Big Sur

Back when Felipe Gonzalez, a Sevillano, was the Spanish prime minister, a joke did the rounds about Morocco’s claim to Ceuta and Melilla. The North African nation could have them back, the prime minister said, if they took Andalucia as well.

Andalucia, the former caliphate of Al Andalus, and the bottom layer of the cake.

The Spanish autonomous regions are arranged like a wedding cake—Andalucia and little Murcia at the base. In the map, Portugal has disappeared, and the Spanish province of Extremadura has suddenly grown a coastline.

Andalucia is almost as large as Castile, and when you overlay the watershed of the Guadalquivir on the map, you realize the river defines the region. The Wadi al Kebir, as the Moors called it, is literally the great river, flowing west from the region of Granada until it turns south somewhere above Seville and flows into the Atlantic at Sanlucar de Barrameda.

It’s about sixty miles from the Guadalquivir estuary to Seville, and on the right bank of the river is the huge national park of Doñana, one of the largest bird overwintering areas in Europe.

Along the coast, to the west of the river, is the city of Huelva, but to travel there from Cadiz, the ancient Phoenician city of Gades, you need to go via Seville, at the apex of the triangle, because between the estuary and Seville there isn’t one single bridge.

Down in Sanlucar, the locals understand the need for a connection, and plans for a bridge at the southern tip of the river go back to 1947. Changing political agendas, government priorities, and economic issues mean that seventy years on there’s still no bridge, and no plan.

It also means that Sanlucar is isolated and remains little-known, except to the Spanish themselves. I was astonished to drive and walk the streets, eat and drink in the restaurants and bars, and never see a foreigner—remember this is mid-August, and tourism in Iberia is booming because of the terrorism concerns in Egypt, Tunisia, Turkey, and elsewhere.

So I hesitated before sharing with you a jewel of this quality—a place where you don’t see an English newspaper on sale, no one gives a shit about trip advisor, and you hear nothing but the machine-gun staccato of Andalucia.

But my trust in your good taste is boundless, so here we are. After you see Chef Jose Andres describe it, all will be clear—except I had another couple of hot leads, from a Sevillian friend who makes the most beautiful lamps in the region.

Casa Balbino is great, but there are other secret places where the little tortillita de camaron is even better.

I expected Sanlucar to be more dangerous—I’ve written before in these pages about its links to the Moroccan hash trade. But there was no threatening vibe, and I calmly walked the alleys late at night—and I didn’t once smell dope or see anyone having a toke.

On the evening of the Assumption Day fiesta, mounds of earth were heaped in the streets, about thirty yards apart. Next to these brown hills, parents and children—every kid carried a beach bucket and spade,  and most of them banged on the buckets—a back beat for the scene that followed.

Near the castle, the mounds were white, and the kiddies had been let loose—they filled their buckets and poured the contents on the ground, while grown-ups with rakes spread the mixture evenly, until the whole road was white.

Salt adornments for the Virgin Mary, Sanlucar-style.

But early next morning, it had all turned into a magic display of color—and the heaps of the previous night weren’t earth at all, but salt—good sea salt from the mouth of the Guadalquivir, dyed blue, yellow, and red.

The blue of the ocean, and the yellow and red of Spain—always representing the blood of conquest, and eldorado, the gold that it brought.

And although Sanlucar now mainly boasts shrimp boats and hashish gomas, this remarkably understated spot bears the gravitas of history—in May 1498, Columbus departed from here on his third trip to the Americas, from which he returned in shackles.

As the ‘admiral of the ocean sea’ sailed west on another vain quest for Cipango, Vasco da Gama crossed the Indian Ocean to Calicut on the summer monsoon, and reached the real indies.

But Sanlucar was also the departure of another Portuguese sailor, called Fernão de Magalhães. Magellan, as he’s known to the world, left Sanlucar in 1419, sailing for the Spanish crown, and his expedition completed the first circumnavigation of the globe.

None of these events are celebrated locally, and there is no museum or historical residence which boasts of the town’s pride in these voyages and explorers.

But there is one famous palace, which now boasts one of the best private archives in Europe—the Dukes of Medina-Sidonia, the first Spanish dukedom, appointed in 1445, and a legend of Spanish nobility, have their ancestral home a few hundred yards south of the castle.

And in one of the rooms hangs a portrait of the seventh duke—a small picture, which shows a man punished by the sands of time. The man is Don Alonso de Gusmán El Bueno, who commanded the Invincible Armada.

It sailed from La Coruña in 1588, led by a man who hated the ocean and suffered terribly from seasickness—its ships were scattered and sunk by a combination of traditional British weather and the good offices of Francis Drake.

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

 

 

 

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