Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Mediterranean Walks....The Axarquía

The second post in my mini series of Mediterranean walks is about a trip we made at Easter to the Axarquía in Malaga. Conditions were perfect for walking in early April, the weather was good but the rain that had fallen during the winter meant that the countryside was at its best. We did this trip as part of an organised walking group, and our base was the coastal resort of Nerja.

On the first day, following the journey down from Madrid, we just did a short afternoon walk around the protected coastal zone of Cerro Gordo. This is an excellent viewpoint for the coast in both directions, and also inland towards the Sierra Nevada.

On day 2 we got down to the serious stuff. The routes we were to do were divided into two different levels, one for those who like to run up mountains, and another for those who like to be able to stop occasionally and admire the scenery. Normally I go with the latter group, I'm not in a hurry, but on this day the higher level group were doing the ascent of La Maroma and I decided to join them. Partly this was due to a (mistaken) feeling that I would get more spectacular views by going higher up.

The route begins from the village of Canillas de Aceituno and in total the ascent is around 1400 metres. For the first half of the walk I more or less held my own, although I couldn't help feeling a bit guilty each time I stopped to take a photo. Later on things got tougher, and as we got nearer the peak I started to fall a bit behind. The upper part of the walk is through a fairly barren and rocky landscape.

I set my own pace, and wasn't too worried as long as I could see those who were a short distance ahead of me. At one point this became difficult as we ascended up a rocky gully and for about 10 minutes or so I couldn't see anyone in front. It didn't help that clouds started moving in from the coast making visibility a bit poorer. The path is marked by cairns, but when all you see is rocks around you it becomes difficult to spot them. Also, as you get nearer the top you get multiple possible paths.

Eventually I made it, after one of those disappointing and deceptive moments where you think the ridge above you must be the summit, only to find that it's just a stepping stone on the way to the top. Although the coastal side was mostly obscured by cloud, there was still a fine view from the top over to the snows of the sierra Nevada. I had the feeling that the walk had still been done in two separate groups, me and the rest. I'd already decided that for the rest of the trip I would return to a more relaxing level.

The route returns the same way back to the village, making for a total distance of around 18 kilometres. I think I earned the cold beer in the village square at the bottom.

For the following two days we did routes beginning in the attractive village of Frigiliana. The first of these took us to the Fuente del Esparto. The route crosses a couple of rivers, and with the amount of rain that had fallen in previous months the vegetation was lush and a contrast to the dryer landscape we had seen the day before. It was a beautiful walk, and as I'd been reminded on La Maroma the best views are often had further down.

The intended route was to take us a bit beyond the fuente. However, a characteristic feature of going walking with a group is that you almost always have one person who doesn't like to walk with the rest. So it was that we lost a member of the group and our route came to a halt in a nearby picnic area as the guide had to go and look for him, eventually calling in the Guardia Civil to join the hunt. In the end it turned out that he had walked down to the nearest village. From the picnic area it's an easy walk down a dirt road to Cuevas de Nerja. Despite the interruption, it was still a great route to do.

On the last day we set out from Frigiliana in a different direction, climbing up to a hill known as El Fuerte. This is a relatively short route, we had a long trip ahead to return to Madrid, but it still involves ascending a few hundred metres from the village. The views were stunning, this was probably the clearest day we had on the trip. As well as the surrounding hills, we also could see La Maroma very well and the coastline stretching down towards Algeciras.

We had time in the village to have lunch and walk around a little. In the old part of Frigiliana there is a route to follow of ceramic plaques depicting the events of the rebellion of the moriscos in 1569 and its subsequent suppression.

