“If, for a thousand pounds, something was offered with magic in it enough to last a lifetime, there are people who would merely say: “A thousand pounds! That is a lot of money!” before turning sanely away. But there are others who would agonize after the magic thing, even to the point of jeopardizing their worldly security for it. Mad people, those!
“I am one of them!”
So begins Nina Murdoch’s book ‘She travelled Alone in Spain’ and it would appear we are very similar.
“Have you ever announced, suddenly and impecuniously, that you are going to Spain?
‘”Spain!” cry your friends. And again: “Spain!” for all the world as if you contemplated tripping to the moon … Only the nicely mad … could have understood how Spain was cajoling me across the seas …”
Like Nina, I have done that. Unlike Nina, a trip to Spain these days is not unusual. Certainly it is not unusual for a woman to travel alone in Spain as Nina did in the early 1930s but Nina understood why Isabel of Aragon pawned “her jewels that Columbus might sail away in a caravel on his first voyage of discovery.
Nina left the safety of British Gibraltar for Spain by train in the spring. I was already in Spain when I followed her train journey from Algeciras to Ronda in autumn. Nina shared her compartment with two Spanish men, one in a Cordoba hat. They were surprised at seeing a woman travelling alone in Spain. The serious man in the Cordoba hat stared at her for most of the journey, the other, a jolly short fellow peppered her with questions. Her Spanish, like mine, was not good, however the two found they could converse in French, then the jolly short fellow would translate into Spanish.
The men thought Nina was English. She explained she was from Australia, which she describe “as the larges island in the world, lying in the Pacific and belonging to Britain” (nothing has changed). The men apparently broke into glad smiles and decided that it must be the country they knew as Oceania. They were, by all accounts, shocked that Nina had travelled across the world unescorted. Especially a woman wearing a hat, which proclaims her belonging to the middle class.
I had no such experience on the train. It was sleek and modern, not a lovely old compartment with a door that opened directly onto the platform. No one sat with me, no one spoke with me. The conductor came through, shouting at someone further down the carriage telling him to get off the train. Then coming into the final section where sat. Again he shouted in Spanish. This part of the compartment turned out was mainly full of American tourists. The cranky conductor shouted again at us. We had no idea what he was saying. The as the train pulled up at the station, he started grabbing suitcases, shouting, saying he was going to throw the suitcases off. Mine was one. An American behind me jumped up to grab his suitcase from the conductor, I followed to see if mine was indeed, in danger. It turns out the cranky conductor didn’t like where we had put our suitcases out of the way and wanted them up the top on the overhead shelves. Rather than see our suitcases thrown off, we did as he said. He then stormed into the cranky conductor’s compartment at the end of the train and slammed the door.
As we travelled through the country-side, I could see the things Nina wrote about. The orchards, the olive groves, the River Guadalevin. The river was not flowing as wildly as Nina described, perhaps because it was autumn, perhaps because of dams and weirs put in place since then. Either way, there were parts that were just dry river beds. I doubt whether Nina saw the proliferation of Eucalyptus which was only introduced into Spain post-WWII. I suspect being a bit of a bush poet, Nina would have loved to have seen the eucalyptus.
The train stopped at some very picturesque villages along the way. All of which I would loved to have gotten off the train to explore. Even the stations themselves, were quite beautiful, with lovely old Spanish architecture and planted gardens. At last we arrived in Ronda. I pulled my bag from the overhead and off the train I jumped. In Spain, the train stations are usually out of the town, but in Ronda it was actually in the town. I walked to my accommodation, I knew it was near where Nina stayed, but as she didn’t name the hotel, I got as close to it as I possibly could. Very close to the Puente Nuevo, the new bridge. It’s actually a very, very old bridge. I knew Nina could hear the water from the River Taja and the waterfalls into it from the gorge Ronda is build upon. The hotels around here are very expensive in centuries old buildings. I walked there after I dropped my bags.
Ronda is easily the most beautiful town I have ever seen. Both in the natural beauty of the surrounding views and the town itself. It was after lunch but I could not stop walking around. Through the hanging gardens, down to the gorge, up over the bridge and then another. I needed something to eat. Nina had lamented the fact that Ronda was barely mentioned in any tour guides. She complains that even Baedeker, the guidebook of the day, rarely mentions Ronda. That much has changed. The town was pulsating with tourists and tourist coaches as I walked around. The restaurants are over-priced and the souvenir shops virtually leap out at you. I bought a bocadillo – a Spanish sandwich (read sandwich on steroids) and found a quiet park. I sat on an old stone wall, looking out at the view and smiled. I bet that is what Nina did too.