Late decision. We woke up, a lovely sunny day and Marigold said, ‘do you fancy going to Competa?’ So, we set off. Even chaotic roadworks that sent us on a detour in precisely the opposite direction didn’t faze us. Well, not much anyway. What’s an extra thirty miles added to an already long journey? This way we got to see places we’ve never been and, hopefully, will never see again. There’s a limit to how much arid desert scrub you can see without wishing you were back on the coast, sipping a cool drink
We stopped for an early lunch at a‘pop-up’ café, presumably intended for seasonal use as it lacked even the faintest hint of permanence, but perfectly situated alongside the beach.
Our waitress was a real head turner, but for all the wrong reasons.
Curlicue ringlets of hair spilled from the sides of her protective headgear, over-bleached to such an extent that Marigold suspected she’d used un-diluted Domestos. The cap, presumably white when first issued, was now magnolia at best. The tunic was a couple of sizes too large at the shoulders giving her the look of a line-backer yet bulged at the waist in a vain attempt to contain a swelling stomach. The whole effect was that of a particularly well-fed resident of some kind of institution for the deranged. Not, we imagined, the effect that was envisaged when the tunic was first designed, but a perfect definition of the failure of the one size fits all concept in relation to corporate clothing. Oh, and her voice put me in mind of a slipping fan belt; a melange of whine and screech.
We ordered soft drinks, water and the most basic salad on the menu. The healthy option, just for a change. When it arrived, it came accompanied by a vast basket of bread, butter, crisps and a bowl of chips. So much for the healthy option. Obviously, we didn’t risk offending waitress or chef so we ate everything.
Yet another on the spot decision took us inland from Motril and into Las Alpujarras, the ancient mountain villages south of Granada where flat stones from river beds form roofs of houses in the fashion of Berber houses in Morocco. Thousands of hams are airdried in the cool mountain air and the pace of life drops back in time to the Middle Ages.
The back roads through the mountains were packed with interest. We stopped twice, once to gaze in fascination at a mighty torrent rushing through a narrow cleft between the rocks and again a while later when Marigold spotted a string of procession caterpillars. We used to be plagued by these chaps much earlier in the year, but they’re still up and around in the mountains. Apparently, they have turned up in England recently accompanied by dire warnings as to the danger they bring for the unwary. They cause skin irritation if touched, but their main risk is to inquisitive dogs. A couple of serious walkers were also watching them with interest and the man touched the lead caterpillar with the tip of his walking stick, nudging him aside. ‘El Capitan,’ the man said, laughing as the troop paused, then regrouped to reconnect with their leader.
Soon we were back in familiar territory. We bought an old finca, in the campo, but within a couple of miles from the busy village of Competa, about fifteen years ago and a couple of years later, after Finca Venus had been renovated, bought another one about twenty miles away. The approach was a dusty, rutted old dirt track with a sheer drop on one side. Now, half a dozen years since we left, the track is smooth tarmac and at least a dozen other houses have been built. We parked up outside a deserted Finca Venus which appears to have been empty for several months. Either that or the present owners aren’t especially keen on sweeping leaves from the terrace.
We stood enjoying the solitude, feeling the sun’s warmth on our backs and watching a herd of goats spread out in seemingly random patterns across the far hillside, their guardian seated on a large rock with an assortment of scruffy dogs around him I conjectured on the blissful nature of that man’s life with just his goats and his dogs for company as he wandered at will through the countryside. Sunlight striking the overhanging canopy of leaves produced a kaleidoscope of fractured rays. Stray shafts of light splintered through the shadows forming a golden pool of light on the old dusty stones. The effect was intoxicating; a riotous assembly of vibrant colours and dappled shade and the blue Mediterranean sparkling like a jewel in the distance. We shared a glance, moments such as this were the rational behind our original decision to move here many years ago.
Far below, down among the grapevines, was a gorgeous old house with a boundary wall extending to the point at which the land fell away to a sheer drop. We walked down, crushing aromatic herbs at every footfall The once sharp edges of the stones had been softened by the erosion of time and the attachment of a furry cloak of lichen that extended over most of the visible area of the wall. A full-length loggia, old scaffold poles painted a vivid green forming a frame for rough planks provided welcome shade to the front of the house. A magnificent flowering jasmine entwined around one of the columns spreading its sweet-smelling curtain of white flowers across the open beams above. The roughly tiled floor was deeply carpeted in white where the blooms had dropped down.
