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South to Malaga:
the Spanish Odyssey

by  John MacDonald

I am 52 and live in East Devon, UK
. I am a electronics design engineer and part time archaeologist, also a qualified photographer. I was brought up in Australia, lived and worked in New Zealand, South Africa, Germany and Saudi Arabia, and did a 7 year stint in the Army. I have ambitions to be a full time travel writer.

My journey began on a wonderful spring morning in May. It was one of those mornings we often associate with an English Spring, although they seem to materialise very rarely. The sun was shining, there was no imminent danger of rain and a profound calm appeared to engulf the Devon countryside. 

It was with a degree of self satisfaction that I set out on the ‘Spanish Odyssey’ as I had named the expedition. I had decided to spend ten days in Andalucia, in the small village of Zuheros, some seventy five km southeast of Cordoba, in order to relax and unwind after a very hectic and tiring year. The Village had been selected with that well-known method of seasoned travellers, namely the ‘closed eyes and pin method’, as it releases the ‘would-be tourist’ from any responsibility if the venue turned out to be a flop.

The arrangements had all been made online, without the necessity of speaking to a single human being, which suited me down to the ground, as I am an anti-social person at the best of times. 

As the name implies, Easyjet does make it easy to book, with instant confirmation, just a reference number and no tickets. That worried me a bit. The car hire was simple as there are firms by the gross in and around Malaga. The hotel presented more of a challenge as there is only one in Zuheros, and if I couldn’t book on line I would have to change the destination. However, with a little diligent surfing, I found the hotel listed with Interhotels, a Spanish website handling accommodation worldwide. They confirmed within twenty-four hours and e-mailed a voucher. 

So to recap, I had piece of paper: number one, with a flight reservation number on; paper number two, with a car hire reference number on; and three, a similar piece of paper with a hotel voucher printed on it. The room for error, omission and bloody-minded ‘cock ups’ was vast. Add to this my own inherent ineptitude, and we have a valid reason for the indigestion and foreboding I was experiencing. The choice to ‘go it alone’ and not use a travel firm was again down to my anti-social tendencies, and also perhaps to give myself a little challenge, to stimulate the flow of adrenaline, something which happens rarely when one lives in rural East Devon.  

So this is why I found myself, on a glorious spring morning, travelling north along the M5 Motorway to Bristol, its southern suburbs and its airport. Bristol Airport is small, modern, friendly and void of the mass of humanity found at the London or large provincial airports.  

Ignoring the main entrance to the airport, I took the next left and turned down Downside Road, my first objective being the garage, to check-in for my airport parking. This is an excellent service, whereby, you drive to the garage, a driver jumps in with you takes you to the airport, you jump out and he drives away and parks the car up in a secure compound. On your return, you simply phone the garage, and along comes yours car, you jump in and drop off the driver. Simple. No forgetting where you left it and taking a bus home, or whether it has been vandalised. Mind you, I did have a fleeting mental image of it with a number painted on the side, rallying across Avon and Somerset, but I was only being paranoid.    

Once inside the terminal building, I sought out the Easyjet ‘check in’ desk and proffered grubby bit of paper number one. It worked, I was booked on the flight, and if I could produce my passport, all would be well. That done, and after watching my suitcase disappear behind that plastic screen to wherever suitcases go after they have passed through that plastic screen, I headed through passport control to the departure lounge. 

The lounge is a large glass fronted affair, shops on the ground floor and restaurants on the mezzanine. It was clean, relatively comfortable and offered a good view of the aircraft as they arrived and left. Bristol Airport can be described as essentially a holiday airport. There are always tour groups passing through, and today was no exception. Despite still being only nine o’clock in the morning, one group, predominantly men, were consuming lager at an alarming rate. Their chatter had reached crescendo level, and appeared to revolve around one of the group to whom the rest were relating every aircraft disaster since Orville Wright made his now famous heavy landing in 1903. He was obviously afraid of flying and had stupidly told one of his ‘friends’. Still, it all added the atmosphere of the place. I opted for a coffee, and sat down to wait for my flight being called.  

Flight EZY6057 to Malaga is now boarding at gate 10.’ 