I was very impressed by an area which I didn't know at all before this trip. There's an impressive variety of landscapes and scope for days of walking. Nerja made a good base too, I have no idea what it's like in peak season but at Easter it was an agreeable place to be. It makes a difference after a day's walking to finish the day relaxing by the sea.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Those Lazy August Days

My blogging productivity has slipped recently, and it hasn't been for lack of things to write about or because I've been particularly busy. So let's just blame August in Madrid. Things are about to get even quieter on the blog as I'm leaving tomorrow for just over two weeks in Bali and Lombok. I realise this conjures up the image of happy, lazy days swinging in a hammock by the beach - I had that image myself for a while - but it turns out that there are volcanoes to be climbed. Starting, the day after we arrive, with Lombok's impressive looking Mount Rinjani. I'm hoping that the photo Wikipedia uses is not representative of a an average day on the summit and to be honest I'm starting to wish I hadn't read that article. The curse of blogging. Hopefully there will be some hammock time too. In the meantime, the shadowy committee that really runs this blog assures me that there may be the occasional post appearing during my absence with pictures of mountains and that sort of thing.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

South Of Another Border

Whilst Spain and Morocco engage in a summer phony war over the Spanish enclave of Melilla and the behaviour of the police that control it, the press coverage it receives is in notable contrast to that given to much grimmer events that are connected to this frontier; a gateway into the European Union. Too many of us in Europe are happy to talk about Arizona's anti-immigrant law and the countless deaths of those who have failed to cross the frontier into the US. But whatever happened to those African immigrants dumped in the middle of the desert by Moroccan police to the satisfaction of the EU? You don't even need to ask about those who were shot trying to cross that border.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Making A Mess Of Democracy

Madrid will witness an internal primary election in the PSOE this autumn to determine who the candidates will be to take on Esperanza Aguirre and Alberto Ruiz Gallardón in next year's regional and municipal elections. This is a contest which virtually nobody involved wanted to have. The national party was pressing hard for Madrid PSOE leader Tomas Gómez to stand aside in favour of Trinidad Jimenez, currently health minister. Goméz has refused to stand down, even after a private meeting with Zapatero, leaving the primary as virtually the only solution.

The reasons why the national leadership want to displace Gómez as candidate are said to come from (internal) opinion polls that show Jimenez having more chance against Esperanza Aguirre. There is a general feeling, going beyond the confines of the PSOE, that Gómez has been a fairly uninspiring leader since he was appointed as Zapatero's choice to lead the Madrid party. This has not been helped by the fact that he doesn't sit in the Madrid regional assembly, leaving it to others to lead the opposition there to Aguirre. However, by seeking another candidate the national PSOE has opened itself to the charge of yet again treating Madrid as a place where election candidates are shipped in at the last moment. The clumsy attempt to persuade Gómez to stand down was not impressive. There is also the fact that Trinidad Jimenez has been a candidate in Madrid before, and only took around 35% of the vote against Gallardón.

Even with the hints from some polls that Aguirre is vulnerable it still seems unlikely in the current circumstances that the PSOE can think seriously about winning the election. The odd thing has been the reluctance to let the issue go to a primary election, an open contest will do wonders for raising the profile of the eventual winner and it seems hard to believe that voters will punish a party for demonstrating a little internal democracy. Zapatero himself was elected as PSOE leader by the same method. Of course, now that the primary has become inevitable, everyone from Zapatero to Gómez is acting as if it's what they always wanted to happen. Based on what we have seen so far there will be little substance to the debate, Gómez is trying to rely on his influence in the Madrid party machine, whilst Jimenez will present herself as Zapatero's candidate. If there are ideological differences between the two, they are well hidden.

To make things a little bit more interesting, there are rumours circulating that the candidates for the Partido Popular could yet change. These rumours have Aguirre taking the place of Gallardón as mayor of Madrid, whilst the latter would then be free to stand in the national PP lists with the possibility of being a senior figure in a Rajoy led administration. Rajoy would obviously need a deputy to take difficult decisions, given his notorious problems in that department. The logic behind this notion is that Aguirre would be safer in Madrid city which votes more strongly for the right, and Gallardón would be free to realise his ambition to be a national political figure. It may all just be idle speculation, and it is hard to see Aguirre being content with taking over Gallardon's more or less bankrupt administration; especially with her insatiable need for plentiful autobombo funds.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Nepal, Annapurna Circuit....Muktinath To Marpha

Back on the trek again after the rest day in Muktinath, it was clear that the good weather was not going to desert us for the moment with a clear and frosty start to the day. Some of those who walk the Annapurna Circuit seem to think that this stretch of the journey can be done by jeep, as there is a dirt road to bring the pilgrims up to Muktinath. For me, it turned out to be one of the best sections of the trek with great views, at least in the first half of the day.

