Everybody remembers the first time they stepped on to Spanish soil. Dazzling light, dramatic landscapes, colourful personalities, pungent smells… they make an impact on the most travel-jaded. You may be exhilarated or exasperated, enthralled or appalled, but you cannot remain indifferent, for this is a land which invites extreme emotions.
However, my first visit contradicted all the stereotypes for I came away convinced that the rain in Spain fell mostly on green, misty hills inhabited by short, broad people who wore large berets and carried black umbrellas everywhere. This impression arose from a day trip from France to San Sebastian, the resort city in the region known as the Basque Country..
To cross the border I had to contend with the legendary bureaucracy. General Franco still ruled and journalists were not welcome.
“Just for one day?” The Spanish consul eyed me suspiciously. “And you’re on holiday? Hm… well, I can stamp your visa but you must promise not to write anything.”
Naturally I nodded, although we both knew it was a ridiculous request. Now I realise that it was a first lesson in how Spain functions: establish human contact and what moments before appeared out of the question is suddenly possible.
Years later I returned to Spain, this time with my wife. Fleeing the British winter, we were searching for a place in the sun. We headed south.
Arriving late at night in a city on the Mediterranean coast, we stumbled through darkened streets seeking a cheap hostal. Next morning, as we prepared to go for breakfast, my wife put on her thick overcoat.
“Why are you wearing that?” I asked her.
“I don’t want to catch cold,” she replied.
“But look out there,” I said, pointing through the window at the street below. The passersby were in blouses and shirt sleeves. Not a coat or a scarf in sight.
We had arrived in the land of eternal summer. And it felt great. Taking a bus along the coast, we passed fields of sugar cane and found a humble fishing village. Women were drawing water from a fountain and the odour of frying churros and coffee wafted through streets uncluttered by traffic, except occasional herds of goats.
It was the ideal bolthole. Now and again I bought the local newspaper just to confirm that we were in the right place. The heavily censored stories, each ending with the exhortation “Viva el Caudillo!”, all conveyed the same message: Spain was an oasis of peace and prosperity while the rest of the world was in turmoil.
One day we trekked up a dry riverbed to a village perched way above the coast, a mere splash of white on the hillside. Mules plodded along the narrow main street lined with immaculately whitewashed houses. So rare were visitors that a gaggle of giggling children followed us about.
After trying the local wine, we drifted happily back to the coast as the setting sun tinged the sierras with gold. It was good to be alive. And, did we but know it, we had just visited the pueblo which would become our home.