Staring at the sea

Staring at the Sea


That Was Then

Dawn broke through the darkness as the sun rose between Isla Santa Clara and the old port. To the west the skies were still an inky-black, but to the east a white disc appeared; surrounded by a golden halo it cast an iridescent glow. Light trimphed as the night sky became increasingly and inexorably infused with colour; shades ranged from hazy oranges to deep purples – Isla Santa Clara and the old port were silhouetted by contrast. The sea gently rippled and a beam of white light lengthened and broadened as it stretched out towards the shore. The light highlighted both the texture of the sea and the texture of the sand. Gazing skyward once again, colours merged and morphed, before brightness began to bring everything into clearer focus.

Now, there are somethings in life, that you just know are life changing moments, even I have had a few; meeting my wife for the first time, the birth of my children, discovering the Lake District and listening to ‘This Charming Man’ by the Smiths! It must be said however, that another such moment was when I stood on the beach and stared at the sea in San Sebastián in 1984.

Ever since arriving in Malaga, I’d loved everything about Spain. I’d been excited about visiting, but everything had exceeded expectation. I’d loved the culture, the climate and the people. But as I stood and watched the sunrise my love of all things Spanish was confirmed beyond doubt,
reasonable or otherwise. It was an epiphany of sorts. My love had turned into a passion and now I wanted more. I wanted to explore more areas of the country, I wanted to learn the language and immerse myself in Spanish culture, I wanted to know more about Spanish history and politics, I wanted to understand Spanish pride and passion. I wanted to return and I made myself a promise to do just that.

This Is Now

I looked at the buffet breakfast and promised myself that I wouldn’t overeat. Some promises are meant to be broken. A Parador breakfast is a joy to behold – the food looked incredible; a range of tasty dishes stretched out before us – all elegantly and irresistibly presented.

I’m a firm believer in the theory that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, I also believe that a leisurely breakfast, prepared by someone else is one of the nicest meals of the day – well, one of the three nicest! I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to eat breakfast. We all ‘fast’ while we are asleep; who wouldn’t want to break that ‘fast’ in the morning? It makes no sense

We found an outside table which offered fantastic views to the Mediterranean coastline, similar to those afforded by the Balcon de Europa; then after being served tea and coffee, we went back inside the hotel to make the first of our many selections. The choice was bewildering. Fruit juices, cava, cereals, fresh fruit, yoghurt, pastries and cakes (of various types), cold meats, Iberico ham, chorizo, cheeses, tortillas, bacon, eggs, migas, toast, preserves and a whole variety of different types of bread. I didn’t know where to start, so I randomly choose a dish and decided to work my way around the table. I didn’t know when to stop; I lost count of the times I revisited the table, but at least movement aided digestion. If gluttony is a sin, we were all guilty, but we knew that we probably wouldn’t have to eat again for the rest of the day.

With breakfast over and the rest of the day stretching ahead of us, we dragged ourselves away from the seemingly self replenishing buffet and made one last trip to the beach via the glass elevator. After taking a pleasant stroll along the foreshore, which involved nothing more taxing than watching the start of a triathlon, we returned to the hotel and packed our processions into the car. We said a quiet thank you to David (wherever he might have been) and headed towards Chite.

Despite our previous nights change of heart, we weren’t particularly sad to be leaving Nerja. The Parador, the Balcon de Europa and the old town had been fantastic, but we thought that in one night we had exhausted most of what the town had to offer. It wasn’t really our kind of place. Chite, sounded much more like our cup of tea. I knew a little bit about the village from conversations with Grahame. I knew for instance that the village was situated midway between Granada and the Coasta Tropical, and that it was located in the Lecrin Valley, on the edge of the Alpujarra; a natural and an historic region on the southern slopes of the Sierra Nevada. I’d seen pictures and I remembered that Chite, looked like a traditional pueblo blanco; rural, rustic and agricultural. Despite a few ex-pats taking up residence, I was reliably informed that tourism was yet to take hold. It sounded perfect and when we arrived we weren’t disappointed. Chite was beautiful, charming and unspoilt. The village was divided into upper and lower sections, both were surrounded by orange groves, almond trees, olive trees, prickly pears and lemon trees. Grahame’s friend Stuart’s house was in upper Chite.

When I’d booked our accommodation, the only thing I was worried about was the price, which seemed too good to be true. The accommodation however, was fantastic. Our apartment included three bedrooms; all were en-suite and Tom’s even had its own lounge and kitchenette. The two main bedrooms were separated by a deep and quite delightfully refreshing internal plunge pool. The apartment also had a separate kitchen and lounge with a balcony. If that wasn’t enough, the building was topped off with a simply massive roof terrace, complete with a gazebo and sun loungers, which offered mountain views in every conceivable direction.

If the accommodation was lovely, so were our hosts. Stuart and his wife Olwyn, couldn’t have been friendlier or more welcoming. Both from Yorkshire, they were gentle, kind and unassuming, with a keen sense of the absurd and a dry sense of humour. Initially visiting Spain for a holiday, Stuart and Olwyn fell in love with the area and relocated. They bought an old ruin of a town house and converted it themselves. The conversion, which included our apartment, had created a spacious, cool and well equipped modern house in a traditional style. The building paid testament to Stuart’s vision and architectural skills and Olwyn’s patience. We liked them both. I think it would be fair to say that we had fallen firmly on our feet.

We unpacked, rested up for a while, explored the centre of the village and then made the most of the facilities offered by our new accommodation; we plunged and we sunbathed. In the evening we walked to another village, Talara, in search of food. Chite is lovely, but it doesn’t have any shops or restaurants and it only has one bar, which hardly ever seemed to be open. Talara was a less pretty, but more functional village. There were several restaurants and bars to chose from. We chose Bar Garvi.

I was particularly looking forward to our drinks and food, because I had been told that in the province of Granada, wherever and whenever you order a drink, you receive free tapas. The old adage that’s there’s no such thing as a free lunch doesn’t apply here. The concept sounded like another deal that was to be too good to be true, but not for the first time, we were more than pleasantly surprised. We ordered our drinks, which cost about 2 euros each, and then shortly afterwards a plate containing four portions of deliciously tasty and wholesome food arrived. Despite our massive breakfast, we began to develop an appetite. After ordering a few more drinks, we were delighted to receive yet another plate of even more delicious food. We didn’t always know what we were eating, but the whole ‘Russian roulette’ approach to food has always thrilled and excited me – it’s good to try different dishes and eat food which is out of your normal comfort zone. Thinking that it was too early to stop, we ordered one final round of drinks and the accompanying free tapas reached even higher standards – what a fantastic way to eat.

We discovered that bars in Granada reward loyalty – the quality of the tapas usually improves with each additional round of drinks. Bar Garvi, had been a fantastic place to be introduced to the concept of free tapas. The food was great and the service was fast and friendly. The bar and all the other bars in Talara, were packed, and it wasn’t difficult to understand why – It would be nigh on impossible to eat and drink at home for less than it cost to eat out. Two or three portions of free tapas, depending on the bar in question, are about the calorific equivalent of a normal meal. I remember thinking that it must be difficult for bars to give away free tapas and stay in business, but alcohol is cheap in Spain, and wholesome free tapas, whilst delicious is usually made from cheap ingredients. The fact that all the bars are often full must also help. Another fact that I discovered later about free tapas in Granada, is that there are ‘student’ bars, where the free tapas is wholesome and tasty, and ‘gourmet’ bars, where the portions are small, but high end and
deliciously refined. I was looking forward to investigating both types.

By now it was late and it had been a long day, so even though more and more people kept arriving at the bar, we headed back to Chite. As we walked, the moon and the stars shone and lights flickered in the Lecrin valley. We were a little tired, but we were happy and content. We looked at the distant silhouettes of mountains and picked lemons from some of the trees that we passed on route. We said a quick ‘buenos notches’ to other late night walkers and to villagers who sat outside their doorways enjoying the cool of night. We walked past an orange grove and smelt some fragrant local flowers. We thought about our day and marvelled at our good fortune – we were just about as satisfied as life allows. We headed to our beds and slept soundly until rudely awakened the next morning.

Chite, may not have had any shops, but it wasn’t short of places where you could buy things! Confused? So we were on our first morning when we woke to the collective sound of numerous car horns, which seemed to be ‘honked’ with quite alarming frequency. We later discovered that our dawn chorus was provided by a number of different mobile shop keepers, who called and sold their wares from the backs of their cars and vans, The village was actually quite well served; you could buy vegetables, meats, fish and bread. Once we got used to the idea and worked out exactly when and where the different mobile services stopped, we enjoyed freshly baked bread and croissants nearly every morning.

As we were up bright and early (slightly earlier than intended), we decided that on our first full day in Chite, we would drive out and explore Lanjaron, a local spa town famous for its mineral water, which is sold throughout Spain. Lanjaron, is also home to a small but quite magnificent Moorish castle. Taking our life in our hands, we headed up through the mountains; some of the roads were a little scarier to drive on than I had imagined – it wasn’t just the heat that was making me perspire. Lanjaron, is an ancient town, which has Roman origins, but when we arrived it was obvious that little from that period still remains. Today, architectural at least, the town more closely resembles an Austrian alpine village, rather than a Roman or even a traditional Spanish one; perhaps the ‘Austrian’ look was thought a fitting design for a spa town. Lying beneath the town, perched on a large, rocky outcrop is the castle. The castle provides evidence of Lanjaron’s former importance and status as the medieval gateway to the Alpujarra. It was here in 1500 that the Moorish population in Spain, made one of its last great stands. Forced to retreat into this seemingly impenetrable fortress, the Moors were defeated by weight of numbers and artillery. Sadly, hundreds died, and their leader, the so called ‘Black Captain’ allegedly throw himself to his death from the parapets rather than face the indignity of capture. The Christian forces had had to battle there way towards the castle, but we approached by way of a beautiful and peaceful park (El Parque del Salado). Initially following a stream, we descended steeply through eucalyptus trees and exotic plants, before climbing even more steeply to reach our destination. The ancient walls of the castle were supported by structured beams; some parts looked a little rickety, but a series of metal walkways allowed access to most areas. The castle was an impressive and an evocative place to be – the views were amazing. After we had explored all nooks and crannies, we walked back through the town and thought to ourselves that it would be good to return and visit in June. Every year on the 23rd of June, a water festival takes place. The San Juan Fiesta de agua y jamon, includes a massive water fight, which involves everyone who lives in the area, including the local fire brigade.

After returning to Chite, for a late afternoon nap, we headed out once again. We had really enjoyed our tapas at Bar Garvi, but we’d been told that the best free tapas served in the local area could be found at El Rincon de Miguel, in Niguelas. The village of Niguelas, only a few kilometres away from Chite, turned out to be a charming place with a very dramatic location. Situated next to the steep slopes of the 3000 metre high ‘Pico del Caballo’, Niguelas is the highest municipality in the Lecrin Valley. We took a wander around the village and were rewarded with a number of fantastic panoramic views. The village itself, had a rustic rundown sort of charm. Some buildings had obviously been recently renovated, but Niguelas had an authentic and honest character about it.

Our bar of choice, El Rincon de Miguel, was located on the outskirts of the village. At first we walked past the bar; it was an easy mistake to make. The building that houses the bar is quite small and apart from a few folded down chairs and tables, which could have belonged to an adjacent residential property, there were few visible signs to suggest that the bar actually existed. When we realised that El Rincon de Miguel did exist, there were few signs to indicate whether it was actually open or not. Slightly worryingly, there weren’t any customers apart from ourselves. It’s fair to say that nothing about the exterior of the building gave us much faith in El Rincon de Miguels, hallowed culinary reputation.

More in hope than expectation, Tania and I headed inside, while the boys set up a table outside. Like most small Spanish bars, the interior was dimly lit. One of the few sources of light came from a TV, which blared out at full volume. As our eyes adjusted to the lack of the light, we felt our way towards the counter. The limited amount of available floor space had been further diminished by random boxes and crates which threatened to trip us up at any moment. The kitchen, which was partially visible, appeared to be on a similar scale to the bar. It was hard to see how anyone could cook for themselves in such a small space, let alone cook for other people. We talked about leaving and finding somewhere else, but then the barman caught our eye. We had reached the point of no return.

Walking back outside to join the boys, we were pleased to discover that some other customers had arrived – at least we were no longer alone. I looked at my watch, perhaps we had been too eager to eat – I should have remembered that the Spanish don’t like to eat too early. Shortly afterwards a waiter brought drinks over to our table as yet more customers arrived. It didn’t take long for nearly all the tables and chairs to fill up – perhaps we had made a wise decision after all. Then, just as if to confirm my thoughts, a piping hot spinach and tuna tortilla was brought over to our table, accompanied by some crunchy rustic bread. The tortilla was exquisite, it had been cooked to perfection; runny in the middle it melted in the mouth. We savoured the flavours and we used our bread to wipe the plates clean. It was soon time for some more food, so we ordered another round of drinks. Our second plate of tapas arrived in moments rather than minutes. We were presented with garlic, cheese and ham filled bagels. Each morsel of the food was delicious. After devouring the flavoursome snacks, we concurred that once again the quality of the food was increasing with each successive order. We were now fairly full, but the food had been exceptional, so we ordered yet another round of drinks. Just when we thought the quality of the food couldn’t get any better, four portions of bread arrived, each topped off with garlic infused pork, Iberico ham and a quails egg – it was simply divine. One can only imagine the quality and the standard of food that would have come next if we had continued to order. We realised that we should have had more faith in Grahame’s recommendation and in Jose’s law. We made a mental note to return and visit El Rincon del Miguel again, then we headed for home.

Although we were more than content to be staying in Chite, Tania and I did feel a little guilty about the fact that the boys had been deprived of a beach holiday. With this thought in mind, we headed to Salobrena. We were a little concerned that guides books described Salobrena, in a similar way to Nerja, but when we arrived it was evident that they were both very different places. The Old Town of Salobrena, sits on top of a rocky outlier – it was both attractive and impressive. Traditional (and by now familiar) whitewashed houses clung tightly to the steep slopes of the outlier which was topped off by a majestic 10th century Moorish Castle. Newer developments linked the Old Town to the beach, but whilst some of the buildings looked out of place, most had been sympathetically styled. Both old and new sections of the town were almost completely surrounded by sugarcane plantations. Salobrena, has certainly been developed with tourism in mind, but it was far smaller and far less developed than Nerja.

The beach itself, couldn’t be described as an undiscovered wilderness, but it had a utilitarian charm about it. Bars and fish restaurants lined the backshore, whilst lines of sun loungers separated the top and bottom of the clean and not overly crowded foreshore. The beach was just fine, but the view from the beach was simply stunning. Limited expectation was followed by amazing revelation. The sea glistened and sparkled – it was inviting and crystal clear. Waves broke gently on the shore, mixing pebbles and fine sediment, whilst emitting a calming and soothing clatter. The swash and the backwash were colourless and clear – individual pieces of sand and fragments of shell were clearly visible. Beyond the breaking waves the sea was a translucent green – tiny fish rapidly darted one way and then another. Out Beyond the sea of green was a sea of blue – a beautiful picture postcard blue; no need for filters or technological enhancement. The sky mirrored the marine perfection. Without a cloud to be seen a solid block of azure blue gradually faded out to a clear, calm distant horizon. Throwing financial caution to the wind, we hired two sun loungers and set up camp. The boys had no need for such luxury

We spent most of our time swimming, reading, sun bathing, chatting and enjoying the view, but we interrupted our standard beach routine to enjoy a fine lunch at one of the beach based restaurants. A thirty second stroll transported us from a peaceful paradise to a culinary one. The beach bar come restaurant was by necessity fairly basic, but the fish was fantastic. Sitting on an outside table and staring at the sea whilst crunching sand beneath our toes, we enjoyed two plates of seafood; one fried and one grilled – both were delicious. The food was heartwarmingly full flavoured, inviting, tempting and sometimes mysterious – it was Spain on a plate. We recognised some of the many different types of fish by taste and sight, but others defied definition and sometimes description – all however were divine. The food appeared to be going down well with all the customers in the restaurant, the vast majority of whom appeared to be Spanish; their lively conversations and obvious appreciation of the food, the drink and the moment, reminded me (not for the first time) of just why I love and appreciate Spanish attitudes towards life in general and family in particular. It was good to see large multigenerational groups of people, wining and dining contentedly. The adults drank, laughed and conversed, whilst the children talked and played; they were included and indulged, but not over indulged. Perhaps it’s the culture. Perhaps it’s the weather. Perhaps it’s the food. Who really knows? What’s certain however is the fact that the Spanish appear to have got things just right.

Feeling full and more than a little satisfied, Tania and I went for an after dinner stroll along the foreshore. The beach was beginning to fill up with sun worshippers, so we walked along the line of the breaking waves. There was still space on the beach, but the distance between beach towels and sun loungers was noticeably diminishing. The vast majority of the new and old arrivals were Spanish, but a few scarlet and a few pale faced tourists were clearly evident; their complexions gave away their north European heritage. I like to think that after a few weeks in Spain, I could be mistaken for a local; I like to think that after a few weeks in the sun I blend into the crowd, but the truth of the matter is somewhat different. I might think that I look tanned and ‘golden brown’, but I’m usually a bright shade of red. I might think that I look Spanish, but my Englishness is usually all too evident.

We headed towards ‘El Peñon’, a rocky outcrop which divides the beach into two. Leaving other beach goers behind us, we enjoyed some moments of isolation, peace and quiet. We walked and scrambled over the rocky outcrop, heading back towards the sea; we were rewarded with yet more stunning views, but also with one less than splendid one. Once again, I stood and stared. To the east and the south all was beauty, but to the west Spain revealed its uglier side – Almuñécar stood out like a sore thumb. Towering apartment blocks and hotels broke the skyline, destroying what must once have been a wonderful scene. Little or no effort had been made to blend the modern monuments to commercialism and mass tourism with the traditional architecture or the natural configuration of the landscape. It was enough to make you weep.

