Harry turned off the engine, thumped the steering wheel and shouted,
“You wanted to come here. You get us out of it!”
My stomach was gripped with that sickening feeling of panic as I desperately tried to hold back the tears. A thousand tiny needles were pricking my eyes, and the saying, “Beware of what you wish for, it may come true” began to echo though my mind in an annoyingly smug way.
To stay in the Parador of Arcos de la Frontera had been my wish. Now it was a dream turning into a nightmare.
We'd long been mulling over the idea that one day we would travel through Spain, in a camper van, following in the footsteps of my hero, Laurie Lee. My favourite book of all time was, and still is despite everything, "As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning". It tells of Laurie's trek across Spain in the 1930s on the cusp of the Civil War. In those far off days, those of our mulling that is rather than 1930's Spain, I had no idea who or what a parador was. Determined not to be under-prepared for our trip, I'd taken the plunge and enrolled on the Spanish language course at our local college, and it was there that the fateful discovery was made. Videos used during the course mainly comprised of scenes where ‘tourists’ asked directions or purchased items, set against the backdrop of some of the most interesting and picturesque parts of Spain, i.e. not the usual high-rise hell which epitomises your average Spanish holiday destination. One episode in particular was especially alluring. It concerned asking if it is possible to do various things … “Se puede………”
….A couple sit on the terrace of the Parador at Arcos de la Frontera, perusing their guidebooks. A waiter arrives, obviously the genuine article since he looks somewhat ill at ease in front of the camera. They ask him if it is possible to have a meal out there…. " Se puede…" etc. The answer unfortunately for them, is in the negative, but they can have a drink! ….
All of this might sound mundane, but the setting wasn’t. The 80s-styled, shoulder-padded señorita presenting the video wandered through the shady streets of the town of Arcos de la Frontera, one of the ‘white towns’ or ‘pueblos blancos’ of Andalucia. These towns are romantically set on top of a hill or a vertiginous cliff-face, and since all of the houses in them are painted white, it does not take a genius to see how they got their name. The Parador of Arcos sits on the summit at the edge of the high outcrop on which the town is situated. From below it seems to be in a precarious position, suspended like an ornament on a Christmas tree. The views in the video, taken from and around this lofty position, were spectacular and I was hooked.
While the possession of a guide book can give a sense of security in that you think it tells you all you need to know, believe me, this is far from the case. Our Spanish guide book had a lovely photograph of my imagined utopia, and the caption below the picture calmly stated:
“Precipitously situated Arcos de la Frontera, a challenge to motorists"
"Challenge to motorists?" I thought. "We’ve driven up and down Swiss mountains for years; this can’t be any worse! What kind of wimps do they think we British are? O.K. it looks steep, but nothing we can’t cope with, surely?"
However, whenever I use the word, surely, at the back of my mind I can hear the lugubrious tone of our history teacher at school. Not the most inspiring of teachers, and also not keen on the exuberance of youth, Mrs. Sacher would become exasperated whenever someone uttered this word, grimly admonishing,
“No-one can ever be that sure about anything!”
Like most things young people are warned about, we took no notice and deliberately used the word just to annoy the poor old thing. But she did have a point after all.
Harry had promised to treat me to a night in a 'posh' hotel as a relief from life cooped up in the van, so I ordered the Parador brochure and eagerly awaited its arrival. My enthusiasm was not curbed by its contents, but even though full of intriguing places such as restored castles, convents and palaces, my heart was set on the former home of the corrigidor at Arcos. I had pictured myself gazing out from that terrace, glass of Rioja in one hand (although no food) ; there really was nothing else which could compete. And so it was that a few months later our Spanish sojourn took us en route north from Cadiz, seeking out this fabled place like conquistadors on a quest to find El Dorado. Or at least a less romantic version anyway.
Upon arrival outside the town our mission ground to a halt. It was not entirely clear how to get up to our destination or even into the town itself. We could see it so temptingly out of reach at the edge of the cliff above us, and I was reassured to see that it actually resembled the guidebook picture. The endearing Spanish tradition of making strangers guess how to find their way around was in practice, and there were no visible directions to the Parador despite its fame.
"Let's find the Tourist Office," I suggested.
"You'll be lucky. It's bound to be their four-hour lunch break," Harry replied.
