and vibrant culture of out town and to enjoy the wit and creativity of its inhabitants.

The sevillanas dance.

Adrián Brenes and Cristina Zájara dance Sevillanas at the Hotel Fuerte in Conil
Feria is over and it’s time for Vejer to get back to normal. Shops and restaurants have reopened and the countdown to summer has started in earnest.

Before the memories fade, it’s a good time to remember that typical event of feria, the sevillanas dance which can be seen in every caseta from the Horse Club to the Partida Popular. Sevillanas are danced in Andalucía whenever there is something to celebrate, be it a wedding, a birthday or just a party, and many people have some expertise. You don’t have to be a skilled flamenco dancer to dance sevillanas because it is not a flamenco dance but an old folk-dance which was influenced by flamenco after that style emerged in the late eighteenth century.

Despite the name, sevillanas did not originate in Seville, though they are now identified with that region. They came from the Castille region and evolved from an older dance form called seguidillas.

Sevillanas is a couple dance, but there is no pressure to team up with a partner of the opposite sex and it is now more usual to see women dancing together. Nevertheless, the dance describes the process of courtship. There is very little touching between partners because when the dance evolved, courting couples had to dance it under the watchful eyes of parents and grandparents who were constantly on the lookout for any impropriety, but despite this, the dance has an erotic quality, especially when performed by seasoned professionals.

Sevillanas follow a strict choreography. The dance is divided into four sections and each one is a separate ‘sevillana’. Each sevillanas consists of three parts, or ‘coplas’ which combine a variety of steps. The most important steps are the basic ‘sevillana’ step, the ‘pasada’ where the two dancers cross each other to reverse positions and the ‘cierre’ which closes each sevillana. It takes about four minutes to dance the full set. 

Dancing Sevillanas at Feria is part of the Andalusian way of life.

 The sevillanas we see here in Vejer is just one of several different forms you can see in various parts of Andalucía, which include Romeros de la Puebla and Corraleros de Lebrija. These different forms share the unmistakable ¾ rhythm and the characteristic tone of celebratory gaiety, as well as a number of similar steps.

I once tried to learn sevillanas with the help of my friend Adrián Brenes, a professional flamenco dancer. Adrián has a cupboard at home bursting with awards he has won for dancing sevillanas. When he dances with his friend Cristina Zájara, the couple seem to float above the ground, inspired by angels.You can see them dance sevillanas here:
 However, despite his skill as a dancer and a teacher, Adrián didn’t make much progress with me. I was always in the wrong place at the wrong time and I couldn’t help wondering why my feet had been placed so far away from my brain. Combining the feet and arm movements was difficult and in the end I gave up in despair.

Since then, I’ve looked carefully at the way sevillanas are danced by everyday mortals, and it’s clear that they often don’t follow the prescribed sequence of steps. Keeping to the rhythm and remembering the pasadas and arm movements appear to be the priority and what the feet are doing is often concealed by the generous skirts of the ‘traje flamenca’. Many men particularly, are skilled at combining the maximum effect with the minimum effort.

Dancing sevillanas is something we can all do in our own way, but even if you don’t want to take part, this colourful dance is an essential part of feria.

You can see part of Carlos Saura’s film ‘Sevillanas’ here.

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

Arte Vejer: a home for artists.

It’s been a while since I added to this blog. The busy summer, several trips overseas and the loss of my camera, not to mention my novel ‘The Three Witches’ have all kept me away from my page. Now it’s time to come back with some exciting news about a new community association which will benefit anyone who is interested in the visual arts in our town.

Walking around the town on a Saturday morning, you might have noticed a posse of artists sketching one of our many beautiful buildings or fascinating corners. These are the Vejer Sketchers, a group of artists linked to the international ‘Urban Sketchers’ movement, who devote their Saturday mornings to creating art from the street. One of the sketchers is Vejer artist Sol Muniain, who last year held a successful exhibition at the shop ‘Ya En Tu Casa’ on the Corredera.

For some time now, Sol has had a dream. A permanent space where artists could meet to share their skills and show their work, where contacts could be made, information exchanged and the profile of art in the area could be raised. The contribution of Vejer’s informal exhibition spaces, The Tetería del Califa, the Tetería Chokolata and Ya En Tu Casa, as well as the Casa del Arco gallery and the Ayuntamiento’s Casa de la Cultura can’t be underestimated, but there was a need for a permanent centre, somewhere which would act as a focus and a point of reference for art all the year round.

Preparing for the inaugural exhibition
Sol’s dream took a big step forward this autumn when she had the chance to tell the Mayor of Vejer, José Ortiz Galvan, what she had in mind. He was enthusiastic about her ideas and offered the support of the Ayuntamiento, including the possibility of using premises owned by the local authority to kick-start the project.

