I think it’s a mistake to leave home. It would be awful, for example, to find somewhere on your travels that is more agreeable than where you live. And so, I fear for Michelle Obama, summering briefly in cumbersome opulence in Estepona. Not that I think that the Costa del Sol will turn her head – when it comes to lousing up a beautiful coastline, the Spanish do it even better than the Americans. But if she were to cast her gaze over the wall behind her, and look up towards the sierra, she might wonder what lies beyond those forest-cloaked ramparts.
I know what it’s like in those hills, though… I came down from them this very morning. And with respect and admiration, Mrs Obama (How ought one to address the First Lady?) I thought I’d take the liberty of telling you what you might find up there in back country Spain.
As you leave the coast, the air gets cooler and cleaner, and soon you enter the forest that cloaks the southern slopes of the mountains. For miles there is nothing but Mediterranean pine, ringing with the shrieking of cicadas, and filling the air with its heady scent. Looking back along the coast, you no longer see the ugliness, just range after range of misty mountains and capes, made more magical by the heat haze. On and on climbs the road, twisting like a sheep’s gut, until it brings you to the high pass of Peñas Blancas.
To the north, you can see the green depths of the Serranía de Ronda, presided over in the distance by the bare rock pinnacles of the Sierra de las Nieves. Here and there are scattered tiny villages, impossibly remote, like spills of white beans on the plunging backs of the hills.
At this point you could do worse than take the road signposted ‘Genalguacil’. As you plunge down the hill, the forest, that thinned at the pass, closes over you again, only now it has changed. The pines give way to bright chestnuts; huge ilexes there are too, and everywhere the fabulous cork oak, their peeled trunks like the limbs of dancers in stockings. You’re on your own down here; driving for an hour on this road we passed just one other car. Occasionally there is a little white stone house in a clearing, with a tree-trunk bridge to cross the stream, and a fence to keep the boar out of the vegetable patch.
Finally the tarmac gives out, and you continue on a dirt track. It may not be to everybody’s taste, but to me it gives the impression that you are going somewhere just a little unconventional, somewhere to which there might still cling the faintest vestige of the mystery that tends to forsake a place with the arrival of the tarmac road.
Suddenly, through a gap in the trees, you see it: Genalguacil, a village plumb in the middle of nowhere. ‘Who lives here, and why, and what do they do out here? Why would anybody come all that way to get here?’
Well… it’s worth the journey because, amongst other things, it’s beautiful… and there are not so many places of which you can say that these days. The village clings to the edge of a ridge, looking over forested mountains down to the sea. At the bottom is the simple church dedicated to San Pedro de Verona, a saint spectacularly depicted with an axe lodged in his head, and by way of a labyrinth of stone-flagged alleys the village rises to the big white shed of the chestnut co-operative at the top. And as you amble up, contented in the way that good vernacular architecture makes you, you become aware of a most singular phenomenon: art.
In the angles of the alleys and in the nooks and corners, are sculptures and murals of every conceivable stamp. There are some that are gorgeous, a few that are magnificent, here and there a touch of wry humour, and one or two that are hilarious. Some too are poignant, and all of them are good for stroking… which is what sculptors like you to do to their creations. As I wandered, I wondered, and in order to satisfy my curiosity, I sought out the mayor of the town, Beatriz. (This is not as peculiar as it may seem: in small Spanish towns the better sort of mayor is often pleased to see you.)
Beatriz was drinking in the bar of the posada where we were staying. Attractive and petite, and bursting with nervous energy, she is one of the few mayors in the land who has actually lost weight since entering office. (Most go in thin and come out fat.)
‘It’s like this’, she said… Life was hard throughout rural Spain in the 20th century: if it wasn’t the dead hand of the church, or the dismal strictures of the dictatorship, it was the iniquities of earlier rural political structures that kept the country people wretched. And so they left in droves, just as today the people flee North Africa and South America, driven by poverty, desperation and corruption. They went to Madrid and Barcelona, or Argentina and France, and the population of the villages dwindled to nothing. Genalguacil, like so many others, was left with a just handful of old people, longing for the day when their children would return and swell the choir of village voices, reduced now to the feeble croak of the agèd. (This is beautifully evoked in a sculpture at the top of the village, ‘The Emigrant’.)
The dictator died; the church, monstrously discredited, was no longer taken seriously, and little by little, Spain joined the ranks of modern European democracies. Things got better, and the countryside began to take on a little more life. But it was still hard to keep the young people in the crumbling villages; there’s only so much you can do with chestnuts and cork.
And then, fourteen years ago, the previous mayor came up with a plan to bring in new life. They would invite artists, house and feed them and give them a good time, and in return the artists would conduct workshops to teach and inspire the locals, and finally leave their works to embellish the village.
The plan was a resounding success – artists love this sort of thing – and, quite by chance, on the day of our visit, Genalguacil
was about to celebrate its tenth festival of art (first fortnight of August every other year). Even now artists from all over the country, and indeed the world, were pouring into the village. Beatriz told me that there would be thousands of visitors over the next couple of weeks, and every night in the plaza there would be theatre, music, and dancing beneath the hot summer stars.
The success of the scheme reverberated in other ways, too. Some of the artists settled in Genalguacil, and with them and their families and the visitors, the breath of economic life wafted through the village, and young people either returned or stayed on. From all over Spain, too, mayors waddled up to Genalguacil to learn about rural regeneration from this simple little miracle.
If only you could see it, Michelle Obama, I know it would be just your thing. I read about the run-in you had with the conventional farmers’ lobby when you stuck your neck out for organic producers and what you people so charmingly call ‘locovorism’, and I’m with you all the way.
But anyway, Beatriz was fired up with the village’s history, and it was taking time to get it told, so we moved on to ‘The Vizier’s Garden’, a restaurant run by Miguel, who typifies the whole story.
Miguel was born in Genalguacil, but at thirteen had to go down to the coast to continue his education. ‘I hated it,’ he said, ‘and as often as I could I would get on my motorbike and come home for my mother’s coffee and cakes.’
Later he studied science, but flying in the face of the vortex of the coast and its easy money, he decided to make his stand in the village. The food served in the restaurant is sourced locally and is organic, encouraging and supporting small local producers. His chef, by some curious glitch in the time/space continuum, makes a superb apfel strudel. And the place is heaving; it’s a job to get a seat (although I’m sure that in your case, Michelle, it could be fixed.) He has, interestingly enough, already sent you an invitation.
One of the other pleasures of Genalguacil is… wait for it: civic pride. And this manifests itself in a hundred small ways: from a man picking up a dog-turd with a plastic bag – a thing I’ve never seen before in Spain – to the striking lack of moronic graffiti (and I am a man who admires good graffiti), but most of all to the vent that is given to the popular love of beauty: patios, pots of plants, and the simple adornment of windows and doorways. Call me a fuddy-duddy, and I don’t care if you do… but these simple things are what give the passer by a frisson of the profoundest pleasure, and make him feel that god’s in his heaven and everything may be alright in its way.
How wonderful it would be if Michelle Obama could give her heavies the slip and get up there into the hills to see this simple and glorious little miracle. She’d love it, I know… but, when she brushes the dust from her travelling boots back in Washington, and looks up at the cobwebs that have gathered in the corners of the White House, she’ll probably think to herself, in the way that we all do, ‘Well, it may not be much, but it’s home, and home is where I like it best.’