He was right of course. How many times had we optimistically tried to get information from one of these places only to discover them closed and not only because of lunch but also because it was a Saint's Day/a Monday/an election day/out of season. Perish the thought of a tourist office actually being open when it was needed.
"Well, there's got to be a way up to the Parador, otherwise how would it be in business?"
Harry, resigned to his role as reluctant tour driver, shrugged his shoulders, put the van into gear and we set off once more. The first guess we made as to the way up and into the lower part of town only led to ‘no entry’ signs. At this point it was a pity we didn't hear the warning bells, though we would hear enough real ones later. Even at this early stage, uncharacteristically, Harry was ready to give up. I was determined not to be deprived of my goal.
"We just can't go away without trying a bit harder to find it," I had after all come so far and got so tantalisingly near.
He resisted. I insisted. He lost.
With each time we drove back and forth across its bridges, the foreign green river that flows at the base of the hill upon which Arcos is so "precipitously" set, soon became as familiar as our local town's supermarket-trolley-containing-stream. However, by the process of elimination, we eventually found a road which thankfully didn't lead us back to where we'd just come from and I felt that now I could actually look forward to my night of five-star luxury. Things were now looking up both literally and metaphorically as this road was of a reasonable width and actually not too steep. But soon the ominous appearance of one-way signs again tried to confound us, and beads of sweat ran down my forehead, and this time not because of the Spanish heat.
"This is hopeless," it was unlike my normally confident Other Half to admit defeat so soon.
"It can't be much further!" I said, though I was trying to cover up the fact that I agreed with him.
The higher and further into the town we drove, the narrower became the streets. Not in the sense of a British narrowness, that is with pavements or verges and the sensible addition of the occasional passing place, but in the sense of those white, unforgiving walls of buildings actually bordering the way forward. In my enthusiasm, it hadn’t occurred to me for one minute that when donkeys were the only form of transport and in an effort to achieve maximum shade in the relentless summer heat of Southern Spain, houses in towns were built as close together as possible. Our guide book with its emphasis on the steepness of the streets, had neglectfully omitted to mention their width. And I'd paid good money for it too. There'd been no warning signs. There was no room for manoeuvre. Any possibility of turning round was a non-starter, and in any case out of necessity this was a one-way system. It would also have been hopeless to think of backing up because by then there was a queue of cars building in our wake, these vehicles in true Continental fashion only having a centimetre between their bumpers.
With both sides of the van so close to touching the walls of the houses, it was nigh on impossible for either of us even to climb out. That we might actually be in a tricky situation seemed a big possibility. On the plus side however, like Pollyanna I'd found a silver lining to our predicament.
"Look! There's a sign for the Parador! Over on that wall!" Our enforced stop had enabled me to spot it pointing to the right up another steep and narrow turning beyond the archway.
"Well in the first place, I doubt if we can get through the arch – it's even narrower than the road we're on. And anyway, how do you think I can get the van round that corner? This van's got a long wheelbase – there's no chance!"
The usually unflappable Harry was already disenchanted with the trip in general and with Spain in particular. This was proving to be the last straw on top the huge stack we'd accumulated since leaving home two weeks before, and now was the time for him to succumb to an uncharacteristic bout of towel-throwing-in. Helpfully I just wished I could shut my eyes, curl up in a ball and die.
Then, through the murky depths of our despair an apparition from nowhere appeared before us: a young man on a motor-scooter waving his arms about. We soon realised that rather than making rude gestures at hapless tourists (us), he was suggesting we should pull in the wing mirrors to reduce the width of the van. It seemed a sensible suggestion and one worth trying even though we were unsure if this would completely solve our predicament. By now we were also becoming aware that we'd attracted the interest of several ancient and well-oiled patrons of a bar just up ahead, and our little drama turned into a full-scale pantomime as they began gesticulating and beckoning us on.
“Si! Si! … Se puede!” they exclaimed excitedly and at the same time doing what could only be described as some sort of grotesque ritual dance.
This was a good time to remember the meaning of those words in my favourite scene from the language video.
“Se Puede! They seem to think we can do it!” I translated helpfully.
