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 ordeal of parking-shopping-paying-wrapping-stressing-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 a long time 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 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 super-size 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.
Forgive the overheated metaphors. Clearly, we needed a vacation from Christmas.
We needed distance. A lot of it. Like, about 4,000 miles.
We settled on Spain.
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. 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 had excellent results - charming, livable places in memorable locations. But it was still a little scary to commit a significant non-refundable deposit (about a third) up-front, 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 and around a 330-foot-deep gorge in the mountains of Malaga province, about an hour from the coastal city of Marbella.
I didn't know about the gorge when we booked - I knew only that Ronda was in the middle of a circle with a two-hour driving radius that covered Granada, Seville, Cordoba, and Malaga, all cities that friends had praised. We thought of it merely as a base for day trips. Then I image-Googled Ronda and - wow. The ancient town (the Phoenicians were the second group to settle there) 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.
We landed in Madrid, a six-hour drive north of Ronda, just before dawn on Dec. 23. Most people staying in Ronda will catch a connecting plane to Malaga, which is only an hour and a half away by car. But the last thing any of us wanted to do after an eight-hour overnight flight was board another plane. Instead, we picked up our Avis rental ($350 for the week, paid in advance online) and drove to the discount hotel we'd booked (also based on Web photos and a great price of about $260 for a family suite).
The sun rose just as we drove over the top of a ridge, and Madrid spread out before us, as if carved from ivory tinted orange in the wash of sunrise. I had to rub my eyes. Could it really be that beautiful?
It was. Madrid has the filigreed look of Paris, but unlike Paris, deep in December it was all sunshine and 60-degree afternoons, filled with splashing fountains and rustling palm fronds, even while the mature shade trees still bore their autumn colors. The streets buzzed with well-scrubbed, well-dressed, rosy-cheeked strollers, all, it seemed, beaming with unaffected openness. The shopkeepers and hotel desk clerks were not merely friendly but kind. We forced ourselves to stay awake and wandered the central neighborhood around our hotel, which was just across Madrid's botanical gardens from the Prado, one of the world's great museums and a lot more visitor-friendly than the implacably gargantuan Louvre. We were so glad that we'd laid-over there, and looked forward to the partial day we'd have on our return.
But the next morning was the test. It was one thing to flee Christmas in theory. It was another to wake up early on Christmas Eve, cruelly jet-lagged, with a six-hour drive ahead of you in a foreign country to a destination that didn't even have a street address to feed into the GPS. In fact, as we would find out, it didn't even have a street.
But from the start, the journey to Ronda was like gliding downhill on a sled. We'd left so early, the hotel wasn't yet serving breakfast, so we picked the first spot we saw on our way out of town with lights on: Beaming waitresses, sweetly amused by our Spanish, check. Superb chocolate pastries, just out of the oven, check. Delicious coffee with hot steamed milk, check. Seconds of both . . . you get the idea.
The highways were wide open and impeccably smooth, the countryside began as interesting and progressed to breathtaking as plains gave way to mountains. Another random stop for lunch at the equivalent of a gas-station convenience store yielded sandwiches of profoundly flavorful Serrano ham and tangy goat cheese on some of the freshest-tasting bread I've ever put in my mouth. We ate at outside tables in the warm sun overlooking the acres of olive trees that studded the rolling hills.
We got to the outskirts of Ronda about 2 p.m.
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. On the short side of the L, a small pool sparkled in the sun and led to another trellis-covered patio. Both porch and patio had full-size dining tables for alfresco meals. 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.
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 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 the drop 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.
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 that it was Christmas Day until I walked out and saw that my wife hadn't 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. 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.