Wednesday, 14 September 2011

All at sea

I must admit to feeling a little out of place as I strolled up to the reception at the Hotel Jerez, a 5 star hotel and spa, which we had managed to book for 65 euros a night thanks to Considering the free private parking that came with the room this deal actually turned out cheaper for us than the more modest hotels or even hostels that we had found elsewhere in or around the city, and what a luxury to have your room cleaned and fresh towels delivered every day! Ideally we had wanted to be right on the coast, but naturally the world and his wife were also heading that way, so everywhere was either fully booked or the price had been hiked up to peak season rates, so our solution was to stay in an attractive town slightly more inland and drive to the coast most mornings.


The city itself is small and cute and not dissimilar to other Spanish cities we had seen, with its distinctive old town, narrow cobbled streets and abundance of taperías and ice cream parlours. Our favourite tapas bar, El Desplante in Plaza de Rafael Rivero, was crammed into one small plaza alongside two flashier bars, and essentially consisted of about eight outdoor tables, a tiny kitchen and a little hatch where the comical old owner would collect the food from his wife and bring it to the tables, usually accompanied by some anecdote or piece of trivia (apparently I look just like someone who he met in Hamburg, and the Portuguese language is an amalgamation of Castellano and Gallego). The food was excellent, with especially good seafood on offer, such as the marrajo and chipiones, and almost all the tapas were 1.50 euros. There was often live music in the square, and there were always plenty of people around. One time, when we had been joined by two friends who we met on Reunion Island two years ago, we decided to make a night of it in Jerez. When the jolly old waiter at the aforementioned tapas bar began packing up all the tables around us, only then did we realize that our casual meandering from bar to bar for a nibble on some tapas and a taste of the local sherry had distracted us from the passing time – it was already 2am, and we had not even decided where to go. I befriended a German at the bar nextdoor, introduced him to the others, and we followed him (upon his invitation, not against his will) to Los Cuatros Gatos, a bar where his girlfriend worked. The place was dead, but a few shots, some confusing yet delicious tapas of layered sponge cake, cream cheese and ham and a quick boogie on the empty dancefloor got us hyped up for the next place. We spilled out into the street in search of some locals who could give good advice to a bunch of young tourists on the lookout for a party. The verdict seemed to be either get a taxi to Bereber, or join the queue of rowdy teenagers heading into El Oxi. We eventually lumped for the latter, reluctantly coughed up the 10 euro entrance fee, and hurried inside to collect our one free long drink. Unfortunately lack of funds dictated that the night descend into minesweeping for free drinks… but nonetheless we had a hilarious time, danced until we were ready to drop, and headed home at 7am. As my friend J and I sat on the balcony watching the sunrise, our boyfriends passed out on the beds behind us, we reflected upon how crazy it was that two Germans, a Brit and a Frenchman had met on a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, subsequently embarked upon long distance relationships, and there we were two years on sharing a hotel room in the south of Spain. Life is good!


This was the first beach that we drove to, the closest to Jerez (bar El Puerto de Santa Maria, which is apparently not particularly attractive). For the majority of the time on our way to the coast we were driving along the carratera (motorway), which was easy to navigate and fairly speedy. Of course, being us, we managed to squeeze in a few wrong turns here and there, but we still made it from hotel to playa in under 40 minutes. The Andalusian countryside that fills the gaps between the urban hubs and stretches out to the horizon on either side of the motorway is far from the luscious green fields I have come to associate with the word ‘countryside’ (coming from Herefordshire I have been rather spoilt in that respect); the barren, parched land bakes under the scorching summer sun, with entire fields of dead sunflowers lurching towards the roadside like a bad omen.  A rare sign of life is occasionally spotted in the form of a modest lake and an impressive flock, or to use the term that often creeps into pub quiz questions a ‘shock’, of flamingos, heads under water, balancing on one leg, entirely oblivious to their incongruity with their habitat. The beach itself at Chipiona was not particularly special, and there were lots of young Spaniards posing in front of their mates, but we were just happy to feel the sea breeze on our skin as we lay in the late afternoon sun: heaven after a summertime urban stint!

Canos de Meca

Al Solecito café

Now this place is more like it. A bumpy road takes you to within metres of the sea, where ample parking can be found in one of the private parking areas (all day three or four euros) or for free on the roadside. As soon as you step out of the car the hippie vibe hits you; cafes nestled in straw beach huts with swathes of coloured organza and Moroccan pillows scattered on wooden benches; bare-foot, dreadlocked customers with dogs and piercings; stalls of hand-made jewellery and the distinctive aroma of marijuana riding on the sea breeze. I was actually really relieved to find a menu with alternatives to tapas for once, and we tucked into a brunch of croissants and goats cheese and honey tarts in Al Solecito before heading down to the beach. Wooden stairs lined with spiky cacti plants lead you to the fine sand and clear blue sea. This is, unsurprisingly, a very popular spot for locals and holiday makers alike, so there were certainly a lot of people there, but this did not bother me in the slightest as I swam, sunbathed, read my book and nibbled on the amazingly tasty seeded bread from the local supermarket!

