Malaga to Espéraza: Escape from the Costa del Crime
Our first day on Spain’s south coast wasn’t quite as relaxing as I hoped. We spent the afternoon sheltering in the Hymer from torrential rain. Two scruffy guys in their early twenties shared a suspicious looking cigarette leaning against the car park’s graffiti covered wall. We spent the night with pillows over our heads as rain drumming on the roof competed with noise from three lanes of continuous traffic passing twenty feet from our bedroom wall.
At 6am we woke to shouts and the clang of steel against concrete. The car park was a hive of activity. Half erected market stalls stretched as far as the eye could see, with a solitary motorhome, us, stranded in the middle.
We managed to squeeze the Hymer through a narrow gap before we were completely surrounded. I apologise unreservedly to the stallholder whose oranges I ran over on the way out. I promise not to do it again.
The market didn’t completely cover the car park, so we squeezed into a gap between two motorhomes which had seen better days. One of them, converted from a Mercedes lorry, looked more garden shed than motorhome. Wisps of wood smoke trickled from a roof mounted chimney were the only sign of life over the next two days.
Our main reason for visiting the city was for a checkup at Malaga’s Budwig Centre. Cynthia was there in June for an intensive week of homeopathic cancer treatment. She had an appointment to check her progress. I had one to try to work out why I only have half the energy she has.
We were a little nervous leaving the Hymer alone for most of the day. Cynthia read a great deal about motorhome crime in Spain. She was particularly worried about the frequent reference to secure gates on aires, something we’ve not encountered anywhere in France or the Netherlands. Sharing the litter strewn and graffiti covered car park the previous day with obvious drug takers didn’t help.
We returned mid afternoon to find all was well. Both bikes still hung under their protective cover from the Hymer’s bike rack. The motorhome’s doors were secure, and the dogs had behaved themselves. All was well with the world.
Our second night was possibly noisier than the first. The rain held off, but we still had to endure three lanes of horribly noisy traffic, plus two hours of enthusiastic jamming from three budding musicians wielding trumpet, drum and trombone on the pavement two feet from our bonnet.
We returned to the Budwig Centre on Tuesday morning. This time we were far more relaxed. We had a productive day at the clinic, then enjoyed a leisurely stroll back to our car park home through sunlit streets largely devoid of pedestrians. Many shop owners close their businesses for the afternoon before opening for three or four hours in the evening.
We agreed that Malaga, though a little gritty in places, was a wonderful and friendly city. We looked forward to spending another night or two in the large and mostly empty car park while we enjoyed seeing the city sights as we basked in the glorious Spanish sunshine.
As we neared the Hymer, we both noticed something amiss at the same moment. Shreds of expensive Fiamma bike rack cover lay on the ground. One bike leaned precariously away from the rack, secured by a single loosened strap. The other bike, Cynthia’s, was missing. Our worst fears were realised. We had been robbed.
I’m not the calmest of people. I hate everyone in the world who thinks it’s acceptable to take what doesn’t belong to them instead of working for a living. I particularly despise the brainless morons in Malaga whose hobby is theft. I would happily and enthusiastically have harmed anyone at that point had they been foolish enough to interfere with either Cynthia or I or any of our property. I made my feelings quite clear at great volume and even greater length. Cynthia, my rock in troubled waters, stayed calm, quiet and out of the way.
I can’t excuse my volatility, but I can explain it.
I’ve spent far too many years dealing with unsavoury characters in the line of work. I’ve been assaulted many times, hospitalised more than once and, on one memorable occasion when I was twenty four, I was on the receiving end of a prolonged and frenzied attack from a champion weight lifter with a severed wrist. I’ve been threatened with knives, broken bottles and knuckle dusters more times than I can remember. I’ve been threatened with guns twice.
While I was busy with these violent people at work, on three different occasions, I was burgled. Once I left the English pub trade I was burgled four more times, all at the same property.
