2004/08/10

Wind and towers

Have you ever wondered why farmers and herders along the Mediterranean coast never built their homes on the highest points with the greatest views? The wind. It blows with gale force here in Meseta Alta, where some good friends from the States have lent us their house this August. It rattles the doors and wooden shutters, but if we close everything we asphyxiate. It is a sere wind, pulling the water out of the air and out of your mouth and body. It drives the flies to seek refuge in the house, and they buzz around berserkly, seeking what moisture they can get from your lips or the sweat on your arms. This morning when I wanted to hang up some laundry, I had to struggle to get the sheets on the line at all, pinning them in 6 or 8 places in close series. Still they flew and flapped and wrapped around themselves on the line, one of them catching on a cactus several feet away until I moved it just out of reach. It took me several minutes to hang up everything, and by the time I had the last T-shirt up, the sheets were sucked dry by the wind.

Foreigners who expect the elements to obey them do build on the high points for the views. The foreigners who built half a cooperative on this mesa, and half in the village of Agua Amarga down below, in 1968 were American pacifists who wanted quiet retirement homes, and their leader built this house on the highest point on this, the highest mesa around except for the one holding up the lighthouse just behind us, and oriented the house to catch the breezes from both sides, poniente (from the west) and levante (from the east). Some breezes. Either he had picked an exceptionally meteorologically quiet year, or else he had never been here in mid August before he made his plans.

In olden times, only the lords who built stone castles and look-out towers would perch them on the high points, and mostly the castles have resisted the centuries of wind. Or at least, their stone parts have, or in the worst of cases, impressive chunks of their ramparts. On Sunday we drove into the interior, through the mountains past mountain town of Níjar, famous for its ceramics from the local clayey soil, and on to the higher more precariously perched village of Lucainena de las Torres, where until the Civil War they mined the iron that traveled down a narrow gauge railroad all the long way to an embarcadero – a loading dock – next to Agua Amarga. After a stop in the tiny plaza, which was more like a shelf carved out of the mountain, we went on and from the road could see one of the old towers, looming above on the mountain ridge, that gave the village its name.

Our real destination was Tabernas, more mountains of other stone – here shiny black, there rust brown or even red, glistening white silicate, cut dramatically by ancient rivers that once must have been torrents but now are deep, dry scars filled with yellow brush, green foliage and a newcomer, cactus originally from Mexico. The nopal has done especially well in the dry deserts of Almería, where it has been renamed “chumbera” and the people no doubt imagine it is a native plant. They don’t seem to be aware that the bright yellow and red fruit, chumbos to them, nopales to Mexicans, prickly pear to us, are edible.

Tabernas is best known for its fake “Hollywood” villages, where hundreds of westerns have been filmed, included dozens by Sergio Leone. One of them is featured in the hilarious movie “800 Balas” that we saw last year – when a group of players who stage Wild West shoot-outs for tourists are threatened with eviction, their leader, an old actor who claims to have worked with the great Clint Eastwood, gets them to load their old six-shooters and Winchesters with real bullets (they have enough cash on hand for 800), and they fight off the police, the army and Guardia Civil while a little boy joins the troupe and gets a lesson in sex from the cast’s bar girl. Great fun, but after that, we thought we’d seen enough of the fake Wild West. We were more attracted by the “Arab castle” (as it is labeled) up on the highest point above the real (not the Wild West smulacra) town of Tabernas. It’s very impressive from below. You would think the Moors might still be up there, ready to hurl rocks and buckets of flaming oil from trébuchets and fire arrows against their attackers. But after a long dusty climb, we found there was nothing there but the shell of its ancient walls. Splendid views, though. And plenty of wind.

2 comments:

Simon P. Alciere said...

I've been to Meseta Alta (in the winter), and I enjoyed your description.

gef said...

Thanks, Simon. One small correction: I've since learned that people here in Spain do in fact savor the fruit of the nopal, or chumbera, which they call higos chumbos.