Marigold asks me to tell you she’ll be back writing again very soon after her somewhat prolonged absence. By absence, I mean in her capacity as scribe as in every other way her presence enlightens and gives purpose to our various excursions.
Today, we’re not travelling far from our base in terms of distance, but in every other respect we’re bound for a different world. We’re visiting the Cabo de Gata National Park once again. One of our favourite places for a day trip, as distinct from our visits farther afield, and if you’d like to know more about this area, look in our ‘Menu’ and find ‘hippies in Spain.’
Agua Amarga means bitter water in Spanish, not the most attractive name for such a little gem. Why a gem? Well, Agua Amarga is a small fishing village, there’s just a few rows of simple white-washed houses hugging the shore and not much else, right on the edge of Cabo de Gata nature reserve. There’s a delightful, sandy beach, about half a mile of it, end to end, sheltered by cliffs and today the sun is glistening on the almost transparent waters of a turquoise sea.
In our recent US Road Trip we spent a week or so meandering down the Pacific coastline between San Francisco and San Diego. Close to Los Angeles, just past Malaga actually, we were advised to take a detour to view a little known surfing beach at a point where Agua Amarga Canyon meets the sea. The California version is pretty much just scrubland, part of a significant nature reserve and I remember it very well, not just because the name was familiar but also because of the plethora of signs triumphantly announcing the saving of the endangered Californian gnatcatcher from extinction. We never saw a single one!
Agua Amarga, the Spanish version, has been described as one of the last hidden paradises in Europe and that’s born out on this day in early March as we’re the only people walking on the beach, none of the (very) few shops or restaurants are open and the only signs of life we see are around the dozen or so motor homes parked on a scruffy piece of land at the edge of the village.
We came to Agua Amarga today, not for beach bars or a vibrant café scene, but to look at a house. No chance of a vibrant anything here, even in summer this quiet backwater is no rival to Marbella and is all the better for it. The house we seek was the setting for one of the best British films of its era, Sexy Beast. Not suitable for those of a delicate nature it starred Ray Winstone, Ben Kingsley and Ian McShane.
I read an article about Ray Winstone where he waxes lyrical about this simple fishing village. ‘It’s the genuine article, it restored my faith in Spain,’ he said, having no idea such an unspoilt spot still existed on the Spanish coast. We’ve come across many unspoilt seaside places on our travels, but this is certainly idyllic on such a lovely day.
Palm House has the sea views which made it ideal as a filming location. There’s an apartment under the main house which the owners rent out to holiday makers and I assume it’s Sexy Beast history is quite an inducement. We can’t get inside or wander around, obviously, but we recreate the sea views the film audience saw with a little ingenuity and a fair bit of scrambling.
The film dates back to the year 2000 and Ray Winstone plays a former safe-cracker now living in retirement on what is portrayed as being the ‘costa del crime.’ Ben Kingsley's character tries to recruit him for a final ‘job’ and it is his performance as a manic sociopath that dominates the film and earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor. This isn’t anything like his portrayal of Gandhi. There’s a scene in which he speaks to camera, facing a mirror, all shaven headed malevolence, and Kingsley said he forgot his lines when he saw his own rage - contorted face staring back at him!
No chance of finding a restaurant here, so we move down the coast to one of our favourite places: Las Negras, deep inside the gloriously unspoilt nature reserve of Cabo de Gata. We’ve explored great cities and marvelled at their scope and diversity, but it’s in the wild places we find our greatest pleasure. High mountain ranges, snowy peaks and crystal clear lakes, forests and deserted shores, we love them and continually seek them out, but best of all are desert landscapes. We’ve traveled through the ever changing sand dunes of the vast Sahara, explored the weird rock formations of Nevada and Utah and been delighted by the silence, the sheer tranquility and sense of majesty that every step, every turn of the wheel brings.
Cabo de Gata ‘ain’t the Sahara, but its climate is practically unique in Europe; as arid as North Africa due to minimal annual rainfall and more sunshine than just about anywhere else on this side of the Mediterranean. We come here often and are never disappointed. Yes, there are areas on the outskirts where the plastic greenhouses providing fruit and vegetables our culture demands to be available all year round hold sway, but almost all the rest is a virtual wilderness. There are some fine beaches on the coast, their purity sustained by difficulty of access or simply by being well off the tourism trail, but Las Negras doesn’t have a great beach. What it does have is a superb setting where we drop down from the surrounding hills towards a beautiful little bay where the water lapping gently at the shore is often the only sound you hear.
We park up and walk down to the shore only to find our favourite spot on the beach is closed for renovations. Not to worry, we go next door and get the last table on the terrace.
