If you are not looking up, you are looking down. I am staying with Jill Higgins, who lives in Muswell Hill, London, but who also has a home in Competa, Spain. I dare not leave the house without her. How would I find my way home? Going down, I could aim for the Mediterranean or closer yet, La Asuncion, the 16th century church in the main plaza. But on my return, up the narrow, cobbled rat’s warren of winding streets… I could get lost – never to return.
I think of Hansel and Gretel- not that I would drop bread crumbs, but if I had thought to bring a skein of red yarn, I could unwind the wool as I descended and then follow the red wool on my return.
Northeast of Malaga, the white village of Competa, some 2,297 feet high in the Sierra Almijara, overlooks the Mediterranean. It is a town that clings to steep slopes terraced for the cultivation of grapes, olives, and avocados. I have heard that on a clear day you can see Africa. How romantic is that! Unfortunately, a haze (no doubt exacerbated by the Icelandic volcano) clouds the sea in something akin to pollution. As much as I want to see Africa, I cannot.
As to the steep slope of the terrain, a flight of fancy takes me to thinking of genetic engineering. Or… for that matter, Darwinian evolution. Given the slope, you would think that all locals engaged in agriculture would be born with one leg 18 inches shorter than the other-the better for working the slope. As it is, the only way to work the slope is to stand below and work on the vines above you. Working with the contours would be impossible.
The thin topsoil is held back by stone walls. The stone is everywhere – very easily come by and for the most part, dry-stacked. Looking at the retaining walls, I wonder how long they have been there. The Phoenicians came sometime between 900 and 1000 B.C. The Romans came during the 3rd Century B.C. and hung on until the 5th Century A.D. And then the Muslims (the Berbers) came up from Africa and took Gibraltar in 711.
The Moors held Spain until 1492, the very same year that “Columbus sailed the ocean blue.” Ferdinand and Isabella (he from Aragon, and she from Castile) married in 1487, expelled the Moors, and were determined to bring the country together under one flag and one religion.
The rush was on for everyone to convert to Catholicism and according to one reference “tens of thousands” of Jews and Muslims converted, but the high number of conversions was suspect. Torture was the answer for ferreting out insincere conversions. To that end, Pope Innocent VIII (a curious name given the role he plays) named Thomas de Torque, Grand Inquisitor.
The ideology was based on the “limpieza,” a purity of blood doctrine which made you suspect if you had even one Jewish ancestor. The strappado yanked arms from their sockets; the asli forced water down the gullet until the stomach burst; and the auto de fe charged the flesh.
(Recent history has me thinking of “waterboarding.” Past history has me including a bit of history that fails to make the textbooks: Columbus’s voyage to the New World was financed in part by the confiscation of Jewish wealth.)
You can’t help but wish the stones could talk. What amazing stories they would tell. How many centuries… how many bent backs have worked this harsh land? I write “harsh land,” but I find the landscape to have many faces. Like the American Southwest, Prickly Pear and Century Plants dot the land. And yet, the land isn’t desert: more temperate plants grow side-by-side with cacti and succulents. In June (and this after a very rainy wet winter) wild Iris, Morning Glories, Daisies, and flaming Poppies all fight for my attention.