We spent just over a week in our little Spanish hilltop town, and it proved to be an excellent base for exploring the surrounding Andalusian area. Because I am geographically ignorant, I thought this included the nearby Gibraltar. For once I was correct about proximity, but as usual there was a flaw in my thinking: Gibraltar is part of the United Kingdom and not Andalusia, a fact which apparently everyone other than me is aware of. We went with one purpose only: to go up the rock and see the shores of Africa (OK, we actually had two goals: to also buy super cheap booze).
Gibraltar is small – only 6.2 square kms – and as we approached we were surprised and a little confused by the large fence that separates it from Spain. We parked the car, grabbed our passports, and walked across the border. It was quite surreal. I can’t think of another occasion that I’ve crossed a land border on foot and had my documents inspected. The British overseas territory is not, I am sorry to report, a particularly pleasant place. Lots of high rise apartments cram the 35,000 inhabitants into the small territory limits. While there were a few ostentatious mansions on the water (adjacent to the Ludicrously Large Yacht Parking) most places were shabby and run down. There was an airstrip immediately inside the border, which commuters strolled across. Apparently online gaming is a huge industry there, and whether imagined or not we felt the place was slightly seedy. We made our way promptly to the (Swiss manufactured, naturally) cable care and ascended the rock, much to the delight of our lad who loves any form of transportation. (As a tip, if you ever go: walk up the rock instead of cable car. Even though it was hot, if we left early the walk would have been manageable and far more enjoyable than the six minute trip up. It appeared mostly shaded and would have offered a far more interesting perspective to the area.)
It was a stunningly clear day, and from the top of the rock we were able to see across the Strait of Gibraltar to Morocco, rising out of the water (it’s on the far left below, in case all blue-grey landmasses look the same to you. They sure do to me).
The top of the rock is also home to the only wild population of Barbary macaques in Europe. I was horrified to learn this as I am a scaredycat joyless person who hates our adorable monkey cousins. My daughter, however, is not. She was besotted with them, and when I asked her what she liked about them she replied ‘their hair. They’re so hairy!’. My revolted point precisely, Ads.
After a stop for said cheap booze we bizarrely walked straight back over the border. The Spanish side had passport control but the two immigration officers didn’t bother opening the gates and simply waved us all through a door out the side. Hola!
Next stop: the beach. We went to Estapona for the afternoon to swim in the Mediterranean, build sandcastles, eat seafood tapas and see if the kids love the ocean as much as their papa. (Verdict: most definitely.)
The days have become a bit blurry, like all holidays should, and I’d like that to be my excuse for not exactly remembering that it was our ten year anniversary last Thursday (in my defence, I knew it was coming up but I had confused the days, a completely understandable position after a decade, no?). We spent the day in Ronda, a mountain town at the top of a very winding drive. We finally arrived and entered through the town wall…
…and immediately indulged in ten year anniversary pastries. (At least, the two best products of our relationship did.)
Ronda is a very famous town in the region. Built high in the hills, it straddles a ravine and the two halves of the town were long divided. In the 1700s, the Puente Nuevo (New Bridge) was built to, ahem, bridge them. It’s an impressive sight. Each of the old towns is lovely in its own right, and the bridge adds a drama to the whole scene. Stunning architecture aside, there’s a waterfall at the base that gushes down into the calm river which snakes its way through the chasm. The bridge itself could be walked over, under and into: it used to be a prison, particularly during the Spanish Civil War. It was impossible to see it all in one hit – every different angle held new aspects.
Ronda is also the city in which, 300 years ago, the official rules to bullfighting were negotiated and agreed. Many years ago, on a holiday to Seville, I went to see the traditional Spanish sport. It was not for me; I was unable to watch it and left shortly after it started. I appreciate the complexities of tradition and the arguments around the life spans of bulls (apparently fighters often live much longer than animals bred for meat), but despite being a meat eater, leather wearer and all round hypocrite, I felt it was a step too far in terms of the animal’s welfare. I was however (see: hypocrite) quite happy to check out the bullfighting arena where it all began, so to speak.
