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 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, and late.
I awoke first, forgetting completely that it was Christmas Day until I walked out and saw that my wife hadn’t quite been able to bring herself to stay completely true to our deal. She’d left two small gift bags on the breakfast table — a necklace for Emily, and 30 euros for Sam to spend on whatever caught his eye. I forgave her.
I stacked some dried olive branches in the stove, and in no time, hungry flames licked around the wood and danced inside the black iron. I walked out to the porch and watched the sun rise above the mountains beyond our wall. I listened as roosters crowed, dogs barked and somewhere just out of sight, a donkey brayed. The pool water lapped gently as 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 tracing the delicate curve of the burgundy-colored blossom, glittering like diamonds.
Merry Christmas to me.