Hamburg for Goethe

The theme I set this young man was to describe Hamburg as if he had just returned to it. The thread of ideas he followed from the start was the sentimental one of his mother, his friends, their love, patience and help. The Elbe remained a stream of silver, the anchorage and the town counted for nothing, he did not even mention the swarming crowds – one might as easily have been visiting Naumburg or Merseburg. I told him this quite candidly; he could do something really good, if he could give a panorama of a great northern city as well as his feelings for his home and family. - Goethe

'Apparently the people from Hamburg are unfriendly and cold, but those are just lies spread by the Bavarians.' Said Laura matter-of-factly.
We were sat around the table in a lovely wooden family house in the suburban district of Sasel in north Hamburg. Quadrants of big attractive houses with triangular sloped roofs nestled amongst small pockets of extant forest and plots of land where sheds clustered next to tidy lawns. It was winter and the trees were naked. In spring and summer the Hamburgers would escape at the weekend to these sheds, sit out on their lawns, tend to flowers, eat, stay a night or more. Like a small German version of the popular Russian dacha. Now though they sat silent and wet. My cousins filled up my
glass of wine. Red, and slightly sweet.
'So, what do you want to see in Hamburg?'

Hamburg is a big and wealthy port. Jogging around the outer Alster lake, where the mist clung to the water and only permitted milky grey visions of ghosts, I saw the money. Huge lavish houses and embassies set on the waterfront. Dormant bars and restaurants peppered the lapping shores and little barges and boats drifted silently. It was Stygian and I could only imagine its seven-kilometre circumference. Only a handful of plucky runners passed me by. There were no nods of acknowledgment. There were dogs too. The people looked happy and comfortable. The inner Alster, split from the outer by a road, is far smaller. It lies at the feet of the famous skyline. Spires prodded into a sky that was slowly succumbing to a December sunset. The lake became a liquid mirror. A Christmas tree in the centre of it was surrounded by rowers. After the lakes, feet take the visitor into the centre. And it is grand. The Rathaus – town hall – stands gothic and fun. The Hamburgers are proud of the claim that it has six more rooms than Buckingham Palace. Even if it didn't it is far more attractive. Greens and creams and frills in lieu of dull grey blocks. It looked religious. At its base was a Christmas market. Every road had one. Wooden huts, steaming with the heat of cooking. Sausages and mulled wine. Nuts and molten chocolate. The air was a maelstrom of smells and temperatures. It is not the most beautiful city centre – it doesn't hold up against the Madrids or St Petersburgs of the world – but not one corner was unattractive. The whole city was pleasing. Old and new sat side by side like friends. It reminded me of London. Christmas lights twinkled along the streets and candles were suspended in the trees. Legions of overcoats and scarves were huddling around, clutching hot Glühwein and laughing. Here and there a canal would cut up the road and smart flats or old north European style houses would trail off along them with cafés selling Kaffee und Kuchen. Every bridge was confettied with colourful padlocks bearing names; engagement promises. Hamburg is the second largest port on the continent and there is a sense that the city is a slave to water.

Water has been the catalyst that gave the city some of its distinct neighbourhoods. The most infamous is the Reeperbahn, proudly proclaimed as a red light district far larger than Amsterdam's. In the 1930s sailors would come to shore seeking to enjoy land. As well as drink and rest they wanted the flesh of a woman. The Reeperbahn, like many similar districts have, grew out of a need for sex. Today the seediness has somewhat disappeared and a Las Vegian theme park atmosphere has taken hold. Streets are lined with brightly coloured shop fronts: sex shops full of inappropriate toys, blue cinemas, lap dancing bars, peep shows, brothels. In the sky above and on the doorframes neon lights entice the visitor. 'Paradise point of sex! Welcome: open 24 hours' 'kino sex' 'Dollhouse table dance' 'Safari'. It was blinding. The sailors stood no chance. And neither did the girls. One street – Herbertstrasse – is boarded off at both ends. Women and children can't enter. It has been like this since the days of the Nazis who, instead of banning the practice of prostitution, were happy to be nominally blind to it. It is a 30m meat market. Women sit on plush chairs in little booths. Many sit on their phones or talk to their bikini-clad colleagues. The fronts are all large glass windows and doors that swing open so they can talk prices. A few drunken twenty-year olds giggle and flirt with a blonde woman hanging out of the opening. They rap on the glass and call 'hey, halo'. They’re often more beautiful than words. Magazine covers that have fallen into trade. I say hello back.
'Don't talk them!' Hissed my cousin Chris. 'Don't be so English.'
'Why not?'
'You'll only get into trouble.'
I believed him. I made eye contact for only seconds. We returned to the real world again.
'What did you think?' Asked Laura.
You want to look but you know you shouldn't. It is depressing to see them there.

