Having just returned from another fortnight stint working our finca in the Axarquian mountains, sporting our latest collection of cuts, bruises and aching muscles, I was reminded of the wise words that head this post, uttered by the late lamented Fred, an early, fellow British, expatriate neighbour.

A neighbour proudly showing off the succulent fruits of his labours…Moscatel grape has been grown in the area since the time of the Phoenician settlers, and used for both raisins and sweet, strong wine. The grape constitutes the main ingredient of Malaga wine (which predates Sherry by many centuries), and was hugely popular across the Europe of the Elizabethan age.

Fred, a taciturn Yorkshireman, when he did offer his rare nuggets of wisdom, had an uncanny way of getting right to the heart of the matter under discussion, and never were his few words wiser or truer than when he coined the now famous phrase (famous in our neighbourhood at least!), “Spain ‘urts”.

What many tourists and visitors to the region might not appreciate, in awe as they are of the stunning landscape of Andalucía, is that the agricultural land itself is mostly rocky, jagged, prickly and generally unforgiving for those who have to work it. Moreover, while the soil is often fertile, it is a fecundity requiring arduous effort to extract, and if Andalucía in general, is hard country to farm, then the mountainous slopes of the Axarquia often verge on the impossible.

A man trudges back to his finca with a snack for his mule…There were few metalled roads in 1993, and most campesinos used mules and donkeys, for both transportation and ploughing their land.

This is why most of the agriculture of the region was for centuries, the exclusive domain of those both sufficiently hardy, and expediently motivated – or, in other words, the local peasant citizenry of the dozens of pueblos blancos (white villages) which dot the countryside like so many bleached apiaries. And like bees, these small, tough, resourceful workers would leave their village hives for the summer months and move into their finca homes, to tend their vines, pick their crops of grapes and nuts, dry their raisins, and finally, before returning to their pueblos, make their strong, sweet, fortifying mountain sacs.

A goatherd takes a rest…Goats and sheep, and their keepers were a mixed blessing in the campo; while providing good cheese and excellent meat they could be incredibly destructive if not guarded carefully, forcing many of us to reluctantly fence off our land.

Finca’s (privately owned small farms, or small-holdings) are dotted across the countryside in a seemingly random and chaotic, ill-fitting jigsaw of orchards and vineyards, that reflects the interminable division of parcels down the generations, from fathers to sons and mothers to daughters. In 1991, when we (and Fred) moved to the area, fincas were still a major source self-employment and income for much of the Spanish agrarian working class, and being a “bueno campesino” (a good peasant farmer) earned one a measure of respect within the tight-knit pueblo communities.

But as Fred implied, this might have been an honourable life, but it was also painful and unforgiving. Hence, and quite understandably, as Spain softened and modernised, the attraction of the “campo life” dramatically decreased for the children of the pueblos whose gaze strayed hungrily to the newly flourishing cities and towns, with their universities, and their opportunities of well-paid work and rewarding careers.

Our neighbour “Curro” – not only a fine and proud campesino, but also a skilled ploughman.

This changing demographic is nowhere more starkly illustrated than in our own locality, where the vineyards, raisin-drying beds and almond groves are steadily disappearing, and the old finca cottages are either left to crumble back into the landscape from which they emerged, or are converted into tourist b&bs. Dido and I, together with an aging and dwindling generation of mostly 60-somethings are rapidly manifesting as living relics, as we continue to brave the constant cuts and bruises, the back-breaking tending of vines and trees, wasp stings, and extremes of weather (hot and cold, dry and wet).

What happens when we are all gone is already being mapped out, as the valleys, and easier lower slopes, are all being transformed into fashionable, low maintenance and lucrative plantations of avocado and mango. (The fact that these new “super crops” require hugely greater volumes of water to flourish than the traditional crops and that they are a disaster waiting to happen, is whole other story…)

My drawings of campesinos displayed here were done during our first summer at our new home, in 1993, and are a reminder of how things used to be, when Spain (at least our part of Spain) really ‘urt…

“Old Juan” – another neighbour, and typically long-lived. It’s interesting to note that our local village is full of noctogarians like Juan, who swear by their daily shot of brandy or anis at breakfast, and a glass or three of their own wine in the evening. Other factors, such as their active lifestyles and diets must also be taken into account. In common with all Iberians, our locals are fanatics for fresh fish, with inexpensive anchovies and squid (brought up daily to the villages by mobile fish mongers) being central to their daily diets. This, in conjunction with the fact that meat consumption was often confined to what people grew themselves – the family pig, rabbits and chickens, always accompanied by mountains of their homegrown vegetables and legumes which must also contribute to their general longevity.
  • Header photo is a panoramic view of the campo as viewed from our finca – looking south-east – in 1993.

