The deal was: no presents.
Our sole gift, to ourselves and to our kids, would be a trip to Spain. Not having to feel bound to the masochistic ordeal of parking-shopping-paying-wrapping-stressing-and-overindulging that is sadly at the heart of the 21st-century Christmas experience was just a bonus. A big bonus, as far as I was concerned.
It had been well more than a decade since Emily, 22, and Sam, about to turn 21, had believed in Santa, yet my wife and I had been slavishly repeating the same ritual every Dec. 25 year after year. Those iconic mornings sitting around the blinking, glittering, needle-shedding tree had devolved to the point where my most lasting memories tended to be those guilt-inducing moments of gathering up the yards of shiny, expensive, ecologically catastrophic gift wrap — torn in an unsatisfying instant from the gifts nobody really needed — and stuffing it into supersize trash bags to pile at the curb like big black stockings filled with coal.
In short, the holiday had become a hellish behemoth, and my wife and I were Captain Ahab, strapped to the great whale by tangled skeins of tree lights as we plunged to our doom, trailing tinsel.
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Forgive the overheating metaphors. Clearly, we needed a vacation from Christmas.
We needed distance. A lot of it. Like, about 4,000 miles.
We settled on Spain for a number of reasons.
If you want to escape Christmas-As-Usual, you can’t have Santas on every corner and carols in every elevator. Which rules out the continent of North America.
We also needed a destination with enough appeal to entice 20-somethings into giving up their usual round of seasonal parties and socializing with people who still have hair and abs.
We knew that they had fond memories of our family vacations in Europe — Paris and the French countryside. Unfortunately, in December, France is a little too close to the North Pole. By contrast, Spain sticks so far out into the Mediterranean that it all but puts a dent in Morocco. The coastal city of Málaga is a full degree of latitude south of Athens and five degrees closer to the equator than Rome.
Spain it was.
A family place
Since we all knew some Spanish and Sam could gabble like a native, we were emboldened to think off the tourist track. Finding a villa to rent, away from the main attractions, would save a fortune over multiple hotel rooms in a big city — a significant consideration considering that it ain’t 1973 anymore. Airfare alone for the four of us was $4,000 — and those were the cheap seats. The euro, though not peaking, was still beefing up the cost of everything from taxis to tapas.
A decade ago, on our first family trip to the Continent, we’d discovered an online broker, Rentvillas.com, which listed hundreds of properties all over Europe and acted as an intermediary between the property owners, usually locals, and the renters.
We’d used them for our two other trips since and had always had excellent results — charming, livable places in memorable locations. But it was still a little scary to commit a significant nonrefundable deposit (about a third) upfront, based on a handful of photos and a written description.
But we took the plunge, plunking down $500 of a $1,739 low-season fee for one week in a three-bedroom villa about 10 minutes outside Ronda, an Andalusian city of 35,000 built beside a 330-foot-deep gorge in the mountains of Málaga province, about an hour from the coastal city of Marbella.
We first thought Ronda would be merely a base for day trips. Then I image-Googled Ronda and … wow. The ancient town was split down the middle by the nearly vertical, craggy-sided gorge plummeting to a cascading river that meandered into a lovely valley spotted with olive groves and rimmed by mountains.
Our place was called Finca de Los Olivos — Farm of the Olives — a ranch-style house with a vine-draped, trellised porch on two sides. A small pool sparkled in the sun. Inside the house were three high-ceilinged bedrooms, Spanish tile floors covered with oriental carpets, a wood-burning stove in the large living room and a very cozy, well-equipped kitchen. As everyone unpacked, a fire flickered in the stove and quickly dispelled the lingering morning chill. Then we drove into Ronda.
A sweet eve
We’d been told that Christmas Eve would be a quiet family time and that many of the stores would close. So we were surprised to find the steep, narrow streets of the city filled with families taking advantage of the fact that, although many of the stores were shuttered, the bars and cafes emphatically were not.
They were not only wide open but packed with laughing groups sampling tapas and drinking the local beer and wine. We picked a place that advertised itself as Argentine and had tables arrayed in the middle of the pedestrians-only main shopping street. After the long trip, we opted for cafe con leche and as an afterthought ordered “churros for four.”
I knew it was overkill as soon as it came out of my son’s mouth, and sure enough, the waiter brought out a plate piled high with giant logs of fried dough, still steaming hot and dangerously delicious when sprinkled with sugar and dipped in coffee.
So there we sat as the sun lowered, sipping the coffee, nibbling the churros, letting the gaiety of our neighbors spiral around us. We sat until the warmth of the day evaporated into the endless, ever-darkening blue above. We’d barely dented the churros, but fortunately, a man with a white beard wearing a ragged suit coat approached us, politely asking for spare change.
When we offered the overflowing plate of pastry, he excused himself and returned with a large paper sack. He took every last churro, and the packets of sugar as well, thanked us kindly and went on.
It wasn’t leaving cookies on a plate for Santa. It was much better.
Walking back to our car, we entered a park that became a promenade along the gorge, now radiating waves of gold in the setting sun. A low stone wall separated us from a stomach-churning plunge to the valley floor far, far below. The farmhouses and cattle looked tiny, as if glimpsed out of the window of an ascending plane. It was hard to believe the guidebooks’ claim that such a beautiful spot had seen a couple of thousand years of extreme violence. But in addition to mass slaughters of Muslims in the 15th century, somewhere along here just 75 years before, Republican loyalists had tossed fascist sympathizers over the wall to their deaths, a scene described in Ernest Hemingway’s “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
But on this Christmas Eve, it was all peace and love and sweet churro aftertaste in the last glow of day. It was easy to imagine Hemingway in that exact spot, drinking in the glorious charm (and some wine as well, no doubt), and not all that far-fetched. Hemingway had been so captivated by Ronda that he’d spent parts of several summers here attending bullfights in the oldest bullring in Spain, not two blocks from where we stood.
We spent the rest of the evening before the fire in the finca, reading, talking and sipping the excellent local red wine we’d picked up in the market for less than $4 a bottle. We all slept well.
I awoke first on Christmas Day. walked out to the porch and watched the sun rise above the mountains. I listened as roosters crowed, dogs barked and somewhere just out of sight, a donkey brayed. A breeze stirred, carrying with it the twining smells of fresh growth and moldering earth, deep country scents that mingled with a grace note of something sweet. I looked around the yard until I discovered the source — a single rose in full bloom, drops of dew like diamonds.
Merry Christmas to me.