Looking at the view, I thought about Laurie Lee, author of ‘Cider with Rosie’ and many other glorious books. I wondered what he would have thought about recent developments. Born and brought up in the Cotswolds, Laurie Lee left the security of family, cider and Rosie, and travelled to Spain in 1934. His journey through Spain is described in his autobiographical book ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’. Lee’s decision to travel to the country was based upon nothing more than a sense of adventure and the fact that he knew one phrase of Spanish, ‘Puede por favor dame un vaso de agua?’ – ‘Will you please give me a glass of water’. Over the course of a year, Lee walks through Spain, armed with nothing more than a violin and a lust for life. Travelling from Galicia to Andalusia, he poetically and prosaically describes a country caught in a moment of time. He encounters extreme poverty, desolation and extreme beauty. His youthful innocence and wondrous nature capture Spain on the edge of an abyss. Lee has little money, so he survives by busking and relying on the generosity of others. He sleeps at night, wrapped in a blanket under the stars or in cheap, rough posadas, though occasionally he rests in houses, rewarded by the warm and generous hospitality of poor villagers whom he meets along the way. ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ is a wonderfully evocative account of life in Spain during the bleak years leading up to the Spanish Civil War. After visiting Vigo, Valladolid, Madrid, Seville, Córdoba and Cadiz, Lee finds himself in Almuñecar in early 1936. Working in a hotel, Lee describes discussions about rights and revolution. He meets Manolo, the leader of a group of fisherman and labourers, and becomes more involved in local politics. In February, the Socialists win the election and a Popular Front begins. In spring, the villagers, in an act of revolt, burn down the local church, but then regret their actions. In the middle of May, there is a strike and the peasants come in from the countryside to lend their support as the village splits between ‘Fascists’ and ‘Communists’. In the middle of July, war breaks out and Manolo helps organise a militia. Granada is held by the rebels, and so is Almuñécar’s neighbour Altofaro. War comes to Almuñecar and to Laurie Lee; he agonises about what to do next. Eventually, plagued by guilt for his new found friends and comrades, Lee is picked up by a British destroyer from Gibraltar and temporarily returns to the UK.

Back in Slad, near Stroud, Laurie Lee wrestled with his conscience before returning to Spain in 1937 to fight for the Republican cause. In an autobiographical sequel to ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’, called ‘A Moment of War’, Lee dramatically describes his return to Spain, crossing over the Pyrenees, alone and in the middle of a snowstorm. Partially frozen and fully frustrated, Lee meets up with some Republican sympathisers. However, suspected of being a Nationalist spy, he is arrested, imprisoned and sentenced to death. Reprieved after a chance encounter, Lee goes on to fight for the International Brigades. Based in Figueres, Valencia, Tarazona, Madrid, Teruel and finally Barcelona, Lee’s story is one of hardship and ultimately disillusionment. The optimism of his youth is replaced by the pessimism of a mature reality.

Laurie Lee, lost his war time diaries and wrote the last book in his autobiographical sequence some 60 years after the events he describes; some people have cast doubt on the historical accuracy of his memoire, but it’s hard to doubt the authenticity of his experience. Both Laurie Lee’s books about Spain are excellent; worthy of reading and rereading. I first read ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ in 1984, and I had been rereading the book since arriving in Chite. Sometimes it’s true to say that things are never as good as the first time, but familiarity with Lee’s text certainly doesn’t breed contempt – I’d been enjoying the book as much, if not more than when I had first read it. Back in the day I shared Lee’s wanderlust and optimism; I like to believe that I still do. However, now I can compare his experience of place with mine and I can empathise with his internal conflict. If life teaches us anything, it’s to stand up for what we believe in, but it’s also to hang onto the things that we love. With my head spinning from thoughts of poetry and prose, I turned away from Almuñecar, held Tania’s hand and headed back to the beach to read some more.

That Was Then

Yet another car sped past us as we stood by the side of the road holding a small cardboard sign emblazoned with one word – Madrid. In an attempt to save money we had decided to hitchhike back to Granada, by way of a series of long hops. Oh, the optimism of youth. After half an hour of being ignored, we decided that we needed to adopt a slightly different hitchhiking strategy. I ducked down out of sight and Amaya continued to hitch on her own. Shortly afterwards a car pulled up about 100 metres away from us. Amaya walked towards the car and I followed on behind. The car drove away, but at least we were making progress – we decided to repeat the tactic. Shortly afterwards another car stopped. Once again Amaya walked towards the car and I slowly followed on behind. The young male driver didn’t looked best pleased when he saw me, but he offered us a lift anyway. Linguistic demands meant that Amaya jumped into the front seat and I jumped into the back. ‘Excellent – things are working out well’ I thought to myself, before thoughts were interrupted by a strange and overpowering smell; an unpleasant aroma appeared to be emanating from the upholstery. I wound down a window as the car pulled away and the driver struck up a conversation with Amaya. What was that smell? I couldn’t place it. Amaya and the driver chatted happily for a while, but then I detected a growing look of concern spread across Amaya’s face. Consternation had replaced two way conversation. ‘What’s he talking about’ I asked. Amaya turned to face me.’He’s apologising for the smell of blood. Apparently he’s a butcher’. My blood ran cold. The car was an ordinarily saloon, it was hardly a butchers van. I looked towards the rear view mirror and caught a glimpse of the driver and what I thought was a faintly sinister smirk.

Every Cloud – Nerja and the Basque Country

Every Cloud – Nerja and the Basque Country


This Is Now

‘Out of adversity comes opportunity’, or so some people say. If you ask me adversity is overrated, but it’s undeniably true that experiencing bad times can lead to good times. Experiencing bad times also heightens our enjoyment of the good times. That euphoric Friday feeling just wouldn’t be the same without the misery of a Monday morning.

We weren’t miserable and it wasn’t Monday morning – it was a sunny Saturday. Although we were a little sad to be leaving Casa Mesto, after such a fantastic week, our sadness was more than compensated for by the excitement of heading somewhere new. Guidebooks suggested that Nerja had some fine beaches and was relatively unspoilt. We headed south blissfully unaware of the embryonic shadows cast by our optimism.

The drive was scenic and fortunately uneventful. After stopping to buy some groceries in a shopping mall on the outskirts of Malaga, we arrived in Nerja. I suppose ‘relatively unspoilt’ is a subjective term, but first impressions were not favourable. Admittedly, we had been spoilt by our unspoilt mountainous retreat, but Nerja, looked far from fine. Apartments, tower blocks and concrete dominated the scene. With a growing sense of pessimism we passed restaurants, cafes and bars, advertising pints of beer and full English breakfasts as we headed towards the Hotel Club Nerja. We weren’t staying in the Hotel, but it was from here that we needed to collect the keys for our apartment which had been booked through ‘Owners Direct’. ‘Owners Direct’ specialises in advertising privately owned properties, which are then booked directly from the owners. We have used the company on several occasions and up until Nerja, we had never been disappointed.

I suppose there has to be a first time for everything.

Arriving at the Hotel, we were told that there weren’t any keys to collect. My first thoughts were that either the apartment or the owner didn’t actually exist, but after a fairly fraught conversation with the hotel receptionist, it became apparent that the keys, which had been left in our name, had already been collected, about an hour before we had arrived. ‘A little strange’ I thought to myself. Maybe a cleaner was giving the flat a final once over? Unable to contact the owner of the property, we decided to visit the apartment and find out for ourselves.

The apartment was located in a block of flats, which was only a short distance from the hotel, but we managed to turn a short walk into a long one. Wrong turns dominated proceedings. The block of flats, when we eventually arrived, was not what we had expected. Located next to an unfinished building (a concrete skeleton of quite impressive ugliness) the block blended in well with its surroundings, but the surroundings resembled the worst of Eastern Bloc architectural development. We walked past a communal swimming pool, but everything about it argued against communality. The pool was small, too small to swim in and it was surrounded by plastic grass. A teenage couple looked to be in danger of drowning in their own saliva as they embraced and frolicked in the shallows. I hoped that the chlorine levels were high. An English family sat by the edge of the pool – F words filled the air, smoke billowed from cigarettes and faded tattoos were embraced by folds of fat, and that was just the children. Lazy sunbathers without a care in the world. Come on in the water’s lovely!

“Where’s number 14?” I said, to everyone and no one in particularly. Ears pricked up and out of the corner of my eye I glimpsed the lazy sunbathers stirring – wary glances began to track our movements. We located the apartment and knocked, but there was no reply. Standing outside number 14, we were homeless and increasingly humourless. The area and the apartment may not have been exactly what we wanted, but we needed somewhere to stay. As we discussed our next move, I heard footsteps approaching. Turning, I was confronted by a pot-bellied, pasty person wearing speedos that were several sizes too small him – the phoney war was over.

“What d’ya want”. He asked.

I explained our position. “I don’t know if you can help us? We’ve booked number 14, but the keys have been collected by someone else and we’re trying to find out what’s going on”. The man looked confused and guilty at the same time. “We’re staying here”. He offered by way of explanation. “Oh, I see”. I said. “Well, I think there’s been some kind of mistake, because we’re booked to stay here this week and the keys left at the hotel were left in our name”. Tania showed him electronic confirmation of the facts to clarify our position. Speedo man looked and then looked away again. He was clearly concerned, but he was clearly unwilling to discuss the situation any further. “Have you got any proof of booking?” I asked. “An Email or a letter?” Ignoring me, the man called his wife. They unlocked the door, stepped inside and slammed the door shut. “I’ll take that as a no then”. I shouted as they disappeared.

I knocked again, more in hope than expectation. The door remained stubbornly and firmly closed. Silence reigned supreme. Supreme that is until silence was broken by the sound of The Smiths – my phone was ringing.

Our many efforts to get in contact with the owner of the property via texts, phone calls and Emails had finally paid off. David, the owner, could usually be found in Spain, but he was ringing from Ireland. “Don’t worry”, he said. “I’ll sort everything out”, he said. “The apartment is yours”, he said. David told us that the other family shouldn’t have been in the property. He informed us that they had booked to stay for the preceding week. He was calm and reassuring, and he sounded genuinely upset and concerned on our behalf. However, we didn’t feel as confident as David sounded. The other family had possession of the apartment and it didn’t look like they were going to move out anytime soon. It was also difficult to see how they could have booked flights, taken time off work and flown to Spain, for the wrong week. To be fair to the other family, it’s no wonder they looked baffled, but they could at least have attempted to be helpful and they shouldn’t have picked up keys that were clearly being held for us. We reserved our sympathy for ourselves.

We returned to the Hotel Club Nerja, grabbed a much needed drink and waited. Every 20 minutes or so, David phoned to tell us that everything would be fine, but as the phone calls and the minutes passed we grew increasingly concerned. After telling us not to worry for what seemed like the twenty seventh time, David confirmed that after checking all his Email accounts, he had managed to double book the apartment. We didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I think we did both. David said that he would find us something else, but we were losing faith in him and in Nerja.

Not only were we losing faith, but we were running out of time. We needed a room for the night, and we also wanted to try and save some of the food that we had brought with us, which by now must have been slowly cooking in the car. Taking all things into consideration we decided to book a hotel. Unfortunately, there didn’t appear to be any rooms at any of the Inns. It was the first Saturday after the Feast of the Assumption, and everywhere we tried was full. After contacting just about every hotel in Nerja, we discovered that the only place with any availability was the Parador de Nerja, but in this case availability was a subjective term – it wasn’t available to our pockets. Paradores are luxury hotels, located in castles, palaces, fortresses, convents, monasteries and modern designer built buildings. The enterprise was founded by Alfonso XIII of Spain, as a means of promoting tourism and preserving historic buildings. Today, the Paradores are a profitable, state-run business, but even in our present predicament, the Parador de Nerja was out of our price range. Ruling out ultimate luxury, we Increased our budget by as much as we dared and tried to find hotels or apartments in other areas, but all our efforts were to no avail. We sank into a state of collective despondency. It was then that I remembered Grahame.

Several years ago, Grahame, a friend and former colleague had retired to Spain. He successfully avoided the expat Costa Geriatrica, by buying some land and building his own house in Chite, a small village to the south of Granada. In point of fact, Grahame had been the driving force behind the development of a small urbanisation, a whole new street which originally incorporated six separate plots. I clearly remember the original plans, because we were offered the chance to buy into the scheme. Unfortunately for us the timing was all wrong. With two young children and little cash it seemed to be an impossible dream. Looking back with the benefit of hindsight, I think we made the wrong decision. We should have begged, borrowed or stolen. I view it as a missed opportunity.

Not wanting to miss out on any more opportunities I gave Grahame a call. I knew that he was back in the UK for the summer and I thought that his Spanish house was occupied by his family and friends, but I hoped and prayed that he might he be able to help us.

My faith was well placed.

One phone call later and we had the number of a friend of Grahame’s who rented out rooms in Chite. Another phone call and we had sealed the deal. In a matter of moments we moved from despondency to delight, and things were about to get even better.

David phoned to inform us that he still couldn’t find any accommodation, but before I could tell him about our new plans, he offered to put us up in a hotel for the night. In theory we could have travelled straight to Chite, but it was late and I was tired and I’d never stayed in a Parador. I told David that the only hotel with any availability was the Parador de Nerja. The line went quiet for a moment, but then David agreed to pay. “We’ll need two rooms” I said. Well, he owed us one.

If you don’t ask you don’t get. David agreed to pay for both rooms, but payment wasn’t straightforward. For reasons unknown, David told us that he had reserved the rooms, but he couldn’t pay the full amount by card. To complete the transaction David said that he would arrange for a friend of his to meet us at the hotel with a bundle of cash. Doubts resurfaced and my faith started to wane once again. Feeling anxious, we headed towards the hotel.

If truth be told, the outside of the hotel, which resembled a series of austere prison blocks, was a little disappointing, but the bright and opulent interior was quite fantastic. By now we were all really looking forward to our stay, so I hoped that everything would work out. Reporting to reception I was relieved to discover that our rooms had been reserved. I was even more relieved when a dishevelled, slightly suspicious looking character arrived carrying a large brown envelope – the cash had arrived. Our check-in may have resembled a dodgy drugs deal, but we were delighted to have a room that we could call our own – it was time to unpack the groceries.

Trying to fit a weeks worth of shopping into two hotel mini bars is no mean task. In an attempt to reduce the bulk of the shopping, we drank and devoured as much as we could during an impromptu picnic held on our balcony. It wasn’t quite the Balcon de Europa, but we had a pretty good view of the hotel’s ornate planted gardens. Once we were fed and watered we felt ready to enjoy and explore the hotel’s luxurious facilities. Despite our somewhat alcoholic picnic, we enjoyed a free welcome drink at the bar before touring the extensive grounds. The gardens were filled with exotic blooms and orange trees. The lush green of the manicured and well watered lawns contrasted with the blue of the swimming pool and the blue of the Mediterranean. The hotel, situated on a cliff overlooking the sea had quite spectacular views, but what really excited us was the fact that the hotel had its own glass elevator to take guests down to the beach.

It could perhaps be argued that Tania, Will, Tom and I, should get out more often, but for once expectation was matched by reality; we enjoyed riding the elevator to such an extent that we journeyed down, up, and down again, before finally setting foot on playa Burriana. The beach, a mix of fine sand and pebbles, was quite attractive, but the backdrop of cafes, bars and dense low rise development, spoilt the overall character. Strolling along the foreshore, avoiding umbrellas and sun-beds, whilst dodging footballs and frisbees, I tried to picture what the scene must have looked like before the advent of mass tourism. However, despite my somewhat middle-class misgiving and pretensions, I was actually in the best of moods. The sun was shining; both literally and metaphorically. We had emerged from adversity and our early evening beach promenade, paved the way the way for the night to come.

Heading towards the old town, we walked through a series of increasingly busy, but traditional Spanish streets. The streets were lined with some tacky looking gift shops, but also with some lovely looking bars and restaurants. Nerja was beginning to reveal that it was more than just another ‘Costa’ on the Costa del Sol – it actually had some character. Strolling along the vibrant walkways, avoiding buskers and street side cafes, whilst dodging pushchairs and prams, I could just about picture Nerja’s ancient past.

Gradually reappraising my position, I found myself warming to Nerja, and it seemed that a lot of other people liked the place as well. With each passing step, the streets were becoming increasingly crowded. The whole area began to resemble Oxford Street on the run up to Christmas, however it was a little bit warmer and there weren’t any Carol singers – although there was a singer and she could have been called Carol. I have seldom seen busier streets, people jams were commonplace. I began to feel less surprised about the fact that practically every hotel in Nerja, had had no vacancies. Some people stood and chatted, some even went against the main pedestrian flow, but the bulk of the crowd appeared to be heading in one direction – they, like us, were heading towards the ‘Balcon de Europa’.

The ‘Balcon de Europa’, or ‘Balcony of Europe’, sealed my reappraisal of the town; it’s a magnificent vantage point perched on top of a towering cliff. It was once the site of a great Moorish castle. The area was completely packed, but it still managed to retain a degree of charm. The palm lined mirador offered sweeping panoramic views of the Mediterranean and glorious glimpses of a series of small coves and beaches that lined the rocky coastline. Several of the indented coves were wonderfully backlit by red, green and blue lights. The effect was surreal, but quite wonderful.

The ‘Balcon de Europa’, acquired its name when King Alfonso XII, visited Nerja after an earthquake in 1885. Large parts of the town were devastated, but the King attempted to console residents with the news that they were enjoying the best view in the whole of Europe. The monarch may well have had a point, but his view was probably scant consolation to people who’s homes had been destroyed. A bronze statue of the King still stares enigmatically out to sea, testament to words and hopefully not deeds – he appears to be looking the other way.