We sat in the shade and the absolute silence, looking back up the slope to our former finca. Seen from this angle, the steep slopes of the raisin beds resembled giant open matchboxes spread out to catch the rays of the sun. Thirteen in all, a couple already filled with drying bunches of grapes; the others revealing bare scraped earth beneath. Each was about twelve paces long and roughly half that in width, separated from its neighbour by low whitewashed walls. Stacked at the lower edge were neat piles of rough planks, ready to protect the precious fruit in the event of bad weather. Stacks of opaque plastic sheets were the final defensive system if a sudden thunderstorm should arise. Rain and dust were the enemy, but plans had been made to protect the harvest from most climatic dangers.
This lovely old house on the slope of the hill had long since been abandoned, but when we were young and foolish, this was exactly the type of project we'd have taken on. It's a ruin, so it would be cheap. A year of backbreaking toil and about the same amount of money as the original purchase cost would have produced a liveable house in a perfect location. We weren't tempted though. Neither of us fancy the aforementioned backbreaking toil any more, the prospect of selling on the completed house, hopefully for profit, is far more fraught than it used to be and, above all else, we've been there, done that. Many times.
Watching the goats on the hillside started us reminiscing about having to wait on these narrow roads for about 100 goats, plus dogs and their minder to go by. Our favourite goat man, who we waved to but never actually spoke to, was a well built man who invariably wore what is best termed a babygro outfit, for adults. We drove another half mile and there he was! Still bursting out of the babygro, still with goats and dogs in tow. We waved and I asked if we could take a photograph. He not only agreed, he posed as if on the red carpet at a First Night.
We moved on, drove the winding mountain roads under Morema's shadow to Canillas de Aceituno and then along a long dusty track to our 'other' house. This had been a complete ruin when we bought it, deep in the National Park so no electricity supply, but with wonderful views over Lake Vinuella to the rear, and distant views of the sea from the front terrace. The finca had been long since abandoned, the terrace had split and partly fallen down the hill and the only access was a rough track with a mountain known locally as 'the bald one' as a backdrop. We bought an old camper van - best described as a rustic conversion of an old Ford Transit - in England, drove it to Spain and it became our base while we laboured.
Our other finca, the one we'd just visited, was up and running by then, rented out to holiday makers from Easter to October. This had made us homeless, hence the camper van. In fairness, we've had better vans. Looking back, this was probably the worst, but it was only intended as a place to sleep and we were usually too tired to notice its many shortcomings. It's still there, seemingly pressed into service as a shed by the present owners. It'll make a good shed.
There was nobody around so I tried to scramble down to look at the ‘shed.’ When we lived here, amongst the wildlife that visited was a female European lynx whose cries at night sounded exactly like a screaming child and caused great initial concern. The lynx is still here. Under the van and spitting furiously as her offspring squeaked in alarm. Imagine a domestic cat, but twice the size, fur fluffed up and teeth bared. I beat a hasty retreat.
It's been a few years since we sold this 'project', as an unfinished work in progress as we'd started to panic at the plummeting Spanish property market, but other than adding a metal gate and extending the railings on the terrace it looks exactly the same. Obviously, the present owners appreciated our taste so much they decided not to change anything. Hopefully, they managed to connect up the outlet pipe at the rear of the toilet which I had inadvertently concreted under the floor. I'm sure they will have as it's the sort of thing one notices at a fairly early stage!
On one of the many almond trees eagle-eyed Marigold spotted movement and closer inspection revealed the presence of a chameleon. I managed to snatch a photograph, but it’s an urban myth that they mimic their surroundings so well as to become invisible. Even so, if he'd still been in the grass and not on a tree trunk, we'd never have spotted him.
This has been a real nature trip as on our way into the mountains we’d parked up to walk along a ridge with great views on both sides. I heard what I took to be a moped with an inefficient silencer approaching, but the terrain made this unlikely. All was explained when a swarm of bees alighted only a short distance away. The swarm buzzed and throbbed continuously, but fortunately only one of us was obliged to risk life and limb by approaching close enough to take a photograph. Oh for a telephoto lens on occasions such as this. Your intrepid correspondent survived which will doubtless be cause for much rejoicing.
Tonight we’re meeting friends in Competa. Rather odd friends, as so many of our friends tend to be. They'll agree with that description and I’m sure they think the same of us, with equal justification.