For the past five weeks, we have rented a small house in rural Andalusia. The closest neighbors are out of sight and hearing. The closest village is San Pablo de Buceite, about three-quarters of a mile away. The closest town is Jimena de la Frontera, about five miles away. The closest city is Algeciras, about twenty-five miles away. The intervening landscape is hills and mountains and small rivers and pastures and orange groves, with only a sprinkling of farm houses. The number of people per square mile might be fractional.
We have been sleeping most of our time away. It’s as if we have been drugged by the lazy routine of the countryside. Sleeping until ten o’clock in the morning has been commonplace, and waking before nine is unusual.
There are contributing factors to our sloth. For the first two weeks, we were both ill with a flu that we caught in Germany. We produced buckets of snot, and filled garbage bag after garbage bag with wet tissues. We coughed and hacked until our throats were raw. Then, two weeks after we recovered, I was hit with an ear infection that grounded me for a few more days. Our bodies knew they finally had time and opportunity to fall apart, so they did.
Then there is the weather. We have been crazy lucky for this time of year. Most days have been sunny, with afternoon temperatures that would be summer conditions in most places. As I write, we are outside in the sun, and I am wearing shorts and a sleeveless shirt. But things are cold in the morning, and slow to warm — it’s coats in the morning and t-shirts by two. The best time to see the sights is in the afternoon, so there isn’t a penalty for sleeping late.
Even the sun is slow to rise, with full light not being achieved until after eight. Added to this are very effective shutters on the house’s windows, which let in no light at all. The combination makes for a sort of time vertigo, where I often think that it’s five or six o’clock when it’s actually ten.
Finally, there is the silence. I have never been anywhere more quiet. Even the birds whisper. Unless we create our own, there is no noise. After the constant buzz of Cambodia, where everything is alive and moving and making noise, I find it easy to be sedated by the silence of Andalusia.
The hearts of the villages and towns are quiet, save for the cars that occasionally pass through the maze of narrow streets. Walking through a town like Gaucin or Jimena, we sometimes wonder if it isn’t abandoned, as it can be rare to see another person. Those people we do see are almost noiseless, the old men in particular. They carry walking sticks in their hands and wear flat hats on their heads. They sit for hours on benches in the plazas, listening and watching, and making no sound.
The noisiest thing we have encountered so far is a mule we met during a walk. We petted her and fed her some grass. When we left, she brayed and brayed. Her calls could be heard hours and kilometers later, a lone sound against a background of silence.
In Cambodia, the early-morning spike in the ambient noise level served as an alarm clock. By five o’clock, monk chants were blaring from every temple, dogs were barking, roosters were crowing, birds were squawking, kids were screaming, and motorbikes were humming. In Spain, Jen tried to replicate this by setting her alarm to play recordings of monk chants, bird sounds, and gecko calls; but they were powerless against the dark quiet of our Andalusia mornings. We continued to be late sleepers.
I don’t think the locals are, themselves, late sleepers; but I also don’t think they are fireballs of capitalistic energy. Stores and shops are closed more days than not, and I never knew there were so many holidays in December. Then there are the afternoon siestas that shut everything down from two o’clock to five-thirty — a custom created to avoid the heat of summer, and that seems ridiculous this time of year. Between the holidays and siestas, it once took us four days to find a pharmacy that was open. Nonetheless, the low-stress, work-to-live environment of rural Andalusia is much more pleasant than the high-stress, live-to-work environment that prevails in the States.
The cost of living in this part of Andalusia supports the more laid-back approach. Our baseline costs — the house, a car, and food — are on par with our costs in Battambang, Cambodia; meaning that we aren’t paying that much to live pretty well. Even restaurant dining in the villages and towns is not stupidly expensive. Lunch for two, including a couple beers, usually runs less than US $20 before the tip.
