In Plenary, Presentation on August 6, 2013 at 4:41 pm
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
In Presentation on July 31, 2013 at 10:28 am
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
In Practice on July 23, 2013 at 6:01 pm
We’ve been walking. Unusually, K has been pushing for it; she’s keen to see the Cares gorge when we visit the Cantabrian mountains this month and she wants to limber up. Out to Jimena de la Frontera with us, and an easy sendero that curls around the base of the promontory on which the pueblo hangs, overlooked by the obligatory castle. We walk along a sandy track past a few of the kind of little country house that, had we any money, we would buy. Just knock on the door and buy it. That cute.
The path winds its way along a defunct old canal that used to feed a munitions factory under Carlos III, the ironic remnant of a most unwarlike king. Then it follows the river Hozgarganta more closely, dipping down here and there to a rocky pool of clear water, little fish in the shallows. We’ve passed a couple of people along the way and K is too shy to undress and get in but as we walk her eyes rarely leave the inviting water, flanked on either side by some mammoth rock formations beyond which the country is hilly and irregularly beautiful.
At one point someone has gone to the trouble of carving steps in the rock to ease our passage and a very steep set of them departs to our right, taking the walker who doesn’t want to continue sharply uphill to the town. We go on, meandering through a cluster of old abandoned mills and, since we haven’t encountered anyone for a while, K’s craving for the water overcomes her modesty. Before I know it I’m sitting on the bank with her bra in my hand and she’s getting her mermaid on More
In Practice, Production on June 24, 2013 at 1:02 pm
Some fuss at the front of an apartment building as the bus sets out for La Linea through Algeciras city centre. One of those unassuming if not quite unattractive pale redbrick efforts – six or eight storeys, double recessed balconies on the street side and the obligatory green and striped awnings hanging low over the railings which because of the recess protrude just two or three feet from the façade. A block of a building – we lived in one just like it in Madrid – I will have passed it by many times and never given it a moment’s thought.
Today the front entrance is cordoned off with police tape and a few policia local are in attendance. Some stand with hands on hips or arms folded and others talk on their radios, surrounded by a small crowd – just twenty or so – of neighbours. Several people are deploying the video-making function of their smartphones or making calls themselves, their necks craned upwards. A bus-full of necks, mine included, also crane to follow their line of sight.
For four stories above them the awnings have been damaged, knocked from their hinges to dangle dangerously overhead. I instinctively look to the ground to see what might have done the damage and sure enough, a significant amount of rubble lies at the little crowd’s feet. Looking up again establishes that the rubble used to be the protruding few feet of both adjoining balconies on the fifth floor. Where they should be is an open scar – a few pot plants teeter More
In Practice, Production on May 1, 2013 at 10:15 am
The cobbles glisten along the Carrera del Darro and little rivulets of rainwater rush downhill as we walk up, our feet sodden in their inadequate shoes. The weather gives K an excuse to duck into one or two craft shops on our way but she isn’t buying today. She’s in good spirits though; I’m making her laugh – something I regularly try and fail to do.
We’re sharing a tiny umbrella so the view is downward, at the pavement and the street; the rain has managed to take us by surprise and we will be wet through by the time we’ve hiked up to our little cave in Sacromonte, the old gitano quarter that these days is a warren of tablaos that truck tourists in for a bite to eat, some flamenco, and out again.
Wet, cold and happy; we’ve spent the morning and afternoon wandering through our favourite place. Like a lion’s paw resting on mown grass, a few outcrops of the Sierra Nevada come to a stop here on the flat of the vega, the vast flood plain on which sprawls the modern city. Above it, on one of the lion’s claws, the old red fortifications of the Alhambra. On the next claw, the rambling, crumbling, tumbling network of streets and patios, palaces and carmens that makes up the Albayzin. Bougainvilleas and cypress trees pop up amongst the stone-walled gardens and dusty red roofs of old, white-washed town houses, churches and former minarets.
We passed the caracole bar on Plaza Aliatar and walked down Calle Agua del Albayzin to Plaza Larga and through the old Puerta de las Pesas. More
In Presentation, Production on April 6, 2013 at 3:39 pm
The water is high in El Tajo and roars beneath the Puente Nuevo, dropping to the lower gorge in a ragged chute where the valley opens up below me into an open vista, ringed by mountains – gloomy today but spot lit here and there by a half-hidden sun. I’ve come down to stand on a ledge in the cliff side and wait for the light; sunbeams on the horizon edge closer as the heavy cloud cover oozes overhead. I want to catch it as it passes over the arches of the bridge, illuminating them in golden light against a backdrop of stormy, dark grey sky.
It happens for me eventually – a less-than-perfect result, not as impressive as the image I’d created in an expectant mind’s eye, but worth the wait. When I photograph I spend a lot of time like this: waiting, walking, chasing the light, letting it come to me. If I don’t get the shot I’m after I get another one, or just some time to be still and unwanting. When I get this one I walk further down to the base of the two hundred and twenty year-old bridge – the newest in town – and pass underneath it. The gorge is as dramatic, looking up from here, as it is looking down from up there and the river is loud – the lulling cacophony of big water, rushing through its looped and syncopated rhythms.
