Friday 19 March 2010

Far from the Madding Crowds.

By Richard Morley.

If you look very closely at the photograph above, below the towering, grey limestone cliffs and set among a sea of trees, you will spot a remote hotel. Six long hours south of Madrid, far from any other civilisation, with no chance of escape, it is a place of peace and harmony with nature. And a wonderful place to meet and scare the living daylights out of some new Spanish victims.

I have written before about the English Villages I attend here.

This is where a group of Spaniards eager to improve their use of English are thrown together with an equal number of Native English Speaking volunteers. The idea is to immerse the Spaniards in English for an entire week. (Speaking Spanish is a hanging offense!).

This time I went with Pueblo Inglés to a new venue hidden deep in the Sierra de Segura not far, as the crow flies, from the town of Cazorla. Straddling the border of Andalucía and Murcia, a brief glance at the map with a rule to convert the scale would have put us about 120Km north east of Granada.

For a week we hid ourselves away in a deep valley in the heart of the Parque Natural de las Sierras de Cazorla Segura y las Villas, which is quite enough of a mouthful and from now on will use the name of the hotel: Coto de Valle.

The word “Coto”, in this case, refers to an estate or hunting reserve and the hotel is used by hunters during the season. The walls are liberally decorated with the heads of deer and wild boar the hunters come to shoot. Some of the boar were not so wild and a family of a sow and her two piglets would arrive most evenings outside the hotel gates to be fed with the left-overs from our meals, of which there were plenty – but more of that later.

Left: The wild boar came down to feed each evening. Mum was very protective of her children.
Right: The author posing at a safe distance. Seconds after this we had to run for it.
Photos: Brigitte McKay

We travelled by bus, which was a little un-nerving as from the town of Cazorla we climbed a very steep mountain road cut into the side of a cliff-face. I seriously suspect the road builders followed the path of some nimble-footed mountain goat. Sheer walls of rock on one side, a deep descent on the other. I seriously got the jitters when we met another bus coming the other way!. We inched past and was glad that we were on the inside, realising later that on our return to civilisation our bus would be the one teetering on the edge. (But we were lucky and there was no bus that day.)

We climbed ever upwards and eagerly scanned the vertiginous valley walls for our hotel when someone pointed down and said, “there it is!” And there, many hundreds of feet below us, in what seemed a small clearing in the forest, lay our hotel and I wondered just why had we climbed so high? Once over the hump of the mountain we descended rapidly into the valley. Around us mountain gullies poured with snow-melt engorged streams. Above us the mountain tops were wreathed in cloud. Below we watched the valley emerge and noticed the ruins of cottages, now abandoned from the flight into the towns and better paid, less back-breaking jobs.

It had been a long, six hour journey from Madrid. Several of the braver students and had taken advantage of that extra time to get a lead on the cowards who came by car, although some feigned sleep! Now, on arrival at the hotel we met others who had arrived by personal transport. They had but one thought: What the *%!” are we doing? Suddenly faced with a range of English accents that ranged from “Sarf” London esturian with unpronounced “Ts” and “THs” pronounced as “V” through standard English to Canadian with their “oats” and the broad spectrum of US American. It was slowly dawning on them – there was no escape.

The Hotel Coto de Valle is a hunting lodge. As Spain is emerging from a drawn out winter I have to state we probably saw it at its worst. The trees were naked of foliage, the unused, outdoor pool murky and green with algae. But the staff were welcoming and despite having very little English, did their best to make us feel at home. Most of the rooms are built around a central courtyard. A terrace overlooked the valley where patio tables and chairs dotted the stone floors. There would be plenty of places to have our English conversations – assuming the weather allowed.

But first, the serious job of assuaging the hunger of forty tired travellers. The hotel was more than up to the task. Used to feeding ravenous hunters fatigued after a day in the woods, the kitchen staff made sure we would want for nothing. In fact, a joke circulated at the end of the week: “What did you gain from this course? About 5 kilos!” I reproduce the menu blow.

They brought more - and more!!

Suitably stuffed, we went to our rooms or explored the extensive grounds.

One tourist guide describes the Sierras de Cazorla, Segura and Las Villas as one of Spain’s best kept secrets. It is the country’s largest national park and one of the most “beautiful, peaceful and biologically diverse” areas in Europe. Continuing, it claims the area “combines the natural beauty of mountains, rivers, waterfalls, forests and wildflowers with the charm of ancient villages”. I wouldn’t know. By late afternoon banks of dense cloud had slithered in between the peaks and obscured everything.

However, we were not there to admire the scenery, but to terrorise our Spanish victims and improve their English. Those who have been to an English village here is Spain will know what I am talking about. There are two main companies that run this programme, Pueblo Inglés and Vaughan Town.

They offer similar programmes in that they put together diverse groups of Native English Speakers with Spanish Students. Throughout the week they are thrown together to speak, speak and speak some more. I guarantee you will find out more about the country in that week than you would from years of vacational visits. And as the conversations are all in English, there is no barrier to understanding.

It’s not just head to head chat though, as there are group discussions, theatre, and many presentations. And one should not forget that the nattering continues through meals, walks, parties and over a few drinks at the bar – probably the most unstructured, but important part of the course. This is known as “Liquid English”, where the barriers of timidity, low confidence, and nervousness are diminished by the alcohol and bonhomie of the activity. (Actually, I doubt this is an official teaching method, but it definitely works!)

Among our victims that week was a potato farmer from Valencia, engineers, civil servants and an inventor who claims to have invented a green alternative to detergents. He was off to Chicago the following week to promote his product. You can be sure of many intelligent, interesting, funny and varied conversations.

