Category Archives: Spanish Travel & Humour
My experiences of carnivals had been confined to the sort of thing one sees on a wet Saturday afternoon in England. I remember one such event in Suffolk where the parade consisted of one float advertising a local electrical retailer. The float’s theme was lost in a mass of soggy crepe paper, bursting balloons and a general air of indifference. By the look of the Carnival Queen and her attendants the contest was based on personality alone. No attempt had been made to tailor the costumes which was unfortunate as last years incumbent was a rather stout girl. It all gave a fair impression of a perambulating laundry pile followed by a lorry delivering bulk paper mache and old inner-tubes. Those that lined the route were there by accident and paid little attention other than wondering who wanted so much paper mache.
The afternoon and evening events lasted two days, which was a bit of overkill considering the attractions on offer. The venue, a field had been carefully chosen for its mud content. A tent which had seen many better days housed what passed for a bar. This was an arrangement of what appeared to be three wallpaper tables placed end on end with crates of beer bottles stacked behind. It wasn’t an inviting place. Drinking overpriced lukewarm beer in a draughty leaking tent erected in a muddy field. The drinkers consisted mainly of those who had lost the will to live after watching the Morris dancing. Food was catered for in the shape of a foul smelling hamburger van operated by an unshaven villainous individual. His appearance didn’t reflect the affluence implied from his prices.
There were a couple of carnival rides of such diminutive size that they couldn’t have raised the adrenaline levels of a two year old. Nearby a trick cyclist demonstrated his inability to ride a motorcycle. A dog handling display and a sullen troop of drum majorettes more or less completed the entertainment. The dogs at least did as they were instructed unlike the drum majorettes. One left the carnival with a mixture of emotions, a sense of complete deflation coupled with a strong feeling of being expertly mugged.
I don’t believe this description to be too far from the collective truth associated with such events nationally. It is a sad fact that we only pay lip-service to such occasions and view them simply as charitable fund raising exercises. Consequently people feel obliged to attend and the extortionate prices are justified on humanitarian grounds. Enjoyment is secondary.
This is how I viewed all carnivals as I set out for southern Spain, the Costa del Sol and Fuengirola. I was to attend the October Feria.
I collected a map of the town and a timetable of events from the Tourist Office in the Paseo Jesus Santos Rein then headed for the nearest bar to study the itinerary. The first thing I noticed was that the Carnival was in fact a religious affair. At least it was in the honour of Nuestra Señora del Rosario, Our Lady of the Rosary. The main church, Parroquia de Ntra Sra del Rosario located at the northern end of the Plaza de la Constitución was the focal point of the Feria. Speeches in the Plaza began what turned out to be six days of extreme noise, tantalizing aromas and strength sapping fun. It was a feat of stamina as everything and everyone continued in the carnival’s supercharged atmosphere until the early hours.
The young ladies of Fuengirola squeezed themselves into figure hugging flamenco dresses and paraded the streets and shopping centres. The massed effect was breathtaking as regiments of raven haired and impeccably made up señoritas wiggled and giggled their way through the streets. The young men dressed in short jackets and Sevilla Hats rode on horseback through the town with their resplendent ladies side saddled behind them. The more elderly opted for sedate carriages which were pulled by teams of well groomed horses and ponies. Just to be in Fuengirola is to be involved in the Feria.
The carnival ground itself is centred on the Plaza Hispanidad. As one approaches the first impressions are of dazzling light of an intensity which hurts the eyes while the volume of noise is so great that the generated percussion waves can be felt on the cheeks. Rides which could effectively be used for astronaut training fling, hurl and spin their screaming captives through the warm evening air.
Aromas from the eating venues can only be resisted by the well sated. Huge dishes of paella and slice potatoes slowly baking in olive oil tempt the would-be diner. The sticky desserts and sweets solved a question that had bothered me for some time. Why there are so many dental surgeries in Spanish towns. The sugar content of just one could keep the occupants of a good sized kindergarten hyperactive for days.
There were over thirty peñas at the carnival ground. These are club houses, motoring, hiking, football etc. Each has a bar long enough to do credit to a Workingman’s Club in north eastern England. Each peña vies for drinkers by offering entertainment. The noise is incredible as popular music mingles with the hypnotic beat of flamenco. Male baritones compete with Latin American rhythm. The confluence of sounds was so disorientating I found it necessary to do something familiar to compensate. This usually involved visiting a bar and having a not too quiet drink. It was a good technique and became more effective as the evening went on.
The entertainment offered by the Peña Futbol Sala Los Beliches was of particular note. Here two girls and a lad, Tatiana, Estíbaliz and Angel entertained. The brunette Tatiana, took the lead, the blonde Estíbaliz supplied support and the eye-candy while Angel played the electronic organ and generally organised things. They started their turn at eight-thirty in the evening and continued through to the early hours. They covered most musical genres and sang along with the audience who copied their hand and body movements. The Ritmo Andaluz Show as they are known certainly earned their money and even found time to talk and pose for my photographs.
The noise was inversely proportional to the smallness of the hour and increased as dawn approached. As I was getting increasingly disorientated so my visits to the bar by necessity increased. This further increased my sense of bewilderment. I decided
enough was enough before I has to avail myself of the service offered by the resident paramedics. By some miracle I found my way safely to my bed.
This routine continued for five days by the sixth I was a complete wreck. Mentally and physically dissipated. As the sixth night was the last I got an early night falling easily into a dreamless sleep. Not for long however. There was the most tremendous din. I thought the Americans were recreating the Palomares Incident, this time with live devices. It was the closing firework display. I swear I could see the walls shaking and hear shrapnel hitting the roof, perhaps it wasn’t really that dramatic but it certainly lit up the night sky. I was past caring and managed to sleep through the remainder of the pyrotechnic display.
