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The Great Escape, October 2021

Nineteen months, March 2020 to October 2021: the longest time in our adult lives we had stayed in our own country. It wasn’t a bad life because we walked, cycled, played tennis, spent lots of time with grandchildren, gardened and even traveled within England – Norfolk, Northumberland, Isle of Wight. My cooking improved, I played more tennis than ever before (except during the extreme versions of “lockdown”) and wrote at least twice as many articles as I otherwise would have written during this period. But we began to yearn. As 2020 progressed I didn’t want to write any more articles or play any more tennis tournaments, but just to disappear over the horizon and to keep on going; until recently that didn’t seem much to ask. So, the desk having been cleared and the three-day celebration of my 75th birthday having been completed (all a bit more Covid-risky than originally intended, but we got away with it) the day of departure actually became real.

Yearning, like lust, must have a focus and ours was Spain. In general Spain offers huge variety in one country and the least Covid-related bureaucracy of any alternative. By the time we planned to go all you needed was vaccination certificates, a locator form and to have your temperature taken on arrival. Within Spain I fancied the poorest of provinces, Extremadura. It is marginally bigger than the Netherlands, but has less than a twentieth of the population. How nice would it be to wander round a whitewashed town in a beige landscape, to saunter round the church and sit in a cafe in a plaza having a drink and watching other people living their lives? And after that Nerja in Andalucia where we’ve been several times. The Parador de Nerja does a pretty good impression of heaven on earth with its botanical garden of bright green grass and positively weird trees bounded by white balustrades and patrolled by staff who bring you drinks and tapas at no extra charge. The Grey-green mountains loom behind and the sparkling blue sea lies two hundred feet below. Don’t worry, there is a lift and when you get there the sea is warm and calm. I always enjoy the lift making a little chiming noise when it arrives exactly the same as the noise which precedes an announcement in most airports.

So the plan was just Spain, a touring route shaped like an almond, down the West, back up the East, staying in Paradors for three weeks. (For those who don’t know these are state-owned luxury hotels, mostly in castles and former convents. Think National Trust meets Ritz-Carlton.) We wanted to avoid France partly because it was another country, but also because its Covid bureaucracy was said to be far more officious. But paradoxically the beneficiaries of avoiding France are a French company, Brittany Ferries, who sail from Portsmouth to Santander. The advantages of this are obvious: you arrive in Spain in your own car. The disadvantages are a 28 hour “cruise crossing”, in this case on the new SS Galicia, which might be boring. It also might be a lot worse than boring because it is mainly in the notorious Bay of Biscay. In fact the B of B was like one of those people whom you’ve been told are very difficult to deal with, but when you meet them they are warm and polite. More or less a mill pond. Both ways.

I had imagined it would be warm and sunny and it was. I had also imagined that many of the places we would visit would be quiet. “Out of season” we used to say. Nothing could have been further from the truth. If I had sat in my study fantasising about touring Spain so had a million others. The ship was nearly full going, completely full coming back. I looked up in the restaurant on the boat and saw versions of myself on every table, septuagenarians, tanned, longish white hair, pensions burning a hole in their pockets. In Segovia, our first stop, the Spanish staycation boom was in full swing. In both cases I guess it was the pent-up demand caused by lockdowns. I remembered reading years ago in a local newspaper in the Correze in France when it was announced that August tourism was down 4.9% that it didn’t matter because “September is the new August”. Well in 2021 October was the new summer. Our youngest son, fluent in Spanish, former resident of Madrid, had told me that in Extremadura I/we wouldn’t meet another English person. Yet when we yomped up to a castle on a high ridge above a vast empty landscape we were greeted by a patrician English voice congratulating us on making it. And, yes, he was seventy something and white-haired though his tan was unimpressive compared with mine.