The lumbering waters brought sailors to the streets of Hamburg, but it also brought ships to the harbour. From the top of the St Michel cathedral you can see the extent of the city's industry. About a third of the city is port. In the wintry waning of the day huge container cranes stood like spectral ribs of some wasted giant's skeleton; the controversial new opera house loomed blue and black like the prow of some ship looking out onto the kilometres and kilometres of docklands. The old docks, the Speicherstadt – storage city – lines the waterways with tall terracotta shipyard buildings that are grand and topped with gothic flare. An industrial Venice, Hanseatic style. Now the quiet roads and cobbled streets house boutique furniture shops, flashy apartments and tourist attractions. Above the entrances large cargo hooks still swing. Driving through the new docklands, Germany’s ‘gateway to the world’, one gets a   sense of the post-apocalyptic. There were no cars there. A few whizzed past as if fleeing an invasion, but the weekend was dead. The only life could be found on the city-sized behemoths sitting motionless in the Elbe waiting for their boxes to be taken away.

Comparatively few tourists come to Hamburg in December. Sometimes I felt like I had the city to myself. Most, it has to be said, cling to the guidebook lists or gravitate like satellites to the markets. My cousins took me to Schanze. Laura’s boyfriend Tim flung the car into a parking spot on a sleepy road and we headed for a coffee.
‘In Germany Sunday is still really sacred, that’s why nobody’s about. Hopefully we can find an open café. Usually everything shuts down all day.’
Schanze is the Camden Town of Hamburg. It’s hip and trendy and its once handsome streets are now lined with bars and cafés and foreign restaurants. It is also very expensive to live there. This modernity and style is visually somewhat at odds with the surroundings. At ground level all the walls are coloured with graffiti and fat with posters. Schanze is a left-wing political base where demonstrations and clashes with the police are commonplace. I believe my cousin once punched an officer there. By an old theatre, stickered with advertising and political slogans, a community of homeless people, or political activists, have hidden themselves away from the world. On a gate hangs a sheet with the words ‘Fck the SPD’ – Germany’s Social Democratic Party. It was a period of elections in Germany and you could see the divisions on the walls of the buildings.

'What do you want for dinner? We have the Portuguese quarter, there are lots of Italian places, maybe Thai?'
'German. I want German food. Only German.'
Germany is a place where you put food in your face and grumble like a contented bear. It is to cakes what Britain is to desserts. Sweet Stollens and Marzipanzopf mit Rosinen marbled with floral marzipan and juicy raisins are piled high on shop counters. Bratwurst are cooked on outdoor grills and served in simple rolls 'only with mustard'. Currywurst changes my life; a sausage drenched in a piquant curried ketchup and served with Bratkartoffeln – fried potatoes with bacon and parsley – or simple chopped up and given to cold hands in a cardboard tray. Glühwein fills the markets with clouds of wine and spice and is divvied up with warm bags of Schmalzkuchen, little pillowy dough balls dusted with the finest icing sugar.

