As the Christmas season approached, and a three-week long holiday loomed ahead, I was faced with a question: go home, or stay here? The prospect of a few weeks in New York excited me; I could see my family, my old friends, and tell them about everything I’d been doing. And there is just something delicious about returning home from a long time abroad. You are bathed in a mysterious, exotic aura, filled with stories, transformed—perhaps only subtly—by new experiences. Or so I’d like to think.

But staying in Spain was equally attractive, though for different reasons. I could travel, go someplace warm, see some beautiful sights when most of the other tourists would be away. And, besides, I only just got here; barely three months went by between my arrival and Christmas break. Finally there was the issue of airfare across the Atlantic, which is no inconsiderable thing.

Well, when I looked up the cost of flights, and when I then looked up the temperature in Málaga, there was hardly a decision to be made: pay $700 to go to wintry New York, or 30€ to go to sunny Andalusia. So on December 23, I was up late packing for a weeklong trip. (Packing doesn’t take me a long time, though, since I just throw some clothes in a suitcase and hope for the best.) This year, for the first time in our lives, my girlfriend and I weren’t celebrating Christmas with our families. We would spend Christmastime in Andalusia.

 

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The Voyage

On December 24—or Noche Buena (“Good Night”) as the Spanish call it—at an egregious hour in the morning, we met up with a couple of guys, roughly our age, that we’d contacted through Blablacar to make the drive down to Jerez de la Frontera.

They were both extremely nice, agreeable fellows; but I’m afraid they had Andalusian accents and I found them unusually difficult to understand. For those of you who don’t know, the people of Andalusia have something of a reputation for their way of speaking Spanish. For one, they speak in this rapid staccato, and seem to speak with their voice in their throat. It always seems to me like they’re mumbling, even when they’re talking quite loudly. What’s more, they drop the terminal “s” from every word: tres becomes tre, and gracias becomes gracia. This applies to names, too: Jerez is Jere here, and Cádiz, if you can believe it, is Cai (two syllables).

Thus conversation was, unfortunately, pretty stale. One of the guys, the driver, was an engineer, and the other was a cook in a gourmet restaurant. I could understand just enough of his talking to realize that he was mainly describing elaborate, fusion meals that he and his coworkers prepare—Japonese/Caribbean combinations and things of this nature. He obviously loved his job, and spoke of cooking with an enviable enthusiasm. But I’m afraid my command of Spanish cooking vocabulary extends only to the most basic of ingredients, and apart from that I was lost.

So I slept; and my girlfriend slept; and we woke up and then fell asleep again. The countryside around us, normally so flat and treeless that you can see for miles, was shrouded in a mysterious and impenetrable wall of fog. Apparently, morning in the south of Spain are typically foggy, which I find odd considering how absolutely, positively sunny and cloudless are the days.

We were on the same road that we took to Seville; so even though I couldn’t see much, memories flew by the window instead. There are castles, mainly in ruins, dotting the countryside; we must have passed five or six. It’s sort of incredible hearing the nonchalance in a Spaniard’s voice when they point out the window and say: “otro castillo.” Even more charming were the great, big, black silhouettes of bulls, which stood here and there, sometimes next to the highway, and sometimes on a hillside beyond. These big bull signs were, I believe, originally set up as advertisements; now they’ve become something of a symbol for Spain, and you can find them on book jackets and postcards.

Another charming feature of the landscape is the livestock. In what look like wild, unoccupied fields you can see cows grazing, sheep huddling in herds, and horses bathing their shiny coats in the sun. No human can be seen watching over them; not a fence is in sight—except perhaps and old, derelict stone barrier that looks short enough to hop over. The Spanish countryside has a kind of rugged, rural, pastoral charm that I didn’t expect to find in an industrialized country. Unlike the East Coast of the United States, which is an unbroken urban sprawl, the cities of Spain are widely spaced out, leaving large and rugged stretches of countryside in-between.

Symbols of the old world and the new are, however, strangely and pleasantly intermixed. Probably the best example of this are the wind turbines, gigantic white towers, their blades slowly and meditatively spinning. These can be seen dotted throughout the landscape, in the distance on the horizon, or right up next to the highway. On our first drive we also passed a field of solar panels, glistening like the future itself in the sun. These new technologies served to break the spell of the castles and the wandering livestock, snapping you back to the twenty-first century. But they also showed a wonderful continuity; people still made their living here, and were still doing their best to achieve harmony with their environment.

But the castles and the bulls and the horses and the turbines were nowhere to be seen this morning; just the grey fog, the clouds overhead, and the few feet of road in front of us. I was having trouble staying awake, and still more trouble staying asleep. So I drifted in that unpleasant, cramped, confusing, groggy twilight between consciousness and unconsciousness, my neck hurting, my knees in pain, my eyelids feeling as though a gigantic weight had been placed upon them. Long car rides are not always fun.

Soon we were there. Our driver, very kindly, drove us right up to the door of our Airbnb, and soon we found ourselves in Jerez de la Frontera, blinking in the familiar bright of the Andalusian sun, our bags sitting on the sidewalk, both of us tired and dazed, pressing the buzzer to get in.

 

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Jerez de la Frontera

Our hosts were just as kind and friendly and welcoming as our driver had been. One of them, the husband, was a professor of Spanish and French from Switzerland; and his wife was a wonderful woman from Peru. They were hospitality incarnate; they gave us a tour of the neighborhood, told us about the bus schedule, provided us information about all the things to do and see in Jerez, and in general answered every question we had. Not only this, but they had the patience of saints with our halting, slow, mistake-ridden Spanish.

Soon we were on the bus, heading towards town. We arrived at 3:30 in Jerez de la Frontera, on Christmas Eve. The restaurants were jam-packed, the streets filled with so many people eating, drinking, and talking that there weren’t nearly enough chairs, so most people had to stand—not they anybody seemed to care.

With more hope than foresight, we thought we could visit some of the main sights of Jerez. First, we tried the Alcázar, another Moorish castle. It was closed. Then, we tried the cathedral. Closed. After that, we walked to a bodega (winery), to taste some famous sherry. (Did you know that sherry is named after Jerez? I didn’t.) This was closed, too. It was Christmastime in Andalusia, and the only places open were the restaurants.

