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My Spanish Nightmare 2 - San Pedro to Barcelona

SPAIN | Saturday, 5 July 2008 | Views [15377] | Comments [5]

On pirate beaches:

There are various stories behind San Pedro.

The first I heard was that it was a pirate beach and a pirate village. The pirates would emerge from the bay and attack ships as they sailed past. There was even an old abandoned pirate castle! This is my favourite story.

The second version I heard was that it wasn't a pirate village at all. It was a fishing village that was abandoned after a terrible storm killed all the village menfolk at sea. The women of the village donned black mourning clothes and walked to the next village, hence the name "Las Negras".

The third, more prosaic story, is that because there was no road to San Pedro there were no jobs and everyone was poor. People just got up and left the village, over the hill to greener pastures (so to speak, it's all brown). The last inhabitant of the village left in the 60s, at which point the hippies moved in.

They came with their tents and made little paths in the scrub, carving out little tent nooks. They took over the few remaining old stone buildings and turned them into "bars" and a "cafe". They moved into the caves and built houses (and "bars") in there. They brought supplies over from Las Negras by boat, or by the dramatic path that the widows of fishermen would have walked between San Pedro and Las Negras. They brought solar panels and wind powered generators, televisions and refrigerators. They sat on the beach and walked in the hills. They smoked a fuckload of ganja and forgot their various countries of origin. They let their hair grow long and their gazes vague.

I traipsed across these hills and down into San Pedro in the early afternoon, with a backpack full of food, tent, sleeping bag, but still no gas. Coming down into the bay I was met with a sign in various colours and multiple languages asking me to please respect this place, use the pit-toilets and take my rubbish with me. Next to it was a fresh-water spring surrounded by pots and pans.

I weaved my way down the various little tracks, rudimentary staircases, through the maze of scrub paths, with half an eye out for the Germans and another half out for a place to put my tent, heading in the general direction of the beach. I walked into a campsite and a giant man in shorts emerged from a tent and said something to me in Spanish.

"Uhhh, English?" was my eloquent reply.
"We're making some food if you'd like to join us," was his.

That's the way it seems to work in San Pedro. Nobody is interested in polite niceties. "Hello, how are you?" is just beating around the bush. As we're sitting around eating (of course I said yes, I had no gas) a girl comes stumbling through the campsite with a bewildered expression on her face. I'm expecting her to say "I've lost my friend...?" but before she can my host asks her simply if she would like some wine.

"Uhhh, yes," was her eloquent reply.

She was young, cute, Dutch and addled. By what, I wasn't sure. From her demeanour there seemed like there might be some innate degree of addledness. We had conversation befitting addled people and she declared that she was on her way (she made it sound like an epic journey) to see the "man on the beach" who would have some medicine to make her feel better (never has paracetamol been made to sound so mystical). But first, she declared, I needed a home. So she helped me set up my tent (along with my lunch host and his giant rock) and then continued on her journey.

From there I spent the afternoon sitting on the terrace of the cafe (it seems strange to call such an unofficial establishment a cafe, but there you go) discussing life with my lunch host.

His name was (and probably still is) Alex. He and his friend were from Barcelona. Once or twice a month they would jump in the car and drive the 1000 kilometres from Barcelona down to Las Negras and walk across to San Pedro. They would stay for two nights and then drive 1000 kilometres back. Alex was an economist. He didn't enjoy being an economist. He wanted to be a hippy, living in San Pedro, writing a book. He and his friend had been coming to San Pedro for the past eight years. He said it was a wonderful place, and that sometimes at night Led Zepplin would appear in the sky over the ocean to put on a show. That wasn't addledness. That was dry hyperbole, and it was completely unexpected from such a sensible-looking gentleman. I asked if David Bowie ever joined Led Zep and he said it was very, very possible.

From sitting on the terrace to drinking beers in caves, they gave this first-time visitor a grand tour of San Pedro. The first cave was behind the pirate castle. Inside we sat on benches carved out of the walls of the cave and had beers from the fridge behind the bar. We were alone except for the middle-aged, long-haired gentlemen gently nodding to the techno music beside us. They were original San Pedro hippies.

The next "bar" was simply a man's cave house with a fridge containing beer. We walked in and the air was thick with smoke, and he was watching DVDs. The barkeep/cave dweller was Austrian. He'd been there a long time too. He spent most of the evening complaining about how the sand kept destroying his sound system, and that he played the music he played because the erratic guitar was the only music the permanent residents of the bay could listen to day after day, month after month and not get sick of.

