Back in my working days, a long way back actually, I came across an interesting group of people who linger long in my memory. Some of them impressed me, some I loathed, it was a broad spectrum. Many had already achieved either fame or notoriety as DJs, actors and TV personalities or for association with the crime families that dominated so much of the London scene at that time. Other memorable characters were vagrants, down and outs and squat dwellers, some of whom became even more interesting in later years.
One of these was a man named John Mellor. He subsequently became a person of national interest during the Punk era after changing his name to Joe Strummer and becoming frontman of The Clash. Punk Rock was never a major interest of mine, but I also recall Joe Strummer replacing Shane MacGowan as lead singer of The Pogues in the 1990s and acting in several films which attests to his versatility.
A good friend who recently succumbed to Covid was a keen distance runner and he completed a score or so marathons, including running the London Marathon six times. He told me of the hour or so he spent running alongside Joe Strummer at the London Marathon of 1983 and being impressed by his athletic prowess. This was despite Strummer’s account of his training regime amounting to ‘drink ten pints of beer the night before and don’t run a single step at least four weeks before the race.’
Even so he definitely ran the Paris Marathon twice and achieved respectable times. I certainly never saw any evidence of athleticism, far from it, but as he ran at least three more marathons than me I shouldn’t be too judgemental.
In the early days, living in a squat in London with two Spanish girls, ‘Joe Strummer’ formed a lifelong obsession with Spain, the iconic Spanish poet Federico Lorca in particular and all aspects of Andalusian life. As a result, Joe Strummer is perhaps better known in Granada than he is in England. Having spent many of his later years living in Granada the city posthumously named a plaza in his honour in 2013.
San Jose was where he spent summer months, he owned a house there and was well known in many of the local bars, but we failed to find any evidence of his presence now that Jo’s bar is, sadly, no more.
The place Joe Strummer called his ‘favourite place in all the world,’ the legendary Bar de Jo in nearby Los Escullos was forcibly closed in 2017 following one too many complaints from neighbours. It was a raucous venue with loud music from live bands in the beer garden and a varied clientele. Not our choice of music, but there’s no getting away from the fact this was a very special place.
Bar de Jo was founded by a Frenchman, touring Spain on a Harley-Davidson who decided to set up a bar and motorcycle repair shop in Los Escullos which could best be described as being in the middle of nowhere. For a desert bar to be included in the ‘best beach bars in the world’ lists on so many occasions was quite an achievement.
Bikers came from all of Europe, but only those riding ‘Harley’s’ were allowed to park them inside! A tribute night to Joe Strummer was held there every year. Now, there’s nothing. Nothing at all.
Our last Christmas Day in Spain was spent in Rocquetas de Mar and we headed there one day in mid December hoping to rekindle the magic of that special day.
Rocquetas was virtually deserted and the harbour side bar where we devoured our Christmas feast on that last occasion (no turkey involved) was almost empty. The owner, a delightful man originally from Belgium, tried his best to raise our spirits, but as his idea of a good time was to drink copious amounts of very strong beer we decided we’d cope with being rather less merry. Not even the Kostelbier Donker with an alcohol content rated at 11% would dissuade us.
We did watch with alarm a young mother failing to supervise her toddler who was running about perilously close to the edge of the harbour with a ten foot drop to the sea while she gave her entire attention to texting on her phone. In the event, he didn’t actually fall in, but did throw several items from the unattended pushchair, including his mother’s purse, into the water as presents for the fish that had attracted his attention.
The mother eventually finished texting, took hold of her child’s hand and set off without realising half of her possessions were now floating in the harbour. Our Belgian host had tried in vain to attract her attention but eventually gave up. ‘A lesson to learn, perhaps?’ He said. We rather doubted it. I was torn between relief at a more serious outcome being averted and regret at losing an opportunity to morph from Clark Kent to Superman in a daring rescue attempt.
I didn’t mention this to Marigold at the time.
