You probably know from my last post that I took a few days’ vacation in Spain over the summer. I wanted some sunshine and I wanted it in Spanish. So I read some of Rick Steves’ Spain before making plans. He’s a trustworthy tour guide, I think; he usually gets it mostly right. He says most of the Costa del Sol, the bustling Sun Coast west of Málaga, is not really worth seeing; it’s too touristy and ruined by the English who have built their own little English enclaves, refusing to assimilate. It is a shame that people worldwide, not just folks from Great Britain, prefer their own communities to blending in with their neighbors, but that’s human nature, isn’t it? Most of us do that, to some degree or more, wherever we may be, and those communities of proud immigrants gave us New York’s famous and tiny Little Italy, San Francisco’s Chinatown, and Lancaster County’s Amish Country, to name merely a few. So there’s no throwing stones here, even though I love Spain – LOVE IT – and I’m pretty sure I would do my best to assimilate into the community if I lived there. On the other hand, I’m equally sure I’d still enjoy hanging out with my American pals, too. As far as the Costa del Sol is concerned, well, I like the flavor of some of those little towns: Benalmádena, Marbella, and Mijas are very scenic and friendly, if overrun with Brits. The British transplants are quite nice and the towns are clean and hospitable. On the other hand, they don’t want to speak Spanish with me and I REALLY want to speak Spanish when I’m in Spain. So I took Rick’s advice and headed to Nerja on the Costa Tropical, east of Málaga.
Well, I thought I was heading to Nerja. The hotel I booked on Expedia.com ended up being in La Herradura, about twelve kilometers beyond Nerja, which I didn’t notice until after booking it. Pues, caca (which, roughly translated, means, “aw, poopy”), I thought, make the best of it. So I looked up sights in La Herradura (sights? What sights?) and finally settled for lying on the beach there and trekking to Nerja at some point to see some of what Mr. Steves recommended.
On the bus on the way to La Herradura , we passed through Nerja, and it did look charming with its white houses climbing up the hillsides and the clear blue Mediterranean below. It is a beautiful little town, indeed, and the decision to visit it was firmly planted in my mind.
But for now I was headed east along the Med, and it was only a few minutes later that we pulled into the sleepy little beach town of La Herradura.
After a short hike, I managed to find my hotel, thanks to handy signs that pointed the way. Unfortunately they pointed the LONG way. I walked a good twenty minutes down the hill, along the beachfront street, then all the way back up the hill before arriving at the hotel’s back door, my suitcase’s wheels going thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk-thunk behind me the whole way. A little later that afternoon, I took a right out of the front door of the hotel and in fewer than five minutes I crossed a little plaza and found myself at the very corner upon which I’d descended the bus. The locals must’ve had a good chuckle as I thunk-thunk-thunked by them earlier, following the aforementioned signs.
The hotel itself was quite nice. La Almijara is a three-star hotel about a five minute walk to the beach. The staff was friendly and the breakfasts were good. And the room was a pleasant surprise. Large, with a big bed and a nice bathroom, and I was to learn, quiet. I dumped my stuff, freshened up, and headed out with my camera to explore.
The beaches are clean and like any good resort town, you can rent a beach chair, complete with a thick cushion, for a few Euros a day. The water is cold, at least compared to the warm mid-Atlantic, which is what I’m used to, but it is the clearest water I’ve ever seen. I was out to my waist and still saw my feet as if looking through glass. The sky was often periwinkle or royal blue, and plenty of people took advantage of opportunities to learn to windsurf or sail.
La Herradura is a picturesque little village, as you can see.
There are chiringuitos — beachside restaurants — and across the street there is a good assortment of restaurants and bars, some with wifi. I enjoyed several good meals while there: La Sardina has a nice selection of seafood, and even offers a Ribera del Duero wine, one of my favorites. Just across from the beach, unassuming La Califa got my attention when they were showing the Eurocup game the first night I was there. Their food was decent, too. They served me an excellent Tortilla Española one evening, and a good tuna steak another. And their Ensaladilla Rusa is absolutely FANTASTIC. Yum. The folks in La Califa began treating me like a regular within a couple of days, even honoring my preference of football game while the Eurocup was playing. I had been there, cheering on Spain for two nights in a row, so I got preference!
I spent two days lolling about the beach, then took one day to check out Nerja, which was a bit of a disappointment. I think I had expected Nerja to be more like La Herradura — sleepy and quiet. It was nothing of the sort. It was a bustling little Myrtle Beach of the Costa Tropical! I visited the Balcón de Europa, which was impressive. It truly is like a huge balcony out over the Mediterranean Sea. The view from there must go on for miles, and what a view it is! The shopping there is pretty good, too. There was everything from designer fashions to silly souvenir shops.
But the real treat, in more ways than one, was Ayo.
I first “met” Ayo on a Rick Steves’ DVD. Apparently, he has been making paella in his chiringuito at Nerja’s Playa Burriana since the late 60’s, and he serves hundreds of people a day, rain or shine, all year long. He has plenty of employees to help, but he spends more time than anyone making and serving the paella. He makes the paella in enormous pans, some big enough to serve more than 250 people! And let me tell you, it is very good paella. My plateful had three enormous shrimp. Not only that, you can go back for seconds, included in the price — just a few Euros. That was the first treat, a very delicious one.
But what made the day special for me, the solo traveler, was Ayo himself. He happened to take a break with some friends at a nearby table. From my table, I was watching one of his sous-chefs begin a fresh batch of the delicious concoction, and I got up to take a picture, something I guess they’re used to there, because the chef gave me a tour of the outdoor kitchen, including showing me the oversized pans.
When I sat back down at my table, Ayo said something to me — I can’t remember what, but it prompted me to say, “Part of the experience is watching the preparation!” and for whatever reason, perhaps because I was alone, or maybe because he’s just a nice man, Ayo invited me to join them to chat. His friends soon left and Ayo graciously told me a little about himself and asked me about my life. Over the course of half an hour or so, I got to know him better than I know most of the people who teach down the hall from me. He has children, he loves his family, and he vacations every year in Cuba, saying it rejuvenates, refreshes, and renews him when he has grown tired of the daily paellas. Whether on a beach in your sandals or wearing a suit in a steel tower, a daily grind is a daily grind.
Ayo pooh-poohed my suggestion that he is famous. “I suppose I am in a way,” he responded, “but this is my life. I don’t want to live anywhere else or do anything else. I love what I do because it makes so many people happy.” He is famous, though. People stop for his photo, and he patiently puts his arm around the ladies, teases the children, and smiles broadly for each shot. He is happy to be seen and photographed hot, tired, and in a shirt soiled with saffron, over a huge paellera, preparing his special food with love.