Soul of the rose

When Eros, the god of passion and sexual love, wed Psyche, a maiden whose name means ‘soul’, the daughters of Zeus, the Hours and the Graces, scattered roses about the land and made all glow with the beauty of the rose. The soul of the rose is the marriage of the erotic and the spiritual, the alliance of the physical scent, silk velvet and intricate folds of the rose with its intangible powers of seduction and compassion.

Waterhouse, The Soul of the Rose

The other day, as I smelled one of the late roses growing in my parents’ garden, and later, my small bottle of precious rose otto oil, I caught a powerful  scent of pepper.  One of the chemotypes of the rose, eugenol, is  also found in peppercorns, cloves, cardamom and many spices, as well as in carnations.  But chemistry will only bring us so far into the soul of the rose. That whiff of pepper carried me, as on the Poniente wind, from a small rocky garden on a hillside in Andalusia across the seas to ‘a land of spices’, the island of Sri Lanka, which I explored with my parents when I was ten years old, just before the war.  There I saw my first black pepper vine. From Sri Lanka, I flew to a small coffee stall in Basra souk, where an ancient man served me a coffee laced with cardamom and sugar, right next to a spice shop overflowing with wares from all over the Arabian Peninsula, the Horn of Africa, India and beyond. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a man hold a rose to his nostrils, breathing in deeply. It 2003, in the middle of the war, and Basra had just fallen to the British Army.  In that small gesture, in that strong-scented rose, there was not a whiff of war.

rose in our garden, Andalusia.  Photograph: SN

After that war, and after another, I settled in my home city of Geneva for a while, in a flat on the 9th floor overlooking Mont-Blanc. I grew herbs, tomatoes and roses.  Below is one of my favourite roses –  one of most fragrant in the world,  with a voluptuous  scent of Rose de Mai with a hint of lemon,  the Bolshoï, a hardy hybrid tea rose named after the famed Russian ballet company.  I grew several bushes of it and they thrived for many years, filling my home with their powerful smell of love, dance, sex and spices.

Bolchoi rose, grown by me.


in the garden of the Generalife, Alhambra, Granada.

Then there were canals with does planted by them,
does that were hollow, pouring water,
sprinkling the plants planted in the garden-beds,
casting pure water upon them,
watering the myrtle-garden
treetops fresh and sprinkling,
and everything was fragrant as spices,
everything as if it were perfumed with myrrh.
Birds were singing in the boughs,
peering through the palm-fronds,
and there were fresh and lovely blossoms–
rose, narcissus, and saffron —
each one boasting that he was the best,
(though we thought every one was beautiful).

from The Palace and The Garden, Solomon Ibn Gabirol, Al-Andalus, 11th Century.

I came to Andalusia by twisted pathways, but once here, I fell in love. With the land, with the people, with all the living things here, and with the stunning Alhambra palace and its gardens, poems of fountains and damask roses set in geometrical shapes and, in the North-east of the gardens,  against a semi-wilderness.

Pink-gold Damascene roses_Alhambra

The Alhambra, for all its beauty and majesty, was the dying glory of a brilliant transplanted civilisation, al-Andalus, known to us as Moorish Spain. Knowing that makes its roses all the more poignant. We can’t know the Soul of the Rose without accepting, loving even, the heartbreaking transience of roses, which reminds us of our own. No sooner do they bloom than they start to fade, their scent wafting away in the breeze. After the most beautiful rose has died, its soul remains, a memory of its  smell – soft or powerful – of the satin touch of its petals against our fingers and cheek, of its delicate architecture, a love that refuses to die, a sadness that will not be consoled, a vibrancy that gives fully of itself in attar of roses and all the great perfumes created from it, and fills the land with roses.

We are so very little, as my friend the rose
Told me this morning.
“At dawn I was born, baptised with dew-drops
I blossomed, happy, in love.
In the ray of the sun, I closed for the night and woke up old. 
And yet I was beautiful, yes, the most beautiful
rose in your garden.”

…. We are so very little, and my friend the rose
Died this morning. 
The moon in darkness kept a vigil for my friend,
But I saw her in my dream, lighting up the nights
Her soul was dancing well above the clouds,

She smiled at me.
Believe me if you wish
But I need to hope, or I am nothing,
Or else so very little. 


The Sweetness of Living



I’m sitting in a small square with my friend Mara and her teenage daughter, eating churros dipped in sugar, sipping cafe con leche. It’s Sunday in the old town of Marbella. All around us, Spanish couples and families are tucking into this sweet soul food, some dipping their churros in hot chocolate in the traditional way, others balancing their deep fried treat with a fresh orange juice. Next to us, a large family of 8 children, varying in ages between eighteen and three, with their parents and a silent North European nanny, are sharing several trays of churros, the older children chattily showing the younger ones how to enjoy churros without getting hopelessly covered in grease, sugar and chocolate. Sunday churros are a Spanish institution, as established here as the Sunday fry-up in England.