Many centuries ago some Norwegian peoples left a legacy in the city of Liverpool. A stew of bashed up meat and vegetables called Lapskaus. This is why Liverpudlians are called scousers. Locals ate a dish called scouse, derived from lobscouse, and the nickname stuck. During the age of the boat, mariners from Britain who travelled to Hamburg might sometimes take their food with them. A legacy of which is one of the German city's signature dishes, Labskaus: where the stew is blended a little and served with fried eggs and rollmops. Little bakeries serve all manner of breads and put England to shame: Pumpernickel (devil’s farts), rye bead, Zwiebelbrot (onion bread), Dinkel-Kürbis Brot (spelt and pumpkin loaves), sometimes sliced and toasted and covered in Gänseschmalz – rendered goose fat filled with peppers and onions that luxuriously sticks to your teeth. In the millionaire district of Blankenese, where Beverly Hills mansions and twee English cottages crowd around a leafy headland like cold penguins, I sat in a café drinking a perfect coffee and eating a Franzbrötchen, a gooey cinnamon croissant where the sugar has gone crunchy.

Then there's the fish. Early on the Sunday morning we shuffled of our hangovers and drove to the Fishmarkt. It was 8:30 and it was fish for breakfast. A heavy sky hovered proudly over the harbour as wind and rain lashed us. Little stalls, some enormous, some as big as an ice-cream van, filled the Landungsbrücken – the old landing stages. A man, ruddy faced and wearing a red apron, called out to passers by to come and try his eels. Apparently he has become a minor celebrity. Others stood and waited patiently. Windows hid shrimp and smoked mackerel, slabs of tuna and fruit bowls. The champion of Hamburg however is the herring. I opted for a Bismarck – pickled in salt and then vinegar – while Christopher ordered Backfisch.
'It's like fish and chips in a roll, but without the chips.'
The kiosks and fish vans were the only light and sources of cover there. The Baltic Sea was churning and unhappy. Seagulls twirled about overhead like drunken ballerinas and sang hopefully to us.

To leave the north of Germany having only seen Hamburg would have left me happy but not satisfied. It is surrounded by history, filling pockets of woods and lining the rivers that filter out into the wet plains. Driving west through a world of dormant apple trees one reaches the town of Stade, which looks like a child's drawing of a German town out alone in the Altes Land. Hansel and Gretel buildings and half-timbered houses ran around a small rise: brown and yellow and red and pink and green and gingerbready. The old town was encircled by a river that entered to a beautiful plaza. There, a mini harbour sat next to the ubiquitous Christmas market stalls. Festive decorations and lights filled the skyline and twinkled fittingly alongside brick churches. It was a fairytale.

Due north of Hamburg lies the UNESCO recognised pocket-sized city of Lübeck. The whole place was a flurry of more Grimm Brothers chocolate box houses and cobbled lanes, but all seemed pulled inexorably skywards by a confusingly large number of very tall green spires atop muscular brick churches. Once again bridges and water cut you off from the rest of the world. If its city centre recalled a Germanic Oxford then the riverside echoed memories of Henley-Upon-Thames.

Before the sun had time to set there was still an opportunity to surge north to the beaches of the Baltic. Travemünde: where East Germany met West over a thin line of water you could shout over. A line of smart houses, spas for the elderly, woods and fine sands lent a Victorian elegance to a resort where one pays to go on the beach. I ate a Brathering – a fried and marinated herring in a bun with lettuce and raw onion – kicked leaves at Chris and Tim, drank a beer in the warm and headed back to the city. We were lucky to catch the last fires of the day’s end burning up the sky above the Arthurian castle of Ahrensburg.

‘So, in England we have Shakespeare. Who’s your main figure here?’
‘You know Goethe?’
Whether Germany’s great writer would be happy at my attempts to paint a portrait of this city I couldn't be sure. I only had seven days. Ultimately it didn't matter. It was an organic, open, imposing, racy, beautiful, scruffy, calm and all together harmonious city. I went in a period of brutal wind and rain and heady Christmas markets and I loved it.

