This blog recounts my experiences of when I went camping with some so-called acquaintances to our local lunar-landscape reservoir, La Breña, one sizzling August day when temperatures were oscillating around the 42° C (= 107.6° F)! Did I enjoy myself? Did the motley crew acquaintances have fun? And what about the great bristling wild boar?
(Taken in part from the first chapter of my book, ‘An English Lady in Cordova — the alternative guide’ – available at https://www.etsy.com/es/shop/GillysWork?ref=search_shop_redirect ).
After we had settled cosily into our Moorish abode we were ready to take on a couple of much-needed money-making projects in the ancient Jewish Quarters, the Judería. As mentioned earlier, we bought the close-by hostel, Mari II in Horno de Porras street, situated in the narrow, cobbled lane that led down towards the humid banks of the Guadalquivir River. An area which, at that time, was regarded as the sleazy part of town: muttering old men would surface from the darkness of certain ladies’ dens, hunched over with hands fumbling deep in their pockets, often simultaneously spitting out catarrh from their nicotine-lined gullets.
There were also the no-good layabouts that would emerge from other dusky squalors, tottering and totally inebriated from their prior visit to Las Cabezas bar which was famous for its Moorish fountain in the central part of the ice-cold, white marble patio and the large, heavy olive-wood chairs with seats woven from typha stems (nigh impossible to move!); of similar fame was its cheapest, sourest ‘fino’ sherry that you could consume plentifully, served straight from a musty oak barrel, at the cheapest possible prices.
(The bar has since been replaced by a beautiful, luxurious hotel, situated opposite the Museo de las Cabezas, and has embellished all the original, historical features.) Well, I think the reasoning of the bar owner, José María (Joseph Mary), went something like: ‘Once you’ve got ‘em, keep ‘em there, even if it is by getting’ ‘em paralytic!’
His wife, also at one time during her former days of culinary glory served a restricted repertoire of dishes which included plates such as ‘flamequines, croquetas, calamares, chorizo, morcilla’ etc. which are, more or less: breaded pork loin rolled and stuffed with egg and Serrano ham; croquettes made from béchamel with diced ham or chicken; spicy cured sausage; and black puddings—the last two sausages being homemade, prepared from their most recent slaughter of their garden pig, the meat of which would definitely not be tested by a vet (the then true Andalusian way). She would concoct this fare in her tenebrous, squalid kitchen amid the odd, balding chicken or manky cat that she kicked out of the way with her holey, threadbare slippers.
Anyway, to get back to the main thread of things, the Cabezas neighbourhood, being a rundown, dodgy and plebeian area was responsible in bestowing upon our hostel a very interesting clientele, some of who decided one day to ‘volunteer’ (uninvited) to join our summer camping weekend at the local reservoir, La Breña (situated some twenty-two miles west of Cordova, between the villages of the castled Almodóvar del Río and Posadas). And as for me, being polite and English— having been brought up in East Sheen and educated at Gumley House Convent School run by the ‘Faithful Companions of Jesus’ nuns— I couldn’t really refuse their self-invitation, could I? But I wasn’t at all happy with the idea.
And so one sizzling summer’s day, we (who were as yet childless, footloose and fancy free) arrived at this reservoir, together with the bunch of said ‘volunteers’.
It looked like an innocent enough place, even if a little bit lunar what with all its cracked schist and volcanic nuggets peppering the parched sand; there were also sparse, rough-stemmed and thick-bladed weeds poking out all over the place. Pinkish-green Salix bushes and other willowy sort of bushes grew lower down close by the muddy water’s edge, wavering in the dry wind, while hostile, sharp-edged grasses and velvety rushes protruded out from shallower depths. There were crumpled, soiled tissues strewn about here and there together with the odd, billowing plastic bag that was tossed from one pebble to another as the wind caught it like a kite; and the occasional squashed, miniature carton of juice completed the scene, giving it a semblance that would have been more appropriate of a public rubbish tip. (But then again, the throwing of litter here and there, whether in areas of natural beauty or built-up places was, when I first arrived in Andalusia— and still is to some extent— a typical habit of the Andalusians.)
Then there was the worrying fact that one shouldn’t really swim in the waters of the Breña reservoir (which is what we were about to do), mainly for two reasons: firstly, the water is reserved for human consumption and irrigation purposes only; and secondly, there are numerous hazardous objects that lie hidden under the water’s surface which are decidedly treacherous to the unsuspecting swimmer. Some of these objects include sharp, snagging branches that can hold the bather back or pull him down under; there are tree stumps with rotting branches yawning wide welcoming the swimmer into a last confining embrace, while various cables and wires (which weren’t removed before this natural lake was dammed) stretch dangerously from one corner to another. Within the water there are strong, unpredictable undercurrents and dark, circling patches that eddy round and round, ready to suck the swimmer down to perilous depths.