“YOU SAY MERON, I SAY MAROMA – let’s call the whole thing a tantalising 2800 year-old probability…”

In 1983 I painted one of my largest oils on canvas, and at over seven feet high (about 2.1 meters) it was certainly the tallest oil I ever did. It dates to the height of my post Saint Martin’s landscape period, intended as the centre piece for a proposed exhibition of my works at the Israeli embassy in London (why that show never materialised is a story for another post). At the time, I still harboured a naive ambition to become a sort of 20th century successor to artists like Claude Lorraine and William Turner, and was thus obsessed with the spectacular, the epic and visions of the sublime. As with the subject of an earlier post , I was still, at this stage, exclusively applying the paint with brushes, and consequently, my pictures could take weeks to complete.

6 Meron - Mount Meron detail
Mt Meron from Sefad – distance detail

Mount Meron from Sefad manifested as one of the more arduous pictures I painted, taking around a full month from sketch to final brush stroke. But, it was also one of the most satisfying experiences of my painting career as regards both making the painting, and my contentment with the finished work. My “technical intention” had been to draw the viewer in from the bottom of the picture and then send them on a virtual journey down into the valley and then upwards towards the distant mountain. My “intellectual intention” had been to stir the mind of viewer by the use of “sublime” tonality and rich graduated colour. Whether or not I succeeded as well as I believed back then is hard to tell without standing in front of the painting itself (last I heard, residing on the walls of a private home somewhere in France), but from the little one can tell from this format I didn’t do too badly.

5 Meron - mid distance detail
Mt Meron from Sefad – middle distance detail

Ten years later, toward the end of 1993 I made another large oil painting of another mountain, but for very different reasons, and with a very different approach. Around the mid to late 80’s I’d become bored with brushes and moved on to the more immediate and primal method of applying thick daubs of paint with palette knives. My mostly large canvases, were still spectacular and even epic, but “the sublime” had been replaced with raw painterly passion. The spacial illusion of the former supplanted by a flat tapestry of thick impasto.

4 Meron - Cemetary Detail
Mt Meron from Sefad – foreground detail

[Mount] Maroma Sunbathed turned out to be the final large scale oil on canvas I ever painted – or “knifed” (about 4 foot square). I did it the first day my studio was set up in our then-brand new house in southern Spain. After eight long, hard months of building the house and living rough the work was a celebratory expression of pure joy and relief. I merely pointed the easel at the mountain across the gorge from our home and proceeded to pictorially express the view before me. It took only about two hours, from start to finish.

2 Meron
Mt Meron From Sefad

Two oil paintings of two different mountains; executed in two hugely contrasting styles, separated geographically by 3000 miles and ten years in time. But here’s the funny thing; the genuinely wondrous thing. For, totally unbeknownst to me until I prepared and researched this post; I was painting two mountains with the same name!

Briefly; the name of the Galilean mountain, Meron is recorded in the Bible, in which it is also known as Merom, which itself (and this is the bit I was ignorant of until very recently) is an ancient Hebrew derivation from the earlier Canaanite Maroma.

The Canaanites in question were either identical with, or at least closely related to the Phoenicians of ancient Lebanon, and who ruled over what later became Galilean Israel well into the time of the early Israelite kings – perhaps as late as around 950 BCE.

3 Maroma Sunbathed
Maroma Sunbathed

About 800 BCE, Phoenicians settled along the southern and south western coast of Spain and quite possibly, in a way identical to European colonisers of the New World, brought the place names from their old world with them for recycling in their new land.

Bearing in mind the similarities the settlers would have noticed between the two mountains; both being the tallest in their native locales (the Galilee and the Axarquia respectively) and both sharing strikingly similar physical form, it seems highly plausible that they named their new mountain after the original Maroma.

This is at least as plausible as the currently accepted theory, that the word maroma (which means a rope or a cord, or a twisted flax in modern Spanish) has vague Arabic origins, but with no apparent etymological evidence for such a linkage. Far more likely it seems to me, that just as the Phoenicians indisputably named the nearby city of Malaga (Malaka – mlk), so too they named the region’s most imposing mountain, Maroma!  The fact they were the subjects of my two most ambitious mountain landscapes proves nothing on the other hand, but it is one hell of a coincidence…