Sun-blasted and baked; as if the land had been fired in a kiln. All was cracked in those sultry Wild West lines. The gentle waves and hulking ridges were sandy and dusty and fuzzied with only the sturdiest of grasses. Tiny dribbles of civilisation clung to life on these dry slopes or sat derelict in extinct riverbeds. After the dreaming plains of La Mancha, spied through sleep-encrusted eyes, this vision of heat and drought and desert was what met my gaze as the slow train to the south eased into Almeria.
That first afternoon in Mojacar, shimmering off the coast some 550km from Madrid in a largely under-visited part of the country, was spent doing what friends do best when they have nothing to do in a place with nothing to do: mini golf on a beach studded with cactuses, as an embarrassed peach sunset brought the lights down over gull-busied trawlers. Fishermen on the beach had set up rods in the sand, the lines disappearing into the now silver waters. Some locals were out strolling but most of the life and noise seemed to emanate from the Irish pub. British people: a weird strain that lived there all year round, instead of just making use of the warm winters. They didn’t speak Spanish and somewhat inspired pity or disgust despite their life of round the clock sunshine.
Caves and Mountains
To drive in Spain is to unlock the country. Yes, there is an outlandishly cheap and widespread network of buses and trains but, to reach it all, it always pays to take to the road yourself. The mountains of the Sierra de María-Los Vélez was the target of the day: a compact and, somewhat rare for this region, green slab of low, yet pleasingly grand-looking, mountains stubbing out randomly in the north of the province.
A brief stop off was required on route to the mountain enclaves from which the sierra takes its name: Cuevas del Almanzora. I had heard of a shambolic little place with a flat-topped castle where people lived in caves. Not dissimilar to the methods at Guadix, but perhaps less overt. It was a large town for the area, yet unattractive and not old. The parade of 1960s apartments and generic shops didn’t aid the finding of the cave-dwellings. Then, almost flashing past, a pink sign indicating ‘Cuevas’. Finding a supply road for tractors and farmers, we shot out of Almanzora and headed round its eastern flank. And there they were.
The poor-looking older town could be seen to the left of us now - a jumbled, almost Berber, mess of square homes, from which the three-spired church and rectangular castle rose. Palm trees led the eye to the fields where farmers were strolling and inspecting. The genius irrigation of these people to give life to poor soils had resulted in a carpet of brilliant green lines; though what the crop was I couldn’t tell. We thought lettuces or cabbages. Though when it comes to guessing the crops of remote Almerian villages, I find my accuracy is lacking.
And there now, rising up on the right, an odd, troglodyte estate. A dry, sandstone cliff, pockmarked and peppered with holes. Mostly vacant now, they looked like giant spaces for giant doves. At the base were homes that had been built out from the rock wall. A life which smacks of poverty and weirdness, but is actually logical and, for the most part, comfortable. Warm and snug in the cold winters and cool and moderate in the fierce heat of the Andalusian summers. Indeed, some of them have been beautifully decorated inside, though none were open to viewing and, fearing public embarrassment, the decision was made to push on to the mountains.
Velez Rubio was at the base of the peaks and was, in all tender honesty, not a place that looked worthy of a stop, though its church was fine enough. Instead, the small hire car - with its wing mirror held on with black tape and its struggling motor - was wrestled uphill to Velez Blanco. A jewel in the Almerian crown; a little Alpujurran white town that had got separated from the pack and had found itself out here, clinging to a slope as Spanish towns know how to. As was often the case with the lofty villages of Spain, it was the view outwards that drew as much pleasure as the view in: an expanse of small jagged hills led to a cultivated plain that ended abruptly at a fat, dry peak whose top had been whittled flat by the wind.
The town was a pleasant flurry of tiny streets, family-run shops, locals going about their morning walks and pretty churches. It was a little gem that had been shined and cleaned for the sake of this parched province being able to lay claim to somewhere delightful. Velez Blanco was also aided with its position. From all angles it could be seen almost falling off into the valley, seemingly kept in place by the castle. A medieval plug, that if pulled would threaten to see the whole village tumble down the hillside.
After Velez Blanco, we pushed on further and took a walk in the countryside up into the hills themselves. It was unremarkable until the path detoured along a ridge, offering vistas not unlike those that fill the vision in Madrid’s Sierra de Guadarrama range. If nothing else, it was an excuse to breathe in some air that was genuinely clean and fresh. Then back down into the valley where vast fields of almond trees lay dormant and where none but a few still retained their pink-white flowers - skeletons awaiting the return of warmer weather - and to lunch in the sad and cold little village of María. We expected better things from a place named after the Virgin, but with the generosity of the tavern - heaving out plates of fish stew, legumes, roasted meats with foie gras sauces and jugs of wine - we soon forgot our quibbles.
Cowboys and desert life
One man held his hands up at gun point as his friend swung slowly in the nearby gallows. The gate to the sheriff’s office lay in the sand as the lawmen, some on horses, went about their duties in a rough attempt to stop the bandits. It was a warm and dusty scene of stetsons, boots, waistcoats and pistols. The backdrop was a panorama of wooden slat buildings - The Yellow Rose, the undertaker, a saloon, the fire department - that clustered in the looming of some scratchy desert mountains.
A gun was handed to the bandit, Wild West honour, a standoff. He didn’t stand a chance. The lawman put a bullet through him and sent him to hell. Then applause and bowing. Next show at five o’clock. Mini Hollywood - the old set for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly - a Western theme park where visitors could soak up a dose of spaghetti America. Surreal, amazing, and somehow more American than America itself.
The Tabernas desert that surrounds the park is both vast, beautiful and severe. A vast swathe of Nevada lost in the south of Spain; a cheap playground for film directors. An area where Spain gets wild and tough and sheds her party and beach image. A part of the country where the locals are often as unintelligible and rough-looking as they are welcoming and content.
The ‘principal’ town of the area, Tabernas, is a small and poor place of shoddy homes that cluster around some clearly once important and grand streets. It huddles close and hot between a stunted castle-topped mound and an ever-climbing cascade of barren and beautiful mountains that receive unparalleled textures from the changing position of the sun sliding shadows off them. A disappointing lunch led us to not dwell in this odd little hub of civilisation, and we soon pushed on through the desert back to the sea.
There was still sun enough to pass the village of Sorbas clinging precariously and stupidly to a small cliff face, as if daring itself to jump. Finally the following morning, still sunny and unfairly warm for the middle of winter, saw us dip our toes into the Cabo de Gata national park. We sucked in the sea air at the Playa de los Muertos (the beach of the dead) and then stormed north to return to Madrid from Lorca: a not unattractive large town with a castle, some fine churches, cheap food, and a bullring that looked like it had been modelled off Shakespeare’s Globe.
Almeria deserves more visitors, more attention. If the Devil is in the details, then this far flung, sun-coated province is hell itself; with the temperatures to prove it. A land of shimmering coastline, the odd cute village, cowboys and horses, and multiple ridges and ranges with their own unique personalities. As far as off the beaten path goes, Almeria sometimes doesn’t even have one.