Tearing ourselves away from the crowds, we walked through an ancient archway, down some stone steps and onto one of the small beaches. The beach was deserted. Waves broke along the shoreline, gently clattering and rattling pebbles in their swash and backwash. We weren’t far away from the ‘Balcon de Europa’, but the sound of the crowd had been replaced by the sound of the sea. Moonlight illuminated the scene. We could smell the sea and the salt spray and almost taste the highly oxygenated water. Everything about the moment was delightful. The sounds, the sights, the smells, the tastes and the feel of pebbles beneath our fingertips. All five senses were assaulted in the most pleasant of ways. In theory, when we focus on our senses and consequently focus on the moment, we maximise our potential for happiness. Life is meant to be lived in the present, experienced for the reality that it can be. If the experience of the present is maximised by a full scale assault on all five senses, the ‘here and now’ becomes everything and life is being lived to the full. Our present situation induced a comprehensive sensory response. The actuality of the moment became everything. Who could want for anything more?

Well, the boys apparently. Teenage stomachs rumbled, so we rejoined the masses.

Pushing through the streets we looked out for places to eat. There were so many busy looking traditional bars to choose from, that while ‘Jose’s Law’ still held true, we used TripAdvisor to speed up and aid selection. Generally we like to take our time, looking, exploring and selecting places for ourselves, but the boys were hungry and we wanted to visit a top tapas bar. I’m actually quite a big fan of TripAdvisor, the service has its flaws, but as long as you choose places with lots of recent positive reviews, you can’t go to too far wrong. Tonight’s choice would be a case in point.
Los Barriles, had been awarded hundreds of excellent reviews, and when we arrived it wasn’t difficult to see why. The small, intimate, rustic looking bar was packed with locals and tourists alike, the atmosphere was terrific. We were greeted by enthusiastic staff and offered tapas with our drinks. The Rioja was delicious as was the accompanying cheese and Serrano ham. Wine casks were used as tables, but chairs were at a premium. We stood by the tiled bar, beneath an impressive display of hanging hams, savouring the food, the drink and the moment. Taking our lead from the locals, we ordered a spicy chorizo sausage. The sausage, which you cook for yourselves, was served in a flaming ceramic pig. Much fun was had by all. Just when we thought the bar couldn’t get any busier, some musicians arrived. They somehow managed to squeeze themselves into a corner, before entertaining us all.

The afternoon hadn’t started well, but our evening was ending in style. Tonight was rapidly becoming one of those special nights that you know you will remember for a lifetime, and we still had our rooms in the Parador to look forward to.

That Was Then

The train rattled and clanked as it wound its way along the track heading into the night – we rattled and clanked in unison. Our carriage, which we had to ourselves, was illuminated by a single naked lightbulb, the connecting corridor was deserted. Surreptitiously twisting and turning in a fruitless attempt to find a position that would countenance sleep, I stared at my own reflection in the window – a hollow eyed version of a familiar face stared back. I moved again, swivelling my shoulders, but my movements were restricted by confinement and concern. Resting her head on my lap, Amaya slept peacefully, but her tear stained eyes paid testament to an anxious and difficult day – I didn’t want to wake her.

The morning, which had started well, had ended badly. When it arrived, melancholy had arrived in moments; a phone call, a desperate message and a desperate plea. A relative of Amaya’s lay seriously ill in hospital. The relative had been ill for a few days, but no one had been able to get in contact with us; we didn’t have a phone, post was slow and the Internet was but a distant dream. Amaya’s nearest and dearest resorted to leaving a message with the University, telling her to phone them. A family tragedy looked to be unfolding.

Travelling roughly north, we needed to cross just about the whole of the country. Forced into reversing the route of the Reconquista, at times it felt like we were heading through space and time; the names of stations evoked past glories and past infamies. Our route which was by no means direct saw us heading from Granada to Antequera, from Antequera to Madrid, from Madrid to Vitoria and finally from Vitoria to San Sebastián.

After a total journey time of nearly 24 hours we arrived in the Basque Country. I must have slept, but it certainly didn’t feel like it. If I did sleep, I must have been dreaming about being awake. Stiff, tired, rattled and clanked, Amaya and I yawned, stretched, grabbed our one small holdall and headed towards the hospital. The hospital, like most hospitals on first acquaintance, appeared large and imposing, a harbinger of good news and bad. Directed towards a ward on an upper floor, we didn’t know what to expect, but we certainly didn’t expect to be greeted by happy smiling faces.

The Spanish wear their emotions on their sleeves; life tends to fluctuate between extremes; it’s either tragedy or good fortune, tears or smiles, deep sadness of exuberant joy. Amaya’s Gran was old and frail, but she was also tough and determined. Confounding her doctors, rising like Lazarus, she had refused to be beaten by an illness which until a few hours earlier had looked like it was going to win. Sitting up in her bed, she had turned a corner. Relief swept through the family in a tidal wave of emotion. In a country and an area where family is everything, family bonds had been strengthened by adversity. This was a family that had known real suffering. The normal extremes of emotion, were made even more extreme by past history and circumstance. A family which had been reduced and divided by politics and war, a family which had been divided by death and distance, a family which in more ways than one, was united by blood, now euphorically embraced with a new found optimism and joy.

Celebrations lasted well into the night. Bottles were opened, songs were sung and stories were told. Family, friends and laughter filled every corner of the small family house located in the suburbs of the city. Hospitality knew no bounds – I was welcomed with open arms. I met Amaya’s uncle who had rowed from Spain into France to escape the Francoist forces; his heroic journey, which saw him challenging tides, currents, cold and non interventionism, had not been diminished by time. Talking with pride, tinged with sadness, he and several other members of Amaya’s family still lived across the border in San Jean de Luz; a haven for former republicans and for Basque separatists. I learnt more about Amaya’s grandfather, who had printed anti fascist leaflets during the civil war, until he was arrested, imprisoned and disappeared by the Nationalists. Informed on by one of his own, he had sacrificed everything for the cause; if he had a grave, it had never been found. The stories came thick and fast, the day turned into a family festival; a rare get together to be savoured now that fear had faded. People talked of past times and politics, food and drink, family and friends. One elderly relative or neighbour, I’m not sure which, pulled up his shirt and proudly displayed the scars of battle; a bullet wound, an indelible mark of the terror of a country which had been at war with itself. Another of Amaya’s uncles, our host it transpired, took me into his back garden to see his rabbits. They happily scurried about in a run. “Which you like” he asked in broken English. “El gris” I replied, pointing at a particularly cute rabbit who gently nibbled a carrot in wide eyed wonderment. “Bueno” my companion replied, before bending down, grabbing the rabbit and dispatching it with a speed and dexterity that defied his years. The next time I saw the rabbit, it was accompanied by white beans and chorizo.

Sharing stories, drink and food (but not rabbit), it became apparent to me that Amaya’s family were bonded by love and pride; they demonstrated not only a warm and content sense of attachment towards each other, but they also exhibited a fulfilled sense of belonging to something that was greater than themselves. The Spanish are a loving and proud people, part of a proud nation, but the Basques take pride to a whole new level. The source of much of this pride is the Basque language.

Basques see themselves as the original Europeans; some of them see themselves as the direct descendants of Adam and Eve. While the latter theory seems slightly fanciful to modern minds (to say the least), the former theory has its basis in fact. The Basques are an indigenous ethnic group, characterised by their culture, a shared ancestry and most importantly of all, their language. In the Basque language or Euskara, Basques are known as Euskaldunak, which means ‘speakers of the Basque language’. The Basque language is unrelated to any other spoken language; it predates the arrival of Indo-European languages into Western Europe – it’s a living relic from a bygone age. DNA research demonstrates that Basque genetic uniqueness predates the arrival of agriculture into the Iberian Peninsula, and that occurred about 7,000 years ago. Original hunter gatherer Basques did mix with some of the early farmers, but the resultant hybrid group became isolated once again. Indigenous to and primarily inhabiting an area traditionally known as the Basque Country, a region which is located around the western end of the Pyrenees, on the coast of the Bay of Biscay, bestriding parts of north-central Spain and south-western France, the Basque are a truly unique and ancient people. It’s quite possible that the Basques are the oldest continuously surviving people inhabiting a particular location in Europe.

Longevity of unique individuality and location is linked to geography. It appears that the Basques and their antecedents chose a homeland that was well suited to isolation and survival. Surrounded by mountains, dense forest and vegetation, the Basque Country was to all intents and purposes, cut off from large groups of outsiders. Furthermore, the Basque lands were not highly prized; the climate was good enough to support agriculture, but the soils were not as fertile as those on the surrounding plains and the area was bereft of precious metals. On the occasions that incursions did occur, the Basques could take to the mountains and return when the coast was clear.

Little developed by the Romans, attacked, but not subdued by the Visigoths, the Normans or initially the Franks, Vasconia, as the land of the Basques was known, united with Aquitaine, to form a strong independent realm. The Basques however, did not constitute a single political entity, but were rather a people with a certain amount of confederate organisation. Holding out fairly successfully for a number of years, Vasconia was eventually forced to submit to Frankish rule, but uprisings were a common occurrence and the Basques fought to reassert their independence. From the mid ninth century, Vasconia renamed Navarre, grew in power and importance, taking over and controlling areas with non Basque populations, as well as providing resistance to Moorish expansion – It could be argued that it was from Navarre that the reconquista truly started. The influence of the Basque people reached its peak in the Middle Ages, during the reign of Sancho III, King of Navarre. At its height, the Kingdom of Navarre encompassed the entire current Basque Country in Spain (Biscay, Gipuzkoa and Alava), along with the present day region of Navarre, the Northern Basque Country in France and parts of the Spanish provinces of Aragon and Castile. However, as is the way with most expansionist powers, the Navarrese area of control ultimately fragmented, breaking into a number of separate feudal kingdoms. Pamplona, the main Basque kingdom, was absorbed into Aragon. The Basque people themselves were concentrated into an area to the north of the central and western Pyrenees.

Down but not out, Navarre make a comeback, but the comeback was short lived. Navarre was restored in 1157, but in 1199, while the Navarre’s King was away on a diplomatic mission, Castile, the precursor to modern Spain, invaded and annexed the western Basque Country, leaving what was left of Navarre landlocked. King Alfonso VIII of Castile promised to hand Gipuzkoa and Álava back to Navarre, but promises are meant to be broken. The Castilian king did however ratify Navarrese rights in an attempt to gain loyalty. The Navarrese managed to retain a large degree of self-government and privileges which all Castilian (and later, Spanish) monarchs, would swear to uphold on oath until the 19th century. These privileges, called fueros, provided a guarantee of allegiance to the Spanish kings from their Basque subjects and in turn they had a major impact on the evolution of the Basque Country, preserving as they did a degree of independence and autonomy throughout the years.

From the Middle Ages onwards, the Basques developed a reputation as formidable seafarers and fishermen, they developed the rudder and built boats which took them across the Atlantic in search of whales and cod. Heading ever westward, it’s believed that Basques may have discovered North America hundreds of years before Columbus – it’s a documented fact that Basque sailors made up the bulk of Columbus’s crew.

Back on dry land, the Basque Country in the Late Middle Ages was ravaged by local power struggles. The War of the Bands, saw families fighting each other to gain control in Navarre and Biscay. As the Middle Ages drew to a close, the Basques found themselves fighting for survival, sandwiched as they were between the two rising superpowers of France and Spain. Most Basques ended up in Spain, where their independence was protected by the fueros. In France, Basque regional laws suffered a gradual erosion of status. Lower Navarre was fully absorbed at a fairly early stage and by the 17th century, the last component of the Northern Basque country was permanently attached to France. The French Revolution of 1789, marked the end of Basque privileges in favour of a centralised and unified French state.

Meanwhile, back in Spain, the southern Basque Country was embroiled in disputes with the Spanish authorities. Rights guaranteed by the fueros began to be ignored as centralised government started to assert itself. Matters were made worse during the Peninsular War. Biscay and Navarre were granted civil constitutions by the French army of occupation, but then the Spanish Constitution of Cadiz talked of one sole Spanish nation and the civil constitutions were over turned.

With the threat of an end to any form of self rule or self determination hanging over their heads, the Basque provinces turned away from the new liberal Spanish Cortez and backed traditionalist leaders who they believed would defend the ancient order and honour the fueros. The Basque provinces, but not all of the towns and cities within them, backed Carlos V – It was the beginning of the Carlist Wars.

The First Carlist War went badly for the Basque Country. Forced to surrender, the Basques who had supported Carlos V, did so on the basis that their rights would be respected. In 1839 however, the Basques lost their entitlement to create their own laws and enforce them through their own courts, and things were about to get even worse. Ongoing differences led to the second Carlist War – if the first war had gone badly the second was a disaster for the Basque Country. Defeat heralded the Law of Abolition of Statutes, which removed all remaining vestiges of Basque autonomy.

Disillusioned by defeat and angry about the lack of autonomy, Sabino Arana established the Basque National Party (PNV) to fight for the right to self government. A traditionalist, but strategically a forward thinker, Arana encouraged Basque unity by inventing modern nationalistic symbols. Arana gave the Basque Country a flag (based on the Union Jack), a national anthem and a name, Euzkadi.

Ruled by Spanish monarchs and controlled by the Spanish police, many Basques felt that their country was occupied by a foreign power. Simmering discontent was also linked to Industrialisation, which brought wealth to some, but created an impoverished urban proletariat, who became increasing receptive to socialist and anarchist ideologies.

Remaining neutral throughout World War 1, Spain profited as a result of increased trade. The end of the war however, brought recession and decline to the Basque industrial heartlands. People wanted change. Encouraged by growing support the PNV continued to pursue independence. In 1931, at the onset of the Second Spanish Republic, an attempt was made to draw up a single statue for the Basque territories in Spain. but Navarre pulled out of proceedings and the attempt failed.

In 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out and the Basques were forced to pick sides. Navarre, deeply traditionalist, Catholic and “Carlist”, sided with the Nationalists. The other Basque regions, after a period of doubt and hesitation, supported the Republic, which granted them their coveted autonomous Basque state. Sadly for the Basques, autonomy was short lived; it died along with the Republic, defeated by Franco’s forces.

After the Civil War, Franco instigated a long and vicious campaign of persecution against the Basques, whom he viewed as traitors. Franco believed in one, unified Spain, and opposed any kind of regional diversification. The Basque language and the Basque flag were banned. Measures were put in place to remove all Basque cultural events and Basque parents were refused the right to give their children Basque names. Hundreds of Basques emigrated to the French Basque country or into exile abroad.

Franco kept Spain out of World War II, but the Basques hoped that after defeating Hitler and Mussolini, the Allies would focus their forces on fascist Spain. The Allies however, were tired of war and short of cash, consequently Franco remained unchallenged and firmly in power. Initially, the Basques could at least count on the sympathy of the Western powers, but that changed when the spread of communism and the rise of the Soviet Union, became the greater fear. To the utter horror of the Basques, Franco was recast by the West as the protector of Western values against the red menace.

In the 1950s, pro-independence Basque students sought to counter Franco’s power by forming Euskadi ta Askatasuna (Basque Fatherland and Liberty), or ETA. The principal aim of ETA was to establish an independent socialist Basque state, straddling northern Spain and the southern end of the French Atlantic coast.

Making its first appearance in 1959, ETA was primarily a splinter group borne from a schism within the PNV. The movement quickly radicalised and called for violent insurrection against Franco’s regime. Attacks were launched against the Guardia Civil, the Spanish paramilitary police and Franco’s hierarchy. In 1973, ETA struck a blow that would change the course of Spanish history; they assassinated Luis Carrero Blanco, Franco’s right hand man and chosen successor. The attack marked the beginning of the end for Franco’s regime. Franco managed to remain in power for nearly forty years, but after his death in 1975, the leadership of the country was handed to King Juan Carlos who re-established democracy.

The return of democracy marked a return to more tolerant times. Regional languages such as Basque, no longer had to be spoken in secret; they took on greater value and became promoted national languages within Spain. As well as being free to speak their native tongue, some aspects of power were given back to the regions, and in 1979 the Basque provinces of Gipuzkoa, Biscay and Alava, were granted autonomy, within the parameters set by the Constitution. The province of Navarre, however, refused to join Euskadi and negotiated a separate status.

With Basque autonomy finally established, rifts began to appear within the nationalist movement. Some celebrated the new status given to Basque provinces, while others wanted to continue their struggle for total and complete independence. It was within this context that some ETA members continued their terrorist activities, despite the return of democracy. Their political branch, the Batasuna party founded in 1978, relayed their message to the public and held seats in Parliament.

Political violence worsened in the 1980’s, escalated by the creation of the Antiterrorist Liberation Group (GAL), a paramilitary wing of the Spanish police that hunted down and murdered ETA members across the border in French territory. Such clandestine activities led to political scandal in Spain. The French, naturally upset about what was happening on their own soil, reacted by allowing ETA suspects to be extradited back into Spain; ETA reacted by stepping up their attacks and acts of violence. In 1984, the Basque Country was on high alert.

Back at Amaya’s uncles house, the party continued. Spirits replaced wine and conversations became increasingly unguarded – it was obvious where the families sympathies lay. This was a proud family wth a proud heritage. Some things can be forgiven and forgotten, but not everything. Some things are worth fighting for, but you’ve got to know when to stop.

Knowing my own limits, I knew when to stop. Unfortunately I had passed that particular point several drinks earlier. The bathroom was occupied, so I ventured back out into the garden. Fresh air revived my spirit, but too much spirit was unfortunately the problem. I lay down, I looked at the moon, the stars and the remaining rabbits – I apologised to any that cared to listen.

We stayed at Amaya’s uncles house for a couple of days. Amaya’s Gran continued on her road to recovery and Amaya’s family couldn’t have been warmer or more welcoming. I remember one particularly hot afternoon, sitting down to eat a full traditional English roast dinner; Amaya’s family had wanted to make me feel like I was at home. Once we were sure that Amaya’s Gran would be OK, we decided to move on, but we wouldn’t be heading home. We both wanted to spend some more time exploring San Sebastián. We booked a room in small cheap hostal situated at the far end of La Concha.