The beach here is mostly pebbles, but it’s still a great place to sit down with a cool drink, look out to sea and find peace. The clear blue sea sparkles, the cliffs over to the left are strikingly attractive in this clear light and the sun bring warmth and comfort, even as the rest of Europe freezes in the icy grip of yet another cold spell. There are a few fishing boats drawn up on the shore, a couple of men mending nets and the boats waiting to take the ‘day tripper’ hippies back to Cala San Pedro Beach, a small cove, almost completely isolated and reached only by boat, unless you fancy a strenuous two hour hike over the headland over rough terrain. We’ve never tried the overland route, but were invited to go there by boat once and we loved it. There’s a fresh water supply from a steam, a few ramshackle ‘houses’ and not much else.
The small colony who live there year round pop across to Las Negras for supplies or, as was the case today, to obtain a dozen or so wooden pallets to extend one of their shacks. The tiny boat set off with one lad balanced precariously on top of the stacked pallets after arranging to return to collect the two dreadlock wearing men and scruffy dog who we seem to meet up with every time we come here. Their sanguine response suggests they were not particularly keen on boarding the already overloaded boat anyway.
As we sip our drinks a fat man in a very tightly stretched wet suit comes ashore, carrying a spear gun in one hand and two, maybe three it’s hard to tell, octopuses in the other. The water here is crystal clear and a divers’ paradise, perfect for spear fishing.
Marigold takes issue with ‘octopuses,’ championing ‘octopi,’ but I’m sticking to my guns. Resisting any accusations of being an awkward doryphore, I decide a little research is in order. It’s clear Marigold isn’t wrong, heaven forbid, as octopi is certainly in common usage, but the word octopus is derived from Greek not Latin and hence the plural version should surely be ‘octopodes.’ Which both looks and sounds ridiculous.
As for ‘octopi,’ however, the word grates, with me. The plural of hippopotamus, in my view, is hippopotamuses. Even my annoying and significantly more pedantic predictive text ‘assistant’ bears the word no malice, yet dislikes hippopotami. Language is variable, isn’t it? We, mostly, say ‘termini,’ not terminuses,’ and yet say ‘syllabuses,’ not ‘syllabi.’
Marigold just said I should write ‘he was carrying an octopus and he also had another one or two of them as well.’ Such a sensible woman, or more likely she has had enough of my nonsense.
We’re sitting, watching the boats, admiring the peaceful waterfront, when we hear a regrettably familiar voice boom out behind us and both of us enter panic mode.
‘Edgar,’ Marigold says, and Edgar it is indeed.
We travel a lot. Visit places, countries, we’ve never been before, where we know not a soul and most of the time it’s great. We’re happy enough in our own company, a self contained unit, tried and trusted, but our life style inevitably brings us into contact with total strangers. This interaction can be invigorating, enlightening and very occasionally leave in its wake memories that last for years. We can both vividly remember strangers we met for a few brief hours many years ago who remain with us in spirit. Comparisons are made, fleeting moments recalled, oddities fondly called to mind. Meeting people is surely one of the greatest joys of travel.
Life has to be balanced and I’m still barely recovering from our exposure to a group we met by chance about a week ago. I asked Marigold if she could summarise them in a few words. She just needed the one.
‘Prats,’ she said.
We met Edgar in the lobby of the Parador in Mojacar as we were meeting friends who were passing through. Paradors are pretty swish, usually, but we’ve stayed at a few in our time and so can confirm they’ll let anyone in! The appalling Edgar was a hotel guest, but we were merely waiting for our friends to get changed into their glad rags, as they put it. No idea why as they were only going out with us.
Throughly ‘English’, resolutely and unmistakably middle class, tall, stout and overbearing, he sauntered over, the heels of his sturdy brogues clopping on the tiled floor and introduced himself in orotund tones that must have been audible at the far side of the car park.
‘Edgar,’ he boomed, shaking my hand vigorously and favouring Marigold with a rictus smile while raising the brim of a non existent hat. ‘On our own, are we?’
Well, no, we’re sitting next to each other on a sofa, reading books and minding our own business, but of course we don’t say any of that. I half stand, shake his hand and try desperately to prevent a feeling of dread from showing on my face. Marigold looks stricken, but fortunately Edgar seems to have forgotten she exists.
I’m half expecting Marigold to come out with the Glenn Close speech from Basic Instinct; the ‘I’m not going to be ignored’ outburst, but she seems happy enough to find Edgar’s attention fixed solely on me.