The low cloud brought rain; too much rain, but the hotel was large enough to cope with twenty couples in search of somewhere to have quiet conversation. In the occasional breaks in the inclemency it was possible to escape the grounds and walk the twisting roads or explore the forest path behind the hotel with a stroll across a narrow bridge over the torrential crashing stream. Breaks in the cloud would reveal the surrounding mountains and occasionally, just occasionally offer a view down the valley towards the village of Arroyo Frio.

And then it snowed. Twenty centimetres overnight. “Brrr!” Some of us moaned. “How wonderful”, remarked others. It certainly produced some great photo opportunities. As one American lady commented, “That’s my next Christmas card picture problem solved”.

Unfortunately the snowfall meant that a planned excursion had to be scrapped. The steep mountain roads were unsafe. Despite the continual efforts of snow ploughs and gritting trucks, the road were treacherous. Locals mostly owned four-wheel drive vehicles, but even so, the climb outside the hotel proved too slippery to make much progress. Released from the worries of normal life, the participants regressed into childish ways and snowball fights broke out. It was wonderful to hear threats of retaliation declared in English.

At midday, on the snow covered terrace, the owner provided a table of jamons, cheeses, salads, stewed meats, bread and wine. Over a log fire he cooked a local dish. To my ear I understood him to say “Cashmiga”. This was not, I was told, the traditional “Migas”, a meal made with day old breadcrumbs in other parts of Spain. However, given the Andalucían tendency not to pronounce the s at the ends of words and the fact that the resulting meal looked like “Migas”, I am going to say that that is what it was. However, he did not use stale breadcrumbs (“migas” means crumbs in Spanish), but instead used mixture of flour and olive oil formed into a dough which was then cooked, absorbing the delicious smokey flavour of the fire. With the addition of some “Padrones” peppers (are they hot or sweet? – only a bite will tell!) and slices (ok, they were lumps) of fatty bacon he produced a feast fit for a king.

An hour later we sat down to a “proper” lunch!

However, it was not all cloud and gloom, snow induced jeopardy and depressing rain. Ok, forget the last. We were having too good a time for depression. But it was fantastic when eventually the bad weather gave way to sunshine. Now the sheer walls of the valley could be seen in stark clarity. The hotel sits at the bottom of this natural sun gathering bowl. Facing the hotel is grey limestone cliff, behind a sweeping slope of trees. Birds chattered. There were noises of unseen animals. Vultures circled overhead.

“Richard”, asked one Spaniard, as I sat on a wall with my face turned sunward, “What do you mean when you say you are working on your tan?”  At nine hundred metres above sea level, our pale guirri skins were starting to turn to lobster pink in the new sunlight.

I am pleased to report that mine had darkened sufficiently by the following week that I received just comments on my darkened complexion from my Spanish friends and not the normal guirri jokes. Still, it introduced a new idiom to discuss.

This was a part of Spain I had not visited before. It was a welcome relief from the “Jungla Cristal” of Madrid. With the disappearance of the clouds the air was clear and fresh. The scent of the forest a joy to the senses; the openness of the forest trails a contrast to the bound pathways of the city; the silence uplifting.

Spain is such a diverse country. Those whose only impression is of the costas, of the bustling resorts, should take time to explore the interior.

Far from the madding crowd, this was a perfect location to exchange our language for good company and glorious solitude. I am always amazed at how the level of English and confidence of the students improves on the sixth and seventh days. I am no psychologist, but I think, for some students, it takes as much as four or five days to overcome their timidity and to trust us. We would never make fun of their use of English, but it takes time for them to realise that. Then the damn breaks and they never stop talking. One shy lady would disappear during breaks as if to avoid the chattering groups. By the end of the week she was deliberately joining those gatherings and having fun with her new found confidence. Yet another English Town miracle!

I hope to be part of many more.

Postscript: This week I met with a lovely Spanish friend who I met for the first time at an English Village. She told me that the first time she attended she was so afraid of looking stupid that before leaving her room she would check that there were none of the Native English speakers outside. Her confidence in using English was so low she did not want to speak. Now she is super confident to the point of reprimanding me for my Spanish mistakes – and I do feel reprimanded, believe me! Yet another success for the English towns.


  1. I hope you explained to the students the menu was not actually in English!

  2. Another excellent post in your excellent blog.

    In the past I would never have considered participating in anything like this however your boundless enthusiasm and enjoyment shine through and each time you speak or write about these weeks, I get more and more tempted.

    I should really do one in Spanish though and be one of the scared ones.

    Don't forget that Cazorla is famous for one other thing - the home of Spain's biggest blues festival.

  3. "Cashmiga" seems to be an andalusian spelling for "Gachasmigas". Gachas being the spanish for porridge. Migas being the spanish for crumbs.

    You're welcome.

  4. Cashmigas....mmm. it actually looks pretty good (I've been vegetarian for 6 weeks now and thoughts of bacon are starting to obsess me)

  5. Richard: It sounds wonderful - you have convinced me, Coto del Valle is one of the venues I will have to visit. It must have been fun to have snowball fights - I am sure they are not common in Spain.

  6. Really makes me want to return (but not to this not like snow!!!)

    I have great memories of the time I was in Spain and always enjoy the updates about the program....wonderful blog as always, Richard.


  7. Absolutely beautiful!!! What a surprise to wake to so much snow! Sounds like you made the best of it!

  8. You captured the week quite nicely, both in words and photos!

  9. This haven!The pictures were just great!I love the foggy feeling of the place!The place is a paradise.

  10. A fearless pictures!Captured it,remember it.Nice!