North-east to Almerimar

Saturday 8 – Tuesday 11 February

Having finally worked through all the last-minute jobs necessary before actually being able to leave port: return the key fob that gives access to the facilities and pontoon, and reclaim our deposit; dispose of rubbish, disconnect the power supply and stow the cable, fold away the bimini so we’ll be able to see the sails, ensure everything below decks is safely stored etc etc, we finally slipped the lines and slid gently away from our rather tight berth at 1100.  As always, it took us a further 30 minutes to remove and stow the mooring lines, and all the fenders that had done such a good job of keeping us from becoming too intimate with our nearest neighbours during the nearly three weeks of our time in Fuengirola marina.

The sea was calm and a light high haze didn’t totally prevent the sunshine from filtering through.  Being weekend, there were several other sails already out and about, welcome company this early in the season.  By noon we had hoisted the main sail, and added the gennaker to enjoy a comfortable broad reach, which would have been peaceful without the engine, except Skipper replaced its vibration with that of the watermaker – for the next several hours.

At 1415 we were joined briefly by two large dolphins cavorting in the bow wave; the rest of their pod remained at a safe distance, but seemed to be centred in one area, perhaps feeding.  As the wind increased, Mate felt it would be prudent to furl the gennaker and set the genoa – a good decision as the gusts soon reached 16+ knots, now with much thicker dark cloud blanketing the sky.  The wind created a little swell, and we were able to sail goose-winged, or as our German friends in Gibraltar called it, butterfly-winged, which is so much prettier, for the remainder of the 33 Miles to our chosen anchorage off the beach and just outside the marina in Puerto de Caleta de Velez, just East of Málaga.

Caleta de Velez

The sky was clearing during the last hour, and we enjoyed a stunning sunset, with the full moon rising in the opposite quadrant, but sadly, having well and truly blown our mooring budget already this month, our parsimony meant a very bouncy, rolly, uncomfortable night, as the swell was slow to dissipate, even without any more wind.

On Sunday we pulled ourselves together as the day came bright and sunny, lifted the anchor and set the sails.  However, with almost no wind we motor-sailed out to clear the fish farm and try to find better airs further from the shore.  We were joined briefly by three dolphins, and by noon had given up on the genoa and were making water while the engine was running anyway.  At lunchtime the log notes “the wind didn’t read its forecast” as it persisted very light and variable, but to make up for it, the scenery was stunning: light clouds along the ridge of the mountains behind the coastal fringe, which is less built up on this particular stretch.

Eventually at 1430 the wind filled in enough to reset the genoa, F3 from ESE, and we were able to complete the day’s passage of 21.5M under sail.  The only boat in the village, we dropped anchor in seven metres of clear water, and were soon settled comfortably in the Ensenada de la Herradura, sitting in the afternoon sun in the cockpit.

Ensenada de la Herradura, looking East

This is a lovely bay, with options to shelter from most wind directions, and a town that looks almost interesting enough to prepare the tender and go ashore, but we didn’t quite muster enough enthusiasm for this much activity, and didn’t even get going until after lunch on Monday.  We knew there wouldn’t be any wind to sail, so we settled down to an easy motor on a flat sea, racing along at seven knots at times!  Of course, in the last ten minutes before we stopped, the wind rose to a respectable 12 knots – the day’s excuse for afternoon thermal breezes, which are surprisingly frequent, even at this time of year.  However, we understand that the weather is exceptionally mild and calm for the Winter, and has been since the Autumn – evidence of global warming?

We looked at a couple of options for anchoring, according to the pilot book, but the first is now laid with moorings and too deep by the time the boat is the requisite 200 metres from the shore.  Just around the rocky corner of Punta del Cerrón, we found a small cove, attractive except for the ubiquitous graffiti on the wall behind the beach, to enjoy a beautiful sunset and moonrise, and a calm night.

