Cabo de Gata

Hispania Spartaria




spring-summer 2018

It’s the unrelenting aridity — that first makes you thirsty, then fascinates — the scorching coastline of hardened lava, the agaves, prickly pears, fan palms and esparto grass that put their spell on you. However, it was not among its beaches or salt marshes, nor in the nearby desert, that we found the region’s essence, but in the wisdom of its inhabitants. People who find happiness in small things, the comforts of daily life; who keep the knowledge of traditional crafts alive. People like Manuel, working with esparto grass, or Isabel, weaving jarapa rugs. People of a land where, under the fierce sun, nature and the simple life have survived unchanged.

Traditionally, and until it was replaced by plastics, tough esparto grass leaves were the material with which shepherds and farmers made their own implements for day-to-day agricultural and domestic use. “Baskets, mats, panniers for water jugs, donkey panniers... Traditionally, and until it was replaced by plastics, tough esparto grass leaves were the material with which shepherds and farmers made their own implements for day-to-day agricultural and domestic use. “Baskets, mats, panniers for water jugs, donkey panniers... these items were all made to meet basic needs,” explains Manuel Gómez, a craftsman working with esparto grass, who moved from Madrid to Sopalmo, a tiny village near the town of Mojácar, more than thirty years ago. On days when they could not go out to work in the elds, it was common to see residents sitting in the doorways of their houses plaiting esparto grass. Because everyone was familiar with the technique, only specialists in making complex pieces were considered craftspeople. “Here in Cabo de Gata, the most common woven items were esparto grass espadrilles, which local goatherds made for their own use.” The craft of esparto grass weaving begins with preparation of the raw material. It can be harvested all year round, but the ideal time is in July and August when the long at leaves have begun to dry out, taking on their cylindrical shape and becoming stronger. This “raw” or “green” esparto, which gradually turns a yellowish or reddish shade as it dries, can be worked with immediately.
Usually however, it is left to dry in the sun to acquire its characteristic golden color, although it then needs to be rehydrated before it can be woven. To do this, it is treated in a process called el cocido, “cooking,” which involves immersing it in water for over a month, so that, as it ferments, the substances that hold the bers together dissolve. Once it has been treated and dried in the sun once again, it is pounded with a mallet on a at stone to crush it, making it much more exible and resilient. The result is a ner esparto, known as picado — “crushed” — used to make items that require a more delicate finish. There are a range of plaits, of different widths and strengths, which are used with each type of esparto grass depending on the object being made. “But ultimately, the basic technique is the same,” Manuel explains. “The idea is to create a compact, uniform plait, as long as possible, that can then be sewn together to give it the desired shape — oval, rounded or at,” he continues. These plaits have resonant names, known only to experts, which make up the specialist vocabulary of esparto grass weaving. There’s la pleita, made from raw esparto, always plaited from an odd number of strands greater than nine; la guita, made from three strands of raw or crushed esparto and la clineja, a continuous plait of crushed esparto of ve or seven strands. “It’s a craft that depends on your hands, their skill in mastering the material,” Manuel points out, “and on their strength.”

Primitive Polish

The climate is desert-like, with over three thousand hours of sunshine a year, very little rainfall and constant wind. An extremely arid environment, in which storing and transporting water is a vital necessity. The traditional pottery of Níjar and Cabo de Gata, the driest part of Almería, was rst made to satisfy the demands of basic subsistence. Large earthenware jars, pitchers, plates, cups: simple containers of all descriptions, for domestic use.
Rustic pottery, whose appearance belies the laborious craftsmanship and re ned Arabian decorative techniques used to make it. Pieces in exotic colors, obtained from the area’s minerals – greens from copper, blues from lead, yellows and reds from iron, browns from manganese – each shaped on a wheel set into a hole in the ground, in which the potter would stand up to his waist.
Today, the original Níjar glaze, known as chinado, is no longer made, because the use of lead in ceramics is strictly regulated. The bowl in the photograph, nished using this technique, was found by its current owners during the clearance of a casa-cueva, one of many cave houses dug into one of the rocky hillsides of Granada and Almería.

