Perhaps because I studied classical guitar, 0r perhaps because I have worked with many spanish hotel staff, I have always held an affinity with Spain and in particular that part called Andalucia which is the heart of Flamenco and the birthplace of Andres Segovia. We visited an area where the Tejeda and Almijara mountains tumble down to the Mediterranean, a land where in spring, the lilac blue Jacaranda the vermillion bougainvillea and the pink carpet of cornflowers enhance the olive green and sky blue backdrop with little pools of brilliant colour.
Drive inland away from the coast and you find yourself in a landscape dotted with little whitewashed villas and fincas strung like a mother of pearl necklace across the olive dotted hillsides. Each interconnected by a network of mostly unseen narrow stony tracks, which must from the air, resemble the workings of a madcap spider. (actually looking at Goggle Maps of the area these little tracks are invisible even from satellite as they weave round the contours of the hilly landscape.) It should be noted here that although the last hundred or so metres to and from these Fincas and Villas will be over these narrow tracks, once you get out onto the main roads you find the kilometres simply ticking away as you glide almost effortlessly over the smooth tarmac surfaces on good well maintained roads that would put to shame any of our own British Regional government attempts at road management. And running just inland from the coast is a smart new motorway that will allow you to cover the distance between Malaga and the little town of Competa in about 50 minutes, and further on along the coast there is a new coast road that is a vast improvement on the twisting one I travelled back in 1970s, remnants of this road can still be seen and is still used in some places and in others as lay-bys and viewpoints over the Mediterranean and from where on a clear day you can see the Riff Mountains in North Africa.
This is not the Spain of package holidays sangria or sombreros and the only donkey you will see are those still working in the tiny fields or retired to the donkey sanctuary at Torrox. The real Andalucia is a hard harsh land where strong willed people have carved an existence literally out of the mountainside, where the little villages cling limpet like and almost magically to the steep hillsides.
But it is a part of Spain that is also clean comfortable and very welcoming, where you would be seriously challenged to find a bad meal or glass of wine anywhere, where even the most lowly looking roadside tapas bar will offer a quality you would have to search for in Britain. Where the sun withered and wizened old man driving a few goats up the hillside also owns and runs his own large crystal clean and totally modern milking parlour, housed in one of the largest buildings on the outskirts of Competa, where nothing is really as simple as it might seem and where Andalusian life like its Flamenco music follows its own complex rhythms.
None of this would have been possible to discern when Mr Steve first picked up at Malaga Airport at 11.15 pm and drove us back to his and Val`s Finca just outside of Competa. For a start it was raining which was a bit of a shock as we had left Bristol on a balmy May evening after a day when the heat of the sun had forced us into the shade and made the air conditioning in the car on the drive down to Bristol a welcome respite from the heat.
When we arrived at Mr Steve`s place it was to find that he had prepared a wonderful welcoming tapas selection, for a late evening early morning repast. Steve jokingly quipped he had been preparing the tapas all day, which was probably not far from the truth! As apart from the customary bread and local olives, there was a great big bowl of giant peeled prawn crab and Spanish tomato salad, more prawns this time in garlic, wafer thin slices of Andalusian black ham, sliced Manchego, Spain’s most famous sheep’s milk cheese, tiny fish based tortillas and warm black pudding with honey, a choice of beer or Vina Albali the wine from Valdepenas La Mancha bursting with vibrant aromas of damsons and plums.
I knew that I was finally, after nine years, back in Andalucia, when whilst sitting with such good friends eating such a wonderful Andalusia tapas supper we were entertained by the songs of the nightingales through the open door! As I tumbled into bed at around 3.30 it was with the wine fuddled thought that in the morning I should thank Steve for such a wonderful welcome back.
A few years ago a friend bought a villa just outside the little Andalucia town of Competa which lies a few kilometres from Nerja up in the mountains on the edge of the Natural Park of the Tejeda and Almijara mountain ranges.
When they sold their business and house in England Steve and his wife moved out to Spain to take up permanent residence and to start a new business Competa Holidays. Steve, unlike many ex-pats has immersed himself in the local culture, and being a amicable gregarious sort of chap has cultivated a good relationship with the locals, learning the language and the local traditions.
My wife and I have visited them on several occasions and have taken great enjoyment at hospitality of the region and its people, with Steve as our guide we have spent many pleasurable hours exploring the surrounding countryside, visiting the little whitewashed mountain villages and partaking of the local foods and wines in small bars and restaurants Steve seems to find in the most out of the way places.
Unlike Britian there is a strong local community feeling in the area, perhaps something to do with the relatively recent civil war and its aftermath where in parts of the region constant fighting continued between the resistance movement and the Civil Guard until the 1950s.
Immediate evidence of this communal spirit can be seen when one enters any of the local supermarkets, most goods on the shelf originate from a very localised area, although some international goods are available, they will generally be very expensive and located tucked away at the bottom of the shop, almost as is the owner is ashamed to display any evidence of his own disloyalty.
On one visit Steve suggested a picnic outing to an abandoned village about 12 kilometres away, it was known locally as the lost village and had been abandoned in 1949 after the conflicts and reprisals that the inhabitants suffered forced them to leave the village, some of the survivors going to Competa and others to Frigiliana.
Every family tried to rebuild their lives as best they could, but every time they returned to visit they saw how their beloved village was turning to ruins, into a ghost town. Steve had heard about the village because the parents on of a bar owner he knew in Competa had been born there.
The day we visited it was just a collection of ruins, not one house was intact, most had been reduced to rubble, the streets were overgrown with scrub, with the only real evidence of any care, found in the little church yard, that was if not pristine at least it showed some indication of recent human activity. (Note a few years after writing this I was talking with Steve he says he does not remember any church yard! Funny as it is the thing which sticks in my mind)
My wife has just returned from holiday with our friends Val and Steve and the real highlight she tells me was a second visit to “the lost Village”, although it had been abandoned it had not been forgotten, everyone took a small part of El Acebuchal away in their hearts, especially the children, who watched bewildered as they and their families had to leave their houses, the place they all called home and the places where they played. Those same children dreamt of their return and seeing the village again, as it once had been.
In 1998 Antonio and Virtudes “El Zumbo” returned to El Acebuchal with the intention of making that dream a reality. The restoration of the first house was completed in 1998 shortly after my visit, and by the year 2003 mains electricity arrived in the village, the process speeded up by the creation of a neighbours association.
In 2005 the streets of the village were repaired and on 25th June of that same year, they re-inaugurated the village of El Acebuchal with it’s first Mass in 50 years.
The village has now almost been fully restored but now 4X4 and tourism have replaced the mules from Torrox, Frigiliana and Nerja which were the life blood of the village as they were loaded up with fruit, vegetables and fish and taken over the mountain passes to the villages of Fornes & Jallena, where the mule handlers sold their goods and exchanged some for flour.
El Achebuchal was the meeting point on the mule trek that transported fresh fish from the coast to the inland cities, the little Inn was a place used by the muleteers to rest the animals, whilst the men ate, had a glass of aniseed liquor and commented on their journeys.
Today the Inn has been reinvented as a tapas bar where according to my wife the lady of the house cooks some incredible real traditional dishes, which thankfully do not even nod in the direction of international cuisine.
Last year we once again returned to Competa and I insisted that we visit El Achebuchal, it was so nice to see the village restored to something more than its former condition by the families of its original inhabitants, though now many of the houses are week-end retreats and holiday homes. Antonio still potters about the village rebuilding mostly by hand the last few ruins whilst his wife prepares the food sold in the bar and his son look after their customers.