January 5th, 2012
Laurie Lee was one of the finest English writers of his age. Spain was a favourite country of his and one he knew well having travelled it at a time when travelling was hard work. And when Spain was a very different country.
In ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ he wrote of his time in the country and, in particular, Almuñécar. He arrived there in October 1935. Three decades later the words he wrote about his time in Almuñécar were published. By then the little village he knew had grown up into a thriving town.
What about today? Has much changed in a location that has attracted other artistic types to live there, including classical guitarist Andrés Segovia.
In my opinion Laurie Lee was an excellent writer. A little ‘flowery’ perhaps, as one might expect from an accomplished poet. Laurie Lee wrote in a very engaging manner. His words flow and his fine works are a delight to read.
In that particular book Lee wrote in a very descriptive manner of his life in Almuñécar, including of his first impressions.
He said: “Almuñécar itself, built of stone steps from the delta, was grey, almost gloomily Welsh. The streets were steep, roughly paved, and crossed by crude little arches, while the square was like a cobbled farmyard. Part of the castle was a cemetery, part of the Town Hall a jail, but past glories were eroding fast.
Although, as I shall write about in a later post, Lee had seen much of northern Spain it was in Almuñécar – on what is today called the Costa Tropical – that he chose to settle for a while. At least until war got in the way. Lee was fascinated by the history of Spain. Back in the nineteen thirties he reflected on life in this part of the country centuries earlier.
Lee wrote: “In the days of the Moors, Almuñécar had been a front line fortress standing high in the mouth of the delta, guarding the rich river valley which wound up through the Sierra towards the Islamic paaradise of Granada. Several centuries later, it was also the point of farewell for the defeated caliphs when they were driven from Spain, and a wave-battered cross standing on an offshore rock celebrated the spot where they sailed away.”
Today Almuñécar depends heavily on tourism. The summers are hot and humid here and the beaches are packed with flesh that changes colour quickly. Without tourism Almuñécar is a classic example of a modern day Spanish town that would be struggling. Just as it was in the thirties, when Laurie Lee was living in one of the only two hotels that existed in those days.
Laurie Lee wrote: “Apart from a few merchants, landowners and officials from Granada, everybody now in the village was poor… the peasants had only two ways of living, and both were loaded against them – the sugar canes and the offshore fishing. The sugar canes… were a deception even at harvest time, for the best they could offer was a few weeks’ work and in the meantime the men stood idle. But the land was rich compared with the sea, which nourished only a scattering of poor sardines.”
Since that time the sugar cane for which this stretch of coastline was famous has been further eroded. Golf courses, hotels and roads have been built on top of fields that used to be full of sugar cane and the cherimoya tree for which Almuñécar is also so famous. Laurie Lee died in 1997 having become largely reclusive and refusing all offers to fly back to Spain late in his life. Just as well as he would likely have been troubled by the changes that have taken place even after his last visit in the nineteen eighties.
The up side is that the town itself, while suffering from modern day recession, continues to be charming and likeable. Wander the backstreets of this coastal location and you will like what you see. Some nice shops selling all manner of goodies. A bit different from the village Laurie Lee knew in 1935.
He said: “The little cave like shops had almost nothing to sell save sandals and sunflower seeds. Strangely enough there was a book shop, though it only had four books.”
I like the locals in Almuñécar today. They have always seemed friendly and helpful to me. In summers, when all manner of human tourist flesh is on show, I like to watch the local men sat on their benches watching the foreigners walking by. Or sit nearby to hear what they have to say about us ‘guiri’s.’ It always leaves me smiling.
But what about them and their appearance? When I read Laurie Lee’s impressions of the folk of Almuñécar in the thirties, I can still see locals today who resemble his spot on description of villagers back then – many of whom went on to become his friends.
He said: “Physically the villager showed the strong Arab blood which the Catholic conquest had been unable to dispel – the old women stark and black as desert matriachs, their bodies loaded with unhealthy fat. The men small and bony, like dried up birds, perched moodily round the edge of the sea. The men spent much of the day just staring at their hands and sucking cigarettes made of beach leaves.”
When the Civil War intensified, and threatened his settled existence in Almuñécar, Laurie Lee was among the British who were rescued when the British Navy sent a destroyer from Gibraltar to Almuñécar. He left the village of which he was now very much a part with a heavy heart.