On Tuesday, our last day of this leg, we set off at a more respectable 0930, noticing some curious bright orange growth on the rocky wall fringing the bay, just below the high water line.  Finding a pleasant WSW breeze F3-4 outside the shelter of the cove, we set the gennaker, but the wind was creating a slight swell that met our hull on the starboard stern quarter, making us roll uncomfortably, so we replaced the gennaker with the genoa, and settled down to a steady 5 knots’ progress.  Once again, the weather was lovely, sunny with good visibility, a light haze at sea level and light high cloud over the snow-capped ridges of the Sierra Nevada, now visible as a spectacular length of mountain range.

After lunch, Mate decided to changed the angle of roll by gybing into the bay created by the ‘junction’ of the Costa del Sol with the Costa Blanca: suddenly, the rolling foothills encased in plastic, that enables the production of much of Northern Europe’s demand for salad during the Winter, give way to low cliffs of pale rock face, a little like the SE coast of England.  The wind eased back to a F4 SW, and we were able to fly the gennaker almost into the port of Almerimar, dodging wind- and kite-surfers near the shore line.  Today’s passage of 31M brought us back to land, another Med mooring neatly tucked into by Skipper with a marinero to take our stern lines ashore.

Almerimar port control tower at sunset

Out and About from Fuengirola – Part III: THE ALHAMBRA

Tuesday 4 February

We hired a car and set out in thick fog to head inland again.  Local sea fog, known as taró, is a type of sea advection fog and has been recorded since Phoenician times.  It is not uncommon at this time of year, when a warmer South-easterly wind evaporates the much colder surface of the sea to create high humidity.  The local English language newspaper reported flights diverted from Málaga airport, a fact we found ironic as we had been told that it is not uncommon for flights to Gibraltar to be redirected to Málaga, when the Rock is shrouded in its own private weather system.

Anyway, we took on the challenge of driving a left-hand drive car, on the right-hand side of the road, with unfamiliar road signs, and the unknown quantity of local driving habits, through thick fog.  Where we came out of the murk onto higher ground, we had the eerie experience reminiscent of looking out of an aeroplane at 30,000 feet, a view down onto a cotton wool blanket.  How unfair did it seem, then, to be caught speeding by a traffic camera – probably as Mate was driving the only vehicle slow enough to be photographed…

Eventually the road climbed high towards the snow-dusted peaks of the Sierra Nevada, and far enough inland, for the taró to be replaced by a dirty grey smog as we left behind the pretty trees of almond blossom and approached the city of Granada, home of the world-famous Alhambra Palace.  On Mate’s ‘must see’ list of all time, this greatest surviving monument to Islamic architecture and art did not disappoint, in spite of a few ill-mannered tourists and the gardens in their Winter baldness.  We were glad to have taken a packed lunch, which we ate in the car before entering the site to avoid carrying it; there is no café anywhere within the walls: refreshments are available only from vending machines.

Admission tickets must be booked in advance, and give a timed entrance to the inner sanctum of the Nasrid Palaces, so visitors need to organise their tour around this point.  We began by strolling up the cypress-lined path into the Generalife, the terraced gardens on the opposite side of the valley from the Alhambra itself.  These are formally laid out following the principles of Moorish garden design, and feature an open-air concert arena, paved walks between pools, fountains and geometric beds for planting.  Lower terraces accommodate orchards and vegetable gardens.  A series of interlinking courtyards, each centred around a water feature, lead upwards to the beginning of the irrigation system that sustains this essential element of Islamic architecture.  Even in February, warm sunshine and fewer visitors allowed us to appreciate the elegance of structure and the peaceful harmony of tinkling water.

Having completed the loop, we found ourselves back at the bridge across the Cuesta de los Chinos, one of the tracks that lead from the city of Granada.  Entering the Eastern boundary of the Upper Alhambra, we first came across archaeological remains of the Secano, the ancient Medina.  The only building still standing is the Palace and Friary of San Francisco, now a state-run Parador hotel (which has a restaurant with a terrace looking towards the Generalife).  This borders an area leading past a bath house adjacent to the church of St Mary of the Alhambra, which was itself built on top of the mosque.  Next is the square palace of Carlos (Charles) V, built around a circular courtyard but never actually finished during that Emperor’s reign.  It now accommodates the Alhambra Museum and Fine Arts Museum.