At least I think that was the announcement. The PA operator, judging by her volume and pitch, wanted to keep all aircraft movements a secret. Perhaps it was part of the tighter security now in force. The was however foiled by the monitor above the gate, which boldly declared the imminent departure of the flight. 

I had my boarding pass and passport checked by a gaggle of chirpy Easyjet staff, and proceeded to the aircraft, a 737 which looked as if had seen better days, in the 1970s perhaps. Still, as long as it is well maintained and the crew sober, all should be well. The window seat that I settled into overlooked the port wing. The window itself appeared sound and devoid of cracks, so I tried to make myself comfortable. 

It was then I noticed a rather unusual sight. A group of young ladies were getting themselves seated and sorted out further down the aircraft. Judging by their t-shirt legends it was ‘Sara’s hen outing’, but what was unusual was their choice of head gear. They all had those head bands on which have springs, with comic eyes attached. These bounce about as the wearer walks. However, these resourceful young ladies had modified this arrangement in as much as they had removed the eyes and replaced them with replicas of the male genitalia, very detailed, but blue in colour which I found a little disturbing. They made a hypnotic sight, twenty-four phalli, in pairs, shaking and gyrating in sympathy with the movement of the aircraft, a visual indication of the pilot's ability to fly straight and level.  

We became airborne with the usual roar of engines and all the other mysterious clicking, humming and clanking which is associated with take-offs. Then with a slight turn to port we headed south, with the green fields of England slipping away below us. The journey took some two hours and was relatively uneventful. I partook of a coffee and pâté with crackers, not cheap, but I could hardly shop elsewhere. Soon the scenery changed as widely spaced rows of olive trees dominated the landscape, looking like small green puffs of smoke, the even rows appeared endless, as we lost height and closed with Malaga Airport.  


The parade of phalli rocked in unison as the plane trundled its way across the airport tarmac, making several seemingly pointless turns before coming to a stop by the terminal building. Then the usual free-for-all broke out. Why people fight tooth-and-nail to get off the aircraft first is beyond me. People pushed, jabbed, and shoved in order to be among the first off. I waited with a smug grin for the cabin to clear and then made my way into the terminal and the luggage carousel. 

Is my suitcase, which disappeared behind the plastic curtain at Bristol, really going reappear from behind the equivalent curtain in Malaga? What happens if it completes more than one circumnavigation of the conveyor belt without being collected? Will I collect someone else’s case by mistake and spend the next ten days in drag? Would I even find the baggage claim area? 

The airport appears to go on forever. From one of the carousels I can see, by this time welcome sight, the two dozen dancing phalli. The indicator monitor confirmed that is was the baggage claim for flight EZY6057, so I waited patiently for my case. It was one of those with wheels and a handle, you look like a right idiot pulling one, but they make travelling so easy.  

Baggage collected, I made my way into the arrivals lounge. Most of the larger car rental companies have a kiosk at the airport located down a ramp, but the company I used obviously couldn’t afford this luxury, so I had to get a courtesy bus to their offices, perhaps a half a mile from the terminal. Time for even grubbier piece of paper number two. Again it worked. They were expecting me and the car was ready, a few details, my credit card number, and off I trotted to my vehicle. The vehicle, diminutive to say the least, was cleaned, all fuelled up, and ready to go. My suitcase was however too big for the car’s boot, and my boot was to big for the car’s foot pedals, so with my suitcase on the back seat along with my boots, I drove tentatively from the parking area.  

Now, in England I drive a four-wheel-drive vehicle, quite a heavy car, with the steering wheel firmly attached to the right hand side, and, Saturday nights excluded, it is driven on the left hand side of the road. This configuration is, as the history books tell us, to free the pistol hand in order to deal with the attentions of belligerent highwaymen. I am now in a little French perambulating sardine tin, with the steering wheel in the front passenger seat, and driving on the same side of the road as I would have expected the on-coming traffic to be. That I could have handled, but the first thing I saw when I left the hire car compound is the biggest roundabout in Christendom, with what appears the entire population of Malaga circumnavigating it in the wrong direction, the only consolation being, that there wasn’t a highwayman in sight.  

