España, so far

It’s been nearly two weeks since arriving in Spain, and it’s been a blur of one madness or another. My online travel journal so far has basically consisted of progressive uploads of photos to my Flickr page, with comments here and there. In an effort to stop this one entry spiralling into a vast travelogue catch-up, I’m going to try and be short and sweet here. Having had George Orwell’s Essays sagely pressed upon me by my good friend Jim before I left, I’m currently immersed in his intelligent, frill-free assessments of Englishness and the state of the world circa World War II. Hopefully his style will influence me well here.

Las Fallas, Valencia

"Decadence" falla fireworks

Every nationality we met during this sprawling, wild fireworks festival—English, Italian, American, German—had the same thing to say: “These Spanish are crazy!” The Mediterranean reputation for being laid-back is, at very best, a gross simplification. Las Fallas (alongside the Spanish overuse of the car horn) testifies to this.

(However, there does seem to be a relaxation in their intensity. We saw rockets careen into tightly packed crowds a couple of times, with no apparent damage occurring, just loads of shouting. In a more tightly-wound nation, such events would probably have caused a panic that would certainly have ended in tears…)

Ages are spent constructing the sometimes massive, always loud and exhuberant “Fallas”, street sculptures ranging from Disney cuteness to contemporary satire that manages to weave subtle ideas across the city’s plazas even with the broad brush and bright paint characteristic of these pop art marvels.

The "having kids" falla

I say “pop art” with no thought of Warhol et al. It just struck me hard how such a city-wide art event would be impossible to imagine in England. On top of the fireworks, Las Fallas is indeed a communal art event. Corporate sponsorship—from beer companies to Nestlé—abounds, probably necessitated by the obvious hunger for vast, expensive explosions day-in, day-out as much as by the obvious tendencies of the modern west. But there’s no mistaking—from my English perspective—the sheer scale of enthusiasm for this riotous celebration of aesthetic creavitity, right in the streets.

And the tradition is so free of preciousness (or, is just so pyromaniacal) that on the last day of festivities, all but one of the Fallas are burnt to the ground. The only comparable tradition I’ve heard of is the Tibetan “butter sculpture” tradition, where intricate sculptures are left to melt in the sun as a reminder of impermanence.

Every day during Las Fallas, which lasts from the beginning of March to St. Joseph’s day (March 19th), fireworks are going off everywhere. At least during the final week, everyone gathers in the Plaza del Ayuntamiento for mascletà. Being daytime fireworks, their main appeal is the noise. And the shock waves felt through the feet and in the gut. We missed the final day’s mascletà, partly because we were still reeling from the crazy crowd-crush and utterly apocalyptic racket from the previous day, when we made an effort to “get down the front”.

Then at night, in the dried-up river that now serves as a long, curved park, mostly a hang-out for the Peruvians and feral cats it seems, everyone gathers for the visually spectacular fireworks. Every night beats every firework display you’ve seen. It made sense to find out that the people who do the displays for Rolling Stones tours, plus London and New York New Year events, are local guys. This is their homecoming gig, every year.

And if you weren’t already mad with noise and sulphur, from drinking and crowds, from little kids throwing stupendously loud bangers at you… a clanging, stomping brass band marches round the streets every morning at 8am to wake everyone up.

Actually, the brass bands proved to be a highlight. We caught one late at night which, after its rather solemn procession past the Virgin made of flowers, broke into ‘Stand By Me’ – which in turn broke into a hectic jazz version of the same number down an impossibly drunken alleyway.

Andalucian snippets

In search of the Indalo man

A while ago my mum brought back a trinket from Mojácar for me—a porcelain stick figure with an arch from one arm to another, over the head. She said it was a local good luck charm there, said to originate from prehistoric cave art in the nearby hills. I tried to see the original, got close, but failed. It’s in la Cueva de Los Letreros, a cave just south of Velez Blanco. But no one nearby speaks much English at all, and apparently the person on the other end of the number you have to ring to get access doesn’t either. It just didn’t work out.


The Antequerra face

Julian Cope said before I left that if I visited one prehistoric site in Spain, it should be Antequerra. The keynote of the local landscape is undoubtedly the huge face-like hill that dominates to the northeast of the town. Driving in from the east, we noticed an astonishing tendency towards anthropomorphic images in the Andalucian hills even a hundred kilometres before Antequerra, but when this hill looms into view it’s a different event. There’s no pointing at it saying, “Doesn’t that bit look like a face?” It’s just there.

The town itself was like a fresh breeze after the chokingly Anglicised tackiness of the Garrucha and Mojácar coastal strip (there was even a supermarket called Spainsbury’s, and none of the English residents seemed to bother even with “hola” or “por favor” when talking with shop cashiers). Close to the town are three Neolithic dolmens, two right next to the town (la Menga and la Viera) and one (el Romeral) a little further out. Romeral’s highlight was the genuine touch of the Neolithic goddess given by the small swarm of bees seemingly guarding the entrance to its inner passage. If you’ve got the bandwidth, check this little Romeral bees video clip (via YouTube – some background bird chirping nearly overwhelms the sound, but there’s plenty of good bee action). Menga dominates, though. It’s stupendous in scale, giving both Lee and myself a “how the fuck did they lift these stones?!” shock far surpassing Avebury and Stonehenge. And when you look out of the massive inner chamber, Cope’s argument about the “hill face” being integral to the thinking behind this necropolis seems irrefutable. Maybe it was seen as some primal ancestor, maybe an earth-bound godform; in any case, its physical relevance is plain.

Menga view to the face

To the south of the town, way up in the hills, sits El Torcal, a truly awesome, alien landscape unto itself. Bizarre rock formations, that totally obscure the horizon as you explore this dreamlike topology, give you the impression that archaic people reaching this place must have felt like they had reached some level of the sky-bound heavens. Frisky wild goats, alternately fucking and fighting, completed this surreal treat.