There is also a large population of hungry and menacing, carnivorous, generously-jawed Pike, Carp and Catfish, as well as slithering eels and water snakes that glide quietly through the water; there is also a poisonous variety of mollusc that is native to the Ebro River in Burgos (but how it made its way to the Breña in Andalusia remains a mystery as there are no connections between the two water sources). And last but not least there is also the caiman that one of our gypsy friends, Jesús, let loose in the lake when pursued by the Civil Guard after a tip-off.
So if those aren’t enough convincing reasons for not swimming in the Breña, then the bather must be the sort of deluded greenhorn that went on a camping trip like ours.
But getting back to our intentioned trip with these ‘friends’: basically they were an assorted motley crew, the number of which was not determined by the level of friendship, but more by the number of freeloaders that could be stuffed in our old VW camper van— true to the saying: ‘The more the merrier’.
The crew consisted mainly of poor, young university students and backpackers who were staying in our hostel and taking advantage of the cheap prices that reflected this lowly location. (However, this area has since been given a face lift, especially for the sake of pulling in the tourists, and one can now find Arabic hammams together with upmarket bars, restaurants, boutique shops and jewellers. Gone are the days when curly-haired Lola with her glossy, bright-red fish lips would poke her head out of her ‘panadería’ shop door and shout up the street to her mother; or when you could hear the cries from the subservient wife as her chauvinistic husband directed a torrent of abuse at her and delivered his children an almighty thwack while all the neighbours listened on, unaffected, having been brought up in these traditional methods of discipline and machismo. And gone are the days when the original owners of the tourist shops and bars, many of them dark-skinned and with greasy hair Brylcreemed back would stride up and down the roads with their long, green, pressed-wool cloaked overcoats hanging from their shoulders in mafia-like manner, shrouding them in all self-importance. And when chickens were crammed into small patios: undersized kitchens were dimly lit by just one central, yellowish, low-wattage light bulb that hung from the grimy ceiling—it was only the woman’s domain after all—and the whole freezing, stone-floored and tiled walls that formed an icebox of a house were heated by just the odd brazier or too;
and when the only form of comfortable seating was the highly uncomfortable, but brightly-painted wooden ‘Sevillana’ chairs; when neighbours would sit out on their doorsteps till late on a summer’s night, chatting away under the intoxicating jasmine; and when English was only just being introduced into the National Curriculum and there was plenty of demand for English teachers like me; or even when locals would gawp with lower jaw hanging wide when they heard an English native speak Spanish with an English accent… But times have since changed.)
Anyway these hostel recruits of ours immediately volunteered, or rather insisted on coming along with us once they heard it rumoured abroad that we were planning a quaint little camping trip to the Breña Lake where we could cool ourselves down. What had initially been an offer to a French couple was soon extended to the multitudes. In a nutshell, it included those who wanted to have a free ride, free grub ‘n’ booze, and a free touring weekend!
So the motleys consisted of: one Canadian flamenco guitar student (a poor-little rich boy) accompanied by his Australian counterpart (sweet, shy, not well off, having to give English classes in flip flops but also attired in a suit forced on him by the director);
four very flirtatious French girls who were spending a year in Cordova to study philology and Spanish men; three of their male and very effeminate co-students; a poor, elderly, highly-eloquent English gentleman with a great weakness for classic literature, art and alcohol of any sort, together with his potty, Welsh lady friend; a German lute maker recently arrived to hone his skills during his apprenticeship with a master craftsman; an effeminate male engineering student with pouting lips who hadn’t as yet emerged from the closet as it would have wounded Mexican family pride and Nationalistic sentiments; a fair-coloured, blue-eyed, sleazy Berber student whose mouth used to water at the sight of anything in a skirt; a vivacious male student from Peru who gave salsa classes in our downstairs room; and last but not least, a Venezuelan Don Juan who, after putting his Malagueñan girlfriend in the family way, soon upped and ran (taking another girl with him) and was never heard of again. The van was big after all, and in those days seat belts were not the order of the day, and although Spain had just recently entered the European Union (in 1986) it hadn’t yet felt the full effects of peaceful discipline and conform on its society.
But to linger no longer, off we set, unaffected by the limited space and accompanied by raucous laughter, eager cheering, guitar strumming, alcohol-smelling breath, wafts of ‘grass’ and the general muddle, commotion, cacophony and disorder that personifies youth. (Luckily I had reserved my place in the front seat, and unaccompanied. Doubts had already started crowding my mind!).
