An Andalusian Adventure.
Into the Blue.
Bristol Airport, not on most people’s bucket list of ‘must see’ attractions.
From some angles its steel and glass and concrete resembles an aircraft carrier but without the charm or threat. What it lacked in aesthetics, it compensated for in function. Having had the fortune to be flying out on a Sunday, when flights are few, we were spared the horrors of the crush of the sweat stained, and beer soaked, cheap perfumed traveling public. We breezed through security with nary a nod to the terrorist threat.
Although, I did see someone with a fulsome beard carrying a rucksack. Turned out to be the headmistress of a local public school leading her petite charges on a school trip to Morocco to count hemp plants and other assorted ideologies.
Bristol has a ‘fast track option’ for security clearance, for a fee. So, if you want to minimise time spent waiting behind a fat farting peasant as he takes his sweat infested boots off for inspection, and you can’t stand the incessant chatter of two high maintenance baby dolls with faces constructed of enough plastic to build a Lego city, then pay your money…and fast track. How this works if everyone pays a fee and increases the size of the fast track queue will be managed by fee increases until you get to the point when the fast track clearance costs more than your ticket. We however, on a Sunday morning, did not bother with this latest scam, and sail through the ordinary queue with not even a greased gloved finger waiting to search for hidden contraband about one’s person.
Ryanair offers priority boarding for another fee, this includes paying for putting your luggage in the hold. However, if you only have 1 bag and carry it to the gate, the staff will put it in the hold for free. So, again read the small print very carefully otherwise you will pay for something you don’t need. The boss of this world class air freight service, Micheal O’Leary, owns race horses. One of which won the Grand National, ‘Tiger Roll’. As a consequence, we were all treated to fizz on the plane, along with extra servings of fairy dust, magic spells and wishful thinking. I’m not sure what priority boarding gives you, except a light wallet. No one took off before us. In fact we all went together as a happy throng of innocents being led to an uncertain future in a pain wracked, war torn, plague ridden world. The onboard snacks were no better, offering as they do, the gastrointestinal equivalent of colonic irrigation.
With heavy threats of a rain front racing up the M5 from Cornwall, and the skies rapidly greying at the temples, we were launched upwards and outwards into the blue. Two young Spanish lads sitting in front of me started on the booze as soon as the seat belt light extinguished. They were cheerful about it and refrained from flatulence and vomiting, which, in a confined space with recirculating air, was a bonus. I then spent two happy hours with a couple from Truro discussing everything from the superiority of Philp’s pasties over Warren’s, the price of pasty meat and the husband’s military service as an engineer in the tank regiments. I was treated to the paucity of an modern English education, the Swindon fortnight holiday for railwaymen and the joys of old fashioned engineering. Ann, having been allocated a seat two rows behind was able to get into reading her book.
Upon landing, the sun threw itself at us, and as I disembarked down the rear steps, I glanced up to see the mountains of Andalusia sticking their jagged peaks up into blue heaven.
We’ve been here before, so it is no surprise is it?
Except, yes it is, it is still so wonderfully sense grabbing that one’s chuff is verily plumped up with more chuffedness and gabberflasting.
Malaga airport is at once a transport hub, a cathedral and a gateway. It is stepping through the wardrobe, or the looking glass, into skin warming and soul cleansing air. But, down in the bowels of the baggage reclaim area, one is entombed in artificially lit concrete and steel with only other dazed and confused passengers waiting, hopefully, for their belongings. The reclaim hall throws adverts at you with promises of a richer better life awaiting you if you purchase this or go there, meanwhile your actual life revolves around the carousel belt in pregnant expectation that indeed you will survive this flight intact. Then with bags safely returned to you, and flashing an “I’m not a bomber” smile, and your passport, at the the border you emerge out of the terminal building blinking into bright blue sunlight, palm trees and the smell of Jasmin. The short walk in the sun blessed open air to the train station is the briefest introduction to Andalusian charm. The runway
disappears seemingly towards the distant mountains. One can hear the gin and tonic being poured over tinkling ice, the vino tinto being uncorked with a corky plop, and the patatas bravas sizzling alongside the piri piri gambas.