I’ve avoided Marbella in summer for years, disliking both large crowds and tasteless displays of wealth. I have no interest in golf either. But the old town, the casco antiguo, is another world, away from the tawdriness of Puerto Banus or the clipped nitrated golf courses. It is unmistakably Spanish, Andalusian, and wears its history with lighthearted pride.

Fountain by the Plaza de los Naranjos

Fountain by the Plaza de los Naranjos

Far from having been the plain fishing village some people think it, Marbella seems to have been a commercial and tourist settlement from the time of the Phoenicians.  These restless travellers established trading posts and small colonies all along the Mediterranean coast in the 1600s BC, doing business with the local Iberians and, no doubt (as their Lebanese descendants do today), enjoying the sweetness of life in this Western Mediterranean haven,  bringing a whiff of raffish adventure that never left Marbella. A few centuries later, and animated by the same spirit, Greek traders and mariners established commercial posts and a settlement.

IMG_20130811_121155The Roman presence in Marbella is attested by parts of the later Moorish walls, which reused Roman engraved stone. It is likely to have been a holiday and rest destination for the Romans in their rich Cordoba province. Marbella’s microclimate is surprisingly soft and temperate – cooler in summer than nearby towns, including other seaside towns, and warmer in winter than the rest of Western Andalusia.

Plaza de los Naranjos

Plaza de los Naranjos

The Moors settled Marbella and fortified it against attacks from the sea, building an Alcazar and a mosque, which became a church after the conquest by the Catholic Kings, surrounded by a maze of narrow streets – those same narrow streets that Mara, Elisa and I are ambling along after our churros. But it is the Castillans who brought Marbella old town its beauty. Knocking down some of the streets, they built the Plaza de los Naranjos, Orange-Tree Square, and the palace of the mayor, which is still the town hall of Marbella. They extended the network of streets up and down towards the sea, and building more and smaller squares and a handful of churches. Unlike the gawdy baroque they inflicted on some other Andalusian cities, they transformed and expanded Marbella with a light touch, using  a mix of mudejar and baroque styles, which marry seamlessly.

IMG_20130811_121131It’s the Golden Age of Spain in summer dress, East and West blending, just as today, the Arab, Russian, Sefardi, Italian, British and Spanish residents or tourists mingle easily in the streets of the old town, along the paseo maritimo, in the yacht club, golf clubs, night-clubs and housing estates of this pretty courtesan of the Mediterranean.

Street scene, old Marbella

Street scene, old Marbella

Then, as now, the streets were lined with shops, old-fashioned toy shops, clothes shops, small fruterías, glassware, tourist souvenirs. Unlike in most of Spain, even during August, many of these shops are open on a Sunday. People on holiday  spend money and shopkeepers can’t afford to miss a day of trade during these days of economic stress.

IMG_20130811_121112My friend Mara moved to Marbella from the Granada coast two years ago, establishing a home for herself and her daughter in the foothills of Sierra Blanca, right under a mountain called La Concha, the seashell. Even the mountains are on holiday here. When I asked her why she had moved, she replied – ‘because here, it’s beautiful, people are polite and gentle, life is sweet.’ Before spending time with her, I had this idea that Marbella was essentially foreign and a philistine, culture-free zone. This turned out to have been a false impression, as many others I had about Marbella. Wherever we go, Mara points – here is a concert hall, there, an art gallery. Tomorrow we might attend the opening of an exhibition over there. The writer Antonio Gala lives in a house in this typically Andalusian urbanizacion, Antonio Banderas – a Malageño who fell in love with the pretty charm of neighbouring Marbella – is hosting a fundraiser for the education of poor children and youngsters on Saturday night at the Starlite Festival just up the road…

Azulejos on a wall, Old Marbella.

Azulejos on a wall, Old Marbella.

Alameda Park

Alameda Park

We walk down through La Alameda park to the sea-front and onto the paseo maritimo, the belvedere than runs along the whole of the Marbellan coast all the way to Puerto Banus, kilometres of walking, running and cycling.  I stop by the yacht club and a small marina. Here, none of the vulgar and bunker-like floating gin palaces of Puerto Banus, but sail-boats, small motor boats, boats for pleasure and family and friendship, boats for forgetting worries and tacking into the wind, churros boats, quintessential Marbellíes.



Marbella is a bubble in crisis-hit Spain. Though it amply participated in the making of the crisis – enthusiastic and overstretched construction and a hopelessly corrupt elected body in the 2000s, many of whom ended up in jail – and though it undoubtedly took a hit, it does not seem to be suffering much of its consequences when compared with the rest of Andalusia, where half the people are unemployed, or even with the rest of Spain. It remains popular with foreigners and those Spaniards who can still afford holidays and it continues to attract new residents from all over Europe and beyond, a little world of its own, a treat of a city like a dish of churros, sweet and naughty, of no nutritional value but enjoyable and protected because everybody loves it.



Ayuntamiento de Marbella

Ayuntamiento de Marbella


lady and child by steps





16th-century fisherman's house, now a restaurant.

16th-century fisherman’s house, now a restaurant.