Also, you don't need to walk down the road all of the way. We started by heading down to the nearby village of Jharkot. Behind us there was an impressive view of the mountains surrounding the Thorung La pass.

The entrance to the village is distinctive, and we went to visit the monastery. Jharkot is a possible alternative to Muktinath as a place to stay, the village looks more traditional and has a handful of places to stay. The monastery is several hundred years old and houses a school as well as a pharmacy for natural medicine.

Leaving Jharkot behind we rejoined the road and descended the valley down to the village of Kagbeni. This was the most spectacular part of the day's walk. One side of the valley was completely bare, whilst down below we could see Kagbeni and the cultivated fields surrounding the village.

Kagbeni is the gateway to the Upper Mustang Valley, although we were heading in the other direction - down towards the Nilgiri Himal that lies just to one side of the Annapurnas.

Kagbeni is a fascinating, medieval village. Once you get past the "Yakdonalds" restaurant at the entrance you go into an area of narrow streets around the monastery. It was in this monastery that I managed to test the strength of the structure, without really wanting to. Stepping aside to let someone else come down a narrow staircase, I hit my head on a wooden beam with enough force to knock me off my feet and cause alarm to everyone who saw it. It wasn't that serious in the end, but I couldn't help wondering why I had to contribute to the restoration of a building that didn't seem to be in bad condition.

From Kagbeni the route follows the broad river bed heading downstream. We had started early that morning and there is a good reason for this. The river valley becomes windier as the day progresses, an effect produced by the 8000 metre peaks that lie on either side of it. There was water too in the river, but most of the stony bed was dry and walkable. The steep part of the descent was over, and the next part of the walk was easy.

The next major settlement is the unlovely town of Jomsom, where we stopped for lunch. It's a dusty, sprawling place which has some importance in the region. Partly this is because it has an airport which can be used by pilgrims and trekkers alike. Not a place we felt like spending much time in and a bit of a culture shock after several days of hardly seeing any traffic at all.

After Jomsom the valley narrowed and became greener. We headed further down to the much prettier village of Marpha, which claims to be the "apple capital of Nepal". It wasn't apple picking time, but you could easily get apple juice, bags of dried apple, slices of apple pie, or even a local apple brandy. The village has plenty of facilities for walkers, and was a good place to end the day wandering through the narrow streets amongst the whitewashed houses.

View Nepal - The Annapurna Circuit in a larger map

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Promotion Is Clearly A Herculean Task

The new football season in Spain hasn't even begun and already the competition is tainted. A corruption investigation involving the fixing of refuse collection contracts in Alicante has also exposed attempts to buy off the opposition by those running the local club, Hércules. The team was promoted last season to the Spanish first division, in a very tight finish, and the surveillance recordings made as part of the corruption investigation have revealed that payments were offered to opponents in return for throwing the game.

The judge handling the original case is not very interested in this issue, bribing your opponents in order to win a match is not a criminal offence in Spain. At least not yet, the new version of the Codigo Penal to be introduced in December will make it an offence. However, with the existing law the judge has ruled that the recordings cannot even be handed over for investigation by the sporting authorities. Prosecutors are trying to get round this by suggesting that the offence could be fraud, via an attempt to fix the outcome of games which people bet on through the football pools.

Real Betis, the club from Sevilla that just lost out to Hércules in the promotion battle, is naturally doing everything that they can to challenge the promotion of their rivals. As one of the 'bigger' clubs in Spanish football they may have more chances than others would. So far the Spanish football federation appears to have nothing at all to say about the issue, a fairly typical response which they apply to most problems that arise in the sport that they are notionally in charge of. The idea of the federation as being little more than a glorified travel agency becomes ever stronger.

The Alicante corruption case also creates a variety of grand slam in the Valencia region. It means that all three provincial leaders of the Partido Popular are now involved in (different) corruption cases. The national PP, however, keeps a clean sheet by not applying their much vaunted code of ethics to any of the leaders involved. It would be a fine photograph if they all attended the first Hércules home game in the league this season.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

The Professionals Move Into Spain's Cajas

A law changing the regulations concerning Spain's savings banks - the cajas - was recently introduced by the government very quickly and quietly. It's a piece of legislation that could well end up changing many of these local savings banks beyond recognition, and interestingly enough also attracted the support of the Partido Popular; presumably because they saw no electoral disadvantages in supporting it. The most important thing about the legislation is that it effectively permits the cajas to more or less transform themselves into banks, with private investors being allowed to take a significant stake.