As I sat wedged in the seat of my low-cost flight back to the UK I wondered at the sheer stamina of the average Spaniard. This was not an isolated Carnival, many more were planned over the coming months. I remembered that cold damp field in England with its miserable beer tent. I think I’ll give the carnival in Suffolk a miss this year.
Doña Mencía is a sleepy town at the foot of the Sierra Subbética. Built on a small plain and bathed in the lucent Andalucían sun. Palm trees and cypresses are in abundance, but I was more interested in searching for my recently detached near-side wing mirror.
Not accustomed to driving on the right, I naturally kept too close to the near-side curb. My wing mirror had clipped the wing mirrors of cars parked on that side of the road. It was as if my car was shaking hands with them, like a dignitary greeting a line of footballers before a match.
With the mirror rattling around in the glove compartment I headed north-west towards Córdoba. The air-conditioning whirred quietly away maintaining a healthy temperature differential between me and the outside world.
Unlike cities in Britain, southerly Spanish cities have no suburbs, they simply 'start'. For someone as timid and insecure as me it is quite alarming. One moment I am driving along a near deserted N432. The next jostling for position on the Carretera Castro heading towards the Avenida de Granada and the most appalling confluence of roads, roundabouts and squares. I imagined driving in Spain to be easy. If it were difficult, surely no one would have rented a car to an idiot like me.
With La Plaza de Andalucía looming I lost my nerve and headed for the dirt verge. I pulled up next to a bright orange rubbish dumpster. Córdoba is a city known for its car crime. I took this to mean that every male from the age of 14 to 65 viewed it as a full-time occupation. It was with some apprehension that I shouldered my camera bag and headed off in the direction of the Roman bridge over Rio Guadalquivir.
The bridge looked impressive it was amazing how well it had lasted. Built in the first century, admittedly repaired and partially reconstructed over the years but it still reflected the craftsmanship of the Roman engineers. A shrine to San Rafael completed in 1651 is about halfway along the 16 arch structure. Candles and flowers are always present at the tabernacle, while older Córdobenians still doff their hats as they pass.
I was just changing film when I noticed a plaque ‘Puente San Rafael’. I felt such a fool, the wrong bridge. I reloaded my camera and rattled off another roll of Velvia. I was trying to appear competent for any onlookers. I then skulked up river in search of the Roman bridge.
At the western side of the Puente Romano stands the Gate del Puente, built in the sixteenth century by Philip II. This complements the Torre de la Calahorra at the eastern entrance to the bridge. The tower now houses the Museo Vivo de Al-Andalus, emphasizing the three cultures which are the very essence of Córdoba. A city that epitomizes diversity, religious tolerance and passion.
My trip to Córdoba was specifically to visit the Mezquita or rather the Holy Cathedral and former mosque of Córdoba, as described in official literature. It is very rare to find a religious site where evidence of previous doctrines remains. This may be more to do with the grandeur of the Great Mosque rather than any tolerance on the part of Ferdinand III.
In 785 Abd al-Rahman I initiated the first phase of construction on the site of a Visigoth basilica. Further expansions took place over the next 200 years by a succession of Emirs. With the coming of the Christian reconquest a cathedral was built within the fabric of the Mosque. The Muslim minaret replaced by the Christian Torre del Alminar.
The coolness of the interior was most striking, almost cold, the complex air-currents proving as efficient as any air-conditioner. The multitude of columns confuse the vision, the eyes have difficulty focusing while the sheer scale of the building is disorientating. I had the feeling I was inside an enormous and complex sculpture designed to comfort and calm.
The pillars support arches whose voussoirs alternate red and white, the whole effect of shape and colour is stunning. The structural and cosmetic makeup of the prayer hall is reminiscent of the Great Mosque of Damascus betraying the common Umayyad influence. The unprecedented decision to build the Christian Cathedral within the Mosque has led to startling incongruities. The Gothic church rises from the very heart of redundant Muslim prayer hall.
Mosque of Cordoba
The entrance to the mosque is via the Patio de los Naranjos although Olive trees and cypresses are more in abundance now. It was here that I emerged from the cool shaded pillared halls into an inferno. I do not know what demonic forces had been at work while I was in the Mosque. The morning now superheated and the sun’s glare so intense it stung the eyes.
My exertions, both this morning and at the bar last night had left me tired and dehydrated, I was not in tip-top condition. My lips chapped, my face red from the sun, I had a raging thirst and my vision became blurred. My camera bag felt as if it were full of bricks and my legs were going, I stumbled into a taberna.
I attracted an admiring crowd as I fell into the bar, “Agua, muy frío, por favor” I croaked. The mozo de la taberna looked at me in pity as I downed the cold liquid. With my thirst quenched I realized how hungry I was. I decided I needed some protein. A steak would be do the trick. I ordered a glass of fino to put an edge on my appetite and to sip while I studied the menu. The fino was superb; I have only tasted better at the hotel Alfar near Montilla. A hotel I can thoroughly recommend along with the excellent staff.
The bar had an English menu which was the stuff of Goon Show Scripts. What I took as grilled steak was described as 'Products of slaughter to the stone'. The translation,
possibly made using a Spanish to Polish and then a Polish to English phrase book. The translation may have been poor but the meal was first-rate. Tender rice with a crispy salad and succulent steak washed down with chilled fino. A simple meal perhaps, but the quality of the produce and the skill of preparation made it memorable.
I left the bar full of bonhomie and 'Products of slaughter to the stone'. I walked from the Avenida del Alcazar to the Puente San Rafael where I crossed and made my way to the car.
I am a bad driver, mainly because I lose concentration and let my mind go off in any tangent it chooses. Today was no exception. I was oblivious to the blaring horns and waving fists as I pulled away musing over the days events.