To get to Mijas involves either an expensive taxi or the very cheap train. There is probably a bus but why would you? The railway station is at the terminal itself, and trains run frequently to Fuengirola. For the price of half a pint of decent English Ale, and in thirty minutes along the coast, one arrives in ‘funky town’. All of human life is here on the train. Very young Spanish mums with prams, prune skinned and turtle necked ex pat Brits, leather jacketed cool guys hoping to get a girl with merely a glance, and bright white new arrivals from the frozen and wet north.
We’ve not eaten since breakfast, so 8 hours later we are bit peckish, but not ‘hangry’. It is too beautiful here to bring any angst or existential grief. Mijas has a way of washing out the dirt and grime of an English winter, and there are swallows and swifts here to remind us of what we can expect back home very soon as the spring banishes the ice, rain and despair from our solid English hearts of sodden oak.
The flat is the first floor of the whole house, above us a spiral stair leads to a roof terrace with a 360 degree uncluttered panorama view of the town and surrounding mountains. The sea lies 5 kms and 800 metres below us. The sky has the odd little fluffy clouds. As it is gone 1700 hours, the sun is slipping over the yard arm (somewhere in the world), a short walk into town and a cold beer awaits.
If I die here right now, I would not complain.
Across to Dragon Mountain
At about 8:30, the sun just about pokes its nose above the shoulder of Dragon Mountain.
Our apartment faces the rising sun and from the bed we can look out through the big double doors which act as windows across to Dragon Mountain. Between us is the limestone valley peppered with white villas, many complete with shining blue pools. The trees are still very green, giving a lush feel to an otherwise harsh hot climate which is to come. We can step out onto a balcony now bathed in orange sunlight and listen to swifts, the odd barking dog and the faint rustle of a light breeze in the adjacent poplar and cedar trees.
All is calm.
The sea sits a still blue under a pale blue sky to the south. Fuengirola is way below us, its bustling streets a mystery to us up here. There are bakers, butchers, street cleaners…sailors, donkeys and whores all finishing their work, or starting it, down there but we are oblivious to the organised chaos and the noise of chatter in cafe bars and taxis. A thousand ‘buenas dias’ and ‘Que Tals?’ have already been spoken, accompanied by a thousand cafe solos, a thousand lit cigarettes, as many again curses, blessings and mumbled instructions. Shellfish, Cod, Tuna and monkfish tails rest upon banks of ice in the mercado. Steak, pork shoulder and pigs ears are opposite. The full range of cured meats from Iberico ham to chorizo are being laid out for sale. Red, Green and Yellow peppers, blood red tomatoes, sweet strawberries and kale. Mushrooms, onions and cucumbers await their fate as thousand chefs contemplate their salad selections. Another day, another thousand decisions mostly about what to eat, when to eat it and where is the place place to eat it?
There will be some business done. A car will be sold, a new kitchen planned, a new financial scam invented. Lawyers will make money out of other people’s misery, stupidity, laziness and fraud. Doctors will examine bits of people their owners did not know exist, and tell them in somber tones that given the circumstances, death ‘ain’t as bad as it is made out”. Priests will talk to people about their real and often corporeal worries while invoking an imaginary solution, which sometimes actually work. Accountants will stack a pile of beans and inform owners that their business, while actually doing a roaring trade, is actually bankrupt. The bars will bustle with all manner of talk about politics, society and sex. None of which will be underpinned by any expertise in any of the fields under discussion as the inverse law of ‘talking bollocks’ applies. This law states that when any subject is discussed in more than two sentences and with increasing
confidence this will be in inverse proportion to any knowledge about it. This particularly applies to male talk, when sat at a bar stool after the second beer.