I left unpleasant antisocial behaviour behind when I moved onto a narrowboat on the English inland waterways in April 2010. I avoided large towns and cities where there was a greater chance of crime.
We have a similar policy now that we live in a motorhome. Rural is good. Remote is better. Towns and cities are avoided at all costs unless we need to replenish depleted supplies. In built up areas, the chance of crime is inversely proportionate to the likelihood of a peaceful night’s sleep.
What really, really annoyed me about the theft was my own willing participation. We had good quality locks for both bikes which immobilised the back wheels. We also had a plastic coated robust steel chain which fitted into the wheel lock and could be used to secure the bikes to each other or to the bike rack.
Cynthia had discussed the need to lock the bikes several times. I ignored her. Locking the bikes involved ferreting around the Hymer’s garage to find our folding steps, setting up the steps so I could reach the bike cover’s zips, unzipping the cover, locking both bikes and then putting everything away again. The whole process would have taken twenty minutes. Locking the bikes would probably have saved us spending €700 for a replacement.
My laziness cost us a fortune. I was very angry indeed.
With my toys well and truly thrown out of my pram, I insisted that we leave Malaga immediately, never to return. There’s an aire listed in our guide just outside Malaga. It didn’t look pretty, not many of the Spanish aires do, but we just wanted somewhere safe to stay for the night, somewhere where I could calm down and come to terms with our loss.
Half an hour later we’d arrived at the aire and then left again almost immediately. The camper stop may well have been safe, but it looked awful. Several motorhomes were parked on an area of concrete sandwiched between a number of abandoned and graffiti covered industrial units a stone’s throw from a noisy road.
We couldn’t find another aire nearby, so we decided to fork out for a campsite for the night. We found Camping Malaga Monte Parc through Pitchup.com, an online campsite booking service we used a few weeks ago.
The campsite, in the hills 20km south west of Malaga, was just what we needed; secure, peaceful and pleasant.
We came at the right time of the year. The entrance to all forty camping plots was flanked by two substantial trees to provide much needed summer shade. Inserting eight metres of motorhome was only possible by using an empty plot opposite and another to one side. All the bays would be inaccessible to most motorhomes if the adjacent pitches were occupied.
Once we’d squeezed ourselves onto the plot, and compensated for the downhill slope with our two levelling ramps, we settled down for a tranquil, quiet and crime free evening.
We scraped the bottom of the on-board food supply barrel on Tuesday. I didn’t particularly enjoy sautéed sprouts on gluten free crackers, but Cynthia told me that they were good for me. We didn’t have much in the way of an alternative.
Why is finding good food so difficult in Spain? I’ve spent a month in the Netherlands. Cynthia’s been there a little longer. We’ve both enjoyed a month in France. Both countries had an abundance of stores selling good quality fresh organic produce. Both countries had a plentiful supply of pet shops stocked with a wide variety of good dog food. Spain, for many reasons, has been a bit of a pain.
If you ask a stranger in France for directions to a good quality food store, their face will light up as a prelude to giving directions to any one of half a dozen outlets. You get a similar reaction in the Netherlands. In Spain, the best you can hope for is a sheepish and apologetic grin as you’re directed to a nearby supermarket which may, if you’re very lucky, stock a handful of different products displayed in a distant dark corner.
We asked at the campsite reception. We were given the address to a pet shop twenty miles away, but no recommendations for food for Cynthia and me. An online search didn’t produce anything either.
We threw two week’s worth of dirty clothes into the site washing machine, then transferred it to a dryer before leaving for a day’s food shopping.
We found a sizeable Mercadona in Alhaurin de la Torre. After fifteen minutes in there we left with two bottles of white vinegar, a roll of plastic bags and a pair of rubber gloves. We had the equipment for the evening’s entertainment but not for the meal which preceded it. The supermarket was hopeless.
Completely out of dog food we drive 30km to Mijas to the south of Fuengirola to a pet superstore on an out of town trading estate. With enough food on board to prevent two ravenous bassets from eating the furniture, we tried an adjacent Carrefour superstore for something for us.