The journey to Córdoba was more or less obligatory. The Great Mosque is on everyone’s list of places to go when in the area. In Spain, if one expects the mundane it usually proves to be extraordinary. This is the nature of Spain. It is one of the reasons every trip surpasses the previous one. Why I, at least continue to return!
I furiously attacked the bedroom door. My Son had volunteered to drive me to Exeter Airport and his resistance to verticality was becoming disturbing. The early flight to Málaga was convenient in as much as you have almost a full day on arrival. The drawback is getting up early enough to catch the ruddy thing.
I had called him three times but the first two brought no response. The third rewarded with a thumping on the floor. This was an old ploy, a diversion. I was to think he was out of bed and getting dressed. It was in fact a device to give himself a couple of extra minutes in that delightful semi-conscious state enjoyed in the early hours. Perseverance and nagging eventually paid-off and a bleary eyed scratching progeny emerged from the depth of his lair.
After some diligent loading, we headed off in my Son’s little green Peugeot. The route to the airport included country lanes and an old Roman road which appeared to be in its original condition. I wasn't going to get away unscathed after my beratings and early calls. He had me where he wanted me. Corners were taken on two wheels. Every pot-hole caused the suspension to buffet violently, my knuckles turned white as I gripped the safety strap.
The rapid changes of gear and acceleration should have had the Peugeot Company offering sponsorships. If it had not been for the fear of tetanus I would have kissed the ground as we pulled up at the terminal building. This was shabby, run down and in need of a face lift but from my point of view sanctuary.
The flight when viewed against my crazed ride to the airport was tranquil and uneventful apart from one startling fact. The aircraft I was travelling in was British, leather seats with plenty of leg-room it was really pleasant. A budget airline that doesn’t rely on 737s, that must be something of a novelty. Like all budget airlines food is not included in the ticket price. Not a problem on two hour flights, unless the people in front of you bring their own. Warm egg sandwiches given full reign in the recycled air of a small aircraft cabin brought back memories of the inside of my old school satchel. I would have preferred a more exotic aroma.
The Pyrenees slid past the port wing as Green Spain spread out below. At 500 knots it wasn’t long before the arid central regions gave way to the geometric olive groves of Andalucía. The aerial view of traffic on the wrong side of the road still filled me with dread. Although I have mastered the technique of driving on the right, the view from above is still somehow daunting.
I was still musing over this change as the courtesy-coach delivered me to the car hire compound. I always use the same hire company. They have never let me down and they are cheap, a wonderful combination. As I signed the necessary forms and flashed my driver’s license I became aware of a hammering in the compound. There in the far corner was the little silver Renault that I had rented last year undergoing some feverish and impromptu panel beating. It was pleasing to see it again, something familiar, a bond with my earlier visit.
As I dodged, swerved and cursed my way off the Málaga ring road and onto the N331 I asked myself “Why had I chosen Montilla this time” .
Was it because it was a small town away from the coast and from the tourist areas? Or perhaps because it is a place to meet the genuine Spaniard, in his own environment, with his everyday pressures and needs. Not a bit of it Montilla is slap bang in the middle of the N331. It meant I wouldn’t get lost.
Being perpetually mislaid was starting to wear thin. The hotel I had chosen was the Alfar, marked on Autoroute software and alongside the main road. I would have to excel myself to get lost this time. I should have used different criteria for planning the holiday, but any holiday is a gamble. My method must be as valid as any.
The Hotel is a rambling rectangular affair with its longest side parallel to the road. The 38 rooms are all on the first floor, mine being in the rear of the building overlooking the swimming pool. It was only early May, so the pool was still empty, about as inviting as a closed pub.
Two girls shared reception duties during the day, bright, bubbly and friendly individuals. One evening one of the girls excitedly dragged me from the bar. She kept saying Los Beeratalis, that had me stumped. I thought the Guardia Civil had caught up with me for ignoring the solid white line when I turned left. As I was led to reception the strains of 'Love Me Do' flowed from a small radio. The Beatles. The kind hearted recepcionista thought I would like to hear them. Why? I am not sure. Nostalgia? I appeared delighted and tapped along to the beat.
The rooms were large airy and comfortable. I looked for the flaw. Every hotel room I had stayed in had a flaw. At the Zuhayra in Zuheros, it was the bidet. Both tap and plug leaked, but the through flow of water kept my bottled beer cool. It didn’t take long to find it. The shower- head had broken away from its bracket, so I tied it on with a sock. It worked surprising well and it had the added advantage of giving the sock a wash. If anyone books into room 122, have a look for my sock its black, not that I want it back I would just like a sighting.
The food was Spanish and excellent. A bonus was the entertainment. This took the form of the 'English' menu. It provided hours of enjoyment. Messers Milligan, Sellers and Seacombe would have approved. The translation looks as if it was via Latin; it was a work of art. The most unfortunate entries were the meat dishes from the
Spanish carne via a Junior schools edition Latin Dictionary and into the English as slaughter.
The bar, where I spent most of my time, was a wonderful place. It wasn't just because of the never ending supply of alcohol and food, a consideration of course. It was mainly the ambiance of the place. Intricate tile-work depicting the pottery industry, the hanging hams and the big brass San Miguel pump all merged to produce a Spanish workaday atmosphere.
Bar at the Hotel Alfar
The two barmen were attentive rotund and jolly. One of them even learnt a few words of English to welcome me in the evening. Before dinner he would bring me samples of the main dishes so I could decide my meal. The revelation for me was the Fino, kept in a silver tea-pot and draped in wet tea-towels; it was superb. Delicate, dry and with an aroma which is the essence of Spain.
Now back in the UK I drink Fino rarely. This is partly due to the inferior quality and partly because of the vivid memories associated with the sherry. I do not want to degrade them with over use.