The Darracott Way of St James

As the warmth still struggles to remember its place in Madrid, and the rain Gods continue their campaign to drown the city I find myself planning a walk. This time it isn't some jolly through the local mountains or traipsing through twee villages. On the 6th of April I will be taking a train to the handsome city of Santander on the frayed north coast of Spain. The day of arrival I will mosey around, eat some tapas, gaze at the beach, meet up with some friends who hosted me on couchsurfing and stay with them again. On the 7th of April I shall wake up, put on my backpack and walk for about 50 days.

The Camino de Santiago is the famous pilgrim route in Spain and France that has been leading travellers to the city of Santiago de Compostela since the first few decades of the first millennium. I shall spare you the history otherwise I shall have nothing to write about in my next book, but safe to say that over the last few hundreds of years the pilgrimage has changed a lot. It is no longer only for the religious. People of all creeds do it, fitness freaks do it, people like me do it, gap year students do it. This is what I have been told. I intend to walk all of it and more in an effort to experience another side of the country in which I live. I also want to experience the people; why do they do it? Who does it? Questions like these.

I will be doing three different legs (using the recommended stages), as follows:
1. Santander to Irun (13 days) followed by a rest day stopover in Bayonne
2. Saint-Jean-Pied-Du-Pont to Santiago de Compostela (31 days with a rest day in Logroño to visit some friends in Haro and maybe another day in Burgos to visit the prehistoric site of Atapuerca)
3. Santiago de Compostela to Muxia via Finisterre (4 days)

In total I will walk 1,186km. Whether or not I experience something life changing or spritiual I don't know. I fear that I won't. Either why I intend to document my trip via my YouTube channel as well as jotting down with ink my thoughts. Every couple of days I intend to post a video to show what happens on the camino, what I feel, what I find. Here is the link:
I ask you to join me on this Camino. Subscribe to the YouTube channel if you could. That would be amazing.

This blog is now officially sleeping until I return, so the next two months shall be a case of All Quiet on the Iberian Front.

Tally Pip. See you on the Way.


Vultures, Monks and Meat.

Burgos Province. The high meseta. Little scruffy villages in the middle of patchwork fields hidden far from the world at 800m. Bruised reds and browns, dirty greens and yellows. Snow whipping around and wind buffeting the car. A surprise hill range and a craggy mountain pass, all slate grey and rusty orange hid Griffon vultures that circled near me as I clambered up the moist earth, wheeling through the white with rats and rodents in their mouths; their families huddled in the caves and nooks. I laughed as they passed within metres. Roque was at the bottom by the car with his video camera and little dogs.
'Don't move! Stay there!'
Numb hands covered in mud and blood. My inadequate shoes falling apart.
'No, wait!'
The big brown birds, with their white tufty roughs and bald heads hit some imperceptible thermals and drifted up to the heavens.
'OK! Come down!'
Through some man made tunnel in the gorge and then out into gloopy brown fields and an oddly handsome honey-coloured pueblo surrounded by snow-dusted hills. Santo Domingo de Silos, the great secret of Burgos.

What is the secret? Out there in the middle of nowhere, 200km from Madrid, is an inconspicuous region of holiness with a variety of minuscule and muscular buildings, including one of the great masterpieces of Romanesque art: the 7th/10th century Monasterio de Santo Domingo de Silos...actually an abbey. Ancient pilgrims on the Camino de Santiago would take the 60km diversion south of Burgos just to visit it. Monks dressed in black shuffled about the impressive two-storey tiered cloister and at every corner stonework sculpturing was etched into the walls and pillars. In the garden in the middle an enormous cypress tree shoots up towards the heavens at the same height as the bell-tower and church spire and despite the tour group and clearly bored guide the place had a sense of faraway peace.
'Is that a gallego accent Roque? I notice it dips at the end.'
'I think it's actually the accent of somebody who's given this speech too many times.'
Away from the protection of the heraldic ceiling the rain had started to pound the town.
Taberna. Wine. Olives. The sky leaking life onto the meseta and a flurry of umbrellas glimpsed through a dribbling window.
Just time to buy some home-made Silos honey and take a few photos before God apparently decided he just had to go. We headed back. Back through the gorge, passed the carrion-eaters, up into the high flats again. The rain had turned to snow, with a vengeance.
'I don't have chains man!'
'You won't need chains, it's not that much snow!'
'I'm from Murcia! This is like the third time I've seen snow!'
'We'll be fine. Just take it slow and pretend it's just white rain!'
'Maybe we should find another road.'
'It's fine.'
'I don't have any chains.'
'We don't need chains.'
And then Madrid greets us with its grand snowy peaks and proud sun and the wild Burgosian fields are but a recent memory. Some bizarre kilometre of monasteries severed from the real world by a sheet of white.

