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Report 856: The Romance of Moorish Spain

By janie and geoff from Canada, Fall 2004

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Page 3 of 13: White Villages, Roman Ruins, Cadiz, and the Guy Who Lost the Spanish Armada

photo by Geoff Chambers

Baelo Claudio by the sea


Today we decided to make a long, full day trip to Cadiz and to stop at Gibraltar along the way just to have a look at the Rock. There isn’t much open on Sundays, but we expected this and were fine with pot luck sightseeing. We took bottles of water, our maps, and got on the N340, now almost like an old friend. This highway follows the coast all the way to Cadiz. There is now a new superhighway, the A7 (Autopista del Sol) but we wanted the scenic route. Well, by the time we scenic-routed past Marbella, I was feeling pretty queasy from all the roundabouts in the urban areas. The N340 actually is a great drive because it is by the sea, and there are ruined watchtowers here and there from the days when the locals kept an eye out for invaders from Africa.

Marbella is a playground for the rich and famous, with big hotels and all the designer stores. Geoff pointed out an entire strip of car dealers, starting with Ferrari and Rolls Royce and ending with Toyota. There was a grand old style hotel facing the sea in Marbella, right out of Somerset Maugham with white-painted Victorian scrollwork on the balconies. We drove past Puerto Banus where the rich and famous tie up their yachts and decided to keep on driving and skip the marina, although we always do enjoy ogling beautiful sailboats.

Spain is obviously prospering from joining the EU. There were highway infrastructure projects going on everywhere – bridges, tunnels, extensions to the A7, all EU sponsored projects. Resort communities are being built at such a rate and quantity that it makes Whistler look under-developed. Cranes are everywhere on the coast. It may be that with EU membership it is now easier for other Europeans to purchase property in Spain and Spanish beachfront is still pretty cheap compared to Northern Europe. Spain is probably also the lowest cost labour source right now, and benefiting from investment and manufacturing. However, I have to say that the percentage of ugly developments was much lower than what we would find here in North America during an equivalent building boom.

By 10 am we reached Gibraltar, and in Andalucia, that’s so early on a Sunday that even the McDonald’s was still closed. Gibraltar is one big rock, granite. Apparently the Squamish Chief on the way to Whistler is the world’s second largest hunk of granite after Gibraltar. La Linea de la Concepcion, the Spanish town beside Gibraltar, is not much of an event. Since we didn’t have our passports, we did not cross into Gibraltar. In any case, we were quite satisfied just looking at this massive rock, which was dramatically shrouded in wisps of fog. Much later in the vacation, we drove inland north of Marbella and on a clear morning we were able to see Gibraltar, so far away.

By now the N340 was high above the Mediterranean, and before Tarifa, there were lots of billboards advertising ferry rides (30 minutes!) to Tangiers or Ceuta from Tarifa. We were very tempted to see Africa, but again – no passports and there was enough to see just in Andalucia. We contented ourselves with gazing across the sea when we got above Tarifa, the southern most point in Spain, and we thought we could see land on the other side. Past Tarifa, we turned a corner on the mountain highway and the scenery became surreal. Acres and acres of wind turbines spinning in that strong wind, hundreds of white fans along the ridges of the hills. It was so startling, and there was no place on that two-lane highway to stop and take a photo from the most dramatic viewpoints.

We were prepared to make a few stops on the way to Cadiz, and I voted for Baelo Claudio, the site of a 2nd century Roman town named after the Emperor Claudius. By now the N340 is somewhat inland, and we exited onto a smaller road that took us past pasture land, wildflowers, and glimpses of blue water between hills. There were a few cars parked here and there on the side of the road with people foraging – mushrooms, berries, escargot, wild asparagus, who knows? The road passed a settlement or two – they were too small to be called towns – and then opened up to a beautiful stretch of white sand beach. There were a couple of small restaurants there for the beach goers, and there were not many of them at all, and an enormous dirt parking lot beside the fenced area protecting the archaeological site. As we drove towards the lot, a very solemn portly old man in a straw hat waved us in, indicating where we could park. Since there were only five cars, I’m not sure we needed any help, but he took his role seriously and so we did as well. After making sure we were satisfied with the spot, he settled back onto his folding chair, with his moped and radio beside him.

The ticket booth was really just a wooden shack, and had we been EU citizens the entrance fee would have been free. But for two Euros apiece we saw one of the highlights of our trip. It was just my kind of place. There is much that is wonderful about Baelo Claudio. First of all, the location. Set in a bay that slopes uphill, with a view of that beautiful beach, protected at one end by a huge sand dune. The patrons of the Roman theatre would have faced the ocean during performances, what a backdrop. Second of all, it was not built over. Baelo Claudio existed because of its anchovy industry and so it was down here by the sea. The stone pits of the fish factory are still there. Some speculate that it wasn’t anchovy that made the town wealthy, but a fish sauce called garum, and no one knows the exact recipe for this. After a huge earthquake in the 7th C, the town was abandoned and forgotten, nothing was ever built on top of the ruins. So the site is by itself, not in the centre of a modern city, with modern stores and houses interspersing monuments. Thirdly, it is the scale of the place, a small town where you can walk the Decamanus (East-West main street) and the Cardo (North-South main street), and all the streets in-between, laid out in the standard Roman urban layout but on a scale that allows you to see it all and understand it all. It is the archetype of Roman town planning, and nowhere else on the Iberian peninsula is there such a perfect and complete example (according to the brochure anyway). Even if it isn’t the most perfect, the site is so spectacular that it is certainly unique.

