Grand Tours: I couldn't see the wood for the olives

Michael Jacobs grapples with the harvest on a slope near the Sierra Nevada


He may have been born in Italy but it is Spain that has obsessed Michael Jacobs. Author of numerous guides to the Iberian Peninsula, in 1999 he moved to the Andalusian village of Frailes. Seeking a refuge in which to work, Jacobs was instead taken under the wing of locals, who saw him as a way of rescuing their village from obscurity and poverty. Encouraging him in his dream of reopening the village's art deco cinema and luring an ageing actress to the ceremony, the villagers transform Jacobs from a mere observer into an olive-picking, pig-slaughtering member of their community. This is an extract from his book about his experiences, 'The Factory of Light'.

He may have been born in Italy but it is Spain that has obsessed Michael Jacobs. Author of numerous guides to the Iberian Peninsula, in 1999 he moved to the Andalusian village of Frailes. Seeking a refuge in which to work, Jacobs was instead taken under the wing of locals, who saw him as a way of rescuing their village from obscurity and poverty. Encouraging him in his dream of reopening the village's art deco cinema and luring an ageing actress to the ceremony, the villagers transform Jacobs from a mere observer into an olive-picking, pig-slaughtering member of their community. This is an extract from his book about his experiences, 'The Factory of Light'.

* * *

Paqui knocked on my door at seven. Antonio was waiting outside in a van together with his mother, two long poles, a mass of netting, a couple of rakes, and what looked like a machine-gun. Antonio's gangly younger brother Francisco, who was employed in a sack-making factory, was going to join us once his morning shift was over. Altogether there would just be five of us working in the fields, which made me initially relieved: if I was going to reveal my incompetence, and stand out as an absurd anachronism, I preferred doing so in a small, intimate group such as this, rather than in a gathering numbering up to thirty people or more. I would soon realise the disadvantages of our limited working force: we would have to labour even harder if we were to fulfil Antonio's obsessive determination to complete all his remaining harvesting by nightfall. And we would miss out on the gossipy chit-chat and spirit of good cheer that were apparently prevalent in large groups, and so necessary to endure all the hard work.

I had set off with all the optimism in the world. With the sun rising in front of us, we drove up along a series of vertiginous tracks towards what Antonio described as among the highest olive slopes near the village. "You might find them a bit steep," he thought wise to add, to which I cheerily replied that I did not mind in the slightest. I relished the prospect of working at this dramatic angle within clear sight of the Sierra Nevada, whose snows were turning a vivid orange now that the sun was hitting them.

"We can't drive any higher than this," announced Antonio, stopping the van just below the lowest of his olive trees. From here the plan was to walk with all the equipment to the very top of the slope, and then proceed slowly downwards. Entrusted with the netting I began determinedly marching up the slope only to find the terrain so gravelly that for each step taken I seemed to fall down two.

After suffering the ordeals of Tantalus I somehow managed to get to the top, some time after the others had done so. Paqui and her seventy-year-old aunt were already on their knees, collecting into a sack all the olives that had fallen to the ground. Antonio, meanwhile, was waiting impatiently for me to begin the laying-out of the nets. This was a finicky task involving much walking up and down around a tree, calculating the extent of the ground that needed to be covered, and then making sure that the lower part of the net was raised slightly so that the olives would not escape at the bottom. Then Antonio handed me one of the poles. All I had to do, instructed Antonio, was to strike the tree with the correct amount of force, making sure always to hit the branches from the side. A wrong move could cause irreparable damage to the tree. He was going to help me with the "machine-gun", which turned out to be a mechanical vibrator that you pressed firmly against the larger branches.

"Let's get in there!" he shouted, turning on the engine, and instilling in me the fantasy that I was a soldier preparing to do battle with the olive. "Take that!" I almost said, as I gave a mighty whack to this ancient symbol of peace, which responded with a shrapnel fire of black pellets that struck me all over my head and body before falling into the net below. This was, I masochistically admit, a pleasant sensation, and one that gave more satisfaction than my subsequent blows at the same branch in search of the recalcitrant olive survivors that hid away behind the leaves as if trying to escape from a massacre. Fifteen minutes later dying branches had been left in profusion on the ground, and the tree had been reduced to one of the gaunt skeletal shapes that you saw in photos of no man's land. "I don't think you've entirely killed it," Antonio decided.

"You can take up the rear," he then shouted as he brought together the front corners of the net and charged without respite at the next tree, a good ten yards away along the disturbingly steep and slithery slope. I managed to keep up this pace for a further two trees, but then exhaustion, and a momentary distracted glance towards the Sierra Nevada, resulted in the inevitable. I dropped my corner of the net, and at least ten kilos of imprisoned olives made their bid for freedom.

"Why don't you go down to the van and bring the leather gourd containing the wine," suggested Antonio, proposing a job more suitable to my capabilities.

Readers of 'The Independent on Sunday' can order a copy of 'The Factory of Light' (hardback £17.99, John Murray) for the discounted price of £15.50 (including p&p within the UK) by calling 0870 121 0009 and quoting offer code BSH035.

Follow in the footsteps

Village people

Frailes is a very small and remote village in the Andalusian province of Jaen. It stands at the source of the river Vellilos, between the Sierra de la Martina and the Sierra del Trigo. The village centres on the church of Santa Lucia, which dates back to the 16th century.

Like many Spanish villages, Frailes likes to party, celebrating several festivals throughout the year. The next is on 29 June, dedicated to the village's patron saint, San Pedro.

Getting there

There are no hotels in the village, but ther are some small guesthouses. The Casa Banos de Ardales (00 34 953 58 23 26) is a small house available to rent from €14 (£10) per person per night, based on eight sharing.

The closest major city is Jaen, 60km (37 miles) away. The Magic of Spain (0870 999 0228; www.magicholidays. co.uk) offers four nights at the historic Jean Parador hotel in June from £677 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights from Heathrow to Malaga, car hire and b&b accommodation.

For further information contact the Spanish Tourist Board (020-7486 8077; www.tourspain.es).

Kate Shaw

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