One of the bar duo
Málaga at Easter, I had a purpose to my trip this time, to photograph and document the Semana Santa processions beginning on Domingo de Ramos. There were eight processions on Palm Sunday the first starting at ten in the morning and the last finishing at one thirty the following morning. The number over the whole Easter period numbered 42. Needing stamina for the hectic day ahead, I set off in search of somewhere to eat. I had long since burnt up the calories from my FlyBe snack pack.
My hotel was in the Trinidad Grund next to the Plaza de la Marina, very central and one street away from the Alameda Principal. This and the Calle Marques de Larios were the common points for all the processions. I also wanted a central hotel as I didn’t want to hire a car, driving not being on my list of favourite pastimes. I am not a good driver. Whenever I hire a car I always make certain that they have a 24 hour drop off policy. I find it good practice to take them back under the cover of darkness. It makes my handiwork less obvious.
I would be seeing enough of these two locations in the coming days, so I headed for the playa. Although Easter 2008 was in March, people were swimming. Six days later an unseasonal temperature inversion in the stratosphere caused a bombardment of large hailstones over southern Spain. I found an inviting café where I seated myself at a table. El Gallo Rojo was the name above the menu, the Red Rooster. The proprietors had a slightly different translation, but as that sounded like a social disease I will stick to my construction. After an atún and pimiento baguette for my hunger, a cold beer for my thirst, and two glasses of wine for my soul I began to feel human again. I noticed that my skill in Spanish was proportional to my intake of alcohol. A secret I am considering sharing with Linguaphone, at a price of course.
Semana Santa Procession
Why do they make a bee-line for me?
I didn’t want Spanish café music; they ignored a couple holding hands and headed for me.
Don’t believe the films. These people aren’t interested in serenading courting couples, they’re heading for the cash. Unfortunately for them they made a mistake in my case, but this is their modus operandi. Either they belong to a large and closely related family of street musicians or this pair thought it their civic duty to ‘entertain’ me. To relieve me of my loose change every time I sat down to eat. They were omnipresent. I would hear the strains of some much altered flamenco piece and my unshaven duo would heave into view. They would greet me with twitching fingers and sickly anticipatory grins.
Back at the hotel, I charged my camera batteries, cleaned my lenses and studied the route for the first Palm Sunday procession the following morning. As I have no religion, I approached the whole observance with an open mind. The Spanish church doesn’t have the power perceived by us outsiders. Since it led the uprising against Napoleon in 1808 it had been in a general state of decline. However since the death of Franco it has been seen less of a tool of the rich and powerful. Though the people have always remained intensely religious, it was an interesting paradox.
The first procession was due to start at ten at the Casa Hermandad. There was no need to consult my map I just followed the crowds, the uniformed musicians and children carrying their ‘capirotes’. Women walking straight backed trying not to dislodge their high mantillas, the whole picturesque throng was as if heading for some mythical but elusive refuge. Then there was me, a puffing panting middle- aged wreck rattling alone with camera equipment stuffed into every pocket. I probably need go for a check-up. On my last visit for an insurance medical the doctor said, consulting his clipboard “Question one, do you suffer from blackouts..………question number 5”. He thought this was hilarious, it was only with great strength of character that I stopped myself from hitting him.
A mingling, relaxed but noisy throng gathered outside the Casa. There was no one in charge and no obvious organisation, typical Spanish anarchy. Suddenly, the amorphous mass of humanity acted as one and the procession started to move off. I swung into action, if swing is the right word to describe my lumberings. I went down onto one knee for a low angle shot. I shout “Your photograph please”. The use of English is different from the other photographers who are predominantly Spanish, so the subject naturally looks my way. In the UK I shout “Su fotografía, por favor”, it has the same effect.
Controlling the procession is a system of hand bells, allowing the costaleros carrying the ‘thrones’ to rest every 50 metres or so without any disruptions. Years of experience have made the whole exercise faultless. La compás, the beat rung out on dozens of drums, brings unity, making the whole parade move as one. The throne of María Santísima del Amparo brings the most reaction. This is the first procession and the first time the effigy of María Santísima has been seen this year. It first brings applause, then the more pious of the women folk shed tears. The spectacle is quite moving even to a heathen such as myself.
Boy in Semana Santa Procession
As the procession moves concerned mothers dash in from the sidelines to check on their precious off-springs. How they know which is which is beyond me. The hoods are all encompassing it must be in their shoes? Stalls selling toy drums and trumpets line the route, food vendors sell everything from grapefruit to cured hams. Others make the delicious almond toffee, fresh as you wait. As the procession approached the Alameda Principal the crowds become thicker. Pre-booked seating now lines the route and it becomes more difficult for reportage photography. I reluctantly put my lens cap on and head for a hostelry, to eat, have a drink and put my notes in order.
While enjoying a glass of chilled Fino in the Plaza del Obispo opposite Málaga Cathedral, I saw a British family. Tourists rather than residents over exposure to the sun testified to this, taking photographs of Málaga Cathedral. The patriarch placed his overweight sun blotched wife and his two reluctant offspring in front of the Cathedral before proceeding to take pictures. Now Málaga Cathedral for those who are unfamiliar with it is a wonderful example of 16th century baroque architecture. It has the classification of Málaga Baroque. Why this chap wanted to include his motley spouse and their hideous progenies in the shot is beyond me. The Cathedral’s guardians shouldn’t feel too hard done by. Tourists do the same with that Mughal wonder the Taj Mahal and even the Pyramids.