The forum, temple, theatre, baths and many other public buildings have been excavated. Higher up the hill are remains of a watchtower and the sewage system, once connected by aqueduct to a water supply. One of the wonderful things they have done here is to plant wildflowers over the areas that have not yet been excavated, so that instead of dirt and gravel in the empty sections, there are gazanias, convovulus, lupins and other flowers planted inside low perimeter hedges of clipped rosemary.

It was now approaching lunch time, and Geoff was keen to see one of the famous pueblos blancos, or white villages, of Andalucia, so we checked the map and guidebook and decided to try Vejer de la Frontera (pronounced Beher). The white villages are perched on hills, with remains of walls and gates that are testimony to the ongoing invasions and political changes that dominate the history of this region. There are limestone outcroppings that simply and steeply jut out of a field, that is the typical geology of the place. For this reason perhaps, the villages were whitewashed with lime; now they are probably just painted white, but the traditional white lives on.

Vejer is extremely picturesque, pretty much everything was closed on a Sunday including the castle, the walls, and the churches. But we strolled the stone streets of the old quarter and peeked into courtyards that were paved with terracotta tiles, full of potted flowers. Geoff has some lovely shots of whitewashed buildings covered with fuschia-coloured bougainvillea, the blooms so dense that leaves are not even visible. Geraniums were everywhere, in every shade of red, pink, and orange, obviously thriving in that hot dry climate. The main plaza in Vejer is Plaze Espana, just gorgeous, a fountain in the center of fantastically whimsical design, a centerpiece all of wrought iron, with big green ceramic frogs circling it from the bottom of the fountain spitting up at the centerpiece. The fountain pool was decorated with green and yellow glazed tiles, and the plaza itself was of a granite so highly polished you could have killed yourself on it had it been wet.

The main plaza was noisy with cars trying to find parking. Vejer is supposed to be one of the prettiest of the white villages, and lots of other people had read Michelin. We decided to find a quieter street. We headed uphill from the plaza, climbed some steps, and found some tables and chairs set up on a stone terrace in the shade of some 14th century city walls (although a plaque on the arch of the gate insisted that it was 11th C). The restaurant kitchen and bar were actually across the street, just a tiny place with a bar and two tables. Despite the narrowness of the cobbled street, cars and motorcycles zoomed by at full volume and full speed. It seemed as though our waiter was risking his life each time he crossed the road to serve us. We had a simple meal of omelettes, salad and cold cuts, the olives and bread complimentary of course, and it was just perfect. On to Cadiz!

Cadiz is on a spit of sand, and spit is not exactly the right word. It’s on a long, long peninsula of sand. We drove by remains of city walls, industrial areas, and closer to the city, a very crowded beach on the ocean side of the spit. Then finally into Cadiz itself to see if we could find any evidence of the Phoenicians that founded the city in 1100 BC. Geoff was particularly interested in Cadiz because it is the oldest port city in Europe.

Unfortunately, the city was disappointing on a Sunday. Not only was everything closed, including the cathedral, the churches, the museums and the Teatro Romano, but what there is of historical Cadiz is mostly Baroque or neo-Classical. There is some Mudejar architecture (work of 13th-14th C Muslims still living in Christian Spain) around, but by now it was hot, we were tired, so after walking around and having a cold drink in the plaza beside the cathedral, we circumnavigated the city by car and headed out.

We decided to take an inland route to pass through Medina Sidonia. This was another lovely spot much coveted by invaders (Phoenicians, Romans, Visigoths, Moors, Christians) and the seventh duke of Medina Sidonia was the unlucky fellow who led the Spanish Armada. Well, everything was closed. We hadn’t figured out the timing of this touring business in Spain yet. We missed the morning shift and we missed the afternoon shift for the monuments. We also kept driving around past the same streets while following tourist signs, and then walking around, following the brown tourist signs to monuments (Arco de la Pastora, officina turismo, Roman baths) and not seeing anything before we finally figured out that “Ruta del something or other” meant a scenic route, not necessarily directions to get somewhere the quickest way. We got to the tourism office and the baths just as they closed, hiked up to see a Moorish gate with horseshoe arch and pillars of Phoenician origin, had a look at the main plaza (Plaza Espana!) and the town hall, and headed for home because I was so tired.

We took the A7 home because I could not bear to think of all those roundabouts in Marbella and all the coastal cities. The highway system is an experience anyway, with 130 kph speed signs that seem to mean the minimum speed. Geoff discovered that to signal is to show weakness, and that if everyone very decisively just changes lanes, that there is no need to signal anyway. We decided to just have some fruit and bread at the condo instead of going out to eat.

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