We retired to the campsite where a fire was cajoled into existence despite the wind, and a tasty meal of instant paella prepared. We stared at the fire. Alex talked about the woman who, turns out, didn't love him enough. I told him about my recent experience. He said that he understood very, very well. Then I bundled myself up in my sleeping bag (I'd forgotten my jacket) and followed the guys to a birthday party that was going on about 50 metres away. (The combination of darkness and convoluted pathways seemed to exaggerate distances. To me "50 metres away" seemed like "on the other side of town".)

Bongos, guitar, harmonica, kazoo, lots of singing. Everybody crammed into a little shelter illuminated by a blue electric light. From the number of times I heard it sung during the evening, I gather that the anthem for San Pedro is "The Bare Necessities" .

I retired to bed some time around midnight, but because 50 metres isn't really "the other side of town" I was kept awake by the bongos. I took my "auto swelling" mat, my sleeping bag and every item of clothing I had with me, and walked away from the bongos, out onto the beach, down the beach, and found a patch of sand behind a dinghy to sleep.

I woke up a couple of hours later with a thin later of dew on my sleeping bag and the moon staring me full in the face. A little further away, illuminated by the moonlight, was what looked like another boat. Perched on the edge of what could have been a boat was what could have been a man. I was sufficiently cold and sufficiently spooked by this eerie figure than grabbed my things and beat a hasty retreat to my tent. I am so brave. Fortunately the bongos had stopped, and I slept well.

The next morning I woke and washed, visited the lovely pit toilet (which is just a hole in the ground, partially obscured by a short fence, at the end of a dead-end path) and ventured out to the beach. I recognised her hair from a distance... the female half of the German couple. They'd come over yesterday too, but they'd spent most of the day sleeping. I went back to their campsite and had many cups of hot coffee and it was hot caffeinated bliss.

I'd decided that I was too paranoid about leaving my uninsured rental car parked halfway up a hill with my computer in it to stay another night (reason number 8 not to hire a car in Spain) so I proposed another three-person Smart squish-up with the Germans. I bid a rather formal, hand-shake farewell to my friends from Barcelona and the Germans and I made our way back over the hill to Las Negras. Coffee, cigarettes, a visit to a real toilet and then back into the car for the ride to the next town. Goodbyes, hugs, blown kisses and then a cursory map examination for me. How to get back to Barcelona?

San Pedro, looking up towards the "Pirate castle/bar". You can't see the tents because they're cleverly hidden by bushes.

The cafe, which would also have an excellent view of the Led Zepplin concert.

On food and muebles

As I have mentioned before, the one thing standing between me and a hot meal that would almost certainly centre around pasta was my lack of cooking gas. I had no idea where to buy gas in Spain. For four days I had asked in petrol stations, camping grounds, supermarkets and crap shops and I'd found none. For three nights I had dined on dry bread, cherry tomatoes and strawberries.

Then I met these Germans. They had gas. They were gods in my esteem. They told me that the secret was to look for the shops that said "muebles" -- those shops sold everything. I was very excited by this tidbit of information, and after bidding them farewell I set about looking for a muebles shop so that my coffee might be hot in the morning.

Ahh Spain. Are you never open? Every time I would pass through a town it would be siesta time. When I did finally encounter an open muebles shop I was thrilled. I risked an event I was not insured for in order to secure a car park, and then an event which I am insured for to cross the street to the shop. I walked into the muebles shop with no little excitement, imagining the hot coffee that was to follow.

Those of you who speak Spanish will know what comes next. The word "muebles" -- which is, by the way, the same in French and similar to the words "mobilia" in Italian, "möbel" in German and even, perhaps, "meubilair " in Dutch -- means, simply, "furniture". I can imagine the confused expression that I must have thrown at the shopkeeper, because it was bounced right back at me.

What can possibly be confusing about furniture, after all?

So no heat for me. I wrote this record and recipe in my journal on the sixth day. My diet was obviously beginning to take a toll.

"...Here is what is in my pantry, otherwise known as "the ripped plastic bags":

* 1.5 jars chickpeas
* 3 partial loaves of bread in varying degrees of staleness
* Jar of pasta sauce
* Bag of pasta
* 1 jar green olives (pitted)
* Half packet turkey chorizo
* Cheddar cheese (sweaty)
* UHT milk (unopened, awaiting coffee)
* 9 sachets of instant coffee (awaiting heat)
* 1 litre orange juice (zumo de naranja)
* 5 red capsicums
* 2 packets of chocolate chip biscuits
* 2 pottles of emergency "iced" coffee ("Caffeine equivalent to two strong coffees! Shake well before enjoying!")