The next few days I repeated the procedure of first, locating, following and photographing the forty-two processions. It became harrowing. I was beginning to think that tap-dancing in boiling oil (olive of course) was a good alternative. I needed a diversion. I visited the English Cemetery the graveyard of St George’s Anglican Church to the east of the city. I wanted to see Gerald Brenan’s and Robert Boyd’s head stones; it was also the last place I expected to see a procession.
The English Cemetery Málaga
The caretaker John Halybone welcomed me, “Watch out for the processional caterpillars” he said, they are poisonous.
I had a choice, either damage myself or the car. The car was on hire and therefore my responsibility, whereas I had travel insurance. I avoided the potholes and drove on the compacted rocks which formed the road's centre. This set up a terrific vibration which loosened my dental fillings. I tried to check them in the rear-view-mirror which was oscillating through 360’. Catapulted Stones from the wheels of passing vehicles were modifying the car's body-work. I had a head-ache! I was sure the whole thing would disintegrate leaving me sat on the bare chassis grimly clutching the steering wheel.
Since leaving the Carretera a Palma Del Rio, the local roads were appalling. I had the impression that some belligerent howitzer battery had just shelled them.
I was to spend the night in a house a few kilometres west of Córdoba. To say it was a hovel is perhaps unfair but it certainly came close. I must stop being so trusting when I book accommodation. Mosquitoes fed on my bodily fluids and howling dogs deprived me of my much needed slumber. The gas cylinder looked to be in a bad state so like a fool I turned it off. As I gave up smoking ten years ago I had no way of lighting it in the morning. I had a cold shower, no coffee and left the house in a foul mood.
The purpose of my enterprise was to follow the Route of the Caliphs, from Córdoba to Granada. I was to start my expedition at Madinat al-Zahra, built on El Cerro de la Novia, The Bride’s Hill. Abd al-Rahman III founded the immense complex in AD936. Moorish Spain's infrastructure, its organization and control came from here. I hope their highways department was more efficient than their successors.
I felt at ease amongst the ruins. It wasn’t that I wanted to move through the once wonderful buildings in long flowing robes like some moronic Lawrence of Arabia. I had studied archaeology at the University of Exeter and have spent many happy hours on digs. I find I can associate with the ancients, picturing their shadowy figures flitting through their world of long ago. It could have of course be a ploy to forget the present and the reality it represents.
Only a small area of the complex has undergone excavation revealing fine stucco work and the remains of marble columns. Madinat al-Zahra is on three terraces with the highest accommodating the administrative zone. The middle terrace had the gardens, orchards and the all important pools. This area would have been a haven of serenity with water flowing in convoluted channels to irrigate, cool and soothe. The lowest platform housed the military and the general mosque.
Driving through Córdoba in the rush-hour is not a pleasant experience. If the Caliph had to do it, I am sure he would have found an alternative route. It was horrendous! I finally found the N432 and headed east toward the Sierra Subbètica and the Hotel Zuhayra in Zuheros. This would locate me roughly halfway between Córdoba and Granada.
My hire-car was in a bit of a state. Freshly dented from the airborne rocks of yesterday. I wondered what unseen damage had been done.
My understanding of mechanics is something akin to Albert Einstein’s practical experience of surfing. I once had an old Fiesta which was always failing to start. A friend of mine said the fault was with the distributor. I was all for going around to the Ford dealership and demanding to know why they had sabotaged my car.
The Route of the Caliphs follows the line of fortified towns from the Guadlaquivir Valley towards the fertile plains east of Granada. These citadels formed the first phase of a ninth century defence in depth strategy. Zuheros is a prime example of one of these towns. It clings to the side of the Sierra Subbètica, the castle dominating the town. Erected from within the natural contours of the surrounding rock giving the appearance of complete assimilation with it.
I arrived in Zuheros in the mid-afternoon. It had been three years since I was last here and I felt as if I were coming home. Nothing appeared to have changed, it was very reassuring. The Hotel Zuhayra had the same relaxed cool atmosphere and the attentive staff were familiar faces. I was soon relaxing in a hot bath, soothed by the sounds from the village. People were just emerging from the heat of the afternoon.
I took dinner in the comedor of the Bar Los Palancos. A revuelto de colleja, lamb’s lettuce cooked with scrambled egg ham and prawns, washed down with the opaque fino en rama. The meal was delicious. I slept soundly with a full stomach, a glow from the fino and no voracious mosquitoes or vocal dogs to bother me. Tomorrow I was back on the N432 to Granada and the Alhambra.
I left the hotel just before dawn, my entry time for the Nasrid Palaces was 11 to 11:30. The distance was 114 kilometres. I had built in enough time to cater for any eventuality. Getting lost, changing a wheel, abduction by badly informed guerrillas or for any other turn of events that appealed to my tiny mind. As it turned out the road was good, the signposts informative and I reached Granada with time to spare.
The Alhambra complex sits on the Sabika Hill overlooking Granada with the snow covered peaks of the Sierra Nevada behind. A convoluted site consisting of three distinct areas, the Alcazaba, the Nasrid Palaces and the Generalife all arranged with military precision. The Alhambra, we recognise today started with Al-Ahmar the founder of the Nasrid dynasty. Later he moved his affairs from the fortress at Albayzín some time after 1232. It was the last stronghold of the Muslims in Spain falling to the Christian forces on the 2nd of January 1492. As the Moorish King Boabdil left the city his Mother reputedly said “You cry like a woman for the kingdom that you could not defend like a man”. The lady wasn't happy.
Was I impressed by the Alhambra? Certainly the very clever use of flowing water in the Generalife, cools and animates the gardens enhancing their inherent intimacy. The
Nasrid Palaces has some intricate carpentry, tile and stucco work while the immense towers of the Alcazaba offer spectacular views of Granada.