Last night we walked into the town and enjoyed a very pleasant hour or so sitting outside in the sun. A pint of San Miguel for the gentleman and a Sangria for the lady. The square in Mijas has had a makeover and is now a wide open space with palm trees swaying in the light breeze. On three sides shops, cafes and bars sprawl their wares, tables and chairs. The fourth side is open to a view of Dragon Mountain. It is a lovely place to watch people taking pictures of themselves using selfie sticks brought to here by many coach loads of tourists up from the coast just for the day. They are mostly Asian. There must be a guide to tourism issued to all Asians as they have the same dress code, the same selfie sticks, and the same ant like gait as they rush from one picture opportunity to another. When I say ‘picture opportunity’, this is not the Taj Mahal or the hanging Gardens of Babylon. Any old municipal fountain, tree, cafe table or donkey is fair game. They will have hundreds of pictures of mostly themselves in front of Spanish trivia. I suppose to them it is all exotic and memorable. However I fail to see the attraction of a shop front, a cup of coffee on a cafe table or a dog taking a dump in the square.
Today, will be more of them same. Ann has been investigating the best eateries in town. There are plenty. There is a running battle with the odd mozzie going on, but so far they have scored the odd hit but nothing to call an ambulance about. They thankfully target bits of the body we have heard of and so there is no need to visit a doctor.
The Magic of the Mercado
Tesco, Sainsbury’s or Asda.
All of them do a fine job of selling tins of beans. If you want to pay more, then you have Waitrose. If you don’t like pennies slipping through your fingers quite so fast, you can go to Lidl or Aldi.
But if you want colour, taste and a little exotica then the mercado in Mijas is for you. It has no car park, situated as it is right in the middle of the town surrounded and hemmed in on all four sides by houses and shops. You need to know where it is otherwise you I’ll never find it. Its front entrance is on a street just about wide enough for a car to pass through. Just. One has to pass a tabac on the way. A tiny one room shop that sells, wait for it, tobacco, cigarettes and cigars. That’s it. Nothing else apart from the accoutrements and paraphernalia for smoking. One leaves one’s heart and lungs outside to enter into the gloom where the merchant of death will sell you merchandise at a fraction of the price in the UK. Seems like death comes cheaply in Andalucia.
The mercado has a portico type entrance, a bit like stepping up into the Roman forum. Like all buildings in Mijas its exterior is white, but once inside it is a proper covered market. Walk around clockwise or anticlockwise and you will find butchers, bakers, fishmongers and a shop a name for which I’ve no idea.
We are having fish for lunch.
A bright eyed bream beckons us. We buy prawns and sardines. Señor says the sardines are ‘obligado’ (free) as they are the last 4 of the morning. He guts and cleans the fish for us, all for about 7 euros.
The bream requires stuffing with garlic, onion and lemon. Wrap it in foil with seasoning and dabs of butter and bake for 20-25 minutes. Prawns are gutted and peeled and dipped lightly in flour before being pan fried while the sardines are done likewise. All is served with a fresh salad and a bottle of Cava. The sun warms the balcony and our bones as we sit outside…yes outside, to lunch. The smell of olive oil and garlic tickle the nose, the fizz tickles the senses, the bream does
not disappoint. As the fish was being prepared and the before the Cava popped open, a bottle of Malaga’s finest red had to be tried. Not the whole bottle, mind you. We bought a 2013 Vega del Geva, Syrah Cabernet. at a local bar the other night. Those who know French wine well would have been fooled by its aroma. Suffice to say it was bleddy ‘ansum me bewdy.
There is no place for stress here. The sun, the sky, the food and the mountains all conspire to draw any last vestiges of worry or concern from your bones. Any lasting niggles in the blood get filtered out. Nerves are rolled flat and untangled, muscles are warmed up and released from tension. I can’t be arsed to be arsed anymore. The heart pumps slower, the lungs breath easier and chalfonts withdraw to a place far far away. This is a country for old men, and women. Blood diluted by Spanish wine flows more freely, garlic and herbs create a bed of comfort in the stomach and even farts smell sweeter. Thoughts are slower and revolve around wondering how to cook the next fish as the most taxing predicament. Heart valves pop to the rhythm of the corks from bottles of Cava while one’s footsteps are no quicker than those of the oat fed and aged donkeys in the town square. The smell of honey roasted almonds and Jasmin compete for the glory of one’s nose, only to be ousted by wafts of freshly ground coffee from myriad street cafes.
