Marigold Says...

Random thoughts on travelling and life in general.

If you haven’t seen us for a while, here we are at the seaside while guarding against possible sun damage to our delicate skin

Marigold Says...

G has a latest fad. When the pandemic started he bought lots of face masks of different shapes, strengths and sizes. Supermarkets now warrant a 5 layer strength, he says. Trouble is my glasses steam up and the mask that looks like a duck’s beak nearly covers my eyes. Last time I had it on I ended up pinching an old woman’s trolley with G asking why I was buying only six Brussels sprouts and 2 tomatoes. It did cause a commotion especially since her handbag was in it.

He is talking now about designing a proper mask and as he was messing about with a stapler I am wondering if it is to be stapled to our face. He asked me if I have any spare elastic. I said “no you are thinking of your mother, who had a thousand yards of it in her mending box. I don’t mend anything.” I do have a needle somewhere with some white cotton which I use to do invisible mending on everything. It’s not all that invisible, obviously, not even on white clothing due to the size of the stitches. Life’s too short for tiny little neat stitches.

I just found the needle. It was in a haystack. Boom, boom!

A new series of Dragons Den is starting soon so that might be what has prompted G’s interest in inventions. As he can’t stand any of the Dragons I doubt he would accept an offer to let them be a partner in any of his business ideas. He’d ask for a million pounds and only offer 1% of the business just because he doesn’t like them.

I’m sure you will be pleased to hear this long absence from travelling abroad has made absolutely no difference to my language skills. They remain non existent. G does okay, especially in France, but as he’s a bit deaf I am sure he thinks I should make more of an effort apart from smiling and nodding my head at whatever anyone says to me.

I told him I can order a coffee in at least three languages and that’s all I need. Sometimes I use all three languages in one sentence. I asked for ‘Bon jour, dos café au lait por favour, thank you’ the other day. I still got my two coffees.

Peaceful scene. Unfortunately, there's scarcely a soul about anywhere else either.

Empty Spanish Beaches

G Says...

It's not been an easy process, returning to what was primarily a travel blog after so lengthy an absence. In the time we weren't able or allowed to travel abroad we ended up spouting random nonsense in the blog for so long it's been hard to concentrate on just saying where we've been and what we've seen. 

We’re always happy to return to the arid yet uniquely fascinating desert landscape of the Cabo de Gata. It’s Europe’s only desert region, being the driest by some distance and where annual temperatures average out at over 20 degrees. One of our favourite places is Las Negras, a tiny community on the coast with very little in the way of attractions. Which may explain why we like it.

We’ve been here many times, but this time we noticed a difference immediately. ‘Where is everybody,’ Marigold said as we walked down to the front. There are a few bars, a lovely shop selling leatherwork and jewellery with several resident cats and a couple of restaurants. Most of the bars and restaurants were shuttered up, the gift shop was closed and there were hardly any people. Oh, we did find the cats, they’re surviving very well.

Even the ‘hippies’ for want of a better descriptive term who hang around waiting for a boat to take them back to San Pedro were thin on the ground.*

*By ‘thin on the ground’ I mean they were few and far between, not that they were thin. On reflection though, I can’t remember the last time I saw a fat ‘hippie.’ Living an alternative lifestyle seems to make obesity unlikely.

There aren’t many places in Andalusia where beach camping is completely legal. In fact, there’s just one and it’s just around the headland from Las Negras. The hippie settlement of Cala de San Pedro is a magnet for thousands of backpackers and freedom seekers. In fairness, the hordes mostly tend to arrive in the summer months, but as it hardly ever gets cold in the Cabo de Gato there are a fair few permanent residents. We’re on good terms with several of the regulars, but there weren’t many around on this visit.

There’s a far from easy overland walking route on a well travelled track along the cliffs, but most of the time it’s quicker and easier to go by boat. It’s about €6 if I remember correctly and we took that option on the return leg of our last visit after not fancying the prospect of ‘yomping’ back across the headland on a baking hot day. It’s about an hour or so on foot, but seems much, much longer.

We said hello to the cats perched on a flat roof and eventually found a bar/café that was open. Our fellow customers were German, Swedish, Danish and French, as far as I could make out from snatches of conversation. No Brits and this was soon to be revealed as a common theme in the next few days.

I ordered a ‘salad de casa,’ a house salad which can mean just about anything, but it was very good. We shared an omelette and Marigold, who invariably chooses better than me, had a big mixed platter packed with freshly caught fish and seafood, straight off the boat, that was still in the sea two hours ago.

We decided to head on down to San Jose, in essence a small fishing village but in recent years has become very popular among wealthy Spanish people with many extravagant second homes springing up.

As we were passing Playa el Playazo, a beach on which we have spent many an idyllic week or so parked up amongst the sand dunes in our camper van, we called in to have a look around. There were a dozen or so old vans, but once again no Brits at all. This was becoming a common theme.

Just up the road is the town of Rodalaquilar which used to be a boom town, but was virtually an empty shell when we first came across it. Lately it’s been reinvented as an artist’s haven and many of the old, virtually derelict cottages have been restored. We came across many deserted and abandoned towns in the desert regions of the USA and Rodalaquilar almost suffered the same fate for exactly the same reasons. It was once a vibrant town with its fortunes linked to gold mining. At its peak in the 1950’s to 1960’s, Rodalquilar was home to approximately 1,400 people. With the closure of the mines in 1966 the population fell dramatically, to rather less than 100 people, about the same number who live there today.

We’ve been up to the gold mines on several occasions, but on this trip we gave them only a swift glance and headed on to San Jose. Which was almost empty. The fish restaurant just off the main beach was sparsely attended, but nowhere near as busy as we’d seen on previous visits. The woman who made and sold ‘whacky’ ear rings from a trestle table outside the restaurant wasn’t there, much to Marigold’s distress.

We stayed the night in a hotel boasting a single star. By next morning we thought the star rating somewhat generous.

Lunchtime outside one of few places open for business. Nobody here.

We did find the resident cats, still pleased to see us. They're clever enough to avoid any passing dogs by seeking the sanctuary of high ground

Stunning blue sky

Incredibly blue sea as well. Trick of the light I am sure but can't ever remember seeing the Med as blue as this

I've photographed this in the past, but it's hard to resist

Finally we found a cafe. We left when it became crowded. Many nationalities, but we didn't come across any other Brits

Looking down to the sea. The cats have moved away now, must be an even sunnier flat roof somewhere else

A former gold mine

You're bound to see an old relic or two knocking about around an abandoned gold mine

Onwards, ever onwards

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.

Oh dear.

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…

The 'Fish Restaurant' on the beach at San Jose. Lunchtime. No customers apart from a couple of people inside

At last, a beach that's not entirely empty

Joe Strummer in Bar de Jo

Punk Rock and marathon running do seem an unlikely blend, but I did find evidence of it

Just a couple of tapas, only a euro each. Not bad, eh?

The owners of this house drive a Bentley. Well, of course they do

Swimmers at Roquetas. They must have fallen out over who hogged the towel as we saw them an hour later having a right old set to outside Heartbreak Hotel

Fish in the harbour, later to be joined by a purse and several other items

This is our car, enjoying the sunshine

Not the Bentley we saw, but one just like it. Well, the colour is a good match for ours

Burriana Beach. Marigold finds a friend

A Nerja beach from the Balcon

I must have taken a photo of this view twenty times over the years

Marigold and Alfonso. Old mates reunited

We spent many a day up there in that villa. Sadly, our friends no longer live there, but looking from below I am astonished it hasn't toppled down the cliff by now

The Director's Chair on Burriana Beach

The Eagle Aqueduct