I think it would be difficult not to fall in love with San Sebastián. The situation of the town is simply stunning. Our hostal was located on the western edge of La Concha, which has to be one of the most beautiful urban beaches in Europe. The old town and the port are located at the eastern end of the beach. The beach lies in a classic arcuate bay, framed and partially enclosed by two curved headlands, which are separated by two narrow stretches of open water on either side of the Isla Santa Clara. The island lies smack bang in the centre of the concordant bay. The bay itself is surrounded by low hills, which serve to accentuate the overall beauty of the area. Geology has been kind to San Sebastián, but so has design. The beach is backed by a wonderful promenade, complete with pretty gardens, intricate railings and ornate street lamps. Backlit at night, the illuminations reflected by the cool Atlantic, emphasised the golden sand of the bay and gave structure to a view that simply took our breath away.

The old town itself is another example of classic design which proves that occasionally man can compete with nature. I’m not suggesting that the destruction of the original town by British troops in 1813, would have been a good time for the resident population, but the phoenix that rose from the ashes still impresses. The original town, which was completely burnt to the ground was rebuilt in neoclassical style. The area was simply beautifully; the austere, systematic architecture, provided a wonderful backdrop and home to narrow streets and lively bars. The town looked both impressive and sophisticated and it exuded a cultured air. Home to an international film festival and a annual Jazz festival, San Sebastián is also renowned for its dining clubs and gastronomy.

As if by accident, we’d discovered our own Eden; a beautiful beach, a stunning location, a rich history and an atmospheric old town full of delight. Surrounded by temptation, we spent our days on the beach and our nights wandering the old town in search of food, drink and entertainment.
San Sebastián had become our garden of delight, but apples certainly weren’t the most tempting thing on the menu. The bars in San Sebastián appeared to be competing with each other in their attempts to produce the most elegant, the most elaborate and the most sensationally tasting food that they could. Always beautifully arranged, if the look of the pintxos weren’t enough to tempt you by themselves, the barmen tried to seal the deal with tantalising descriptions that set us salivating. The snacks, the Basque equivalent of pinchos, were usually pierced with cocktail sticks. Pintxo is a Basque take on the Spanish word pincho, which itself comes from the verb pinchar, which means to pierce. Each night we would fill up on cheap hearty food, before heading out on a culinary quest to discover new taste sensations. Unfortunately our quests were usually curbed by our increasingly desperate financial situation. Like children in a sweet shop, we looked with desire, but gratification was limited by a lack of peastas.

Sharing one particularly tasty pintxo in a particularly lovely bar, I heard shouting and chanting, which unusually rose above the normal sound of the crowd. A barman, alerted to the commotion, walked towards the entrance of his establishment. He looked to his right and then his left, and then promptly told everyone to leave the premises. A customer standing close to the door, stuck his head out into the street; he looked right and then left, and then promptly jumped back into the bar as a broken brick whistled past his head. Perhaps unwisely, I poked my head out of the door. The street immediately in front of the bar was empty, apart from a broken brick, but to my left were heavily armed police and to my right was an angry mob armed with sticks, bricks and bottles. Without too much difficulty I predicted a riot, but I couldn’t have predicted my next move. I was forcibly pulled back inside the bar by the barman, who then proceeded to pull down a heavy metal security shutter. We were locked in for the night.

It was late, but the bar was still full of customers. Friends and strangers, united by circumstance, quickly became confidants as everyone discussed the situation and the likely outcome of events. It transpired that this particular night was the anniversary of the death of a leading light in the ranks of ETA. The rank and file of ETA had taken to the streets in memory and in protest; conflict it was suggested, was almost inevitable. Whilst discussions raged inside and violence raged outside, the barmen served a round of free wine and beer. Things were looking up. Shortly afterwards, a barman asked if anyone was hungry and indicated that we could help ourselves to the days remaining pintxos. I didn’t need to be asked twice. I had never tasted such fantastic food. Politics, protestors and the police may well have been colliding, but I was enjoying the moment. We were safe, secure and we were very well fed.

A strange kind of party atmosphere lasted into the early hours of the next morning. Political reality had thrown us all together, but once the initial shock died down, people talked and chatted with an air of almost complete indifference. After leaving a suitable gap between the last audible evidence of disturbance and the reopening of the metal shutters, one of the barman finally suggested that it was safe to leave. We thanked the staff profusely before walking out into the early morning. Detritus littered the street. Bricks, bottles and broken barstools provided evidence of the night before. The evidence of passion, politics, pain and patriotism was all too clear.

This Is Now

Today, the Basque Country enjoys more autonomy than any other region in Spain – it has its own parliament and police force, it controls education and collects its own taxes, but some ETA hardline supporters remain determined to push for full independence.

Estimates suggest that over the last 40 years, ETA has been responsible for over 820 deaths. ETA’s victims have included members of the Guardia Civil, Spain’s national police force, as well as both local and national politicians who have opposed ETA’s separatist demands. Some of these politicians have been native Basques. Innocent bystanders have also been victims and at one time it was announced that all tourists visiting Spain were legitimate targets.

ETA were particularly active in the late 1970’s and the early 1980’s, when in one year, its violent campaign led to over 100 deaths. Nowhere was safe as violent episodes occurred throughout Spain and the Basque Country. Drive by shootings took place in San Sebastián and in 1985, two off-duty policemen were shot dead close to the centre of the town.

In more recent times, ETA’s activities appear to have declined. ETA has been losing support from amongst its own people and it has come under increasing pressure from coordinated police and political counter terrorism campaigns. It’s leadership and its funding have both been successfully targeted.

The assassination of a popular local politician in 1997, marked a major turning point in ETA’s popularity and fortunes. Miguel Angel Blanco, was kidnapped from his home in front of his wife and children. When the Spanish authorities refused to meet ETA’s demands (the release of hundreds of ETA prisoners) he was executed. Public opinion dramatically turned against ETA. Millions took to the streets and demanded an end to violence. The following year ETA announced a ceasefire, but when the Spanish government refused to discuss ETA’s demands for independence until the group fully denounced violence, ETA returned to their old ways.

In 2004, bomb attacks in Madrid, marked another major turning point. The bombings which led to 192 deaths and thousands of injuries were originally falsely blamed on ETA, in what was seen as a political move to garner support for the government in its aim to win an upcoming election. When it became apparent that the bombings were the work of an extremist Islamic group, the electorate rejected the incumbent government and voted in the Socialist Party. The bombings did however, have the effect of uniting the whole country against violence and terrorism. At the time It was thought that ETA no longer believed that they could achieve their aims by violent means, but after a hiatus, their attacks unfortunately continued.

Recent years have seen a never ending round of ceasefires, broken promises, violent outbursts, arrests and more ceasefires. Presently we are in a period of relative peace, but whilst ETA has pledged to refrain from violent separatist struggle, the separatist movement itself has not been denounced and ETA have been slow to give up their arms. In actual fact, ETA’s announcement which pledged an end to violence, reinforced their struggle for the Basque homeland at the same time, but admittedly through the use of democratic means.

Democracy has to be the way forward. Events in other regions of Spain (Catalonia and Galicia), and in other countries (the Scottish referendum) show that regionalism is still very much an item on the political agenda. In an uncertain world, what is certain is that the question of Basque independence won’t go away.




In-between Days

In-Between Days


This Is Now

Casa Mesto, our home from home, was an isolated, restored farmstead, located amongst ‘Los Pueblos Blancos’, the white villages of Andalusia. Every year, once the spring rains have passed, the houses of ‘Los Pueblos Blancos’ are whitewashed to a state of pristine perfection, partly as a way of welcoming the new season and saying a final adios to the colder winter months and partly and less romantically as a way of carrying out general maintenance. Almost whiter than white, the houses reflect the sun and dazzle in contrast to the sombre rocky backdrop of the sierras. Famous and fantastic, ‘Los Pueblos Blancos’ are renowned for their unique beauty and their spectacular mountain settings. Influenced by the Berber architecture of North Africa, the small villages and towns are invariably located on hilltops; the whitewashed houses huddle around ancient castles and churches, creating captivating built landscapes which rival the work of nature.

Although located amongst ‘Los Pueblos Blancos’, Casa Mesto is situated between one ‘Pueblo Blanco’ and one ‘Pueblo Azul’. Confused? So were we. Casa Mesto is situated between Juzcar to the south and Cartajima to the north. Juzcar, about a 20 minute walk from our front door, used to be one of the ‘Pueblo Blancos’, but in 2011 all the buildings in the village (including the church and the gravestones) were painted blue by ‘Sony Pictures’ to promote the launch of a new 3D ‘Smurfs’ movie and to celebrate ‘Global Smurfs Day – who would have thought that such a day even existed? We had been informed about this tinted travesty in advance of our visit to the village, but nothing could have quite prepared us for the spectacle – Juzcar really does stand out. Positioned somewhere on a colour chart between sky blue and electric blue, ‘Smurf’ blue is out there on its own – quite literally so as the colour has now been trademarked. To my mind (and Will’s) the colour jarred against the natural landscape, but Tania and Tom, and most of the local villagers were in favour of the redecoration. ‘Sony’ offered to repaint the town after the main event, but the locals voted to extend Juzcar’s blue period. This vote has been justified by the fact that since turning blue, the villages finances have moved from the red into the black. Tourists numbers have leapt from 300 visitors a year to over 250 visitors a day; several small new businesses have opened and profits have grown.

With a mixed sense of alarm, interest and admiration (well, as publicity stunts go it has been a pretty successful one) we explored the village. Wandering around we gazed in mild amusement at the many pictures of Smurfs and Smurfettes, painted onto the sides of houses. We walked past models of Smurfs, Smurfettes and their toadstool homes, but we resisted the temptation to stop or step inside. Mostly bizarre, some of the models were even more bizarre than others. We stared in frank astonishment at a line of disembodied Smurf heads which had been raised high on poles on top of a balcony; the scene resembled the aftermath of a medieval massacre. Emotionally disturbed, we visited the village shop in search of some cooling and hopefully calming water. Unfortunately the shop stocked little in the way of basic necessities, however it did sell a comprehensive range of Smurf merchandise and memorabilia. Heading onwards we visited the local bar. Apart from some red chairs and green awning, Bar Torricheli was blue inside and out. Cheap, lively and friendly, with good food and drink, the bar was a little gem. Tania and I enjoyed a beer, but we noticed that most of the locals were drinking a pink coloured drink served with lots of ice. Determined to follow our own advice, which is to eat and drink as the locals do, we tried some ‘Pacharan’. The sweet liqueur wine was delicious and fairly potent. Originally produced in Navarre, Pacharan is made from fermented sloes and has an alcohol content of between 25 and 30%. A couple of glasses later and the village of Juzcar began to feel a little less bizarre. A couple more glasses and I thought I was hallucinating. Fortunately the boys were able to guide us home.

We have generally found that when we are on holiday with the boys, it’s a good idea to alternate busy days with rest days. Some days are packed full of cities, sights, museums, shops and social history, but on other days we just read, swim, rest, relax and laze about. Our ‘full on’ days are usually separated by ‘in-between days’; I think it’s the secret to a happy holiday. Our evening trip to Juzcar, had been tagged onto a lazy day, which had followed our frantic and full on trip to Jerez de la Frontera. Too much Pacharan however, meant that one in-between day was about to become two.

After a later breakfast then usual, we decided to rest up and enjoy all that our holiday home had to offer. After all, if you can’t relax and do just what you want to do when you are on holiday, when can you? To some extent our plan was determined by our post Pacharan performance, but it was our last full day at Casa Mesto, and I for one was more than happy to spend the day doing nothing.

A rest cure was obviously what was required. My head began to clear so I took a break from doing nothing and headed towards the infinity pool. As I wallowed in the cool blue water and gazed towards the Sierra Bermeja, I realised that this was another of those perfect moment. I looked across the garden and saw William and Tom, laughing and smiling as they chatted, whilst Tania immersed herself in a book. The cicadas chirruped, a gentle breeze blew and the sun shone. What could be better or more life affirming. I was a happy, proud and contented man.

Unfortunately, all good things come to an end. Tania finished her book and suggested that as this was our last day we should probably get rid of all the waste and rubbish that we had accumulated during our short stay – this included a few too many empty bottles and cans. Resistance was useless, contentment was curtailed. The nearest bottle bank was in Cartijima, I would have to venture out after all. I asked for volunteers to accompany me, but eye contact was avoided and silence reigned supreme. Young volunteers were in short supply, but Tania did agree to help.

As local recycling centres go, Cartijima was a particularly impressive one. The village occupies a quite spectacular physical space. Perched above an oak forest, the village is surmounted by rugged limestone peaks. The village possesses all the traditional characteristics of a Pueblo Blanco; narrow streets and immaculate white houses, tightly clustered around an ancient church. Apart from the immediate area next to the recycling bins, the village was archetypal and attractive.

Our intention, as we parked on the outskirts of the village, was to quickly carry out our chores and then return to base. However we were seduced by Cartijima’s charms and intrigued by the faint sound of distant voices.

Intrigued and entranced we headed towards what we presumed would be the centre of the village, but finding our way was difficult. The maze like arrangement of the alleyways and streets proved to be quite disorientating; it was impossible to head in a straight line. By continually reacting and redirecting to the growing noise we attempted to keep on course. Sound was our compass and as the decibels grew we became even more intrigued. What had at first been a murmur, a distant gabble, slowly and almost imperceptibly rose to a crescendo. As we got closer to the centre of the action we heard individual shouts and shrieks ringing out above what sounded like the collective chant of a football crowd. Cartijima, a small village of just over 200 residents, sounded like it had been invaded.

Turning a final corner we arrived at a busy and bustling square. With a stage at one end and a bar at the other, practically the whole village, plus a few guests, were either sitting down and talking or standing around and talking. Those seated, sat beside rows of tables that packed the space between stage and bar; those standing ordered drinks and ate tapas. Voices amplified by friendly, but competitive conversation, were further amplified by the surrounding architectural acoustics. Everyone appeared to have something to say and everyone wanted to make themselves heard. Young and old talked and mixed freely, but some behavioural and spatial patterns did exist. The older women generally sat close to the stage, fanning themselves as they drank, talked, ate and fussed over their grand children. The older men on the edge of throng, talked, drank, smoked, played cards and reminisced. Mothers and fathers stood close to the bar, enjoying quality time with each other as they remembered that they had once been ‘novias’ and ‘novios’, whilst teenagers flirted and engaged in games almost as old as time. Amidst the scene, young children ran around freely, indulged by all they were blithely unencumbered by North European convention. I got the distinct impression that this was a happy place and a safe place; a place where everyone would look out for everyone else; a place where it would be impossible to die alone or uncared about. Cartijima, at least for today, was a model for life as it’s meant to be lived.

Feeling like a pair of uninvited guests at a party, we hesitated, not knowing quite what to do. We didn’t think that we should gate crash, but we were beckoned towards the bar by friendly faces and invited to eat and drink along with everyone else. Having failed to learn any lessons from our Pacharan experience we decided to drink what the locals were drinking. Pointing at a tall glass full of red tinted promise and asking “Que es? I was informed that the drink in question was tinto de varano, or red wine of summer. The drink turned out to be a simple, but delightful mixture of red wine and gaseosa (a mild flavoured lemonade) served with lots of ice. The drink hit the spot nicely; it was the perfect accompaniment to the mood and to the moment. The food was equally as delightful as the drink. A constant stream of delicious treats were delivered to the bar and to the tables; stuffed peppers, cheese, Iberico ham, tuna, potato and pork fillets. Perfect strangers pushed plates heaped with food towards us. We were outsiders, but we were treated like old friends. The drinks only cost a euro and all the food was free. This was a village that wanted to share itself and its produce. Living as we do in an age of semi isolation, self interest and selfism, the whole experience was uniquely satisfying. Loud, passionate, warm, welcoming, communal, caring and carefree, Catijima exemplified all that is best about village life in Spain.

We had been fortunate enough to arrive on one of three summer festival days. On the 15th,16th and 17th of August, food was provided free of charge to all who visited Cartijima. We had arrived on the barbecued meats day, but on the day before a giant paella cooked in a giant pan had been served to all and sundry; on the day before that a feast of sardines had been provided. The three day feria is preceded by a cultural week. Theatre, music and dancing dominate life in the village. ‘Feria’ (Latin for free day) was originally used to describe a day on which slaves were not obliged to work, now it means a fair or festival, but fair days are still public holidays. The Carajima feria is reputed to be the best in the area. The nature of Cartajima’s feria and its local preeminence is due in part to the village’s recent history.

Franco died in 1975, but it would take another 32 years for Cartajima to shake of his influence. In 2007 the villagers finally overcame their collective inferiority complex and felt confident enough to freely exercise their democratic rights and vote out the incumbent Francoist Mayor. The largely uneducated and illiterate population had found it difficult to break away from years of suppression and coercion. The new Mayor created a new dynamism and opened up the town hall and its kitchens to everyone. Free from intimidation the villagers partied into the night – they’re still partying. The Cartajima feria is an outward expression of recently won freedom.

When you become a parent you voluntarily give up freedom, but would I be without my children? Well, not most of the time. It has always struck me as strange that we give up so easily what little we have to lose. After eating and drinking our fill we thought that it was probably time to re-engage with our parental responsibilities, so we headed back to Casa Mesto. We were slightly worried that the boys would have been wondering what had happened to us, but it was evident that they hadn’t even really registered that we had gone in the first place. They may not have noticed our earlier departure, but when we mentioned free food and stated our intention to return and visit the feria by night, they stated their intention to accompany us.

Later that evening we parked in the same spot that we had used earlier on in the day. This time however, the sound of distant voices was replaced by the the sound of a sudden, sharp and loud explosion. Jumping, despite ourselves and our better instincts, we looked up towards the sky. It was still daytime, but a spiders web of florescent white light radiated from a central point of brilliance. The bright light soon faded, outlasted by the boom of the blast echoing around the hillsides, diminishing with each reverberation. Peace was all but restored, but then another explosion rent the sky and the pattern was repeated. We should have been more prepared for the second blast, but we still jumped.