After about an hour we finally arrived; we slowly and painfully alighted, stretching legs, arms and rib cages. The spanking summer sun was already suspended directly above me and the gang, and was heating the stones relentlessly with its direct waves, causing the air above to shimmer and waver like a mirage. Once we, or rather they, had erected tents, rolled out mats, made and prepared food on the camping-gas stove, drank plenty to get into the swing of things, and donned bathing suits and all sorts of paraphernalia, we, or rather they, made a steady way downhill towards the water’s edge. I followed up the rear, gingerly picking my way over sharp pebbles while trying to avoid the unavoidable sun’s rays. It was mid-July and we were too poor then (or too thick-brained really) to do the decent, logical thing which would have been to head north to Cantabria or Asturias, Galicia or even País Basque (in other words, to the cooler, breathable and more humane temperatures of the ‘Garden of Spain’) where we would have been able to enjoy a proper holiday. But we didn’t have children then, so we were caught up in that whirlwind of illogical and impracticable thinking, where one acts first, later reflects, and in the end, pays the consequences.
Anyway, we tiptoed our way across those hard, angular, quartz-rich rocks— a painful experience for those of us who hadn’t been sufficiently anaesthetised by the lunchtime Valdepeñas followed by the ‘cafe carajillo’— that is, coffee cranked up with a ‘real man’s’ measure of anisette. (It could also be with brandy, rum or whisky, as drunk originally by the Cuban troops in order to bolster their courage.)
Soon we reached the ruffled waters where we let our feet sink into the oozy, slimy, brown-grey, amphibious-insect-infested mud. The sensation was disgusting! The substrate was neither sandy nor firm, but simply gloopy and muddy. (I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why certain beauty victims go for aesthetic mud treatments.) I felt ill at ease, to say the least (obviously not having been sufficiently prepped by the carajillo) and was expecting something nasty to sink its incisors into my flesh.
After a few seconds I was sure that I could feel an itching, pinching and biting, and when I withdrew my legs from the murk, sure enough my feet and ankles were covered in a myriad of raised, angry-red blotches and spots. I wasn’t going to have any of it—I legged it out of those dubious waters as quick as I could! The silty water soon dried off my skin leaving behind a pattern of mica flakes that scintillated and glistened over the sore red patches and resisted being scraped away even though I was now scratching myself frantically like an incensed dog. Luckily I spied some dock leaf growing under a low Salix bush not too far away, so I crawled off in that direction, plucked off a few leaves and then applied these, poultice-like to my sore feet and calves. I then remained there, like a wounded dog, crouched low under the parched willowy branches, trying to cheat the sun’s rays.
However, the braver recruits continued on undeterred in their valiant, inebriated state. They plunged into the water and were soon swimming out quite far despite their vague awareness of the chubby, torpedo-like Carp that lurked about in the obscure depths. (Although my brother assures me that these fish are total vegetarians, I wasn’t willing to hang around and put his theory to test! What’s more, I had also heard from our local fishing group in Posadas which hold their regular contests in Miguel and Rita’s bar— the corner one near the train station— that the slithering Wels Catfish has also been spotted in that lake, and apart from their size being menacing, they do have multiple rows of razor sharp teeth.)
Anyway, I stayed put, cowering under the thin, willowy branches of the Salix bush, that now and then whipped my bare skin as the breeze mustered up an increasing strength.
I say that ‘I stayed put’, but that was only for a while, until a new idea dawned on me which was as bright and illuminating as the midday sun: ‘Why don’t I go and look for firewood up there in that dusky, mysterious coppice that crowns the top of the hill?’. It seemed to me at the time, a helpful and practical idea and I was putting my ability to foresee the future in play (and also the sardines and other food that would need cooking) — and with some effort, I hauled myself upwards, dusting off the annoying little angular stones that had become half embedded into my bare calves and thighs.
Well, what I thought would be a good idea in fact turned out to be a very bad idea. I’ll give you a clue…Grunt! Grunt! Oinks, screeches and screams, and me dicing with death.
But, although I would love to recount the full story in detail, I think that I should abruptly bring my tale to a close for fear of this blog becoming too lengthy. However, it was an eventful day, where not only the raucous, drunken, over-enthusiastic, self-invited motleys were the protagonists, but also the menacing wild boar — (‘jabali‘, in Spanish!). If you would like to learn more, then these and other amusing stories can be found in my book, An English Lady in Cordova (see link in the above first chapter).
Thanks for reading — see you soon!