So we walked around, somewhat aimlessly, feeling lost and out of place. What were we doing here? This was the holidays, a time for family, and here we were, just the two of us, alone in a strange city with nothing to do. After two hours of wandering, we decided we might as well eat, and sat down at the first restaurant we could find.

Two tables over, an entire extended family seemed to be gathered. And all of them were playing flamenco. Three boys were strumming on guitars, others were stomping and clapping, and they were singing in unison, the women an octave higher than the men. It wasn’t professional by any means, but it was fun and exciting. Really, it’s hard for me to describe how romantic the day suddenly became as we sat outside in unbeatable weather, listening to people play flamenco—not because they were being paid, but to celebrate the holidays. One guy in particular, who was wearing a suit, sunglasses, and a scarf, was a particularly good singer, his tenor voice strong and dramatic.

We sat at that restaurant as long as we could before they kicked us out—which was at about 5 o’clock. Then, instead of taking the bus, we walked all the way home. We both felt good, but a little lost; we spoke with our families through Skype, but this only served to remind us of what we were missing. Loneliness is easy to forget during the days, when surrounded by crowds, overhearing small-talk, exchanging pleasantries with waiters. But as the sun goes down and the shops begin to close and the people retreat indoors to be with their brothers and sisters, sons and daughters, fathers and mothers, you cannot forget that you are not at home; that on another side of the globe, your own family is celebrating without you; and that instead of being surrounded by familiar faces, you are surrounded by faces entirely new, and even strange.

And with these thoughts, I went to sleep, happy at least for the nice weather to have my girlfriend with me. As so many cheesy song lyrics remind us, it’s a lot easier to be lonely with someone else.

Christmas morning. We got out of bed and went downstairs. Sadly, there weren’t any presents waiting for us, not even a tree; but there was breakfast. It was simple and delicious: bread, yogurt, fresh fruit, and Serrano ham. Even though they had eaten several hours before, our goodly hosts sat at the table with us just to talk. As I sat there, I realized how odd it was to be staying at the house of a stranger—or, at least, someone we’d just met—during Christmas. It felt somehow intrusive and indecent. But then I realized that our hosts were immigrants, too, and all their family was elsewhere as well. This made me feel a bit more at home.

We were off to town again, though we hardly knew what for. Just like yesterday, everything was closed; and today, not even the restaurants were busy. So this time, we didn’t even try to see anything. We sat down at a restaurant, ordered some food, and relaxed. I must admit, though, that I was getting a bit cranky by this point. Not only had I missed Christmas, but for what? So far, we hadn’t done anything on this trip; it seems I had made the wrong choice.

I calmed down a bit after I pulled out my Kindle to read. Sometimes, I wonder if a psychologist would say I’m addicted to reading. I do it obsessively, and I get testy when it’s been too long since I’ve read. Also, I’ve built up a tolerance, allowing me to read more difficult stuff for longer periods of time. Is this an addiction? Well, hopefully it’s not bad for me; though perhaps being dependent on anything, even books, is undesirable. The downside, of course, is that I get ruffled when I don’t have time to read; but the plus side is that I have an easy way to calm down and to regain composure. But is this what alcoholics tell themselves?

I read, and the day passed. There is something strangely intoxicating about sitting in a café in Andalusia. I don’t know quite what it is. A big part is just the weather. The sun is so bright it’s almost hypnotic. Do the residents here get used to it? The intense light is just so constantly present; it transforms everything, making colors brighter, laughter louder, people friendlier.

Then again, the people really are friendlier in Andalusia, or at least they seem to be. Here the social instinct of the Spanish is expressed most fully. In New York, there are crowds, of course; but the crowds are always crowds of individuals thrown together more or less by accident. But the Andalusians, they congregate purposefully, joyfully, taking pleasure just in the feeling of togetherness and camaraderie and excitement that good crowds generate.

Even though you aren’t really talking with anyone, the general sociability of your environment makes you feel at home. You feel like you’re a part of something, like you could strike up a conversation with anyone around you and they would happily reply. Well, that’s the impression at least; I’m not sure if it’s actually true. Our Spanish is still shaky enough to make us abnormally shy, especially around Andalusians. But just feeling so welcome, as if we’re part of a community, adds to the pleasure of the place.

What else about the cafés? The food is probably the least exiting part. We typically sit wherever we find a decent menú del día—the cheap and plentiful lunch specials of Spanish restaurants. This food is usually good, but not great. And I quickly exceed the one drink that’s included in the menú, but the drinks are cheap here.

The day wore on, and nothing much happened. I was reading an essay by David Foster Wallace; he was describing his time playing tennis as an adolescent—a topic that holds very little interest for me, seeing that I don’t even know enough about tennis to understand how it’s scored. The pomo stylistic devices weren’t helping either. But I hadn’t much else to do. My girlfriend and I had been spending so much time together that we normally don’t have a lot to say to one another; and besides, I was still a bit cranky, so I didn’t think I’d make good conversation.

I looked around the square; there wasn’t much to see. A cone-shaped, plastic Christmas light sat in the center. Beside that was a civic statue of someone riding a horse, surrounded by fountains and flowers. Palm trees were lightly swaying in the breeze. At another table, an elderly British woman was yelling at her dog every time it barked; but the dog didn’t seem to care, and kept on barking at every passerby. Behind me, some kids were riding around on a toy car ride that played cheesy music as it went by. Later, another group of kids were amusing themselves by exploding firecrackers in the middle of the plaza. These firecrackers were astoundingly loud, sounding like gunshots. I nearly jumped out of my seat the first time one went off. I’m still surprised that the kids’ parents, who were sitting nearby, didn’t mind their six and seven-year-olds playing with such powerful explosives. American parents would sooner let their kids eat gluten and get vaccinated.

We sat there for four solid hours, until the sun began to set behind the restaurant, casting the square in shadow. Without the sun, I began to feel colder and more lonely. So we left. The walk back took us through several strip malls, all completely vacant. Although the sun was still out, we could see the moon. It was full, and seemed much bigger and closer than usual. Behind us, the sun was setting, turning the sky a bright, storybook pink and orange. By the time we reached the house, all was dark.