Beyond the palace to the West is the Alcazaba, the Old Citadel, the original part of the Alhambra that dates from the Ninth Century.  To the Northwest are the Nasrid Palaces, a series of three interlinking royal residences built for three sultans of the Nasrid dynasty, which ruled between 1314 and 1391.  The tour route follows the chronological order of their construction, and for independent visitors there is no time limit imposed, apart from closing time of the whole site. 

No words I can find can begin to do justice to this incredible place, and I was so glad I bought a good guide to read and learn so much more after our visit.  Having explored Marrakech in Morocco some years ago, I thought I knew what to expect of Muslim art and architecture, but the Alhambra is on a whole different level.  Even keeping in mind that the lavish and intricate decoration of all surfaces was designed to reflect the mighty power of the sultan, I found myself musing on how often he actually looked at any of it, and if so whether it rendered him cross-eyed.  Much of the detail is incredibly well preserved, beautiful in an eye-boggling way and an undeniably magnificent feat of engineering and craftsmanship of its time.

I was fascinated by the sophistication of aspects of the architecture: some windows were unglazed (because it rarely rains, and any breeze needs to be able to pass into the buildings), some have stained glass, which ‘paints’ the internal floor when the sun shines through it, and some have a decorative fretwork to retain the privacy of the (female) inhabitants while they can observe the happenings of the court.  Courtyards are surrounded by arches on slim pillars, a little like cloisters, which allow the low winter sun to warm the walkways beneath, but give shade from the intense heat of the high summer sun.  The abundance of water, a symbol of hospitality, is cooling and soothing, while the wide range of tiled designs offer a wealth of patchworking inspiration.

Postcard from the Alhambra

Out and about from Fuengirola – Part II: MIJAS PUEBLO

Friday 31 January

We took a local bus a few miles inland to the white village of Mijas Pueblo, from where we followed a walking route in the Sierra (mountain range) de Mijas, one of a network of “signalized hiking trails” according to the map gleaned from the very helpful Tourist Information office in Fuengirola.  On arriving in the town centre, it was not immediately obvious how to find the main road that runs between the town and the mountain, but we followed a street that led upwards and soon spotted the beginning of a trail.  It is true that the routes are well “signalized”, with bands or dots of that track’s colour placed strategically and frequently on signposts or rocks, but they didn’t always seem logical, or necessarily to coincide with the map.  Also, what we hadn’t allowed for was the recent spate of very heavy rain, which had resulted in patches of erosion of the very dry, thin, dusty soil and some landslips of loose rocks and scree.  After struggling across a very steep hillside for a few hundred metres, it was obvious we’d lost the path, and we turned back – to find it almost immediately.  I really don’t know how we managed to go wrong, but thereafter we were careful to look for the yellow dots, and we enjoyed a stretching walk with stunning views and beautiful countryside.  The scent of pine resin was strong in the bright sunshine, and sweetly accompanied by yellow gorse and wild rosemary in full bloom.  The highlight of the day was spotting a herd of wild mountain goats on the opposite side of the valley we were descending, and we stopped to admire their agility for some time.

Postcard from Mijas Pueblo

At the end of the route, just before we rejoined the main road, we skirted a disused quarry, from which a rudimentary road had been laid in concrete.  Unfortunately this was very steep and some loose gravel lay on top, on which Mate’s boots failed to find a purchase, resulting in a rather abrupt sit-down.