We were obviously watching and listening to fireworks, but these weren’t like any fireworks that I had ever seen or heard before. These were more like military rockets, launched singularly and with dramatic effect. We discovered later that many of the rockets were lit whilst still being held, fuses ignited with the help of glowing cigarette tips. Children would then race around the village, competing with each other to catch the stabilising sticks that the rockets had originally been attached to as they fell back down to earth. Health and safety regulations appear to have by-passed Cartijima.

As our ears and then our nerves slowly recovered, we picked out the sound of distant drums and what we thought was possibly a brass section. Once again, directed by sound, we headed back towards the centre of the village, but this time the village came out to meet us. We hadn’t walked far before the drumming became louder, the sound of brass became unmistakable and the streets become crowded with people. The young, the old and people of indeterminate age hugged pavements and doorways, leaving a narrow processional avenue for players, parishioners, prelates and a paso. The paso, an elaborate float carried by six porters, was finished in silver and gold and was surmounted by a statue of the Madonna and Child. The life-size and lifelike figures were dressed in green and gold, and they were adorned with pink roses. Some of the instrumentalists formed a guard of honour surrounding the float, others followed on behind, as did many of the villagers. Squeezing ourselves tightly against the ancient walls of ancient houses, we felt like we had stepped back in time. The procession moved slowly, the hesitant and somewhat stilted movements had obviously been reverently and lovingly choreographed – it was an extraordinary and an intriguingly emotional sight. Spain is a modern country with modern ambitions, but its soul is rooted deeply and firmly in the past.

Returning to the present we followed the procession as it wound its way through the village and back to the church. The interior of Nuestra Senora del Rosario (Our Lady of the Rosary) owes far more to recent times than does the ancient exterior of the building. Restored after being set ablaze, the original interior of the church was an early victim of the Spanish Civil War.

This was the last day of the feria, but the first day is always dedicated to women – those who live in the village and those who left during and just after the Civil War, but who return to their spiritual home in August. I felt like I had discovered my spiritual home. Returning to the square we lost ourselves in the warm embrace of Cartijima. We were welcomed with open arms, full plates, music, dancing and drink. We felt like and we were made to feel like we belonged. Here I thought is a culture and a way of life that can be believed in.

That Was Then

When you’re young anything and everything seems possible; doubt may be an overriding emotion, but doubt doesn’t dent possibility.

My father was a musical man. He was an accomplished pianist and had played in a number of Jazz bands. Impressively, he could hear a tune on the radio one minute and play it the next. From an early age I was a little in awe of my fathers musical ability, but I chose to learn the guitar rather than the piano. It quickly became apparent however, that whilst I could play at a fairly rudimentary level (entertaining myself, but no one else) I was never going to be booked to perform at the Royal Albert Hall.

I probably would have given up the guitar, but then I saw Louise Mckeon.

Our eyes first met (well, mine met hers) across the aisles of the local Roman Catholic Church. Louise sat playing her guitar at the front of the church; she was pretty, she was perfection, she was a member of the folk group and she was my first real crush. I should have realised that she was unobtainable, but I was 13 and hormonal. In the absence of wisdom and against my own better judgement, I hatched a cunning plan. Approaching the leader of the folk group, I volunteered my services. I became a fully signed up member of the musical ensemble and I knew that my chance would come.

Louise left the group the very next week – perhaps not an unconnected fact.

Unfortunately when I attempted to leave the group, my father told me that I had made a commitment and commitments had to be honoured. I was destined to spend every other Sunday for the next two years strumming along to ‘Lord of the Dance’ and ‘Michael, Row the Boat Ashore’ – Hallelujah indeed.

I’m fairly sure that I have never played those songs since, from that day to this, but my salutary experience would come in useful in Granada..

During the week, Amaya and her flatmate Alison, spent mornings and sometimes afternoons at the University. Left to my own devices, I read, slept, sun bathed, explored the city and strummed away on an old guitar that I had discovered in the flat. My idle strumming gave birth to an idea.

I still had grave doubts about my guitar playing ability and deep down I knew that I couldn’t really sing, but I believed that I might be able to supplement my meagre finances by busking and I wasn’t going to let the fact that I only knew four chords and three and half songs get in the way.

Reciting lyrics and picturing chord sequences, I headed out early one morning into the city streets of Granada. My challenge to myself was to earn enough money to pay for breakfast. Guitar in hand I searched for a quiet spot in a local square. Doubts crowded my mind; the possible suddenly and overwhelmingly seemed impossible. ‘It’s now or never’ I thought to myself. Trying to disregard everyone else and just play for myself, I formed a G chord and then an E major, but I couldn’t actually make myself strum the strings. My hands sweated, despite the cool of morning. Wiping my hands on my jeans, I went back to G again. This time I managed to make a sound, but it was so quiet that no one apart from myself could possibly have heard it. I struggled on. I accompanied my own hushed chords with whispered incoherent words. “Police car and a screaming siren, pneumatic drill and ripped up concrete”. It was a performance of sorts, but it wasn’t entertainment. I put the guitar down and searched for inspiration.

I hadn’t earned enough for breakfast (I hadn’t earned enough for anything) but I needed a drink and I didn’t think an orange juice would do. Ordering a sol y sombra, with a coffee on the side, I tried to resurrect my confidence. Sol y sombra, or sun and shade, consists of equal measures of brandy and anise. The drink, usually served as a digestif, is sometimes drunk to kick start the day. I contemplated the day ahead and hoped that a little Dutch courage would do the trick. Friends, or more accurately acquaintances in the bar were intrigued to see that I had a guitar with me. From odd words, gestures and signs, I gathered that they wanted me to play. Fuelled by early morning sol, and some sombra, I played, but didn’t sing. My musicianship was greeted with polite applause and a pat on the back. Perhaps I wasn’t that bad after all? Perhaps it was the drink talking? Perhaps they were just being kind? Whatever the real reasons, my confidence grew and my inhibitions fell.

Somewhat surprisingly, someone in the bar rewarded my playing with the offer of another drink. “Un otro” I said. Too much sun is bad for everyone, but a little sol, tempered with some shade, perked me up no end. It was time to go on tour. Consigning my first busking experience to history, I boarded a bus and headed towards the Albaicin. Doubt had been replaced by belief.

With a new sense of casual self assurance, I decided to follow the Calle San Juan de Los Reyes, and play at likely spots along the route. My performances were necessarily, and from the point of view of the public, fortuitously brief; three and a half songs didn’t make for a long show. Powered by brandy and anise, I thought that I sounded great. ‘That’s Entertainment’ by the Jam, ‘Bank Robber’ by the Clash, ‘The Boxer’ by Simon and Garfunkel and half of ‘Still Ill’ by the Smiths, were reeled off in quick succession. I thought that I was Joe Strummer, I tried to sound as impassioned as Paul Weller and I wanted to be Morrissey. I was tempted to play more, but after four separate performances a string broke and the people of Granada were spared.

Heading onwards rather than heading home, I continued to follow the Calle San Juan de Los Reyes and then detoured towards the Mirador San Nicolas. Perched on a wall opposite San Nicolas Church, against the stunning backdrop of the Alhambra, two guitarists were in mid performance. The dexterity of their playing, the quality of their musicianship, the passion in their voices and their fingertips, made all my efforts seem shabbily mediocre. I watched and listened enthralled. I loved the moment, I loved the show, but my own self assurance dissipated as belief was replaced by doubt. I had rediscovered reality and I had only earned a few pesetas, but I had proved to myself that anything is possible if you have a go. I looked at my broken guitar string with a sense of thankfulness; at least no one could ask or expect me to play.

Lost Weekends – Motril and Jerez de la Frontera

Lost Weekends – Motril and Jerez de la Frontera

That Was Then

After a few too many late nights, we decided to take a break and headed to the coast for a few more. Our destination was Motril. Excited by the prospect of exploring somewhere new, I was less than excited by the prospect of another coach trip. My sense of foreboding was justified. The journey was interminable. In 1984 the trip generally took about 2 hours, as coaches, cars and lorries, slowly wound their way up, down and around the narrow mountain roads that separated sea and sierra. Spain was not just divided by politics, but by mountains and poor infra structure. Two hours of sheer drops and searing heat in a cramped coach would have been bad enough, but our journey took nearly four hours. The coach broke down on route and a replacement had to be found.

Arriving in Motril, somewhat later than expected, we sought out some accommodation. Amaya suggested a hostal. I had visions of bunk beds and dormitories, but hostals in Spain are different to youth hostels. Hostals are small, independently run hotels and they are classified from one to three stars – youth hostels aren’t classified at all. We chose a clean and tidy room in a modern building. Recently decorated and complete with an en suite bathroom, it was (at the time) the best room that I had ever paid to stay in, and we didn’t pay very much – surely there had to be some kind of catch?

Located on a hill, Motril is the largest town on the Costa tropical – the Mediterranean coastline of the province of Granada. The town boasts a long history and is home to many interesting sights. Ignoring all of them, we grabbed some food and drink, and headed straight towards the Playa Granada. Disregarding antiquity and architecture, we paid attention to sea, sun, sand and each other. Youth isn’t necessarily wasted on the young, but some of the more cultural aspects of travel are.

We drank, ate, talked, sunbathed, paddled and read. The sand and shingle beach may not have been one of the nicest that I have ever visited, but not much can beat lazing around on a sunny afternoon. I’m not sure that I believe in an afterlife, but if a heavenly paradise does exist, then I hope it involves endless days of reading good books and supping cold beer whilst waves gently lap your feet and the sun warms your body – that’s my kind of promised land. Even at the time, I knew that this was a good time. I remember thinking that life couldn’t get much better than this. I was young, I was healthy, I was doing exactly what I wanted to do and I was exactly where I wanted to be. Worries and responsibilities belonged to another time, a future time and a past that no longer figured – I was alive to possibilities.

Perceptive and ready to respond to all that life could offer, I carried on reading and we stayed on the beach for quite some time. I could happily have stayed for much longer, but time and tide wait for no man. Incoming waves began to threaten our position and the burning sun began to threaten our health – we headed back into town.

I remember walking along palm tree lined streets and passing beside beautiful old Moorish buildings, but some areas of Motril were less than enchanting. All to often, old and new were poorly integrated. Franco’s use of American military base cash to support a rapidly expanding tourist industry, led to many planning disasters in many areas of Spain. The left in Spain had hung onto the possibility that the allied nations would take on Franco at the end of the Second World War, but as time passed, this dream faded. It became increasing apparent that a fear of communism overrode fears of fascism. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, the United States government took steps to normalise its political and economic relationship with Spain. President Truman supported a UN resolution to lift boycotts on Franco’s regime and resume full diplomatic relations; he also signed a bill that secured 62.5 million dollars worth of aid for Spain. Nationalist, anti-communist Spain had become an increasingly important link in the overall defence system of the United States against the Soviet Union. In 1953 Franco signed the Pact of Madrid. The pact consisted of three separate, but interdependent agreements between Spain and the United States. It provided for mutual defence, for military aid to Spain, and for the construction of military bases in Spain. The Cold War was a profitable business for Franco. The deal was initially agreed upon for a period of 10 years. During this time, Spain received 1.5 billion dollars worth of aid. The agreement was subsequently renewed and some military bases are now permanent. The deal between the ‘land of the free’ and a dictatorship, further legitimised Franco’s position – so much for democracy.

After assessing some of the sights of Motril, we democratically decided to return to the hostal. Our plan was to freshen up, head out, find something to eat and drink, and then retire for a relatively early night and a long sleep. The plan almost worked. Washed and ready to go, we explored bars and restaurants, before heading back to the hostal at pretty much the same time that we usually headed out in Granada. The cumulative effect of a string of late nights and excessive alcohol consumption had eroded our reserves – we headed to bed.

Fully asleep, only moments after my head hit the pillow, I was awoken by what appeared to be a seismic tremor. The whole room shook with a violence that legislated against slumber. The floor and the bed reverberated in four four time. I had flashbacks to old geography lessons. Andalusia is situated next to a tectonic plate margin; I thought about leaping out of bed and attempting to duck, cover and hold. Bright, vibrant, multicoloured lights flashed and illuminated the room – I presumed that the emergency services were stepping into action. Things suddenly went quiet, objects stopped shaking and I thought I heard a tannoy announcing instructions or a warning. I listened intently. “This is the sound. When you hear the air attack warning. You and your family must take cover”. A familiar bass riff kicked into action and the room started to shake again. This wasn’t an earthquake or the outbreak of hostilities, but ‘Two Tribes’ were going to war; an aural offensive had broken out and I had discovered ‘the catch’ with our room. What was it with Spain and Frankie Goes to Hollywood? Holly Johnson’s voice burst into our room and nearly burst my eardrums. The catch? Our hostal was semi detached and our neighbour was a nightclub.

Sleep was impossible; impossible for everyone that is apart from Amaya – she only woke when I asked her if she was still asleep. Moments later, after receiving an angry rebuke, sleep was impossible for both of us. ‘Two Tribes’ may have faded out, but a succession of other tunes faded in. Surmising that ‘if you can’t beat them, you might as well join them’, we abandoned bed and embraced the night. Rather appropriately we dressed to Wham’s, ‘Wake Me Up Before You Go Go’ and rather less appropriately (there wasn’t a full moon and France was fair few miles away) we headed out to the strains of ‘Lobo-Hombre En Paris’ (Wolf Man in Paris) by La Union.

This Is Now


After one of our more successful navigational approaches, we arrived on schedule and unflustered in the very heart of Jerez de la Frontera. We even managed to park next to our hotel. The Casa Grande looked regal and elegant. Adorned with balconies, enclosed by intricately patterned railings, the white washed building was a restored nineteenth century ‘casa senorial’- the house had originally been owned by a wine merchant who ran a bodega in the city. The outside of the hotel held the promise of sumptuous, cultivated comfort. The interior of the hotel delivered on all fronts. Tastefully appointed, cool and spacious rooms surrounded an open central courtyard, where you could take breakfast or indulge in a drink. The tiled courtyard was framed by six columns that supported the balustraded upper floors. Will and Tom had a room on the ground floor, but Tania and I climbed higher. Situated on the second floor we were able to gaze out and watch the world go by from our own private balcony. The three storey hotel was topped off by a large and delightful roof terrace, which also housed a smaller, higher terrace, with room for just two. This crowning glory, accessed by a steep, spiral staircase, provided peace, privacy and spectacular city views.

The proprietress of the hotel was both friendly and charming; Spanish through and through, she spoke perfect English, with BBC style Received Pronunciation – an accent or perhaps a lack of any accent, identified by social class rather than by region. After proudly showing us around Casa Grande, she gave us directions so that we wouldn’t miss our afternoon rendezvous with Gonzalez Byass; she also recommended some authentic eateries and flamenco bars for later on in the evening.

Our afternoon rendezvous was linked to Jerez de la Frontera’s most famous product. Jerez de la Frontera is synonymous with wine making, and quite literally so. Early English travellers enjoyed the fortified wine that Jerez had to offer, but either because of poor pronunciation or possibly over indulgence, the word ‘Jerez’, from the Moorish ‘Sherish’, was corrupted to become ‘Sherry’. ‘Sherry’ now has protected origin status within Europe. All wine labelled as ‘Sherry’ must come from an area between Jerez de la Frontera, Sanlucar de Barrameda and El Puerto de Santa Maria.

Sherry is made from white grapes, primarily the Palomino grape. Types of sherry range from the light, but dry Manzanilla and Fino, to the the darker and heavier Amontillado and Oloroso. Tania’s favourite, Pedro Ximenez, is a sweet, dark, dessert sherry. Wine making in the area around Jerez de la Frontera, goes back to the Phoenicians and the Romans; perhaps somewhat surprisingly, production continued under Arab rule. Things really took off however, after the Reconquista. By the 16th century, Jerez de la Frontera, was reputed to be producing the finest wines in the world. This global reputation was enhanced by piracy and plunder. In 1597, Sir Francis Drake sacked Cadiz, stealing 2900 barrels of sherry in the process. Shipped back to England, the English were soon hooked on sherry; piracy and plunder turned into profit and trade. Sherry was so popular and profitable that many English entrepreneurs invested in the wine and sherry making business. One such entrepreneur was Mr Byass, who joined forces with Senoir Manuel Marie Gonzalez Angel; a dynasty was born. González Byass, is now one of the most famous sherry bodegas (or wineries) in the world. Our appointment with Gonzalez Byass, was a pre booked sherry tasting and tapas tour.

Situated beside a grand Gothic Cathedral, the home of Gonzalaz Byass looked to have been built on a similarly impressive scale and appeared to demand a similar level of reverence. Speaking in hushed tones we entered and admired the main building, before looking at pictures of famous and infamous previous visitors; the present merged with the past as an image of Margret Thatcher threatened to ruin my tour before it had even begun. Turning to the left, always the left, we joined a multi national tour group and met our designated guide. After a brief introduction, we were ushered into another room and shown a film about the history of the company, which was actually much more interesting than it sounds. After the film, we toured the bodega in a small train, which stopped at various points along the way. Our first stop was an impressive round building, designed by none other than Gustav Eiffel; he of the eponymous tower. The building contained 120 barrels, each marked with the coat of arms of different countries from around the world. After taking a few photos we moved to another building where our guide explained how sherry is made. The local climate and chalky soils around Jerez de la Frontera, create a local sherry wine which is fortified with grape juice before being transferred to oak barrels. Loose stoppers let in air and a layer of ‘flor’ or yeast develops on the surface of the wine. This layer prevents oxidisation and feeds off the wine at the same time. Apparently it’s the subtle nature of the ‘flor’ that accounts for the unique flavour of Jerez sherry; but that’s not the end of the process. The wine is fortified with alcohol and then blended with older wines over a period of time in what is known as the Solera system. The classic final product is the bone dry Fino, but if the ‘flor’ is allowed to die in the barrel you end up with a slightly nutty Amontillado; allow the alcohol content to increase and restrict the development of the ‘flor’ and you have an Oloroso; add sweet grapes and cream and you have a classic pale cream sherry – ‘Crofts Original’ to be precise.