To finish the day. Hedonism, pure and simple, in El Molar; one of Madrid's unremarkable satellites to the north on a low rise towards the base of the Sierra de Guadarrama. Up on a cleft of hill with a view to the sunset over the capital's skyline, is the cave quarter. Bodegas and storehouses carved out in the earth, metres underground, all converted into rustic restaurants. Bodegon los Olivares: hefty prices and fairly solid prices. 35 euros each and sitting in barely lit alcoves. A bottle of Navarra wine. A plate of migas (chunky bread crumbs fried up with meat, garlic and grapes), productos de matanza (little chistorras, chorizos, picadillo - fried sausage meat - and a fat morcilla) all sizzling on a hot plate and divvied up with a home-made wheel of bread. Then the star of the show, the Villagordo. An enormous slab of prime ox-meat served seared and sliced with salt. To accompany, another hot plate on which you fry to your own tastes. Hands down the best meat I've ever had in Spain.

Then two bottles of licor: pacharan (sloe-gin) and hierbas (thyme, rosemary and aniseed) with coffee. Then another bottle of pacharan... A walk to a plateau park with the dogs helped excuse the feeling of gluttony before the clouds descended and we retreated to a cafe for a carajillo (a small Irish coffee). It was an afternoon of hearty abundance. An afternoon that the Vikings would have been proud of. If only we had tankards to slam down onto the wooden tables and hogs with apple-stuffed mouths.

What you can do in a day with a car and an appetite still surprises me.

Tapas: A snapshot.

La Latina is part of the throbbing old heart of Madrid. A befuddling web of old colourful streets, packed to bursting with tabernas and bars whose occupants spill out into the February sun. La Latina is tapas land. Not so much the free buy-a-beer-plate-of-greasy tortilla tapas but the get-your-bloody-wallet -and-buy-something-lush tapas. Settled noisily out from the lower belly of Plaza Mayor, the area is also home to Madrid's humongous but, for me anyway, intolerable market "El Rastro". If you like flea markets it's heaven. I don't. Too many people. Too many tourists. Too much tat. However, it's all too easy to forget the joy of wandering off into the side streets. The quieter little tributaries. Jettison any plans for the tapeo (tapas bar crawl) and let your nose and your eyes pull you around.

First to El Buho and their tortillas. As big as a child's birthday cake and for only 8/9 euros they sit on a plate that struggles under the weight of them. Varieties: garlic prawns, tuna and red pepper, roasted pepper, caramelised onion and goat's cheese. Why constrain yourself to egg, egg, egg with onion and egg. Then wobble out, gassing heartily and penguin walk to the Rastro.

Then the decision. Join the throngs or splinter off.
Always splinter. To Calle Mira el Río Bajo. 'Look the low river!' And its tributaries. Here is the real Rastro. Little workshops and second hand shops and antiques stores displaying their wares out on the streets, preening themselves at you in the light. Little withered books from bygone ages. Chairs and drawers. A little handmade table with a chess board in it. Lanterns. Paintings in stocky frames. Everything wood and smelling of age. You wonder how long these things stay here before some romantic soul gets his money out.