El Torcal

Cabo de Gata

The southeastern most point in Spain hides the least overwhelmed beaches of its Mediterranean coast. We spent a great sunny day in San José before we had to drop the hire car off at Almeria airport and Lee had to head back to grey old London to direct a production of Aleister Crowley’s The Ship. I’d checked with a tourist info place in San José about the closest campsite that was open (many don’t open until April), but buses there from the airport seemed to be a problem at weekends, so I splashed out on a taxi there. As long as I got to a campsite near some beaches, I could chill for the week.

Camping wasteland

As the taxi turned down narrower and narrower dirt tracks, through bleaker and more desolate wastelands of the local tomato industry, my gritted teeth tried to hold on to the hope that we would eventually burst through onto a picturesque coastline. But Camping Cabo de Gata turned out to live bang in the middle of this grim agricultural landscape. Rows and rows of English and German tourists and semi-permanent caravan dwellers, a bland restaurant, and a swimming pool under construction.

I was told the bus to Almeria went from the road 1 km away, every few hours or so. Even if I wanted to go further up the coast, I’ve to go back to Almeria to get another bus. The campsite proprietor told me it went from the other side of the road to the campsite entrance, next to a “plastic house”. (This puzzled me until I got back to the main road. Of course, the “plastic house” was one of the hundreds of fields of tomatoes that dominate the landscape here, covered in plastic greenhouses.)

When I left, there was no one at reception to take my payment. So, not wanting to miss the bus, I just left—no one had bothered to register me anyway, so I thought they couldn’t be too bothered.

I’ve still yet to find a good sun hat—the Spanish seem not to really want or need hats—so I’m reliant on a bit of sun block to save my shaved bonce from frying in the already searing heat. Imagine my horror, then, when the Almeria bus turned up, and drove right past with an unpitying shrug from the driver. Two, maybe four more hours to wait in the midday sun. And even then, how could I tell where the bus stopped, if it stopped here? Almeria was about 15km away, certainly unwalkable in the sun. My nerves began to fray and splinter.

The concrete wall for the campsite sign afforded some shade, so I thought I’d crouch there and see if I could hitch a lift from someone coming out of the site. An ambulance turned quietly into the road to the site; several cars left, but none stopped. Then the ambulance reappeared, and its siren and lights sprang into life as they approached me. I saw some movement in the back, and as it swung round onto the main road, I saw a pair of feet against the back window, the legs, probably the whole body, seized by violent spasms.

One of the infrequent cars coming out stopped just short of me being able to see the driver, and hovered there for what seemed like an age. Finally it crawled forwards, and I stood to put my thumb out. I quickly realised there was no chance with this guy—it was the campsite owner. He shook his finger at me like an admonishing teacher, and drove past. He’d obviously recognised me and realised I was leaving without paying. Why did he stop? Was he wondering whether to get out and harangue me? Maybe weighing his desire to do this against some urgent business—maybe a customer, friend or relative in the ambulance? Whatever the case, my insecurity rocketed now, realising I couldn’t really go back to the campsite if I was stranded here, and that waiting here seemed to contain the danger of the owner reappearing to harass me.

Finally I decided to walk in the opposite direction to Almeria, to Salinas, the nearby (how near?) town I remember being mentioned as the bus’s previous stopping point. But almost immediately I came across a small bar that seemed to be close to opening. The barman was cleaning tables, and with my phrasebook I was able to get details from him about where the bus stopped (barely 200 metres from where I stood before) and when he was serving food.

Sat under a tree feeling a bit better (but still pretty vulnerable at the thought of the campsite owner lurking in the region), I was approached by a shambling oldish guy who emerged from a simple house behind the bar. He spoke no English, but soon came out with one of the Spanish words I’m most familiar with: “Cerveza?” He walked to his house and came back with two cans of beer and his sweet, shy dog. We had one of those broken conversations that consist mostly of gestures, which at least confirmed the fact that the bus did stop here, and would be here in another hour or so.

Andalucian tomatoes

His amigo turned up with a bag full of mostly green, knobbly tomatoes. He’d explained that he was a farm labourer here, but these looked like their own private crop rather than the perfectly round, supermarket-ready breed underneath the plastic houses. (They turned out to be the juiciest, most flavoursome tomatoes I’ve ever had.)

When the bar opened, he took me in and brought me more drinks (always refusing one in return). His amigo, like the man himself, was pretty sozzled already, and as I sat between the two, his wild gesticulations constantly threatened to hit my face. He leaned towards me, the bar stools gradually slipping in front of him, with the kind of apparently barely-concealed aggression common to real drunks. It invariably turns out to be a twisted overflow of intoxicated friendliness, but it’s always difficult to tell if it might take a turn for the worse.

In the end, the drunks saved the day, getting me pleasantly tipsy to soothe my nerves, and getting me safely on the bus to Almeria (even though I did have to insist I went to catch the bus and not have another glass of wine).

Not wanting to risk more misadventures in remote regions without transport, however tempting the deserted beaches, as soon as I got to Almeria I decided to take the friendly drunk’s advice to visit Granada. The wave of grimness and bad luck seemed to have not only been broken by these booze-addled amigos, it had been reversed: at Almeria station an old French woman immediately divined my intentions at the ticket desk, and quickly stepped in to order my ticket for me, and literally walked me to the right bus bay, from which a Granada bus was departing in five minutes. I soundtracked the ride in the still-roasting sun up past the Sierra Nevada with some expansive Jane’s Addiction and rambling Johnny Cash, and wept with relief after this strange, strange day, and at the beauty of the magnificent Andalucian landscape.