Everything was closed, even the supermarkets. What would we eat? Our hosts came to the rescue. In their freezer, they had cooked, seasoned pork chops ready to heat up, along with rice, potatoes, and salad. It was fantastic. We sat around the table, talking some more—the kind of supremely pleasant small-talk that is both interesting and easygoing, the kind that engages the mind enough to keep your attention but not so much to get you flustered.

We ate; we slept. The next day we were going to Cádiz. But here I will break the chronology, so that I may write about all of our time in Jerez at once. So allow me to skip to the morning of December 27, our only day in Jerez when everything was open.

Our first stop was the Alcázar of Jerez. Yes, Jerez has an alcázar, too. This alcázar is located right in the center of town, surrounded on all sides by a pretty courtyard filled with orange trees. But today, this courtyard was also filled with people. The locals were holding a market around the old pile of stones—a flea market, more precisely. Tables and tables were filled with all sorts of delightful rubbish, old plastic toys, dusty books with broken spines, varieties of colorful knickknacks, tiny statuettes for nativity scenes, and much else. We wandered through the crowd as we looked for the entrance, passing around the entire building before we finally found it.

We went inside. The Alcázar of Jerez is much more a fortress than a castle. It is a compound surrounded on all sides by a high wall. I can’t say I found the insides very impressive. Compared with the alcázars in Seville and Córdoba, this one had little to offer. Though there was a garden inside, it was fairly small; and the walls and floors lacked that delicate, delightful Moorish ornament you can find in Seville. To compensate, there were areas of archeological interest: you could walk into the remains of a Moorish bath, and see the oven and the machinery that the Christian conquerors used to make their pottery. But the best part was just the opportunity to stand on the walls and see the whole city spread out before us. Yet it took us barely an hour to explore everything. Then we went across the plaza to see the cathedral.

Compared with others I’ve seen, the Jerez Cathedral is quite small, though this doesn’t detract from its charm. Stylistically speaking, the cathedral has some interesting features; what I noticed were the gothic flying buttresses combined with neoclassical columns. As usual, I was excited to walk around the building; but this plan was dashed as soon as we walked in the door. The people were having a service.

The whole place was packed, every pew totally filled. At the altar, several white-robed priests were gathered. One of them was speaking through a microphone, his old, tired voice projected throughout the cavernous space. He sighed rather than preached, seeming to exhale the words with minimal emphasis. Meanwhile, his proclamations were punctuated by the cadences of an organ, going from the dominant to the tonic minor chord. This might have been the first time in my life that I’ve heard an organ in a cathedral. The sound was duly impressive. But more interesting were the musical interludes provided by a group of flamenco singers and guitar players. Yes, here in Jerez they even have flamenco in their church services. It sounded absolutely great in that old building, and provided a welcome contrast to the old gentleman’s fatiguing voice.

“You gonna put that in your blog?” asked my girlfriend as we walked out.

“Of course,” I said. “I put everything in my blog.”

This was the end of our time in Jerez; we had to eat lunch, pick up our luggage, and then catch a Blablacar ride to Málaga. But before I tell you about that city, I need to swing back in time to relate our daytrip to Cádiz, which we took on December 26.

 

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Cádiz

As usual, the trip began with a problem. Trying to act with foresight, we bought train tickets the day before. But, as our host told us later that night, the tickets are only good for one day. Ours were expired. So we had to try to convince the train official to change our tickets, and do this with our halting Spanish.

We had an even bigger problem. Although we took a Blablacar to get here, we booked a flight to return to Madrid. But as my girlfriend realized on Christmas Day, we didn’t have our passports. She had forgotten them. (Normally, she keeps my passport, too, because she doesn’t trust me with it.) Could we board the plane with our driver’s licenses? Would that be enough? We needed to check to make sure.

The morning was thus off to a stressful start. We both had that sort of irritable cabin-fever you get when you spend day after day with somebody in a foreign country; every word we exchanged was peevish bickering. Things ran pretty smoothly, though. The man at the ticket office was very nice and understanding; it took him only five minutes to change our tickets. This sort of thing would never happen in New York. Then, we sat down in the waiting room (the next train wasn’t coming for an hour) and tried calling the airline.

“I don’t understand,” my girlfriend said. “It’s not working. I’m just getting this weird message.”

“Try again and lemme listen,” I said. She did, and I held the phone up to my ear. Indeed, there was a message; but it was in such fast Spanish I hardly understood a word.

“I dunno,” I said. “I’ll try with my phone.”

I called the same number, and got the same message.

“I think it’s saying that we need to add money,” I said, after listening closely. “Though I don’t know why. We just recharged our phones.”

“Ugh,” my girlfriend said.

“Wait, let me try calling you,” I said, and dialed her number.

I got the same bloody message.

“What’s going on?” I said. “We can’t make calls with our phones, apparently.”

“Damn passports,” she said. “Can’t believe I forgot them.”

“I guess the only thing we can do is try tonight at our Airbnb,” I said.

So we put the issue to the side, and waited for the train. I passed the time by reading more David Foster Wallace. This next essay was about television and its effect on modern American fiction. It was quite dated, however, as people’s viewing habits have changed dramatically since the mid-nineties. But it passed the time.

Soon the train came and we were off. The ride was gorgeous. We seemed to be going through wetlands; on either side, we could see fields half-flooded with water, with irrigation ditches dug through them in a grid-shaped pattern. What were they growing there? Outside the window I could see the aquamarine blue of the ocean, sparkling in the sunlight. (Okay, I have to shamefully admit that I was under the illusion that Cádiz was on the Mediterranean. It’s on the Atlantic Ocean. I’m an American doofus.) I was somehow reminded of Key West, even though I’ve never been there.

We arrived. My first impression—and impression that gained in force throughout my stay—was that Cádiz was painfully pretty. This description is almost literal, as every new sight made my stomach twist a little more. The old city center sits on a peninsula, jutting out into the ocean. The narrow streets, lined with white, pink, yellow, and skyblue buildings, lead you through the interior; and every few blocks you come across a little plaza, with sidewalks tiled in black and white, and tropical trees I can’t hope to name. Eventually you’ll reach the water, lightly lapping the shoreline, which is so bright and blue it looks like its been dyed. In places, a wall separates the sidewalk from the shore. Perhaps it was originally for defense, or perhaps it’s just a levee.

