20 Sept - Los Pueblos Blancos
Our first visitors in Gibraltar were our good friends Bob and Sylvia Sanguinetti. Bob (a Gibraltarian by birth) has been running the port here since leaving the Navy three years ago and they are making the most of the fascinating opportunities that come from living in this part of the world. So our busy morning turned into a leisurely dit-spinning session instead! The first task was to send the outboard on extended, unpaid leave at the local agents. We handed over some funny English Pounds to a nice chandler who sold us things we’d been looking for since May and we found a splendid engineering firm in an old Navy dockyard building from the eighteenth century to make us a cooling pipe for the engine. I wonder if we’ll actually see it before we depart for Morocco?
‘Windy Hill’ from the top of the mast. The ship on the right is the Sunborn Hotel Casino. We prefer the Rock Hotel!
The main event this week was the Road Trip. Two objectives: meet up with our good friend Jo Fontaina and then deliver Julie’s Birthday present – a night in Seville. I had hired a car at the airport, so stumped off to collect it on Tuesday morning. Unfortunately the car hire company, Goldcar, does not actually exist in Gib, despite having an ‘address’ in British Lines Road. After a couple of irate phonecalls, I crossed the border and found them in a grotty side street in La Linea. Having threatened them with the full force of the Spanish equivalent of the Trades Description Act, they barely blinked and countered with a request for an extra €23 for the privilege of filling the fuel tank for me at the end of the hire. I was aghast; the plan to buy duty-free petrol in Gib torpedoes by some grubby website and an option that I had never selected. A couple more phonecalls and half an hour of ‘stand off’ elapsed until I caved in on the grounds that lunch in Vejer de la Frontera with Ms Fontaina was more important than outwitting some faceless bureaucracy. I made a formal complaint and then liberated a surprisingly pleasant little Skoda. I’ve always been a little superior about cars from behind the Iron Curtain, but clearly things have moved on whilst I’ve been sitting in my little trench. I know they are owned by those cheating chaps at VW, but this is very competent motoring for €25 a day…
The road to Vejer is great. You leave the commercial suburbs of La Linea and Algeciras behind quite quickly and dive off the motorway into a lovely National Park. The road has some serious cracks in it, but the scenery is varied and fascinating. Scrub, bush, cattle ranches, glimpses of the sea, wind turbines, distant whitewashed villages clinging to the tops of hills, the odd bird of prey soaring in the shimmering heat… suddenly Vejer is before you. The ultimate ‘pueblo blanco’, you need first gear and a good idea of the width of the car to climb to the top where the town is laid out like a great white mat over the hill. It’s so white, you gotta wear shades! Cobblestones, impossibly narrow streets, pot plants providing gashes of colour in a massive advertisement for Dulux Ice White paint.
The girls are back in town!
Jo was in town for a family wedding and on great form: she knew a splendid restaurant looking out over the surrounding countryside and serving one of the best ‘arroz negros’ (black rice with squid and garlic mayo) that I’ve had in recent times. We walked it off exploring the back streets and then headed north to another postcard-perfect town – Medina Sidonia. On a previous visit, Julie had visited the little hostelry right at the top of the town underneath the church so we retraced her steps to find afternoon tea on a balcony overlooking the town and the landscape down towards the coast. Glorious. Then, on towards the third ‘pueblo blanco’ of the day, Arcos de la Frontera, where we were spending the night at the Parador there.
The church at Media Sidonia
The landscape on this section of the journey was changing subtly: the rolling hills giving way to broad plains. Agriculture on a grand scale in every direction: maize was probably the main cash crop, judging by the vast expanses of ploughed fields interspersed with some still recovering from harvesting the crop. Brown everywhere, in other words. Until we started to see more cattle and then, to my surprise, cotton. I’d never seen it grown outside the southern USA or Pakistan, so we had to stop and verify that it wasn’t some strange Euro-science experiment…
Fields of cotton
As we approached Arcos, we stopped to watch a shepherd with two dogs working a flock of sheep. It was utterly peaceful, skilled, hot work and a treat to see man and dog so integrated. The sheep were cooperative, unflustered and as stupid as they look. Part of the pleasure was just having the time to sit and watch them at work: too often our lives are too busy to sit and watch the rest of the world going about its business that this little interlude became an unexpected highlight of the trip.
One man and his dogs (and quite a lot of sheep)
By the time we reached the Parador, I was very grateful for the small dimensions of the Skoda. The streets in all three towns were impossibly narrow, but Arcos took the prize for most challenging when the road took us inside the flying buttress of the main church… Somehow we found somewhere to park and collapsed in some relief on the terrace of the hotel, to drink a small cup of thanksgiving to the God of Small Roads and watch the sun set over a truly spectacular view. Arcos sits on the side of a sheer cliff – and across the valley we could see our shepherd moving his flock back up the hill in time for supper. What a great day!
Looking over the edge at Arcos