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La Bahía

In Presentation on October 11, 2013 at 7:26 am

La Bahía

Darkness has fallen though the night is soft and warm – we watch the world turn around us as the ferry floats slowly up the mouth of the river Guadalete and then shimmies round to dock on the riverbank at El Puerto de Santa Maria. The pin pricks of a thousand night lights are reflected vertically, the white and orange lines that fall from them interrupted gently by ripples on the surface of the water.

It’s our second time in the town; the first was this morning when we arrived by car, seething with the  arrival-rage that has become customary for us.  It’s as if we deliberately don’t write down the addresses of our hostales these days, or the phone numbers. I think it’s K’s fault but she thinks it’s mine. But it’s hers.

I think.

We can be so thoroughly put out that the first hour or two of a visit are ruined, but not today. Firstly, we more or less anticipate it these days, and laugh at ourselves sooner rather than later. Secondly, the hostal. We came on a whim at the last minute and have paid thirty-five euros for our bed, so I’m expecting a rickety one, the smell of stale tobacco and a fly carcass or two. What we get is something else entirely.

We’re early but greeted warmly by C once we get through the wrought iron gate at the street and another door into an open courtyard. He shows us straight into a room that would grace the pages of any interiors magazine you might think of. More

El Consumismo

In Plenary, Presentation on October 4, 2013 at 7:18 am

El Consumismo

K is throwing a few things into an overnight bag and I’m on the other side of the bed pretending to do the same, although really I’m just hanging around.

“Explain to me exactly what you mean,” she says, coiling the flex around some kind of hair tool, “by lunch.”

A doozer of a question. Not for the first time, I take a good long look at my fiancée.

“Something to eat,” I reply – an uncertain, questioning inflection finding its way into my voice, “in the middle of the day.”

She’s brushed past me and is gathering up small bottles and vials in the bathroom. No response.

“A light meal,” I call after her, “in the early afternoon?”

She returns with a bag of cosmetics and a faceful of scorn.

“I know what lunch is, you moron. I meant what did you have in mind?”

Once again she has me on the back foot. I hadn’t thought the suggestion a controversial one.

“I, eh, didn’t…I don’t really…” I drop the pair of boxing shorts I’ve been fidgeting with into my little case, “I just thought we’d…you know…we might…eat something.”

“In La Cañada?”

We’re off to Marbella for the night More

La Venta

In Presentation on September 27, 2013 at 8:05 am

La Venta

The bus that I take from Tarifa to just outside Algeciras where I teach in an English academy is regular but infrequent – I’m left with over an hour to kill before I start work and I kill it in a roadside venta with a café con leche and a slow, bad-tempered netbook. Since my previous job was in the same area I’ve been a regular there now for three years and the coffee is often plonked in front of me before I’ve opened my mouth. I take it to the terrace and sit in the deafening noise of the port traffic – juggernauts and container trucks – trying to concentrate on whatever it is that day.

The neighbourhood is called Los Pastores and the one behind it, where I work, El Cobre. Neither of these places will ever feature heavily in Ideal Home or Town & Country and the latter in particular raises eyebrows when I tell people I work there; they often seem mildly surprised that I’ve lived to tell the tale. I’ve never experienced anything on my way to or from work but a few curious looks and a laid-back family feel to what is undeniably a down-at-heel barrio. I would concede though that a number of the inhabitants appear to be interesting.

I’ve written about the venta before and the tortuously slow process through which I eventually came to feel accepted and comfortable there. Nowadays it’s a fait accompli; I’m more or less treated like royalty. I’ve seen staff come and go and whenever a newbie arrives he or she is taught quick sharp that mine’s a coffee. I’ve had knowing conversations with the dueña about how the ideal olive is a cracked one with the stone in, More

El Viñedo

In Presentation on August 21, 2013 at 12:05 pm

El Viñedo

J is one of those people that other people call passionate. He speaks quickly and loudly, usually beginning a sentence before he has given himself time to finish the last one, gesticulating wildly as he does so. Bearded and boom-voiced, he runs his bodega and hostelry with presence and charisma. It’s particularly striking right now because the rather large man is standing in the middle of our room, giving us a dressing down for leaving our window open during the day.

“The hot,” he bellows, his face a portrait of betrayal and shattered innocence, “is terrible!”