A bucket of drugs each day has been prescribed to keep this old carcass from an early appointment with eternity. But with each breath of Andalusian air and the strokes of the sun’s warmth, I’m convinced that the medications are only being enhanced. There is magic here. Pity they can’t sell it or prescribe it on the NHS.
The curious incident of the dog in the nighttime.
If memory is correct, Sherlock Holmes solved a mystery by noting that a dog did not bark when it otherwise would have.
This thought strikes me as I enjoy a coffee on the sun kissed balcony overlooking the countryside below.
No mystery here though. Down in the valley among the scatter of houses and villas are dogs. Someone has a pack of them. How do I know? Because at about 4 in the morning they decide to sing in chorus, yapping, barking and howling at shadows, the breeze or out of sheer boredom. How their owners can sleep I’ve no idea. We have double glazed doors leading out onto the balcony but even that only just about keeps out their noise. Instead of ear bleeding and anxiety raising levels of noise, we get a muffled cacophony that just about registers. Then, they shut up just as quickly as they started. Perhaps someone fed them a leprous cat to shut them up. As they bark, the sound bounces off the surrounding mountains and reverberate around the valley. The trees absorb some of the noise, the limestone cliffs amplify and redirect it. One dog sets off another in a call and response to innervate the devil into mischief.
As the morning sun rises, the noise dies down. I would not say silence fills the valley but somehow the dogs are less tiresome. Instead we are treated to the sounds of swifts, swallows and sparrows all of which are a sheer joy. Kestrels patrol the sky above looking for breakfast, supper and dinner. I saw one make off with chihuahua in its beak. There is a tree next door which is home to a bird. I have no idea what it is because it never reveals itself and I don’t recognise its call. It sounds something like a magpie, or a crow, or a jay but not quite. Or perhaps a half strangled parrot, with a mouse stuck in its gizzard?
I muse on this as I stand on the balcony, in just shorts, feeling the warmth of the sun on my shoulders, warming the blood. Over the winter, the Cornish drizzle has been absorbed into my bloodstream and now, the Andalucian sun is drying me out from the inside. Fresh coffee in hand I
can gaze across the mountains, the Mediterranean Sea and over to Africa which appears as a brown smudge on the horizon.
Down in the valley, I can see a dog jumping up into the air, and playing, and sticking its tongue out in eager anticipation, its ears flailing as it leaps. Perhaps it should got so close to the electrified fence.
When the Mozzies Bite
When the mozzies bite, you know you are possibly in for a treat.
So far, I’ve got away with just a few nibbles, nothing to be concerned about. No purulent festering sores have erupted, no scabrous wounds, no mind twisting itches. I’ve only heard the odd little buzzing in the night to indicate their presence. Perhaps because we are in Spain, this lot are a little less vicious than their Scottish midge cousins. Its the weather here making them a little less restive. I saw one the sipping on sangria, muttering ‘meh’ rather than going in for the kill on the nearest white skinned tourist. As far as the fauna go, they are the probably the most dangerous little creatures around. Everything else seems to be benign. The flora however are a bunch of spikey bastards. There are flowers of course to lull one into a false sense of security, but make no mistake there is a thousand different types of cactus waiting to prick your sorry arse should you sit in the wrong place. Mozzies seek you out. Cacti just wait for you to come to them. The antidote is a chilled glass of ‘tinto verrano’.