This store was obviously used by some of the many expats living in the area. Most signs were in both English and Spanish. They weren’t quite so accommodating for motorhome owners though. Parking has been limited in many of the more popular places we’ve visited in Spain. Although the car park was large by Spanish standards, the lanes between the parking bays were rather narrow. Many parking bays were also shaded by a corrugated roof which jutted out into the adjacent lanes. We managed to negotiate the tight lanes and narrow entrance and exit, but this kind of driving isn’t good for my nerves.
Returning to the campsite to find that our washing, including our only bedding, was still soaking wet. The campsite dryer was broken. Oh, the joys of life on the road!
We returned to the scene of the crime on Thursday morning. Cynthia had to collect some remedies from the clinic in downtown Malaga, which meant that we had to stop in the same car park where Cynthia’s bike was stolen.
Cynthia took a wheeled suitcase full of wet washing with her to put in a laundrette dryer on her way to the clinic. I lay in wait for our bike thief.
I honed the edges of our already razor sharp set of Global kitchen knives. I thought they would be ideal for slicing through wrinkled scrotum skin if I caught anyone trying to liberate our remaining bike. I closed the Hymer’s curtains, made sure I had my shoes on ready to leap outside at a moment’s notice, then lay on the bed like a coiled cobra ready to strike at the bastard bike burglar as I peered through a chink in the curtains at the bike rack.
Cynthia returned an two hours later to find me fast asleep on the bed. Fortunately the bike was still there.
We decided that we just weren’t enjoying our Spanish touring experience. We knew that we hadn’t really given Spain a chance. We’d hurtled down the country’s east coast passing countless miles of coastal high rise holiday hotels, driving through smog while paying ruinous motorway tolls. We knew that the picturesque Spanish villages would be off the beaten track. We knew that if we spent a month wandering the back roads, as we had done in France and the Netherlands, we would experience the real Spain, but we simply didn’t want to.
We love France’s abundant aires. We’ve never had to travel far to find a free and fully service place to park for the night, often with a breathtaking view and always without locked gates.
Online statistics show that crime isn’t any worse in Spain than it is in France, but France feels more secure. If you can find an acceptable aire in Spain, it’s likely to have gates which are closed at night. Many houses are locked up like prisons. Barbed wire tops high walls, bars cover windows, gates are locked at night to keep barking dogs in and intruders out.
We noticed far more graffiti in Spain than elsewhere on our travels. Each of the many abandoned buildings we saw was covered in the stuff. Aged ruins suffered a similar fate.
I know that there are many motorhome owners who read this blog, and more than a few expats who have relocated to Spain. I know that Spain has much more to offer than we’ve seen so far, but the beauty of living in a motorhome is that you can move your house to wherever you want, and we wanted to move far, far away from Malaga.
We didn’t want to stay in Spain any longer, so we headed north towards what we know and enjoy. As we left the car park in Malaga, the TomTom told us we had to cover 1,294km to reach Espéraza, one of our favourite French stops. We stayed for two days a couple of weeks earlier. The aire, gateless and graffiti free, is adjacent to a beautiful river.
We toyed with the option of returning to France via Portugal, but lacked any enthusiasm at all for the route. We decided to complete the journey north in three long days and then try very hard to do nothing at all for at least a week.
Our first day’s route took us inland, northeast to Granada and then north to an urbanisation, a newly built gated community, in the middle of nowhere. Cynthia spotted a substantial lake on her Michelin guide which she thought would make a good wild camping spot for the night.
She directed me off the motorway and then off a reasonable road onto little more than a track which wound over high hills through endless olive trees. Did you know that there are over 4,000,000 acres of olive trees in Spain? I think we drove through most of them as we searched a space larger than a shoebox on the precipitous hillside road.