“It come in!”

This accompanied by more wild gesticulations to signify, I suppose, the coming in of the hot. It’s a singular approach to customer service that I won’t forget in a hurry. I close the window and shutter and this appears to pacify him. He leaves, still mumbling about the hot.

K is a little skeptical. The bodega was her idea and isn’t what she was hoping for. I find it’s usually a mistake to build up too precise a picture of a place you’ve never been to but that is what she’s done. Some Italian movie she saw when she was young was to have been replicated here – vines and cicadas, balmy nights and a rustic farmhouse, family round an al fresco table and a love affair (with me, I would hope).

We’re not in Italy though More

Los Lugares

In Plenary, Presentation on August 6, 2013 at 4:41 pm

Los Lugares

Usually, when we arrive in a new place we get our bags inside as quick as we can and head out to look around. Not so in Santillana – we loiter in our little studio apartment, showering and catching up on emails, glad to be inside. The truth is the streets of this perfectly preserved medieval village – famed throughout Spain for its picturesque beauty – were intimidating as we drove in, dropped our bags off and drove out again to leave the car in the mandatory car park on the edge of town.

To say the place is popular would be to put it mildly. What would appear to be the two or three principal streets and square swarm with tourists and day-trippers. Getting even our small car through them is a cocktail of fear, rage and regret. The place is awash with cheap t-shirt emporiums and the kind of mass-distributed trinkets you could pick up in Málaga or Madrid. Somewhere behind all these multi-coloured leather goods and straw hats is the place that Sartre called “the prettiest village in Spain” but, as K succinctly puts it, “I think we got here about two hundred years too late”.

There are a few genuine artisans working here – jewellery, art, furniture – but lots of it’s just tat. A little girl’s flamenco dress, in Cantabria. Really? The region is famed for its anchovies and if the shop shelves in Santillana are anything to go by, they all come from this inland town; if the prices are anything to go by, they’re golden anchovies. We don’t see a single butcher, or electrical appliances store, or fruteria. More

El Patio

In Presentation on July 31, 2013 at 10:28 am

El Patio

Last time it was all scorched earth and a sky the blue of blue flame.

This time: a smattering of rainclouds drifting slowly beneath a higher layer of white. Greener country, cooler temperatures – the green of the cork trees, for example, like the brush strokes of a painter on the tans of the summer grass.

Last time we played flamenco – Camarón and Paco de Lucia and all the rest of it as we set out on our first big jaunt into the interior of this intoxicating country.

This time: I’m woozy with words in the passenger seat, a headful of problems from the page. The music is americana – plucked strings as the forests slip by. The lakes, the oleanders, the country more colourful somehow this colder summer, the range of shades augmented by sunlight dapples as the heavy cloud lumbers on and breaks here and there.

A wind farm pops up, the turbines standing sentinel on the horizon. As we get closer we see that they’re spinning fast – dervishes, describing an incessant ‘now’ with the rotation of their blades over the ‘always’ of the timeless landscape. The sky over them a gun metal grey, a few rickety old horses grazing on the roadkill-peppered verge.

Finally, droplets on the windscreen. I open my window to smell the rain and stick my fingers out to catch a few drops. It’s cool out there, but as we near Seville the heat rises and the air-conditioning goes on. More

Los Baños

In Presentation on July 3, 2013 at 4:24 pm

Los Baños

Two strips of the AP-7 curve away high overhead where we park beneath a dizzyingly tall flyover and make our way down a dirt track, not all that sure if we’re in the right place. Tired legs make the uncertainty that much more tiresome but there are promising signs as we make our way – a couple of cars pass by and there are people coming the other way who carry towels and wear bathing costumes. A kitsch restaurant where the track begins proclaims itself The Roman Oasis.

We walk for ten minutes or so, reassured – once we’ve asked someone – that we’re not lost. Finally, on our left, we pass an abandoned old pension, or perhaps a spa, with the words Baños Romanos de la Hedionda on its façade and then, on our right, a path that descends to the river.

We’re near Manilva, just four kilometres or so inland from the Costa del Sol, the coastal strip of hotels, resorts and retirement communities that stretches in a great concrete swathe from La Linea to Málaga, then more quietly eastwards. There’s no sign of any of that here but it’s hardly deserted – preserved Roman baths may not have much appeal amongst the Costa clientele but they are very popular with the local families who come here each Sunday during the summer months.