Tastebuds tantalised, but not yet satisfied, we hopped back on the train and continued our tour. We began to get a real sense of the scale of the place, which resembled a small town. We passed beautiful gardens, streets lined with red geraniums, streets lined with vines, numerous bodegas, a museum and the ‘Tio Pepe’ Steps. ‘Tio Pepe’, the world’s best selling Fino, was named after Manuel Maria Gonzalez Angel’s ‘Uncle Joe’, who created the drink in 1841. Our next stop was the Bodega La Constancia. This entire bodega is dedicated to the ageing of ‘Tio Pepe’. ‘La Constancia’ (constancy) was the motto of the founder of the company and it was the first bodega to be constructed in 1855. We enjoyed looking at the huge rows of casks, many of which had been signed by the rich, famous and not so famous – Bobby Charlton, Roger Moore, Picasso, Orson Wells, Oliver Hardy, Michael Portillo, Javier Bardem and Franco (although we didn’t see his particular cask) had all left their mark.

Our tour ended in the ‘Gran Bodega’. Under one of the four immense concrete domes that enclose the building, we were finally able to sample the produce and satisfy our taste buds. We were given some tasty tapas and offered four different types of sherry (all of us that is apart from Tom). I had to agree with Tania, the Pedro Ximenez reigned supreme.

After a brief return to Casa Grande, for a quick siesta, we heeded the owners advice and headed out hoping to discover some authenticity. The genuine article that we were hoping to discover was good food and drink at good prices, followed by some real flamenco in a real Spanish bar.

Our first destination was a lively tapas restaurant located in a pedestrianised square opposite the town hall. On first inspection ‘Albores’ looked to be a little bit too modern for our taste, but it was full of customers and they all appeared to be Spanish. On second inspection our doubts proved to be unfounded; the food was simply delicious and very much to our taste. All the food that we ordered was of the finest quality and all the plates were presented as if they were works of art. The food that we didn’t order was also delightful. Seconds after ordering ‘Pulpo en tempura’, our waiter arrived with a plate of ‘croquetas’. “Pulpo’ I asked quizzically. “Si Senoir” he confirmed. Ten minutes later, after consuming what turned out to be someone else’s prawn, spinach and pistachio croquetas, our actual order arrived. The croquetas were excellent, but our favourite dishes were the originally ordered ‘Pulpo en tempura con patatas’ (octopus in tempura batter with a creamy potato and garlic sauce) and the ‘Morcilla artesanna de Burgos con compote de manzana’ (black pudding with an apple compote). Both dishes exemplified all that is best about Spanish cuisine; the food was good enough to rival the quite magnificent Barrafina in London.

Our second destination was supposedly just the place to discover real flamenco. The small bar certainly looked authentic enough; old and slightly rundown, the faded and stained whitewashed exterior, with its green tiled ‘Art Deco’ styled signage, looked basic but brilliant. ‘Tabanco el Pasaje’ opened onto two different streets, and a long wooden, wine soaked counter stretched from door to door. Apart from the immediate area next to both doorways, the bar was completely packed. Stepping inside was like stepping into a different world; you could sense the passion and you could feel the heat. Our senses began to work overtime. We heard the shill notes and the wailing of a flamenco singer, accompanied by the rapid finger plucking of a guitarist, but we couldn’t see either performer. We could feel the pressure of the crowd and taste the excitement. Pushing and squeezing our way through the crowd, muttering ‘perdon’ from time to time, we reached a point where if we stood on tip toes we could see both performers. Hemmed into to one corner of a recessed area of the bar, a dark haired, emotionally charged beautiful singer in a elegant yellow dress appeared to be united in the moment with both her guitarist and the audience. Lost somewhere between heaven and earth, the audience silently followed each and every note that was sung or played. Deeply engrossed and fully absorbed, this collective concentration and adoration was sometimes broken by moments of spontaneous shouting, screaming and clappping, as one individual performance gave way to another. You could almost taste the ‘duende’. Forget about the touristic, ‘meal and a show’ sanitised, germ free theatrical flamenco, this was the real thing – genuine, original, bona fida and fully authentic. I’d fallen in love with flamenco.

The origins of flamenco are shrouded in mystery, but perceived wisdom appears to suggest that it was born out of the fusion of Gypsy or Gitano (the Romani people of Spain) and Moriscos culture. The origin of the word flamenco is also uncertain; it may have been derived from ‘fire’ or ‘flame’, but it may have come from the Hispanic-Arabic term ‘fellas mengu’, which means expelled peasant. What is without doubt is the fact that flamenco originated in Andalusia, and Andalusia was a cultural melting pot. When the Moriscos were expelled from Andalusia, many avoided persecution by fleeing to live with the Gitanos, who lived on the fringes of society. The different cultures, with their eastern past and their western present, developed a unique style of singing. In its original form, flamenco was all about the voice. An almost primitive cry or chant would have been accompanied by a rhythmic hand clap or foot stamp. This unspoilt vocal style is known as ‘Cante jondo’, which means deep music. The guitar was introduced at a later date. Lorca described ‘Cante jondo’ as ‘the rhythm of birds and the natural music of the black poplar and the waves; it is simple in oldness and style. It is also a rare example of primitive song, the oldest of all Europe, where the ruins of history, the lyrical fragment eaten by the sand, appear live like the first morning of life’. The flamenco in Tabanco el Pasaje, was certainly deep music; it entered through your ears and eyes, and then it enveloped your soul. Lorca associated flamenco with ‘duende’, but stated that ‘duende could only be present when one sensed that death was possible’. For me, the joy of our flamenco experience, and indeed the joy of Spain, is that the music and the country make you feel alive – animated, vibrant and vital.

If the music wasn’t enough for anyone, Tabanco el Pasaje, also offered amazingly cheap drinks; one euro for a wine or a beer – admittedly the fino tasted like paint stripper, but the rough red wine fitted the moment. We listened to the rest of the flamenco performance sipping our drinks and feeding off the atmosphere. A particularly thunderous round of applause signalled the end of the performance and the departure of the singer. Walking out through the in door, the singer was treated like a superstar. Mobbed by men, women and children alike, she posed for photographs and autographed just about anything and everything that came to hand.

Reflecting on the evening, I realised that I hadn’t just fallen in love with flamenco, but also with Tabanco el Paseje and Jerez de la Frontera. I could happily have stayed in the bar all night long and the city was a revelation. The size and the scale of Jerez de la Frontera, wasn’t too daunting (we could easily find our way around) but the city housed many grand buildings and even in the height of summer (or perhaps because it was the height of summer) there weren’t too many tourists. We concluded our night away with drinks on the hotel roof terrace, followed in the morning by a breakfast of coffee and churros and a trip to the Cathedral.

Rather appropriately we left Jerez de la Frontera, to the sound of silence; nothing could have matched the sound of the night before.




That Was Then

“Hijo de puta!” Amaya cried out suddenly as she broke step and stormed into a small bar on the outskirts of Granada. 5ft 2 of very angry Basque charged towards a very large barman. Collision was inevitable, but I knew who my money was on and that person didn’t serve drinks. What I didn’t know was the reason for the exclamation or the angry confrontation. I took a back seat and watched with interest as the battle commenced. Amaya shouted angrily and pointed towards a carved bust in the window of the bar. I caught one word, ‘Franco’. Other words were lost to invective and translation. The barman to his credit, remained calm in front of the raging storm. He pointed at the bust and said “No es Franco es Lorca” – I’d backed the wrong person.

Frederico Garcia Lorca and Francisco Franco, were about as different as two people could be. While Lorca did have some right wing friends, he was a left wing, modern-minded, republican, homosexual, poet and playwright. Franciso Franco, was a right wing, Catholic, nationalist, homicidal dictator and tyrant. They looked pretty different as well. Lorca was a clean shaven, dark haired, handsome, full faced man, while Franco was a moustachioed, balding, shrivelled man, with the sort of face that only a mother could love. The two men, strikingly dissimilar in just about every way, encapsulated many of the opposing views and characteristics that tore Spain apart in the Spanish Civil War.

To be fair to Amaya, the bust in the bar didn’t look like Lorca, but then again it didn’t look like Franco either. In many ways it was an easy mistake to make, but in a modernising democratic and left wing Spain, it was a contentious mistake. The depiction of Franco, or for that matter Lorca, could not just divide opinion, it could polarise it. The left were on the ascendency and the country had a euphoric and optimistic feel about it, but the right still had a considerable amount of support. Franco may not have had a son and heir, but his movement and politics had been inherited by many. Spain now has a policy of forgiving and forgetting, but scratch the surface and people remember and blame – the country still bleeds. In 1984, Spain could only really be understood in the context of its tumultuous past.

Spain in the early twentieth century was not a united country. Opposites attract, but they generally repel, lines were drawn. Left against right, republicanism against monarchism, secularism against Catholicism, regionalism against nationalism, personal freedom against centralised control, communism against fascism, socialism against conservatism, rural against urban, the landless proletariate against the landowners, poor against rich and modernism against traditionalism. Politics and allegiances were all important. Resentment and antagonism, led to anger and fear, groups began to join forces. Affiliations led to broad coalitions, sides were taken, daggers were drawn. If you weren’t with one side you were with the other.

The lack of unity between the many factions and forces in Spain, had its origins in a number of different social and economic issues. Spain had suffered a long period of decline since the days of Empire. Most of Spain’s possessions in Latin America had become independent in the early nineteenth century, and those that remained were lost to the US in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Only a small stretch of North Africa, Spanish Morocco, was left of the empire that had once ruled half the world and brought untold wealth into the Spanish coffers. Economic depression led to a degree of spiritual despondency, as the Spanish lost confidence in their own nation and their national identity. Military defeats added to the nations woes, but the military felt that they were unjustifiable held responsible for the countries failings. Spain lagged behind the rest of Europe industrially and socially. Huge wealth gaps existed and a sense of faded glory prevailed as ideological divisions widened. The church opposed social reform and landowners failed to embrace or competitively exploit industrialisation. The Spanish wanted a new future, but they weren’t sure which type of future they wanted. Unrest began to spread and Spain’s internal contradictions fuelled the flames.

Discontent, strikes, unrest, poverty, economic recession and a fear of democracy, inspired General Primo de Rivera to launch a coup d’état in 1923. His right wing military dictatorship was supported by the King, but it was mindful of the need to reform. Primo de Rivera, however, found that reform was more difficult to instigate than he had imagined. The General ended up upsetting both left and right. Too reforming for some and to slow to reform for others, he initially kept a firm grip on the country, but his ultimate legacy was more disunity. Forced to resign in 1930, after he managed to lose the support of the army that he had once led, Primo de Rivera left the scene. Conservatives lost the initiative as reformers gained the ascendency and the right to free elections. Spain was beginning to change.

Municipal elections were held in April 1931. In the cities and towns, Republicans and Socialists were triumphant and they demanded the King’s abdication. When the army withdraw its support, King Alphonso XIII’s days were numbered. Alphonso’s subsequent departure from Spain marked the beginning of the Second Spanish Republic. Alcala Zamora, was declared as provisional president, and in October 1931, Manuel Azana became prime minister. The Republican government brought in a series of overdue, but controversial reforms. Church and State were separated; education would no longer be controlled by the Catholic hierarchy. The army would be over hauled. Civil marriage was instituted and divorce was allowed. Woman were given the vote. Minority languages were recognised and Catalonia was granted autonomy.

Catholic and right wing supporters within the country were horrified by the changes and by speed of change. The army, faced with cuts in pay and numbers revolted in 1932. The revolt was crushed, but the resentment and anti reformist dissatisfaction that had inspired the rising was not. The right became more organised. The Catholic CEDA party and the Falange, a fascist party led by the son of Primo de Rivera, Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, were both set up. At the same time, shifting allegiances within the Republic, resulted in the Socialists refusing to participate in government – Zamora was forced to dissolve parliament.

The right joined forces to fight the 1933 general election. The tactics worked and the right triumphed.The new government reversed the process of reform and cancelled measures taken against the Church. These actions galvanised the left. In 1934, a general strike was called in opposition to the government and an anarchist miners revolt took place in Asturias. The miners were eventually defeated, but only after a brutal military intervention led by the army’s new rising star, General Franco. Mass arrests of left wing sympathisers followed and left wing newspapers were closed down. At the same time, Catalonia’s Autonomous status was suspended. Spanish politics became even more polarised.

In 1936, an election was called. Angered by the right, a Popular Front of Communists, Socialists, and Republicans was formed to oppose the government. The Popular Front believed that another victory for the right would lead to fascism. The right wing National Front, believed that victory for the left would lead to communism.

The Popular Front narrowly won the election; succeeding primarily in urban areas. The new government proceeded to reintroduce earlier reforms. See-saw politics had dominated the scene, but they were a recipe for disaster. Both sides now feared the worst, disorder and political violence spread throughout the country. Peasants seized land and there were many strikes. The Falange started to grow dramatically as disillusioned supporters of the more moderate CEDA joined its ranks. Its members used political violence and based their actions on nazi tactics – attack and counterattack became common. The church vehemently opposed the government. The army with the support of the church hierarchy began plotting another coup d’état. Spain was ready to explode, all that was required was a spark.

On the 13th of July 1936, the right wing monarchist politician Calvo Sotelo was assassinated by Republicans in revenge for the murder of one or their men by a Falangist. The fuse had already been lit, but the chaos that followed the murders provided the army with an excuse to put their pre-planned plot into action. Army units, dancing to the tune of General Emilio Mola, simultaneously rose across Spain.

Mola assumed that victory would be swift, but he was mistaken – he had overestimated the power of his own rhetoric and underestimated the power of the people. Although the bulk of the army rebelled, many units stayed loyal to the elected government and a people’s army rose to support the Republic; arming itself and fighting back under anarchist, socialist and communist leadership.

The rebels took swift control of the conservative and Catholic areas of Old Castile and Leon, as well as the cities of Granada, Cordoba and crucially Seville, which would provide a landing point for Franco, who had flown to Morocco to take charge of the African troops. Industrial cities however, which housed large numbers of politically active left wing workers rallied against the right. In areas where the workers were armed by the Republic, successful defence was possible. In Madrid, street fighting was fierce and communist leader Dolares Ibarruri, La Passionaria, urged resistance with her rallying cry of ‘No Pasaran’ – ‘They will not pass’. After much blood shed, Madrid was held for the government, along with Barcelona and Valencia. In terms of territory, the Republic retained control of Asturias, Santander, the Basque Country, much of the east coast and the Central region around Madrid, as well as Málaga,Jaen and Almería in Andalusia


After the initial terror of the uprising, the Nationalists and Republicans began to organise their respective areas of control, both sides began to repress opposition or suspected opposition – a new reign of terror began. Republican violence occurred mainly in the early stages of the war, in a random and fairly disorganised way before the rule of law was restored. Nationalist violence was part of a conscious, well planned and methodical policy. The right were determined to eliminate all opposition, current or potential. Class and political repression took place, ‘ideological cleansing’ to create a new Spain, was the new order of the day.

As dawn broke over a broken Spain, the world looked on with interest. The plight of Republican Spain had captured the imagination of all, the Spanish Civil War had become much more than a national conflict. The Civil War, based on intransigent domestic contradictions, was part of a larger international conflict of ideologies, between left and right, tyranny and democracy, fascism and communism – Spain was a microcosm for world events.

As the world looked on, the Republicans and Nationalists looked to the world for support. Both sides knew that they were too weak to win an outright victory without help, but where would that help come from?

The UK government was more pro Nationalist than not, but advised a policy of non intervention. A non intervention pact was agreed by Britain, and twenty four other nations, including France, Germany, the Soviet Union and Italy in August 1936. The British wanted to protect their business interests and they didn’t want to provoke either Germany or Italy, but public opinion supported the Republic. France, a fellow left wing republic, was naturally sympathetic to Spain, and lent support at the beginning of the conflict, but the French didn’t want to upset the British, because they were concerned about the possibility of future German aggression. Germany didn’t want to fully provoke Britain, because Germany wasn’t fully militarised yet, but Hitler was a natural ally of the Nationalists and he didn’t want the republic to succeed, because the republic would be a natural ally of France. Hitler already thought that confrontation with France was inevitable. Hitler had also been advised that Spain would be a good testing ground for his troops, tactics and weapons, so he agreed to non intervention, whilst supplying the Nationalists with military aid. The Soviet Union, perhaps surprisingly, didn’t want an out and out communist revolution in Spain, Stalin knew that this would make the British and the French feel threatened, and he realised that he would need British and French support in the event of war with Germany. Stalin, didn’t however want a Fascist victory in Spain, because this would affect the balance of power in Europe. Stalin wanted the republic to succeed, but realised that his best outcome was a protracted war which would tie everyone down and allow the Soviet Union to strengthen its position. Stalin signed up to non intervention, but supplied the Republic with planes and tanks when he realised that Germany and Italy were supplying the Nationalists and that a Fascist victory was imminent in the autumn of 1936. Mussolini in Italy, saw himself as the founding father of fascism and consequently wanted to support and did support the Nationalists; he also wanted to prove himself to Hitler, despite his own inflated sense of self importance. Mexico, a fellow left wing republic, supported the elected Spanish government. The plight of the republic also attracted some 40,000 individual volunteers from over fifty different nations; usually socialists, communists or anarchists, sometimes simply idealists, they fought for the Republican side as members of the international Brigades or local militias. Included amongst their number were George Orwell and Laurie Lee.

The Spanish Civil War had gone way beyond the confines of a national conflict. Non intervention was official policy, but interference was everywhere, the die had been cast.