It was not like Harry to give up, but the high temperatures and a general fatigue which we were both feeling as a result of driving hundreds of miles since leaving home had taken their toll. After all, being from an island which is only some 22 ½ miles at its widest(1) and even though we'd travelled through France on many occasions, the vast distances involved in our ambitious circumnavigation of Spain was a different ball-game. France is big. Spain is very big and very hot. I don’t really think the re-spray carried out on the van as part of its re-fit before we left home had anything to do with his sudden caution, but no doubt the thought of that new paint work being scratched did not help. Paint-work aside, there was no real choice for a way out of our situation. The only alternative to cutting the van up into small pieces and carting it off to one of the charming scrap heaps we'd noticed gracing the Andalucian countryside, was to trust these helpful locals who were surely experienced in this type of thing. So we edged forwards, slightly encouraged by the sight of a small local bus, not quite as large as our van (and with its wing mirrors folded of course), in the queue of traffic behind us.
"If that goes through every day, then surely we can!" Pollyanna chirped.
Of course we had no reason to know that the bus did not actually include a stop up that hill and outside ‘our’ Parador, but emboldened by its presence, gingerly Harry managed to squeeze the van through the archway. Now all that was needed was to get it round that wretched tight corner beyond it, which was so tantalisingly displaying the sign pointing up to our goal. The only way to do this was by shunting backwards and forwards, and despite being able only to turn slightly on each manoeuvre, eventually we found ourselves liberated in the wider expanses of the town plaza mayor. There stood my marvellous Parador occupying the whole of one side of the square, white and shiny, the jewel in the crown. On one of the other sides there was a picturesquely-crumbling Baroque church and a third consisted of the vertiginous edge of the cliff with its breath-taking views of the surrounding parched countryside. How wonderful, how authentic. At last, the real Spain! The Spain of Laurie Lee…..the country as I had imagined it to be when my hero walked across it in those far off days….
Naturally, I soon had to come back to the here and now because our next difficulty was finding somewhere to leave the van. The square, rather than being an open space for the recreation of the good people of Arcos, was instead a car park. It was at this point that something important occurred to Harry.
"You should have booked a room. After all this trouble, we might not be able to stay there anyway. You didn't think of that did you?"
Why was it always my fault? But I couldn't argue as it was my idea to stay in the place, as he'd already so forcibly reminded me. Maybe I should have had the foresight to book in advance or at least see if they had rooms available for round about the time we intended to arrive.
"You'd better get in there! Here's the Traffic Warden wanting to move us on!"
A mean-looking uniformed man was heading our way, so I willingly left Harry to sort out the problem of parking, and jumped out of the van to make a dash for the hotel reception. It was only then I realised that I looked like a disaster area. My hair was all over the place from travelling with the van windows open, and I was wearing the faded-tee-shirt-shorts-and-flip-flops look which had been great for dossing around on campsites, but to my mind not really suitable attire for a five-star hotel. For the first time in my sheltered life I needed to stop being squeamish about my appearance. I was already unpopular for bringing us here, so it was no good whinging that I should change into something more respectable - or at least put a comb through my hair. Paraphrasing in my mind the words of Basil Fawlty, “Only the upper classes would wear tat like that”, I hoped that the hotel staff would think me one of those English eccentrics, as was our erstwhile reputation abroad before the arrival of the package holiday and the lager lout.
Approaching the entrance, I noticed a smartly dressed couple making their way up the steep path to the hotel pulling wheeled suitcases behind them. It became even more urgent for me to get there before they took the imagined last room, but of course unlike us, they were hardly likely to have trundled all that way up to the Parador without booking. With no time to apply this bit of logic to the situation, I found myself running the last few yards as if my life depended on it, which in a way it did though only in the sense of marital harmony. Obviously used to all sorts there, nobody at the reception desk batted an eyelid at my accelerated arrival technique and bohemian appearance. Those few minutes waiting for my turn seemed like eternity as my inner turmoil threatened to ruin the pretence of outward calm. When I resisted punching the air and hugging the lovely man behind the desk as he confirmed they had rooms available, even I was impressed at my self-restrain.
Filling in the annoying forms in triplicate as fast as I could, I returned to the van and discovered that the parking man was not mean at all, and was helpfully directing Harry to a suitable space which had become vacant. I felt bad at turning him into some kind of Napoleon, but also could not help thinking that any change of attitude may have been because of discovering our intention of staying at the Parador. By booking in at the hotel, we were no longer rubber-necked day trippers or ageing hippies in a scruffy camper van.
