I have written about Benarrabá before and about the spell it holds over us. Even by pueblo blanco standards, it is tiny, hidden from view at the end of a series of hairpin turns, a kilometre or so from the road that threads along the eastern side of the Genal Valley and ends up in Ronda. A succession of larger pueblos, with names from the days when this was Berber high ground, adorn the road like a string of gleaming worry beads.
Unlike them, it is hard to imagine Benarrabá expanding or modernising. Expansion, in fact, is impossible – the town is draped across a narrow ridge that offers no more space – and any modernisation going on around here is going on in Gaucín, a few kilometres down the road, so this little pueblo of six hundred souls sparkles alone in the green velvet of the valley, isolated on its summit but connected by sight – and the ineffables of culture and history – with other tiny towns, visible in the distance on the other side of the river.
We come in February every time, the Andalucian winter just beginning to lift and the skies wet with heavy raincloud. The topography always seems to punch a few holes in the grey blanket, though, and vertical shafts of sunlight play across the slopes as if painted there by a master; the brilliant sun shines through the murk like a miracle, even as mist envelops the hills above the slanted little settlement that has never failed to enchant.
When we first came here it embodied the sense of adventure and discovery that we were experiencing more or less continually as newcomers to Spain. Dizzy and intoxicated, barely a week could go by in those days without our taking off in the car to explore some fantastically foreign new place: some city to dazzle us or a corner of wilderness to wonder at. It is no exaggeration to say that the country was casting a charm over us.
That first February visit was unseasonably warm and sunny, in fact, the square full of people young and old, enjoying tapas of mushrooms picked in these hills, drinking good, cheap wine made in the valley and soaking up the welcome warmth and glaring light. It was magical; it made us feel that we were weaving magic with this, our new life.
The intervening years have seen us make the journey from that early amazement to a deepening sense of respect and, yes, love for the places we have seen and continue to see. Some alchemy takes place; the thrill of discovery gives way to the deeper satisfaction of rediscovery. The pleasures of novelty mature and blossom into the joys of familiarity, of el conocer – though foreigners here we can nowadays conjure a feeling of some kind of belonging, some kind of bond: as well as infiltrating the place we can feel that it has infiltrated us, that we are somewhat seasoned with its spiced flavours and fruity oils.
The buzz of first sight becomes the rush of return – to a tabanco in Jerez, an apartment in the Albayzin, a fish restaurant in El Puerto, a gorge in Asturias, a bar just off the square in Salamanca, a pueblo blanco; our trajectory through Spain is no longer a series of one night stands – it’s a real love affair now, a complete seduction.
Benarrabá, perhaps more than anywhere else, exemplifies that journey; by the time we make it through the rain and descend into the pueblo that reveals itself suddenly as if by sleight of hand, we feel we have history here. We love it and continue to come but the truth is we haven’t always been optimistic about it – I suppose you could say we have felt protective of it. Last year’s Feria was a worrying experience for anyone who cares about the place. The weather was bad and attendance was very poor. The stall holders in the square were idle and anxious, the bars on the ruta de tapas more or less empty.
It almost seemed as if the town was cursed as we huddled round the fire and chatted with the subdued landlady. With the cold and the wet and the relative silence the contrast with that first year could not have been greater. Unconsciously perhaps, we came to think of Benarrabá as Benarrabá The Unfortunate. A place in decline, afflicted with plain bad luck, a pueblo blanco trying to execute the same reinvention trick as the other pueblos blancos, but failing.
So it is not entirely without trepidation that we return this year. We know that the one, twelve room hotel is full – we have had to book a room in a casa rural on trust over the phone, with a number we got from reception – but the weather is truly awful and we can’t imagine many people braving it, despite the fact that there will be Guinness record attempt on Sunday. Something about the largest plate of ham and an enterprising idea on the part of some local bright spark, no doubt, but surely not enough to make a success of the Feria in these appalling conditions.
I call the number to get directions. The casa rural has no name, no web page – we know nothing about it, and have visions of staring at some elderly couple in their own living room. While on the phone I notice a dead cat in an unused water trough. As omens go it is not auspicious.
More hopefully, it turns out we don’t have a room in the house for the night. We have the house. Forty quid. And as we while away the rest of the day there do seem to be more people in town. Our night ends with very good flamenco in a horrible, but adorable, little bar.
The following morning there is definitely something in the air – cars are being guided onto the school playground, and in the tent on the main square it looks like Benarrabá means business this time. One hundred and sixty-one cortadores have turned up with sharp knives and iberico hams and the central fountain has had a fifty square metre platter built around it. By noon the gathering has become a full blown media event. We are stunned by the scale of it and by the crowd that has materialised; the little town has really pulled one out of the hat.
The record attempt proceeds amidst loud cheering and the stop start bureaucracy of the digital clock. It is successful, as it happens, but that doesn’t really matter. Ham has drawn these people here but they’re not here for the ham. After all, nobody needs a fountainful of ham. It’s all a folly, on one level: a decidedly random event.
No, they don’t need ham, but they do need bread. They need life and today is a sign of life. Money will pour into the pueblo and its name will be heard far afield. More people will come. This is regenerative. The town has gathered in a show of unity, of what the Spanish call la convivencia. Despite the one-off nature of the day, it shares something with countless others. It is a ritual of sorts – something powerful has pulled people together. The same power that made them dance around the fire, gather in the arena, the same power that made them build those ancient places our archaeologists struggle to decipher. Benarrabá is blessed: it hums with a magnetism, and today isn’t the day to explain it. Now is not the time to figure it out.
It just happens.