Whatever the city of Almería may lack aesthetically, it makes up, for me, in the abundance of natural beauty it keeps just outside its suburbs and in the conviviality of its content people. The town and immediate vicinity is a mix of white-walled utilitarian dwellings, port facilities, meandering pathways, and a crapload of greenhouses, (many of which seem to be hastily thrown together, but have become a major source of those fresh winter vegetables in Spanish markets). And amid the small streets and apartment complexes, a few incredible historical monuments stand, some of which are being renovated, ever so slowly it seems. The port is expectedly dirty and used, with some rusty large ships tied to the bollards while cranes turn and grind, pack and unload. A few ferries come in from Africa. Apparently, early March is a good time to visit this part of Spain, as throngs of Madrileños, English and other fair weather visitors soon fill the beaches and boardwalk bars as the weather warms up. High atop the city of Almería sits the Alcazaba Monument, now a symbol of the conflict between Christian and Moorish cultures of the past. After a short walk from the port district, through tiny streets and small shops of incense, trinkets of silver and beads, and strange cooking smells, the walls of the fortress appear so old that they seem to be part of the natural landscape; but they stand out from the surrounding housing development of the Barrio de La Chanca below.
At the top, I lean against the wall and watch the activity in the port district from above, and scan the Mediterranean Sea, which is completely calm except for a ferry coming in from somewhere. There are no other people around the entire fortress for a few minutes, and I take in the air and stand with a satisfaction anyone should have when he has a castle all to himself.
When someone mentions Almería, Cabo de Gata usually comes up. It is a natural reserve that doesn’t have much going on, but therein lies the appeal. After the monstrous, tower of Babel-like development of Spanish coastal locales like Benidorm, Cabo de Gata is a landscape lacking urban ambition and arrogance, relying instead on its natural beauty to attract visitors. There are several species of cactus and desert flora, and it is strikingly similar to the American southwest. It is no surprise that many spaghetti westerns were filmed here. Sitting on a hill, surrounded by a dry desert wind, near the rocks, sandy beach and the Mediterranean Sea, one may not find a better place to sip on a glass of cava and watch the sunset (yes, I am also aware that many of my great experiences tend to involve glass of some sort of booze in my hand).
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On Saturdays, there is a large family (of a good college friend of mine) that will often gather, in their beach home in San Jose, close to the city of Almería, and eat. They talk loudly, often all at the same time, and pass around bottles of Rioja and Orujo. It is a crowded commotion and there is not a more comfortable and enjoyable place to be. The Spanish take their food seriously, and it is at the center, literally and figuratively. This weekend, between heavy laughs and banter, there were slowly baked potatoes and boniatos (sweet yams), grilled cordero (lamb), mandarin, arugula and grilled pine nut salad, morcilla (I hadn’t tried the Andalucian version with onions instead of rice), a spread of pastries baked that morning by a man down the road. The boniatos and patatas came right off the grill and there were ashes swirling in the air and all over the table; everyone’s hands were greasy and ashy and air in the house smelled like a campfire. The table was much too small for the amount of people, so we sat, shoulder to shoulder, wine glasses were accidentally switched, and hungry eaters reached over and took pieces of food and threw them on shared plates. There was a strong communal attitude that was obvious and natural and completely unforced. In this family, they choose to live near each other, and visit often, and embody the family driven, rural existence that is often forgotten and missing in the life of an expatriate. I also suspect this is a common way of life in rural Spain in general; I will need to do some more research to confirm this, of course (i.e., eat and drink much more and in various locations). There is something redemptive and inspiring to witness people act in this way. It is not for everyone, and a more reserved, practical and structured life away from family isn’t necessarily a less happy one. But there is something so basically good about people gathering, in close physical proximity, stuffing their faces with food cooked on a fire and getting drunk on a Saturday afternoon next to the sea. I could get used to this.
On Friday, the new delicacies (for me) included secreto Ibérico, a fatty slab of the pig cut from near the neck (when we bought it that morning from an unintelligible jolly butcher with an incredible Andalucian accent, he handed me my change crumpled and with blood on it—that’s when I really knew I wasn’t in Madrid anymore…) and torta del casar (a wonderful cheese that resembles brie, and baked in the oven until soft, and with that great burnt crusty part at the edges). These were followed by some favorites of mine: grilled navajas (razor clams), red prawns harvested in the morning right off shore (and cooked on a griddle and a bed of salt–nothing else), freshly caught calamar (squid) grilled with a bit of olive oil and lemon, tasty manzanilla (sherry from a specific area in Andalucía), Orujo de hierbas (a strong, after-dinner drink that I believe can also be used as jet fuel), and a few too many glasses of Pacharán (a sweet liqueur made from endrinas, or sloe berries). And of course the obligatory bottle or two of Rioja and Ribera del Duero.
Not content to let me get away without leaving a strong impression of Andalucía, my good friend took me to a small little bar, on the outside of Alemería, built around a cave, called Peña del Morato. On any given night (they are only open on weekends), there are four types of people at this place: bailaores flamencos, cantaores flamencos, tocaores flamencos, and people who watch all of those people. There is no schedule, no program; if someone wants to sing, or play, or dance, that person just starts, and the place gets quiet, apart from the occasional “ole!”. It is a kind of social club for real flamenco performers. There are trophies on shaky shelves and modest photos on the stone walls of some past great singers and dancers. The highlight of the evening was a 10-year-old girl, seemingly shy, with glasses and a can of coke. She sat down and sang and impressive song filled with romantic and sentimental lyrics well beyond her experience. Her voice was loud and full and the appreciative patrons cheered her heartily. The guitarists were some of the best I’ve ever seen. There was no cover charge or dinner packages. Just a group of traditionalists keeping a piece of history alive.
Some have told me that Almería isn’t really Andalucía, but I thoroughly enjoyed finally getting to the south of Spain, and easing into the experience with a quick weekend trip. Regardless, Sevilla, Granada, and Córdoba are next, as I they have been on my list for a long time. And of course I’ll be sure to return to Almería soon, since two days in the off-season just aren’t enough to take in the variety of local fare and experiences that the place has to offer.