Then onto Calle Rodas, a street that warbles with the soundtrack of tiny birds singing their hearts out. Pet shops, little canaries and budgies. A parrot or two. The windows present a hopping blur of colours; reds and yellows. A tiny wine shop punctures the avian air and then you're out onto another street. Calle Embajadores; ancient and lined with pastel hues and ecclesiastical monoliths. A tiny plazuela, two trees, some wine and fried sardines. Farther still you push on; the alcohol turning the spongy afternoon into some delirious daydream. Down to Calle Casino where Cafe Lusi resides. A round of Albariños that are somehow cheaper than everything else, some olives bobbing in vinaigrette and stuffed with gherkins. The winter sun leaving us in jumpers and the little waiter has to use a bench to reach the bar and shout for the croquetas. Round our feet multitudinous bags and crap that has wafted over from Curtidores street and the now dormant market. Drunkenness slowly starts to enter and speech becomes sloppy.

And finally to the Ronda de Toledo and its grand old archway; the old south entrance to Madrid. El Pescador sits innocently enough on one 'corner' of the roundabout and provides the tapeo-ites with a final resting place to wet their mouths. A round of wines and some torreznos (giant crinkly pork scratchings). On the wall, a little cut out from a national newspaper. It proclaims the bar's calamari rolls as kingly. More wine and a bap.
'A knife to cut please?'
A bread knife is handed over by Paco, the friendly but shy owner.
'Don't give him that butter knife, cut it with a kitchen knife!' Barks an old lady in stripy blue and white nightie style clothes that all silvery ones don.

The walk back is full and jaunty. Softened up with the jammy comfort of Rioja and good food. The Madrid mountains are blue and snow-capped off behind a horizon of pleasing flats. You return home blasted with a happy fatigue and slump to the sofa proclaiming for the umpteenth time that you should do this more often.

Wild South Showdown!

I love people. Honest human people. Little evolved apes who imagined and learned how things work. I also hate people. People annoy me more than anything. Last night I saw a drunken chav smash in the video screen of an intercom with his empty bottle. Why? Who knows. I also despair when I see the sleep walkers.  People somnambulating through life, happy with the basic and uninterested in the wonderful. Little boring people with little boring lives. Maybe I'm jealous. The girlfriend and boyfriend of eight years. The constant to and fro from the local village where they don't do anything but just eat with their families. The sphere of interests: football, going out with friends, attending family get togethers. Status Quo. I'm probably jealous but it can sometimes make finding people to connect with a chore. I mean really connect with, not just pleasant toleration or friendship. People who don't do things. Repetition. Repetition. Repetition. Wasting the shining lives that they've been lucky to have received from the great lottery of genetics. This is not to say you can't just have a weekend lazing about at home with your friends. Good griefing God no, that's wonderful too. But why not savour other fruits. The big burly beautiful world, hell, this country, has so much to offer that it ignites me into a froth that Thaddeus Stevens would be proud of when people choose to ignore it, or worse don't think to enjoy it. Spain has problems: financial corruption, political ineptitude, bureaucratic dopeyness, a slacker than optimal work ethic; but it really has the potential to be the 'best' country in the world if it can sort its act out. Spain is an ever-refilling glass of quite the finest wine.

Hilltops and White Walls

 Almeria is an odd province of Andalucia. It can be found hiding down in the south east, near Murcia, and is only really buzzing in the summer months. It's dry and the land is only really useful for greenhouses and sunbathing. It's useful having a friend whose family decided to buy a house somewhere warm. It is as underrated as Barcelona is overrated. It deserved some attention.

Lying about 550km from Madrid is the strangely disjointed area of Mojacar and its environs. The sun rises over the sleepy silvery Mediterranean and lights up the first port of call - Mojacar Playa. It's a strange, pleasingly brash artificial construct of holiday villas, restaurants, retired English people, golf courses and a long beach. Mostly everything is in English. Benidorm - minus the clientèle - came to mind. About 1km back from that area Mojacar Pueblo (the old town) covers a little moutainette like a white cubist marmalade with orange groves at its base. Despite the ever present underlying hum of English-pandering it was refreshingly more authentic then the beach area. Little winding streets with ivory walls leaking bougainvillea.