He hitches up his trousers, hideously red corduroy and high waisted, to preserve their immaculate creases and sits down, heavily, next to me. We’ve commandeered a leather sofa, technically a three seater but vastly more comfortable for just the two of us. Edgar’s arrival – he’s very broad in the beam – removes all aspects of comfort at a stroke.
Edgar didn’t seem to regard conversation as being any substitute for a monologue. Marigold returned to her book, now obviously happy enough to be ignored, while our new acquaintance lectured me in a ceaseless torrent of magniloquent speech, every word boomed out at full volume.
Finally, he stopped talking, in mid sentence, leapt to his feet and rushed out. Marigold burst out laughing.
‘What did you say?’ She asked, ‘whatever it was, it worked.’
‘Nothing. I never even got a word in,’ I reply and we settle back with our books.
‘Goodbye Edgar,’ Marigold says. Peace is restored.
Five minutes later the doors open and in walked Edgar, this time at the head of a phalanx of people just as awful as himself. Two other men, one of them wearing identical red trousers to those adorning Edgar’s lower half, and two women who look like sisters. I want to say ugly sisters, but that’d be facile as although it’s fair comment, it’s unfair. No one can help what they look like, but this pair are talking, very loudly with much arm waving and the subject of their conversation is their perception of Spain, Spanish people, Spanish food and, especially, the Spanish check-in staff at the front desk. It’s not remotely complimentary. In fact, it’s a philippic denunciation of just about everything related to the country in which we and they are guests.
We remember the courteous manner of both the girls on the reception desk, the attention they paid us, their smiles of welcome and their ability to speak English, not fluently but well enough to put our own command of their language to shame . We’re also aware they can hear every word these two harpies are saying.
‘Surely they should all have to learn to speak English properly to work in a hotel,’ one of the women is saying, loudly, ‘I mean, how many people speak Spanish compared to all the countries that speak English?’
Marigold nudges me as she can see how tempted I am to get involved. I keep quiet, for once, and, quietly look something up on the free Wi-fi this excellent hotel provides, for free, even to transient visitors like us.
‘Approximately 470 million people in the world speak Spanish as their first or native language’, I whisper to Marigold.
‘Quite a few, then.’
‘Only about 360 million people speak English as their first language while Chinese is the language with most native speakers.’
We find comfort in this vindication of what we’d already surmised, but this air of satisfaction brings scant respite.
Hector joins in, his braying voice probably audible up in the Old Town two miles away and we share a resigned glance, put away our books and leave, swiftly.
I leave a message at the desk for our friends to meet us at a local café and say ‘sorry’ to the receptionist, nodding my head at the noisy quintet in the lobby. She grins, says a word in Spanish I don’t recognise (maybe it means ‘prats’) and giggles. They must meet a fair number of people like Edgar in their line of work. Shamefully, I imagine a fair few few of the worst offenders will be Brits.
We thought we’d seen and heard the last of Edgar, yet here he is, spoiling our peaceful interlude. Once more, we gathered our belongings, girded our loins and vamoosed.
We hadn’t ordered a meal, just had drinks, in any case as there’s smoke coming out from the kitchen and the staff are harassed, so when we get back on home turf we’re starving. We go to a beach restaurant specialising in fish and Marigold’s initial order of Sea Bream has to be changed to another fish, the name of which escapes both of us.
The fish arrives, only one side (half) of a fish actually, accompanied by four asparagus (asparagi?oh, behave) and that’s it. We get a chunk of bread between us too, but when the bill arrives we find there is an added charge for this ‘extra’ as well. I order pork loin, invariably excellent in Spain, and it’s tasteless and anaemic. The bill is deflating, the food disappointing and we grumble about it for the rest of the day. Shame as we’d had a great time until then.
We drive past the motor homes parked nearby, five less than when we left this morning, and say hello in passing their apartment to the long term rental couple from Halifax who are recently retired and enjoying their first ever trip abroad. They’re always on their terrace, don’t have a car and obviously have no intention of moving from their apartment apart from shopping trips for food.
‘Been off out again, ‘ave yer?’ the man says in ripe Yorkshire tones, his skin by now having moved on from lobster pink to a rich vermilion.
‘Yes, had a lovely day.’
He shakes his head. ‘Wouldn’t do us at all, that gadding about.’ His wife nods in agreement.
I could offer up a favourite quotation from Rumi, the 13th-century Persian Sunni Muslim poet and Sufi mystic who is in any case probably not that well known in Halifax - ‘You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life?’
But I don’t. Each to his own. They enjoy basking on the terrace, we like to explore. Fair enough. Takes all sorts, as they definitely do say in Halifax.