Outside the unfortunately named Heartbreak Hotel a couple we had noticed earlier swimming in the sea – that was them, not us - were now having a ‘domestic dispute.’ If my command of the Spanish language had been greater I could have learned a fair number of new expressions. The argument continued at maximum volume for almost half an hour and what few bar patrons were present seemed to enjoy this unexpected cabaret performance immensely. I know we did.
The ‘posh end’ of Rocquetas de Mar is very smart indeed with many houses of an enviable nature. We had parked outside one of them prior to walking along the promenade to the harbour just over a mile away. As we got back to our car another vehicle emerged from the imposing double gates of the house. A blue Bentley Convertible, top down with the blonde locks of driver and passenger flowing in the breeze.
‘Quick,’ Marigold urged me, ‘get the hood down.’ I didn’t bother to disabuse her of the notion that we would in any way resemble the Bentley or its occupants, but at least the bodywork colour was almost identical.
A mile up the road we were stopped by road works and pulled alongside the Bentley. The female passenger smiled at us, nodded her head at our precious T-Roc and said, ‘that’s nice, not seen one of those before.’ It made our day.
We had arranged to meet old friends in Competa, the mountain village we lived in for several years, so we needed to head further South. Continuing the theme of seeking out former camping van locations we were determined to go to La Herradura, a classic crescent shaped bay - La Herradura is Spanish for a horseshoe -where we had experienced many happy times over the years.
It’s quite an upmarket place now with many villas on the surrounding hillsides, but the town centre still has the narrow streets applicable to its fishing village origins. There’s a one way system in place that’s pretty chaotic even out of the tourist season.
Speaking of tourists, we didn’t come across any. Most of the chiringuitos - beach bars - were closed up and, once again, the beach was empty. I drove to the far end where we had parked up on the shore on many occasions. No camper vans, no people at all. The bar at the far end that had been a thriving hub of activity every other time we visited was at least still open for business, but there were no customers. Covid has devastated tourism here as in so many other places.
We had a coffee at the only bar on the beach that was open. It was an idyllic situation overlooking the sparkling Mediterranean, but other than an old man and his equally old dog we had the place to ourselves. We couldn’t decide whether the unmistakable aroma of uncontrollable ‘silent but deadly’ flatulence emanated from the man or his dog. Marigold insisted both were responsible and engaged in some form of competition. Our face masks came in handy.
As had been the case in France, everywhere we went in Spain face masks were worn by everybody. We’d already experienced the strict emphasis on keeping to the rules when entry to a motorway services cafeteria, even for just a cup of coffee, was only possible to masked customers in possession of a vaccination certificate. This trip has surprised us in many ways so far, but at least we feel a bit safer.
Onwards to Nerja. Deserted beaches and empty cafes and bars have been a recurring theme throughout this expedition into the unknown. Surely Nerja will be busy, we told ourselves. Nerja is always busy. We drove down to Burriana Beach, guess what, it wasn’t remotely ‘busy.’ Quite the reverse.
We’ve been her on numerous occasions and this was the first time we found free parking spots straight away. At least twenty of them. There’s a beach, a good one, with restaurants all along the ‘main road,’ the only road actually, and many more fronting onto the beach itself and that’s about it. The Paseo Marítimo Antonio Mercero is named after the producer of the famous Spanish TV series of the 1980’s ‘Verano Azul’ – ‘Blue Summer’ - which was set in Nerja. A commemorative sculpture, a director’s chair, has been erected on the promenade. Most people I’ve spoken to think it’s supposed to represent a lifeguard’s chair.
Not much call for beach attendants or lifeguards today. It all felt rather strange; no crowds, no scents of barbecuing food wafting out and restaurants that were invariably crammed at lunchtimes shuttered up and empty. Oh, the place wasn’t deserted, there were people out and about, strolling, drinking or lunching, but it was nothing like the Burriana Beach we know so well.
