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'