For all my adult life I resisted the idea of going on a package holiday to Spain. For 40 years or more, I have travelled around the world for work and pleasure. But, apart from a weekend city break in Madrid five years ago – and that hardly counts – I had never been to Spain for a holiday.
You could say I did not know my Málaga from my Marbella, my Frigiliana from my Fuengirola, or the Costa Blanca from the Costa Brava and the Costa del Sol.
I took Spanish at school for five years, motivated perhaps by stories that it was an easier language to learn than French, German or Italian. I had inspiring teachers who introduced me to Spanish literature, from Miguel de Cervantes and Don Quixote to 20th century poets such as Federico García Lorca, and Spanish artists from Velázquez, Murillo and Goya to Miró, Picasso and Dalí.
Why, I even managed to pass Spanish at Intermediate and Leaving Certificate levels, although 45 years later I have managed to forget most of the Spanish I learned at school.
I think my reluctance to go on a package holiday to Spain was partly due to my own snobbery, disguised as political certitude. Spain was the land of Franco, Guernica and the garrotte; Spain was a land of brutality symbolised in the bullfight and the civil war chillingly depicted by George Orwell in Homage to Catalonia; Spain was the land of the Spanish inquisition and the brutal expulsion of Jews and Muslims; Spain, before the package holiday industry boomed, was popular with Irish people whose political sympathies on one hand were with the Blueshirts in the 1930s, or on the other hand with Frank Ryan who had defected to Nazi Germany.
Journalistic colleagues, including Paddy Woodworth, Colm Toibin and the late Jane Walker, chided and upbraided me for my inhibitions. But these prejudices persisted, reinforced by Monty Python sketches about Torremolinos, with half-built, high-rise hotels, Watney’s Red Barrel and pools with no water. Monty Python even reinforced my images with that sketch on the Spanish Inquisition.
Wanting more from holidays
Madrid was fine. I was there for a city break, enjoyed art galleries, museums and stately architecture, and experienced May Day.
But I knew Greek olives and olive oil were superior to Spanish olives and olive oil, and the same could be said about Greek and Spanish wine, coffee, music, poetry, mezzes or tapas, and even beaches. Zorba could out-dance Flamenco any evening. But Costa only meant coffee to me, and I had no intention of taking a Costa holiday. Holidays were not merely about sun, sand, sea and sangria. I wanted the sun, sand and sea, but in measured proportions that also took account of archaeological sites, cathedral architecture and other cultural interests.
Well, that is, until this Easter.
I have already experienced the beauty and rich spirituality of Orthodox Easter in Greece and in Cyprus. This year, Easter fell at the same time in the calendars of the Western and Eastern Churches. Easter in a Greek town or village seemed like a good idea, until we found most of the available flights and packages were priced exorbitantly – after all, every Greek wants to be at home for Easter.
A second option that came to mind was southern Italy, with the great Holy Week and Easter processions in places like Sicily. Once again, however, it was difficult to put together the right package, at the right time, at the right price.
The travel agent at Rathgar Travel in Dublin asked, ‘Why not Spain?’
I explained that this was supposed to be an Easter pilgrimage, with time for prayer, reflection and meditation … even if I did want to combine it with sunshine and time off, I had no intention of spending it in a high-rise, over-crowded sunny version of Blackpool or Clacton.
I recalled the Monty Python sketch and the fear that I might “sit next to a party of people from Rhyl who keep singing ‘Torremolinos, Torremolinos’.”
I was soon convinced of the wrongness of my prejudiced ways. Did I not know about Semana Santa and the processions with crosses and images of the Crucified Christ that take place in most villages and towns, even in the most built-up of areas?
Early on the morning on Maundy Thursday, I was on a flight to Málaga, about to spend a week on the Costa del Sol, in the Torremolinos pilloried over 40 years ago in that Monty Python sketch, staying in the Roc Lago Rojo Hotel in La Carihuela, once a picturesque fishing village on the edge of Torremolinos.
Bringing the sacred into the secular
In the narrow streets between the hotel and the beach at La Carihuela, the tiny parish church of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, squeezed in between the bars, the cafés and the souvenir shops, offered a warm welcome, so that most of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter Day was spent following the local commemorations of Holy Week and Easter.
There was no great street parade there like the famous procession through the streets of Málaga, where confraternities of masked and hooded men carry larger-than-life statues shoulder high in penitence. But the simple foot washing ceremony at the Maundy Eucharist was all the more poignant for involving what may well have been the local butcher, baker and candlestick maker.
