Spain is so close yet so far away. It is a short plane ride or train ride but the culture is so different. Feelings about color are different, the art is different, the cities are different. Paris is considered the most beautiful city in the world. I don’t think any city in Spain would be on a list of the top ten. Going to Spain feels like a journey of a much greater distance.
I flew to Seville from Charles de Gaulle airport last Saturday in two hours. I am with two friends who have rented a timeshare in Marbella on the Costa del Sol. A quick exit through the airport and finding the rental car, off we went south-east to find the ocean. For the first hour, the landscape was not inviting. Arid land populated with what we think are olive trees and not much else. About two thirds of the way to our destination, the landscape became hilly with deep arroyos. This was much more interesting. There was nothing on this land. Nada. No people, no other roads, no structures. We made a mistake with our directions and had to go back the way we came for 30 minutes. There were no off-ramps, nowhere to go in this landscape of hills and ravines except forward. We finally were able to turn around and head back towards the ocean.
We are staying in Mijas, close to Marbella. The A7, a four lane highway, runs along the coast from Malaga to Algeciras. It is busy at all times of the day. There is no demarcation between towns (or cities–it’s confusing as to what they are) and reminds me of Route 1 on the East Coast where one city runs into another.
I can think of many words to describe the villages of France: quaint, piccaresque, charming, etc. None of these words apply to this part of Spain that you can see from the A7. No thought has been given to town-planning. Monstrous timeshares litter the sides of the large hills looking like cruise ships plastered against the golden brown background. Billboards of all sizes line the A7 giving a sense of a very large population. One has to know where to find the good walking beaches as many have stones galore and hurt your feet as you test the temperature of the water.
However, following streets upwards into the hills, one can see what attracted people to this part of the world before it became so popular. The houses are white, large, gated, with flowers everywhere. The hibiscus is the most popular this time of year. Views of the ocean pop up at many turns and there is no sign of the A7 or the hundreds of billboards,
On Sunday, we drove to the town of Estepona south of Mijas. My apple map on my iPhone took us to the port where we found a parking place. Our intention was to find the old town and wander the small streets where no present day car could possibly go. We stumbled on the closing of the Sunday outdoor market and my friend bought a skirt. We then asked directions to the old town. We strolled along a promenade that clearly had been thought out, had flowers planted along the side closest to the road and an overhang that balanced out the railing on the beach side. The beach, not crowded, was wide as a football field and people were lying under umbrellas. There were par courses along the way. Children were taking advantage of them, climbing on walls, swinging on foot machines. We never did make it to the Old Town so we have yet to see the tiny streets of old Spain.
South of Spain, a short ferry ride of 40 minutes from the town of Tarifa, lies Tangiers, a city that seems mystical. A city beloved by Kerouac and Matisse and many artists of the 20s through the 50s who spent time there. We couldn’t miss a trip to Tangiers! So we left the timeshare at 6am in order to catch the 9am ferry. After standing in a line to get tickets, a line for passport control, a line to go through security, we lined up to get on the ferry where we stood in another line to have our passports stamped by the Moroccon police. Only after every passenger had done that, did the ferry start to move and make the trip out of Europe towards Africa.
Every guide book will warn you of every thing that can go wrong in Morocco. I remember visiting the old city of Jerusalem my first year out of university. The Arab world is a culture shock. I wasn’t wise enough to be scared but I felt lost. I couldn’t speak the language, women were not encouraged to be traveling on their own, and small children begged constantly. Yet, I was mesmerized. Everything was colorful, I’d never seen goods hanging on doors, from the ceilings, baskets and baskets of spices or eggs or jewelry. I imagined Tangiers, the old city, would be much the same. Leaving the taxi that took us to a gate to enter the old city, we immediately came to a market. We wandered around not sure what we were doing, grown men begging to be our guide stopping us every ten minutes. We finally found our way into the Medina, the most interesting part of the old city and found a very old man, Salam, had attached himself to us. He spoke French. The streets were like a maze leading us deeper and deeper into a warren. The open air shops turned into regular shops where we would step inside and see beautiful tile work or men weaving rugs. The dirty streets changed into lovely white streets with houses surrounded by bougainvillia. We were headed to the Kasbah and were climbing. Salam pointed everything out to me, where a famous American lived and died and later the garage where he kept his Rolls Royce. After hundreds of steps, we arrived at a wall with an arch. Walking through the arch, we got a view of the port, new Tangiers and a huge expanse of ocean. It is breathtaking.
The Kasbah is a large living area with a mosque that is now a museum, shops and little alley ways that reminded me of Santorini. We had been on our feet for five hours at that point and we were all feeling it. We were planning on a 4pm ferry ride back to Spain but thought we’d go early in case of an earlier time. There wasn’t. We descended into the lower market areas that reek of poverty. It seems a small thing to give some man or student a couple of euros to guide us around and tell stories. But Americans are warned off.
We made it back to our car by 6:30pm CET (Morocco is an hour behind Spain) and drove the hour and a half back to the timeshare. All three of us made a salad, ate it silently, and went to bed.
One thing I haven’t mentioned is the cats of Tangiers. They are everywhere. They are gentle, clean, friendly, have no fear of people. Almost every store had a cat near it. The parks had cats, the cats took naps in the middle of sidewalks, the cats looked longingly at you if you held out a finger and said “Cou cou.” I asked one of our guides if people had cats as pets. He said yes some families do. Mostly the cats hung out in the Medina.
Cats, it seems, have been revered for centuries in Muslim culture. So much so, that one of Prophet Muhammad’s companions was known as Abu Hurairah (Father of the Kittens) for his attachment to cats. The Prophet himself was a great cat-lover– Muezza was the name of his favourite cat.–The Guardian.
As the days have gone by, the area around the timeshare seems to have gotten prettier! I think I am so spoiled by living in Paris that I’m far too hard on other areas in Europe. Next week, I’ll share about the white hill towns of Andalucia.