Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Scenes from Andalusia (Part 2)

Salobreña: On two occasions, we headed to the coast for a couple of runs by the sea. Heading twenty minutes south on the A44 autovía dumped us directly into Salobreña, a beach town overrun by Brits and other northern Europeans with a nice, broad, kilometer-long seaside boulevard, perfect for running. The weather at the shore on both days was superb: mid-60s, bright, blue skies and pure sunshine. My second run took me away from the beach on a narrow trail alongside a canal that cut through flat acres dense with sugarcane. After putting a mile or so behind me, off in the distance appeared several dozen brown goats, clanging bells and all, with an elderly goatherd gently prodding them along. The herd was headed straight for me as the distance between us closed quickly. I eventually slowed to a walk and then sunk into the sugarcane thicket to allow the pack to pass by. What a sight and what a run! We may not have made it to Pamplona for the running of the bulls but I did manage to jog with the goats in Salobreña.

Málaga/Torremolinos/Marbella: When the sun took a break and the Costa del Sol turned into the Costa de la Lluvia, we did an all-day windshield tour of the three major seaside cities. It was a wet, dreary day and the resort towns did not look their best, but we did get a good feel for each. We also witnessed scores of deserted construction sites and the unfinished buildings left behind, sitting forlorn and abandoned as they spilled up the coastal hills. The “crisis,” as they refer to the housing collapse over here, was in abundant evidence. Birthplace of Picasso, Málaga is a big, bustling city with a good-sized port and Marbella, with its celebrated beachside promenade, is clearly the Spanish playground of choice for the rich. We were most anxious to see Torremolinos, however, one of the unforgettable settings for James Michener’s 1971 classic account of the disaffected youth of the ‘60s, The Drifters. I’m rereading this book that I so enjoyed when I first discovered it in college, and driving into the actual town that reached mythic partying proportions in the novel was a decidedly gratifying experience. We had lunch along the infamous Torremolinos beach, rain pounding on the chiringuito’s plastic roof, and discussed how the seaside venue might have changed since Michener’s characters crashed there in cheap hotels over 40 years ago.

Alpujarra Hike: Just to the south and east of Chite are the Alpujarras, a mountainous area south of the Sierra Nevada into which the vanquished Moors fled after the Christians retook Granada. The deep canyons are dotted with whitewashed villages with their characteristic flat-roofed Moorish houses and are rich in challenging hiking trails. We grabbed our walking sticks, jumped in the car, headed for Pampaneira, one of the Moorish villages, and started what we hoped would be a multi-hour hike up the Poqueira valley. Unfortunately, the confusing narrative description on the trail map we found at Casa Conejillo resembled little of the actual terrain we crossed and markers we spotted (Does that look like a “water channel?” Maybe it’s just a stream. It says continue for “a bit.” Have we gone a bit? Would you consider this a curve to the left?), so we lost the trail we’d hoped to follow very quickly. In the end, we continued on a different path that led down into rather than up the valley, but the weather was perfect for a hike, sunny with a bit of a chill in the air, and we decided to enjoy the trail we found rather than the one we’d planned. We had one of our most pleasant lunches in Spain (although not typically Spanish) when we got back to the village (a big salad, chicken with mushrooms and cream sauce, and chocolate cake) because the woman who owned the place -- along with her husband cooking in the kitchen -- and served our food loved practicing her English. We had a spirited discussion about her views on Spanish politics (a new party was elected and everything will now get even harder for the Spanish people), the European economy (it’s very bad and getting worse) and her children (they’re grown and on their own and she wishes her son hadn’t married a French woman).