While we are on the subject of dining, let me carry on a bit about the joys of having our own kitchen and not being dependent upon restaurants. The thing that I have most missed during our travels is not flush toilets or American Idol or Starbucks (three things that somehow seem to be related), but rather the ability to make our own food. Restaurant dining becomes monotonous very quickly. After eating pretty much the same thing for months in Southeast Asia, we started hating what had become a mere biological necessity. A month with a real kitchen has restored our interest in food.
Having a kitchen has also affected our ability to learn a language, to the negative. We both have some prior experience with Spanish, and we even acquired the Rosetta Stone program to aid us during our stay, but we continue to do little to learn Spanish, even though fewer of the locals here speak English than was the case in Laos or Cambodia, making knowledge of the local language a seemingly greater imperative. I blame the kitchen, because it was reliance on restaurants that forced us to get out and interact with locals, and master at least enough of the language to order a vegan meal that was absent any fish or oyster sauce. This takes more knowledge of a language than you might think, and provides a good base from which to learn more. But now the kitchen has stolen our motivation.
The appreciation for having a kitchen is a subset of a larger change in our travel habits. Where we used to get itchy to move after spending just three or four days in one place, we now tend to park for two, three, or even four weeks. We used to live out of always-ready backpacks. Now we dump everything and spread out; and when it’s finally time to leave, it takes hours to find all our stuff, and hours more to figure out how we ever got it all into just two packs.
Illness, a nice house, a kitchen, late mornings, and quiet privacy are powerful draws toward reclusiveness. We have succumbed a bit, but not completely, having forced ourselves to get out from time to time. I’ll close with comments on the places we have visited.
Gaucin is a small town of white buildings, built on a hillside in the Andalusian countryside. It has the obligatory castle ruins.
Gaucin is a great town to visit. The streets are enjoyable to walk. The setting is picturesque. The castle is as interesting as a small castle can be. There is a nice little plaza near it’s center, where you can sit outside in the sun while drinking a beer. There are paths to hike through the surrounding farmlands.
Jimena de la Fronterra
Jimena is another white town, built into a hillside, with castle ruins at the crest. There are trails extending from the town, one of which follows the river that courses west of Jimena.
Castellar de la Frontera
Between Jimena and Algeciras lies an old and a new Castellar de la Frontera. The one I’m writing about is Old Castellar.
Old Castellar is a village inside the ruins of a large castle, located on a tall hill, with a narrow and switchbacked road leading to its crest. People live within the castle walls, which contain a small maze of narrow lanes that is enjoyable to explore, a hotel with accommodations spread throughout the castle, a restaurant, and some artisan shops. Castellar is a good place to spend an afternoon.
Ronda is a small city, and it is well-known and much written about. It is the home of Arab and Roman ruins, and it is the home of bullfighting. The gorge that divides the city, and the bridge that crosses the gorge, are the subjects of many travel photographs. There are many, many shops and restaurants.
We have visited Ronda four times, despite having to drive an hour and a half to get there. That tells you how interesting it is. It’s touristy, be we are still drawn back.
Marbella and the Coast
We spent a day driving along the coast east of Algeciras, stopping for a while to walk around Marbella. We found none of this coastal area to be particularly interesting, as it was all condos and development and shopping and beach tourism. Such things can be found on any popular coast, in just about any country; and they are not nearly as interesting as the inland rural areas with their white villages, farms, rivers, and cork forests. The rural farmlands are unique, the coastal communities are not.
Gibraltar certainly has its historical interests, such as the cave and tunnel systems from the wars in which it factored. It also has the apes. And, of course, it is the famous Rock of Gibraltar, featured in everything from classic literature to insurance company logos.
But, whatever Gibraltar once was, it now seems to be more a shopping destination than anything else. The main drag of the city center is a canyon with stores for its walls, down which flows a river of shoppers. We came during the off-season for tourism, so I expect that Gibraltar is overwhelmingly packed during the on-season.
In order to avoid wasting hours in the car lines, we were warned to park on the Spanish side of the border and walk into Gibraltar. That was good advice. Heading both in and out, the car lines were long and slow.