AFTER A TRAIN to Granada, the true notoriety of inland Spanish cities in summer became instantly apparent. Well, I say a train, it was a train until a train station in the middle of nowhere, rising like a modern plate glass phoenix from the sierra, where we were instructed to get off and finish the rest of the journey by coach. This was fine, except for the woman in front of me, who spent most of the journey either talking very loudly to her bank on the phone, coughing her internal organs up or listening to Julio Iglesias compilations on YouTube without earphones.
So, yes, once we arrived in Granada, the heat of the Sierra Nevada (ironically bereft of snow) welcomed us before any hostel receptionist, sending us merciless passengers into a dance routine of shirt-flapping and self-fanning. My hostel, perhaps foolishly on my part, was light years away from the train station, which inconveniently for sweaty travellers, is not centrally located. For some reason, the idea of taking a bus never occurred to me, and so I set off through the streets with my case, battling in vain the 42° heat. I don’t actually mind such raw, intense heat, and can deal with it quite well, but the 2€ sandals I’d bought for the beach in Cádiz had seriously taken their toll on my toes, making the walk a painful one. I stopped at a stylish-looking bar for a drink a good tuna empanada. The strange thing was that the TV seemed to be playing a series of songs by X Factor winners and losers – I’m sure Joe McElderry would be happy to know his thimbleful of songs gets played in a small tapas bar in Granada. Then Bonnie Tyler came on. I sniggered, remarking to myself that the opening bars of Total Eclipse of the Heart just didn’t go with a bar that looked like something from downtown Manhattan. The waiter saw me wince and laughed, pretending to hang himself with an imaginary noose. I bet you didn’t see her at Eurovision, I thought.
I told him that Bonnie’s classic anthem gets better with alcohol, recalling how the club I went to when I was 18 would stick it on at the end of the night when everyone was too smashed to care or realise what was playing.
He told me about his one and only experience in England a few years ago, visiting a friend in Manchester.
‘Not a pretty city, is it?’ repeating what other Spaniards have told me about it.
He agreed and told me he wanted to visit London. I encouraged him, and also advised to have tea and cake in Bath, although needed to explain that I didn’t mean having a cup of tea and cake in a bath, though conceded it would be a fairly decent alternative.
Once at the hostel, my feet rested and ventilated, I headed down to the communal patio where mojitos were being served. The guy serving them, Igor from Croatia, identifiable by his garish shorts emblazoned with the Croatian flag, told me he’d been working at the hostel for a week. After a while I asked him if he enjoyed it.
‘It’s ok,’ he shrugged. The good thing is the bitches.’
I wasn’t sure if I’d heard him. ‘Bitches?’
He nodded. ‘When I do the pub crawls, it’s so easy, man. You find girls so easy, you have to carry them back home.’ He made a cradling action with his massive hands.
So was I accepting drinks from a date rapist? I felt safe enough; he was a nice guy and frankly, a mojito’s a mojito.
The group eventually swelled into a larger one, complete with Swedes, a Canadian, some token Brazilians, the hostel’s Polish cleaner, the most mono-dimensional American, with whom I simply could have no conversation, and a Dutchwoman whose English made Stephen Fry look like something from TOWIE. The night revolved around various tapas, beers, tintos and good conversation until the small hours – or rather until the point where the small hours start to become large ones again, prompting me to head back to salvage a few hours’ sleep before my early start. No such luck in that department, and so I hastily got ready, as deftly as possible in a blacked out shared dorm, before heading out up to the Alhambra.
I hadn’t beaten the sunrise, but I was up as Granada started to wake up, having her pavements sprayed by hardy street cleaners, and her cafés springing to life with the sound and smell of grinding coffee. I would even say that it was chilly – the sun hadn’t quite managed to flood the streets with heat at 7.30.
The Alhambra, the namesake for that ghastly people carrier by Seat, is supposedly the most visited attraction in all of Spain. It has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site for over 30 years and has been established since the 9th century. If you don’t know what it is, it is the elaborate remains of a Moorish fortress, continuously expanded and repossessed over history. Today, it has no residents, but retains its rambling, regal character, like a mini city. Which is, after all, what it once was. It is a tangled and dazzling complex masterpiece of architecture and landscaping: of lush gardens, chambers, courtyards, patios and towers, altogether the crowning glory of Granada set to the backdrop of the Sierra Nevada. It’s so easy to see why the place draws so many visitors, but even when they’re walking in front of your camera, there’s still a sense of peace about the Alhambra. It is meticulously – perhaps even too much so – well-maintained and managed; indeed the scaffolding around certain parts of the site took the edge of its beauty. But it’s fine; I enjoyed the three and a half hours I spent within its walls, especially the cats who wander around, playing in the bushes. You can show me as many World Heritage Sites as you like, but I will always go for the scrapping kittens.