I’m glad to be down here because although I’m a fairly regular visitor to the town I’ve never made the descent on this side. My mental map of the place is expanded; I feel as if I’ve got to know it a little better. This isn’t a typical visit – I’m here without K and in the company of two English lords, More
In Presentation on March 29, 2013 at 11:07 am
It’s easy to forget when you’re walking the narrow streets of the old town – hemmed in by the city walls – that you’re out on a headland here. Further up the coast and looking back in this direction it becomes obvious; Spain tapers to a fine point in Tarifa, a slender town that reaches out into the Strait like a white needle reversed. Reversed because it’s the eye of the needle that stretches seaward and not the point – at the very tip of the headland there is a thickening where a causeway divides the Atlantic and the Mediterranean and joins the town with the Isla de Tarifa, a round and rocky former island that since it was joined to the mainland in the early 19th century has qualified as the most southerly point of the European continent.
The island is military and out of bounds. Walkers are welcome on the causeway – which, with the winds around here, is an act of bravery in itself at times – but no further. The island at the far end is gated and walled in with Napoleonic and British fortifications. It’s been tantalising me since I came to this town almost three years ago – a secret Tarifa has been keeping. When a tourist stands at the meeting point of the two seas and reads the ceramic plaque that tells them they’ve reached Europe’s southern extremity, they haven’t. They can see it in the form of the lighthouse that stands on the island’s southern coast but they’re still about a kilometre away. Which is to say, of course, I’m still about a kilometre away.
It’s been bugging me. More
In Practice, Presentation on March 4, 2013 at 9:18 pm
The lane leads down to the lower part of the town, which comes into view once we take a bend – the tall church against a backdrop of dark green mountainside, laden with low-lying cloud on this misty, wet morning. An elderly man is on his way up and about to pass us by, all flat cap and whiskers. We know he’s going to say hello because everybody in this place says hello.
“You’re in the hotel, are you?”, he asks. There’s only one twelve-room hotel in town and he hasn’t seen our faces before.
“Yes. You’re from here?” I reply.
He might not have understood me properly.
“I’m from here,” he announces.
“It’s very quiet,” I point out to him.
“It’s too quiet,” he says. “Out for a bit of a walk, are you?”
“Down to the river, is it?”
We have no intention of going all the way down to the river; we just want to stroll around the tiny town up here on its height and freshen up a little after last night’s wine. He takes his leave of us with a cheerful declaration in incomprehensible andaluz and we continue on our way. More
In Practice, Production on February 25, 2013 at 8:20 pm
I text L to see if we’re doing the intercambio, suggesting the usual Sunday afternoon at the alameda, or perhaps a copa tonight in the old town, as Tarifa celebrates Carnaval this weekend and we could do a bit of people watching and practice our Spanish and English respectively. He gets back to me and agrees to the latter so we arrange to meet at the old mudejar arch that leads into the little pueblo.
We’re not at all in the mood for revelry but at least pitching up and enjoying the others in their costumes comprises some kind of participation. We’ve been living very quietly recently and it’s good to take part in these things, especially I think in Spain where festivals and celebrations are given such great importance in a community.
We stroll towards the archway, anticipating the titbits of tasty historical information that L habitually drip feeds us. Tonight they’ll be Carnaval themed no doubt. When we see that his friend, P, has come along it confirms our expectations; they’re both real history and culture freaks. I don’t believe I’ve ever had a conversation with either of them that hasn’t, at some point, involved the Phoenicians.
K often finds herself an amused observer, sitting back as three men who may or may not know what they’re talking about talk about it in broken English or stuttering Spanish. More
In Plenary, Presentation on January 28, 2013 at 8:27 pm
“I’m not a conservative person, am I?” I ask K.
We’re sitting in a wood panelled taberna in Madrid, towards the end of the evening. Full of tapas and perhaps a little tipsy, we haven’t ordered anything here, content to sit side by side with a glass of wine each and fill up on all the antique eye candy around us – the (inevitable) bulls’ heads, the little sign that announces the availability of snails, the dusty old bottles of sherry, the elegant, marble-topped tables.
What I thought then: not conservative. As a matter of fact I hold views which positively annoy conservatives. Actually, I consider annoying conservative types one of life’s great pleasures. More than that perhaps – a duty. It would be no surprise to run into conservatism here, given the decor, but actually the other customers look rather bohemian. We’ve been in Madrid for less than a week and we’ve seen the inside of a lot of bars.
Many, many bars.
Apart from the fact that I probably would have done that anyway, I’ve been researching for a story I want to do on the city and its tapas. K hasn’t voiced any objection to joining me, so here we are in Bar Umpteen. More