Christmas Day morning. The Royal Family will be getting ready to attend church. This year there’ll be a new focus of attention – Megan – to add to the perennial question about whether Prince Philip will finally accept he is 96 and accept a lift in a car rather than walking in on a freezing late December morning. Obviously, as I saw on tv later, Phil declined the offer of a ride in a warm car. He’s no wimp! Being 96 years old is no reason to go soft. I think it was Luis Bunuel who said ‘age is something that doesn’t matter. Unless you’re a cheese.’ Oh, and Megan performed a curtsy. Not just any old curtsy, but the best curtsy in the history of the world, according to most commentators. O tempora! O mores! Oh, the times, oh, the customs as Cicero said when describing the various nonsensical obsessions afflicting Ancient Rome.
Elsewhere, families will be gathering for the annual orgy of presents, eating far too much rich food, complaining about the repeats on television and building up to the traditional family row that can last until Christmas Eve, next year.
Obviously, we do none of these things. If I want an argument, there’s only Marigold here, so that’s out. Why pick a fight I can’t win? Not that I’d ever do such a thing. We don’t have a Christmas tree, no decorations either and the rented apartment we’ve just moved into for a change of scene has a brand new oven and induction hob but no saucepans that will work with an induction hob and no container even remotely suitable for roasting a turkey, we decide to give Christmas a miss, at least for today. Here in Spain, Christmas Day itself is not the main event. Not even close for most Spanish families. Christmas Eve, yes, the Festival of the Three Kings, very much so, but Christmas Day, not such a big deal, so we reasoned we’d be in good company.
Thinking back, we had a similar ‘Christmas Day Avoidance’ episode last year, but at least then we had the excuse of being kidnapped by complete strangers in camper vans and forced to spend an entire afternoon and evening eating and drinking with outrageously convivial Irish families we’d never met before that day. I was secretly hoping to do the same again this year.
We set off in the car with Marigold looking gorgeous and wearing her new earrings and necklace. (No, not just earrings and necklace, obviously. My life isn’t that perfect!). Mainly empty roads and a lovely sunny day with blue skies. I’m not one of those people who pine for a white Christmas.
We decided it was such a lovely day, a beach walk was in order and one of the best beaches in Europe was, relatively, close by. Monsul Beach is pretty isolated and scarcely anyone visits it. Certainly not in the depths of winter. If you can call a day like today ‘winter.’ Its pristine shoreline and sense of isolation persuaded Steven Spielberg to use Monsul as one of the settings for Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
We only found it during our motor home days when we got directions from an elderly Irish couple who have been wintering there for several years. San José has a good beach and a few cafes, restaurants and shops, but it appears to be the end of the line. The best beaches are along a pretty rough track, but not too bad today, about three miles after leaving ‘civilisation’ in San Jose. There’s an occasional shuttle bus in the summer, but obviously that’s not running now. The bonus is not having to pay for parking when we get there as that’s restricted to high summer as well. We got as far in the car as we deemed reasonable and walked the rest of the way. Beyond Monsul are a couple of other even more isolated beaches, but getting to Monsul was enough trekking for one day.
We weren’t expecting the beach to be packed and it wasn’t. Apart from us there were only two other people in sight. A few weeks ago, many miles from here, we met and briefly chatted to a German couple living, full time, in a magnificent, albeit scruffy, van conversion. What were the odds on meeting them again, on Christmas Day? Yet, here they were, parked up overlooking one of the best beaches in Spain.
Until we arrived today, they had been the beach’s only occupants - a blessed state we remembered well from our own van-based travels – and we were quick to reassure them we weren’t intending to stay here for long! They’re off to North Africa in the New Year and going first to Algeria this trip as they’ve ‘done’ Morocco many times. The van is well suited to desert travel so they can wander at will. We were just a tiny bit jealous, especially of their van, its huge tyres that would have thought the rough access track leading to here was a motorway and the ‘back to basics’ living quarters.
If I’m giving the impression of ‘chatting’ to these people I apologise. We lacked any sort of common language as they spoke very little English and my command of the German language extends only as far as being able to say good morning and thank you! In fairness, I could sing the whole of Silent Night in its original German form, (Stille Nacht, Heilige Nacht, etc) and the Elvis Presley hit, Wooden Heart, but I’m not sure how valuable that would be in normal conversation.
We walked along the beach, had a quick paddle in the sea, quickly decided against going swimming and climbed the (not very big) sand dune instead and then decided we’d carry on down the coast to see what took our fancy.
We looked in to see if the street market we’d visited last Christmas Day at El Alquin was up and running – it wasn’t – so we drove right along the coast road until we reached Almeria. We’ve been here several times and the traffic is pretty stressful, but not on Christmas Day! There were three big ships in port, none of the shipping lines were familiar to us, and the only one we thought of as being a ‘cruise ship’ catered for passengers travelling to Ghana. We’ve never been there weren’t tempted to buy a ticket today either. As a ferry port, Almeria is best known for its passenger routes to Morocco and Algeria, but it’s important for freight as well and there were three bulk carriers far out to sea but heading into port as we left.
Christmas Day, in Spain, is not the ‘main event’ of the holiday season, but even so the pavement cafes were packed with families enjoying the sunshine. 29 degrees, so pretty exceptional, even for Spain, in late December. Spanish families get together on Christmas Eve for a big party, but the festivities really get going on January 6th with the Festival of the Three Kings and that’s when Spanish children get their presents.
