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.