Since then, plans have moved forward rapidly. Five individuals have united to create a steering committee for the project, and documentation has been prepared to make a formal presentation to the Mayor and council. This will take place on Wednesday December 3rd. The project has been named ‘Arte Vejer’ and an application has been made to register the project as an official community organisation.

Sketching on the roof of the Casa de la Cultura
Arte Vejer already has a well-supported Facebook page and will shortly appear on Twitter and email. Its aims are two-fold: to create networks and display spaces for artists and to provide access to art education for the whole community. The project has already attracted support from local artists and will make its debut at the Casa de la Cultura on Sunday December 7th, as part of the Vejer Open Town day, when an exhibition of work by the Vejer Sketchers and a open art workshop will be offered as part of the event. For anyone who is interested, it’s a great opportunity to find out more and maybe get involved.

November 2016

Visitors to the popular inaugural exhibition
Since I wrote this blog in 2014, many people have seen it and it's about time I gave an update on Arte Vejer's progress. In fact, the project has gone from strength to strength in the two years since Sol first put the wheels into motion and has become a feature of Vejer life, with many different events and classes being offered.

Arte Vejer was inaugurated on Vejer Open Day in December 2014, when Vejer sketchers produced an exhibition of watercolours in the Casa de la Cultura. This proved extremely popular and the video which played throughout the day is still available on YouTube.

Arte Vejer judged a schools' art exhibition
The inauguration was followed by a fund-raising Christmas party at the Peña Flamenca Alquilar de Vejer just before Christmas. Twenty or more local cafes and restaurants contributed food for this buffet which raised some useful working capital for the group. 

In 2015, Arte Vejer was formally registered as one of Vejer's recognised cultural associations, a big step which brought changes with it. Arte Vejer was now expected to provide education and cultural development for the whole community, and this aspect has proved to be an enormous success, with courses in life drawing, graffiti, and everything in between. Children's activities have proved especially successful, and in 2015, Arte Vejer was asked to judge an art competition in local schools. A video of one children's art activity can be seen here:

 One of the group's group's most spectacular event occurred in the spring of 2016 when artists took to the street for a 'walking exhibition'. Holding their work aloft, and accompanied by a drum band, artists paraded the town, drawing an admiring audience. The event included flamenco dance and a drumming display.
The walking exhibition was a huge success
The Mayor visits the inaugural exhibition in the Castle
A big breakthrough came earlier this year when the souvenir shop on the Castle closed and the Ayuntamiento offered the premises to Arte Vejer as a base and exhibition space. The group has
made good use of the opportunity and has used the space to mount exhibitions and courses on a wide-ranging basis, including photography and design as well as painting.

One of Arte Vejer's many workshops at the Castle centre
Since Arte Vejer began, changes have inevitably occurred. Sol resigned the post of president earlier in 2016 when she and her family moved away from Vejer, but visits regularly and keeps in close contact. The new president, Ismael Virués, an architect who has been involved with Arte Vejer from the outset, works untiringly for the group and has developed it as a vital and innovative institution from which the whole town benefits.

Arte Vejer is on Facebook:

The committee at the castle centre

Sunday, 7 September 2014

Manuel Torres - Father of the Poor.

Calle Escudero. Manuel Torres is on the left, the other side of the bread shop.
It's been a hectic summer here in Vejer, and I take my hat off to the Ayuntimiento for their persistence and efficiency in managing a virtually non-stop programme of events and entertainment. Variety of pace is one of the delights of living here, and after the crush and squeeze of the August Velada, it’s pleasant to find the town a little quieter as the first days of autumn begin. I’ve started my early morning walks through the town again and am relishing the morning mists, my friends, the street cats, and the first signs of life as the town wakes up to another day.

One thing I couldn’t ignore is the work being done on Calle Manuel Torres, which rises to Lanería from Juan Relinque, turning upwards opposite Altozano. This part of town developed in the 18th century, when tradesmen and wealthier artisans began to move out to the suburbs beyond the Convento San Francisco. Several large houses survived the earthquake of 1773, but new building continued throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

The current project will repair and renew the cobbled street surface, making it more accessible to disabled users, improve the pavements and lay down pipelines for utilities and future fibre-optic cable. This will make it safer and more comfortable to use and provide better access to services for all its residents.

Calle Manuel Torres now contains several large and impressive residences, which once would have housed big households including servants and members of the extended family. Several of these, alas, have fallen into disrepair, though others have been restored. It was in one of these houses that a tragic event occurred in August 1869.