We celebrated our decade with a spectacular lunch. In a courtyard at the base of the town, with a playground within eyesight and ice-cold vermouth being refilled regularly, we toasted the years together. And then brat number two ate our dessert (flan, with almost burnt caramel, with a heavy dollop of cool yoghurt around it. So good, or so I’ve heard).
A million years ago, on a previous trip to southern Spain, I spent a day? a few days? a week? in a beachside town that had something to do with tuna. The modern age of the internet, and a memory that is determined to connect some dots, located it as Zahara de los Atunes, a seaside fishing village on the way to Cadiz (this is relevant as it was a key part of the puzzle; on the same trip I visited the Cadiz fortress). Since we were so close, we did another day trip – this time through the nearby national park – to visit it.
Jimena is surrounded by the enormous Los Alcornocales National Park. It’s the only remaining natural cork forest in Europe, and a hugely significant ecological area both for historical reasons but also for controlled modern industry. The cork trees are still farmed – the sport the weird look of a tree undercut, as the bark at the base is removed while that on the top remains. The base bark is then left to dry in huge fields in the sun before it is used. The park is also home to many native animals – I saw a Spanish ibex while out running one morning* – and birds. As we drove to the beach, we saw an amazing flock of eagles circling, darting and dancing in a huge vortex. We stopped the car and got out to watch them, having never seen a sight like it. It was mesmerising, magical.
* disclosure: I literally ran the one morning. And I only ran a tiny bit. Those hills! That heat! Ridiculous.
We arrived at the beach I’d stayed at and I found that the town was completely unfamiliar. Admittedly, it was 18 years ago I was there and at the time it was tiny, and it was in the opposite season (winter in southern Spain is heavenly, by the way), and I think I actually stayed at the opposite end of town. I remember a sleepy mostly-closed village, where we had to ask the local restaurant to open in advance if we wanted a meal. Now, in the height of summer, it was an unrecognisable bustling beach haven. Once we hit the beach I remembered the curve of the land – or at least I’m going to tell myself I did.
The beach was lovely. The children were maniacs, running in and out of the waves, playing ball and building sand ditches (not having quite mastered castles). Addie, who gets cold quite quickly (especially after her father dunks her head first into the ocean) ran and interrupted my sunbaking by asking for a cuddle. Happily obliging her, we sat quietly for a while and she murmured into my ear ‘Mama, your arms are as warm as the sun’. I died happy, folks.
Our final excursion was to the southern most tip of mainland Europe: Tarifa. Or at least, it would have been had we been able find a bloody car park there. A dreadlocked mayhem that sort of reminded me of south east Asia, the town was crazy busy and we found it almost impossible to get to the tip of the country. So, four cranky people cut their losses and went to nearby Bolonia, where we pulled up near some Roman ruins (those dudes were everywhere, man) and had our last dip in the Med for a while. Unfortunately the wind was whip strong, and despite using child labour to weight all our possessions it wasn’t the most pleasant of days and we called it not long afterwards.
The rest of the week was spent pottering (me), reading (me), dipping in the pool (me), playing in cubby houses (not me…OK, sometimes me), lazily walking to lunch (me), getting up super early to take lovely snaps of the village at sunrise (are you kidding I am not insane. That was totally Tim, as evidenced below).
We all had our favourite pastimes, but the person who had the most cherished ritual of all was our Ted. Every morning around 8.30 the garbage men would drive up our street, noisily clanging and clattering. Our little man, waiting after his breakfast, would jump up, gasp, and run to the window where he would wave at them as long as they were in sight. After the first few days, they started waving at the top of the street and similarly didn’t stop until they turned the corner. This morning, he even earned himself a few toots of the horn. A happier holidayer there has never been.