Just returned from a bike trip. Ferry from Portsmouth. Pints of Guinness in the bar with a bloke from Lancashire. Next morning, a TomTom guided escape from the spagettic roads around Bilbao and was overtaken by said Northerner on a trike. Caught up with him and a couple of Welsh bikers at a petrol station. All glad of the sunshine but getting chilly and so we drank hot coffee and donned extra layers.
Salamanca cold and wet but by the time I reached a small hotel near the Portuguese border the weather had warmed up. I stood looking at a field of sheep and savouring the peace and quiet. Silence but for the dull sound of bells hung around their necks. In towns and cities we’re used to a monophonic directionless drone. Out here, the sound comes from all around. From left and right, up and down and near and far. Full three dimensional sound is not something we’re used to and I felt like I was hearing properly for the first time in years.
Then south and west and vast mountains rose up ahead. Ominous, snowy and with drifting freezing fog! Had the GPS gone bezerk? Was it really directing me to cross this Tolkienien barrier? Somehow it found a way but the roads deteriorated as I entered Portugal.
In search of the megalithic stones of Almendres Cromlech near Evora, the TomTom led me to a lonely house with an aged gentlemen sitting outside. He spoke no English but, once he understood that I was looking for the Cromlech, he became verbose and explained, in detail, the directions to the stone circle. I could only smile and nod and try to get away but each time I tried he came up with yet more information. He seemed to be saying something about Saint Sebastian and, since this was nearby, I headed there. Google maps had more luck and I parked up and walked the remaining 100 yards to the Cromlech.
On the side of a hill facing sunrise, smaller than Stonehenge or Avebury but impressive. Wikipedia claims: “There are only two latitudes in which the Moon’s maximum declination is the same as the latitude, meaning that at its maximum elongation it goes through the zenith (directly overhead). These two latitudes are 38˚ 331 N (Almendres), and 51° 10′ N (Stonehenge).” – Blimey!
I spent the night at an “earth house” surrounded by olive trees and patrolled by dogs. The dream of a local couple, he an actor, she a translator. The Portuguese economy was so grim that his funding had dried up and they were considering selling up and moving to the city. Portugal is suffering.
The metal gate to my next Airbnb at Castilléjar was closed and behind it stood a stout English woman with a plate of food in one hand. She told me, in between mouthfuls, that she’d stopped doing Airbnb months ago but people kept coming. She said I should go up the road for a coffee and wait for an hour while she phoned a friend. Bloody irresponsible English twat. I left her to her feed.
Hurriedly rebooking an alternative, my TomTom instructed me to take a very dodgy looking road. I trusted it. When the road deteriorated I trusted it still. After about 3 miles riding slowly up and down steep inclines and over sharp rocks in the blazing sun I began shouting obscenities at every jolt……which surprised a local man.
Arriving at Guaro, about 15 miles north of Marbella, I found an English woman, pottering around in a beautiful garden with lemon trees, wild flowers and three, previously homeless, dogs. In the evening, I visited a local bar to listen to a drunken Englishman discuss Hitler and German power stations.
Next morning, a quick look around Marbella (Swish restaurants and smartly dressed people in sunglasses) and then along the coast road. Past Fuengirola and Torremolinos and then stopped on the outskirts of Malaga for lunch. Until now my trip had been mostly through rural Spain. Small towns, sparsely populated and inactive. Now I’d come to busy roads, thousands of apartment blocks and millions of people. Activity in Spain, as everywhere, is focused in the cities.
Late in the afternoon I arrived at an old building which had been beautifully restored and I accompanied the owner, and her Dalmatian, on her evening walk up into the hills around the house. She knew the name of every plant and flower that grew in this dry wilderness. We sat on a rock wall for a rest and looked out over the plain and the hills in the distance. She told me that for thousands of years, this area had been a transit route for people from all over Iberia and this explained why the people here were so open and embraced strangers.
After dinner I stood on the veranda looking out at the silhouette of the mountains against the moon and the starry sky. That line of the horizon, though arbitrary, must have been etched on the imagination of ancient inhabitants. I told her of my plan to visit the Araña Caves where I had heard there was ancient rock art.
She told me of the El Brujo (The Shamen), an image which had been discovered in a cave on the nearby El Maimón Grande mountain and showed me around her studio where, inspired by the land and its history, she creates amazing jewellery.
Araña Caves viewings are by apointment only so I arrived at Bicorp early next morning and breakfasted in a loud café. My guide met me at the Eco Museum and retrieved her grandfather’s car. We drove for about half an hour along dirt roads, up into the hills until we reached a steep ravine. After a short walk we came upon the caves which had been caged off to protect them. She removed the padlocks and we went inside.
Extraordinary! There I stood just inches away from figures of people and animals drawn around eight thousand years ago by some of the world’s first artists! I’ve visited Lascaux and Altermira which are more impressive but they are reproductions. This was the real thing! The most distinct images were those of animals but the famous beekeeper was still clearly visible.
Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein, Rupert Murdoch. All can be said to have left their mark but will that mark still exist in 8,000 years time?
After Bicorp I headed for Valencia and the the Prehistory Museum. Ancient artifacts in large rooms bereft of people. Room after room with just me and a sleepy museum warden slouched in a chair. This is how London museums were before we started treating everything as a tourist attraction. No doubt government subsidies are required but at least the Valencia Museum fulfills the role of a museum; a space with the peace and quiet to stare and wonder at the provenance of exhibits.
When I think about these trips I remember the images. The starry sky, the rocky roads and the caves. But I also think of the people; the Airbnb hosts. The teacher in Salamanca sitting by her warm stove watching Netflix on an iPad. The actor and the translator whose dreams of living in the countryside may be coming to a close. The woman in Seville fastidiously explaining which key fits which door. The Swiss couple who had raised their kids in Orkney and moved to Andalusia to provide foster care for troubled teenagers. The English woman sitting with her plate of food in the Spanish sun. The Spanish jewellery maker in tune with the land around her both past and present.
Every life a separate story and my life overlapping theirs for just one day. I know very little of their lives just as I know little of the lives of the people who had made the cave paintings or placed the stones. I suspect that they were not so different front us. El Brujo, the beekeeper and the people gathered on the hills at Almendres perhaps enjoying a bar-b-que on a moonlit night.