I’m just home from the south of Spain, from Mijas, a pretty white town in the Sierra Nevada mountains overlooking the Mediterranean and on a very clear day, with a view to Africa beyond.
Mijas is a tourist town. Every day, the streets are filled with hordes of sightseers, most of them following along behind sign-toting tour guides. Pueblos blancos like this, they’re being told, the white towns of the province of Andalucia, are the legacy of the Moors, the north Africans who ruled Spain for seven hundred years and brought great cultural and scientific riches to this part of Europe. But what these visitors come for, really, are the sights and tastes of Andalucia today, so famous they’ve almost become clichés. Tapas. Paellas. Churros y chocolate, perhaps. Flamenco dancers in the square, if they’ve come on the right day. Tours of the Plaza de Toros where bull fights still occur. And of course, as tourists everywhere, to buy souvenirs.
And then night-time comes, the crowds have disappeared, the daytrippers gone back to their hotels on the Costa del Sol, and the streets are quiet. It’s at this time of day and in the early morning that Mijas is itself, when I love it most. When it’s a normal Spanish town, albeit one with a lot of great restaurants.
Stay here long enough, three weeks as my husband and I did this time, and the people who live here will begin to recognize you. They’ll see that you’re sticking around and they appreciate that. People like the waiter at the pizzeria near our hotel, a man whose almost mechanical demeanour when serving customers is the product of long years of dealing with those just passing through. It took only a day or two before he started to break into a broad smile and say, “Hola!” whenever one of us walked past. You’ll learn that they treasure this town as a place to raise kids. Before your children have a chance to tell you what they’ve been up to, one man said, you’ll have heard all about it already. And if you’re lucky as we were, you’ll find more than one person who in time will come to call you amigo and will mean what he says. You’ll see a policeman on a motorcycle stop in front of the bakery every morning for a kiss from his daughter, a sweet young thing who spends the hour or so before school there with her grandmother and is learning to tend to the customers who come in.
I’ve had these kinds of experiences before. In Sifnos every time I am there. And anywhere else I’ve stayed for a while. It’s why when if asked for my travel philosophy, I’d say, Stay longer. Cover less ground.
Our way of travel evolved as it did because my husband is a photographer and he’s found that it takes time to find and capture the essence of a place. And the longer we stayed, we started to notice, the more interesting were the adventures that started to find us. Some of them sweet, a few of them crazy. All of them unexpected. Every one of them fun.
We’ve been to Mijas before, about ten years ago now, and one night that time a bar owner who’d been seeing my husband go by with his camera every day invited us in, poured us a drink, and arranged for us to meet his friend, an award-winning photographer renowned throughout Spain and abroad. It was that year, too, that somehow we were adopted by the local Barcelona football fan club, the Peña. They’d make sure we knew when the next match would be on TV and when we walked in, el presidente would stand up and motion us over to the two chairs he’d saved for us beside him. More and more after that when we walked through the town, men would smile, rush over and make sure we understood they knew us from the Peña. One evening when we were there this year, we found ourselves smack-dab in the middle of the filming of a Japanese TV show, surrounded by cameras on all sides, unable to move lest we ruin the scene and realizing only later what it was we were a part of. More of that tale, I’ll leave for another day.
“Why do you travel to just one place?” someone asked me just the other day and I could see she was perplexed. I started to tell her one of these tales.
“Aha!” she said before long. She got it now. “I really didn’t meet any locals on my travels,” she said.
To each their own when it comes to travel, I say. And I do believe that. But for me, meeting the people who live there has become why I go.