What can I make with all that? I'm glad you asked! I wish to present my new recipe for boys and girls on the go (without a gas cooker): It is... UNCOOKED PIZZA! Yes! Just slice your bread, smear some pasta sauce over it (you won't even notice the staleness!), slice some sweaty cheese over top (the warmer the better), and plop a slice of turkey chorizo on top. If you're feeling extravagant you can even slice some olives and sprinkle them all over.

It tastes like pizza... but it's uncooked! Yeah!..."

On what you shouldn't use as shampoo:

I ran out of shampoo on day six. For those of you who have lugged your life around on your back or been poor before, you'll know that when it comes to cleansing substances you really only need one. You either need shower gel or shampoo. The shower gel makes an good enough shampoo and the shampoo is perfectly adequate at getting you clean.

I was carrying shampoo. Then it ran out. I hoped that my ridiculously expensive camping ground would have seen fit to equip their bathroom facilities with some sort of communal sudsing substance, but I was out of luck. Not even a cracked, greying bar of soap to be found.

So! No shampoo, no shower gel. Hair full of sea and grease. Body covered in pirate bay dirt. What's a girl to do?

You can now thank me for conducting this experiment, so that you never need to do it yourself.

For the record, if you ever feel tempted to try to wash your hair and body with toothpaste... don't. It doesn't work. You'll come out still dirty, still greasy, but smelling like a Tic Tac.

On the Mediterranean coastline

I continued north and hit the coast again.

I was determined not to pay a single toll until Barcelona, so I alternately sped up the free autovias and dawdled behind big trucks up the smaller red roads.

I drove through Alicante, which lives in postcard-form on the fridge of my house in Christchurch -- a souvenir from when a friend sensibly took a cheap RyanAir flight to the city instead of hiring a car. I didn't stop. Nowhere to park.

I drove past beaches lined shoulder to shoulder with tall, pastel-coloured apartment blocks. I didn't stop because I knew I wouldn't be able to park the car. I saw more apartment blocks advertised on big roadside billboards and those billboards were all in English. I drove through little towns where all the signs were in English, and the shops were all furniture shops, sporting shops or swimming pool shops.

I took a turnoff to a town because I saw there was a big national park nearby, with a lighthouse. The idea of the lighthouse excited me. It would be on a windswept promontory, desolate and rocky. Not the best place to pitch a tent, but I've seen worse. Or there might be forest, quiet and sheltered from the wind. Someone travelling with a tent should make at least one effort to sleep outside of a camping ground.

I drove to this lighthouse. It was crawling with tourists and surrounded by expensive white houses. The houses had swimming pools and (ostensibly) housed English speakers. The tourists were all there to see if they could see Ibiza. Perhaps that's why the English were there too. In any case, there would be no camping at the lighthouse.

I drove around some more, looking for this "park" type landscape that my map had led me to believe existed here. All I found was more expensive houses with giant gates, swimming pools and stupid little dogs. It was practically suburbia. There were reserves where you could take a vertigo-inducing peek over the edge of the cliffs down to the Mediterranean far below, but these fronted more big houses with swimming pools.

I found another reserve, a big park, a designated "green area" of pine trees, bushes and picnic tables. It was surrounded by suburbia, but it was big enough that I wouldn't be seen and I could imagine I was not surrounded by suburbia. I pitched my tent. I read my book. I fell asleep.

I was woken in the morning by the shouts of a man who was instructing his dog, in English, to get away from my tent. I went back to sleep.

On fear:

From my journal on day eight:

"...Fear only makes sense if you have options. For situations where there are no alternatives it makes no sense.

For obvious example: Death. There's no alternative. Not yet anyway. Most people don't live their lives in a perpetual state of dread. There's a healthy aversion, of course, but you're hardly paralysed by the inevitable horror of it.

For not-so-obvious example: driving back to Barcelona tomorrow. On my way out I was struck with the most intense sense of dread I have ever experienced. The fear was so palpable I could have put a ridiculous sweater on it and taken it to the dog park, but it only made sense because I had the option to turn around. Now I need to drive back through Valencia and to Barcelona tomorrow. There's no other option. The car won't drive itself back. I'm approaching it in much the same way as (I guess) we all steadily approach death: I'm really just not thinking about it..."

On disappointing endings:

And, somehow appropriately, the final drive back to Barcelona was completely devoid of any excitement. No tolls. No stress. I didn't ironically crash the uninsured car as I was parking it at my final destination. A perfect anticlimax. I phoned Sam in Sant Cebria around 6pm from a phonebooth at a petrol station and informed him that I would be taking his spare bed that night.

And I had an awesome shower.

