Christmas in rural Mallorca

Our artificial Christmas tree - bought in Oxfordshire before we moved, but still going strong.

Our artificial Christmas tree – bought in Oxfordshire before we moved, but still going strong.

This is our 10th Christmas spent at our finca in rural Mallorca and, thankfully, it’s a very different Christmas to the first one we spent here. For a start, we’d only had electricity for a couple of weeks – and it still felt like something of a novelty. I still remember the joy of unpacking the electrical kitchen gadgets that hadn’t seen the light of day since we’d moved into the property at the end of April 2004. I also remember how cold and damp the house was: our traditional Mallorcan fireplace was our only source of heat, although it didn’t give off much of it, despite consuming logs at the rate of a child let loose in a sweet shop.

Cold turkey

On Christmas morning we prepared the turkey between us and stuffed it into the oven with a feeling of satisfaction. While the turkey was cooking we decided to phone family and friends back in the UK. We didn’t have a landline telephone back then – it took nearly three years for us to get a phone installed from Telefonica – so we had to use a mobile phone. Sadly there was no network coverage in the house (and there still isn’t), so we had to go outside and stand in the one spot in the garden where we manage to get reception. Unfortunately that spot requires us to stand on a low wall. Perhaps wobble would be a better verb than stand.

Despite the wobbling and the occasional loss of coverage (which required us to re-dial) we spent almost an hour outside catching up with our loved ones.  Returning indoors we expected to be greeted by the delicious aroma of roasting turkey, but nada. During our time outside, the butano in the gas bottle had run out and the oven was, by then, barely warm. Needless to say, Christmas lunch became Christmas dinner. And we’ve never since cooked a Christmas turkey without checking that there’s plenty of gas first. We live and learn . . .

However and wherever you spend this festive season, may it be a time of peace, relaxation and realization of what’s really important in life. Merry Christmas.

 

 

A cautionary watery tale – part two

When I look back at the various problems – OK, let’s call them challenges – that we’ve had living in our finca in rural Mallorca, most of them have been water-related. And several of them have arisen as a result of a job that we did in the belief we were making an improvement.

The installation of an electric water pump, to speed up the flow of water in the house, is a prime example: after having the pump fitted, The Boss was left with the task of digging a trench across the drive, in which to bury the electricity cable.  But when all was dug and buried, that wasn’t the end of it  . . .

Pump up the volume

With the new pump working, we knew we’d use more water and electricity, but were alarmed to discover how much more. Our water consumption had more than doubled and we’d been using enough electricity to power a small pueblo. It looked as though we’d have to avoid turning the taps on fully . . . which would rather defeat the object of having the pump.

Getting through the butano at a rapid rate

Getting through the butano at a rapid rate

To add to our woes, the water heater supplying our shower room had developed an insatiable appetite for butano.  Fearing a gas leak, we called back Pep the plumber, who quickly applied his analytical brain to the problem. Within minutes he’d dismissed our leak theory and suspected something far more serious. Muttering in mallorquin, he went out to his van – returning with a pickaxe.

Swing that thing

The bad news, Pep explained, was that our hot water pipe was probably leaking, which would cause the water heater to use more gas. The even worse news was that the leaking pipe was likely to be under the floor tiles in our shower room – hence the pickaxe.

We couldn’t bear to watch Pep smash up our terracotta floor, so retreated – only to rush back at what sounded like a very loud mallorquin expletive. Kneeling amid shards of terracotta and an indoor fountain we hadn’t had before, was a very wet Pep. Swinging his pickaxe, he’d accidentally punctured the cold water pipe.

But he’d also found the hot water pipe, which was seriously leaking – explaining the increase in our water and power consumption. It seemed that the increased water pressure had ruptured a weak joint in the old pipe. Pep set to and eventually fixed both pipes.

Of course, there was still that large hole in the floor. And, as we had feared when we saw it, repairing that was another ‘consequence job’ for us.

 

 

Things that go bump in the night

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We’ve become quite good at detective work since moving to the Mallorcan countryside; you have to be when you live in an old finca like ours. Strange things happen from time to time and, if we didn’t work out the reason for them, we’d probably go mad. And there is always an explanation eventually.

All manner of things have piqued our curiosity. One of the earliest mysteries was the occasional pile of empty almond shells found around the terraces and garden. Who was eating our almonds and shedding shells in neat little heaps around the place? A Mallorcan neighbour gave us the answer: it was what’s known here as (wait for it) . . .  an almond-eater. These cute-looking little rodents – with facial markings that make them look as though they are wearing bandit masks, and a tail topped with something like a pom-pom – certainly live up to their name. They’re incredibly shy and we seldom see them . . . just evidence of their presence.