We dropped back down through the hills and passed the high security walls of an urbanisation before spotting a likely looking patch of flat ground close to the road where we could just about squeeze the Hymer. With a sigh of relief, I turned the engine off and closed our curtains and blinds as Cynthia prepared our evening meal.
I settled down with my Kindle while Cynthia cooked. We were both happy. We’d made good progress and found what we both thought was a good wild camping site for the night. Unfortunately, not everyone agreed with us.
Fifteen minutes into the meal preparation, as I was nodding off, there was an authoritative rap on the door. We looked out of a window, but the night was as dark as pitch. We asked our visitor to identify himself. He did, but in a rapid-fire stream of Spanish which neither of us understood.
Cynthia didn’t want me to open the door. What if our visitor was a robber? What if there were two or three of them? I wasn’t quite so cautious. I was still smarting after our recent bike theft and didn’t want to waste my knife sharpening session.
I grabbed one of the larger knives, held it by my side and opened the habitation door to find an officer from the Guardia Civil staring suspiciously at the glinting metal in my right hand.
He asked me to step outside. He explained in great length why I couldn’t park where we’d stopped for the night. He pointed to a distant gate, partially overgrown and almost impossible to see in the dark. Emergency services needed access to the gate to deal with crime, fire or injury. We had to move.
The policeman spoke no English, but he was obviously one of the good guys. He suggested an alternative two hundred metres along a side road under a row of trees. He slapped a tree near the Hymer’s bonnet, “One, two, three, five… like this!”
We were very grateful. We’ve heard many tales of motorhome owners being moved on at night or, even worse, not being moved on. They’ve returned from a tour to find a posted penalty notice issued by the authorities without their knowledge.
We left early the following day. We’d thoroughly enjoyed the drive the previous day from Malaga. Mostly through endless olive groves. Most of the journey the following day was the same, until we hit the coast again at Valencia.
We stopped after 500km at a wonderful aire – gated again – near Sant Rafel del Rui. The owner didn’t speak any English, but one of his waitresses in the adjoining cafe did. She told us that the fee for the night was €8, but we could stay for free if we ate at their restaurant. At €4 for the night, their electricity was the most expensive we’ve come across so far, especially as we had to pay an additional €20 for an adaptor to take our 16amp cable to their 6amp supply. She told us again, three or four times about the meal deal, but we didn’t want to spend any more money.
Back in the Hymer we decided almost instantly to splash out, save the aire fee, and eat out. The food was good hearty German fare, the kind of food which sticks to your stomach for days afterwards. I loved it. Cynthia wasn’t quite so keen.
We drove 446km on our final day, mostly along the tedious AP-7 coast road. The final twenty miles was a joy. The road passes through a narrow and deep gorge where the road has been hewn under formidable overhangs. Less formidable going north as they were on the opposite side of the road to us.
Yesterday was market day in Esperaza, the day of the week when every oddball in the area comes out to play. The market was a riot of colour and sound. A large group of alternative lifestyle folk, modern hippies, sat by the cafe in the main square quietly eating. An energetic few danced to the beat of African drums played by musicians fuelled by strong lager and good will towards all men. The more mainstream townsfolk sat in the thin December sunshine, laughing as they sipped coffees and wine. Countless stray dogs of every breed and size imaginable wandered through the market searching for scraps. We love the market and the fascinating people we continue to meet here.
We met another yesterday. Gary Granville looked and spoke like a movie star. He told us he made his money doing French voiceovers in Paris. Cynthia believed him, but I’m not so sure. I think I remember him from my misspent youth in the days when I watched films with little in the way of plots and even less in the way of clothes. He had a mischievous glint to his eye which hinted at tales yet to be told. I hope we stay in the area long enough to find out.
That pretty much brings us up to date. We’re off again tomorrow to pastures new. Gary told us about a nearby mystic mountain with an inverted magnetic field. The mountain and the village we’re going to visit are, depending on what you read, home to an underground race of ancient aliens, the Holy Grail or a billionaire monk. I’ll let you know how we fared in the next post.