After all the stresses of getting there, we were keen to get out of the suffocating heat of that town square, multiplied a hundred–fold inside the tin-box which was our mobile home. We grabbed what we needed for that night, including our ‘posh’ clothes, and stuffed everything apart from these into a small case. I'd insisted on bringing this with us for such an occasion, despite there being little space for such frivolities. There was no way that we would enter my precious Parador carrying our things in supermarket plastic carriers.
I gasped as we entered our room. It was huge, and with comfy sofas, a separate entrance hall, tables and chairs, it was also heaven. The bathroom alone could have accommodated the living space inside the camper van some four times over.
"Let's just stay here for the next week, abandon the van and fly home," I suggested.
"Well don't forget whose idea it was to do this trip in the first place,"
He had a point.
I wasn't accustomed to 'roughing it' and a lifetime had passed since I'd been able to wallow in a deep bathful of warm water. Designers of camp-site showers needed to go back to the drawing board - nine times out of ten my clothes managed to get as wet as I did, and it was normal for water not being as hot as advertised on the tap. Not unusual either was that this so-called ‘hot’ water ran out half way through washing my hair resulting in a lot of futile insults being shouted at the pipe-work. This was not my idea of a good time.
However, before we could begin to take in and enjoy our surroundings properly, we had to undertake the important task of transferring our cheese supply and other perishables from the van 'fridge into the chilled mini bar in the room. The refrigeration facilities in the van were just about adequate whilst on the move, though good when plugged into the mains on a campsite, but obviously no such arrangements were available in that scorching Town Square. And though there was also a Calor-gas option, we didn't have enough confidence in it to trust our precious stash wouldn't have turned into stinking mush by the following day.
Having done the deed, we could now turn our attention to enjoying the view from our balcony and discovered it to be an excellent vantage point for observing the comings and goings in the plaza below. A good source of interest came from the police station on the opposite side to the Parador. It occurred to us from our observations that the guardia of Arcos must have the best policing job in the world. Their main duties seemed to consist of:
a) lounging provocatively, James Dean-like, astride large motor bikes
b) smoking huge cigars
c) chatting to and sharing a joke with various acquaintances who were passing by
Along with peaked caps, sun-glasses and large moustaches seemed to be obligatory parts of their uniform, so when a workman wearing a yellow hard-hat stopped for a chat, the ensemble was in danger of resembling the 'Village People'. The temptation for a chorus of 'Y.M.C.A.' was too much to resist.
There did seem to be a huge number of police in that square doing not a lot, and we didn’t suppose that crime was a big problem in Arcos. However we found ourselves imagining a Spanish rival for that famous chase in The Italian Job – but on motorbikes rather than Minis. Those steep, narrow and winding alleyways would certainly make it an exciting prospect – maybe we should suggest it to someone.
However, pleasant as this was and not wishing to spend the whole time in Arcos playing the voyeur from our window, we ventured out into the square to explore. The tourist office (yes, there was one all the way up there) was also opposite, next to the police station, but I was left wondering if it might have been better located somewhere near the town's entrance for visitors to take full advantage. Anyone who had already made it up to the plaza major would probably have no need for one by then. On the door was a poster advertising guided walking tours of the town’s historic buildings and patios, which are apparently famous. Naturally it did not re-open until later that afternoon, so as temperatures began to cool, we returned and took up the offer. As a bonus, this was free for guests of the Parador. Being the only interested party that day, we had an exclusive tour with the pleasant raven-haired young woman from the tourist office, who spoke impeccable English. Harry even managed to make her laugh, something of a feat in Spain, as we passed a noisy bunch of Germans intent on disrupting the tranquillity of those narrow streets:
"Tut, tourists!" he said, "We get them at home!"
Despite seeing the exquisite patios and learning about the interesting history of the town, I began to feel uneasy because of the recurrent pealing of bells from its many church campanile. Added to this was much chiming of clocks marking the quarter of each hour. I remembered that one side of the square containing the Parador was taken up by that ancient church which I'd admired so much. The thought should have occurred to me before that churches mean bells; bells mean laying awake half the night. This had been an enduring memory from a previous trip through the Spanish Pyrenees, where clocks chimed not only on the hour, but five minutes before and after. This helpfully made sure that listeners just dropping back to sleep after the first lot were in no doubt of the time for the rest of the night.
"Those bells," I wondered. "They must stop at night, mustn't they?"
To be continued...