Gibraltar: There’s a point on the AP7 autovía north of Marbella when you pass over a crest heading west and suddenly, there in the distance miraculously appear two lone mountains: the great Rock of Gibraltar and Jebel Musa, its shadowy twin across the straits in Morocco. It was one of those jaw-dropping, incredible sights. The Rock and our first glimpse of Africa in one frame – just amazing. From this vantage point, Gibraltar appeared to be physically detached from the continent as it loomed in the morning mist. The first word that comes to mind about this tiny British territory (just over two-and-a-half miles square) is fascinating. While Gib may in reality be attached to Spain at the tip of a narrow peninsula, the two are as distant as two places that touch can be. Still angry over losing Gibraltar to England, Spain makes few concessions to its colony neighbor. Until you are almost on top of it on the highway, there are absolutely no signs directing you there. Signs-a-plenty announce La Línea, the Spanish town through which you have to drive to reach Gibraltar, but it’s as if this little piece of Britain doesn’t exist as far as the signs are concerned. Shortly after going through the passport control booths, we found ourselves actually driving across an airport tarmac. What!? Gibraltar is so narrow that the airport runway spans its width and traffic must be stopped several times a day with red-and-white striped barrier arms that are raised and lowered for the seven or so incoming and outgoing daily flights. The residents are now in an uproar because a recently inked deal will almost double the flight count and the resulting traffic jams will make the already congested roads even worse. A tunnel under the tarmac is in the works but until it’s completed, gridlock will reign. The view from the top of the rock is spectacular, affording sweeping views of the Costa del Sol to the east, of the ships and container cranes of the busy commercial port of Algeciras to the west and south across the sea to the shores of Africa outlined in the distance. We played with the precocious macaque monkeys that live on the Rock (there are 200 of them), walked through the caves and then headed down to town for a lunch of fish and chips. The incongruity of seeing throngs of British school children outfitted in gray and maroon uniforms with pressed white shirts and polished shoes being directed across the street by British Bobbies in their dark blue helmets was fascinating. There’s simply no other word for experiencing this little slice of the UK jutting out into the Med, even if just for an afternoon.

Thanksgiving at the Alhambra: Thanksgiving has always been my favorite holiday. It’s a very simple notion: spending time with loved ones and giving thanks together. The retail mania of Christmas and the crash commercial trappings of most other US holidays have somehow managed to bypass Thanksgiving (except for Black Friday, of course). We had a lovely dinner and felt privileged to be eating at the Granada Parador (first a mosque, then a convent and now a fine hotel on the grounds of the Alhambra) although we badly missed being with family and eating our holiday favorites (turkey was not on the menu, but we did enjoy some duck). My sister Peggy’s advice, who I’ve mentioned lived for many years as an expat in London, was that Joe and I concentrate on considering ourselves special as the only ones in the restaurant celebrating the American holiday. Such a frame of mind did indeed help assuage the wistfulness. We’d missed another Thanksgiving dinner away from home in the late ‘70s when I was a student in France. Joe was visiting and we took the train to Chamonix for a long weekend in the Alps. We had a quiet and memorable Thanksgiving dinner of Poulet Vallée d’Auge (chicken with apples, cream sauce and Calvados) that became a family favorite I still make for special occasions. The biggest difference between our Thanksgiving in 1978 and the one we just celebrated is that we now have children. Thirty-three years ago, Joe and I were fine to give thanks on our own, but now that Chris and Caroline are in our world, it just isn’t Thanksgiving without them <sigh>.

Ronda: Dramatically perched above and straddling a breathtaking gorge that divides the town in two is Ronda, one of Andalusia’s iconic white hill towns. The town’s Romero family played a principal role in the development of modern Spanish bullfighting traditions and the highlight of a Ronda visit is its lovely Plaza de Torros. Completed in 1785, the Ronda bullring is a delicate sandstone structure, whitewashed on the outside and painted in soothing yellow and rust on the inside. For me, its 136 delicate Tuscan pillars and covered benches lend the structure the air of a cloister rather than a violent arena (although it was impossible to ignore the red streaks of blood ground into the sandy floor). Were the central ring to house a garden sanctuary and bubbly fountain, I would have enjoyed our visit significantly more. It’s too bad the brutal ritual of bullfighting takes place in it and ruins such a lovely, noble piece of architecture.

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