We got to the periphery and strolled. The scene was so intensely pretty that it made me felt simultaneously ecstatic and relaxed. My girlfriend had a list of things to see and do here, but now we couldn’t believe anything could be better than the city itself. We passed a church painted with pastel pink, built in a colonial style, and kept going.

Eventually we reached a park, El Parque Genovés. A long promenade cut through the center, each side lined with ferns shaped into spirals and cylinders. Big, twisting, knotty trees, covered in rubbery broad leaves, jutted from the ground, their trunks exploding in multiple directions; one tree’s trunk was even horizontal enough to sit on like a bench. At the end of the walkway was a little pond with plastic dinosaurs playing inside. Trees even more bizarre bid us farewell as we left—one with a bulbous, almost cucumber-like trunk; and another that looked like it’d been turned upside-down, with its roots in the air.

We turned another corner, and now the prettiness became actually painful. Directly before us was a bay, filled with little white row-boats, floating idly in the calm, sparkling waters. To our left was what looked like an old fortress, a squat, square structure built of tan stones, standing over the water. And to our right was the beach, nearly empty. A domed, winged white building stood on platforms on the sand, perhaps some old aristocratic beach resort. The scraggly heads of palm trees dotted the shoreline, and a boardwalk extended into the ocean beyond. Really, my scribblings can’t do it justice; it couldn’t have looked more perfect. .

I couldn’t pull myself away; so we sat in the nearest café, and decided to have lunch. As luck would have it, we made a good choice, for the service was attentive and the food delicious. I sipped a glass of sherry as I attempted to burn the view into my memory. The white boats and buildings, the yellow-brown sand and tiled walkway, the ocean breeze and the slightly sweet taste of sherry—I was enamored and intoxicated. It was one of those views that look immediately familiar because they are so classically picturesque.

(This beach is called La Caleta, by the way, and I’m not the only one who’s fallen in love with it. According to Wikipedia, it has inspired musicians and poets. But probably the reason it looked so familiar was because I actually had seen it before; it’s featured in the James Bond movie, Die Another Day—though in that film, the scene is set in Cuba.)

An hour later and we were on the move again. We went straight for the beach, stumbling over the sand in a kind of bewildered, euphoric daze. Only a few other people were there, most of them sitting on the sand and looked out towards the ocean. At the end of the beach was a boardwalk, leading towards a big structure sticking out into the water: the Castillo de San Sebastián.

“Oh, this was on my list,” my girlfriend said. “It’s a castle or something.”

“Let’s go,” I said.

Beside the walkway, a man was building an elaborate sand castle. I can only imagine how many formless sand piles he must have created before this masterful miniature gothic cathedral. But impressive as it was, we had a real castle to see.

We started making our way across the platform to the castle. The stone walkway was narrow, only wide enough for two people abreast, but it stretched several hundred feet into the ocean. By now it was getting windy and overcast; the waves were no longer gentle, but angry. They splashed against the platform, spraying foam onto the walkway and covering my glasses in salty droplets. The wind whipped up every few seconds, turning our clothes into balloons and making our hair dance wildly—and occasionally blinding my girlfriend with her own locks.

The further out we crept, the more of Cádiz we could see behind us. The city was no longer the pretty jewel it had been one moment ago, but a bold bulwark against the brooding power of the sea. And standing there, looking back at the maritime city and the sea, I believe I got an inkling, only the faintest, of how brave and reckless sailors must have been to set off for a voyage across a seemingly limitless ocean, into seas and lands unmapped, powered only by the wind and the waves. Those guys had guts. I can hardly find my way around my own city without using a GPS.

We reached the castle. It was in a dilapidated state, consisting mainly of ruins and rubble. There was a small research facility for ocean life, but the exhibition fit into a single room and didn’t much interest me. I can’t say I was very impressed by the castle, either, which was mostly a collection of stone walls. But the view from the tip of the island was splendid, allowing you to see the whole coast of Cádiz and far beyond. Yet it was really the ocean that captivated me. The sound of crashing waves, the smell of salt, and the feeling of the cool breeze chilling you to the bone.

By the time we decided to walk back, I was in that dreamy, intoxicated state that overcomes me when I spend too long looking at something beautiful. But this time it was something more than beauty. As I walked back, buffeted by the wind, splashed by the waves, I felt my identity being washed away, too. It was the same feeling that always comes upon me when I gaze at the ocean: that I was melting into the environment, my identity blending with everything around me. It’s probably the closest I come to mystical experiences.

We still had much to see. Our next stop was the cathedral. It wasn’t very far off. Its tall form towered over a row of apartment buildings. These buildings were painted in pretty pastel colors; and the view of the marble cathedral looming above these made that feeling of painful prettiness return. Our road ran right along the sea; and to my right, separating the sidewalk from the ocean, was a pile of giant, perfectly cubic stones. I suppose they had been formed by pouring concrete into a mold. But why not just use natural stones? Don’t know, but it is amusing that one of them is painted to look like a die.

We reached the cathedral and went inside. This was far from gothic; everything was smooth lines, rounded forms, and clean white marble. This was neoclassical, elegant and symmetrical. According to the audioguide, this cathedral was built when Cádiz began to profit enormously from Spain’s trade with her colonies in America. Thus this grand edifice resulted. Though similar in scale, the feeling evoked by this architectural style is so different from the gothic cathedrals I’ve walked through.

Toledo, for example, is unearthly, dark, brooding, otherwordly; its purpose—a purpose inscribed in every square inch—is not to celebrate the congregation, but to give them just a taste of the divine majesty and wrath above. This cathedral, by contrast, looked more like a celebration of human reason than divine might. Its even proportions, its emphasis on balance, its ghostly white marble columns, all this reminds one more of a mathematical problem made manifest rather than a vengeful deity who sits in judgment.

If you visit this cathedral, make sure to go to the crypt in the basement. There isn’t much to see, but the central chamber has really astounding acoustics. Stand in the right place, and even a whisper will be magnified into an omnipresent hiss. And the sounds of your footsteps bounce from the roof to the floor like a rubber bouncy ball sped up fifty times. Its quite impressive.