Rags To Riches

In south-eastern Spain there are a few small, unassuming villages that are centuries ahead of our digital world,with its ecological awareness and modern values of sustainability and recycling. Here, from the times of Arab civilization in Spain down to the present day, the ingenuity of traditional craftsmanship has been applied to reusing old clothing and transforming it into a new hand-woven material. The chunky, multicolored textile that gives a second lease on life to worn-out garments in towns in Almería, Granada and Murcia, is known as jarapa. The term comes from the Spanish harapo, “rag,” because in the past it was made from scraps of wool or cloth, and used to cover the backs of horses, donkeys or mules, or as a protective layer underneath mattresses. Níjar, in the Cabo de Gata region, in the south of the province of Almería, is one of the few places where jarapa is still made on hand-operated looms.
It’s a craft tradition that has managed to survive, although today the main product is throw rugs. “Before, when a household needed a new blanket, curtains or an apron, this would be woven out of old clothes that had been saved up, cutting them into thicker or thinner strips depending on the item that was to be made, and these were then sewn together lengthwise and rolled into a ball,” explains Isabel Montoya, jarapera and owner of three hand looms, in her store in Níjar. “Today the process is the same: the strips are still cut by hand, which is the most time-consuming part,” she continues, “but we use offcuts from the textile industry.” Isabel learned the trade from her parents, who built a total of eight looms for their ve children. She opened her workshop in 2001, and today hers is one of only two that remain in Níjar. “We sell jarapas all over Spain and countless other countries,” she tells us. “It’s a craft that will never be lost.”

belle sauvage

With rounded, spiny pads branching out from each other, and fruit growing along their outermost edges, the silhouette of the Opuntia cactus, the prickly pear or Barbary g known in Spain as the chumbera, has been an integral part of the Andalusian landscape for four centuries, especially in Almería, in dry, sunny Cabo de Gata. One of the rst tropical American plant species to arrive in Spanish ports, it was brought from the New World in the 16th century and cultivated in the hopes of farming cochineal bugs, which were used to produce scarlet dye. The plan was not a success, and the cactus spread into the wild, becoming part of the scenery in many areas on the Mediterranean coast. However, in Almería the cactus was introduced on a massive scale as a result of the of cial policy of reforesting arid areas in the ‘50s and ‘60s. The low rainfall meant that the chumbera plantations failed to thrive and were nally abandoned. Today, the tuna, as it is also known, while of cially classi ed as an invasive species, is part of the local ecosystem. As well as collecting its sugary, aromatic fruit, the higos chumbos, locals use it as a natural fence to mark land boundaries, and, once the spines have been removed from the pads, as animal feed.

salt of the earth
It is gathered from the moment the weather turns warm until summer’s end — when there’s a chance, however remote, of autumn rains — and piled up in a great white mountain. The white stuff is salt, extracted from the seawater lagoon in the Cabo de Gata Natural Park, a wetland area that extends alongside the Mediterranean, separated from it by a barrier of dunes, and has been used for salt production since Roman times. The sight of this white mountain is part of the history of the Cabo de Gata lagoon, but today we know that it also helps preserve this natural habitat for the future. Salt production guarantees the survival of an exceptionally valuable ecosystem within a natural park that has been declared a Biosphere Reserve. Thanks to the white mountain, the lagoon continues to be home to pink amingoes and hundreds of bird species. If salt extraction were halted, it would also mean the loss of an excellent condiment, an intense white in color: in its most sought-after form, the delicate crystals known as or de sal, it is harvested by hand and allowed to mature for a year, and is of unusual purity. To abandon the last salt pans of Almería would also mean the end of an industry that reached its peak around 1907, when the owners built a workers village, Salinas de Cabo de GatA, today an ethnological heritage site.
lucky charm
You might not notice it at first, but once you do, it’s everywhere you look. A gigantic statue on a roundabout or a tiny earring in a jewelery store. The Indalo is a simple silhouette in which some see a man holding a rainbow, while for others, more prosaically, it clearly represents an archer. Over recent decades it has become a popular symbol of Almería and a good luck charm. It was discovered amongst the Neolithic cave paintings in Los Letreros cave, an archaeological treasure trove that is a Unesco World Heritage Site, and its name was intended as an homage to Almería’s patron saint, Saint Indaletius. However,in Mojácar, eastern Almería, it was already used as a lucky charm to ward off the evil eye, painted on the outside of houses in red ochre. It is an emblem that can be interpreted in many ways, and is not exclusive to Almería. In Abu Simbel, remarkably similar Egyptian gures have been found. A prophecy of the North American Cree tribe predicts that “Rainbow Warriors” will save the world from extinction: “the keepers of the legend, stories, culture, rituals and myths, and all the Ancient Tribal Customs,” will appear and make Earth green again.
We use cookies to improve our site and your shopping experience. By using this site you are accepting our cookies policy