Until recently, Calle Manuel Torres was called ‘Calle Yeseros’ after the members of the plastering trade who once congregated there, and the old street sign is still visible, a piece of Vejer’s history that we can read right off the walls. In the twentieth century, however, it was named after a famous Vejeriego who lived and died there - the crusading rebel turned politician, Manuel Torres.

After the proclamation of the Constitution from Cadiz in 1812, Spanish politics polarised into liberal and conservative factions. Confusingly, these became known as the moderate liberals, the conservatives, who did not support the Constitution, and the progressive liberals, who did. For the next century, control would oscillate between these two factions, and many violent and lawless acts ensued in the process of maintaining the balance of power. Between 1823 and 1874, there was a rebellion somewhere in Spain on average every ten months.

Manuel Torres was very much a progressive. A lawyer by profession, in March 1831, he was one of the young rebels who supported the attempted revolution led by Cristóbal Jurado and his associates, and spent several months in prison for his pains. By 1840, however, he had become the leader of Vejer’s progressive liberals and the Mayor of Vejer, in which role he quickly acquired heroic status for his efforts on behalf of the people. During his time in office, Vejer’s council transferred much of its property into the hands of the poor, and about a thousand country people received a holding of some kind. He was soon being described as ‘the father of the poor’.

By 1869, however, the balance of power had shifted in the other direction, and a conservative mayor was in power in Vejer. Torres, now in his sixties, continued as a councillor on the opposing side, causing untold annoyance to his opponents. At 11 o’clock on August 26th of that year, he was resting at home when his wife, Carmen, answered a knock on the door of their home at 8 Calle Yeseros (now number 20). She received two visitors, who asked for her husband, and left them to talk in the patio while she attended to a request from the maid. A few moments later, she heard her husband call out ‘Carmen, they are killing me!’ She ran downstairs to find her husband doubled up in his chair with blood pouring from his side. He stood up, took two steps towards her, and collapsed.

The two visitors were arrested the following day, and one of them admitted responsibility for the murder. He was imprisoned, but released almost at once on payment of a large sum of money collected by the town’s conservative community. The maid was bribed and Carmen was declared to have been so unbalanced by her ordeal as to be unable to make an identification. Despite his confession, the murderer took his place in society again as though nothing had happened.

Carmen never recovered from the shock of the event and the injustice of its resolution, and for years, she could not bring herself to move Manuel’s bloodied clothes from where they lay in the patio. The motivation for the murder, however, was probably not political. Historian Antonio Muñoz discovered evidence that Manuel Torres had angered the two men by acting against them in the matter of a will. The political element probably only emerged in the manner in which the murder was dismissed and the murderer absolved by the current administration.

Manual Torres' house, now number 20 on the street named after him.
Manuel Torres' house still stands on the corner of the street which bears his name, though it is now unoccupied and neglected. It seems a shame that a site so significant in the history of Vejer should not be better loved.

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Casa Palacio - Vejer's own Castle.

With the summer season in full swing, there have been more events in Vejer this last month than one blog can cope with. Now, as August begins, we’re looking forward to the annual Velada, though if you live in the area of the Plaza de España, Los Remedios or the Corredera, your anticipation may be tinged with foreboding. Meanwhile, I was delighted to read a short while ago that the Mayor  has signed a document which will eventually bring the Castle into the ownership of the people of Vejer.
Although the oldest architectural remains in the castle date from the Islamic era, the Castle almost certainly dates back to pre-Roman times. Its prominent position on one of the highest points of Vejer would have been a natural choice for any community’s defences. 

Many ancient legends concern the Castle, the most enduring of which is the story of the underground passage between the Castle and La Barca. Because Vejer has no natural water supply except that which falls from the sky, the town and castle were susceptible to sieges when, surrounded by their enemies, they could do nothing but pray for rain.

The legend says that a secret underground passage was therefore constructed to provide a water supply. Since underground chambers and even cities have existed since the Bronze Age, this claim is not impossible, especially if the tunnel engineers followed a natural fault line or even a system of interlinking caves.

Another legend claims that in the 13th century, a beautiful young woman called María discovered the tunnel during a Moorish guerilla attack. However, although she later married the bandit chief, she never put her home town at risk by revealing the existence of the secret passage. 

True or not, the underground passage has a large place in Vejer’s folklore, though no trace of it has ever been discovered. The Romans almost certainly carried water over the valley from Santa Lucía, using a system of aqueducts still visible today, and presumably had no need of a tunnel.