Next stop was the Torre Tavira, an old tower from the city’s golden age of trade. At first I thought it was a scam—pay a few to climb a lot of stairs. But it turned out to be perhaps the best thing we did in Cádiz. First, the view from the top is probably the most impressive in the city; it’s magnificent. I texted a picture to my mom, who responded: “Now you’re making me jealous.” But the experience got even better when we were led by the guide to the camara obscura. This is a very old and very simple device, consisting of a darkened box or chamber with a small opening for light; an image, upside down but otherwise accurate, is produced on the inside by use of a mirror.

Our tour guide led us into the room, had us encircle a disc-shaped surface, and dimmed the lights. Then, she asked if anybody needed her to speak in English—but my girlfriend and I bravely decided we’d listen to everything in Spanish. The show began. Light poured in through the roof, created a perfect image of the city on the surface. It was magnified quite a bit; and by turning the mirror overhead, the guide could focus on different areas. It wasn’t terribly informative, just the names of notable places and a short description; but it was a strange and very cool way to see the city.

The show ended and we went downstairs. By now I was exhausted. Being continually astonished really takes a lot out of you; I didn’t have the energy to gape at anything else. Besides, it was getting dark by now, and we had to get back to Jerez to sleep. So we pulled ourselves away from this city, walked to the train, and returned to our Airbnb. Please, if you get the chance, visit Cádiz. It’s a jewel.

But we still had business to attend to: our flights. As soon as we got back, we asked our hosts if they could help us call our airline. With their usual helpfulness, they accepted; after a short call in Spanish that I didn’t much understand, he informed us that our drivers licenses would work.

“No problem, they said. As long as it’s a legal document.”

“Great!”

We were relieved and exhilarated. But this isn’t the end of this story.

 

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Nerja

Our next Airbnb was in Málaga. Our Blablacar driver for the ride was another nice fellow. His accent, however, was absolutely incomprehensible to us. He spoke like a jackhammer, and made about as much sense. I’ve heard from people here in Madrid (who are obviously biased) that the people of Cádiz have the worst accents in Andalusia; some Spaniards even tell me that they have trouble understanding the people down there. It really was like another language to us.

At least we could understand the radio, since it was in English. Apparently tons of people from England live in and around Málaga, so the place is practically bilingual. Radio stations, advertisements, store names—English is all over the place.

Before our trip, a friend of ours had told us that the province of Málaga is his absolute favorite, so we decided to spend two of our three days there taking day trips to other cities in the area. The first of these was Nerja.

Nerja is a short bus-ride from Málaga. The bus station is at Vialia, which I think is the central transportation hub in the city, for both buses and trains. We tried to get up early to go, but we were both feeling so tired and lazy that we didn’t end up getting to the bus station until 11 o’clock in the morning.

By the time we arrived at the station, I was an irritated, useless wreck. We had only bought breadsticks for breakfast; and when I don’t eat a good breakfast, I get cranky and childish; I get so frustrated and lightheaded that I can’t do anything. Add to this the thirty-minute walk from our Airbnb, and it makes for one very cranky me. I snapped at everything my girlfriend said, couldn’t pay attention long enough to locate our proper bus, and in general whined like a baby while my girlfriend was forced to do everything. Lucky for me, she did find the bus (while I was busy buying a sandwich) and soon we were on our way to Nerja.

Nerja is a coastal town on the Mediterranean. It’s mainly a tourist town now, so far as I can tell. Judging from what I overheard, almost every other person was from England or from Germany. Young, old, fat, skinny, well and poorly dressed, every species of tourist was present.

And for good reason. The place is beautiful. After walking through the town from the bus stop, my girlfriend and I suddenly found ourselves standing in a plaza filled with restaurants and people, which sat on a big rock overlooking the sea. The view was incredible. In front was the Mediterranean, a bright aquamarine; and flanking the plaza, far below, were small beaches. Foamy waves washed the sand where kids were playing in the water. Over these beaches, white houses and hotels clung to the cliffs, every window open to the ocean breeze. It could not have looked more like a tropical paradise.

We climbed down some stairs from the plaza to the beach. It wasn’t very big, actually, since steep cliffs hemmed in the sand on either side. But it certainly was pretty. Whole families were sunning themselves on the sand; brightly colored canoes were sitting near a little hut; and a father was playing with his daughters in the gentle waves. Neither of us were wearing swimsuits, though, so we could do little more than enjoy the scene—not that this wasn’t rewarding enough.

After we got our fill of staring, we climbed the stairs again and ate. We had only one thing more to see in Nerja: the caves. The Caves of Nerja were discovered as recently as 1959; since then they have become a major tourist attraction. The only reason I knew about them was because our previous hosts, in Jerez, recommended them. Unfortunately for us, the caves aren’t in the town center; they’re about an hour away by foot. And since we didn’t really know any other way to make the journey, and since the weather was nearly perfect, we decided we would take this hour, and walk.

A lot of this journey was, unsurprisingly, pretty dull; though there were some neat things to see along the way. We passed restaurants, houses, farmlands, bridges, with the Mediterranean constantly on our right. Eventually we came to the Aqueduct of Nerja, which looks like a Roman Aqueduct, more or less, but was actually built in the 1800s for the industrial revolution. It’s a fine piece of architecture, with four rows of arches built of red brick. And apparently it’s still in use. We eventually arrived at the caves, both of us quite tired, paid the entrance fee, and descended into the bowels of the earth.

The first chamber was about the size of my living room. This was roughly what I expected, so I wasn’t disappointed. The next was slightly bigger, though not terribly interesting. Then we walked into one of the big chambers.

It was stunning. I had no idea these caves were so huge. Standing at the bottom of one of the big chambers was like standing in a basilica looking up at the roof. The walls and floors, the stalactites and stalagmites (I forget which one is which), had that peculiar melted look, as if the rock of the cave was chocolate left out too long in the sun. How many years of water drip, drip, dripping must it have taken for these bubbling, flowing textures to have arisen in solid stone? You can’t wrap your mind around it.