The traffic was continual, accompanied by blaring horns and screeching tyres, and a never-ending procession around the traffic island. I had to do something so I waited for a reasonable gap, closed my eyes and put my foot down, a few waved fists, and I was on my way.  

It appeared as if the whole of Spain was on the move, all lanes were jam packed with sweating, swearing, frustrated drivers, performing all sorts of suicidal manoeuvres, just for the sake of getting past the car ahead. I had to perform a few of my own in order to follow my route, but somehow I managed to find myself on the N331, on course and heading north. 

The traffic thinned and my blind panic subsided. I began to take notice of mundane details again, like the road surface, the countryside and how to work the bloody air-conditioning. I even eased my grip on the steering wheel and allowed the blood to flow back into my knuckles once more. The roads were in very good condition and in general the Spanish drivers were courteous and observed lane discipline. These weren’t the manic drivers I had met around Malaga, crowds in whatever context always bring out the worst in people.  

Driving became pleasurable once more. I had discovered the secret of the air-conditioning, and my navigation appeared to be spot on. From the N331, a right turn and I was on the A316 for the final leg of my journey. The landscape consisted of rolling hills with the ever present olive trees stretching in neat rows, seemingly taking no heed of boundaries or topography, but disappearing into the far distance, occasionally a sheer crag would appear as if by magic, giving an enhanced three dimension effect, almost surreal in nature.  

I began to recognise place names from the maps I had studied prior to departure, Lucena, getting close, Cabra, be there soon, left to Doña Mencía, and right to Zuheros, on to a local road, a few pot holes and tight bends but nothing too testing.

Zuheros is situated in the Parque Natural Sierra Subbètica, an area of some 159,000ha, and fourteen towns, Zuheros being one of them, with a population of about eight hundred. It is perched on the top of a cliff with its castle hanging on by its eyelashes to a precarious position above a sheer drop.  

Hanging Castle
I entered the pueblo. Along its narrow winding streets, the houses, immaculate in whitewash and flowers, an arms length from the car, as I sought out the Hotel Zuhayra. Two ancient sun-wrinkled women, each sitting on their own doorsteps and diametrically opposed, each in imminent danger of having their toes crushed. However, being a caring person I stopped. 

¿Dónde está El Hotel Zuhayra, por favor?” I asked and received an appalling load of gibberish in return. It would seem that the local accent was going to be as hard for me to understand as a Geordie, would be for an English student in Madrid. I got the impression they didn’t know, I thanked them and drove on, not for long however as the hotel was only fifty yards further down the road. The two crones obviously didn’t get out much. 

The Hotel was virtually indistinguishable from the surrounding houses, whether by original design or modification it was impossible to tell. A now very grubby piece of paper number three is proffered at the reception desk, and like its two predecessors, it worked. My room was ready for me. Passport and credit card details noted and I headed for my room, but not for long. After a wash and general tidy up, a feeling of overwhelming achievement came over me, so I decided to reward myself with a glass of wine at the bar.  

“Un vaso de vino tinto, por favor”, I said to the ‘camarero’  

“Lo mismo”, in this context it means ‘same again’ and saves a great deal of time when you are thirsty. The ‘lo mismos’ kept coming and I chatted to the barman in his native tongue. After an hour or so I noted a very peculiar phenomenon, my ability to speak Spanish was proportional to my alcohol intake. The more I drank the better my Spanish. I also noted that my ability to speak English was, however, inversely proportion. 

muy bueno
el sitio pefecto

I wondered what would happen first, either complete fluency in Castilian or total unconsciousness. It was at this point that the bar staff changed shifts. The new incumbent was a ‘camarera’, raven haired, olive skinned, with expressive almond eyes, a mischievous smile and a voice that would melt a polar ice cap. It was all too much for me, I needed fresh air, and so I headed rather unsteadily for the village square, which being at the cliff edge offered an excellent vantage point. The late evening sun cast its long shadows as the intoxicating aroma from the olive groves below was carried up on the evening breeze, engulfed by the warm night, heady from the wine and the days events, I felt that I had found my ‘sitio perfecto.’  

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