Lee writes of his sudden exit from Spain: “A smart officer in white introduced himself. ‘Could we be ready in an hour?’ Naturally it was up to us. We could stay and sweat it out if we wished. But he could not guarantee they would be back and the Civil War was spreading. His captain advised us to get out now. I knew I would have to go.”
Lee describes how the locals packed the beach and pleaded wtih him not to leave.
He wrote: “The whole village had turned out to witness our departure… a large crowd, loudly bewailing our departure… begged us not to leave them. It was over, finished – the hoarse echoes of Spain slowly dying away in the distance. I stayed on the dock, watching Almuñécar grow small and Spain folding itself away – all its clamour gone, wrenched so abruptly from me… a year’s life in a few hours ended. ”
Fast forward and a film shown on the BBC in 1987, also called ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ took Laurie Lee back to Almuñécar and his voice was the commentary on the film.
The hotel that had been his home had been knocked down in 1980 but now the coastal front of Almuñécar was full of hotels and apartment blocks. Lee did not like what he saw.
He wrote: (It is) “a concrete cliff of filing cabinets for tourists, It’s one of the worst things that could have happened, next to a nuclear war.”
Personally, when I first went to the town ten years ago I thought much the same. But, as with so many Spanish destinations, your first impressions can be dictated by how you approach the place. Which road you take in. When you first park up. Take a different road and, if only visiting a Spanish village, town or city the once; you could go away with the wrong impression.
I am sure that had I known the Almuñécar Laurie Lee was familiar with, I too would now be bemoaning so called progress. But, outside of the height of summer, I am a fan of the place. Though I have to say that the plaque put up in honour of Laurie Lee is, to put it kindly, inadequate.
In the nineteen eighties the town awarded Lee with its greatest acknowledgement, the ‘maiximo galardón,’ an Aguacate de Oro (a golden avocado). The mayor of Almuñécar told Lee that he wanted Laurie’s name to “forever be linked to the heart of our people.”
To rent in Almuñécar these days you must decide how centrally located you wish to be. Like so many coastal towns, it is much quieter in winter. But if you are renting in the summer months and opt to stay in the centre of town, have in mind that it can be noisy into the early hours. Spanish summer nights go on late, until the wee hours of the morning. So be prepared to join in the fun or bring some earplugs with you on holiday.
Perhaps you would want to be located a little way outside of the town centre, but within a comfortable walking distance. Perhaps a little west of town at Cotobro Bay. Or east between Almuñécar and the neighbouring town of Salobreña.
It is certain that Laurie Lee was not kept awake by the noise of motorbikes, discos or lively bars. He played a guitar on the streets of the town, and in his hotel. Whenever I see a guitarist on the streets of Almuñécar today, I think of Laurie Lee.
Late in life Lee was asked what he recalled of life in Almuñécar. He said: “I remember the cold red mornings, just before sunrise, when the fishermen came down to the beach.”
Nicolas and Louisa Manousakis have lived in Almuñécar several years and run the Zen II Internet shop in the town. Like Laurie Lee before them, they have had concerns about the way the area has been developed and wonder if the infrastructure of the Costa Tropical can tolerate such expansion.
But, again like Laurie Lee, they have not lost sight of the ever present attractions of this coastline.
Nicolas says: “We continue to cherish the awesome sunrises and star filled nights. We awaken in time to greet the morning sun, something we have done since the first day we arrived, summer or winter.
“If I were mayor for a day I would enforce existing laws that are ignored. Things like no scooters in pedestrian areas and an end to loose dogs in the streets. Basic things to improve the overall feel of what is a very neighbourly town.”
New motorway links have dramatically cut the journey time between the Costa Tropical and Malaga. Later this year another new stretch of motorway will be completed bringing the delights of Granada ever closer to the coast.
The attractions of Granada, including the most visited tourist attraction in Spain - the Alhambra Palace - and the nearby ski slopes of the Sierra Nevada, will be easier to get to. Risking life and limb on the winding coastal road that Laurie Lee walked on his journey from Malaga will be a thing of the past. Indeed those coastal roads will return to being almost as quiet as when Lee set out on his sixty mile walk to a place he fell in love with.
He would have loved some of the changes and I can imagine he would have enjoyed attending the annual Jazz festival each July.
The castle Laurie Lee knew is still in position. Just where he saw it when sailing away from Spain.
The fishing boats still go out by night, albeit many fewer than in the days when he lived life there to the full.
Almuñécar is no longer that simple fishing village. But the place lives on through the charming people. The ancestors of the characters he knew and wrote about in such a colourful manner.