26 September 2021
** Honesty alert**
You might have noticed, it’s been over three months since our last post. It’s definitely not been from lack of content but, if we are being brutally honest, it’s been brought about by two things:
1) the unexpected interruptions of the lifestyle we love – you know, Brexit, the pandemic, mainly Brexit – but more about that another time; and
2) the fact that this post is to be our reflections on Spain – a country which we have found hard to love but which, in writing this, we realise has been very good to us.
If you ask Stefan for his memories of Spain he will say “dog pooh and sequins”. And it is definitely true that one of our enduring memories from our time in Spain will be of the need to keep our eyes on the pavement ahead for fear of squelching into something somewhat unpleasant. We realise now that this is not just a Spanish thing and it would be unfair to single the country out for this offence to footwear. Negotiating the wonky pavements of Italy also required sharp eyes and radar like sense of smell. It is, however, undeniable that Spanish women love a sequin appliqued garment. Everything, t-shirts, skirts, trousers, shoes and sandals are covered in sparkly mini gems.
It would also be unfair to judge an entire country when we really only spent a significant amount of time in the Andalusia region and the Balearic Islands with just short stops in the areas of Galicia and the Costa Brava. Just like there is so much more to Spain than sangria and flamenco, there is so much more to Spain than dog pooh and sequins and, despite it not being our favourite European country, Spain has, it turns out, given us some of the highlights of our Mediterranean tour.
Very early on, in fact in our very first Spanish port of call in A Coruna, we were introduced to Spain’s wonderful public spaces. The country’s squares, parks and waterside walkways always welcomed us with a wonderful sense of space, grandeur and community.
The ubiquitous paseo maritimo became our go to path to much needed exercise after hours at sea as well as orientating ourselves in new places. Even when we weren’t joining them, we loved watching Spaniards of all generations walking, running, cycling and toddling along together.
No matter how densely packed the streets, turning around a corner somewhere would open up into a space that offered a place to sit or stroll even if on occasion, as in Cadiz, they appeared to be occupied almost entirely by children.
And there was always art of some visceral, poignant, joyful or even faintly ridiculous kind to contemplate.
A crash course in southern European history
We weren’t expecting Spain to be the place that took us on an albeit somewhat chronologically challenged dive into history. We had expected to wait until at least Italy and probably Greece for that and so the ancient sites of our early explorations came as a complete surprise but Spain was also to introduce us to much more modern history which we would find playing out during our time in the country.
We were certainly not expecting the megalithic architecture of the dolmens of Antequera or Menorca‘s necropoli, sites that took us back to a time when moving those giant slabs seemed completely unfathomable
but it was to be in Cartegena – which retains its place as one of our favourite ports of call – that we were truly immersed in the Mediterranean’s rich history. The underwater archeology museum is firmly in our top five museums and taught us so much about the traders whose wakes we would follow. And the streets of the city introduced us to some of the key players whose wars and empires would come to define the countries we would visit, the Phoenicians, the Carthaginians and the Romans. The Roman theatre, long hidden under other buildings, was an extraordinary surprise.
Moving through time, and back to one of our first stops in Spain, it was in Seville that we were plunged deep into the darkness of the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition. Anonymously located beneath an everyday market, we started to learn the tales of tyranny and torture wrought by Isabel and Ferdinand to maintain Catholic control of their kingdom, tales which we would return to time and again.
Like in the gothic, walled streets of Girona‘s Jewish quarter where we learned more about the forced conversions and persecutions that saw many Spanish Jews flee to places like Gibraltar.
Back in Cartagena we fast forwarded from the Punic Wars to a conflict that took place just about within living memory in the escape tunnels of the Spanish Civil War. It was a brutal battle between nationalist and republicans, fascists and communists, that we would find playing out in other countries on our travels. It ended in the beginning of the reign of Francisco Franco that was to bring its own brand of tyranny to the people of Spain until the 1970s.
In Girona we also found another division in Spanish politics playing out in real time. The call for Catalan independence predates the civil war and continues today. The two years before we visited in 2019 had seen an independence referendum held in the autonomous region declared illegal by the Spanish Government and leaders of the independence movement jailed for sedition. Strength of feeling about the issue was still to be heard loud and clear in the flags and banners and yellow ribbons throughout the city and shows no sign of going away any time soon.
Islands have given us some of our best adventures and that is definitely true of Spain’s Balearic Islands. We didn’t intend to but we ended up visiting the island chain three times, each time getting further under the skin of their very different identities.