I liked Granada from early on; it has a cosmopolitan, capital-like energy that reminded me of Madrid – long, wide streets headed with statues and grand plazas, yet enough old, modest appeal to give it character. The narrow streets of the Albayzín, for example, are a joy to wander around, even if you get lost, and the Plaza Pescadería a prime spot for simultaneous people-watching and olive-popping. The cathedral is also impressive with its one bell tower, something Teresza the Polish hostel cleaner told me was so because they ran out of money to build a second one. Amazing what one can learn on a night out.
Everywhere in Spain are these giant digital screens which alternate between telling the time and reminding you how hot it is. You’ve probably seen them on TV, when they show video montages of the summer of 2003 in documentaries about extreme weather. Either way, I had to double take when I passed one in Granada and it told us passers-by that we were experiencing 46° heat. Yet a few hundred metres up the street was another, displaying a cool 41. I don’t know what to believe. Perhaps a grading system of caliente, muy caliente and peligrosamente caliente would be more accurate, albeit not for non-Spanish speakers.
Sensibly I caught a bus to the bus station when I left Granada, since lugging a suitcase in 7439220° did not seem like an enjoyable prospect. I was bound for Málaga, a couple of hours away, south of the mountains. It wasn’t quite as hot there, but a more tolerable 34°, paired with a humidity so thick I was surprised pedestrians didn’t look the like the cast of Baywatch on the beach as they crossed the road.
When I arrived at the dorm, kissed passionately by the air con, I realised someone was in my allocated bed. There were clothes, jewellery, stationery and even a guitar strewn across it, forcing me to use the bed above. What’s more is that I was the only one in the room. Thank God, I thought; now I can air my feet without causing offence. And so I did, until my peace was interrupted by the door swinging wide open and an exaggerated .male voice singing Don’t Stop Believing. I sat up to look, seeing a man in his late thirties, bare-chested with hardly an ounce of fat on him, his wet hair tied back into a few ponytails which flapped around his head as he danced around the available floor space I presumed he was responsible for. He suddenly saw me examining him with mixed admiration and disbelief.
‘Hola!’ he cried. ‘Cómo te llamas?!’
‘Connor!’ I said. ‘Y tu?’
‘Yo, Spencer!’ he said, sticking out a hand, each finger adorned with at least two rings. He asked where I was from, and as I usually do, said ‘near London.’
Suddenly his mediocre Spanish accent disappeared and he launched into something from EastEnders. ‘So where ‘bouts? Lewisham? Brixton? Caaamden? Brixton’s well a’wight, innit man, got a lot of mates dan there, great place, Brixton…’
‘I wouldn’t know, I don’t live there,’ I laughed. I asked him the same. His Cockney accent, more convincing than his Castilian, disappeared.
Said with a Geordie accent, too.
We exchanged small talk for a while, during which he apologised for his mess, which I had realised had not only taken up the bed destined for me, but also three others. It turned out he was a musician, which wasn’t a surprise, and was heading to Denver on the weekend to play at a festival. Without further ado, he seized his guitar and began playing one of his songs, which – he didn’t pay me to say this – was actually quite good, before he started looking for local yoga clubs on his laptop covered in stickers.
‘Got a date tonight,’ he announced.
‘Who’s the unlucky girl?’
‘Some Spanish babe who sells bracelets on the street, just round the corner from here,’ he continued. ‘Top girl, like. No, she’s not Spanish, she’s Colombian. Venezuelan or something.’
‘And does she speak English?’
He laughed. ‘Her English is shit, like, but my Spanish is all right enough to talk to her. I’ve been in Marbella the last week with friends so it’s all good. Top bird, gave her a massage at lunchtime and I tell ya, she looked bloody ten years younger after I was finished with her…’
I’ll spare you of some of the finer details.
‘So, need to get crackin’ – meetin’ her at nine.’
It was already nine. He shrugged and started getting undressed in front of me, fortunately making himself scarce and going to the bathroom before taking off his boxers, which were unsurprisingly decorated with a cannabis leaf pattern.
‘Where are you taking her?’
‘Somewhere cheap. I gave her a massage earlier so that’s surely starter and main.’
‘I won’t ask what dessert is.’
It might come as no surprise to learn he spent the duration of his shower singing, or that he returned from it completely naked to look for his towel, dripping water all over his things on the floor. His beauty regime involved a dash of mascara and tying his straggly wet hair into a bun. He threw on a red shirt and a dark green blazer and a pair of handmade trousers he bought at a roadside in Costa Rica, where he also has cocoa farm.