Postscript 1: On New Zealand

From what I can see, from the few people I have met in Europe, nobody here knows anything about New Zealand. They ask me if we speak English. They ask why we're not part of Australia. They ask whether people there are "like me". (For which I seek clarification: Appearance or disposition? Appearance. They want to know if we're all as white as the driven snow.)

I explain that New Zealand is neat. It's not crowded. It's beautiful. The people are quirky and relaxed. It's cheaper. You don't have to pay 30 euros to use the highways. "Oooh" they say. "Maybe we'll visit!"

It occurs to me, later, that if I tell everyone to visit New Zealand, we'll end up like Spain. Full of foreigners buying up the coastline and populating the caravan parks. Some might argue that this has already happened. So I've changed my tune. New Zealand is awful. Cold. Expensive. Overrated. Boring. Not to mention very far away. Don't bother.

I'm a bad person.

Postscript 2: On the Red Hot Chili Peppers

Six months around Australia. Two weeks around Spain. I think... yes, I'm pretty sure now... I'm tired of them.

Postscript 3: On breaking:

When I was in Thailand I stayed at Panya when there was no water. I went around Southeast Asia being very dirty. I said I liked it because I was breaking myself -- putting myself in situations where I would be uncomfortable so that when I was comfortable again I'd know what it actually was to be comfortable.

I think Spain has broken me more than Asia. Asia was just about the dirt and the occasional dodgy form of transport. Spain is about dirt, and also space, expense, language, accommodation, excess development, lack of wilderness, poorly stocked supermarkets, noise, cold meals, distance, busy roads, monotony of landscape, lack of showers, lack of shampoo.

I also didn't realise what would happen when I was broken. My desire to travel would completely evaporate.

Postscript 4: On perspective:

"Sometimes when you have a giant highway opening up in front of you and the sky is blue and dotted with Simpsons clouds, or when you're walking back to your village along the road with cars speeding past too fast and too close, or when you emerge from the metro and you're surrounded by buildings, or when you're driving along silly little mountain roads with the sun heading horizonwards and turning the little houses on the hill a ridiculously cute shade of golden... sometimes you get it. It's like when you're in Laos and you're sitting on a bus full of locals who are grinning at the silly falang, or when you're camped out in a village amongst chickens and pigs, or you're haggling with scarf saleswomen in Cambodia, or when you're cooking dinner on a beach in Queensland, or when you're halfway up a mountain in Milford Sound and the whole valley is laid out beneath you. Sometimes you get it then too.

It's this feeling of the immensity of your life. How big everything is. How much room you have to move. How much possibility there is. It's like for the briefest instant someone rips the sky open and lets you look at everything.

The contrary is when you're screaming at the road because you feel like the sky is going to crush you. Or when you feel like you're throwing yourself against walls that won't give. That kinda sucks.

I wrote that about three weeks ago and I have no idea where I was going with it. I was distracted by a basset hound whining because he wanted some bread, or something like this. I wonder how many great, life-changing revelations are ruined by basset hounds. I think I might have been trying to find a non-cheesy way of saying "this sucked, sometimes, but it was good, sometimes, and I'm glad I did it, mostly, because it ran the gamut of what I would hope to experience when travelling, and it only took two weeks! I am super efficient! But I don't need to do it again. Not for a while." I think that's where I was going.

(Late March, 08)

Tags: barcelona, beaches, hippies, pirates



Hey, keep travelling and keep writing. I loved this piece. On Spain: don't be put off, parts of the country are wonderful particularly the South. For quiet inspiration and to sense the gentle dignity of ages past visit the Alhambra ...

Good luck!

  simon_monk Jul 7, 2008 11:39 PM


Maybe travel angst makes great writing?? I thought this was a great piece. So great to see a mix of place, experience and emotion... even if you're finding it a bit tough going for the moment. Hang in there!
We're featuring Spain on the Worldnomads.com homepage in July and I've just added a link to your post.
I've also added you to our list of Top 5 Featured Writers.

  crustyadventures Jul 15, 2008 1:51 PM


Woohoo! In that case I'll fix the formatting. Any chance you guys might do something about making those bulletpoints work? Give us back our list-style-type values please... I make a LOT of lists.

  hotnoodle Jul 15, 2008 5:33 PM


i lived there for 4 months (san pedro) it's actually an oasis that was occupied by the moors. the rook of the castle was used to light a signalfire to let the moors the romans were coming. p.s i hate spain also...

  julian Oct 5, 2010 8:11 AM


I was in San Pedro in the early 80s... no cafe!!! Just mostly empty
Houses.. stayed in the castle... no fridges. . Is there power now?
Beautiful calm place..i found it by looking for the only
Empty looking spot on the coast...

  alex Nov 2, 2014 2:59 PM

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