Don Quixote is dead. The wise fool has recovered his reason and died in bed, surrounded by loved ones weeping. I shed a tear or two myself as I turn the final page. Then I resolve to do something quixotic today; I will walk to the tower!
On a promontory further up the coast the Torre de Guadalmesi edges its way into view after an hour or so of hiking from the little town of Tarifa. It looks close. It isn’t. Under the impression that it is, I follow the curves and gradients of the path as it runs along the Mediterranean. This is the now defunct road to Algeciras – a highway through the Spain of knights and bandits, Christians and Moors.
I come to a stretch of the old byway which is shaded and sheltered on the coastal side by a rock wall that protrudes from the ground to a height of about two metres and it dawns on me that, even in the absence of any paving or marks to evidence it, the road must always have gone this way; it’s the only rational – possible – choice right here. I may never have been on a road as old and with as much certainty. Thousands of years at least, and who knows how many thousands have passed this way, till it was abandoned in favour of more modern highways further inland, once engineering had made them possible.
The ground underfoot is hard and stony – the outline of the camino only just visible in some places. The rock wall that pokes up at an angle here like a slice of Planet Earth is just one instance of a remarkable geology; where marine winds have stripped the shoreline slopes of vegetation and soil rock strata are plainly visible, slanted on a diagonal that continues beneath the water. The layers alternate between a hard-wearing reddish rock and a softer, shattered grey. Everything here, in fact, is shale, sand or dust; particles of a former something. There are no clear forms or large sizes except for the rocky places and no colour but the shades of grey and reddish brown, the clear sky overhead and the odd purple flower, low to the ground on this windswept expanse.
In the dips and gullies where wind is tamed, small birds and butterflies flit. But it never lasts. A few metres further on I am exposed on a headland topped with an old sentry post. The wind is deafening and I stay away from the edge. Stepping into the little hut I can see the tower from here and take in the terrain between me and it. It doesn’t appear to have gotten any nearer. I’ve been walking for over two hours. It occurs to me that I have miscalculated and that it would perhaps be better to leave it for another day. Any distance that I cover now will be doubled on the way back. But no – I said I would walk to the tower and walk to the tower I will. I am honouring a knight errant today, not to mention a literary classic, and this is just the sort of single-minded foolishness I pride myself on. Onward.
Whoever it was that came up with the term “pissing in the wind” had a strong sense of the quixotic and knew how to illustrate a point. I am obliged to try it myself out here and there are trouser consequences. It’s a good day to be alone. I swear that tower is walking on ahead of me. Apart from the hefty gulls over head, all the wildlife I encounter is tiny; little white snail shells abound for some reason and – very similar – small white fungi, perfectly round and probably poisonous. It fits with the landscape; everything in this vastness is small. The terrain is an obliterated remnant of itself; smithereens of the subterranean, blown apart as the geology surfaces to meet wind and water.
Another headland and another view of the – now reliably – distant tower. I wander among the ruins of another abandoned military installation, sharing them with some grazing cattle. Below me the rock layers, submerged just a few inches below the clear water, form lines; the lanes of an Olympic swimming pool stretching out ahead towards my destination. The outermost lanes are more densely crowded, and the alternating strips of harder stone raised like broken teeth, or turrets; the very geology here a defence against invaders in a country of castles and moats.
The slopes give way to cliffs. I walk on and the ground beneath my feet finally changes. The trail of mud and rock becomes a relatively well maintained dirt track – wide enough for the four wheel drives of the local residents and for those that make it down here from the main road above. There are coves and shingle beaches and the breeze carries the scents of fresh seaweed and old money; white villas overlook from the heights. They have been there a while and aren’t going anywhere any time soon. The going is easier here and that bloody tower finally seems to be getting larger. Dogs bark from the fincas and I carry a stone, just in case.
The tower is a squat and unremarkable structure and as these coastal beacons usually do, reminds me of Napoleon. Whether that’s because of its stocky appearance or because it was built in 1826 I can’t say. I walk around it and enjoy the views up the valley, past the sprawling farmsteads to the road above. I have looked down here from the bus up there with curiosity. It is flanked by a couple of outhouses; one is full of rubble and one of dung, but they still provide welcome shelter from the wind. They were probably military as are most of the structures along the cliffs. Now fallen into disuse, you can nevertheless turn round and, looking inland, spot the still present soldiers uphill in their radar towers, scanning the straits.
The Torre de Guadalmesi is named for the river at whose mouth it is situated and it was put here to protect what was a popular spot for enemies to replenish their water supplies. This is all according to the plaque at the base of the fortification. It doesn’t say which enemies but since it was built in the 1820’s I’m looking at you, Bonaparte. I take the weight off my tired legs on a window sill and send K the text I promised her. I instruct her not to call me as Moroccan telecom has picked me up and roaming charges will probably apply.
Contemplating the three hour hike home with a little trepidation I am nevertheless pleased with the day. I came here all Don Quixote but by the time I step through the apartment door I will do so with the constitution of a Sancho Panza and a keen interest in a cold beer.
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