After the Islamic era ended in the 13th century, incoming occupants made radical changes to the building, destroying the Islamic façade and increasing the fortifications. During the first years of the Reconquista, the Castle saw much bloodshed as Moorish retaliations were repelled, or as sometimes happened, Moorish guerillas temporarily regained control.
However, by the 17th century, the Castle had been adapted to residential use, and became the Vejer home of the Dukes of Medina Sidonia. During this era, living accommodation was situated on the first floor, with kitchen, stables and other utilities on the ground floor. The living accommodation was on the two sides above the archways, and the rooms looking out onto the military enclosure would have been formal apartments.
All this changed in the mid 19th century when an act of parliament withdrew the property rights of the church and aristocracy. The Castle was converted into apartments and a covered walkway on the first floor gave access to the different dwellings. By the beginning of the twentieth century, the Castle was in the hands of three different private owners.

The first steps towards acquiring the Castle for the people of Vejer were taken as early as 1914, when the Ayuntimiento bought a third share from Don Pedro María Muñoz de Arenillas Narváez Cabeza de Vaca. These rooms were used for many years as a school.

The school in the castle

  In 1931, the Castle was declared to be a ‘National Treasure of Spain’ and in 1985, a ‘site of national interest’. The living accommodation is now empty, but in recent years, the Ayuntimiento has established a dance school on the ground floor and the stables have been restored and put to use as a museum of everyday life in the mid 19th century. There is now a gift shop in the old kitchen and the patio has been opened as a place of refuge and relaxation.

Despite this, however, on taking office, the current council agreed that it was inappropriate for the majority ownership of a resource of the importance of the Castle to remain in private hands and it was decided that the bulding should be purchased by the Ayuntimiento as a public resource for use as a museum and cultural space. In June, 2014, an agreement to purchase a further third of the property was signed with Don Joachím Pastor Pérez, with every intention to purchase the final third as soon as it is available.

The old kitchen is now a gift shop

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Art in Vejer - Sol Muniain

There’s a lot happening in Vejer this weekend. Concerts, a candlelit parade, a flamenco show at the Aguilar de Vejer. But if you only see one of them, please make it Sol Muniain’s exhibition at Ya En Tu Casa on the Corredera.

Sol is one of the most charming of Vejer’s adopted children. Bilingual in English and Spanish, she once lived a glamorous life, travelling the world as the international sales director of a London-based publishing company before settling here with her husband and children and dedicating herself to making art.

Her love for Vejer is reflected in her words as well as in her art:

‘Part of the pull towards this beautiful place,’ she writes, ‘is the people - everywhere you turn you are greeted with a smile, and a sense of authenticity and purity - a million miles from the fast pace of life in a big city. They’re the kindest, happiest, warmest, most beautiful people I’ve known’.

But this is more than just words. In the five years since she’s been here, Sol has thrown herself into the life of the community. She founded Vejer Sketchers, has a multitude of friends from every walk of life and this year won the local council’s coveted ‘Pintura Rapida’ award.

Sol’s work reflects her passion for landscape and the brilliant light of the area. Her work is detailed and sensuous, revelling in the generous contours of a scene which unfolds itself daily beyond her windows. Her paintings roll like a dancer’s hips, and her palette, soft greens and browns, serene blues, detailed with tiny buildings, is simply delicious. Her frequent and exuberant use of pen and ink lends something of the wit of a cartoon by Gerald Scarfe and her work is perfectly finished.

With all these assets, you might expect an original Sol Muniain to be rather expensive. In fact, for the moment, her prices are surprisingly modest. Take advantage while you can - it isn’t going to last.

‘Vergel Suspendido - paintings by Sol Muniain’ will continue at Ya En Tu Casa until August 8th. Meet the artist on Sunday July 27th at 8 pm.

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Vejer Weekend Fashion

The streets of Vejer are alive again this weekend, this time with photographers and fashionistas.

The action will be concentrated around the Church and the Arco de la Segur, where a purpose-built catwalk has been constructed.

The weekend began on Friday with a street market around the church area, and continues today with more market stalls, a catwalk fashion show from 8.30 at the Arco de la Segur and a street party at 11.30 in the same location, featuring DJ Carmen la Hierbabuena.

One of the most interesting features of the weekend will be a series of public interviews with different designers, including interior designer Gaspar Sobrino.
Vejer weekend fashion is a lively addition to the town’s summer calendar, but it’s not the only street event today. The monthly Rastro will take place as usual along Juan Relinque from 7 p.m. and the two events together provide a unique opportunity to experience our summer street life at its most vibrant. Entertainment can also be found at Las Delicias restaurant, Chokolata tea shop and La Bien Pagá bar, as well as at the Peña Flamenca, where the annual cante completion completes its first round.