We don’t have any Roman history in Ireland; I don’t think they had the stomach to pick a fight with us. My first thought as I take in the squat, white structure that houses the baths is that if we did More

Los Tabancos

In Presentation on June 2, 2013 at 1:16 pm

Los Tabancos

We go to Jerez. Our usual hostal: cheap, clean and sparsely furnished. Two high little windows into the alley, a cool-tiled floor, a double door with ornamental balcony that overlooks the inner patio, its railings hung with geraniums, a fan in the corner, a chair.

I go for a walk while K sleeps and, finding myself in an old tabanco (a sherry bar that serves from the barrel), I ask for a palo cortado; on a prompt from the ageing barman I stipulate that I’d like it chilled. Then I settle down with it at a barrel-top table and stare into the middle distance like the other two unaccompanied men in the place.

Tabancos will sometimes sell the region’s wine by the bottle as well and there are a few rickety old shelves for the purpose as well as large urns and plastic containers of sherry vinegar. I’m the youngest here by a long way, and I’m not that young. If you require vivacity in your watering holes it probably wouldn’t be for you, with its assisted-suicide-through-sherry vibe and pickled old men, but I like it. When I came in the guy behind the bar looked genuinely surprised to see me but by the time I get up to pay and leave, asking as I do if it would be alright for me to take a photograph of the place, he’s become friendly and says that of course it would. He does advise me that if he himself is in the photo he will charge me.

“Like Ronaldo does,” he says.

“Fine,” I reply, “please get out of the way.” More

El Vuelo

In Practice, Presentation on May 15, 2013 at 8:50 am

El Vuelo

Somewhere over France a bank of rain cloud, an inverted anvil of grey vapour, rises suddenly and singularly from the otherwise uninterrupted expanse of undulating whiteness below us. It throws a long, blue-grey shadow over the cloud canopy it defies, climbing vertically and coming to an end in a straight line that exactly describes a higher altitude, its upper limit a razor sharp edge, defying not just that lower strata but also expectations. It’s a surprise, an inexplicable shape, a visual shock.

Of course it only appears inexplicable. If I was sitting beside a meteorologist I might have it explained to me. The pressures at work, the anomalies, the weather fronts and the barometrics at play. I might be left (assuming it was a patient meteorologist) with a sound understanding, not only less mystified by what I was seeing but able, perhaps, to predict the next, capable of reading the conditions and spotting those that produce such a phenomenon. Assimilating the information, eliminating the surprise.

See it coming next time, in other words.

I’m not though. I’m sitting beside K and neither of us has a clue, so we crane our necks – her leaning over me – and stare at the funny thing till it goes past. We sit back and she returns to her book. Not a word. Sometimes it’s enough to look at something strange, then let it slip away without explanation.

Further on the cloud cover breaks up More

Der Turm

In Presentation on May 10, 2013 at 8:44 am

Der Turm

How exquisite to race along the country roads of Franconia in Spring, the sky finally clear after a dreadfully long winter, the curving, sinking fields around us dappled with wildflower. We have some sublime music on and it exhilarates – a perfect match for the serene scenery, this central European tableau of farmhouse, mill and die wälder, the abundant patches of old forest that characterise northern Bavaria. We ride the melodies through dorf and altstadt, through the rock formations of Fränkische Schweiz, the territory between Bamberg and Bayreuth they call their little Switzerland – pretty towns, dark-beamed buildings as only the Germans can build them and at almost every junction of the roads a little brewery and biergarten.

We stop in at a favourite, Kathi Bräu, for some quark and onion on heavy brown bread, then set off again along the winding rivers that snake their way from Schloss to Schloss, the imposing castles that number even more here than they do in Andalusia. Our eyes and ears are joined in pleasure as the ensemble, a quintet, race through their bright, 1979 recording of self-penned pieces. The title of the collection, “Highway To Hell”, belies the uplifting nature of the Australian musicians’ performance.

A few days later, we’re without any soundtrack at all, not even a breeze to rustle up the leaves as we walk through forest near the little town of Kulmbach. It’s the kind of country we don’t have in Ireland – there isn’t enough space between things there to fit in places like this, More

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