Ayo was still open, his legendary restaurant has been serving up a daily paella since 1969, but today only to about thirty people, not the hundred or so who usually pack the place out all year round. We wouldn’t even have had to queue for a table and we can’t ever remember that happening before. Even Ayo wasn’t in sight, three or four young men were tending the huge bubbling paella dish. Was this the end of an era? Has the legend finally retired?
We walked on, slightly perturbed, and just managed# to grab a table in the shady part of the terrace of a restaurant at the far end of the beach. #’just about managed’ is code for the place was almost deserted. Our only other fellow diners were a white haired elderly man and a much, much younger woman. After ten seconds we disabused ourselves of the notion she was his daughter. Or even his granddaughter given the disparity in their ages.
She was behaving in a manner Marigold described as ‘a bit frisky,’ so much so I wondered whether her companion would survive long enough to pay the bill. They ordered vast quantities of food which presumably helped out with the restaurant’s cash flow. Marigold had sardines, cooked in the traditional way over a wood fire, which she said were ‘okay, but not special’ and I had the best tuna salad I have ever eaten.
It’s rare that I ‘win’ the food ordering challenge so it was a moment to savour. Our waiter brought out desserts we hadn’t ordered as a gift. As a free offering they were ‘okay but not special.’ If we had paid for them I would have rated them much more harshly. We’re not really ‘pudding people.’
We strolled back and were relieved to see Aro back tending his paella and a few more customers had arrived. A visit to the famed Balcon de Europa was next on the agenda. We parked in the underground car park where we have often driven round for ages seeking a free parking bay. No such problem today.
The Balcony juts out into the sea with lovely views of the beaches on both sides. There were a few swimmers, enough to impart a feeling of familiarity to the scene and there were even a few tourists posing for photos alongside the statue of the splendidly named King Alfonso XII. I’m not sure how many more Kings named Alonso followed on from this one, but having twelve of them was pretty remarkable in any case.
We went into the Balcony Hotel to say hello to an old friend who works there, but he was off work due to having caught Covid six weeks ago. Which doesn’t sound good. There was a wedding party standing around outside the Iglesia El Salvador. This is a lovely church in a wonderful setting and we can only assume the happy couple were either very devout or had major influence as they were quite young and the waiting list for a wedding ceremony there is very long indeed.
The friend who is off work from the hotel was one of those chosen to carry the statues around town at Easter and he had once told us this small church was one of the very few in the world with three naves dedicated to the Archangels: Saint Rafael, Saint Gabriel and Saint Michael, the later being the Patron Saint of Nerja and not just a Marks and Spencers brand name.
We didn’t even attempt to visit the caves of Nerja this time – it was far too nice a day to set off underground and there were half a dozen tour buses parked up already as it’s the third most popular attraction for visitors in Spain. I remember our last visit very well as just as we reached the largest stalagmite in the world (they’re the ones that grow up, not down) I somehow managed to dislodge a knee cartilage and had to hobble up what seemed like a million steps to get out of the place.
The caves were only discovered in 1959 by some local boys playing on the hillside. One of those boys was Ayo, now even more famous as a former world paella champion and still serving the same meal every day of the year to his loyal customers
We drove past the Eagle Aqueduct on our way to the motorway . It never fails to impart a sense of awe. It’s not ancient, only dating from the 19th century, but it’s astonishingly impressive and still doing the job for which it was built. The sugar cane factory that commissioned it shut down long ago, although the buildings are still standing, but the aqueduct carries on delivering water from Nerja to the agricultural areas of Maro.
Most of the land around Maro is owned by Larios, the major gin distillers in Spain and the chances of anyone building even a single shack let alone a new housing development while the Larios family are in charge is zero. That seems rather a good thing.
Competa next. It’s been a while since we drove up those mountain roads. Once the trip was an almost daily occurrence, after such a time away from the place we once called home the prospect of the road that filled all our visitors with dread now seems slightly daunting. We shall see…