‘If I don’t get laid tonight,’ he said, looking at me, ‘I’ll pay you.’
For my sake, I hoped Colombia liked trousers made of coloured felt.
I set out for dinner myself, dressed a little more conservatively, and found an upturned barrel at a bar on the Plaza de la Merced to pick through a plate of fried seafood, Málaga’s speciality. Eating alone is fine, but after a while, pushing a crispy whitebait into my mouth, I watched the groups and couples around me fairly invidiously, although the cheap beers were good company.
And then, quite unexpectedly, a guy not much older than me in a baggy white t-shirt came over from one of the nearby tables and introduced himself as José. My immediate thought was that he was going to sell me lottery tickets, 2€ fans or mug me. He did none of the above but invited me to join him and his friends for a copa, which is common Spanish for a drink, not a hit of ketamine. I agreed, unsure of what expect or if I’d understand them, but they introduced themselves warmly as Spanish people do everywhere, it seems, although I only properly heard two one of the other’s names, Sergio; the other two I pretended I’d understood. They were all very friendly, and took turns in interviewing the lone English guy they’d successfully guessed was on holiday. None of them spoke enough English to say more than ‘he is a typical Spanish d*ckhead’ or f*ck’, confirming my belief that the F word is definitely a word everyone in the world seems to know. I’d like to say I understood everything they said, but the truth is that they spoke far too quickly (and probably obscenely) for me to grasp much of it. I asked them what they did. Two studied, two were unemployed. I felt a bit surprised. I’d read so many times about Spain’s startling high youth unemployment rate, but I now was looking at two of its victims. I’m sure these young men were highly employable, and seemed intelligent, too, but there was little they could do. I felt bad. I felt as though I was inadvertently rubbing the UK’s much-improved jobs market into their faces with my sitting there. One of them, who we’ll call Alejandro, said he was thinking of moving to the UK for work. I agreed with José that learning some English first would be a good idea since I can’t imagine ‘f*ck’ will get one very far in an interview.
I’d be lying if I said I didn’t expect Spencer to be at his Colombian bracelet seller’s house, but no – there he was, crossed-legged and shirtless on the floor, tapping away at his laptop, the Pocahantas-like necklace he had made in New Mexico still hanging around his beck. I assumed Colombia hadn’t ripped it off in a flight of horniness.
‘Hey man!’ he cried, spinning round. ‘Best night of my life!’
He got up to face me, recounting his evening. It turned out that after her dance lesson that evening, Colombia had wanted to stay behind and practise, and so instead suggested he join her friends for food at a restaurant and the catch them up. He did, went back to one of their houses to fiesta the night away, and whilst the others went out to get some booze, got a bit frisky with one of the friends on her sofa. He danced around the room, somehow delighted he’d indirectly been ditched, probably high off the incense stick he had burning from the plug socket. Before too long, he turned out the lights, blew out the candle he had lit earlier, and went to sleep.
I left him in the morning looking for train times to Madrid later that day. It was an emotional goodbye, in which he wished me peace and good sex and vowed to see me again ‘on the road’.
As for Málaga, the city where the bracelet sellers love a faded amateur rocker, I was more than pleasantly surprised. At first, at least, if you arrive in the train or bus station, it’s the busy, noisy hub of the south, but its centre is surely of the regions’ nicest. Its buildings are smart, overlooking streets bustling with people, some of whom take a break from their shopping with a coffee beneath the towering palms. What pleased me the most about Andalusia’s second city was the real Spanish identity – I didn’t know what to expect from my first experience on the Costa del Package Holiday, but I struggled to find a greasy spoon or an ‘Irish’ pub, instead plenty of bodegas and blue and white tile-clad bars. One of Málaga’s attractions is the newly-opened Museo Picasso, supplied by the artist’s descendants. It is, unfortunately, a bit empty, but has a nice collection of some of the more intimate works of the city’s most famous son. I was tempted to stay in the museum, though, since it was so deliciously air-conditioned.
I can see myself returning to Málaga, staying well clear of the vulgar string of resorts to the west, however. In fact, I can see myself returning to any of the places I called at on my travels, because Spain is an addictive country – heady and hypnotic like its summers, peppered with new experiences and discoveries.
One experience in Spain I don’t fancy reliving is boarding a plane at Málaga airport which is most a quarter full of excitable, tired, misbehaving, whingeing or petulant children, or having to listen to the conversations between the family in front of me, reading OK! and taking up much of the overhead storage with their indulgent spending sprees at duty free. Never mind, I said to myself, I’m sure I’ll fly business class next time with the winning lottery ticket I bought from a doddery Spanish man in Granada.