On the following morning, local people took it turn to carry the large, life-size image of the Crucified Christ through the streets of La Carihuela, stopping outside bars and cafés or at tiny corners abutted by small hotels and shops, and leading the prayers of the Good Friday Stations of the Cross.
At one stage, the cross was brought down through the sun beds on the beach to the shoreline, where it was raised aloft as the prayers continued. In a simple ceremony with mediaeval roots and modern interpretations, the message of Christ Crucified was being proclaimed to all without discrimination, the sacred was being brought into the secular, and the secular was invited to enter the sacred – an opportunity missed so often in many northern European societies.
Later that afternoon in Málaga, 15 km to the north, we visited the Cathedral, the Roman amphitheatre, the remains of the Moorish Alcazaba or fortress, the Church of Santiago, where Picasso was baptised, and the birthplace of Picasso, which is now a museum and educational foundation, the Fundación Picasso.
In the cathedral and the churches, many Spanish people were dressed formally as they came to pray quietly. But even the women who dress in formal black, with large, traditional lace headdresses, are “Ladies who Lunch” and they queued for lunch outside the restaurants without any hint of self-consciousness.
‘Music in my soul’
We were reminded that Málaga, which still boasts of its Phoenician and Roman foundations, has roots dating back to classical times, that it was once a central meeting place of the worlds of Islam and Christianity, and that more recently it was the birthplace of one of the greatest figures in the world of Western art.
On Saturday, two of us caught a bus from Torremolinos to Fuengirola, and a second bus up to Mijas, a small town packed each day with day-trippers taking an Easter break from the brash resorts.
Mijas is a white-washed, mountainside village, 30 km south-west of Málaga and about 450 metres (about 1,500 feet) above sea level. The village is like a balcony looking out across the countryside of Andalucía and down onto Fuengirola and the coastal resorts of the Costa del Sol.
Early on Easter morning, while it was still dark, we left our hotel room and walked through the narrow, silent, deserted streets of La Carihuela to wait on the beach for the sunrise. A few early risers were already jogging along the promenade, and one or two lone shore anglers were walking up and down the shoreline, perhaps hoping to catch some fish for breakfast. But we thought about the women who rose early before dawn to visit the tomb, and the disciples by the shore in Galilee, and how they found that Christ is Risen.
In My Fair Lady, Professor Higgins and Colonel Pickering are successful in teaching Eliza Doolittle that “the Rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.” The truth is, however, very different: Spanish rain falls mainly in the northern mountains. But still, much of our Sunday and all of our Monday were washed out. When we ventured out for a walk on the beach or for a coffee we found how heavy Spanish rain can be, even on the Costa del Sol.
With the Easter celebrations over, we took a two-hour bus journey on Tuesday through the countryside of Andalucía to the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains to visit Granada and Alhambra.
The Spanish composer Andrés Segovia once described Granada as “a place of dreams where the Lord put the seed of music in my soul.”
The Alhambra dates from 889, but it eventually fell into disrepair and was damaged by neglect, plunder, earthquakes and even an attempt by Napoleon’s army to blow the place up. It was almost forgotten until it was romanticised in 1832 by Washington Irving (1783-1859) in his Tales of the Alhambra. The new attention brought restoration, so that today this is one of Spain’s major tourist attractions and a Unesco World Heritage Site.
The buildings and the gardens of Alhambra are designed to reflect the very beauty of Paradise, with gardens, fountains, streams, a palace, and a mosque, all within an imposing fortress wall, flanked by 13 massive towers. We strolled through the gardens, the secluded courtyards, gardens, patios and villas where the sultans of Granada could escape from the place intrigues and politics in their search for tranquility.
The Palace of Alhambra, with its creative architectural combination of space, light, water and decoration, is one of the most intriguing works left behind in Spain after almost eight centuries of Islamic presence in the Iberian Peninsula.
Later in the week, we experienced another intriguing presence in Spain when we visited Gibraltar. But Gibraltar is a story for another day.
We found plenty of time for walks on the beach, and found it takes little time to learn to enjoy Spanish food and wine. We never got to see Seville or Cordoba, nor did we explore the possibility of crossing to Morocco. But after a week, some of that spoken Spanish I had learned 45 to 50 years ago was beginning to come back ... sometimes at unexpected moments. And I realised there is more to Spain than sun, sand, sea and sangria.
Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism, Liturgy and Church History, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This essay and these photographs were first published in June 2014 in the Church Review (Dublin and Glendalough) and the Diocesan Magazine (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).