We both go into the weekend exhausted. K because she is working very hard at the moment, and I because I’ve been busy winding myself up again about time, now that I’m in front of the kids and out of the house for eight hours a day. I spend a self-defeating proportion of my time worrying about how little time I have. As a result of course I have less. When I’m not worrying about how little time there is I’m worrying about how little I’m doing with the time that I have. As a result of course I do less. It’s exhausting.
Still, I don’t want to vegetate so I pitch K on a day trip to nearby Castillo de Castellar, a place we’ve heard about from several sources but have never been to; we usually head west and north west when we travel these days, to the likes of Jerez, Sevilla and Cadiz – so it makes a change to go north east to Algeciras and then briefly north to Castellar de la Frontera. As we near it we take the tiny road that winds up to the old Moorish fortification– the castillo – that sits on a height overlooking the town on one side and a lake on the other.
The road is of the kind that K would refuse to drive if forewarned – steep and winding and precipitous – so I don’t warn her, despite having been advised by a colleague. I’m just not up for the walk today. A few nervous minutes later we are parked at the top and make our way to the castle gate. It’s late afternoon on a Saturday and the tourist season has wound down, so we are almost alone as we walk in and out of the long shadows.
The castillo is unique. There’s a little pueblo blanco laid out within its walls; the Moors put it there of course and it’s very well preserved. So as soon as we pass through the gates we find ourselves in the familiar Andalusian townscape; whitewash and cobbles, narrow lanes and steep steps, wrought iron steetlights and plenty of potted plants. Prime territory for an encounter with old school Spain you might think, but not so.
As we do a brief circuit of the tiny pueblo the few voices that we overhear from behind the painted windows are German. This town-in-a-castle which had such a pivotal role in the wars between Iberian and Moor has in the end been colonised by these barbarians from the north, and I must say they keep it very tidy. The plant pots are arranged just so. Not the faintest whiff of dog do anywhere. The flowers appear to be colour coordinated, and nobody is shouting – a dead giveaway.
Since its conquest by Christian loyalists in the 15th century this place had been a rural outpost. People here had subsisted on farming and forestry, for the most part. When the nearby Guadarranque dam was built in the sixties it provided an opportunity for people to pursue less agrarian lives.
As that decade drew to a close a new town was built 8km below the castle. It had modernity, accessibility and infrastructure and everybody, more or less, went to live there – providing an opportunity for a significant number of foreign artists and artisans to move in to the vacated space. I’m trying to avoid the word hippies. It’s not easy.
They comprise the bulk of the population to this day, their workshops and galleries lining the few rambling alleys and their wares spilling out onto the streets, so it is among horses carved from tree bark, playfully hand-painted thingimajigs, mosaic watchamacallits and six foot paintings of ants that the original residents – those few brave souls who hung on while their neighbours slid downhill – must nowadays wend their increasingly weary way. We get a nod, a smile and a helpful pointer in the right direction from one of them as we wander, but are left to ourselves by the more recent and reserved residents.
The right direction turns out to be down a short flight of steps and out onto an unexpected little balcony, carved right into the hillside and with unimpeded views for many miles around. It’s a real show stopper. K sits and I fret about with the camera. I have been irritable and poor company and once we have absorbed the calming panorama K suggests we take a break.
We go to the castle itself – a hotel now – that advertises coffee and find ourselves on a turreted terrace with views to the south, east and north. The lake is below us, cupped in the billowing folds of hilly terrain – the more distant slopes are tree-topped and veiled in ultraviolet haze. We can see Casares from here clinging to its sheer cliffs, and Gaucin to the north of it. It is apparent that these pueblo blancos were in fact built in plain view of one another. Within signalling distance when such things were important between allies, and within sight when such things were important between enemies.
It’s quite a setting to sip a coffee in. The castle, the turrets, tha lake and the forests. The whole thing is pregnant with fantasy. Dripping with the romance that attracted artisans here; so easy is it to trace the origins of folk tales and knights errant to locations like this. Damsels, honour, chaste love and all the rest of it. And now of course those artisans have carefully constructed their own fantasy – that of the archetypical Spanish pueblito. It is somehow less Spanish and more faithful to Spanishness at the same time.
Whatever it is, it’s potent; our coffee is disturbed by a dark shadow. We did spot some big birds out over the water but didn’t realise they come in over the castle; just a few metres above us. We leap up in childish excitement. It is huge and silent and impossibly slow. We wait and another comes – a vulture possibly but we suspect it’s the similarly patterned Iberian eagle. Now we can add dragons to the knights and damsels!
I am thrilled and at long last throw off the tension that has plagued my day. K’s face is alight as she scans the sky and mine is too as I scan hers. I feel like calling for my sword, but since I have neither a sword nor anyone to bring it to me I let the matter rest and content myself with waiting for the next eagle and looking down over the lake – which it turns out is yet another testament to human dreaming and invention. It isn’t a lake at all. It’s a reservoir.
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