Conil de la Frontera

This beach is very broad with quite strong winds, and so attracts surfers and kite-surfers. For those of us not blessed with sufficient balancing skills for this type of sport, the beach is less appealing, lacking the rocky backdrop and distinctive features of other nearby beaches. We did, however, stop off to buy a couple of ‘Aladdin pants’ (baggy, colourful cotton trousers with elasticated waists and ankles and excessive material around the crotch area, usually imported from India or Morocco) from a Senegalese stall owner who dutifully piped up with “This, very good for you!” for every single pair we tried on. I lost confidence in his advice when, as a pair of too-small trousers got stuck around my thighs and refused to go any further, I heard the familiar refrain, “This, very good for you!”… *sigh*


Cádiz cathedral
I had actually been to Cádiz once before for the carnival, but given that the coach arrived and departed under cover of darkness I was largely oblivious to what the place really looked like. In fact, I did not even realise that we were on the coast at the time! There was no mistaking our coastal location this time, however, as the sea is in view almost constantly as you travel up the narrow body of the city. A good tip is to try to find a blue parking space at the roadside, as it is vastly cheaper than a space in one of the car parks. Pretty fountains, elaborate monuments, cute alleys with ornate iron balconies – once again the boxes were ticked for the requirements of a pretty Andalusian city, but we were aware that these little details were beginning to lose their magic for us as we had simply seen so many places with similar attributes! Here we were reminded of that all-important lesson that you should stick to a restaurant’s specialty when ordering, as a selection of two euro tapas proved to be ten times more satisfying and good value than the five euro lack-lustre crepe. The cathedral was a very grand, attractive building, and when we got closer we realised that there were about eight or so Asian men, all sitting separately, tapping away frantically on their laptops. God has Wifi, who knew?! Our top discovery in Cádiz was el Mercado Público, a large market selling fresh meat, fish, cheese, fruits and vegetables, in an open-top courtyard bordered with Romanesque pillars. Manu went crazy at the olive stall, tasting numerous varieties and walking away with enough to feed a small army. The best ones were the small, bright green ones called verdiales, mixed with pickled onions.

Mateo the olive guy at el Mercado Público

La Barrosa

Well we did not actually go to the main La Barrosa beach, as the area seemed to be dominated by a rather posh hotel and golf complex. Instead we continued up the coastal road for a few hundred metres and turned off when we saw a sign for the playa. We parked up in a dusty car parking space where several groups were picnicking next to their VW camper vans. We scuffled down the tiny trail to the beach (as opposed to taking the less dangerous paved route just to the right, of course) and ambled along the seafront. The beach was large and pretty, with a bustling open-walled café, public toilets and enough space to escape your fellow beach-dwellers should you seek more privacy. Nevertheless we had committed ourselves to finding the rocky cove beaches that Manu’s dad had told us about, so we scrambled back to the car and continued down the road.

Las calas de Roche

Las calas de Roche

And here it was, the pièce de la résistance of our beach travels: las calas (coves) de Roche, in between Urbanización Roche and the mirador (viewpoint). Three different paths lead from the long parking area down to the beach. The striking contrast of the deep turquoise sea and the vibrant red rubble ground is gorgeous, the wind whipping through your hair as you weave in between the dark green, bristly shrubs. The beach is situated in a fairly small cove, with rough, porous rock jutting out here and there and enormous waves that make a dip in the ocean both really good fun  and extremely good exercise! There were lots of families, kitted out with parasols, cool boxes, deck chairs and mountains of food, which actually made the atmosphere really welcoming, and I felt much less wary of watching my belongings all the time. Men in tiny, tight swimming trunks peddled their jewellery up and down the beach, and an elderly man with a big beer belly trundled his cool box back and forth shouting ‘Thervesa, A’ua fría, Co’a Cola’ in his lazy Andalusian accent.

Sanlúcar de Barrameda


Placing a bet!
A local takes a nap in between races
We headed this way, accompanied by our two friends, to see the famous annual Carreras de caballos en la playa (horse-racing on the beach). A full programme listed the entrants in each of the four races, with jockeys and horses having travelled from the UK, France and even the US. All along the beach tiny, brightly painted cardboard stands poked up amongst the crowd, and upon investigation we discovered that it was tradition for local kids to make their own booths where people can make bets on the races for somewhere in between 20 cents and one euro! I crouched down to meet the cool-as-a-cucumber little Spaniard at eye-level and placed a 20 cents bet on the Irish horse running in the first race. If only I had been more patriotic, as it was the GB horse that thundered first over the finishing line. In between each race there was little going on, and the local veterans of the event sagely brought books and deck chairs along to pass the time. Then a buzz starts to build up, policemen clear the track, and the jockeys enter from a side entrance astride their impressive beasts and make their way to the starting gates.  A bell sounds, two police jeeps zoom past, and the horses are on their way, crowds cheering and hooves thumping the sand, until they have disappeared into the distance and cries of “¿Quién ha ganado?” fill the air as people rush to find out if their 50 cents has been doubled or lost forever.

So that was that as far as our coastal jaunt, and in fact entire Spanish adventure, was concerned. A huge buffet breakfast at the hotel set us up for the day, we sped off to the airport and dropped off the rental car, spent 20 minutes trying to condense our luggage to 23kg (the official limit was 20kg and we were on 26kg to begin with), and eventually boarded the plane. Seated next to a funny old Spanish artist named Pedro who spoke fluent German (a rarity amongst the Spaniards) we chatted in a jumble of Spanish, German and English (each one of us understanding two of the three languages, but never the same two) about travelling, family and national stereotypes. Wise old Pedro is adamant that the latter are a load of codswallop; everyone is an individual, and needs to find his or her own identity in the world. With that in mind I climbed down the aeroplane steps and stepped onto German soil, ready to begin the next chapter and see what it brings for me. New country, new language, new flat, new job... Wish me luck!
TG xx

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