The Alhambra with birds
My most enduring memory of Alhambra wasn’t its architecture or the immensity of its scale, but the birds, small birds that have adopted the place. Swallows and sparrows, circling the courtyards and towers bring the whole site to life. It is almost as if they were willing participants in the spectacle which is the Alhambra.
I once more found myself in the familiar surroundings of the Hotel Zuhayra reflecting on my day in Granada. Tomorrow it is back to Málaga, the airport and Bristol. I had visited other villages along the Route of the Caliphs, Priego de Córdoba, Lucena, Luque, Iznája and others. These white walled villages are the essence of southern Spain. They show there is another way of life, a quieter, slower, more understanding way.
The drive to Málaga will be the longest of the trip, I dare not look back.
It was one of those English spring mornings that poets and politicians wax lyrical about, but rarely put in an appearance. An English spring is usually much like an English winter, it is only the temperature of the rain which differs.
The Devon countryside, quite and still in the morning sun slid passed as I sped northward on the M5. My destination was Bristol airport and a flight to Málaga to begin what I had dubbed my 'Spanish Odyssey'. I had decided to spend ten days in the village of Zuheros, 75 miles or so east of Córdoba.
Zuheros was chosen by using the tried and trusted method which involves closed eyes, a pin and a map of Europe. The first attempt had me floundering in the Mediterranean while the second landed in the middle of a civil war zone, not recommended for a quiet holiday. The third placed the pin firmly in Spain and the village of Zuheros in the Sierra Subbètica.
I am an antisocial person at the best of times, so I introduced certain conditions on my little jaunt. The main one being that all the necessary arrangements, parking, flight, hotel, car etc. were to be made on line without consulting a human being. Childish I know but it avoided the sharp intake of breath one gets from travel professionals when they become acquainted with both ones' requirements and ones' budget.
Booking a low cost flight on-line is a roller-coaster of emotions. Ecstasy when the cost of the flight first appears on the screen. Then the spirits sink as the extras get loaded on. According to the airlines such things as taking ones' luggage and the simple and necessary act of checking-in are extras. The final plunge into the depth of despair comes when they charge for using your card. Paying for the service is considered as an extra to that service one has just paid for. That is a good one, a Catch-22 if ever there was one, Joseph Heller would have approved. But it was done and I duly printed out the reference number, no tickets just a magic number, all a bit worrying.
The car hire was simple, companies by the score around Málaga and no compulsory extras. I am not a good driver and was concerned about Spanish roads surely if it was difficult they wouldn't have hired a car to an idiot like me. I now had my second piece of paper, a voucher promising a hire car on my arrival in Spain.
Bristol airport isn't big but modern and friendly, it is void of the mass of humanity one finds at London Airports. I hurried to the check-in desk scattering would be passengers with my suitcase. It was one of those with wheels like a perambulating sarcophagus, it made a rumbling noise out of all proportion to its size and cut a swath through the waiting crowd. I puffed and panted my way to the front of the queue and tentatively proffered piece of paper number one. I half expected it to be refused , turned down with a superior smirk, a snigger at my gullibility at being conned by a transparent internet scam. But it worked.
I received a boarding card and watched as my sarcophagus trundled along the conveyor belt and out of sight behind a plastic curtain. I had a knotted feeling in my stomach, I felt sure I wouldn't see my case again, a fleeting image crossed my tiny mind, of all the cases dropping off the end of the conveyor belt into a vast land fill site adjacent to the terminal building. My paranoia was starting to show.
I headed through passport control and the departure lounge. The lounge is a large glass fronted affair, shops on the ground floor and restaurants on the mezzanine, it was clean, relatively comfortable and offered a good view of the aircraft as they arrived and left. Bristol Airport can be described as essentially a holiday airport, there are always tour groups passing through, and today was no exception. Despite still being only nine o'clock in the morning, one group, predominantly men, were consuming lager at an alarming rate, their chatter had reached crescendo level. It appeared to revolve around one of the group to whom the rest were relating every aircraft disaster since Orville Wright made his now famous heavy landing in 1903, he was obviously afraid of flying and had stupidly told one of his 'friends'. Still it all added to the atmosphere of the place; I opted for a coffee, and sat down to wait for my flight being called.
'Flight 6057 to Málaga is now boarding at gate 10' at least I think that was the announcement, the PA operator, judging by her volume and pitch, wanted to keep all aircraft movements a secret, perhaps it was part of the tighter security now in force. She was however foiled by the monitor above the gate, which boldly declared the imminent departure of the flight. I had my boarding pass and passport checked by a gaggle of chirpy airline staff, and proceeded to the aircraft, a 737 which looked as if had seen better days, in the 1970s perhaps. As long as it had been well maintained and the crew sober, all should be well. The window seat that I settled into overlooked the port wing, the window itself appeared sound and devoid of cracks, so I tried to make myself comfortable. It was then I noticed a rather unusual sight. A group of young ladies were getting themselves seated and sorted out further down the aircraft, judging by their 'T' shirt legends it was ' Sara's hen outing', but what was unusual was their choice of head gear. They all had those head bands which have springs, with comic eyes attached; these bounce about as the wearer walks. These resourceful young ladies had modified this arrangement in as much as they had removed the eyes and replaced them with replicas of the male genitalia, very detailed, but blue in colour, which I found a little disturbing. They made a hypnotic sight, twenty four phalli, in pairs, shaking and gyrating in sympathy with the movement of the aircraft, a visual indication of the pilot's ability to fly straight and level.
We left the ground with the usual roar of engines, followed by the other mysterious clicking, humming and clankings that are associated with take-offs. A slight turn to port and we headed south, with the green fields of England slipping away below us.
The journey took just over two hours and was relatively uneventful. I partook of coffee and pâté with crackers, not cheap, but I could hardly shop elsewhere. Our imminent arrival was heralded by the changing scenery; widely spaced rows of olive trees dominated the landscape, looking like small green puffs of smoke, the rows appeared endless, as we lost height and closed with Malaga Airport.
