Adventures on the Mediterranean Coast of Spain I/II
A 3000-year old ancient city, the biggest salt-water lake in Europe and the hometown of paella – these and many more a delight made up my recent road trip down the east coast of Spain.
Sunday morning after my birthday I wake up- immediately thankful to myself for my decision to call the night at two bottles of cava instead the usual 50- or is it 500? I´m excited as I jump out of bed - I'm about to head on a road trip down the east coast of Spain to go and visit a close friend, and to explore some unknown territory.
They say its not about the destination, its about the journey and all that jazz. Well let me tell you the journey down was interesting from the beginning.
My friend Rebekah awaits down the coast, so the first checkpoint is the city of Murcia, about a 7-hour drive south of Barcelona. Never heard of Murcia? Noone has. Noone goes to Murcia, its a city with an industrial past down on the southeast of the peninsula; famous for the beaches close by, and not much else. The plan is to head into Murcia capital, and out to the coast from there. My mode of transport promises to be an interesting experience, I'm gonna use this car share app called Blablacar, where you connect with drivers heading down the same direction and hitch a ride. Think Uber for long distances. I checked out Juan-Miquels reviews- seems like a pleasant chap, no overt serial killer overtones, always a good sign when planning a 7-hr journey in a stranger´s vehicle. So I jump on the early morning underground train to meet JM. The fun begins early as I share the train with all of the revellers returning home from last night´s Primavera Sound festival finale. Youths of all nationalities sharing the cup of the stink of fiesta and alcohol, indiscriminately drunk and zombified. For once I´m not part of that crew, I feel fresh as veggies. I meet Juan-Miquel on the outskirts of Barcelona, along with two other passengers- Elias and Conchi, catalan grandparents, tattooed and young, on their way down to visit their grandson. All of us are tentative and curious to see what the other passengers are gonna be like, since we're forced to 7 hours in a confined space together.
The atmosphere is relaxed and we all vibe nicely. Spain is the ideal place for this kind of situation, Spaniards are just cool and friendly and don't waste time on unnecessary pleasantries or politeness, so the conversation just flows, and when it stops no one feels the need to force some words to be polite. As we leave the border of Catalonia and get deeper into Valencia and further south, the landscape becomes more arid, pine trees and green mountains give way to olive groves and citrus tree orchards and the greenness turns into a scenery not unlike the highveld of Gauteng. As the scenery develops, so too does the conversation. Turns out Juan Miquel is not only an ex-professional footballer, he is currently a psychotherapist, what a dude. He gets a sparkle in his eyes as the conversation leads into human consciousness and the shortcomings of our society and how they are a reflection of our own personal flaws and shortcomings kinda stuff. I remember watching the rolling vineyards flow past as he explains to me the theory that people´s actions display tendencies towards what we know as the seven deadly sins in different quantities, and how these are reflected on the macro level in society.
He further goes on to furnish this theory with the origin of the word Sin, in spanish Pecado, from latin Pectus. He explains that it comes from the word used to describe the distance between an arrow fired and the bullseye. Ie our sins are the distance between our actual course and the realisation of our perfect self.
He gets all animated and spanish passionate as he gives me an example of his own shortcomings and how he himself suffers:
´´I have a tendency towards gluttony, not in the sense of overeating, but in the sense of experiences. I find myself so enamoured with the idea of different experiences that I cannot commit to any one, for the expense of sacrificing the other. With partners, with friends, with my time. Every time I am connecting with one woman, for example, I sabotage the relationship as I fear what and who I might miss out, and this is my curse, and my blessing.
Well I can relate to that I say.
The conversation twists and turns like the mountain road and I feel I have made a new and interesting friend. As we approach Murcia and we know the end of our journey together, he invites me to come to check out his home-city of Almería in the south of Spain, where he promises to show me the tapas culture of Spain de verdad.
The tradition of tapas is celebrated in some cities in Spain with bars and restaurants serving you a free plate of food to complement your drink. Ie if you order a glass of wine, they throw in a complimentary plate, and I'm not talking pretzels- I'm talking stews, seafood, meat the works! That means the local population are always tipsy, as they don't go out for lunch, they drink and get lunch. Viva España.
Great as the ride is, its time to say adiós to my 7-hr companions, and hola to Murcia as we pull into the city just starting to cool after a hot summer afternoon. This is just a quick checkpoint to find the bus to Los Alcáceres, the coastal town where Rebekah awaits. Turns out the bus only takes me to San Juan de no-sé-qué, and from there I've gotta find a way to Los Alcáceres.
But before I continue planning the next leg of my journey, I've gotta go check out Murcia´s cathedral, I do fancy myself a bit of a Cathedral Connoisseur like any other player. Spain is spoilt with its history and architecture, and even if Murcia is not one of her more famous cities, I believe it lays claim to this bad-ass baroque monstrosity and I gotta see it. The cathedral does not disappoint. All asymmetry and drama in true baroque ´n roll fashion. Throw into the mix the group of Spanish lady dancers filming a music video with our Santa María in the background, and I'm happy to have made the detour.