Out of season in 2017 and mostly closed up Ibiza was frankly a little uninspiring but back on the island in 2020, and by then much more confident on the hook, the island’s anchorages gave us the peace and relative isolation we needed to sit out the global pandemic at a safe distance. With opportunities for exploring very limited left us wishing we had been able to get to know it much better.
A crazy confluence of brash holiday resorts, quaint fishing villages, dramatic mountains and high gothic architecture, Mallorca was the island that offered up the kind of high drama that should have seen us never want to return. That afternoon we nearly lost Pintail on the rocks at Torrenova was quickly forgotten as we circumnavigated its spectacular coastline over three visits, each of which gave us the perfect excuse to catch up with some of our favourite sailors.
Menorca‘s pastoral land, dry stone walls and British naval history made us feel instantly at home on this low and windswept island. Having studied the weather patterns of the Mediterranean it’s flat landscape comes as little surprise as it seems constantly battered by the Mistral wind that howls out of the Gulf of Leon. It is little wonder that sailors of centuries grew so fond of the island’s gin and we were no different, arriving into Mahon with a broken sail in 40 knots of wind.
We’d missed the sand island of Formentera on our first voyage through the Balearics but had heard so much about it’s crystal clear waters that we had to stop on our way back through and what we found saw us return twice. Those turquoise anchorages and wonderful, wide sunsets made it the perfect escape, when not surrounded by thousands of other boats in the middle of summer.
But without doubt, at the top of our list, is the island we had almost entirely to ourselves. The nature reserve of Cabrera is uninhabited except for park staff and visiting sailors but home to the jet black Balearic lizard and so many birds and wild flowers. Exploring by foot, dinghy and with our own private guide felt like such a privilege.
Portugal had already introduced us to a southern European love of the tile but, in another example of the sometimes not so friendly cross border rivalry, Spain was going to do its best to outdo its neighbour with its ceramic art.
Buildings everywhere were covered in patterns ancient and modern – sometimes in uniform patterns, sometimes utterly haphazardly, but always bright and beautiful.
No surface escaped – underneath balconies, street furniture, even fire extinguishers
but it was the elaborate patterns of the Islamic art in the royal palaces that really wowed us, nowhere surpassed by the Real Alcazar in Seville.
Food and drink
Whilst we won’t necessarily remember Spain for its cuisine, we thank the country for introducing us the simplest, tastiest breakfast in the Mediterranean. Making the best of Spain’s glut of gorgeous tomatoes and olive oil, tostados con tomate was the first thing we ordered when we arrived back in Spain on our way back out of the Med and competes only with a Turkish breakfast as our favourite meal to start the day.
And of course there was endless tapas offering a variety of small dishes to keep us going during the day. Pimiento de Padron were a must have if on the menu. They say one in ten Padron peppers is really fiery and yet, in the Russian roulette like game of hunt the hot one, we were never caught out. We reckon it’s got to be a myth!
Fish and seafood was a constant as we sailed Spain’s coastline and as we got braver we even bought, prepared and cooked squid on board but nothing compared to enjoying Fernie’s home cooked paella in Mallorca. It remains the only paella we had in Spain and having it cooked outside, in front of us, with our Pintail family made it all the more special.
And Spain of course wins the dubious honour of being the first place in the Med that Stefan actually finally fulfilled his promise of becoming hunter-gatherer. From our anchorage in Formentera, with sea bream practically begging to be caught, I had to beg him to stop catching them as we were never going to be able to eat them all. We had to share them with Carole and Roger as it was!
The bakeries of Spain never failed to keep our sugar levels topped up. The apricot pastries of Mallorca helped us celebrate Easter and the ice cream in Blanes made us question Italy’s dominance in the gelato world.
And as for drinks, the areas around Cadiz and Jerez introduced us to the variety of Spain’s sherries, a world a way from your Granny’s Harvey’s Bristol Cream, and we fell too in love with Mahon’s uniquely packaged and beautifully flavoured gin. It was a good thing that left we Menorca after just the two bottles!
So, as it turns out, on reflection, Spain has defied our preconceptions and our generalisations. Not far away from the Benidorms and the Magalufs are some of the most beautiful villages, towns and cities that scream the true character of the country and it’s people. Even our interactions with the fearsome Guardia Civil were courteous, even friendly and, at the fuel dock in San Antonia, very helpful! Spain has been an important lesson for us in never judging a country by its stereotype.
Hasta luego, Espana! We’ve a strange feeling we’ll be back.