A Rock and a Hard Place (travels in Andalusia)

My God, these bus station seats are hard (even if substituting tangerine peel for toilet paper is surprisingly efficacious but that’s another story). Yes, you’ve guessed it, I’ve got myself to Algeceras for the start of my Interrail tour and the trains aren’t running. Surprised? I shouldn’t be, this part of Europe may be in the EU but parts of it are almost as broken as the Balkans. A hastily thought out Plan B has me getting a bus to Cadiz from where I am assured the trains will actually be running. Well, I will if anyone actually turns up to open the ticket office.

Much as I want to reconnect with Andalusia, I felt able to bypass Malaga yesterday and catch a bus direct from the airport to La Linea, stopping off point for the British outpost of Gibraltar. Malaga was the city chosen by my grandmother for her retirement in the sun sometime in the mid 1960s. The early days of the ex-pat settlement for the Costa del Sol took place before the fall of the Franco regime and scores of patrician seniors from all over Europe arrived here to warm their ailing joints and bemoan the societal changes that the post war years had brought about. Yes, this was before the beer-swilling British invasion and although, I may have been a mere child, I have remarkably vivid memories of my visits to see the woman who still preferred to be addressed as “Tante Lynne”.

Despite having been married to an Italian and lived for more than forty years in England, Lynne relished the cache of being one of the colony’s only Frenchwomen. She politely looked down upon the other English, Norwegians, Dutch and assorted North European immigrants (in those days Germans still had to pretend to be Swiss) but, nonetheless, we did the rounds of their villas and apartments each vying to provide the best bizcocho (patisserie), floral arrangements and gossip. When the conversation turned to their families at home, life here under the tender ministrations of El Generalissimo was pronounced much more satisfactory.

Accorded a lower status, which was surprising given the illustrious ancestry of some, were the Duenas: the non-working mothers and wives of the Spanish aristocracy. They lived in cavernous old houses furnished with dark wood panelling and cabinets full of painted religious statues and tarnished silver candlesticks. Gloomy oil paintings of their fore-bearers gazed down forbiddingly upon the assembled company.

(We are now heading out over the winding roads of the Sierra Nevada and I must stop work for a time if I am to avoid becoming nauseous)

completed later: 

Conversation mainly focused upon first communions, weddings, pregnancies and funerals, all suitably edited in translation for my adolescent ears. I may have had no Spanish but my schoolgirl Latin helped me to pick up what was really going on and this circumscribed “mundo de mujeres”* was not nearly as benevolent as these black-clad matriarchs seemed to want me to believe. I also remember that outside of the house the men behaved disgracefully: ogling young girls and catcalling with undisguised lechery, and this despite the fact that Lynne dressed me so modestly I might have been carrying a prayer book. It was all so incredibly repressed, which made it such a shock when, in 1975 almost between one visit and the next, the Franco government fell and the coast of Spain came alive with bars, discotheques, cheap hotels and lobster pink Brits.

Anyway, back to Gibraltar: that tiny British Overseas Territory that has been such a thorn in the side of the Spanish for the last three hundred years. The buses only go as far as La Linea and from there you are expected to walk across the border. Notwithstanding the fact that there is a bloody great rock in front of you, it isn’t as easy to find your way across the various highways and junctions as you might think. I made the stupid mistake of asking for directions in English and was told “no entiendo” but on the next try managed to cobble together a more appropriate enquiry.  “Donde la frontera, por favour?” was speedily answered with a comprehensive set of directions in English. It was 5.45 in the evening and a steady stream of Spaniards was coming back through the border after a day’s work. Most came on foot but a few had invested in “commuter scooters” and the formalities were minimal.

Travelling against the flow, I had trouble finding anyone even remotely interested in looking at my passport and was soon crossing the airfield into this quaint little world of red buses, prices marked in pounds sterling and square, three-pin plug sockets. I found my way to the Emile, the only hostel in town and discovered it was under renovation and therefore a bit short on facilities. At least this meant that I had the female dormitory to myself and, when I ventured out to the shops, I saw that the cost of food and fuel were absurdly cheap. Maybe 60% of the prices at home and probably some of the lowest in Europe. What is going on here? Is the tiny population of native Gibraltarians being subsidised by the British Government or is some of the revenue from a thriving gaming industry being passed on to the locals?

And don’t ask about Brexit. Everyone on either side of the border just shakes their head and sighs. No-one on the ground has any idea at all how it will affect them and, since the British Government is posturing about sovereignty and the Spanish have promised to take back the territory on March the 30th, they definitely have my sympathy. After three centuries of willy waving it’s probably time to accept the inevitable. Britain just isn’t that “Great” any more.

Making myself comfortable for the night I realised that I felt no temptation to take a tour of this tiny peninsular a mere 8 miles across the water from the coast of Africa. After all, I have been here before when I visited on a school trip and remember being dragged up the hill to see some Napoleonic era cannons and a bedraggled group of Barbary apes. I gather it hasn’t changed much in the intervening fifty years and so I set off at 8.00 this morning, walking against the flow of people coming in to work, and crossed the airfield to come back into Spain with the erroneous expectation of being able to begin my train travel in earnest.

Categories: Europe

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