BY PETE WOLSTENCROFT
Ever since it held its world expo in 1992, Sevilla has been the jewel in Andalucía’s crown and justifiably so. But, once the pandemic is behind us, I have a sneaking feeling that the lesser-known city of Almería is about to have its moment in the sun.
Spain was a largely Islamic country from 711 to 1492 and in Almería, the repercussions of that period are not just felt, but they are experienced on a daily basis. Arab baths, tea houses and water cisterns dot the city. Parts of the paseo marítimo are strongly reminiscent of Tangier, with restaurants catering to the needs of the local Muslim population, signage in Arabic and echoing greetings of ‘Salaam’ ringing out along the waterfront.
The exotic atmosphere that prevails in the city has not gone unnoticed by the film industry, with numerous films having been shot within the city walls. These include such well known films as Patton and less well-known works, such as Tepepa, featuring Orson Welles. Just a few miles away, in the area around Tabernas – mainland Europe’s only real desert – spaghetti westerns such as A Fistful of Dollars and Once Upon a Time in the West were filmed. You can still walk down the dusty main street of an anonymous, one-horse town and stride through the bat wing doors to slake your thirst in some would-be Mexican taverna.
The repercussions of that period are not just felt, but they are experienced.
Despite the dry climate, Almería is proud to call itself: “La huerta de Europa” – the vegetable garden of Europe. The area was among the first to grow fruit and vegetables hydroponically in white plastic tunnels, the acreage of which is so great, it can, like so many other things, be seen from the moon. The output of such systems in the Netherlands has the reputation of being somewhat tasteless, but the tomatoes, aubergines and peppers of Almería are of a different class altogether.
The quality of the city’s cuisine doubtless helped it to be voted Spain’s Capital of Gastronomy in 2019; another factor behind my confidence in a forthcoming change of fortunes. Fresh fish and the aforementioned fruit and veg form the mainstay of the city’s culinary offering. In many bars, tapas are still free and so for about €2.40 you can get an ice-cold beer and something to eat. On one memorable occasion my freebie was a miniature tuna steak grilled to order. Salt cod beignets, battered prawns, dried tuna and ajo blanco – in other parts of Spain a loose soup, but here a thick paste made of almonds, bread, olive oil and plenty of garlic – are some of the more popular offerings.
You can always tell when a Spanish region is on the up and up: the quality of its wine goes up exponentially. Until relatively recently, the province of Almería was not known for its wine, in fact the last time I was there, I didn’t find any local wine. Today, a number of vineyards produce quality wine: the areas of Valle de Laujar and Alboloduy being the best and most easily found. In the summer heat though, beer is often the best refreshment and the craft beer scene seems to be taking off, with bars and restaurants offering a range of darker brews, rather than the ubiquitous lagers of old.
“La huerta de Europa” – the vegetable garden of Europe.
The intro to this piece refers to Sevilla and implies that it would be the loser in any comparison between the two cities. I have lived in Sevilla and stand by that claim. Almería is a much smaller city – with a population around 170,000 – and thus feels more intimate. Most of the sites of interest can be found on streets that radiate outwards from the cathedral. The cathedral itself is an impressive sandstone colossus built in a mixture of Gothic and Renaissance styles and dates back to 1524. Even in the height of summer, the area around the cathedral has relatively few tourists and even fewer for whom English is their first language.
Many of the historical buildings have been repurposed. Arab water cisterns now house museums dedicated to: Flamenco, bullfighting and photography. The latter – officially the Centro Andaluz de Fotografía – is particularly interesting and is home to a stunning collection of black and white photos that show the grinding poverty for which certain parts of the region were infamous in the 50s and 60s. As a result of a book by Juan Goytisolo, just the mention of the town of Nijar is enough to conjure up images of abject poverty fifty odd years after the publication of Campos de Níjar.
The boom in hydroponically grown fruit and veg went a long way towards eradicating the poverty of yesteryear. In fact, youngsters who, by dint of their parents’ agricultural nous and graft, speed through the broad streets in Porsches are now something of a local trope. (Check out Mar de Plástico on Netflix if you doubt me.) The local autonomous government has, therefore, had something of a pay rise. Somewhat unusually, from a British point of view, everything they touch turns to gold. And every project is finished off with an aesthetically appealing flourish: pollarded poplar trees line main boulevards, shady parks pop up along the sea front and even the hoardings that shield ugly building works from the public gaze are decorated with photographs of the region.
But it is the people who are the true wealth of any place. During the few days I spent in the city, I felt extraordinarily relaxed and welcome. Allow me to illustrate with a little cameo.
A trio of women – none of whom would ever see 70 again – were dining in the same restaurant as me. One of the women asked what one of the dishes on the menu was, with the phrase: “¿Cómo se llama?” (What is it called?) But that same phrase can mean: “What is your name?” The waiter, knowing what he was doing, replied: “Who, me?” The woman said something along the lines of: “No, not you – this thing. Mind you, while we are at it, what is your name?” “Francisco,” came back the beaming reply. The woman turned on the powers of seduction that must have served her well in her youth, and the waiter returned her ardent gaze with interest, ignoring the fifty years that separated them. Both of them knew when time was up and they returned to their respective roles. That bit of mild flirtation was one of the most life affirming scenes I have witnessed in a long time.
All the things that draw tourists to Seville: architecture, culture, gastronomy and warm weather are present in Almería. The difference being that, in the dog days of August when the mercury hits 40, you can cool off with a refreshing dip in the sea in this most underrated of cities.