Updated: Feb 26
By Jay Stone
BENALMÁDENA, Spain — It takes about an hour to walk from the hotel in Torremolinos to the Parque de la Paloma here, in the next town over. You go along the tile walkway that runs beside the beach, where they’re starting to put up palapas and cots: the tourist season is about to begin. There are restaurants all along the boardwalk selling fish and tapas and paella and every once in a while there’s a decoration on the ground: a fish created out of dark rocks embedded in the concrete, or a school of them made from some silver metal, or a stylized face of multi-coloured tiles with a hand pointing to the sea.
There’s no point to these little artworks. They just look nice.
If you had to find one big difference between Spain and Canada, it’s the way they take so much trouble in doing things that just look nice. It’s a country of grace notes. The boardwalk, the beach, the restaurants should be enough, but why not add a pebbly sculpture right in the ground just for the delight? I spent much of the walk wondering what members of Ottawa’s city council would have said if they were in charge when the boardwalk was being built. “Why are we wasting money on mosaics that people walk on, especially at a time when the Inquisition barely has enough coal to heat its branding irons?” Thus does one daydream here on the Costa del Sol.
Where was I? Oh yes, the Parque de la Paloma or, in English, Pigeon Central. It’s at the end of the boardwalk, then north a few minutes on Calle Garcia Lorca — poets get their own streets in Spain — and you can’t miss it because there’s a giant sculpture made up of small windmills that spin merrily in the constant sea breeze right at the corner.
You’re greeted at the entrance of the park with another one of those wonderful Spanglish signs, this one that urges you to “Please do not abandon the animals.” It sounds like the motto for this year’s Humane Society fundraiser, but it is simply asking people not to drop off their unwanted pets at the park entrance, because they don’t need them. The park has pets of its own.
It looks like a miniature version of New York’s Central Park, with lots of trees and trails, a pond where swans and ducks swim, a cactus garden and a little enclosure where a few rare Malaga sheep wander around and come up to the fence to be fed by enthusiastic children. People bring their own animal feed to the park, and on the day I was there, the kids were feeding the Malaga ram on strands of uncooked spaghetti. The ram didn’t seem to mind.
The big attraction, though, is the bird life. Colourful roosters wander freely through the grounds and they’re joined by squawking green parrots that fly down from the trees, plus the inevitable pigeons and the occasional white dove. There are also apparently a few hamsters running around in the undergrowth, although I didn’t see any on my visit. People throw seeds on the ground and watch the birds peck away. The odd feral cat gives the roosters a wide berth.
Aside from the parrots, it’s very quiet and peaceful, although you probably don’t want to relax on one of the many benches because, frankly, the birds have used all of Parque de la Paloma as their toilet. But there’s a nice little cafe at the entrance where you can linger forever over a cup of cafe con leche, Spanish restaurant service being laissez faire to the point of lassitude, and watch families feed the roosters. It’s pointless, but it looks nice.
A more serious excursion involves a 2 1/2-hour bus ride to Grenada (the guide plays a tape of Placido Domingo singing the Augustin Lara song as you arrive in town) to see Alhambra. This is one of the big tourist deals in Spain, an 1,100-year-old fortress/castle/sultan’s home that sits on the city’s mountainside overlooking the Muslim quarter. You could write a book about Alhambra — which means “the red one” in Arabic — and indeed, the American writer Washington Irving is saluted at the site for doing just that. His Tales of the Alhambra (1832) drew much of the world’s attention to this historic marvel and he has own plaque on a wall there.
Like many of the world’s most famous tourist destinations — the Familia Sagrada in Barcelona, the Rijksmuseum on Amsterdam and so on — you need an advance reservation for Alhambra and the ticket is timed because the crowds are so dense you can’t all go in at once. There are beautiful gardens and elegant courtyards (including one with a reflecting pool that echoes the front of the Taj Mahal) and the magnificent quarters of the sultan, all beautifully proportioned in a way that honours the Arabic facility for mathematics. You can also see later structures, such as the castle of the Christian kings who took over when the Muslim rule of the area was overthrown in 1492. Yes, Christopher Columbus met Ferdinand and Isabella at Alhambra and got permission to sail to the new world. The crowd of tour buses at the front courtyard are the thanks they get.
For our purposes, though, the main drama happened when, just at the start of the tour, an older woman in a yellow coat told the tour guide that she had to sit down somewhere because she thought she might collapse. The guide took her to a bench near the exit and we picked her up two hours later. Then our bus load of 50 seniors had to walk down steep cobbled streets to one of Grenada’s main squares, where we could eat lunch and shop. After that, because tour buses are not permitted deep into the city, we had to march half an hour to get back on the bus to go home.
It was a straggly procession of seniors and it reminded me of one of those adult Second World War movies _ something by Samuel Fuller, perhaps _ when tired American soldiers, having won the latest battle, face existential crises of the spirit as they trudge back from the fight. Was it worth it? What does one gain in war anyway?
Then a rumour started rolling up through the ranks. The walk back to the bus was just too far for our ailing colleague. “The woman in yellow took a cab,” someone said, and you could hear echoes of the news as it made its way to the front. “What?” “He said the woman in yellow took a cab.”
“The woman in yellow took a cab” immediately struck me as the title of a poem that someone should write — Wallace Stevens, perhaps, if not Emily Dickinson — about love and exhaustion and that elusive sense of loss you sometimes feel at the end of a long day when nothing seems to add up. It all worked out fine, of course. The woman in yellow was waiting for us on the bus and we returned to Torremolinos without further incident. That would all be in the poem too.