Then we had the incident with the vanishing *butano. In the course of a week, The Boss had to replace the butane bottle that powers our shower room water heater three times. No, we hadn’t suddenly become super-obsessive about showering every hour. It took some considerable thought, mess, and money, to sort that little mystery out. I’ll tell you about it in a future episode on this blog.

The latest in many strange occurrences happened just this last Thursday evening. I was working at the computer, and The Boss was watching TV when, suddenly, we heard the strangest rumbling noise from outside. It was like nothing we’d ever heard before – and most evenings in winter there’s nothing much to hear except a generator somewhere.

My immediate fear was that someone driving down the lane had swerved to avoid one of the cats that have adopted us, and driven into one of the old dry stone walls. It might have explained the noise. But, as The Boss pointed out, we hadn’t actually heard a car (few pass this way in the winter once darkness has fallen). Nevertheless, we rushed outside, armed with a torch probably powerful enough to confusing incoming aeroplane pilots, to scan the lane. Nada. Satisfied that neither human or feline had been injured, I returned to the warmth of the house, while The Boss scoured the terraces around the house, finding nothing out of order.

It was only this afternoon, having been out all day yesterday and this morning, that we worked out what had made the mysterious noise we’d heard. At the bottom of our field is an old abandoned finca, which was where one of our Mallorcan neighbours had been born. It’s been empty for years and, over the past year in particular, the roof had become rather dilapidated. See https://livinginruralmallorca.com/2012/10/03/ripping-off-the-roof-at-last/ for an image of what it used to look like. Every time the wind was strong or we had heavy rain, a tile or two would fall to the ground.

Now, there is no roof at all. The entire thing has collapsed into the upper floor of the old house, and only the four walls remain standing. The strange rumbling noise we’d heard suddenly made sense: it had been the sound of roof tiles and old beams crashing down.

I’m just hoping that the next strange noise we hear isn’t the rest of the place finally falling to the ground.

* For those who own or rent property in Spain, and use butane gas for heating or cooking, there is good news: the cost of one of those orange metal bottles of gas has been frozen by the Spanish goverment at 16,10 euros. It had been due to increase in price on January 1st, 2013, to 19,06 euros.

Merry Christmas from rural Mallorca

IMG_2430[1]Christmas is always a time for reflection and we’ve been reflecting on our first festive season here at our finca in rural Mallorca. Things have changed a lot since that first Christmas, in 2004.

Then, we’d only had our solar powered electricity system for a couple of weeks, which mean that  the kitchen we’d had installed was finally fit for purpose, and we were looking forward to an enjoyable Christmas dinner – our first in our Mallorcan home. Our last, in England, had been the saddest one of my life, and I was determined to make this one special.

Talking turkey

We’d ordered our turkey from one of the butcher’s stalls in Manacor market, and been served by a man who’d found our request for a whole turkey surprising. He told us that Mallorcans don’t generally roast a whole bird, and prefer to buy poultry jointed. We agreed the weight of the – whole – bird we wanted, and a collection date, thanked him, and turned to leave.  Our man on the meat counter had one final question for us, delivered in deadpan fashion and in Spanish: “Do you want it dead or alive?”

We had to laugh, because we’d recently heard a story of some expats who’d won a turkey in a raffle and, when it was delivered to their home, it was still very much alive!

Talk talk

Christmas Day duly arrived and the centrepiece of our traditional British festive feast was prepared and put into the oven to cook. While this was happening, we’d be contacting loved ones back in England to wish them a Happy Christmas. The only problem was that we didn’t have a telephone in the house (not, however, for the want of trying), so we had to use a mobile phone. And to compound the difficulty, there was only one place where we could get a mobile signal, and that meant standing on a wall.

We took it in turns to perch aloft, using the phone, while the other provided a useful leaning post in case of any wall-top wobbles. It being our first Christmas away from our families and friends, The Boss and I each spoke for quite some time, and it was probably an hour later when we finally went indoors to check on the turkey.

Fill ‘er up

No delicious aromas greeted us from the kitchen: the oven had gone out and, judging by the cold  door, it had probably done so shortly after we went outside to make our phone calls. The butano gas bottle was empty. So Christmas dinner that year was rather late – but we had a good laugh about it.

And every Christmas morning since then, we’ve made sure that we’ve changed the oven’s gas bottle for a full one – just in case.

Merry Christmas!

