Bank Holiday Monday. In England. Crowded roads, cars packed with fractious kids, grey skies overhead and Costa Coffee have run out of toast at half past nine in the morning. Ugh!
I wish I were in my special place. A tiny haven just off the beaten track on the Costa del Sol, little known and all the better for that. Where is it? Don’t be silly, I’m not telling you that. Do you think I want it spoilt by you lot cluttering up the place?
The old coastal town is delightful. Old narrow streets packed with restaurants and no tourist tat in sight. A spur of promenade defiantly fronting the sea, a lone speedboat, far out from shore, a brilliant white speck against the deep blue of the ocean, its rich creamy wake like an ostrich feather adorning some expensive creation atop the head of a society lady in the Royal Enclosure at Royal Ascot.
As for the house we owned back then, I’ve often thought the Health Service should bottle the view from our finca and prescribe it to depressed and weary patients back home in England.
Situated way down at the southern tip of Spain, the house had been reclaimed by us from its former ruined condition. Sitting on our newly reclaimed terrace one day, I scribbled a few notes on what I saw about me.. Here are those original handwritten notes, written over ten years ago and with every word I read I yearn to go back and sit on that terrace again.
Sunlight cleaved its erratic way through the early morning cloud cover, the distant hills a shimmering dusky pink while the vast expanse of sky was a vivid lazuli blue. Faint traces of dew lingered on the sparse scrub nestling beneath soft rounded boulders, the freshness of the preceding night soon to be overwhelmed by the impending day.
In the heat of summer every day was the same. With each brilliant shaft of light that invaded the landscape, fresh colours burst into life yet by mid-day the heat would bleach the scene to a white glare, painful to the eye, and the valley would bake under a remorseless sun.
Tiny creatures scurried and darted, frantically seeking out shade in meagre patches of sage and bracken. Later still, the encircling hills would turn to gold as the sun dipped lower in the sky until each successive peak was tipped with vivid pink, the lower slopes marked by ever-deepening shades of indigo. Flocks of birds would plunge and soar in a final riot of activity before settling down to roost, the last vestiges of discernible colour slipping away, marking the final passage of another day.
The arrival of each succeeding sunrise pushed the barriers of light and shade to the limit and the old house standing as still as any of the ancient encircling stones had experienced nature’s wonders at first hand for well over three hundred years.
The setting was close to perfection. Perched high up on a ridge with mountains rising steeply at the back, the house faced south with the blue Mediterranean sparkling away towards a horizon that ended at the Rif Mountains of Morocco . A view that stretched all the way to Africa; a different continent where a band of cloud lay across the horizon like a dirty purple scarf.
The land in front sloped down in steep terraces of grape vines; olive and almond trees forming a veritable paradise for butterflies and exotic birds. A matched pair of eagles rode the thermals, hovering motionless against a perfect blue sky, every detail of their plumage clearly visible as their keen eyes scanned everything that moved far down on the valley floor a thousand metres or so below their widely spread wings.
An old man leading a mule as decrepit as himself bowed deeply from the waist and raised a gnarled hand in greeting as he walked past along the dusty track. A spider’s web of narrow red veins crisscrossed the pale globes of his eyes and grey stubble, like a burnt-out cornfield covered his leathery cheeks. His age was somewhere between sixty and ninety-five, stooped and creased by time, but with a roguish twinkle in his eye. Bony shoulders and sharp angles everywhere else. The smoke from his cigarette swirled in the faint breeze like sinuous wraiths glimpsed across a distant riverbank.
A stone wall, partly collapsed, provided a welcome resting point. The moss and lichen coating imparted a brindle effect to the ancient stones; bull terrier writ large. Stealthy invasion by vine and creeper over a prolonged period had softened any sharp edges into rows of comfortable seats. Seen from above, the old house was a delight, well worth the effort of the climb. Inter-twined strands of vine and Bougainvillea clambered over rustic poles and old battered beams to provide precious shade.
A more prosaic extension to the beamed pergola consisted of lengths of scaffolding poles, tied together by rusty wire and painted a vivid green. Above this eccentric structure was a roof of loose-fitting planks, fastened to the scaffold poles with yet more rusty wire, through which dappled sunlight filtered undulating shafts of light on to the rough tiles of the terrace. A patch of shade was scarcely more than an un-substantiated rumour in the heat of the day.
