There is a point along the high road between Algeciras and Tarifa where a succession of twists and curves offers rapidly alternating views of the Straits of Gibraltar – hemmed in by the coastal mountain ranges of Europe and Africa – and the wide open, luminous vista of the Costa de la Luz as it stretches out along the Atlantic. There is a rare sense of scale and of place – one can picture oneself on the relevant page of the atlas – and today the scene is even more than usually singular.
Weather reports have described the area as nublado, or cloudy, but in fact the skies are crystal clear and brilliantly blue, marked only here and there by scissor-cut contrails. The clouds are down below in the form of a marine layer that drifts slowly westward through the Straits, trapped by a warm front that is moving in above them. They fill the narrow waterway with fluff, above which the Pillars of Hercules peek – papier-mache protrusions amidst the cotton wool of a child’s geography project.
I get off the bus and walk downhill into town and towards the casco where we live. With precision, the marine layer leaves the coast clear and keeps to the water. Only where Tarifa itself terminates at the Isla de Palomas – the continent’s jutting, southernmost point – does it drift overhead across the antique roofscape. Our building, when I reach it, marks the line at which the high-visibility day gives way to fog. Down at the port it rolls by – at least a hundred feet tall – like a sentient blob; the bad guy in this week’s b-movie. Out on the open Atlantic the giant is dwarfed; it loses shape and stature, dissipating into a grey haze that hangs low on the water. That evening is conspicuously cool. The world is upside down – our heads quite literally in the clouds that carpet it.
The next day. We are driving towards Gibraltar; the cloud factory. The outline of the Rock has been likened to the figure of a sleeping woman, and when the levante blows in from the east her dreams float above her in a white dialogue bubble that is created by moist air forced up her curves at speed and cooled at altitude. Sometimes she dreams lightly and the bubble hovers there like a striated halo. At other times her more troubled dreams roll and rumble greyly toward land; a watery conveyor belt that fans out over the mountaintops, soaking them in her tears.
Later, from a vantage point in Casares we can watch as Gibraltar’s serrated prominence fills a sky that is clear to its east with a woolly band of cloud to its west. The misty ribbon can stretch as far as Tarifa before the ocean cuts it off. The following day as we return there we do so under yet another sort of sky; an even mix that casts cow-hide splotches of light and shadow on the water.
Scale and place. From the elevated road two continents, two seas and three countries converge in the same field of vision. The view is Olympian; the channel from Atlantic to Mediterranean that Hercules created when he smashed through the mountains here and the two remaining fragments – Gibraltar to the north and Jebel Musa to the south – that we call his pillars and that commemorate the westernmost of his twelve labours.
Up here it isn’t difficult to understand how the ancients came to equate height with power. It doesn’t take much imagination to fancy the folks below in their towns and villages as toys, and us up here as players of a divine game. Hercules was here to steal the cattle of Geryon and bring them back to Eurystheus. It was the tenth of his legendary tasks and by all accounts it wasn’t easy, but then when you have the blood of the gods in your veins you can do a thing or two.
We are reminded of our mortal status when just a little further along, on the heights above El Cuarton, we drive into cloud. The bright flashes of light on water are gone. The sky is hidden and the world is dim. We can see for only a few feet around us and have to slow right down; buildings and other features of the roadside emerge from the gloom without warning and zip past us and back into it before we have time to identify them. Everything seen is seen fleetingly. It is disorientating and unnerving. Humbling.
And as mortals we must descend. Down to the toy town. The little place on the edge of the ancient world that is so easily shrouded in marine mist, and so battered from time to time by the fierce winds that funnel through the Straits and blow down from the mountains. Still it endures, and it doesn’t feel bad to get back down there. We have our own labours to attend to and our own dreams to dream under our own clouds; our little part of the big picture.
[tweetmeme source=”@RobinJGraham” only_single=false]Follow @RobinJGraham