The post breakfast stroll found ourselves buying hats in the busy town square. The lady who sold Ann her hat was French, and thus I could not pass up the opportunity to speak to her in her native tongue. Madame had heard us speaking English and was visibly shocked to be addressed in just about half decent French. I don’t know much of the language but just enough to make them think. I’ve noticed several times how faces light up when an English person speaks their language. Tourists here are from the United States, Germany, the Nordic countries, Japan, China and and the UK of course. It is obvious that just about none of them try to speak Spanish at all. The locals all speak great English which of course enables them to deal with the babel of foreign tongues.
The Americans are stereotypically loud. They always have been, going back to Roman times in the third century BC. I don’t know why, but one always knows when they are in the vicinity. Perhaps it is because they think they come from the greatest country in the world and have adopted a master race mentality. Perhaps they think they are doing the rest of the world a favour and feel no need to learn a foreign tongue. They do not hesitate for a second before bellowing something inane in loud English. It is frankly embarrassing. Why I should feel that on their behalf is of course a stereotypical British response. My Spanish is not great but the difference it makes to the demeanour of the people one deals with is very noticeable. For example, outside most restaurants there is a member of staff waiting to greet passers by and to invite them in. Most tourists nod something in English to them and walk on. I tried a bit of spanish in response to an invitation to enter the restaurant; “Gracias, pero acabo de comer” which means “thanks, but I have just eaten”. Her face lit up that someone has attempted her native tongue. Little things I know, but it makes a small difference. I always note just how little people try to speak. It is hard, and it takes confidence, and it leads to replies in rapid response as they then assume one knows far more than is actually known. However, I do it to prevent being mistaken for an American, who as a collective nation are more of an irritant than the mozzies.
Hombre del Pollos.
There are aficionados of great food. There are great chefs with Michelin stars. There are ‘food heroes’ lauded by Rick Stein. Then there is the chicken man of Mijas. In truth, there is the chicken man (front of house) and his wife who pops out from the back of the shop from time to time.
The road into town begins at a small roundabout just three minutes from our front door. One passes the hardware shop, then two or three restaurant bars, one called ‘La Fuenta’ (the fountain). Their tables spill out onto the pavement, and always seem well attended. One of them usually has a charcoal barbecue on the go with one or two steaks sizzling in the afternoon heat.
Already. one’s senses are beguiled with promises of good wholesome basic food, the pinnacle of which is for my money, the ‘chicken man’ selling ‘Pollos Astados’ (‘para llevar’, to take away).
The shop front is tiny, unassuming and easily passed except for the fulsome aromas flowing out onto the street. There are no fancy flashing lights, no expensive signage, just a plain light brown awning stating ‘Pollos Astados’ (Roast Chicken). The window has a small price list. Actually one price. It says “Pollo Astado 8 euros”. Stepping inside into the dark dimly lit postage stamp size shop front, one is greeted by a bank of rotisserie chickens turning and browning slowly to one’s left. At the bottom of the rotisserie is the gravy trough. I admit, it does not look enticing but do not be put off. When señor asks if you want gravy, the only answer is yes. All else is trivia, as you would show yourself to be the dilettante amateur. The counter is attended by Señor and Senora del Pollos. They also offer chips. Small yellow signs with curling edges on the wall inside offer
beef stew and lasagne. These are merely sideshows, as offers for the non serious. Why go into a shop for roast chicken and ask for beef stew? Really…if you do not buy the chicken here, you might as well go to MacDonalds.
The chicken is taken off the skewer, while Señor then prepares it for the tin foil container. He snips at the wings and the legs so that it lies flatter. He then pours a ladle of gravy over it. At this point there are dogs salivating in Seville at the prospect and as the aromas hit one’s heightened and excited nose. A portion of chips, lightly skinny fried and large enough to feed Ghengis Kahn’s marauding hordes or Napoleon’s Grand Armee on its march to Moscow, is then placed into a tin foil container the size of a small bucket. Thus victualled, one can march home to gorge.