Five go with us into the winter – part 2: A dehumidifier – a Mallorca essential

Our first winter in Mallorca was . . . challenging. It wasn’t until the week before Christmas that we finally had electricity in our rural finca (after eight months without being able to plug in anything electrical). Although we had a traditional Mallorcan metal fireplace in our sitting room, its heat failed to reach the rest of the house (and most of the sitting room, actually).

We had to resort to using the butano-powered heaters kindly left for us by the previous owners, if we wanted additional heat. And we did. Back in the UK, we’d been used to a centrally heated cottage, with an inglenook fireplace and, hombre, did we miss those warm radiators!

Water, water, everywhere

The problem with heaters using butane gas is that they give off a lot of moisture – far more than you’d ever suspect (I did once read some alarming statistics about this but can’t now find them). It was only after we’d been using the heaters for a while that we became aware of a general dampness around the house. We decided to buy a dehumidifier.

Back in the UK, we’d once had a radiator burst upstairs while we were both out at work. I returned home to find the house full of steam, the kitchen ceiling hanging down and water everywhere downstairs. We hired an industrial-strength dehumidifier for a week or two to help dry the place out. No way did I want to live again with something that noisy or large.

A sucker for comfort

Much to our surprise, every electrical retailer in town seemed to sell dehumidifiers; we’ve since realised that they are a winter essential.

Even though we’ve long stopped using butane heaters in our home, there is still good reason to use the dehumidifer every winter day when there is enough sunshine to fuel our solar power system (ie, when we have free energy).  Moisture from using the shower, cooking, and from the generally damp winter climate is all worth removing, for a warmer and drier feel indoors. I am often amazed at the amount of water that the dehumidifier sucks out from the atmosphere, even with regular use.

A five-star solution

I recently attended a press lunch at a luxury boutique hotel in the mountains, which coincided with my weekly radio broadcast about what’s on in Mallorca. The hotel manager kindly allowed me to use their best suite – and it was rather fabulous and pleasantly warm – for the 10-minute phone link to the radio station on the mainland.

One of the best pieces of equipment we've bought for our finca in Mallorca

One of the best pieces of equipment we’ve bought for our finca in Mallorca

As I waited for the phone call, I had a little look around and, to my surprise, found a dehumidifer (the same model as ours) in the corner of the lounge area. And it was almost full of water. Even luxury hotels and homes can fall victim to damp in the Mallorcan winter . . .

Cooking up the Christmas spirit in Mallorca

We think that we’ve embraced the Mallorcan way of life rather well, but some things from home cannot be forgotten at Christmas. So, in the past few days, I’ve baked the traditional Christmas cake. After it’s been iced, nobody will notice that it’s rather darker than it should be.  For yet another year, the combined efforts of Delia Smith (the recipe) and myself (the hard graft) have been thwarted by our rather useless Italian oven.  With its smart brass fittings and matte finish, it really looks the business – but then so do many Italian things. The problem is that the thermostat has never worked properly, (the grill packed up ages ago), and the temperature goes up and down (but mainly up) like a bride’s nightie. It’s been suggested that it’s because the oven is powered by butano gas . . . ?

Spice girl

At least my homemade mincemeat looks and tastes rather fabulous (and I’ve had to taste it a few times to make sure). And so it should, with that much brandy and spiced rum in it. I even bought a small piece of festive fabric from a haberdashery shop in Manacor so that I could make kitsch little covers for the jar lids.  Sorry . . .  were you just dazzled by the sun reflecting off my halo?

Here I must confess that the oven gets the better of me when it comes to making pastry. Thankfully, I’ve found a local shop that sells a natty little line in ready-made pastry cases: I fill them with my home-made mincemeat, top them with my special crumble mix, and – venga – delicious mince pies. The Boss is ever-so-slightly addicted to these little packages of Christmas spicy loveliness, so I’ll be on production line duty for the next few weeks.

Service with a smile

One thing we do miss is the Ecumenical Christmas service which used to be held in Palma’s magnificent cathedral in early December. It was the perfect warm-up for the festive season: singing a few carols, listening to the cathedral choir, Els Vermells de la Seu, and the wide-eyed children of the Centre Stage Junior Chorus. Some of the verses of traditional carols were translated into castellano or mallorquín and, in some cases, it seemed that there were more words than available tune!

The service also included the 10th century chant known as the Sibil-la, traditionally sung before or during Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve – and Mallorca is now the only place where it’s performed. The story of Judgement Day, it’s sung unaccompanied by a lone chorister clad in oriental robes and holding aloft a rather heavy-looking sword.  Between each verse there’s a heart-stopping burst of music from the cathedral’s booming organ. I’d sum it all up as hauntingly beautiful . . .  and a bit long (plenty of time to reflect on one’s own misdemeanours, I suppose).

