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The higgledy-piggledy piles of old houses hugging the hillside to the north of Conil de la Frontera is known as the barrio de Pescadores; the fishermen’s quarter. Lying just beyond the old limits of the Andalusian pueblo, the confusing maze of narrow lanes and alleys is as good a place as any to get lost on a bright and sunny morning. Even after living round these parts for more than ten years I can get disorientated.
Sadly, there are few remnants of the ruined medieval walls that marked the pueblo’s former limits left. One section of wall forms part of an ancient house at Puerta de Cádiz, where the north gateway to the town stood. In what an architect has tried to pass off as restoration, the building and wall have been brutally vandalised. Old wooden window frames and doorways been replaced by inappropriate modern equivalents of completely different proportions and materials. Though the short stretch of ancient wall has not been demolished it has been cemented over. All visible traces of what made it an historical gem have been made to disappear. New money and old walls just don’t mix in this part of the world.
I needed a break from writing. Ambling aimlessly about the fishermen’s barrio, breathing the sea air, is a pleasant way to pass a spare morning. Leaving Angelica to work on an oil painting, I took my stroll solo, working my way from the barrio de los flores (flowers), into the fishermen’s quarter. As the two merge into each other the only way you know you have left one and entered the other is by the change in names. As might be expected, the thoroughfares of the barrio de los flores are named after varieties of flowers, whereas those in the fishermen’s quarter are named after species of fish.
Atop the hill stands an old windmill. Being such a long time since it milled grain into flour, without any sign of sails, you might think it was an old watchtower. I paused to take in a magnificent view of the wide and gently sweeping bay. Most clear days Morocco can be viewed as a blue haze on the other side the distant Straits of Gibraltar. Tangiers is about 50 miles away from Conil as the crow flies, or the tuna swims. Many evenings we can watch the lights of the Moroccan city twinkling in the far distance from our window.
Conil has three more windmills that stand in the aptly-named barrio de los molinos (windmills) on what used to be the eastern outskirts of town, not so long ago. But the pueblo, which has stood since at least Phoenician times, has expanded considerably over the last decade, mainly due to a burgeoning tourist trade. Built during the early 19th century the windmills have been fully restored, apart from their sails. One has been converted into an observatory.
Some of the alleyways of the fishermen’s barrio are so narrow you’d have to take off your top and grease your chest to slide through sidelong in order to get by. Having left my tin of grease at home I didn’t even bother to remove my woolly, taking the easiest route. Every so often a glimpse of the sea and sky squeezes into view, framed by cottages and houses. Here and there small squares blossom with pots of plants and flowers.
There aren’t nearly so many tiny shops in the fishermen’s barrio as there used to be when Angelica and I lived there over a decade ago, but some still exist. Mostly windowless, they could easily be missed, if it weren’t for one or two advertising signs hanging by their doors. Handy for a loaf of bread or carton of milk, whenever you run out, also on offer is a selection of those grocery items you always seem to forget. Small children often rush in and out to squander their pocket money on ice cream and ‘chuches’ – sweets or candies.
For generations these small businesses have provided a lifeline to the poor. Offering small amounts of credit to locals – who would nearly always run short between paydays – they helped keep many families from going without. Bonded to each other by loyalty and trust, both sides benefited from an age-old practice left over from when poverty was commonplace throughout Andalusia. Living amongst a fishing community you get to know to what the phrase “when my boat comes in” owes its origins. There remain enough struggling Conileños and absentminded shoppers to keep a few shops alive, but they’re definitely not flourishing.
On my way home I called in to collect Angelica, so we could walk back together, exchanging our mornings as we went.
As a postscript, Angelica and I were on our way back from another amble down by the beach the other night when I almost tripped over this shy, little fellow standing beneath a street lamp. As he didn’t he curl up into a spiky ball we weren’t quite sure whether he’d just woken up or had been startled by our arrival. Then we thought he might be injured. Examining as best we could, under the circumstances, he seemed okay, probably more shocked by the encounter as anything else, so we went on our way. Next morning there was no sign of him. At that time of night, it wasn’t easy to get him in sharp focus with a phone camera but I tried. I hope he got home alright.
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