The parade of phalli rocked in unison as the plane trundled its way across the airport tarmac. We made several seemingly pointless turns before coming to a stop by the terminal building; then the usual free for all broke out. Why people fight tooth and nail to get off the aircraft first is beyond me, people pushed jabbed and shoved, in order to be among the first off.
I waited with a smug grin for the cabin to clear and then made my way into the terminal and the luggage carousel.
Was my suitcase, which disappeared behind the plastic curtain at Bristol, really going to reappear from behind the equivalent curtain in Malaga?
What happens if it completes more than one circumnavigation of the conveyor belt without being collected?
Will I collect someone else's case by mistake and spend the next ten days in drag?
Would I even find the baggage claim area?
The airport appeared to go on forever. From one of the carousels I can see the welcome sight of two dozen dancing phalli; a monitor confirms that it is the baggage claim for flight 6057.
With my suitcase safely in tow I made my way into the arrivals lounge.
Most of the larger car rental companies have a kiosk at the airport, located down a ramp, but the company I used obviously couldn't afford this luxury. I had to use the courtesy bus to get to their offices, perhaps half a mile from the terminal. Time for grubby paper number two, again it worked, they were expecting me and the car was ready, a few details, my credit card number, and off I trotted to my vehicle. The car, diminutive to say the least, was cleaned all fuelled up and ready to go. My suitcase was however too big for the car's boot, and my boot was too big for the car's foot pedals. With my suitcase on the back seat along with my boots I drove tentatively from the parking area.
Now! In England I have a four wheel drive vehicle, quite a heavy car, with the steering wheel firmly attached to the right hand side. Saturday nights excluded, it is driven on the left hand side of the road. This configuration is, as the history books tell us, to free the pistol hand in order to deal with the attentions of belligerent highwaymen; I am now in a little French perambulating sardine tin. The steering wheel is in the front passenger seat, and I am driving on the same side of the road as I would have expected the on-coming traffic to be. That I could have handled, but the first thing I saw when I left the hire car compound is the biggest roundabout in Christendom. The entire population of Malaga appeared to be circumnavigating it in the wrong direction, but at least there wasn't a highwayman in sight.
The traffic was continual! Blaring horns and screeching tyres! A never ending procession around the traffic island, I had to do something, I waited for a reasonable gap, closed my eyes and put my foot down, a few waved fists, and I was on my way.
It appeared as if the whole of Spain was on the move, all lanes were jam-packed with sweating, swearing, and frustrated drivers. They performed all sorts of suicidal manoeuvres, just for the sake of getting past the car ahead. I had to perform a few of my own in order to follow my route, but somehow I managed to find myself on the N331, on course and heading north. The traffic thinned and my blind panic subsided. I began to take notice of mundane details again, the road surface, the countryside and how to work the bloody air-conditioning. I even eased my grip on the steering wheel and allowed the blood to flow back into my knuckles once more. The roads were in very good condition and in general the Spanish drivers were courteous and observed lane discipline. These weren't the manic drivers I had met around Málaga; crowds in whatever context always bring out the worst in people.
Driving became pleasurable once more; I had discovered the secret of the air-conditioning, and my navigation appeared to be spot on, from the N331 a right turn and I was on the A316 for the final leg of my journey.
The landscape consisted of rolling hills with the ever present olive trees, seemingly taking no notice of boundaries or topography, but disappearing into the far distance. Occasionally a sheer crag would appear as if by magic; giving an enhanced three dimension effect, almost surreal!
I began to recognise place names from the maps I had studied prior to departure, Lucena! Getting close, Cabra! be there soon! Left to Doña Mencía, and right to Zuheros, on to a local road, a few pot holes and tight bends but nothing too testing!
Zuheros is situated in the Parque Natural Sierra Subbètica, an area of some 159,000ha and fourteen towns. Zuheros is one of these fourteen, with a population of about eight hundred. It sits, perched on the top of a cliff, with its castle hanging on by its eyelashes to a precarious position above a sheer drop.
The Castle of Zuheros
I entered the pueblo along its narrow winding streets, the houses immaculate in whitewash and flowers. Two ancient sun wrinkled women, each sitting on their own doorsteps and diametrically opposed, each in imminent danger of having their toes crushed, however, being a caring person I stopped. "¿Dónde está El Hotel Zuhayra, por favor?" I asked and received an appalling load of gibberish in return. It would seem that the local accent was going to be as hard for me to understand as a Geordie would be for the average citizen of Madrid. I got the impression they didn't know, I thanked them and drove on, not for long however as the hotel was only fifty yards further down the road. The two ancients obviously didn't get out much. The Hotel was virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding houses, whether by original design or modification it was impossible to tell. A now very grubby piece of paper number three is proffered at the reception desk, and like its two predecessors it worked, my room was ready for me. Passport and credit card details noted I headed for my room.
After a wash and general tidy up, a feeling of overwhelming achievement came over me, I decided to reward myself with a glass of wine at the bar.
