In the Mountains of Andalucia

Back to Spain

Twenty-five years later, when Frank the Hippie told me about Los Pueblos Blancos I guessed that must have been what I'd seen during that youthful party in the train compartment. This was the first time I'd been back to Spain. We'd gone with the idea of living in a foreign culture. My wife, Amy, was on sabbatical from her job as a dance professor; our daughter, Molly, was three and a half years old and easy to extract from preschool; and five weeks before we'd left home Amy had given birth to a boy, Skyler, who didn't much care where he went as long as his mother's breast accompanied him.

For our five months abroad we'd chosen Cadiz, a crumbly old seaport founded three thousand years ago by the Phoenicians on the Atlantic Coast beyond Gibraltar. Its graceful palm-lined plazas and narrow, cobbled streets lay a world away from the mega-tourism of the Mediterranean's Costa del Sol where I'd frittered away that first trip to Spain. With Molly perched on my shoulders, I'd gone for a Sunday morning walk down our street, Calle San Jose. Sitting on the steps of the corner church was a shaggy, bearded man of about 50 who I noticed was reading a Spanish translation of the avant-garde poet Charles Bukowski — not your usual panhandler reading material.

He dug into his old canvas rucksack and handed Molly a piece of hard candy. We gave him a few pesetas. He was originally from Italy, he told us. He spoke Italian, French, Spanish, and English, could get along in Russian and German, and had been traveling pretty much steadily since the 1970s. For all I knew, he could have been in the same train compartment with me twenty-five years ago. But how our paths had diverged since then.

"Out of every place in Spain," I asked,"where do you want most to go back to?"He replied without hesitation: "Los Pueblos Blancos — the White Villages — around Ronda."

I pulled a map of Andalucia from the diaper bag I carried and handed it to him. He pulled a pen from his old rucksack and circled the region with his pen. It wasn't far away.

"You won't regret it," he said. "I promise you." We heard the creak of ancient hinges. Inset within the enormous castle-like door of the church, a little wooden door opened. Shrunken old ladies and hunched-over men who'd attended the service emerged like rabbits from a hole.

"Excuse me," said Frank, and he went to hold out his alms cup to them.

Published: 30 Apr 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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