Wild herbs produced bright splashes of colour against the dull green of olive groves and wrinkled outcrops of rock on the vine-clad slopes. Below the terrace, the land fell steeply away to the valley bottom far below. On either side were mountain peaks, thrusting skywards with a sharp clarity until softened by distance where they faded and merged into a dusky smudge against the backcloth of a vivid blue sky.
Exposure to the fierce sun and occasional violent deluges over several centuries had softened the crumbling stucco of the attached former mule house, the next project. No more than earth, rubble and lime the walls resembled a patchwork quilt. All colours and textures were represented in the metre thick walls. The original door, stout oak planks roughly fastened together with studded iron bolts had long since given up the task of preventing entrance.
A few broken tiles littered the packed earth floor of the terrace, but most were still in place, their weight having proved too much for the roof supports. Huge beams, reduced to a shadow of their former glory, were bent and sway backed, like a crippled old horse whose former strength and vigour was just a distant memory.
Far removed from the rustic simplicity of the finca, the distant hillsides were thickly planted with a burgeoning crop of nearly identical villas. Each with a strip of well-watered garden. Pale oleander and deep red hibiscus mingled with Bougainvillea of every conceivable hue while long-necked palm trees towered over the vibrant undergrowth.
Ornate wrought iron cages defended windows and doors, the brand new development attempting, and failing dismally, to re-create the ancient hill villages, with each house set tight to its neighbour, pushing upwards in a classical pyramid of interlinked dwellings.
This was the view We gazed upon every morning. The sun shone for an average of 330 days a year and the sight never failed to lift our spirits.
Here's a typical day. We drive into the village to collect letters from the post office and buy bread and milk. The dusty track eventually led to the tarmac road and the first signs of other human occupation. The village was busy, all hustle and bustle, in marked contrast to the absolute tranquillity of our finca.
We collected our post, chatted to a couple of friends and after dividing our forces on separate errands met up at our favourite bar, technically Bar Alfonso, but invariable called the Bodega.
By now the village was getting busy and we realised our good fortune in being able to park in the shade when we saw the difficulty new arrivals were having in finding anywhere to park. Cars lined both sides of the narrow road, bumper to bumper. Seemingly, always the same dust-encrusted cars.
Opposite, a builder, recognisable as such by the cement dust that coated his overalls and face, was attempting to manoeuvre his pick-up between a gleaming Mercedes and an old rust-streaked van.
Modern Spain in microcosm; conspicuous consumption cheek by jowl with the peasant economy.
The panel van had been inexpertly painted, endeavouring to remove the name of the previous owner from the side panels. Like the attempt at matching the blue paint with the rest of the bodywork, it had been a dismal failure. The sound of touching metal brought the builder’s progress to a grinding halt.
A middle-aged man rose reluctantly from his seat outside a café and walked across to the van, keys in hand. He’d sat and watched the endeavours of the pick-up driver with total detachment until the two vehicles locked horns. He climbed behind the wheel of the panel van and drove forward six inches affording the pick-up driver enough space to extricate himself and drive away with a cheery toot of his horn.
Much later, at the end of a long day, we will sit on the terrace, sipping a glass of wine. There can be few better views on Earth than the view looking out across the terrace to the distant Rif Mountains, the Mediterranean glinting in the foreground.
All around us, vivid bands of oleander dotted the hills, clumped together where rainwater had scoured deep grooves in the mountainside. The sun dipped below the distant mountains leaving pale rows of lavender and pink across the broad expanse of sky, a gentle breeze following in its wake. A soft bruising as glorious in its own quiet way as any of its vibrant flame-red companions.
As we watched, crepuscular light visibly faded to blackness over the far reaches of the sea and the last vestiges of daylight vanished like party guests who’d just remembered the babysitter charged double rates after midnight. Within moments, the terrace was enveloped in absolute darkness, the faint breeze carrying with it the subtle scent of exotic herbs.
Yes, a typical day and I’d love to be back there again today as I sit watching the clouds roll in.
I’m packing my suitcase.