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The Iberian Horseshoe — A Journey

Part II. South West

Not Bilbao

Steve Porter
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The outskirts at dusk were much like any other industrial port with cranes and high-rise flats dominating the skyline. We got a shot of sandy beach off to the left as the bus made its way along the avenida de Andalucía and through the town walls into one of Europe’s oldest cities. The Phoenicians reputedly settled in the city they knew as Gadir, around 1100 BC. Today, the citizens of Cádiz are still known as “Gaditanos.” Glad to be back in Spain but in another strange city, I hailed a taxi, which took us on a short journey through the old town. The driver merited a small tip for negotiating the narrow streets without killing any pedestrians.

I rang the hostel bell three times before the door opened to reveal a man with a huge paunch restrained by a string vest. Ash dropped from the cigarette between his lips. He reminded me of Rab C. Nesbit, the Glaswegian TV character. Yet, it was he who was disgusted by a couple of foreigners having the cheek to interrupt his afternoon siesta.

The man shook his head and beckoned us in. “Just one night, please,” I said. I was still trying to rid myself of the British trait of being too polite. It sounds unnatural to the Spanish ear to have a ‘Please’ and ‘Thank you’ tagged onto every other sentence.

He thrust a pen at me and I signed the guest book. We were left to haul up the six cases of luggage to the first floor. “Just you take it easy,” sniffed Mary, reaching into her sleeve for a crumpled tissue, “We’ve only carried our stuff the length of Portugal.” But the owner had already returned to his room to finish off his nap.

Tired and weak we retired to bed in a dark room with no window. At first, I was tempted to blame our recent bout of illness on the Portuguese caldo I had sampled in Lisbon’s Old Quarter a few days earlier. Caldo was not a type of soup as I had expected but a stew heaped with every animal part you can imagine. I am not much of a red meat eater. The waitress returned to ask if Mary and I were enjoying our meal. I replied with a typically British ‘Fine, thanks’ and ate a little so as not to offend my hosts. But I could barely make a start on it.

Mary was already going down with the flu though she remained determined to see something of Lisbon. We climbed the old narrow streets of the Alfama district to the Castelo de São Jorge, with its views over the city, and the new Vasco de Gama Bridge that spanned the River Tejo. Then I rattled through the city on my first ever tram ride. The trams had drawn me to Lisbon. It was one of the Iberian cities, I most wanted to visit and I was not disappointed by its Old World charm.

The next day we were back on the train. I dozed in and out of sleep, waking up to wipe my runny nose as the dry unremarkable countryside of southwest Portugal drifted by. It was a cold wet night on arrival in Faro. I didn’t feel like paying to eat in a decent restaurant. The decision to go to an infamous fast food joint may have induced the vomiting and I was confined to bed for forty eight hours. Time dragged with unexpected Algarve wind and rain moaning at the window. The one-armed owner of this Faro hostel was marching up and down on deck all night like a remnant from Trafalgar. My room wouldn’t stay still. I had a phantom hangover from bygone days.

When all was well again we spent a pleasant afternoon strolling by the town’s harbour and craft shops. It was only January but Faro was peaceful and did not seem at all like the package holiday destination I had imagined. The bigger resorts lie west along the coast. Meanwhile, we were preparing to go east into Andalusia.

I got up early to be bid “Buenos días” by the Cádiz sun, although it seemed much cooler than the thirteen degrees forecast in the Diario de Cádiz. The Old Quarter was a maze of narrow streets. If you had faith and kept going you would come out onto one of a number of squares and get your bearings again. I drank in the colour from the painted buildings along the Campo del Sur, often described as a miniature version of Havana’s seafront. Sunlight on the city’s gold domed cathedral created a sparkling attraction. I went in to get some respite from the wind blowing in off the Atlantic.

I could light a candle
But a thought will do
I feel like a Protestant in here
Leaning against the cool stone
I remain unnamed.
I identify more with the book of Lao Tzu
And the hymns of The Beatles
So why do I feel like a Protestant in here?
I gaze at the gold interior
Shipped from places
Perceived to be new.
I have flown so far south—
Like a spent bird
I must wait for a change in the wind.
The palm trees dance
But I will not go near
The night is close
I feel like a Protestant in here.

Back at the hostel, the owner demanded to know if we asked if we were staying another night.

“My girlfriend is still in bed, I said. She is ill. I will let you know before twelve o’clock.”

Nesbito slammed his pen down on the desk.

“Look,” he said. “I have to take my wife to the doctor at eleven. You can’t stay in bed all day.”

“Don’t worry. We’ll be out.”

I went upstairs and woke Mary up.

“What’s the matter?”

“We’re being hassled by Señor Nesbit. Do you think you can make it along the street a bit?”

While she was dressing I checked out another hostel. The owner was friendlier and the room had a window and balcony. We gathered our home once again and made the short trip along the street.

Mary and I agreed we should rent a flat as soon as possible. Living in hostels and eating out was becoming tedious. I even began to yearn for the day when I could go to the supermarket and buy food to cook in my own home. So later that afternoon, when she was feeling a little better, we visited a property agency.

The first available flat was on the busy Avenida de Andalucía, where a lot of road repairs and building work were going on. The next one was right on the edge of the city overlooking several kilometres of beach. It had blue Mediterranean walls that the sun targeted around midday. But then it set its sights on the beach. I was quickly learning that even this far south, there is no escape from winter’s chill. These buildings are designed for keeping out the sun for much of the year and not for comfort during the short winter. I asked the agent about heating. He looked amused.

Hombre. Do you think you are in the Basque Country? This isn’t Bilbao, you know. The weather will warm up again in a few weeks time.”

He left us to think it over. We went round the corner and had some patatas con alioli, a Catalan dish of potatoes in a garlic mayonnaise sauce.

“It’s a nice flat in a perfect place. Not cheap of course but you pay for the location. And we can listen to the waves rolling in at night,” Mary said, as the sun turned the sea to blood on its way over the horizon.

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Copyright ©Steve Porter, 2004
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Date of publicationJuly 2006
Collection RSSGlobal Fiction
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