With the outcome of the Civil War hanging in the balance, the Nationalist were more than a little anxious to get their Africa troops into the fray. Isolated on the wrong side of the Mediterranean, with the republic in control of the Navy, Franco faced a bit of a problem. The end of July however, heralded a very decisive piece of non interventional interference; Hitler provided transport planes to transfer Franco and his army from Morocco to Seville. This was the first military airlift of its kind to take place anywhere in the world, and it left the Republic at a distinct disadvantage. By the beginning of August, the Nationalist had enough troops at their disposal to be able to leave Seville, take Badajoz, and march towards Madrid. By contrast, the republic were on the defensive as they attempted to turn their ragtag loose association of regular troops, loyal police offices and militia volunteers into an effective fighting force.

The Nationalist push was on, but Franco wasn’t in any hurry. Much to the alarm of some of his supporters, Franco, cautious by nature, favoured a slow campaign. Franco didn’t just want to defeat the opposition he wanted to eradicate it. While the main body of his troops marched towards Madrid, his occupying troops began their mission of identification and elimination. On August the 19th, Lorca was executed in Granada. Recently unearthed documents confirm that Lorca was executed for his beliefs; arresting officers described him as a socialist, a homosexual and a Freemason. Lorca’s execution was sadly just one amongst many, but his death was publicised around the world as the fascist murder of a socialist poet. His violent end galvanised support and focused the eyes of the world even more closely on Spain. The murder of Lorca, undoubtably helped recruitment for the International Brigades, and reinforced resistance, as republicans realised the fate that awaited them if captured by the Nationalists.

While Franco controlled the Nationalist army in the south, Mola had control in the north. By September, the Nationalists in the north had captured Irun, effectively isolating the rest of the Basque Country from other republican controlled areas and from France. Isolation was absolute, the Basque coastline was blockaded by Non-intervention countries, who in theory were there to ensure fair play. Unable to resupply by land or sea, the Basques were now completely alone.

Increasingly unchallenged, the overall leadership of the Nationalists was gradually assumed by Franco, as his rivals either lost authority or lost their lives. By the end of September, Franco had declared himself Generalissimo, and he was declared Head of State shortly afterwards. The Republican government, was headed by the socialist leader Francisco Largo Caballero. He would be followed in May 1937 by Juan Negrín, also a socialist. The president of the Spanish Republic until nearly the end of the war was Azana.

Dictating policy, Franco delayed attacking Madrid, which was at its weakest, and turned his attention to Toledo instead. Toledo fell, but the delay was crucial. Time allowed Madrid to strengthen its defences, which were also bolstered by the arrival of Soviet supplies and the first of the International Brigades. By the time the Nationalists turned their attention back to Madrid, the city was stronger and the people were even more resolute and resolved. In November, dogged republican resistance, combined with Soviet planes and tanks, forced the Nationalists to abandon their attempt to take the city. The arrival of Soviet supplies and influence may however have had at least one negative consequence, which epitomised republican infighting. Buenaventura Durruti, a charismatic, anarcho-syndicalist leader was killed during the battle for Madrid, possibly by communist forces. The anarchist and communists were unlikely bed fellows, internal power struggles hampered any prospect of a fully unified defence.

The beginning of 1937, saw yet more attempts by the Nationalists to capture Madrid, but they had missed their chance. The New Year brought death, destruction and stalemate. The Nationalists probed for weaknesses and the Republicans defended with determination. Both sides eventually accepted the inevitable; they dug trenches and settled in for a long siege. The siege of Madrid would last for another two years.

Frustrated outside Madrid, the Nationalists turned their focus back to Andalusia, and launched an offensive on Malaga. Marching from Seville and Granada, Malaga presented a very different proposition to Madrid. The city was dominated by Anarchists, who hadn’t organised any effective defence. There weren’t any trenches or roadblocks or anti aircraft weapons, and there wasn’t any real Soviet support. Horrified by the prospect of an invading well armed force of Moors, Italians and right wing militia, accompanied by tanks and planes, about 100,000 people fled the city. The exodus, slowed down by the wounded and sheer numbers, was mercilessly attacked from both the air and the sea. Strafed by planes and shelled by ships, thousands of people died; combatants and non combatants, men and women, old and young – this was total war. Those trying to escape Malaga, fared little better than those that remained. Mass executions of suspected socialists took place accompanied by indiscriminate rape – the Italians were horrified by the scale of the violence.

In March, the Italians tried to encircle Madrid, but they were defeated at the Battle of Guadalajara. After what turned out to be the only publicised Republican victory of the war, Franco turned his attention back to the Basque Country. The Basques, lacked support, but not tenacity. Recently granted autonomy, the Basques of Alava, Gipuzkoa and Biscay, were fighting not just for the Republic, but for their independence. The Basques prepared their defences, but they had little air cover and they couldn’t have foreseen the ferocity of the approaching storm. Franco was about to unleash the German Condor Legion, and the world was about to discover the horror and terror of Blitzkrieg. On April the 26th, the town of Guernica, the spiritual capital of the Basque people was subjected to three hours of near continuous carpet bombing. Non military targets were attacked, it was market day, it was carnage. After the first wave of bombers had passed, civilians returned to search for friends and family, only to find themselves the target of a second and then a third wave of attack. This was terror bombing, a new form of warfare which deliberately targeted civilians in order to break morale and the will to resist. The number of casualties is disputed, but at least 300 people are thought to have died in the rubble and flames of the ruined town. Many more people literally scraped their fingers to the bone as they searched for loved ones amongst the debris of destruction. Guernica changed public opinion as once again Spain found itself in the spotlight. World reaction turned many former pro Nationalists against Franco and his allies. Guernica became a global symbol of civilian suffering and inspired Picasso to create and display his most famous work. Picasso used black and white paint, newspaper cuttings and stark imagery to invoke the horror of the attack. His painting, simply called ‘Guernica’ was displayed in Paris at the World Fair, between March and November – it forced viewers to face up to the reality of modern warfare. Unfortunately, whilst public opinion shifted, the world’s politicians didn’t face up to the reality of the situation. Non intervention was still the order of the day and Franco’s tactics, although not directly endorsed, were tacitly tolerated.

‘If you tolerate this, then your children will be next’ – The Republic used this slogan, below the sightless eyes and the lifeless body of a young girl to publicise the reality of non intervention and to show the future which awaited other democracies if fascism was allowed to triumph in Spain – it’s a shame that the world didn’t listen – world peace, it transpired, wasn’t their business.

During the months of May and June, the Basques were slowly forced back towards Bilbao. Now fully aware of the ferocity of the of the ongoing storm, they tried to evacuate their children. In total 20,000 would leave Spain for safe havens. At first, Britain refused the appeal to offer temporary asylum to the Basque children, citing non intervention, but after the Duchess of Atholl took up their cause and public opinion backed her campaign, 4000 were eventually allowed to enter the UK. The British government however, refused to finance the operation; the excuse, once again was the non intervention agreement. It’s hard to imagine the heartbreak felt by the children or their families as they left Spain, not knowing when or if they would return, or what would face them in the UK. ‘Los ninos’ arrived on the 23rd of May, on the steamship SS Habana. Disembarking in Southampton, the children were housed at a temporary camp in Eastleigh, before being dispersed to all four corners of the country and various destinations in between. Most of the children were repatriated after the war, but 250 remained, their parents either missing, dead or imprisoned. Among the 250 children who stayed in the UK, hoping to build a new life, were Amaya’s mother, father and her aunt – it’s little wonder that the mere thought of Franco, could stir such strong emotions.

The Nationalists, continued their advance. The Basque Army, fighting a defensive action, hoped to position themselves inside the ‘Iron Ring’ – a vast fortification of bunkers, tunnels and trenches arranged in several rings around Bilbao. Unfortunately, the layout of the Ring was betrayed to the Nationalist army by the very person who had designed it. Consequently, the Condor Legion was able to obliterate its defensive capabilities. The Nationalists broke through and occupied the high ground above Bilbao, the Basques retreated towards Santander.

In an attempt to alleviate the pressure exerted by the Nationalists on the Basques and on Madrid, the Republic planned the Brunete offence to the west of Madrid. Initially successful, the Republicans were eventually forced to give up most of the ground they gained and in the process they lost irreplaceable lives and invaluable equipment. Whilst some Nationalist troops had been transferred from the north to fight at Brunete, relief for the north was only temporary. By the beginning of August, Basque resistance was in its death throws; the inevitable had merely been delayed.

By the end of August, Santander was under Nationalist control. Hitler’s ‘non intervention’, earned Germany the right to two thirds of all mine and steel production from the Basque Country. Pushing inexorably onwards, Asturias was the next region to fall to Franco. After a heroic defence, Nationalists entered the city of Gijon, killing and raping with impunity. The war in the North was effectively over. The Republic, which had moved its government from Madrid to Valencia, moved again to Barcelona; the war was heading east and the republic was heading for disaster.

In yet another attempt to distract Franco from Madrid, the Republicans launched an offensive aimed at capturing the Aragónese provincial capital of Teruel. Fighting took place in ice and snow, blizzards caused frostbite and hampered troop movements on both sides as the worst winter in 20 years struck home. The Republic didn’t hold back, they committed 100,000 men and by Christmas they had successfully entered the city, but it wasn’t to be a ‘Happy New Year’. Franco stubbornly refused to admit defeat and wouldn’t countenance the loss of any territory. Pouring men and equipment into a counter attack, while still holding troops, tanks and planes in reserve, the Nationalists encircled and then recaptured the city.

Teruel was a disaster for the Republic. An initial morale boosting victory was quickly countered by retreat and defeat. While it’s thought that the Nationalists casualties were about 56,000, the Republic lost nearly 85,000 men and most of their remaining aircraft. The Battle for Teruel, exhausted the resources of the Republican Army and increased the likelihood of a successful Nationalist breakthrough to the Mediterranean – it was the beginning of the end.

The likelihood of a successful breakthrough to the Mediterranean, soon became a reality. In March 1938, the Nationalists launched the Aragon offensive and they quickly captured large amounts of territory. Franco was able to call upon more reserves, while what was left of the Republican army was in disarray. The Nationalists reached the Mediterranean coast in April, and effectively split the Republic in two. The Republic attempted to negotiate for peace, but Franco demanded nothing less than unconditional surrender – the war rumbled on.

Upon reaching the coast, Franco turned his attention towards Valencia. Initially successful, the Nationalist advance was slowed by staunch resistance and then postponed because the Republican army, to the surprise of all, launched the Ebro offensive.

Achieving almost total surprise, Republican troops crossed the Ebro river in a massive operation to reestablish a link between the two separate Republican zones and to relieve pressure on Valencia. Surprise was possible, because the reopening of the French/Spanish border and an extended call-up, enabled the Republic to create and supply a new army far more quickly than anyone thought possible. For Negrin, who planned the battle, the offensive was also an attempt to prolong the war. Tensions in Europe were high and Negrin hoped that a full scale European war would break out before Franco achieved total victory in Spain. Negrin’s belief that the allies would directly or indirectly come to his aid whilst fighting the forces of fascism, was however, sadly quashed by the Munich agreement. Czechoslovakia’s defensive frontier, the Sudetenland, was surrendered in exchange for Chamberlain’s “Peace for our time”. Unfortunately, time was running out.

The Battle of the Ebro became a war of attrition and for the Republic, it was the last throw of the dice. The battle, which began in July and ended in November, was the longest and largest of the war. The element of surprise led to early success, but Franco was quick to respond, committing heavy reinforcements to counter the Republican threat. Further Republican advances soon became impossible and by crossing the Ebro, the Republic hampered it’s ability to be able to resupply it’s own front line troops. Forced to hold on to captured ground at any cost, the Republican army was eventually overcome by superior weaponry and weight of numbers. Forced to retreat, back across the Ebro, the Republic lost most of what little was left of its equipment. Future defence was fully comprised, the gamble had failed.

Realising that the end was nigh, Franco followed up his victory at the Ebro river, with a massive assault on Catalonia. Overwhelmed and underarmed, republican resistance collapsed and the republican government fled the country. The Nationalists swept all before them and Barcelona fell on the 26th of January. Hundreds of thousands of Republican soldiers, men, women, children and elderly non combatants, marched towards the French frontier, enduring bitterly cold conditions. Though offered some protection by units of the Republican army, the refugees were bombed and strafed by the Nationalist Air Force and the Condor legion. The Nationalists reached the frontier on the 9th of February. By the end of February, Britain and France had both officially recognised Franco’s government – Madrid and the south east were all that remained of the once proud Republic.

By March, resolve and revolutionary spirit had finally broken and the Republican army rose against its own prime minister, Juan Negrin. The army attempted to negotiate a peace deal with the Nationalists. The communists rose in retaliation against the army and started a civil war within the civil war. The communists were defeated, but Franco refused the overtures of peace offered by the republican army. Weakened by years of fighting and in fighting, Madrid finally fell on the 28th of March, and by the 31st of March, the Nationalists controlled the whole of Spain. The dream was over – Franco declared victory on the 1st of April 1939.

The dream may have been over and the war had officially ended, but for many people, pain, suffering and struggle would linger on. Franco, certainly didn’t have a policy of forgiving and forgetting, his enemies faced harsh reprisals. Repression, executions, brutality, imprisonment, forced labour and forced ideology would provide the framework for Franco’s ‘new’ Spain. Few, former Republicans or their families would be left untouched. Amaya’s parents and her aunt were stranded in the UK, her uncle only managed to escape Franco’s retribution by rowing around the coast and into France, and her grandfather, arrested for producing anti Nationalist pamphlets, would die in prison.

The Nationalists had won and Franco and Francoism was the result. A vision of a new tomorrow had been replaced with the actuality of an archaic past. For Amaya, and for many like her, it’s a past that’s impossible to forget.

This Is Now

Relaxing at Casa Mesto, I took advantage of the free Wi-Fi and logged onto the BBC news website. I was surprised to see the following headline

Spanish dictator Franco names to go from Madrid streets

Back in 1984, I had presumed that Franco’s memory had already been officially erased from Spain and Spanish history. I thought that if Francoist statues, pictures or symbols still existed, they would be in private collections, residences or businesses, not public spaces. But, how wrong I was, I must have been walking around with my eyes closed. Although most statues of Franco were removed in the 1980’s, it was only in 2007, that a Historical Memory Law, called for the removal of all symbols relating to the 1939 – 1975 dictatorship. However, many such symbols still exist. Apparently, in 2015, some 170 street names in Madrid alone, referred to the names of dictatorship officials. Calle General Yague, is a major street name in Madrid, yet Yague, is commonly referred to as the ‘Butcher of Badajoz’ – he oversaw the massacre of approximately 4000 republicans in the Plaza de Toros. Calle de los Caídos de la División Azul, was named in honour of Franco’s Blue Division forces, which fought alongside the Nazis between 1941 and 1943. Calle Garcia Alted, commemorates the General, who ordered merciless air and sea attack on civilians fleeing Malaga, and then systematically rounded up and killed thousands of others. When you think about it, it’s not just bizarre, it’s insulting – it would be like having a Heinrich Himmler street in Berlin. Apart from street names, some schools, health centres, towns and villages have been named after Franco or figures connected to his regime. Symbolic engravings, memorial arches and Franco’s own memorial to himself, the ‘Valley of the Fallen’, still exist. Amaya’s confrontation aside, it has become apparent on my various trips to Spain, that most Spaniards simply don’t mention Franco or the Civil War, so it’s strange that such historical memorabilia still exists. While many in Spain are outraged that the Historical Memory Law, has not been fully acted upon, almost as many people object to the Law. Presumably they don’t want Franco or Francoism to be forgotten.

If you scratch the surface and delve into the past, Spain is still a divided nation.




This is Now

Ronda has to be one of the most spectacularly located towns anywhere in the world. Perched on a rocky isolated outcrop, the town straddles a precipitous limestone gorge that drops sheer for 130 metres. The river gorge is called El Tajo, though the river is El Guadalvin. Spanning the gap created by the gorge is the Puente Nuevo or ‘New Bridge’. Started in 1751, the bridge took forty two years to complete and its construction cost fifty two lives. It is one of the most photographed spots in the whole of Spain, and it’s not difficult to see why. A low arch supports three much higher arches, much like a multi-tiered Roman aqueduct. The solid blocks of stone used to build the bridge blend into the vertiginous sides of the gorge. The bridge rises majestically, soaring into the air and proving that sometimes, man-made structures can be as impressive as nature.

The Puente Nuevo dominates Ronda, and it dominated our visit. After several days of glorious inactivity, we forced ourselves to temporally abandon Casa Mesto, and braved the mountain roads which lead to the mountainous eyrie. We entered the town from the south side, via La Ciudad, Ronda’s oldest quarter. The area still retains it’s Moorish layout and includes many original houses. We walked through a maze of ancient streets, passing fabulous dwellings, palaces and churches as we headed towards the Puente Nuevo. We walked across the bridge and admired the extensive views over the surrounding countryside. From the bridge it was easy to understand why Ronda was one of the last Moorish strongholds in Spain to fall to the Christian forces; only succumbing in 1485, just seven years before the fall of Granada.

Pedestrians are able to walk along both sides of the bridge and we darted from one side to the other, crossing a cobbled street whilst being careful to avoid the near constant stream of traffic. Both sides offered fantastic views and we were pleased to be able to optimise our viewing pleasure. The bridge has seating positions built into it, but the seats weren’t being used for sitting. We joined fellow tourists in using the seats as handy steps from which to lean over the sides of the bridge and take photos. Will, Tom and Tania snapped away, but I didn’t didn’t take many pictures and I didn’t look for too long.

The Puente Nuevo, has become infamous as a result of Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls ‘. In his book, Hemingway describes the execution of Nationalist supporters and sympathisers early in the Spanish Civil War. The Republicans kill Nationalists by throwing them from cliffs in an Andalusian village. Hemingway, allegedly based the account on killings that took place in Ronda at the cliffs of Tajo, but there is little evidence to support the claim. Atrocities undeniably took place on both sides, but it seems more likely that at Rondo, the Nationalist who were executed were shot behind the cemetery gates. Whilst probably fiction rather than fact, I found it impossible not to think about Hemingway’s chilling chapter and the horrific fate that awaited the condemned as I looked over the edge and into the abyss.