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And the caves kept going, every chamber more impressive than the next. In the last and biggest there was a tremendous pillar, extending from the floor to the ceiling like a column in a cathedral. Indeed, the elaborate patterns in the rock reminded me very much of gothic ornamentation. And as I looked around the space, I couldn’t help thinking that this was nature’s response to humanity’s attempts at grandeur. Unconscious, undirected forces of the earth conspired to create this place, a place that makes our concentrated labor, the product of intelligence and persistence, seem almost pathetic.

I also thought about the early humans, thousands of years ago, who must have taken refuge in caves similar to this one—perhaps this very cave—seeking protection from the cold and the predators. What were their thoughts as they sat here in the darkness? What did they talk about? How did they pass the idle hours? What did they ask from life? What were their dreams? And did this place, so grand and so inhumanly vast, excite the first mystical yearnings in our ancestors? We cannot know; but standing there, it seems easier to guess.

After an hour, we were blinking in the daylight. Tired and thirsty, we still had the long walk back from the caves to the city center, to catch the bus back to Málaga. So we bought bottles of water and set out, too tired to talk even if we had anything to say. The clouds closed in, evening fell, and the sun was setting in the distance when we reached the station, bright pink and lovely. Both of us fell asleep almost immediately after we sat down. We had to rest: we had another trip the next day.

 

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Ronda

I am in no position to say this, but I suspect that the drive from Málaga to Ronda is one of the pleasantest in Spain. The countryside is exquisitely rustic, with sun-baked fields and tiny towns full of white houses. We took a Blablacar with a nice young woman, on her way to her pueblo nearby. By the way, it seems to be a common thing for Spaniards, young and old, to refer to their birthplace as “my pueblo.” I gather that most young people leave to go to school and find jobs; but family ties remain strong, and weekend trips to visit parents and relatives are ubiquitous.

We were dropped off in the center of town, and began making our way to the only landmark we knew: the bridge. There are actually three bridges in Ronda, but the most iconic and by far the largest is the Puente Nuevo, or “new bridge.” It’s eye-poppingly massive, a stone structure standing almost 400 feet above the river. I’d seen pictures of it and wondered if the reality would measure up.

The reality surpassed the photos. It looks like something from a movie, made using small-scale models or CGI. How on earth was it built? What mad giants put this together? It seems impossible; and according to Wikipedia, it almost was. It took over 40 years from start to finish, and fifty workers died in the process. They must have been paying very well to entice people to work in such dangerous, daunting conditions. Even so, for all our love of the heroic individual, the Puente Nuevo is a brilliant testament to what ordinary people can do when we work alongside one another. Mountains can be moved one pebble at a time.

We paid the entrance fee to walk down into the bridge itself. Inside was a small room filled with TV monitors, displaying information. None of this particular caught my attention, however, so in just five minutes we went back up. A word to the wise: this is a waste of money; don’t bother entering the bridge.

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After we had taken our fill of photos, we began to walk around the promenade overlooking the cliff. The view of the countryside was, if possible, even lovelier than the bridge itself. A vast green field was divided into neat patches, some brown, some with rows of bushy plants; here and there was a farm, looking like doll houses from so faraway; beyond was a patch of forest, which led to the sierra in the distance, the morning fog still sitting on the peaks. On a dirt road a pickup truck was making its way to who-knows-where, throwing up a tiny cloud of dust. To our left we could see a path leading down from the other side of town into the gorge.

It looked like too much fun to resist. We crossed the bridge, found the path, and soon were carefully edging our way down. The path forked several times, and each time we chose the one that led towards the bridge. At times it was quite steep and slippery, so we proceeded slowly for fear of falling. We were getting close to the bridge now; it loomed overhead like a NYC skyscraper; the white noise of the small waterfall below was now clearly audible. After walking down a hazardous rock path, made slippery by a small trickle of water, we came upon a little shack. It was visibly run-down, obviously hadn’t been used in years. A narrow concrete path, barely a foot wide, led to it; on our left was a pool of water, and on our right a steep drop that would seriously hurt. I figured if I felt my balance slipping, I’d rather get soaked then killed. But our balance didn’t fail, and we made it to the shack.

It wasn’t terribly interesting. The inside was full of old leaves, beer cans, and other garbage. On the walls was spraypainted the ominous message “It’s easy to descend into hell,” which I took to mean the square hole in the floor.

“Wanna go down there?” I asked my girlfriend.

“No way.”

“Good idea.”

We turned around and began again to approach to the bridge. In fact, the path went right under it. A staircase that bounced too much to inspire confidence led down to a concrete pathway with a wobbly iron railing that went straight through to the other side. We passed underneath, and then under some impressively huge boulders sitting at the base of the bridge. Both of us were in stunned silence that we were allowed down here; this would never be permitted in the U.S., where I bet we would be instantly shot as terror suspects.

This impression of trespassing was reinforced after we found ourselves in a small working area. There was a concrete hut, empty on the inside, with plants growing on the roof; clearly it hadn’t been used in years. Nearby were all sorts of metal devices—a trough, a wheel used to raise and lower a barrier, and other things I didn’t understand—laying apparently unused and rusted. The place had that sort of eerie, post-apocalyptic feel that all abandoned places have; and this contrasted most strongly with the running water, the vast cliffs extending overhead, and the bright sun.

Still, we didn’t linger long; I think both of us were silently scared of getting arrested. After our fill of pictures, we started trekking back up. The steep ascent didn’t feel good on my knees, I can tell you.

By now we had had our fill of the bridge. I knew of only one other thing to see in Ronda: the Plaza de Toros, or bull ring. Apparently, it’s the oldest extant bull ring in Spain, and thus in the world one would think. It’s not used for bullfights anymore, however; now it’s a museum. The price was a bit steep for what was inside, but we decided to go ahead and enter anyway.

I’d never seen a bullring before, so I had nothing to compare it with. But it was quite pretty. Two rows of seats surrounded a circular area, filled with sand. A wooden barrier separated this space from the first row of seats. The barrier wasn’t quite tall enough for my taste, though. It was easy for me to imagine a big, angry bull leaping over the wall and plopping down into the audience. I was also surprised that the ring itself wasn’t bigger. It wasn’t small, by any means; but from what I know of bullfighting, there are several men on foot and on horseback during a fight, besides the big bull. I stood in the center and tried to imagine what it would feel like, how absolutely terrified I would be if I was facing a bull, only armed with a cape and a little sword. I have no idea how they do it; I suppose I’ll just have to watch one.