Extremadura was in every respect as good as imagined though with extras. We did not know about the Monfrauge National Park where we walked through wooded hills and past formidable rocky cliffs overlooking the reservoir. We saw Iberian red deer; it was rutting season and the stags were bellowing. We also saw an impressive range of birds; the stars were the the griffon vultures with their ten foot wingspans and the even bigger black vultures. It seemed a little unfair, however, that the best sight of the vultures was presented not to those who walked deep into the park, but to to those who parked their cars in a certain spot on the Plasencia-Trujillo road where the birds swooped and perched at eye level. The other surprising and unforgettable sight in Extremadura was the city of Merida. Sixty per cent of the city is grotty and modern with a potentially record-breaking coverage of graffiti. The other forty per cent is the well-preserved remains of a Roman city with some Visigothic and Moorish additions. So you walk down a very ordinary street, turn a corner and there is a Temple Of Diana converted into a renaissance mansion. Or you go between two blocks of flats and there is a complete aqueduct and beyond that a hippodrome where you could stage a chariot race even now though the seating would require some attention. Or you look up from the cafe table where you are sitting and there is Trajan’s arch. The colisseum and the theatre are also in excellent condition, the latter still in use. I’ve seen an awful lot of ancient ruins in my time, but these are the most fun, serving as a kind of visual joke and reminding me of passages in Gibbon and Ruskin where they talk about the physical legacy of the ancient world visible in Italian cities. Most of the remaining ancient buildings I’ve ever seen are swarming with tourists, but in Merida you could have a temple or an aqueduct to yourself and be like Gibbon or Ruskin. It would seem that the Visigoths showed a great deal more respect for the Roman legacy than did the Angles and Saxons and co. in our own country who usually just vandalised or cannibalised them. In Merida this respect is duplicated by modern graffiti artists who leave them alone as if they regard modern buildings as temporary and trivial and therefore fair game.

We already knew Nerja and its Parador. It was as good as ever, causing my mind to foolishly recall an old pop song: “If Paradise is half as nice as in my Parador . . .” A week of the simple life, swimming, reading, playing tennis and considering the vital question of which fish restaurant to patronise. I contemplated a walk in the mountains, but it was vetoed on the grounds of heat.

When we turned northwards again the car began to chink and clink and even stink a bit. Brandy from Jerez, Andalucian olives and olive oil, cheese from La Mancha, wine from Rioja, sausage from the Basque Country . . . . you can still take it all with you in reasonable quantities. As we got off the boat we received a text telling us that there were six crazy kids trashing our house. Sadly, by the time we reached home at 10.30pm they were all in bed.

For the record-

COVID: As above, the procedures for entering Spain were very easy. Getting back was more difficult because to secure a “locator form” you had to furnish proof of arranging a test when you got home. Both this and the test itself were irksome and in all cases cheating, if that is what you wanted to do, would have been ridiculously easy. For the most part masking and distancing were observed much more rigorously in Spain than in England though this was not remotely true in Nerja which was heaving with non-Spanish tourists.

BREXIT: To my surprise the requirement to have a “green card” to drive on the continent had been negotiated away earlier in the year. I wasn’t even required to inform my insurers I was going so, unless we wanted to go for more than ninety days, terms and conditions of driving were unchanged. You are now supposed to sport a UK sticker on the car (as opposed to GB) and we did, but about half the British cars didn’t and the Spanish police showed no interest in the matter. The allowance of duty free alcohol now allowed is eighteen litres of wine and four litres of spirits each, more than we wanted. In Merida when I asked for the jubilado rate for the entrance to the theatre I was told it was only available to EU citizens. This was the only time Brexit was ever mentioned by anyone we met of whatever nationality. (That a pensioner in Spain is a jubilant person is a lovely idea; the word in France is retraiteur which is almost the opposite image.)

FOOD (& DRINK): We ate thirteen times in Paradors, five times in Nerja restaurants and twice on the boat. The hotel food was haute cuisine in style complete with amuses bouche and very meat oriented. At one point we seemed to be on a baby-slaughtering mission: sucking pig, milk lamb, barbecued kid’s leg (cabrito, no nino). The most enjoyable was eating fresh fish out in the street in Nerja; the bit of street taken up by the restaurant is always called the terraza. Two superlatives: I ate the best lamb I’ve ever eaten in Segovia, tender and beautifully seasoned. In Nerja we had an excellent meal involving barbecued fresh fish and including wine, sparkling water and complementary liqueur and the bill came to E42. I don’t know anywhere else you’d get that quality of food for that price.