Hemingway experienced the Spanish Civil War at first hand, he was an ardent supporter of the Republican cause. Arriving a year after the outbreak of hostilities, he covered the conflict for the American press. Reporting on the war and travelling through the country at such a momentous time in history provided the inspiration for him to write ‘For Whom The Bell Tolls’. The book tells the story of Robert Jordan, an American who enlists on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War, and travels behind enemy lines to work with Spanish guerrilla fighters. The book is magnificent, greater even than the sum of its parts. On one level it’s a simple adventure story, but it’s also about love, life, politics, brutality and the tragedy of war – it’s one of my favourite novels. The Spanish Civil War, didn’t mark Hemingway’s first visit to Spain. Hemingway spent time in Pamplona in the 1920’s, and he became obsessed with bullfighting and matadors. In ‘Death in the Afternoon’, published in 1932, Hemingway looked at the history of modern bullfighting and contemplated the nature of courage and fear. Hemingway’s last trip to Spain was in 1959, during this visit he chronicled what was known as a mano a mano (hand to hand), a series of bullfights which pitted matadors against each other. His observations were published posthumously as ‘The Dangerous Summer’.

Whilst I love Hemingway’s writing, I don’t share his love of bullfighting. I can’t abide any activity where suffering is offered up as entertainment or art. I don’t understand how anyone can take pleasure from another living creatures torment. Bear baiting, fox hunting, cockfighting or bullfighting, they are all the same to me. It was with a sense of trepidation therefore, that I headed off towards the oldest and the most revered bullring in Spain.

The Plaza de Toros looks like a gladiatorial arena, and in a way, I suppose, that’s just what it is, hosting similarly one sided contests. As well as being the oldest, the bullring is one of the largest in Spain. Opened in 1785, the sand and clay filled arena has a diameter of sixty-six metres and is surrounded by a passage formed by two rings of stone. Spectators occupy two layers of seating, each with five raised rows, fronted by one hundred and thirty-six columns which support sixty-eight glorious arches. The arena is only used once a year for fighting, but it’s an important Matador training school. With a sense of self reproach, we paid the entrance fee, walked through an elaborate Baroque doorway and then toured the building. I hate to say so, but the place was impressive and was definitely worth a visit. I may hate bullfighting and I have a healthy disrespect for tradition, but I appreciate good architecture and I love history. Feeling both guilty and hypocritical, impressed and horrified, I fought Tom in the main arena before exploring the bull pens and a quite fascinating museum. Apparently Ronda is the spiritual home of the modern corrida or bullfight, and the founder of the modern style was Francisco Romero. Before Francisco, bullfighting was an activity normally carried out from the back of a horse in what was known as the ‘Jerez style’. Romero fought on foot and introduced the style that many are familiar with today.

Continuing on foot we decided to head back towards the Puente Nuevo. Our route took us along the Paseo Hemingway, a spectacular walkway which offers fantastic views of the Puente Nuevo and the surrounding area. The views from the Mirador de Aldehuela were particularly impressive. The viewpoint occupies a small ledge which appears to float unsupported in the air as it juts out from the city walls. The viewpoint is named in honour of the architect Jose Martin de Aldehuela, who designed both the Puente Nuevo and the Plaza de Toros. Stopping frequently to admire the views and to take on water, we wandered past an elegant Parador, which was formally the town hall, before emerging onto the Plaza de Espana, a lively and impressive square, full of hotels, restaurants and tourist shops, selling ponchos and flamenco dresses amongst many other things. Resisting the temptation to buy, we made our way downhill, past the Iglesias de Nuestro Padre Jesus, and then onto the ‘Old Bridge’ or ‘Roman Bridge’ or ‘Arab Bridge’ – Ronda has had a long and interesting history.

Ronda is surrounded by prehistoric remains, but the area was first settled by the Celts in the early 6th century BC. The Celts (Iberians) chose the site because they thought it was impregnable – it was until the Romans arrived. After capturing the unassailable stronghold, the Romans developed the site into a fortified outpost. Mentioned by Pliny and Ptolemy, they named the new town Arunda, which rather aptly means surrounded by mountains. Arunda flourished under Roman rule, it grew in importance and was granted city status by Julius Caesar. The Roman hold on the city lasted until the disintegration of the Roman Empire, when Arunda was lost to the Vandals, who lived up to their name by completely destroying the place. The Vandals reign in Andalusia was short lived, they were replaced by the Visigoths, who reestablished the present site of Ronda, until in 713 the area was taken and the old town was fortified by the Moors. The Moorish conquest brought only temporary stability, it didn’t bring peace, these were turbulent times. The Moors divided southern Andalusia into five districts and Ronda was fought over by different Arab factions until it’s re conquest by the Marquis of Cadiz, for the Christian forces in 1485. Subsequently, most of the city’s old buildings were renewed or adapted to Christian roles.

Turning back the clock, we enjoyed yet more spectacular views of the gorge, before visiting the Arab Baths (Banos Arabes). Built at the end of the thirteenth century, the Arabic baths are said to be the best preserved in Spain. The baths comprise three rooms and the largest central room is divided into three parts by horseshoe shaped arches and octagonal brick columns. The baths were based on the Roman model of thermal buildings, with cold, warm and hot bathrooms. Water from El Guadalvin, was delivered via an aqueduct, the water was then heated in large cauldrons which still impress today. Most impressive of all however, was the barrel vaulted ceiling complete with its star shaped vents which allowed shafts of light to pass through and illuminate the cavernous interior.

We spent more than a few moments exploring the building and we even found time to watch a film about the history and functioning of the baths. Designed to educate rather than entertain, we soaked up facts whilst enjoying the cool of the shaded interior.

The cool interior was in sharp contrast to the baking exterior – the day had warmed up significantly. Before we were thirsty, now we were parched. We struggled as we climbed back uphill and we stopped to rest outside El Palacio del Rey Moro. Legend would have us believe that this was the house of the Moorish King Almonated, who is said to have drunk wine from the jewel encrusted skulls of his victims, but the present house was built in the 18th century, so to a certain extent the house is a bit of a sham. The gardens of the house do however give access to the Water Mine, a staircase of Islamic origin.

It was in the 14th Century, that Ronda first found itself in the firing line between the Moors of Granada and the Christians of Seville. Highly sought and fought over, Ronda was frequently besieged, and the first target of every besieging army was the water supply. Using Christian captives as slave labour, Ronda’s Moorish King, ordered the cutting of over 300 steps into the stone walls of the gorge to enable water from El Guadalvin to be carried up to the town. Though intended as a secret, it wasn’t a particularly well kept one. It is thought that it was here that the Christian troops forced entry to the city.

Dehydrated and only partially recovered, but probably feeling better than Almonated’s Christian slaves, we continued the steep climb back towards El Puente Nuevo and the Plaza de Espania – it was time for lunch.

Thirst and hunger took us to the Calle Nueva – a pedestrianised street full of restaurants and cafés. Elegant three storey buildings with wrought iron balconies framed a bustling and clamorous scene. Tables, chairs and customers completed the canvas. Restaurants tried to out compete each other with special offers, enticing menu del dias, colourful table cloths and purple prose – we were accosted rather than greeted by waiters, waitresses and proprietors as we walked from one end of the street to the other.

One particularly friendly and helpful waitress said that she could guarantee that we would not leave her house unsatisfied. Well, it was enough for me. We dined alfresco at the Restaurante Granada, on a mixture of migas rondenas, pulpo a la gallagas, paella, calamaras fritos and solomillo de cerdo, followed by natillas and helado, all washed down by wine and water – I love the menu del dia. Three courses, plus a drink for eleven euros – just perfect. Feeling full and satiated, we headed back to La Ciudad, and then headed for home, but I knew I would miss Ronda.

Ronda is undoubtably one of the most beautiful places I have ever visited, passionate and picturesque. Hemingway famously stated in Death in the Afternoon, that ‘Ronda is the place where to go, if you are planning to travel to Spain for a honeymoon or for being with a girlfriend. The whole city and its surroundings are a romantic set … Nice promenades, good wine, excellent food, nothing to do …’

I can’t agree with Hemingway on matters of sport, but on the subject of Ronda, I couldn’t agree more.

Day in the Life

 Day in the Life

This Is Now

Casa Mesto was simply stunning, a tranquil slice of paradise.

After the excitement of Seville and Cordoba, and the stress of travelling, we were ready for a few days of doing nothing much at all. Apart from a brief excursion to the outskirts of Ronda to gather some provisions, we gave into a life of leisure and pleasure as we basked in our surroundings. Minutes and moments merged as we drank, ate, slept, talked, swam, sunbathed, read and relaxed. Time began to lose meaning as the days developed their own rhythm.


Our day usually started shortly after the break of dawn. I would like to be able to describe the sunrise, but we never managed to wake up in time. I never made it up before 7:30, and by then the sun had already risen. Falling out of bed, grabbing a shower and brewing a coffee, I ventured out into the cool of morning, hoping to catch sight of a fox who allegedly drank each morning from the swimming pool. Although mostly quiet and peaceful, each period of the day had it’s own acoustic accompaniment. Dogs were the first to greet the dawn as they barked and incited each other to an ever more frantic frenzy born of impatience as they demanded their breakfast. We breakfasted on the shaded patio and planned the day ahead – it never took too much planning. Temperatures were cool until about 10:00 am, but then the sun rose high and bathed all but a few shaded areas in bright sunshine and enveloped all in an intense heat. The cicadas began to chirp as we shifted between pool and patio, between sun and shade. Goats bleated and bells tinkled as animals grazed just out of sight. Occasionally the passage of a car and sometimes the sharp retort of gunfire, echoed across the hillsides. The hottest part of the day followed, between 2:30 and 4:30 in the afternoon; hiding from the sun we eat tapas under our bamboo screen. After lunch we alternated between reading, sun bathing, swimming and resting as the day slowly and imperceptibly cooled and evening slowly approached. Wine opened, we drank and ate food inspired by our location as we soaked up the views, serenaded by birdsong and the gentle hum of insects. Swifts and swallows, followed by the arrival of bats announced dusk, which always fell between 9:00 and 10:00 pm. We toasted the night as a bright moon rose in the sky and shadows slowly climbed up the valley and over Pujerra. A moonlight swim in the now cool water of the pool was followed by a warming shower, a final drink, bed and a false promise to be up before the next dawn.

That Was Then

Thankfully, not all days were the same, but a certain pattern and rhythm did begin to emerge. Heading back to bed, I slept for another couple of hours, before rising to face the day for a second time. I was awoken by the cry of a neighbours baby, but it was hardly an unsociable hour so I couldn’t really complain. Feeling far more human then I had any right to expect, I showered, dressed and headed out for a coffee. A pneumatic drill made me grimace, but a small bar, situated on the ground floor of our apartment, provided a life saving beverage for just a few peastas. Drinking slowly, I attempted to read a local newspaper, but soon settled for watching the news on a large television, which blasted out at full volume to anyone who cared to listen. I cared to listen, but I couldn’t understand much of what was being said. I could only pick out a few words and that wasn’t really enough to be able find out what was going on in the world. My Spanish may well have been terrible, but the coffee was excellent. Feeling marginally better, I thought I might try something to eat. I ordered churros (pieces of fried and sugared dough) and dipped them in my coffee. I immediately felt much better – a sugar rush was obviously what was required. I lingered over my coffee and churros for quite some time, but nobody cared. There were only a few people in the the bar and I had already discovered that lingering over food and drink is part and parcel of being Spanish. I communicated, rather than chatted with the waiter and an elderly gentleman who sat close by – it’s amazing just how much you can convey with a couple of words and sign language. In 1984, English people were a bit of a rarity in Granada, and most people I met were interested and intrigued about my status and nationality. It became apparent that my new Spanish friends thought that there were only two types of English people; football hooligans and bowler hatted gents carrying black umbrellas. Hopefully, as I was without either hat, umbrella or tattoo, I encouraged them to reassess their preconceptions.

Eventually running out of things I could mime, I wished all a friendly adios and headed out for a short wander around the local shops. The streets were fairly full and people queued at a range of different stores. Butchers, bakers, fishmongers and grocers competed for trade, displaying their produce with pride. Crustaceans, so fresh they crawled, super sized fruit and vegetables and the aroma of freshly baked bread provided a feast for the senses – I started to feel hungry again. However, I wasn’t in search of food, I was on the lookout for an English newspaper, but in this part of Granada they were hard to find. I did spot an ‘International Herald Tribune’, but the edition was two days old and I suspected that the stateside editorial wouldn’t encompass much news from home. In lots of ways it was refreshing not to be able to keep up with domestic news – it made being abroad feel far more real. Anyway, I hadn’t come to Spain to keep one foot in the UK, I wanted to integrate and assimilate and I still wanted that life changing experience.

Having made the decision that no news was good news, I gave up my quest for the ‘Holy Mail’ and headed back to the flat. I picked up my ‘Hemmingway’ and returned to the balcony armed with a cup of tea. Well, I couldn’t give up all links to home, something’s are sacred. While the ‘Hemmingway’ delivered, the tea was a less than delicious brew – UHT milk doesn’t do tea any great favours. Feeling disappointed, I spent some time contemplating the mystery of why a country that appreciates fresh food, doesn’t drink fresh milk, and then I spent some more time contemplating Robert Jordan’s fate – I think I now know for whom the bell tolled.

One of the real joys of youth is having time to waste. Introspective, self indulgent and generally pointless meditation continued until Amaya returned and the next stage of the day began. We decided to head out, grab some lunch and explore the city streets of Granada. The Spanish live on the streets – home is for sleeping and occasionally eating, but the streets are for everything else. Drinking and eating out in Spain was relatively cheap, sometimes cheaper than drinking and eating at home. We caught a bus and headed into the city centre. We grabbed some bocadillos and then grabbed some chairs outside a bar in the Plaza Nueva. Drinks were more expensive then in the outskirts of the city, but wine or a small draft beer still only cost the equivalent of about 12p. I wasn’t entirely sure that drinking so soon after suffering was a good idea, but the location and the general ambiance legislated against abstinence. Built over the River Darrow, the plaza used to be used for tournaments, bullfights and executions, now it was used to preen and parade – a place to see and be seen in. The setting was fantastic, we were surrounded by elegant buildings, the Royal Chancellery and the Iglesia de Santa Ana, to name but two. We sat and watched the world go by as we talked and laughed, and we made one drink last for the best part of an afternoon.

Just a small point of interest, but in Spain, just as in the UK, the afternoon officially starts at noon. Most Spaniards however, take the afternoon to mean after lunch, and in Spain, lunch (comida) is usually eaten at about 2 pm. If greeting someone you should use ‘buenas dias’ before midday or before the midday meal and ‘buenas tardes’ in the afternoon. The afternoon becomes the night when the sun sets and from then on it’s ‘buenos noches’. In terms of meals and eating, the Spanish operate on a 17 hour day. Breakfast (desayuno) is usually taken at 7 am, with a snack at about 10:30, to tide you over until lunch. After lunch another light meal or snack may be eaten at about 6:30, and dinner (cena) may be taken any time from about 10 pm onwards. What about the children? I hear you say. Well, children usually eat with the adults and it’s not uncommon to see babies, toddlers and teenagers settling down with their parents for a meal at 11 pm. On special occasions, such as Christmas or New Years Eve, families tend to eat at midnight. If you’re going to Spain, you may have to reprogram your constitution.

Effortlessly adapting to cafe culture, we found it difficult to drag ourselves away from the Plaza Nueva, but we thought that we should dedicate at least some of the afternoon to exploring more that just the bars of Granada. Street map in hand, we set off to explore the Albaicin. We wandered through ancient narrow streets and climbed ever higher until we arrived at the Mirador de San Nicolas – a small raised square in front of San Nicolas church. The square offered fantastic panoramic views of the city centre, the distant Sierra Nevada mountains and the Alhambra. The area was empty so we enjoyed the tranquility of solitude and took our time to take everything in. The Alhambra looked stunning, equally as spectacular by day as it had been by night. I may not have been able to fully appreciate the fine architectural details from afar, but the grand scale and majesty of the building was revealed in all it’s glory. I stood and stared and I wished I’d brought my camera.

Committing the view to memory rather than film, I took one long last look across to the Alhambra, and then we headed back the way we had come. Slaves to appetite – hunger and a chill in the air precipitated our departure. Resisting the temptation to eat out, we decided to head back to the flat – evening meals were usually enjoyed at home. I can’t remember whether we ate fried potatoes and meat or a Spanish risotto, but it was always one of the two, and both were always carefully prepared on our small, ‘butano’ powered gas hob. Satisfied and satiated, wined and dined, we gazed out from the balcony and watched the sunset to the accompaniment of a stray dog howling.

Dusk was our cue to head into the streets once again. Returning to my breakfast bar, I was greeted by name, well, nationality – “Hola England’ – it was nice to be remembered. My breakfast bar and the other local bars offered cheap wine and if you were hungry a few plates of free tapas – nothing too exciting, generally a plate of olives or some sunflower seeds. We didn’t always continue on from the local bars, but tonight they were the starting point for the evening to come.

Our night continued in the city centre. We met up with some of Amaya’s Spanish friends, fellow students from the University of Granada. Conversations raged at high volume and I tried to follow the gist of things. After a few drinks the general consensus was that we should find a club, perhaps one that played music rather than a ‘nite club’ this time. Having decided to make an evening of it, we headed towards the gypsy caves of Sacromento. Arriving at two in the morning we danced until dawn. We wouldn’t have dreamed of going to a club before two in the morning and we seldom left before five.

Tired, but thankfully feeling far healthier than the night before, I paid the taxi driver and we walked towards our flat. Rooftops were bathed in the red, orange, yellow and the brilliant white light of an Andalusian sunrise – the colours were incredible. I gave a friendly nod to the ‘butano man’ and wished a warm ‘buenas dias’ to some street cleaners, before heading inside, going to bed and making myself a false promise to come home a bit earlier next time.