We were chatting to a couple of dog walkers, originally from Australia, the other day and they’d invited us to join them for a Christmas Day supper. I’d been busy dog stroking and talking to the woman so didn’t say much to the man as he was obviously far keener on monopolising Marigold. I heard her say, ‘that would have been lovely, but…’ at one stage.
He did tell me one interesting ‘fact’ – he was a man who knew a lot of ‘facts’ – when I asked him whereabouts in Australia he came from.
‘In the bush, nowhere you’d possibly have heard of,’ he replied before continuing, ‘do you know the plural of a platypus?’
I’d actually seen a duck billed platypus, in Australia, but had not given much thought to what a few of them would be called.
‘Platypussies,’ Marigold said without much conviction.
‘Platypi,’ I offered.
He shook his head, pityingly, at our ignorance.
‘Platypode, there’s your answer, and a baby platypus is called a puggle.’ (Annoyingly, I looked up these dubious ‘facts’ later and was irritated beyond measure to find they were correct.)
‘He must be the boring man I’ve ever met,’ Marigold said after we left them to their dog walk. Even their dogs looked as if they’d rather be with somebody else. Anybody else. ‘Can’t imagine spending an evening with them. Told me all about Spanish customs and Christmas traditions, even after I told him we’d lived in Spain for ten years longer than he had so we knew all that stuff. He’s so pedantic.’ Marigold hates pedants because they tend to interrupt the flow of conversation. Too much ‘accuracy’ harms the flow.
I was very relieved. I hardly spoke to the man, but even so a brief acquaintance was more than enough. Marigold said he took issue with almost everything she said and told her they had only asked us round as he thought we would be lonely on our own. Ha!
I told a pedant joke to lighten the mood.
Q. How many pedants does it take to change a lightbulb?
A. Well, strictly speaking, what you’re referring to is replacing a lightbulb…
Marigold didn’t laugh.
We spent well over an hour in Almeria, taking advantage of the traffic free roads. The thousand year old Alcazaba dominates the city. It’s the largest fortress ever constructed by the Moorish invaders and originally housed several mosques and palaces inside the triple walls of the citadel. housed -within its triple wall- palaces and mosques. When it was built in the 10th Century, Almeria was the main commercial port in the Caliphate of Cordoba, with more than 10,000 textile mills inside its medina. We walked up to it a few years ago, but it was a steep climb and we’re much more sensible these days.
We didn’t go inside the Cathedral either. It’s much more of a fortress than most others of its ilk due to the frequent raids on the city from Berber pirates after the Christian reconquest and its thick walls and forbidding appearance are not exactly welcoming.
Bypassing most of Roquetas de Mar, we reached Aguadulce, one of the few places along this coastline we’ve never visited and it was so charming we parked the car and went to look for our ‘substitute’ Christmas lunch. Aguadulce means ‘sweet water’ and the name supposedly comes from the natural springs that filter down through the rocky hills that tower over the beach. In the sea itself, there are more natural springs of fresh water that bubble up through the sand.
The beach is about a mile and a half long and was virtually empty, but the promenade which runs along the entire length was very busy with Spanish people dressed in their Christmas finery. It was warm, bordering on hot actually, but I seemed to be the only one there wearing a shirtsleeved shirt. Most of our fellow strollers were dressed as if for an expedition to the Arctic.
All along the promenade there are wonderful views of the Bay of Almeria and at the near end a rather smart marina which was getting very busy with the lunch trade. Oysters were being eaten in vast quantities, sparkling wine was flowing, but it was all a bit ‘dressy’ in those places and everyone inside looked very serious so we chose more prosaic fare in an ‘outside’ restaurant run by a very jolly woman who greeted everyone like old friends.
We had a big (huge) salad, and I ordered the ‘local to the area special’: ajo colorao which was a stew with potatoes, red bell peppers, eggs, sausages, cod, garlic and drizzled with olive oil and which was one of the best things I’ve ever eaten. Marigold chose rape a la barraca - monkfish served with leek and mushrooms and the jolly woman said ‘English’ to us as she brought out a big bowl of chips and crunchy bread as well. We were absolutely stuffed by the time we finished and wished we’d ignored the jolly woman’s insistence we try her home made sponge cake veined with dates and served with thick and very tart Turkish yoghurt. It was delicious, but would have been best enjoyed in its own right, not as an adjunct to such a big meal.
After lunch as we wandered rather more sedately the mile or so back to where we’d parked the car we saw two naked Santas arrive in a car. As it turned out, they were two young lads, not naked at all, just wearing very brief shorts and Santa hats, who set off at a fair old pace running along the promenade. We stopped for a bit of people watching at a bar where the waiter invited us to take a seat and have a free drink. Not a con either, everybody who passed by was offered a drink ‘for Christmas.’ We weren’t pestered to order food, just a kind gesture and a very nice one too.
A man in bulky overalls who had been, assiduously, sweeping the street and the promenade – on Christmas Day – sat down too and had a welcome drink. He seemed to be a local ‘character’ who everybody knew, but his accent was so strong we couldn’t understand him. Another free drink ‘customer’ explained he was telling everybody that he was getting double pay for working on Christmas Day, but that with so many people about he had to do three times as much work.
As we left the two Santas reappeared. It was still pretty hot and they had run about three miles in full sun so were well and truly lathered. Practically deliquescent.
We got back as the sun was setting. Still lacking saucepans that worked, no turkey, no sprouts, not even a family row, but we didn’t feel shortchanged. Not at all. At the very least we very happy not to be setting off for supper with pedantic Australian dog walkers for an evening of detailed instruction on collective terms for random Australian wildlife.