The meat melts in softness as it falls gracefully and without resistance from the bones. The bird is stuffed, properly stuffed, with lemon, garlic, bay leaf and thyme. The spit roasting has enfused every tiny fibre of its being with flavour. I’m dribbling with excitement as pull meat from bone onto a plate. The smell is like no other, perhaps only challenged in ardour by the smell of the heavily perfumed cleavage of a pretty french Madame in Montmartre after an evening with music, decent wine and several cognacs (I would think). Smells such as this exist in Valhalla or some other heavenly place where hedonism and Epicureanism is not only allowed but positively encouraged. Food like this inspires the telling of tales about Gods and Conquests, of battles won, virginities lost and decent wine quaffed.
The chicken man and woman of Mijas deserve medals. I told them that their chicken is famous in England and that I’ll be writing a tripadvisor review. They beamed with delight, as well they should.
Now, perhaps a vino tinto to wash it down?
A Mijas Surprise.
Croissants are peculiarly French, paella is of course Spanish. Each country produces a little local dish or foodstuff that identifies itself inseparably with the people who live there. Croissants are folded in an enigmatic shape, the unfathomable unravelling of which resembles French intellectual history. The paella is a rich mixture of Spanish colours and heat. In Russia, the potato indicates the lack of culinary invention befitting a snow bound country. In the United States, it is sugar and fat, the mirror images of its citizens. Tourists will of course be presented with these offerings to enforce upon them the sure knowledge that they are indeed in a foreign land, as if the airport security and the interminable hours spent cooped up with strangers, who have even stranger habits, in an aircraft had not already impressed themselves as ‘travel’.
Mijas is flush with donkeys, sunshine, palm trees and coach loads of people ostensibly come to see how and where the locals live, while all the while taking pictures of themselves (and only of themselves) standing in front of old stone white buildings. The locals are actually of no interest to most tourists except as bearers of sangria and chips. Their language is as alien to the visitors’ ears as is the sound of weeping refugees drowning in the nearby Mediterranean to the ears of a fat plutocrat buying up a street in Marbella in order to satisfy his under sexed and over reconstructed wife on a shopping spree.
The Plaza de la Virgen is the town square, thronged with visitors and desperation. The latter belongs to the shop keepers and cafe owners who have a precious few hours in which to separate filthy lucre from the fat fingers of their owners. Mijas is fisted daily by coach loads up from the coast, disgorging their passengers from cruise ships and hotels down by the sea. Thus there is a short window of opportunity as hordes of emmets scurry around the bullring, the church and donkey shite. They will of course eat something as well. Paella probably.
What they will not expect is a Cornish pasty.
Hidden away in a corner off the square is the ‘Mango tea room’. Run by two blokes from the UK, it offers meals we would recognise as breakfast and cream teas adorned by Rodda’s clotted cream. The Yanks go mad for it. One can also get a pasty hand made from the Redruth trained baker who co owns the place. Resistance is futile.
It was bleddy ‘ansum and I tell him as much. It is crimped proper and stuffed with steak and turnips. Hot and pepp’ry. For a moment we are back in Camborne but without the Tyack’s Hotel, the rain and the sense of impending doom. The baker’s accent is still Redruth all right, even though he has been here over 15 years. What does a pasty say about the Cornish? That wherever you are, and in whatever state you find yourself…nothing beats a bit of hot home comfort in a pastry case.
It is still dark outside. Even the alarm has not gone off.
Yet the taxi awaits at 6:15 down by the petrol station. We have to get to the airport in Malaga and leave this all behind.
It is always with a tinge of sadness that we leave such a warm beautiful place. Yet it remains a truth that it is not locality that makes a place worth living in, its the people. Our people are not here, but perhaps with a bit of effort we could find more ‘our people’. If we did, then that would be great. But, we would still be leaving more of ‘our people’ behind.
Moving to another country, especially as one as lovely as this, could only ever be a temporary move and one ideally undertaken when young. The compromise would be to straddle both places. The challenge then is how to organise such a lifestyle.
One week here is not enough to settle questions like this.
Perhaps we should return?
¡Hasta luego, amigos, y levanta una copa para el próximo año!