´´Donde estás? A message from Rebekah, where are you?
´´Enjoying the pretty sites of Murcia, of course.
´´How would you feel about checking out a flamenco show in a 100 year old hotel tonight, if youre not too wrecked from the journey?
So, one underground train trip, a 7-hr car ride with strangers, a bus and a taxi later, I find myself at the 1920´s Hotel Los Alcáceres. I step out onto the terrace, and I am met with this sweeping view of the Mar Menor de Murcia- the biggest salt lake in Europe. It's like looking out into the Mediterranean sea, with tiny little waves, and wayyyyy out in the distance you see the other end of the bay, which is this thin strip of land that stretches out from the mainland and encloses the bay. The sun is setting all pale purple and misty blue, there's cheap flamenco in the background, palm trees aplenty and a thatch roof above, and there I find Rebekah- glass of wine in the hand, looking beautiful and Spanish. Her daughter Zoe is playing in the playground with the kids. We say our holas and I kick back with a deserved glass of local red, truly one of life's sweetest pleasures, and feel any tension I may have had being pulled out of my soul and washed into the magical waters.
I had reached my first destination.
The first few days were spent in this golf resort on Los Alcaceres, having siestas, drinking wine, hanging out by the pool and swimming in the therapeutic salt waters of the Mar Menor. The conversation with Rebekah is always deep and stimulating, she's all into meditation and ayahuasca and is well versed in all manner of spiritual subjects and so as the yogis say, shit gets deep quick.
So on my last full day in Murcia before I headed northward, we decided to go explore. We took a cab to the nearby coastal city called Cartagena - or Carthage in English.
Turns out Cartagena is an ancient and marvellous place.
3000 or so years ago, during the time of the Romans, there was a North African civilization called the Carthaginians. The most famous Carthaginian was Hannibal, the dude who- unsuccessfully- attempted to march elephants across Europe. As I write this and check it out online I discover there´s a trilogy being planned in his honour, with Vin Diesel personifying the anti-hero, what a dude. Anyway, the Carthaginians fought many important wars with the Romans and the city of Cartagena was founded by them. Formerly called New Carthage, it was the European base of operations for the Carthaginians before the Romans unceremoniously booted them out. One key to the city's importance is the natural bay, one of the most important in Europe, and another is the nearby silver deposits which fuelled the cities wealth historically. So this place has ancient ruins for days, set in this industrial but somehow still pretty port, with the general Mediterranean palm tree white-washed building ambience thrown in. One of my favourite surprises was the architecture. My good friend and colleague Jon Lerner and I are super nerds about Art Deco architecture and art. Also, being a tour guide in Barcelona one naturally falls deeply in love with the Gaudí Art Nouveau masterpieces found there. Well to my delight, Cartagena's architecture represents a marriage of these two styles, in an elegant and bold to the point of being tacky way that is very typical espanish. I went full tourist mode, snapping up pics of the architecture feverishly, while Rebekah and Zoe entertained themselves frolicking and playing in the sun-bathed marble streets. We stopped for waffles (of course), and I tried this coffee that a few of the lokals told me was unmissable- called a Café Asiatico.
One part cognac, one part coffee, one half condensed milk, one part licor 43 (local orange liquor), one sliver of lemon zest, and cinnamon. The heat compelled me to have this bad boy served on the rocks, and man it gives a kick like a Roman stallion. After my fix, we headed to check out this amazing viewing point. A sweeping view of the city reveals the ancient Roman amphitheatre and ruins, the fascinating architecture, and the immense port with all of the cranes and industrial buildings, set within the five dominating hill peaks.
After marvelling and taking photos and a rather random peacock at the top of the lookout point, it was time to kick it back to Alcáceres.
I said adiós to Rebekah that night, because the next day I would be getting up early and heading back up the coast towards Valencia. She has a gift for me, a book called The Pilgrimage by Paulo Coelho. And in this book I found one of the most beautiful passage on travel that I will finish this post with:
When you travel, you experience, in a very practical way, the act of rebirth. You confront completely new situations, the day passes more slowly, and on most journeys you don't even understand the language the people speak. So you are like a child just out of the womb. You begin to be more accessible to others because they may be able to help you in difficult situations. And you accept any small favour from the gods with great delight, as if it were an episode you would remember for the rest of your life. At the same time, since all things are new, you see only the beauty in them, and you feel happy to be alive. That's why a religious pilgrimage has always been one of the most objective ways of achieving insight. The word peccadillo, which means a 'small sin', comes from pecus, which means 'defective foot', a foot that is incapable of walking a road. The way to correct the peccadillo is always to walk forward, adapting oneself to new situations and receiving in return all of the thousands of blessings life generously offers to those who seek them.
I read this passage on the bus back towards Murcia, even more excited about the next leg of my journey, blissfully unaware of the travel misadventures that await...