On the inside of the ring is a little museum. It’s a bit shabby looking, but it had a lot of interesting information in it about the history of bullfighting and of other violent European pursuits, such as dueling and hunting. Most memorable for me were several pairs of ornate dueling pistols, in lush velvet cases, alongside plaques that explained which famous persons had used these weapons on one another. The fact that people actually did this sort of thing—that it isn’t just some conceit made up by Hollywood—I find deeply impressive. I can’t imagine any situation in which I would let somebody fire a loaded pistol at me purely for the sake of honor. As the honorable Falstaff said:

Can honour set-to a leg? No. Or an arm? No. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honour hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honour? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honour”? Air.

I can’t help feeling that bullfighters would disagree. I’m sure Hemingway would. But I’m no Hemingway, in so many ways.

Speaking of Hemingway, after we spent enough time in the museum to get our money’s worth—staring at the rifles and pistols, the elaborate costumes for men and horses on display, and perusing the old bullfighting posters advertising bygone shows—we made our way to the gift shop, where I found a copy of his Death in the Afternoon. I couldn’t help myself.

Our remaining time we spent strolling around the city. There were Moorish baths, but we’d seen some at the Alcázar in Jerez; the only other site I knew was the so-called Puente Roman, or “Roman Bridge.” Apparently, this is a misnomer since the bridge was built by the Moors. It spans the same river as the Puente Nuevo, though it’s much smaller. Still, considering how much older the bridge is, I still found it impressive; and the view of the countryside beyond, though not nearly so spectacular, is quite pleasant.

We kept strolling, making our way up narrow streets paved with stones, back towards the train station to meet our ride back. My shoes—cheap sneakers with obnoxious neon green laces—have thin soles, so I could feel every stone sticking out from the pavement. Our footsteps made that distinctive thud footsteps make in quiet, narrow, stone-paved Spanish streets.

Eventually we reached the main road, got to the station, and were again driving through the Spanish countryside. We had only one day left before our trip was over. This one was for Málaga.

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Málaga

We had a full day of sightseeing ahead of us in Málaga, but we had business to attend to first: our flights. We decided that, even though we had already called our airline, we would go to the airport to ask in person.

The Málaga Airport is only twenty minutes away from the city center on the Cercanías; we were there in no time. We walked up an escalator and into a big building filled with people queuing behind one another dragging big bags and looking generally miserable. Walking through an airport, even a relatively uncrowded airport, tends to give me an uncomfortably Orwellian feeling. Perhaps it’s the lines and the security, or the heavy emphasis on procedure and regulations; or maybe it’s just the sour and anxious looks on everyone’s faces.

I felt sour, too, because I had to spend a part of my day in Málaga dealing with a silly mistake. But on we went, past the long lines for airport security and check-in, finally finding the help desk for Iberia.

“Hello,” we said to the woman (in Spanish). “We have a question. Our flight to Madrid is tomorrow, but we don’t have our passports. Are our driver’s licenses okay?”

“Uh, I don’t think so…” the woman said. “I’m not sure, but I believe you need your passports. Can you have them mailed?”

“No, our flight’s tomorrow.”

“Ah.”

“We have pictures of our passports.”

“Ah.

“Is that enough?”

“I’m not sure… but I don’t think so.”

“How can we make sure?”

“You have to ask the check-in supervisor. He should be over there,” she said, pointing to an empty desk. “I don’t know when he’s coming back.”

“Thanks,” we said, and went to some empty chairs to wait. Ten minutes went by, then twenty; no supervisor guy. I was feeling progressively worse and worse, partly because I was just hungry, and partially because this seemed like a completely pointless waste of time. My girlfriend wasn’t feeling much better.

“Ugh,” she said. “I can’t believe I forgot those passports.”

“This is stupid,” I said.

“Where is that guy?”

“Stupid Spanish airline.”

That’s a fair sample of our conversation.

Thirty minutes went by, and the supervisor didn’t appear.

“How about this,” I said. “Just get a refund or some credit from the help desk, and we’ll take a Blablacar back tomorrow. I don’t want to take any chances with this.”

“Fine.”

We walked to the helpdesk.

“Hello? We’d like to cancel our flight for tomorrow.”

“I’m afraid I can’t do that. You’ll have to do it online or call this number.”

“But our phones aren’t working.”

She shrugged.

We walked away, getting more frustrated by the second.

“Oh wait,” my girlfriend said. “I can just use my American phone to call. I think that one’s working.”

She pulled out her American phone and made the call. Soon she was connected with somebody from Iberia, and this person spoke English.

I overheard one side of the conversation.

“Hello, I need to ask, can we get on a flight with our driver’s licenses. No? Okay then I’d like to cancel the flight. Our reservation code is XXXXXX. Can we get a refund? No? Okay, can we get credits with Iberia? No? Really? Oh, I see. I see. Okay. Okay, thanks. Okay, goodbye.”

We were screwed. We couldn’t fly, and we couldn’t get any sort of refund. My girlfriend, who paid for the flight tickets, would lose her money. A deep pit opened in my stomach, the kind of gnawing hopelessness that only modern bureaucracy can produce. It’s the same horrible feeling I get when I’m filling out an application for something important, a job or a school, and can’t stop my paranoid daydreams about forgetting one crucial field of information, misplacing one comma in my essay, sending the application one day too late.

But lucky for us, the flights were pretty cheap, so not much money was lost. It could have been a whole lot worse. Still, my girlfriend was pretty upset about it, and I wasn’t in the mood to be comforting. So we rode back to the city in sullen silence, her beating herself up, me fantasizing about eating pizza, after wasting two hours and 80€ on a flight. Thus began our day in Málaga.

We ate quickly in a shawarma place, and soon we headed to our first stop: the Alcazaba. This is a citadel in the center of the city from the time of the Moors. It stands on a hill overlooking the surrounding streets, a collection of tan walls and towers. We paid the small fee and went inside. Most of the walking was uphill, which didn’t make the doner kebab in my stomach sit any easier. The place was attractive for its gardens and its promenades rather than its architecture. Absent was that superfluity of ornament that one finds in the best Moorish architecture. The place seemed like it had been gutted, its walls the only remaining husk.

