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July is the second most popular month to visit Conil. For the next eight weeks the pueblo will be bursting at the seams. With Gwyneth Paltrow raving about her June stay here on Instagram, things are set to get even worse. Or better. Depends on what way you look at them. Being of an optimistic nature, I look forward to when everybody’s gone home.
Last Saturday morning started cloudy. That makes for a good time to enjoy a quiet stroll down to the beach. Tourists travel-weary from the journey of the day before, or nursing hangovers, tend to linger round bars and cafés long after breakfast when the sun stays in. They argue over whether the skies will clear enough to take a dip and get the tan they’ve shelled out good money for.
Skirting round the centre of the pueblo I headed towards the footbridge crossing the River Salado and on to the path by the beach that leads to El Palmar.
On the other side of the river lies a nature reserve, that means no bars, no hotels, no hostels and no holiday apartments. In fact, there are no buildings at all along the three mile stretch of sand that separates Conil from El Palmar. With its string of seafront bars and restaurants, not to forget its excellent waves, the pueblecito has long been an all-year-round haunt for surfers. But that was not my destination. I wanted to get away from my fellow humans.
No places to eat or drink, or beds to sleep on, doesn’t translate into nobody at all, but it does mean far fewer bodies flopped out on the sand. Before midday, even at the busiest time of year, it can mean hardly anybody at all. Especially when the sun don’t shine. Apart from a sprinkling of hardy nudists, that is. I can quite believe there’d be a couple of nudists out there even in a hurricane. Not ever venturing beachwards in a hurricane I’ll never know.
Keeping away from the beach, for the moment, I veered off the main path that threads its way between sand, and a pasture of bulls peacefully grazing, to follow a hardly discernable track leading towards the brackish pools where flocks of migrating waders collect in spring and autumn. At this time of year much of the water has retreated, having drained into the river and on into the sea, or evaporated in the searing heat. Salt glistens on the dried sand and crusting mud, still squelchy in parts. Much of this turns marshy with the onset of autumn rains.
Despite the dry conditions, a large variety of wild flowers are still in bloom. Among the waist-high prickly rushes, the sharp points of which penetrate my thin cotton trousers from time to time, lies the hulk of a rotting rowboat bleached silver grey in the unforgiving sun. I’ve been taking photos of the same boat for almost a decade. It was probably dragged there by refugees fleeing war, hunger and poverty in Africa. Tens of thousands have taken the perilous sea route across the Mediterranean, through the Straits of Gibraltar, to the thinly-populated Costa de la Luz, in the hope of avoiding sea and land patrols. Many never make it, victims of the merciless Atlantic waves. Though possessing a strange beauty in its stranded decline, the vessel serves a sad memorial to decades of Western interference in places we should never be.
I cross the low dunes topped by grass to make my way back along the beach. Clearing skies have brought families out at last. Hampered by sun shades, windbreaks, plastic drink and food coolers, and all the other things deemed so necessary to fill in time, they look like bands of nomads moving slowly across the desert.
Back across the footbridge I decide to see what’s up in town. Bleary-eyed folk slump at tables outside bars sipping at cold coffee, or slugging back hairs of the dog. Among those tapping away mesmerically at phone screens are those who can’t quite make up their minds whether to make the trip to the beach, or have an early lunch before going back to the hotel for a siesta. I head to the fish, meat and vegetable market to meet Angelica, where she will be busy on yet another portrait for another tourist.
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