Old Hellos

Summer in Spain is often a time for lying on beaches inactive and crisping or a time for piling into the family's village flat near the coast and existing as a unit. With the distinct lack of a family here my Spanish summer holidays became more of a collection of rendezvous with old friends, some not seen for years.

First La Mancha, with Alfonso and Alfredo, two years absent from my life. Characters from my book. To visit his family again in the tiny wine-producing town Villanueva del Alcardete with its overblown church and quiet dusty streets. 38 degrees and as dry as the desert. Lunch, eleven of us, manchegan style. Moje manchego (a cold refreshing bowl of tomatoes, tuna, oil, and occasionally olives and eggs) followed by the mother's signature dish, chicken cooked in ham and juice. And wine. Dusty bottles from the family caves, from the house, from the family bodega that used to produce. The father happy with his 37-yr old bottles, the children wincing at the vinegar. And we leave through Belmonte, past shining fields of sunflowers and copper-red lands, a town with a huge castle that overlooks the flats. Some windmills too, for it is La Mancha.

James visits for a second time. The heat, 42 degrees. We flee to Manzanares el Real, a village up in the mountains of Madrid. There we eat tortilla and sandwiches and bathe in the cool, cold, freezing actually, waters of the Manzanares river. Other people, sexy young things, families, kids, also find a space, find a depth and kill time by doing nothing.

Then the wet air of Valencia, its old streets, river-bed park and colourful buildings dripping in the humidity, swimming pool air. The beach, glazed with a veil of throbbing heat, shimmering, mountains and industry off to the north, offers a sandy Mediterranean respite. Covered in bodies. Stationary, moving? Irrelevant. The body just leaks. Hideous. All the prettiness sullied by stickiness. And Imogen and Isobel. Blasts from the past. Imogen, another character from my book, whose happiness and effervescence is now, pleasingly, tinged with a little cynicism and bitchiness. And the Benimaclet district, an old village swallowed up. Little flats and little houses and little churches all bursting with pastel colours. But the heat, intolerable, sends us to terraces. It breeds inactivity.

Then the New Forest with friends of home, with purpled heather and wild ponies covering the flats and bumps. First sun, then cloud, then sun again and burnt noses. Beers and ciders fill us as we cycle. Stretches of green pastures and heathland sail away to a fringe of woods and cows. And a BBQ in the fog at night followed by a morning of blistering heat that makes us sit at a stream and lazily throw a Frisbee. Time walks on slowly.

Then Devon, glorious Devon, for a pilgrimage to the ancestral homeland of the Darracotts. To the south and the broad ruddy beaches of Torquay and Paington, all sunning themselves. Then to Brixham and Dartmouth, those picture-perfect harbour towns, pregnant with crab pots and crab sandwiches, smelling of fish and with old-coloured houses lining the bay. Past the secret huge beaches at Slapton to Plymouth, grand old Plymouth with its bizarre mix of Old Sea Shanty town, maritime grandeur, posh marina and ugly modern city. Through the heart of the county, past Dartmoor and field-buried Launceston, to little farms and villages of Darracott, touching Cornwall, and then on more to the wild north with the blustery cragginess of Hartland Point. Barnstaple, normal but nice; Clovelly, the prettiest thing, cascading steep down a hillside, donkeys to help, ruled by cats and looking onto what could be the Caribbean Sea, the beach is all rocks, seagulls and washed up dogfish. And finally over the high plateaus, with their views over golden wheat to the distant waters, to Ilfracombe, English seaside jewel nestled in between torn up but oh so green headlands.

And finally Buitrago de Lozoya, far in the north of Madrid, near Castilla y Leon. A medieval walled-town, sitting in a flat, surrounded by hills and with a river curling round it. A walk through the pine forests, skirting the water. The air is warm and thick with the cloying but attractive smell of cones and fat with gnats and butterflies. The wrong turn earlier taken means a diversion away from the water north, to the hamlet of Gandullas, which nobody knows, and back along the road for kilometres and kilometres in the sun. Stupid but interesting.

And back to work and humdrumity.