Still, it was a pleasant hour spent wandering around its walls and gardens, enjoying the ubiquitous Andalusian fountains and streams that flowed all over the place. These tiny aqueducts, carrying water down stairwells, across walkways, and into fountains, might be the most distinctive sign of Andalusia. Although I don’t know this for sure, I suspect that these comes from the Moorish legacy; water has a special significance in Islam, I believe. Regardless of creed, running water gives everything the touch of paradise, especially in a climate this hot and dry.

Below the Alcazaba is a Roman Amphitheater. You can walk inside and sit on the top steps for free. By now, tired, frustrated, and my stomach now in full-blown rebellion from the greasy food, it felt magnificent just to sit down for a few minutes. Immediately below us were the ruins of where the stage had been. Beyond was the modern sidewalk, where a street performer was singing and playing guitar. He was playing John Mayer, if memory serves.

To me this moment is something of a symbol for travel in Spain. This odd juxtaposition of ancient and new, of noble and tacky, of timeless and transitory, is what characterized all trips to historical places. The architecture is lovely, yet the constant crush of tourists with selfie-sticks and the peddlers with their overpriced baubles insistently shock one back to the present day.

Daylight was already waning, but there was something more I wanted to see: the Castillo de Gilbralfaro. This castle stands on the same hill as does the Alcazaba, but much higher up. To get to it, we had to go up one slanting road after another, which zig-zagged its way to the top. It must have taken half an hour to get there, with fairly frequent stops for two unathletic Americans to catch their breath. The views kept getting better, though, so we pressed on, until finally we reached the entrance and walked in.

As the guard informed us, we only had half an hour before the placed closed. We didn’t waste any time. At the first entrance to the castle walls, we climbed up and began walking. The view from up here was unbeatable. We could see for miles and miles, the harbor, the city, and the sierra to the north. The castle walls went all around the perimeter, allowing us to see the view from every direction.

After walking across one wall, entering a tower, and climbing some stairs, we found ourselves standing on the highest point of the fortification, absolutely alone. The whole city stretched out before me; I could see the ships at dock and the massive cranes used to load and unload them; two large freighters were sitting in the water offshore; thousands of white apartment and office buildings spread across the hilly terrain; and green mountains curved into the horizon. From up here, everything looked so precious and so delicate. The town, in particular, looked like a bunch of toys scattered across the landscape.

I know this will sound ridiculous, but as I stood there, my hands resting on the battlement, looking out at the city beyond, I was convinced that I could taste, however slightly, what it must feel like to be a king. Everything below me looked fragile, while I felt suddenly so powerful in my tower. I looked across the city, and tried to recreate the thoughts that would go through an actual king surveying his kingdom. Imagine knowing that each person in each house, each shopkeeper and blacksmith, each landlord and beggar, was subject to your laws and dependent on your protection? This is the kind of power that gets to people’s heads. I was only fantasizing and it got to mine.

I don’t think I’ve done justice to how beautiful the view is from the Castillo de Gilbralfaro, so I’ll just add this: it was by far the most beautiful thing I saw in Málaga. I hope you get a chance to go.

Night was falling. To our right, as we faced the Mediterranean, the sun was setting, turning the sky a vivid orange. We descended slowly, by now completely cured of the stress of the morning, once more under the enchanting aura of Andalusia. The weather was perfect, the sky was cloudless, and everybody around was laughing. And in this state of reverie, we headed for the beach.

By the time we arrived, the sun had sank completely below the horizon, leaving the world in twilight. We walked alongside the water, listening to the soft sound of the waves. It was dark and a bit chilly now, and only a few people were on the beach. Eventually we reached a walkway made of stone leading out into the water. As we began to walk out, we passed by a blind couple making their way back. It seemed bizarre and a bit dangerous for blind people to be walking here, since it was rocky and the main attraction was the view. But I suppose getting closer to the splashing waves and the sea air would be just as rewarding.

We got to the end and sat down on a rock. The last light was just leaving the horizon, painting the western sky purple and the skyline red. The shore, the city, and the harbor were outlined against the sky; the skeletal silhouettes of cranes hung over the water; a lighthouse began flashing its warning. To our right, we could see the two freight ships sitting in the water, now looking like tiny villages with their lights turned on. In the city of Málaga, lights began to flicker on, red and orange and yellow. The wind whipped up, chilling us through our light clothes and sending waves splashing.

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We went back, towards town. We passed the beach and walked along the harbor. A ferris wheel, lit up with blue lights, was spinning in the distance. Dozens and dozens of shacks lined the road, selling fireworks, dolls, toys, knickknacks, incense, candy, and nativity figurines. The sidewalk was crowded with Spaniards; kids were all over the place, some sparring with toy swords, some slumped in sleep in strollers. We reached the avenue with the Christmas lights and turned towards town. A long arch of Christmas lights extended over the packed sidewalk. It might have been the biggest Christmas decoration I’d ever seen. Suns and moons and stars studded the glowing canopy; and although huge, the whole thing seemed tasteful rather than ostentatious. More than anything I saw that vacation, this walkway, crowded with laughing people, awoke in me that wonderful Christmas feeling, the feeling of naïve wonder and excitement, when you remember the magic of childhood when the world was simple and good, and everything was new.

Our trip had come to a close. We were taking a Blablacar back the next day. To celebrate, we ate at El Pimpi, a restaurant and winery that was recommended to us by a previous driver. The service was astonishingly attentive for a Spanish restaurant (I learned later that they charged extra for the service here), the food was excellent, and I drank several pintados, which the waiter explained was half sweet wine and half fino (a particularly dry type of sherry).

In the morning we woke up early, said goodbye to our hosts, and walked to the train station, Vialia, to meet our driver. Five hours later, we were stepping out of the car, into the cold Madrid air. It was New Year’s Eve. That night we celebrated with some friends of ours, ate the customary 12 grapes as the clock counted down, and kissed. I don’t know what kind of year 2016 will be, but I hope it ends half as well as 2015.

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