"Un vaso de vino tinto, por favor", I said to the 'camarero'
"Lo mismo", in this context it means 'same again' and saves a great deal of time when you are thirsty. The 'lo mismos' kept coming and I chatted to the barman in his native tongue, after an hour or so I noted a very peculiar phenomenon. My ability to speak Spanish was proportional to my alcohol intake, the more I drank the better my Spanish. I also noted that my ability to speak English was, however, inversely proportional to my alcohol intake. I wondered what would happen first, either complete fluency in Castilian or total unconsciousness. It was at this point that the bar staff changed shifts! The new incumbent was a 'camarera', raven haired, olive skinned, with expressive almond eyes, a mischievous smile and a voice that would melt a polar ice cap. I lost the ability to speak both my native and adopted tongues, fresh air seemed the solution. I headed rather unsteadily for the village square, which being at the cliff edge offered an excellent vantage point. The late evening sun cast its long shadows as the intoxicating aroma from the olive groves below was carried up on the evening breeze. I was engulfed by the warm night, heady from the wine and the day's events; I felt that I had found my 'sitio perfecto'
Parc Güell, Barcelona
Barcelona in July
The low cost flight from Bristol to Barcelona's El Prat Airport was the usual cramped affair but it was punctual and bearable for the two hour flight. An untroubled taxi journey took me to my hotel. True to the eccentricity of Barcelona it was next to a hospital of Art Nouveau design.
The Hotel occupied very little ground space being square and tall with the rooms arranged around a central lift-shaft. My room was tiny and basic, more like a third-class cabin on a tramp steamer. The bath was small. My arms and legs which stuck out like an assortment of celery sticks jammed into a small jar. There was no natural light in the room. What passed for a window was the size of a bathroom cupboard and opened into was I took to be a ventilation shaft.
The hotel owners went to extremes to conserve electrical power, whether from a green conscience or to maximise profits I never discovered. The task of gaining entry into the room was fraught with problems because of this. As one leaves the lift one activates a light switch in the hall which is on a timer. One then uses a conventional key to open the room door which has a very strong closing mechanism an important point.
Now the cunning part of the arrangement, the door key also switches on the room electrics and hence the lights via a separate key mechanism. To insert the key into this mechanism requires one to relinquish one's grip on the door. This closes with the ferocity of a bear trap plunging the room into a velvet blackness. It is impossible to find the tiny keyhole in the dark so one if forced to open the door again. Now the final genius of the design. The timer on the hall lights expires plunging the whole floor into darkness. I spent a great deal of time in Barcelona simply trying to get to my bed.
The small bar on the ground floor appeared to be no more than a wardrobe with a few optics bolted to the wall and a Cruzcampo pump. It dispensed beer however which was all that really mattered. On entering I noticed the barman talking too a customer in Spanish. I actually understood what was being said. I was relieved as on my trips to Andalucía my inability to understand the local dialects had shaken my confidence. However when I asked for a beer in my best Castilian, he answered Catalan. He also changed Catalan in his conversion to the other customer. I have noticed this phenomenon in Wales when I enter a pub and speak English. Not that the Welsh speak Catalan rather that they change to Welsh.
Barcelona has a history of anarchy and revolt. At the start of the Civil War the Anarchist organisation the CNT, Confederación Nacional del Trabajo, pushed the Nationalists out of Barcelona in 1936. They then promptly tried to start a social revolution against the Republican government. There has been so much civil strife over the years that manning the barricades became as well practised as fire drill. It is said that if you take up a cobblestone from any street in Barcelona it has two numbers on it. One is for its position in the barricade and the other for its position back in the road.
The architect Antoni Gaudí symbolises Barcelona and the Catalan people. His Art Nouveau buildings are truly unique in concept and realisation. The undulating façade of Casa Milá and the sea shelled Casa Batlló are among the best examples of his work. The sheer intricacy of the Cathedral La Sagrada Família is bewildering while the architectural elements in Park Güell spring surprise after surprise. I doubt he would have been granted planning permission if he had tried to build them in London.
Barcelona's most famous thoroughfare, Las Ramblas has unfortunately been completely hijacked by the tourist industry. It is pleasant enough however to wander through the crowd past the stall selling wild birds and confectionery. The smell of freshly made coffee and toast appears to be everywhere and draws one into some café or other out of the heat of the day. The Catalan cuisine is wonderful. Fresh Mediterranean vegetables, pastas and seafood are combined in the most delicious ways. Meat dishes particularly lamb and the Vic Sausage are a tempting alternative to seafood.
It was while enjoying some of these delicacies that I noticed the cars parked by the roadside. There appeared to be only an inch or so between each bumper. I marvelled at the skill needed to park in this fashion. I have been known to go home rather than attempt to parallel park in a busy street. I am a terrible driver and people only drive with me out of necessity some even weep as I negotiate traffic.
I was lucky enough to see one of the car's owners return to his vehicle and soon realised my praise regarding the driving prowess of Barcelonés was misplaced. He simply shunted forward and back denting bumpers until there was sufficient room to extricate his car. I was told that Spanish cars are delivered from the showrooms with dents. I have since learned that it is not true, the art of denting a car is an integral part of the driving test.
My journey back to the airport was further testament to the anarchic qualities of Barcelona and its ability to surprise. I hailed a taxi. The cabs in Barcelona are yellow and black and a green light on the roof indicates that they are free so this didn't present a problem. One of the vehicles duly stopped. Stopped doesn't quite describe what happened. On seeing me the taxi driver switched off his green light, slammed on his breaks and swerved to the curb. There was an awful squeal of brakes as he left rubber marks on the road. I soon found out my assumption that it was a male driver was wrong.
The cabby turned out to be a slightly built greying lady of about fifty-five dressed in a knitted grey two piece suit. She was the image of my maiden Aunt. We wrestled with my case for a bit but I maintained my male dignity and put the case in the boot myself. Then we were off. She threw the car around like a rally driver, ducking in and out of traffic. With her window wound down she gave universal hand gestures to objecting road users. Her shouted profanities were obvious even to me with my
limited knowledge of the Catalan language. During the twelve kilometre drive she broke every rule of the road and even invented a few of her own. I was relieved when we arrived at El Prat Airport and I gratefully hauled my bag from the boot.
I was only in Barcelona for short time but I became completely captivated with the city. An individual and idiosyncratic town, singular in all respects. I made a mental note to return.