The new law has been sold with the idea that it brings to an end the dreaded political control of the cajas, which is what gets the blame for the sad state in which many of them have been left as a result of the crisis. It could possibly also have come as something of a blow to EA of Madrid, who had invested so much time and effort in securing political control of Caja Madrid. Now it's certainly the case that some cajas have not benefitted from the pressure to support grandiose projects which had the support of the local politicians. A case in point is the airport near Ciudad Real which I posted about recently. Despite these kind of cases, the main problem for the cajas has been their exposure to an economic model based almost entirely around the construction bubble.

Then of course there is the doubtful proposition that they will benefit from being transformed into more 'professional' banking outfits. Choose your examples with care, the history of how the UK's Northern Rock was transformed from a solid regional building society into a massive financial disaster in the hands of the professionals should be compulsory reading. It's a disaster that is still being paid for, but in that funny way that seems to happen so often these days, it's not the professional bankers concerned who are having to dig into their pockets for the rescue operation. In reality it matters little whether the measures improve the security of the banking system for people whose savings are held by them, this is yet another market pleasing measure and any benefits for the wider society are entirely coincidental.

It's curious that at a time when many are seriously asking whether we need to break up the larger banks, Spain's financial sector is likely to become ever more concentrated. The cajas may have their problems, but they are also a functional part of Spain's economy at regional level. At a time when more and more banks seem to regard lending money to individuals or companies as an optional add-on to their core business, it's not going to do anything for Spain's recovery prospects if the cajas go down the same road. A far more meaningful reform would have taken on the notion of them being playthings of regional politicians, but preserving their important role in the local economy for savers and borrowers. Dream on.

Amazing though it seems, I was reading yesterday that the British Institute of Economic Affairs was proposing that the financial services sector should be 'self-regulating'. At this stage of the game you can't help wondering whether this is a deliberate attempt at satire? Perhaps some generous private sponsor could be persuaded to fund a safe, padded residence for all those who proclaim that the current crisis was caused by excessive regulation.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

A Question Of Identity

The American Embassy in Spain has now withdrawn some travel advice from its web page warning of possible problems with the Spanish police for black Americans. The issue got wide coverage here, just as the Obama family visit was about to begin, and has provoked a predictable reaction amongst many Spaniards. However, it's not at all hard to see why many American visitors might find themselves stopped by the police here. I've noticed in the last few months in Madrid a significant increase in the number of random identity checks being carried out by police. Although the word 'random' doesn't really describe the nature of these checks, those chosen by the police are almost always those whose appearance suggests they might be immigrants.

A favourite spot seems to be the Avenida America bus and Metro station, but there are also plentiful reports of police waiting outside the exit of Metro stations in areas with a high immigrant population. Despite official denials, it's very clear that the pressure on police to seek out immigrants without papers has been stepped up. To the extent that even the police unions have complained of being given quotas which they have to meet. I've also seen on the web several complaints from Spaniards who are outraged at such an evidently discriminatory policy. Now none of this sits very comfortably with the complacent official denials yesterday that race could ever play a part in police treatment of citizens. Obviously the police don't want to be stopping legitimate tourists all the time, but with such a policy it's not hard to see how it can happen.

Despite this reality, and the coverage that has been given to it, the reaction of so many to yesterday's news is the comfortable and common one of decreeing that any manifestation of racism in Spain is just an invention of the hypocritical anglo-saxons. The objective has been to ensure that the advice gets withdrawn rather than to ask whether there might be any legitimate reason for its existence. I was in Valencia railway station on Monday morning seeing off a couple of members of my family who had been here for a brief visit. Beside the queue to get onto their train there stood a couple of national police officers. A train pulled in and hundreds of people came streaming out from the platform onto the station concourse. The black guy was stopped by the police and taken to their little office.