'Oh you two speak Spanish very well!'
'Well thank you.'
'You're not from here then?'
'We live in Madrid.'
'Ah, yes.'
Pop, a bottle of cold Navarran Rose wine and tapas looking over the huge terraced central plaza; one side town, the other side a view to the expansive plains between the Sierra Cabrera, that acts as home for Mojacar Pueblo and other little settlements, and the Sierra de los Filabres further inland. 

The Sierra Cabrera is a smashing little mountain range. Rarely has such a 'small' little fin of rock had so much character. Before climbing into its peaks, a scruffy little information board underwhelmingly informs you that a few parts of Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade were filmed here. Up past the wide-reaching views (even the snow-capped Sierra Nevada of Granada was visible) and multitudinous abandoned shepherds' huts the walker is slowly swallowed up by dry scrubby humps. Mother Nature's vegetation is functioning at a bare minimum and the paths are dusty orange. Indiana chose a good location. It is a fierce landscape even in winter. Parched. Wild Western even...

At a kink in the mountain range is another oddity, the village/residential community/Star Wars colony of Cabrera. A small colony established by a Briitsh eccentric called Peter Grosscurth on the heights just over twenty years ago. He had a vision of rejuvenating the whole Cabrera area; an area inhabited since the neolithic times. It was his brainchild and although he died in 1993, the area has continued according to his original vision. Every building, from small house to hilltop palace, has been designed in a particular cubist/Moorish way - with complimentary mosaicked onion domes, and all painted in a terracotta colour. The result is a bizarre and alien town, half-populated and full of 'to-be-finished' places. The crisis has hit the village hard, as has its odd location. The sensation is one of tragic but grandiose dreams and passion for a place. Portmeirion a la Española. 

The Cape of Agate and its Cowboys

Strung out along the coast and seeping inland in a series of dry, fuzzy valleys, is the UNESCO biosphere, Cabo de Gata. It's another less than normal area of the country. Three types of built-up area are present: little white fishing villages or agricultural towns, newly constructed beach/golf towns, and abandoned or partly built ventures that have ceased because of the massive financial crash. The driving in winter, sweeping up and down through sea-vistas or open plains with shoddy farmyards, is lonely and private. A national park just for you.

La Isleta is one of the aforementioned villages. It leans out into the sedate Mediterranean on a narrow low-lying spit. The houses are built to the shore. The walls of rock that backdrop the settlement are sandstone coloured and look like Morocco. A tiny restaurant - La Ola - sits next to a minute harbour where boats bob up and down. The menus have a Quality Street style map of the fish that are available in the area. Next to it a handwritten sheet of the fish that have been caught that day. As happy jaws clacked down on fresh squid, tuna, sardines, prawns and all manner of fish not available in the UK, the sound of Spanish was mixed in with German. Further down the cabo is the lively little villa town of San Jose, curling around its two beaches. Dead in the winter; the sand still soft and the sun still bright in the sky but lacking its summer power, this, in my eyes, was the place to be in January.

Leapfrogging the Sierra de los Filabres and the ocean of shimmering greenhouses that can be seen from space, Almeria City raises his bulky head. The six and a half hour bus slinks first through the Tabernas Desert - the most famous of Spain's three. A wavy badlands of cream-coloured sandy terrain, it was this area that played host to the cracking six-shooters and jingling boot spurs of Clint Eastwood and his fellow actors in the sixties when Spain was ground zero for the filming of the brilliant Spaghetti Westerns. Here and there are dotted little 'villages': Western Leone, Texas Hollywood and Mini Hollywood. Sets and settlements constructed for filming; they were thought of so fondly that, in the case of Mini Hollywood for example, lots of local extras clubbed together and bought it and ran it as an attraction. Either way, it is a strange place that I intend to revisit in the summer for the full effect.

Three years later and there's always something else, always something new. A new town. A new mountain. A new sea. A new taste. No more sleepwalking. Open your eyes.