There’s a faded, nonchalant elegance here in this mountain spa. On the main street, a goofily smiling old bloke sits outside the baths, trousers rolled up and feet dangling in the hot stream. We smile and wave, because frankly, we’re more mad than him.
The unforgiving Andalucían desert stretches far and wide below us. Scattered plantations, yucca, palm trees. Grey gravel, scrub and miles and miles of waste, magnificent in their desolation. Far in the distance beneath low-hanging cloud lies the city of Almería and the steely Mediterranean Sea beyond.
In the 1960s, the lonely lands behind these hills formed the film backdrop to the spaghetti westerns we all loved so well. Four decades on and for a few dollars more, a different kind of redskin is threatening this environment. Huge and vast and empty it might be, yet the satellite images of this area already show that the Andalucían wilderness is not as infinite as once it seemed.
Our bus journey here revealed the encroaching reaches of the tomato farms — beige bleak plastic oblongs marching relentlessly towards the barren hills. Europe’s salad bowls are gnawing hungrily at this empty landscape.
The spa and civilisation fall swiftly behind our footsteps, and as we descend, the wide horizon falls around us. Plants and birds and rocks and things, as far as the eye can see.
The path twists round the curves of a dry river bed, and I hop stiffly across the banks of gravel. The silence grows louder now, broken only by the rasp of breathing and the crunch of running shoes atop gravel.
Fifty metres more, and then the same again — and belatedly I realise these once were fields carved out of the scree. What could they grow here? Who grew it?
Despoblación — the abandonment of rural areas — is evident all over Spain. I’ve seen empty fields and broken ancient homesteads strewn beside lonely roads right across this country — and yet nowhere ever felt half as abandoned as this.
Up ahead a line of palm trees bissects the sky, and beneath them a broken fence marks out the property of some rich and absent landlord. A retreat for a weekend recluse, despoiling his own patch of desert.
My legs are tiring now. This morning’s gentle loosener along the promenade seems like another lifetime, and yesterday’s city half marathon has suddenly finished just a minute or two ago. I stop to breathe and catch the empty mountains to take them home with me.
The path drains deep into the canyon, the gravel swimming wide between steep banks cut into scrub. Huge washing machine-sized boulders are strewn across the streambed — the river is dry today but the storm torrents must truly rip through here in violent flood.
The barranco crunches on and on. A cold sweat is dripping down my back as the runner ahead drifts further away from me, my conviction that I’ll catch him fading faster with every boulder hopped.
The country dreams of Almerían commuters and foreign holidaymakers may return here in another season, but for now Spain’s property recession has frozen the future into half-poured concrete and the bark of a security guard’s dog.
The village of Pechina emerges from the orange groves. White houses lie huddled close to reflect a pitiless summer sun, lining streets left empty in the winter afternoon.
The town hall stands within the village square, ornate and proud beneath low desert sky. There’s a feel of Latin America here — this could be Patagonia, Bolivia, or even Mexico, and yet we’re just a few hours from the costas.
Andalucía’s interior seemed vast and immutable when first I saw it ten years ago. But between here and Murcia, and within just that short time, tomato tents and irrigation pipes are spreading ever further into empty space.
This is a different kind of Spain — an empty, barren wilderness. Untamed — it’s not productive, yet its rugged beauty is unique in Europe. As I limp to find the village bar, I ask — what’s important? Primaeval wilderness or trade and jobs? Will it be tourists or tomatoes which one day will destroy this desert?
And the truth is — I hope I never know.
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90. Iberian chains – Tierras del Cid, Spain
201. To hold the hand of Spain – Almería Half Marathon 2009
195. The arc of history – USA election 2008
129. Tenerife – 1: the light at the end of the world
98. Off the shoulder of Orion – Costa de la Luz