Have Bag, Will Travel
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“We are in the Spanish south. The castanets click from coast to coast, the cicada hum through the night, the air is heavy with jasmine and orange blossom… the girls have black eyes and undulating carriages.” – Jan Morris, ‘Spain’
Some pictures that I have picked up along the way, pictures of pictures in bars and restaurants…
“And so to the great Cathedrals of Spain, Romanesque, Traditional, Gothic or Renaissance, which are the flower of the Spanish constructions and which for the world outside generally epitomises the Spanish presence, As the Skyscrapers are to New York, the Cathedrals are to Spain” – Jan Morris, ‘Spain’
Segovia, Castilla y Leon
Palencia, Castilla y Leon
Burgos, Castilla y Leon
Siguenza, Castilla-la Mancha
Santiago de Compostela, Galicia
León, Castilla y Leon
It was our final day in Andalucía. The sun was shining. We debated changing our plans. We decided to stick to the agreed itinerary and drive to Málaga. After breakfast we checked out of the hotel and headed south to the city which happens to be the birthplace of the artist Pablo Picasso, the actor Antonio Banderas and the golfer Miguel Ángel Jiménez.
It took about an hour to drive to the city and when we arrived I was horrified to discover just how big it is and difficult to navigate. Málaga is the sixth largest city in Spain and the biggest most southerly city in all of Europe (apologies to Valletta which is slightly further south but only half the size). Eventually we found a parking space in an underground car park and emerged from subterranean level blinking into bright sunlight somewhere close to the old town.
The journey had been stressful. We needed a drink. We found a pavement bar close to the centre and found a vacant table where we could examine the city map and get our bearings.
It was Saturday and Málaga was busy. There was a cruise ship in the harbour and tourists were wandering around like a plague of locusts, local people were out shopping (Kim reliably informs me that this is what people do on a Saturday morning) and the area was well provided for by roaming street entertainers. We stayed for a while and after paying the staggeringly high bill then wandered off in the direction of the cathedral but we didn’t go inside because having just spent so much on a beer we were put off by the cost of admission so instead we made our way to the harbour and after that the beach.
It has to be said that this is a very good beach indeed and we walked for a couple of miles along a promenade which ran adjacent to a crescent arc of lush caramel sand and gentle blue water that softly caressed the inviting shoreline. As we walked we assessed the beach restaurants where fresh fish and bubbling paella was being prepared on flaming barbeques and made a decision where we might eat.
Unfortunately we left this a bit late and by the time we had decided our first, second and third choices were all full up with no prospect of available tables for at least an hour or more. So we walked some more and then some more again and when we guessed that the time might be right we returned to our first choice and luckily there was a table free and we enjoyed a meal of fresh red snapper and a house salad. It tasted divine.
After lunch we walked back to the city centre and while Kim went to the shops I returned to the cathedral. There was a service in place now which meant there was no longer an admission fee and because that is the sort of good luck that I really appreciate I took advantage of my good fortune, wandered inside and mingled with the worshippers until it was all over and then spent an agreeable thirty minutes exploring the church and the side chapels before stepping back into the sun-splashed streets.
I confess that I hadn’t been absolutely sure that I would like Malaga, it once had a reputation for boozy Brits and cheap holidays but this is a city that has thoroughly reinvented itself. Gone is its seedy reputation as a playground for misbehaving tourists and instead the capital of the Costa Del Sol has been revived as a cultural destination only narrowly missing out to Donostia-San Sebastián as the 2016 European Capital of Culture. As I stepped out of the Cathedral I knew that I liked it here.
Malaga is a business hub and a tourist city now but it has a long and varied history. The Romans built a city here and we walked alongside the ancient theatre, the Moors were here of course before the Reconquista and then the Christians built a castle on the site of an abandoned Alcazaba.
Málaga was one of the locations where Muslim rule persisted the longest, having been part of the Emirate of Granada. While most other parts of the peninsula had already been won back the Moors still occupied Málaga. It was finally retaken by Christian forces in August 1487, only five years before the fall of Granada. The Muslim inhabitants resisted assaults and artillery bombardments before hunger forced them to surrender – virtually the entire population was sold into slavery – that is Christian charity for you!
We paid the modest admission price and then climbed steadily towards the top. The lower areas of the castle are functional and militaristic but at the top there is a Palace almost as good as that at the Alhambra with shaded gardens where sunshine was trying to break in like a thief, fine Moorish architecture and a sense that this was once a place not just of military muscle but also of intellectual appreciation of the finer things in mediaeval life.
When we arrived six hours earlier we wondered how we would fill the day as we waited for our flight home but as it happened the day was slipping away rapidly now as we left the castle and returned to the car park along a busy street that was filling up with local people out for a wander around the Saturday night streets.
We stopped at a bar for a final drink and watched the evening entertainment and then reluctantly paid up, left, returned to the car and drove to the airport for our late night flight back to UK.
We had enjoyed our few days in Andalucía but with so much more to see we agreed that we would surely have to return.
