The best part of travelling is not when you see those famous monuments that are so familiar from countless photographs, movies and TV shows (and always seem smaller in real life than you imagine), but when you come across unexpected gems. Experiences that surprise, delight, and sometimes even shock all at once. One day in Spain last year, we had a day full of this.
We had overnighted in Almeria – a town on the Mediterranean which was unlucky enough to be surrounded by miles and miles of countryside encased in plastic. Under the plastic were, I assume, the tomatoes, capsicums and aubergines we had been enjoying nightly in the Spanish tapas bars and restaurants. Perhaps as summer and the hot southern Spanish sun arrives the plastic is lifted, but in May it was simply hideous. The town itself was pleasant enough, with outdoor restaurants and tree-lined main streets, but like many ports, it didn’t seem to make the most of its harbour and coastline.
The next morning we drove out of Almeria, up through the range separating the coast from the Spanish hinterland. For a while the landscape was extraordinarily ugly – plastic fields and barren dry hills. Not dramatic in its bleakness, like parts of Central Otago or even the dry flat countryside of Australia, but just plain and simply ugly. But then we popped through the hills into the Tabernas Desert, , and the barrenness became beautiful, with eroded mountains and no plastic in sight. I said to my husband that I fully expected to see some tumbleweed float by. As he was agreeing with me, I saw a small western village in the distance. It was at that time I realised we were in the area where they apparently filmed parts of Lawrence of Arabia, as well as many spaghetti westerns and Patton. In fact, they call it mini Hollywood.
As we moved inland, we left the desert behind us and drove along the sparsely populated plains. It was a beautiful spring Spanish morning, the Sierra Nevada to our left, snow still on the peaks glistening in the sunlight, and countless wind turbines on the horizon meeting the EU’s commitments to creating renewable and sustainable energy. Then suddenly La Calahorra came into view. On a small knoll in the middle of the plain, it stood proud, dramatic, reminiscent of the days when a Christian knight had recaptured southern Spain from the Moors, days when it signified wealth, success and power. We found it surprisingly difficult to navigate the narrow roads of the village surrounding it, and in the end conceded defeat to Spanish town planning (or the lack of it) and photographed the early 16th century fortress from a distance.
We were on a timetable, Granada (another G but one you’ll have to wait for) was beckoning, and so we moved on. Continuing along the plains, we suddenly saw this huge basin open up before us. It looked as if a meteor or bomb had struck this ochre landscape. The crater was at least 6-10 miles across and its edge is jagged, eroded. The town of Guadix – dating back to Roman times and with an 11th century Moorish citadel at its centre – sat within.
We descended into the town, awestruck at the view. It was a Saturday, market day, and the town was busy, the traffic extremely slow. But we made our way to the most unusual section of this town, following the signs to the Barrio Troglodyte.
Approximately half the population of Guadix (about 20,000 people) live in this sector of the town. In all usual respects, this Barrio is like any residential suburb. There are small winding streets, pretty houses with gardens and patios, cars parked in the driveways, children playing, satellite dishes, washing on the line, retired folks tending the window boxes and gardens, and neighbours chatting.
But here they are living as their ancestors did, in caves dug into the hillside. Well, not quite as their ancestors did, as it was common to see TV aerials and satellite dishes along with the chimneys/air vents protruding from the ground. The houses/caves had whitewashed walls and shuttered windows at the entrances. Perhaps the concrete or brick walls are to stabilise the cave entrance, but perhaps also they are simply there to announce that “someone lives here.” But the fact that there were no houses behind these facades, only hillocks, created a weird optical illusion that was almost disorienting.
For someone who grew up in a young country, where anything older than 150 years is ancient, Europe is always mind-blowing when you find communities living where their ancestors lived. To find them in caves was even more surprising.
We could see new homes being dug into the cliffs on the outskirts of Guadix. Of course, the summer heat they experience out here on the plains means that caves are in fact comfortable and cool homes. So it seems the cave houses of Guadix will be around for a while yet. That, I think, is a good thing.