One year we were there, the length of the service proved to be too much for one little person, sitting close by. Just as the opening bars of “A Holly Jolly Christmas” were being played, an indignant voice (aged around three) piped up loudly from a nearby pew: “Not another one!” The little boy’s parents’ faces were as red as the Centre Stage Juniors’ sweaters, but the rest of us who heard it enjoyed a muffled giggle behind our order of service sheets.

Ah, fond memories. But I must go, Delia’s calling – Spiced Apricot and Orange Chutney, I think . . .

5 things to know when buying a rural property in Mallorca (Part 3)

If you’re reading this blog for the first time, welcome. You’ll find the other three things to know about (water supply, waste water disposal, and disposal of rubbish) on the previous two posts. This last part focuses on electricity and gas – two essentials.  We lived for eight months with limited electricity: no usable plug sockets and only two hours of lighting a night (if the sun had shone), courtesy of a small rooftop solar panel. I’m not sorry we did it, as it has made us more careful about using electricity – and it was quite romantic in its own way. But I’ll always remember the day when the electrician who was completing the installation declared that we finally had power. So will he: I went up to him and gave him a big smacking kiss on the cheek . . .

You’ve got the power?

Our bank of solar panels – a sight that took some getting used to!

Rural properties are often too far from a GESA sub-station to make it viable to be connected to mains electricity. That was the case with our finca. So we had to seek an alternative. We decided against wind turbines (too noisy for our liking) and opted for solar power. After all, Mallorca has 300 days of sunshine a year, so it’s a plentiful resource here.

If you’re looking at a rural property with no existing power supply, the first step in deciding what type and size of solar power system you need is to make a list of everything electrical that you’re likely to use. Armed with this information, a specialist in solar power will be able to work out the specifications for a system tailored to your needs.  A system basically comprises solar panels, batteries (charged by the sun) and an invertor. You’ll also need a generator, for those occasions when the sun doesn’t contribute enough to keep it all going, and a tank to hold the diesel that fuels it. As you’ll have gathered by now, all of these things (except the panels) will need to be housed somewhere secure and weather-proof; in our case, it’s an outbuilding.

So, there is a considerable upfront outlay, but at least you won’t be receiving electricity bills from GESA. And if you’re careful with your electricity usage, you can keep generator running costs down.

My top tips:

  • Don’t underestimate your electricity requirements. It’s cheaper to have the correct sized system installed at the outset.
  • Buy the best panels and batteries you can afford.
  • Talk to at least two solar power companies and compare their prices and specifications. Ask about the life expectancy of the individual components. Our first invertor caught fire and had to be replaced.
  • If you have to build something in which to store the system components, make sure you have planning permission (one day I’ll tell you the sorry tale of our own building)
  • Be sure that you’ll be happy with the siting of the panels. Our engineer’s first suggestion would have completely blocked our view of the valley, so we opted for a different site. As it happens, we don’t think the first location would have been as good anyway.
  • If possible, spend some time with someone else who has a solar power system so you can learn from their experiences.
  • Once the system is installed and up and running, turn it all off in the event of a thunderstorm close by. Our second invertor was struck by lightning just a few weeks after it was installed!

Going for gas

A trip to the gas depot for refills

You won’t find mains gas in the Mallorcan countryside, but almost everyone uses butano to power their oven and hob, and water heaters (although solar-powered water heaters are increasingly popular). In towns and villages, you’ll often see the orange gas canisters being delivered by truck, but don’t expect that service to be available in rural areas. Instead, you’ll need to go to  the nearest Repsol butano depot with your empty canister(s), which will be exchanged for full ones at a cost (currently) of 16,50 euros a canister. If the property has no existing canisters (which should be left behind when the current occupiers leave), you’ll need to head to a Repsol office to get the necessary paperwork. You cannot just turn up empty-handed and buy a canister of gas.

It is possible in some circumstances to have a large butano tank installed on your property, but there are certain conditions that must be met for this service to be available. Speak to a Repsol office if you are interested. It certainly saves lugging the containers around (the standard size holds 12,5 kg of butano).

My top tips:

  • Check the rubber hoses that connect the gas to the appliances – they have a limited life (an expiry date is printed on the hose) and it can be dangerous not to replace them. The efficient householder will make a diary note so that replacing out-of-date hoses isn’t overlooked.
  • Get yourself a sack barrow to manouevre the canisters about. They’re pretty heavy.
  • Save the hassle, and find an alternative, eg solar-powered water heating and electric oven/hob.

I always cooked with gas in the UK, but my Smeg oven (bought here) is very unreliable temperature-wise. Could it be the gas, I wonder?