“It was not only in Farol that brusque changes were taking place…they were happening at a breakneck pace all over Spain…. Roads, the radio, the telephone and now the arrival of tourists… were putting an end to the Spain of old. And for those who wanted to see it as it had been, there was not a moment to be lost.” – Norman Lewis – ‘Voices of the Old Sea’
When we visit Spain we usually avoid the tourist areas of the Costas but arriving in Malaga at the heart of the Costa Del Sol we planned a drive west along the coast before heading inland to the town of Ronda.
The reason we avoid the coast is that we find it over developed, commercialised, overrun with barbarian holidaymakers from Northern Europe and totally unrepresentative of real Spain.
Tourists have been flooding into this part of Spain for seventy years or so but this isn’t a new phenomenon because it has always been a popular place with visitors and settlers.
The first inhabitants to come here may have been an ancient Celtiberian tribe almost three thousand years ago. The Phoenicians founded their colony of Malaka here about 770 BC, and from the sixth century BC it was under the control of ancient Carthage in North Africa. From 218 BC the region came under the control of the Roman Republic and then at the end of the first century it became a part of the Roman Empire.
The decline of the Roman imperial power in the fifth century led to invasions by Germanic tribes and by the Byzantine Empire. The southern Mediterranean coast was part of Visigothic Spain from the fifth century until the Muslim Arab conquest of Hispania and it remained part of the Moorish Caliphate of Al-Andalus until the success of the Christian Reconquest.
For almost five-hundred years the area settled down into a life of existence farming and fishing centred around small villages spreading west from Malaga but real change came in the mid twentieth century with the explosion of tourism and the Northern Europeans came again with their beach towel invasion of the beaches.
In 1950 a Russian émigré called Vladimir Raitz founded a travel company in London called Horizon Holidays and started flying people to Southern Europe and the package tour was born. In 1957 British European Airways introduced a new route to Malaga and the designation ‘Costa Del Sol’ was allegedly conceived as a promotional name when it first launched its new service on Vickers Vanguard planes with four propeller driven engines at the start of the package holiday boom.
Close to Malaga, Torremolinos was the first traditional fishing village to begin to disappear under a blanket of concrete and high rise hotels that blotted out the sun and tradition and its popularity as a tourist destination had a domino effect, and nearby municipalities such as Benalmadena, Fuengirola and Mijas, also saw a rapid growth in the number of tourists. This period of often unplanned and uncontrolled development brought a radical and irreversible change in the appearance of the once small fishing villages.
This is far from the Spain that we like but as we were here we decided to pick out one of the resorts for a lunch-time stop-over.
After picking up the rental car we headed immediately to the Autopista del Sol, an ugly, charmless toll road which conveniently by-passes the congested coast road and moves traffic from east to west with brutal efficiency. It reminded me of what Laurie Lee had to say about it: “The road to Malaga followed a beautiful but exhausted shore, seemingly forgotten by the world. I remember the names, San Pedro, Estepona, Marbella and Fuengirola. They were salt-fish villages, thin ribbed, sea hating, cursing their place in the sun. At that time one could have bought the whole coast for a shilling. Not Emperors could buy it now.”
We drove quickly past the sprawling resorts of Fuengirola, Belamadena and Marbella, the marinas, the golf courses and the condominiums and eventually left the motorway and pulled into Puerto Banus.
Puerto Banus is an expensive, crude, brassy, show off, bragging sort of place where people with money and style but no class or imagination sit on their yachts in their expensively logoed designer shirts or occasionally bully their way around the streets in open-topped sports cars. At the other end of the social scale tattooed Brits wander around the port showing off their sunburn and cheap holiday clothes and imagine themselves to be temporarily part of the jet-set.
Ever pestering Looky-Looky men prowl along the beer stained promenade displaying cheap counterfeit watches and other dodgy goods and then scatter like starlings when the sparrow-hawk police car appears and drives pointlessly along the side of the port.
We wanted a traditional bar with simple tapas but most holiday-makers and the ex-pat Brits that live here want pizza and chips and Chinese restaurants so we struggled to find what we were looking for and reluctantly eventually settled on a plastic restaurant and had an instantly forgettable meal at an inflated price.
As you can probably tell, we weren’t especially thrilled with Puerto Banus but we really shouldn’t have been surprised by that because this is really not the best part of Spain to visit and with nothing to really detain us we returned to the car and without a single backward glance took the road towards the town of Ronda.
This involved a forty-five kilometre drive through the razor edged Sierra Bermeja mountains as we climbed continuously along a dramatic road, the Carreta De Ronda, that never at any time had a single straight section of more than a hundred yards and which clung to the side of the collapsing mountains and zigzagged dramatically all of the way to our destination. There was light rain and some low clouds but we could just about make out the coast line and the sea as we drove through first oak and then pine forests of this protected ‘natural area’ of outstanding beauty.
We stopped a couple of times for the views but it was cold so not for very long and late in the afternoon we arrived in Ronda and booked into our hotel.