Back in the old quarter of the pretty town, we wandered along the Calle Campos, peeping into the tiny Chapel of Our Lady of Remedies, and the Caves of the Old Forge.  These were effectively basements to the houses built above, clinging to the steep hillside, which held a consistent temperature year-round, making them useful stables or storerooms.  On Plaza de la Libertad, at the foot of Calle San Sebastian, it was time to pause for a well-earned beverage and a chance to chat with an interesting fellow British couple at the next table.  Suitably refreshed, we enjoyed a visit to the Folk Museum, which depicts “the old trades and traditions of the village”.  Distinctly quirky in style, this was very interesting nevertheless, especially the testimonies of agricultural workers that had been translated into perfect English.  We had fun trying to work out how the olive press would work; no helpful description we could understand, here, and all for one euro each.  We strolled a little further around the edge of town, pausing briefly to consider the donkey taxi rank: apparently this service came about in the early 1960s when workers and their animals earned more for less effort from a few minutes with tourists than a day in the fields; and then we found our way back to the bus stop via a tempting heladería for a delicious ice cream treat.

Out and About from Fuengirola – Part I: RONDA

Tuesday 28 January

We rode in a comfortable inter-city coach up into the high country to this historic city perched atop a deep gorge, El Tajo, which carries the Rio Guadalevin, the volume of water a rare sight in semi-arid Andalucía.  The new city dates from around the 15th Century, and is linked to the old Moorish town, by the ‘new’ bridge, Puente Nuevo.  Along with the iconic bullring, Plaza de Toros, this dates from only the 18th Century, and was the second to cross the 100-metre-deep chasm.

Ronda is famous as the birthplace of modern bullfighting, where matadores stood to face the raging animal, instead of challenging him from horseback.  Narrow cobbled calles open out into attractive squares surrounded by varied and interesting architecture, and there is a curious museum, called the ‘Centre for the Interpretation of the Brotherhood Culture’, which holds artefacts belonging to a number of these Catholic organisations that are based in Ronda.  Brotherhoods date back to the 14th Century, when they began to be established as voluntary organisations of men who took on responsibility for maintaining order on behalf of the nobility.  Members are still recognised as leaders and ‘pillars’ of the local community who embody values of social responsibility.  During Holy Week (that leads to Easter), they process through the city wearing monk-like habits and sometimes tall conical hats with fabric covering their faces, carrying huge plinths of lifesize Biblical characters and saints.

Postcard from Ronda

Ronda was made famous by travellers of the Romantic age, becoming popular as a stopping point on the gentlemen’s Grand Tour of Europe.  The city has been written about by numerous well-known names, including Washington Irving, Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway.  We enjoyed spectacular views from a number of vantage points around the city, and treated ourselves to a piece of locally-produced cheese and a bottle of olive oil to take home.  Although a little breezy, we sat at a pavement café for both lunch and afternoon tea before rejoining the coach for the spectacular ride back down the steeply wooded mountains to the coast, occasionally spotting flowering almond trees.

L’Escale in Fuengirola

Monday 20 January – Friday 7 February

L’escale in her Winter topcoat

After a promising start to this season’s cruising, we ended up staying three weeks in Fuengirola, sitting out a number of bouts of stormy weather.  However, this was nothing compared to what the UK was to endure throughout February, and the wet and windy days gave us the perfect excuse to show off our lovely cockpit enclosure (tent).

Passerelle Mk I
(hoisted away from quay to deter unwelcome boarders…)

Meanwhile, we greatly enjoyed a visit from British friends we met in A Coruña who [whisper it] have a large motor boat and were looking at possible marinas on this coast for next Winter’s layup.  Skipper purchased and installed a passerelle (drawbridge) to enable us to step off the stern of the boat on these Med moorings.

Second Mate’s brother flew over to spend a few days in the sunshine and enjoy some quality R&R …during our most wintry weather so far, but we managed a pleasant paseo along the promenade to a castle that now hosts a range of events and performances, a bar lunch nearby and another wet visit to Málaga, where we explored the Roman amphitheatre that was moonlighting as a swimming pool, and found a very good tapas supper at La Plaza nearby.  The train journey was much more pleasant than the bus ride of our earlier trip, too, so overall a successful day.

Roman amphitheatre, Malaga
Fuengirola Castle

We did have some lovely weather to explore a few of the famous sights in this part of Spain: Ronda, the Alhambra Palace in Granada and a rugged walk from one of the ‘white villages’ up in the hills.